Synthesis/Regeneration 5   (Winter 1993)

Education and Democracy: Constituting a Counter-Hegemonic Strategy

by Svi Shapiro, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Laclau and Mouffe's proposal for a counter-hegemonic politics contains the same insistence on a political project that is organic to, not superimposed on, popular experience and understanding. Such a project is, of course, not about legitimating and reinforcing the culture and society but encouraging tendencies that are struggling for its transformation into more democratic, just and emancipatory forms of existence.

Naturally an educational agenda that is part of this political project must, too, abide by the principles of ensuring that educational demands and proposals remain organic to popular experience and understanding. Indeed it must not only speak to popular concerns and issues - express the manifold crises of our lives - in educational terms, it must also find common educational ground to bring together, around a shared but alternative hegemonic principle, the multiplicity of claims, demands, and assertions, that are made by the broad spectrum of subordinate, excluded and intermediary groups in the population. It must, in short, contribute to constituting a popular bloc dedicated to progressive change through, in this case, the modality of education. Here Laclau and Mouffe's argument in favour of radical democracy as the counter-hegemonic principle is persuasive. There is much to be said in favor of linking the heterogeneity of educational demands through their common connection to the as yet unfulfilled promises of a democratic culture. Connecting education and democracy as the broad principle for policy demands requires no absolutely new ideological departure. Much more it means reasserting a discourse with deep ideological roots - though one that has, for the most part, been relegated to a secondary role. In Ira Katznelson's study of the historical evolution of public schools1 he makes clear that:

The image of schooling for all has had a powerful hold on American political consciousness for more than a century and a half...From the early years of the Republic citizenship and public schooling were bound tightly together.2
He continues:
The early vision of common schooling was embedded in republican understandings of citizenship. The most radical and egalitarian versions of republicanism, such as those of the Workingmen's parties of the 1820's and 1830's, were the most insistent on the links between public education and the rights of citizens, but their rhetoric reflected, rather than challenged, a more general cross-class agreement. To be sure, schooling for all was thought by the dominant classes to be a recipe for social order capable of withstanding the strains of capitalist industrialization. But virtually all Americans understood that this was a social order of citizens. 3

While recognizing that mass schooling has been functional to the interests of capital, that public schools have historically been one way to protect the political regime and the economic order, Katznelson asserts that this represents only a part of the historical picture. Widespread support for public schools among the working class and among emergent groups has reflected the pervasive acceptance of a democratic discourse in which citizenship and schooling have gone hand in hand. Embedded in such a discourse is the belief that education is necessary to rational, non-manipulated opinion, to the constitution of a public capable of democratic participation, and to the making of working people who are effective actors within their own communities and as citizens. However distant such goals may be from the reality of public schooling such a discourse, with its deep historical roots, should not be discounted as a force with powerful resonance among popular groups.

Despite these historical linkages, constituting an educational agenda with broad popular support, oriented to a democratic discourse, will not be easy or simple. Elsewhere I have illustrated how recent liberal and neo-liberal discourse about education has nearly uniformly emphasized technocratic concerns and the schools' relationship to the process of capital accumulation.4 The dominance of this kind of language has nearly emptied the debate about education of even the rhetoric of democratic concerns and values. Where questions of equality and education are raised it is almost always in the context of inaccessibility to institutions or programs that promise the skills and capabilities necessary for entry into, or advancement in, the job market. Where voices have been raised against these developments it has usually been those on the Right with their concerns about cultural illiteracy , that have received most public attention.5 Of course the prominence of these elitist critics testifies not so much to their particular insightfulness but to the hegemonic process which effectively selects out the now powerful and persuasive left critique of education and its alternative pedagogic agenda.

The goal of a counter-hegemonic movement of education is then the reinvigoration of the democratic vision as the guiding principle for educational reform. We have seen above that the idea that education ought to have some real implications for democratically administered community and an actively-experienced citizenship is historically embedded in the rhetoric and, occasionally, the practice of education in this country. It has been part of the popularly subscribed-to discourse on public schooling in the United States. However tenuous this connection, it is a relationship that is critical to the ideological legitimation of the state - the notion that one's political life is a matter of democratic participation not class rule. In this sense public education must at least maintain some symbolic or rhetorical identification with socialization into the illusory community 6 of our political life, and preparation for citizenship. Of course, it reflects on the current legitimacy crisis of the state and political life in this country that the present discourse of public schooling has nearly abandoned even the allusion of education's responsibility for democratic and civic life in the U.S. Even to talk to students or educators about the idea that schools are the incubators of democratic commitment and attitudes is to frequently evoke looks of incredulity and bewilderment. This reflects on the general remoteness of any vision of a life seriously engaged in public, civic, and citizenship matters. The nearly complete fragmentation of private and public life is mirrored in the alienation of public education from political or civic life. Yet it is precisely in the embers of this democratic vision and discourse that a counter-hegemonic strategy needs to be developed and constituted. For all its limitations and weaknesses it remains the one best hope for such a strategy. More that some nostalgic evocation, what is being suggested here is a strategy for education that operates on the terrain of the still most resonant, progressive values in this culture-the democratic idea, the self-governing community, the participative citizen, and the socially responsible public life. A counter-hegemonic strategy for education must be about educational change that resuscitates and reinvigorates the democratic vision and its connections to public education - not as an abstract ideal but as one of the means by which ordinary people might begin to act on the most pressing problems, concerns, needs, and aspirations in their lives. Following Laclau and Mouffe this kind of concretely grounded vision implies, at the same time, the struggle for radically deepening and extending democratic practice. In educational terms it means something more profound than an extra period of civics instruction or a unit on the constitution. It means infusing school practices, curriculum and pedagogy with a democratic viion that would embody the following principles:

  1. Concern for a self and collectivity-assertive citizenship; one that confronts the widely shared dispowerment of individuals and groups.
  2. Continuation of the struggle for equality-of rights, of access, of opportunity, and of results.
  3. Development of the attitudes, values and practices necessary to a socially responsive community (local, national, and global).

