In terms of moral intensity, the “hot” issue of the election on Tuesday was leveling. Having a well-governed Board that accepts its responsibility to define the vision and mission of the district and that holds administration accountable for student performance is a considerably more significant issue—but it does not engage people’s passions on either side the way the leveling issue does.
Madhu, Jeff, and I have consistently adhered to a moderate, non-ideological position on levels. We are all levelers and we are all delevelers. For younger children and more elementary work, levels are not appropriate. For older students and more complex work, they are.
People of good faith will not always agree on where to draw the lines as to where levels or no levels are appropriate—but if we agree on the basic point that both educational approaches are appropriate, depending on the context, we are in the right place together.
To get to the right place of mutual acceptance, I believe that we need to respect the morally-charged passions that people on both sides of the issue can feel. At the same time, we need to be very careful about the destructive potential of such passions.
For all of us who are interested in the simultaneous value and danger of moral emotions, I strongly recommend a new book by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, which was recently reviewed on the front page of the Sunday Times book review. Haidt examines how people self-righteously and selectively feel passion on behalf of their own cause, while at the same time feeling defensive anger at people on the other side. A major focus of the book is ideology and the intense righteous emotions that ideology engenders.
Haidt’s message has significant implications for the leveling debate in our community. It allows us to view the passionate moralists on both sides with a considerable measure of sympathy, while at the same time pointing us to a better way forward.
Let’s apply Haidt‘s psychological approach to ideology to our local debate. If a person on one side of the leveling issue says, in essence, that he or she has a passionate feeling that tracking is a system of white supremacy, and if a person on the other side later says, in essence, that he or she has a passionate feeling that achievement gaps are a result of counterproductive aspects of black culture, both are making statements that Haidt tells us are to be expected, given the argumentative, righteous makeup of the human moral animal.
Haidt counsels us that the judgmental, emotional nature of human morality is not to be condemned. But he also counsels us, rightly, that moralistic passion needs to be tamed and restrained.
I strongly disagree with the finger-pointing, judgmental, blaming quality of both the achievement gap as rooted in black culture position and the leveling as rooted in white supremacy position. I want to make that disagreement especially clear as it relates to the former position.
I am putting myself forward as a leader, and leaders have responsibilities. It is the planks in the eye of myself and my side that I am in the best position to do something about. I have tried to do that in my campaign, and I pledge to continue to work on that as a Board member with Madhu and Jeff and with my other Board colleagues.
I believe we need to respect individuals and their passions. Demonizing people who express passionate ideological sentiments is itself highly problematic.
A key point is whether people can acknowledge that their emotion is not truth. Speakers and writers who acknowledge that they are expressing a passion, and that they do not claim it to be truth, are one thing. Speakers and writers who are both highly judgmental and highly convinced that their moral passion is equal to truth are another, and a much more troubling, thing.
I personally highly value political passion. I think society can benefit greatly both from passionate “true believers” and from those with a passionate opposition to true believers. At the same time, I believe we need to be highly wary of the deep problems to which political passion is prone.