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Education isn't value-neutral, but...
For almost all of history, one of the primary purposes of education—in theory if not in practice—was cultivating virtue. (The other was literacy and the language arts.) Aristotle, describing the education landscape two-and-a-half millennia ago, wrote:
Nothing is agreed as regards the exercise conducive to virtue, for, to start with, all men do not honor the same virtue, so that they naturally hold different opinions in regard to training in virtue. (Politics VIII)
There are questions about how to do this for a growing child, about what “exercise” is “conducive” to virtue. (Aristotle spends a plurality of this chapter musing on the types of musical training that are the most helpful. Flutes are out, lutes are in.) And, more fundamentally, there are questions as to what that virtue is. For the Greeks, they would have been pondering differences such as the Spartan conception of virtue—a monomaniacal conception of courage—or the more integrated Athenian view. And the non-Spartan philosophers weren’t all unified, so that division forks into and is crosscut by further controversies about the nature of the good.
It’s not really until the 20th century that you start to get the idea that values aren’t the province of education.
The modern idea, now common, is that values are the province of parents and the home, or perhaps the province of the student themselves—and that the school shouldn’t impose here. This coincides with worries about state control over education. Given that values are controversial, public school is controversial. So maybe, a common sentiment goes, there’s some way to just keep schools out of these controversies. Bills to ban CRT, or the recent Florida Parental Rights (e.g. the “Don’t Say Gay” bill) are attempts—badly misguided, in my view—to accomplish a sort of value-neutrality by legislation.
But Aristotle was right. The 20th-century notion of value-neutral schools is a fantasy. Schools can’t and oughtn’t be value neutral. Grant Addison has a great piece in the Washington Examiner arguing as much, and it’s definitely the best thing I’ve read this week:
This is the messy debate so many parents find themselves in today. The issue of who teaches students and how, the extent of a parent’s say over a child’s curriculum or classroom environment, the role of the government in proscribing or allowing certain methods of instruction or doctrine—these are all questions about values, and there’s no getting around that.
As Addison notes, the notion that “school isn’t value-neutral” tends to be a talking point of the left, the tip of a spear designed ultimately to bring politics into the classroom, in ways that range from pedagogically thoughtless to outright propagandistic. And one of the questions raised by the specter of the inescapable normativity of education is whether or not some degree of propaganda is unavoidable. If it’s not, does the question just become whose propaganda a students gets?
My view is that propaganda is completely avoidable in schools. It does not follow from the fact that schools cannot be value-neutral that their values must be taught by catechism or indoctrination. Schools can both be value-laden and non-propagandistic.
The best model here is the First Amendment:
The underlying value here is a rich conception of individual agency; there is no First Amendment without some such conception.
Likewise with schools: valuing human agency substantiates a narrative that underlies pedagogical and curricular decisions. And it does so in a way that—for opinionated, value-laden reasons—always helps a child independently understand, grapple with, and maybe even reject the basis of those decisions. In a proper education, the equivalent of “burning the flag”, though it occurs rarely, is important to protect.
This is what our lanterns are designed to be: a vision of the principles underlying a good life, a vision that is both strongly opinionated and agency-centric. We’re not alone in attempting to articulate principles like this; there’s a long history of this sort of project, even other recent attempts, like this excellent one from George Lukianoff last year.
Baldwin famously said of education:
The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. (“A Talk to Teachers”)
The paradox is at least partially resolved by noting that the worthiness of this purpose, the value of creating such a person, is itself a guiding moral value. It’s predicated on other values—such as the value of the individual mind, and the capacity of the individual to discover truth and create a life for herself. The Enlightenment view of the human being as a self-governing agent is not hollow or neutral. It’s the seed of a whole worldview, and the proper framework for education.
With all that in mind, it’s also worth reflecting on the worst piece I read this week. It’s still probably worth reading, since it’s one of those “so wrong that it’s interesting” type of pieces: Abigail Cartus and Justin Feldman’s hit piece on Emily Oster.
Oster’s works on parenting are all premised on empowering individuals to understand the risks and benefits of different approaches to key parenting questions—about breastfeeding, sleep training, schooling, SIDS, etc., etc.—and make decisions accordingly. At the heart of this project is the idea that agency is good, that it’s good to be able to more effectively make individual decisions about oneself and one’s family, and that the individual agent is the proper locus of judgment and consequent action.
As with the First Amendment, and as with Baldwin’s notion that the purpose of an education is to create an individual who can “look at the world for himself”, Oster’s approach is not value-neutral. It’s value-rich. These are all structures that are designed to enable individual judgement, disagreement, and choice.
In Oster’s case, it’s not a legal or pedagogical structure, but a framework of thinking and risk assessment, created specifically for the domain of childrearing. But, like with those other two cases, there’s a whole ideology operative in the background of all of these structures, a deeper philosophical view that these structures rely on in their very operation. (Some will shy away from the deployment of “ideology” here, but I mean it in a positive, non-dogmatic way: a fundamental worldview.)
And that’s the basis of the Cartus/Feldman critique. Their argument, such as it is, repeated over and over in a dozen or two variations, is to link the implicit philosophy of agency that powers Oster’s work with, essentially, “the right”: the Koch family, a panoply of right-of-center institutions, and a “neoliberal”, “economic” style of reasoning—a wretched hive of scum and villainy, as far as these critics are concerned.
This is also mixed in with some mildly-convincing and some less-than-mildly-convincing critiques of her approach to Covid data vis-a-vis schools. But mainly it’s guilt by ideological association, occasionally punctuated with gestures to various far-left alternatives that Cartus and Feldman think are ideologically better. There isn’t much offered in the piece itself as to why they are ideologically better; their intended audience is people who are already ideologically sympathetic to them and antipathetic to more agency-centric forms of liberalism.
At a meta-level, their critique is actually right. There is an implicit ideology operative in Oster’s work. And it’s not unrelated to ideas that drive what might be called neoliberalism—or other ideas, ones that crosscut political categories and don’t map easily onto right/left divisions.
At an object-level, though, their critique is dead wrong. The worldview operative in Oster’s work is good, or at least largely good, as partially evidenced by the goodness of Oster’s work. Identifying it with a right-wing bogeyman isn’t completely meritless. But it is incredibly clumsy. Politics is downstream of ideology, and trying to jam “agency” and “cost-benefit analysis” into an equality with “right-wing” is a great way to manufacture confusion and entrench false alternatives.
There’s no value-neutral education or parenting. And there doesn’t need to be. Ideology as such is not bad; it’s good to have a worldview. One can be guided by fundamental values without becoming an inquisitor. The right values are agency and the suite of epistemic, moral, and anthropological ideas that define and undergird it. The whole Enlightenment project is figuring out how to make those values operative without either making them self-undermining, by resorting to force or abrogating independence—or apologizing for them, by devolving into weaker pleas for tolerance and neutrality.
Contra Baldwin, there’s no paradox. A good education isn’t value-neutral, but nor is it propaganda.