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November 29, 2007

The Public Sphere

arton3436.jpgThe philosopher Jurgen Habermas, in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1991), asserted that deliberation itself must be the foundation for a consummately open and participatory society. Habermas said citizens must continually and voluntarily come together to exchange perspectives on matters of mutual political interest. Habermas points to the flourishing public life during a segment of 17th- and 18th-century Europe as the ideal paradigm for such gatherings, and believes we must replicate it. He further maintains that the exchanges that take place must have rules of engagement: that there must be civil discourse coupled with discursive reasoning, and that this should be devoid of emotion and spectacle.

Habermas refers to this as the "bourgeois public sphere" to connote not only the place where "private people come together as a public" (p.27) and then go on to "make public use of their reason" (p.27), but further, the type of participants who come together. To Habermas, such a sphere is one, must be one, in which participants share assumptions about what the process of deliberation should entail; are equally informed about matters of public importance; and are in agreement about what those matters are. This must be so, he suggests, because they share the same societal and cultural values and norms, the same formal educational background and resultant capacities. Habermas further maintains that for a public sphere to operate optimally, these private individuals who gather together must not have been tainted by outside influence, lest their views not be purely their own.

Habermas's coffeehouse example overlooks the fact that in the days of the west's earliest deliberative inquiries (in public places in ancient Athens) there was no distinction between public and private persons. While to Habermas, the public emerges from the private, to the Greeks, they are entwined at every turn - there is no public without private, and vice versa, each is cultivating and driving and informing the other. Moreover, to the Greeks, the process of reasoning should never be divorced from our emotions, and indeed the attempt to do so is doomed to fail, because they are so interlaced. Rather, they recognized that a central function of reasoning together is to cultivate our more humane, constructive emotions.

Consequently, if one subscribes to the Greek model, reasoning entails sympathetic immersion in a variety of perspectives, which in turn nurtures a greater sense of love, empathy, and human connectedness. The ancient Athenians also recognized that the element of spectacle, of show - of dramatic gesturing and pointed emphasis, of cultivated and nuanced inflection of our voices, of modulation of tone and tenor in speech, as we offer our views and examine those considered perspectives of others - is an integral part of the process of the social gathering, and so, contrary to Habermas' view, is nothing pejorative at all. Indeed, to them, the public sphere itself is a form of spectacle, and as such is a vital institution for participatory democracy.

Habermas virtually suggests that participants be vetted to ensure they have shared educational backgrounds, cultural codes and sociopolitical perspectives before gathering together, in effect diminishing what the enterprise of the public sphere can be. This normative roadmap is likely to ensure there is little diversity, and so little possibility for the surprise of the novel and unfamiliar. Exposure to new perspectives is a vital ingredient for evolving democracy, for maintaining an essential element of experimentalism that can lead to paradigm shifts in our outlook on what constitutes democratic ideals and what foundational criteria they are comprised of; what constitutes matters of genuinely pervasive public concern; and what pathways best lead to achieving ever greater openness and inclusiveness.

While I embrace Habermas' essential notion that the hallmark of an evolving democracy is participation itself, on the grounds of my decade of experience of conducting Socratic discussions I reject his criteria for what makes a public sphere most effective an instrument for democratic advancement. Instead, following Socrates, that many types of education are valid and legitimate and requisite; that those with little or no formal education may nonetheless have vital experiential education of other sorts that will lend new and otherwise unknowable or unknown insights to the deliberative equation. Moreover, in counterpoint to the ideal described and prescribed by Habermas, the public sphere in a democracy must welcome into its fold groups that are in the minority and at the margins, not just in order to be genuinely inclusive, but to expand participants' intellectual and imaginative inputs in ways that lead over time to paradigm shifts in our thinking of (and experimenting with) ways to evolve democracy itself.

Alan McKee asserts in The Public Sphere: An Introduction (2005) that Habermas' conception of the public sphere, despite its pretensions to transcend epoch or culture, fails to do so; its inherent limitations abundantly evident. Rather, Habermas' model, argues McKee, clearly stems from "one particular - masculine - perspective" (p.63), and so would be most appealing to those who share this particular perspective, imbued with elements of chauvinism, elitism, and classicism. Such limitations in perception and outlook risk remaining undetected unless and until such a narrowly prescribed sphere actively encompasses diverse others who have the objectivity to point this out in an empathetic manner which those threatened by the observation can nonetheless accept.

Ultimately, in order to attain a genuinely inclusive and democratic public sphere, the more types of experiential, cultural, educational and sociopolitical perspectives included in the public sphere, the better. This does not entail, as McKee asserts, any need to choose between a so-called modern or post-modern approach - namely, either choosing a set of beliefs and values that one considers immutable and fixed, or one that is relative. Rather, it involves a continual process of discovering via ongoing deliberative inquiry among participants with diverse perspectives, within particular situations or contexts, societies or epochs, those values and beliefs that are shared among them, and thus are in a sense 'universal.' But it also entails parameters that are never too rigid or fixed, but are open to continual refinement, adjustment and even overhaul, so that over time paradigm shifts are enabled of a kind that can alter our conception of what the most ideal universally-shared democratic ideals should be. This in turn requires a shared method of inquiry in which views proffered are subject to ongoing scrutiny and testing by members of the sphere.

An inclusive, 'universal' conceptualization of a public sphere also obviates the dichotomy set forth by McKee in which a sphere is either not inclusive enough, or is so inclusively egalitarian (and so filled with a multiplicity of standpoints) that it becomes hopelessly fragmented. Rather, we need models of dialogue that set forth an altogether different notion of egalitarianism -- that entail an egalitarian ethos which does indeed continually strive for ever increasing inclusiveness, yet does not hold that all views ipso facto are equally valid. While all models and spheres for encounter and dialogue are equally deserving of being rigorously and methodically scrutinized, of thorough examination via sympathetic immersion, this process of Socratic inquiry has the capacity to determine which views are most compelling, and which are so fraught with logical lapses and loopholes and inconsistencies that they should be discarded. The determination of sound from unsound positions is one of the most vital charges of a public sphere in a deliberative democracy, and this is the objective of the original Socratic paradigm, and it results in a sharing of identity that can only be forged out of plumbing a multiplicity of perspectives.

Ultimately, the central type of values-based "homogeneity" in the Socratic model for deliberative democracy is one in which all members open themselves up to entertaining a vast range of perspectives, to scrutinizing them carefully and dispassionately, out of their shared passion for achieving the most open and inclusive society possible on local and increasingly global scales.

copyright 2008

November 4, 2007

OTM's Reach Institute in the News...

hybrid_nyt.jpgIn her spare time Denise Caruso, a member of the Whitman community and executive director of the Hybrid Vigor Institute in San Francisco, is also a writer for the New York Times. Her latest piece in today's (11-4-07) edition highlighted the work done by Page Tomkins and his colleagues at the Reach Institute also in the Bay Area.

Reach is an innovative teacher training and credentialing program that grew out of the work of On The Move (also a Whitman grantee). This new teacher development process turns the whole notion of teacher training on its head. Instead of traditional training where new teachers spend most of the year studying about teaching and then practice a few weeks at the end of the year, Reach teachers spend the majority of their time in their classrooms actually teaching supported by mentors and other subject matter experts (SMEs). What makes this process so unique? Well for one thing these new teachers designed it themselves.

Read all about it here.