Below is a review I wrote for amazon.com on philosopher Harry Brighouse’s book On Education.
As part of the “Thinking in Action” series, educational philosopher Harry Brighouse has written this brief, thoughtful book on education. Section 1 is devoted to the larger abstract question of why we educate. The second section is devoted to specific curricular questions like whether the state should make citizenship education compulsory or should allow religion in schools.
Brighouse’s central premise is that the primary reason to educate is to provide students with the tools they need to flourish. In order to flourish, one needs to be (relatively) autonomous in ability to think and decide one’s courses of action. Thus, a primary goal of schooling should be to equip students with the skills and knowledge they will need to be autonomous, including exposure to ways of life different than their own. Brighouse uses this idea to justify state intervention in compelling parents not to send children to overly sectarian schools. We owe it to future adults to give them those skills that will allow them to be autonomous, and allowing them to be educated in insular schools, where only one way of life is talked about, threatens that future autonomy.
I have to pause on this point because while I can see its merit, I can also see that it ignores the already-existing autonomy of parents to educate their children (whom they are legally responsible for) the way they choose. Brighouse’s suggestion that we disallow parents to send children to insular schools (in the name of future autonomy) can only be done by violating the already-existing autonomy of parents. It also sees the state’s vision for children as more important than parents’ vision. I think the issue is simply more nuanced than Brighouse’s argument suggests.
Brighouse is also very vocal in insisting that, while it is legitimate to prepare students to be workers by teaching them labor skills, this should not be the primary motive for education. Further, Brighouse warns against educating kids to fit the economy (“We need more scientists, so let’s have more science classes.”), and would rather teach kids a broad variety of employment skills so that they can be autonomous and choose their own employment path. Historically, policy makers have often let economic demands influence curricular decisions, but as Brighouse rightly points out (a) steering students towards certain careers takes away their autonomy, and (b) we simply cannot know what careers will be in demand or necessary in the future. Thus, it is better to give students a broad exposure to different career paths and teach them skills they can apply to many different careers. (more…)
Here is an article detailing an upcoming court case seeking to overturn a prohibition on gay marriage in California. There is a serious problem I have with this case, even though I am a very fervent supporter of gays’ and lesbians’ right to marry. This paragraph illustrates the problem:
The case will decide a challenge to California’s gay marriage ban that was approved by voters in 2008, and the ruling will likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. (My italics)
The problem is not that there is a challenge being brought over whether gays can be denied marriage rights. The problem is that we are asking a state court to set aside a democratic ruling about a state issue. And deeper still, I think that such an action helps illustrate what I think is the American public’s tenuous relationship with democracy. We tend to extol it as the most just way of government, want more of it when it isn’t being allowed to operate, but then try and trump it when it gives us results we don’t like.
I remember very well the protests when the election of 200o was effectively decided by the Supreme Court (whether justly or unjustly): “More democracy!” was a commonly heard cry. And in many political tracts, the word “democratic” is often used as an adjective synonymous with “just,” “good,” and “egalitarian.” But here we are in a bizarre predicament: scenes like the one in California are forcing us to face up to the idea that democratically chosen policies do not always lead to egalitarian and just results. As our founders feared, sometimes democracy really does mean the right of some to vote against others. (more…)