Friday, October 14, 2011

Hope in the Unexpected: How Can Teachers Still Make a Difference in the World?

by Julian Edgoose — 2010
Background/Context: The central role of hope in teaching has long been acknowledged by authors such as Sonia Nieto and Larry Cuban, but hope has received little focused attention from scholars. While books such as David Halpin’s Hope and Education and Stephen Fishman and Lucille McCarthy’s John Dewey and the Philosophy and Practice of Hope each shed light on one of the dominant views of hope, this article seeks to compare multiple understandings of hope to examine how teachers can find hope in times of global crises that challenge the promise of a better future that is implicit in modern schooling.

How can teachers find hope in hard times, when the usual promise of schools for a better future seems difficult to sustain?

Research Design: This article is an analytic essay.
Conclusions/Recommendations: This article concludes that while the long-dominant understandings of hope are inadequate for many teachers at times like these, Arendt’s view of the hope that emerges in the unexpected occurrences of classroom life resonates strongly with the most rewarding and hopeful experiences of many teachers. Yet Arendt explains how the hope that teachers experience from these unpredictable and unexpected occurrences is not just a source of immediate reward, but rather contributes to political and social change. The article concludes with an account of Arendt’s critique of historians’ narratives of social change and an affirmation of the impact that teachers can have as agents of change.

I recently met up with a former student of mine who is now teaching in an isolated, mostly Native Alaskan village. He had gone there two years ago believing that he could make a difference in this small community but had soon lost that belief. The community and the students, he felt, had no hope. He saw an overwhelming sense of shame among a defeated people, high levels of abuse, ubiquitous alcoholism, student suicides, and other pointless tragic deaths. What difference could he make?

While that young teacher’s experiences might be extreme on the broad canvas of American schooling, his experience of running out of hope is one that many teachers know. Moreover, many larger social trends might make hopelessness more likely. For example, the current recession will be the first in many teachers’ careers, and it can easily dampen the promise of a better future that is usually embodied in schooling. And beyond the current economy, other longer-term factors whose effects have been slowly accumulating over generations (such as looming Medicare and social security deficits, and the growing impact of climate change) threaten to leave today’s students with worse long-term prospects than those inherited by their parents or grandparents. More generally, as Marilyn Cochran-Smith has claimed, teachers are squeezed between the increasing globalizationof the concerns driving educational policies and “the tendency . . . to devolve blame for the ‘failures’ of public education to the local level”1— they have less control but are held more accountable. Moreover, the culture of accountability is leading to more district-wide policies (such as scripted curricula) that strip teachers of their freedom to decide how to teach their students and thus further diminish teachers’ sense of agency and hope.

These factors can easily combine to make teachers feel as if there are no options open to them to make a difference in a world that seems to be dangerously on the wrong track. Yet in the educational and political writings of Hannah Arendt, we can find another suggestion: that our hopelessness stems from a misunderstanding of the ways that change occurs in the world and the ways that our teaching and other actions can make a difference.

The central role of hope in teaching is receiving increasing attention by educational researchers, although not necessarily in a very comprehensive way. The vast popular and academic literature on teaching, for example, is peppered with assertions of its central importance. Writers of the stature of Sonia Nieto, Larry Cuban, and Vito Perrone have claimed, respectively, that “Hope is the essence of teaching,”2 “To teach is to be full of hope,” 3and “Teaching is . . . in every respect a profession of hope.”4 Beyond these fleeting accolades, however, very few in education have tried to explain what hope actually means, and this only echoes the “scandal”5 of its wider neglect in academia.6

What is hope, then? To give an initial and broad definition, hope is a belief in the possibility of a better future.7 Yet within that broad definition, there are many ways that we can find hope. The better future can be a goal of any type or left undefined; the sense of possibility can depend on varying understandings of how change occurs in society; and we may have divergent understandings how our actions can “make a difference.”

The few recent studies of teachers’ hope all view hope in terms of narrative, as Andrew Delbanco has articulated: “Human beings need to organize the inchoate sensations amid which we pass our days—pain, desire, pleasure, fear—into a story. When that story leads somewhere and thereby helps us navigate through life to its inevitable terminus in death, it gives us hope.”8

The three main such stories that are interwoven throughout the discourse on education are: hope through progress, hope through goal-directed action, and hope through rebirth. By examining each of these in turn through the critical lenses offered by Arendt’s work, I will try to show how each of these narratives of hope—embedded though it is in our culture and schools—threatens to alienate teachers from the very interactions that frame classroom life. In contrast, Arendt’s radically different framing of hope, which sits at the heart of her educational writings, poses some fundamental questions about the nature of teaching and the rewards we can draw from it. This is an understanding that, while understood by many educational veterans, is often absent in teacher education and in the ways that schooling is seen by outsiders. If we are to prepare resilient teachers who can feel a sustainable hope despite the challenges of classroom life with which they are faced daily, we need to acknowledge the insights into hope that Arendt offers. As I’ll argue, Arendt helps make visible the forms of hope that the young teacher in Alaska is just starting to formulate by himself as he wrestles with the challenges of teaching.  


