Neoliberal Discourse and the U.S. Secretary of Education: Discursive Constructs of the Education Agenda (2017-2020)

McKeon, Kerry Ann
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The past few decades have seen challenges to education as a public good by those who believe that schools belong in the domain of the free market—not government. Within education-policy discourse, we find myriad efforts to justify these neoliberal practices to the public. The purpose of this study is to locate constraints to national education-policy options created and sustained within the speeches of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos from 2017–2020. The research calls attention to ways language constructs certain representations of the world, holds implications for defining the parameters of our educational system, and demonstrates how certain discourses prevent other discourses from emerging. This cognitive-linguistics critical discourse analysis demonstrates how the speeches of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (2017–2021) attempt to establish consensus in favor of the broad neoliberal reframing of schooling, and the increased involvement of corporate, for-profit businesses in public schools. This study deconstructs the Secretary’s discourse by analyzing the tools of persuasion, legitimation, and framing used in public communications. Particular attention is paid to how her discursive strategies employ cognitive processes and produce cognitive impacts that may influence the reception and reproduction of neoliberal ideology. This study found that neoliberal ideology works through DeVos’s speech in a layered fashion, and it highlights strategies ranging from the lexical to the narrative. It deconstructs the impact that textual choices have on audience cognition and perception, and can subsequently shed light on tactics that might disrupt the transmission of neoliberal ideological speech.

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Cognitive Linguistics, Critical Discourse Analysis, Department of Education, Education Policy, Neoliberalism, Sociocognitive Discourse Studies
Educational Leadership and Policy Studies