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We are condemned to learn

Towards higher education as a learning society


Author - Dr Ted Fleming


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Jürgen Habermas

The work of Habermas is foundational for the tradition that sees education as concerned with developing in learners the kind of critical reasoning that is required for a democracy. For fifty years he has had a major impact on the development of social and political theory and is the contemporary embodiment of the critical theory tradition of the Frankfurt School. He is a vocal public intellectual and, according to Bernstein, is ‘the philosopher of democracy’ (1991: 207).

As well as more academic debates (1984; 1987; 1996) he is involved in public debate about immigration, German integration, democratisation and equality of access to HE. His concern with fascism underpins the emancipatory focus of his work. He has chosen to be ‘the person who is engaged in the public political struggles for a more just social form of life’ (Matuštík 2001: xix). He reconstructs Marxism for the modern age and identifies a learning project at the centre of democratic society. This paper interprets this learning project as a defining mission for HE. His quest is to ensure that the emancipatory possibility of critical theory is reasonable, well grounded and a firm foundation for ‘the public political struggles for a more just social form of life’ (Matuštík 2001: xix).

Educators with a critical intent look to him to give a grounding for a critical pedagogy to underpin education (Murphy and Fleming 2006). The essential idea gleaned from Habermas by educators is that both he and educators are co-workers for democracy. In adult education theory the realisation of the conditions for democracy are the same conditions necessary for adult learning (Mezirow 1999). In this paper it is suggested that these ideas support the view that HE is a force for democracy.

Underpinning Habermas’s ideas is the assertion that learning how to reason has become distorted under capitalism and reclaiming reason from this distortion is a learning project. For Habermas, critique is alive and not dead and reclaiming reason serves the democratic project of making society the kind of place in which a more human life is possible. The redemption of reason is essential for democracy and freedom and this is a key task for HE.

We now turn to a brief account of his key ideas that will assist in clarifying a role for HE:

  • the demise of the public sphere;
  • civil society as a location for de-colonising the lifeworld;
  • the learning potential associated with communicative action.

For Habermas the main adult learning project is to learn how a democratic society might organise itself so that the most free form of discussion is possible and in this discourse the real needs of people may be identified.

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