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Neo-pragmatism, communication, and the culture of creative democracy

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Neo-pragmatism, communication, and the culture of creative democracy
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Pestana, Christina
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vi, 110 leaves : ; 28 cm

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Subjects / Keywords:
Democracy ( lcsh )
Communication -- Political aspects ( lcsh )
Critical pedagogy ( lcsh )
Communication -- Political aspects ( fast )
Critical pedagogy ( fast )
Democracy ( fast )
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bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

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Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 102-110).
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Christina Pestana.

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Full Text
n
NEO-PRAGMATISM, COMMUNICATION, AND
THE CULTURE OF CREATIVE DEMOCRACY
by
Christina Pestana
B.A., University of California, Santa Cruz, 1994
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center
In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Social Science
2006


This thesis for the Master of Social Science
degree by
Christina Anne Pestana
has been approved
by

Date


Pestana, Christina Anne (Master of Social Science degree)
Neo-Pragmatism, Communication, and the Culture of Creative Democracy
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Omar Swartz
ABSTRACT
Democracy is typically understood as a formal political system for governing a
citizen body. A deeper and more culturally useful understanding of democracy is
one that views it as an ongoing communicative process by a critical citizenry.
Drawing on the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty,
I describe what I refer to as this creative democracy. Critical to this democracy
is an understanding of the way communication is used to shape understandings of
social reality. By developing a communication imagination, individuals are
better able to perceive the ways in which unjust social norms are established and
reified, and are better equipped to engage in progressive social change. Critical
education, found in such pedagogies as service learning, provide opportunities to
develop a communication imagination.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Signed
Omar Swartz


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
I would like to thank Dr. Omar Swartz for the enthusiasm, support and
mentorship that he has provided me during this project. My academic experience
was greatly enriched by his approach to teaching and learning. I would also like to
thank Drs. Myra Bookman and Mike Monsour for their support of my graduate
work and their willingness to serve as a member of my thesis committee,
especially given their other commitments in their respective departments. Their
insightful comments and feedback on my thesis are greatly appreciated.


TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. INTRODUCTION..................................................1
Theoretical and Methodological Assumptions.................5
The Critical Paradigm...............................10
Neo-Pragmatism......................................15
Organization of Thesis....................................19
2. DEMOCRACY AND PROGRESSIVE INDIVIDUALS........................22
Emerson................................................. 31
Dewey.....................................................35
Rorty.....................................................42
Conclusion................................................47
3. CREATIVE DEMOCRACY AND COMMUNICATION.........................49
The Communication Imagination.............................61
Power, Alienation and Communication.......................64
4. CRITICAL EDUCATION AND SERVICE LEARNING......................77
Critique of the Platonic Model of Education...............79
Critical Pedagogy.........................................84
Service Learning..........................................85
Theoretical Bases of Service Learning...............86


Social Justice-Oriented Service Learning.........91
5. CONCLUSION...............................................96
6. BIBLIOGRAPHY............................................102
VI


CHAPTER ONE
INTRODUCTION
This thesis explores how what I call a creative democracy can be
cultivated and advanced through a heightened awareness of the ways in which
communication shapes individuals and society. The concept of democracy that I
focus on here is democracy as a process for human social and political interaction;
democracy as an ideal rather than a set of specific laws, institutions, and
procedures. By creative democracy I mean a society that continues dynamically to
evolve in its ability to be inclusive, fair, and just through the active participation
of all its citizens. Democracy is creative to the extent that the poetry of
everyday people in the sense evoked by Burke (1984) and Rorty (1989) engaged
in everyday living contributes to the collective well being of everyone, when
literature (in its most general sense) not law, ideas not power, and hope not faith,
sustain a community that is continuously redescribing itselfalways unsure of its
future but aware of its past and for that reason committed to and optimistic of the
present. Democracy is creative when all members of its community have their
basic human needs met, as well as a minimum degree of education, so that
personal growth replaces survival as a base necessity, enabling everyone to
contribute constructively to the larger community. Under this view, creative
l


democracy like the experience of communication itself is an experiment in the
human potential.
An important assumption that I make is that dominant understandings of
democracy and communicationthose created and reproduced through
conventional and normative politics and disciplinary academic practices
minimize opportunities for individuals to be more aware critically of the forces
that shape their lives and to become engaged more in creating a society that is
inclusive and socially just (Rodriguez, 2001; Swartz, 2005). I, therefore, take
social justice as axiomatic. In the communication literature, social justice has
been defined as the engagement with and advocacy for those in our society who
are economically, socially, politically, and/or culturally underresourced (Frey,
Pearce, Pollock, Artz and Murphy, 1996, p. 110). Following Amardo Rodriguez
(2001 & 2006), I extend this definition of social justice to contest the view that
accepts as natural what Leets (2001) calls moral exclusion and hierarchy in
human relations. Social justice, as I am using this term, also includes the active
and continual process of inquiring, identifying, and challenging the discourses,
structures, systems and norms that institutionalize poverty, inequality, and the
dehumanization of others. I argue that social justice is something more substantial
than electoral politics and the Rule of Lawdefined here as an orthodox
allegiance to legal norms over, and at the expense of, moral and progressive
2


decision-making (see Swartz, 2004)and that human societies are shaped and
transformed largely through communication (Scott, 1967). Within this
understanding, individuals are able to create a better society in the United States
than the one that exists currently, one less focused on greed and violence and
more on fairness and equality. Humans may then work toward a society that is
socially more inclusive, economically fair, and accepting of intellectual, political,
ethnic and sexual diversity. When individuals are able to comprehend the ways in
which communication works they are better able to empower themselves and
perceive themselves as change agents for a socially just and creative U.S. society.
This notion counters the normative television model of citizenship and public
life which encourages passivity and civic disengagement (Postman, 1988).
Fundamental to understanding the need for a creative democracy, with its
focus on social justice and inclusive community, is the issue of alienationthe
condition of profound disconnection between an individual and his or her own
creativity and agency, a sense of impotence or lack of self-knowledge (Swartz,
2005; Fromm, 1961; Freire, 1970; Rodriguez, 2001). I will explore alienation as a
pervasive, unfortunate, and unnecessary human condition in contemporary
American society inhibiting individuals from realizing their potential to develop
their own capacities and contribute to the overall well-being of others. Through
the communicative process, I argue, individuals continually develop themselves
3


and their communities (Rodriguez, 2001 & 2006; Swartz, 1999, 2001 & 2005).
Language is a significant element in the way we shape our understandings of
reality; as humans change the way they talk about things, their attitudes, beliefs
and actions also change (Burke, 1984). Thus, language is an important resource of
power for individuals and communitiespower that can be used to
institutionalize cruelty, poverty and hatred, or to emphasize human connectedness
and facilitate redescription, transformation and liberation.
In our contemporary environment, formal education is an important site of
communication in the U.S. social and cultural landscape. However, this space is
less open than one would hope for in a society, such as ours, that considers
itself democratic (Giroux & Giroux, 2004). I contend that the lack of open social
and cultural space in American society for edifying communicationdefined as
communication that is intellectually transformative and inspires moral
developmentand self-creative processes to occur is a major factor contributing
to the alienation of much of our citizens. Yet, the potential exists for changing this
condition and we owe it to ourselves to do so.
My thesis is inspired and informed by the work of progressive intellectuals
and activistsboth present and pastand is intended to contribute to this
community of dialogue and practice (Zinn, 2003; Rorty, 1989 & 1999; Swartz,
1997,2005 & 2006; West, 2004; Rodriguez, 2001 & 2006; hooks, 2003).
4


Progressive here refers to a state of mind that values the potential of the future
over the limited certainties of the past, and which maintains that humans have yet
to achieve their potential as a species that recognizes their connection to each
other and encourages them to act in ways consistent with this recognition. To be
progressive means to possess an optimistic, though not necessarily utopian, view
of human potentialthat we have the capacity to treat each other and the earth
with dignity and respect and recognize that it is in our best interest to do so
(Singer, 2002). I start this thesis from the position that although U.S. culture has
become more socially inclusive and there is greater equality relative to
generations past (Zinn, 2003), there is more work to be done if the United States
is to be a society that is capable of progressive and ethical world leadership and
the cultivation of human potential that we should expect in the 21st century. I
believe that there is no reason that we cannot, as a human species, choose to think
and live differently, and the United States is one consequential place that could
allow for this sort of development to occur. Humans have made the world into
what it is today; therefore, we also have the potential and responsibility to remake
it differently.
Theoretical and Methodological Assumptions
In this section, I describe the methodological assumptions that inform my
project. Methodology in the sense that I evoke it here refers to a framework and
5


justification for my approach to scholarship rather than a specific set of research
techniques.1 This is appropriate because I do not intend this thesis to be a
scientifically objective or neutral study that uncovers and simply presents facts
devoid of my moral engagement with the issues I address. Following Frey et al.
(1996) who argue that if scholars are going to focus on social justice they need to
draw upon a different set of virtues than dispassionate objectivity, I affirm that
there is an appropriate place for values and emotions in the research process. To
disregard emotions is to deny an aspect of humanity that can be used as a
powerful resource and starting point for mobilizing and directing progressive
scholarship and social change. As Allen, Orbe and Olivas (1999) note, the norms
which dominate academic writing and scholarship require one to create a
distanced expert voice by suppressing the way in which the scholars
convictions and emotions inform their research. They challenge this notion and
argue for a dialogic scholarship, one that utilizes self-reflexivity as a part of
creating knowledge. Objective scholarship, that is, scholarship which seeks to
create a separation between the self and that which is studied, is not useful for all
human inquiry. In my project, moreover, it is not desirable, for it is in some sense
a surrogate for the reproduction of the alienation that exists in hierarchical society
against which I and others stand (Swartz, 1997 & 2005; Rodriguez, 2001).
Examples of how objectivity fosters hierarchy can be easily foundthe infamous
6


Tuskegee syphilis study is one such paradigmatic case. The Tuskegee study,
which began in 1932, was a forty-year research project conducted by the United
States Public Health Service to trace the progression of syphilis in Black men.
The research targeted a study group of Black men with the disease and a control
group of men who were not infected. As many as 100 men in the study group died
from syphilis-related diseases and others suffered from blindness, insanity and
heart disease as a result of the researchers not only withholding clear information
about their disease status and treatment from them, but also discouraging and
even preventing them from seeking outside treatment for syphilis, despite the fact
that the health consequences were known and satisfactory treatment became
available. Autopsies conducted on these men were the final data collection
activity of the study (Solomon, 1985). In 1972, a reporter named Jean Heller
published the details of the study and public outcry sparked an investigation that
determined that the study would not even have met the standards for research
ethics accepted in 1932, which were less stringent than they later became. This
study was conceptualized, implemented and continued over the course of four
decades, including the publishing of 13 progress reportsone of which detailed
the dire health consequencesin major medical journals, and yet only two
objections to the study were documented during that time. This moral
astigmatism (Jones in Solomon, 1985 p. 234) was made possible by the
7


normative communication mode of the objectivist paradigma mode which
obscures questions of value and ethics and excludes non-scientific perspectives.
By employing the communication conventions of objective science, socially,
economically, and politically marginalized Black men were redefined as merely
sites for the gleaning of scientific knowledge and a scene for the dynamic
agent,the diseaseto unfold. Through the careful use of such neutral
objective language, the infected patients were intentionally targeted and
dehumanized, and the dire ethical and moral dimensions and consequences of this
project were rendered invisible or irrelevant to readers and medical research staff.
As illustrated above, and as historian Howard Zinn points out, there is a
wide misconception of the meaning of objectivity. Objectivity is something that
is generally regarded highly because it is assumed to be a neutral position, free
from moral bias and effects. However, this misconception inhibits us from seeing
the potential consequences of objectivism as well as the value of engaged
scholarship:
The myth of objectivity in teaching and scholarship is based on a
common confusion. If to be objective is to be scrupulously careful
about reporting accurately what one sees, then of course this is
laudable. But accuracy is only a prerequisite. That a metalsmith
uses reliable measuring instruments is a condition for doing good
work, but does not answer the crucial question: will he now forge a
sword or a plowshare with his instruments? That the metalsmith
has determined in advance that he prefers a plowshare does not
require him to distort his measurements. That the scholar has
8


decided he prefers peace to war does not make him distort his
facts. (1990, p. 10)
I argue that scholarship best serves social justice ends when the scholar engages
his or her ethical concerns and related emotions as a starting point for the
research. In other words, a social justice view of scholarship engages questions of
morality from the start of the process of inquiryand views itself as an inherently
moral activity.
This thesis is constructed within the critical paradigm (Kersten, 1986) and
relies heavily upon use of the neo-pragmatist tradition of Richard Rorty as
interpreted by myself, Swartz, and others (Swartz, 1997 & 2005; Home, 1989). A
paradigm is a broad area of disciplinary scholarship comprised of several related
communities that share common assumptions, language, and practices (Kuhn,
2000; Anderson, 1996). These assumptions, language, and practices function as
markers of identity/identification for scholarship communities and distinguish one
community of scholarship from others, establishing the criteria upon which the
research is to be evaluated (Kersten, 1986). Scholarship from a neo-pragmatist
perspective, for example, must be evaluated by how well it measures up to the
standards that its own community has developed, and upon those grounds may be
accepted, rejected or revised. Individuals have a tendency to impose ones own
criteria for determining what is true on alternative paradigms, but this engenders
9