Given that the three forms of hope addressed in this article are, in practice, deeply interwoven in our attitudes toward schooling, it is difficult to know which one to focus on first. But perhaps a question might help us decide, a question whose value comes in the fact that it seems so obvious: Why is there any relationship between hope and schooling at all? The answer will bring us to the broadest context for hope in a modern society: hope through progress.

Since the emergence of mass compulsory schooling in the 19th century, formal education has played a particular role in the social hope of the citizenry. With their charge to prepare the young for the future and their ability to impact nearly every child for a number of years, schools have become the sanctioned repositories of a hope that education can help influence the minds and thus steer the lives of the young. If we can believe in the possibility of a better future—if we have hope in the progressive function of schools—we can do so because we can believe that we can educate the young in ways that will make them bring about this better world.

David Tyack and Larry Cuban have charted the evidence of this belief (which they call our “faith in the power of education”) throughout the history of schooling:

Repeatedly, Americans have followed a common pattern in devising educational prescriptions for specific social or economic ills. Once they had discovered a problem, they labeled it and taught a course on the subject: alcohol and drug instruction to fight addictions; sex education to combat syphilis or AIDS; home economics to lower the divorce rate; driver education to lower carnage on the highway; and vocational training or courses in computer literacy to keep the United States economically competitive.9

The recent historical importance of education as an election issue also perhaps attests to this faith; whatever problems exist (from social inequality to a sluggish economy) are thought of as being fixable by schools. As Lyndon Johnson once asserted, “the answer for all our national problems, the answer for all the problems of the world, comes down, when you really analyze it, to one single word: education.”10 In recent years, the educational policy that perhaps capitalizes on this faith most is No Child Left Behind, since it seeks to hold teachers accountable for proving that hope in progress through education, that faith in the power of schooling.

The resilience of this hope must lie in no small part in its own effects on all our schooling. Perhaps we can all say that we have been schooled in this hope, and we’ll discuss this hope in more detail later. But future teachers are unlikely to be less affected by this than others. They come into teaching believing in the power of schools to be in their very being institutions of social betterment.

If there is a problem with this hope, it is not a problem that emerges out of the desire to be part of institutions that improve society. Yet, for Hannah Arendt, the problem comes in the effects of such a narrative of hope on public work like teaching. This is perhaps best explained by applying her writings about progress to the history of schooling since her death in 1975—a comparison that makes her understanding of progress seem especially prescient. For, like the list of mentioned problems that we try to cure through curriculum, Arendt saw that the processes of progress, “like the process in an internal combustion engine, …occur primarily in the form of explosions, which in historical terms means in the form of catastrophes, whereby each such explosion or catastrophe drives the process itself forward.”11 The series of these “explosions” is well known to us all: the threat of Japanese and German educational supremacy that led to A Nation at Risk and Goals 2000, and the “achievement gap” leading to No Child Left Behind. Each one triggers more panic that leads to innovation and more activity. Elsewhere, she again likened this to the noise of an internal combustion engine, but this time one in a tractor rumbling along. This tractor “left no permanent imprint of its own tracks, nor did it move towards any imaginable and humanly desirable destination. ‘The going is the goal,’” she writes, quoting Lewis Mumford. “But not because there was an inherent beauty or meaningfulness in the ‘going.’ Rather, to stop going . . . to say at any given moment enough is enough would spell immediate doom.”12 The noise is what helps us believe we are moving forward, thus allowing us to believe that things are getting better and to stop worrying a little.

This view might seem unreasonably bleak—can we really point to no progress in schooling? Arendt is not seeking to deny the possibility of improvement so much as to question what happens when we rely on a sense of progress as a source of hope. For example, one of the most widely accepted examples of educational “progress” might be the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. From this decision, a process of integration followed that led to a peak of integration in 1988.13 Yet what then followed—unnoticed by almost everyone—was a slow undoing of the gains made. Schools across the United States are now as segregated as they were in the late 1960s, which was before the introduction of large-scale busing to integrate districts.14 Moreover, in 2007, the Supreme Court deemed efforts at creating “racial balance” unconstitutional, thus further unraveling the achievements made since the Brown decision in 1954.15 As Jonathan Kozol shows, the main force behind that resegregation is white parents’ removal of their children from racially mixed schools.16Perhaps, to use Arendt’s analogy, the “explosion” that happened in the 1950s and 1960s satisfies our need to believe we are progressing and allows us to ignore the far more complex and difficult realities of race in America.17 It is not that integration has failed, of course, but when a teacher draws hope from such a narrative of progress, she risks taking her focus away from the very real students in the classroom—who are seen only as players in this grand march of history—and away from the much more difficult dimensions of our human lives that progress claimed to have overcome.

Arendt’s problem is with our incessantly busy responses to crises. Her essay “The Crisis in Education” sought to dwell in the crisis rather than endorse easy policy fixes. Our very visible public policy responses to crises, she claimed, convince us that progress is occurring. Thus, we do not really experience a slow march of improvement; we experience the rush of targeted activity that reassures us and allows us to pay less attention to what is going on around us. In short, a belief in progress blinds us to the interactions of classroom and human life, and it is from those interactions that the possibility for real hope emerges.

