Is Education Social Engineering?

The three usual suspects. Today our question was: is education social engineering? We actually answered this question fairly quickly. First, we defined social engineering as any attempt by a person or group in power to manipulate other people and shape society, and then concluded that public education fits the bill. We spoke less argumentatively this session and more sociologically and speculatively.

We observed that there are many implicit (and sometimes explicit) values taught at school, and “caught” from the overall student culture. Cliques and groups are a reality, and so are their power structures–there are leaders and followers within these groups.

Our conversation turned towards discussing the major problems with school in general, other than that it is social engineering. One of the biggest problems we identified is the lack of freedom. Compulsion automatically decreases the student’s interest, investment, and sense of value. This is contrary to one of the goals of school: to impart a cultural ideal or norm to students, namely the academic tradition. Now that I’m thinking of it, this probably comes from one of school’s original purposes which was to develop and encourage a foundation for active and responsible citizenship. We mentioned Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” in which he states that compulsion is contrary to the foundational principles of the United States, and that it discourages personal investment. His examples are of the use of money to purchase goods–it discourages a personal appreciation of that good–but I think by extension we could include education as well.

This led to a broader discussion about government welfare. Is it the government’s place to take the citizen’s money and determine where it goes, even if it is for the general welfare? Ideally, this should be up to the individual citizen. However, that takes a high amount of trust in the individual to spend money responsibly–an ideal that is not often met in reality. People are selfish with money. However, this does not justify the government to take the money and decide where it goes. Additionally, people on welfare seem unappreciative of what they are given, because they don’t have to work for it. It seemed more apropos to us that the government or other charitable agency provide services to people that enabled them to get back on their own feet–drug rehabilitation programs, job training, etc.–rather than handouts such as food stamps that people have come to rely on almost as “givens.”

Returning to our discussion of school, we observed that many teaching strategies are also manipulation tactics. We talked about how students move from one teacher to the next at least once every year (in most school settings), which prevents them from forming lasting attachments to adult teachers/mentors, and seems to teach them that those relationships are not as important as those with their peers. Perhaps this is why students seem apathetic or even resentful (and sometimes downright aggressive) toward teachers once they reach high school. And because the teacher-student relationship is often reduced to classwork and the resulting grades, a heavy emphasis falls on work and achievement. Students take grades and feedback personally. This sort of heavy personal and emotional emphasis on grades stigmatizes failure. But the educational system progresses people to higher levels of new and more difficult skills–and how often does anyone do something right the first time they do it? I argued that failure is normal and inevitable, given the introduction of new and more difficult skills, and that it should therefore be expected and embraced. No amount of pep-talking or proselytizing in class about how improvement is really what matters or how grades are only part of the story will change the emphasis that a grade has when that is what all work comes down to: a printed report card, a GPA, a transcript, a college application. Of those who do not develop a highly emotional attachment to their grades, many go the other direction and become apathetic. We wondered why apathetic students should be compelled to come to school, when they make it difficult for the students who want to be at school and for teachers who want to contribute to the learning of their students. We had all experienced classes with one or a handful of disillusioned students disrupting the educational process, hindering the learning of all students and creating otherwise needless difficulty for the instructor. Is there a better way?

We questioned the arbitrary selection of skills emphasized by schools. Standards seem only to compound this problem. We noted that elementary standards demand skills that children are not ready to perform cognitively. At the high school level, many required classes seem out of step with the career paths that students end up taking, especially technical careers. High school mathematics seem geared towards engineering and scientific professions, and do not emphasize practical skills such as might apply to taxes or insurance. English is focused primarily on literary study rather than career writing, and seems inappropriate for those not going into highly academic professions. Furthermore, the way these studies are taught seems to disconnect them from real life. History, for example, always bored me in school, because I never understood the connections to my own life or what was happening around me. Its presentation was so dry. But now, I love learning about history, especially the philosophical underpinnings of different historical movements and time periods, and understanding how our current thought is influenced by what people long ago thought, wrote, and did. Perhaps in its attempt to be “objective,” school also ends up cutting out aspects of subjects that generate personal interest.

