Cover image for Democracy, Deliberation, and Education By Robert Asen

Democracy, Deliberation, and Education

Robert Asen


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ISBN: 978-0-271-06709-4

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248 pages
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Rhetoric and Democratic Deliberation

Democracy, Deliberation, and Education

Robert Asen

“This important volume provides insights about the role of discussion in shaping policy and about how to study discussion empirically.”


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The local school board is one of America’s enduring venues of lay democracy at work. In Democracy, Deliberation, and Education, Robert Asen takes the pulse of this democratic exemplar through an in-depth study of three local school boards in Wisconsin. In so doing, Asen identifies the broader democratic ideal in the most parochial of American settings.

Conducted over two years across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines, Asen’s research reveals as much about the possibilities and pitfalls of local democracy as it does about educational policy. From issues as old as racial integration and as contemporary as the recognition of the Gay-Straight Alliance in high schools, Democracy, Deliberation, and Education illustrates how ordinary folks build and sustain their vision for a community and its future through consequential public decision making.

For all the research on school boards conducted in recent years, no other project so directly addresses school boards as deliberative policymaking bodies. Democracy, Deliberation, and Education draws from 250 school-board meetings and 31 interviews with board members and administrators to offer insight into participants’ varied understandings of their roles in the complex mechanism of governance.

“This important volume provides insights about the role of discussion in shaping policy and about how to study discussion empirically.”
“As a theoretical and practical work, Asen’s book should be required reading for educational policy-makers at the local and national level. It would also be of interest to citizens who wish to understand how market forces affect decision-making in public education and how local democratic practices might counter those forces.”
“Emboldened by John Dewey’s vision of a reciprocal relationship between education and democracy, Robert Asen invites the reader to join him and his colleagues in listening to how people talk during a series of local school-board meetings in Wisconsin. Participants struggle through some of their own differences, to be sure, but they also work through them enough to make collective, consequential decisions, using what Asen calls ‘vernacular policy discourse.’ This book compellingly captures the tone and spirit, as well as the pitfalls, of such deliberations. What happens in these meetings, we are told, is what democracy sounds like.”
“Populated by community members, school boards show how everyday citizens can (in the best of times) govern effectively and responsibly. In this book, Robert Asen shows us how the real work of democratic deliberation gets done in these local bodies. By looking directly at the micropolitics of school boards, Asen gets into the public debate on education down at the level where real decisions are made about local curricula, funding formulas, and more. We learn how the politics of ‘holding schools accountable’ plays out in local politics and how that relates to, but also distinguishes itself from, national policy debates.”
“In Democracy, Deliberation, and Education, Robert Asen gives us an engaging, sympathetic account of the difficult decision making by school boards in three American communities. Written in a powerful, moving style and grounded in ideas from rhetoric, democratic theorizing, and educational policy debates, Asen’s book compellingly shows how this scene of ordinary democratic deliberation, imperfect though it is, is nonetheless remarkable.”
“Combining fieldwork, rhetorical analysis, and democratic theory, Robert Asen has produced an insightful explication of the meaningful deliberative practices of local school boards. He ultimately reveals the messy and wonderful reality of actual decision-making processes as they develop within real democratic communities struggling over how to foster democracy’s most important prerequisite—an educated citizenry. This work makes significant contributions to our understanding of both rhetorical deliberation and the vital role of education in how we imagine our democracy.”
“Rob Asen’s Democracy, Deliberation, and Education sets a new standard in studies of public deliberation due to its substance and depth. Students of public discourse from many fields will want to engage this lively and informative account. Asen’s study, based on extensive fieldwork covering three school boards’ deliberations over several years’ time, is substantial, as he finds a register in which to unfold an account of their deliberations, identifying the intersections of their politics, history, and ideologies without reducing deliberation to any of these. His argument is deep, as he not only draws on the extensive literature and theory on deliberation to illuminate his cases, but also uses the cases to deepen a Deweyan account of situated deliberation.”
Democracy, Deliberation, and Education provides a fascinating contribution to the study of rhetoric’s role in contemporary politics. In a field dominated by either abstract theory or case studies focused on elite actors, Robert Asen shows us how rhetorical theory plays itself out in the humble but high-stakes world of local school board deliberations.”
“A must-read for anyone interested in the rhetoric of public policy, the rhetoric of education, or the successful comingling of rhetorical and qualitative research methodologies.”

