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With Avra Reddy and Jaime Ahlberg

Avra Reddy  00:03

So would executing strong humane justice mean we would have to take away knowledge from students who didn’t have a genetic learning disability?

Avra Reddy  00:14

Hi, I’m Avra Reddy, a student studying philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On this episode of the Ethics & Education podcast, we’ll be delving into the complexities of a paper by Christopher Jencks. The paper is called, “Whom Must We Treat Equally for Educational Opportunity to be Equal?”

Avra Reddy  00:38

Reading the Jencks paper, at least for me, was quite the experience. It was easy to comprehend at first. It’s broken down into clean concepts, concepts that seemed easy to understand. But when you actually get into the nitty gritty of the piece, you start to realize, Hmm, this piece is more complex than I initially thought. It brought up a lot of questions for me, like, why do principles matter? How do principles impact our lives? More specifically, what’s the difference between strong and weak human justice? And what might those principles look like when we actually execute them? How might we choose the principle that would do the most good? I asked Jaime Ahlberg, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Florida, who specializes in ethics, to help me answer these questions.

Avra Reddy  01:30

So the first question I had was, in Jencks’s essay, we see five principles outlined that Ms. Higgins could theoretically use to operate her classroom. So, examples of those principles were weak humane, justice and strong humane justice. And something that really stuck with me when reading this piece, because Jencks doesn’t cover this in the piece is, why are these principles even important? Like, why is it important to have principles and outline principles? To understand, you know, how we operate in our everyday lives?

Jaime Ahlberg  02:08

That’s a really great question. Moral principles, I think, specify the relevant values we have and their scope, and sometimes how those values are to be weighed against each other. So I take principles to be carefully articulated, usually short propositions that summarize chains of moral reasoning, so they don’t stand alone, they’re actually supported by bodies of theoretical argument, the five principles that Jencks is entertaining, in this paper, specify in more detail what the content of equality might be, what it is, should be distributed for the sake of equality, how it should be distributed, when there’s not enough to go around. Right? So other ideals that are relevant to education might be things like inclusivity, or fairness, or excellence, or maybe stewardship, or community, things like that. But what’s the content of those very open ideals? Those very hollow ideals? How do we fill them in? How do they relate to each other? How do you pursue fairness and excellence? Right, for example. So devising principles, by way of exploring reasons and argument can help make some headway on those kinds of questions.

Avra Reddy  03:37

Like one thing I’ll say about the piece is I love this piece, because I think that it, I just loved the way it was broken down, I thought it was really easy to comprehend, because Jencks breaks it up into these, like, very clear principles. And so it was easy to say, okay, like this principle is, is doing that, and this principle is doing that. And it made it a lot easier to compare values. So I mean, I kind of touched on this, but I like, I think that one thing I struggled with when reading this paper, is how relevant these principles are to like my everyday life and to the everyday lives of my peers. And so I’m just kind of wondering, like, in what ways can these principles present themselves in in our lives?

Jaime Ahlberg  04:26

I really like your way of framing that question, how do principles present themselves? Because I think a lot of times they don’t, right? We tend to think that they should, or something, but we actually have to think really hard about what our principles might be what they might contain. So have you ever come across an educator who has articulated to themselves one of the five principles that Jencks offers, right? All students have an equal lifetime claim on educational resources, right. That’s the Weak human justice principle? Or even if they have, have they thought about what kind of body of argument goes into supporting that as their governing principle in the classroom? I mean, sure, it’s possible, but it’s not very likely, right? I think principles can be useful in our everyday lives in at least two ways. And the first is, they are helpful in serving a kind of diagnostic function. So figuring out where there’s a kind of mismatch between our values and what’s happening in the world, a principle can help alert us to that kind of mismatch. So the difference between weak and strong human justice for example, one says, Well prioritize the interests of students who are educationally disadvantaged. And the other says, Well prioritize the interests of students who are disadvantaged by any means, right? Which principle we hold on to will identify different students as the ones to focus on. So it does matter what principle we have in how we determine what it is that is morally askew, right? So the first function is this kind of diagnostic function. The second thing, I think, is that principles really do describe a realm of value. So they come with theories and argument. So why should Ms. Higgins only focus on kids who are educationally disadvantaged, for example, the principal, you know, it ideally would be supported by reasons explaining that to us, explaining why we should have one kind of ethical orientation to the classroom rather than another.

Avra Reddy  06:58

I think that is a really, really helpful metaphor. It’s not necessarily the idea that we’re trying to take straws, the idea of strong human justice and execute it 100%. It’s that we’re using that to navigate our thinking. And like if that, if that theoretically was the end goal, what steps would we take to get there?

