Saturday, January 11, 2014

Is the Tail Wagging the Dog? A Commentary on Deliberating About Ends

Perhaps the most persistent characteristic of our times is the inability to deliberate about ends or values. As a culture, we often treat value disagreements as if they are purely matters of opinion that are not subject to rational deliberation. Alaistair MacIntyre describes this phenomenon well in his book, After Virtue. He claims that the character of the manager epitomizes our age. The manager wants to turn  disjointed human capital into a well-oiled machine of productive accomplishments. Another managerial goal is to turn raw materials into a finished product. In short, the manager is someone who exclusively deliberates about the most effective means of accomplishing goals and values that are set externally. This tendency, I would suggest, is the reason why it is so easy for us to have ethical failures in our businesses, politicians, and so forth. We are simply unable to deliberate in a coherent and rational way about whether ends are important and how ends should be rank ordered. Rather than argue for ends, we will often attempt to castigate and disparage someone who disagrees with the ends we find most important or the way in which we rank order them.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about the Iowa City School Board over the last year or so was seeing them play the role of manager in the sense in which I've described it above. With Hoover as a clear example, the board consistently avoiding deliberating about the underlying value judgments behind their positions, and there was simply no evidence of any substantive deliberation about how to adjudicate value disagreements -- between, say, the value of keeping smaller elementary schools open compared to the value of expanding a high school (there are many other value disagreements that would need to be discussed, evaluated, and rank-ordered too, many of which I mention below) -- prior to the original decision made on July 23, 2013. The deliberation centered almost entirely on questions of means and implementation. How much money will it cost? Why couldn't we build this here or that there? Will people find the proposal politically palatable? And so forth. For my money, those are typically the exact sorts of questions that the administration would be perfectly capable of answering if the board as a whole gave clear direction about the relative importance of its values and commitments.

For further evidence of this tendency, simply ask school board members about the underlying values behind the positions that they have supported and how those values are rank-ordered in comparison to other values. If the response you hear is anything like what I've heard, you'll hear them quickly redirect the question to issues of means or implementation -- they'll answer you in terms of finances or logistics. This tendency is a pathology in modern society, and it hampers rational deliberation. Of course, these comments do not mean that questions about finances, logistics, or implementation are unimportant. Rather, it means that they are, in principle, unresolveable without prior (implicit or explicit) agreement about values and their relative rank-ordering. 

Put another way: I'm concerned that the tail is wagging the dog. I have no doubt that board members are making value judgments about these important issues, but my concern is that a lack of deliberation about those values will make it increasingly likely that those values are adopted uncritically from external sources.And as a result, more often than not, it seems that BLDD, the administration, and/or who ever has the ear of the school board directors at the moment set the ends/value with little or no substantive public deliberation about them. And that's not good for our schools or our community.

Karen over at Education in Iowa compared the values in the educational establishment with the values in medicine. I would go further than Karen, and say that education is much worse off. There are four clear values in medical practice: beneficence (do good), non-malfeasance (do no harm), autonomy (don't substitute your values for the patients), and justice (fair distribution of medical resources/goods). In education, what are the most important values? Could we list them? Would that list be exhaustive? And, even if we had the four central values (or whatever number that is!) in education, we would still have the same problem that is currently found in medical practice. That is, it isn't exactly clear how to adjudicate cases where one or more of those values come into conflict. For instance, do you perform a surgery that could give the patient many more quality years of life (beneficence) even if the patient doesn't want it (v. autonomy)? In other words, we'd still have the problem of rank-ordering those values. If you cannot identify and deliberate about underlying values, then you'll have a hard time deciding what to do when differences in values or a differences in a rank-ordering of values come to the fore in a practical issue.

But I'm not one to criticize without offering my suggestions. So what would I like to see the school board do in its oversight rather than what it is currently doing? I'd much rather see them discuss how we should prioritze our values than debate minor financial or logistical issues in board and committee meetings. Is achieving equity of student achievement our highest goal? Or is it low student-teacher ratios? Or is it minimizing tax payer expenses? Or is it protecting a particular geographical area of town? Is primary or secondary education more important? How should we order these values, once we have determined what they are? Those are the types of questions the board should be discussing publicly at board and committee meetings. They can be spurred by the practical issues at hand, but we can only truly deal with disagreements about these matter if we are clear on where the disagreement lies. Furthermore, if the administration knew clearly what the board thought (as the representative of its stakeholders, the community), then the administration could more effectively achieve its goals by knowing how to implement those goals. 

*I realize that federal and state regulations regularly set ends, and I realize that many of us will disagree with those ends. And I agree that the board and the administration must work within these confines, but there is still much room for deliberation and the determination of ends within them.