Habermas, building on the work of his teacher Adorno and Marx, critiqued capitalism and was firmly in favour of equality and democracy. We see here a neutered from of Marxism that looks for ideological causes of oppression in capitalism and a philosophy of action to bring about change, albeit in the context of social democracy. His influence on education has been considerable.
A dominant ideology imposes power over disempowered groups. The disempowered may, or may not, be conscious of their position of weakness. Education must address this by making it clear what ideological forces are at work, then look at the causes that give rise to these power structures. As a philosophy of change he also recommends action.
This is a call for research by and within the educational system to counter ideological, political pressure and reduce inequalities. It relies on a theory of knowledge that owes much to Marx, namely the idea that all knowledge has a ‘social’ context or is socially constructed, so that all taught knowledge is inherently ideological and never neutral. Such research involves technical, practical and emancipatory goals. Technical education includes control through the scientific approach, practical the qualitative analysis of the social context and emancipatory is to free people from the chains of their ideological oppression.
What to do
Habermas and his followers are not short on suggested action. The direct effect of the Habermas theory is to change the curriculum towards inclusive activity that critiques ideology through cultural studies, political discussion, citizenship, media studies, humanities and subjects that reflect on the process of education itself. In practice, teaching needs to accommodate discussion, problem solving, collaboration, and community-related learning. Teachers need to become political agents.
However, while it is hard to defend teachers as political agents or the extremes of socially constructed knowledge, curriculum policy, design and content are certainly ideological, in the sense of being politicised. There is much to be gained by listening to calls for inclusion, student participation and the student voice in education. Education, for Habermas should not simply fill up the recipients with the current canon but promote participation.
In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere he presents an analysis of ‘representational’ communications beyond the control of the state starting in the 18th century with newspapers, coffee shops and so on. Then the capitalist ‘public sphere’ where he contends that mass, broadcast media destroyed this earlier dialogue-based culture, when audiences became more passive. To some extent, this analysis has been overtaken by events and public statements, by new participatory media, the internet and social media. One could claim that mass new media returns us to active participation and dialogue. This may also be true in education where we can escape the strictures of a culturally controlled canon. Although plenty argue that it has brought more aggressive economic forces to the fore, with surveillance and monopolistic capitalism.
Habermas has had a huge influence on educational theorising. We see in this form of social constructivism underlying, generalist claims about the social nature of all knowledge, that now seem both dated and impractical. On top of this, the fight against ideology suffers from appearing to be ideologically driven. Action research could be criticised for allowing a soft and woolly approach to educational research that has led to little or no change in the way Habermas and his followers had hoped.
Habermas J. (1971) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,transl. Shapiro Heinemann.
Habermas J. (1971) Towards a Rationalist Society, transl. Shapiro, Heinemann.
Habermas J. (1974) Theory and Practice transl.Viertel, Heinemann.
Habermas J. (1979) Communication and the Evolution of Society transl. McCarthy, Heinemann.
Rasmussen D. M. (1990) Reading Habermas, Basil Blackwell
Murphy M. Fleming T (Editors) (2009) Habermas, Critical Theory and Education, Routledge
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