So, she argues, it is when we feel that things are not progressing and, indeed, when we do not have a response to the challenges we face, that we are more open to the dimensions of our lives that create hope: “The more heavily the scales are weighed in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear; for it is disaster, not salvation, which always happens automatically and therefore must always appear to be irresistible.”18 Arendt, indeed, notes that wewould see the world as being in decline because our intellectual frameworks are always rooted in the past.

Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation, in which the world is created by mortal hands to serve mortals for a limited time as home. Because the world is made by mortals it wears out; and because it constantly changes its inhabitants it runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they. 19

The perennial student question (“Why do we need to learn this?”) forces teachers to make implicit claims that they know what students need to know for their future lives (what she calls “the ‘art’ of living”20). But, Arendt claims, that very knowledge is also as mortal as those who created it, and because our frameworks are always inadequate for the world as it is now (and even more inadequate for the future that will emerge over time), schools must fail in this endeavor.

To preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants it must be constantly set right anew. The problem is simply to educate in such a way that a setting-right remains actually possible, even though it can, of course, never be assured. Our hope always hangs in the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old, can dictate how it will look.21

Rather than a future of progressive growth from the present, then, Arendt sees the future as a time gaping with the uncertainty of all the unpredictable interactions that will bring it about.

There is something refreshingly honest about Arendt’s point here, in contrast to the implied self-confidence of a hope through progress. There are challenges we face that we do not know how to solve—environmental issues most seriously, perhaps. Arendt saw the emerging awareness of the seriousness of those challenges as “the first ray of hope” in checking our ceaseless blind faith in material progress.22 What emerges from this environmental consciousness is precisely this sense that we are not leaving a fully functioning world to the next generation. Yet we cannot simply assume that the next generations can start again from scratch (as she accuses progressive educators of wanting to do); rather, we have to engage with students to acknowledge the situation we face and be open about the limits of the perspective that the adult world can bring. As Natasha Levinson explains, “Arendt insists that students be introduced to the world ‘as it is,’ in all its potential and with all its flaws. Only in relation to this world will students come to an understanding of what needs to be challenged and reconfigured.”23 This is a sobering challenge for us all: to teach openly about the challenges of the world that students face not (as often happens) as a means of scaring them into attention, but rather while fully admitting our own failures to address these issues.

What would it mean to prepare children for the future without having them frame their engagement with that future in ways that we adults offer them? What would it mean, in short, to teach without implicitly trying to instruct them in the “art of living”? Again, Arendt offers a critique of the dominant ways that hope is understood in education.

If there is a deeply ingrained sense of the hope through progress in schooling—one in which we have all been schooled—then the mechanism of that hope is perhaps the one that most of us would describe if we were asked to define what the word “hope” means. Put simply, we can hope for something when we have plans for how we can reach our goals and when we feel we can be successful. This structure of hope arguably permeates modern schooling.24 Curricula are given goals that teachers are supposed to bring their students to, and in this age, when test scores are published and used as a basis for everything from home prices to teachers’ pay, few can resist measuring their own worth, value, and hope (at least in part) by this logic. If one believes that one can be successful in bringing one’s students to a certain standard, then one can feel hopeful.

Yet many teachers would conceive of their concerns as being far broader than those addressed by state standards. Perhaps because we are all schooled in this type of hope, we are all likely to bring it to our own understandings of what David Halpin calls our broader “ultimate hopes”—our sense of a better future or goal that we hope to be able to move toward.25 These ultimate hopes—such as issues of social justice or of a passion for our discipline—drive us to teach. They serve us most on an existential level, giving us some direction in our lives.

Despite being one of the most famous political thinkers of the 20th century, Arendt was a persistent critic of this widespread understanding of political hope: that we can enact political change by goal-directed action. The very idea, for example, that we should engage with other people in an attempt to shape it toward a preimagined end is highly problematic for her because it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the human interactions that make up our lives. Unlike inanimate objects that we work on to fashion them into objects for our use, the human world is marked by “the fact of human plurality”: “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.”26

It is because we are all different that our plans do not go as we had intended. This, of course, is what teachers are reminded of every day. Those who have the experience of using the same plan for different students on the same day can attest to the often infuriatingly different responses that each class can generate. A plan that goes exceptionally well with the first class can fall flat with the second, or vice versa. Just as every student is unique, every class of students creates a unique mix.

Seen from the perspective of goal-directed hope, the unpredictably plural nature of classroom life can be a frustration that impedes our hope for reaching our goals. The complexities of students’ lives interfere with our best-laid lesson plans and can frustrate efforts that understand hope in so linear a fashion. It is surely a concern, then, that schools are still seen as serving such a role of transmitting knowledge to students—indeed, that view dominates many teachers’ work through assigned textbooks, mandated or even teacher-proof curricula, and standards-based high-stakes assessments. Arendt believed strongly that such understandings sought to “escape the haphazardness . . . inherent in the plurality of agents” in the impossible quest “to remain unique masters of what [we] do.”27

To Arendt, then, such a view of hope is at odds with the very nature of classrooms—that they are full of very different kids with varying experiences, perspectives, and concerns. The hope that underwrites our large-scale framing of schooling, in fact, alienates us from the very interactions that we are faced with in classrooms.  

