Toward a Post-Liberal Theory of Language Policy

Petrovic, John

The University of Alabama, United States of America


Over the past several decades, the debates between political modernists and post-modernists have become increasingly interesting. Liberals have criticized post-modernism as nihilistic, condemning its proponents to moral silence (Cf. Howe, 1997). Nevertheless, post-modernists have provided relevant critiques of modernist political ideals, including liberalism.

Chet Bowers (1987) draws on Foucault to provide a critique of liberalism. Given the connection between language (discourse) and power, it is in fact modernist liberalism, not postmodernism, that leads to nihilism by seeking continuously to enhance individual autonomy. Further, discourse, and liberal discourse specifically as Bowers’ work is concerned, guides the possibilities of conduct and puts in order the possible outcomes. While liberalism seeks to ratchet up individual autonomy, people cannot be responsible only to the dictates of their individual judgment.

Bowers’ next move is to draw on communitarianism to address what he sees as an uncritical pursuit of individualism. His goal is to find a balance in the social ecology that recognizes human connections, cultural embeddedness, and the social responsibility that these generate. Will Kymlicka (1995) similarly draws on communitarianism to save liberalism.

This discussion suggests that a new species of political liberalism is required that recognizes and balances the beliefs that individual freedom can neither be totalized nor abandoned. It cannot be totalized given the socio-cultural embeddedness of the human condition and the predictable decline in social (communitarian) responsibility. It cannot be abandoned since the liberal faith in reason and individualism is necessary to break through the discursive field to ensure a moral voice. In short, post-liberalism is a liberalism that takes both the communitarian and postmodern analyses of society and critiques of liberalism seriously.

A post-liberal frame has direct implications for language policy. In this paper, I explore these implications by looking at three increasingly specific language policy issues: official, national languages; bilingual education; and uses of language varieties within classrooms. Working toward a post-liberal analysis, I argue that

1) official languages are slippery slope toward a betrayal of some fundamental tenets of liberalism;

2) denying bilingual education denies a commitment to the ideal of community and our socio-cultural embeddedness; and

3) instructional practices that assume the superiority of certain language forms or varieties ignore the postmodern critique of the arbitrary regimes of truth that are socially constructed around “language.”

I employ various foils to develop these arguments. First, I draw on English-only legislation and the rhetoric of its supporters in the United States. Second, I consider the important work of Will Kymlicka and other liberal-communitarians who wrongly abandon the communitarian position at crucial moments in their analyses. Third, I review the arguments of linguistic human rightists, such as Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, whose framework a postmodern analysis reveals to be unworkable at the classroom level.


Bowers, C. A. (1987). Elements of a post-liberal theory of education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Howe, K. (1997). Understanding equal educational opportunity: Social justice, democracy, and schooling. NY: Teachers College Press.

Kymlicka, W. (1995). Multicultural citizenship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Session: Paper session
Planning/Policy 4 (Education)
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 14