This is the first of three posts about Hannah Arendt’s book The Human Condition (1958), placed in the context of the classroom.
The ideals of 'homo faber', the fabricator of the world, which are permanence, stability and durability, have been sacrificed to abundance, the ideal of the 'animal laborans'. We live in a laborer’s society because only laboring, with its inherent fertility, is likely to bring about abundance; and we have changed work into laboring, broken it up into minute particles until it has lent itself to division, where the common denominator of the simplest performance is reached…
Arendt describes ‘labor’ as that work most in line with the biological process, associated with fertility, multiplication, repetition, necessity, consumption. In everyday usage, we may associate the term ‘labor’ with ‘manual work’, but Arendt reserves the term specifically for repetitive and repeatable processes, the (mass) production of necessary goods for consumption.
‘Labor’ is distinct from ‘work’, which for Arendt signifies the fabrication of durable, permanent products, processes with a distinct start and end, overseen by the craftsman, homo faber.
The division of labor
In the modern age, the principle of the division of labour, here used to describe the division of production into segments that have no meaning in themselves, has given nearly all work the ‘character of labor’. Work has become ‘manufacturing, a continuous process, the process of the conveyor belt and the assembly line’.
The division of labour has resulted in a society in which ‘every member is the same and exchangeable’:
The sameness prevailing in a society resting on labor and consumption and expressed in its conformity is intimately connected with the somatic experience of laboring together, where the biological rhythm of labor unites the group of laborers to the point that each may feel that he is no longer an individual but actually one with all the others.
Everydayness and averageness
This brings to mind Heidegger’s subsumption of the self [Dasein] into what he calls the ‘they-self’ (from Being and Time p.127-128):
This Being-with-one-another dissolves one’s own Dasein completely into the kind of Being of ‘the Others’, in such a way, indeed, that the Others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more. In this inconspiciousness and unascertainability, the real dictatorship of the ‘they’ is unfolded. We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see and judge… as they see and judge; we find shocking what they find shocking. The ‘they’, which is nothing definite, and which all are, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness.
Everydayness leads in turn to an ‘averageness’:
Averageness.. Is an existential characteristic of the ‘they’. The ‘they’ maintains itself in the averageness of that which belongs to it, of that which it regards as valid and that which is does not, and of that to which it grants success and that to which it denies it. It is this averageness which it prescribes what can and may be ventured, it keeps watch over everything exceptional… This averageness reveals in turn an essential tendency of Dasein which we call ‘levelling down’ of all possibilities of Being.
What is the nature of the work done in our (maths) classrooms today? Does the division of the school day into hour long segments, further divided into lesson parts and exercises, which consist of sets of questions to be solved, not have the ‘character of labor’? Might the desire for repetitive and repeatable lessons lead to a school society where every member is the same and exchangeable? Might this in turn lead to an averageness, a levelling down of the possibilities of Being?
It may well lead to an education that reflects the world of work as described by Arendt; in this passage, we might replace the word society with the word school:
For even now, laboring is too lofty, too ambitious a word for what we are doing, or think we are doing, in the world we have come to live in. The last stage of the laboring society, the society of jobholders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce to the dazed ‘tranquilised,’ functional type of behaviour. The trouble with modern theories of behaviourism is not that they are wrong, but that they could become true, that they actually are the best possible conceptualisation of certain obvious trends in modern society. It is quite conceivable that the modern age - which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human activity - may end in the deadliest and most sterile passivity history has ever known.
In the next two posts, I will explore further Arendt’s ideas about work and action in the context of the classroom.