Arendt wants us to see how those very interactions are a prime source of hope for teachers. She wants us to consider how hope can come precisely in the ways that change occurs that stray from our expectations, in the ways in which life unfolds to states that were unimaginable moments before. Indeed, the unexpectedness and unpredictability of our interactive lives, such as we experience in the classroom, are only a problem if we normally experience life as predictable. But do we?

Every act, seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automism [momentum] it interrupts, is a “miracle”—that is, something which could not be expected. If it is true that action and beginning are essentially the same, it follows that the capacity for performing miracles must likewise be within the range of human faculties. This sounds stranger than it actually is. It is in the very nature of every new beginning that it breaks into the world as an “infinite improbability,” and yet it is precisely this infinitely improbable which actually constitutes the very nature of everything we call real.28

What is at issue here is the very nature of lives as human beings. While we might talk about what has happened in our lives within the deeply interwoven web of human interactions in terms of a story that charts our progress from waking to sleeping and from birth to death, when we project that story forward, are we trying to silence a huge dimension of our experience? Arendt claims that these projections into the future serve to silence the unpredictability we experience every day.

In educational terms, every goal we have as teachers is an attempt to write the story of the interactive classroom space in which we work. In that context, the unpredictability of classroom life is seen as a problem, whereas it is so often a source of what she calls “miracles”—such as when a student does something that we could never have predicted. The word “miracle” has religious overtones, but Arendt’s point (one she saw as secular) has more to do with the unfolding of events and the fact that they remain beyond our control; the science of complexity and chaos theory would not have surprised her.

This sensitivity to the unexpected miracle does not mean that we can expect a specific “miracle” (or “infinitely improbable” outcome) in human affairs, of course, but we can expect miracles to occur, and we cannot know what they will be. “What we call real in ordinary experience has mostly come into existence through coincidences which are stranger than fiction,” she writes. “Hence it is not the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and even expect ‘miracles’ in the political realm.”29 This creativity of human action and interaction, in which the new emerges miraculously from a world that could not have imagined it, Arendt called “natality,” and she wrote that “only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope.”30

Perhaps the best way to view her essay “The Crisis in Education” is as one focused on preserving what Jonathan Lear has called “radical hope”31—a hope in contexts where there are no viable plans. For Arendt, this hope is grounded in the emergence of newness that she calls “natality.” Arendt would see the importance of separating the goal-directed work we are expected to do as teachers from hope. She knows that schools must, to some extent, be framed in terms of goal-directed work—in efforts to bring students to a goal of specific knowledge or understanding. But equally (and importantly) we must not see that goal-directed work as a source of hope. Hope comes from the natality of classroom interactions, and political hope will come from the unexpected nature of those students’ actions when they are no longer students—when they enter the political world as adults.


Thus far we have seen that Arendt urges teachers to teach the world as it is, with all its potential and flaws. We have also seen that, in contrast to the dominant forms of hope in schooling, Arendt helps us see the potential for hope from within classroom life, from the unexpected “miracles” that surprise us and undermine our sense of the world by bringing new beginnings—from “natality.” Arendt describes natality as a “second birth,”32 and as such, it sounds very similar to another narrative of hope that plays a large role in schooling: hope through rebirth. Yet the differences between rebirth and natality will help us explore the further details of Arendt’s understanding of hope. As I will explain, while hope through rebirth plays a large role in the public faith in schools as the mechanisms for guaranteeing equal opportunity, natality brings the teacher-student relationship to center stage. Through a reading of Arendt’s discussions of our abilities to forgive and to promise, I will argue, we can see the vital dimensions of experience that open the door to freedom and hope in contexts, like classrooms, where we otherwise feel so powerless.

It will perhaps surprise many educators in modern public schools to learn that a hope to be “born again” (to escape the conditions of one’s life and be reborn into another) plays a central part in modern schooling. The key components of this narrative of hope are that we can wipe clean our complicated pasts and start anew, with a clean slate in life. While this hope has its origins in Christianity, it is visible in secularized form in contexts that most see as devoid of all religious content. As Jürgen Moltmann has argued, this promise of a rebirth and the start of “new time” is present throughout Western culture and history. He argues that everything from Columbus’s “discovery” of America to the Enlightenment to the celebration of the new millennium speaks to this hope.33 In each case, the new beginning allows for a wiping clean of the past and a starting afresh: from New Year’s resolutions, to the view of the past as “Dark Ages,” to the notion of an “old world” against which the “new world” stands out, we are constantly seeking to draw a line under the past and believe that we can begin again.

Within popular culture, this narrative of hope is immensely powerful. For example, in a poll of those who use the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) the highest rated film is the Shawshank Redemption,34a film about a prisoner who yearns to escape his confinement for the Mexican Pacific coast (a place that “has no memory”35); finally, in a classic image of rebirth, he crawls through a pipe to freedom and a new identity. Yet, perhaps more pertinent to our inquiry, a narrative of rebirth sits at the heart of the understanding of the role that schools can play in a democracy and, more specifically, the role they play as guarantors of equal opportunity in an unequal society.

The idea that students can become anything through schooling and that their future working lives are not tied to those of their parents speaks to this potential for rebirth. If schools only reproduce the social stratifications that exist within the adult world, then they do not assure Americans that this is a nation with equal opportunity for all. For this nation to believe in its own mythology, it must believe that schools offer this possibility of radical self-transformation. This does not mean that such radical self-transformations are possible on anything other than the smallest scale of “exceptions that prove the rule,” of course, but in a democracy that sees itself as rewarding effort over privilege, hope through the possibility of being “born-again” is a vital component.

