Education and Equality

Education and Equality

by Danielle Allen

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American education as we know it today—guaranteed by the state to serve every child in the country—is still less than a hundred years old. It’s no wonder we haven’t agreed yet as to exactly what role education should play in our society. In these Tanner Lectures, Danielle Allen brings us much closer, examining the ideological impasse between vocational and humanistic approaches that has plagued educational discourse, offering a compelling proposal to finally resolve the dispute. 
Allen argues that education plays a crucial role in the cultivation of political and social equality and economic fairness, but that we have lost sight of exactly what that role is and should be. Drawing on thinkers such as John Rawls and Hannah Arendt, she sketches out a humanistic baseline that re-links education to equality, showing how doing so can help us reframe policy questions. From there, she turns to civic education, showing that we must reorient education’s trajectory toward readying students for lives as democratic citizens. Deepened by commentaries from leading thinkers Tommie Shelby, Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, Michael Rebell, and Quiara Alegría Hudes that touch on issues ranging from globalization to law to linguistic empowerment, this book offers a critical clarification of just how important education is to democratic life, as well as a stirring defense of the humanities. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226373249
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/14/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
File size: 335 KB

About the Author

Danielle Allen is the Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University. The recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, she is the author of many books, most recently Our Declaration, and coeditor of From Voice to Influence and Education, Justice, and Democracy, the latter two published by the University of Chicago Press. 

Read an Excerpt

Education and Equality

By Danielle Allen

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-37324-9


Two Concepts of Education

Introduction: The Problem

We are currently awash in torrents of public conversation about education. As of early September 2014, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, had 42,400 tweets to her name. For the period between September 2013 and September 2014, the New York Times archive generates 178,000 "articles on education." And education is among Americans' top ten political concerns out of a list of some thirty-five issues. There is so much talk about education that one can't help but think that perhaps the most sensible thing to do would be just to get on with it: to quit conversing and get back to teaching. In other words, this book and I are perhaps part of some kind of problem, not a solution.

Aside from their sheer volume, the other notable feature of our countless public conversations about education is how many of them have to do with equality. In 2009, former house speaker Newt Gingrich and black civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton famously joined up for a public tour to advocate educational reform. They identified problems in education as the civil rights issue of our time. Similarly, our many public conversations about income inequality inevitably turn to the topic of education. Thus, the French economist Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital (2014), writes, "Historical experience suggests that the principal mechanism for convergence [of incomes] at the international as well as the domestic level is the diffusion of knowledge. In other words, the poor catch up with the rich to the extent that they achieve the same level of technological know-how, skill, and education." He is not the first to make this point. The influential US economists Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz do as well, for instance, in their book The Race between Education and Technology.

Here, too, I must count myself as part of this problem — or, if it is not a "problem," then at least part of the phenomenon of a durable societal obsession with "education" and "equality." For nearly five years now, I've been going around giving lectures under the title "Education and Equality." I haven't, however, been plowing a single furrow. My arguments have constantly shifted. My experience has been that of pursuing a highly elusive object of analysis; an adequate framework for thinking about the relationship between education and equality has felt always just beyond reach.

Over the course of my constant scrutiny of this topic, I have made normative arguments that ideal educational institutions in a democratic society ought to lift the educational level of the entire population as high as possible while also making it possible for those with special gifts to achieve the highest heights of intellectual and creative excellence and simultaneously ensuring that the pathways to those highest heights can be entered into by anyone from any social position. Imagine a western mesa, but one that has peaks like the Rockies jutting out of it, with trailheads for the ascent of each peak marked plainly and boldly.

I have also made policy arguments. For instance, I make the case that the achievement of such an ideal requires reforming our approaches to zoning and municipal policy; committing public funding to early childhood education, community colleges, and public universities; distributing admission tickets to elite colleges and universities by means of geographic lotteries over a certain basic threshold of achievement; constructing tuition and aid policies based on transparency about what any given institution actually spends on educating a student; and broadly disseminating the competencies, aptitudes, and skills necessary to convert social relationships that are currently costly — namely, those that bridge boundaries of social difference — into relationships that bring mutual benefit.

Yet, for all the pages and PowerPoint slides, I do not feel that I have been able to come to a resting point in my account of the relationship between education and equality. With this book, and the responses from commentators, I am hoping to put this insistent intellectual problem to bed at last.

Why exactly is it so hard to think about education and equality in relation to each other? There is, of course, the fact that equality is simply a difficult concept to talk about. I often find that students think that to say two things are "equal" is to say that they are "the same." But, of course, "equal" and "same" are not synonyms. To be the same is to be identical. But to be equal is to have an equivalent degree of some specific quality or attribute in comparison to someone else. To talk about equality, one must always begin by asking, "Equal to whom and in what respect?"

