Human Conditions for Teaching: The Place of Pedagogy in Arendt’s Vita Activa

Feb. 28, 2010

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 112 Number 2, 2010, p. 407-445.

If education centrally involves self-cultivation, and the teacher’s own robust selfhood is necessary for inspiring self-cultivation in students, then teacherly self-cultivation is a necessary condition of education. But teaching is seen as a helping profession, where helping others always seems, in practice if not in principle, to preclude helping oneself. This study asks what aspects of teaching, if any, might nurture the teacher’s own quest to flourish, without thus becoming a selfish betrayal of the role. What might it mean to speak of teaching as “self-ful”?

Focus of Study

The philosophy of Hannah Arendt is a fruitful context in which to refine and explore this question. Arendt offers a rich typology of practical activities, distinguishing “labor” and “work” from action proper. And she puts action at the center of her theory of education. However, it is the natality and action of students that drives education, and Arendt seems to suggest that teaching itself amounts to only labor or work. The problem is that if the teacher’s core project is not actional, she will grow estranged from her own natality, and thus be incapable of recognizing and responding to the natality of her students. How can we theorize teaching as action without violating the spirit of Arendt’s compelling accounts of education and of action?

Research Design: This is a theoretical paper and uses philosophical methods such as concept clarification and development, textual analysis, and thought experiments.


Arendt’s conception of the classroom as mediating space, sheltered from full exposure to the public realm and the demands of action, is a sound one. However, this need not entail that teaching cannot be a form of action. The classroom mediates but does not entirely exclude the public. Meanwhile, action for Arendt itself involves mediation.
The classroom is a theatrical space where participants may adopt roles, but politics too is theatrical for Arendt.

The curriculum involves representations of aspects of the cultural inheritance, making education akin to an ongoing (cultural) constitutional convention, where making is always remaking, where the polis is again called into existence by its representatives.

Arendt, Hannah.  The Human Condition: A Study of the Central Dilemmas Facing Modern Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. (German edition: Vita Activa oder Vom tהtigen Leben, tr. by Hannah Arendt, 1960).

Updated: May. 25, 2010