Jaime Ahlberg  07:21

Right, right. So if you’re in a ship, and you’re using a lodestar, right to figure out where you’re going, it’s not like that gives you everything you need, in order to get to where you want to go. Right, you still need a sextant. So you have to figure out where you are with respect to that star in order to make progress. And then guess what, there’s also a current pushing you in a direction and there’s a storm coming and there are rocks on the shore. It’s just a mess, right? So you have to engage all of these faculties of judgment to navigate your circumstances, in addition to using that kind of guiding start to make progress. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but I think it gives you the general idea, right?

Avra Reddy  08:17

Another question that I had when reading this piece was, what is the difference between strong and weak human justice? They seem really similar when reading the piece, so I was confused.

Jaime Ahlberg  08:28

So let’s mention a similarity. First, I think they’re both claiming that scarce educational resources. And here that’s just Ms. Higgins’ time and consideration should go first to our disadvantaged students who are disadvantaged in some way, right. That’s how we should figure out who to give our time to to disadvantaged students. But then they diverged on who counts as disadvantaged. So we command justice, we’re going to look at students who are educationally disadvantaged, who had impoverished educations, and that can explain why they’re behind or something like that. And then strong human justice as well. No, just any kind of disadvantage should count. So whether it’s you didn’t go to a great school, or your parents aren’t reading you books at night, or you have a learning disability, or whatever it is, if you’re disadvantaged and behind we should be focusing on you. And then each principle is supporting supported by reasons and argument for why we should interpret disadvantage the way it thinks we should write, but maybe you can say more about what you thought about these principles.

Avra Reddy  09:39

One of the things the essay talks about is disadvantaged students and the attention that they should be provided in a classroom. Those disadvantages can come from financial status, or maybe a student has a genetic disadvantage. But what’s so interesting to me is in a classroom, you don’t really have a way of knowing some of these hidden disadvantages. So a teacher might not know that one student’s family has less money than another student’s. I asked Jaime about this.

Jaime Ahlberg  10:05

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. And I don’t think there’s a good answer. So I think from the perspective of a teacher in a classroom, this is a real problem, right? If you thought that difference mattered, if you thought it was important to distinguish between students who are disadvantaged because of social class, versus students who are disadvantaged because of other things. And, you know, maybe we shouldn’t care about the causes of disadvantage, maybe we should just look at what we think we can do to help with the disadvantage, we seek to try to achieve certain outcomes, reading outcomes, or math outcomes, or whatever social outcomes. That’s sort of more how I like to think about it. But if you really did care about this, I think that would be extremely difficult to say to a teacher, you must use this principle. And, you know, because of a knowledge problem, the teacher really can’t and implement it. But you know, even teachers in a classroom, you know, especially, you know, class is hard. And if you care about dollar income, that’s really hard. But a teacher can see, you know, a teacher will know if a, if a kid is eligible for free and reduced lunch, a teacher will probably have some sense, if a student is dealing with the disability, a teacher will probably have some sense if a student is dealing with, you know, being painfully shy, you know, Jencks doesn’t talk about that. But what about that kind of a disadvantage, or dealing with racism, or dealing with being an immigrant or having immigrant parents, these are all things that can affect educational attainment, and students and teachers, we’ll get some information about that, even though it won’t be perfect. But I think you’re really right to point out that it’s hard to see how to directly apply weak human justice, even though I think teachers can know some things, right?

Avra Reddy  12:07

What if you have a particular classroom in which all of the students come from a financially disadvantaged background, except for one student who happens to come from a wealthy family, and that one student is doing far worse than the other students? By the principle of weak human justice? It seems like the teacher would have to devote their time to the financially disadvantaged students who are doing better academically than the wealthy student. And that doesn’t seem very fair. I asked Jaime what she thought.

Jaime Ahlberg  12:36

That’s right. I think that’s the right interpretation. And it’s because we humane justice is identifying a particular kind of disadvantage as relevant from the perspective of justice and more relevant. And maybe the only relevant kind of disadvantage when it comes to distributing the scarce resources like Ms. Higgins’ time. So I think that’s the right interpretation. So if you don’t like that conclusion, then I think that maybe suggests you think we humane justice is not the correct principle.

Avra Reddy  13:12

The next thing I want to talk about is strong humane justice. And the main question I have is, if Ms. Higgins were to operate her classroom using the principle of strong human justice, what might that look like?

Jaime Ahlberg  13:25

Sure, I mean, I sort of wasn’t sure how to answer this at a general level, I think it depends on who her students are. We’d have to know a lot about her students, in order to figure out what it what it looks like to educate them with this kind of principle in mind.

