Education and a Civil Society: Teaching Evidence-Based Decision Making

Chapter 4: Teaching Evidence-Based Citizenship

Back to table of contents
Eamonn Callan, Tina Grotzer, Jerome Kagan, Richard E. Nisbett, David N. Perkins, and Lee S. Shulman
Teaching Evidence-Based Decision Making in K-16 Education

Eamonn Callan

For the last few years I have been coteaching an interdisciplinary humanities course for freshmen. For about three weeks in the middle of the course I take the podium to ponder the significance of two U.S. Supreme Court cases, Brown v. Board of Education and San Antonio v. Rodriguez. My lectures during those weeks exhibit disciplinary impurity at its most shameful or adventurous. (Which adjective you favor depends on how much or how little you value disciplinary purity). Legal case analysis, American social and political history, social psychology, constitutional theory, and political philosophy all jostle together as my lectures proceed. I do not tell my students which of my utterances are to be located in social history, as opposed to philosophy, and so on. They have enough trouble following me without the distraction of a running commentary on my many disciplinary transgressions. With the possible exception of philosophy, I can claim to be no more than a diligent amateur in the many areas on which my teaching touches.

But why teach any course with such dilettantism? A more sober alternative in a cotaught course that includes several disciplines would be to assign different instructors tasks that were carefully aligned with their expertise. As a philosopher who writes about politics and education, I might have suitably circumspect things to say about rival theories of justice, what these entail with regard to racial discrimination in state educational provision, and so on, all the while scrupulously avoiding saying things that might intrude on the academic turf of colleagues who are knowledgeable precisely where I am ignorant. And when my colleagues take their turns at the podium, they would evince a reciprocal respect for my territorial boundaries.

The first thing we might notice about my imagined sober alternative is that the pedagogy in that scenario really ceases to be interdisciplinary. A pageant of experts speaking on some common themes that occupy them in their respective disciplines are not engaged in interdisciplinary teaching. At best, they provide their students with an assemblage of thematically related disciplinary fragments. One might hope that some students will have the imagination and tenacity to create for themselves an integrated understanding from the fragments on display. But to suppose that what they create is to be credited to their teachers is rather like saying that the farmer taught the chef to cook just by supplying the raw ingredients.

Now this hardly gets me off the hook. I have only made a distinction between teaching that is genuinely (albeit perhaps recklessly) interdisciplinary and teaching as the sequential presentation of disciplinary fragments that might (or might not) help some students to construct interdisciplinary understanding. I have given no reason to try to do the former. What might be the most obvious reason to do so also turns out to be not very helpful. A platitude about the growth of knowledge is that the most fertile areas of investigation are often found at the boundaries of adjoining disciplines. Yet the platitude seems more applicable to the conduct of research training than the teaching of introductory college courses. If the most promising areas for academic innovation are in fact to be found at the edges of established disciplines, then good research training will draw novices in that direction. But it does not follow that introductory college courses must start nudging anyone along that route long before serious research training has started, which will never happen for the great majority of students in such courses.

I want to canvas an alternative rationale for a kind of interdisciplinary teaching that has a proper place in the first year of college, and in high school for that matter, though I will also be candid about my lingering misgivings about such teaching. The rationale can be brought into focus through a question I urge students to think about in the unit on Brown and Rodriguez: To what extent has America succeeded in realizing the moral promise of freedom and equality for all its citizens, regardless of their race? For rhetorical convenience, I shall call this the Brown question. I tell my students that they will not learn nearly enough in our course to be entitled to an intellectually assured answer to the Brown question. But I also stress that this is the question that really matters. In the larger scheme of things, it matters far more than their grade or even the passions for law, history, or political philosophy that might be sparked in their efforts to come to grips with the question.

The question I stress acquires its looming significance within the perspective of American citizenship, and when I urge that question upon my students I am mindful of the fact that the great majority of them already are American citizens or will be in the fullness of time. To identify with that perspective is not merely to congratulate oneself for enjoying a set of legal rights and privileges that most human beings are denied; it is to see oneself as the inheritor of a remarkable experiment in republican self-government that takes securing the freedom and equality of all citizens as the moral imperative of government. And to see oneself in that light is also to accept some responsibility for making the experiment work, which means interpreting wisely and acting resolutely in support of the moral imperative that defines the experiment. That is not an ideologically partisan point within American politics; it is common ground, for example, between those who would argue that Brown and the Civil Rights movement that followed fully realized the colorblind legal dispensation that free and equal citizenship demands and others who would claim that progress in defeating American racism has been either modest or illusory and that new and more aggressive forms of political intervention are needed to erase the lingering effects of racial caste in America. If the first of these views were true (or closer to the truth than the stipulated alternative), then a necessary task for the good citizen would be to conserve what was accomplished in the Civil Rights movement against erosion undertaken in the seductive guise of group rights, the pursuit of de facto desegregation, or the like; if the second were (roughly) true, then to regard a colorblind legal dispensation as the consummation of racial equality would attest to grievous moral complacency at best and complicity in oppression at worst. Asking students to confront the Brown question is not like asking them to think about the causes or consequences of the Peloponnesian War; it is asking them whose side they are on in a struggle that their lives already encompass and whose importance cannot decently be evaded. In deciding on party affiliation, whom to vote for, and which side to take in a host of political debates with compatriots, choosing well depends in no small part on good-faith effort to grasp the right answer, whatever answer that might be.

