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Education for Economic Life: The Role of Communicative Action

by Ben Endres - 2006

This article addresses the tension between the need to prepare students for functional activity in organizations on the one hand, and the need to instill dispositions and competencies that transcend these determinate roles on the other. I take for granted that schools must fulfill both tasks, and I suggest that they are failing at the latter in part because these social and moral purposes of education have not been constructively developed in relation to its economic aims. I first use Max Weber's theory of social action to explain the role of functional activity in modern schooling and society. I then argue that a qualified form of Jürgen Habermas's theory of communicative action can provide a meaningful connection between functional activity and the kinds of participatory, open interactions and relationships that progressive educators seem to prioritize. I argue that communicative action plays a crucial role in a wide range of organizational contexts, even those that involve narrow functions within strict hierarchies. Communicative action thus shows how progressive educational ideals are relevant for work life, regardless of one's place in the economic hierarchy. It also exposes the common ground beneath a range of progressive ideals. I conclude by showing how the role of communicative action in functional work may motivate reform in the practices of teaching and learning.


There is at least a century-long conflict about how economic goals should be related to other social purposes underlying education, such as the cultivation of democratic participation and broad personal development.1 Like most conflicts with histories as long as this one, the points of disagreement are complicated, and they are further obfuscated by politically charged rhetoric. In this article, I hope to shed light on and to mediate this disagreement. Like many within the professional world of education, I am skeptical about the unqualified application of economic goals and practices to schooling. Yet, I feel the need to clarify the basis of this skepticism. No one can deny that institutionalized schooling has an integral relationship with the economy in general and with the practices of businesses in particular. Yet, what is the basis of this relationship, and what, if any, are the legitimate boundaries between these different kinds of social practices? I believe that Jurgen Habermas’s (1984, 1987) theory of communicative action offers a way of understanding how institutions oriented toward efficiency and economic success should be related to those that provide broad educational competencies, like our public schools. In this article, I do not explicitly address the particular policy compromises that are currently emerging between schooling and the market, such as “school choice” arrangements. I am interested in the conflict among ideals for social life embedded in the controversy surrounding these policies, a difference in ethos that underlies the perennial conflict between reformers who prioritize economic, practical goals and those who adopt broad moral or political ideals for education.

Central to the economic purposes of education and the conflict that it evokes is the process of preparing students to effectively perform impersonal functions within organizations, to be able to “do the job” regardless of personal interests in the moment. Preparing individuals to effectively participate in this functional activity has been and continues to be an important part of what schools must accomplish in a modern society in which highly structured organizations have such a central place. Beginning in kindergarten, schools introduce students to distinctions between work and play and between parental authority and official authority. Yet, there is a common concern from a variety of perspectives within the educational community that education for these sorts of functional roles can be mechanistic in its methods and in the dispositions that it cultivates among students. Many worry that preparing students to be effective functionaries within organizations conflicts with the development of other important educational aims, such as democratic participation, creativity, and moral virtue.2

This article addresses the tension between the need to prepare students for functional activity in organizations on the one hand, and the need to instill dispositions and competencies that transcend these determinate roles on the other. I take for granted that schools must fulfill both tasks, and I suggest that they are failing at the latter, in part because these social and moral purposes of education have not been constructively developed in relation to its economic aims. I argue that a qualified form of Habermas’s (1984, 1987) theory of communicative action can provide a meaningful connection between functional activity and the kinds of participatory, open interactions and relationships that progressive educators seem to prioritize. I argue that the open-ended mutual communication that Habermas identified plays a crucial role in a wide range of organizational contexts, even those that involve narrow functions within strict hierarchies. Communicative action thus shows how progressive educational ideals are relevant for work life, regardless of one’s place in the economic hierarchy. It also exposes the common ground beneath a range of progressive ideals. I conclude by showing how the role of communicative action in functional work may motivate reform in the practices of teaching and learning.


I use the term functional to refer to kinds of interactions that are based on clearly defined roles and prescribed objectives. Functional activity, characterized by official roles and tasks, can be contrasted with what I will later refer to as communicative activity, characterized by open-ended mutual exchanges among participants who are acting not only within their official duties. The term is meant to build on Weber’s (1993, p. 6) use of “purposive rationality” (zweck-rationalitat) in his still-timely analysis of social action in modern societies. Weber used the concept of purposive rationality as a way of distinguishing social activity that prioritizes efficient and effective action from social behavior based on moral principle, traditional customs, or emotions. Rational behavior, for Weber, places effectiveness above all other concerns. He uses the term rationality in a descriptive, sociological sense rather than a normative sense: He does not imply that a rational belief is necessarily one that we should hold. For him, purposive rationality simply describes one of the modes through which human beings approach social activity. Weber does not argue that purposive rationality is superior to other forms of social action in some essential way; rather, he sees it as dominant in modern societies with large, bureaucratic, private enterprises and state agencies.