distorted understandings of the knowledge that those paradigms produce and
hinders transformative learning opportunities.
The Critical Paradigm
The critical paradigm refers to a form of scholarship that, broadly
speaking, distinguishes itself from traditional objective, value-free modes of
scholarship. Communities of inquiry in the critical paradigm include variations of
Marxism, critical theory, feminist theory, poststructuralism, and postmodernism,
among others. While differences exist across the various streams of critical
scholarship in regard to their ontological and epistemological assumptions
(discussed below), two common assumptions held by these traditions are that
critical scholarship maintains an aim of progressive social change and rejects the
separation of science or criticism from social and moral responsibility (Anderson,
1996). In other words, fundamental to all critical scholarship is the notion of
praxis.
Praxis, in its most general sense is reflection and action upon the world in
order to change it (Freire, 1970, p. 36). More specifically, the concept of praxis
originates in the Greek word prasso, which means doing or acting and the
Aristotelian idea that thought and action together comprise the ethical and
political life, as opposed to pure logic and theory which separates itself from
practical life (Schrag, 1999). Praxis-oriented scholarship raises the importance of
10


practice to that of knowledge and emphasizes the dialectical relationship between
these. A balance between ideas/theory and action is constantly negotiated in
critical scholarship. While ideas and theory have the potential to help us see and
think beyond the constraints and limitations imposed by social, political and
material conditions of everyday life, they best achieve significance when they are
transformed into action in the social realm (Swartz, 1996). For example, ideas and
principles such as freedom and equality mean little if they are not translated
into substantive practices in everyday life (Swartz, 2005; Rorty, 1999).
Scholarship, in itself, has little value for improving human communities if it
cannot be made into practical wisdom (phronesis) for living. The Aristotelian
concept of phronesis involves deliberation of the concrete problem at hand and
strives toward what is the good in a given situation. In deliberating on the
concrete problem, general theories are utilized as a starting point from which a
situation can be viewed, but they are modified according to the situation. Finally,
phronesis requires that action must be taken through a decision that works toward
that which has been determined to be the good in the situation (Arnett, 1990). A
commitment to praxis and phronesis rejects the Cartesian hierarchy that privileges
the mind over the body, the ideal over the practical, faith over hope, and instead
views scholarship as a potentially important activity in improving human life.
ll


The moral dimension of knowledge is another important assumption in the
critical paradigm. By this I mean that critical scholars recognize that scholarship
has political and social implications and consequences (Anderson, 1996; Swartz,
1997; Kersten, 1986) regardless of whether or not it is intended. For example, the
research on intelligence put forth in the book The Bell Curve (1995) links the so-
called Human Intelligence Quotient (IQ) to social and economic differences
among racial groups in the United States. According to The Bell Curve, IQ has a
large heritable factor and is essentially immutable, and that African Americans, as
a racial group, as opposed to a socio-economic class, have a lower IQ than
Whites. As Stephen J. Gould (1994) remarked, this research supports and extends
the political argument of Social Darwinismnamely, that class and other socio-
economic differences are merely the outward manifestation of natural and
immutable inferiority and superiority of groups of people. The theory of Social
Darwinism is based on the assumption that where equality of opportunity exists,
those who rise in the socio-economic classes are naturally (genetically) superior
(more brilliant, talented, constitutionally stronger, etc.) while those who remain in
the lower classes are naturally inferior and incompetent. The implications of this
study include the naturalization of racial inferiority and a permanent relegation of
African Americans to inferior status, justifying institutionalized hierarchy,
exonerating society as a whole from taking responsibility for social issues such as
12


racism and poverty. Critical scholars, in contrast to scholars working in the
traditional mode, recognize that scholarship has implications and, as such, they
make explicit the social and political overt aims of their work.
In order to place my work in the critical paradigm and state explicitly my
philosophical assumptions, I identify the distinction among the types of critical
scholarship. Broadly speaking, critical scholarship can be split into
foundationalist and reflexive approaches, respectively. A primary distinction
between the two approaches to critical theory is that, generally speaking,
foundationalist critical theory (including Marxism, critical theory in the Frankfurt
School tradition, and second wave feminism2) assumes it is possible to discover
authentic descriptions of social reality that are free from ideology, and can be
found through social science methods and the use of reason (Anderson, 1986).
While a central concern of critical theory is emancipation of humans from
domination by alienating social, political and economic systems, foundationalist
critical theory grounds this project in a search for non-ideological meaning. This
approach, simply illustrated, is found in the Marxian call for workers to escape
from false consciousness. This is the idea that if humans, particularly the
working class, could free their minds from capitalist ideology, the Truth would
make itself evident and workers would be liberated from oppression. While useful
pragmatically for mobilizing marginalized people against repressive systems,
13


such faith in absolute, totalizing Truth has its limitations (Foucault, 1984). One of
these limitations is that, in Burkean terms, this tragic frame (1984b) approach to
social change obscures the negative consequences of their solutions.3 What often
results in a practical sense is a cycle of scapegoating, usurping, overthrow of the
reigning ideologyonly to be replaced by anothercontinuing ad infinitum. In
Foucaults terms,
[w]e know from experience that the claim to escape from the
system of contemporary reality so as to produce the overall
program of another society, of another way of thinking, another
culture, another vision of the world, has led only to the return of
the most dangerous traditions. (1984, p. 46)
Thus, while the quest for certainty and ideologically-free Truth is appealing for
many reasons, it has limitations for creating new and transformative forms that
further the progressive goal of liberation from institutionalized domination and
hierarchy, one of the main goals of critical theory. As Burke (1966) has pointed
out, humans are the symbol-using, symbol-making, symbol-misusing animal,
inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), separated from [their]
natural condition by instruments of [their] own making (p.16). As creative,
symbol-using/making/misusing beings, humans exist in a constant state of
interpreting and creating their understanding and experience of the world through
symbols and instruments that they themselves develop (Swartz, 1996). This poses
14


a challenge to the assumption that non-ideological meanings can be discovered, a
key tenet of foundationalist critical theory.
Reflexive critical scholarship, the approach that I prefer in this thesis,
encompasses perspectives embodied in postmodernism, poststructuralism, and
pragmatism, among others. Common to these perspectives is the idea that what
humans take to be Truth is actually a set of meanings themselves created by
humans; as such, we cannot access ideologically-free understandings of reality.
Therefore, the subjective/objective binary, the idea that social reality can be
understood apart from our subjective interpretation is not desired among reflexive
scholars. It is not desired because to employ such a binary would undermine
reflexive critical scholarships assumption that knowledge is created not
discovered, taken, not given, in Deweys language.
Neo-Pragmatism
As suggested earlier, this thesis also draws upon the neo-pragmatist
tradition. Neo-pragmatism, the branch of philosophy that Richard Rorty (1979) is
credited with bringing into academic discourse since the early 1980s,
complements the reflexive critical approach and in is utilized in this thesis as an
additional lens through which my research issues are engaged. Neo-pragmatisms
origins are found in pragmatism, an American anti-foundationalist philosophical
15


tradition, originating in the late 19th century through the writings of Charles
Peirce, William James, John Dewey and others.4
Pragmatism assumes that truth is made, not discovered; it is the upshot
of argument, persuasion and consensus within a community. William James
(1907/1965) lays out a basic assumption of pragmatism when he states that the
truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it (p. 97). For James,
truth happens to an idea. It becomes, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact
an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its
validity is the process of its valid-ation (italics in original) (Ibid.).
Pragmatism rejects the foundationalist project of knowledge as
representation because it attempts to formulate an ultimate context of thought
(Rorty, 1979) which exists above the terrain of human experience and historical
contingency. Pragmatism sees this attempt as unuseful for human inquiry, and is
more concerned with consequences that various knowledges produce and the
ways in which alternative truths may help human communities solve the problems
that arise rather than trying (impossibly) to identify timeless, transcendent
absolute universal principles. Rorty distinguishes the difference between
foundationalist philosophy and pragmatism by stating that pragmatists think there
is no point in asking whether a belief accurately represents reality. Rather, the
right question to ask for pragmatists is for what purposes would it be useful to
16


hold that belief? (1999, p. xxiv). The implication of this approach is that it brings
philosophy out of the proverbial ivory tower and into everyday life.
Rorty (1979) takes the pragmatist notion of dissolving the boundary
between certified knowledge and mere belief a step further by framing all
knowledge in terms of vocabularies and descriptions. He distinguishes between
scientific or philosophical knowledge and other types of knowledge by referring
to them as privileged versus alternative descriptions. In doing so, he reduces
the differences between philosophy and poetry or literature to that of style, habit,
or prejudice. Rorty (1989) argues that the habit of attempting to identify an
ultimate vocabulary that would encompass all possible vocabularies is much less
useful for human progress than trying to understand what vocabularies are more
or less useful for certain projects and to understand the vocabularies of others in
an effort to increase human solidarity. Thus, while foundationalist philosophy
searches for certainty and transcendent truths, neo-pragmatist philosophy is
concerned with the kinds of descriptions that will enable humans to reduce
needless suffering and humiliation (Rorty, 1989). According to Rorty:
What matters for us pragmatists is devising ways of diminishing
human suffering and increasing human equality, increasing the
ability of all human children to start life with an equal chance of
happiness... .It is a goal worth dying for, but it does not require
backup from supernatural forces. (1999, p. xxix)
17


Such goals for philosophical inquiry seem to me to be a hopeful alternative to the
limitations of foundationalist scholarship; employing intellectual power to solve
real-world problems because it seems the right thing to do with the knowledge
and understanding we have currently is a useful approach. A key limitation of
foundationalism and objectivism is that they obstruct possibilities for moving
forward in addressing social injustices (Wander, 1990). Concern about gaining
consensus on what counts as pain, suffering and injustice distracts us from
making change in the direction of social justice (Swartz, 1997; 2005; Frey et al.,
1996; Boulding, 1988). This preoccupation with commensurability is captured by
Eugene Goodhearts (1997) criticism against Rortys pragmatist approach to
social change. According to Goodheart, Rortys campaign against cruelty, though
laudable, is vacuous. Goodheart complains that Rortys project proscribes
against pursuing the so-called metaphysical questions about justice and right
action that would enable us to determine what constitutes cruelty (p. 234). From
my perspective, this concern makes little sense. It does not necessarily follow that
in order to stop doing things as a society that inflict suffering on people (such as
collectively allowing our children to go hungry while we use our resources to
wage so-called preemptive wars against other countries, such as Iraq), we must
first engage in a philosophical project of determining what is cruelty. The quest
for certainty and commensurability appears absurd in statements such as this,
18


especially when placed against the striking imbalance between the willingness to
fund wars while extreme and devastating poverty is prevalent and growing
worldwide. It seems ridiculous that we should be distracted by defining cruelty
when we know that to ensure a basic level of health, education, water and
sanitation for the worlds poor would require an extra $47 billion a year in aid, yet
the annual global military spending is approximately $1 trillion (Oxfam, 2006).
The reflexive critical mode of scholarship, informed by a neo-pragmatist
perspective, provides an approach to scholarship that is useful for developing a
more just society and working toward progressive goals that values addressing the
existential conditions of human beings.
Organization of Thesis
This thesis is organized into five chapters. In this introductory chapter, I
have explained the purpose of my thesis and elucidated some of its theoretical and
methodological assumptions. I intend this thesis to be an examination of the
intersection between democracy, communication, power and social justice.
Working from the philosophical tradition of Emerson, Dewey and Rorty, I
develop, in Chapter Two, a vision of what I (following Dewey) call a creative
democracy. I select particular aspects of these scholars writings that I take to be
useful for developing this sketch of an alternative culture of democracy.
Emersons notion of the self-reliant individual (a person who actively constructs
19


his or her own knowledge and understandings) provides an important element of
the character of the democratic individual. From Dewey I explore his idea of
communal inquiry and practice in which all members of society participate.
Rortys description of ironism, I argue, is a helpful concept for allowing
individuals to be better able to build solidarity with others for a more progressive
society. In Chapter Three I discuss the ways in which communication can be
comprehended and engaged by individuals so that they may become more
effective citizens and empowered persons. I apply this notion to the U.S.
education system and explore the extent to which current conditions in formal
education hinder such communicative development from occurring. In Chapter
Four I discuss the ways in which a critical education, service learning in
particular, offers a model for the kind of educational experience that helps people
to become more perceptive social and cultural critics, to build their potential for
solidarity and to empower them to create progressive social change. I conclude
my thesis with Chapter Five, offering a brief review of what I have argued in this
thesis.
1 For an explanation of this approach see Swartz (1997).
20


21 include a description of the major distinctions of critical scholarship because I
believe the differences are, for my project, important. By distinguishing a
reflexive critical from foundationalist critical scholarship, I underscore the
intention of this project is not to create a new program for social change, but to
put forth an argument based on my convictions as a scholar, citizen and
individual. The distinctions I outline are adopted from Anderson and Bayms
(2004) typology of philosophies in communication.
3 The tragic frame is one of Burkes dramatist perspectives in addressing social
change. In situations of social conflict, the tragic frame represents a lack of hope
in a redemption of the enemy, and approaches social change as only being able
to occur through a death. In other words, social transformation is only viewed
as possible by ritualistically killing the enemy.
4 Neo-pragmatism is distinguished from pragmatism in that it highlights the role
that language plays in the construction of truth. Richard Rorty is the philosopher
who is most well-known for this variation of pragmatism.
21