Importantly, the effective use of a concept of equality in a sociopolitical context requires that one pinpoint whether the discussion pertains to human equality, political equality, social equality, or economic equality. Or perhaps, in place of the last, one will replace an ideal of economic equality with an ideal of economic justice, or fairness, or opportunity. Then there are relations among each of these types of equality. I think clarifying those relationships is among the most important tasks of political philosophy, particularly in our present moment. Yet when we invoke the concept of equality in our conversations about education, for the most part, we don't bother to define what we actually mean by it or to identify which aspect of human experience we wish to pick out for analysis.

Beyond the simple fact that we often leave the idea of equality unspecified in our conversations about educational policy, another issue, too, stirs up my vague unease with how we commonly invoke the concept in these discussions. The quotation from Piketty's Capital that I quoted just a moment ago is revealing. Let me repeat a bit of it again: "In other words, the poor catch up with the rich to the extent that they achieve the same level of technological know-how, skill, and education." Note that the problem that education is here used to solve is that of poverty or, at least, of unequal income and/or wealth distribution. This tracks our most common way of discussing equality in relation to education. Discussions of educational reform are very often proxies for conversations about poverty, and insofar as this is the case, it is often unclear how much the conversation actually concerns education itself.

Similarly, if one returns to my normative picture and policy prescriptions — the mesa with its peaks and the policies about funding, admission, and municipal planning — you will find that the picture I have painted is entirely about the egalitarian funding and allocation or distribution of some good called education, but not particularly about whatever the actual good called education fundamentally is. In other words, for all our talk about education and equality, we don't actually talk very much about how education in itself relates to equality, regardless of whether the equality we have in mind is human, political, social, or connected to economic fairness.

This brings me to the basic problem that motivates this book. I think that education itself — a practice of human development — has, intrinsic to the practice, important contributions to make to the defense of human equality, to the cultivation of political and social equality, and to the emergence of fair economic orders. But I think we have lost sight of just how education in itself — putting aside questions of funding and distribution — relates to those egalitarian concerns. When I say "putting aside questions of funding and distribution," I do not mean that those issues are irrelevant. To the contrary, they have powerful impacts on educational outcomes and on the degree to which we achieve social and political equality and economic egalitarianism. Yet, in focusing as consistently as we do on these topics, we have actually lost our ability to see other features of education that are relevant to the topic of equality. If we are to do right by the students we purport to educate, in whatever context and at whatever level, I think we need to recover that vision. Consequently, my goal for this book is to effect a recovery of our understanding of just how education and equality are intrinsically connected to each other. Achieving this recovery will not negate the force of socioeconomic factors on the degree to which education supports egalitarian social outcomes, but it should provide us additional resources for combatting the powerful influence of those factors.

Here is the plan for what follows. First, I begin with some conceptual cleanup work. Drawing on the mid-twentieth-century philosophers John Rawls and Hannah Arendt, I hope to secure some basic conceptual architecture for thinking about education. This will establish what I call a "humanistic baseline" for understanding what education is. This cleaned-up understanding of education should help clarify our conversations about our goals for both schooling and higher education. This will be the main work of this first chapter, and I will wrap it up by examining just how a humanistic baseline for understanding the meaning of education might help us reframe key policy questions.

In my second chapter, I will turn to the specific policy domain that appears most freshly lit by my account. This is the domain that many people refer to as "civic education." I argue that we should reorient ourselves to a concept of "participatory readiness," and I will lay out a proposed framework for thinking about the desirable content of a new approach to cultivating such participatory readiness. This participatory readiness is actually of critical relevance to other egalitarian concerns, including economic ones, and I will suggest that the cultivation of participatory readiness probably depends fundamentally on the humanistic aspects of the curriculum. In other words, the identification of the humanistic baseline for establishing a justification for education will turn out to have in fact provided a foundation for a defense of the humanities, as well as the beginnings of an explanation for how education in itself has egalitarian potential. This means, of course, that the fate of the humanities and the fate of so-called civic education are likely to rise and fall together.

In sum, the task of this book is to clarify our understanding of education, its intrinsic connection to equality, and the relevance of the study of the humanities to education's intrinsic egalitarian potentialities.

Two Concepts of Education: The Vocational versus the Liberal?

