America in Context. Establishing Participatory Behavior in Young Adults

Thesis (M.A.) 2013 36 Pages

Politics - Didactics, Political Education


Table of Contents


Introduction to the Political Economy
Study of Economics
Political Economy

Education: Measurements & Success
Standardized Testing & No Child Left Behind
Technical Rationality
Banking Systems of Education & Loss of Critical Thinking

Solution: Participatory Approach
Establish Trust
Engage in Dialogue
Active Reflection
Process of Iteration
Empowerment & Action
Case Study: Youth Empowerment Program




Successes within the business world in the last forty years have spurred significant progress in the livelihood of millions of people and have produced growth exponentially. With the prioritization of numeric measurement systems in business, there is a largely held belief that other organizations may be ran in the same way - the question is how to measure and what to measure. The rationale for this model is heavily influenced by business practices that streamline and cut losses within failing divisions, thereby concentrating funds toward the more profitable ones. In broadcast media, for example, shows are cancelled or moved based on ratings; in the healthcare system, people are afforded levels of healthcare based on their ability to pay fees. Within this context, the American public school system concentrates on measuring children’s knowledge via standardized testing.

Contemporary barriers which prevent children from having the best chances to succeed in life include poverty, family breakdown, lack of legal protection, poor parenting, violence, weak social services systems, health, racism or discrimination, lack of material support, and insufficient information. This is due to the priority-shift in America away from family welfare and public good and toward individual asset accumulation, and as a result, students are hurried through or taken out of the educational system and regarded as the pathology of American society (Freire, 1970). It is therefore critical that students be educated on how to participate in discussions to address these issues and regain power over these dire circumstances. As many have noted, participation is key (Benhabib, 2006; Early, 2006; Freire, 1970; Hart, 1992; Hooks, 1994, 2010; Jacobs, 2012; McQuillan, 2005; Mitra, 2007; Perkins, 1960; Ringer, 2012; Rubin, 2012; Valaitis, 2002).

Education has been deemed a human right by the United Nations (1948). Schools, like other social institutions, “are defined by social norms... These norms define the rules, roles, and relationships that govern behavior, and they also contain the beliefs, values, myths, lore, patterns of preference, and tradition that make up the culture” (Schlechty, 2005, p. 223), and because of this, the expression of schooling and education vary among locations. Within the context of the democratic society of America, the ability to participate in civic discourse is critical and thus, schools should have a robust curriculum to educate students and prepare them for participation.

Students are typically exposed to issues of justice and rights in public school later in their academic career, usually as part of the conversation of American history and discussions of constitutional rights. There is little follow-up about what it means to be a citizen; yet within a democracy, elements of justice and rights are cornerstones and therefore much discussion should be spent developing these concepts and practicing their application. But this is not happening. What we have in America are two issues converging: (a) a right to education; and (b) rights afforded as citizens in a democracy. If we consider that social justice is ensuring each person has access to goods to which they have a right (Wolterstorff, 2008), then it is critical that educational systems teach students how to participate in democracy. Hart (1992) notably stated that “participation is an important antidote [to addressing the unjust nature of current educational practice] Through genuine participation,. young people develop the skills of critical reflection and comparison of perspectives which are essential to the self-determination of political beliefs” (p. 36). What is needed is a subjective reframing in America’s approach to education. Students must be taught the importance of participation and how to do it.

Hemmings (2000) defined educational praxis as a “process of synthesizing theory and practice in school contexts in a manner that improves the lives of students and their communities” (p. 68). This paper aims to contribute in the robust discussion of educational reform and its impact upon youth participation and civic engagement. I will discuss briefly the current trends in the political economy and the influence that business practices have had upon education by discussing the impacts of No Child Left Behind, the intense focus on scientific measurement, and the transactional approach of learning. I will show that current practices in educational measurement do not address the issue of civic engagement and present the best- practice solutions offered by several of social transformation theory’s experts and will conclude with adjustments that can be made to improve the lives and empower students and communities.

Introduction to the Political Economy

Study of Economics

The study of economics is aimed at creating a financial system based on models that best capture human behavior. It is based off the theory of social equilibrium, stating that patterns of human life are analogous in addition to aggregating the behavior of one individual or group of individuals as the general overall behavior of the population (Sackrey, Schneider, & Knoedler, 2008, p. 5). The behavior of each individual is measured by satisfaction anticipated from a product at marginal cost (the cost per unit as measured as time, money, or labor). Time, money, and labor are incremental, quantifiable, and objective, and are the pillars of economic theory.