Indeed, the idea that the “stain” of disadvantage (perhaps thought of implicitly in terms of race or class) can be wiped clean through the opportunities offered by schooling perhaps explains some of the frustration around the perceived resilience of the so-called achievement gap— frustration that led to the creation of No Child Left Behind. What is not questioned by the creators of this policy is the ability of schools to enact this rebirth, and so very little effort is put into questioning the weaknesses of this model of hope. Rather, teachers are held even more accountable to prove its veracity.

Let us run this rebirth mythology of schools through the gauntlet of the real world, though. What of the teacher (like the one from Alaska, perhaps) who feels that this redemptive ability for students to be “born again” through schooling rarely, if ever, occurs? What of the teacher who feels weighed down by the frustratingly limited options he or she feels to decide what to teach, say? Such teachers would have very little reason for hope if hope is defined in terms of that redemptive possibility, yet Arendt shows how a similar (if crucially different) understanding of similar themes does offer hope to such a teacher. For, while she was critical of the desire to have the past erased, she did believe that something similar—forgiveness—offered access to the hope of natality.

To understand Arendt on this point, we must first explain her understanding of action. Unlike goals we work to achieve, the fundamental characteristic of action, she claims, is its unpredictability. Because the world is made up of different people, each with his or her own ideas and experiences, whenever we act, we affect the world in ways we cannot ever predict. Moreover, because the effects of our actions never end, even actions that seem to achieve some hoped-for goal can go on to have dire unforeseen consequences. That is the challenge of living in a plural world, and a source of frustration as well as of the miraculous dimensions of life.

That is also, of course, the challenge of teaching. Everything we do as teachers can shape the lives of our students in ways that we cannot predict. Moreover, our impact as teachers never ends, and we are all at least partially aware of this fact, even as we might decry it. When we hear of students from years ago who have achieved something great, who can avoid the sense of shared success—that we as teachers had a part in the student’s achievement? And similarly, who can avoid the sense of guilt or culpability when we hear that a past student has done something awful to himself, herself, or others? The sense of powerlessness experienced by many teachers in our increasingly regulated schools turns our implicit acknowledgment of this sense of responsibility in teaching into hopelessness: we feel responsible but don’t know what to do, or we feel that we can’t do anything.

Arendt saw our abilities to forgive and to promise as the two tools that humans have developed to cope with the unpredictability and irreversibility of action. Yet, because she developed them as political concepts (within the world of adult interactions), she never addressed them directly in her educational writings. Nevertheless, I believe that in her discussions of these concepts, we can see important themes that help to keep us aware of the miraculous dimension of interactive classroom life.

Arendt saw forgiveness as a vital dimension of our unpredictable lives because it makes possible the new beginnings of natality:

Forgiving is the only strictly human action that releases us and others from the chain and pattern of consequences that all action engenders; as such, forgiving is an action that guarantees the continuity of the capacity for action, for beginning anew, in every single human being who, without forgiving and being forgiven, would resemble the man in the fairy tale who is granted one wish and then forever punished with that wish’s fulfillment.36

This understanding of freedom is not surprising given her earlier call to teach students the world as it is—with all its potential and flaws—because forgiveness allows humans (teachers and students) to interact as they are, neither perfect nor doomed, but with both potential and flaws.

What does it mean to forgive in Arendt’s sense? The frustrations, powerlessness, and hopelessness of the teacher with whom we started this article, and of other like him, were all experiences of a world that was shaped before we entered it in ways we would never have chosen. Schools today seem highly regulated, with the emphasis on accountability trying to maximize instructional time and minimize distractions. Similarly, the world can seem to be a place where overwhelming forces are combining to limit the freedom or impact that anyone has to change anything. When Arendt writes that “forgiving is an action that guarantees the continuity of the capacity for action, for beginning anew, in every single human being,” she means that it offers the possibility of breaking that sense of inevitability, of starting anew, and of bringing something unexpected into the interactive context of classrooms.

The huge limits to our sense of freedom and possibility, both as teachers and as students, are thus challenged when others forgive our poor performance on a test, say, or forgive our teaching that did not work. These examples might seem trite, but what is at stake here are precisely the humdrum dimensions of life. Classrooms today are so constrained by regulation, from the pressure to teach to looming tests to scripted curricula, that it is easy to feel that everything happens for a reason, that everything will be assessed, that everything must be justified. It is in this context that what Arendt describes as forgiveness is so powerful, for to forgive is to break with the economy of expectations that determines the formal discourse of school life.

Forgiveness allows for freedom, for a student to do something different that breaks with the norms of classroom life, and thus forgiveness opens the door to natality and hope. For Arendt, while schools might not in themselves be able to wipe clean the past in the ways they might promise, a teacher and students can forgive. Forgiveness, while not wiping clean the past or allowing us to forget it, allows us to move on, but with a sense of gratitude for that forgiveness; if we do not remember that we are forgiven, then forgiveness loses its meaning. Yet the memory of having been forgiven is what establishes a singular relationship—it shakes off, for a moment, the roles that divide teachers from students; all interact as human beings.

