This will be the first of what will be, I imagine, a number of different posts about the role of the public sphere in civics and citizenship and education. They will be informed by my own reading of some of the recent writings in the area, which I will acknowledge, but all errors are, of course, my own.
The public sphere is not a new idea; academics usually use it – with a nod to Habermas, who developed the idea – to mean the ‘place’ where rational argument about society takes place, where everyone can communicate about the issues that matter to them, and there is the chance (and hope) of building consensus. In less academic circles, it is often referred to as ‘the media’, although that definition is troubling for a few reasons, not least because the term media means something different to what it meant 50 years ago, and I would agree with Alan McKee’s argument that the public sphere is much broader than what we might naturally consider as media.
The previously mentioned Alan McKee has written an excellent introduction to the idea of the public sphere, although he spends less time exploring it and its operation and more time discussing the various ways it has changed – or is accused of changing – and whether those changes are good or not. McKee approaches the idea of the public sphere from a postmodern perspective, and in particular a recognition that there is no singular truth, but rather a diverse array of truths. In other words, relativism ,rather than absolutism. (I’m conscious that I am not doing justice to the decades of debate about modernism/ postmodernism, but time is short, so please accept this thumbnail sketch).
McKee argues that both modernists and postmodernists are committed to the enlightenment ideas of equality, freedom and justice, but for modernists, such ideals are underpinned by universal values: there are core truths that are true for everyone and everybody, whereas postmodernists would argue that different groups of people communicate differently and think differently, and such different viewpoints are to be respected.
But what does this mean for the public sphere? Well, in short, modernists argue that the public sphere is becoming fragmented and confused, and this is bad for democracy. (Note that no one is arguing that a public sphere – as a kind of echo chamber for the voice of the people – is not needed in democracy. McKee is very clear that such an metaphorical place is essential in any democracy). McKee identifies five main concerns that modernists have with the public sphere: it is too trivial, it is too commercial, it is too much of a spectacle, it is becoming too fragmented and citizens are too apathetic to be involved in it.
And that is where post-modernists (like McKee) depart from the modernists. They acknowledge that the above might be happening to the public sphere, but that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, what we are seeing is a ‘broadening’ (my term) of the public sphere, in which voices that were previously ignored/ considered unimportant are now finding or even forcing their way into the community discourse. For example, the arguments about the public sphere becoming too trivial might very well be an expression of feminism – that is, what have traditionally been ‘women’s concerns’ and hence were considered unimportant, are now considered important enough to be part of the public sphere. A similar argument can be made in regards to working class concerns and ‘commercialisation.
McKee’s argument is convincing, but it raises, for me, a few concerns. Principally, as someone who advocates a critical pedagogical approach to education (which in itself is informed by critical theory, which draws from modernist notions and especially older views about the public sphere), what does that actually mean for me? In other words, how can I reconcile critical pedagogy with postmodernism?
Stay tuned for part 2… once I have an answer that I can put into words.