May 22, 2022

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science of education

The Tricks of Neoliberal Rhetoric: An Analysis of Betsy DeVos’s Speeches

7 min read
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Kerry McKeon recently received her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy from the University of Texas at San Antonio in December of 2021. Her dissertation focused on neoliberal rhetoric and its use in advancing the privatization of public schools. It is titled Neoliberal Discourse and the U.S. Secretary of Education: Discursive Constructs of the Education Agenda (2017-2020).

She writes, in a summary:

Corporate reform of education has taken hold in the U.S., with neoliberal values regularly propagated and normalized—even among some public-school leaders. I witnessed this transition firsthand, beginning as a U.S. Senate aide, and then over decades as classroom teacher. In recent years, one voice has echoed above the rest, as a consequence of her privilege, power, and opportunity: former Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.Listening to her stump again and again for the privatization of public education while pursuing my doctorate in educational leadership and policy, I became fixated on her language choices. The right words can make or break a given argument, and as a teacher, I know that language is the portal to meaning-making. So, I set out to investigate her linguistic and rhetorical strategies, as she sought to drive her neoliberal agenda forward.

Using a corpus of twenty-eight DeVos speeches over her four years in office, I explored the ways she tried to influencethinking around public education in favor of privatization—and how she aimed to normalize and naturalize certain neoliberal beliefs, while minimizing, discrediting, and ignoring other problems and solutions. Given the strength of her platform as education secretary, her messages were often replicated and amplified, while other vital voices in the education community were muted.

While others have explored the causes and effects of neoliberalism’s incursion into public education, little research explores how strategic linguistic maneuvers can reshape American ideas about public education over time. To understand and unpack her persuasive strategy, I identified and mapped thelinguistic formulas and frameworks she used to influence audiences in favor of neoliberalism. When I dissected her speeches, I found neoliberal ideology layered throughout—in everything from her word choices to the personal stories she shared.

For example, DeVos repeatedly expressed disdain for the federal government’s role in education, and advocated more power to individuals and to the private sector. Even with a D.C. officeaddress, she regularly attacked all things “Washington,” including education-advocacy groups, teachers’ unions, and other experts in education policymaking. She also lambasted the elusively defined “elites,” ranging from Democratic political donors to university scholars. While distancing herself from present-day government structures, she averred a near-mythical allegiance to the U.S. Constitution and founding fathers—arguing that current federal oversight in education violates the founders’ intent for the role of government.

Likewise, DeVos expressed economic values that criticize government spending and regulation, while promoting the private sector, marketplace competition, and the rights of the taxpayer. Her economic values were articulated through keywords that celebrate the free market: innovation, results, metrics, efficiency, prosperity—all while presuming that all free-market participantsare equally capable to prosper. In doing so, she disregarded stark and obvious social inequalities that make the market an unequal space.

DeVos eschewed virtually all discussions of inequity, except when it helped her make arguments for school reform or choice. In fact, she regularly employed keywords such as opportunity, choice, freedom and options, and downplayed language relating to economic, racial, or social injustices. DeVos also decentered and discounted teachers and teacher-led classrooms, advocating instead for increased use of classroom technology, including the much-touted personalized learning (technology-enabled learning that is moving schools to a greater reliance on data, data systems and other technology products).

Over and over, DeVos proposed radical change to public schools by rooting educational values in a marketplace reality. In order to do this, she distanced herself from public schools through “othering.” She described public schools as flawed, failing monopolies, consistently underperforming, and failing to innovate. At the same time, she glorified all manner of non-public schools—charter schools, magnet schools, online schools—regardless of their records, eschewing the results and metrics she so strongly promoted elsewhere. And she often plugged a skills-based curriculum with a jobs focus. DeVos sought to create a market of education choices and so-called freedom by depicting families as customers and education as a product, while paying no mind to how communities or the democratic purposes of education may be compromised by a commoditized education system. Rarely did she speak of the important role teachers play in advancing education, and ignored any equalizing effects of education on child poverty. Indeed, she asserted, without evidence, that school-choice fixes all problems with public schools and even went as far as to say that public schools are un-American when choice isn’t an option.

