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?

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