The Limits of Knowledge in the Education Debate
I have two posts up at Forbes trying to explain my still-evolving thoughts on the very complicated, very messy education debate. The first is a piece railing against tribalism:
Going forward I hope to take a far more skeptical approach across the board, and to avoid slipping into partisanship as much as possible on issues of education reform. I am an independent because I distrust political parties and the illiberal nature of our two-party system. I am aliberal libertarian because I am deeply doubtful of top-down approaches to politics, of institutions in general, and of the ability of politics to change the world for the better.
Good ideas come from all quarters, and so do bad ones. We can take idiosyncratic positions in this debate because it is inherently an idiosyncratic debate. Nobody knows what will work and so we should try as many things as possible. There are serious limits to our knowledge and to our capacity to utilize that knowledge in productive ways.
We should just maintain a healthy does of skepticism toward all sides, but also point out the good ideas when we see them regardless of whose ideas they are.
I mean, fundamentally I’m a radical on education and I want to tear down the entire edifice and start all over. If I had my three wishes we’d have a radically different system of education than the one we have today. But of course this will never happen, and politics has a way of twisting good change into bad. So you have to remain cautious, skeptical, and hopeful that the more we experiment the better the outcomes will be for everyone involved.
I simply can’t box myself in by joining a team. Good ideas transcend teams, and bad ideas become institutionalized by them. We need to go beyond the tired old lines of this debate.
The second is a critique of power:
For quite some time now I’ve been primarily interested in the topic of power and how various institutions fight for self-preservation even if the means of self-preservation jeopardize the very mission of those institutions to begin with.
Take, for instance, the war on drugs. I believe it is a hugely destructive crusade, and its victims are often law enforcement agents. But if we were to end the war on drugs, even if it were to mean less violence, fewer arrests, and fewer police deaths, it would also mean smaller police force budgets, fewer prisons and prison guard jobs and so forth. So the very institutions that suffer from this war also lobby to keep waging it out of institutional self-preservation. Indeed, one reason marijuana was prohibited to begin with was the end of alcohol prohibition and the need to keep all those cops employed.
But of course cops and prison guards serve legitimate and valuable functions beyond the war on drugs. When we critique the actions of police or the positions the public safety unions take, we are not doing so in order to demonize cops or prison guards. Or at least that’s not what we ought to be doing. More than anything we should be offering up a critique of power.
Likewise, when I level a critique of the teachers’ unions, it is not meant as a demonization of individual teachers any more than a critique of the Gates Foundation should be taken as a call for Bill Gates to stop spending money on education. Rather, I believe all institutions and especially very powerful institutions that play a pervasive role in our society should face scrutiny and criticism.
Teachers’ unions represent an extremely powerful and politically active force in our society, and they cannot be ignored or left unexamined in this debate. Unions have served a vital role in improving the lot of educators in America, but that does not mean that they will always and forever fulfill that role in a way that is also in the best interests of society at large.
This is where I’m headed with the education reform debate. Toward skepticism and away from partisanship; toward choice and experimentation and away from old ways of thinking and calcified institutions. Toward an emphasis on strong curriculum and teacher autonomy and away from bland uniformity.