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The Paradox of Education in Unjust Contexts

Jennifer M. Morton


In his talk to teachers, delivered on October 16th, 1963, James Baldwin suggests a paradox at the
heart of education. Indulge me as I quote Baldwin’s elegant prose at length here:

“Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs
within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society. Thus, for example, the
boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of
the Third Reich, became barbarians. The paradox of education is precisely this - that as one begins
to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose
of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his
own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a
God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions,
is the way he achieves his own identity.”

We can gloss what Baldwin says here as follows: Society has an interested in educating students to be a part of
society as it exists. But education is also meant to develop in them the ability to consider whether their society
is as it ought to be. And this leads to a tension, particularly in severely unjust societies such as that of the
Third Reich, Baldwin’s New York, and our own. To be educated to conform in such a society is to be
educated to accept what a critical and reflective student should chafe at accepting.

Baldwin is focused here on the critical capacities education ought to impart. My work in the
philosophy of education has focused on a different set of capacities—the social, executive, and emotional
capacities that economists, psychologists, and social scientists often group together under the label of non-
cognitive dispositions. These are things like grit and perseverance, confidence, teamwork and other ‘soft
skills’ that are increasingly thought to be important for educational achievement and success in the labor
market. Psychologist Angela Duckworth has shown that grit is as important to educational achievement as
cognitive skills.1 Economist James Heckman, in a study comparing GED recipients and high school
graduates, demonstrated that employers favor high school graduates because they see them as having more of
those soft skills than those who earned GEDs.2 And sociologist Annette Lareau’s ethnographic research on
the different parenting practices of working-class and middle-class families gives us insight into how parents
cultivate different set of non-cognitive skills in their children.3

1 Duckworth and Seligman (2005); Duckworth, Peterson et al. (2007); Duckworth, Quinn et al. (2011); Duckworth and
Allred (2012)
2 Heckman and Rubenstein (2001); Heckman and Krueger (2002); Heckman, Stixrud et al. (2006)
3 Lareau (2003)
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This research has galvanized a new trend in education. Charter schools, such as KIPP, have used
Duckworth’s research to organize their curriculum around cultivating a certain set of character traits—Zest,
Grit, Self-control, Optimism, Gratitude, Social Intelligence, and Curiosity.4 And in California, there has been
a move to test for non-cognitive skills and use them as part of teacher and school accountability.5 Though
there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of these initiatives, this focus on character education and soft skills
involves a welcome expansion of the educational domain which has been so dramatically narrowed to
cognitive test scores on reading, math, and science tests. In fact, Signapore, whose students excel at such
tests, has recently been focused on thinking about how to cultivate non-cognitive skills as a way of adopting a
more holistic approach to education.6 And here, in Mexico, Construye-T is a program designed for
“aprendizaje de las habilidades socioemocionales.”7 The World Bank STEP survey which is designed as an
international measure of skills toward employment and productivity also includes socio-emotional skills as a
crucial component.8

My work starts from a fairly ordinary, yet important, thought: what social science shows us in most
cases is that a certain set of non-cognitive skills leads to certain outcomes in a particular context for a particular
group of students. It doesn’t show us how those skills would play out in different contexts or for different
students or for different students in different contexts. As Nancy Cartwright and Jeremey Hardie point out in
their book Evidence-based Policy: A Practical Guide to Doing it Better, even policymakers that use the gold
standard of social science evidence—randomized control trails—are liable to overlook factors which are
operating in the background but are playing a role in the causal connection between explanandum and
explanans.9 Why does this matter?

The first reason, as I have argued elsewhere, is that what leads students to do well in educational and
labor market contexts might be in tension with what is valued and rewarded in their home and communities.
The evidence we are looking at is more often than not focused on what helps students achieve particular
educational outcomes in particular institutionalized educational contexts, while ignoring the effects of this in
other contexts. For example, confidence as it is understood and rewarded in American educational contexts
can be in tension with deference for one’s elders which is a disposition that is valued in some student’s home
cultures. Furthermore, much of the research on non-cognitive skills that is cited by policymakers is based on
the US context, yet the World Bank and the OECD are hoping to apply these insights to the global context.

