Private Language and the Public Sphere

After the 1980 Republican convention, Ronald Reagan headed for Philadelphia, Mississippi where he affirmed his commitment to states’ rights. There was nothing overtly racial about his speech, but the “dog whistle” was heard: It was near Philadelphia that three civil-rights workers had been murdered in 1964 at the height of a movement whose success came through federal insistence and enforcement. Just by mentioning states’ rights in Philadelphia, Reagan could reach the strongly racist core of much of white America through a private language whose public expression contained built-in deniability. Since that time, American politics has been dominated by language intended to do two things at once, to provide coded, private messages to core supporters and to supply bland soporifics to the rest of us.

I thought about this as I read Bard College president Leon Botstein’s new essay “Are We Still Making Citizens?” for Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. Though this isn’t his main point, he writes:

The initial motivations for the movement challenging the monopoly of public schools were ultimately ones of prejudice: White parents did not want their children to attend schools that were attended by blacks. This logic was then sanitized by appeals to religious liberty, insofar as parents fleeing integration attached themselves to religious movements.

This ‘sanitizing’ allowed for the rise of the voucher movement in education and, eventually, to the mania for charter schools which, perversely enough, is actually advertised as being a civil-rights movement. Financiers have seized upon the convoluted logic of the associated “reform” movement to argue for accelerated privatization of American education, claiming to benefit children when the real advantage goes into their own pockets—and when the doors of the schools they make money from are never darkened by their own children.

The language of educational “reform” is hard to argue with, its underpinnings of segregation and monetary gain hidden away through a public language—like Poe’s purloined letter, it is perfectly obvious but unseen, mostly, by those not in the know. Public debate becomes, more than ever before, a vehicle for private gain, the language involved manipulated to individual needs. As we move away from general education for everyone to individual routes, we accelerate this: “Schools are designed at their best to make group learning a virtue, and to transmit knowledge and skills and foster dialogue regarding well-defined subject areas.” With “badges,” home schooling, charter schools, MOOCs and all of the other examples of educational “progress” of the past generation, we have abandoned that fact and, with it, the common language such education promotes. Not even the Common Core State Standards, intended to provide a generalized skill set for American students, provide a counterweight, for they rely too heavily on the quantifiable and on individual success instead of on group work and group learning.

Without a common public language for the public sphere, without common bases for discussion that do not undercut public discourse for private (or ulterior) messages, democracy must necessarily falter, for public discourse itself then dies. Botstein writes:

To confront this lack of public discourse based on ideas—ideas bolstered by claims and evidence subject to open scrutiny—public education needs to work. It needs to create a community of very diverse citizens who are able to occupy a public space in which they can negotiate matters of shared concern, from foreign affairs to domestic policy, using a shared language.

The web of “reform” today is never going to provide that. Instead, it promotes private language, belief and discourse over that of the public sphere, a choice exacerbated by the nature of today’s digital web—which, in reality, is becoming a digital cocoon.

Botstein argues, “A child needs to learn things that allow him or her to function in a democratic context, to learn to consciously ignore personal self-interest and contemplate the public good. What a common public school ought to teach, therefore, is the capacity for disagreement, contest, and compromise.” The purpose of education becomes providing students with the ability to separate private language from public and a foundation for understanding “how degrees of certainty and doubt are established.” Private certainly should never be sacrosanct; it is the foundation for the private languages demolishing the American public sphere.

Backing away from belief in the public sphere, especially in an age where digital possibilities are constantly strengthening private belief, is also a backing away from the effectiveness of democracy.

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