Robert Asen is Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.



Introduction: Discovering Local Deliberation and Policymaking

1 Networked Publics, Networked Policies

2 Ideology, Counterpublicity, and the Gay-Straight Alliance

3 Scarcity, District Finances, and Difficult Decisions

4 Expertise, Integration, and the Problem of Judgment

5 Trust, Relationships, and Deliberation Conclusion: Reconnecting Democracy and Education





Discovering Local Deliberation and Policymaking

Democracy and education make each other better. Over the course of his long and illustrious career, John Dewey wrote about a wide range of topics, but he never lost sight of this productive and mutually informative relationship. He recognized that democratic practices can encourage an inquisitive social spirit, while educational practices can foster skills for self-governance. Both democracy and education generate their power from people’s purposeful participation, as individual energy enlivens social practice. In his trenchant essay on creative democracy, Dewey famously defines democracy as “a personal way of individual life; . . . it signifies the possession and continual use of certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose in all the relations of life.” Similarly, in Democracy and Education, he defines education as the “reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience.” In both definitions, as he highlights processes, Dewey conspicuously does not locate democracy or education in institutions, procedures, or subject matters. Neither operates in only one aspect of society, nor submits itself to one technique of production, nor arises apart from people who practice it. Both cultivate a similar set of competencies and commitments, especially a practice of perspective-taking that enables individuals to discover and account for values, needs, interests, and identities different from their own. Both cultivate an appreciation of the interaction of individual and community, whereby individuals sustain the cooperative relations of community, and communities provide the resources for individuals to achieve their goals. Each prepares citizens and students to participate efficaciously in the other.

To bolster democracy and education, we may consider not only relations between democracy and education, but how democracy may operate within education as well as how education may occur in democracy. Fostering democracy in education means engaging the interest and involvement of students and stakeholders (i.e., parents, teachers, community residents) in the values, materials, processes, and aims of education. A lack of attention to interest and involvement constitutes the basis of Dewey’s critique of traditional methods of education. He insists that “we never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment.” Students do not sit as empty vessels that teachers fill with knowledge. Direct instruction may instill memorization and recitation, but without their identification with the process of education, students will not learn. Democracy in education, then, arises as students, teachers, and others participate in a mutually valued process.

Education in democracy constitutes the latter as a process of learning—not an aloof, abstract process pursued apart from other concerns, but a bridging of theory and practice. Democratic publics emerge, Dewey suggests, because the consequences of human interaction extend beyond the individuals immediately involved in an exchange. Publics organize to direct human action purposefully rather than responding haphazardly to the inevitable issues and concerns that arise in human society. Organized action arises because democratic practices may transform people’s perceptions. In contrast to other modes of governance, democracy may prompt “a recognition that there are common interests, even though the recognition of what they are is confused.” In The Public and Its Problems, Dewey maintains that this lack of recognition has held the public in eclipse, yet he discerns a solution in “discussion and publicity,” which may engender “some clarification of what they [common interests] are.” Local communities, which may provide their members with stable footing in a complex and changing world, appear as promising forums for such discourse. A community also may offer its members the benefits of sustained interactions over time. Dewey insists that “there is no substitute for the vitality and depth of close and direct intercourse and attachment.” A person’s confidence and skill in public engagement may increase with repeated efforts. Regular communication may permit interlocutors to judge their decisions in light of consequences, enabling them to revisit decisions when expected outcomes do not occur.