CHAPTER TWO
DEMOCRACY AND PROGRESSIVE INDIVIDUALS
In the previous chapter I described the purpose and theoretical/
methodological assumptions situating my thesis. In this chapter I explore
meanings of democracy and argue that we do not have to accept narrowor what
I call thindescriptions of democracy, and that we should insist that
democracy can, and should, involve a cultivation of individual capacities,
personal and communal well being, and human solidarity.1 Using the works of
three progressive intellectuals selected for their culturally useful and inspirational
perspectives on democracy, I develop what I argue is an alternative and culturally
richer description of democracy (i.e., creative democracy) as an idea rather than
a political system. Using the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Dewey and
Richard Rorty, I highlight the value of self-reliance, knowledge as a communal
process rather than as access to ahistorical truth, and how ironism, the ability to
see the limitations as well as the strengths of our own beliefs, can help us develop
a sense of solidarity with fellow human beings.
Since at least the 1980s and the ascendancy of neo-conservatism, and,
more graphically with the 2002 and 2004 U.S. presidential elections, the United
States has been experiencing a political and cultural polarization between
conflicting ideological worldviews or moral visions (Hunter, 1991). This rift is
22


commonly referred to as the Culture Wars (Hunter, 1991). Broadly speaking, the
Culture Wars are fueled by a difference in belief about where authority for
determining the standards of value for human society resides. In other words, the
battle is over whether or not criteria for moral decision-making can only be found
in some transcendent Authority or hierarchy. One side sees standards of value as
being found in the human domainthat is, humans create their values in relation
to the nexus of historical contingencies within which they exist. As historical
circumstances and contingencies change, values evolve in light of emergent
challenges, choices and questions. That is, criteria for what is good and right
are created in the process of living, rather than found in some ahistorical authority
or moral principle that applies universally. Change under this perspective is not
viewed as a threat to the nations social fabric, particularly change that moves
away from traditional, fixed foundations into unknown permeations. In fact, such
changes are understood to strengthen our society by dissolving the social, political
and cultural barriers that have become normalized and codified, marginalizing
groups, reifying hierarchies, and promoting cultural stasis. Others believe that
moral standards must be found outside of human practices and beliefsin God,
Natural Law, Reason, or some other ahistorical and transcendent authority, and
that we must look to these foundations in order to ground moral values (Hunter,
1991; Bacon, 2005).
23


Philosopher Richard Bernstein critiques the mindset that is engendered in
such a viewpoint, which he calls Cartesian Anxiety, a condition which assumes
that without Absolute Truth humans sink into nihilism. In other words, as
Bernstein puts it, Either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation
for our knowledge, or we cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelope us
with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos (1983, p. 18) (italics in
original). Such fear reveals a pessimistic view of human potentiality. The idea that
humans need a predetermined truth in order to make moral decisions is an idea
rooted in the Platonic tradition and is reinforced by many religions. This notion
privileges the human potential for selfishness and atomistic behavior rather than
the potential for developing alternative ways of being that emphasize the human
qualities of compassion, cooperation, mutuality and love. The assumption that a
fixed, transcendent structure is needed to protect humans from irrationality
and from their own supposed tendency for decadence is exemplified by the
following passage by communication scholar Richard Weaver (1948/1984) from
Ideas Have Consequences, a book that is credited widely as having inspired the
new conservative movement that culminated in Ronald Reagans ascendance to
the U.S. presidency:
The most portentous general event of our time is the steady
obliteration of those distinctions which create society. Rational
society is a mirror of the logos, and this means that it has a formal
24


structure which enables apprehension. The preservation of society
is therefore directly linked with the recovery of true knowledge....
If society is something which can be understood, it must have
structure; if it has structure, it must have hierarchy. Against this
metaphysical truth the declamations of the Jacobins break in vain.
(p. 35)
Weavers view is that society can only be saved through a return to or
mirroring of Truth, which supposedly establishes the way human relations are
naturally supposed to be organized. Weaver naturalizes hierarchy in society by
claiming that it is a reflection of a natural structure or order, which is revealed
through true knowledge, assumedly accessed through some transcendent
authority. Movements for equality, egalitarianism, and the pursuit of universal
freedom are viewed as irrational and incorrect for they ostensibly contradict the
Right Way, e.g., the natural or cosmic order (Swartz, 2002). The Jacobins, the
resistance group that catalyzed the French Revolution and its rejection of the
divine right of kings and absolute authority of the aristocracy, is thus viewed as an
irrational social affliction rather than as a human striving toward freedom and
justice to overcome a system that privileged the few at the expense of the
suffering of the many. Whatever could be said of the Jacobins, however
responsible they may have been for the excesses of the French Revolution, they
represent resistance against systematic oppression of the working poor and
marginalized people.
25


The clash of worldviews manifests itself in many ways, including political
and cultural power stmggles over various issues related to economic and social
issues such as gender, sexuality and the body, same-sex marriage, abortion, and
adolescent information about and access to birth control. It also includes free
speech/censorship issues, educational curriculum in public schools, forced
recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and what the Bush administration calls the
War Against Terrorism, among others. Embedded in the fights over these issues
is a larger struggle to define or redefine Americas public culture and national
identity. It is the fight over who we are as Americans and what guides our
moral decision-making. As a democracy, these concerns are up for open debate;
the United States has no monarch or totalitarian leader dictating an official
worldview. A statement of this fact is found in the U.S. Supreme Court decision
in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). The court ruled that
requiring public schoolchildren to salute the flag is unconstitutional because it is
an attempt to force concordance with an idea, and, thus, is a transgression of the
First Amendment. The courted stated that if
there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that
no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in
politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force
citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.
26


As the courts reasoning suggests, the meaning of democracy is characterized in
principle by a commitment to diversity and freedom of ideas which guide public
and private life. This commitment is a key factor that distinguishes democracy
from other socio-political forms. As the Court states in stark terms, compulsory
unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.
The term democracy comes from the Greek word demokratia, a derivative
of demos, meaning the people(or the common people) and kratein to
rule(Hansen, 1991). Thus, democracy, in its simplest connotation, is rule by the
people. Democracy, however, is a pliable concept, which allows for a number of
various interpretations and theories (see Lummis, 1996; Terchek and Conte, 2001;
and Stromberg, 1996). At minimum, however, democracy springs from the idea
that no one individual or no one group has the right to rule the rest at will, that
public power flows from the citizensdefined inclusivelyand that the citizens
may challenge and change public policies and leadership when they believe these
do not act on behalf of public opinion, that they have a right and duty to do so
(Terchek and Conte, 2001). In other words, the state is only a creation of the
citizenry to serve the common good, and when the state fails to serve the welfare
of the public, it loses its authority. As stated in our Declaration of Independence,
humans are endowed with inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness, and that
27


to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That
whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these
ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to
institute new Government.
As stated in the Declaration, citizens have the right to alter or abolish their
government when it no longer works to foster life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness. Along with rights come the responsibility of shaping, monitoring and
critiquing the governmentit requires an involvement in civic action.
A political community, or state, can be regarded in different ways;
emphasis is either placed on the responsibility and participation of informed
citizens who comprise the core of democracy (as the U.S. Declaration of
Independence suggests), or on political institutions and processes such as laws,
courts, elections, etc. (Hansen, 1991). In the United States, emphasis is generally
placed on the latter (Deetz, 1992). While valuable in and of themselves, such
ruling bodies, procedures and processes are often assumed to be democracy,
ignoring more substantive expressions of democracy, such as a socially inclusive,
participatory process that entails serious public deliberation for determining the
public policy, and laws which helps society to function.
In United States society the term democracy as commonly evoked often
de-emphasizes an active role of the citizen. It typically means a system of
government in which citizens elect politicians who, in theory, represent the voice
28


of their constituents in political affairs. Otherwise known as representative
democracy, this form of governance is often contrasted with direct democracy
in which people participate in the political process without an intermediary class
of professional politiciansthe classic model being Athens in the Fifth Century
BCE (Hansen, 1991). Although the community of citizens in Athenian
democracy was confined to males and excluded females and slaves (a significant
population), every member of the community had a voice in the deliberations that
shaped public decisions. This opportunity was coupled with a sense of civic
responsibility and cultural expectation to be an active agent in politics. To
abdicate this responsibility was to be an idiotes, literally an idiota private
person unconcerned with the affairs of the community (Hansen, 1991).
While governance and law are important aspects of democracy in that they
provide mechanisms for getting the work done of a large and complex society
such as the United States, this description of democracy downplays the
importance of meaningful citizen participation in creating public discourse and
determining what should be done. Criticisms of this mechanistic view of
democracy focus on the way in which a faith in the Rule of Law and the U.S.
Constitution effectively remove various social, economic, and political practices
from the domain of criticism, contributing to a moral myopia (Swartz, 2005;
Lazare, 1998). Other critiques highlight the way in which electoral and power
29


politics are emphasized at the expense of substantive reflection and debate over
issues (Deetz, 1992; Hunter, 1991). Both sets of critiques point out that
opportunities for meaningful change in U.S. society are often ignored or deemed
off-limits, even though this nation is a democracy and can, ostensibly, rewrite its
own future at any time.3
Progressive intellectuals are, and historically have been, important in
pushing the United States to examine and deepen its meanings and practices of
democracy and in offering alternative narratives. Martin Luther King, Jr., Emma
Goldman, bell hooks, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Dewey, Richard Rorty, C.
Wright Mills, Cornel West, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and others are
examples of individuals who embody the qualities of the progressive cultural
figure that I hold up as champions of democracy. These are individuals who
challenge the narratives of democracy that systematically exclude certain groups
of people, such as homosexuals (as in Colorados Amendment 2 in 1992),4
ethnic/racial minority groups, workers and the poor, from full participation in the
political process, access to forums for public debate, and enjoyment of rights and
benefits extended to other groups. Their work inspires citizens to resist accepting
the widely held belief that electoral politics or the U.S. Constitution are
democracy, or are adequate, in and of themselves, for creating a democratic
society.
30


The work of progressive intellectuals continues to provide a rich source of
ideas for challenging thin descriptions of democracy and creating new
descriptions by which we can change. The, scholarship of three figures in
particular, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, I regard as
especially relevant intellectually for moving us beyond thin interpretations of
democracy as primarily a system of political governance, elections and laws to
one in which is better understood as a way of life. Their work offers rich
intellectual material for invigorating a conception of a more empowered, creative,
and socially conscious citizenship. In discussing each of these figures, my intent
is both to offer a motif by which this construct I createthe critical, historicist,
progressive individualcan be imagined and cultivated for engaging in the
democratic process I describe, and to offer a culturally richer and more
meaningful understanding of democracy than the one that exists currently.
Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century poet, writer, speaker, and cultural
critic was an influential figure in shaping a narrative of the American democratic
citizen, which had a wide impact on the cultural and political landscape during his
time. Emersons concern with democracy emphasized the intellectual capacities
and strengths of character of citizens needed, according to him, to comprise a
democratic society rather than the political structure or mechanisms for
31


democracy. He argued that a genuinely democratic community is not exclusively
constituted by the operations of the political system, but, more importantly, by
individuals who think for themselves, challenge taken-for-granted values,
knowledge and norms, and seek to actualize their creative and productive
potential (West, 1989; Garvey, 2000).
Emerson is especially known for his praise of the self-reliant individual.
The emphasis on self-reliance may appear initially as a paradigmatically male-
centered pull yourself up by the bootstraps American attitude that places small
value on care-taking among people. However, I argue that self-reliance is more
usefully understood as Emersons celebration of the creative and inventive
potential of human beings. He sees that humans have an abundance of talents,
capacities, abilities and potentials, and he is compelled by the transformative
potential in human historythe idea that humans can do better than they have
done in the past. Personal stagnation, intellectual or otherwise, and the absence of
creative innovation in peoples lives are for him tragic limitations (West, 1989),
and he encourages individuals to strive for what he called the unattained yet
attainable self (1841/1983). Emerson encourages individuals to be concerned
more with developing themselves than with following the norms of society, for
nothing, he claims is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. ...Iam
32


ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies
and dead institutions (1841/1983, p. 148).
I interpret Emersons view of self-reliance as a celebration of the human
being. In other words, human beings are reservoirs of creativity with the potential
to change the course of our individual and communal futures. We are, however
often prevented from developing this potential by the intellectual, political,
economic and social limitations that we place on ourselves and others. The
striving to actualize this creative potential urges individuals to examine critically
those limitations and engage in thought and communication that challenges them.
Emersons emphasis on the strong, empowered individual may appear
contradictory to the notion of an egalitarian, socially just and inclusive
democracy. However, this reading would not take fully into account his
perspective. While Emerson expresses disdain of dependence on others for
intellectual and material sustenance (1841/1983), he also rebukes those who
accumulate wealth and power through others and do not contribute to the common
wealth, to the well-being of society. He argues that every person must have a just
chance for his bread, and that amelioration in our laws of property should
proceed from the concession of the rich, not from the grasping of the poor
(1841/1983).
33


