Political philosophy and ed reform

Today in class we began our descent into the politics of education in the early years of the Reagan presidency–right up to, and including, the drafting of the A Nation at Risk (ANAR) report that is often cited as both the source of our current state of angst regarding our education system and the seed of so much education reform. You’re forgiven if you left class today scratching your head and wondering “what did we just talk about?” There are two reasons you may have felt that way.

First: you have incomplete information. As I said in class, we’re working backward from ANAR to try to piece together the roots of school reform, not simply choosing a single starting point and moving forward chronologically from there. This is a risk on my part, but we’re doing it for a couple of reasons. One is that events do unfold in chronological ways–that’s a basic temporal fact of life that we might as well embrace because, hey, time is a convenient way to organize things–but to the people experiencing them things are not organized nearly so neatly. We have a lot of information to digest, for example, about how Terrel Bell and Ed Meese tangled over the future of the Department of Education but neither Bell nor Meese were privy to most of it when it happened. Davies (author of the chapter we read for today) has done a great job of making the story of the Reagan administration’s influence on education policy make sense but I want you to feel a little disoriented about it because the reality is that life is messier than that. There’s an important lesson in here about not settling for easy judgments and taking care to explore different ideas and possibilities before settling on an interpretation of what’s going on.  When we start discussing what’s going on in schools now, my bet is that you’ll be a lot more circumspect in your analysis of whether reforms being proposed and implemented will accomplish the goals they are meant to accomplish. We are also working backward because not knowing how the story begins makes it harder (and, I hope, more fun!) to predict how it will end. You can’t rely as much on absorbing a narrative if it’s disjointed. You have to think a little harder about how the pieces fit together.

The second reason you may have felt a little confused today is that we started by talking about political philosophies in a very abstract way. When we talk about what it means to be “free,” and what role political philosophers think social institutions and government should play in social relationships, and how human nature is defined by conservatives, classical liberals, proponents of social democracy, neoliberals, neoconservatives, and others of different political persuasions–it’s easy for the ideas to start to blend together. But it’s important to think about these things because social institutions like schools are built on complex foundations that are supported by philosophical beliefs and ideological commitments that can help us understand how they were meant to work.

On the policy side, this class should be pretty straightforward: what are the actual solutions proposed and enacted by political actors (fancy terminology for government officials and others who make policy), and what are their impacts? On the politics side, things are a little messier. When we start thinking about where policy solutions come from we have to think about not only the actions taken by people trying to solve social problems but also about the assumptions and biases they bring to their proposed solutions. Is there a coherent philosophy supporting their ideological beliefs–in other words, is there a comprehensive set of ideas about things like knowledge, truth, beauty, and the meaning of life supporting the ideas being implemented? Or are reflexive ideological commitments taking precedence over more thoughtful and reflective thinking about how those ideas fit together to help us create a better society? When philosophy comes first, ideological commitments make sense because they are grounded in a view of the world that carefully considers what is and what’s possible before proceeding to the development of ideas about how the world ought to work. When ideology trumps philosophy we should wonder if somebody else was left to do the heavy lifting of developing a philosophical basis for ideological commitments being made. We should wonder, in other words, if people leaning on ideology are simply taking someone else’s philosophy for granted–one they may or may not really understand–instead of doing the hard work of figuring out what they actually believe on their own.

Needless to say, there’s a lot more to say about this. If you were a little uncomfortable in class today, and wondering if this was ever going to make sense, I hope this helps. But we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. There’s plenty of time left to keep making sense of it all.

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