Ronald Dworkin’s Course in Contemporary Politics

In the current NY Review of Books, Ronald Dworkin (who in his younger days established himself as one of the leading legal philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition) tackles three questions of current political interest: the teaching of intelligent design; the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance; and the legalization of same-sex marriage. His discussion of the three issues is notable for its openness to the arguments of all sides and its persistent attempts to stick to reason, but it does not contain any startlingly original arguments on the main topics and so I’m not linking to it.

Instead, I’m focusing on just one short excerpt, in which Dworkin proposes a course of study for high school students that would equip them to make and understand creditable arguments about such topics:

[W]e urgently need to make a Contemporary Politics course in which such claims can be discussed part of every high school curriculum.

I do not mean civics lessons in which students are taught the structure of our government or history courses in which America’s story is recounted. I mean courses that take up issues that are among the most contentious political controversies of the day, including, for example, the case for and against abortion; affirmative action in public education; the role of money in politics; the fairness of the tax system; and the role of civil liberties in shaping and limiting antiterrorist activities. The dominant pedagogical aim must be to instill some sense of the complexity of these issues, some understanding of positions different from those the students are likely to find at home or among friends, and some idea of what a conscientious and respectful argument over these issues might be like. The dominant pedagogical strategy should be an attempt to locate these controversies in different interpretations of principles the students might be expected themselves to accept: for example, the principles of human dignity that I believe are embodied in the Constitution and are now common ground in America.

The courses might well include an examination of classics of Western political philosophy from both the conservative and liberal traditions so that students could gain some understanding of the ideas of Aquinas, Locke, Kant, Rawls, and Hayek, for example, drawing on secondary sources and explanatory texts if necessary. The materials and teaching must be geared to the abilities of high school students, of course, but I believe that we are more likely to underestimate than overestimate those abilities. People who can master the intricacies of peer-to-peer file sharing through the Internet should have no trouble with the Categorical Imperative; indeed some study of the latter might help them in deciding whether the former is fair.

Contemporary Politics courses would be extremely challenging and difficult to teach, particularly unless and before some broad consensus had developed among teachers and in schools of education about how they should be taught. Teachers would have to steer between anodyne banality and indoctrination and they would have to recognize that the first of these failures is as much to be avoided as the second. But think how much it would improve our politics if students leaving high school had some understanding of the reasons why a deeply devout person might nevertheless prefer a tolerant secular state to a tolerant religious state, or why an atheist might think that public celebrations of religion were appropriate in a nation the vast majority of whose members were religious. Or if those students had been asked to consider what differences were morally permissible in a state’s treatment of citizens and aliens who are arrested as terrorist suspects. Or if they had actually read and debated the opinions of Justice Margaret Marshall and Chief Judge Judith Kaye in the Massachusetts and New York gay marriage cases and, if they disagreed with those opinions, had been challenged to say why. Or if they had been invited to consider what made a theory scientific and whether the intelligent design theory of creation met whatever standard for classification as science they considered appropriate.

I know, of course, that this suggestion bristles with possibly insuperable political difficulties. The selection of texts would be intensely controversial and the danger of manipulation by local political and religious groups very great indeed. It would be much easier for everyone—school boards, school principals, and teachers particularly— if nothing like this were attempted. But we cheat our children inexcusably if education is so remote from political issues that we allow the nation to continue only to masquerade as democratic. The idea that public education is a school for democracy is certainly not new: it was at the center of John Dewey’s enormously influential educational philosophy. What is new in this suggestion is only its specificity about content and its high ambition; but that is driven only by a more realistic opinion of what genuine democracy needs and the cost we pay in legitimacy so long as we fail to provide it.

Any takers?

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4 Responses to “Ronald Dworkin’s Course in Contemporary Politics”

  1. Rod Apfelbeck Says:

    I love the idea. However, are we talking about the schools that I know – most of which can’t teach kids to read? It just doesn’t seem likely that any but the most elite schools could pull this off.

    And what’s with, “the danger of manipulation by local political and religious groups [would be] very great indeed.” Why no concern about anti-religious groups trying to manipulate? Showing no bias is difficult indeed.

  2. Tim Peach Says:

    I think the idea is right up there with introducing astrophysics at the grade school level.

