The Spencer Foundation has been working on finding way to get philosophers and political theorists more engaged with issues in educational policy and practice. (Thanks to Richard Kahlenberg for calling attention to Spencer’s recent conference on this subject in an Innovations blog post. See http://chronicle.com/blogs/innovations/calling-philosophers-of-education/30542.) Many philosophers know a lot about, and especially know how to think well about, questions about values and morality – questions of a kind that abound in education.
A big challenge in tapping into what philosophers have to offer to work on contemporary educational issues is that they don’t for the most part know much in detail about actual problems of policy and practice in education. Even many philosophers of education are most at home working at high levels of abstraction, questions say of ultimate purposes in education or the basic justifications for requiring children to go to school. They, understandably, lack the time to develop the more detailed institutional knowledge needed to contribute to digging into problems like whether patterns of government subsidy across different types of colleges are fair.
A few philosophers, to their credit, have mastered a great deal of relevant institutional and social-science knowledge across a broad spectrum of educational topics. We want more philosophers to acquire that kind of mastery but we also need the help of philosophers who are not prepared to make such a full-bore commitment to educational topics. One way to make that happen is to encourage philosophers to become part of multi-disciplinary teams.
And that can be quite a challenge too. A quick review of the table of contents of almost any philosophy journal will show that the vast majority of articles are single-authored: philosophers aren’t known for teamwork, even among their own kind. This is sharply different from the natural sciences and even from large parts of the social sciences.
This reality has probably come about partly owing to the nature of the work and partly for more pragmatic reasons: You can construct an argument sitting alone in a room, but it takes a village to mount a major survey or field experiment. (A familiar joke among philosophers is that theirs is the only profession where research can be done even more cheaply than in mathematics, where all a professor needs is a pad of paper, a pencil, and an eraser. Philosophy is cheaper because philosophers don’t need the eraser.) But whatever the causes, philosophers have by and large acquired the habit of working alone.
That’s not an easy habit to break, although the field of medical ethics, which has made great strides, shows to advantage what is possible when philosophers contribute to multi-disciplinary inquiry. A cognitive obstacle to entering into this sort of problem-based teamwork, especially if you’re not used to it, is that you don’t get to set the terms of debate, but instead have to relate your thinking to a variety of disciplinary outlooks. Among social scientists, this may be a particularly large challenge for economists, who tend to think that their familiar apparatus of cost, benefit, efficiency, and optimization is the one and only sound organizing framework.
Philosophers wouldn’t make that mistake – indeed a philosopher on a team could help an economist broaden her vision beyond that perspective. Our hunch is that philosophers are more likely to have trouble struggling with the messiness of real-world issues. Philosophers spend much of their time living in a world of made-up thought experiments and “toy” examples. These can be terrifically useful tools of thought, but they often map awkwardly onto real world questions, especially because the available data are often ambiguous and incomplete. A philosopher friend once commented that the thing he liked about economists was that they shared the view that the observation “that’s an empirical question” was a way to end a conversation. That degree of detachment is not easy to maintain as a member of a problem-solving team.
A philosopher joining a teamwork setting is agreeing to enter into something like a consulting role. Often the careful reasoning and attention to tacit assumptions that are part of the philosopher’s craft can help people see better the structure and the tacit assumptions of their own arguments. A nice example comes from work by Harry Brighouse, a partner in our overall project and a philosopher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Typically, questions about fairness in aid and admission at selective universities focus on the fair distribution of benefits to students who are enrolled at the university or are at least plausible candidates for admission. This framework implicitly assumes that these fairness questions don’t need to take account of that broader group of young people whom the university’s policy systematically excludes from participation in the university community. To make this point, the philosopher need not have an answer to the question of how the university should justify its policies to those who are excluded, but instead simply frames it as a question to be discussed rather than disregarded. This sort of contribution can be an enormous help to the group’s thinking.
Pointing out the skipped steps and overlooked assumptions in other people’s arguments is in some ways a humble role for a philosopher to accept. But as we know, humility is a virtue. As Keynes once wrote of members of his own profession, “If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.”