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Public Goods

Let’s turn now to considering the public good as a goal and product of public achievement, where both publics and public goods are grounded in the participatory and deliberative vision of democracy I delineated at the outset of this chapter. Because schools are often described in terms of both private and public goods, it’s worthwhile to shed some light on these ends, particularly in terms of the notion of democracy and the public that we’ve begun to outline. Many people think of the public good in terms of the aggregate public, as the greatest benefit that serves the greatest number. Indeed, many continue to describe the public good as that which is good for everyone, despite the fact that political scientists argue “that no policy could be literally good for everyone in a polity as large as a modern nation-state"53 Regardless, from this aggregate view, there are some goods, such as clean air, that if available, should be shared as widely as possible (a characteristic sometimes called “nonexcludability”) and that are not diminished regardless of the number of people who use them (“nonri- valrous consumption”54). Increasingly, however, this aggregate view has been endorsed via neoliberalism such that the public is now seen as a mere aggregation of individuals and the public good is seen as an aggregation of private goods. The impact of this shift on economic, social, and political life should not be underestimated for it is significant and poses considerable challenges to the vision of the public and the public goods I articulate here. Additionally the aggregated private goods of neoliberalism tend to satisfy the needs or interests of individuals in unfairly distributed ways, keeping more privileged individuals content while actually doing little for those who are not so well-served by the system, or groups who are systemically disadvantaged.

Although the notion of publics that I described earlier in this chapter often entails a large group of people seeking some mutual and/or individual benefits, I don’t see publics as mere aggregates in this way, nor do I see them as composed of apositional subjects who are always uninhibited in their access to public goods. Indeed, I agree with Craig Calhoun who says, we have put “too much emphasis on the word good and not enough on the word public!’55 Attending to the public nature of the public good as dependent on publics as an active verb, changing and varying, requires not assuming a unitary or fixed public. Indeed, publics and their goods are relative and mutable, tied to positions and circumstances.

So rather than working toward abstract goods that offer benefits to many, we must ask, “Which public? And Whose good?”56 These questions draw our attention to the diverse constituents who often make up publics, who must work together across their differences through deliberation and negotiation to construct goods that are mutually beneficial, though often in varying ways or degrees for each citizen. They also allow us to see that public goods are forged through public work and public processes; they don’t exist readymade for us somewhere, but rather result from our efforts.57 And they allow us to see that our efforts must be open to critique to ensure that they are as fair and inclusive as possible.

According to Calhoun, “To be a really meaningful concept, the public good has to refer to benefits we share and which, through being shared, help to constitute us as a public”58 Reflecting the nature of publics themselves, public goods may be temporary and correspond to the needs of a particular time or place, or may be enduring and denote sustained commitments. Either way, like the public, public goods must be continually remade and reaffirmed to remain truly public goods. And, like the participatory democracy in which they are grounded, public goods are not bestowed upon us and passively enjoyed from a distance, but rather engage us in participating with others. Communicating together and recognizing shared elements of identity or consequences in a situation render goods truly public, rather than merely goods that benefit multiple individuals who may have engaged in little or no public work or deliberation toward achieving them. It is deliberation that moves values held by multiple individuals comprising a group from being common to being public. And deliberation is the means by which we articulate how our values lead to certain things, services, or ways of life being public goods.59 While the decisions reached, especially regarding our image of schools, their goals, and the criteria for assessing them are certainly important, this inclusive process of deliberation is democracy in action. That very process itself, in addition to the conclusions reached for schools because of it, deserves significant attention as we consider ways to improve our shared living.

Let’s consider one worthwhile example of a public good that could be constructed in schools. Importantly, standards, which have increasingly become central to the test-based accountability system that ensures whether they have been met, can themselves be a public good. Publics can come together to construct standards for our local schools using input from teachers who know the school circumstances well and educational professionals who understand student development, teaching practices, and more. If deemed appropriate by those engaged in constructing them, standards could be extended to the state or national level, in part as a result of discussing national needs and listening to the input of state and national elected officials. Publics can come together in dialogue about those standards, being as transparent about their construction as possible and being inclusive in asking questions about whose interests are best-served or underserved by the standards. Standards could even improve democracy if they were created in alignment with democratic values and ways of life, such as teaching about equality. Finally, coming together to participate in a dialogue about standards can help publics reach consensus about other larger issues beyond schooling that can help facilitate or improve their shared social living, including futures they hope for that rely upon citizens educated in specific ways.60

