The meaning of civics as the new world struggles to be born

I’ve blogged regularly over the last few years about what I’ve termed post-neoliberal civics and post-pandemic civics. These terms are conscious placeholders intended to designate a significant change underway in which, to Gramsci put it, “the new world struggles to be born”. It reflects an interest in the significance of education during the transition as well as the ‘monsters’ generated in this interregnum. As someone whose primary interest is in the micro-sociology of social change, how we live with transition and what it means for the warp and weft of our lives, education came to fascinate me as a sphere which mediates those changes.

It is itself an object of change caught up in wider transformations in which the goals, content and delivery of education are pushed and pulled in various directions which reflect the concerns of groups within and outside education. But it itself a driver of change in so far as that its unique public role in intergenerational socialisation changes how social actors make sense of, orientate themselves towards and respond to these wider social transformations. In this sense when I’m talking about civics I’m trying to identify how this dual reflexivity plays out across different levels of education, spilling from formal into informal education particularly given the (sometimes dangerous) vitality which ubiquitous social platforms bring to the latter. I like how Keri Facer characterises this in Learning Futures, loc 333:

For example, we can conceive of education’s purpose as being broader than simply serving the formal economy. We can acknowledge education’s role in creating citizens and social beings who will live in and act upon the world beyond the workplace as parents, as neighbours, as members of civil society. We can acknowledge education’s role in nurturing and developing the individual, in supporting them to understand, know and become themselves. We can acknowledge education’s role in caring for children and in acting as a foundation for the intergenerational contract. We can acknowledge education’s role in apprenticing novices into the rich histories of knowledge, culture and craft that humanity has developed over centuries and that we seek to pass down the generations. We can also acknowledge education’s role in building the economic and environmental sustainability of the communities it serves.

By civics I mean the practical matter of how educators orientate themselves to this role, as a matter of moral responsibility and the technics involved in enacting this. My tendency to affix epochal epithets (post-pandemic, post-neoliberal etc) intends to think through how the nature of this ‘practical matter’ depends deeply on the wider changes which are underway. This is a matter of the social and political challenges education is equipping citizens for but also the practical challenges we ourselves face in a commitment to such an equipping. Recognition of this dual reflexivity is necessary in order to adequately link the diagnosis of what takes place ‘out there’ with the practical reality of what we face ‘in here’.

This is a theme which I’ve been struggling with for a few years now. It continually resurfaces in what I think and write but I’ve failed to pin it down with any accuracy. In part it’s a feeling that the way in which we are institutionalised as professionals within education systems creates an artificial boundary between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ with practical implications. Arnold Gehlen’s concept of Entlastung is useful here, quoted from his Human Beings and Institutions on pg 257 of Social Theory: Twenty Introductory Lectures by Hans Joas and Wolfgang Knobl in which he explains how institutions “are those entities which enable a being, a being at risk, unstable and affectively overburdened by nature, to put up with his fellows and wit himself, something on the basis of which one can count on and rely on oneself and others. On the one hand, human objectives are jointly tackled and pursued within these institutions; on the other, people gear themselves toward definitive certainties of doing and to doing with in them, with the extraordinary benefit that their inner life is stabilized, so that they do not have to deal with profound emotional issues or make fundamental decisions at every turn.

I’m interested in how we inhabit educational systems and what this means for our role within them, particularly how we relate to the civic challenges of education. Platforms are obviously significant in this respect as the uptake of social media tends to fuzz up the boundaries between institutional spheres, through conjoint process of network restructuring and institutional isomorphism. This leaves it crucial to confront the inside/outside boundary as a conceptual challenge but also a lived reality of our professional experience, including though not limited to its mediation through digital media. The hunch driving much of my work is that our practice tends to be truncated by an artificial split between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ that leaves us torn asunder between professional/citizen, local/global and present/future.

There’s an issue of social ontology I’m struggling with in my constant return to the notion of ‘civics’ which feels like it urgently needs to be addressed, at least if this line of my research ever hopes to progress. Given my emphatic agreement with Facer’s suggestion that “we attempt to think the social and the technological together in order to “explore not only scientific developments and technological trends, but the ways in which these are appropriated within existing socio-cultural contexts” (loc 310) it might be that what I’m gesturing towards is a reconceptualisation of education, on a concept-by-concept level, in sociotechnical terms. This is a daunting prospect but it answers the question of what I want to be doing in my research after my current two monograph projects are completed, hopefully by the end of next year at the latest.

If these ramblings make sense to anyone else, if you feel you are heading in a similar direction, then please do reach out. In the meantime I’m planning to get involved with the Civics of Tech community which feels like a welcome place to discuss some of the more tech-focused aspects of these concerns with others.

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