Spencer Foundation AERA Lecture Article by Pamela Burdman

VISION CORRECTION: A Philosopher’s View of Equality in Education


Plato advocated a system of selective public schools that would ultimately prepare the most gifted students to enter the ruling class. Aristotle stressed the cultivation of good habits, not just good reasoning, in order to produce good citizens. And more recently, John Dewey argued that the “life of the group” depends on schools’ transcending the mere delivery of knowledge to support students’ learning processes as well. For each of them, and many others in the philosophical tradition, education’s primary purpose was to support political participation and decision making. Despite their divergent depictions of a just society, each saw education as central to its formation.

Today’s mainstream education debates – whether about teacher’s unions, charter schools, funding formulas, or achievement gaps – are rife with implications about moral and political values. Yet these implications are rarely examined. More concrete goals like raising test scores and strengthening international competitiveness seem to command our attention. The concept of equality does arise frequently, and there is an assumption that education can and should level the playing field. But the empirical record suggests that schools reproduce inequality more often than they reduce it.

While this predicament is frequently analyzed by social scientists, its philosophical depths are rarely plumbed. Few contemporary philosophers have inquired into the apparent absence of equality, and few in education have noticed their absence from the discussion. “With an issue like stem cell research, you wouldn’t think of setting up a major commission that didn’t have philosophers on it,” observed Spencer Foundation President Michael S. McPherson. “You have an issue like No Child Left Behind, and it never even occurs to anybody that the ethical questions that arise in grounding the evaluation of schools and teachers in test performance should even be considered.”

Through a strategic grantmaking initiative, Spencer has made a commitment to re-engaging moral and political philosophers in questions about education policy and practice, which have been dominated in recent years by empirical social scientists, especially economists. In order to expose a wider audience to this scholarship, this year Spencer invited an emerging voice in the field to deliver its annual AERA lecture.

A 2002 MacArthur Fellow and a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study since 2007, Danielle Allen is not a fixture of the education research circuit. A political theorist and classicist, she is best known for her scholarship on citizenship in ancient Athens and modern America. Her vitae does not list education as a field of expertise, and yet two forthcoming books have “education” in their titles.

In a glimpse at what those books may contain, Allen offered a methodical but forceful argument for political equality as a primary goal of education. Titled Education and Equality, the lecture unfolded in a style familiar to most philosophy majors, but rather foreign to many of the 300-some education researchers in the hotel ballroom. Allen displayed Powerpoint slides with lengthy quotes from source documents and proceeded to offer a rich and systematic exegesis on the definition of equality. In the setting, her primary source – the Declaration of Independence – was almost as unusual as quoting Socrates would have been.

“This is where all of our thoughts about equality begin,” she explained. Returning to those origins, she felt, would help clarify a term whose abundant use in education contexts has muddied its meaning. “There’s a vague idea of equality that gets thrown around in our public discourse, with, I would argue, insufficient thought about the real conceptual content of the ideal,” she said. Her examples ranged from the American Federation of Teachers and Teach for America to UNICEF. While equality and liberty were twin concepts important to the founding of the United States, she said, equality has been short-changed in American discourse in recent decades.

Where equality is defined or measured, she noted, it is generally reduced to questions of income inequality: “I find little invocation of the idea of political equality, a concept that once was central to how people in this country thought about the idea of equality. So where is political equality?” She found it in an analysis of the Declaration.

The nuanced picture she drew began with the idea of equal opportunity as well as the right to pursue one’s own happiness freely, which she called “non-domination”. These principles are “the job of democratic government to secure and enable, not merely as a matter of respecting rights, but for the sake of establishing free government on the strongest possible footing,” she said.

In that context, income inequality is important not because its elimination is ideal or even possible, but because too much of it prevents individuals from acquiring the skills necessary for enjoying political equality. To partake in equal opportunity without being dominated by others requires certain skills and capacities, and that is precisely where education comes in.

Deeply concerned about seeming unequal opportunity within the nation’s education system, Allen used metaphors of “platforms” and “pathways” to refer to the structure of opportunity in education. But she devoted much greater attention to interpreting abstract philosophical concepts, in an apparent acknowledgment that her listeners were already quite steeped in the realities of education in this country.

Speaking at the nation’s largest annual gathering of education researchers, Allen made no pretense of being an expert on education. Instead, she gestured toward a dialogue with her audience. While challenging them to contemplate philosophical concepts in a meticulous way, she also invited them to fill gaps in her knowledge of the education research literature – as well as to research new questions about educational equality raised by her inquiry.

Dating back at least to Socrates, the use of dialogue to surface knowledge is an important theme in Allen’s writings, especially her best-known book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education. The 2004 essay argues compellingly that the strength of democracy rests in part on the ability of citizens, especially those with divergent backgrounds, to forge political friendships through talking to each other.

While the point of Socratic dialogue was to arrive at an objective truth, Allen’s idealized conversations are more complex. They entail a combination of persuading others, cultivating trust, and displaying mutual willingness to sacrifice for the common good. Though not a work about schooling, Talking to Strangers had unmistakable implications for education. In the epilogue, Allen herself pointedly raised the underlying question: “Can we devise an education that, rather than teaching citizens not to talk to strangers, instead teaches them how to interact with them self-confidently?”

The book’s insights were tapped by groups such as the Constitutional Rights Foundation in their professional development programs for social studies teachers. “The main theme of that book is very interesting and attractive to teachers who are trying to get kids to talk about important things with people who are different from them in key ways,” noted Diana Hess, an expert on social studies instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who will join Spencer as Senior Vice President this summer.

