From Spheres of Civility to Critical Public Spheres: Democracy and Citizenship in the Big House (Part I)

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Abstract

This paper introduces the concept of prison schools as spheres of civility where ethical forms of communication such as respect, politeness, reciprocity, and inclusiveness in teacher-student dialogue are examined-or recommended. Attention to these micro level communicative processes is considered foundational to democracy and the formation of critical public spheres. Some evidence from student dialogues, teacher interviews and policy documents is provided to illustrate these concepts. Further research into the communicative practices of prison teachers and the concept of prison schools as public spheres is recommended. This essay serves as part of a larger project to reconstruct democracy in prison/schools grounded in a discourse perspective.

Introduction: The Concept of Civility

In 1987 Vaclav Havel, a dissident Czech writer, described the effects of totalitarianism on his native peoples. The result was a loss of civility, evident for example, in the behaviors of surly, selfish, impolite, disobliging counter staff who perceived customers as an imposition;

...they serve while talking among themselves. When asked a question, they reply with distaste (if they know the answer at all). Drivers yell at each other, people in line-ups elbow ahead and snap at each other. Bureaucrats don't care how many people are waiting to see them, or how long they wait. They often make appointments and fail to keep them. The get no pleasure from helping people and have no regrets when they can't (quoted in Walzer, 1995, p. 142).

In prisons the harsh reality of brittle interactions between keepers and kept echoes the stark, oppressive physical reality of steel and concrete. In these anomic or potentially meaningless spaces, civility generally is lacking; in schools however, spheres of civility often appear. Civility characterizes the better prison schools and, we would argue, is foundational to the formation and nourishment of democratic practices, grounded in critical discussions and arguments -discourse - in critical public spheres. Without civility, democracy is threatened, for participants must engage competently in the communication style or kind of talk characteristic of public spheres.

Civility is a form of public behavior which exhibits a generalized empathy and obligation toward others, even strangers. It often requires curtailing one's self-interest and feelings of entitlement ("why shouldn't I be first?) in favor of another's, out of respect for them. (Bulante & Saunders, 2004, p. 32). Grayling (2001) described civility as

...a matter of mores, etiquette, politeness, of informal rituals that facilitate our interactions, and thereby give us ways to treat each other with consideration. It creates social and psychological space for people to live their own lives and make their own choices (p. 12).

The concept of civility belongs the realm of civil society, that "...space of uncoerced human association and also the set of relational networks-formed for the sake of family, faith, interest and ideology-that fill this space." (Walzer, 1995, p. 150). Civil society designates "...a space for action separate from the state and market...an antidote to (or surrogate for) the state." (Murray, 2002, p.332).

Without civility, and the self-regulation it implies, communities resort to legislative solutions and punitive measures that become repressive over time: "As the self-regulation of civility declines, so government intervention takes over" (Billante & Saunders, 2004, p.34). The Ugly Parent Law in Australia is but one example of legislation that compensates for a disappearing civility. This law was enacted when it became clear that parents at their children's soccer events could not be civil to one another and to the coaches-they insulted one another, used foul language, and started fights. The legal system out of necessity encroached upon formerly harmless, unregulated social encounters (the soccer game) because parents and coaches failed to regulate their own behavior-they could not be civil to one another. …