As an educator and host of a weekly TV show on education, the arts, and social change, I have become increasingly concerned with the muffled silences in public spaces—like cafes, for example—where, given our country’s intractable problems, there ought to be a greater degree of stimulating political dialogue.
In my recent experiences in Hoboken cafes, for example, in addition to the “computerized quietism” that predominates (hordes of laptop and i-phone users seemingly oblivious to the social potentiality inherent in what philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls the “public sphere”), the sporadic conversations I do manage to overhear tend to be of the “polite chit chat” variety; along with talk of narrow, privatist business concerns; with nary a reference to the larger social, political, and cultural world.
For a functioning democracy to survive, though, its citizens need to be well informed and engage in regular discussion to help “talk into existence” a better world that might be—certainly one more just, caring, and peaceful than the current one. Education ought to play a key role. Where once bright young people studied literature, philosophy, history, and art, subjects that nurtured their imaginations and ability to think critically, now, due to their fear of getting a job, they study narrow subjects like business and marketing; exacerbating the dehumanization and silencing of society. As hedge fund tycoons increasingly get into the “education business,” the “human product” they produce will be non-thinking, obedient, Stepford Wife-type workers with an inability to critique the status quo and imagine a world that, as my friend the philosopher Maxine Greene liked to say, “might be otherwise.” And the public space will grow even more alienating, anti-social, and boring.
Naturally, to heal our nation’s silences (and repair our democracy) a complete transformation of the economy is in order. A more humane and socialistic model, designed to benefit everyone and not just the 1 percent, needs to be implemented. The work-week, as I suggested in my mostly symbolic run for president in 2012, ought to be no longer than 25 hours. Useless, paper-shuffling “busy work” needs to be eliminated, and, in an age of ecological crisis, we should only make what people truly need. A more equitable distribution of wealth, to help the struggling poor, working, and middle classes, is also in order. Don’t worry, the Koch brothers and their friends will survive with a few less yachts…and mansions with 30 rooms instead of 50! Finally, if we’re to save our planet, our goal should be 100 percent clean energy from solar, wind, water, and geothermal.
All we can do is resist, wherever we are, the growing social and political silences around us. I find the ideas of thinkers like Paulo Freire, Herbert Marcuse, Martin Buber, and Carl Rogers helpful in this quest. If you’d like to have an actual conversation about this, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Educator & host of Public Voice Salon