For Weber (1993), purposive rationality is the close relative of bureaucratic authority, which is characterized by impersonal, specialized, and hierarchical roles as a means of exercising power. “Modern bureaucracy functions by way of . . . the principle of strictly observed official areas of jurisdiction which are generally ordered by rules, that is by laws or administrative regulations” (p. 59). The specialized roles or functions of a bureaucracy thus depend on the fact that they are governed by formal rules rather than traditional or personal relationships. For Weber, bureaucratic authority provides a sharp contrast with charismatic authority, which is based on the experience of personal connection or devotion and the assumption of access to supernatural powers by the leader. The authority of a bureaucratic organization is based on worldly rules that define the scope of responsibility for the official. Purposive rationality, then, is the modus operandi of bureaucracies because it is within the bureaucrat’s role that traditional, religious, moral, and personal aims are suspended in order to effectively carry out the rule-determined aims of the position.

Bureaucratic authority and purposive rationality are closely linked for Weber (1993) with a currency-based economy: “It is principally the modern capitalist market economy that is foremost in demanding that the official business of an administration be executed as quickly, precisely, unambiguously, and continuously as possible” (p. 79). The relationship between money and bureaucracy helps to explain why functional activity is so closely associated with work and the economy. First, whether in the public or private sector, these roles are usually performed as a way of earning a living for the individual. Second, the efficient and effective use of resources within these functions is usually measured in monetary terms. In educational contexts, credits or other tokens (Giddens, 1990, 1991) may serve to gauge effectiveness in a way that is analogous to financial measures. Functional activity is related to the economy through its association with work for the individual and with the productivity or success for organizations.

For Weber (1993), the effectiveness of modern bureaucracies, in both political and economic domains of modern life, turns on the ability of the individual to take on discrete, specialized roles within organizations. To successfully carry out a particular bureaucratic function requires prioritizing effectiveness and efficiency within that role, over personal or broader social concerns:

A fully developed bureaucracy falls under the principle of “sine ira ac studio” [without hatred or passion]. Bureaucracy’s specific nature, quite welcome to capitalism, is increasingly perfected the more it becomes objectified or dehumanized. Considered its virtue, the perfecting of this specific nature involves the successful exclusion of love, hate and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements to which calculation is alien, from the process of discharging official business. (p. 79)

This suspension of personal concerns and values in order to effectively “do the job” is a crucial requirement of work within modern organizations.

At the same time that we depend on people effectively fulfilling their impartial functions within organizations, there is also a deep-seated modern resistance to this idea of just “doing the job” or “following orders.” On the one hand, enacting depersonalized social functions potentially challenges the extent to which we are free and autonomous individuals, and, on the other hand, it challenges the intuition that certain moral principles should be prioritized over the effective accomplishment of any particular task. This second point is most vividly made by remembering the Nazis’ technical and administrative proficiency in executing the morally depraved atrocities of the Holocaust. It is also raised in the psychology experiments of Milgram (1983) in the 1960s, which demonstrated subjects’ willingness to inflict suffering on others in deference to authority. The apparently widespread tendency to obey authority despite conflicting emotions is so disturbing because our moral intuitions and aspirations contradict this tendency.

Although Weber is clearly skeptical about an unbridled reliance on functional activity (purposive rationality) in modern life, he offers no developed alternative. His analysis elucidates both the accomplishments of modern economic, bureaucratic life and its dehumanizing potential, but it does not reconcile them. He remains pessimistic (or perhaps realistic) about the possibility of modern society overcoming the forms of alienation and domination that accompany its institutions (Aron, 1989).


The problem that Weber identified is a problem for education, both because schools are (most often) exactly the sort of bureaucracies that he describes and because schools are supposed to provide their students with the skills, knowledge, and dispositions that make modern organizational life possible. Formal schooling is an institution that arose from the same cultural, economic, and political forces as the modern state and industrial corporations (see, e.g., Kliebard, 1987; Tyack, 1974). It has been deeply connected to the idea that social problems and development can be effectively managed by the state. In the United States, the expansion of public schooling, with respect to both the number of students served and the range of subject matter, coincided with the application of industrial principles of organization to the schools. Tyack quoted William T Harris, a leader of education reform, explaining the need to standardize schooling in 1871: “The first principle of the school is Order: each pupil must be taught first and foremost to conform his behavior to a general standard” (p. 43). Order here means, in part, teaching students the impersonal discipline and structures of modern organizational life that Weber characterized. Functional roles were also used to characterize the aims of curriculum. In 1918, the curriculum theorist John Franklin Bobbitt wrote,

