My recent post for the John Dewey Society’s Social issues blog, here.
Watching the media dissect the Canadian Supreme Court’s ruling on the Moore case has been interesting, not the least of which because of the extent to which the narrative around the decision has focused on the Court’s finding that School District 44 (north Vancouver) was indeed engaged in discrimination by failing to accommodate the educational needs of one of it’s students. (For those unfamiliar with the story, see a synopsis, here.) What I mean is that there’s been a lot of discussion around the fact of discrimination and not so much on the mechanisms of discrimination as found by the courts in this particular case. There are important lessons here for school districts under significant financial pressure to balance their budgets.
First, the Court found that the provision of special education services does not represent an autonomous category of educational processes. “Special education” is not the service that students should be given reasonable access to. Rather, special education is a means to educational services. As the court ruled:
…the ‘service’ is education generally. Defining the service only as ‘special education’ would relieve the Province and District of their duty to ensure that no student is excluded from the benefit of the education system by virtue of their disability.
…To define ‘special education’ as the service at issue also risks descending into the kind of “separate but equal” approach which was majestically discarded in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Comparing Jeffrey only with other special needs students would mean that the District could cut all special needs programs and yet be immune from a claim of discrimination. It is not a question of who else is or is not experiencing similar barriers. This formalism was one of the potential dangers of comparator groups identified in Withler v. Canada (Attorney General), 2011 SCC 12 (CanLII),  1 S.C.R. 396.
This is an important normative distinction that re-asserts the principle that student’s with disabilities do not represent a separate class of learners, even if they require special (or better put, non-generic) supports. This is perhaps the part of the ruling that we’d want to hone in on. Now, it does raise interesting questions about the extent to which and ways in which education can be a service, ‘generally’, or if the concept of education needs to (or can) expand in order to accommodate all kinds of learners. It’s also an interesting (philosophical) question as to whether this might mean that education can never, insofar as it is a public good, be seen as embodying specifiable criteria – after all, maybe any such criteria is going to arbitrary exclude some group of persons? But perhaps at this point such questions are academic.
More practically, however, it reminds us that the design of educational systems have real moral and legal content (and assumptions) built into them – it isn’t just about “efficient delivery”. How we structure these systems tell us something about how we value students as human beings. Accordingly, such systems must remain consistent with basic legal and moral responsibilities.
The second feature is perhaps more significant from an immediate policy perspective. Note that the district argued that the cuts to learning supports were a response to budget constraints placed on them by the provincial government. Yet, the court noted that budget challenges do not absolve the district of responsibility:
 The District’s justification centred on the budgetary crisis it faced during the relevant period, which led to the closure of the Diagnostic Centre and other related cuts. There is no doubt that the District was facing serious financial constraints. Nor is there any doubt that this is a relevant consideration. It is undoubtedly difficult for administrators to implement education policy in the face of severe fiscal limitations, but accommodation is not a question of “mere efficiency”, since “[i]t will always seem demonstrably cheaper to maintain the status quo and not eliminate a discriminatory barrier” (VIA Rail, at para. 125).
This makes sense because it is often just those persons that are marginalized in institutions that end of bearing the brunt of budget cuts. These just are the persons that responsibilities for provision and accommodation are directed – those in a position of vulnerability.
Equally interesting is that the province is not liable for the decision because the failure of accommodation happened at the district level, not the provincial level.
So a couple of things, here. To be sure, budget cuts make for difficult work in education. I’ve been on the receiving end of those cuts both in the classroom context and in terms of running schools. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the complaint that there isn’t enough money cannot be used as a justification for failing to address the educational interests of students. When we make trade-offs between basic moral obligations and budgets it becomes all too easy to go down the dangerous slope of rationalization. I admit that this presents ethical and practical challenges. And I think educational leaders probably already know this – but it’s worth keeping in mind how cutting programming can put one on dangerous ground, even when one is compelled to do so.
Second, the ruling also raises questions about the extent to which governments can cut funds without being seen as liable for the effects of those cuts (for example, are cuts okay so long as they effect all students more or less that same?). I’m no legal scholar, but it would seem to me that governments have some responsibility for the moral and legal consequences of cuts to budgets, even if they do not directly decide on cuts to services. If I know that the cuts I make will mean that the those below me will have to engage in dubious acts of moral-legal calculus, am I not somehow responsible for what happens next?
Supreme Court decision here.
I’ve just finished reading Jeff Rubin’s The End of Growth.
For the unacquainted, Rubin used to be the Chief Economist for CIBC World Markets – a major Canadian financial institution. He’s since developed a reputation for offering keen insights on the direction of energy industries, especially oil, but he’s also really good at breaking down economic policy into digestible bites for the uninitiated such as myself.
