Sunday, April 29, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education IX: Deliberation vs. Participation

[To read the entire series, go here.]

Progressive education scholars are, on the whole, the children of the Deweyan progressives of the turn of the century. I say Deweyan, but Dewey is central mostly to educators. A wide range of other key intellectuals, including Jane Addams, Richard Ely, Henry Lloyd, Walter Raushenbusch, and others in a broad assortment of religious, social, and political organizations held common cause with Dewey on many issues.

Recent scholarship on the progressives, especially Stromquist’s Reinventing ‘The People’ and McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent, have chronicled the ways in which the progressive movement was, in large part, a response to the class conflict that raged during the end of the 19th Century in America. Progressives, these and other works argue, developed a vision of a democratic society that, they hoped, would overcome these class divisions. They imagined and fought for a democratic nation in which everyone would work together for the common good.

With McGerr and Stromquist and others, I have argued that this is a vision that could make sense only to those with extensive privelige. One does not need to be a doctrinaire Marxist to understand that people without power cannot hope to have an equal dialogue with others who have more power unless they can find some way to be treated as equal. Unless they have some way of exerting their own forms of power, they are doomed in such circumstances.

Community organizers understand this fact of power. This is why community organizing is centrally, if not only, about finding ways to generate power for those who don’t currently have it.

The hope, visible in much of Dewey’s work, was that if people could just be induced to sit down together, they would find common cause. They would discover that they could accomplish more together than they would apart.

Recent work on discursive democracy has thrown cold water on this dream.

On a theoretical level, Mark E. Warren, in Democracy and Association, shows that there is a tension between dialogue across diversity and the ability to freely leave a particular association. He uses the classic distinction between “voice” and “exit.” What he shows is that where an option for exit is freely available, people will generally tend to leave an organization if it doesn’t fit with their current beliefs. It is only in those groups where exit carries a real cost, like unions, where people are likely to stick around to deal with the difficulties that come with real disagreement. In other words, Warren argues that by their very nature free associations are most likely to generate groups of like-minded individuals. A diverse democratic dialogue, in his vision, is unlikely to emerge “naturally” in an open civil society.

In Hearing the Other Side, Diana Mutz, to her surprise, found something similar to what Warren said would happen when she conducted empirical work on deliberation in organizations. In somewhat different terms than Warren, Mutz argues that deliberation and political participation are opposing forces in organizations. Organizations that can tolerate diversity, that can tolerate dialogue across difference are unlikely to be those that can also engage in political struggle. Conversely, those organizations with the capacity to engage in political struggle are likely to be those that are most lacking in internal diversity of opinion. She refers to this as the tension between “deliberative and participatory democracy.”

From a theoretical and an empirical standpoint, then, it seems unlikely that we will ever be able to create a society where we are all able to both talk and act together across difference. The point, of course, is not that dialogue across difference is not extremely valuable. I would point readers, for example, to the wonderful work done by the Study Circles Resource Center, which has developed a powerful strategy for encouraging such dialogic spaces. What Warren and Mutz show, however, is that while strategies like this may inform cross group understanding, real collaboration is likely to be accomplished on a practical level only when different groups come to the table as partisans for their points of view, backed by some kind of organizational power.

To some extent this maps onto visions of public and private developed by neo-Alinsky organizers. In “private” we can talk and get to know each other. The private is a space, in these terms, for dialogue between whole individuals. In “public” we take on our roles as partisans for particular causes. Whereas the private can be made a space of relative safety, the public is an unsafe space where the real interests of different groups come into conflict. And organizers argue that we cannot expect the public and the private to serve the same goals.

Like all simple distinctions, this one is too simple to describe the vast complexity of social and political life. But I believe it is illuminating, and that it fits what we are learning about how associations and political engagement actually work “on the ground.”

And it seems to indicate that the progressive dream of a world without class conflict (which could be expanded to include any conflict over inequalities of power) is simply unachievable. When we teach students that this world is possible, I think we mislead them about the realities of the world around them. We disempower them, by filling their heads with utopian visions that may seem quite comforting but that have little relationship to reality. As Dewey also argued, dreaming is wonderful, but dreams without concrete tools for making them into reality can be very destructive if indulged too long.

For a more detailed discussion of the relationships between social class and strategies of social action, see this paper.


teacherken said...

The timing of this is interesting. Let me explain why. I am currently reading the reminiscences of the recent Nobel Peace PRize winner Muhammed Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, entitled Banker to the Poor. Last night the thought struck me that one reason we have failed so miserably in much of the school reform aimed at helping poor people is that we have imposed it from the outside, without validating the experience of those in those communities. NCLB is only the latest iteration of external imposition. So now I am wrestling with whether the model Yunus used for revitalizing poor communities economically has validity or at least salience for reviving education in such communities. I have not yet really fully reflected, but thought I ought to append the idea as a comment to your diary.

Jim Horn said...

