More than fifty years ago, the great John Dewey wrote the book, The Public and Its Problems, stating that the outstanding problem of the public is the discovery and identification of itself. There will always be a public, as long as there are people in societies. The public is all around us all the time, and each of us is always a part of it. We should not lack awareness of such a fact, appreciation of that opportunity and understanding of the need for conscious and intelligent public participation. So, public life can be a constructive force of unity, and a stimulating dimension of individual experience.
If human beings are to discover their lives as public and bring it into daily awareness, we must formulate a new concept of public life, particularly for the younger generation. The aim is to nourish the public where it exists and rebuild it where it has collapsed. Our ability to see and interpret what is around us, or what might be there, depends on the concepts we carry in our brains. But concepts also limit our ability to act and execute a different thing. Thus we cannot allow that the concept of public life becomes so empty, narrow or deformed that we are unable to see the public accurately and to act in public creatively. We should all be hopeful about the possibility of developing a fresh image of the public in the 21st century, which can bring a new breath and vitality to younger people of what that life can become.
The word public means all the people in a society, without distinction or qualification. A public school is a place from which no child is barred, a place where the common culture of the people is passed along from one generation to the next. A person in public life is one whose career has an impact on the people as a whole. Even the elusive phrase, a public figure, means a person whose life is visible to all who care to study and watch it. When information appears in the public press (aiming at enhancing constructive decision-making) it is available to everyone. A public library collects and stores information so it will be available to persons yet unborn. A “pub” or public house is a location or the gathering place for the whole community.
The point is that the world public reminds us of the importance of public life. In public we remember that the world consists of more than self and family and friends. We all belong to a human community, we should be all supported by it, and we should acknowledge that nobody is an island. Today, in ordinary usage, public narrowly means of or pertaining to government. We commonly think of the public as a body of voters whose primarily function is to go to the polls, elect government and legislative officials, and retire until the next elections. Or we may speak of public policies as governmental enactments, which are binding, on all. When we think of a public school, we refer to an institution supported by tax monies, which the government collects and allocates. Or when we think of a person in public life, we picture someone whose career is in government.
The concept of the public has to evoke a common bond of diverse people and should never take a narrow political or legal meaning. We can easily and empirically challenge the assumption that pervades the common social thought of our society suggesting that only through the process of government can the public be created, that only through legislative enactments can the many become one.
We need a larger and more inviting interpretation of public possibilities, a healthy interpretation founded in the fact that a society cannot last if its people are motivated by nothing except the maximization of self-interest. If people lack the energy to see themselves as one, and don’t change to constructively act out that energy, then no government, nor legislature, however powerful, can hold them together.
My direct experience with more than ten thousand students in a thirty year period is that if people are given the opportunities for public experience and for expressing their talents, the experience itself will evoke willingness, interest, desire, and ability to be part of the public and its challenges.
Copyright 2004 QBS, Inc.