an earlier version of this essay was published in educational Horizons 85,3 (Spring 2007)

Trading-Off "Sacred" Values:
Why Public Schools Should Not Try to "Educate"

2007 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

edited 10/4/17

Few people want to return to the paternalistic, authoritarian policies, practices and procedures that characterized public schools (of the past). But on the other hand, most people want schools that provide a quality education, as well as schools that accept the pluralist society we now have and foster cooperation -- not conflict -- between persons who disagree on basic values.-- Henry J. Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea[1]


It is well understood outside of public education, e.g. in business, engineering, the military, that the single-minded pursuit of any one of low price, high quality or minimal time, undercuts the other two. Things just cannot, as a matter of course, be expected to be cheap and excellent and quickly achieved.

Although we often dislike doing it, we can, in our daily lives make quite complex and subtle trade-offs in the process of making a choice. In buying a car, for example, many people will arm themselves with, say, Consumers' Report, or go to a similar website for information that allows them to weigh price against style against durability against safety, since oftentimes these qualities may not line up one with the other.[2]

But public educators, teachers and administrators, who are as adept as anyone in their private lives at executing subtle trade-offs, often find it highly difficult to consider schooling or educational trade-offs, even in circumstances of severe scarcity. Special education overrides teaching to the middle.[3] With no discussion of trade-offs, educators line up against No Child Left Behind, and grouse privately that it dismisses concerns for social and familial impediment and undercuts of much of the traditional curriculum.

Educators, during their academic training, are seldom exposed to, much less trained in dealing with the trade-offs routine to their jobs. Instead they are importuned to "individualize" instruction as they simultaneously lockstep their students to formulaic curriculum. In many an Education course, playpen exercises in "visioning" or "goal-definition" fill up classroom time to meet credit hours until they can get out into the Real World of "you're being paid, so shut up and do as you're told" -- a locution reformulated for the educator's environment as, "You're an employee of the system, so save your commentary for the proper committee and act like a professional."

Philip Tetlock comments

... people can engage in trade-off reasoning. They do in all the time -- every time they stroll down the aisle of a supermarket or cast a vote ...We expect competent, self-supporting citizens of free market societies to know that they can't always get what they want and to make appropriate adjustments. From this standpoint, trade-off reasoning should be so pervasive and so well-rehearsed as to be virtually automatic for the vast majority of the non-institutionalized population.[4]

But public school educators, burdened with preparing children to be competent, self-supporting citizens of a democratic, free market society, are discouraged from practicing what they are commissioned to inculcate in their charges.

Politics, not Technical Skills

Is there method in the madness of teacher education? Does there exist a rational basis for the system of public education? Indeed there does.We can best understand public education as serving, rather than a technical purpose, a primarily political one. Public schools are only incidentally delivery systems for instructional content.

This is a disappointing revelation for those who enjoy practicing and teaching more or less esoteric skills, e.g. long division, algebra, foreign language, dance, instrumental music, English composition, and the like. Most public school administrators, like most parents, politicians or business people, really don't care how technically proficient you are, nor even how effective you are at teaching, as how well you can "manage" your class, or, as the locution commonly puts it, "how well you maintain discipline." What matters most is that public schools protect values cherished in the communities they serve. This is the political and overriding purpose of the public education.

However, in a pluralistic, democratic society, important values will be frequently thrust into conflict with one another. It is here that the question, "Whose important values?" arises. The desire to dodge this question, and its concomitant issues of elitism and differentials of power, generates what Tetlock characterizes as the "chronic mismanagement of trade-offs." [5] Avoidance behavior will involve the following -- I give slogans typically associated with such strategies --:

a. slow recognition, if any, that core values clash -- "We all want what's best for our kids!";

b. lexico-graphic shortcuts, i.e. methods of reckoning and comparison that gloss over or miss differences among options -- "Preparing students to be life-long learners";

c. use "dissonance-reduction" strategies to cope with values clashes they do recognize -- "A manifestation of a disability" --;

d. decision-evasion tactics such as buckpassing, procrastination or obfuscation -- restructuring the system, re-"visioning" outcomes, or reconceptualizing purposes.

Are schools unique in dealing with such problems in such ways? No. All large or pluralistic organizations do likewise.[6]

"Sacred Values" and Fungibility [7]

Educators at all levels -- particularly those of us in Academia -- pay little heed to a social role that is important to understanding the political nature of public education. We educators like to imagine we are helping our charges develop the "intuitive scientist" within each student -- attitudes and skills that enable the student to seek out and understand causes and effects in the world. Similarly, we may look to develop the "intuitive economist" in our charges, thereby enhancing their ability to recognize, weigh and understand values.

