MORAL VS. EPISTEMIC PRIVILEGE

(Source: Hansen, Exploring the Moral Art of Teaching)

   The philosopher, Richard Rorty, draws a distinction between MORAL AND EPISTEMIC PRIVILEGE. Rorty writes that MORAL PRIVILEGE is the right of every person to speak about and talk about his or her own life and outlook. The privilege comes along with being a person. Moral privilege, according to Rorty does not mean EPISTEMIC PRIVILEGE—I should be respected as a person, but my claims are not automatically worthy of respect. Those claims must be talked about, examined, or tested, to be considered in a public way.

   The moral/epistemic privilege distinction defined by Rorty is continually confused by media outlets and political operatives. The talking heads of our major news media outlets, along with local and national political representatives, assume EPISTEMIC PRIVILEGE when they are really exercising their MORAL right to speak about their own outlook on life. Not only do these commentators assume EPISTEMIC privilege, but they generously share the privilege with men and women on the street, consultants, former business and government officials, or whoever else has ready access to a studio.

   Rarely will national or local media outlets critically examine the explanations of the “experts” tye invite on air. Instead, the public receives a steady diet of MORAL PRIVILEGE — how one individual is making sense out of a dramatic turn of events.

   This phenomenon is particularly disturbing for practitioners in a field that is being analyzed by a media spokesman or governmental representative. Practitioners in whatever field has risen to the top of the media food chain are subjected to descriptions and explanations for their reality that bears little resemblance to what they experience on a daily basis. What is even more disturbing to practitioners is the solutions offered by an “expert” for the real or imagined problems in their field. These off the cuff “solutions” reflect little or no understanding of the complexities of the jobs they perform each day.

   In the field of education, for example, media spokesman and politicians are pretty much in agreement that schools are miserable failures. The failings of our public schools is blamed on three primary causes: incompetent teachers; low academic standards; calcified school bureaucracies. What follows, then, from media pundits and political operatives are their moral solutions: eliminate tenure; raise academic standards; incentivize privatization. In practice these moral solutions have resulted in decades of policies attempting to quantify teacher performance (“valued-added teacher performance evaluations”), hold schools accountable for student performance (“no child left behind”); and allocating public monies for a variety of private school models (“charter schools”). Although there is a wealth of research critically examining the claims of school failure and their solutions, these sources of information have been largely ignored, and at times,even vilified as apologies for a broken system.

   If the problems of education in America were examined critically or in an EPISTEMIC WAY, other issues would have to be placed on the table. To name a few: lack of resources; the growing diversity of our student population; the disparities in social capital offered to children; the general disrepair of school facilities; the wage structure for teachers; the changing face of the America family; the role technology is assuming in and out of schools; the changing nature of occupations. There are many more “trends” in our country which are having a deep impact on our ability to educate young people. These complex social, political, cultural and economic problems surrounding the schoolhouse doors of our country are rarely, if ever examined, by media outlets. Instead the moral right of media representatives and politicians to speak out on the problems of schooling will claim privilege over epistemic responses to purposeful strategies for improving the educational experiences of young people in our nation.

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