The thesis driving the book is deceptively simple: the price of oil is going to get more and more expensive. Rubin points out that the massive GDP growth experienced over the last 70 years by the West has been underwritten by cheap oil. Now oil costs are and will continue to increase, not because oil companies cannot find new sources (the idea behind most ‘peak oil’ arguments) but because the cost of extracting those resources (financial and environmental) will steadily rise. Rubin cites the BP disaster as a good example of a larger trend.
Rubin’s not the only one to make this argument. But what’s really novel is his tracing out of the implications of this development. Rubin argues that more expensive energy will lead to important changes in how we live, work and consume. For example, governments will have to get used to the idea that GDP growth is not perpetual and so they will be unable to borrow against projected future growth. Individuals will have to change their sense of consumptive entitlement – luxury items such flat screen TV’s, air travel and housing will rise. Flat screen TV’s, for example, are cheap because the labor is cheap, but also because it costs very little to ship TV’s from the location of all that cheap labor (China) to the West. But rising oil costs will make this arrangement much less feasible.
The other novel aspect of the book is that he doesn’t see this as an unmitigated disaster. You’ll find no de rigueur post-apocalyptic vision in his forecast (pace Hunger Games). Rubin is an optimist who sees slow growth as an opportunity for individuals and policy-makers to escape the speculation, borrowing and general financial mismanagement with appears to be the central brand of late capitalism.
So what does all this have to do with education? Just everything.
Rubin doesn’t address education explicitly more than a few times in the book. But he does identify the myriad of important ways in which communities will have to adjust their expectations – from the kinds of work we will aspire to do (less opportunities for finance and real estate; more opportunities for trades and manufacturing) to a renewed emphasis on the virtues required for a flourishing life (more modesty about wealth acquisition versus conspicuous consumption) to our perspective on life-long learning (more time spent in post-secondary institutions).
Rubin isn’t naive – he thinks that inequalities have the potential to intensify under low growth conditions. But societies will have no choice but to adapt to slow growth in ways that will also be helpful for our environment, our sense of what it means to live a good life, and how and why we undertake an education.
There’s another important change that he doesn’t trace out that I’m interested in exploring more. Namely, I’d be interested in looking at the extent to which, and the ways in which, higher education has been caught up in a global financial market obsessed with growth and how ‘slow growth’, should it become an economic reality, will force universities to change for the better. Or as I would want to argue, rediscover their societal value and purpose.
A university system released from speculative financial markets and perpetual economic growth could be a strong ally for education. So for example, Rubin says that as governments have less money to work with, universities will have to focus more on private donors and fundraising. We already see this happening. In one sense this as an unsettling development – we’re used to relying on government support. To be sure, less government funding could mean less oversight in terms of ensuring equal opportunity for students. But it could also mean greater freedom for universities to worry less about answering demands for economic return on tax-payer investment and more on actually focusing on what universities do well – good teaching and research. It may also mean that universities could commit to offering social benefits to the community but not necessarily in purely job-oriented or growth-oriented terms. In a slow-growth society it would be natural and sensible for universities to play a continued cultural and educational function in the community because it would no longer operate under the expectation that it directly facilitate economic growth.
This is all speculative of course, but I think Rubin’s’ general diagnosis for our economic future makes sense. And this will lead to challenges and opportunities for education. Policy-makers will have to rethink the treatment of education as a policy-tool for GDP growth. But this won’t be because of a Dickensian epiphany about the value of education . The fiction that education is primary an economic strategy won’t be worth the trouble anymore when the economic framework under which the fiction operates – that the purpose of governance is perpetual economic growth – begins to run up against the wall of rising energy costs. The emancipation of education may not be won by immanent critique, critical pedagogy or incisive philosophical argumentation, but on the balance sheet of your local Best Buy.
Jeff Rubin’s blog is here.
I remember the first time I went to a school dance. It was about Grade Eight. I had no idea how to dress for it. So I asked my sister, who was far more advanced in terms of actually going out and interacting with the human race. It turns out that denim was the fashion accoutrement of the day. So there I went – denim shirt, jeans and jacket. It worked out pretty well, insofar as I spent the evening standing on the sidelines of the gymnasium with the other geeky kids.
But I had achieved my goal – I fit in, more or less. Denim was the trend of the day. So later that spring, when I had my first chance to travel from the east coast to Toronto, I dutifully packed all my denim-wear and headed to the big city.
However, when I got there, and much to the dismay of my far more cosmopolitan cousins, the denim suit had long fallen out of favor, only to be replaced with psychedelic kaleidoscope of hot pinks and greens and yellows that defined much of the 80′s.
