Reclaiming the Idea of the Public-0

Reclaiming the Idea of the Public

November 25, 2013 | Blog

Since I’m in the midst of a sabbatical, for the upcoming months my blog will feature writing by talented colleagues and friendsThe first of these is Mike Rose of UCLA.  If you don’t yet know Mike’s work, now is your opportunity to learn. You’ll never regret it.

With his permission, here is the opening of a Rose-classic, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America.

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There have been times in our history when the notion of the public has been invested with great agency and imagination. Such is not the case now. An entire generation has come of age amidst disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency but more so from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.

Clearly, there are domains of public life that benefit from market forces, and individual enterprise is a powerful force for both personal advancement and public benefit. Furthermore, the very notion of “public” is a fluid one, changes historically, exists in varied relation to the private sector, and, on occasion, fuses with it in creative ways. Finally, we must not simply accept our public institutions as they are, but be vigilantly engaged with them. One way to read Possible Lives is as a critique—though one built on hope—of a central American public institution, the public school.

Our reigning orthodoxy on the public sphere is much less nuanced. We have, instead, a celebration of the market and private initiative as a cure-all to our social and civic obligations. This orthodoxy downplays, often dismisses, the many ways that markets need to be modified to protect common people and the common good against market excesses—for markets are relentlessly opportunistic and dollar-driven. “The market is governed by a pricing system,” writes economic activist Edgar S. Cahn, “that devalues precisely those activities most critically needed in communities: caring, learning, worshipping, associating, socializing, and helping.”

The orthodoxy operates with a good dose of social amnesia, erasing the history of horrible market failure and of private greed that led to curbs on markets and the creation of robust public institutions and protections. The free market believers’ infatuation slides quickly to blithe arrogance about all things public. A guy is being interviewed on National Public Radio. “The post office,” he says, “ is the worst-run business in America.” This was within the same week as the opening of the trial of Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, with the recent memory of Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, and New York’s then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s indicted rogue’s gallery.

This easy dismissiveness of the public also has its ugly side, characterizing anything public as inferior—or worse. I think of a talk-show host who labeled children in the Los Angeles School District as “garbage,” and tellingly, sadly, the kids I met during my travels on several occasions said they knew that people thought of them as “debris.”

We have to do better than this, have to develop a revitalized language of public life.

One tangible resource for me evolved from the journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed—out of the details of the work done there— a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere. This sense of the possible, the specific words for it, came when a child learned to take another child seriously, to think something through together, to learn about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It came when, over time, a child arrived at an understanding of numbers or acquired skill at rendering an idea in written language. It came when a group of students jammed around a lab table trying to figure out why a predicted reaction fizzled. When a local affair or regional dialect or familiar tall tale became a creative resource for visual art or spoken word. When a developing athlete planted the pole squarely in the box and vaulted skyward. When a student said that his teacher “coaxes our thinking along.” When a teacher thinking back on it all muses on the power of “watching your students at such an important time in their lives encounter the world.” It is in all such moments—moments in public school classrooms—that something of immense promise for the nation is being confirmed.

There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities. They occur daily in private schools, in church organizations, in backyards. But there is something compelling, I think, about raising one’s gaze outward, beyond the immediate window or fence to the science lesson at the forest’s edge or the novel crammed into the hip pocket on the city bus.

The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the “general diffusion of knowledge” across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but loses its civic heart.

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