Emerson was suspicious of the state, and, to some degree, the political
process of the time. He was an outspoken critic of the United States for a number
of reasons, most notably for its policies and practices that suppressed individual
freedoms, such as slavery and the genocidal repression of Native Americans
(West, 2004). Such injustices were correctly seen by him as crimes against
humanity, and strong individuals were needed, as they are now, to counter,
contest and reject these and more modem, state-sanctioned injustices. At the same
time, Emerson was a foremost champion of the idea of America. He ultimately
understood America as a spirit, a potential, not as the machinery of the state.
Rather, America, he believed, is found in its citizens.
Emersons ideal citizen is an individual who does not simply rely upon
what experts or politicians tell him or her. Rather, ideal citizens are individuals
who do their own investigation, develop their own opinions, and seek their own
knowledge by, among other ways, talking to people from different backgrounds
and with different experiences (1841/1983). Above all, Emerson urged
individuals to trust themselves, and not to relinquish their intellectual power to
others, for to do so is to alienate a person from him- or herself. Rather, Emerson
advocated a healthy skepticism of certainties and assumptions handed down
from others so that an individual may engage in a critical process of determining
for oneself what is true and carving out his or her own path. Emerson believed
34


that within the limited framework of freedom in our lives, individuals can and
must create their own democratic individuality (West, 2004). He understood that
to create and sustain a genuine democratic community, people must question
prevailing dogmas as well as their own individual beliefs and biases. In summary,
Emersons primary concerns were that individuals must be courageous, and
possess dignity, productivity, creativity and a keen knowledge of themselves and
the society in which they live.
Dewey
John Dewey, philosopher, educator and public speaker was, during the
early part of the 20th century, the most well known American philosopher who
advanced pragmatisms position in philosophical discourse and among the
educated public. Dewey was greatly inspired by Emersons ideas and builds upon
them with his own moral and intellectual vision of democracy.
Dewey has been credited with contributing greatly to contemporary
discourses of democracy, particularly in the area of participatory and deliberative
democracy (Caspary, 2000). A cornerstone of Deweys theory of democracy is a
high level of participation by citizens in public deliberation and decision-making.
That is, citizens engage in public deliberation in their local communities to
influence broader political decision-making. Posner (in Talisse, 2005) critiques
this vision of democracy as being purely aspirational and unrealistic because
35


people are not interested or are not qualified to engage in this kind of process (p.
188). However, Deweyan democracy is a decentered deliberativism that does not
assume that citizens will be expected to be statesmen/women. Rather, it
acknowledges the need for different spheres of democratic politics, including
local forms of association in civil society to governance at state and national
levels. While the expectation is that the more local levels of association will be
more directly democratic, Deweyan democracy is fully consistent with
representative institutions at the levels of state and national governance. However,
an important aspect of Deweyan democracy that must be underscored is that while
there is a division of epistemic labour between citizens, representatives and other
holders of public office.. .what is denied is that these divisions represent
differences of epistemic kind (italics in original) (Talisse, 2005, p.189). While
Deweys vision calls for elected representatives to help implement necessary
public policies, he believes these policies must be informed by knowledge that
emerges through participatory deliberation which begins in diverse local
communities, and the civil associations and schools that comprise them (Talisse,
2005; Caspary, 2000). His political philosophy stands in contrast to the
guardianship theory of politics, heralded by Posner and others, which assumes
that average people are inherently too irrational to engage responsibly in self-
government. In the guardianship theory, governance must necessarily be
36


concentrated in the hands of those who possess political wisdom, e.g., those who
know what is good, right and just (Talisse, 2004).
Dewey wisely stated that democratic ends require democratic methods
for their realization (1939/1993, p. 205); in other words, people must be involved
in the decisions that rule their lives. He believed that inquiry, deliberation,
consultation, persuasion, negotiation, and cooperation must be exercised in all
arenas of social interaction, such as in the workplace and in schools, and should
not be reserved for a special group of people such as experts or political leaders.
He argued that public involvement in deliberation must extend to all social
relationships and aspects of culture, including economics, politics, education, art
and religion (Caspary, 2000). This vision of democracy is both deep and far-
reaching: democratic methods must permeate all levels and domains of society
and the participation of all citizens is needed. The problem of the democratic
society, in Deweys view, is a moral one, dependent more on intelligence,
education, communication and participation than on the political machinery of a
society. When people are knowledgeable about the implications and consequences
of various beliefs, they are better equipped to participate in developing actions
and resolutions to problems. How something gets done follows from what should
be done. What should be done is developed from the deliberation that ensues from
37


a public with the capability and opportunity to participate in this deliberation
(Dewey, 1927/1954).
Dewey understood that when great disparities of wealth exist among
groups of people, equal participation in public deliberation is not possible.
Concentrated wealth allows for the control and manipulation of public forums and
mechanisms for public deliberation, such as the media, and determines what is
and is not allowable for discussion (see Herman and Chomsky, 2002). The fact
that the mass media, as of 2004, was controlled by only five corporations
(Bagdikian, 2004) is a stark example of the way in which concentrated wealth
limits the accessibility and visibility of diverse ideas which are necessary for
democracy to thrive. Civic engagement requires time, a minimum level of
education, and material resourcesall things that the poor often do not have in
surplus due to their marginalized economic, educational and social status. Civic
engagement from marginalized groups has occurred despite this fact and with
great sacrifice and against seemingly insurmountable odds (the Civil Rights
Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is an example of this). From a Deweyan
perspective, a fully developed participatory democracy cannot be actualized
within a system that excludes effectively entire classes of people from civic
engagement.
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Similar to Emersons interest in the character of people who comprise a
democratic society versus the formal workings of the political system, Dewey
stresses the process of democracy over any particular outcome. Deweys axiom
that growth is the only moral end emphasizes that the most critical element to
democracy is an inclusive, community-oriented process of inquiry, deliberation
and experimentation, not a search for timeless truths or general theories. This is
not to say that some outcomes, such as those that strive toward ensuring that all
people have the ability to meet their basic needs as well as opportunities for
personal development and civic participation, are not more desirable and better
for furthering a democratic society. However, Dewey rejects the use of scientific
or ethical deliberation to create a new authority of thought that would become a
new hegemonic force. As a pragmatist thinker, Dewey is staunchly anti-
foundationalist and stands against tendencies to systemize, create hierarchies, and
obstruct human development. He opposes quests of certainty and permanence
because he recognizes that
all ends and values that are cut off from the ongoing process [of
education and experience] become arrests, fixations. They strive to
fixate what has been gained instead of using it to open the road and
point the way to new and better experiences. (1939/1993, p. 244).
Such efforts to find certainty thwart the ability to remain open, poised and
responsive to address new situations and challenges. Deweys emphasis on a
39


democratic process positions society to be flexible, perceptive, agile, and able to
respond to emerging challenges of the times with creative acumen.
Inquiry and deliberation are the primary aspects of the Deweyan
democratic process. Deweys notion of inquiry is modeled after a humanistic
version of the scientific process which combines imagination, thorough
information gathering, reasoning and consideration of implications and an
historical sensitivity to other cultures and ways of life (Caspary, 2000). This
process requires effective universal education for adults and children which
focuses on helping people to be effective inquirers and deliberators. For him,
education is the most significant process for any society because it helps a society
to become a community, and provides a way for individuals to develop a sense for
being a distinctive member of his or her community and the interrelatedness of all
members of society. His view of education encompassed a pedagogy that included
skills of critical inquiry, hands-on work, fostering of creative problem-solving
skills of students rather than providing answers, exploring ones thoughts and
feelings, and being able to sustain deliberation without the security of a sense of
certainty (Caspary, 2000).
In the word deliberation the word liberation is found, and in Deweys
view, liberation is the self-realization of the individual developed through the
process of contributing to a common good. This democratic vision engages a
40


dialectical relationship between the self and community, in which he argued that
self-realization of individuals could be achieved through the process of mutual
inquiry, communication and the moral development that accompanies such
communion with others. The democratic process is one that both embraces and
emerges from active dialogue among people with differing and diverse
perspectives and values. To cooperate by giving differences a chance to show
themselves because of the belief that the expression of difference is not only a
right of the other persons but is a means of enriching one's own life-experience, is
inherent in the democratic personal way of life (Dewey, 1939/1993).
As I have been arguing, Deweys vision of democracy is a thick one, as
opposed to the thin ones that are commonly accepted in U.S. society. For
Dewey, democracy is an expression of the commitment to utilize human creative
potential to work toward a better future, and to continuously improve the quality
and experience of life for all members of society. It is an attitude and orientation
toward fellow human beings that values the freedom of all individuals to develop
their own potential in harmony with the common good. Democracy, in this
sense, is a process of claiming ones power, engaging in the project of self-
creation, and participating in the continual formation of ones community. It is a
constant state of creativity and transformation from old ideas and norms to new
ones, rather than a set of social and political institutions or a specific set of values
41


that, once created, need only be encapsulated and codified into law. In fact, such
institutions are inherently conservative, having verified or mummified old ideas
and values at the expense of the new.
The Deweyan concept of self-realization as emerging through a dialectical
process of individual inquiry and communal inquiry complements Emersons
notion of the self-reliant individual and shows the ways that human beings
growth depends on communion (and communication) with others in order to be
realized. Deweys emphasis on knowledge as a communal process resulting in
understandings that are always open to further revision rather than something
permanent and ahistorical, is a useful concept for moving beyond the limitations
placed on human transformation which are perpetuated by foundationalist
philosophy.
Rorty
Richard Rortys scholarship is an important addition to the vision of
democratic society presented in this thesis thus far. My use of Rortys work builds
upon Emersons emphasis on the self and Deweys trust for a communal process
of inquiry and deliberation, bringing in Rortys notion of ironism into the vision
of creative democracy that I develop in this thesis.
Rorty, a pragmatist intellectual as were Emerson and Dewey, is also
staunchly anti-foundational. He argues that the Western philosophical tradition of
42


attempting to anchor human beliefs and practices onto transcendent and universal
givens, such as God, Natural Law, Reason or other fixed and immutable things,
distracts from working toward a more useful goal: creating new and better
descriptions of ourselves and society that help us to reduce suffering and increase
human happiness. Rather than worrying about whether or not we are getting it
right, Rorty argues that it is more consequential to focus on whether or not there
might be better descriptions of the world than the ones we currently hold.
In Rortys view, all beliefs and practices grow out of human beings
experiences and the attempts to make sense of, and adjust to, the practical
contingencies and conditions within which we live (Rorty, 1999). Human values
and standards of morality, and all moral and philosophical debates about what is
right and wrong, good and bad, are created within the context of human
understanding, which occurs within these historical contingencies and conditions
(Bacon, 2005). From this perspective, it is not possible to defend ones belief
without using justifications that are themselves bounded by historical
contingencies. Any justification used to defend a belief (e.g., criteria for what is
good or bad) is itself a product of human thought and language emerging in the
context of a certain place, time and culture. There is no neutral language from
which humans can develop criteria upon which to judge various explanations and
worldviews. In other words, there is no timeless/ahistorical set of Truths to which
43


one can appeal, and, therefore, our justifications for our beliefs at some point
become circular. For example, if a Christian emphatically argues that
homosexuality is wrong because it is sinful, he or she would be unable to justify
this belief to a non-Christian with neutral criteria. The justification that the Bible
says so is insufficient because it, too, is based on human understanding of the
word of God and was written by human beings who existed during a particular
place and time in history. Similarly, if I were to argue that all humans have a
right to clean water, adequate sanitation, health care and the opportunity to earn
a decent living, I cannot justify this on any grounds except that I believe that one
human being is not inherently more deserving of basic life-sustaining necessities
than any other, and that ensuring that everyone has their basic needs met would
produce a more creative, empowered and healthier human society than the one
that exists currently and we would likely then have a better world in which to live.
In other words, in constructing moral arguments about what is right and good, we
depend upon and use our own historically contingent values and beliefs for
justification (Bacon, 2005). Rorty (1989) calls the set of beliefs that one holds
which cannot escape justification by circular argument ones final vocabulary.
It is final in the sense that those words are as far as he can go with language;
beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to force (p. 73).
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Critics view Rortys anti-foundationalism as a threat to human morality
because they assume that if there are no commensurable Truths upon which
humans base their moral values and decisions, we will automatically dissolve into
selfish nihilism and a Hobbesian war of all against all. I argue that not only is
this an impoverished view of human moral capacity, but also that it is a
misunderstanding to insist that such results are an inevitable outcome of anti-
foundationalism. Rather, by repositioning values, beliefs and moral standards in
terms of vocabularies that we adapt based on historical contingencies instead of
Tmths, anti-foundationalism opens up a new realm of possibility for individual
and social change. For example, if I examine my beliefs from the perspective that
it is a narrative or a set of meanings that I have adopted or accepted based on my
familys traditions, my culture, my religion, or my particular life experiences,
then it allows me, the individual, to examine it, critique it and perhaps see if there
are other narratives that might be better. By better I mean that it either offers
more hope, helps one to view people and situations differently than before, allows
one to problem-solve in new ways, or to expand ones ability to get along with a
wider set of people. In other words, a narrative or vocabulary that, in Burkes
(1984) words, functions as a better equipment for living. Seeing my belief
system as a final vocabulary instead of the Only Right Way allows me to bracket
that belief system and become more creative and open to other beliefs, values and
45


