A Rhetorical History and Criticism of U.S. Education Policy, 1980-1994

Open Access
Hlavacik, Mark Joseph
Graduate Program:
Communication Arts and Sciences
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
October 28, 2013
Committee Members:
  • Thomas Walter Benson, Dissertation Advisor
  • Jeremy Engels, Committee Member
  • Rosa A Eberly, Committee Member
  • Kirtley Hasketh Wilson, Committee Member
  • Keith Gilyard, Special Member
  • Rhetoric of Public Policy
  • Education Policy
  • Jonathan Kozol
  • Milton Friedman
  • A Nation at Risk
  • Richard J. Herrnstein
This dissertation investigates the rhetoric of blame in the public discourse of United States education policy. As the frequent object of reform since the mid-nineteenth century, public education in the United States has inspired a great deal of blame. Public education’s blameworthy have included teachers, students, parents, administrators, and entire governments. Not even inanimate concepts like segregation, genetics, race, class, and progressivism have escaped the allegation of culpability. In the permanent reform that is U.S. education policy, blame is an expedient tool for rhetorical actors because it insinuates the need to change both policy and leadership. Blame is not only expedient for rhetorical actors; it is also invigorating for rhetorical exchange. Acts of blame rarely go unanswered and so blaming renews the cycle of policy reform by initiating a process of deliberation. Although blaming itself is often blamed for being simplistic or misguided, this dissertation sets out with the assumption that blame, like any rhetorical act, has use value and thus entails strategy. The profusion of blame in the public discourse of education policy during the 1980s and early 1990s provides both a guiding question (What is all of this blame doing here?) as well as an abundance of opportunities to plumb blame’s rhetorical depths. This dissertation accounts for some of blame’s functions as a deliberative strategy through the close analysis of four prominent acts of public blaming. Moreover, by reconstructing the recent history of blaming in U.S. education policy discourses, this dissertation recovers the rhetorical antecedents of “accountability.”