Debased Discourses of Democracy – Prof. John Schostak

It’s the debased discourses of democracy at the back of all talk of ‘privatisation’, performance management and the making of ‘hard decisions’ by leaders that rankles.  I was involved in a panel debate and the University of East London.  It was a good debate about ‘education for sale’ involving Prof. James Tooley (Newcastle University), Dr. Glenn Rikowski (Northampton University) Dr. Patricia Walker (University of East London and labour councillor) and myself.  It was chaired by Claire Fox (Institute of Ideas).  Two things from this debate have stayed with me as I think about democracy as a practical response to social issues, political policy and the key importance of education in people’s lives.

The first is the conflation of ‘voice’ with the ubiquitous use of opinion surveys by political parties, marketing and management.  There is a fashion for ‘listening’ to pupil and student voices as a means of assessing the effectiveness of teaching or of various ‘services’ by the use of surveys.  That these are management devices for the manipulation of staff  or ‘consumers’ is muddled with discourses about ‘choice’ and ‘democracy’.  This is no accident, of course.  Back in the early twentieth century the pioneers of the public relations industry saw their role as one of ‘manufacturing’ or ‘engineering’ consent by ‘experts’.  Lippmann, one of these pioneers, explicitly saw people as being simply a ‘phantom public’ who effectively played no part in democracy but were necessary only as a source of ‘opinion’, that in turn could be shaped by clever advertising.  Ivor Goodson and I developed this notion in our recent paper ‘What’s wrong with democracy at the moment and why it matters for research and education’.  Jill Schostak and I have developed it much further in our book ‘Writing research Critically. Developing the power to make a difference’.  In order to think through the ways in which research and educators can contribute to the development of a truly effective public.

51SGDzQhYmL._SL500_AA300_But what on earth would an ‘effective public’ mean in these days of omnipresent ‘marketization’, ‘performance indicators’ and ‘expert leadership’?  In the debate I mentioned the notion of democracy as requiring the creation of public spaces in which people can voice their concerns, their complaints, their demands and fully engage in decision making in all the organisations that impact on their lives.  Think of all the organizations in which people work.  To what extent are they involved in decision making and action?  Do a mental walk down a high street or a mental wander through your own organization and mark out the spaces and places where free debate, decision making and engagement in courses of action can be made.  In schools, say, think of all the places where all those intimately concerned with the school – parents, children, teachers, admin staff, cleaners, caretakers, etc can all come together to talk and work at the processes of decision making together.  A core principle of democratic organization is that all are free and equal to be counted as contributors to decision making.  If one person or group has a greater voice in the process that another then it is no longer a democratic process but a process where power is exerted over others.  Privatisation, the notion of expertise (to decide for another), leadership (to command/instruct another), crowd out the possibility of people working and deciding together as free and equal beings. Discourses of democracy are debased with every attempt to overrule the voice of another through command and coercion.

Democracy is not an easy option.  But a society composed of organisations where democratic practices, procedures, and values are crowded out by managerialism and privatization of control and command over resources cannot legitimately claim to be democratic.  Dewey saw this very clearly at much the same time as the early pioneers of public relations were writing and practicing their craft.  He proposed the notion of the laboratory school as a way of stimulating social innovation and ‘educating’ (or drawing out) the key experiences that ground democratic practice.  His notions of discovery learning and ‘progressive’ organic development have been largely crushed over the last 30 years in the UK.  The second thing that has stayed with me about the debate we had at UEL is the extent to which public intellectuals have so bought the rhetoric of the free market that democracy has all but vanished from everyday discourses of education.

Prof. John Schostak

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