Levinson and Fay, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics

Meira Levinson’s and Jacob Fay’s edited volume Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries is enormously valuable. It not only addresses problems that confront educators every day but also suggests how moral reasoning can be revitalized in academia.

The book is organized around seven business-school-like cases. Each case poses a common dilemma. For instance, should a team of middle school teachers choose to promote a student who is far behind grade level? She will struggle and probably fail if she goes on to high school, but if they retain her, she will doubtless drop out. Each case ends at the point of decision. It is followed by half a dozen short reflective essays contributed by a mix of scholars and practitioners (although I noticed no systematic differences between the academics’ and educators’ chapters, which is interesting in itself).

Dilemmas of Educational Ethics represents a mode of thought that can fill a gap left in the tessellation of our current disciplines.

Social and behavioral sciences help to illuminate what is going on and predict what will happen as a result of various strategies. Management disciplines provide advice about how to operate as administrative leaders. And philosophy/political theory offers frameworks for asking “what is justice?” or “what should be done?”

But none of these disciplines directly addresses the question “What should we do?”–if “we” means a concrete group of responsible actors who have limited options and imperfect information. They face not only a practical question but also an intellectually challenging one. Practitioners would benefit if scholars thought from this perspective, and scholarly disciplines would be stronger if they addressed what is often a much harder question than “should should be done?” Social science misses the mark by bracketing the value aspect of the question “what should we do?”, and most philosophy/political theory loses the active agent (“we”) by focusing on justice as a virtue of social systems rather than an outcome of concrete action.

As advertised, the cases in this book are “richly described” and “realistic” (p. 3). The writing isn’t pretentious or mannered, but it is literary in the sense that various characters’ goals, emotional states, and interactions are described. The narratives build genuine suspense and force the reader to decide what she or he would do. This is a difficult form of writing that is unusual in most disciplines. In particular, it differs from the thought-experiments popular in moral philosophy: trolley problems and the like.

Philosophers prefer stylized situations that force a choice among theories that are revealed to be incompatible. For instance, whether to change the track of a runaway trolley forces a different response for a utilitarian or a Kantian. This is a dilemma in the sense of a choice between two bad options. A third choice is either defined as impossible or rejected as question-begging. You’re not allowed to ask, “Isn’t there something else the onlooker can throw in front of the trolley?” But many responses to the scenarios in this book do suggest a third or fourth option. Jeffrey Smith calls this move “breaking out of the binary” (p. 83). 

As Jal Mehta writes (p. 19), the cases in Levinson and Fay make you want to “diminish rather than ignite conflicts among first principles” and satisfy as many constituencies as you can, not necessarily for uniform reasons (p. 19). Mehta notes that that’s how skillful administrators think. It is, he adds, “diametrically opposed” to how “political philosophers” teach us to think. I’d say it is political thinking, in the best sense. Yet it is just as intellectually demanding as mainstream philosophy, if not more so.

Philosophers’ principles sometimes enter the discussion usefully. Christopher Winship addresses a case about school assignment rules by invoking John Rawls’ “Difference Principle” (any differences are legitimate only to the extent they are necessary to improve the situation of the least advantaged.) In turn, the Difference Principle emerged from Rawls’ highly abstract thought experiment of an Original Position, in which we shed knowledge of our own circumstances. But Winship doubts that “specific policy directives follow” from the Difference Principle for this case (p. 175). The best choice depends on predictions of the effects of various policies. Like other contributors, Winship thinks the best approach is to consider a “broad set of policy options” in case there’s a way to avoid the dilemma (p. 178).

Some of the authors balk at the focus on individual or small-group choices. Melissa Aguire, for instance, notes that the teachers in the first case study face a tragic choice that would be avoided entirely if the system were just. Her point is true and relevant; it should be made. At the same time, describing how things should be instead of what we must do can evade responsibility. Yes, systems should be just, but they aren’t, and what are we going to do about that? Many authors explore the constraints that teachers and others face in an unjust larger context, but they repeatedly insist that the specific actor is not powerless (e.g., 127). In the classic debate about structure and agency, they emphasize agency–not because it solves everything, but because it is the main concern of an actual agent.

Responding to a case about a teacher in a zero-tolerance school who thinks a vulnerable teenager has committed theft (which will result in a prison sentence), Tommie Shelby objects to the narrow focus on her “professional responsibilities.” “What matters first of all are the injustices that pervade society.” Still, Shelby doesn’t resort to calling for those injustices to be solved by someone else. Rather, he would “focus on her more general duties as a relatively privileged member of a profoundly unjust society.” That is to treat the teacher as an individual citizen, not just an individual professional. Shelby adds, “she can’t reform society on her own. She needs allies, and perhaps even a social movement, to be able to fundamentally change things.” (79, 81).

Needing a social movement is a problems of collective action. Jennifer Hochschild makes explicit references to the literature on collective action problems as she responds to a case about pervasive grade inflation in a private school. When everyone inflates grades, each teacher and school is forced to as well. But Hochschild’s brief review of the tragedy of the commons neglects more recent work by Elinor Ostrom and many others about how people actually solve collective action problems. They are not inexorable tragedies but suspenseful drams. Many of the suggestions in this volume are plausible solutions.

The scale gradually grows as the volume progresses–from choices made by one or a few teachers up to policies considered by school districts and states. As the scale grows, the active agent becomes more obscure. After presenting a case about comparing charter schools to other schools, Levinson asks, “would you support legislation that restricts charter school expansion?” (p. 185). Here the actor (“you”) is a voter, one of more than a million. The impact of each vote is infinitesimal, and the ballot question will be already framed by others. But Andres A. Alonso objects to a narrative that treats the Boston Public Schools (BPS) as the agent that chooses a school assignment plan. “Districts are hotbeds of internal and external politics. Virtually every decision is fought over by multiple stakeholders” (p. 165). His political analysis puts people’s agency back into the picture. 

Some of the authors suggest strategies at an important midsize scale that is usually overlooked in philosophy. Ethics focuses on individual choices, whereas the most influential political theories consider the ideal structure of a whole society; but here the focus is on purposeful groups. For instance, Toby N. Romer notes (p. 37) that as long as each teacher decides whether to send each student to a violence-prone “alternative” school, the right answer may be not to. But if all the teachers in the same middle school send all the relevant kids to that school, it will immediately improve, thanks to the broader range of enrollees. This is an example of collective action by a group, a “we,” that is small enough to make decisions and act together.

Authors cite Aristotelian phronesis (practical wisdom), Bent Flyvbjerg’s revival of phronesis, and pragmatism as methodological precedents. I share those enthusiasms, but I’m not sure that we yet have a satisfactory philosophical apparatus to clarify how people should think about what they should do. We must go beyond vague references to judgment or practical wisdom. We must face questions of agency and structure, relations between individual and group intentions and responsibilities, and challenges of collective action at various scales. I think this is an important frontier for philosophy and social theory.

See also Bent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesiscommunity organizing, community-engaged research, and the problem of scalea different approach to human problems

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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