Education that prepares for life is one that prepares definitely and adequately for these specific activities [involved in adult life] . . . . These will be the objectives of the curriculum. They will be numerous, definite, and particularized. The curriculum will then be that series of experiences which children and youth must have by way of attaining those objectives. (Kliebard, pp. 115-116)

The direct influences of industrial principles on schooling have clearly diminished since the early decades of the 20th century. For example, there is more widespread resistance to vocational tracking, at least as early as middle school. However, economic goals and management techniques continue to seep into schooling at all levels. The current enthusiasm for testing as a means of holding schools accountable for their performance is a visible example of this.3 Yet, in this article, I am particularly interested in the more subtle role that schools play in preparing students for functional activity: the narrowly prescribed work within organizations that prioritizes official responsibilities over other concerns. The “hidden curriculum” of schooling is more relevant in preparing students for functional activity than the official course of study. As early as kindergarten, children are taught to distinguish between work and play and to adapt to an authority that is based on an official position rather than the emotional bond with a parent (Apple, 1990). The distinction between play and work, home and school, and the association of success with submission to official authority continues throughout schooling (see, e.g., Fine, 1991, p. 37).

To say that functional, economic aims and practices have had a fundamental influence on the development of schools as modern institutions is not to argue that education is strictly determined by these forces. Among other influences, democratic ideals have had a crucial role to play in determining the aims of schooling and how they are administered (e.g., Carnoy & Levin, 1985; Kaestle, 1983). The ideal of equality of opportunity clearly distinguishes public schooling from private enterprise (see Coleman, 1966). Yet, although democratic values, like equality of opportunity and the ideal of social participation, have influenced the aims of schooling, they do not contradict the role of economic function as an ethos affecting schooling. In fact, there is a complicated interdependence between ideals of equality that we associate with democracy, and the forms of procedural rationality that Weber identified. For reformers like Bobbitt—as for the present-day reformers who are focused on standardization—there is no incompatibility between a democratic society and one in which students receive a regimented, standardized education that is, nevertheless, formally equal.

There are, of course, different qualities to functional activity at the lower and higher ends of the economic spectrum, and schools prepare students for different places in the hierarchy. Consider Carnoy and Levin’s study (1985), which suggests that lower middle-class students are accustomed to external impositions of authority and are given relatively few opportunities for verbal expression, while upper middle-class students are encouraged to internalize authority and to participate more through verbal expression. More recently, Lareau (2003) has described how middle-class children are socialized to negotiate and argue with adults, while poor and working-class children are taught to accept adult directives. Although these kinds of class differences are profound, the significance of functional activity in education transcends economic inequality. Both working-class and professional jobs demand the adoption of impersonal, specialized functions within hierarchical organizations. Even elite boarding schools prepare their students for extremely disciplined and hierarchical work environments (see Cookson & Persell, 1985, p. 132). The impersonal roles that Weber described thus characterize the work experience for people at both ends of the economic divide. However, there appears to be a greater willingness to accept a narrow account of functionality for people at the lower end of the work hierarchy, which I will discuss further below.


The idea that schools should prepare most students for narrow, functional roles in the workplace has been under sustained criticism from a variety of camps since the principles of industrial organization first began to be applied to schools in the early part of the 20th century, and the debates that ensued continue to frame the landscape of educational reform (see Darling-Hammond, 1997). John Dewey (1966) provided the most famous and influential critique of narrow aims and methods of education borrowed directly from the industrial economy. Although he shared social efficiency reformers’ disdain for the traditional academic curriculum and their confidence in science, he argued that education should be primarily oriented to democratic social ideals. He advocated a broad conception of growth for the individual and genuinely participatory educational contexts in the service of a more democratic society. Dewey and those who follow him share a common fear that the methods of industrial organization will mechanize schooling and create passive students who are more trained than educated. Throughout Democracy and Education (1966), Dewey resists the simplistic application of “social efficiency” and scientific management from industry to education.

Yet Dewey (1966) also believed that economic aims and social needs could be fruitfully integrated with the natural development of the child and cultural enrichment. He wanted to avoid a reflexive or nostalgic reaction against industrialization. Although concerned about the distortion of education by industrial aims and practices, Dewey also maintained hope that schools could be places where the interdependence of economic life, cultural growth, and individual flourishing was sustained. This hope is epitomized in Dewey’s complex account of an occupation as, “the only thing which balances the distinctive capacity of an individual with his social service” (p. 308). He argued for a conception of schooling based upon this broader notion of occupations: “Occupations in the school shall not be mere practical devices or modes of routine employment . . . but active centers of scientific insight” (Dewey, 1991, p. 19). Dewey attempted to integrate broad social and personal growth in educational practices that were increasingly oriented to the aims and practices of industrialization.

