What is the Role of Higher Ed in Fostering a Strong, Positive Public Discourse?

Aaron Lawler, Humanities Instructor, Waubonsee Community College

November 14, 2017

We are in great need of examining respectful, public discourse, particularly in terms of the culture crafted on college campuses. Three central questions can be drawn from this: (a) How do we promote considerate, gracious, civil discourse among our young people? (b) What is the role of Higher Education in terms of establishing a public sphere? and (c) How are our young people currently engaging issues of the day?

We begin with a look into the public spheres existent or emerging on college campuses, and then we continue to investigate the responsibilities of administration, faculty and staff in guiding, role modeling, and facilitating public discourse.

What is the Public Sphere?

When Jürgen Habermas discussed the notion of the public sphere, he identified three hallmarks central to an open, honest discourse: (a) a disregard of status, (b) a space for common concerns, and (c) inclusivity. The sociological argument he proposed is that: if a group of private citizens wish to come together as a community – a public sphere – this group must disregard backgrounds of participants (valuing all ideas and opinions, yet not necessarily agreeing with them), question and challenge traditions in ways that promote social progress, and above all, remove the temptation to form cliques (Habermas, 1991).

Following this framework, institutions must not only make a space for the public sphere to exist, this must be a priority for the knowledge enterprise. When we do not make this a priority, injudicious public spheres emerge. Although Habermas argued that such spaces should not be managed by government bodies, higher education is unique in that public and private colleges are equally charged with providing guidance to the students. The error of a hand’s-off approach is not better illustrated than in new, technological revolutions concerning public space.

The Twenty-first Century Public Sphere

Social media seems to provide the most ubiquitous and accessible public sphere. Would Habermas celebrate the independent and open nature of social media? It is quite possible; for Habermas, overly cautious of governmental oversight on public discourse, might see Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and the like, as open platforms.

But like Golding’s unforgettable classic, Lord of the Flies, social media is an island – or perhaps a loose archipelago – without direction. As a parable, Lord of the Flies is a lesson: youth without wisdom is unguided. Educators have been intentionally absent from the social media platforms for fear of overreach or indiscretions. Numerous institutions actually have policies which bar or discourage interaction between teacher and student. Have we created a twenty-first century Castle Rock (the mountain of stones on the boys’ island)?

On the surface, social media seems to be the unadulterated public sphere, mimicking the eighteenth century coffee house Habermas so applauded. Yet, appearances are deceiving. First, social media is dominated by youth, and not by adults (whose role is to serve as guides and facilitators). Second, not one of these platforms is pure, each guided by a profit-drive which incorporates any means necessary, including very profitable, misinformation. And lastly, coupling these two issues leads to a very manipulated and skewed sort of space that is not reflective of Habermas’ idealism.

The Difference between Opinion and Discourse

Using social media as a case study, we find that administration, faculty and staff guidance is integral to a functioning public sphere. Discourse without boundaries becomes nothing more than rampant dissemination of impassioned but ill-informed opinions and truly poor argumentation. Even without a formal research study, a mere perusal of any Comment section or Messaging forum reveals endless lists of Ad hominem attacks, appeals to tradition, arguments from authority, false dichotomies, and slippery slopes.

True public discourse is a process – a method of exchanging ideas and questioning the roles of government in a citizen’s life. But public discourse is also a framework, which is meant to be a way of informing and educating. Through discourse we enhance our own role in the public sphere by better understanding the foundations of civic engagement. The dimensions of our free society lives within the minds of those accepting the social contract to live harmoniously with one another.

Golding teaches us through the themes of his novel that there is an internal struggle between the need for social organization (a collective pursuit) and the individual’s desire for power. Our current situation is no different. As we try to shape the social consciousness and be the caretakers of our free society, we also have very real individual needs and pursuits that cannot be overlooked. To reconcile these, first and foremost, there must be an order to the public sphere. Order does not mean oversight or control, but a way of simply helping form boundaries for young adults who are learning how to operate in this new and often confusing space. Like a language, we require a syntax and vocabulary that is common in order to strike balance between the self and the group.

Higher education seems to be in an exceptional position to offer this syntax.

An Educated Public

The price of liberty is education. The value of autonomy comes from the ability to think critically, question, and analyze. Those who allow others to make decisions for them; those that allow others to dictate their thoughts, are not free. We educate to create a public sphere. We practice critical reasoning to motivate civic participation in that sphere.

How is your institution promoting public discourse?


Golding, W. (1962). Lord of the flies. New York: Coward-McCann.

Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. MIT press.

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