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  • Writer's pictureKeven Bartle

Complexity in Education: What we can learn from Hannah Arendt

This weekend I purchased, and began reading, Lyndsey Stonebridge's new book on the life and work of Hannah Arendt, 'We Are Free to Change the World'. It is a sign of how good the book is that I felt the need to watch (again) the final television interview of Arendt. If you are interested in her work and haven't yet watched it, you can see it here.


Filmed in the umbra of the Watergate scandal and Pentagon Papers of the 1970s, and the penumbra of the assassinations of the Kennedys, King and X, the interviews show the "political thinker" (as she called herself) at her lucid, insightful best. But Arendt's work has a timelessness that is born of her desire to make sense of the Holocaust and the ways in which this led her to consider 'The Human Condition' more generally.


Her insights about the importance of plurality, power and politics - of social individuals finding a "common sense" of their shared action together for "the love of the world" - provides a coherent way of understanding the complexity of organisational life in the "public realm". I find it fascinating how Arendt's thinking can help school leaders working in sometimes "dark times" of uncertainty, so that they can endeavour to keep "thinking without banisters".


This last interview, conducted as she was working on her sadly unfinished 'Life of the Mind' is, in essence, an elaboration of her (for me) most profound insight: "For me it is quite simple, that we think what we are doing".


Near the start of the broadcast she makes the following observation:

"We don't know the future. Everybody acts into the future and nobody can follow, nobody knows what he is doing. Only where I am the only one, if I were the only one, could I foretell what's going to happen from what I am doing."


This is classic Arendt, drawn from her 1952 work 'The Human Condition'. The challenge of thinking and acting in a plurality, as all school leaders must do, is that plural action is always unpredictable, whatever the intentions of each participant. Action planning is important, but the ability of human individuals to start something new with a plan of action is frequently confounded by the ability of every other human to themselves start something new when they are seeking to enact those plans of action. We have all been there, on both sides of that particular fence, being thwarted by the interpretations of others and being responsible (sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally) of being the thwarter.


She goes on to explain further:

"Now, this looks as though what actually happens is entirely contingent. Nobody knows what is going to happen simply because so much depends on an enormous amount of variables ... on the simple hazard."


Remember, Arendt stresses that this sense of 'contingency' and 'hazard' is a fundamental element of what it is to be human. Think about any example of what you had planned to teach in any given lesson, and how that lesson turned out when it met with the intentions of the students that windy Friday afternoon after a boisterous lunch break. And yet, when it comes to the bigger, arguably more complex process of school improvement, we anticipate something more predictable. Indeed, most leadership literature doesn't recognise the inevitability of contingency and hazard or, if it does, points to how leaders can and should tame it or iron out the creases.


And this covering over of contingency and hazard leaves school leaders where exactly? Arendt suggests that it leads to a place of fear.

"They are afraid. They are afraid to be afraid, and it is one of the main personal motivations. They are afraid of freedom."


The fear of being found out to not be in control, of failing to live up to leadership theories throughout the technical-rationalist era of management discourse, doesn't stop with fear of the immediate consequences of a plan gone awry. It leads to an internalisation of that sense of failure so that one fears fearing, with school leaders potentially withdrawing from risky collaboration, lacking the courage to be courageous in their work with others. Such an approach is indicative of an increasingly pathological fear of the freedom they possess in their work with others. Complex organisational life offers no easy answers but leadership discourse does and it is that linear, cause-and-effect approach which underpins the standards and accountability agenda. Fear of fear and of freedom is a perfectly understandable response to such an ecology.


Arendt was never convinced that there were surefire answers, or tools, that could reliably help social humans cope with the pressures she diagnosed within our body politic. To do so would contradict her position on contingency as a feature of the human condition. But she did have some important insights, including:

"We are entirely free to help ourselves wherever we can from the experiences and the thoughts of our past. No, it rests only on a conviction that actually every human being as a thinking being can reflect as well as I do, and can therefore judge for himself, if he wants to."


Arendt, a survivor of the Holocaust twice over (convincing a Gestapo officer to release her in Germany and then escaping from an internment camp in France that later sent those who remained to Auschwitz), never lost sight of the freedom that all humans have in non-totalitarian societies - however otherwise oppressive they might be. She explains two elements of such freedom that are most important in understanding that what we can do into the future is not written written in stone by what has happened in the past. The first of these is our capacity to reflect and the second is our ability, as a consequence of reflection, to show judgment.

"The only thing which can help us, I think, is really to réfléchir, and to think always means to think critically. And to think critically is always to be hostile. Every thought actually undermines whatever there is of rigid rules, general convictions, etc. Everything which happens in thinking is subject to a critical examination of whatever there is. That is, there are dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise."


The key to unlocking reflection, which in turns enables judgment, is quite simply to think about what we are doing when we are acting with others. Thinking and thoughtfulness in school leadership in times of uncertainty (systemic and contextual, as well as the intrinsic uncertainty of plural beings) is, Arendt realises, a radical act. She describes it as being "hostile", "critical", "undermining" and, ultimately, "dangerous". But as she says these words about thinking - words that some may shy away from - she smiles both broadly and knowingly. And the reason she does this is because she has an ace up her sleeve.

"I don't deny that thinking is dangerous, but I would say not thinking is even more dangerous."


This is an argument that, in school leadership more perhaps than any other domain is one that we can all agree upon. And so it is incumbent upon us as leaders in education to think so that we can reflect and make better judgments. It is not only for the sake of our work that we need to think, but for the sake of ourselves, in order to shake off the shackles of being afraid of our freedom, of being afraid of being afraid, and (to circle the logic back to where it began) of being afraid of the contingency and hazard that is inevitable in the work we do with others in our schools.


There is much being said at present about the role of school leaders creating the culture of their schools. If we stop to think critically and dangerously about that, perhaps too much is assumed about the ability (or even desirability) of individuals to decide upon and enact cultural change. Arendt would, I think, be more than a little concerned.


However, if there is one domain in which school leaders might want to seek to influence and shape school culture, prioritising thinking for the purposes of better reflection and judgment might be a good place to start. This is because, as Arendt observes, there is no situation in which thinking isn't dangerous. Where thinking is a cultural feature, however, and is practised within a plurality working towards the common good, maybe (just maybe) it might be dangerous in a good way.


If you want to read more about Arendt and the complexity of school leadership, you can read my doctoral thesis here.


If you are interested in reflective supervision, either as an individual or as a plurality, have a look at this part of the website.


If you might be interested in hearing more about complexity and leadership, especially as a member of a MAT leadership team, have a look at the details of this programme.

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