This is the last of three posts about Hannah Arendt’s book The Human Condition (1958), placed in the context of the classroom.
Action and speech
All three activities - ‘labor’, ‘work’ and ‘action’ - are connected to human life. ‘Labor’ is concerned with survival, ‘work’ bestows permanence (and both are perhaps connected to mortality as such), but action is most closely associated with natality (birth):
The new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting.
Action, and with it speech, brings something new into the world, something unique, and in doing so:
Each individual in his unique distinctness, appears and confirms himself in speech and action.
In order to allow children to insert themselves into the world in their uniqueness, we must allow opportunities for action and speech:
This insertion is not forced upon us by necessity, like labor, and it is not prompted by utility, like work. It may be stimulated by the presence of others whose company we may wish to join, but it is never conditioned by them; its impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative.
Might action and speech be a 'remedy' for the limitations of labor and work? What are the implications of too severe restrictions on speech and action in our classrooms?
Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.
Plurality, the character of human equality and distinction, presupposes our ability, and our need, to act and speak. The classroom is the ideal space for children to understand sameness and difference between humans, to discover their uniqueness, through speech:
If action corresponds to the fact of birth... then speech corresponds to the fact of distinctness and is the actualisation of the human condition of plurality, that is, of living as a distinct and unique being among equals.
If this is the case, should we not spend time and effort to create opportunities for students to develop their ability to work with each other in a meaningful, caring way? Perhaps only in this way might we alter what Arendt calls the ‘concern with self’ prevalent in modern society.
Although nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word, he must be willing to risk the disclosure.
Disclosure of one’s self requires courage:
Courage… is present in a willingness to act and speak at all, to insert one’s self into the world and begin a story of one’s own.
How might we, as teachers, endow children with the courage to act and speak? At the very least we must aim to provide a classroom environment in which everyone meets each other as unique, caring individuals. I have written about this here.
We meet students as unique individuals through our speech and actions, both inside and outside the classroom. How we speak to, and about, students is crucial to how we meet them as individuals. Perhaps this helps explains why I am averse to labelling students:
The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a description of qualities he necessarily shares with others like him; we begin to describe a type or ‘character’, with the result that his specific uniqueness escapes us.
Acting as making
The ‘doing of great deeds and the speaking of great words’ will leave no trace, no product that might endure after the moment of action and the spoken word has passed.
There is a belief that we must always try to collect ‘evidence of learning’ in schools. But some of the power of acting is lost in making. What might we lose through this ‘mode of fabrication’? What might be lost in our relationships with students through thinking of teaching in terms of making, as a craft?
The construction of the public space in the image of a fabricated object carries with it only the implication of ordinary mastership... where the compelling factor lies not in the person, but in the impersonal object of his art or craft… the [teacher] applies the ideas as the craftsman applies his rules and standards; he ‘makes’ his City as the sculptor makes a statue.
Action and speech have great power through their ‘boundlessness’, their irreversibility and unpredictability. But this may explain why they might be restricted in the classroom.
Whilst teaching, one may decide to limit action and speech in order to reduce deviation from clearly defined (content) objectives, to turn acting into ‘making’, but this may also have the effect of limiting children’s opportunities to ‘come into presence’.
An alternative decision may be to allow unpredictability, to allow deviation from content aims, with the priority in mind of allowing the child’s development as a unique individual. Such decisions depend on priorities, purposes, values. As such, in order to make such decisions, we must ask ourselves: What is education for? What are my priorities?
Arendt suggests the restriction of speech and action towards a given end might ‘destroy the substance of human relationships’:
Action can result in an end product only on condition that its own authentic, non-tangible, and always utterly fragile meaning is destroyed.
Is there a place for more openness in the classroom, for actions and speech without such clearly defined ends, rather than acting in the form of making, through highly structured lessons, discussions and exercises? Perhaps:
To act in the form of making, to reason in the form of ‘reckoning with consequences,’ means to leave out the unexpected, the event itself, since it would be unreasonable or irrational to expect what is no more than an ‘infinite improbability’. Since, however, the event constitutes the very texture of reality within the realm of human affairs, where the ‘wholly improbable happens regularly,’ it is highly unrealistic not to reckon with it, that is, not to reckon with something with which nobody can safely reckon…
Forgiveness and promises
Arendt suggests the ‘remedy’ for the unpredictability and irreversibility of action are the faculties we have for forgiveness and making and keeping promises. The ‘miracle’ of human forgiveness allows us to trust others with the power to act, and prevents us from re-acting, with vengeance:
Forgiving... is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.
The alternative, but not the opposite, to forgiveness, is punishment. They both seek to end a chain of re-actions, but forgiveness differs in that it seeks to establish a relationship with the ‘who’ that performed the deed. What, then, can punishment offer that forgiveness can not? I am not sure:
Men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable.
What do we gain by punishing before forgiving? What do we lose by being (overly) restrictive on others actions, thus not allowing opportunities for them to make and keep promises? Again, there are difficult decisions to make, which will have consequences for trust:
The danger and advantage in all bodies politic that rely on contracts and treaties is that they, unlike those that rely on rule and sovereignty, leave the unpredictability of human affairs and the unreliability of men as they are.
I find it helpful to view school as a 'pre-society', in which children must be allowed to come into the world, to practice making mistakes, to learn how to care, to act and speak.
I feel that so-called ‘zero-tolerance’ approaches remove important opportunities for children to forgive, be forgiven, to make and keep promises, thus reducing valuable opportunities for them to learn how to become responsible actors in the world.
A life without speech and without action… has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men.
Why are the ability to forgive, and the ability to make and keep promises, so important? Because they make it possible to live as a responsible human in society. As Arendt describes:
[Forgiveness, and making and keeping promises] arise directly out of the will to live together with others in the mode of acting and speaking, and thus they are like control mechanisms built into the very faculty to start new and unending processes.
Without the ability to forgive and make and keep promises, we would not be able to act and speak, and thus to make beginnings, to start anew; natality is the fundamental fact of human existence that prevents us from ruin and destruction:
The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope… It is in this faith and in hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their ‘glad tidings’: “A child has been born unto us.”