Author Archives: Robert Asen

A Public Sphere Without a Public Good

Scholars have long viewed the public sphere, among other things, as a realm for coordinated action. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas recounted how the bourgeoisie developed a sense of themselves as a collective subject and asserted the public sphere as the locus of political authority. In The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey explained that publics arise from recognition of their implication in the consequences of human activity. Publics organized to address these consequences and pursue their interests purposefully, rather reacting haphazardly to societal developments. In her reflections on publics, Hannah Arendt called people’s coordinated activities the constitutive power of human relationships. She wrote that that “power springs up between [people] when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”[1]

Arendt’s reference to power “vanishing” underscores the contingency of the public sphere, intimating its embedment in wider systems and societies. Action in the public sphere may change society, but society may change the public sphere. These changes may include the assumptions and values that inform coordinated action in the public sphere. In this spirit, a primary assumption is the possibility of coordinated action itself. Scholars have long believed that this action is consequential because when people act together, their activities amount to more than the sum of their individual efforts. Public action transforms individual effort. Working together, people can pursue problems and possibilities that elude them individually. Public action assumes and, in turn, sustains a public good.

But what happens if people lose faith in the idea and practice of a public good? What if people doubt the possibility of a public “we” and insist instead that society consists only of an assemblage of “me”s? Under these circumstances, how, if at all, may the public sphere coordinate action?

We live in such a time. In the United States and elsewhere, public, in its multiple meanings, has become a source of skepticism and, for some, anger. Surveys suggest that people’s trust in government to serve the public interest has plummeted.[2] Across a range of different issues, from municipal trash collection to prisons, local, state, and federal governments have outsourced formerly public functions to private enterprises. Public functions that had previously been regarded as unrelated to pecuniary considerations have now become opportunities for profit maximization. These developments have included the public provision of education, which historically has been regarded as crucial for the vibrant functioning of democracy and the public sphere. Vouchers, charter schools, defunding public education, standardized testing—all of these policy initiatives recast education from a public good serving a “we” that includes students, their families, and everyone else to a private good that leaves individuals responsible for maximizing their educational opportunities and outcomes, and blameworthy if they fail.

These policies represent the enactment of a school of economic and political thought that denies the existence of publics and public goods as anything other than the aggregation of individuals and individual interest. In Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman made plain his view that references to a public constituted a fiction, asserting that “a free man” rightly discerned the constitution of a country “as a collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them.”  A free man, he continued, “recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve.  He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.”[3] As a leading figure in the Chicago School, Friedman outlined an approach that has become axiomatic to present-day neoliberal governing regimes: the body politic exists only as bodies that may be constituted and disciplined as individuals who are compelled to adopt a market rationality. As Wendy Brown puts it, “the body politic ceases to be a body but is, rather, a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers.”[4] A public shaped through interaction and engagement reappears as an aggregated public.

In this moment, the public sphere appears, as Habermas has remarked in relation to a different period in history, as ideology and more than ideology. Skepticism in a public good has not stopped politicians from appealing to a public good as they pursue policies that undermine publics. For example, when asked about perceived attacks on public education in Wisconsin, the chair of the State Assembly’s Education Committee retorted that the sum of these recent changes “not only challenges the public schools to step up their game, but it also gives parents opportunities that they didn’t have before.”[5] In this response, competition fosters a public good, and choice replaces coordination as a mode of public agency. Nevertheless, this comment also indicates the continued resonance of a common good, as the committee chair asserts that everyone benefits.

An ominous development, the emergence of a public sphere without a public good need not represent a permanent condition of public life. Rather, the current situation is filled with tensions and varied possibilities that may bolster or weaken publics. At the local level, for example, communities have pushed back against attacks on public education. They have demanded a role—a collective, democratic role—in educational decision-making. As rhetoric and communication scholars, our role is to investigate the contrasting pressures on a public good and their implications for the public sphere. In this process, we may discern emancipatory possibilities.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 200.

[2] American National Election Studies. The ANES guide to public opinion and political behavior [table 5A.1]. 2010. Retrieved from; James A. Davis and Tom W. Smith, General Social Surveys, 1972-2008. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, 2009.

[3] Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 1-2.

