Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education



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First, I will address how Barber’s (1984) communitarian perspective formulates language as a practice for participating in, rather than escaping from, history. The communitarian view of language differs from the traditional privatized view with respect to the relation within each model between language and the historical contingency of truth. In each model, language plays an essential and definitive role in facilitating “democratic” relations among persons. Within privatized theory, language is understood as an ahistorical bridge between the autonomous self and the rational world. Standing apart from individuals and enabling individuals to stand outside of history, literacy enables the democratic community to argue about truth through appeals to reason. Barber contends that in order for the privatized model of individualist meritocracy to make sense, “the individual must know . . . truth in and of himself but also universally” (p. 59). As the connective tissue among individuals, language must itself be impartial. Thus, within the privatized democratic community, language provides a sphere for contestation over which perspectives or interpretations accurately reflect a universal truth outside of language. Through language, in privatized democracy, “reason is the vital link [among persons]—the common process that gives to individual discovery the legitimacy of mutuality” (p. 59). It is this view of language that has led developmental educators to the access through language model that Fox (1993), Prendergast (1998), and Agnew and McLaughlin (1999) challenge.

Drawing on the idea promoted by the group movements of the 1960s that “objectivity,” “universality,” and “impartiality” are socially determined terms that justify overvaluing some perspectives at the expense of others, communitarianism challenges the privatized view of language and truth. For communitarian theory, rather than existing outside of language, truths about who we are and what the world is like are products of the ways that we use language. Given this, multicultural democracy demands a definition of literacy—the language practices we value—as a public mode of participation that gives democratic legitimacy to truths that structure social life. In opposition to the privatized model in which language embodies the autonomy, rationality, and universality of truths, in communitarian theory, language expresses the mutuality and commonality that citizens construct through the process of making truths. In the communitarian model, then, the social function of language is not to provide a sphere for argumentation concerning autonomous truth, but to provide a sphere of participation in creating shared meanings that serve the common good within particular circumstances. For communitarian democracy, in distinction from privatized democracy, truths are “produced by an ongoing process of democratic deliberation, judgment, and action, and they are legitimized solely by that process” (Barber, 1984, p. 170).

The major democratic prospect of literacy in communitarian theory is “challenging the paradigmatic present” (Barber, 1984, p. 194). As a way of measuring literacy, challenging the paradigmatic present puts school knowledge in support of the civic practice of creating greater mutuality by contesting conventionalized uses and valuations of terms for describing contemporary realities. This discursive activity expresses the communitarian commitment to meaningfully involving citizens in creating shared interpretations of public life. Rather than simply acquiescing to what exists, allowing others to define reality, or excluding persons from participating, citizens are understood through their obligation to deliberate over meanings for the terms they use to define themselves and others in ways that expand relations of mutuality. Strong democratic civic literacy emphasizes that language should be a sphere through which citizens continually question the present realities they face as a way of enacting the recognition that present realities are products of talk. In other words, for democracy, we measure our ways of talking not to question their truth but their consequences. Thus, Barber argues that “to participate in a meaningful process of decision making...self-governing citizens must participate in the talk through which the questions are formulated and given decisive political conception” (p. 196). Strong democratic literacy emphasizes that the formulation of problems and issues by citizens must be open and critical. Literacy must be defined by the ability to challenge the consequences of the language used to define a given issue.

Within communitarian theory, knowledge is seen as social and is measured in part by the relations among people that it operationalizes. The stark difference with respect to literacy within communitarian theory reflects its distinctive understanding of difference as an ingredient of, rather than an obstacle to, democracy. Within privatized democracy, difference is understood as personal and private, properly exterior to public life structured by universal and thus impartial truths. Within communitarian theory, difference is understood as a beginning perspective, a starting point, that democratic participation provides an arena for transforming. Within communitarian theory, then, the community is defined by its perennial transformation of differences into mutualities. The construction of community is idealized as mutually transformative and thus difference is not understood as defection from a neutral or universally valuable norm. Such a reading of literacy and difference holds great promise for equipping developmental educators to meet the challenge of multiculturalism. Specifically, the principle of mutuality potentially lifts the burden of assimilation from marginalized groups and creates conditions for challenging dominant forms of knowledge. At the same time, formulating all differences as formally equal starting places, Barber (1984) does not question the relations among them and thus abstracts difference from the realities of group relations. In this sense, the historical focus of education on the contingency of currently conventional truths and relations fails to question the invisibility to dominant groups of the ways that group privileges inflect their views.

