The Tension Between Pluralism and Standardized Education

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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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Not Just For the Jock

in impassioned defense of sports talk radio

When Terry Pegula bought the Buffalo Bills NFL football franchise, grown men called the local sports talk radio station, weeping. My first inclination, not being native to Buffalo, was to mock and deride, but the parade of phone calls yielded one emotion-choked, sob-filled laudation to the Pegula family after another. It was striking.

Terry Pegula was vetted by the NFL and found worthy to own a franchise. His billions were earned in the nefarious practice of fracking. I think his rags-to-riches story runs along the lines that he started twenty years ago with a used garden hose, a shovel, and a broken bicycle pump, and now he says, “I’m keeping ticket prices as low as allowable. If I need more money, I’ll drill another well.” Beautiful. Fracking, by the way, is illegal in New York. People protest it and everything. The casual observer of New York state politics agrees with the hardened cynic that, as soon as the pols can figure out an equitable way to distribute the fracking money amongst themselves, fracking will become safe, legal, and rare.

The Erie County Executive is an infrequent guest on the afternoon show, not as a fanboy politician trying to score easy votes with a very special guest appearance doing homage to the local sports team, but as a representative answering the beck and call of sports talk radio show hosts who are demanding answers in behalf of their listeners, his constituency, concerning the economic impact of necessary infrastructure changes to accommodate the inevitable downtown temple stadium. The name Robert Moses is occasionally mentioned. The entire region erupts into boos and hisses, which summons our only United States Senator, who is a Munchkin, to pad into the region to eat chicken wings and to talk about the state’s only professional football franchise and the blue-collar work ethic, not knowing, apparently, that the blue-collar work ethic caused Bethlehem Steel to sail over the western horizon of Lake Erie about forty years ago. Times have changed. Sports talk radio has changed.

No longer is sports talk radio limited to endless griping about player performance by wannabe jock hosts named Bulldog. I say that ironically: our number one radio show is “Mike Schopp and The Bulldog;” Mike is the intellectually curious ex-sort-of-jock (I think he played tennis), while The Bulldog is the sensitive cultural observer whose twitter feed @bulldogwgr is far more likely to include a paean to a favorite alt-country rock band than it is to include a mention of a sporting event. His moniker was given to him, I think, because he is a gigantic, scary-looking biker dude. Mike is excruciatingly deliberate in his attention to detail, to the delight of listeners, and to the fury of wannabe jock callers; he is a disciplined arguer, a student of forensic debate, listening carefully to his interlocutor before agreeing or disagreeing based on evidence. I say, no longer is sports talk radio limited to endless griping about player performance by wannabe jock hosts and wannabe jock callers; instead, it has become all-inclusive, a kind-of crucible for many things theoretical, e.g., philosophical, economical, political, cultural, et. al., even familial–many things theoretical put into practice.

For example, the accusation that the football team from Boston cheated by deflating its footballs to give them some sort of advantage sparked much discussion on sports talk radio about authority and consequence: how it should be meted out and who should direct it. Also discussed were issues of human character, that is, how it comes to pass that honorable men cheat, which leads back to the question of authority (an important question in a free society), revealing a wisdom that honorable men cheat as much as they can, behaving virtuously only as much as they have to. What is, finally, the enforcing authority in this social microcosm known as athletics? It is, finally, money. The commissioner’s job is to submit a product to the market that makes his billionaire employers more billions. This is true for amateur athletics and professional athletics. How, then, shall fans affect for good the teams and players they love?

Have you ever wondered how a union contract with a multi-national corporation works? How the negotiations actually proceed, legally? How they play out, publicly? What is the purpose of this leaked information? And who leaked it? Cui bono, O Representative, cui bono? We pore over every detail for days, weeks, months, as long as it takes to get the contract made.

Thus sports talk radio.

It is a vibrant salon, taking all comers, so long as you can make a reasoned argument for the passion you feel for your position. Pluralism, including old-school fans, casual fans, metrics fans (oh, the nerds!), and even trolls, expands the market, which fulfills the sports talk radio show host’s vocation. Pluralism has made talking about sports better, more informative, and more interesting. Sports talk radio has learned that substantial argumentation which includes the many facets of life which sports fandom touches is a euvoluntary exchange, much more pleasurable than the old model, which was a close communion of frustrated fans screaming at each other about archaic statistics and about the greatest team/player/coach ever. A sports talk radio show host cannot experience market growth if he condescends in this way to his audience, except when empathy for his general audience demands that he do so to an audience in specific.

Really, empathy for the audience drives sports talk radio.

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Come See the Logic Inherent in the System, Help, Help, It’s Being Expressed

This is the story of how I, a young aspiring Libertarian, made peace with the prevailing order, and evolved into a Tory squish, wrapped up in a defense of the broad outlines of Liberal democracy.  More importantly it is the story of my disillusionment with Monism, and embrace of Value Pluralism, which I will develop as we go on.  Let me set the stage with a quote from Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Bt, in whose honour I have adopted my nom de blog.