Many critical and alternative efforts to reform schooling since Dewey share his anxiety about narrow preparation for economic function. However, they seem less optimistic about finding some kind of reconciliation between the economic and social aims of education. Consider, for example, critical and liberation pedagogies that build on the work of Freire (1970), whose theory of dialogue and problem-posing education is developed as an antithesis to the "dehumanizing," "mechanistic" "banking method” (see also Giroux, 1983; McLaren & Lankshear, 1994). For advocates of critical pedagogy, the school must provide a radical alternative to the pacifying social forces of the larger social structure. In a less dramatic position, many liberal political theorists, such as Gutmann (1987), see the schools as a place where democratic aims have “moral primacy” over economic goals. Gutmann suggested that “participatory methods” in schools might counter some of the antidemocratic tendencies of the modern workplace. Furthermore, Noddings (1984, 1992) drew a sharp contrast with the ethos of functional activity in advocating "care" as a fundamental moral and pedagogical ideal. The disregard for emotional connection, moral ideals, or critical reflection in functional activity is the central object of concern and criticism across these diverse alternative ideals for schooling. Although important differences exist within each of these schools of thought, the wide range of progressive ideals in education seems to share a common opposition to that part of schooling that prepares students for narrow economic roles. Although these progressives share Dewey’s concern about a narrow instrumentalism from the workplace infecting education, they rarely share his attention to how education and work might be more meaningfully related to one another.

If there are so many critiques of schooling for functional activity from such distinct standpoints, why do these alternative ideals, such as democracy, dialogue, and caring, remain at the margin, while preparation for disciplined economic roles continues to play such central a role in schools? I think that we should take a clue from Weber and avoid a simplistic response to this question. The dominance of bureaucratic rationality in modern life is the result of complex social, cultural, and economic forces that cannot be attributed to a single cause or group of people (as some neo-Marxist theories can seem to imply, e.g., Bowles & Gintis, 1977). Although certain social groups (especially European and American middle and upper classes) may benefit from the dominance of this mode of social activity, Weber is successful in showing that this dominance is more complex than the conscious self-interest of any one group. If the ethos of functional activity is as embedded as Weber suggested, it will be as unavoidable in schooling as it is in the rest of modern society. Consider, for example, how efforts to achieve more equality in schooling often lead to increasing standardization and impersonal organizational structures. More equality in school funding, for example, requires state laws, funding mechanisms, and public offices to oversee and enforce reform. Regardless of its aim, any reform that is carried out through large-scale institutions, like public schools, will implicitly rely on the ethos of functional activity. Given that progressive educational ideals cannot seem to escape a dependence on technical, bureaucratic forms of organization, is there a way to understand this dependence as mutual? If the ideals of the progressive reformers cannot replace the functional aims of schooling, can they coexist with them in a meaningful way as Dewey hoped?


As I mention above, there is no shortage of alternatives to functional economic activity as a purpose of schooling: Democratic participation, critical thinking, social justice, and caring relationships are several prominent examples. Yet none of these alternatives offers a meaningful connection to the impersonal, functional roles that Weber (1993) identified as playing such a fundamental role in modern society. A comprehensive, if ambitious, social theory that better elucidates these connections and may integrate different ideals of the progressive movement is provided in Habermas’s theory of communicative action (1984, 1987, 1993). Habermas provided a more developed response to Dewey’s project of relating practical, economic activity to the social processes that underlie cooperation and solidarity. Although Dewey (1966) also focused on communication as a resource for this integration, Habermas provided a more systematic analysis of communication, drawing on a diverse range of developments in 20th-century social science and philosophy.

Habermas rejected the broad indictment of modern rationality as inextricably linked with the exercise of power that is leveled by Weber and Habermas’s own predecessors in the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1995). Habermas (1984) accepted Weber’s analysis of rationality in terms of social action, but he believes that Weber missed an important aspect of social activity by restricting his attention to the beliefs and intentions of the subject acting in isolation. Weber considered how an individual may act according to private desires, traditional customs, or moral principles, but he did not take into account how individuals must coordinate their activity with others. In particular, Habermas thinks that Weber failed to develop one of the crucial ways that cooperative social activity is secured in modern life: the effort to reach agreement based on some form of validity or legitimacy. According to Habermas (1984), Weber ignored the fact that people sometimes coordinate their activity through appeals to truth or fairness, and through the exercise of power. The modern legal system is an example of one area in which agreement is not simply the product of custom or authority, but depends on an effort to reach a legitimate resolution. Scientific discourses provide another example: The success of a scientific claim is not based on bureaucratic power, but on mutual examination by a community of inquirers. Habermas distinguished such activity that is oriented toward understanding and agreement (“communicative action”) from that directed at achieving some predetermined goal (“strategic action”), which would include what I have been referring to as functional activity. For Habermas, communicative action is "intersubjective" in that individual goals relate to shared agreement, as opposed to the monological standpoint of "instrumental" or “strategic action.” It requires the free and reciprocal participation of those involved in order to reach a shared agreement based on some form of validity. Habermas believes that communicative action structures exist outside institutional contexts as well, because standards of what is good, right, or true are implied in everyday language. Thus, he identified a form of social activity parallel to, but ignored by, Weber’s (1993) account of purposive rationality: interactions that appeal to mutual agreement based on impartial standards of validity.