Avra Reddy  13:44

Strong human justice, for me was kind of complicated to understand, because I struggled with the idea of what it would mean to fully execute strong human justice in a classroom. And what I mean by this is, if a student had a severe genetic learning disability, the only way for them to be able to catch up to their classmates would be to remove knowledge from their learning, abled classmates. So with executing strong human justice mean, we would have to take away knowledge from students who didn’t have a genetic learning disability.


Jaime Ahlberg  14:13

I guess I take the question Jencks to be trying to answer with the principles as being who has so Ms. Higgins only has so much time and energy, right? She can’t give all of her time and energy to each student. So who is she going to prioritize who she going to give her time and energy to? And then it’s like, well, we believe in this equality of opportunity value, she should do that. Well, what does that mean? Right? So try the principles specify what that should mean. And in, in strong human justice, I take it that the principle is saying, well figure out who’s most disadvantaged by any cause, whether it’s social caused or internally caused or, you know, whatever it be, who are your most disadvantaged students, and give your attention to them first. So it’s not like your take, you haven’t given it away yet to anyone. And then the question is, who do you give it to? Give it to your most disadvantaged students.

Avra Reddy  15:19

If you, you know, let’s say somebody has a genetic disability that only lets them retain 50% of the information that somebody else can retain, they will never get to the point of the other student, because they just can’t retain that information. And by by strong human justice with Ms. Higgins, not be able to devote any time to the student who didn’t have a genetic disadvantage, because the other student would never catch up.

Jaime Ahlberg  15:48

Yeah, so this is sometimes crudely called the bottomless pit problem, you can just keep giving your time or your money or whatever it is you’re talking about. And you’ll never get the result with respect to a certain group. So you can never move on right to the next group when it comes to distributing resources. And Jencks doesn’t really give an answer this, he just asks a question. If the worst reader never catches up, he writes, what principle can she use to justify not devoting her life to him? And he just leaves it at that, right? That’s the bottomless pit problem. But there is something kind of more general, I’d like to say about that. So I don’t think Jencks gives us an answer. And lots of people struggle with this, they start and they struggle with this problem in lots of domains, so they struggle with this in healthcare. Right? If you have someone who really needs a lot of healthcare resources, how much should you be giving that person before you say, look, if I just give a little bit to this other person, they’ll they will get some gains, right? Even though you really still need more, right? This problem shows up in lots of domains of life.

Avra Reddy  16:56

When we talk about equity, it seems like we always discuss how to get those who are disadvantaged more. So we always consider giving more to disadvantaged people. But we never really talked about, Well, why don’t we take away things from advantaged people like because that, in a sense, that’s, that’s still a form of equity, like you’re still giving everybody, or aiming to give everybody the same thing. But you’re not aiming to give everybody same thing by giving more, you’re aiming to give everybody the same thing by taking away from people who have more.

Jaime Ahlberg  17:27

Yeah, I think that. So that, so there are a couple of replies. I mean, one is, well, the things that we are looking to achieve, we don’t have to take in order to give. So I don’t have to take knowledge from you to give it to someone else, I can give you both knowledge with my 10 minutes of time, right? And teachers get really creative about how to do that kind of thing. How to meet multiple students’ needs, with one kind of intervention. Right? They’re responsible for lots of kids. So how can they make some progress with one intervention, even though their kids have different needs? Right, so that I think that it is possible to avoid tradeoffs, sometimes not all of the time? And then it does get really dicey. When do you say, look, this is just beyond what I can give, if I want to pay attention to anyone else. Right? And then maybe we have a discussion about having, you know, an IEP, right, or, or an aide come to give time, or we talk to parents about what they can do to help. Right. So I think there are multiple ways to deal with that kind of problem that don’t give an easy answer. But our approaches to recognizing that there needs to be a different kind of solution here.

Avra Reddy  18:51

But what you said was really helpful. If you take away things from the advantaged, then nobody’s better off because everybody has less.

Jaime Ahlberg  19:02

That the harder case may be is if you devote lots and lots and lots of energy to a very disadvantaged group and get very small gains. Right. Whereas if you had applied that same amount of energy, not even to the advantage group, but to the next less disadvantage, right, then you could get a lot more with that time and energy. So there are hard questions there about where to best devote your time and energy. And I think that there’s no general answer to this.

Avra Reddy  19:55

I want to talk about strong humane justice a little more. And I want to ask you, who might strong human justice harm and who might it help. So if we were looking at populations or groups of people, your stakeholders in strong human justice, what stakeholders might be better off and what stakeholders might be worse off?

