Teaching Opinion

Turning Jobs Into Public Work

By Harry C. Boyte — December 01, 2016 6 min read
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Friends, Colleagues and Fellow Citizens,

Greetings from South Africa.

Deborah Meier and I will be taking a break until the beginning of the year.

We look forward to blogging again at the start of 2017.

Meanwhile, here is my reflection for today.

Harry Boyte

Harry Boyte continues his conversation with Deborah Meier. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Deb and Colleagues,

As the Trump team takes shape, I’ve been thinking about your last column on the constructive work of teaching and learning. Your focus on citizenship as work, different than simply voting and volunteering, is crucial, the way to push back against the attack on the public purposes of education.

Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos, an ardent champion of diverting public funds to charter schools, school vouchers, and profit-making, illustrates the attack. Eighty percent of the charter schools in Michigan, where she has devoted her energies for 20 years, are run by largely unregulated for-profits. In Detroit, writes Kate Zernike in the New York Times, “A flood of charter schools in the past decade has created what even charter school supporters call chaos.” Is it any consolation that America’s travails are international? Many see “warning signs flashing red” about democracies around the world, Amanda Taub wrote recently in the New York Times.

It is useful to remember that deep changes have emerged primarily from popular movements in American history, not elections. In The Story of American Freedom, Eric Foner shows this dynamic in progressive changes in the 1930s. “It was the Popular Front, not the mainstream Democratic party, that forthrightly sought to popularize the idea that the country’s strength lay in diversity and tolerance, a love of equality, and a rejection of ethnic prejudice and class privilege.”

A single-minded focus on Trump’s election and attacks on public dimensions of education can lead to ineffective protests, cynicism, and paralysis. It can also obscure democratic stirrings in and around education in recent years.

The new collection edited by Meira Levinson and Jacob Jay, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics, illuminates democratic stirrings. Levinson, professor of education at Harvard, wrote the highly regarded No Citizen Left Behind about empowering civic education practices in K-12 schools. It is also useful to note some limits of the collection.

The last half century has seen loss of public purposes in research, increasing fragmentation of disciplines, privatized teaching, and weakening of relationships which connect educators to publics outside their institutions: evisceration of work for public purposes; work by publics; and work that takes place in public fashion. All played a crucial if little noted role in disempowerment of democracy educators and the rise of the anti-public political movement.

Today, attacks on the public purposes of education are organized around the supposed opposition between vocational preparation - “training for jobs” -- and liberal arts. Marco Rubio’s quip during the Republican primaries summarized the point. Since welders make more money than philosophers, “we need more welders and fewer philosophers.”

Dilemmas of Educational Ethics is a set of six case studies about common but demanding ethical dilemmas facing K-12 educators and policy makers that put front and center philosophical questions. Should a student be promoted to prevent her likely dropping out of school, despite inadequate work? What should be the grading policy of a school committed to cooperative learning - but where teachers and parents perceive grade inflation? How should charter schools be regulated, after substantive questions have been raised about their claims to provide high quality educational opportunities for disadvantaged children? Is access to “high quality education” for low income and minority children best achieved by engineering school districts in ways which erode neighborhood based schooling and assume “best students” are high achieving, mostly upper middle class whites?

The book includes reflections on the case studies by a diverse set of commentators -Ayo Magwood, a high school history teacher, Jennifer Hochschild, president of the American Political Science Association, Elizabeth Anderson, John Dewey Distinguished Professor at the University of Michigan, Tommie Shelby, Caldwell Titcomb Professor of African and American Studies and Philosophy at Harvard, Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute. It also includes graduate students, senior administrators, organizers and parent activists.

This volume is one way to “make work more public” through the collection itself, providing tools for discussion around ethical dilemmas, emphasizing the moral agency of educators, policy makers and others. They use the Aristotelean concept of phronesis, practical wisdom not simply knowledge of universal principles, conceptualizing it as a method. They contend that “complex ethical thinking in a particular context requires a marriage of theory and practice, one that crosses disciplinary and professional lines and that iterates repeatedly among field-based, data-oriented, and values-oriented expertise” (p. 4). They argue that “educators and policy makers generally receive little support in thinking them through other than as technocratic challenges...of compliance, leadership, communication, data analysis, student support or instruction” (p. 2).

Many commentators raise public purposes of education -- justice, inclusion of disadvantaged groups, and democracy itself. For instance, in a splendid reflection on the dangers to democracy posed by the ways charter schools are framed as a question of market choice, Lawrence Blum, professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, points out the loss. “It is not grounded in the democratic purposes of public education that require forging a sense of shared fate and mutual respect among students from different backgrounds,” he says. This " detracts attention from (and some features of it actively oppose) trying to rectify the intensified general inequality of recent decades” (p. 205).

The problem is that the book neglects explicit attention to the loss of civic and public meanings of educational work.

As work in education has lost public dimensions, it has led to the shift which Thomas Bender describes, from “civic professionalism” to “disciplinary professionalism.” Professionals no longer think of themselves as “citizen teachers,” “citizen nurses,” “citizen businesspeople,” or even “civil” servants. They work “with” citizens or “on” citizens, not as citizens.

Dilemmas of Educational Ethics is a marvelous book on many grounds. But it reproduces the un-reflected and all too common distinction between professionals and citizens. “We hope to enable a more open conversation among all stakeholders...about what values and principles we should collectively be trying to realize in education policy and practice,” write Levinson and Fay in their introduction. They list “education scholars and other empirical researchers, policy makers and practitioners, philosophers, activists, parents, students, business leaders, journalists and citizens” (my italics).

Key to building a democracy movement in and around education is turning our jobs into public work.


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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.