The Tension Between Pluralism and Standardized Education


Tamara’s excellent inaugural post as a Sweet Talker brings into sharp focus many of the frames we so often unthinkingly approach the question of higher education with.

I particularly liked the way that she linked the goal of pluralism in ideas with diversity in demographic backgrounds. The quotes she provides seem to indicate that having a wide variety of ideas around is good in itself, rather than as a means for arriving at the correct one or offsetting the problems with the largely better but still flawed ones. Taken in that light, it seems obvious that demographic diversity would be a necessary condition for the greatest possible variety of ideas—more backgrounds, more cultural variety, therefore more variation in accepted wisdoms or even in counter-cultures against the former.

I am reminded of a group that is usually treated as an ideological enemy of the diversity in demography crowd, but a friend to the pluralism in ideas crowd—the modern defenders of federalism. That is, those who believe that the ideal world would have the greatest variation in political systems at the smallest possible territorial level with unlimited freedom of movement between the systems. This ideal is justified either on the basis of maximizing freedom—you have the most options in political systems and thus governments are much more euvoluntary—or on the basis of discovery—you are much more likely to find the best possible system if you allow the largest possible trial and error process to play out.

When justified on the basis of discovery, there’s a natural link with the notion of pluralism in ideas as a tool for finding the best ideas. When justified on the basis of freedom, however, we get closer to the goal of greatest diversity in ideas and people as an end in itself. Pluralism in ideas, people, and governments for pluralism’s sake.

In another piece I created three provisional labels; federalist, propertarian, and liberationist. Federalist should be straightforward from what I described above, and propertarians are simply those who believe that freedom just is the existence of well defined and enforced property rights. The liberationist, on the other hand:

Under the liberation framework, individuals are liberated from something—superstition, prejudice, poverty, even from family ties or marriage. They are free not only to sell their property or form a community according to their own values, but to hold themselves to no one’s standards but their own. In practice, there are always specific standards either in the background or explicitly. Science is the great liberator of minds over religion and superstition. Policy provides just men an avenue for liberating the poor from their poverty. In law, liberation is embodied in anti-discrimination, affirmative action, and welfare of all stripes.

The tension that Tamara identifies in her piece is, I think, between federalists in the domain of ideas on the one hand, and liberationists in the domain of diversity on the other. For the latter, diversity in demography is a tool for liberating minorities from the chains of a white patriarchal normative system—but also for liberating whites of each sex from that very system, by exposing them to groups who have been marginalized by it.

Liberationists often also espouse pluralism in ideas as part of their core beliefs. But the role of standardized education—higher as well as K-12—in the modern liberationist framework creates a serious tension. If the purpose of a standard education is to crack up the dominance of white patriarchal norms by exposing everyone to pluralism in action, then it is already excluding many ideas from the outset, just like a monism would do. By imposing a single form of education on all, it also precludes pluralism in education, forcing any tensions over competing visions into the scale of the nation, rather than the locality.

However, I do not think that the liberationists are in some way solely guilty of this. Their only fault, in terms of conceptual problems, is their dedication to eradicating conformity (and hence norms) by using the very tools which create conformity. Norms both create power relations and are an ineradicable part of how human beings work and think together. It makes sense, then, that liberationists would use it as a tool for change—but self-defeating when the goal of the change is to get rid of the very things that make it possible.

Hillary Clinton highlighted the tensions in a 2006 remark on vouchers:

Suppose that you were meeting today to decide who got the vouchers. First parent comes and says ‘I want to send my daughter to St. Peter’s Roman Catholic School’ and you say ‘Great, wonderful school, here’s your voucher. Next parent who comes says, ‘I want to send, you know, my child to the Jewish Day School. Great here’s your voucher! Next parent who comes says, “I want to send my child to the private school that I’ve already dreamed of sending my child to.’ Fine. Here’s your voucher.

Next parent who comes says, ‘I want to send my child to the school of the Church of the White Supremacist.’ You say, ‘Wait a minute. You can’t send…we’re not giving a voucher for that.’ And the parent says, ‘Well, the way that I read Genesis, Cain was marked, therefore I believe in white supremacy. And therefore, you gave it to a Catholic parent, you gave it to a Jewish parent, gave it to a secular private parent. Under the Constitution, you can’t discriminate against me.’

Suppose the next parent comes and says ‘I want to send my child to the School of…the Jihad.’ Wait a minute! We’re not going to send a child with taxpayers dollars to the School of Jihad. ‘Well, you gave it to the Catholics, gave it to the Jews, gave it to the private secular people. You’re gonna tell me I can’t? I’m a taxpayer. Under the Constitution.’

Now, tell me how we’re going to make those choices.

This is a cogent critique of the federalist side of the education debate. But it implies that a universal, standard public education resolves it, which simply isn’t true. The same choices are made, they are just made centrally, and for everyone all at once, rather than on a case-by-case basis. Or in a decentralized way.

For my part, I don’t think any of the conceptual problems with either liberationism or federalism can be resolved without a theory of legitimate authority. Authority in terms of ideas and knowledge, but also in terms of the exercise of power. Education is an area in which both of these types of authority are crucial. We cannot have pluralism all the way down where theories of legitimate authority are concerned; without a basic consensus on these twin questions, there cannot be an education.

How can students be taught without being asked to acknowledge the authority of teachers? How can schools be ordered without recognizing the authority of administrators? How can syllabuses be set and standardized without recognizing the authority of some sources of knowledge over others?

Pluralism of all stripes is often anti-authority, or at least an attempt to minimize the problem of authority. But the problem of authority is inescapable; even more so for those who take seriously the value of diversity. A serious understanding of such value must be connected to a serious understanding of its limits.

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