Rhetoric and Writing in the Public Sphere: An Introduction/Higher Education and the Public Sphere
Public Sphere: 101
The catcher behind the plate signs the call to a body just sixty feet away. You step up, Louisville Slugger in hand, glaring the pitcher in the eye, waiting for the fast ball right up the middle of the plate so you can hit the farthest homerun ever recorded. After acquiring the full count, bottom of the inning scenario you have always dreamed, that next pitch comes your way. To your surprise, an inside curve ball is thrown your way, smacking you in the stomach and taking away your breath. Stunned and not ready for the shock, you drop to your knees and immediately attempt to recover. How could this happen? Failure has never been an option, and this experience has never happened to you. Everything so far in your life has been handed to you. Opportunities presented themselves in a pleasant manner. Sure you may have seen a curve ball, but never one that challenged you in such an incredible way.
This incredible challenge, seeming to suddenly knock the wind right out of you is how many people feel in their transition into higher education. For many people, higher education is the first time beliefs vastly different from their own are thrown their way. Up until this point, a curve ball had not been played in the games they were involved. Cramming for classes, stressing over exams, worrying about student loans and next month’s rent, the life lessons and realizations of college life hit harder than any fast pitch struck upon the force of any Louisville Slugger. Students have generally not been asked to critically think about events happening in today’s society. In a regurgitation format, students possess basic knowledge, but are seldom asked to question their beliefs or values on issues facing today’s society. How can the public continue to go along with this crime? Year after year, the general public supports this oblivion of those students learning to know facts, but not learning to understand them. Surely our founding fathers must have a rule written against this ignorant innocence. Sure, young adults are aware of right and wrong, black and white; they have been trained to see the obvious. For many, however, there has never been a deeper search, never a formality of the unknown, never a hint of the question “Why?” This cultural phenomenon of receiving a higher education and “broadening your horizons” doesn’t sound so pleasant when you realize that it’s a difficult task to accomplish. The impact on personal growth, intellect, and development is crucial, but how does that affect the general public sphere?
In the eyes of the University
The aim of higher education is not to knock students off of their feet; the aim is to give students a solid foundation to succeed, to prepare students for future endeavors and assist with understanding the meaning and morality of life. Many institutions don’t provide education just so students can specialize in a singular department. Many don’t seek students to compartmentalize and categorize them to a binding field, never to be heard of in any other realm of society ever again. Universities, including James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia plan to prepare students “to be educated and enlightened citizens” (James Madison University). This mission is shared by many universities across the nation: University of Washington would like their “diverse student body to become responsible global citizens and future leaders” (Discover UW), Bowling Green University promises an educational environment that develops culturally literate, self-assured… productive citizens who are prepared to lead, to inspire and to preserve the great traditions of our democracy“ (University Research).
Liberal Arts and General Education
It is for the aforementioned mission statements that Liberal Arts universities implement a “General Education” program. This holistic approach to education provides an opportunity to learn a vast array of subject matter. The goal is not to change an individual or their beliefs, rather to enhance their knowledge about the world they have been surrounded by, but to which they have remained closed-minded or oblivious. Aiming to enlighten is the name of this all-encompassing game. A general education program does not exist to drill more facts into the heads of its participants; it exists to challenge how people think regarding certain topics. It empowers individuals to use deductive reasoning, to think critically, and to question how our democracy functions. It attempts to remove students from the comfort of previous intellect and reach for a level just out of arm’s reach. It attempts to, essentially, remove individuals from the cove of intellectual sameness so will want to add a brick to the wall, not suffice with being another one in it.
The Sphere as a Civic Duty
This goal of higher education in this sense is exactly what the public sphere requires: enlightened citizens ABLE to provide to public discourse, to understand political and social happenings, to challenge cynicism, challenge others, and challenge themselves. It is with the ability to recognize differences among people, why those differences exist, and accept and/or challenge those differences that the public sphere is able to thrive. Departing away from the unidirectional education or mindset is critical to understanding and effectively participating in public discourse and discussion. This participation becomes, then, the entire aim of an institution geared toward higher learning. It challenges students to feel a sense of civic duty to not just recognize, but participate and contribute to the public sphere.
Higher Education in the Public Sphere
It seems obvious that higher education would have a profound, ever changing effect on the public sphere. Outside of providing the frame of mind needed for participatory reasons, higher education shapes the public sphere because of its direct involvement within that context. Higher education, when examined through this lens, often controls the public sphere. Take, for example, monumental, historical events that have occurred on a college campus and have forever impacted the framework of society. The 2007 Virginia Tech massacre stopped the nation as so many watched in horror became a huge aspect of the public sphere and heightened the awareness for the need of increased safety measures and the implementation of social media in blast information and notification systems. The suicide of Tyler Clementi in September 2010 after it was discovered that a college roommate at Rutgers University had cyber-bullied him for classifying as a homosexual is currently completely revolutionizing the LGBT community and studies of cyber-bullying. Nationally, Occupy movements have garnered high support from many college-aged participants, utilizing their new freedom to attempt to contribute to the public sphere and reshape the American culture. Most recently, the Sandusky scandal out of Penn State University became a table conversation of many of today’s families. Kelly Wallace, Chief Correspondent of iVillage.com, an online publication under NBC attracting over thirty million users per month, ranked this incident as the second most talked about thing in 2011, falling only to the U.S. economy (Wallace).
The structure of higher education resembles a micro-culture with a macrocosmic affect. This culture is always changing, as brand new people are being brought into this intellectual community every year. This means that higher education of today does not mean it will be the same higher education of tomorrow. Every year, students completing higher education have a different impact on the public sphere, making this culture one of the most promising driving forces of the future public discourse and constantly re-sculpting the public sphere. Next time you step up to the plate, you’re more aware of your surroundings, more keen to the pitches thrown your way, and more prepared to hit that grand slam you’ve been dreaming of.
About iVillage. 12 December 2011 <http://www.ivillage.com/about-ivillage/8-a-257165> Discover UW. 12 December 2011 <http://www.washington.edu/discover/visionvalues> Institutional Research. 12 December 2011 http://www.bgsu.edu/offices/ir/factbook/generalinfo/vision.htm James Madison University. 12 December 2011 <http://www.jmu.edu/jmuweb/aboutJMU/administration.shtml> Marklein, Mary Beth. “Rutgers student’s parents start foundation to honor son.” USA Today 12 December 2011. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2011-12-12/tyler-clementi-suicide-rutgers/51832974/1> The Mission of the University of Georgia. 12 December 2011 <http://www.uga.edu/profile/mission/> Wallace, Kelly. “Top 10 Conversation Starters for 2011. iVillage 12 December 2011. <http://www.ivillage.com/top-conversation-starters-2011/8-b-409526#409524>