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We are condemned to learn

Towards higher education as a learning society


Author - Dr Ted Fleming


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Communicative action

Is it all a lost cause? Not at all. Habermas proposes rescuing reason from being co-opted by money and power and shows how adults can use reason to build a more participatory democracy. The learning project of Habermas involves the hope that we can resist and also develop democratic processes that are already inherent in interpersonal communication.

Habermas has always emphasised the role of public debate in the formation of needs, interests and aspirations of individuals (Habermas 1962). The way to reach a true understanding of needs and interests is to engage in a democratic debate in which peoples’ real needs are identified, shared and clarified. The core of Habermas’s critique of capitalism is that capitalism prevents this identification of real needs, because the public sphere has been reduced by the activities of politicians, advertisers, public relations and the media in general. In his more recent work he links the concept of a public sphere with that of civil society to provide an account of how control can be retrieved and exercised over markets and bureaucracies (Habermas 1996: 266–368). In a complex modern society the quality of democracy ultimately depends not on politicians but on the existence of this public sphere, on the people’s intelligent involvement in politics and on organisations and associations that help form opinion through discourse. It is in fact a learning project and an educational imperative. A vibrant civil society (and I suggest a vibrant HE) is essential for democracy. The conviction that free, open, public discussion has a transformative function is central to Habermas’s thinking.

The political and economic systems, their steering mechanisms of power and money attempt to close down the possibility of learning that challenges the priorities of the system. ‘If critical learning cannot be blocked at the outset, then these systems try to divert its energy into channels that confirm the legitimacy of the existing order’ (Brookfield 2005: 1148). But we have ‘an automatic inability not to learn’ (Habermas 1975: 15). We are in fact condemned to learn. Habermas is talking about learning how to question, challenge everyday practices and critique the way society is organised in discussion with others.

Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action (1984; 1987) is presented as a learning project. Communicative action happens when the actions of people are coordinated in order to reach interpersonal understanding in situations where the participants are not dominated by their own interest in being successful. Instead, they are interested in co-coordinating their plans of actions on the basis of common understanding of situations. How to do this has to be learned.

Two aspects of the theory of communicative action are of interest here. First, in the discussions among the participants, they aim to reach agreements that can be evaluated or redeemed against criteria that Habermas calls validity claims. Second, there are rules that govern participation in these discourses.

All communication is capable of being tested as to whether it is comprehensible, sincere, truthful and appropriately expressed. These four validity claims are redeemed in communicative action. In fact, anyone ‘acting communicatively must, in performing any speech action, raise universal validity claims and suppose that they can be vindicated’ (Habermas 1979: 2). Validity claims are the assumptions that we always already make in an unquestioning manner concerning the truth and sincerity of another’s communications.

Educators who have borrowed from Habermas emphasise that redeeming validity claims involves highly significant learning. Its importance rests on the redemption of validity claims as well as on the possibility of identifying and understanding one’s real needs and taking action arrived at in agreement, i.e. discursive will-formation. In our society, dominated by money and power, there are too many opportunities for and experiences of discourses that are the opposite of communicative action. The best prospects for democracy are linked to learning how to hold conversations in which validity claims are redeemed. These are the most important conversations that can occur in universities.

Discussion, debates, seminars are mini-democracies and educators, especially in HE, are involved in the creation of a learning society when involved in redeeming validity claims in communicative action. The very existence of democratic society depends on learning how to do this. The best preparation for involvement in democratic life is to become expert in redeeming validity claims.

The second aspect of Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action concerns the rules that govern these conversations. He outlines the rules for discourse where proposals are critically tested as a space where information is shared in an inclusive and public way, where no one is excluded, and all have equal opportunity to take part. There is no external coercion as all are bound only by the criteria of what is reasonable, and all are free of internal coercion in that each has equal opportunity to be heard, introduce topics, make contributions, suggest and criticise proposals and arrive at decisions motivated solely by the unforced force of the better argument. All decisions are provisional and can be returned to at any time. There must be, in addition, a sense of solidarity among participants involving a concern for the wellbeing of others and the community at large. In this discourse we anticipate a form of life characterised by ‘pure’ (unconstrained and undistorted) intersubjectivity (McCarthy 1978: 325). These are also the necessary conditions for a democratic society. This kind of solidarity is at risk in our society.

Discourse requires freedom and justice, freedom to reach agreement on the basis of the better argument and justice based on mutual respect. This discourse is both rational and emancipatory in its intent because the process of reaching agreement is accompanied by revealing the ideological, coercive and non-democratic structures that hinder a genuinely democratic process (Collins 1991: 12). This kind of discourse is foundational for a democratic society as it points to freedom, equality and care. Democratic participation and discourse are essential elements of learning and this discourse is being proposed here as a foundation for the learning processes in HE. The theory of communicative action aims to offer a vision that allows the effects of colonisation to come into perspective.

If the economic and political–legal systems have become insensitive to the imperatives of mutual understanding on which solidarity and legitimacy of social orders depend, the solution, according to Habermas, is to revitalise autonomous, self-organised public spheres that are capable of asserting themselves against the media of money and power. By implication, HE might join in taming the economy rather than supporting it. Many will argue that grassroots movements, self-help groups as well as classrooms where participatory research is conducted and collaborative inquiry is pursued, are examples of such public spheres.

