Tag Archives | education

The Ethical Question

Practical Wisdom
by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe
Riverhead Books, 2010, 324 pages.
Justice
Harvard University, presented by Michael Sandel
Lecture Series, 2005, 12 x 55 minutes.
Friday Night Lights
NBC
Television series, 2006–2011, 76 episodes.

The ethical question is a simple one. It can be asked any number of ways, but the best form may be the simplest—what should I do here?

It’s a question everyone can recognise, one we all answer many times every day. When we think about ethics as an idea, we tend often to be tempted by thought experiments that pose impossible moral choices (imagine you’re driving a trolley car hurtling out of control down a hill towards five workers on the track who will be killed if you hit them. Now imagine there’s a side track you can swerve onto to avoid them, but instead you will hit and kill a single worker. What should you do?). Indeed, a scholarly appraisal may well conclude there is no moral way out of some situations. And yet, as Mary Midgley reminds us, in real life, real people still make real choices, however impossible. Morality does not occur in a vacuum.

What can we learn from people’s real ethical choices? What do we think we know? Ideas about morality have extraordinary reach and purchase in our public lives. This is of course evident when we talk about censorship, free speech or Roe v Wade, but also in ways that are less obvious and more pervasive, more pernicious.

Are people basically good, wanting to do the right thing but not always sure what it is? Or are people basically vicious and only out for themselves, needing to be restrained from violence against each other by a powerful and compelling mediator?

More importantly, do either of these views reflect things as they really are? Should we say instead either that most people are good, but a few evil folk do terrible things, or the reverse? The white hat/black hat idea is a popular one intuitively held by many of us, but as Midgley again reminds us, most binaries are false. When we say either/or, we should not forget to consider and. If we are to learn anything from looking at evil, it must surely be that things are not so convenient as black hats and white hats. The greatest evils are done by ordinary people who think they are doing good.

That makes the ethical question a little more urgent. Each time we ask ‘what should I do here?’, we must have some basis for answering.

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The Price of Everything: Neoliberalism and its blind spots

Neoliberalism is among the most influential social, political and economic forces of our time. Danu describes the neoliberal project and examines its effects upon higher education in Australia by beginning with a simple question — does it produce good social outcomes?

The Price of Everything

Have the economic reforms pursued in Australia since the early 1980s produced positive social outcomes?

To give this question proper consideration, we shall need to do a number of things, beginning of course with an explanation of what economic reforms are in question. To do this, I will focus on one particular policy area — higher education policy. This is an area of policy to which the sort of economic reforms we will be discussing have been applied visibly and purposively; it is also a policy area in which we can comfortably discuss social outcomes. We will also need to tackle the more difficult issue of evaluating what constitutes a positive social outcome and how we might recognise one.

Let us turn first to the discussion of the economic reform itself. ‘Since the 1980s’ is code for a number of related and complementary notions and assumptions about economics, society and human behaviour that became widely influential and accepted around this time — the sort of constellation of ideas that we might best describe as a movement. The movement in question has been variously described as ‘neoliberalism’, ‘economic rationalism’, ‘free-market’, ‘Friedmanite’, ‘lassez-faire’, ‘small government’ and even ‘Reaganomics’. These labels all emphasise different aspects of the movement and are largely interchangeable, though my preferred term is neoliberalism, which I will use hereafter.

Attempting a precise definition of such a fuzzy category as neoliberalism is a futile exercise, so let me instead lay out some of the core principles that underwrite it. At heart, neoliberalism combines a libertarian political philosophy with an economic world-view. That is to say, it invokes an image of humanity as a collection of rational individuals each acting in their own self-interest — the role of public policy on this view is to ensure each individual has freedom to exercise his or her rational choices as efficiently as possible. Efficiency here means with as much information (price signals) and as little interference (government) as possible. Neoliberals believe that in this state of affairs, the sum of each individual’s rational, self-interested choices in a perfect market will secure the best possible outcome for all. Free markets, free people. (In that order.)

By valuing education wholly on economic terms, we begin to deprive ourselves as a society of the capacity to comprehend our own folly in doing so.

When former US President Ronald Reagan famously said, ‘government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem’, we can see what he was getting at. Similarly, when former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher more ominously said ‘there is no such thing as society’, we see she was appealing to a vision of homo economicusEconomic Man. Continue Reading →

The Education Revolution

Big changes are afoot in education — humanities departments continue to close around the world while online courses are all the rage. Gerhard takes us through these developments and explains the thinking behind another increasingly popular phenomenon — the free university.

