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Bruno: Don't Think Of The Children!

383235239_921f21a25f_mAs John Merrow recently observed, debates about education are often unfortunately polarized.

Participants tend to paint those they agree with as heroes and those they disagree with as villains, and that false dichotomy is distracting and obscures much important, nuanced reality.

Of course, education debates aren't always overly-polarized, and polarization occurs in many non-education-related discussions as well.

So is education worse in this regard than other subjects?

It's hard to say, but a recent post from economist Robin Hanson suggests one reason why education may be especially vulnerable to polarization: it involves children.

Hanson is thinking primarily of charitable giving being biased toward children's causes, but attributing greater moral weight to the concerns of kids likely matters in education, too.

For Hanson the issue is mostly one of "signaling": caring about children is considered attractive - especially to prospective mates - so we tend to try harder to publicly demonstrate that care.

That explanation might work for broadly-sympathetic cases of charitable giving, but it probably does not help to explain much about the most passionate education debates. For one thing, effectively signalling concern for kids depends on a consensus in the audience about what is best for kids, and that is precisely what is often lacking in education.

Moreover, spend a few minutes talking to the most strident ideologues in education, and you will find that they seem for the most part to be true believers. If they are signaling, they don't appear to be doing so consciously or deliberately.

Nevertheless, the greater moral weight we tend - rightly or wrongly - to ascribe to children does seem to distort our views of education. I suspect this is one reason why discussions about higher education tend to be somewhat less inflammatory than similar discussions at the K-12 level.

Caring - even disproportionately - about kids is natural enough. It may even be healthy on balance for society. But as Merrow and Hanson both suggest (in very different ways), "thinking of the children" can bias our individual decisions and our perceptions of the world in unproductive ways.

So we may be wise to "think of the children!" a little less often. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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Piffle. Think of the money. Which one is Whitney Tilson really going all polarized about here?

"In my view, taking this money from K12 is blood money. To any of my friends who are working with and/or taking money from K12, let me put it to you this way: if Randi Weingarten offered you a similar amount of money, lobbying support, etc. in exchange for selling out at-risk kids trapped in failing schools, would you take it? Of course not – you’d be outraged that she’d think you were so unprincipled to even dare to make such an offer. So why are you doing exactly this with K12, selling out over 100,000 kids, an increasing number of whom are at-risk, most of whom are getting a worse education than even the worst bricks-and-mortar school???"

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