Hannah Arendt describes a freedom involving “participation in public affairs, or admission to the public realm” (Arendt, H. 1963. On Revolution, New York: Penguin, p. 32). The hunger strikers at Dyett HS—fighting for public education in Chicago—are creating the public space right now, tonight. She acknowledges that freedom involves the establishment of certain rights within a domain of privacy, spaces where people are neither coerced nor obstructed, but she argues that this in itself is a rather narrow and negative approach to freedom, that the domain of the personal and the private is not the “actual content of freedom.”  The content of freedom is found, rather, in “a body politic”, that is in those public spaces where people come together freely as authentic beings to name the obstacles to their own humanity: “a body politic which is the result of covenant and ‘combination’ becomes the very source of power for each individual person who outside the constitutional political realm remains impotent” (p. 171).

Arendt describes the American revolution as an event “made by men in common deliberation and on the strength of mutual pledges.  The principle which came to light during those fateful years…was the interconnected principle of mutual promise and common deliberation” (pp. 213-214).  And this “principle which came to light” also drove the French and the Haitian revolutions, the German, the Russian, and the Chinese revolutions, the movements in Hungary in 1956 and Poland in 1979.  In each case, in a time of crisis and change, citizens came together spontaneously—whether in town meetings, communes, workers’ councils and soldiers’ committees, or soviets—in order to create a public space for the expression of their dreams and their demands.  It was in these public spaces that, according to Arendt, freedom came to life, and she referred to them as “treasures”, for they embodied the “hope for transformation of the state, for a new form of government that would permit every member of the modern egalitarian society to become a ‘participator’ in public affairs…”  It was this treasure “that was buried in the disasters of twentieth-century revolutions” (pp. 264-65), destroyed and murdered by foreign invasions and occupations, and by elites and vanguards from all sides.  It remains, for Arendt and for others, the “lost treasure” central to the modern predicament.

Freedom is linked for Arendt to a space for human interaction.  She argues that authentic political action requires this free space, created and sustained by people coming together.  This is distinct from a personal, private, or inner feeling of freedom, something that can be achieved through escape or retreat or isolation—through drugs to take one obvious example. 

Schools are an obvious venue for the creation of a public space, a site of freedom.  People are coming together, searching for something better, deciding what we value, what we hope to pass on, who we want to be. Schools are seldom constructed as sites of freedom nor places for the practice of freedom. Dyett High School can be the exception.


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