Jaime Ahlberg  20:18

So I think, you know, if strong humane justice says, well, teachers should devote more time and consideration to students who have been disadvantaged in any way. Right, then we just need to start taking a hard look at who our students are. I was throwing out some examples earlier, we might envision full identities for Ms. Higgins’ students, right? High achieving students with immigrant parents who are vulnerable to racist bullying, right? Make it really complicated, right? Like people actually are, right? A student with learning disabilities, who comes from a wealthy white family, a student from a low-income family who’s not achieving educational benchmarks, a student from a middle-class family, who’s pretty shy, but is doing okay. Right, with respect to educational benchmarks. If we ask these kids or their parents, what they would need, in order to develop the educational outcomes that we want them to have with respect to knowledge and skills and dispositions, we’re going to get very nuanced different answers across those different kinds of students. So, exploring what they say, or would say, illuminates the ways in which these factors like class and race, and immigrant status, and disability and sex and personality, all kind of work together to paint a reality for the students and can be relevant to educational justice, but in very complicated ways. It’s not like, you say, Okay, here’s how I want to think about socio socio economic disadvantage, and then you just apply it to your socio economically disadvantaged students, it that actually doesn’t work very well, because students aren’t just little, you know, containers of socio economic status, they also have other parts of their identity, too, that help to color the way that their socio economic status plays out in their lives. So, I don’t think there’s an easy answer to how do we interpret strong humane justice, we’d have to know a lot about how particular students are connected to our goals for them educationally, or what’s preventing them from reaching their goals or what their particular hurdles are, and then how to work with all the students in the class as they actually are together? Like, we know that kid over there will respond well, but this one won’t, how can we put them into conversation with each other so that they both do well? Right, this is a kind of difficult task that teachers have to think through. And it really depends on who in particular is in their class.

Avra Reddy  23:11

And I think that goes back to what you said earlier about comparing these principles to a ship. Like you, if you apply strong human justice to one classroom, it might look different than applying it to another classroom, because students in one classroom are a different, you know, they’re like, the storm that the ship has to go through and the rocks on the shore. And it’s all different, like not every ship travels the exact same path.

Jaime Ahlberg  23:39

Right! And then, I mean, that actually puts a really high demand on teachers, asking them to have good judgment in terms of understanding their students, and also how to get their students to somehow work together in a classroom to achieve educational goals for everyone as much as possible. That kind of judgment is really difficult and does take practice.

Avra Reddy  24:03

So far, Jaime’s talked about what principles are and how to use them. But how do you pick the right principle? Does it mean picking the principle that helps the most people, or helping one person who needs it the most?

Jaime Ahlberg  24:17

Hmm…it sounds like you have in mind a kind of meta principle, like, do the thing that helps the most and harms the least, or something like that. Is that kind of what you’re thinking?

Avra Reddy  24:29

So that’s, a great point. Like, if you are trying to help the most and harm the least, and you have a student of, of a classroom that has, let’s say, 10 students whose parents are really wealthy, and one student who is living right above the poverty line, and you want to help the most. Would that entail leaving the one student who’s right living right above the poverty line behind in the dust So that you can help the majority of the rest of the classroom. So I guess what I’m getting at is like all of these theories will inevitably, you know, help and harm different groups of people. And I’m wondering, how do you decide which principle to apply to help the right group of people is it could be the most people, but I guess that’s what I’m asking you to do. Like, how do you decide that?

Jaime Ahlberg  25:23

Yeah, I think you have to give arguments. So I could say, well, let’s try to just help the most number of people. And then you could come back and say, well, that’s not a good approach, because this person could benefit a lot and their life would go above some baseline of flourishing, the other people are already good enough, right? So we would have to present arguments to each other and see which one of those arguments is most compelling. I think we would have to deliberate together about the principles, right. I think this question about harm and help is really another way of asking which principles of distributive justice here that Jencks has provided is correct. Right, so we need to say something more about how we should proceed to feel good about our approach ethically. And that just takes developing reasons and argument and testing them against other people deliberating, asking our stakeholders. What are your interests here? Tell me what’s at stake for you. Tell me what you need for your flourishing. Right, inform me about your situation. And you know, maybe some kids don’t, you know, maybe they’re, they don’t need as much, right? So maybe, yeah, as their teacher, you sort of owe them something, but maybe they’re getting a lot from home. And you have other kids who just aren’t right. So all of that will be relevant and come into play. And then you have to think through the different kinds of argumentative cases you can make for one approach over another, talking to more people to get more arguments and voices on the table is always a good idea. But it’s gonna come down to what we think is best given the reasons.

Avra Reddy  27:30

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Ethics & Education podcast. We’re also making curriculum for this paper that corresponds to this podcast for you to use in your classrooms. You can find those for free on the Center’s website, which is linked in our show notes.