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Apr 25, 2022

The ethics of false promises, or What education cannot do

Could Russian educators have prevented the moral catastrophe of popular support for the aggression? Could American educators have prevented the poisonous blooming of paranoid anti-democratic Trumpist movement? For centuries, education was thought of as a remedy against hatred and ignorance. The results are less than encouraging: the world has never been as educated, and paranoia and xenophobia are as alive as ever.

I have been thinking lately about the ethics of over-promising. Did we, educators, implicitly promised to solve problems we cannot truly solve? We have been happy to receive public funding under a false assumption that we can reduce inequality (we did not), diminish xenophobia (we did a little), eliminate racism, reduce poverty, and solve a host of other social problems. What is the moral responsibility of the one who promises regarding the extent of their ability to deliver? Are we pitching snake oil to the public?

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.

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