The following text is from a presentation I gave earlier this semester in Philosophical Foundations of Education at USF.
What do you understand by the terms ethical and “political”?
Ethical: I take ethics to mean an examination of human behavior in relation to “the Good.” It doesn’t require a pure or perfect explication of the Good, but rather an assumption of an extrinsic and universal standard, no matter how contested its details, how murky our understanding, or how complex its application.
The ethical does not begin with an apprehension of what the Good is, but of that the Good is.
It seems to me that any attempt to “be a better person,” “improve society and social and economic conditions,” even “progress in my moral awareness and development as a human being,” requires a standard by which to measure/judge/assess/ or even merely intuit what it means to “be better,” “improve,” or “progress.” All of these beg the question: according to what standard?
Without the assumption of such a standard, “better,” “improvement,” “progress,” become meaningless – as if, after hitting a line drive to left field, the batter could decide on a whim to run the bases in either direction (whichever suited him at the moment) or if the first baseman, upon seeing the batter running in his direction, were to pick up the base and run away with it. In either case, it’s not as if these behaviors are merely “off limits” or “breaking the rules,” or “a violation of agreed upon norms.” They are categorically different. In the cases above, the behavior kills the game itself. The condition for the possibility of the game is destroyed.
There is no winner or loser, no fun of the game, because there is no game at all. Similarly, it seems to me that without the a priori assumption of the Good, there is no ethics. There would be talk about what people should do, how I might become a better person, or how society might improve, but there would be no ethics. Just as one can talk of bases, and batters, and the outfield; of pitchers, and coaches, and bats, there is no baseball, no game, no interplay of components with coherence and meaning without the assumption of the rules, the constraints, the traditions, and practices of baseball. There is also no real interaction, no fun, no festivity, no play.
To sum up, the ethical is the conversation that occurs about what the Good IS built on a shared assumption that the Good is.
Political: I see the political as first having to be rescued from the partisan. Colloquially, even among the most educated and articulate, political has become a negative word – even accusatory. As an accusation, I think it’s rooted in a conflation of the “political” with the “partisan.” The partisan is a narrow category: ideological, particular, highly contested, often divisive. The political is, in my estimation, broad: categorical, general, broadly agreed-upon, and common.
I understand the political to entail all human activity having to do with the good of the polis (i.e. literally the city or nation-state, but more broadly a group of people living in community or, at least, in proximity – family, city, nation, hemisphere . . .). In this way,
politics as such has no particular content (unlike the ideological nature of the partisan), but rather a direction: toward the good of the group.
So the political is also always common and communal and resists tendencies toward individualism.
The political is also public. If the political has to do with the common good of a group, then activity toward that good (and the estimation/definition of the good being sought) must be common and therefore public. The political, then, is never a private affair (despite often being deeply personal). It requires public conversation, exchange of ideas, dialogue, and action.
In this conception of the political, participation becomes a necessity (even a virtue). The participation mustn’t be the same in type, duration, etc., but there is an implied imperative here. It might even be considered a condition of living in a group: the imperative to participate requires neither a plain statement nor imposition by anyone, but is rather felt as result of simply being with others in a group. One can, of course, ignore such a felt imperative, outright reject it, or (hopefully) accept it as an invitation.
Finally, it occurs to me that the political is also risky – at least at some level. The prevalence of political prisoners, political enemies, political suicides, political reputation, etc. in all human groups, reveals this. What is risked can vary greatly (one’s freedom, standing, reputation, life, etc.), but that the political is risky is hard, I think, to deny.
How is the ethical and “the political” active in the space of the classroom?
If ethics is human behavior as it relates to some good, every class has an explicit good or a set of explicit goods put educationally – to learn U.S. History, algebra, music theory, English composition, etc. Course goals and learning standards, then, have an implied ethic – an extrinsic standard (even extrinsic to the teacher who does not simply create course goals ex nihilo) that determines the praiseworthiness or shameworthiness of human behavior in that class. In most classrooms, wether we like it or not, this ethical standard is imposed by the teacher directly (and department, principal, board or district, indirectly.). Though some teachers will try to get “buy-in” from students, for the course goals, (i.e. present the goods of the course as desirable and worthy of their time and effort) their power is relatively limited outside of elective courses.
If politics is human behavior oriented toward a group (and its well being). Does this mean that all common/group/course work is also political work? I think so. There are family politics, school politics, department politics, classroom politics etc. as much as there is governmental politics.
When there is more than one human being together, there is politics – it might be egalitarian or totally lopsided, but it is there as a condition of community, of being-together. So . . . every classroom is, among many other things, also always political.
This political dimension of groups will manifest as both structure (i.e. who is in charge, what are the rules, how are decisions made, how is communication and dialogue fostered and facilitated, how are disputes adjudicated, etc.) and behavior (i.e. as participation and engagement, apathy, rule-breaking, disagreement, even intellectual charity).
What are the ethical and political dimensions of the explicit and hidden curriculum?
In my department we teach explicitly ethical and political courses: scripture, moral theology, social justice, science and religion, philosophy, etc.. I currently teach scripture and science and religion and both the ethical and political are everywhere in both. I’m actually teaching ethics right now in my science and religion course. The ethical and political dimensions and implications of the Gospels or the letters of Paul are obvious (despite how contested they are in partisan terms!). St. Paul declaring iesous kyrios (Jesus is LORD) in a Roman world that declared Kaiser kyrios (Caesar is LORD) was quite the public, risky, and oriented-toward-the-common-good, claim.
To declare Jesus as LORD is not to make some blandly spiritual claim, but to take an enormous political risk by challenging all claims to lordship (i.e. ultimate allegiance) but Christ’s. All the Caesars of the world are brought down in the claim that Jesus is LORD – along with their conceptions of power and privilege.
In these two Greek words, an ethic of force is supplanted by an ethic of love – not a vague and fickle and sentimental love but a love that wills the good of the other, a love that issues in justice. And a politics of fear and imposition is overcome by a politics of hope – not a Pollyanna naive hope, but a hope that fuels a creative imagining and acting on behalf of a future characterized by integral human development – a flourishing society that can always be approached even when never fully achieved.
In the hidden curriculum the ethical and political dimensions are equally evident, though often less desirable. High grades and test scores, physical beauty/physique, elite college acceptances, athletic prowess, etc. are all subtly encouraged in the hidden curriculum. But, the adult community is largely both aware of and frustrated by this situation and some attempts are being made in order to address them.
What are effective ways to address the ethical and “the political” in the classroom and educational settings?
Be explicit/open/honest, be invitational. Give autonomy-in-community as much as possible, create structures of accountability, facilitate dialogue by reducing but not eliminating risk –
a “safe place” doesn’t mean a place without risk, but rather a place where one feels safe in taking risks
– risks like contributing to discussion, respectfully disagreeing with teachers and/or peers, holding minority opinions, expressing the affective dimension of learning, etc.
What did you learn from the examples presented above?
This exercise has made me more aware of the extent to which what I do on a daily basis is both “ethical” and “political.” There is, in fact, no way out of them. But in many ways that is a gift – I don’t have to tip-toe around any of it, in fact I’m paid not to and there is a great freedom in that. . . a freedom I am very grateful for.