The late 1970s and 1980s marked a monumental shift in global economic and political practice, which has come to be known as neoliberalism, or globalization, and has become the hegemonic language of discourse. Globalization outlines a system characterized by free-market economies, democratic institutions, and technological infrastructures that work together interdependently to integrate the world into a global economy. It denotes human well-being is best advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms; that the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions; and seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market (Harvey, 2005, pp. 2-3). In short, it is the “financialization of everything” (Harvey, 2005, p. 33).

Free-market, also known as deregulated market, capitalism opens up markets by creating new investment opportunities, deregulating trade restrictions and privatizing state-owned industries. Democratic institutions provide the foundations on which the structures for market economies rely: access to information, value of risk-taking, and the welcoming of new ideas and people. Globalization has helped to integrate millions of people worldwide into a global economy, one that gets stronger with participation. It has transformed the bulk of the world into democracy and thus provided a means by which individuals can participate through revolutionizing access to technology and information (Friedman, T., 2000). Moreover, more wealth has been generated in this short time than in world history.

Within neoliberal business models, the objective of a successful corporation is generating capital. The dedication to the bottom line allows a company to adopt practices of streamlining and scaling back less profitable programs, as seen in common practices of automation, downsizing, and outsourcing. All things done in business are aimed at creating more opportunity for investment and profit - this is the goal of business and any action that it takes must be toward that end.

Political Economy

Interestingly, economists view human behavior and other social factors as outside the realm of economics. Neoliberal politics align with democracy only insofar as it provides the best foundation for which the most money can be made and in which the market may be most stable, not necessarily because of an ideological concern (Friedman, T., 2002). Businesses care about social development to the extent that it will help provide economic opportunity and will help stabilize the market. Economist Milton Friedman (2002) has stated that “the essence of a competitive market is its impersonal character... No one participant can determine the terms on which other participants shall have access to goods or jobs” (Friedman, 2002, p. 119). Additionally, Thomas Friedman (2000) has observed that “the citizen [has been transformed] from an actor to a spectator, with illusions of participation” (p. 191). This absence of individual power is critical to note.

Human labor is at the center of the economy (Sackrey, Schneider, & Knoedler, 2008, p. 39). What is not considered is the human behind the labor, nor is their time. Neoliberal government policies emphasize the role of the government to “create a good business climate rather than look to the needs and well-being of the population at large” (Harvey, 2005, p. 48). In the era of globalization there exists a contention in the relationships between the state, the market, and the people (see Figure 1). Theoretically, these elements should be balanced where each division both influences and is influenced by the others. The unfortunate reality of globalization is that this balance does not exist. Karl Polanyi noted that the fundamental resources of time and labor cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affection also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this commodity. In disposing of man’s labor the system. dispose[s] the physical, psychological, and moral entity “man” attached to that tag. (Karl Polanyi as cited by Harvey, 2005, p. 167)

The cohesion between the market and the government is effective in generating capital for both private interests as well as the interest of the state but at the cost of the quality of life that individuals experience. Effects of this unequal distribution are reflected in many areas:

poverty, environmental degradation, and war are just a few. Yet the degree of benefit felt by the government-market dynamic has been so great as to start a trend to introduce this model into other organizations - the most troublesome of institutions that are undergoing the shift is public education (Leithwood, 2007). What makes this institution so worrisome is the discrepancy between objectives, specifically, the goal of business as generating profit versus the goal of education as equipping individuals to participate in society. People are coming second to market- government driven goals. One word may be used to describe the relationship: unjust.

Figure 1. Power Distribution between the Government, Market, and People in America

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Education: Measurements & Success

Trends in United States governmental legislature on academic achievement have been influenced by business models due to the success of the private sector in the era of globalization (Leithwood, 2007). We can see this appearing in education in three ways: changing focus of education toward measurable benchmarks using standardized testing, intense focus on science and mathematical technique, and the loss of critical thinking skills. Specifically, Lincoln and Guba (1985) note that scientific assumptions include:

- The social and natural sciences have identical aims in the discovery of general laws of explanation and prediction;
- Laws of nature can be naturally or deductively derived from data;
- Large samples suppress idiosyncrasies and reveal general causes;
- The universe contains foundational laws that govern how things are constructed;
- Scientific findings are objective, testable, and independent of theoretical explanation; and
- Theories are developed on the basis of causality; if certain conditions are applied, it is possible to develop explanations for how X causes Y.



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social transformation theory democracy youth empowerment civic engagement American Educcation




Title: America in Context. Establishing Participatory Behavior in Young Adults