Habermas not only offered communicative action as an alternative to instrumental rationality, but he also argued that it is the “original mode” of language use. He believes that because all speech appeals to validity (however implicitly), the “orientation to reaching understanding is the original mode of language use, upon which indirect understanding . . . and the instrumental use of language in general are parasitic” (1984, p. 288). When Habermas said that strategic action is parasitic on communicative action, he couldn’t have meant that it is overall less important. Strategic action and communicative action only make sense in relation to each other. For a theoretical analysis of social activity, it is worth distinguishing them as ideal types, but they are integrally related in everyday experience, as I hope to show next. However, there is a sense in which strategic action can seem parasitic on its partner: The crucial role that communicative action plays is often overlooked within practices that are aimed at efficiency.

When we consider mutual communication aimed at shared understanding, we might first think of formal contexts, such as a seminar discussion or a formal political debate. These specialized contexts obviously require intensive language skills and active, cooperative participation. Yet, focusing on these unique examples of communicative action can easily lead us to ignore its central role in less intellectually oriented and more everyday contexts. To support Habermas’s point that mutual communication has a fundamental role, even in situations in which it is not the focus, we must show its importance in interactions that are focused on achieving relatively practical and specific goals. If communicative action is presupposed in contexts in which practical effectiveness is paramount, then we can reconsider the opposition between narrow functional aims and progressive ideals in education that is assumed by educational reformers who advocate for one to the exclusion of the other.

To demonstrate the role of communicative action in relation to work that is typically associated with practical, instrumental economic activity, I will discuss an example from my own experience in landscape construction. Although it would be easy to find more dramatic examples of communication in practical work, I want to show that communication is central to the productive activity itself, even when it appears to play a negligible role. On one typical project, I worked with a foreman and several other laborers to build a stone retaining wall that would separate an elevated portion of a yard from flower beds that were to be planted on a separate tier of the yard below the wall. Carol, the foreman (this was the term we used at the time despite her gender), oversaw the project according to the designs of an architect. She directed the two or three laborers assigned in a given day and coordinated the project with the stonemason, Dale. In one typical challenge, Dale informed Carol that the wall would have to be shorter than was specified in the architect’s plans because of the size of the stones that he had obtained, the space available for the wall, and the weight that would be exerted on the wall from behind. This presented further dilemmas that Carol had to address with Dale and the laborers. For example, shortening the wall might require a grade in the lawn above the wall, against the client’s wishes for a level yard. After some discussion and consultation, Dale and Carol worked out a solution, with the occasional contribution of a worker like myself, and got it approved by the architect and the client: We would widen the wall so that it could be built higher with smaller stones.

I am not claiming that the conversations about a retaining wall were particularly profound, or morally charged. They were, first and foremost, about getting the wall built and thus getting the job done. This activity was oriented toward success, so, according to Habermas’s nomenclature, it was strategic rather than communicative action. However, I would argue that there were genuinely communicative moments in the discussions: moments when Carol and Dale had to reach a common ground on what was to be done, despite conflicting concerns. They couldn’t simply issue orders to each other. They had to understand the other’s perspective enough to reach agreement and make successful action possible. I believe that it is this sense in which strategic or functional action is "parasitic" on communicative action. The communicative action falls outside the description of the "work" even though it is integrally bound up with the productive activity. Of course, Dale and Carol might have ignored their different perspectives on the job, tried to mislead one another, or deferred to their boss’s authority in some way. Yet, in these other scenarios, the activity of building the wall is not as likely to have been successful. This example shows how success in terms of effectiveness and productivity can be integrally bound with mutual communication. Such forms of communication are not exceptional, even in workplaces that are hierarchical and technical, like the landscape construction worksite.

It is difficult to separate communicative and instrumental activity in the workplace, and yet it is also difficult to reduce one to the other. Technical procedures, specialization, and bureaucratic hierarchy are crucial features of modern work. There is little doubt that much of the writing and speech in the workplace is not mutual in the sense that Habermas identifies as "communicative." However, this example shows that even work that is manual and hierarchical may be communicative in ways that we are likely to take for granted. Nearly all work is explicitly concerned with effectiveness and success, but it still presupposes contexts in which individuals and groups overcome differences in understanding. The kinds of communication highlighted in the landscape construction example can also be found in other work contexts, including professional ones. Consider accountants communicating with clients, entrepreneurs developing a business plan together, nurses explaining medication to patients, or two technology experts disagreeing about the best software for the company to buy.