Democratic decision-making in education and educational work in democracy historically have proceeded in the United States at the local level in the thousands of school districts across the nation. The decentered character of the U.S. educational system has reflected the belief held by policymakers and citizens alike that each community presumably knows best how to educate its children, underscoring formal education’s role in reaching beyond the walls of the classroom to reproduce culture and community. Appreciating this wide reach, Dewey recognizes education, “in its broadest sense,” as “the means of this social continuity of life.” Society does not reproduce itself automatically, nor do its members possess an innate social knowledge. Education enables youth to engage and reinterpret the values and experiences of their elders. In this process, communication plays an irreplaceable role: “Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication.” By circulating shared meanings, communication builds community: “Communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common.” Yet, even at the local level, people may express different visions of community—they may have different ideas about what they hold in common. In these moments, deliberation, as a particular mode of communication, may facilitate people’s articulation and negotiation of different senses of community, permitting interlocutors to chart different visions of a shared future.

At the local level, school boards historically have stood as the deliberative, decision-making bodies for education policy. Populated by community members, school boards affirm the relationship between democracy and education, representing the belief that education does not constitute a technical policy area open only to specialists. School-board members may not possess training in pedagogy, but they do hold valuable perspectives on the role of education in a community’s sustenance and success. School boards often do not serve as stepping-stones for people with aspirations for state or national offices. Members generally have some interest in education, although, especially recently, they may not confine this interest to public education. Both in their place in the larger structure of U.S. education policy as well as their daily operation, school boards serve as sites of local democratic engagement and policymaking. School boards present opportunities for ordinary folks to engage with policymaking. They enable laypeople not only to develop opinions about governance, as in an advisory public sphere, but also to govern themselves. Calling local public meetings “democracy’s litmus test,” Karen Tracy holds that how “citizens and officials go about their talking is a powerful emblem of democracy.” Although they offer no guarantees, school boards present the potential for ordinary people to realize democracy in education and education in democracy.

School boards play an important role in contemporary U.S. education policy, even as, in the view of contemporary observers, they have come increasingly under siege. The editor of one collection assessing the “besieged” state of school boards writes that “whereas school board members governed virtually all aspects of public education during the nineteenth century, today members must compete with political actors scattered throughout the federal, state, and local governments as well as organized interests in the private sphere.” At the federal level, passage of the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act represented the codification of an emergent accountability regime that demanded “results” in return for federal dollars sent to local districts. Requiring testing of students, NCLB rewards districts where students demonstrate proficiency in particular subject areas and punishes “failing” districts. At the state level, legislatures have introduced caps that restrict the amount of money local communities may raise and spend on education, and state education agencies increasingly have adopted common standards for pedagogy. At the local level, site-based school management and, in some large cities, mayoral takeovers have circumscribed school-board governance. Private interests have developed charter school plans that place a local school under the management of a private entity. These interests also have been advanced by vouchers that enable district residents to take tax dollars that would have gone to their local district and use these funds to enroll their children in privately operated schools. Nevertheless, even as they negotiate a complicated field of constraints, school boards continue to serve crucial roles in the decentered system of U.S. education, making decisions about curriculum and instruction, personnel, and finances that affect the daily classroom experiences of students and impact the interests, values, and goals of local communities. Moreover, citizens repeatedly have affirmed the principle that local community members should continue to exercise primary responsibility for directing the education of their community’s children.

This book examines school-board deliberations in three medium-sized Wisconsin school districts: Beloit, Elmbrook, and West Bend. Although these districts enroll roughly the same number of students, they differ in terms of socioeconomic status and diversity. Based on two years of fieldwork, which occurred from fall 2009 through summer 2011, this book considers how the school boards in these districts deliberated about issues regarding finances, curricular and extra-curricular activities, personnel, and the composition of student bodies. As I highlight over the course of this book, these boards’ deliberations raised themes of ideology, scarcity, expertise, and trust. Exploring how these themes informed particular deliberative episodes, this book elucidates processes of deliberation and decision-making at the local level, outlining a vernacular policy discourse that illuminates policymaking as an everyday activity undertaken by laypeople. This stands as a counterpoint to the idea of policymaking as an activity distant from citizens’ daily concerns. This book also illustrates how, in making consequential public decisions, ordinary folks build and sustain both complementary and contesting visions of community. School-board deliberations collectively chart a common future—even as board members may disagree over the shape of this future. And they do not necessarily resolve these disagreements productively. As I consider school-board deliberations as local instantiations of processes of democracy and education, readers may find themselves encouraged and discouraged, hopeful and forlorn.