A thriving public sphere

It seems obvious, in the shadow of the climate and ecological crises, that the environmental, social and political dimensions of climate disruption ought to occupy a central place in primary and secondary school curricula. Yet according to extensive international research, schooling rarely addresses these vital issues with any depth, nuance or rigour. Curricula continue to focus more or less narrowly on employment readiness, even at the cost of neglecting students’ democratic imagination, their competence in public reasoning within local communities, and their capacity to take collective action. What’s more, today’s children – who among current generations have the most to lose from continued climate inaction – typically have the least access to political influence and the fewest opportunities to develop civic power. The unmistakeable corollary is that educating young people for ecological citizenship is both necessary and urgent.

Art by Matteo Berton

Recently, I’ve been working with my colleague Grace Lockrobin (Founder and MD of Thinking Space) on a project called ‘Too Small to Make a Difference?’, in which we’re investigating what philosophy can contribute to ecological citizenship education. More broadly, we’re exploring the idea that being ethically educated means being able “to confront nuanced and novel ethical situations and figure out what to think, what to feel and what to do when there is no instructor there to adjudicate, and there are no general principles that do the hard work for us.”1 (This is, after all, what life is like most of the time!)

Grace explains further:

In these moments, our students will have to improvise what is required of them. In doing so they will be both light and heavy; free, and at the same time, responsible:

They will be epistemically free to evaluate new and challenging situations as they see fit, but they will be epistemically responsible for the evidence on which those judgements sit.

They will be ethically free to respond to these situations in ways that express their authentic character and commitments, but they will be ethically responsible for their true motivations and for the real-life consequences of their action or inaction.

Grace and I take inspiration from the literature on dialogic pedagogy that recognises classroom dialogue as a powerful medium for fostering students’ civic participation in deliberative democracy. The value of dialogic teaching is in fact entwined with the requirements of democracy, as education researcher Robin Alexander explains: “Democracies need citizens who can argue, reason, challenge, question, present cases and evaluate them“. Democracies decline, Alexander argues, when citizens merely “listen rather than talk… when they comply rather than debate”. Passiveness and submissiveness are antithetical to flourishing.

Some of the young people (aged 9 – 14) who participated in our project ‘Too Small to Make a Difference?’ had the following things to say, in the context of a collaborative inquiry on youth climate activism:

In school, we’ve done group discussions about [the climate crisis] … but … it’s not very impactful.

People .. can become desensitised and not really take in what [other] people are saying… And I think that after a while it doesn’t carry as much weight.

I think it’s really important to have conversations like this.

Such conversations are indeed important and they can be highly impactful, too, if circumstances are conducive. They can shift public opinion about what is worth valuing, and they can help people to broaden their circle of care.

Art by Mouni Feddag

According to philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas, the very institution of democracy depends on a thriving public sphere: an inclusive, non-coercive space for rational deliberation in which ideas are accepted through force of argument, and in which citizens can test the legitimacy of decisions made by their democratic institutions.

To take their rightful place in such a setting, young people need to develop the dispositions, thinking skills and dialogical competence to “uncover topics of relevance to all of society, interpret values, contribute to the resolution of problems, generate good reasons, and debunk bad ones”. Communities of young people constitute what political philosopher Will Kymlicka calls a “seedbed of responsible citizenship”.

Within the tradition of dialogic education, communities of philosophical inquiry in particular have a lot to offer, provided that they’re collaborative, carefully facilitated, and supported by thoughtfully-constructed materials. Indeed, as Gilbert Burgh claims, “philosophical inquiry is an exemplar of the kind of deliberative inquiry required for informed and active democratic citizenship”.

At a time of rapid and profound change to our political landscape here in Australia, we need deliberative inquiry more than ever. Why not push for its exemplary form – philosophical inquiry – to become a widespread participatory practice for young people? Let them use it, among other tools, to prove they’re not too small to make a difference.

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1 Lockrobin, G., ‘Too Small to Make a Difference? P4C and the ethical importance of freedom and responsibility’. A presentation at the Development Education Centre South Yorkshire (DECSY) AGM, 2022.

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This is the first of two posts concerning the role of philosophy in ecological citizenship education. The second, ‘We don’t want the world to die’, is here.

Special thanks to the young people who took part in our project ‘Too Small to Make a Difference’ and whose words are quoted here.

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The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.

2 responses to “A thriving public sphere

  1. As always, an excellent piece Michelle highlighting the important skills Philosophy in the classroom nurtures.

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