Tetlock brings to our attention a third role: the "intuitive moralist" who acts to protect and enhance "sacred values." Sacred values, in his terminology, are not necessarily religious. (For example, academics, by and large, treat the foundational precepts of their disciplines as sacrosanct.) Rather "sacred values" are ones which when perceived to be threatened provoke certain types of behavior in their adherents: for example, expressions of moral outrage, anger toward those who even suggest deviation from them, ostracization of offenders and "moral cleansing," that is, compensating through action for the offense, even, of thinking deviantly. (Don't argue with your parents, teacher, professor!)

We can see right away the potential for severe conflict and, indeed, controversies over sex education, evolution, and religious symbols represent such conflicts among different constituencies of the school community. There is a deep issue here: sacred values from different communities may be incommensurable. Just as it makes no sense to ask how many pints there are in a mile; or how many pounds there are in an acre, so is does it approach nonsense to ask, "How many First Holy Communions are equivalent to a briss?" or "How many dollars is salvation worth?"

Trade-offs require fungibility, that is, commensurability. But if such fungibility were to exist among, say, the sacred values of two religious communities, then we would find that their adherents would be willing to recognize, except, perhaps, for sentimental or aesthetic reasons, that their religions were pretty much identical. But the persistent variety of religions offers evidence of the incommensurability of doctrines or rituals.

But even "secular" values may be seen as non-fungible. Why else the complaint against replacing language, art and music instruction with test-practice, math and science? Long-lasting curricular debates can be seen to rest on the incommensurability of different subject disciplines.

It is quite clear that to avoid conflict in public schools, variations in sacred values are clothed in slogans and exempted from close analysis. Sacred cows all have to be assumed to have horns. Enthusiasm for education, once it passes the point of renewing funding for the relatively peaceful therefore desirable status quo, must be reined in. Slogans proliferating in both the professional literature and common media, such as school community, parental involvement, zero-tolerance, or high standards indicate a few of the many educational goals Americans are asked to supply funding for. Instead of being treated as targets for student achievement, they should be looked at as red flags that induce the voting herd to keep running in the same direction.

Should Schools Try to "Educate" ?

Education, as contrasted with mere "schooling," invariably involves the inculcation of sacred values, i.e. esteem for certain subject matter, e.g. literature, logic, self-assertion, and the kinds of thinking that go along with them. But many of these sacred values are non-fungible. A common school curriculum presupposes, falsely, that Americans are willing to settle on one, consistent set of sacred values. If this argument is correct, then pluralism and commonality of sacred values are inversely related. Recognition of this incompatibility is dodged by masking it with slogans, e.g. "a mixed salad, not a melting pot," and practically settled by politicizing the curriculum process in favor of the strong and vehement.

Are there alternatives to politicizing schools? Yes. We could make schools instructional delivery systems (IDS's). We could give up on "education" if that means trying to inculcate "sacred values." Such inculcation cannot be done openly and fairly, i.e. without ignoring, suppressing or obfuscating trade-offs of sacred values of adherents usually too politically weak to resist.

We could decide what minimal standards of socialization will be required to make IDS's function. We could remove any clause from state constitutions that makes a thorough and efficient "education" a right. Civil Rights, since they define what a political democracy is, are the only sacred values the State should be involved with. Leave all other sacred values to parents or their community surrogates to deal with.

We could discard voucher plans. Since any combination of sacred values could conceivably constitute a religion, keep the State away from religion; and religion, away from the State. We could let those who profess any "sacred" values, support them out of their own pocket. 


[1] Henry J. Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea. American Faith in Education 4th Edition New York: McGraw-Hill. (1995)  p. 195. My italics and parenthetical synopsis.

[2] To explore emotional trade-off difficulty, see Mary Frances Luce, John W. Payne and James R. Bettman, "The Emotional Nature of Decision Trade-offs" pp. 17 - 35 in Stephen J. Hoch and Howard C. Kunreiter Wharton on Decision Making (Hoboken, Wiley: 2001).

[3] Cf. Edward G. Rozycki "The Ethics of Educational Triage: 
Is Special Education Moral?" educational Horizons Winter 1999, also available at

[4] In Philip E. Tetlock (1999). "Coping with trade-offs: Psychological constraints and political implications." In S. Lupia, M. McCubbins, & S. Popkin (eds.) Political reasoning and choice. Berkeley: University of California Press. Available on line at

But reaching consensus on a trade-off has its own problematic aspects. See Edward G. Rozycki, "The Indeterminacy of Consensus:
masking ambiguity and vagueness in decision" available at

[5] Tetlock op.cit.

[6] See Luce, Payne and Bettman, op.cit with regards to downsizing in corporations.

[7] See Tetlock, P.E., Kristel, O., Elson, B., Green, M., and Lerner, J (2000). The psychology of the unthinkable: Taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 853-870.