The democratic process faces considerable foes in today’s shifting economic and political terrain. Plato originally argued that what was good for the polity was good for the citizen, while much later, Adam Smith countered that, via the invisible hand, what was good for the individual was good for the polity.61 Neoliberalism today contends that one is acting wisely and morally only if one is securing one’s own best interest. More than just self-reliant or independent in the classical liberal sense, the individual celebrated in a neoliberal outlook is entrepreneurial and enterprising, overtly competing for his own advantage and consuming to ensure his own well-being. In this view, the individual should be primarily educated to attain the skills necessary to secure his or her own economic well-being and to be a good consumer and producer. This individual operates largely independently as an economic agent, rather than alongside others as a political one. Pressure to focus on individual gain and success in the marketplace may endanger our ability to think and act as a public. And if we lose such an ability, we are not able to engage in the deliberations that construct public goods.

Consumerism in education has a tendency to work against the public good. This is largely because education consumers, especially wealthy ones, seek personal advantage via schooling, primarily through degrees, certifications, and markers of educational prestige. Many middle- and upper-class parents pursue educational hierarchies that serve to distinguish their child from the pack, thereby giving them social mobility.62 Those are private goods, which work mostly to the advantage of the individual recipient and do little to benefit shared knowledge or social well-being. David Labaree warns that this “also promotes formalism in education, because markets operate based on the exchange value of a commodity (what it can be exchanged for) rather than its use value (what it can be used for)"63 Rather than using education for social purposes or even to deeply comprehend new knowledge, it is consumed by individuals for their own personal gain without deliberation regarding constructing shared benefits or alleviating unjust inequities.

The experience of choice and consumerism in neoliberalism is different for parents of less financial means or social capital. Lower-class parents, whose ability to exercise choice is often more limited and who may live in communities where educational opportunities are inequitable, may exercise choice as a matter of survival, as opposed to pursuing success and advantage. As documented by sociologist Mary Pattillo, black poor and working-class Chicago parents felt little control when making educational choices, but rather confronted many barriers to access as they sought basic education for their children. Some even experienced choice as a confusing burden.64 Yet, despite those circumstances, neoliberalism celebrates choice and assesses the quality of one’s reasoning and social status based on the choices made.

Indeed, within neoliberalism, rationality itself is conceived of as making choices that maximize one’s own good. Such choices then come to be seen as prescriptive “oughts” of moral and just behavior as one “cares” for oneself.65 As Wendy Brown explains of the neoliberal worldview, the very public itself may cease to exist as we know it: “The model neoliberal citizen is one who strategizes for her- or himself among various social, political, and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options. A fully realized neoliberal citizenry would be the opposite of public-minded; indeed, it would barely exist as a public. The body politic ceases to be a body but is rather a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers.”66 In this way, recent shifts in democracy and economics propelled by neoliberalism may not only be jeopardizing our ability to construct and pursue public goods. They may also risk the public as an achievement that results from people coming together to articulate and seek public goods, for there may no longer be a compelling political or ethical obligation to do so when these are trumped by economic interests and self-interest.

Even as individual citizens struggle among competing ideologies and political communities, it seems that our current political climate is moving toward an increasing focus on individuals out for their own best interests. This leaves us struggling to think or speak in terms of shared needs or well-being. Public goods need to be rescued from being described through vacuous platitudes or, much more problematically, as drains on private endeavors or rights celebrated by some popular ideologies today. They need to be appreciated for the difficulty through which they are achieved as well as the power they garner as a result of the process of being forged and sought in this purposeful way. Moreover, we need to recognize the ethical ways in which they can be constructed alongside other citizens, helping to better ensure moral and just living over pursuit of self-interest by distinct individuals indifferent to how their personal quests may impact others. This is not to say that we should forsake self-interest, for that would be foolish. Rather, we have to better balance individual and public goods, all the while seeking overlapping interests among citizens.67

In the face of the temptations of neoliberalism and privatization, we should highlight the ways in which publics and public goods better provide individual and group well-being. In so doing, they are more just because they are guided by the democratic attributes described above or shaped relative to the makeup of new and changing publics. We need to name the potential hazards and harms of private economic models that lack sufficient concern for the impact of one’s pursuits on others, the environment, or the future—in other words, on our shared consequences. And we need to acknowledge that those economic models of choice and consumerism are experienced differently across classes. In naming these problems of neoliberalism and in asserting the opportunities of public life as part of participatory and deliberative democracy, we may embody publicness, simultaneously demonstrating the ends we seek through the means with which we pursue it.

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