Living in a far flung part of North America, pre-Internet, fashion trends tended to trickle out our way fairly slowly. The plaid of the grunge area only started to show up in the halls of our high school long after the backlash had begun elsewhere. And those neon greens and reds were rightly decreed as loud and tacky by the most of Canada by the time they’d started to sear the fragile retinas of perusing shoppers over our way.
Educational policy can sometimes work like bad fashion. And so you can’t blame teachers for being annoyed at the ‘no-zero’ policy that’s been getting a fair bit of media attention in Canada these days. I have friends and family working as teachers who have had to live with not being able to assign ‘zeros’ for incomplete student work for about a year now. They can no longer do what they have always been able to do : give a student a zero when that have not done the work. Students can now get away with doing nothing.
Now to be fair I’ve given a bit of a loaded description of the situation. I’ve made it sound completely natural that teachers can and should indicate that a student has not advanced or attained any learning when an assignment has not been passed in. But does that make sense? After all, marks are supposed to reflect the teacher’s assessment of the student’s progress. If you ask students to write as essay on Lord of the Flies and they don’t turn it in, should teachers really be able to give that mark a ‘zero’? Doesn’t that suggest (wrongly) that the student has not really learned anything about Lord of the Flies?
After all, maybe the student learned lots and lots about the book. Nothing follows from the fact that they are too busy to lazy to do the assignment that they have not learned anything about William Golding. Maybe our students are learning all sorts of things and the emphasis on meting out marks reflects something else about the teacher student-relationship. This ‘something else’ seems to bubble up in recent debate about the policy – where people say that it’s unfair that some students are ‘getting away’ with not doing the work, or that teachers cannot punish students who fail to do what they are asked to do.
For those people who worry a lot about the power that teachers have over students, this is just the kind of sentiment that warrants something like a no-zero policy. As they see it, students are learners by nature and the obsession with assigning marks to everything can get in the way of what marks are really for – to facilitate learning.
But that perspective might also not be entirely fair. The no-zero policy has been making some headway for a while. It’s only getting attention now because a couple of Canadian teachers have been suspended – allegedly for breaking to policy – and it’s getting especially close scrutiny in my home town because the policy has just celebrated its first-year anniversary. And this where it all gets interesting. My hometown is quite far from Alberta – where the suspensions happened – and meanwhile nobody here seemed to be clamoring for a similar policy. So how did no-zero get all the way over here?
As a recent editorial in the Evening Telegram points out, this is a recent example of ‘policy-borrowing’ or policy-exporting from large centers to small ones – the policy here is at least partly inspired by an Ontario policy directive that “teachers separate their evaluation of students’ work from their evaluation of students’ behaviour“.
I’m sure there are other influences. But it’s worth wondering who decides what policies are worth importing and equally importantly, what assumptions about teaching and learning are underwriting those policies.
Like bad fashion ideas, smaller school district importing polices from larger centers probably do so through a perception that they need to be seen to be on the cutting edge. On the one hand, no-zero might be a well-meaning attempt to take the punitive dimension of marking out of the equation. But I don’t really think that any serious teacher relishes using marks as a means to discipline. When I was a school teacher and had to fill in end-of-the-year marks with zeros I did so with disappointment and regret. Sometimes, when professional judgement called for it, we would make opportunities for student to make up the difference.
I think the more problematic influence at play is something that comes from a particularly influential view view in the social sciences – and this is the idea that the assessment of human learning can be purely scientific and objective. Once you hold on to this idea the notion that the teacher’s assessment of student learning is tied into a more complex set of judgements – judgements about motivation, social context, the relationship with the teacher, reward, punishment, ethical values, and so on – is somehow biased and therefore unjust and unfair.
To be clear – teachers that find the no-zero policy a bad one probably don’t do so because they want to be biased or unfair. However, as teachers they recognize that individual students and the social contexts they are learning within require a certain kind of flexibility in terms of making judgements about the assessment of learning. The no-zero policy, when applied strictly, takes that away. And this is additionally complicated by the fact the the policy seems to be the product of a trend in assessment policy whose limits are now being questioned within those major centers that exported it in the first place. Policy-borrowing doesn’t work when it’s done without thinking through the values and potential consequences those policies bring with it.
So in a way the no-zero policy is a missed opportunity for my neck of the woods. It raises important questions about what giving a zero means in the educational context. It encourages us to think a bit more about how we track learning and how teachers should best go about negotiating a work ethic with students, among other things. But these are questions that cannot by answered by the policy or directive itself. Like fashion, rather than borrowing it’s sometimes better to come up with your own style.
I’ve mentioned David Blacker’s excellent essay on student debt before, as well as his appearance on the Diet Soap Podcast. (That essay, “The Illegitimacy of Student Debt,” will appear in a special issue on Marxism and Education in the journal Cultural Logic .)