There are, of course, jobs that might seem to involve many fewer opportunities for communicative action than those above. Consider assembly line workers or data entry clerks who are cloistered away in cubicles. I do not mean to imply that communicative action is crucial to all economic activity, only that it is central enough to such a wide range of work that successful economic activity depends on it. In situations in which shared understanding falters or in which procedure and authority fail to guide us, open-ended communication with relevant others becomes the means of sustaining and strengthening the interaction. Although these situations fall outside the official description of most jobs, they play a crucial role in the success of work. A broad interpretation of communicative action shows its pragmatic importance for work and social life in general, not only for specialized institutional contexts such as university seminars or political debates. The theory of communicative action thus provides a meaningful connection between functional activity and the kinds of open, participatory social activity that progressive educators are interested in cultivating. Even when we focus on the economic aims of schooling and even if the work environments that we consider are not associated with high levels of academic literacy, communication aimed at mutual understanding ought to hold a fundamental place in schooling. Disclosing the role of communicative action in work life thus provides a new way of seeing open and participatory social interaction as an end and a means of education.


The role of communicative action in economic life requires subtle shifts in how we think about the purposes of education. First, communicative action provides new life to the Deweyian effort to find common ground between a developed market economy and social aims like cooperation and democratic participation in education. The progressive response to the influence of economic aims in education has been to highlight an ideal for human life—often democracy (Gutmann, 1987), but also ideals like caring (Nod-dings, 1984, 1992) and dialogue (Freire, 1970)—that can be contrasted with economic goals and provide an alternative orientation for the schools. Although each of these progressive strains of educational thought makes a distinctive contribution, I would argue that an anxiety about the dominance of narrow, functional activity is central to each of them. Communicative action makes this anxiety explicit and brings attention to an underlying commonality that is sometimes missed in debates among different versions of progressive reform.

Yet communicative action also has a complementary rather than an antagonistic relationship with functional activity. It is articulated with respect to the pragmatic features of communication that apply in a wide range of contexts, including work environments that are typically ignored by progressive scholars and reformers. Communicative action provides a way of understanding the integral connection between economic (functional) and progressive goals for education: They both ultimately rely on open, mutual communication. If this interdependence between open-ended communication and functional activity can be established further, it will provide a powerful new argument for progressive reform in education. To make this connection, however, progressives will have to develop the meaning of their ideals in relation to the diverse worlds of work instead of simply contrasting their moral and political aims with preparation for work. I believe that an argument for communicative action in schooling based on its importance for economic life is likely to be more influential than those based, for example, on the requirements of democratic political institutions alone. The structures and methods of schooling are simply more closely tied to economic than political life (see Carnoy & Levin, 1985; Kliebard, 1987).

While providing the possibility of a Deweyian integration of functional and progressive aims of education, the theory of communicative action also reveals very clearly what might be lost when students are not prepared for the kinds of open interactions that permeate work and social life. Given the cognitive and emotional difficulty of communication across differences, there is every reason to think that those who are not educated for this kind of interaction are more likely to face unnecessary miscommunication and conflict. At a societal level, Habermas (1987) cited the danger that "systems" of behavior based on strategic action can take on a life of their own, disassociating themselves from the communicative practices on which they ultimately depend. In particular, Habermas refers to the apparent self-sufficiency of the market economy, which assumes people to be self-interested and prioritizes success over legitimacy. In the market’s overriding concern for profit, strategic action is often hidden in spurious appeals to shared understanding (e.g., consider the false sincerity of the stereotypical used car salesperson). Habermas (1987) worried that, as systems based on strategic action play a greater role in society, the socially integrating functions of communicative action—”reaching understanding," "coordinating action,” and “socializing actors” (p. 63)—will not be carried out. In other words, the role of mutual communication can be overlooked and undermined to the extent that basic forms of trust, cooperation, and understanding can begin to break down. Given this possibility (some might say tendency) in modern bureaucratic organizations, the schools have an important mission in preserving and extending the role of communicative action.

Finally, the importance of communicative action in work across the economic spectrum suggests the need for its equitable cultivation among all students. Though I chose an example of manual laborers to show that communicative action has a role in work that we do not normally consider communicative, this example also highlights the economic and educational inequality between these workers and their middle-class or professional counterparts. I have tried to show that functional activity, whether in the bureaucratic roles of upper management or the physical work of laborers, depends upon the kind of communicative activity that Habermas described. It follows from this claim that all workers would benefit from education for open-ended, reciprocal communication and that such education should be included even for those who reach only minimal levels of schooling. The fact that many students may end up in jobs that are very technical and regimented cannot justify the absence of participatory, communicative engagement throughout their education. Although few would disagree with this claim in principle, I believe that there is a tacit acceptance that only those who are destined for the professions require the complex communication skills that we associate with high levels of academic literacy (see again Carnoy & Levin, 1985). Habermas showed that the pragmatic structure of communication in society requires a participatory, dialogical form of education for all students regardless of their career expectations or their abilities in traditional academic subject matter.