4 Tough (2012)
5 Zernike (2016)
9 Cartwright and Hardie (2012)
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The consequences of this are two-fold. The first is that succeeding in school might require that the student
adopt dispositions and behavior that are different and in tension with those valued at home.10 The second, as
Lisa Delpitt has argued, is that teachers and the curriculum too often fail to acknowledge what students
already know and the capacities they already possess because the student’s culture is invisible within the
school context.11

The second reason that paying attention to the context in which these dispositions are evaluated
matters is that the non-cognitive skills that lead to success in an unjust society might be in tension with those
that would be valued and rewarded in a different, more just society. Let’s return to Baldwin. In his talk to
teachers, he paints a picture of the black man who has shown his value to the white society he inhabits. He
does so by being a porter or a maid, silent but “smiling all the time, and tell[ing] white people what they
wanted to hear.” Deference, which is one of the central dispositions that Baldwin is concerned with here, is
valued and rewarded in a particular context--the racist confines of parts of New York City in the early 20th
century--and when demonstrated and practiced by particular people—black Americans. To put it in
contemporary terms, the non-cognitive dispositions that lead to a modicum of success for Black people
within that racist society are those which, as Baldwin sees it, are in tension with those critical capacities that
education ought to ideally impart. In a society that was more just, a Black boy would not be taught to be
deferent but rather to “to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions.”

The response to these concerns might seem obvious. Educate children to have those non-cognitive
(and cognitive) dispositions that they would have in a more equitable society in which race and culture did not
impact people’s life chances. How do we do that? We reflect on what students ideally ought to learn and
encourage them to have those character traits, skills, and knowledge that everyone ought to have irrespective
of race, gender, class, or socioeconomic context. But this proposal runs into several rather difficult challenges.

The first challenge is epistemic. It is not all that easy to know which non-cognitive dispositions
children would have in a better, more just world. This is in part because it is difficult to figure out what justice
requires, but also because the tools of philosophy are arguably epistemically compromised. Philosophers have
been too happy to assume that critical reflection will afford us, philosophers, with the answer. But given the
fact that most philosophers and academics have benefitted from exhibiting exactly those dispositions that
educational institutions and the academic labor market reward and that philosophy is still a largely white,
middle-class, and male discipline, it is not at all obvious that we have a specially privileged epistemic position
when it comes to figuring this out. This is a point made by critical pedagogy scholars who have shown us the
many ways in which the epistemology of the academy is compromised and the potential for this to translate

10 Morton (2011)
11 Delpit (1995)
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into a view of education that is inherently conservative. The critique is well-motivated but the solutions, I will
suggest, less so.

If we want to find out which dispositions are rewarded because they lead people to lead good and
flourishing lives in a variety of contexts, we need to understand how these dispositions play out in different
contexts by different people. But I take this to be largely, though not entirely, an empirical question. We
should look at the non-cognitive dispositions of children who go on to lead flourishing and successful lives in
the United States, but also in the Nordic countries, Asia, and Latin America. Hopefully, a picture will emerge
of which dispositions are valuable across a range of socioeconomic contexts, some more just than others, and
by a range of students, Brown, Asian, poor, and rich. I have suggested in other work that, for example, grit
and the capacity to persevere arguably help students succeed in just social contexts.12 But with more
comparative social science research, we could back this up using evidence showing us how a variety of gritty
students do in a variety of contexts, nationally and globally. Philosophers and critical pedagogy scholars are
both hamstrung when they refuse to engage with social science in addressing such questions.

But the main challenge with teaching students only those skills and dispositions that they would have
in a more just and equitable world is that we don’t live in such a world. And this poses two quite difficult
problems for the proposal we are considering. First, the dispositions that one needs to pursue justice might be
different than those that one should have if the world was already just. Baldwin worries that deference is not
just in tension with what he thinks ideally education ought to impact, but with what is needed to bring about a
better world. And second, encouraging children to display the non-cognitive dispositions that would enable
them to flourish in a just world (or those that would enable them to pursue a more just world) might come at
the expense of developing those dispositions that would give them a chance to find better economic
opportunities. And this point is particularly significant when we are talking about children who are already
born into disadvantage.

