To be fair, on some promises, we delivered. Getting a college degree does improve your life outcomes. Desegregation actually benefited a lot of children. Head Start is a successful program. Free and reduced lunch program does improve children’s wellbeing. Multicultural education does reduce prejudice. I am not linking empirical source here, but I think I can find evidence for each of these and many other positive outcomes. We are doing something very impactful.
An ethical position is not to over-promise, and not to under-promise either. Our professional responsibility is to be clear on what we can, and what we cannot deliver. An old plumber in Ohio told me about my old war box house’s sewage pipes: “I will clean your roots for you, but you will be calling me the same time next year.” The caveat is a sign of professional responsibility. We just need to be very clear with ourselves and with the public on what we can, and what we cannot deliver. While the principle is clear, I am not sure of the pragmatics of the solution. Who exactly, and how should tell the public about the limits of education as a vehicle of social improvement? I cannot think of a genre of scholarship of policy communication that does this. Which advisory to which political body will deliver the language of moderation? No one wants to hear the “curb your enthusiasm” message in the midst of political fight over resources. Do you want some extra funding for K-12 education? Well, maybe this is not a good time to tell people what you cannot achieve. And there is never a good time to say it, because there is always a political fight for resources. So keep on giving false promises. Will we eventually suffer from the backlash? Oh, wait, we already do.