The Education Revolution

The internet is awash with talk of online education revolutions. Let’s take a quick world tour of some of the most interesting revolutionary ideas out there. Not long ago the Khan Academy made headlines for its innovative marrying of youtube and tutoring into an ever-expanding resource of short clips that teach people anything from art history to venture capitalism, with a strong focus on mathematics related subjects.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has provided open courseware to select courses since 2002. These are materials, lecture notes and videos which can be downloaded and read/listened/watched to simulate attending a course. MIT has been joined by an illustrious list of mainly American universities that offer entire or parts of university courses online for free.

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Virtuoso Performance

It’s been said that a wise man knows when to make the exception to every rule. Danu considers what we miss out on when we take rules and rationality too seriously, and examines why for some people, bending the rules seems so effortless.

Virtuoso Performance

Here are three short video clips. Each shows someone practising a capability with incredible high-level skill. These practitioners all display breathtaking ability that we recognise is far beyond mere competence or proficiency — it is instant, effortless expertise.


Wayne Rooney | Football


Damien Walters | Parkour


Mnozil Brass | Brass Ensemble

What kind of knowledge is it that these practitioners possess? More interestingly, how does one acquire it?

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Grade Me: The Trouble With Teacher Accountability

When it comes to education and what to do about our schools, everyone has an opinion. Melinda, a high school teacher, turns up the heat on the politicians, the teacher’s union and her teaching colleagues to ask the burning question — how can we improve the practice of teaching?

As a profession, teaching is one of the great political footballs. We teachers are often regarded, if not with actual contempt, then certainly with extreme suspicion. We have it easy, what with all those holidays we take and with the wage we earn, not to mention the accolades and praise we are occasionally given. Worse, we are constantly claiming some sort of special status, as if the work we do is somehow exempt from the performance measurements, standards measurements and efficiency criteria that everyone else has to work with. We’re forever going on strike and when we are at work it’s the taxpayer who’s footing the bill. The cheek!

I am not here to again have that fight, so let me clear up a few things right away. No-one wants students or teachers to fail or do badly. No-one. Not the administrators, not the public, nor any government, and certainly not the teachers themselves, or the students. The continuing decline in educational performance is of real concern for all of us. We should take no option off the table when it comes to addressing the problem. If performance pay for teachers helps, we shouldn’t resist it. If greater accountability gives us better teachers, then make me more accountable. The politics of education is distracting and so far only seems to be scoring us own goals.

This may be tired old territory, but I’m tired of other people trampling through it, speaking on my behalf. I want to tell you what I know about teaching as a teacher, explain some of the biggest obstacles to good practice and what might help clear some of them.

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McUniversity: I’m Learnin’ It!

Today’s universities offer increasing numbers of people a semblance of being in a university without having to engage in the effort, complexity or expenditure of time that once came with a university experience. Rob charts some of the origins and outcomes of these developments and asks just how healthy it all is.

Today’s universities offer large and increasing numbers of people a semblance of being in a university without having to engage in the effort, complexity or expenditure of time that once came with a university experience.

In 1993, American sociologist George Ritzer wrote a best-selling book called The McDonaldization of Society. As Ritzer saw it:

… McDonaldization … is the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world.

Ritzer’s point was simple. McDonalds provides a basic model for providing goods and services in increasingly ‘rational’ ways. Let’s not worry about the word ‘rational’ right now—it is economic-speak for extracting as much profit or getting as much done for as little outlay of resources, time, labour (or whatever) as possible.

Central to Ritzer’s argument was that all sorts of businesses and organisations have emulated what Ray and Jim Kroc ‘invented’ when they established the McDonalds model in the late 1930s. Think of toy stores (Toys R Us), home hardware stores (Bunnings), taxation accountants (H.R. Block), bookstores (Borders), car repairs (Midas) newspapers (USA Today), child care (ABC Learning Centres) and so on. Each mimics the logic of the McDonalds chain. That is to say, McDonalds is the epitome of efficiency, calculability, predictability, increased managerial control, and the replacement of human skill and ingenuity by rational systems, many of them automated. To spell out precisely what that looks like in practice, let’s consider a number of ways in which McDonalds works.

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