Columbia JReubs

Friday, October 13, 2006

Education, class, and culture

On the NE corner of Broadway and 112th, there is a placard on the first building indicating that John Dewey used to live there. So, with a nod to our neighborhood's eminent former resident, I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about education at our Monday lunch.

Although legal education will undoubtedly come up, I'd like to focus on public primary/secondary education. Many of us will be considering putting our kids in public schools soon--thus, this is a topic of current importance. Even if children are not on your horizon, public education is relevant as you will undoubtedly be someday hiring people emerging from the system.

The issues I think most relevant:

1. How does the theory behind progressive education (that discovery, which is enabled by diversity, is the essence of modern learning) square with Mormonism's belief that we are a people apart? To put it bluntly: when we separate our children from their classmates, through either ad hoc (don't hang out with certain types of kids) or systematic (gated communities; charter schools; homeschooling) measures, do we inhibit their ability to learn?

2. A related question: what is the effect of doctrine, as an institution, in modern learning? In the short selection I attached to the email, Dewey argues that customary learning (of which doctrine is part) is anachronistic, limiting. In a sense, our belief in personal revelation acknowledges this argument. However, doctrine still plays a role. How does this work?

3. I've heard our dean say to crowds that "a Columbia JD is a ticket into this country's elite." True. First, how do you feel morally about your new position? Can you be sincere to your beliefs while also being a member of the ruling class (reference: god v. mammon)? Do you cope with this by either, A, choosing not to rule (i.e. your just going to make lots of money and leave decisionmaking to someone else) or, B, thinking that ruling is not dirty work (one is reminded of the observation that "nobody rules innocently")? Second, how should we educate our children in light of the implicit class issues? For example, should I send Madeline to private school in New York so that she may have, in the words of a colleague, "the best possible opportunities"? Or is this just embedding her in a corrupt establishment? Furthermore, does my family have a responsibility to the local public school system?

If you want the most famous recent take on education and hierarchy in legal education, see Duncan Kennedy's piece at

Other than that, the only other suggested reading for the discussion is attached to the email I sent announcing this posting. It's short, but good.

One more thing: I'm coming at this topic from the assumption that education is not socially neutral. We, with our Enlightenment tradition, like to think it is. I.e. we're just going to school to get learn objective principles/facts/theories. Perhaps this is true in the natural sciences. But it is certainly not true in law and business. Furthermore, there is always a socialization element regardless of the subject matter.



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