Monday, November 14, 2022

Here’s the thing

Here’s the thing.
We (as in Western culture) have been talking about “the just city” since Plato’s account of Socrates. And when we talk about “the just city,” we talk about education. I mean, we don’t even just give it a polite nod; Socrates spends a fair portion of The Republic discussing the curriculum (because, you know, you can’t go telling stories about the gods, that’s dangerous, and it stirs up the wrong kinds of imagery; everyone’s a critic, but whatever). This country’s revolution was propelled by the understanding that democracy and revolution were impossible without the free spread of ideas; it’s why Ben Franklin convinced his buddies to put their treasured books on democratic ideals at a public house and created the first lending library in the history of ever. That was in 1731, and it took a two generations — 40 years—before the ideas had grown enough in the public conversation that throwing a bunch of tea into a harbor seemed not only rational, but compellingly responsible. We’ve been talking about the Just City for three thousand years, and this country in particular conceives of itself as exceptionally just, from John Winthrop to Eisenhower, our national narrative is one of “A city on a hill” so blessed with “prayse and glory that men shall say. . . , “the Lord make it like that of New England.” A beacon shining against tyranny, a new land “with liberty and justice for all.”

We know what works to achieve good outcomes for students: low student teacher ratios in accessible, adequately funded schools. This, in fact, is what the private schools are selling and which parents buy without hesitation. If we know what works and aren’t doing it, it’s because we don’t want to. I don’t much care why we don’t want to; I’m a utilitarian, so I don’t think why we harm others through our (in)action has much weight. When I decide to have a chocolate bar, I know I’m not doing anyone any favors. I know that each cocoa bean is produced in horrible, inhumane, and at times inhuman conditions. But do I say no? No, I do not, not always. Because I don’t want to. Please do not expect me to simply overlook that the situation in United States educational policy is one of not knowing what works. We know. We just don’t care. Why don’t we have a bold federal program? Why didn’t George H. W. Bush, who decided to undertake securing better outcomes for students, launch a sweeping federal program the likes of which haden’t been seen since the New Deal? Because he didn’t want to. Please do not expect me to think that Bush, the head of the CIA, mentored by the head of the OSS, didn’t know what policies would make a difference or how to enact them. He knew. He didn’t care.

We’re the United States of America.
If we’re not doing something, it’s because we don’t want to.

I think that the way we have progressively kicked the responsibility for meaningful educational policy further down the line since Brown — from states, to municipalities, to neighborhoods, to now local school boards devolving into fights over everything from masks to comic books — shows that the educational landscape is thoroughly Balkanized, divided into increasingly smaller, mutually hostile groups. I think this is a moral failure of political leadership; I think this is a threat to democracy; and I think it is bad for everyone.

It’s a moral failure of political leadership in the most basic utilitarian analysis: to know that the action you undertake will create harm to others is only justified when not taking that action would create a sacrifice of equal or greater marginal utility. Truly, denying myself chocolate isn’t on par with forced child labor; denying myself a glass of wine isn’t comparable with enduring sexual assault. Claudia Card writes in The Atrocity Paradigm that callous disregard for the harm we do to others is the definition of evil. I don’t disagree.

I believe providing a robust educational system is essential to fostering democracy, and that the lack of actively fostering democracy opens the door to courting an authoritarian and totalitarian state. See Dewey, and Socrates, and wow, so so many people.

I believe that a well-educated society is one in which everyone is better off, not just the well educated. I believe that to diminish education in a community of any size or to let the educational institution decay is to actively diminish the scope of human wellbeing in those communities. I know that holding education as the cure for social ills carries with it a quiet trap of seeing individuals as responsible for their own mobility, but with that caveat, I also believe that education remains the single most powerful remedy and inoculation against human misery. It is the path by which communities thrive, not merely individuals. 

Public policy, especially educational policy, has the capacity to enrich lives. 
Therefore it should.