I got a haircut today. Getting a haircut is one of those services that is insulated from the digital takeover of modern life. You can’t go to your favorite online retailer and, with the click of a button, take care of this need. Unless you are getting the help of a family member, you still have to leave your house, physically travel to the designated location, sit in a chair, interact with a human standing in front of (or behind you), and get a haircut. Something that I enjoy about this is that the barber shop (or choose your preferred name for such an establishment) is still one of those persistent third places in my life.
I take that phrase “third place” from Ray Oldenburg’s classic 1989 text, The Great Good Place. The first place for most of us is the home. The second is that place that occupies hours of our lives, work. Then there are the many third places in our lives and communities. These are the coffee shops, barber shops, clubs, bars, parks, and cafes. They are places where people share the space. Sometimes they talk and build a direct sense of community. Even when there is not a direct interaction with others, these are spaces that remind us that we share a community and world with other people. These are places that are accessible to people (by price and proximity). There are usually regulars (think of the old television show Cheers) while new “friends” are welcome. These are places that are typically open and welcoming.
Oldenberg argues that these are important places for democratic and community life. They help create a sense of belonging and a greater sense of community. They are not places where people are required to be present, but they choose to be. Unlike more exclusive places like country clubs or high-end restaurants, these are places where you are likely to experience people from a broader range of life experiences and backgrounds.
They are also places of learning, maybe not necessarily the type of formal learning that people think about in school. Nonetheless, they are places where we learn about others, about the community, about people with different backgrounds and life experiences from our own. They help us better understand how we can be active and engaged members of the community. They become training grounds for civil discourse and playful banter. We might surface or talk about persist problems in local life or broader issues in the world. As such, ideas are stirred in people’s minds that sometimes move them to action, or at least introduce them to others who are moved to action.
Yet, Oldenberg’s idea of a third place is far from a formal lecture hall. These are places where there is often a playful banter. People don’t necessarily take themselves (or others too seriously). While serious ideas might emerge, there is most often a hospitable tone. People are aware of this and take action to keep it that way. A good joke at the right time, ample talk about plenty of lighthearted topics, and an overall sense of play keeps this third place more welcoming.
Is a school a third place?
It depends upon who you ask I suppose, but it also depends upon the school, as well as the part of school. There are so many policies and processes in school that make it much more akin to the second place, work. In fact, some argue that this is good and important, that school is preparation for work so why not make it like that. Yet, if part of education is about preparation for democratic and civic life, and if third places are a valuable part of nurturing engagement in such life, where does this happen for young people in an increasingly digital world? How do we create third places where youth are welcome and learn through experience the value of active and civil engagement with diverse people? Where do they interactive with more than a close and select group of friends? Where do they experience that art of playfulness with people in public life. I suppose that some extracurricular activities might fit into this category, but many of those are limited, they are carefully led by an authority figure, and they lack many of these other third place traits. So, where are the third places for youth today? There are still plenty of them, but I wonder if greater investment in youth helping to co-create these types of spaces in communities might not be far more effective in preparation for civic life than a formal. Maybe third place creation, led by youth, could yield greater results than the best curriculum. It doesn’t need to be an either/or proposition, I realize, but I continue to muse about the value of these types of communities and experiences as more central aspects of a young person’s formative years.