Pluralism and Education – It Doesn’t Work in Theory!


EdChoice has posted Part 2 of my series on how to design education systems for a pluralistic society. In this part, I focus on how we don’t have a theory of education for a pluralistic society, yet somehow we manage to educate anyway:

It is striking that our society has practiced exactly this kind of pluralistic education for a very long time even though we have few publicly discussed ideas about what pluralistic education is or how it works. This should make us humble about the importance of theory. We’ve all heard plenty of funny anecdotes where the joke is that some cockamamie scheme “works in theory.” A friend of mine reports that in college, he actually heard a classmate exclaim, with heartfelt sincerity: “Dammit, communism works in theory!”

Education in a free society doesn’t “work in theory,” because we don’t have a theory that explains it. Yet somehow – though the status quo is very imperfect – we manage to do it anyway:

The fact that education is taking place in a pluralistic society is revealing. We are not as divided as we think. Our differences do not go all the way down. Our sense of absolute difference from one another, our sense of being locked in perpetual religious and moral wars with one another, is why pluralistic education “doesn’t work in theory.” Yet it works, however imperfectly, in practice. We are not as different as we may think, and our schools prove it.

Tolerance and consensus tend to emerge in local community. Nationally, we are divided. On talk shows and Twitter, we are divided. But we are more able to find common ground in the midst of our differences if we are dealing with people whom we know and who live in the same environment we do.

The stresses and strains we experience as we work amidst our differences are not always bad signs. Often, they’re good ones:

It is very hard to live with difference, much harder than we want to believe—a fact brilliantly explored in the recent movie Zootopia. We often get into conflict with each other. Deficiencies of goodwill are exposed. But this is what the process of building tolerance and consensus involves. These frictions are not signs that the process is not happening; they are the process itself. Experiencing social conflict over our differences is not the first step toward killing each other over them; it is the alternative to doing so.

As always, your thoughts are very welcome!

Suggested reading

After a morning spent trying to carefully find a little bit of measured criticism of New Atlantis number 50, I think I want to tentatively suggest that the recommended reading strategy here, which I intend to continue to develop as time permits, is to read this study

alongside the New Atlantis study.

And, yes, it would be more correct to call both of these “review” or “meta-analysis” articles, insofar as “study” is often understood to involve fresh empirical results, which neither of these deliver.

It seems important to me that we recognize the severe limitations of social science methodology, and that we recognize just as clearly that there are indeed empirically testable hypotheses involved in conversations about sex and sexuality.  I think that the Bailey et al study, which does not necessarily agree at all points with the New Atlantis study, suggests enough clear points of difference from the popularized forms of gender ideology that even a very parsimonious reading of the claims of both studies obligates honest intellectuals to stop repeating much of the slop that many a textbook and faculty workshop treat as dogma.

Economic Justice and the Gospel in Pastoral Ministry


Yesterday, TGC carried my article on how the life of Jonathan Edwards illustrates why economic justice should be a gospel imperative for pastors:

Today, even those who affirm the need for both gospel proclamation and concern for justice often view them as competing priorities. More attention to one must mean less attention to the other, right?

We would benefit from a fresh encounter with Edwards’s confidence that these two imperatives cannot be separated, and his courage in living out that connection in a costly way.

Come for the hellfire sermon, delivered on Christmas Day, about how the worm-ridden corpses of the rich are no better off than those of the poor; stay for the heroic fight to deliver on broken promises made to the native tribes of western Massachussetts!

Commenters have raised pointed questions about my use of the term “justice,” to which I have responded in the thread. I do wish, now that it has been pointed out, that I had thought to mention and condemn Edwards’ participation in slavery – an economic injustice of the highest order.

As always, your thoughts are appreciated!

My Day One Essay

For the first day of class this term, I did not speak to my students.  I simply presented them with a prompt and had them use the time to write a response to this quotation from G. K. Chesterton:

Of course, to be fair, and to make it easier to remain silent, I did the writing myself.  (in the first class, and in another class that was a different course; I wrote poems during the other sections, rather than rewrite the same piece multiple times.)  What follows is my response to my prompt, as transcribed from the legal pad I wrote it down on:

There are several reasons I offered you this quotation to begin our class.  I can discuss some of these with you later.  For just two examples, this passage sets up a conversation I like to have in Rhetoric classes about the meaning of words such as “fact” and “assertion” and “argument” by using “opinion” in a controversial manner.  For another, really technical-sounding, reason, I like the way Chesterton’s point here coincides with a Gadamerian defence of prejudice.  Most simply, though, this bumptious-sounding passage brings us rapidly to the heart of the subject we are here to study–the relationship between reasoning in public and being well-informed on matters that should concern us all.

By “indifference” Chesterton does not mean having no feelings–no one could be “terrible” in “frenzy” without emotions.  What he means is a bit more subtle than that.  Consider two possible responses to seeing an upsetting event on television.  One person talks to all his friends about how gross or scary it was, or maybe joins a bunch of friends to stand outside where there’s a protest.  There are some emotions on display–but has he really done anything that commits him to further action and makes him fit to act and advocate wisely and well?  I suggest he has not.

By comparison, consider his friend who has a habit of being well informed and well prepared.  She wants to know whether the reactions she hears are realistic and proportionate.  She is not content to be merely “open-minded” or “skeptical,” so she actively studies available learning from a variety of disciplines and traditions.  When she ends up talking to others about this problem, she already has some idea what she thinks, and has reasons for her view–she knows what her “initial judgment,” or “prejudice,” is.  As a result, her friends have to offer her better reasons than the ones she’s already found, if they want to move her to a new, possibly better, position.

This movement, from preparation to “exigence” (the moment when others might disagree with you) to a more decided and defined understanding, is what we call “reasoning.”  We do not merely shout what we think at any moment at each other, but prepare our thoughts so that we can give reasons to our friends–and even our rivals, opponents, or enemies.

When we prepare by studying and thinking carefully, and reason with others, most people will feel an obligation to give their own reasons, or at least to criticize our reasons.  Responding to reasons with reasons, and weighing those reasons for fitness and relative importance, is what “reasonable” people do, and “responsible” people expect this to be usual in their conversations.  People who abuse this process with lies or manipulations are justly called “unreasonable” and “irresponsible,” and we can safely refuse to consider their views until we hear reasonable and responsible expressions of similar views.

When people are “indifferent” to matters that they ought to study and fail to prepare for reasonable and responsible discourse, they are overwhelmingly likely to be swept along with crowds of others who do not care enough to learn, but who can be counted on to do what this celebrity or that party leader tells them, especially if they can be made frightened or angry enough.  “Indifferent” people can be easily manipulated by a charming or famous or surprising person, especially if that person is well-liked by the news and entertainment media.  From street protests to the DMV, from tech support to a mass rally for a radical politician, most of the bad results you see are easily attributable to “indifference” in this sense.  It is through our failure to take responsibility to learn and speak and act reasonably that we become slaves.

In the end, it is slavery that Chesterton warns us against–slavery to those in power, maybe, but definitely slavery to our own ignorance and passions, as those are echoed and amplified by millions of others, and manipulated by those who are eager to sell us things.  For in believing that the world exists to keep our desires met, that being consumers can make us happy and hard thinking will make us sad, we become enslaved–and we are likely also to become bigots.