Friday, November 12, 2010

When did the Citizen become the Layperson?

One of the puzzles of education is how to teach kids about the world without teaching them to rely uncritically on other people’s reports of that world. Any system that is too focused on filling the kids’ heads with facts will have trouble instilling one of the most important traits of a well-educated person: healthy skepticism. If you spend most of your time saying, “Here are the facts,” it’s hard to simultaneously teach, “Don’t believe everything you hear.”

Someday soon, those kids will be voters. The more inclined they are to answer every assertion with “Prove it,” and the more skilled they are in evaluating competing claims, the more soundly we should all sleep at night. If instilling those habits and skills means that we can’t cover as much subject matter, that’s a tradeoff that seems worth making, at least to a point. To take two recent examples, both the Iraq war and the financial crisis seem to have resulted more from a lack of skepticism than from any insufficient mastery of traditional academic subject matter. A perfect score on your AP American History exam would have done little to inoculate you against claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or connections to the September 11 attacks.

I worry that we now think of schoolchildren more as future employees than as future voting citizens. But I also worry that, in many areas, we no longer think of citizens as having a meaningful role to play in making decisions about our society. Many issues are now seen as too challenging or esoteric for ordinary voters to understand. Policy arguments increasingly take the form of “I know more about this than you do. Trust me,” or, “Studies have shown that I’m right.” Rather than try to convince the citizen of the merits of a given argument, the speaker tries to browbeat the layperson into deferring to “experts.” The experts often come from the ranks of people whose interests are at stake (for example, “unnamed administration officials,” or representatives of the financial industry), but that never seems to deter them from insisting on their exclusive authority to opine on the issues at hand.

Recently, the president of our local teachers’ union reviewed “Waiting for Superman,” a movie that is critical of public education and of teachers’ unions, and wrote:

The bottom line is this: If [the filmmaker] is not a professional teacher -- and he isn’t -- then he should not be telling me, or anyone else, what is wrong with public education, or how to “fix” it.
That sentence strikes me as not only self-serving and misguided, but as outright incoherent. Here are the follow-up questions that leap to mind:
Are you suggesting that members of the public have no business deciding what goes on in public schools? If so, in what sense would those schools be “public”? Do you think that non-teachers should not vote in Board of Education elections?

If policy decisions should be left to experts, who decides who the experts are? If the experts disagree among themselves (as they inevitably do), who should decide which ones are right?

Would you apply this principle in other areas as well? Are you opposed to civilian control of military policy? (Who are laypeople to tell those experienced generals what to do?) Should only lawyers vote on tort reform? Should only farmers vote on farm subsidies?

Suppose your experience makes you better than the layperson at predicting the consequences of choosing one policy over another. How can it tell us which consequences we should want? Can experts tell us what our values should be?
There are surely some people who would benefit from living in a world made up of experts and laypeople, rather than one made up of citizens and public servants. But isn’t something important -- something crucial to self-governance -- lost in the change?

I believe in listening closely to people whose experience is likely to have given them some wisdom. And I think that teachers should have more, not less, autonomy in the classroom. But, in a democracy, it is good -- not to mention unavoidable -- that ordinary citizens be the final judges of which goals to pursue and how to pursue them. Instead of trying to shut them down, we should be trying to build them up. We could start by spending less effort training schoolchildren to defer to authority and more effort trying to instill in them the habit of intelligent skepticism.


indieteacher said...

I overwhelmingly agree with the majority of this post, and I especially like your desire to instill "healthy skepticism" in students. As a history teacher, this is something I try to do on a daily basis. So, I really don't intend to "argue" with you, but I would like make a couple of points.

Regarding your analogy of education to other forms of public policy, especially military policy: don't we essentially have a "hands-off" system now? Certainly, citizens can exercise their voting muscle if they disagree with the direction of military policy (as they arguably did in 2006 and 2008), but this is about broad goals and approaches--not about day-to-day operations. (Depending on your politics, I suppose you could argue that this "hands-off" system is broken, that civilians should be more involved--but it would also be fairly easy to argue that too much civilian control of the military would be dangerous and unproductive.)

Although he/she doesn't demonstrate too much PR savvy, I think that the union head you quote was simply expressing the exasperation felt by many teachers. Teachers are expected to act as professionals, and then they're treated like children. Especially in crowded, inner-city public schools, they're often expected to work miracles, and in return, they're vastly underpaid and denigrated by people who have little or no experience in education. Sometimes these are filmmakers, but more often, they're politicians.

I don't mean to write a "sob story" for teachers. I believe that our public education system needs a good shake-up, and although I haven't seen it, some of the reforms proposed in "Waiting for Superman" may warrant consideration. But as a teacher myself, I can certainly understand the resentment that teachers feel toward these "outsiders" who demonstrate little understanding of the complexities of education.