As such, the way that communitarianism winds up constructing democratic equality, as a process of overcoming individual difference, exhibits certain conspicuous inadequacies for addressing the current challenge of multicultural democracy. The inadequacies of communitarianism revolve around the character of the mutuality that Barber (1984) advocates and the individualist understanding of difference that, within his vision of democratic community, mutuality works to overcome. It is important to point out that only by situating the project of mutuality historically as a response to specific problems that privatized democracy cannot adequately ameliorate, can communitarianism distinguish its own calls for mutuality from models of social life that use appeals to community and commonality to justify the suffering of members of social groups defined as different. Barber recognizes this need to historicize in his conception of language, but does not understand difference in terms of historically specific relations of power among groups.

The difficulty with the definition of community that Barber (1984) advocates is that it obscures the need for consideration of the historically situated relations of power between and among perspectives as these perspectives are grounded in the society that currently exists. Many of the conflicts that the communitarian perspective would see as opportunities for mutuality, conflicts over curriculum content for instance, are interactions among socially differentiated groups defined by unequal relations of power and privilege. As such, the mutuality created must specifically account for the practical inequality that currently defines the positions to be transcended. Barber’s view of mutuality relies on assuming that the perspectives brought to a situation are equally legitimate. But if the positions are representative of historic and contemporary group inequities, then a democratic encounter should not consider all positions equal because they are defined, in part, by their relations to other positions. Instead of ignoring the social inequity that informs positions, the democratic encounter should emphasize challenging inequity and the impasse in deliberations that inequity creates. The democratic encounter should emphasize the public authority of those social groups that suffer from the formal but not actual equality of all perspectives.

Communitarian principles that knowledge is a social construction and that the purpose of schooling is to enable equitable participation rather than to justify existing hierarchies are important. Still, Barber (1984) can ignore the need to define mutuality historically because he distances communitarian theory from real world group struggles that have tried to implement participatory practices. By defining equality as a communicatively enacted relation among persons, communitarianism makes the important gesture of reformulating the privatized conception of individuals as static entities towards the view that individuals are created by their communicative relations with others. But in advocating a shift in emphasis from togetherness grounded in neutrality to mutuality constructed by deliberation as in and of itself sufficient to democratize society, Barber fails to account for the ways that social group hierarchies inflect the ways individuals are able under current conditions to relate and deliberate. Here, different positions must be understood in part through attention to the historical and current group relations of power that give differences social significance. In this perspective mutuality must be defined as a relationship that transforms the unequal relations of power that structures the meanings of difference between and among groups. Without explicitly recognizing that difference is not personal, but a function of norms and conventions that institutionalize power, the ideal of mutuality risks reiterating historical assaults on members of groups whose difference has been negatively charged. The ideal of all-encompassing mutuality risks targeting difference rather than inequality as the obstacle to democracy. It distances talk of democracy from the hopes and dreams of the civil rights movement, feminism, and other social group movements by distancing theory from the central lesson learned in these group struggles—that group injustices cannot be transformed by knowledge that proposes to transcend rather than engage group relations.

Critical Cultural Pluralism: Iris Marion Young

To recall the discussion thus far, within communitarian theory the purpose of valued knowledges like literacy is to affirm social equality among persons. In contrast to the opposition constructed by privatized democracy and communitarian democracy between truth and consequences as the goal of valued knowledge, Iris Marion Young (1990) has theorized a model of democracy that concentrates attention on the weak point of each of these theories, the unexamined assumptions within each about rising above group inequalities. She articulates the critical cultural pluralist view of knowledge, power, and democracy through her argument that equality is something that people do in relation to others, an exercise dependent upon conditions of enablement, rather than a possession. Further, conditions of enablement are contexts deeply informed by the overall social group hierarchies that structure the society. In this view, knowledge itself is a way of being a member of social groups, a way of exercising affiliation with some and differentiation from others. For Young, given the role that knowledge forms play in the construction, affiliation, and differentiation of social groups, and given the reality that social groups exist in relations of power and authority, competing knowledges cannot not be charged with intense political force. This concern for how structural group dynamics shape the conditions of doing in schools makes critical pluralism particularly valuable to educators. It provides foundations for revising the knowledges we value in the interest of addressing injustices.

