Learning in public places: Civic learning for the twenty-first century

Gert Biesta*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In this chapter I raise a number of fundamental questions about the nature of citizenship, the role of education and learning and its connection with the public sphere. I ask whether we should understand citizenship as a social or a political identity and show the risks of reducing questions about democratic citizenship to issues of social cohesion and integration. I ask whether we should understand democracy as 'arche' (i.e. a definable order) or 'an-arche' (i.e. as fundamentally beyond order). Here I not only highlight the importance of understanding democracy is political rather than natural or naturalised terms but also show the dangers of understanding democracy exclusively in terms of a definable sociopolitical order. Against this background I introduce a distinction between two conceptions of civic learning, that of civic learning as socialisation and that of civic learning as subjectification, and argue for the importance of learning that is intimately connected to involvement in the experiment of democracy. I highlight the experimental nature of democracy by emphasising the difference between choice and transformation. Here I suggest that democracy should not be understood as the counting of individual preferences but as the experimental transformation of individual 'wants' into collectively justifiable and supportable 'needs'. Against this background I suggest that the public sphere should not so much be understood as the arena in which such transformational processes take place, but that the very enactment of the transformation of private troubles into collective issues creates moments of publicness that are fundamentally different from personal relations and from market relations. I conclude by arguing that the alleged crisis in democracy should not be understood as a shortage in the civic qualities of individuals - which would require that education operates in a socialisation move - but rather has to do with a shortage of real democratic opportunities in which citizens can enact their democratic subjectivity.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCivic Learning, Democratic Citizenship and the Public Sphere
PublisherSpringer Netherlands
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9789400772595
ISBN (Print)9789400772588
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2014


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