I am suggesting that civil society, democracy and HE have in common the ambition to create spaces for discourse. The commitment is to a form of living together in which we attempt to reach agreement about difficult matters in a discussion that is free from domination. A teacher in this mode attempts to create the identical process, i.e. a learning society. In order to have full free participation in discourse there must be freedom, equality, justice and a valuing of rationality. The learning community implied in discourse is precisely that required for the recreation of the lifeworld, the development of civil society and the emergence of truly democratic systems and society. A democratised civil society is a learning society, and so too is higher education.

The role of the educator is one of creating classrooms that encourage the fullest participation in discourse, assisting students to assess critically the validity of their ways of making meaning and seeking perspectives that are more open to change. Too much education is about work, skills, how to do things. It is preoccupied with defining learning tasks, outcomes, behavioural objectives and measurable competence. Too much is about the system, the economy and training. A different kind of learning is being proposed. It involves critical reflection on assumptions that underpin beliefs, a discourse to justify what we believe and taking action on the basis of new agreed understandings. The task of the educator is to create spaces for discourse. In this way democracy, critical learning and a civil society are possible and the full potential of a learning society may be realised.

This helps locate education in the arena of the state and the economy. But more importantly, this vision of education locates the task of education in the community, in the life-world and in civil society. It connects education with the radical possibility of a more caring, just, and democratic world.

The concept of grounding is interwoven with that of learning. Argumentation plays an important role in learning processes as well. Thus we can call a person rational who, in the cognitive-instrumental sphere, expresses reasonable opinions and acts efficiently; but this rationality remains accidental if it is not coupled with the ability to learn from mistakes, from the refutation of hypotheses and their failure of interventions.

(Habermas 1984: 18)

Becoming an adult involves, of necessity, acquiring distorted understandings of self and others but through critical self-reflection these can be recognised and changed. It is a characteristic of adulthood that knowledge gained as a child may come under the critical scrutiny of an adult and autonomous intelligence that deconstructs the interests embedded in the childhood learning. The aim of education is to help adults inquire into the reasons for their interests and the assumptions that underpin them and take action to change society. This is a defining characteristic of adult learning. HE has, as an adult learning institution, the responsibility to valorise, prioritise and support this critical learning. Community education, community development, grassroots movements, self-organised groups conducting participatory research as well as collaborative action research in system settings can bring about such learning and change. These are all examples of autonomous public spheres.

Many new social movements are concerned with overcoming the effects of the colonisation of the lifeworld. This may not be the radicalism of Marx but the facilitating of change by creating autonomous public spheres for debate and discussion, while still allowing for the continuing functioning of economic and administrative systems. This may give educators interested in transformative change a clear mandate to work in the seams and at the boundaries of systems to humanise and transform them so that they operate in the interests of all. This suggests a task for HE.

In education the needs of the economy are strongly felt. The state sees education as a way of supporting the economy. But an education policy based solely on the needs of the market is deeply flawed.

Higher education is rightly involved in the professional development of students and also of its own staff. Continuing professional development (CPD) is a well-established tradition in HE. But CPD can now be reinterpreted to mean being skilled not only in one’s area of practice, such as biology or architecture, but also in recognising when one’s activities may be put at the service of the system and against the interests of others who are less powerful. Habermas says that professional development involves ‘the combination of competence and learning ability to permit the scrupulous handling of tentative technical knowledge and the context-sensitive, well informed willingness to resist politically the dubious functional application or control of the knowledge that one practices’ (Habermas 1970: 47). Reflective practice, according to this interpretation, becomes a critique of ideology. It would be exciting indeed if HE defined its professional and vocational activities involving reflective practice as a critique of ideology.

Too often, however, education allies itself with the system rather than the life-world. In addition, the system has adopted the discourse of lifelong learning that almost always involves the adaptation of isolated, individual learners to the corporate-determined status quo of the economy. Education is both part of the apparatus of the state (by engaging in policy making, delivering programmes and services) and highly critical of it. The relationship between the state and education is complex and frequently includes elements of resistance and contestation as well as reproduction.

One can be for system or for the lifeworld. Educators find themselves working very often in the state sector (in schools and colleges), in the economy (job skills training, organisational change, vocational courses), or civil society (community education). The challenge is how to be for decolonisation of the lifeworld, whether one works in the system or not. Part of the problem is that some people systematically distort public communication (for example education debates) by narrowing discussions to issues of technical problem solving and denying the very conditions for communicatively rational collective will-formation. This is a danger for all of higher education.

Critical education has as its normative mandate the preservation of a critically reflective lifeworld (Welton 1995b: 5). This holds out the promise of enabling us to think of all society as a vast school. Habermas addresses a multiple audience of potential transformative agents working in social movements and other institutional sectors of society (Welton 1995b: 25). In identifying actors, such as journalists, as having a critical mandate, he summarises the tasks they ought to fulfil as being central and systemic players in the construction and support of a critical public sphere. Journalists and the media ought to ‘understand themselves as the mandatary of an enlightened public whose willingness to learn and capacity for criticism they at once presuppose, demand, and reinforce’ (Habermas 1996: 378). It might be a useful starting point for defining the role of an educator in higher education as located in that same public space, helping students both decolonise the lifeworld through democratic critical discourses as well as transforming systems (organisations, bureaucracies and workplaces).

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