Since then the student debt issue has only intensified in the Canadian context with the student strike in Quebec talking an unfortunately violent turn. I contacted David to share some further thoughts on the student debt issue and what the developments in US Higher Education policy may hold for Canada. David is a Professor of Philosophy of Education and Legal studies at the University of Delaware, U.S.A. He has a forthcoming book The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, which will be published by Zero Books later this year. The book examines the precarious state of education in light of the recent economic crisis and even larger looming long-term issues such as peak oil. He also mentioned that any reader is free to contact him with questions at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
CM: As in the US, the student debt issue is intensifying in Canada. Students in Quebec continue to strike and students in Nova Scotia are preparing for tuition hikes after a 3% cut to post-secondary funding. So the idea of student debt is not a foreign one. But at the same time, we don’t really have an Ivy League system like the US does. For those reading who are not familiar with the US post-secondary system, what is a American high school graduate facing in terms of where they need to go in terms of further education, that is, if they want to get a fair shake at jobs or other opportunities down the line?
DB: There are several tiers, each of which contains a great deal of internal diversity. There are the ‘traditional’ 4-year institutions where at the top are the Ivy League schools such as Princeton and Harvard, as well as other elite schools like Stanford and the University of Chicago. There are also so- called ‘public ivies’ like the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and some others. Then there are a few dozen schools considered to be excellent.
Below that there is a large number of average 4-year colleges (public and private) and some that are barely hanging on. (A thumbnail sketch of the relative prestige levels can be obtained at http://www.usnews.com/rankings which has become a huge focus for many higher education administrators.) There are also so-called ‘community colleges’ that tend to be less expensive and more vocationally oriented. They are also often a place to begin earning college credits in hopes of transferring to a more prestigious school. So for example it would not be uncommon for someone trying to save money to accumulate some credits at the local community college in order then to transfer to the more prestigious regional 4-year college. There are also any number of 2-year and trade oriented institutions. There are also “for profit” colleges, most notably http://www.phoenix.edu/ that have lately become objects of scrutiny for, predictably, certain questionable practices. I am no expert on the U.S. higher education system, but that is a basic thumbnail sketch.
For students they are facing a gigantic price tag that has outstripped inflation and other measures for decades. At the top schools, we are talking around $50K per year. A good 4- year college that is considered a ‘good’ school might end up being half that, when room and board is factored in. The top schools are fond of presenting themselves as beneficent givers of scholarships so that hardly anyone pays ‘full price.’ But it’s still daunting, as attested by the fact that levels of student indebtedness have been steadily growing as have, lately, loan default rates.
CM: The situation is clearly not as bad in Canada, but the concern is that we might be headed in that direction. So students continue to protest, and policy-makers suggest things such as the adoption a teaching college system that runs parallel to research universities that promises to lower tuition in the long run. But regardless of the differences in scale, student debt in any case has the same principled effect, which you describe in your essay as making the student loan debtor like a medieval serf. Student debtors may frame themselves in that fashion in a rhetorical way, but you mean this in more literal terms. In what way is this true?
DB: Well, I do think scale matters. If below a certain threshold, student debt may function merely as a nuisance tax-like obligation that is not a huge deal, especially if the graduate has an appropriately remunerative job. If state subsidies are keeping students debts relatively low–as in England and Canada–then it may be difficult for people there to appreciate the gravity of the situation. When I was last in London (January 2011) it was during the time of student protests around fees hikes. By U.S. standards the proposed fees seemed almost quaint, manageable amounts. But the U.S. situation probably represents the general end point of a trajectory both Canada and the U.K. (perhaps save Scotland) are on. We represent your likely future.
As for serfs. Nobody is literally a medieval serf but a medieval serf. So I’m not claiming that, exactly. What I am claiming is that the comparison is not merely hyperbolic, that is an apt comparison. The two situations are analogous in that the relevant obligations are securitized not by any determinate commodity as collateral, as in the case of car or mortgage loans, but by the person him or herself. In this sense they are existential debts; they are securitized by your very person. The medieval serf’s “debt” is similarly securitized, by his or her social place in a system of vassalage, by that generalized system. The obligation is to a particular lord (though that could become complicated) and although one owes regular payments (usually agricultural), ultimately it is oneself that is owed. There is no way to “give back” your education, to allow it to be repossessed (barring some frightening futuristic scenario where perhaps the relevant bits of your defaulted-upon education could be resected from your brain!) With today’s student loans, what has rendered them more serf-like is a) their overall amounts have reached a certain level, and b) in the last decade or two creditors have successfully attempted to guarantee repayment by making them ever more difficult to discharge in bankruptcy, and also by strengthening the state’s coercive powers to collect. So in effect they’ve been securitized through a legal process aimed at the debtor him or herself. In that sense it’s on the way back to debtors’ prisons which, by the way, I think we might see make a comeback.