Again, we seemed to see that systematic or institutional education kills a true desire to learn. The emphasis on arbitrary skills, measured by grades, creates a disconnect for the student between what he is learning and how it guides his destiny. He is not assessed on whether he learns the material; he is assessed on how he assesses on the material, and he is not trusted to judge for himself whether he has learned something or not. We seem to take this for granted that this is how education should work, but it seems more obvious that testing only demonstrates how a student performs on a test and often little else. It is only through a leap of faith that we can say that test results quantify actual student knowledge/skills/learning. This is a discussion that seems to be missing from the charter schools debate. People say that charter schools perform poorly. But there are two important points: who are the students who are usually sent to charter schools? The ones that are performing poorly in regular schools? (If so, perhaps that is why charter schools perform more poorly. What is the cause/effect relationship between charter schools and their performance?) Also, how is the performance of charter schools measured? By tests? (Are the students going to charter schools students who don’t test well? Again, what is the cause/effect?)

We discussed radical alternative methods of education, including the School Without Walls. How might it look if students were not, in fact, required to attend school, but rather attended out of their own free will, and directing their own course of study? Teachers would act as facilitators–rather than planning lessons and implementing crowd-management and manipulation tactics, would provide knowledge, insight, and feedback as requested. These sorts of radical changes are slow to materialize because of the massive size of education as an institution. While all of this structure and legislation is well-intentioned, it also hinders changes from taking place–changes that might be radical, but that might also drastically change and improve the state and nature of education.

Our last comments were toward the changing world of post-high school expectations. Many parents still emphasize the importance of college, but the career world may be moving away from that. More and more people are getting a college education, making a college degree a more common commodity, and therefore less of a distinguishing factor on an application or resume. Also, many fields, especially the technical ones, value experience and references just as much if not more than study work. I noted that of all the vastly numerous times I have submitted something for publication, I am asked about my education never, but about any previous publications always. So even in non-technical fields, a track record of experience and previous success may be worth more than any amount of education.

For further reading:

Fortress of Tedium (in part about the School Without Walls) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/magazine/fortress-of-tedium-what-i-learned-as-a-substitute-teacher.html?_r=0

Normal Accident Theory https://books.google.com/books?id=q6xEAwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

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The Death Penalty: Is There a Dispensable Mob Boss?

A small group, only three of us. We had no planned agenda. There was a question about Aristotle’s four causes, but I wanted to put off trying to talk about them until I had done some more research. So instead, we decided to discuss some ethical issue. On a whim, I suggested the death penalty. More specifically, I asked the question: is it ethical for a society to put to death one of its members, and if so, when?

To figure this out, we began by examining some of the common justifications for the death penalty. Turns out, the death penalty is cheaper than keeping someone alive for life in prison. However, the cheapest option is not always the “right” option. Lower cost does not justify something ethically.

We moved on to the use of the death penalty as a punishment. Is the death penalty a proper punishment for murder, and is it justified to carry out such punishment? (I separate these two questions because even if the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for murder, that does not necessarily justify a society to enact it.) “Punishment” seemed to suggest some different interpretations. One potential definition is that “punishment” is something that makes someone feel bad for their actions. Obviously, since the death penalty takes away one’s ability to feel entirely, it doesn’t really function to inspire guilt or create bad feelings for someone who has committed the action (other than, perhaps, their anguish in prison as they await the carrying out of their sentence–more like a torture technique).

Alternatively, it might be justified by its function as a deterrent: the threat of the impending punishment might be such that it causes an agent to alter his or her course of action. This had some issues. The strength of this particular threat, and thus its effectiveness as a deterrent, appears to come down to one’s personal beliefs about death. The more afraid one is of death, the more effective the threat of death should be as a deterrent. If you are afraid of going to hell, then you will not want to be sent there. However, if you believe that you will go to heaven, you might be less likely to fear death. Similarly, if you are an atheist and you view death as merely the cessation of biological activity, then you would have a lesser fear of death than if you were afraid you might go to hell. If you are a radical Islamist and you view the death penalty as a death in battle, or for a cause, you might even welcome it. Thus, its effectiveness as a deterrent is probably limited by a population’s beliefs about what happens after death.

The jury is still out on whether or not societies with the death penalty are statistically less likely to have murders. But even if the death penalty were shown to be an effective deterrent, would that necessarily justify it? More on that later…

Another potential function is as a settling of a score, a payment of a debt, a restoration of the balance of justice. But this also seemed inadequate. If I am a thief, and I steal money from someone, I can repay the debt. But if I am a murderer and I take someone’s life, I cannot give that life back. Furthermore, the taking of my life by capital punishment does not bring the scales back into balance, it simply adds to the body count. Capital punishment doesn’t seem to settle a score in the same way as other punishments or acts of retribution. (But even these have their problems. If I steal Steven’s car, I can return his car or pay him a sum of money equivalent to it–but if I steal Steven’s car on a day when Steven has a very important job interview, making him unable to go, I have not only robbed him of his car, but I have also robbed him of the opportunity to get a very important job. And there is no way to repay the debt that I owe him on that score, even if I return the car, or two cars, or three.)

