On the edge of Symposium, thinking without bannisters
Opal School’s Summer Symposium begins Wednesday. It’s a frenetic time around the building: having said goodbye to students last week, teachers are setting up their classrooms for visitors, creating documentation panels, and writing presentations (not to mention annual academic reports). It’s a time of long days and nights consumed by deep reflection and meaning-making – of powerful thinking about the work we’re engaged in.
This year’s theme – Play, The Arts, and Education for Democracy – offers a compelling frame for that thinking. It guides the questions that we’re asking and the connections that we’re finding.
While running this morning (there are moments away from the building, of course), I listened to Krista Tippett’s interview with Lyndsey Stonebridge, Thinking and Friendship in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now. So much of the interview felt relevant to the work that we’re doing at Opal School – and ways in which all of us might view how our work with young children relates to our commitment to extending democracy.
From the interview:
MS. TIPPETT: [Hannah Arendt] wrote, “What prepares men for a totalitarian domination… is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience, usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century”….
MS. STONEBRIDGE: And the reason why Winston Smith is so drawn to Big Brother in the end is he cannot bear being alone…. [Arendt’s] sense of what it meant to be a thinking person was always to be having the two-in-one dialogue in your head, that thinking wasn’t about mastery. It wasn’t about thinking about stuff in order to control it or to rationalize it. Thinking was a way of being.
It was a way — the passion of being was in thinking. And that comes from that two-in-one dialogue in one’s head. And for her, that was — the beginning of moral life comes in that dialogue. There also follows — there is a notion of judgment that comes through thinking and dialogue. And the ability, I mean…
MS. TIPPETT: Discernment. Reflection.
MS. STONEBRIDGE: …. [Arendt] says, if you can’t have that inner dialogue, then you can’t speak and act with others either because it’s part of — if you’re already divided in yourself because you’re having this conversation with yourself, and that’s the passion of your being, people who can do that can actually then move on to having conversations with other people and then judging with other people. And what she called “the banality of evil” was the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.…
MS. TIPPETT: So one of her famous phrases is the “banality of evil,” …the bureaucratization, which was part of that banality… instead of thinking, you are part of the system, and you follow the rules, and you enact the rules.…
MS. STONEBRIDGE: ….[I]f you’re going to have a culture that takes risks, if you’re going to embody risks, and if we’re going to get to anything like equal liberty or better — a better political cultural, or at least a culture of ideas, you’re going to have to take risks. And if you’re going to do that, you’re going to get things wrong. [laughs] And you’re going to make errors.
And so, a mature political community needs the capacity for forgiveness to accept that things go wrong. People make mistakes. And I think that again if you turn back to your earlier point about the culture in Great Britain and the US at the moment, one of the responses to that loneliness is people to want an alternative, which is a fantasy, where everything will be looked after. “We’re going to we’re going to do this, and it will be fine.” And so the capacity to have a kind of political community based on, well, it’s going to be imperfect. The way both our recent elections were fought were on absolutes.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. There are promises been made that can’t be kept.
MS. STONEBRIDGE: Promises that can’t be kept, and watch and wait. But also a kind of infantilization of electorates which goes — “We will make the world safe.” And you think, “Are you kidding? I’m 52 years old. I know you’re not going to make the world safe. Feed me another line.” [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. But also, the “culture of forgiveness” to me feels very important to put out there. It feels also very countercultural right now. I mean, there’s also this hardening of lines, you know? You were for that, or you voted for that candidate, or against that, or against that candidate. And then there’s this whole world of assumptions made about you. And even at the same time that we’re very frustrated with people on the other side, whatever the other side is, we will not let them change, right? [laughs] I mean, the minute anything shifts or there’s some kind of conciliatory move made authentic or not, it’s immediately swatted down. I mean, this idea of — what did you say — a mature culture of forgiveness that means the — kind of a pact in the middle of our life together that says we want to change, we will extend some modicum of openness.