There are different lenders. Some owe the government directly, “Sallie Mae” as it’s called in the U.S., that cloyingly saccharine name given to the student loan agency.
Some of the debts are owed to private lenders and a percentage of them are owed to the particular college itself. Through the changes in bankruptcy and collection laws, though, these are all more or less treated the same and are very difficult to get out from under. There are some restrictions still in place for how far collectors can go, but one can easily imagine these as on their way to being removed as creditors–or the government, which backstops most of these loans–gets more desperate. The overall effect, with the state doing much of the dirty work of collection–even for the private lenders–is that student debtors become indebted to “the system” generally, or a bit more precisely, to the financial class in general. So in a way they are “attached” to the financial class and their lives are proportionately determined by that class.
In both cases–medieval serf and contemporary student debtor– their existential possibilities are squeezed out by the situation. The serf is going to become what his father was.
He’s not going to explore a wide range of life possibilities.
The student debtor also is going to find his or her possibilities truncated in order to service the loan. The happy scenario for the student debtor is that it all works out because there are good jobs to be found and it was all worth it. With the healthy growing economy with jobs for graduates, there’s not much “serfdom” going on, really. Where the comparison starts to come into its own is when we have an economic crisis, as we do currently, where there is acute–and maybe chronic now–un- and under-employment. Think of Greece and Spain where unemployment rates for youth are hovering around 50%! In such a situation, there are more and more trying to navigate through life with enormous student debts yet without jobs that are commensurate with a reasonable payback plan. These are the modern serfs, whose very existence is in hock to the financial class, via the latter’s governmental instruments.
CM: I’d like to push the scale issue a bit more, perhaps from the university side. Student debt may be a nuisance in some contexts, but I wonder to what extent the change from university provision totally funded by the public, to one that is partially funded by the person accessing it, suggests a more profound shift. Once you start charging students for access to a university education doesn’t the nature of the institution and what it purports to offer change into something completely different? If so, when the UK first charged tuition in 1998 the game was already over. What I’m suggesting is that it would be much like going from a system of universal health care to for-profit private access – the argument that we keep health care costs down for the consumer in a private system is itself a kind of admission that health care is not a public good but something that you can be expected to leverage your body against if required. To put it in more direct terms: isn’t it bad strategy to lobby for reduced tuition costs? Are students protesting tuition hikes in Quebec aiming too low? It seems as if existential serfdom is inevitable under conditions of fee-for-service regardless. Do you see the issue in clear terms of public provision vs. private access, or would policy reforms in the context of the latter be a viable way to go?
DB: I agree with this. And it helps sharpen the point. In the end the argument isn’t really against student debt per se. It’s against financialized student debt, which is to say it’s against a kind of socio-moral category mistake, namely, treating educational “services” as if they are a personalized commodity that one “purchases” for one’s private (future) gain. Everyone can agree that education costs. The question is how to bear those costs. Once upon a time in the U.S. there was a sense that public education was a public good. There were many interests at work, including those of employers who wanted augmented productivity, but there was a public spiritedness in, say, the nineteenth century that lent impetus toward the creation of the common school, first at the primary level and then after that was consolidated at the secondary level. There was a sense that even though individuals were indeed receiving the education, they were receiving it in the sense that we all “receive” the benefits of a system of roads or whatever other bit of infrastructure. More to the point, this was also the impetus that led in the U.S. to massive public support for higher education at various historical points, such as the same nineteenth century’s establishment of “land grant” public colleges throughout the U.S., whose explicit aim was to enhance the general welfare. As late as mid-century through such mechanisms as the G.I. Bill for returning WWII veterans’ higher education, one can see that same sense of higher education as a public good in operation. Later on, however (for reasons that are I think beyond our scope here), there was a withdrawal of public commitment to higher education–ironically right at the time when mainstream economists were saying that higher skills were precisely what was needed for the “high tech, high wage” economy that was allegedly in the offing. As states’ contributions to higher education diminished over the last generation, the gap was filled by student loans and other devices to place the costs more directly upon the students and their families. This created, I think, a vicious ideological cycle, where the student-borrowers quite reasonably expected a commensurate return on what was now a personal and sizable monetary investment and concomitantly the public came to view those students’ educations as precisely their own personal investment and so consequently not a public concern but a private one of those individuals. Education was now more thoroughly a private matter for paying customers. In this contexts, conservatives quite understandably raised the question of why should the public fund these individuals’ purely private pursuit of happiness? When you the student have no thought that you are obliged to “give back” anything of your education to the public, why should the public owe you that education? And we come fully into the mean season of education as a private commodity; I’ve got mine, you’ve got yours. Just like health care in the U.S., by the way. We have moved from what was once envisaged of a virtuous circle of publicly motivated graduates “giving back” and thereby further enhancing a robust public spiritedness to what we have now, which is a vicious cycle of crabbedness where individuals see to their own gain but nothing beyond that. We in higher education have contributed mightily to that, advertising ourselves in economistic terms as a job-guaranteeing meal ticket for students, selling ourselves by trumpeting how graduates earn more in their lifetimes and the like. University presidents have recently begun describing their institutions in wonderfully idealistic terms (sarcasm) as “pipelines” to employers. Well, in that case, let the individuals who are to get those jobs and the employers who are to reap the productivity benefits pay the costs of the education. Where does the public fit in? Nowhere, it seems.
