Critical Democracy and Leadership Issues: Philosophical Responses to the Neoliberal Agenda

By Portelli, John P.; Simpson, Douglas J. | Journal of Thought, Spring-Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Critical Democracy and Leadership Issues: Philosophical Responses to the Neoliberal Agenda


Portelli, John P., Simpson, Douglas J., Journal of Thought


Democracy and leadership--and especially, perhaps, leadership by classroom teachers--are undoubtedly contested concepts in educational discourse. Different, and at times competing, conceptions of either notion have been proposed and argued for. The fact that popular discourse in education has frequently made reference to these terms and has thus turned them into common yet dangerous slogans calls for a more philosophical examination of both concepts and the relationship between the two. In general, the essays in this issue contribute to such an examination that goes beyond catch phrases and critically inquires about both theoretical and practical issues. The examination offered in this issue of the Journal of Thought is done with an explicit consideration of dominant views both in education and other areas. The current context is one that too easily and hastily admits and promotes a neoliberal perspective that privileges the technical, efficient, competitive outlook through the distributive mechanism of the market. Moreover, the neo-liberal discourse has co-opted or hijacked both the use of the terms democracy and leadership to the extent that any conception of either that does not fit with this discourse is deemed not worthwhile or not productive. Consequently, to even raise questions that challenge some aspects of neo-liberal emphases or to propose a broader consideration of ethical and philosophical considerations is to be ipso facto removed from particular discourses and discussions. The concomitant discourse of narrow accountability and limited notions of "evidence" has, in many instances, rendered the philosophical and moral aspects secondary at best and irrelevant at worst.

In view of this contemporary background, it is no surprise that the enclosed articles offer an interrogation of the current norm in education especially in relation to issues of democracy and leadership by focusing on these aspects while at the same time also taking into account issues of power and equity. More specifically, these articles explore some major tensions when one considers the concepts of democracy and leadership in the current context. They focus on these tensions in different social contexts, e.g., the political, international relationships, public schooling in general, the textbook publishing industry in Ontario, Canada, educational leadership, and finally as experienced by teachers striving to incorporate a democratic ideal in public schools.

The first article by Jason M. C. Price provides a review and a challenging analysis of different conceptions of democracy. Working from the perspectives of the Haudenosaunee democratic ideal as well as a critical-democratic framework, he questions popular notions of democracy that equate democracy with voting and procedural matters and identifies contradictions in neo-liberal conceptions of democracy and current practices. Price's project, which is a bold and urgent one, is anti-colonial in that it attempts to demythologize democracy as a solely European or western legacy. Price's conception is based on a consideration of both process and substantive issues guided by peace and social, environmental and economic justice. And he calls upon educators to reenergize such a democratic spirit and create possibilities beyond the current narrow constraints. Price's project is surely not a fatalist one; it inspires hope and action.

Robin Barrow's article extends the discussion about democracy by critically analyzing and severely challenging common practices in the west that claim to be democratic while engaging in imperialistic moves to spread by force what popular rhetoric in the west claims to be the "truest democracy." Extending Price's concern with identifying democracy exclusively to voting and "democratic structures," Barrow focuses on what he considers to be the two prime values underlying democratic institutions: "equal representation of everybody's interests and freedom. …

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