To see this, consider what it would mean to fail to teach a child to act deferent in Baldwin’s context.
In fact, Baldwin himself describes for us what happens to those who opt out. He writes that “[they] become a
kind of criminal…They live by their wits and live to see the day when the entire structure comes down.” In
fact, research suggests that those who score lower on Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are much more
likely to engage in criminal behavior.13 But what does this research really tells us about those who live in a
racist and unjust society like Baldwin’s? What Baldwin means by “criminal” is someone who refuses to play
along with an unjust and racist system. He numbers himself among those ‘criminals’. But let’s not glorify what
the choices are here. Most people are not James Baldwin. To learn to display the dispositions that are valued

12 Morton (2014)
13 Kautz, Heckman et al. (2014)
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in the world in which economic opportunities reside is to accept an unjust social world, but to refuse to do so
relegates one to make do with what can be found at the margins.

And though some of us might scoff at an education that aims to produce workers for an unjust
capitalist system, the truth is that most parents and teachers want children to grow up to lead flourishing lives
and poverty and lack of opportunity makes it much more difficult for children to lead such lives. In any case,
we should be very wary of deciding that children are better served by learning how to fight injustice instead of
developing those capacities that will enable them to escape poverty and marginalization. Of course, the
America that Baldwin grew up in is different to that of today, though not as dramatically as it should be. To
play along with the expectations and norms of those who held power then was not just to accept a deeply
unjust and racist social world, but to do so for a limited set of opportunities. It might be that in that context,
the calculation yields a different result. But in our current historical moment, the potential upside of doing
well in educational institutions and the job market can be quite high, and the alternatives available to those
who refuse depressingly similar to those in Baldwin’s day.

The paradox appears intractable. The conservative aim of education—to educate children to succeed
in the social world as it is—cannot be dispensed with because society has an interest in educating productive
citizens and children have a material interest in not being consigned to the margins of society. The
progressive aim of education—to educate children to have those capacities that would allow them to flourish
in a just society or to have those capacities that they need to fight for a more just society—cannot be
dispensed with because children have an interest in their flourishing and most of us want a society that is less
unjust than the one we live in.

In a utopia—a society that is as it should be—there is no paradox, or in any case not a very deep one.
A person educated in such a society who develops the capacity for critical reflection through education could
reflect on what she finds and not find it wanting. In a just society there is harmony between the critical
capacities students ought to develop through education and the strictures of that society.

In an unjust society, there is no such harmony. And the question is what do we do about this
paradox? Some prefer to dissolve it. For example, in her rich and provocative Tanner Lectures Danielle Allen
develops a two-level theory of education.14 Modeled on Rawls’ discussion of practices in “Two Concepts of
Rules,” Allen argues that we think of education as a practice that can be evaluated at two-levels: at the macro-
level of what the state needs education to do—produce economically productive citizens—and at the micro-
level of what a particular educational moment is meant to do for the student—help him or her flourish. Allen
suggests that those who attempt to employ the state-level justification at the micro-level end up

14 Allen (2016)
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instrumentalizing the student and, in so doing, running afoul of the humanistic baseline provided by the
internal aim of education as a practice aimed at human flourishing. There is so much to admire about Allen’s
solution, but I don’t think it ultimately works precisely because it dissolves the tension. Education in an
unjust society should be paradoxical.