If students ask the Brown question seriously, they must also construct at least a provisional answer on the basis of available evidence. This makes the specifically cognitive tasks they face in grappling with the academic material I present rather different than these tasks would be if the students had to think about them merely as novice philosophers, historians, legal scholars, or the like. In particular, answering the Brown question qua citizen requires an integration of fact and value that pushes beyond the boundaries of any merely disciplinary understanding.

Consider Thurgood Marshall’s claim that “unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will learn to live together.”1 What Marshall calls “living together” can only be charitably understood as something like “living together as equals.” After all, whites and blacks in America lived together under Jim Crow without learning together, but that is hardly the kind of civic coexistence that Marshall envisaged. The broad political and legal context of Marshall’s remark suggests that he likely had at least a couple of things in mind under the rubric of living together as equals: Americans would enjoy equal economic opportunity irrespective of race; they would also reciprocate respect for each other throughout all social institutions, whatever their race might be. Marshall’s thesis, then, is that without the kind of racial commingling that de facto desegregation would secure the promise of free and equal citizenship will remain out of reach for many Americans.

Marshall’s thesis is crucial to how one answers the Brown question, and a huge body of social scientific research bears on the thesis. But the thesis is such that evidence adduced for or against it cannot be exclusively empirical. That is so for the obvious reason that the concepts of equal opportunity and reciprocal respect are open to rival interpretations, and the interpretation any one of us might favor is properly a matter of moral judgment. Such judgments cannot be warranted by any appeal to value-neutral data. For example, if cultural differences rather than the quality of state educational provision explained much of the difference in average educational achievement between whites and others, would that signify inequality of educational opportunity between the relevant racial groups, or should we interpret cultural differences as irrelevant to the measurement of opportunity? If some citizens regard practices intrinsic to the culture of others with disdain, does this mean they fail to respect others as equal citizens whenever the impugned practices correlate with some socially marginalized racial identity? Answers to these particular questions are presupposed by Marshall’s thesis because they are required by any tolerably precise understanding of what it would mean for Americans to live together as equals. But both answers and questions are freighted with an irreducible moral meaning, no matter how sophisticated and compelling our social science could become in addressing matters relevant to the Brown question.

You might insist that our predicament here can still be escaped through a tidy division of labor between disciplines. Suppose we say that political philosophers rightly concern themselves with the rival interpretations to which concepts such as equal opportunity and mutual respect among citizens are open. They argue among themselves about which interpretation is best. Some are partisans in that debate, while others remain agnostic, either claiming that no one’s argument for any one interpretation of the concept has yet been decisive or that permanent, reasonable disagreement among competing interpretations is just what we should expect. Social scientists, for their part, need not dabble in intramural philosophical debate about whose interpretation is morally best. They might take any one interpretation of equal opportunity—call it interpretation A—and then investigate empirically how well or badly Marshall’s thesis withstands scrutiny, given that interpretation. They do not on this account have to assume that A is a morally better interpretation than any of the alternatives. They can merely confine their attention to showing that if A is the preferred option, then de facto desegregation is (or is not) necessary to achieving equal opportunity across America’s color lines.

The division of labor across disciplines I have just sketched may placate scruples about moral neutrality in the social sciences, but it cannot by itself furnish the answer to the Brown question that citizens need. Citizens, unlike scholars, cannot just sit on the fence about what equal opportunity means on its most compelling interpretation. They must choose now, mustering whatever knowledge and imagination they can find in order to choose well. Their distinctive contribution to the experiment of republican self-rule must be enacted in political decisions within the tumult of contemporary politics; it cannot be deferred to some remote future when philosophers have settled, if they ever do, on the best understanding of justice for free and equal citizens and social scientists have thoroughly explored the empirical ramifications of that understanding. That is why a civic education for such people will push against academic boundaries and the limits of our established knowledge, trying to integrate the often fragmentary and provisional outcomes of disciplinary inquiry and struggling to clarify political decisions that must be made with much more courage and hope and less cognitive confidence than fastidious scholars could content themselves with.