CM: So you think this could be the end of education as a public good in the US and maybe Canada, if unchecked.
DB: Yes, and the contradiction in all of this is the chronic un- and under-employment facing recent graduates in advanced countries. This situation is causing the whole sordid “game” to come crashing down as the current generation of aspirant-students are denied what they feel they had been “promised.” This can be a very psychologically powerful and socially volatile situation. History shows that the “overeducated” part of the surplus labour force is very often the nucleus of social revolution, in whatever form that may take this time around. I do not think this crisis is resolvable under current our current economic system. Something has to give. In higher education, surely we will either have to scale back the promises of personal remuneration that have so distorted the enterprise or simply admit that there is no greater public purpose served by our endeavours than that of any other corporate venture. We are clearly headed in the direction of the latter, neoliberal “solution” where everyone must demonstrate their cash value and we descend at all levels into a neo-Hobbesian omnium contra omnes [CM: the phrase means ‘war of all against all’ where each person is out for their own interests only]. There is very little to halt that momentum, once all of the major players have bought into the “pay to play” premises underwriting the provision of higher education generally. One might hope that a sea change in attitude might counter this trend, where questions that have not been raised in a couple of generations are once again asked. The generational warfare perpetrated upon today’s twenty-somethings (and younger) make them the key standard bearers for whatever else might be possible. They and their economic situations are the very embodiment of the contradictions of which the student loan crisis is a symptom: they were told a tale of how it was all about “pursuing their dreams” and not settling for drudgery yet drudgery is what they will be getting. They will respond in ways we can barely imagine at present and that is where hope for the future lies. The only crazy unrealistic fantasy is that things can simply continue on in approximately the same way they have been.
I’ve been doing some work with the Ethics and Law committee in our Faculty of Education. It’s an interesting project – we’ve trying to find ways to incorporate more ethics and law into the graduate curriculum for our students. The interest from students is certainly there – issues about ethics and the law in education pretty much saturate teaching practice and are often a topic for the media. It’s been a real eye opener as well because, as part of the process, we’ve been looking at various other Ethics and Law programs in Canada. There’s lot of great material, and some very educationally worthwhile innovations out there, which I hope to link to in a later post. I think that Canadian Faculty’s of Education are in good standing, here. Another interesting part of the process has been in collaborating with educators working mainly in law and seeing how they understand their work. I’ve learned a lot through my work with the group. Yet, while ethics and law may share some common ground – they are both concerned with actions, norms and principles after all – there are some important differences.
Teaching Ethics vs. Teaching Law
One major difference is the whole rationale for having ethics and law in educational programming to begin with. Law programming has an easier go at this – if you don’t follow the law you are not fulfilling your obligations as a practitioner and you may face penalties, or even lose your job. The legal mechanism is also a powerfulmeans to settling disputes. Of course, legal scholars have a more sophisticated view on the relevance of their work than this. However, educational law does have a set of “real” documents, institutions and policies they can appeal to and teachers need to stuffs out them. Ethics, on the other hand, doesn’t really have the same appeal. Unlike law, ethics is not coercive – the idea that you do the ethically appropriate thing under threat of punishment contradicts the value of the ethical act. Student’s therefore often question the practical value of ethics curricula. I think we have good answers to these questions, but they take some time to come across. The threat of a lawsuit, however, has lots of immediate practical resonance. Ethics education can take a little more time to percolate.
Another difference is philosophical. Legal theory often worked from the view of legal positivism – the idea that what you are legally obligated to do is simply whatever it is that the law tells you to do. That’s just what makes a law legitimate – it’s the law. I see this in some of the ethics work I do that looks at the legal literature. Sometimes a principle is seen as legally sound just because it has precedent – for example, other legal decisions have appealed to the principle. Ethics doesn’t really work like this. Oftentimes we want students to question precedent. And the grounds of what makes an ethical judgment a good one, or even if there are right ethical decisions, is a matter of debate. Legal scholars have similar debates – legal positivism is not an uncontroversial position. But nobody questions the reality or practicality of legal judgements to the extent that we do ethical judgements.
