Thursday, June 26, 2008

Creating a Public

Neil Postman, in his iconoclastic book, “The End of Education,” describes the purpose of public education in this way: “What makes public education public is not so much that the schools have common goals but that the students have common gods. The reason for this is that public education does not serve a public—it creates a public. … The question is not, does or doesn’t public schooling create a public? The question is, “What kind of public does it create?” By “common gods” Postman means a common narrative or narratives that are powerful enough to make people want to learn and want to engage. He believes that the public which schools can and should create is “a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance.”

The idea of creating a public is very interesting to me. Postman points out that the public is being created all the time: for example, advertising creates a soul-less public full of either self-indulgent and self-absorbed consumers (those who can afford to buy and consumer all that is being advertised) or an alienated public (those who cannot afford to buy what is advertised or having bought it, find it wanting.)

His book made me think about how all of us who do social justice work might be helped by imagining that part of our work is creating a public and being more intentional about defining that public. We talk about public (or civic) engagement, but who is the “public” who is engaged and what animates them? What animates me, as a member of that public? What common narratives (common gods) do social justice activists work from? Many commonly held ideas about schooling are false. That testing is useful, or that computers enhance education or even that you need a good education to get a job Postman shows to be, for the most part, false. These ideas must be replaced with narratives that make sense and that create the kind of public that will be able to turn our planet around. I’d like all of us who find a home working for social justice to think about our narratives: which are false and which are true, which ones actually advance the cause and which ones simply pass the time and give the impression of doing work?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Another key question on the commons

Another key question that was raised at Blue Mountain (see prior post)...
  • Does the idea of the commons allow for the source of positive power that people have gotten from identity-based movements?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Key questions on the Commons

Last month, I convened a group of folks at the Blue Mountain Center in upstate New York to discuss Building the Commons Into All We Do. Along with some great conversation exploring how to use this concept is in people's work, some important questions were raised, which I'll be posting here over the next several weeks. To begin:
  • What would it take for nonprofits to become more of a space for the commons?
What do you think? And what other questions do you have?...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Citizen engagement and movement building as a force for social transformation

I gave the opening speech at Concordia University’s Institute in Management and Community Development’s first ever Open University Summer Program. Read the full text here.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Principles for a Healthy Commons?

I recently read a brief biography of Alfie Roberts, a native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and a long time resident of Quebec who dedicated his life to the social development of people of African and Caribbean descent across the globe. Alfie Roberts believed that social change was always possible, and that common, ordinary people had the capacity to change their own conditions and bring about the betterment of humankind as a whole. Today in Montreal the Alfie Roberts Institute continues his work and seeks to preserve his legacy. As I read what the Institute believes, I was struck by how much this set of beliefs could describe what is required for the “commons” to be healthy.

All of their principles are insightful and important, and I draw your attention to a few:
  • the solutions to the social problems that exist in this society are to be found within the context of the daily activity and work of people;
  • human beings are social animals and it is through human interaction, dialogue, and action that we draw inspiration and direction;
  • people have the capacity to deal with the challenges and obstacles that impede their development and serve as obstacles to positive social change. However, in order for people to grow and prosper they must have at their disposal the most basic of resources: healthy food, adequate shelter, sufficient clothing, a well-rounded education, etc., as well as a belief in their capacity to change their own lives;
  • as individuals and as an organized body within a community, we have a responsibility to contribute the resources that lie at our disposal for the betterment of the communities in which we live and society as a whole;
I am struck by how different these principles would be if they were framed from the point of view of an individual person. For example, “the solutions to the social problems that exist in this society are to be found within the context of the daily activity and work of each person,” or “each person has the capacity to deal with the challenges and obstacles that impede his or her development….However, in order for a person to grow and prosper, he or she must have the most basic of resources…”

Our view of social change needs to be the view from the commons: requiring the collective effort and thought of people, not the individual effort (however noble) of one person at a time. For those of us raised in the USA, to value individual effort and heroism, individual need and sacrifice, this is a big change, and one worth pondering deeply.