But now we come back to the problem of dilettantism. I have argued that a certain kind of interdisciplinary learning is integral to education for democratic citizenship, using the Brown question to throw into relief the distinctive character of such learning. The lectures I give my freshman class are an attempt to foster such learning. Still, my efforts require me to engage with much material beyond my expertise. What worries me when I reflect on what I do was never better expressed than by Nietzsche in The Gay Science. After a characteristically dazzling passage that describes the human cost of intellectual specialization, he turns his attention to the alternative for scholars:

But you would have it otherwise—cheaper and fairer and above all more comfortable—isn’t that right, my dear contemporaries? Well then, but in that case, you also immediately get something else: instead of the craftsman and master, the “man of letters,” the dexterous, “polydexterous” man of letters who, to be sure, lacks the hunched back—not counting the posture he assumes before you, being the salesman of the spirit and the “carrier” of culture—the man of letters who really is nothing but “represents” almost everything, playing and substituting for the expert, and taking it upon himself in all modesty to get himself paid, honored, and celebrated in place of the expert. (Nietzsche 1974, 323)

If you want to put some flesh on Nietzsche’s abstractions at this point, imagine the contemporary “public intellectual” whom you detest the most: glib, intellectually reckless, sophistical, and so on. Of course, we are likely to admire some public intellectuals while detesting others, though I fear that in many cases the difference has more to do with who flatters or offends our prejudices rather than who really escapes or succumbs to the fate of Nietzsche’s “salesman of the spirit.” My worry then is that the kind of teaching I have defended is perilously susceptible to this particular corruption.

And if I should fret about my own integrity as a teacher, I should worry all the more about the learning I promote when I foist the Brown question on my students. In the course I teach, they will become familiar with only a tiny fraction of the social scientific evidence that bears on the question and will achieve the most rudimentary grasp of the relevant complex arguments in political philosophy and constitutional theory. How could educational outcomes as scant as these entitle anyone to even a provisional answer to the Brown question? And if not, what could possibly be the educational point of my insisting on their need to confront the question?

A thorough answer to these questions would require a lengthy (and perhaps tedious) disquisition on the relation between cognitive and moral virtue in democratic citizenship. But a passable short answer might begin from some prosaic facts about contemporary American citizenship without ascending to the heights of philosophical arguments about citizenship. A recent study by political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Thiess-Morse yields the following rather depressing description of how most Americans perceive their own politics:

[T]he kind of government people want is one in which ordinary people do not have to get involved. We show that people want to distance themselves from government not because of a system defect but because many people are simply averse to political conflict and many others believe political conflict is unnecessary and an indication that something is wrong with governmental procedures. People believe that Americans all have the same basic goals, and they are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose a lack of consensus. People believe that these activities would be unnecessary if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than the cacophonous special interests. Add to this the perceived lack of importance of most policies and people tend to view political procedures as a complete waste of time. (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002, 7)

To invent an account of political attitudes less in keeping with conceptions of democratic citizenship, such as mine, that demand strenuous cognitive and moral effort from citizens would be difficult. Moreover the authors’ evidence suggests that the attitudes they describe are little affected by education, at least as it is currently practiced (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002, 146–147).

The very attempt to encourage an evidence-based approach to the Brown question might seem merely quixotic given both the empirical reality of American citizenship that Hibbing and Thiess-Morse describe and the negligible progress my students can be expected to make in answering the question as a consequence of my teaching. But an important distinction to bear in mind is between the cultivation of civic virtue and the mitigation of civic vice. I do not expect that students who may have just come to appreciate that controversy about equality and race in America is entangled with intellectually deep questions about facts and values are now on the threshold of a consistently reflective and informed citizenship. That being so, only delusions of grandeur could induce me to think of myself as cultivating Socratic civic virtue. But I can still see educational value in the more elementary endeavor of countervailing some of the very civic vices that Hibbing and Theiss-Morse expose—for example, the smug moral complacency of those who think that the common good is transparently clear to all of us, so that only disruptive “special interests” would challenge the status quo. I am not at all sure if I enjoy much success even relative to that more modest goal. But the hope that I can achieve something in that regard is enough to keep me teaching in dangerous proximity to salesmen of the spirit.


1. Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717, 783 (1974). For a circumspect defense of the educational and civic benefits of integration, see Clotfelter (2004). A somewhat more skeptical view is evident in Thernstrom and Thernstrom (2004).


Clotfelter, C. T. 2004. After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hibbing, J. R. and E. Theiss-Morse. 2002. Stealth Democracy: America’s Beliefs about How Government Should Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche, F. 1974. The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufman. New York: Random House.

Thernstrom, A, and S. Thernstrom. 2004. No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. New York: Simon & Schuster.