New Beginnings in the World

 thoughts on the classroom, built upon Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition

(The version cited is that published by University of Chicago Press in 1998. When words are quoted in boldface type, the emphasis is mine. The book was originally published in 1958, and in true old-school fashion, Arendt uses the words “man” or “men” and the pronoun “he” to mean all persons in general.)

Hannah Arendt, in her philosophical classic The Human Condition, does not present her ideas as ways of thinking about teaching, but they strike me as wonderfully suggestive on the subject of what we do. For me, Arendt illuminates why the thing that happens in a successful classroom feels so deeply valuable and so rare that creating it is a worthy focus of a life’s work.

A key point of Arendt’s argument is that mass society has so thoroughly triumphed that we now find ourselves existing in a space defined by bureaucracy and administration, in which spontaneous action is always being leveled out into normalized behavior (40). We are chronically deprived of a true public space, where (by her definition of “public space”) people would remain their distinct selves, retaining what Arendt calls their “natality,” their condition of coming into the world as a unique and new thing. If we lose that, we lose everything except mere getting and spending; but the classroom, I’m arguing, is a little world in which a human reality can prevail.

Arendt’s mental model of the public space is the polis of the ancient Greeks, not as a social structure but as a condition of the spirit. The ancient polis was available only to a fortunate few: free men (not women), householders and slaveholders who were oblivious, as only the privileged can be, to the necessities of making a living. Such men could devote themselves to the affairs of the city in the company of their peers. This Aristotle called the “good life,” the best and freest existence one could have. It was founded on an inequality that is totally unacceptable to us; but such inequality is not a necessary condition. I believe the classroom can become a far more democratic version of a public space in which, for a certain period of time, a good life begins to be lived.

Crucially, in a true public space, people are capable of action, which Hannah Arendt defines in an idiosyncratic way: “nothing acts unless [by acting] it makes patent its latent self.” (her translation of Dante, p. 175) What is this latent self that is to be revealed? In her view, people are both equal and distinct – equal enough to understand each other, to plan for the future needs of others, yet possessed of a self distinct from all others, past, present, or future. If not for this distinctness, “they would need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood. Signs and sounds to communicate immediate, identical needs would be enough.” Members of other species possess variation and distinction one from the next, “But only man can express this distinction and distinguish himself, and only he can communicate himself and not merely something – thirst or hunger, affection or hostility or fear.” (175-176) Yet, though we possess this capability, the opportunity to communicate ourselves does not come about automatically or frequently; it occurs only in the public space.

Through speech and action, “human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men. This appearance, as distinguished from mere bodily existence, rests on initiative.” (176) The impulse to speech and action “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 . . . With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before.” (177)

“ . . . the origin of life from inorganic matter is an infinite improbability of inorganic processes, as is the coming into being of the earth viewed from the standpoint of processes in the universe, or the evolution of human out of animal life. The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.” (178)

This brings us to teaching, and to the writing of fiction. What Arendt says about the miraculous quality of human action is crucial to both. Fiction is about actions, which in turn are about our humanness, and action is specifically this: a new beginning, an infinitely improbable initiative, a miracle. Without action having this character, a human being’s “natality” is not declared and therefore it is betrayed. In teaching, I’m arguing, we are trying to create a space in which our students can take miraculous actions and declare their being as a new beginning in the world; these actions occur both in their writing, and in relation to each other as they share and discuss that writing together. In the classroom we deliberately create an exception to the domination of mass society. We deliberately try to create a space where our students will come together in acceptance of each other, not only in order to learn something, but for the sake of the kind of reality that can only appear in such a space.

That kind of reality is made visible when Arendt describes the ideal of a public space; in doing so, she describes an ideal classroom:

          The polis . . . is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose . . . It is the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate beings but make their appearance explicitly.

The word “explicitly” means that the polis is a place where people appear as themselves, in their uniqueness, and reveal themselves in speech and action. This is exactly what the classroom needs to be, if education is to be more than simply pumping people full of information.

          This space does not always exist, and . . . to be deprived of it means to be deprived of reality, which, humanly and politically speaking, is the same as appearance. To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all; “for what appears to all, this we call Being,” [Aristotle] and whatever lacks this appearance comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality. (198-199)

To exist in a bureaucratic context, as one molecule in a mass, contributing to a statistical norm that regards the uniqueness of each human molecule as an unimportant epiphenomenon, is to have a merely personal reality, incommunicable and stifled, to exist for others only “like a dream,” to be for them no more than an image coming and going, a character in a shadowplay. In such a state one is never truly heard, never known, only dealt with; one is absurdly or pointlessly alone rather than being singular in a world of other singular human beings who recognize one’s unique existence. It seems to me that if education is to be worth anything, it has to begin by creating a space in which all the participants can be present in their fullness of being. And I do mean a physical, not a virtual space. We do not have a technology that can create such presence among people who are at a distance from each other. It seems absurd or perhaps pathetic to have to point out that there is no substitute for the bodily human presence, but this is apparently no longer self-evident. The need to affirm this tells you something about the extent to which we have become used to other human beings existing for us as images on screens.