Some might argue that, rather than transcending class, the kind of open communication that Habermas described may be defined by the interests and norms of a particular culture or class group. Indeed, there is a great deal of research suggesting that many of the norms of speech and writing— including the degree of elaboration, the way authority is expressed, and the way narratives are constructed—vary in significant ways among cultures and subcultures (e.g., Bernstein, 1975; Delpit, 1995; Gee, 1990; Heath, 1983; Lareau, 2003). It is therefore reasonable to be concerned that making open and mutual communication a central aim of schooling for all students may involve the imposition of one group’s norms upon others. Yet, in appreciating the kinds of differences in language use between cultural and class groups that ethnographers and sociolinguists have uncovered, one need not abandon the structural difference between communicative activity and functional activity (strategic action) that Habermas identified. The research on differences in discourse does not preclude the possibility of structural, pragmatic differences in communication such as the one Habermas described. For example, if working-class children are less likely to ask questions of adults than their upper middle-class counterparts, as Lareau claimed, or if they are less likely to have an extensive vocabulary, as Bernstein suggested, this may have implications for the way in which the two groups engage in communicative action in a school setting. Yet it does not mean that there is no useful distinction between functional and communicative activity for these children. Although this argument requires a more thorough review of the research than I can provide here, the lesson from researchers Bernstein, Heath, and Lareau is that the commitment to broad ideals like open communication must be interpreted with extreme sensitivity to the social context of education. Communicative action may manifest itself in a very different way at the construction site than in the boardroom, but it can still serve as common ideal for students who will work in each of these contexts. Yet to make such an ideal meaningful in schools will require a nuanced understanding by educators of the way in which social differences mediate the broad structures of communication.

The structural, pragmatic role of communicative action across different forms of social activity suggests its importance in education for people throughout the economic hierarchy. Habermas’s argument discloses the interdependence of functional and communicative activity, and thus the need for education in both across the economic spectrum. Although communicative norms differ in substantial ways among social and class groups, these differences need not undercut the importance of open and mutual communication for all students.


As I suggest above, communicative action provides a new kind of argument in support of progressive ideals that have already been translated into a diverse array of reforms in policy and pedagogy (see, e.g., Darling-Hammond, 1997). Identifying the role of communicative action in work does not offer dramatic new approaches to pedagogy. However, the analysis of communication in the landscape construction example highlights two general kinds of interaction that have an importance often ignored in both the workplace and the classroom: (1) interactions that require communication across distinct functional roles, and (2) interactions that require reflection on the general aims of a practice by those within it. The crucial role of communication across specialization and communication about purposes, even in work that is physical and hierarchical, calls for similar forms of communication in academic study.

The first kind of interaction is exemplified in the construction crew’s encounter with a problem that requires the individuals to talk outside their prescribed roles and across their areas of expertise. Resolution requires communication between the stonemason and the foreman. This sort of interaction also occurs when the foreman has to explain technical aspects of the job to the laborers or to the client. These examples mirror those in a wide range of workplaces where activity must be coordinated among those in different positions of expertise or training. In a world of increasing specialization, there is also an increasing need for communication across these specialized roles. The importance of such communication is undoubtedly greater in cases in which the job description requires serving the public (consider the nurse caring for a patient or a teacher holding a parent conference), but interacting across specializations is a common feature of all but the most narrowly circumscribed and static workplaces.

This general importance of communicating across specialized roles can be incorporated into the practices of basic education. For example, the crucial role of relating to those in roles and practices different from one’s own suggests the need for students to communicate the content of what they learn to those unfamiliar with it. This might happen through students teaching one another across ability levels or in simply demonstrating their competence through different forms of expression directed at a wider or more unfamiliar audience. Although this suggestion may seem commonsensical, it calls our attention to how much learning in school is taught and assessed as a private possession of students, without concern for their ability to communicate their understanding to others. This insight reinforces the kinds of reform suggested by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (a discipline that many do not normally think of as “communicative”), which emphasizes the need for students to communicate, “their mathematical thinking coherently and clearly to peers, teachers and others” (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2002). The general importance of communicating across economic roles and their specialized discourses reinforces the value of writing and speaking for a public audience as a central academic practice throughout the curriculum. This suggests a richer definition of literacy that includes the ability to articulate ideas for unfamiliar others and to interpret the ideas of others for one’s self.