understandings. Rorty (1989) calls this type of self-reflection ironism. Adopting
an ironist practice and the associated ability to perceive ones beliefs as emerging
from a particular set of historical circumstances rather than as Truth does not
result in an inability to stand up for ones own beliefs and moral standards. On the
contrary, ironism calls individuals to become more astute self-critics. It
encourages us to revise and gain a heightened awareness of what we believe, and
to accept or create the beliefs and values that seem most right to us given our
best assessment of the alternatives. Thus, we are better equipped to become more
active participants in our own cultural, moral, and intellectual development, and
able to take ownership of, and consequences for, our beliefs and actions. Ironism
helps us to be the strong, creative individuals that Emerson envisioned, rather than
members of the mob who accept with blind faith the truths that are handed
down from others.
In addition to fostering a more self-critical and culturally agile citizenry,
ironism is a useful practice for working toward a socially just democracy. If we
want to be more socially just (and I argue that we should), then citizens need to be
able to relate to others who are very different from oneself, and see that although
differences exist between people, such differences become unimportant when
compared with similarities with respect to pain and humiliation (Rorty, 1989, p.
192). Such realizations emerge from a capacity to experience and express
46


compassion and solidarity, and an ironist awareness helps us to cultivate this
capacity.
Rorty, in this sense, helps us to see that we do not need dogmatism and
universal transcendent Truths (which would never be agreed uponnor should
they, for different belief systems contribute to the diversity upon which all life
flourishes) in order to be compassionate toward others and be committed to an
improvement in social and economic conditions for all human beings.
Conclusion
The Emersonian-Dewyian-Rortian description of democracy developed
above I refer to as creative democracy, using Deweys (1939) term. Creative
democracy maintains that democracy is a state of mind, a commitment to
maximizing social justice and inclusion, and a cultural way of being that places
the potentiality and humanity of people above blind allegiance to religious dogma,
Rule of Law, patriotism, and the U.S. Constitution. Democracy, I maintain, is
more than a political system. It is an attitude, a state of mind that orients the
individual to be committed to the idea that there is always more that we can do to
be more inclusive, that human beings are reservoirs of potential and that we have
not fully tapped into this reservoir.
This alternative vision of democracy provides the backdrop against which
the primary topics of this thesis unfold; these are the ways in which we can
47


engage communication in such a way that we empower ourselves and others to
recognize and work against systemic alienation and become agents for social
justice.
1 The term thin description comes from anthropologist Clifford Geertzs classic
concept of thick and thin descriptions in the context of anthropology. Geertz
distinquishes thick descriptions from thin ones in that thick descriptions are
comprised of deep reading of symbols in order to understand all of its possible
meanings. In contrast, thin descriptions are interpretations of symbols at a
superficial level. See Geertz (1973) for more information.
2
BCE stands for "Before the Common Era. It is synonymous with BC in that it
refers to dates before the year 1, however it is intended to be a dating system not
based upon religious belief.
For example, the abolishment of slavery and the civil rights movements are good
examples of the ways that the United States made huge leaps forward in terms of
changing entrenched harmful social norms and political and economic
institutions.
4 In Romer v. Evans (1996) the Court gave its ruling against an amendment to the
Colorado state constitution that would have prevented any city, town or county in
the state from taking any legislative, executive, or judicial action to protect gay or
lesbian citizens.
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CHAPTER THREE
CREATIVE DEMOCRACY AND COMMUNICATION
Drawing from the social philosophy of Emerson, Dewey and Rorty, I
developed, in the previous chapter, a sketch of what I call creative democracy.
Fundamental to the work of these writers is the notion that democracy is much
more than a political system or the right to vote. Democracy is a process of
deliberation, inquiry and experimentation that takes place in and emerges from
localized communities. Creative democracy, in the way that I describe it, is
ultimately constituted in the attitudes and character of individuals and the activity
of communities to which they belong, not in the political or economic machinery
of a society. In this chapter, I examine the ways in which communication is
central to engaging in such a process and for creating such a democratic culture
and society.
Democratic society, particularly if it is to be understood in terms of
creative democracy, implies that communication is an important aspect in the
lives of all citizens. I define citizen as an individual who is aware that he or she is
connected to others through a larger community, has opportunities to actively
participate in shaping that community, and understands that communal
engagement is a primary way in which we develop our individual and collective
human potential. Such a perspective of citizenship entails understanding that we
49


are all implicated in the same future, and therefore we all bear responsibility for
its creation. In the Emersonian-Deweyian-Rortian democracy that I am sketching,
individuals are most effective as citizens when they see democracy as a personal
responsibility and as a way of life, comprehend the ways in which communication
is critical in claiming ones power to direct individual and social change, and
when they are able to relate to others from all walks of life, thus enhancing their
ability to engage in political and social solidarity. Taking this one step further,
individuals are only effective citizens to the degree that they are able to engage in
acts of communication that are necessary to live a fully human life (Frey et al.,
1996; Freire, 1970; Rodriguez, 2001). Humans need to be able to speak and act in
the world; suppression of these needs stifles their ability to engage fully in
developing the self and the communities to which they belong. Communication
scholar Amardo Rodriguez (2001) underscores the importance of communication
in human life when he states, Only human beings possess a natural existential
striving to bring meaning to bear on the world. Through communication, humans
beings are humanized. Communication is the constitutive attribute of being
human (p. 10).
Unfortunately, language is usually taken for granted as merely a
mechanism for transmitting, relaying and expressing messages and meanings
this, in fact, remains the dominant view in communication textbooks (Rodriguez,
50


2006). Such perspective, rooted in a Western tradition stretching back to Plato, is
based upon the assumption that Truth or other transcendent goals exist outside
of human experience, but may be accessed by a select group of people who
possess special capacities, be it Reason, Divine Wisdom or some other faculty.
From this ontological perspective, language is limited in value. According to
Rodriguez and others (see Rorty, 1979, Swartz, 1997, Scott, 1967), the discourse
of Truth is believed to be a neutral, free of subjectivity and human perceptions.
One of the consequences of this philosophical position is that only those who
have access to this Truth, this neutral language, such as experts, guardians of
knowledge and other naturally privileged groups of people should have the
authority to shape society. As I discussed in Chapter Two, this perspective of
language gives rise to the guardianship theory of public rule against which Dewey
and others stand. Viewing communication as transmission naturalizes or reifies
human-constructed meanings and creates an intellectual environment in which
ideas and perspectives are mistaken for Truth (Swartz, 1997; 2005). Democratic
participation is inhibited and dissent in such circumstances is seen as irrational,
irresponsible or even immoral.
Assuming communication to be merely a mode of knowledge
transmission, the vast majority of people are likely to assume that knowledge is
the realm of experts, priests, and philosophers, and that as average citizens, they
51


themselves do not have knowledge or the authority to speak. Consider President
George W. Bushs defense of his decisions in the face of mounting public
criticism. As public opinion has turned against support of Bush and the war on
Iraq, the president has become increasingly dismissive of the public, and his
arrogance seems particularly unwarranted in the face of military debacles. This
attitude is illustrated in the comments he made on his decision to retain Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld amidst public discontent about the handling of the
war on Iraq by civilians and retired military generals: "I hear the [critics] voices,
and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I'm the decider, and I
decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the
Secretary of Defense" (Office of the Press Secretary, 2006a). In such a
guardianship theory of democracy, protest is little more than a formality intended
to be an escape valve for social unrest when citizens become too discontented.
Bush has admitted as much; a speech he gave to students at John Hopkins
University, he stated, I take protest seriously.. ..I think this is the great thing
about a democracy. There needs to be an outlet. If people feel like their
government is not listening to them or doesn't agree with them, there ought to be
an outlet for their discontent (Office of the Press Secretary, 2006b). That public
protest is regarded as merely an activity for the release of pent-up emotions
indicates that public discourse is not taken seriously as a fundamental aspect of
52


democracy. This dismissal of opportunities for substantive public discourse is
problematic when a society describes itself as democratic and democracy is
understood as more than merely the process of voting. Such a relationship to
communication alienates individuals from their experiences of the world,
discourages them from questioning that which authorities and experts tell them,
and inhibits them from viewing themselves as change agents for a more inclusive
and just society. What results is a public of consenting spectators and a small
ruling class who makes decisions for, or simply ignore, the vast majority while
they themselves do not themselves suffer the consequences of these decisions
(Mills, 1963). This view of language limits opportunities for individual and social
transformation because it treats knowledge and the authority to speak truth as a
privileged, specialized domain that falls within the purview of privileged groups.
A perspective of communication more useful for transformative purposes
is one that understands language as the way in which humans create then-
understanding of reality. In this view, called the epistemic perspective of
communication, the creative aspect of language is emphasized. All human
knowledge is interpretive; humans know through their thought processes and
the language used to describe these (Scott, 1967; Rorty, 1979 and 1999; Schiappa,
2003). Furthermore, new understandings of the world and ourselves, i.e., what we
know, are mediated by our existing knowledge. William James (1907/1965)
53


speaks of the way truths are formed when he says that what we call truths are
simply ideas made into knowledge through a process of verifying and testing
against other ideas that we hold to be true. Ideas that diverge too greatly from
normative understandings of reality and that cannot be reconciled with what is
currently known are considered irrational, illogical or absurd. As evidence,
experience and new ways of talking about things emerge that together challenge
normative beliefs, dissonance and disruption of taken-for-granted truths occurs,
allowing new truths to gradually form. Communication, understood in this
manner, is a way of knowing (Scott, 1967).1
Kenneth Burke (1966) contributed greatly to the epistemic view of
language, emphasizing the creative aspect of language through his dramatist
perspective, by explaining communication as a symbolic act. Use of any
terminology involves selection, whether or not deliberate or spontaneous. When a
term is used to name something, this naming selects, directs and deflects (Burke,
1966). Simply by saying something is one thing, we imply it is not another, we
highlight certain aspects and, in doing so, imply that other aspects are unimportant
to consider (p. 6). Burke refers to this characteristic of language as terministic
screens (1966). Partial and selective assignment of meaning to a situation or
object is always related to assumptions and existing meanings held by the
individual or group who is doing the defining. These assumptions and existing
54


meanings, as well as the language choices used in the definition, cast a particular
view on the situation or object. To use Burkes example, it is much like the way a
photographer or documentary filmmaker uses background, light, and the camera
lens to direct the viewer to see the subject in a particular way. In both instances,
the framing of the issue or object leads the viewer to understand the subject in a
certain way. Most people, however, do not examine critically the normative
vocabularies that define them and their world, and terms such as this are often
accepted at face value. The way terministic screens operate can be understood
through examining the various terminologies used to describe impoverished
countries. Take, for example, the term developing country. The term is vague
but it implies progress and changebut not just any progressprogress away
from backwardness and toward the model of modem, developed countries,
with similar economies, industry, technology, etc. Another term used to describe
very poor countries is the South, referring to the Southern Hemisphere. This
term brings attention to the geographical location of the poor countries and
appears to evoke neutrality in terms of politics, history and culture. It directs
attention to a North-South divide that generally exists between wealthy and poor
countries (a label which is not entirely accurate as there are many exceptions), as
though geography itself is the cause of poverty and history plays no role. This
framing ignores the fact that at various periods in history, civilizations in the
55


South such as the Maya, the Aztecs, the Egyptians, the Chinese, and others
were highly advanced in their respective periods of human development, and
wealthy in many ways, including access to, and masterful use, of natural
resources. A third term for these countries might be former European colonies.
This term brings into focus the relationship between poor states and a history of
having been colonized. Vandana Shiva (1997) points out the way that language is
used to frame and name by describing how the colonizers freedom was built on
the slavery and subjugation of the people with original rights to the land. Yet,
this violent takeover was rendered natural by defining the colonized people as
nature, thus denying them their humanity and freedom (p. 3). As this illustrates,
viewing communication as merely a means of information transmission distracts
from the power of language to shape understandings of reality.
Communication is a creative act in that it generates certain kinds of
attitudinal, intellectual, emotional or behavioral responses (Burke, 1966;
Schiappa, 2003). Different definitions invoke different attitudes and imply that
certain kinds of actions and responses are appropriate and others inappropriate
(Burke, 1966; Schiappa, 2003). In this way, the language we use literally shapes
our social world and future. The U.S. response to the tragedy of 9/11 provides a
current example to examine the consequential nature of language. In the days
immediately following 9/11, President George W. Bush made a number of
56


speeches that defined the situation surrounding the tragedy. On September 11,
2001, President Bush named the attack on the World Trade Center as an attack on
our way of life, our very freedom and an act of evil. Bush continued to say,
America was targeted for attack because were the brightest beacon for freedom
and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining
(Office of the Press Secretary, 2001). In defining the situation in this way, Bush
created a simple, dualistic drama in which America is the heroic freedom fighter
for all that is just and right in a battle of Good and Evil. By appealing to
emotions, particularly fear and pride, and using ideographs (symbols that
represent an idea rather than merely a word) such as freedom and evil, which
conjure up strong value connotations in American culture and yet are sufficiently
vague to allow for various interpretations, Bush named the crisis, establishing a
framework from which certain actions would follow. Following this speech,
which defined the 9/11 situation, Bush then utilized the public commitment for
defending the ideals of freedom and democracy to begin a process of erosion
of freedom and democracy in the United States (e.g., the Patriot Act), and to
justify the military invasion of Iraq. All of this occurred without evidence
connecting Iraq with the terrorist actions of 9/11, with little to no authentic public
debate or criticism in primary public or widely accessible spaces for
communication such as schools, universities, the legislature, television and main
57