MS. STONEBRIDGE: Yeah. I think it’s also a question of where that happens, though, because my — I think in big politics, the cynicism — and it’s a cynicism that’s utterly deserved — is, “I’m not going to play that game because I know you’re just playing a game. I know this is a game.” And when Arendt talks about — when she — I think it’s one of the moving passages of Origins of Totalitarianism — she invokes Augustine, who she wrote her dissertation on.
And she wrote her dissertation on Augustine’s notion of love. And he would talk about worldly love, appetite, desire, which is love of the future, transcendent love, which is the love of God, which is the past. And the love that she was really interested in was neighborly love, which is neither wanting transcendence nor wanting something or someone. It’s just the love that says, “I want you to be.” And she returns to that saying of Augustine, the idea of neighborly love in The Origins of Totalitarianism, but she says that’s the kind of love that’s available in the dark background of difference….
MS. TIPPETT: …. [Arendt says that] “Factual truths are never compellingly true. The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life. It is always in danger of being perforated by single lies, or torn to shreds. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy domain of human affairs. From this it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt.” Take us inside that and what that means for us now.
MS. STONEBRIDGE: …she’s saying there is — you can throw enough facts, you can throw all the facts you like at people, and they will not stick. We had this, in the UK, and I know you have, too, that it’s — “OK, against the false news we’ll have fact-finding, and we’ll tell you.
And we’ll have a team of researchers, and you just have to look on our website, and we’ll tell you which of those are lies.” And you can scream facts at people until you’re blue in the face, and a lot of colleagues and universities and journalists have been doing exactly that very hard, working tirelessly. And it’s not making any difference. And I think what she’s talking about there is the ability through thinking and communal discourse, to make truth meaningful in the world, it has to happen between people.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. STONEBRIDGE: Which is not saying we just make up our own reality. She’s not saying that. It means that this is why…
MS. TIPPETT: When she says testimony, it needs…
MS. STONEBRIDGE: Testimony.
MS. TIPPETT: It needs experience. It needs human experience around it. Yeah.
MS. STONEBRIDGE: Yeah. And so I think she — that was why testimony was important to her. It’s why history and the sense of a myth were all important to her because it’s what makes truth meaningful to people together in a community. If you want a culture that’s going to take on fake news, and the political lie, I say as someone who teaches literature and history, what you need is a culture of the arts and humanity. What you need is more storytelling. What you need is more discourse. What you need is more imagination. What you need is more creation in that way, and more of a sense of what it is that ties us to those words and ties us to those stories….
MS. STONEBRIDGE: “Think without bannisters” is her phrase, yeah. How would you — I mean, which is in response to the Holocaust in particular. It means, once the impossible has been made possible, how do we judge? How do we think? And that was her motivating question. But her concern with beginnings or what she called natality, I mean, Heidegger was always being towards death.
She was always being towards the possibility of life. And I think it came through in two ways in her life. One is through friendship, because each new encounter, especially when you’re actually out of your bubble. I mean, she’s talking about — when I talk about people working refugee-to-refugee humanitarianism, but that’s a difficult kind of friendship. It’s a friendship that has to work. But also, when I was looking in her teaching file, which really brought home to me is the importance of her students, the importance of the people she called “the new people.”
And I think — I don’t think we’re ever going to have the education, the political free education that Arendt dreamed of, that formation. But I think that kind of affirmation of teaching, of listening to students, of empowering students, of making it possible for students to create their kind of — their new ideas of citizenship. Those are the things she believed in very strongly.
And the older I get, and the darker the times get, for me, and I know a lot of other people who work in universities and schools feel this, the place where I see new birth are in my students. And I think they are that is the beginning. Out of the darkest times there can be a new beginning. And we need to step back and shut up, sometimes, and do the most we can to make sure that happens.
I’m so excited to think, “without bannisters”, with the 250 people who will join together this week at Opal School. I expect to be refreshed, pushed, engaged, humbled – to have my imagination extended. If you’re coming, I’ll see you Wednesday – and if not, I look forward to continuing to connect with you around these ideas soon.