by Benjamin Studebaker
An interesting ethical question was put to me recently–what interest are teachers ethically obliged to serve or defend? I was given several options:
- The teacher’s own interest.
- The interest of the students.
- The interest of the department or one’s fellow teachers.
- The interest of the school as a whole.
It’s an interesting opportunity to apply philosophy, so I’d like to explore it further.
The first thing to note is that some of these interests intersect or could be interpreted to be in line with or in opposition to one another. For instance, I can see two broad ways of interpreting the teacher’s self-interest:
- Whatever maximises the teacher’s immediate hedonism–higher salary, more time off, less work.
- What fulfills the teacher as a human being–helping students, feeling competent, feeling responsible, and so on.
In the former case, you have a teacher who is not particularly enthused with teaching or doesn’t particularly care about it. In the latter, have a teacher who, by pursuing the individual interest, simultaneously pursues a wider interest–the student’s, the department’s, or the school’s.
I think it stands to reason that an individual of the first type is not suited to teaching and should not be a teacher in the first place. An individual of the second type is well-suited to teaching and seems likely to be effective whether said individual deliberately tries to gain fulfillment or adopts an alternative ethic.
In the past, I’ve argued that individuals have no obligation to self-harm and that it is the responsibility of the state to guide them into being good people who can behave ethically while individually benefiting from doing so–people who gain pleasure from helping others. Following on that point, it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that teachers who are hired are suited to teaching. Ideally, no teacher should be hired who is not already inclined to be personally invested in the right things. A teacher who does not care about students, the department, or the school is a bad teacher, but the error rests ultimately with the government that hired that teacher for failing to see this.
In other words, I think teachers should pursue their self-interest, but I think they should be hired on the basis that their self-interest already conforms to the wider interest the state is pursuing. What we want are not teachers who are morally conflicted between what they want and what students/departments/schools need, but whose interests are in harmony, who take joy in carrying out the student/department/school interest. We need functional compatibility.
The more interesting question then, is not what interest the teacher should defend, but what interest the state should keep in mind when it is seeking teachers to hire. Should the state be interested in teachers who care about students, who care about departments, or who care about schools?
Again, on some level, it comes down to interpretations of terms. How do we define say, the school interest? It could be:
- The financial position of the school alone.
- The interests of the individual administrators operating the system.
- The school’s capacity to perform its function.
Only the third interest sounds defensible from the state’s point of view. So what is the school’s function? Surely the school’s function is to create well-adjusted, intellectually capable students who will make for good citizens and to alleviate or reverse negative influences brought on by bad home environments.
This sounds very similar to the student interest–students benefit from being well-adjusted, intellectually capable, et al. I propose then that any definition of the school interest that takes on board the notion that the school exists for a social purpose beyond the enrichment of those who run it must inevitably coincide with the student interest, because schools exist to serve the community by helping students.
What of the department interest? The department interest seems relevant only insofar as it coincides with the student interest. If, for instance, the department as a whole were seeking higher wages at the expense of the district’s ability to provide students with certain resources, the department interest would run against the student interest, the school interest, and the state interest more broadly. If however the department was advocating on behalf of its students for more resources, the department and student interests would coincide, and consequently the department interest would be in harmony with the student/school/state interests. In sum, department only matters when it aligns with student interests; when it does not align, it does not matter.
It could be argued that the student interest itself is a function of the state interest–really, it could be argued that all of these interests are functions of the state interest. The state desires morally benevolent productive citizens because it exists to look after our social welfare, our social interest. What we are really looking for are teachers who are interested in pursuing the same objectives as the state, who have the same goals and interests.
This makes good teachers very special people. A good teacher is a person who genuinely desires, and gets gratification from, improvements in the welfare and education of children. A good teacher is a person whose self-interest coincides with the social interest–a rare bird indeed. Consider that teachers often take comparably low salaries. While some may do this because they can find no other work, many do it because of a genuine personal stake in the welfare of society’s children, and consequently out of private harmony with our public goals. If all people had the mentality of good teachers, if all people were guided in principle by a desire to be helpful and to make our society a better place, we would have no need of so much of the coercion and regulation the state is forced to impose to make up for humanity’s collective failings of character. Alas, it is not so.
I love it, Ben!
Nicely done, Ben. I think your dedication to this site has really crystallized your always formidable ability to harness a practical working knowledge of philosophy to specific, workaday examples, be they political or otherwise. I think what your consistent web writing has done has attached a turbocharged rocket to the proverbial horse and cart above, allowing you to craft an argument in tens of minutes more readable than most (including myself) could create if they had invested tens of hours.Really, well done.
On a less abstract level, the query that started this is more based on a time shortage than a resource shortage. Although time is arguably the most scarce of resources since the amount of it can only be purchased or modified in the smallest of degrees.
Thank you, Mr. Mathew–not merely for your compliments, but for having provided today’s inspiration.
I agree that time is the most scare and the most precious of all resources, for once lost, it can never truly be recovered.
“What we are really looking for are teachers who are interested in pursuing the same objectives as the state, who have the same goals and interests.”