It seems to me that one of the most significant contributions of the multicultural discussion over the past 25 years is the realization that individuals often operate within a number of public and even private spaces. This realization, in fact, fills an empty space in the pragmatic middle ground between the balkanizers (the mini-hegemonists) and the homogenizers (the maxi-hegemonists). I would suggest that anyone who is teaching "a world without class conflict" may occupy either of these two hegemonic spaces.

In terms of the tension between the deliberative and participatory, it seems to me that there is likely to be more tension if we fail to acknowledge the important roles played by both deliberation and participation. I find this conflict emanating from conflation most pronounced in arguments by participatory action researchers, for instance, that all field research should be action research aimed at social change.
This insistence would strand a very large and important body of qualitative work aimed at understanding phenomena, rather than changing it.

Myles Horton, again, argued that these roles are distinct, and should remain so in order to preserve both for good effect. He called one "education" and the other "organizing." Both types of work are essential, but they should not be confused or balled up into one thing. I think that there are many who would shelve Dewey simply for his not being, which he is not, what they would prefer him to be, --an organizer.

Dan W. Butin said...

Hi Ken and others,

I know this is really tangential to Aaron's post, but I'm responding to Ken's comment. Check out:

It's basically a Grameen Bank for schools. They're the biggest single recepient of Gates Foundation money. Lots of debate about whether so much money is going in the right direction (they're big on charter schools).

But just wanted to make the connection.


Aaron Schutz said...

Sherman, I think we basically agree. I am not entirely sure, however, that Horton is making the same point about the difference between public and private spaces of dialogue in his distinction between organizing and education, although they are similar. I have taught his and Freire's _We Make the Road By Walking_ a number of times, and the students and I have struggled with exactly what counts for him as "education." Which isn't necessarily a critique, since he was emphatically not trying to be a "theorist." I worry, however, that creating a distinction between "organizing" and "education" may muddy the waters a bit, simply because he's using "eduction" in a manner quite different than many of us may be used to.

Dan, the website you pointed to is very interesting. I tend to be anti-voucher but okay, if uncomfortable at times with charter schools. In fact, I have a research project in a local charter school and will be sending one of my children to a local charter Montessori, for good or for ill. The truth is, it is likely that only in schools that are out from under the control of the local district bureaucracy that we will be able to explore methods for teaching social action skills to students.

I wonder if there might be a way to use the charter laws to promote more community-based educational contexts, by focusing on the creation of communities to support schools instead of focusing on the entrepreneurship angle. How to do this? I'm not sure. However, there are examples of community organizing groups, like ACORN running their own schools. (Of course, when they start doing things like this, they provide an avenue for the powerful to attack them by threatening their schools, a classic organizing dilemma). (By the way, these aren't charter schools).


I can't seem to find the paper that talked about the ways that the powerful used to attack ACORN through its schools. But see the Stoecker paper at:

Aaron Schutz said...

Oops, I mean Jim, not Sherman.

Aaron Schutz said...

Oh, and the point is not to "shelve" Dewey. But I don't think there is much danger of that happening in Education. The problem is that Dewey is dominant to the exclusion of almost all other conceptions of democratic social engagement.

Kathleen Knight-Abowitz said...

I have really been enjoying reading Aaron's posts on his community organizing work/theorizing on this blog, and the commentaries about it.

Like Aaron, I have been wondering about how to use charter school policy to help disenfranchised communities gain more educational and other kinds of power/agency. I began to explore this around 2000 in a series of pieces where I was using Nancy Fraser's work.

Using Fraser gives a nod to Aaron's last note here -- that we not shelve Dewey but we keep reconstructing the Deweyan viewpoints in light of current conditions -- what Dewey would wish! -- and Fraser is a great example of current pragmatist thinking combined with important neo-Marxist and feminist insights.

Fraser's work has helped me see how charter schools might give historially disenfranchised communities, particularly in urban locales, the power to be "strong publics" -- and to organize schools that provide forums for local communities to construct educational visions that are both intra-public (internally providing solidarity and community for members) and inter-public (moving among larger publics and society and working with many different groups). I think Fraser's work presents a place where Dewey's democratic theory meets and seriously considers the Marxist project and the conditions of global capitalism and extreme inequality -- thus making it a possible fruitful resource for educators interested in promoting more egalitarian forms of democracy.

Len Waks, Terri Wilson and I have recently been trying to collaborate on building this theory and seeing where it could take US educational policy with regards to school choice. There's skepticism among a few of our friendly critics that this is even possible any longer, given that school choice policy has been crafted in most US states so as to push the entrepreneurial at the expense of the democratic progressive possibilities of charter schools. This is a serious problem, for sure, requiring that many legislatures seriously revise their charter policies and regulation of educational for-profits. Is this likely in current policy/political climates? Stay tuned, I guess....

Aaron Schutz said...

Hi, Kathleen

I know you have resisted actually joining us on this blog :) But I wonder if you might be willing to write up a summary of/initial thoughts about your Fraser/Charter work for a guest post. Your work has been really important in exploring in a range of different ways how we think about empowerment in education. I think it might prompt another interesting discussion.

I'm leaving town for a couple weeks Monday, but I'm sure someone else would be willing to post this for you if you're willing to put it together.