          Being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position. This is the meaning of public life, compared to which even the richest and most satisfying family life can offer only the prolongation or multiplication of one’s own position with its attendant aspects and perspectives. . . . this family “world” can never replace the reality rising out of the sum total of aspects presented by one object to a multitude of spectators. Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear. (57)

          “World” is a key word in Arendt’s thought. “Worldly,” in the preceding passage, means far more than “sophisticated” or “urbane.” A “world” in Arendt’s terms is constituted by lasting works of human artifice which transcend the human life-span, the existence of which provides or creates a public space. Education of a certain kind, I am arguing, is one of the great works of human artifice having this function.

Arendt says that “worldly reality” arises out of people seeing “sameness in utter diversity”; I believe this happens in a successful class. I sometimes express what I take to be the same idea in a simile about reading a piece of writing together: the students and I are sitting in a circle around the text we are discussing, like people sitting around a campfire. Behind each reader, like a tutelary spirit, his or her own version of the meaning of the text is standing in the flickering shadows at the edge of the dark. But these people are engaged in a social activity, and through their shared conversation (which may include shared writing), during the minutes in class, sometimes a shared meaning stands, for a time, above the text they are all looking at. Certainly a shared presence is confirmed in its being, and that is how I, at least, understand what Arendt means by “worldly reality.”

This confirmation of presence tells you why it matters so much for our students (or anyone) to experience this act of coming together in a true public space.

 . . . without a space of appearance and without trusting in action and speech as a mode of being together, neither the reality of one’s self, of one’s own identity, nor the reality of the surrounding world can be established beyond doubt. The human sense of reality demands that men actualize the sheer . . . givenness of their being, not in order to change it but in order to make articulate and call into full existence what otherwise they would have to suffer passively anyhow. (208)

Think what this says about the enterprise of school. If the classroom becomes a “space of appearance,” as I believe it should, it also becomes a place where students can establish the reality of their identity and their existing in a surrounding world. When it truly works, the public space of the classroom allows students to appear to others in their “worldly reality” and thus to know that their identity actually exists. It is also a space where, as Arendt indicates, we do not try to change who the students are. We may be able to tell students that we think there is a certain “what” one should be – ethically or professionally, for example – but if Arendt is right, we absolutely cannot be involved in telling them who they should be.

Why is our reality and identity established in a public space? Because we cannot help revealing ourselves in action. Yet we cannot wilfully reveal ourselves, or even know the latent self that is revealed. This goes on every time I walk into a room as the teacher, and every time the student walks into a room as a student. I always reveal to my students more about myself than I realize and more than I intend, and each of them does the same; this is simply the way humanness works.

          In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world, while their physical identities appear without any activity of their own in the unique shape of the body and sound of the voice. This disclosure of “who” in contradistinction to “what” somebody is – his qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide – is implicit in everything somebody says and does. It can be hidden only in complete silence and perfect passivity,

                             [think of some of our students!]

                                                          but its disclosure can almost never be achieved as a wilful purpose, as though one possessed and could dispose of this “who” in the same manner he has and can dispose of his qualities. On the contrary, it is more than likely that the “who,” which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself, like the daimon in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters. (179-180)

          This revelatory quality of speech and action comes to the fore where people are with others and neither for nor against them – that is, in sheer human togetherness. Although nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word, he must be willing to risk the disclosure . . . (180)

Must! Or else, to focus on teaching, a discussion can never happen. And to focus on writing, in the art work there is always, if it is any good, the risk of disclosure – or, I would say as a writer, the hope of disclosure, the hope that finally a piece of one’s truth will be heard and recognized by someone else. The taking of this risk is made possible in a classroom “where people are with others and neither for nor against them,” that is, where there is a shared undertaking that people can be accepted as who they are, because we cannot, in any case, by any imaginable means, make them be anything else. There is a radical equality implicit in this stance, and a baseline of respect.

I think of my students when I read the following passage:

The connotation of courage, which we now feel to be an indispensable quality of the hero, is in fact already present in a willingness to act and speak at all, to insert one’s self into the world

          [or the classroom]

                                                                                  and begin a story of one’s own. And this courage is not necessarily or even primarily related to a willingness to suffer the consequences; courage and even boldness are already present in leaving one’s private hiding place and showing who one is, in disclosing and exposing one’s self. (186)

This courage and boldness is needed every day at school. And writing equally requires the courage to leave one’s private hiding place, not only when one undertakes to begin to write, but in every choice of a word. One is always embroiled in choosing to hide or not to hide.

The extent of this original courage, without which action and speech and therefore, according to the Greeks, freedom, would not be possible at all, is not less great and may even be greater if the ‘hero’ happens to be a coward. (186-187)

Here, I think, is one of the keys to what makes teaching work: being a “hero” is available to a coward. The student comes into the class afraid to speak in front of the group, the writer is afraid to read her work aloud, I as the teacher may be afraid to say, “No, what we have been doing is not enough, we have to go where you-all would be more comfortable not going.” Bvt courage is there within the cowards, including oneself. One of the first things the teacher must have the courage to do is to believe that there is courage within the students, and act on that belief. Miraculously, it becomes true. Because people actually are new beginnings in the world.


You can download this as a Word document here: New Beginnings in the World