What exactly do you mean by this…because these days public education in America is largely being turned from a public good, which it is supposed to be into a product for private consumption with the relationship between for-profit educational corporations which saddle students with massive amounts of debt while filling them with empty promises of good careers afterwards, charter schools which take away resources from public schools and transfer them to charters which frequently only pluck the most economically advantaged students and are controlled by corporations, the standardized testing industry, and reactionary state and national politicians like Arne Duncan, Mayor Bloomberg and Chris Christie who use the money of hedge fund managers and wealthy philanthropists to implement to reduce teachers from professionals to dumbed down and de-skilled techinicians whose only purpose is to teach to the test and employ data driven pedagogy…all of which are combining to ruin America’s educational system…
right now the state does not have our best interests in mind in terms of education…pursuing conservative and reactionary policies that have failed miserably in the last 15 years and ceding control of our public educational systems to private interests who think education can be run like a business
so actually what we really want is teachers who do not conform to the American state and national educational objectives.
its also related to the fact that the state does not listen to the educational experts, scholarly people who are experts in critical pedagogy such as Henry Giroux and Peter Mclaren who advocate for a radical restructuring of the American educational system, the state also does not recognize that if public education is ever going to be fixed in this country that it is the teacher education programs that ultimately need restructuring, i would point to the excellent program at Montclair State University as a model. but the state prefers management experts such as Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan who dehumanize teachers through oppressive practices and prefer to ignore the sociopolitical forces which belie the inequity and inequality in our school system….perhaps sophiarchy would solve that problem in a way.
The state does not always do what is in the state’s interest. The extent to which a government is good or bad is the extent to which its behaviour matches or deviates from the state’s true interest.
makes sense but then who’s “we” who are looking for teachers with the same objectives as the state…on the contrary, that’s what most of us aren’t looking for…i think what you meant to say was “What we are really looking for are teachers who are interested in pursuing the objectives which will be in the true interests of the state.”
In my writing, “interest” always means “true interest”. If I am referring to what the government opines to be the interest, I use a word like “preference” or “desire” or “what X perceives X’s interests to be”. For me, “interest” is a infallible objective concept. Our interests are what they are. What we perceive them to be, in so far as that differs, is not “interest”, it is something else.
oh I see…but isn’t it just easier to say “true interest” so. that readers aren’t confused…devising a new philosophy doesn’t necessarily have to mean redefining words like “interested” or “interest” i means its such a commonly used word and people already readily understand what it means
I do not choose to lend credence to the notion that one can have an “interest” that does not match the “true interest”. There is a branch of theory that holds that “interests” are not objective but are subjectively defined by those that hold them such that mistakes about interests are impossible, and my use of the word is a stand against that kind of philosophy.
There is a branch of theory that holds that “interests” are not objective but are subjectively defined by those that hold them such that mistakes about interests are impossible, and my use of the word is a stand against that kind of philosophy.
wait i’m confused…aren’t you the one thinks mistakes about interests are impossible since they are objective and infallible.
what theory is this? i’m interested
I believe that interests are objective. A thing is good or bad for an agent independent of what the agent thinks. Agents can have opinions about their interests, but these opinions are not in and of themselves interests–they’re just opinions.
In contrast, some theorists think that interests are not objective and are instead entirely socially constructed–they’re subjective. For these theorists, whatever agents consider to be their interests are considered their interests–there is no distinction between opinion and fact, as “fact” is said to be a wholly constructed by opinion.
that sounds like the most irrational theory ever…what’s the name of it? perhaps they just have a different definition of interest, the not “true interest” one, rather than a legitimate philosophical difference cause I don’t see how anyone could come the conclusion that someone’s opinion about their interest is absolutely their “true interest”
For these theorists, there is no such thing as a “true interest” in the first place, and the word “interest” only refers to a constructed opinion. So whereas I would say we can have opinions about our interests that may or may not be true, these theorists would say that all an interest is in the first place is an amalgamation of opinions. There are several categories of theory that tend to espouse this view: subjectivism, constructivism, postmodernism, anti-positivism, post-structuralism, and so on. I am in opposition to these positions, at least insofar as their metaphysics go.
so you don’t you think people’s true interests can vary from person to person?..i mean i can see how you disagree with these theories on their metaphysics but in terms of the fact that humans construct their own knowledge and meanings based on their own experiences like when two people read a book and come out with different experiences of that book…and you can’t say whether one person is right or wrong… constructivism is the whole basis for hands-on learning, project-based learning,collaborative learning, learning by doing, experential learning…i can’t disagree with that cause it has been proven to work in educational settings better than teacher-centered and lecture-based learning which is so prevalent in America today..although I don’t know if you were really talking about constructivism as a learning theory.
Bob’s interests can be different from Bill’s (otherwise all of our interests would be identical), but Bob’s interests exist objectively in the world no matter what Bob’s opinion is. It’s a matter of whether interests exist independently of what the individual thinks or if interests are constituted by the individual’s thoughts themselves. That’s the extent to which I disagree with those theories. Beyond that, many of them have useful things to say about how people come under false illusions.
[…] The other day, I said that the best teachers are those whose self-interest happens to match what the state interest requires of them in the first place–a love of helping children to be better people. People who enjoy the function to which they have been assigned perform best in that function. Good statesmen are like good teachers in so far as their self-interest should match the state interest. They should genuinely desire to aid in the creation of the good state and the good society. Rob Portman and those like him have no interest in this project. They will defend themselves and their friends and allies, but not the people as a whole. […]