Competing in the labor market is, particularly for students who come from oppressed communities,
an important component of being able to flourish. Allen admits as much: “In order to achieve a broad
eudaimonistic human flourishing, we also need the means to live.” But, following Aristotle, she thinks of this
goal as being subsumed under the central aim of flourishing which dictates the internal logic of education.
The problem is that in a severely unjust society, some aspects of flourishing can be in tension with securing
the means to live well and so the paradox reappears even under the guise of flourishing. Consider for example
the first-generation college student who is working full-time to help his family but must also devote most of
the time he is not working to studying in order to finish college quickly and get his degree. Being educated—
in the sense of developing the skills and knowledge that a university education imparts—might make it hard
for him to devote his time and attention to another important part of a flourishing life—relationships with
family and friends. The way to distill this tension on Allen’s view, if I understand her correctly, is to prioritize
flourishing. The internal aim of education acts as a constraint on the utilitarian macro-level aims. But what
does this mean in a context in which education as securing the means to live well and other aspects of a
flourishing life come into tension? Should the student pursue a potentially longer education program in order
to get a liberal arts education even though this means spending less time with his family? Flourishing, at first
glance, doesn’t seem to provide us with a path out of this conflict.
It’s not just that Allen’s solution doesn’t get rid of the paradox, I don’t think we should seek to do
so. In an unjust society, education should be paradoxical and this paradox should be central to the subject of
education. Let me take each of these points in turn. I think the two aims of education—what I called the
conservative aim and the progressive aim—are both necessary and equally important. The fact that they are in
tension isn’t a problem with the aims, its reflective of the injustice present in the context in which education
is being carried out. To prioritize one aim over the other is to create a false harmony for a tension that is
irresolvable when education is carried out in a severely unjust society like that of the United States. Education
in a society that makes it difficult for students to flourish and to be productive citizens and valued workers
should reflect this fact if it is to be honest.
In fact, this paradox is itself a rich source of education. In order for students to have the education
they need to respond to being pulled in these two directions, they need to understand what the tension is and
why it’s there. Understanding this requires that students bring the unjust word, warts and all, into the
classroom for close examination. Doing so involves engaging with history, literature, social science, and, yes,
philosophy. In a sense, I end up in a similar place to Allen’s view of the importance of a humanistic education
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but for different reasons. To see the difference let me spell out a controversial consequence of the view I
have laid out. If the world was just, I think a humanistic education would be less necessary than it is. Let me
illustrate this point with an example. I think it is of the utmost importance that students understand the ways
in which socioeconomic segregation has affected their own experience. Doing so enables students to see how
their opportunities in life are impacted by socioeconomic structures that they have an interesting in changing.
This requires that students engage with history and social science, at the very least. However, if we lived in a
world without severe inequality and socioeconomic segregation, it might be edifying for students who are
interested in history and the social sciences to learn about those disciplines, but it wouldn’t be imperative in
the way it is now. As I see it, the necessity of a humanistic education is a consequence of the paradox at the
heart of education in an unjust context.
But, why is a humanistic education unnecessary in a utopia? Don’t we still need literature, history,
and all the rest in order to learn about the human condition and to flourish as human beings? Furthermore,
aren’t children who grow up in a family that does not value these domains of human knowledge lacking
something crucial for flourishing when they are not required to engage in humanistic learning?15 My response
to this set of concerns is two-fold.
The first is that we should have pretty compelling reasons to require that citizens spend their time,
resources, and effort on education. There are other sources of value that human beings could pursue and so
there ought to be good arguments to impose those opportunity costs on citizens and their families. The more
we include within the formalized educational domain, the more time and resources we need to spend on
education, and so the reasons offered for such an expansion should be compelling. In an unjust society in
which one’s ability to pursue a flourishing life is so closely tied to one’s access to education and to parental
socioeconomic status, the argument in favor of requiring education is compelling. But in a society in which
one’s prospects for flourishing are not so closely tied to education or family’s socioeconomic background (as
I assume would be true in a utopia), the argument is less compelling.
The second is that though, of course, history, literature, philosophy and the rest of the humanistic
disciplines are valuable and many flourishing lives will be flourishing in part because they engage with these
sources of value, they are not the only sources of value and many will lead flourishing lives by engaging with
other valuable pursuits. Spending one’s time immersed in nature, pursuing the fine art of woodworking, or
deriving pleasure from growing food are all ways of leading valuable, rich lives. A traditional humanistic
education is not necessary to lead such lives and though those lives would be enhanced by such an education,
this does not warrant requiring such an education.
This is all too brief but I think it points to an important difference in the way in which I’m
conceiving of education. I think of formal institutionalized education as an inherently non-ideal institution

15Thank you to participants at the AERA Ethics group and, in particular, Meira Levinson for challenging me on this
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whose subject is generated by the ways in which our world departs from the ideal. But this feature of
education—it’s paradoxical nature—points to an even deeper feature of human experience. The two aims of
education—the conservative and the progressive—reflect a very deep division in the human mind. We are
creatures that can understand how the world is, but that can also reflect on how the world ought to be.
Education enables us to do both. In a just world, our capacity to reflect on how the world ought to be would
be a nice, but unnecessary feature of our minds. In an unjust world, it is a necessity.

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