In Justice and the Politics of Difference, Young (1990) fully articulates her vision of the justification for and social realization of a democratic cultural pluralism. She begins with a critical reading of the distributive paradigm of equality that operates in privatized democracy. Distributivism assumes that social goods and burdens exist separately from persons and separately from language that names and measures them. Significantly, then, within this view, social goods and burdens are conceived as distributable things, and thus “What marks the distributive paradigm is a tendency to conceive social justice and distribution as coextensive concepts” (p. 16). In the case of education, for instance, distributivism limits conceptions of education to distributing currently valued knowledge.

For Young (1990), the distributive definition of equality is valuable in defining the ways that quantifiable resources such as wealth, food, health care, and other such discrete goods should be distributed in order to make material relations more fair. She argues, however, that the distributive vocabulary suffers significant inadequacies for dealing with nonquantifiable goods, goods like the feeling of belonging, cultural legitimacy, or power that are significant to the challenges of multicultural democracy. First, distributivism “tends to ignore, at the same time that it often presupposes, the institutional context that determines material distributions” (p. 18). Second, “when extended to nonmaterial goods and resources, the logic of distribution misrepresents them” (p. 18). Taken together, these characteristics conceptually separate goods, persons, and institutionalized language, rules, processes, and assumptions. The effect of this separation is to ignore the significance of social groups as institutionalized identity relationships and thus to ignore the primary forms of injustice in contemporary democracies—group domination and oppression. In other words, distributivism understands persons and social goods as atoms that can be attached to each other but that exist independently. Distributivism is unable to appreciate how persons are in some senses created by the relations of burdens and goods they inhabit with respect to each other through institutional processes and practices. Thus, distributivism focuses on quantitative redistribution rather than the deeper needs for cultural and institutional transformation.

Rather than focusing exclusively on distribution, critical pluralism also addresses group oppression. In contrast to distribution, Young (1990) defines oppression as “the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because a tyrannical power coerces them, but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society” (p. 41). For Young,

oppression consists in systematic institutional processes which prevent some people from learning and using satisfying and expansive skills in socially recognized settings, or institutionalized social processes which inhibit people’s ability to play and communicate with others or to express their feelings and perspective on social life in contexts where others can listen. (p. 38)

An unintended consequence of privatized democracy, rather than a contradiction of its basic tenets, social group oppression expands understandings of democratic foundations for education.

Critical cultural pluralism is a particularly potent resource for responding to the challenge of multiculturalism because it addresses the significance of groups and the need for group equity beyond nondiscrimination. For critical cultural pluralism, social groups constitute persons by giving structure to the social perceptions that create how one is seen and understood by others and how one sees and understands others. Group conventions of knowledge and interpretation give group members shared experiences and perceptions so that “a person’s sense of history, affinity, and separateness, even the person’s mode of reasoning, evaluating, and expressing feeling, are constituted partly by her or his group affinities” (Young, 1990, p. 45). Further, other persons’ ways of relating to one are structured by group relations of power and authority. As a White, able bodied, middle class, male, then, one exercises privileges and is treated with forms of regard that enact the social dominance of the group. Thus, although dominant political discourses often explain group difference as the cause of injustice and idealize transcending groups and seeing all persons as individuals, differences of language, social experience, modes of affiliation, are not themselves obstacles to democratic social life and are probably impossible to eliminate. The point, from a culturally pluralist perspective, is to recognize that social groups only have meaning in their relations with and to other social groups and that these meanings become ways of constituting individuals in relations of enablement or constraint. Individual oppression or privilege is the effect of what social groups are enabled to do in relation to other groups, not existence of group differences themselves.

For critical cultural pluralism, then, individual difference is, in part, a function of group relations. The individual identity of any person is not exhausted by an explanation of the social groups with whom one identifies because group identification is contextual and contingent, dependent upon circumstances and conditions, and thus always shifting and multiple. Still, groups can be said to “constitute individuals” (Young, 1990, p. 45) because they are the primary ways that people give meaning to their own sense of self and interpret others in social contexts. As social collectivities of identity affiliations and differentiations become institutionalized cultural practices within societies, one cannot not identify oneself through social groups. One “finds oneself a member of a group, which one experiences as always already having been . . .For our identities are defined in relation to how others identify us, and they do so in terms of groups which are always already associated with specific attributes, stereotypes, and norms” (Young, p. 46). Thus the meanings that persons have are expressions of social relations between groups. Groups carry and enact—by their existence in and through their relations with other groups—the cultural meanings, knowledges, assumptions and practices that enable or constrain individual actions.

