Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Education Policy and the Limits of Technocracy

Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Education Policy and the Limits of Technocracy

Article excerpt

Introduction

Technical expertise has obvious value. We are all better off because of the specialized knowledge possessed by physicians, engineers, economists, and others. Expertise, however, is such a fundamental organizing principle that we often overlook its drawbacks and limitations--especially for democracy.

First, exceptional knowledge does not entitle anyone to special political rights. Even if we could find brilliant people to govern us, they would still not understand our situations and problems as well as we do. Nor could they be trusted to act fairly, since their interests would differ from those of the people they ruled. Therefore, all citizens have the right to participate as equals in politics.

According to National Election Studies conducted between 1952 and 1992, about 70 percent of the public consistently said that "politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can't really understand what's going on." That proportion did not change much despite dramatic improvements in education for the population as a whole. In some respects, the government is complicated, and has probably become more so. For example, global warming, a major issue of the present, is harder to understand than government pensions, which were a salient topic of the 1930s. However, people may underestimate their ability to follow politics because they see experts laying claim to specialized knowledge.

We would like people to have enough confidence in their own understanding of fundamental, contested issues that they feel empowered to participate. Some important public institutions perform better when many people play active roles--presumably because engaged citizens prevent corruption and mismanagement and contribute energy, passion, and ideas. For instance, political scientist Robert Putnam finds that the level of adult participation in communities correlates powerfully with high school graduation rates, SAT scores, and other indicators of educational success at the state level. "States where citizens meet, join, vote, and trust in unusual measure boast consistently higher educational performance than states where citizens are less engaged with civic and community life." Putnam finds that such engagement is "by far" a bigger correlate of educational outcomes than is spending on education, teachers' salaries, class size, or demographics.

Further, experts have no special insight into right and wrong, justice and injustice. On such questions, as philosopher John Rawls wrote, "there are no experts: a philosopher has no more authority than other citizens." But economists and other quantitative social scientists sometimes seem to have expertise about essentially moral questions. That happens because they know something about means: about what measurable variables correlate with, and probably cause, other variables. Frequently, our public discourse submerges questions about what we should value and concentrates exclusively on what policies would be most efficient at achieving ends that are taken for granted. An example is the assumption that policy ought to maximize economic growth, defined as the annual change in gross national product. But GNP may not measure what we should value most.

Finally, technical expertise has intellectual biases. These are avoidable in theory but widespread in practice. I have in mind the biases toward quantifiable variables, statistically normal cases, and general rules that can be applied to many instances. Technical experts lack appropriate tools for making insightful judgments about idiosyncratic, concrete, local situations. They are most likely to consider the rules or incentives that govern whole categories of organization--not the inner workings of particular institutions and communities.

Technocracy in Education

Recent waves of reform in American public education typify technocracy and illustrate how it conflicts with public engagement. …

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