In fact, though education had long been an interest for Allen, educators’ unexpected attention to her work helped make it a scholarly focus for her, she said after the lecture. In speaking to teachers about her book, she learned how they struggled to help students exchange ideas about moral and political issues in meaningful ways. Yet the inability to do so, she says, makes equality elusive. Besides equal opportunity and non-domination, two other facets of the equality in the Declaration of Independence are particularly important for Allen’s vision of political friendship: the principles of reciprocity and co-ownership.

Reciprocity refers to the right to exchange and negotiate with others freely, and co-ownership entails the sharing of both difficulty and prosperity as the ground for a social bond, similar to a marriage contract. To enjoy these aspects of equality, individuals need certain verbal skills – the ability to articulate and persuade, to engage in give-and-take about political decisions, to negotiate compromises. This is one area where she suspects that, to serve their democratic purpose, schools need to do better.

“I wish I had a better empirical understanding of where we actually are with regard to students in terms of verbal skills,” she said. “I talk a lot to groups of people who are not academics about the issue of civility. People very often express befuddlement about how to process highly-charged or problematic arguments. The impression I take is that people don’t have the verbal equipment to respond, that the ordinary person’s sense of the toolkit they have to fight things in argumentative terms is too weak to fight what they’re being confronted with.”

Allen is still exploring the existing literature (and the Spencer audience members added significantly to her reading list, she said after the talk). But she expects that more research will be needed to define what verbal capacities are pre-requisites to political equality – and how to teach them. Social skills, likewise, need to be better understood – as do “soft skills” like persistence and self-discipline. Non-cognitive or soft skills have been a focus for Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, Allen’s former colleague at the University of Chicago, where she served as Dean of Humanities.

Claiming that these skills are critical for success in life, Heckman found that they can best be taught in a child’s first few years. In part because of her emphasis on these capacities, Allen is persuaded of the importance of early education. “As we think about the waves of transformation in the American school system, the next transformation is not actually at the college end, but really at the beginning, the zero-to-six part of the educational process,” she predicted.

Because so many of the gaps in K-12 achievement are attributed to these early years, she said addressing them is necessary for equality – not just for individuals to be ready to attend kindergarten, but ultimately to be ready to participate politically. Research shows that college graduates are more likely to engage in political behaviors such as voting, but political engagement skills need to be a goal of universal education. “By the age of 18, people should have the skills to protect themselves from domination,” she said.

The “vision correction” she advocated – to foreground political equality instead of income inequality – would also lead to a shift in state and national education policy initiatives, such as the Common Core Standards. She advocated standards for “participatory readiness” to complement the “college- and career-readiness” currently being pursued. She saw promise in novel standards such as the one being used by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity: the ability to serve on a jury. And she expressed interest in the potential of an 18-state project to develop a set of Common Core standards for social studies instruction.

Besides equality of opportunity, non-domination, reciprocity, and co-ownership, a fifth facet of equality derives not from the content of the Declaration, but from its methods. The document includes a list of grievances that, rather than being generated by experts, are discovered through conversational networks of ordinary people. The assumption that any citizen can contribute to shared understanding corresponds to Aristotle’s belief that “everybody has something to bring to figure out the world around us and we’re better off pooling the knowledge around us,” said Allen. Citizens, and a diversity of citizens (not just experts), she insisted, can and must contribute to collective wisdom.

Allen calls this concept the “epistemological potluck,” and it is something she has experimented with in practice. When she was at the University of Chicago, she was troubled by the historical divisions separating the elite research institution from its geographic home in Chicago’s South Side, a largely low-income area with a high concentration of African Americans. She launched the University’s Civic Knowledge Project, which aimed to strengthen connections between the university and the community through the mutual sharing of intellectual resources and knowledge.

Her work on education has a similar boundary-crossing quality. With philosopher Rob Reich of Stanford, she organized the Institute for Advanced Study’s 2009-10 Dewey Seminars, which focused on education. They included a set of conversations among value-oriented scholars such as philosophers and political theorists and social scientists, like economists and sociologists. Some of the exchanges, sponsored by Spencer, will result in a volume to be published next year called Education, Democracy, and Justice.

“Questions about justice and democracy have been at the center of an amazing output of philosophical scholarship over the past forty years,” reads a description of the Spencer-supported workshops. “During the same period, social scientists have vastly increased their methodological rigor and amassed vast datasets to study important social phenomena. Both normative and positive scholars have been working hard on questions concerning education, but they too rarely engage one another.”

While the Civic Knowledge Project was launched to support knowledge sharing across the walls of the university without regard to academic status, the Dewey Seminar in effect aimed to do something similar within the academy. As awareness of the book spreads, it may help elevate the status of education as a research topic across the university and spawn more partnerships between education school researchers and colleagues in other fields. The potential impacts on policy and practice would be salutary, according to the Spencer Foundation.

“We would like to see empirical researchers become more aware of the ethical background built into the work that they do,” said McPherson. “We would like to see philosophical voices present in policy discussions. We would like to have people who are being educated to become principals or teachers have a greater capacity to think clearly about ethical choices that they face in their work.”

If Spencer’s vision ultimately comes to pass, Danielle Allen and her body of work will likely be part of its realization.

Pamela Burdman, an independent consultant in Chicago, previously served as a program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and an education reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Spencer Foundation was established in 1962 by Lyle M. Spencer. The Foundation received its major endowment upon Spencer’s death in 1968 and began formal grant making in 1971. The Foundation is intended, by Spencer’s direction, to investigate ways in which education, broadly conceived, can be improved around the world. The Spencer Foundation believes that cultivating knowledge and new ideas about education will ultimately improve students’ lives and enrich society. The Foundation pursues its mission by awarding research grants and fellowships and through other activities to strengthen the connections among education research, policy, and practice.