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We are condemned to learn

Towards higher education as a learning society


Author - Dr Ted Fleming


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Education and Habermas

Habermas’s arguments concerning rationalisation and colonisation influence the work of the adult educator Jack Mezirow (2007) for whom transformative learning is

the process by which we transform our taken-for-granted frames of reference (meaning perspectives, habits of mind, mind-sets) to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action.

(Mezirow 2000: 7–8)

These frames of reference are the socially and individually constructed paradigms in which we think, feel, act and make meaning. Borrowing from Habermas again, Mezirow appropriates the idea that justification of beliefs is done through collaborative discourse in which validity claims, tacitly accepted in conversations, become subject to explicit argumentation. This process of debate Mezirow (2000: 8) calls transformative learning.

According to Mezirow (2000: 13), the conditions or rules of this rational discourse are also the ideal conditions for adult learning. The rules are that participants must have accurate and complete information; freedom from coercion and distorting self-deception; openness to alternative points of view; empathy with and concern for the thoughts and feelings of others; the ability to weigh evidence and assess arguments; awareness of ideas and be critically reflective of assumptions; equal opportunity to participate in the various roles of discourse; a willingness to understand and accept agreement and also to accept agreed best judgments as a test of validity until new outcomes from discourse are identified.

Community organisations, as understood by Habermas, can serve as vehicles for critical debate and discourse.

As learners in a democracy become aware of how taken-for-granted, oppressive, social norms and practices and institutionalised cultural ideologies have restrained or distorted their own beliefs, they become understandably motivated toward taking collective action to make social institutions and systems more responsive to the needs of those they serve.

(Mezirow 2007: 16)

This reliance on Habermas suggests that it is a particular function of educators to create communities of collaborative discourse in which distortions in communication due to differences in power and influence are minimised. As a consequence ‘education is a form of rational social action’ (Ewert 1991: 362). Mezirow adds:

the nature of adult learning itself mandates participatory democracy as both the means and social goal. Following Habermas, this view identifies critical reflection, rational discourse, and praxis as central to significant adult learning and the sine qua non of emancipatory participation.

(Mezirow 1995: 66)

A learning group engaged in transformative learning is a democratic society in micro, and a democratic society is a learning society. Transformation theory grounds its argument for an emancipatory participative democracy in the very nature of adult learning (Mezirow 1995: 68). This is a different understanding of both learning and democracy than usually proposed in the literature of lifelong learning. If the ideas of Habermas are significant for higher education then the way these ideas are appropriated by education provides a useful model for their implementation.

We learn from Habermas that there is a rational justification for seeking the means for reaching decisions in a genuinely participatory democratic manner. And for educators the quest for emancipation is rationally justified and the basis for this resides in Habermas’s account of those innate learning capacities that enable us to understand each other and the world. The need to develop communicative competence becomes a task for HE too.

A critical higher education privileges the realm of the lifeworld in which citizen and workers have been disempowered. So who will decolonise the lifeworld and change the system? The critical role of education is to work in solidarity with workers and citizens to insert democratic imperatives into the system world. People may well have exchanged an active participatory role in the market place or in politics for greater comfort and occupational security offered by capitalism, that legitimates the social order in this way.

The very foundation of democracy is under threat from the monopoly of technical reason in our society. The forces of technical control must be made subject to the consensus of acting citizens who in dialogue redeem the power of reflection. Educators find in Habermas a social critique with which to analyse the dominance in education of technique and instrumental rationality. The preoccupation, as a result of such critique, shifts from prioritising how to get things done to realising genuine democracy.

Habermas prompts us to see HE as a community of communicative praxis or discursive reason and he argues that we are most rational when we participate in communities characterised by free and unconstrained discourse, i.e. democratic discourse. He prompts us to see the HE community as a lifeworld. Critical reflection about assumptions and practices in various disciplines is central to this. For self-understanding to be reached in dialogue, democracy is necessary. To do its work (of critique) HE creates the very conditions necessary for a democratic society.

Rather than see a university as a collection of disparate departments, faculties, schools and centres there is a unifying theme and Habermas suggests we call it a lifeworld. Higher education, according to Habermas, carries out the functions of socialisation, critical transmission of culture, political consciousness, and social integration. As Ostovich (1995: 476) summarises, a higher education institution is ‘a rational society, then, where reason is understood as communicative praxis and society is understood as lifeworld’. The role of HE is to be a community of communicative action, of communicative praxis.

The danger is that too many courses focus on utilitarian knowledge, there are too many vocational courses to the detriment of courses and programmes that are of benefit to oneself and society rather than the economy. Too often courses focus on instrumental learning rather than communicative praxis. Too many emphasise career and not enough one’s role in society. HE is in danger of becoming training rather than education.

What might such a communicative HE system look like? There would be less emphasis on hierarchical authority and more on participatory decision-making; more dialogue than dictat; the elimination of corporate culture and the nourishing of self-government and a clear priority given by the institution to social justice. Consultation would be seen as a lesser form of democracy. Pedagogy too would match these priorities. Social analysis, critical reflection, reconstructing the teacher–student relationship would become activities where teacher and learner become co-investigators of reality. Students would be involved in all aspects of college life. And above all, education would be redefined as an exercise in democracy, teaching democracy and aiming to instil democracy in classrooms, communities, the workplace and in society.

The aim of HE is to develop and respond to the needs of a democratic society. The university ought to attempt to create a community of critical reason. This reason is discursive. When we are most rational we participate in communities characterised by free and unconstrained democratic discourse (Ostovich 1995: 467). For Habermas, the university is colonised by the economy and the state and is in need of decolonisation by having particular kinds of free, critical conversations. Ideally, the strategic plan of the institution would be infused by the vision, ideals and political actions of critical reflection on unquestioned assumptions. Such a university would not only teach about democracy, but teach democratically and in the process create and support a democratic society. Higher education would, in the process, become a learning society.

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