I think the final difference is political. Law has a more easily demonstrable objectivity to it. If you have a disagreement about the law one looks to the legal literature for your answer. Ethical questions are more complex and in our culture we often wrongly see ethical questions as being similar to matters of taste. Ethics can be politically controversial and the legal perspective seems like a more “safe” place to go in the face of this uncertainty. Of course, one can’t really avoid the ethical dimension altogether by appealing to the law – reasonable or fair laws must operate in some kind of ethical framework. But on the face of it the law seems to cut through the ambiguity of moral life for us.
Finding a Balance
It’s no surprise given all this then to see students, when discussing ethical issues in the classroom, to think in a more “legalistic” way. We live in a legalistic culture. That’s why in developing an Ethics and Law program it’s been important to try and maintain a balance between two intellectual traditions that are more dissimilar, and perhevens little at odds, than they may seem to be on the surface. It’s a struggle you see in all Ethics and Law programs, I think, and one worth engaging with. Of course we want our students to be legally responsible. Knowing the law is empowering. But we also want teachers to be morally responsible – to be able to think critically and carefully about what their individual actions mean for their students. Sometimes this may leave them less assured about their values, or a little uncertain about what makes an action a good one. But these are important steps toward becoming a reflective teacher – one who takes their ethical responsibility to promote the interest of students seriously, and not simply because they have a legal mandate to do so.
I wrote this post while I was at the Philosophy of Education Society Annual Conference, in Pittsburgh this week. However, my browser crashed at the very end and I lost it all. Argh! Here is most of what I wrote, or at least what I remembered writing:
The conference has been a very good one. I’ve had time to catch up on colleagues and friends. And there has been a wide breadth of topics ranging from parental rights and school choice to science education to social justice to teaching controversial issues. Sessions were well attended and the interaction between authors, respondents and audience was all very good from what I saw.
But the really interesting thing about the conference for me so far wasn’t a paper session (not even my own) but happened on the way to the conference.
US Customs always makes me a little nervous. Not that I should be on edge for any specific reason. But I always find them to be far more intimidating than, say, going into the UK. Maybe it’s because I think whole UK-Canadian- Commonwealth thing will keep me safe in case anything goes wrong. I’m probably wrong about this.
In any case, this time the US Border Agent starts to flag me down with questions before I can even get to his station. Here’s how it went:
“Purpose for visiting the US?”
“Business. I’m presenting work at a conference.”
“Are you being paid for this presentation? “
“No. But I wish I was!”
He is not amused by the side comment.
“What are you presenting on?”
Wait – what!? I’ve never gotten that question before. That’s where the dilemma starts. I can now choose to give a detailed answer about the nature and scope of my wonderful paper, wherein he will probably think I’m trying to make fun of the question. Or I can be brief and simple and risk giving the impression that I’m insulting his intelligence. So I decide to take middle road:
“I’m offering an account of character education.”
He stares at me for a long moment. He returns to scrutinizing my passport. He looks up at me a second time. He is frowning. He looks sceptical.
Another long pause. He appears unconvinced. Then, finally:
“But you can’t teach character education. That’s silly!”
I take a deep breath and relax. “Um, yeah, that’s actually what I’m trying to say.”
“I mean, look man, the people you get are the way they are. You can’t change them. I’ve been training people in this job for years and years. All kinds of people. I can’t teach them to be different from who they are.”
I nod politely in agreement.
“Officers have power. Some like that, some don’t. Some want to be the boss of everyone showing up at the desk. I can’t control their character or if they like power. But whoever they are I tell them one thing: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Show restraint. Simple rule. If you can’t follow that rule then you’re out, you know?”
“Well, yeah I mean in my own way that’s what I’m trying to say in the paper.” That’s reasonably true, but I don’t say more. I don’t want to push my luck.
He nods, tells me good luck, and hands me back my documents and sends me on my way.
I’m mostly happy to be on my way from what is a kind of surreal encounter, but I’m also reminded that one of the great things about education is that everyone has a stake in it. Education is a more or less universal experience, for better or for worse, and if you raise the topic with almost anyone they’ll have at least one or two considered views on it. That’s what makes the field so interesting. Along with that comes opportunities for good research and policy, as frustrating as disagreement on education can sometimes engender.
I’m writing this in a chair just outside a conference session room. The topic is on ‘deconstruction and education’. The hotel we are in is a very nice part of the city. The conference space is nicely situated away from the hustle and bustle of the other hotel patrons. I wonder for a few moments if there isn’t an analogy in all of this about academia and the public. I consider exploring that idea in more detail but by now the next session has started, so I turn off my computer and head into the room.
While I was running yesterday I was thinking about my son.