In my exploration of her speeches, I identified a pattern of strategies—a framework—which I call tiered operations for ideological impact that is rooted in how we think and process information. I found that DeVos’s neoliberal ideological language is evident on three levels in her speeches: the micro, the meso, and the macro.

On the micro-level, I found that her word choices delivered a constellation of concepts to the listener. By repeating a set of neoliberal keywords, the scene is set. DeVos aligns educational values with market values, including the belief that school systems should provide “profit opportunities” for capitalists, and the primary outcome of education is to produce employees with skills employable in the free market. She continues by dividing people and things into divisive categories like good or bad, friends or enemies. Just like a novelist focuses on character development, DeVos instructs her audience on who to love and who to fear. In her narrative, the public school system is a disaster. Her anointed heroes want to dismantle the system, while her anointed villains wish to protect it. DeVos is creative with word-formation, whereby two or more words are combined to create a word cluster. These blends are sometimes charged, seeking to provoke audience anxiety or anger. For example, her phrase “the shrill voices of the education lobby” may trigger the sensation of high pitched voices or scraping chalk on a blackboard). Conversely, the blends are sometimes intended to inspire (so-called, hooray words) and thereby assist in the marketing of her ideas to her audience. In both cases, the word clusters impact the way the brain processes information by blending two concepts into a new, unified concept.

On the meso-level, she uses topics to organize her individual speeches, selecting which topics are included or left out, which topics are foregrounded or backgrounded. Through her argumentation strategy, she asserts that opponents of school choice are attacking core American values such as freedom, patriotism, and human rights. By promoting such a polarized perspective, DeVos flattens the complexity of issues, to offer a simpler version of the world in line with her own perspectives. The process of limiting audience attention to a smaller focus is known as windowing. In the current discursive climate, where individuals are exposed to huge amounts of information every day, windowing is one way to manage information overload and guide an audience to embrace a particular worldview.

On the macro-level, DeVos uses her speeches to align with the cultural climate of the current historical moment. Of particular note are ways DeVos engages in relentless “othering.” She depicts a society divided between patriots who value educational freedom and choice, and a corrupt elite who value public education in the form of community schools. Her biased and misleading claims contribute to a crisis of confidence in education. She promotespublic education as a commodity to be bought and sold in a competitive marketplace, rather than as a collective common good. She elevates choice, while humanitarian discourse is undervalued. In the process, she damages the reputation of public education, contributing to the erosion of America’s commitment to public schools an equalizing institution.

Essentially, her discursive strategies amount to a cognitive suppression of certain humanitarian, social-justice values.Furthermore, DeVos participated in populist, anti-elite, and anti-establishment discourses by positioning the privatization of education as a grassroots effort to overthrow an oppressive system. In addition, she embraces an anti-expert and anti-intellectual worldview, as she attacks education advocates, teachers, local leaders, while elevating the education outsider: the education entrepreneur. These post-truth discourses characteristically appeal to emotion and partisanship over reason and rationality. DeVos may also be furthering anti-democratic work by disparaging others in the democratic process, including public schools and teachers’ unions.

Some might highlight that DeVos’s legislative accomplishments were few. Yet, ideological acceptance almost always comes before policy change. Thus, her impact may reveal itself in time. While she failed to meaningfully impact federal law in favor of neoliberalism, she succeeded in further normalizing ideas that continue to be taken up by Republican-led state legislatures. She succeeded in shifting the federal discussion on education from matters of equity and inclusion, to delivering a manifesto on the importance of flexibility, choice, and opportunity. Increasingly, Americans are more focused on individual educational needs than the needs of the larger community. She also reframed the shortcomings of public schools as an existential threat. By invoking a narrative of crisis and a politics of fear, she commands an increased power of persuasion and betrays the possibility of pursuing more practical, modest, and cooperative modes of change.

Neoliberal political and cultural values that currently inform education policy creation can be identified and decoded, by deconstructing and analyzing the political speech of prominent actors like former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. A close look at her speeches revealed various cognitive triggers that attempt to persuade audiences. DeVos’s political speech contributes to a symphony of powerful voices in the education-policy community, whose messages are replicated and amplified, while other vital voices in the education community are muted. Public education advocates would do well to learn more about the rhetorical strategies through which neoliberal ideology is promoted

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