Young’s (1990) central claim deriving from her attention to institutionalized relations among social groups is that although injustice is experienced by individuals, it is institutionalized as relations among the social groups that give definition to individuals’ social locations, perceptions, and identities. Given this, Young defines a democratic view of difference in terms of institutional conditions and practices that enable individuals as members of different groups to enrich and enhance the social life that informs their own and others’ identity and action. This involves but exceeds enjoying fair material circumstances to include,

learning and using satisfying and expansive skills in socially recognized settings; participating in forming and running institutions, and receiving recognition for such participation; playing and communicating with others, and expressing our experience, feelings, and perspective on social life in contexts where others can listen. (p. 37)

These are relational goals concerning communicative actions. They suggest that social justice demands institutional practices that go beyond not devaluing any person or social group. The democratic community should instead of formally disabling no one, actively enable all. For Young, the communicative imperative of creating institutional conditions of enablement suggests that part of the goal of democratic institutions must be to uplift members of social groups who experience social relationships that constrain the meaningfulness and authority of their action and participation. Rather than overcoming difference, such goals prioritize reproducing and enabling group differences while working to challenge the meanings that disable ascription of positive value to differences.

Building on her challenges to privatized democratic conceptions of knowledge and difference and her advocacy of a relational model of society that attends explicitly to group consciousness and the politics of difference, Young (1990) explains how public life would be structured under cultural pluralism, arguing, “the good society does not eliminate or transcend group difference. Rather there is equality among socially and culturally defined groups, who mutually respect one another and affirm one another in their differences” (p. 163). This ideal of cultural group difference and equality demands, in Young’s view, dispensing with the ideals of community and individuality that have underwritten the continuation and entrenchment of social group injustices since the era of civil rights reform. Since that time, the logic of the community versus individuality opposition has become a commonsense feature of debates over democracy so that “for many writers, the rejection of individualism logically entails the assertion of community, and conversely any rejection of community entails that one necessarily supports individualism” (p. 229). But for Young the privatized and communitarian views of community are bound together by the fact that “each entails a denial of difference and desire to bring multiplicity and heterogeneity into unity” (p. 229). In this similarity, they each deny the politics of difference that inspired and were developed by the group movements born in the 1960s. Young thus constructs “a normative ideal of city life as an alternative to both the ideal of community and the liberal individualism it criticizes” (p. 237) as a way of trying to articulate a model of democratic social life that exercises and institutionalizes social transformation through attention to difference.

Through her definition of city life as a model of the good society, Young (1990) works to locate opportunities for more just social norms within the existing material and historical realities we face. Despite the realities of contemporary cities where the depth of social injustice is blatant, Young outlines the features of a democratic cultural pluralist public by outlining the virtues hinted at within the reality of present day cities. For her, the ideal of city life involves a shared life in which “differences remain unassimilated” (p. 241) and where “the public is heterogeneous, plural, and playful, a place where people witness and appreciate diverse cultural expressions that they do not share and do not fully understand” (p. 241). Bringing together persons of diverse backgrounds, interests, cultures, and beliefs, cities also bring together diverse activities of life and become spheres of exposure to multiplicity and dynamic possibility. For Young, the inassimilable diversity of city life presents a model of the good society to the degree that difference is associated not with notions of exclusion and inclusion, but with overlapping variety, attraction to difference, and publicity. Further, by enabling differentiation without exclusion through the simultaneous existence of social group differences and overlaps, the city demonstrates that social justice requires a politics of difference that “lays down institutional and ideological means for recognizing and affirming diverse social groups by giving political representation to these groups, and celebrating their distinctive characteristics and cultures” (p. 240). In the ideal city, for Young, the purpose of public life is to institutionalize social group equality.

As a resource for defining and defending developmental education, Young’s (1990) vision of the city exhibits prominent strengths. Her view of the latent potential within urban social relations envisions an alternative to the institutionalized social group oppression that is not addressed by privatized or communitarian appeals to nondiscrimination, individual freedom, or community togetherness. Young’s view attends to the suffering experienced by groups whose experiences, practices, cultures, histories, perceptions, and members are “feared, despised, or at best devalued” (p. 235) by practices and norms that propose themselves to be impartial.

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