I run to exercise demons, exhaust worries and outpace anxieties. I am not Murakami’s tranquil runner who absorbs the beauty of his surroundings as he glides through the sedate trails around Cambridge or skillfully navigate the communitarian bustle of Tokyo. I can’t do those things because I don’t live in those places! But also because that’s not how I run.
I run with my head buzzing with all the things that kept me up at night before and I go and go until those things are thrashed into submission. I then take a rest, and start it all again the next day. Murakami is a novelist. I’m not. Maybe therein lies the difference.
So yesterday I was worrying about my son. And then I went running.
My main worry was (and is) that he will not get good education. As a new parent I have discovered that this is a fairly common parental worry.
In fact, since I’ve become a parent I’ve been blessed with a whole new field of concerns and worry’s that I didn’t really appreciate before. Take the idea that parents would want to provide their child the best advantages that they can. It never occurred to me, on an emotional level anyway, how much the freedom to be able to do that could be a good in its own right.
I’m not saying that parents are always right or reasonable in begin partial to their children. I remember when I was a kid the coach of my soccer team picking his son to play centre forward almost every game and this was neither good for his son or the team. But it certainly seems good that we are for the most part free to make reasonable choices on behalf of our children in ways that we think will help make their lives better.
Again, this is more an emotional than an intellectual change. My own position on things like private schooling have remained pretty much the same. I’m just more sensitive to the idea that parent’s worry about their child’s future and they want to do best by them.
But what I was worried about wasn’t so much that my son might not get a good education because of anything he or I might do or fail to do. I can help my son be a good reader. I can encourage him to get involved in different things. I can be alert to the possibility that he might be getting bullied and I can try to model good learning habits and all those things that educational psychologists and other experts would tell me is wise and good.
My worry was more of a “bigger picture” kind of worry – the kind of stuff that sends me on the road running at 630am or to the track after work. These are that I can’t really resolve because I have little or no control over, so I try to exhaust them. And what I don’t have the same degree of control over is what the public thinks makes education a good thing.
I don’t mean “the public” in some trite sense. Everyone cares about education in their own way, even if part of that involves rejecting it in other ways. This is partly what makes education so interesting in the first place. If I’m at a social function and I tell people I research education, or that I teach, I will immediacy get a range of (usually strong) opinions.
What I mean is what the public will come to believe that education is about, especially given constant news about cuts to education, universities, student debt, faculty labour issues, the need to improve test scores, improving employability…the list goes on. I’ll put this in stark terms: is education something that we will see as a private, like an RRSP, or is it public, something more like health care here in Canada or the UK?
Ann Larson, on her excellent blog on politics and education, put it in this way in a great post on the student debt movement in the US:
…education is a human right that has been turned into a profit-making enterprise. As part of selling debt…students have been told a lie that education is a personal investment in their individual futures. In fact, education benefits all of society. Employers benefit from an educated workforce, and our democracy is stronger when it is made up of well-informed, educated citizens. We have to move away from thinking of education as an individual investment, as a commodity, or as a consumer good.
Now, I know that education is a human right, and Ann knows that education is a human right. You probably do as well. And any academics working in education or say, human rights are probably rolling their eyes and thinking, “Tell us something that we don’t already know!”. Of course education is a human right. Of course it is a good that we all have a stake in together. It is not simply a personal investment in a better income down the road, nor is it a resource for giving your own child a leg-up over other kids, nor is it a four-year party that you should spend the rest of your working life paying off.
If all these people are saying that education is a human right, what’s the problem? And why does almost every debate about inequality in education end up to a reaffirmation of education as a human right?
The problem is, and this really hits home as I’m running and I’m kilometer 10 , is that this may well be just a minority view, now. And so we repeat, perhaps at ad nasuem , education’s public value just because it is such an endangered view.After all, rights need to defended as well as exercised. Or maybe defended through their exercise?
And this is why I worry – because if education is fully embraced as a private good, if the public culture comes to take it for granted that schooling and post-secondary education are luxuries that should be paid for out of pocket by those who can afford it, I fear that my son will have already lost out on the best kind of education he could have ever gotten. True, he may do well in school and he may even go on to have a successful career with great pay. But he will nonetheless grow up in a world that sees the idea of education and learning as a shared good as sentimental, utopian or “soft”. It will be a world with a leaner and meaner education system that will have little problem letting a few advance ahead while the rest remain behind. It will be a world where he will pay to be taught in beautiful buildings by school teachers and part-time professors who cannot afford basic health care or a home.
At the end of my run I made my way across campus and back to my office. En-route I passed a student residence, parking garage, medical school and one building extension – all new or under construction. I wonder where the money for all these impressive new facilities are coming from, and if my son will be able to afford to walk the halls of any of them 20 years from now.