Criticality and the Rebirth of the Public Sphere

Tonight I attended a talk by University of Chicago Professor Bernard Harcourt at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago.  His talk was part of the Graham School of Continuing Studies Great Conversations seminar series.  The subject of his talk was Freedom and Education–the seminar series theme for this quarter–and he took the opportunity to explore more fully several themes in his most recent book The Illusion of Free Markets as he walked the audience through his understanding of what the terms “freedom” and “education” meant to him as well as how they were inter-related.

Providing the audience a clear outline to his presentation, Professor Harcourt began by outlining three theoretical points that he believed were central to any discussion of freedom and education.  The first was that “freedom” as the term is currently used is deliberately ambiguous.  This ambiguity allows economists to use the phrase “free market” when (in Harcourt’s view) “in the economic realm freedom has no role.”  He argued that in order for freedom to have  a meaning the term needed to be replaced by something more precise.  His second point involved the term “education,” which he also felt to be hopelessly imprecise in both the academic realm as well as our everyday lives.  He contended that “we need to be critical of the claim that education makes us free” as it could and often is used as a tool of oppression.  The primary example he provided the audience was an anecdote involving his son’s English assignment to write about a moment where he had “matured” or grown from “idealism” to “reality.”  Harcourt saw this is as the first of many attempts by the educational system to circumscribe not simply the content of education but how that very concept was understood (i.e. a reality principle to the unreasonable id of childish creativity).  Harcourt’s final theoretical observation involved the phrase “free speech.”  In his view “all speech is costly,” at the very least requiring money for a venue or external support from a school or organization to grant it credibility and (thereby) an audience.

Having addressed his theoretical points, Harcourt moved on to examine what he saw as three key historical moments relevant to the topic of freedom and education in the 21st century.  The first of these was the “corporatization of Higher Education,” a topic that I have written about on this blog several times, typically in relation to Adjunct Labor.  To this phenomenon he linked the expansion of free online courses (referred to now as MOOCS or Massive Online Open Courses), which are increasingly being relied upon by students who could not afford the cost of rising college tuition.  The final historical moment he referred to was the emergence of the Occupy movement whose teach-ins and recent Peoples Summit offered another venue for public learning that was dependent neither on the traditional college campus or online course portal.

These events combined with the theoretical issues Harcourt examined at the beginning of his talk all seemed to point (in his view) to a “political reawakening” in the United States and the re-emergence of a truly public sphere.  The value of both developments, according to Harcourt, was in their potential to awaken “criticality” in the general populace.  What he meant by that term was something analogous to what Liberal Arts scholars have traditionally called “critical thinking.”  Namely, the ability to look at things as they are and imagine them in a different way.  It also involves in Harcourt’s view the ability to retain a radical openness that seeks to ask the right questions as much find the answers to our current dilemmas.

Harcourt’s talk was cogent and powerfully delivered.  The question and answer period, however, showed that the audience was hungry for more direction.  We are all peering into the crystal ball that is the future right now and everyone (including Harcourt) is slightly baffled by what they are seeing.  Sitting on the edge of action, one can be forgiven for being impatient.  I know I am.  But the message of the evening seemed to be pay attention and keep an open mind.  And make sure to share what’s on your mind with other thinkers in the public square.

If you need a public square to share your thoughts and live in Chicago, there are many places you can occupy your mind.  One is at the numerous teach-ins and general assemblies held by Occupy Chicago.  Another is the never dull “playground for people who think”–the College of Complexes–at which I am a regular.  Stop by at both.  All are welcome.  Just bring an open mind.

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  1. #1 by Alan trevithick on May 28, 2012 - 9:23 am

    I am intrigued but also disturbed by how the trio of historical moments here are being viewed. The first, the corporatization of higher ed, is plain enough, but isn’t it also plain that the Mooclear Accelerators are part of the same thing? Perhaps Harcourt, and Casey, (and V. Vaille, in comments) are right to hold, or hope, that MOOCs, together with the third development-Occupy-are potential spaces for the development of public spheres within which mass “criticality” might arise. But one question for me is, why should it arise, if it does, as something I want to see? Why should it not arise as a sort of fascist populism? Ok, that’s bleak, but it’s also at least one possibility in a range of such that should be expected to occur to minds that are able to retain the recommended “radical openness that seeks to ask the right questions as much find the answers to our current dilemmas.” And the second question is this: speaking of at least one curremt dilemma, the two tier (or three or four or five) in higher education, wouldn’t it be social-critical malpractice to not mention that Bernard Harcourt is Julius Kreeger professor of law at the University of Chicago and chair of the political science department there? After all, as far as corporatization, mooclear technology, and thus far non-operationalized Occupy-generated strategic planning, go, some more that others are more currently injured, though the dangers (and, ok, perhaps also the opportunities) may some day be universally experienced. That is, while we are all, I suppose, “sitting on the edge of action,” in Casey’s phrase, and we can all “be forgiven for being impatient,” there’s no reason to think that all groups will be patient in the same way or for the same length of time, which is where the real politics come in.

  2. #2 by VanessaVaile on May 25, 2012 - 12:16 am

    Reblogged this on Vanessa’s Blogueria and commented:
    Here I have been thinking about, wayfinding and sensemaking how to integrate two maybe three (seemingly) separate, but related areas when John’s post lands in my mailbox, address all of them. Those would be: developing independent self regulated learning projects, open online courses (MOOCdom) and adjunct advocacy. Now to go look up Harcourt and tweet this into the Change 11 stream.

  3. #3 by VanessaVaile on May 25, 2012 - 12:03 am

    I’m intrigued by Harcourt connecting “rise of MOOC” and Occupy ~ and both with public space ~ and then Peoples Summit and College of Complexes. Debra and I have been talking about adjunct faculty getting involved with this kind of project ~ creating a new system out of the rubble, being part of that change

    Also I have been following the mostly non-institutionally affiliated ones on distributed networks (most of which are created independently by autonomous ~ education as an anarchists commune). When Stanford AI came out, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not it was a mooc (mostly not because it was top down, highly structured and no interaction on distributed networks). Easy, I said if there are no groups set up for interaction, they students can just take over and set up their own ~ occupy the mooc.

    If the model interests you, NYT is not your best source. Go straight to Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier and George Siemens. Occasionally mainstream media will catch George (the closest to conventional) but avoids Stephen because he’s unpredictable.

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