newspapers. The actions that were set into motion with the framing and defining
of the 9/11 situation have cost the lives of nearly 3,000 U.S. men and women an
estimated 45,000 Iraqi civilians3, and over 330 trillion dollars in taxpayer dollars
as of October 1,20064 (inclusive of all costs associated with the war)money
that could be used, among other things, to ensure all children in the United States
receive education, health care and proper nutrition. It is clear that cultural and
material consequences result from the way we speak. Instead, the United States
(under the auspices of a battle against terrorism) has embarked on a war against
a people that had nothing to do with 9/11. Terrorism is yet another simplistic
explanation for a complex problem. As Stanley Fish (2002) argues, International
Terrorism
cannot be the name of what we are up against. Strictly speaking,
terrorism is the name of a style of warfare, and those who employ
it are not committed to it but to the cause in whose service they
adopt terrorisms tactics. It is that cause, and the passions
informing it, that confronts us. (p.30)
By labeling the problem simply as terrorism, the history and the larger context
that surrounded the tragedy of 9/11 is conveniently ignored, made invisible and
absent from the publics view. Fish goes on to state that we have not seen the
face of Evil; we have seen the face of an enemy who comes at us fully equipped
with grievances, goals, and strategies (p. 29). By using language that reduces the
enemy to the abstraction of Evil, we conjure up a shape-shifting demon, a wild-
58


card moral anarchist beyond our comprehension and therefore beyond the reach
of any counter-strategies we might devise (ibid.). The actions that followed from
the way that this situation was framed has arguably had some success in fueling
the grievances of those who see the United States as an enemy worth destroying
not in making the United States safer.
Humans can engage in communication in ways that create separation, fear,
mistrust and hatred, but communication can also be used to foster understandings
of human connectedness and identification (Rodriguez, 2001). I argue, along with
many others (Rodriguez, 2001; Frey et al., 1996; Swartz, 1997 & 2005; Rorty,
1989), that we have no better project than to use communication for humanistic
and social justice purposes: communication is liberatory. Although after Foucault
we should be cautious when employing this term, liberation is still a useful
concept. As Amardo Rodriguez (2001) defines it, liberation means becoming
fully human through the forging of deep and meaningful relations, and through
these relationships, continuous evolution of new ways of being (p. 2).
Liberation can be thought of as community building and as moving beyond
dogmatic thinking that restrict us from fully experiences our own potential. A
moving example of this is the remarkable personal transformation of C. P. Ellis,
an uneducated onetime Ku Klux Klan leader who became a preeminent civil
rights activist (Davidson, 1996). Ellis was bom into poverty and a Southern
59


culture that held faith in the virtues of being a God-fearing, law-abiding citizen
and working hard for a better life. He was married at 17 and soon with a family of
four to support. Ellis worked two jobs, as much overtime as he could, was an
honest citizen and yet was unable to provide a better life for his children than he
had. No matter how hard he worked his family subsisted on the edge of a
perpetual povertya condition that relegated his children to the status of poor
White trash. Alienated and angry, Ellis was drawn to the Ku Klux Klan, as was
his own father, because of the community and sense of power and belonging that
it offered. The Klans targeting of Blacks as the problem for poor Whites
provided a scapegoat for the injustice that he was experiencing. As a member of
the Klan, Ellis was elected by the city of Durham, North Carolina, to serve on a
citizen committee to address emerging issues related to school desegregation. He
was soon asked to co-chair the school committee with a Black activist named Ann
Atwatera proposition that he nearly was unwilling to do because of his hatred
for Black people. Through his tumultuous work relationship with Ann and their
many yelling matches, argumentsand, later on, discussionshe began to realize
that she and other Black people were experiencing the same problems as he and
other poor Whites faced. He saw that their differences were less significant than
he had previously assumed and that they both wanted the same thing: a better life
for themselves and their families. He began to see that the problems that he and
60


others were facing were systemic, a result of institutionalized and protected
privilege for a small powerful group of people, rather than the fault of Blacks who
shared the experience of disenfranchisement with him. Ellis and Atwater became
close friends, and Ellis became a dedicated civil rights activist and a labor
organizer. Ellis and Atwaters communication allowed them to create new
realizations together that they shared many of the same struggles and hopes and is
illustrative of the potential for communication to provide liberatory,
transformative experiences for people, allowing them to transcend their
previously fixed understandings of reality and their acceptance of ideas as
given truths.
The Communicative Imagination
As discussed above, communication is the primary process through which
humans create their collective and individual realities and identities (Deetz, 1992;
Engen, 2002; Rorty, 1989; Swartz, 1997, 1999 & 2005). It is through
communication that meanings are developed, norms established, social practices
justified, imaginations expanded or constrained, and opportunities for
empowerment and self-development occur.
Possibilities for a more participatory democracy and greater social change
would occur if more people developed and enacted their communicative
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imagination. The communicative imagination, a concept articulated by David
Engen (2002) and further shaped by Omar Swartz (2005 and 2006), is an
orientation by which individuals possess a heightened state of awareness of the
influences of communication on their lives. As discussed above, humans
communicate through systems of verbal and non-verbal symbols, and the overall
picture of what is considered to be reality is comprised of these symbol systems
(Burke, 1966). Kenneth Burkes (1966) description of human beings as the
symbol-using, symbol-making and symbol-misusing animal aptly points out
that humans cannot separate themselves from the symbolic; we live within a
symbolic world created by us. Like breathing, symbols are such an integral part of
human experience that individuals forget that symbols exist, and forget that they
are human creations. In so doing, humans take for granted the symbols that they
create, mistaking their presence for something real outside of human culture. With
a communicative imagination, however, individuals become attuned to the role of
the symbolic in everyday life (Engen, 2002). Such individuals have developed the
faculties of awareness that enable them to see symbols as discrete human
creations and to perceive relationships among symbols which together comprise a
picture of reality. An analogy that may serve as illustrative here is found in art.
While an individual with an untrained eye may stand before an oil painting of a
landscape and see the portrayal of a 14th century feudal village, a trained artist
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would perceive specific forms, how the forms relate to each other, and how each
brushstroke of paint is purposefully placed to create what the viewer experiences
as a village. The painters choices of brush, medium, color and placement create
this visual experience, and an individual who is perceptive to this would be able
to view the painting not only as a village, but as a set of distinct creative decisions
on the part of the artist. Likewise, a communicative imagination allows one to see
symbols as discrete human creations, communicative acts that give form to the
cultural, political and social landscapes of human communities.
A communicative imagination, however, goes beyond a general awareness
of the symbolic to a competency of using the symbolic for building human
relations. For instance, Engen (2002) incorporates Martha Nussbaums (1997)
narrative imagination into his construct, the ability to imagine the experiences
and perspectives of others different from oneself, and to suspend ones own
worldview and judgment in order to open oneself to the experience of another.
Such an ability allows individuals to increase their capacity to see others as
human and as not so different from themselves. It also paves the way for the
development of moral intelligence, another aspect of communicative imagination.
Engen (2002) and Nussbaum (1997) describe moral intelligence as a quality
possessed by human beings who recognize their connections to others and the
power of language to reify or reject human connectedness. Moral intelligence is
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not only comprised of this intellectual understanding, but also incorporates acts of
compassion and respect for others through the careful use of communication. This
does not mean that one cannot be honest in his or her communication. But it does
mean that a recognition that their words have the power to reify hierarchy, cause
harm and normalize social stratification. Alternatively, they can heal, create
bridges of understanding and be resources for empowerment.
Power, Alienation and Communication
Fundamental to understanding communication as epistemic and creative is
the notion of power. Power is central to the human experience and is a resource
for individual as well as social transformation. Humans are beings of potential.
Through a self-conscious awareness and cultivation of his or her power,
individuals can identify, create and seize opportunities to develop and realize this
potential. At a societal level, power shapes norms, transforms society, and
reproduces the social, economic and political arrangements of the status quo
(Swartz, 2005).
The term power is often used pejoratively; power is often seen primarily
as something that is lorded over others, something used to impose or force
ones will upon others, and something that some people have while others do not.
In this sense, power is often understood predominantly as coercionthat people
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are subjected to others power and are rendered defenseless and without choices
for response or escape. This interpretation has important cultural resonance;
slavery, economic exploitation of the poor, and the atrocities committed against
Jews and minorities during Nazi Germany are examples of power working in an
overtly coercive and repulsive manner. Throughout history and up to the current
time, power as coercion has been a recurring theme in human social life.
However, while coercion is one form of power, power should not be understood
only in this way, and, more importantly, exertion of power over others should not
be accepted as the natural mode of human relations (Rodriguez, 2001). As
Rodriguez argues, some level of coercion and the hierarchies it serves are
assumed to be necessary for an orderly society; otherwise, it is believed, society
would deteriorate into an irrational chaos. The concentration of power within
some groups is assumed to be necessary, and asymmetrical power relations are
assumed to be a reflection of natural superiority/inferiority. However, this view
overlooks a more nuanced understanding of power. Against the normative
ideology that claims hierarchy is a necessity for an orderly society, Rodriguez
(2001) argues that hierarchy is an artifact of social devolution and that the
selfishness that is promoted through it impedes our potentiality and existential
strivingsstrivings which are not limited to self-preservation instincts such as
securing food and shelter, but the will toward creativity, community and the
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development of individual mental, emotional, and spiritual capacities. An
ideology that naturalizes hierarchy and competition does not explain these other
human strivings and inhibits them from being actualized. Rodriguez emphasizes
cooperation and mutuality as a mode of human relations that developed out of
social evolution in human experience, one that leads to a richer, more actualized
and healthier human experience. Viewing power as limited to coercion and power
over, rather than power to, simplifies and limits individuals understanding of
power as a resource that is important for critical perception, self-actualization and
the building of creative and socially just communities.
Michel Foucault has changed the way power is understood, showing the
complexity and subtlety in the way that it manifests, perpetuates and functions.
Foucault (1995) was concerned with exploring how mles of right get established
by the relations of power through the production of discourses of truth. Thus,
relations of power cannot be established, consolidated, or implemented without
the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse (1995,
p. 443). He asserts that it is through the relations of power that discourses of truth
are produced, which in turn determine the mles of right (i.e., what is allowable to
do, think and besocial and cultural norms). However, particular arrangements
of the relations of power exist because people give creedance to knowledge and
practices that support those arrangements. In Foucauldian terms, power cannot
66


