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Political versus Economic Understandings of Individuals and Democracy

An important factor to consider in schools is their treatment of the citizen and his or her relationship to society and government. Within healthy democracies, citizens strive to balance power, liberty, and rights, as they live alongside one another. But in the neoliberal worldview, humans are not essentially social, nor must the groups in which they live be organized by means other than economics of exchange and competition. Ties instituted by the welfare state, including the large publicly run and funded system of education, have come to be seen as costly. From a neoliberal perspective, the cost of the public school system renders it no longer viable or desirable, despite the social connections and shared public life that it supports. Michael Apple explains that the neoliberal worldview leads to “the destruction of what might best be seen as ‘thick democracy,’ substituting a much ‘thinner’ version of possessive individualism"74 Whereas thick democracy, an idea closely aligned with the vision of participatory democracy I have employed thus far, brings people together to debate and construct the public good, all the while supported by a government infrastructure, the thinner economic notion of democracy is one in which individuals are connected to one another only through fleeting transactions and small government interventions.75

The individual citizen, then, is no longer substantively constitutive of the state in that he or she no longer participates in publics facing shared problems and concerned with public goods. Rather, the citizen is dependent on the state merely for economic purposes related to constructing and maintaining markets as sites of individual choice, in some cases regardless of the welfare of other members in the market. Moreover, economic rationality functions normatively to guide expectations of citizens’ lives. This is not to say that neoliberal practices are apolitical—for clearly they have political goals and outcomes, such as moving away from principles of collective responsibility and moving from professional control of schools to managerial control—but rather that the economic rationale is used to trump the political as a source for engagement in the public good.

So can EMO and other non-functionally public schools produce citizens? If the citizen is understood in economic terms as one who depends on the state for certain types of market guidance but who works primarily as an independent consumer, then, yes, the school might be quite successful at producing this type of student. But this is largely a passive citizen who has no obligation to perform any duties to the state beyond making self-serving choices in the marketplace to improve his or her own living conditions. This is hardly the active and engaged citizen of a participatory or deliberative democracy, and it may not even be a citizen sufficiently capable of keeping thinner notions of democracy running. But if the citizen sought is understood to be one with a thicker connection to fellow people and to government, a relationship that requires foregrounding the political, then, no, it is far less likely that the school would succeed. This citizen must necessarily be more active in participating in public exchange of ideas and efforts to ensure the well-being of others, skills unlikely to result from school ideologies that emphasize fulfilling individuals’ desires.

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