The crucial thing about forgiveness is that it can never be reduced to a formulaic response:

In contrast to revenge, which is the natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which because of irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act that provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.37

Forgiveness comes in the ways that teachers make exceptions—perhaps known only to the teacher and one student—that signal a refusal to let schooling be constrained solely by “the rules.” These interactions cannot be institutionalized; they cannot become the rule. They have to be unpredictable—moments of connection that are “unexpected . . . unconditioned by the act that provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.”38 If we experience schools as places where consequences are always conditional on our actions, where everything is held accountable, then forgiveness opens the door to the unconditional and allows fissures of possibility to emerge amid what seemed solid and impossible.

It is perhaps worth stating what I am assuming to be the experience of schooling for many teachers and students who are struggling to find hope, an experience that to Arendt always risks becoming one of alienation: that every day proceeds largely without event, shaped by the larger forces that frame schooling, and that teachers and students are defined mostly by their roles but have little greater investment in each other than those roles would suggest. (Note that one can be a deeply committed teacher with this mindset, working hard to address the issues of the world, albeit with a tragic sense of one’s work.) In short, school is seen as predictable, yet in its indifference to one’s presence and its increasing emphasis on externally mandated standards, it is unreliable (particularly in high schools where new graduation requirements threaten to leave many students empty handed after four years, and where the learning structures can often prevent students and teachers from getting to know each other well). If Arendt’s discussion of forgiveness highlights the ways that we can break the alienating repetitive predictability of schooling and start to accentuate the unexpected, her analysis of our ability to promise helps to show how we can counteract its alienating unreliability.

We have already noted Arendt’s skepticism of goal-directed hope—the belief that we can bring about desired social goals through education. Given that we act in a plural world where there are multiple different others around us, each acting in his or her own way, and thus that social space is unavoidably unpredictable, schooling is unlikely to be very effective in bringing about the changes we desire. But she does not abandon all such efforts to realize desired ends. Rather, she locates this hope not on policy or in the efficacy of our attempts to work to shape the world to our goals, but in our ability to make promises to others. As she explains it,

The unpredictability which the act of making promises at least partially dispels is of a twofold nature: it arises simultaneously out of the “darkness of the human heart,” that is, the basic unreliability of men who never can guarantee today who they will be tomorrow, and out of the impossibility of foretelling the consequences of an act within a community of equals where everybody has the same capacity to act.39

 Given that everyone acts in the world, then, human life is dependent on the intricately complex interplay of everyone’s actions, and that is as true in schools as elsewhere: one student’s bad day can upset other students’ plans; substitute teachers can unexpectedly come and go, having established no relationship with students; and every lesson plan is subject to the unpredictable chemistry of that class on that day. These are the needs that her discussion of promises seeks to address. “The function of the faculty of promising is to master this two-fold darkness of human affairs and is, as such, the only alternative to a mastery which relies on domination of one’s self and rule over others.”40 In contrast to our efforts to get our students to reach the goals we have set for them (“domination of one’s self and rule over others”), promises are a tool that humans have long developed to counteract the unreliability of human life.

Again, the translation from Arendt’s political writings to education is imperfect, but what comes through in her concern here is the need for teachers to try to offer stability in the contexts of lives that are experienced as very uncertain. One cannot promise the world, of course, as none of us can control the future in any large sense. One can only promise something specific to someone specific: promises are “isolated islands of certainty in an ocean of uncertainty,”41 and indeed, teachers and schools have long played that role. What really seems to be at stake in promises, for Arendt, is commitment.

For students who experience the world as lacking in the pillars of support that we might wish them to have—and many students live lives of immense complexity and instability—then a teacher’s efforts to become just such an island of certainty in that student’s life are vital for that student to be open to the unexpected. But that commitment signals two things: a willingness to be there in the future, and an acknowledgement of life’s uncertainty—an acknowledgement and validation of the student’s experience.

What I have tried to show in this section is that our refusal to let schooling be governed by the external forces shaping schools and our willingness to be points of stability in students’ lives create an environment where we all can experience the unpredictable “miracles” of classroom life, which for Arendt constitute the source of hope from our interactive lives.


This article started with an account of a teacher struggling to justify his work in the face of what seemed to be hopelessness. Given the ways that teachers have been encouraged to think about hope through the broader culture—through progress, goal-directed action, and escape—many struggle to find hope in the complex and highly regulated classrooms where they work.

Arendt’s writings on hope, rooted in her highly original understanding of the interactive dimensions of life, make her well placed to describe how we can feel hopeful in our complex and interconnected work as teachers. Indeed, as readers will probably agree, these unexpected dimensions of classroom life often do make us feel hopeful; even if we have learned to think of hope as the product of, say, goal-directed action, we can still find ourselves leaving classes that did not go as we had hoped with an unexpected sense of possibility.

One could ask, though, whether Arendt’s articulation of hope really makes a difference beyond making us feel good. Is it, perhaps, just an opiate to dull the pain of our own impotence? We have all learned in history and politics classes, after all, that change occurs as a result of linear paths and by virtue of intentional goal-directed acts by people with power. How could the unexpected occurrences about which Arendt writes make any real difference in a world so much in need of change?  