Continue reading “Come See the Logic Inherent in the System, Help, Help, It’s Being Expressed”

How Public Welfare Enhances Social Capital

Lamenting the atomism of modern society, the decline of community, associations and other forms of “social capital,” is such a common refrain on both the left and right that one wonders why they haven’t put aside their differences to form a club! I hear there are some vacancies down at the YMCA, and I bet you rates have never been so good. Call it… the Enemies of Anomie & Toastmasters Society.

Yet theorists of social capital spend more time writing about it (in itself a highly autonomous practice) than they do actually forming new co-valent social bonds. Perhaps it’s because, for both camps, the decline is seen to have been caused by such deep and hard to resist forces that they are equally resigned to pontification.

On the right, the deep source of creeping atomism is the all-encompassing, bureaucratized welfare state. Redistribution in this view is inherently trust-reducing due to its zero-sumness (Mary robbing Peter to pay Paul). For example, its argued that universal social programs crowd-out private safety-nets, like religious organizations or the family, destroying unseen pro-social externalities. In some accounts this merely accelerates a feedback loop of eroding social norms that was initiated the second Western Civilization embraced value pluralism.

Surprisingly, many on the left have come to similar conclusions, if only in a different vocabulary. Habermas, for example, has argued that state welfare systems “colonize” more natural forms of solidarity, contributing to their “reification” — an objectifying process by which implicit social relations are made explicit and impersonal, sapping them of their moral character. Readers of Sweet Talk might know this as a re-balancing from the sacred to the profane, the inherent transcendental and instrumental duality of all social relations.

Heady stuff. But is any of it accurate? Is it an inexorable law of late capitalism that we become individuated narcissists? Is there some theorem in Public Choice that says more welfare = less social capital? The answer to both is a big fat no.

In fact, the inverse relationship between social capital and the modern welfare state has been greatly exaggerated. There are three main reasons for this tendency, which I explore below: Continue reading “How Public Welfare Enhances Social Capital”

Virtue After Abundance

Our sense of virtue evolved in the context of groups living under immense scarcity. Consider the virtue that one shouldn’t be overly self-indulgent (because resources must be rationed). Or the suggestions against taking on debts (r > g for foragers, so borrow wisely). Even honor, that most sacred virtue, seems to work particularly well in environments where “a man’s resources can be thieved in full.”

How should, say, “hedonistic self-gratification” look to a sensibility sculpted by absence? More than a vice, for our ancestors it was solipsistic to the point of immorality. Today still, commentators from religious conservatives to anti-consumerist liberals continue to treat hedonism as an anti-virtue despite economic abundance. Even among the strongest followers of self-gratification, there is a self-awareness that something about hedonism is at least figuratively satanic.

Of course, our virtues and vices needn’t be connected to the facts on the ground of the contemporary environment to be things we still hold valuable. In this sense, modern civilization made all values vestigial and many of them, like the scarcity mindset, potentially maladaptive. At the very least, many of our past vices have lost their edge. Character flaws once thought immoral are now deserving of respect.scarcityCleanliness is next to Godliness” is my favorite example of a virtue as opposed to moral act, in particular for how ubiquitous it is in theology. “Be clean” and “Don’t kill” are both statements of value however hygiene is self-directed while murder is directed at inter-relations between selves. For religious fundamentalists there’s no distinction between virtues and morals, so they happily label homosexuality, masturbation, drug use, blasphemy and so on as equally sinful and dirty.

There are some immediate political implications of this realization (beyond re-branding the “moral majority” the “virtuous majority”). For instance, in this light the Straussian critique of liberalism as leading towards nihilism had it backwards: abundance enabled classical liberalism to enshrine individualism and laws that strive only to abridge human freedom in order to correct interpersonal harms, not individual character flaws or poor showering technique.

Of course, “no man is an island” is still true. There are many personal vices that are apt to spill over into the public domain, which ponces may want to regulate to varying degrees. I could only support this if personal values were not directly imposed on others (piety may be virtuous, but forcing others to be pious is theocratic).

Liberals since Mill and Bentham generally opposed regulating virtue. They said: ingest, do, believe and feel what you will as long as it doesn’t interfere with my ability to do the same. Yet they never said “murder, slander, vandalize” because these are decidedly inter-personally moral in nature.

Our psychology may be social, but the largest unit of psychological consideration is still an individual’s mind – the subject in subjective. Communitarian political systems and puritanical societies aren’t immoral a priori. It all depends on the sincerity of the citizens, how institutionalized the values are, and the nature of transaction cost. If you live in a Buddhist commune but your favorite book is The Virtue of Selfishness, it only becomes illiberal when you’re not permitted to leave.

Meanwhile, the five best scarcity-mindset coping mechanisms according to this psychologist read like they were written by an ancient stoic. Go figure.

A great conversation about this post is happening on Reddit here. This post, and Sweet Talk itself, is about creating conversations, so I’m highly grateful for all the constructive engagement.