simply be understood as something sovereign or centralized, rather, it is a
resource which is drawn upon and utilized by individuals and groups. Power is
disciplinary; it functions through natural rules or norms, i.e., it is found in the
process of normalization (Swartz, 1996). For example, Ritzers (1993) concept of
McDonaldization, in which the principles of the fast-food (or any corporatized)
industryefficiency, calculability, predictability and controlhave become
interwoven into the broader mainstream American society and culture is
illustrative of the way power and normalization function together. These
principles, geared toward serving the corporate ends of ever-increasing profit and
growth, can be seen in not only the wider food industry, but in the housing
industry where McMansions are built in suburban housing developments all
over the country, in the automated customer service centers for virtually every
large service provider, and in numerous other areas of social and cultural life in
the United States. The McDonalds ethos is so pervasive and extends to
numerous mundane aspects of daily life (is normal) because a majority of
people accept it as inevitable or even as progress. Bryman (1999) extends this
idea to describe the way that the principles of Disney theme parks are also coming
to dominate more sectors of American society, as well as globally. The
dedifferentiation of consumption (Bryman, 1999) is one example of this, in
which previously separate aspects of consumer areas are now grouped together in
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one-stop developments where consumers can get all of their basic and
entertainment needs met without ever having to leave the development. The
casino/hotels in Las Vegas are a prime example of this as are large malls such as
the Mall of America. Merchandising is another aspect of Disneyization that has
proliferated in recent years, in which companies sell products with copyrighted
images and logos on it and consumers pay to be associated with some aspect of
culture with which they want to identify (or be identified). Designer jeans, toys of
characters from blockbuster films, and T-shirts with the names of well-known
restaurants or bars are all examples of this. By consuming these, average citizens
participate in reifying and reproducing these particular power relations.
As the above discussion illustrates, power and domination exist in the
institutions, regulations, and social, political and economic mechanisms that
operate at all levels and in all domains of social life. All people participate in the
relations of power, even if that participation takes the form of passivity. This view
is quite different than the traditional Marxist zero-sum conception of power,
which sees power as being imposed from above down onto others, or something
that some groups have and others do not (Marx and Engels, 1848/1992).
Understanding power as a relation (one that permeates and reaches into all areas
of social life), as opposed to a static thing, underscores the idea that power is
constantly in a process of being created, reproduced and contested. All people
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participate in this process and contribute to shaping the relations of power,
whether or not they are aware of this process. As Dan Butin (2001) states, we are
all involved in accepting or resisting the normative constraints placed upon us (p.
169). Therefore, each individual participates in reifying or resisting the norms
and forms of domination that are produced through power.5 In this way, the
choices individuals makes on a daily basis, in the seemingly mundane aspects of
daily life, plays a part in the relations of power.
Alienation is a substantial barrier to understanding that all humans take
part in the relations of power and that, as such, every day we engage in the
reproduction of existing norms or the creation of new ones. Alienation can be
understood as the condition that we experience when others determine who we
will be, how we will think and what we will do; an experience that we are unable
to perceive fully (Swartz, 2005). When people are alienated, they have the sense
that they cannot control their lives and they lose the sense (if they ever had it) that
they have the potential to change their environment. In such a condition, people
are unable to recognize their own creative potential and agency and cease to
experience ownership over themselves, often leading to hopelessness, fatalism or
nihilism (Rodriguez, 2001, p. 63).
Adopting a Foucauldian perception of power can ameliorate such
alienation in the recognition that one always possesses agency because one is
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always a participant in relations of power, and that resistance to the domination
that one may experience is in itself a powerful act. This view of power is therefore
potentially liberating for people and can be used as a resource for cultivating
ones own sense of agency. This understanding also offers a way to be a more
vigilant and perceptive cultural critic, an individual who is able to identify keenly
the limitations and consequences of various aspects of culture. With a
Foucauldian perspective, one is attuned better to look beyond the obvious places
where power functions, such as government institutions, and instead be aware of
power in places considered to be the domain of the familiar, normal everyday life:
places of employment, within the family, the doctors office, and seemingly
innocuous social traditions. Additionally, Foucauldian or neo-pragmatist
perspectives of power are useful for advancing a creative democracy, as described
above. Once one is able to gain the vantage point that power is not necessarily a
monolithic, centralized force, we can appreciate how it is netlike, circuitous, and
pervasive and is made by discourses of truth. With this perspective, we become
free to examine the ways one participates in reifying power relations and truths
that may be at odds with ones own moral vision. One can resist and direct energy
toward creating new communities and discourses to replace the dominant ones, as
did Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi.
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King and Gandhi used power, in the productive, neo-Foucauldian and neo-
pragmatic sense, to bring about social change for positive ends. King and Gandhi
did not have the force of an army or a gun behind them to advance their will (nor
would they have wanted this), and yet they were figures who wielded great
power. King and Gandhi cultivated power through their approach to, and use of,
communication as a means of creating community, social, and self-
transformation.
Gandhi is known for his leadership of the Indian movement toward self-
rule from British colonialism. The term satyagraha, which means the force of
truth in Sanskrit, was coined by Gandhi to capture the idea behind the new social
movement that he was creating in India to change socially unjust and
institutionalized relations, ranging from British colonial rule to the brutal Indian
caste system which systematically relegates large groups of people to the status of
untouchable. His philosophy and the movement that it animated has since
provided a model and an inspiration to people all over the world engaged in
efforts to further social justice, including King and the U.S. Civil Rights
Movement of the 1960s.
Satyagraha is commonly conflated in the West with civil disobedience or
passive resistance. This interpretation, however, is incomplete (Chaudhary and
Starosta, 1992; Jesudasan, 1984). While Gandhi did incorporate civil
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disobedience into his larger strategy for social change, it is only one aspect of the
larger philosophy of satyagraha (Chaudhary and Starosta, 1992). Satyagraha can
be more accurately understood as a dialogic approach to social change. In the
dialogic approach, change begins with the individual, and though it may result in
acts of defiance, it does not begin there.
Gandhis approach starts with verbal communication and moves to civil
disobedience only in the case where all other communication attempts fail. This
approach makes sense when understood within the context of Gandhis
assumptions about humans, their relationship to one another, and the role of the
individual in social transformation. Gandhi was committed to the idea that all
humans have the potential for moral decision making and are capable of moral
development, regardless of who they are or how much they have harmed others
(Carlson, 1986; Chaudhary and Starosta, 1992). He also recognized that all
individuals have the potential to cause harm, and thus, boundaries between the
self and others, good people and evil people, are blurred. Satyagraha is
enacted not only to purify the enemy of his or her erring ways (Carlson, 1986),
but equally to purify the follower through rigorous self-discipline and self-
reflection. This purification can be seen as a confrontation of ones own
prejudices, biases and values, or, in Rortian terms, ones final vocabulary.
Purification also provides an opportunity for the individual to examine his/her
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willingness to suffer for ones commitment to justice at the hands of the enemy
(Chaudhary and Starosta, 1992). This is a significant aspect of the philosophy.
The person who is unwilling to suffer the consequences for his or her beliefs may
turn to violence (Carlson, 1986; Chaudhary and Starosta, 1992; Jesudasan, 1984);
however, and this is the key point, willingness to bear consequences brings into
harmony ones beliefs, words, and actions. The locus of social transformation for
Gandhi is found in the individual and the choices that individuals make to
recognize the worth and humanity of themselves and others.
Martin Luther King, Jr., likewise, engaged the ethics of love for
humankind and nonviolence to direct the U.S. Civil Rights movement, which took
place during the 1960s and ultimately resulted in the passage of the 1964 Civil
Rights and 1965 Voting Rights acts. King was greatly inspired by Gandhis
philosophy of satyagraha and the idea that social change could be undertaken
through nonviolent means, social resistance, and community-building. Gandhis
method for social transformation was what allowed King, an ordained Baptist
minister, to see how he could combine a principle of Christian pacifism with a
strong and creative activism to affect social change in the areas of racial
inequality, poverty and, later, war (King, 1983). King celebrated the worth of all
human beings and fiercely opposed the institutionalized racism and poverty that
plagued not only African Americans in the United States, but peoples around the
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world. A recurring concept in his writings was that of human connectedness and
interdependence, and unity, worth and dignity for all people are common themes.
Such an ethic inspires the creative utilization of power to advance this ethos of a
wider human community. In Kings civil rights model of activism, all individuals
possess the potential and power to create positive change. Examples that King
talked about include speaking out against unjust normative ideologies, serving
others in need, resisting unjust laws (such as the famous Montgomery bus boycott
of 1955-56 which sparked the civil rights movement), and building bridges with
others different from oneself or ones own group (Nojeim, 2004). King modeled
his own philosophy for social change, by participating in direct acts of resistance
to unjust laws and by serving others, as well as through public speaking and
writing which criticized the institutionalization of racism and poverty and
articulated a vision of more humane society.
Gandhi and King provide an alternative to the model of power as a
negative social relationship embodied within coercion or competition. I argue that
their rhetorical approach invites one to view power as a resource to be cultivated
and used to further social justice ends. This power emerges from a profound sense
of hope, and is developed through self-awareness, a recognition that humans are
inextricably connected to each other, and a realization that each person possesses
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agency and the potential to create change, regardless of their status in society or
how they may have acted in the past.
Communication and power are woven together: communication works in
productive ways to generate knowledge and to produce and reproduce relations of
power within which all people participate. When people are unaware of the ways
that this works, they are more vulnerable to becoming alienated from themselves,
as they are unable to consciously and intentionally direct and control their
participation in such a system. Alienation, however, does not mean that a
individual loses his or her agency; this is something that all individuals possess.
Human agency is a primary resource for making progressive social change, and is
the raw material, so to speak, for engaging in acts of resistance and creative
action for social justice.
1 While an important area of study, this thesis does not address non-verbal
communication but is focused instead on the use of language, as language is a
primary way in which democracy is produced and reproduced.
2 See www.antiwar.com/casualties for a running count on deaths and casualties of
Americans in the war in Iraq.
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3 See www.iraqbodvcount.net for these and other civilian deaths related to the war
in Iraq.
4 See http://nationalpriorities.org/ for the cost of war by state, county and local
community.
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CHAPTER FOUR
CRITICAL EDUCATION AND SERVICE LEARNING
In the previous chapter, I described the ways in which communication has
the potential to edify, demystify, and provide empowering experiences for
individuals to be better agents for social change. In the current chapter, I argue
that a critical education provides individuals with such transformative
communication experiences. I discuss the value of critical pedagogy for this
purpose, with specific attention to service learning as a practical way for
providing edifying learning. Such learning engenders a heightened awareness of
the ways that social issues are constituted in multiple and interrelated structures
and systems in the social, cultural, political and economic landscape as well as a
sense of hope and possibility for making progressive social change.
Discussion on the relationship between democracy and communication
often focuses on the importance of free speech in creating a marketplace of
ideas for a more informed public (Tedford & Herbeck, 2005). In the United
States, free speech is usually assumed to be enough to facilitate the kinds of
communication experiences that lead to edification, empowerment, and engaged
citizenship. In other words, people assume that accessibility of varying
perspectives and ideas will, in itself, lead to transformation in thinking and to new
ways of being. While freedom of speech is a fundamental and necessary aspect of
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a democratic society, freedom of expression alone is not necessarily enough to
foster an engaged and responsible public. One critic is Dewey (1927/1954), who
argues that the belief that removal of legal restrictions automatically results in free
thought and communication is absurd. According to Dewey, No man and no
mind was ever emancipated merely by being left alone (p. 168). In other words,
emancipation, in a Deweyan context, is not a state, but an act. Contrary to the
common liberal belief that if you remove formal restrictions, the truth will make
itself evident (Rorty, 1999), Dewey views the removal of formal limitations as
but a negative condition (Ibid.), and argues that intelligence (particularly social
or democratic intelligence) is developed through a creative, generative process of
inquiry and dialogue within the context of community.
The formal education system is an important social space for such
communication experiences to occur and is, along with the media, arguably the
most important social infrastructure we have in the United States for developing
the communication imaginations of entire generations of people. As such, it is
also a primary space for the development of a more critical citizenry. By critical
citizenry, I mean one that understands that norms are often mistakenly taken for
granted as a natural reality, and that ones own knowledge and beliefs are
constructed within a nexus of particular historical and cultural contingencies.
Furthermore, such a citizenry possesses the skills of inquiry to challenge
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conventional wisdom and create new knowledge. A progressive critical citizenry,
important for advancing the creative democracy for which I argue, is also
committed to challenging normative ideologies and practices that institutionalize
and naturalize hierarchy and privilege among groups of people. Our education
system has the potential to help us to collectively become a more progressive,
democratic (in the sense argued for in this thesis) and humane society. It can, and
should, be a place in which people are expected to engage intellectually and
morally in issues related to society and civic liferegardless of the subject they
are studying (Brummett, 1984). Unfortunately, our formal education system,
generally speaking, often does not provide the kinds of edifying experiences that
foster critical, empowered, compassionate and creative citizens.
Critique of the Platonic Model of Education
The traditional Western model of education was developed in a Platonic
model of knowledge, and continues to influence the normative pedagogy found in
the U.S. educational system (Harkavy and Benson, 1998). As described earlier,
the Platonic view sees knowledge as something that is discovered in the ideal
universe of permanent and fixed ideas, a universe accessible by only the few
supposedly capable of transcending the material world to the eternal world of
ideas and who assume the natural superiority of the theoretical over that of the
lived. This assumes that communication is merely a mode of transmission and
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that true knowledge accurately represents nature and is free from human
subjectivity. The implications of this philosophical perspective is that
education, as a communicative process, becomes merely a handing down of
truths to learners, as in the banking model of education articulated by Freire
(1970). The Platonic approach to education engenders an elitist epistemarchy,
that is, a rule by the Knowers (Tallise, 2005), a self-elected aristocracy of
knowledge who discover and transmit Truth to the masses. An unfortunate, and
serious, consequence of this educational approach is that students are hindered
from actively engaging in critical thinking and knowledge building which fosters
growth, transformation and new ways of seeing the world. Rather than education
being a process of the actualization of the capacity of people to be both creative
and critical and to create new knowledge that leads to social development, it is
demoted to a process of sublimating ones own intellectual, emotional and
spiritual agency to doctrines of tradition, authority, and epistemological
totalitarianism (Swartz, 1997, p.3).
This approach to learning fosters the banking model of education
(Freire, 1970), in which knowledge is transferred from teacher to student as
though making a deposit: Instead of communicating, the teacher issues
communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize,
and repeat (p. 58). Combined with the market mentality of neoliberalism and a
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conservative cultural ethos that has gained hegemony in U.S. society, these
threaten to make formal education a prep school for corporate America and a
training ground for obedient citizens who fall in line and do as they are told
without questioning the status quo. In fact, the market mentality which has
become evident in higher education is illustrated by the metaphor of student as
consumer (McMillan and Cheney, 1996). In this metaphor, the student
purchases the knowledge of the educational establishment, illustrating the
extent to which knowledge and learning have become commodified as a good for
private consumption to further ones own place in the social and economic
hierarchy rather than understood as a potentially transformative experience for
human and social development. By privatizing the concept of education as a
