Equity & Diversity Opinion

More Villainous Than Hypocrisy

By Deborah Meier — March 24, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

It’s summer in Argentina, and up here in Hillsdale, it has snowed again!!

On hypocrisy: I used to complain/explain to my left-wing friends that we should honor hypocrisy, because it’s the only hope we have. It’s precisely in the gap between our good intentions and our less worthy actions that we must negotiate the future.

I’m not sure it’s hypocrisy that distorts the good sense of the new de-formers. What galls me most is that they have a very clearly different standard for themselves than for the rest of us. They know perfectly well that their advantages are advantages for their children and will fight to the death to preserve them. No matter how fast we line up after recess, there will be the same number at the end of the line. And the rich think they deserve to be at the front of the line.

If 1 percent of the people in the United States possess 90 percent of our wealth, the bottom 99 percent has very little capital with which to overcome the gap. And in the last 30-plus years they have lost out big time. But we have not all been equally inconvenienced.

When those who complain about public-employee pensions also worry about the cost to the public good of their own pensions—and the built-in life pensions that their own children get from the moment of birth—I’ll listen more carefully to their economic theories. Do they think they should dispose of their wealth at their death so that their children’s children won’t be crippled by their “private” welfare system, protected from the insecurities that the rest of us try to avoid? No, they don’t. They have achieved the unthinkable—the near abolition of the estate tax, which has been in existence for as long as I’ve been alive.

Do they note that research suggests that their children in particular don’t need small class sizes? If so, why do they insist on schools for their children in which class sizes rarely go above 15?

If collective action—unions—seems un-American, why do the rich create institutions in which they, too, pool their wealth with their peers in order to lobby for their self-interests and bargain with their legislators for more favors?

We do them a favor to call it merely hypocrisy. It’s more villainous.

That same Commonweal magazine that I praised a while back had a great story questioning the phrase “I’ve been blessed,” and other such expressions for what is, at best, good luck. Being born in the United States to middle-class parents and in good health was surely not because of my pre-birth virtues. But the consequences, for me and my offspring, are enormous—far greater than justice can account for. Or God.

So here, Diane, are some words about what we might, without hypocrisy, fight FOR: (1) an agreement that we are influenced by the experiences, habits, and dispositions of our childhoods—including our schools;(2) that the dispositions—intellectual, social, and moral—that democracy rests upon require deliberate support and nourishment;(3) and that therefore our schools must first and foremost either provide support for such dispositions, or harm them.

Democracy rests on an agreement that disagreements are inevitable and healthy and that democracy is at its best a way to sort them out with the least harm to the weakest and least of its citizens. (I’m sure this has been said better.)

I’ve written elsewhere on the intellectual/cognitive “habits of mind” that I think are critical (See The Power of Their Ideas or In Schools We Trust). In turn, these rest on two dispositions: a healthy skepticism, informed and open to the possibility that “I” might even be wrong, and (2) informed empathy. Others have other formulas for such an education, which my recent visit to the Carolina Friends Schools reminded me.

Every single academic discipline can support such dispositions—or they can be neutral or can literally undermine them. We have choices to make. We won’t all make the same ones, but being public requires us to justify our choices and acknowledge the trade-offs and may even limit some of those choices. Thus, we always confront dilemmas.

The structure of our current schools did not, does not, and will not be up to such a task, and was not intended to be. But it did not come to us from above and can be redesigned best from below. (For example, I’m inclined to think that between the ages of 12 and 15 we need something very different from “school” as we know it, and that a full liberal-arts education might well be best postponed until we are at least 30 years of age.)

And, until we greatly eliminate the gross inequalities between all of us in real life, we should not presume that schools can compensate for the differential impact of society on such dispositions. But it can do its best—which means that it can offer the “capital” needed to make sense of the world as it is, and recognize when we are being conned and stupefied—something we do not yet have any “objective” test for measuring. The best we can do is place our unwarranted trust in the school community, within the widest and least onerous boundaries. There is not a single “best” curriculum nor a single best way of governing democratically. Out of such diversity we will learn, although we may never find consensus on the details, nor need we. That’s the task we took on at Central Park East/Central Park East Secondary School/Mission Hill; I regret that so few are able anymore to do what we did without paying a far greater price—if they’re able to do so at all.


P.S. Finally: Yes, “commenter” Fallon, I consider democracy the best attempt to gain freedom for myself without expecting others to pay for it with their “non-freedom.”

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.