    Our society is now polluted with inclusion of teenagers in discussions they aren’t the tiniest bit equipped to enter. “What are the arguments for and against abortion?” and “Should we allow gay marriage?” when they shouldn’t even be engaging in sex and are still in an entirely formative stage sexually. “Should we have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance?” when they don’t even understand the underpinnings of democracy and the cost our forefathers paid to establish it.

    The analogy between mastering a computer and mastering these topics was telling — an attempt to reduce weighty ethical issues to technique. As if character could be reduced to the mastery of a list of tasks or topics. This is a common ploy of the left — which is in substance a rejection of the concept of ethics, something that transcends the factual.

    Bad things happen when we pander to the desire to “adultize” our pubescent charges, and encourage their entry into a level of dialogue (and experimentation) they aren’t prepared for in the least. The “teen slut look craze” is the best example, offhand, I can think of, where parents are way too cool to tell their daughters to put some clothes on.

    Maybe we could start by teaching our children (yes, high school students are children) the basics — which includes basic ethical principles — and leave headier matters for when they are actually entering into adulthood. Maybe that’s college. It wasn’t for me, but I acknowledge others are more precocious, notably the owner of this blog.

  3. Mark Grannis Says:

    I wonder if there isn’t a certain chicken-egg, or if-you-build-it-they-will-come quality to this problem. If we look at the schools we have and the teenagers we have, it is extremely difficult to take a proposal like this seriously. But the real problem isn’t that this is too much for teenagers, it is that it is too much for most thirty-somethings. Why is that? Could it be that we are postponing political instruction so long that most people finish their schooling without ever having any? In other words, the gist of the two comments above is that high school kids are not ready for this stuff, but Dworkin might respond that citizens MUST learn it somewhere and if this is too much for them at age 18 then we’d better work backwards to see what tools we need to give them before age 17.

    The two main alternative viewpoints that come to my mind are (1) most people will never be able to engage in sophisticated political reasoning in the classical tradition so don’t bother trying to teach them; or (2) the ability to do engage in sophisticated political reasoning in the classical tradition is highly overrated so don’t bother trying to teach it. I guess I’m with Dworkin in thinking that this is worth bothering to teach, even if it’s not clear what the ideal time and place might be.

  4. Tim Peach Says:

    Happy Election Day to all — it promises to be a zinger! Thought I’d check back in.

    Re the last post, I hate to say it, but something close to (1) is probably where reality lies. Academics generally craft academic solutions to social problems, because they live in academia, associate with intellectuals, and believe that all solutions are intellectual in nature. Similarly, computer technicians think all problems are computer-related, think companies are life-support systems for the IT department, and think all corporate problems can be solved with the right network solution.

    This is 2006, and we live in a world of unbelievable scientific sophistication. The gap between the smart and dumb has never been wider. And it is likely to widen. Democracy encourages the belief that we are driving toward tighter and tighter equality. In terms of rights this may be true, but in terms of the actual equality of ability on a person-by-person basis — especially with regard to a particular expertise — the gaps have not tightened one iota, and probably never will. We will be eternally subject to our limitations (with poor logic being a common one), and as a result, we will all require constant appeals to authority to run our lives in a reasonable way.

    I myself, with my myriad limitations, am forced to make such appeals on a daily basis, and I’m comfortable with that. I can’t fix anything, I’m not particularly well read, I don’t understand women, and, closely correlated with that, I don’t understand the owner of this blog. So what? Welcome to life.

    There will never be a time that a auto repair manual in my hands will yield anything but hilarity. Similarly, jamming teenagers with politically correct inquiry into social issues is likely to produce only confusion. The minority amongst them equipped to handle these debates will find it on their own — anyone with a teenager knows how tenaciously they become expert in the things that “rock their worlds”.

    What motivates academics to push this agenda, generally, isn’t eduation, it’s indoctrination. Our universities are the most radically biased entities on the planet, and most of their crap makes no sense to normal people — they know this, but they also know that if they start the propaganda early, it’s more likely to stick. I don’t want any of these freaks in a position to confuse my own teenager. At 15, he doesn’t need to understand the lexicon invented by the left to circumvent the reality of what you can see at 20 weeks in a sonogram. He doesn’t need to be subjected to the sophistry that anything that occurs genetically is “normal”. He doesn’t need someone to trick him into failing to distinguish between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. He needs to learn Math, History, English and Science.

    Good education puts students in a position to figure things out for themselves. If they can. If not, that’s ok, too. We need good mechanics as much as we need good sophists. They can fix my car, and I can tell them what the difference is between a duck.


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