A common practice for introducing students to the ethical foundation of philosophy is to pose moral dilemmas, possibly the most typical example being the life-boat dilemma that forces a person to choose who lives, and thus who dies.
Science fiction (SF) and speculative fiction often build entire other worlds in which the given circumstances create a series of moral dilemmas that are the basis of the tensions and actions of the novels and films. Writers such as Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale, for example) and Kurt Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle, for example) often build these worlds in the tradition of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley as a way to say, as Neil Gaiman explains about the power of fiction: “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the possible other world is one of scarcity, and by the end, the moral dilemma revolves around the fate of a child. The novel’s given, readers must accept, creates the narrow range of choices the characters face; that is part of the power of SF/speculative fiction.
Pulling back, however, from created other worlds, we are faced continually with moral dilemmas—often ones also involving children.
One such dilemma is how any society governs it schools. Confronting that dilemma in the UK, Polly Toynbee exposes dynamics that sound all too familiar in the U.S.:
Most people, right or left, would be alarmed at a trajectory of ever-worsening inequality. But few know the facts, wildly underestimating widening wealth gaps, still thinking Britain quite meritocratic. This ends the myth of modern classlessness, exposing shrinking mobility. The ladder up is so high and steep few can climb it – while those at the top exert all their power to stop their children falling down.
Citizens and institutions in both the UK and the U.S. are confronted by some troubling moral dilemmas: the rise of inequity in the wider society and the inability of public schools to overcome (as well as perpetuating) that inequity.
While debates often focus on the exact relationship between a meritocracy and its schools (a sort of “which comes first,” “chicken and egg” debate), an ethical decision about children seems to be ignored: To the question “Aren’t all children equally deserving?” the consensus in the U.S. appears to be “No.”
Education reform built on changing standards and high-stakes tests, weeding out “bad” teachers, funding the expansion of charter schools and Teach for America corp members, and retaining third graders based on their test scores is a concession to a fabricated moral dilemma. In other words, some children are more deserving (the standard among reformers is “grit,” by the way) because the reformers have conceded to a fatalistic scarcity that serves the advantages of the privileged, but leaves the middle class, the working class, the working poor, and the impoverished to fight among themselves for the scraps left behind.
Arthur H. Camins has identified the ugliest concession of them all in education reform as the Hunger Games, collateral damage:
“Whatever it takes,” is a dangerous philosophy because it tends to justify “collateral damage” in the guise of doing good things for children. It excuses increased segregation wrought by school choice policies. It excuses flawed metrics in teacher evaluation. It excuses the disruptions caused by open and closing of schools. It excuses decreased instructional time for science, social studies and the arts. It avoids exploration of meaningful debate about ideas and evidence. It dismisses all of these consequences with the glib phrase, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” as if there were no alternative strategies available for improvement. It is, I think, a calculated avoidance strategy that develops when leaders feel under siege and run out of ways to deflect valid criticism. In the end it is a profoundly undemocratic stance.
And what given have the privileged leaders in the U.S. embraced to justify allowing all their children to remain deserving while “other people’s children” have to fight it out to show who among them are more deserving? Competition and concessions to scarcity.
However, competition and concessions to scarcity are choices, not inevitable conditions in the U.S.
Poverty is deeply rooted [in the US]. Before the twentieth century, the nation lacked both the economic surplus and policy tools to eradicate it; all that could be hoped for was to ameliorate the condition of the poor by keeping them from perishing from starvation, wretched housing, and disease. The situation began to change in the twentieth century with what one historian has called the “discovery of abundance” and with increasingly sophisticated methods for transferring income, delivering services, and providing essentials of a decent life. For about a decade, this combination of abundance and method backed by popular support and political will worked spectacularly well. Since then, poverty has been allowed to grow once again, not, it must be emphasized, as the inevitable consequence of government impotence or economic scarcity, but of political will. (p. xi)
When political leaders and self-appointed education reformers point to U.S. public schools reduced to life-boats and demand that we continue to choose which children are deserving and which children are not, instead of playing the moral dilemma game they are handing us, we must begin to point back at the ship wreck they have created and concedes only this: all children are equally deserving.