Arendt was deeply skeptical about the role of history in our understanding of the past, for while historians can tell us a story about what happened in the past, they cannot tell us why it happened. History cannot help us see how anyone’s actions change anything because our desire for coherent narratives is in tension with the fundamental pluralism of life: life does not consist of some people acting against an inert social background, but rather, it consists of countless different actors mutually interacting in untraceably complex ways. It is out of that plural complexity that changes emerge, not out of a simpler chain of events. Historians work backward from events to try to explain why they occurred, she writes, but their historical narratives give us a poor account of the processes of change because they are blind to what might have happened had some of the countless human interactions been ever so slightly different. As she writes, historians deal with events that only occur only once, and thus try to explain what is, effectively, new:

This newness can be manipulated if the historian insists on causality and pretends to be able to explain events by a chain of causes which eventually led up to them. He then, indeed, poses as the “prophet turned backward” . . . and all that separates him from the gifts of real prophecy seems to be the deplorable physical limitations of the human brain, which unfortunately cannot contain and combine correctly all causes operating at the same time. . . . Not only does the actual meaning of any event always transcend any number of past “causes” which we might assign to it (one has to think of the grotesque disparity between “cause” and “effect” in an event like the First World War), but this past itself comes into being only with the event itself. Only when something irrevocable has happened can we even try to trace its history backward. The event illuminates its own past, but can never be deduced from it.42

These “deplorable physical limitations of the human brain, which unfortunately cannot contain and combine correctly all causes operating at the same time” get to our challenge with understanding how actions cause changes in the world. We experience many events that we never could have predicted earlier, and historians work backward to try to explain these unexpected events. Because our brains cannot process the immense complexity of the past, however, we are seduced by the coherence of historical narrative even though it misleads us about the nature of change.43

But one can easily appreciate the unpredictable and changeable nature of life by asking oneself which of the features of the present day one could not have predicted a few years ago. At the time of writing, these include an African-American president and a sharp decrease in oil consumption (due to a global recession), with positive effects on global warming.

It strikes me that teachers have to believe in the unpredictable and indeed miraculous nature of change and of the ways they make a difference. Whereas powerful politicians might credit some decision to a past teacher or professor, or while other former students might credit us with some traceable impact on their lives, we teachers lose track of most of our impacts very quickly in the immense web of interactions called life. Given the number of very different people milling around in this world, each interacting in an unpredictable sequence, we have to believe in the value of the unexpected and the changeability of that which seems impervious to change.

Arendt’s biggest lessons about hope are that we all gain most when we are honest about the challenges we face and open to the unexpectedness of life. What can give us hope, then, are the concrete relationships with our students, our willingness to be there for them and to not be defined by the accountability culture that now saturates schools. If we believe our own claims to know the limits of what is possible, then we all will be constrained by those limits. The unexpected occurrences of our teaching can be merely annoying interruptions to our plans, or they can be surprises that, in our responses, take us where we might never have predicted. Our responses to the unexpected can either further entrench our own sense of powerlessness, or they can open up the unpredictability and possibility of our interactive lives for us and for our students.

Arendt shows us how three common narratives of hope upon which teachers depend—hope through progress, hope through goal-directed action, and hope through rebirth—can be a source of frustration and hopelessness because they all misunderstand the unpredictable nature of the interactive lives we lead. Yet she also shows us that if, on the other hand, we affirm the unpredictability of our lives, we can find a renewed sense of possibility and hope in our teaching, and our students can reap the benefits of this hope as much as we can. As I spoke with my former student about his teaching in Alaska, he was just starting to come to this realization.


