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Q&A: Teaching about morality and democracy in school

Eamonn Callan, the Pigott Family School of Education Professor, was recently invited to prepare comments for a presidential commission studying ethics, education and the biosciences. Callan is a philosopher of education whose work draws heavily on contemporary moral and political theory. The paper he wrote for the commission addresses what students should learn in school about democracy and morality. The following Q&A is adapted from the original article.

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Q:  We hear so often about the failure of U.S. schools. What do you see as the problem?

Eamonn Callan:  The dominant question in current debate about American education is what kind of schooling will best prepare our children to compete successfully in a globalized economy roiled by rapid and unpredictable technological change. No one could deny the importance of that question.  But a fixation with answering it to the neglect of others is a huge mistake. For one thing, the future worth having depends as much on the vigor and justice of American political institutions as on the vitality of its economy, and if the one cannot be taken for granted, neither can the other.  I doubt that many Americans would flatly disagree with that.  But complacent pride in our political institutions distract us from looming threats to their long-term success, threats that require a more intellectually and morally ambitious civic education than we have traditionally undertaken in our schools.  Our children must learn to be better citizens than we have been.

Q:  Why is civic education such a critical issue now?

EC:  The big political problems that Americans will face together in the next few decades are daunting, requiring a high level of collective intelligence equal to their complexity. Can the nation be mobilized to address the problem of climate change? How can good (much less equal) educational opportunities be made available to the millions of American children who currently do not have them?  Will we be able to contain the threat of terrorism without a steady erosion of civil liberties? How can the international influence of America be used to keep faith with democratic values in a world where they are commonly under threat or violently opposed?

Although the priority of items on the list might be contested, what does not admit reasonable disagreement is this: without a public that deliberates about such questions thoughtfully, our political future in coming decades is likely to be bleak. The need to create and sustain such a public creates the vital link between deliberative democracy and public education.

Q:  Deliberative democracy seems to be in short supply these days. How can schools be expected to fix that?

EC:  The polarization of elite politics in America and the paucity of reasoned argument in political campaigns are powerful obstacles to serious political deliberation. Even though the pathologies of political communication are widely acknowledged, no substantial constituency exists for changing our educational practices so as to mitigate their adverse effects.  The idea that schools and colleges might help to create better citizens is barely visible in American educational debate. And so long as our fixation with education as a vehicle for creating human capital persists, that will not change.

Schools could not by themselves bear the burden of elevating the place of shared deliberation in American democracy.  But they could certainly contribute much more than they currently do if we cared enough. A serious concern in civic education could motivate important and feasible changes to our educational practice in several respects.

Q:  What could be done to encourage such change? Won’t it be a substantial change from the current focus on STEM?

EC:  A prominent theme in recent research on science education is the need to shift teaching from transmitting a body of propositional knowledge to cultivating an appreciation of scientific argument.  That is not, strictly speaking, a new proposal; it was a constant theme throughout John Dewey’s career. But another idea of educational importance in Dewey’s philosophy is urgently relevant to the revitalization of civic education. He believed that the value of learning to think scientifically lay primarily in its use as a means of political and social betterment; it might contribute to wealth creation for the individual and society, but that only mattered so far as it also conduced to political and social betterment. That being so, the development of scientific thinking had to be harnessed in schools to the study of problems that stood in the way of collective progress.

One thing we have learned since Dewey makes that conclusion even more compelling than it was in the first half of the twentieth century. Like his intellectual contemporaries, Dewey tended to think of scientific thinking as a generic capability whose development in one context would readily lend itself to successful application in another. We have learned to be much more cautious about assuming that learning is so easily generalized. The expert physicist does not necessarily bring the habits and scruples of the scientist into assessing the policy proposals of candidates for political office. And so we cannot expect that once our students are well-educated in the basic sciences within school they will bring scientific know-how and passion to their deliberation as citizens outside the institution. We need a curriculum for schools in which a substantial part of the curriculum brings established academic disciplines directly to bear on the pressing questions of public policy whose resolution will shape the future of our democracy.

Q:  What else would need to change in schools?

EC:  The second thing I would stress is also not as clear in Dewey’s writings as it might have been.  Democratic deliberation is a distinctive moral engagement; its defining purpose is to keep faith with ideals of free and equal citizenship and how we together determine the exercise of political authority. These are moral ideals, not merely a venerable constitutional inheritance. And so the kind of deliberation that we need to engage in as citizens is not merely applied scientific thinking; it is also and fundamentally a species of moral thought. When I say that to Stanford undergraduates – indeed, when I say it to some of my colleagues – I am dismayed to notice the surprise it will often evoke, as if my utterance showed me to be some woolly headed idealist. The obvious truth of the matter, however, is that whatever good comes from my conduct qua citizens must be discerned through moral reflection, and so to sunder democratic deliberation from its moral ground is to undermine it. Thinking about public policy in a morally serious way is something that can be taught.  Our schools do not teach it but they should.

Q:  Isn’t it wooly idealism to think that people will reach consensus on thorny political issues if taught moral reflection?

EC:  Public deliberation under what the great philosopher John Rawls called the "permanent fact of reasonable pluralism" will often leave us with many residual disagreements about the use of state power, even when we have all reasoned in good faith as well as we possibly could. How can mutual respect among citizens be sustained in the face of intractable disagreement?

A reasonable surmise is that so long as we are unfamiliar with the lives of citizens who are very different from us the corrosive civic effects of pluralism may be hard to resist. Empathy will certainly be harder to come by, and disagreement will tend to dissolve into mutual incomprehension, which is but a small step from mutual contempt. The continued de facto segregation of American schools along the lines of class and race is a shameful failure of collective will to create a better America than the one we have inherited.