Constituting a democratic discourse in this way so that it speaks to issues of empowerment, community, and social justice ensures that our vision is expansive and broad; that it speaks to the needs, concerns and aspirations of a very broad spectrum of the population. It is a discourse around which a popular bloc might crystallize. It allows for, and encourages, a heterogeneous set of strategies, policies and interventions in education which address the very diverse forms of individual and group dispowerment, alienation and inequity. Infused with a broad and radical democratic vision it speaks to no one particular practice or reform but to a broad ideological concern about the underlying purpose and value of education. Particular practices and reforms are to be justified in the light of the ethical, political and cultural imperatives of a radically extended democracy: as they promote individual or collective empowerment, develop forms of public concern, commitment and responsibility, and continue the struggle for social justice.

The goal of a counter-hegemonic movement of education is then the reinvigoration of democratic vision as the guiding principle for educational reform.

Under the counter-hegemonic sign of democracy are to be found very wide possibilities for change that address the curriculum, forms of pedagogy, the moral, aesthetic and political context of schooling, institutional governance, school-community relations, etc. There is no particular practice or reform that is the appropriate correct embodiment of the counter-hegemonic principle (a danger in some agendas for radical educational change that emphasize, for example, a single kind of pedagogy as the correct political line). Instead the broad scope of education as an ideological practice is to be scrutinized in the light of our democratic vision. Certainly imaginative and significant proposals can be made for new forms of educational practice but our concern here is that the overarching political project remains uppermost. A new discourse for education that emphasizes the broad principles of the democratic vision must be offered.

While the constituting of a popular counter-hegemonic movement for education requires the assertion of broad and resonant moral/political principles rather than specific curricular, pedagogic and institutional practices, this in no sense lessens the concretely-grounded nature of the new discourse. It must address those kinds of issues and problems that we have outlined in some detail above. Enhancing citizenship and democratic values through education must appear to offer, for example, means and possibilities for confronting growing economic disenfranchisement, the alienation of youth and its effects in drug abuse, apathy and suicide, the manipulation and exploitative irresponsibility of the mass media and advertising, high levels of adult illiteracy, and the growing disparities of wealth and opportunity in society. It must, as we have argued, suggest that a democratically-focused public education will touch the real crises and concerns of people's lives.

It must be emphasized that while the work of developing critical pedagogic practices in education is important and absolutely necessary, this must not be confused with the work of constructing a discourse that can constitute a counter-hegemonic project in education. Indeed such a discourse focuses the diversity of educational ideas and practices (and the heterogeneity of social groups and their disparate concerns and needs) with the assertion of an integrative moral, political principle around which this diversity can coalesce. Such a coalescence is not to be misconstrued in a reductionist way. Gramsci's notions of a "popular bloc" and "hegemonic principle" imply a moral-political idea which can bring together diverse interests and social groups. It affirms both their irreducible diversity as well as the possibilities for a common political and cultural project (along with, of course, the continuing tension, flux and instability in such a project). In breaking out our democratic vision into the more specific questions of empowerment community and equality we begin to constitute a complex and multifaceted discourse that articulates a heterogeneity of struggles and concerns.

Such a discourse (while remaining unified by the common democratic idea) now speaks to the complexity of identities and groupings, all of which are constituted in relationships of dispowerment, human and communal fragmentation, and social injustice. Thus our democratic project for education speaks for, and to, people in their communities, as workers, consumers, gendered subjects, ethnically, racially, sexually and religiously identified as citizens, and so on. It continues the struggle for equality and equal opportunity in American life—the struggle of the marginal, the excluded and the discriminated against. It also speaks to the anomie of middle class life where there is absence of viable language of social commitment and responsibility. Such a discourse of public education connected, as it is, to the large political goals of empowerment community and quality weaves the complex tapestry of a progressive political and cultural project within which diverse subjects might see the pressing concerns of their lives expressed. It is just this kind of discourse that offers the best hope for moving the discussion about schools out of conventional and historically entrenched meanings, and towards an agenda that takes seriously emancipatory human goals. @NOTES = NOTES @NOTESB = 1. Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir, 1985, Schooling For All (New York: Basic). @NOTESB = 2. Ibid., p. 207. @NOTESB = 3. Ibid., p. 214. @NOTESB = 4. Svi Shapiro, 1987, Educational Theory and Recent Political Discourse: A New Agenda for the Left?, Teachers College Record, Winter. @NOTESB = 5. See, for example, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., 1987, Cultural Literacy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin); also, Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr., 1987, What Do Our 17 Year Olds Know? (New York: Harper and Row). @NOTESB = 6. Bertel Ollman, 1976, Alienation (New York: Cambridge University Press). @NOTES = @NOTES = (Excerpted and reprinted with the kind permission of Svi Shapiro: Svi Shapiro, 1988, Education and Democracy: Constituting a Counter-Hegemonic Discourse of Educational Change, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 8,3, pp. 89-119.)

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