Some would argue instead that it provides consolation for the victims, even if it is not a proper restoration of the balance of justice. Well, it might, but that isn’t necessarily an ethical justification. Just because something provides comfort or consolation, even if it did function as an effective restoration of the scales of justice, or as a deterrent, doesn’t mean it’s right. A common justification is “an eye for an eye”–you take a life, you lose your own. But we don’t do that for other crimes. We kill killers, but… we don’t rob robbers. We don’t rape rapists. How is it that we can say: killing is wrong for a citizen but okay for the government, while rape, for instance, is wrong for both the citizen and the government? Where does the double standard start and where does it end?

Human beings have a strong sense of justice, and the desire to see it done. Punishment can satisfy that desire. We watch TV programs like Game of Thrones and get wrapped up hating certain despicable characters, and then we feel catharsis when they are punished for their misdeeds. We all have a desire to see justice, almost to the point of bloodlust. But there is a problem. Steven used the example of a villain in Bad Boys II–an otherwise “disposable mob boss” who elicits no sympathy, but who has a daughter. When the villain is defeated, or killed (I don’t know, it’s been a long time since I’ve watched Bad Boys II), there is some lingering unease–what happens to the daughter? This raises the question if in real life there are any purely disposable people, like the deplorable characters in Game of Thrones, or if people always have mitigating factors that, if known, would make their death rest less easily with us, like the not-quite-disposable mob boss from Bad Boys II. Does everyone points of sympathy? As such, is it for us to say that they deserve death? We know that most murderers and likewise messed-up people usually have tortured pasts and histories, things that can make us sympathetic to their plight. At what point do we draw the line, and for what crimes, saying: we feel sorry for you, but not sorry enough that we won’t kill you–?

But this raises the broader question of to what extent anyone is responsible for their actions in general. We said that murderers and otherwise messed-up people almost always have some history of trauma, and this could potentially mitigate their responsibility for their actions in some way. But if that’s true, couldn’t it be argued for all of us? Aren’t we all, in not insignificant ways, the products of our upbringings and our backgrounds? And at what point do we stop saying “well, that’s just the way I was brought up” and start saying “yes, that was my fault”? Here it appears that we must either feel sorry for everyone or feel sorry for no one–unless we can identify a point at which someone is or is not responsible for certain actions.

This poses another problem though, because if someone’s action is often out of a person’s control, even more so is the result. For example, we discussed how murder and attempted murder are judged differently–but the problem is, the action was just the same, and the only reason that it turned out differently was likely due to some factor outside of the agent’s control: his lack of experience as a murderer, his clumsiness, accidents that conspired to keep his victim alive. We see fit to judge people on the results of their actions, which are just as much the results of accident as much as (or even more than) their intentions. (For more on this issue, see Thomas Nagel’s “Moral Luck”) Why do we judge someone differently for something that wasn’t their fault?

But the prospect of no longer saying that people are responsible for their actions does not seem like a viable option. (We all know people who shirk responsibility.) So perhaps we should judge someone by his intent, not by his actions. However, this is incredibly problematic for any serious system of justice in society. How do we know someone’s interior thoughts and intentions? “I didn’t mean to speed…”

We discussed negligence: when is not doing something doing something wrong? Here again, there seems to be a double standard. The law seems to indicate that some acts of neglect are reprehensible, while others are not. Neglecting to feed your child is illegal. Neglecting to intervene in a fight (which may lead to a murder) is not.

Somewhere in here, we also discussed the off-chance that a verdict is wrong. Is it excusable for a government to take the life of a citizen if there is a chance, no matter how slight, that its verdict was in error?

This was as far as we got. There is more to say on this issue, but so far we could not find an acceptable justification for the killing of another human being by a government unless it was preceded by a divine command–God ordering that the person should be killed. So many ethical issues seem to run afoul of the “moral luck” problem. And this I believe is where Aristotle’s ethics project led him, although instead of “moral luck” he might call it fate, or tragedy: no matter how virtuous a person’s character, intent, and actions, goodness may still be thwarted by factors outside of the control of human beings.

Next week: the four causes, and is institutional education social engineering?