1. Marilyn Cochran-Smith, “Defining the Outcomes of Teacher Education: What’s Social Justice Got to Do with It?” Asia Pacific Journal of Teacher Education 32, no. 3 (2004): 208 (my emphasis).
2. Sonia Nieto, What Keeps Teachers Going? (New York: Teachers College Press, 2003), 16.
3. Larry Cuban, foreword to The Call to Teach, by David Hanson (New York: Teachers College Press, 1995), xi.
4. Vito Perrone, A Letter to Teachers (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991), 131.
5. Luc Bovens, “The Value of Hope,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 59 (1999): 667.
6. Despite their titles, even Herb Kohl’s The Discipline of Hope and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Hopecontain little more than passing references to their own understandings of the term. Yet recent years have seen the publication of two detailed, if specifically focused, studies of hope for educators: David Halpin’s Hope and Education: The Role of the Utopian Imagination (London: Routledge, 2003) and Stephen M. Fishman and Lucille McCarthy’s John Dewey and the Philosophy and Practice of Hope (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007).
7. For a fuller explanation of this definition, see Julian Edgoose, “Radical Hope and Teaching: Learning Political Agency from the Politically Disenfranchised,” Educational Theory (forthcoming).
8. Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 1.
9. David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 2.
10. Lyndon Johnson, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (Washington, DC: United States Office of the Federal Register, 1970), 1140.
11. Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics (New York: Schocken, 2005), 155.
12. Hannah Arendt, “Home to Roost,” in Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken, 2003), 262.
13. Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America(New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005), 19.
14. Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee, Historic Reversals, Accelerating Resegregation, and the Need for New Integration Strategies (Los Angeles: Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, UCLA, 2007). There are many ways of measuring segregation, but Orfield and Lee show that fewer black students in the South currently attend majority-white schools than at any time since 1970 (25), and more black students in the Northeast and West currently attend majority nonwhite schools than was the case in 1968 (29).
15. Parents Involved In Community Schools V. Seattle School District No. 1 et al., 551 U.S. June 28, 2007.
16. Kozol, The Shame of the Nation, 25–26.
17. Interestingly, Arendt herself expressed her concerns about the forced integration of segregated schools back in the 1950s. Her essay “Reflections on Little Rock” was so controversial when it was written that its commissioning publisher at Commentary refused to print it; when it did appear two years later (in 1959) in Dissent, it was accompanied by a disclaimer from the editors, who stated, “We believe in freedom of expression even for views that seem to us entirely mistaken.” Quoted in Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996), 146. While Arendt strongly supported the legal end to segregation, she did not support what she saw as forcing children to integrate schools where they are not wanted, although she did think that parents who wanted to should be able to start new integrated schools that should be defended from any who try to stop them. Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock” in Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken, 2003), 19. What she wanted to preserve was freedom of association (and thus pluralism, even in its intolerant forms) from being trumped by equality. This was motivated by her understanding of the best interests of the children involved, but also from her sense of the best interests of the republic. While this concern led her to defend a version of state’s rights and even the fact that clubs and other social organizations (as opposed to political ones) should be able to choose to function by excluding African Americans or Jews (she was herself, of course, Jewish). These positions, and the division between the social and political on which they depend, seem no less tolerable now than they did to many 50 years ago. Yet James Bohman has argued that if we take her seriously as a committed pluralist with a concern for enabling genuine interactions across lines of difference, then she does seem somewhat justified in her belief that forced integration would not achieve that end. “The Moral Costs of Political Pluralism: The Dilemmas of Difference and Equality in Arendt’s ‘Reflections on Little Rock,’” in Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later, ed. Larry May and Jerome Kohn (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 53–80.
18. Hannah Arendt, “On Freedom,” in The Portable Hannah Arendt (New York: Penguin, 2000), 459–60.
19. Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Education,” in Between Past and Future, rev. ed. (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 192.
20. Arendt, “Crisis in Education,” 183.
21. Ibid., 192.
22. Arendt, “Home to Roost,” 262.
23. Natasha Levinson, “The Paradox of Natality,” in Hannah Arendt and Education, ed. Mordechai Gordon (Bolder, CO: Westview, 2001), 19.
24. C. R. Snyder, L. M. Irving, and J. R. Anderson, “Hope and Health,” in Handbook of Social and Clinical Psychology: The Health Perspective, ed. C. R. Snyder and D. R. Forsyth (Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press, 1991), 287. It also echoes the ways that hope is defined in other fields, such as psychology, where the work of C. R. Snyder is most prominent. In this articulation, hope is “a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy), and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals).”
25. Halpin, Hope and Education, 2. Halpin’s use of the term owes much to Gabriel Marcel.
26. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 7–8.
27. Arendt, The Human Condition, 220.
28. Arendt, “On Freedom,” 459.
29. Ibid., 459–60.
30. Arendt, The Human Condition, 247.
31. Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 103.
32. Arendt, The Human Condition, 176.
33. Jurgen Moltmann, “Progress and Abyss: Remembrances of the Future of the Modern World,” inThe Future of Hope, ed. Miroslav Wolf and William Katerberg (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 3–26.
34. Internet Movie Database (IMDb) “Top 250 Movies as Voted by Our Users, ”
35. Stephen King, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” in Different Seasons (New York: Viking, 1982), 66. This line from the script is also found in the Stephen King short story on which the movie is based.
36. Arendt, The Promise of Politics, 59. As someone with a Jewish background who wrote her dissertation on the philosopher and saint Augustine, Arendt had an interestingly nuanced relationship with Christianity. Her mentor Karl Jaspers claimed that she “wants to justify her freedom from Christian possibilities, which also attract her.” Quoted by Elizabeth M. Meade, “The Commodification of Values,” in Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later, ed. Larry May and Jerome Kohn (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 115. Thus, she credits Jesus Christ with “discover[ing] the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs” (The Human Condition 238) and quotes the Gospels to justify her claim to the primacy of human forgiveness: “God forgives ‘our debts, as we forgive our debtors’” (The Human Condition, 239 n. 77). This enables her view to be compatible with a Christian view and with a completely secular one.
37. Arendt, The Human Condition, 241 (my emphasis).
38. Ibid., 241.
39. Ibid., 244.
40. Ibid.
41. Ibid.
42. Hannah Arendt, “Understanding and Politics,” in Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994), 318–19.
43. Arendt’s prescience here is remarkable. In the 1980s and 1990s, the emergence of chaos theory and the science of complexity helped illuminate just this difficulty of understanding cause and effect in the complex interactive systems that characterize human life. Social scientists who grapple with this new work reach remarkably similar conclusions to Arendt. See, for example, Duncan Watts, “A Nonlinear View of History,” in Six Degrees: The Science of the Connected Age (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 244–50.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 2, 2010, p. 386-406 ID Number: 15738, Date Accessed: 10/14/2011 5:27:55 PM

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