For all the talk about education in contemporary culture, do we actually have an adequate framework for defining what it is? As an object of anthropological and sociological analysis, education is a relative newcomer. Although the French sociologist Émile Durkheim and African American sociologist W. E. B. DuBois launched the sociology of education in the late nineteenth century, sustained interest did not emerge until after World War II, when the field of the anthropology of education came into its own. The late inclusion of education among the practices that an anthropologist or sociologist might study reflects the fact that many of the earliest templates for these disciplines — the work of nineteenth-century scholars like Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, Fustel de Coulanges, Henry Maine, and Max Weber — began from analyses of Western antiquity, where education was generally not an autonomous social practice but dependent on other social forms. For instance, in ancient Greece, religious ritual, legal practices, military training, and so on largely provided the context for training the young. Some ancients could conceive of education as an autonomous field of social practice — most notably the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle — but their anticipation of "systems of education" was largely unmatched in practice (although Sparta stands as an exception). In contrast, China's extensive network of formal educational institutions began its development in the third millennium BCE. Only once a social practice is autonomous — conducted through rituals or institutions built for the sake of that practice and no other — can it be said to have a logic and also a structure of action-guiding principles and rules that emerge from that logic.

In addition to focusing on autonomous social practices, anthropologists and sociologists have sought to understand their conversion into sociopolitical practices. By this conversion, I mean the moment when legitimate public officials acquire authority over a practice that has previously been managed mostly by private individuals, as, for instance, when a society gives up allowing individuals to effect retribution for wrongdoing through methods of self-help and instead designates public authorities to manage responses to wrongdoing. This is the moment when social practices of revenge instead become sociopolitical practices of punishment. In other words, at various points in history, phenomena like revenge, mating, raiding, and possession of land and other goods were co-opted by newly developing political realms and turned into punishment, marriage, war, property, and markets. In the history of Western sociopolitical development, we can say that "revenge" had become "punishment" by at least 800 BCE (although this transition occurred more than once, not only in antiquity, but again in the medieval period). Education did not undergo an equivalent conversion until well after antiquity had faded away.

The first versions of Western educational institutions were scribal training centers in ancient Egypt and the ancient Near East and philosophical, rhetorical, and medical schools, as well as early schools for children, in Greece and Rome. Then, over the course of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, educational institutions took shape through the development of centers of religious training in the different monotheistic traditions, including the emergence of universities in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford in the eleventh century. The emergence of these institutions was followed by others: to pick out just two examples, the establishment in England of schools for poor boys (for instance, the now extremely posh Winchester and Eton) as feeders to the new universities and, during the Renaissance, the training of artists in the schools of particular painters. But the processes by which political authorities established universal or compulsory education began in Europe only in the seventeenth century and in the United States were completed only in 1918, when the last of the states then in the union made education up through the age of sixteen compulsory. As a consequence of the relatively late arrival in Western history of education as a fully autonomous sociopolitical practice on par with punishment, economics, and war, scholars are still in the early stages of coming to understand its logic.

Despite the relative youthfulness of education as a state practice, it might seem, however, that our current public conversations about education do not in fact evidence any confusion or uncertainty about the nature of education. This is one of the few areas of public policy where politicians from either major party tend to say roughly the same thing. Both Democrats and Republicans clearly articulate what could reasonably be called a neoliberal educational agenda with a focus on educating the national population to succeed in global market competition. Here is Barack Obama from the 2012 Democratic National Convention:

I promise you, we can out-educate and out-compete any nation on Earth. Help me recruit 100,000 math and science teachers within ten years and improve early childhood education.

Help give two million workers the chance to learn skills at their community college that will lead directly to a job. Help us work with colleges and universities to cut in half the growth of tuition costs over the next ten years. We can meet that goal together.

You can choose that future for America.


Excerpted from Education and Equality by Danielle Allen. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Two Concepts of Education

Chapter 2: Participatory Readiness

Comment 1: Justification, Learning, and Human Flourishing
Tommie Shelby

Comment 2: A Reunion
Marcelo Suárez-Orozco

Comment 3: “Participatory Readiness” and the Courts
Michael Rebell

Comment 4: A World of Cousins
Quiara Alegría Hudes

Response to Commentators
Danielle Allen


What People are Saying About This

Peter Levine

“Amid the heated national debates about equality and efficiency in education, many people have been groping for a clear sense of what education should actually accomplish. Allen’s answer in her fluently written and erudite book is persuasive and will provoke a valuable new debate.”

Hunter R. Rawlings III

“Allen boldly confronts the core question about education in a democratic society: What is its essential purpose? Only after answering that question can we move to the next question: What kind of education should we deliver? Her answers are deep yet pragmatic. Only by enabling students to develop their capacities, particularly in language, can we ready them for the work of citizens, which is the principal goal of education. Ignore all the current cant about education and read this book. It will make you think about what counts.”

Leo Casey

Education and Equality mounts a powerful philosophical argument for putting ‘participatory readiness’ for civic and political life at the center of American education. Developing a rich, pragmatic account of the purposes of schooling, Allen shows the poverty of reductionist notions of education as preparation for work and global economic competition alone. To achieve the political equality that is indispensable for democratic governance, a humanist education for all is required. A must read for all concerned about the future of American education and American democracy.”

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