[4] Wendy Brown, “Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Theory and Event 7 (2003). Accessed online at

[5] “Public Educators Are Being Challenged, not Under Assault, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt says,” Capital Times, 24 May 2015,

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What should students know? Who should decide? The Curious Case of the Common Core Standards in Wisconsin

For much of U.S. history, public education has been regarded by policymakers and citizens alike as a local affair.  Each community presumably has known best how to educate its children, and, as a consequence, states and localities have held primary responsibility for building schools, hiring teachers, developing curricula, and determining standards for evaluation.  Even as the Federal Government has played a greater role in primary and secondary education since the 1960s, presidents have continued to defer to states and localities.  In the mid-1960s, as he advocated for federal funds for public education, President Lyndon Johnson reassured his audiences that “federal assistance does not mean federal control.”  Nearly four decades later, as he called for standards, testing, and accountability in public education, President George W. Bush located agency at the state and local levels: “the agents of reform must be schools and school districts, not bureaucracies.”

It is in this context, then, that the movement for Common Core academic standards has proceeded as a remarkable development in U.S. education policy—remarkable because, until recently, this drive for uniform academic standards across states has proceeded without controversy.  Movement toward a common core began in the wake of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which required annual testing of students in exchange for federal funding, as a problem arose in the uneven testing standards instituted by various states.  Some states adopted fairly low standards, while other states adopted higher standards.  To redress these disparities, a bipartisan group of governors and educators urged development of the Common Core—a voluntary set of standards in math and reading for K through 12 students.

Remarkably, with little fanfare, 45 states (including Wisconsin) adopted these standards.  In a 2010 press release announcing the adoption, Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers commented that “these standards are aligned with college and career expectations, will ensure academic consistency throughout the state and across other states that adopt them, and have been benchmarked against international standards from high-performing countries.”

The adoption of Common Core standards had proceeded shockingly smoothly—until recently.  Within the last year, a movement against the Common Core has arisen in a handful of states (including Wisconsin).  Critics of the Common Core have rebuked the initiative as a federal takeover of public education.  In January 2014, Gov. Scott Walker got involved, expressing a willingness to reconsider Wisconsin’s participation in the Common Core.  Walker asserted that “there’s got to be a way for us to put our fingerprints on it.”  He insisted that “the standards we have in the state should be driven by people in Wisconsin.”

What is surprising about these arguments against the Common Core is not their content but their timing.  Fears of a federal takeover of public education and calls for state-specific—and locale-specific—curricula have been around for decades.  Critics of an ostenbily national curriculum largely remained silent when President George W. Bush called for testing and standards in 2001; they did not object loudly when the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction adopted the Common Core in 2010.  A deep suspicion by some political groups of the current administration seems to explain much of this newfound opposition, as do the political aspirations of some elected officials.

The political distrust and gamesmanship seemingly driving the opposition to the Common Core is unfortunate, because an argument for modifying the Common Core in the name of local communities could benefit public education.  But this would require opponents of the Common Core to employ a different frame, one that points to the resonance between the bi-partisan adoption of the Common Core and the bi-partisan invocation of the market as the basis of education reform.  For instance, as President Obama reaffirmed his predecessor’s attention to standards and testing, Obama pointed to economic competition as the reason why the nation needed educational excellence: “countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”  Obama proclaimed that “the currency of today’s economy is knowledge.”

An objection to the Common Core voiced in the name of states and local communities could call for a reorientation of education with democracy rather than the market.  This sort of objection would not rely on fear or cynicism, but it would urge policymakers, educators, and citizens to reflect on the ways that schools may bolster students’ civic competencies so that they may act meaningfully as democratic agents in their communities.  These sort of objection would see schools not only—and perhaps not primarily—as training grounds for workers, but as vital centers of learning and engagement in local communities.  Standards, in and of themselves, would not raise concerns—rather, advocates would object to standards that comport with an accountability regime that measures success in terms of the market and treats schools like private enterprises competing for students as customers.  This objection would envision the nation’s “common core” through the democratic heritage of ordinary folks who have worked to inspire their neighbors to realize the vision of “we the people.”  And communication in its multiple forms—as deliberation, protest, commemoration, persuasion, and more—would play a key role.

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