Sunday, August 06, 2017

NEH Hannah Arendt

What can I say about NEH programs and especially the Hannah Arendt seminar under Kathy Jones? Not enough, but I will try. 
This is my third NEH seminar and I have loved every one of them, but this one was definitely the best and I would argue the most intellectually challenging. For the first week or so I was thinking each day, do I belong here? Who are these people and how did I end up among them? They were so passionate about a text which, I must admit, was very hard to read and interpret. Sometimes the full meaning of what we were reading or discussing wouldn't hit me until a week later (I think some things I am still trying to sort out). Reading through Eichmann in Jerusalem and then Origins of Totalitarianism, both by Hannah Arendt, with one of the world's premier Arendt scholars was really a treat. Being surrounded by peers of high intellectual pursuit and a curiosity similar to my own was challenging and at the same time really rewarding. I had a lot of doubt and anxiety in this seminar, but it pushed me to thinking about things in a whole new way and questioning much of what I didn't before. 

The seminar, which at least for 2018 has not been renewed (after 7 years running! bummer) took place over a month long period at the UC Davis campus. As with most NEH programs, participants were housed in student housing with daily interactions during the week and free weekends. At first I thought, oh, there are only  3 hours each afternoon we are expected to be in discussion, the rest is free, how nice. I soon realized that the three hour discussions were heavy and dug deep. I was drained after each one, but eager to read the next section assigned, which would usually take me another 4-5 hours a day as I had to read and re-read each section just to glean most of the meaning. We were also visited by other scholars such as Uda Ispis and Ayten G├╝ndogdu

On the weekends we, of course, wanted to unwind and at least push the weight of the holocaust and banal evil to the backs of our minds. So we went hiking(to Feather Falls), did trivia, and took day trips together to San Francisco. Some of us lounged by the pool and read Origins of Totalitarianism, a funny sight to see 4-5 people around a pool all reading the same big black book and not one of them making a peep. Often we would meet in the dining halls or out for a drink in the evening and those conversations were almost as valuable as the seminar discussions themselves as we talked about the current political climate and how that related to the banality of evil, or how it did not at all. 

It is had to say enough about this program and about the thoughts of Hannah Arendt, but maybe it is enough to say that I now understand how the average man or woman can commit atrocious acts and how whole societies can go along with them. 

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