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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, Betsy DeVos, and the Rage Gene

By Rick Hess — October 05, 2020 3 min read
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A few weeks ago, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87. Even those of us who took issue with her jurisprudence and constitutional philosophy were moved to honor her integrity, accomplishment, and public service. Of course, within a matter of hours, it was back to politics as usual, amidst furious, hypocrisy-laden debates regarding the now-empty seat. It was all a particularly sorry spectacle given that, for many years, the progressive Ginsburg’s deep friendship with conservative icon Justice Antonin Scalia had been a model of how human affection can help humanize and soften fierce political division.

Just recently, my AEI colleague Christopher Scalia, Justice Scalia’s son, wrote fondly of that surprising friendship. One story he shared should have particular resonance, especially for those who worry about the values we teach and model for our children. Scalia wrote,

Judge Jeffrey Sutton, one of my father's former clerks, tells a story about visiting my father at the Supreme Court on what happened to be Justice Ginsburg's birthday. My dad had bought his old friend two dozen roses for the occasion, and Judge Sutton started teasing him, joking that there was no point to a gift like that when Justice Ginsburg had never sided with him in an important 5-4 case. My father replied, "Some things are more important than votes." The point of this story isn't that my father or Justice Ginsburg changed their votes to please the other, or that they pulled any punches when writing differing opinions—indeed, they are both known for their strong dissents. The point is that they didn't let those differing and deeply held convictions undermine their dear friendship.

In a disheartening coincidence, within moments of finishing Scalia’s inspiring column, I fielded a call from a respected education media honcho who seemed blinded by anger with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The call felt less like a conventional request for a quote or perspective than a venting session-slash-demand that I justify a litany of purported hypocrisy and meanness.

Well, I don’t need to delve into the particulars. Suffice to say that I took issue with many of my caller’s assertions. But what really struck me was just how offended and furious my caller was that DeVos had failed to respect traditional decorum in terming Joe Biden’s stance on school choice to be “shameful.”

I was a little shocked. I mean, had my caller heard what had been said about DeVos and her policies by Biden’s lieutenants, the two men who’d served as secretary of education while Biden was vice president, and prominent Democratic officials? It’s one thing to think that bombastic rhetoric is destructive and call everyone to account when they engage in it. It’s another to stand by or cheer for years while DeVos has been slimed and then suddenly take offense when she uses strong language.

Would I prefer that DeVos avoid terms like “shameful” when registering her fierce disagreement with Biden’s stance? Absolutely. But only if that standard applies uniformly. Otherwise, it’s just giving progressives a free pass, encouraging them to engage in outrage theater because they can rest easy knowing that DeVos won’t be given a fair shake if she hits back.

I think that captures so much of what’s poisonous in our education debates right now and backlights so much of what was right in Ginsburg and Scalia’s relationship. Standing squarely behind your principles is a good thing. So is articulating them clearly and forcefully.

But so is knowing that disagreeing on principles is normal and natural and that disagreement is not a sign of an adversary’s moral bankruptcy. We disagree because we value different things. Emphasize different trade-offs and risks. And see the world differently.

Those who truly value diversity recognize the power in that sort of difference. But they also know that realizing the promise of diversity requires reflection and perspective. None of that is possible when we’re blinded by anger, hatred, and partisan fury—when our rage gene consumes us. The empathy and understanding needed to nurture and unite a free people can only flourish in the presence of friendship, respect, and civility.

Those aren’t just nice words. As Justices Ginsburg and Scalia modeled time and again, this kind of engagement is good for our minds as well as our hearts. As Chris Scalia observed of Justice Ginsburg:

She wouldn't just correct his typos or change punctuation—she helped him strengthen his arguments, and I can't imagine they were often arguments with which she agreed. She, too, appreciated this aspect of their relationship: "When we disagreed, my final opinion was always clearer and more convincing than my initial circulation," she said. "Justice Scalia homed in on all the soft spots, energizing me to strengthen my presentation."

Embracing diversity does not mean grudgingly tolerating others or accepting them so long as they pledge fealty to some groupthink party line. It means appreciating and valuing one another, despite our differences—and sometimes because of them. We in education have fallen far short of this ideal as of late, just as have so many of our nation’s leaders. But tomorrow is another chance to start doing better.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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