commodity to be sold and purchased, education as a social and public good loses
significance. Education loses it significance as a public space for the development
of civic capital. In the banking concept of education, students receive, file and
store the deposits, but do not meaningfully engage in their own learning. An
example of this is found in the didactic, standardized test-taking orientation of
public secondary schools. The focus on federally-enforced standardized testing of
math and reading de-emphasizes transformative learning and privileges
mechanistic thinking. The pressure on schools to perform well on this
standardized test else they lose desperately needed funding creates a situation in
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which teaching becomes focused on teaching to the test rather than fostering
critical thinking skills, well-rounded competency, and creativity among students
(Ricci, 2004). Civics, foreign languages, social studies, the arts, and even science
have been severely limited to make room for standardized test-focused instruction
(ibid.). Certainly a solid foundation in basic skills of math and reading is
absolutely necessary for a good education and a functioning citizenry; however,
there is no reason why this must occur at the expense of an edifying educational
experience.
In arguing for a critical education I do not suggest that education for
socialization is unimportant; socialization of young people is important for
ensuring that common values are carried forth so that there is some basis for
functioning as a society of people who share some common identity (Rorty,
1999). As Rorty states, event ardent radicals, for all their talk of education for
freedom.. .do not really want the high schools to produce, every year, a
graduating class of amateur Zarathustras (1999, p. 117). Respect of others, basic
standards of social behavior and communication, and understanding and
appreciation of democratic principles are examples of some of the values that are
important to impart through education. However, socialization must be balanced
with criticism. While a banking model is useful for some purposes, such as
creating professional or technical skills which enable us to get work done, this
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aspect of learning alone is insufficient, and can be counterproductive to creating a
citizenry that is capable of, or even willing to, engage in moral public decision-
making and critically assess the moral consequences of various and contesting
ideas. For example, Nazi Germany (1931-1945) utilized a highly skilled class of
scientists and experts who directed their knowledge to develop technologies for
the purpose of torturing and murdering 6 million Jews, along with six million
others, such as Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals and the mentally ill. Professional or
technical knowledge without equal knowledge in moral decision-making is
dangerous (Katz, 1992). Recognition of this is illustrated in the following note
given each year to teachers by a school principal:
Dear Teacher:
I am a survivor of a concentration camp.
My eyes saw what no man should witness: Gas chambers built by
learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians.
Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and
burned by high school and college graduates.
So I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students to become human. Your efforts
must never produce the learned monsters, skilled psychopaths,
educated Eichmanns.
Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make
our children more human (cited in Shapiro, 1994, p. 18).
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Against this idea of learning, mainstream pedagogy perpetuates the assumption
that knowledge is not created but discovered, and that the existing social
hierarchy (which privileges certain classes, genders, races and sexual orientations
among other identities) is merely a reflection of the discovery of the correct
understanding of the natural orderan assumption that serves to reproduce the
current relations of power and inhibits the human specie from social, intellectual
and moral development.
Critical Pedagogy
In contrast to the banking model, or Platonic model of education, a
critical education engages the learner in a cooperative process of knowledge
creation based in real world experiences, rather than simply ingesting and
regurgitating abstract theories and facts. Instead of being a process of depositing
or transferring information, education is viewed as a process of raising questions
and imagining how things might be different and better than they are currently.
Critical education is a process of inquiry, in which existing assumptions, values,
and beliefs are scrutinized, with the goal of intellectual and personal
transformation, or liberation through dialogue (Freire, 1970; Dalton, 2005).
Such an education helps to overcome the personal alienation that is often fostered
through the traditional model, and emphasizes the transformative potential of
learning. Critical education is a way of transforming individuals, helping them to
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become more empowered and perceptive of the influences that shape their
thinking, and how and what they are allowed to think. With this realization, they
are more able to control the ways in which they think and challenge normative
boundaries of truth (Swartz, 2005). This perspective views education as
fundamentally about pushing beyond established boundaries of what is
knowable and what is considered to be knowledge. In other words, education
can best serve human development when it encourages people to question the
truths that are protected and reproduced through the myriad of norms, institutions,
and discourses. It also best serves society when it fosters creativity and
encourages people to imagine and describe themselves and the world in terms that
offer new ways of being. Critical pedagogy is a tool for helping people to become
agents for social change, against the norms that would prevent this from so being.
In terms of McLaren, such pedagogy provides a starting point for linking
knowledge to power and a commitment to developing forms of community life
that take seriously the struggle for democracy and social justice (1995).
Service Learning
One example of a critical pedagogy that provides an opportunity to
confront both the limits of ones own thought and socially reproduced truths is
service learning. Service learning, understood as both a philosophy and a method
of learning, has become implemented in schools and universities in recent years,
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providing a counterbalance to hierarchical, epistemarchist pedagogies. Service
learning is a model of teaching/leaming that connects theory and praxis through
service work, reflection and dialogue on systemic social issues such as poverty,
health disparities, homelessness and others.
Theoretical Bases of Service Learning
The roots of service learning in modem history have been traced back to
Francis Bacon, who argued that knowledge must be produced in connection with
its use if it is to be something for the benefit and use of life. That is, the
consequences of knowledge must be contended with as it is in the process of
being created for knowledge to function as a power for good rather than as a tool
of oppression (Harkavy and Benson, 1998). Bacon rejected the ancient Greek
aristocratic dualism of superior pure theory and inferior applied practice and
instead emphasized that what is most useful in practice is most correct in theory
and that the improvement of the human mind and the human condition is one and
the same thing (ibid.). Bacon viewed the purpose of scientific inquiry and
knowledge production to be for human problem solving.
In more modem times, the philosophical roots of service learning are
commonly attributed to John Dewey and his advocacy of democratic education
and theory of instrumental intelligence (Harkavy and Benson, 1998; Rhoads,
2000). Deweys perspectives were formed against the Platonic elitist theory of
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education that claimed learning occurred through rational theorizing alone,
protected from the corrupting influences of materiality and subjectivitywhat
he referred to as the spectator theory of knowledge. Dewey is the theorist most
well known for challenging this perspective and offering an alternative
philosophy. His theory of instrumental intelligence, described generally in
Chapter Two, is based on the perspective that knowledge is a social undertaking,
and that it is intelligence, an ongoing process of confronting problems and
striving or resolutions that keep in touch with, and hence are responsive to,
subsequent evidence and experience (Talisse, 2005). This is the basis of the
Deweyan deliberative or process-oriented democracy which sees democracy as
a mode of collective problem-solving, that, like scientific inquiry, is fallabilist,
experimentalist, and ongoing (ibid.). Knowledge, in the Deweyan perspective, is
thus redescribed as a process of knowing and occurs through solving
problematic situations that emerge from the context of living.
Deweys theory of instrumental intelligence asserts four main
propositions: 1) reflective thought is an active response to the challenge of the
environment, 2) all individuals can contribute to knowledge, 3) individuals can
best contribute when they participate in determining the purposes that guide their
actions, and 4) the fundamental purpose of knowledge is to improve social well-
being (Harkavy and Benson, 1998). An implication of Deweys instrumental
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intelligence is that education should result in practical wisdom, created through a
dialogic community process, that is relevant to problems experienced in social
life.
Deweys theory spawned what was called the New Education. The New
Education was Deweys concept for a democratic education in which students
help shape their own learning, assist in forming the curriculum, and reflect on its
value. Central to this democratic pedagogy, the New Education emphasized the
importance of connecting academic learning with application in problematic
situations in communities. In this way, he envisioned the community as a source
of knowledge-building as well as a laboratory for the experimentation of potential
solutions. Schools and universities became not merely a place of knowledge
transference, but a site for modeling the democratic process that Dewey
championed for society as a whole (Talisse, 2005). Deweys theory of
instrumental intelligence and his New Education established the foundation for
what is now commonly referred to as service learning.
The first notable creation of a service-learning model in an institution of
higher education was at Columbia University in the early 1900s. The program
was intended to link the university with New York City through combining theory
with practice to address social issues in the city and did so successfully for a
number of years (Harkavy and Benson, 1998). The program was, unfortunately,
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not long-lived due to changes in the universitys leadership. During the 1960s the
concept of service learning was further shaped through the establishment of
Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) in 1965. VISTA was established
during the civil rights era and the renewed vision for more equality across classes
and groups of people. In 1965 the term service learning was first used to
describe a project in East Tennessee, which linked Oak Ridge Associated
Universities to local organizations in a collaborative effort to combine academic
learning and practice in the communities. In 1968, the first national conference on
service learning was held. More recently, service learning gained widespread
popularity in higher education with the establishment of Campus Compact in
1985. Campus Compact is a non-profit association dedicated to the promotion of
service learning in colleges and universities. Founded by the presidents of Brown,
Georgetown and Stanford universities, it was created in response to public
criticism of a declining concern for social welfare and the public good among
elite institutions of higher education (Campus Compact website), a turn which
was furthered by the neoliberal ideology that gained ascendance during the
Reagan years. Service learning through Campus Compact alone reportedly occurs
in approximately 900 colleges and universities (ibid.), and is now becoming
accepted in some progressive and better-funded primary and secondary public and
private schools as well (Butin, 2003).
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The literature reveals that a number of different descriptions and
frameworks exist for articulating the purpose and philosophical position of service
learning. A general definition of service learning is that it is an educational
strategy that aims to engage actively the learner through at least three key
components: academic instruction, community service and critical reflection on
the subject matter, and serving others (Artz, 2001; Butin, 2003; Varlotta, 1997).
There appears to be a general consensus on the criteria that enables a service
learning model to be considered legitimate, ethical, and useful (Butin, 2003).
These include respect (the service learning must respect the situations,
perspectives and ways of life of groups being served); reciprocity (service
learning should provide meaningful benefits to not only those providing the
service, but those being served); relevance (the service must be relevant to the
academic content, thus providing a real-world experience of the issues being
studied); and, reflection (an essential component to creating meaning and
knowledge from the experience). There are different, though overlapping, focuses
of service learning found in the discourse. One common view of service learning
emphasizes its value as a pedagogical tool for increasing academic achievement
and helping students to gain further understanding of course content. In this sense,
service learning is a methodology for a better education. Other descriptions focus
on the potential for service learning for developing a sense of civic responsibility
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among students through serving communities in need, while still others identify
the main goals of service learning as a personal growth opportunity for students in
which they are challenged to examine their identities through engaging with the
other. The definition that I advocate defines service learning as an educational
experience that intends to foster and understanding of social justice.
Social Justice-Oriented Service Learning
Service learning for social justice redirects the focus of service learning
from charity to social change, in which responsiveness to immediate needs is
replaced by a multi-perspectival analysis of power and pervasive social
inequality, identification of sources of power for changing social conditions, and
engagement in social action that calls attention to injustice or helps to create more
just conditions (Boyle-Baise and Langford, 2004). This approach to learning
examines critically the ways in which social hierarchy functions and is
normalized through relations of power that include laws, institutions, symbols and
everyday practices that mutually reinforce and reify each other. Central to social
justice-focused service learning is an emphasis on the complex and multileveled
nature of social problems, a touchstone that comes out of the recognition that
historically and culturally simplistic interventions and inquiries into social issues
have been unsuccessful (Swan, 2002). Besides examining the various levels at
which inequality is produced and reproduced, a multi-perspectival approach also
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includes various knowledges or ways of seeing the issues under study. Local
knowledge, that is, knowledge which comes from those who are being served is
typically sought to help elucidate the issues from an insider perspective.
Perspectives of those who are actively engaged in working to address the social
issues are also collected, as well as academic writing which provide theoretical
frameworks to guide analysis and discussion (Swan, 2002; Butin, 2003; Boyle-
Baise and Langford, 2004). This knowledge and understanding is gained through
dialogue both in the classroom setting and in the process of serving others who
are adversely affected by normative power structures.
Social justice service learning, however, moves beyond the analysis of
issues to identify agents, opportunities and sites for social change. Mere
examination of social problems without identifying potential avenues for change
engenders hopelessness (Boyle-Baise and Langeford, 2004). On the other hand,
connecting awareness to actions in which everyday people can engage unlocks
human potentiality for shaping ones own life, ones community, and the norms
that govern social life. As part of the learning process, students search for
possibilities for resistance and change at the multiple levels at which power
relations exist. This highlights the ways in which change occursthrough
systems-change in terms of laws and institutions and through everyday behaviors
such as the way one talks about social problems, the businesses an individual
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supports or chooses to not support, and so on. Identifying the arrays of potential
opportunities and agents for change emphasizes the way in which social issues are
socially constructed and reified and how each person has the opportunity to
participate in the shaping of this larger society by being conscientious actors in
their local environment.
Critical education, and social justice service learning in particular,
involves a transformation of the self and becoming different than one was
before. The concept of the self takes on meaning and relevance only in the context
of others (Hardt, 1997; Mead, 1982). George Herbert Meads (1982) social self
theory illustrates this point. His theory describes the self as being comprised of
two components: The I which represents the spontaneous and autonomous
aspects of selfhood, and the Me which is the socialized part of the self, shaped
by and, responding to, external and societal and environmental conditions and
influences such as social norms. It is the interaction of the two components which
gives rise to a self: it is impossible for the self to develop outside of social
experience. Through critically examining the social world one begins to
understand the way in which he or she has been made into a subject. Through
service learning experience in particular, individuals are able to cross borders,
entering into the realities and understandings of others who have different
cultural, social and economic experiences than ones own. Such border crossing
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provides fruitful occasion to question the sui generis of such borders (Butin,
2003, p. 1683) and they reveal the ways in which we participate in the sustenance
of such borders. Thus, in entering into the reality of others we confront our own
beliefs, prejudices, narratives and explanations for who we are and how the world
is, providing ourselves the opportunity to revise them. Attitudes of entitlement or
natural privilege are often challenged when the historical and cultural
contingency of social borders and categories are understood and the recognition
that others realities are, or could be a potential reality for oneself. Such edifying
learning experiences can underscore an existential common denominator across
human beings, regardless of the community to which they belongthat all
humans have the potential to experience, and wish to avoid, suffering. Through
such encounters with others, service learning provides a valuable opportunity for
students to become conscious of, critically analyze and reshape their final
vocabulary in a reflection of their new understandings.
Finally, service learning is one way to address the hopelessness and
alienation that many people (especially young people) feel about their ability to
affect social change, an alienation that is often compounded by traditional
pedagogy which separates the realm of knowledge from the lived experience.
Through the service experience and the identification of multiple sources of and
opportunities to use power for compassionate, socially just ends, students are able
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