Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bridging Philosophical Differences

Yesterday evening I posted on twitter a link to this post in Bridging Differences by Diane Ravitch, saying that I thought she made very compelling arguments against Parent Trigger-like legislation, that it's bad for democracy.

I got some push back on that. One of my favorite push-backers said that a) Teacher Trigger laws existed first and that b) Diane's post was "pure ad hominem."

Normally I don't mix my tweeting and my blogging. I generally think it's silly when people blog about what people say on twitter. Blogs and twitter are two very different mediums--I have different expectations and standards for each of them. That being said, I want to respond to what my critics said and I want to explain what I found so compelling; twitter is a terrible place to try to accomplish this.

First of all, I'd have to learn more about the particular ones being referred to, but I can't imagine that "Teacher Trigger" laws would be a good idea, either.

Second of all, "pure adhominem" (emphasis mine)? I don't see it, not purely. I can see why someone might find that in the piece, but it's certainly not the only thing there. Several months ago (see here and here) I decided that unless they are blatantly stated, divining people's motives is impossible. It's also not productive or often relevant to any given problem. I also, frankly, have a hard time getting through the day if I look at the world through such a dark lens, so though I don't always succeed, I try really hard not to, at least not publicly.

But what I found compelling in Diane's post was not who's doing the Parent Trigger and for what reasons, but rather, the philosophical arguments. Here's what I found compelling (emphasis mine):  
"To me, a public school is a public trust. It doesn't belong to the students who are currently enrolled in it or their parents or to the teachers who currently teach in it. All of them are part of the school community, and that community needs to collaborate to make the school better for everyone. Together, they should be able to redesign or create or discontinue programs and services. But collaboration is not the same as ownership. The school belongs to the public, to the commonwealth. It belongs to everyone who ever attended it (and their parents) and to future generations. It is part of the public patrimony, not an asset that can be closed or privatized by its current constituents.
If a school is dysfunctional, those who are in charge of the district are obliged to find out why and to do whatever they can to fix the problems. If the principal is incompetent, he or she should be removed. If there are teachers who are incompetent, they should be removed. If the school is doing poorly because it lacks necessary resources, the district is obliged to do whatever it can to improve the school.
But giving the current parents the power to close the school or to hand it over to a private management company is akin to saying that whoever uses any public facility should have the same power, the power to transfer control to a private entity. It means if those who use Central Park in Manhattan don't like the way the city of New York takes care of it, they should be able to sign a petition and privatize it. If a majority of those who patronize a national park sign a petition, they should be able to hand control of the park over to private managers. This makes no sense."
I agree philosophically with what Diane is saying here. I value public democratic institutions and I want to see them preserved. I agree that democratic public institutions are in a tenuous state right now and I agree that they belong to the public: to past, present, and future generations. Maybe others don't agree with this. Maybe they think I over-value public democratic institutions or that they've failed. Maybe they think the free market can do better. But I don't think so. I'm certainly not anti-commerce, but I don't think free market mechanisms work in every context, particularly not if the markets have been rigged. That's not an ad hominem attack, that's expressing a philosophically different way of looking at the world; it's expressing a different value system.

So let's protest what we see as ad hominem and address its wrongs specifically, or, even better, let's minimize their distraction by brushing them aside, and instead focus on the philosophical (and yes, factual) heart of our common ground and differences.

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