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We are condemned to learn

Towards higher education as a learning society

 

Author - Dr Ted Fleming


 


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The demise of the public sphere

The public sphere is a community of discourse in which rational discussion on matters of public concern takes place. It refers to those informal conversations that people have, where they can discuss matters of mutual concern as peers, and learn about facts, events, opinions, interests, and perspectives of others in an atmosphere free of coercion and inequalities that would otherwise incline individuals to acquiesce or be silent. Matters discussed in the public sphere can affect the discussions of politicians and so the public sphere acts as an intermediary between the political system and the private sectors of the lifeworld (Habermas 1996: 373). The public sphere asserts itself as a defence against the systematising effects of the state and the economy. How to engage in this kind of discussion has to be learned and the more free the discussion and debate the greater the likelihood that a democracy will evolve.

However, under capitalism something happens to our ability to engage in this kind of discourse that results in the public becoming disconnected from decision-making. We are reduced to being observers of politics able only to be private or passive and occasionally vote. This is how opposition to the ruling elite is eliminated. Habermas argues that we may have lost the ability to make political decisions on matters that really concern us. The public sphere is under threat and the lifeworld and civil society are colonised by the imperatives of the system world of the state and economy. These ideas about civil society and colonisation of the lifeworld are important for our argument.


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