Getting back to your broader point, my hope would be to educate students who are willing to entertain both sides of the debate before deciding which is more convincing and appropriate--but we all have issues that elicit visceral reactions. The key is learning to keep those in check.

Chris said...

Thanks for commenting, indieteacher! Sure, I don't think anyone interprets civilian control of military to mean that voters would micromanage day-to-day operations of a military action, only that they must ultimately be able to control broader policies and goals. But that's exactly what "Waiting for Superman" is trying to do in the realm of educational policy. I haven't seen the movie and am not endorsing its message at all, but the best response is not to say "I'm an expert and this guy's not, so don't listen to him." The best response is to say, "I'm an expert, which enables me to explain to you why this guy is wrong and I'm not."

I'm sure you're right that the teacher who wrote the review was expressing some of the exasperation that many teachers must feel, sometimes understandably. I suspect that he and I would actually agree about a lot of things. If it were up to me, for example, teachers would have a lot more autonomy in the classroom (for example, this post). A former law school dean I know says that the secret to hiring law professors is to "Get good horses and give them free rein." I think that same principle ought to play more of a role in how we hire and treat K-12 teachers as well. I'm also very skeptical of the idea that we'll somehow generate a better pool of teachers by taking away their job security.

Expertise is great when it's real and when it's used to further debate instead of quash it. But there's a limit to what it can do, as well; it can't tell people what to value. (I've posted several times on this topic; see, for example, here, and here.) And I think it's also true that it's sometimes hard for people who do have expertise in a given institution to think outside the institutional box. (For example, we'll apparently soon be hearing our superintendent's explanation of why the kids' lunch has to be only fifteen minutes long, and couldn't possibly be extended to twenty.) So I think it's great to hear from filmmakers, artists, parents, and anyone else with a different perspective on these issues.

Indie said...

Fair enough, and agreed. One of the reasons I chose to teach in independent schools was precisely because of the autonomy you mention. Sometimes I feel guilty for not teaching in public schools, but I also know that I would last about five minutes before throwing up my hands and walking out.

That said, even in independent schools, you have people without expertise who try to tell you how to do your job--mostly parents--and that is endlessly frustrating. Their perspective is valuable (even necessary) but it doesn't take the place of educational expertise. If it did, they wouldn't be paying us to teach their children.

I would agree completely that expertise has its limits, but I would also say that its disingenuous and potentially dangerous when someone who lacks expertise presents themselves as an authority.

Bottom line: if you're simply an "interested citizen," say so. You still deserve a seat at the table, in my opinion. Just don't present yourself as an expert when you're not.

I think we're in agreement there.

Chris said...

I think we're talking about two distinct ideas here. I certainly don't think any one parent should expect to dictate what goes on in a classroom. But I do think that the parents as a whole (actually, the voters as a whole, whether they're parents or not) have to be the ultimate authority about what goes on in a public school. They don't just get a seat at the table, they get the whole table. You can try to convince them that they should defer to the teachers' expertise, but the final judgment about whether to do so, and how much, has to lie with them. I can only speak for this voter, but I'm much more likely to persuaded by a good substantive argument about why a given policy or practice makes sense, than by a mere assertion of expertise.

Again, most of the issues I'm concerned about are value questions, and experts can't tell you what your values should be. For example, I'm sure there are experienced teachers who support the use of corporal punishment in schools (which, after all, remains legal in something like twenty states). Their expertise might be able to shed light on what the consequences of corporal punishment are, but their status as "experts" carries no weight with me on the question of whether I should prefer a system that employs corporal punishment to one that doesn't.

I'd be curious to hear examples of some of those frustrating encounters with parents who are trying to tell you how to do your job. It's certainly not hard to imagine parents making unreasonable demands. On the other hand, some of the complaints that I hear parents make (see, for example, some of the discussion over at Kid Friendly Schools) seem to involve value judgments that have nothing to do with expertise. Take, for example, complaints about the amount of homework that an elementary school student receives. I don't take those parents to be saying, "That's not the most effective way to teach that subject." I take them to be saying, "This is causing more stress and more problems at home than it is worth." How does the teacher's expertise shed light on that question?

Caitlyn said...

Chris- really good distinction between value calls and expertise. When teachers say they are the experts when it comes to teaching our children (on the one hand); and then tell us to teach it to our kids ourselves because they don't have enough time or resources to get the job done, don't you think this is a dichotomy?

Chris said...

Caitlyn -- Thanks for commenting! I just don't get this idea that six-and-a-half hours, one-hundred-and-eighty days a year, is not enough time to . . . to do what? Where do we get these arbitrary notions of what every child has to accomplish by the end of elementary school, or high school?

Of course, a lot of it comes from No Child Left Behind and its standardized testing requirements. Teachers are naturally responding to the pressure coming down from their employers to raise test scores. But there's no reason for them to think that parents are on board when it comes to that goal.