Originally published in educational Horizons Fall 1994, 8 - 10.

What is Worth Knowing?
A Philosophical Distraction from a Problem in Leadership
1999 Edward G. Rozycki

... mankind are by no means agreed about the things to be taught, whether we look to virtue or the best life. Neither is it clear whether education is more concerned with intellectual or moral virtue. The existing practice is perplexing; no one knows on what principle we should proceed -- should the useful in life, or should virtue or should the higher knowledge, be the aim of our training; all three opinions have been entertained.
-- Aristotle, Politics, Book VIII

edited 9/3/11

If such was the case over two millenia ago in a small Greek city-state among an even smaller leisured class of men (whom else is Aristotle referring to?) then is it any wonder that there is little or no consensus on the issue among citizens of this country today?

Having taught philosophy of education for many years at the university level, I grow uncomfortable when difficult questions are posed in public. Answering such questions takes patience, and a certain willingness to tolerate complexity. These virtues are generally absent in public forums in our culture today.

I understand the logic of looking to define goals, especially very profound ones. Lacking such, our undertakings tend to wander haphazardly from innovation to innovation, unable to resist the lure of the latest, most vehement, educational faddist. But to expect a non-trivial unitary answer in a pluralistic, democratic society such as ours is somewhat naive. What we need to look for is not consensus on a few goals, but consensus on a procedure for fairly implementing the inevitably different goals our pluralism will most likely generate.

Classroom teachers are not helped by the vague slogans that pass for goals at a national level. They need fairly specific, operationalized formulations that they can reinterpret as objectives specific to their individual teaching circumstances.

The National Curriculum: a simulation

One of our cultural myths in these United States is that management can be done in the abstract: a knowledge of nuts-and-bolts procedures is irrelevant to governance. Happily, in education, few can pass onto into administration without having spent some time in the trenches. For better or worse, however, the governance of public education in a democracy allows many to put in their two cents without requiring they be able to identify real coinage.

So it is that brainstorming for broadly acceptable labels -- called "democratic goal-setting," or something similarly heart-warming -- is a common charade of participation played almost yearly in many school districts.

I play a similar game with my university students. But the aims and results are quite different. First, I have each person write down individually five things they would expect every high school graduate to know. I instruct them to fill in some item, X, in the statement, " I can't imagine how anyone who doesn't know X deserves a high school diploma." They write five items, title them List A and hand in their list to me.

I then tell them to imagine they are delegates to a convention at which a National Curriculum will be formulated. I pair them up and ask them, as a pair, to come up with five items they can both agree on that they would expect every high school graduate to know. They are now involved in a negotation to come together on five items they can formulate in a mutually acceptable way. This is List B. They retain it.

Pairs are then paired into quadruplets to form a similar List C.

Quadruplets form octets to form List D. This process of amalgation, negotiation and common formulation of five items goes on until the whole class has come together to formulate The National Goals of Education.

Once this is complete, Part I of the simulation is complete. I hold a short debriefing session. As one might expect, the students have come to consensus by using broader and vaguer terms that cover over their differences in opinion.

I give each person back his or her original List A. "How many feel that their particular concerns have somehow been lost in the process?" I ask. The results are often mixed. If the class is all educators, each generally believes he or she can trace back through all the intermediate steps back to most, of not all, of the items on List A. This indicates how shared technical knowledge constrains generalization. But if I have school nurses, or change-of-career engineers or businessmen in the class, there tends to be quite a few who feel that the generalization from List A to the "National Goals" has overlooked some important concerns.

Part II of the simulation is even more traumatic. We focus on one of the five "National Goals." I tell the class they are to work individually on a plan of implementation for that goal, giving them an imagined grant of ten million dollars. They must write a budget proposal, telling how the money will be spent to reach specific objectives. The point here is to demonstrate the problem of translating general goals into specific implentations.

After the "budgets" are written, I have students stand up and read them. I ask, "How many have an item on List A which would be addressed by the grant for this National Goal?" Few if any ever answer yes to any implementation proposal. I point out that it is seldom the case that the people invited to participate in the setting of general goals are the same people who are given the task of implementing them. The normal procedure is socially discontinuous and interferes, therefore with "social memory," that is, memory of the concessions and generalizations that went into transforming individual or small group concerns into overarching goals. Consequently, the implementers, lacking such memories, are unlikely to interpret in such a way as to address the original concerns.

"Assuming them to be different people, who has the most power," I ask, "those who participate in the formulation of general goals, or those who take pre-formulated general goals and interpret them for implementation?"

"The interpreters" is the invariable reply. The usual insight offered by my students is this: really democratic participation, would involve participation in the interpretive process, or at least some input of the original concerns that led to the general goals. Does this happen very often in our democratic society? Why not, if not? (Discussion among simulation participants to follow.)

Dynamic Leadership: supporting pluralism

On the basis of the many times I have conducted the National Goals simulation I believe that any attempt to reach for unitary outcomes on general questions, e.g. What is worth knowing? is less a serious inquiry and more an attempt to maintain the status quo. The generalizations reached may be agreed to but they still face substantial difficulty in implementation. This difficulty feeds into a kind of organizational quid pro quo that may serve little more than a leadership caste short on ideas and long on preserving their tenure.

If we suppose from the start that there will be different, not necessarily compatible answers to the question, "What is worth knowing? then we might seriously attempt to devise equitable means to distribute scarce resources that serve, rather than the putative "leadership" of competing organizations, the followership, as well. Maybe even their kids will get something out of it.