Creating a Public Sphere in the Secondary Language Arts Classroom: Empowering Students to Think and Write Critically about outside the Classroom

By Sewell, William C. | High School Journal, October-November 2008 | Go to article overview

Creating a Public Sphere in the Secondary Language Arts Classroom: Empowering Students to Think and Write Critically about outside the Classroom


Sewell, William C., High School Journal


Introduction

In his seminal text, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas (1996) explored the complicated definition of the term "public," noting how the concept historically connotes privilege and exclusion by the controlling elite, most notably by members of the nobility and the Church in feudal Europe. In essence, Habermas demonstrated how discourse about public matters has historically been narrowly controlled by the status quo. All too often, stakeholders are not only denied the ability to vocalize their opinions, they are completely marginalized from "public" view. Over time, the feudal public sphere was replaced by a bourgeoisie public sphere where "the ruler's power was merely represented before the people with a sphere in which state authority was publicly monitored through informed and critical discourse by the people" (McCarthy, 1996, p. xvi).

Fraser, however, took exception to the Habermasian bourgeoisie public sphere because of its "claim to be open and accessible to all" ("Rethinking", 1996, p. 118) has not been adequately attained. Rational, critical debate in coffee houses where political and social differences are bracketed from discourse is just a fiction. For instance, while the United States has been a beacon for freedom and justice, it also has a dark history of exclusion based upon gender, race, and sexual orientation. As Diawara (1995) contended in a discussion of Black intellectualism, exertion of political dominance upon the oppressed extends to the point that the status quo will "discredit and categorize as pathological certain cultural practices that challenge their ideal of Blackness" (p. 39). Public dissenters, therefore, are not only denied their own voices in a public spectrum, they are denied their very identities.

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, nevertheless, has led to a tremendous body of scholarship that gives voice to the voiceless. Another demographic, however, should be added to our discussion, a demographic which subsumes all aspects of society--whether dominate or oppressed. In addition to race, gender, and sexuality, there is a lack of scholarship on age. As a microcosm of U.S. society, today's youth constitute an important segment of the country. Not only do they presently sustain our economy through their consumption of goods and services, they are the nation's next generation of caretakers. On their shoulders, the future of the country rests. And yet as vital as they are to America, they have little to no voice on their environment; they are subordinate to adults who meticulously control their world.

The U.S. secondary school system is the perfect embodiment of social control. Teenagers are required to matriculate through a plethora of unrelated coursework that does not necessarily reflect their interests and values. After twelve years of having little say on their futures, they graduate and are expected to assume their part as citizens. Therefore, it will be the purpose of this essay to examine the ways in which teenagers are denied access to the U.S. public sphere as well as provide strategies that can empower teenagers to make their voices be heard. Since teenagers have been molded by this single bureaucratic institution: the U.S. secondary school, this essay will use examine how public spheres may be formed within the high school. In section one of this essay, I will explore how the "teen subaltern" is subordinated to the U.S. public sphere. In the second and final section of this essay, I will explore how teenagers may be liberated by creating public spheres within the secondary language arts classroom.

The Subaltern Teenager

Hollywood has long depicted the alienated teenager since before the days of Rebel Without a Cause. While teen angst may have been over dramatized to the point that it risks becoming a cliche, such films would not be as memorable if they did not portray at least a kernel of truth. …

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