The second kind of workplace interaction that may serve to guide teaching is that which requires a reconsideration of an activity by the participants. The stone wall presents a logistical problem that calls into question the function of the activity. Given the constraints of the situation, the workers cannot simply follow the blueprint. They must literally go back to the drawing board, and this requires a communicative exchange that is not defined by procedure, hierarchy, or technical knowledge alone. For the focus of speech to shift to mutual understanding, the need to take some sort of concrete action must be temporarily suspended (Habermas, 1993). The work crew on the landscape construction job has to stop the physical activity of building the wall until the questions about its dimensions can be resolved. Genuine efforts to create shared understanding like this are usually motivated by actual or anticipated confusion, misunderstanding, and disagreement when the outcome cannot be known in advance. The uncertainty and complexity that the workers face underlie their need to discuss the issue in a reciprocal way. In discussions about the importance of “problem solving” in the workplace, the role of communication is often overlooked: even if an individual solves the problem, it must usually be communicated to others. Although communicative action has a crucial role in addressing technical problems, its importance is even clearer in discussions about long-term planning, evaluation, conflicts among personnel, and moral dilemmas. Problems and questions like these often require the focus of action to shift from practical success to mutual understanding.

Schooling that takes seriously the practical importance of communicative action must therefore create a context for students to work through authentic disagreement and confusion with peers. The simple example of the landscape construction site suggests the ubiquity of such temporary disorientation in work and social life. Such practical problems are the exceptions to procedures and job descriptions that define the rules in most workplaces. Miscommunication and disagreement constitute the negative space against which our effective activity becomes visible, and open-ended, mutual communication is the central means for resolving such conflicts. Yet it is difficult for schools to develop and manage authentic conflict, in which students genuinely experience relevant feelings and uncertainty in a constructive way. Artificially constructed, group problem-solving activities and class debates will not allow students to experience communicative action unless they are thoughtfully developed in a way that is relevant to their interests. Disagreement and confusion are defining characteristics of truly open-ended and mutual communication, and this requires that students confront conflicting perspectives about something in which they have a stake. Loewen (1995) lamented the absence of conflict in textbooks and teachers’ general resistance to involving students in controversy. Teaching that builds on students’ interests and engages them in an appropriate degree of controversy defies deterministic planning and standardization. Yet, to prepare students for the most challenging experiences they will face in work life will require sometimes suspending the focus on efficiency and procedure within the school in order to create the possibility of educational conflict.

Again, I am not claiming to offer any systematic proposals for curricular reform in this article. I merely want to show that thinking carefully about the general features of economic life can lead to insights for schools that are not necessarily in conflict with education for democratic participation and broad personal growth. Education for economic life need not result in a mechanical, "skills-and-drills" approach to pedagogy, or narrowly determined standardized content. By taking practical, economic activity seriously, including the moments of communication that are often forgotten in its official description, we can find stronger arguments for open-ended, participatory education.


Weber (1993) identified an intractable problem for modern societies: The forms of specialized, rule-governed functions that make public and private organizations so successful also seem to reduce human experience to narrow economic roles that cultivate passivity and personal alienation. Reactions against this ethos of functional activity end up depending on and unwittingly reproducing it. This dilemma is particularly relevant for educational progressives, who would like schools to foster democratic values and broad personal and social development. I have argued that Habermas’s (1984, 1987, 1993) theory of communicative action reveals the hidden interdependence between functional activity and open-ended, reciprocal interactions. Although this insight does not radically revise the content of progressive educational reform, it suggests that progressive aims could be better served by a serious examination of the ways that communicative activity underlies everyday practices, especially economic ones. Communicative action helps uncover the manifold social activities involved in work that cannot be reduced to functional roles. Although procedure-bound, technical activities have a crucial role in organizations, there is a legitimate concern that if we ignore the communicative dimension of practices, we will undermine the social processes that allow them to be coordinated. By engaging all students in open-ended, mutual interactions that arise in the context of meaningful conflict and uncertainty, schools can prepare them for discrete economic roles and broad personal and social development. Education through such authentic forms of communication is important because of schooling’s intimate relation to the economy, not in spite of it.

I would like to thank the editor and the anonymous reviewers of this article who provided many important suggestions and criticisms. I would also like to thank Chris Higgins for commenting on an earlier version of this article.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 10, 2006, p. 2001-2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12720, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 6:48:25 PM

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About the Author
  • Ben Endres
    SUNY New Paltz
    E-mail Author
    BEN ENDRES is assistant professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His research interests are centered on the moral dimensions of communication in schooling and social life. Recent publications include, “Critical Pedagogy and Liberal Education: Reconciling Tradition, Critique and Democracy” in Philosophy of Education 2002, and “Transcending and Attending to Difference in the Multicultural Classroom” in the Journal of Philosophy of Education.
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