November 2007 Archives

Was either Plato or Aristotle a crusader for social justice?

Plato and Aristotle (or any other ancient Greek) were not pursuing “social justice” in the activist sense. Could they respond, they would claim that justice is justice wherever it is to be found, and injustice is injustice in any context, and to look specifically at “social justice” in the sense of activism would be to miss the point. Aristotle, who wrote after Plato (and was familiar with Plato’s works), is far more systematic in his search for an understanding of justice. Whereas Plato uses dialogue and point-counterpoint argumentation to elucidate the subject, Aristotle approaches systematically, and often employs classification as a technique to aid understanding. Plato, speaking through Socrates, brings up a number of issues that stimulate our thinking on what is just and unjust, but the definition feels incomplete (something Plato indicates through the character of Thrasymachus who interjects that Socrates questions everything, but never gives his own definition)(Republic 336). So while Plato covers some interesting ground in establishing that good is good and bad is bad, it is Aristotle who reasons out how.

Plato and Aristotle were interested in transcendent truth, not the material improvement of one group or class of people relative to another. Socrates would immediately ask what is meant by “social justice” and how it differs from any other type of justice. (I can just imagine the dialogue Socrates would have with a modern leftist activist about truth and justice.) On the other hand, in as much as “social justice” is simply a sub-species of true or absolute justice, both Plato and Aristotle would be strong proponents. Their advocacy might look a bit different than modern activism, since they viewed the contemplative life as being preferable to the political life (Aristotle Ethics Book I Chapter 5). In fact Aristotle seems to anticipate the entire field of social justice in Book 5 of his Ethics. First he inadvertently raises the question whether the lawful is always just (Book 5 Chapter 2) and while he does not directly address the possibility, his definition allows for unjust laws. Then in his definition of one of the two particular forms of justice as proportionate distribution of a common share, and of all justice as being “the proportional” (Book 5 Chapters 2 and 3) he establishes a framework for “social justice” to be the proper, or proportionate distribution of common assets. From the social view, the weakness in Aristotle’s definition is that reasonable people might disagree on what the proper proportion might be in the distribution of common assets among various social groups. Thus his definition can be employed by reformers as well as reactionaries. Put another way, if Aristotle advocates giving each person in society their due (Book 5 Chapter 9) the real problem is agreeing on what is due each person, not on the principle Aristotle has articulated. From this follows the observation that Aristotle has set up a system of analysis for the concept of justice that can be applied by any individual infallibly. A problem arises when people possessing different values apply his system and come to different conclusions. The problem then is not that the system is faulty, but that the value inputs differ. The fact that Aristotle himself believed that there was only one correct set of values – his – does not make his system any less applicable by people holding modern beliefs and values, hence his ongoing relevancy.

Certainly the statement stays true for any attempt to impose morals from outside. However, morality when not imposed, could result in a construct collectively shared by a mass of people. In fact, you could argue that any common culture includes a moral construct shared by a large group of people. The real question then moves to the origin of such morality, and whether there is such a thing as natural (or inherent) morality, or if all culture is an artificial construct. Clearly Plato (through Socrates) believed that there was one single Good from which all virtue, and all morality derived (this concept also underlies the Cave allegory). That is, an absolute good outside of yourself was the sole benchmark of goodness. Thrasymachus started his assertions from a more relativist position, measuring the good from within himself when he claimed that justice is the advantage of the stronger (Republic 338) and that it is more advantageous to be unjust than just (Republic 343).┬áPlato/Socrates’┬árefutation is essentially shifting the definition of good from personal benefit to absolute standard, and showing how in an absolute sense Thrasymachus is in error. Now if we accept the existence of an absolute Good outside of the individual as the source of morality, then a mass of people may indeed spontaneously choose a common morality without coercion, and you have a collective moral construct.

Philosophical thoughts

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I've been taking some classes, including an ethics class. The reading has been fascinating, and I was required to write a few things. Some of that seems interesting enough to stand alone, so I'll be posting it here.
Why is minority representation in the Waldorf movement is so low?

Much research shows that hiring processes based primarily around interviews are inherently biased against minorities, as well as a very poor indication of actual subsequent job performance. In the interview process, people tend to screen for the type of person that like to hang out with, rather than for actual abilities. This is why research has shown the interview to be a poor indicator of actual job performance.

It's a well observed habit that people tend to want to hang out with others who are most like them. Further, whites are the most racially isolated group in the country; because they are in the majority, a white person who doesn't want to hang around minorities can construct a life so that they largely don't have to. This is not something that minorities have the luxury of being able to do; when it happens it is usually the result of ghettoization. So minority applicants in an interview process run the danger of coming up against the Waldorf equivalent of a good old boys network, where the judgment is not on competence but on "fit", or “does this person seemed to be like the rest of us”. How much this actually happens in real Waldorf schools is an open question, since most seem so desperate for minority faculty that they give the impression they would probably hire any minority applicant they felt to be moderately competent. On the other hand, I'm not sure that public handwringing about lack of minorities on the faculty translates into anything approximating affirmative action in hiring practices. That would be another area for research. An interesting study would identify people who have been minority applicants at multiple Waldorf schools and interview them about their experiences. How did they find the application process? Were they offered the position they applied for? If not, what reasons were offered? What do they think really happened? If that could be matched from the school's perspective, that would be helpful. How many minority applicants did the school have? How did they evaluate them? And if they decided that they had a "more qualified candidate" and therefore felt that they had to give the job to the non-minority applicant, has the school considered this in the larger context of their oft-stated desire to increase minority staffing?

So what can Waldorf schools do to increase minority representation on the faculty (and thereby probably increase minority enrollment)? The first issue is to examine the hiring process. Then examine the challenges facing minorities in the country at large.Out of a study of the phenomenon the possible solutions will arise. If the stated goal is to increase minority faculty, and there is no applicant pool, then it is probably necessary to create one. Some form of mentorship/scholarship program is likely the only way to create an applicant pool that meets the formal requirements of Waldorf teaching.

Why is minority representation in the Waldorf movement is so low?

So far I have focused mostly on the question of enrollment. The final factor is doubtless faculty. It would seem obvious that a Waldorf school with strong minority representation on the faculty will tend to attract more minority students, though in reality that would be a point for further research. A nearly all-white faculty as exists in most Waldorf schools today might act as a deterrent for minority families when they consider enrolling their children.

So how can Waldorf schools increase minority representation on the faculty? Here again a look at the larger culture is important, since there are plenty of organizations that say they want to increase the number of minorities that they employ. There is a large body of research on racial biases in hiring, and I would argue that a lot of that applies to Waldorf schools as well. First off there's a very small applicant pool to begin with. The formal requirements to be a Waldorf teacher include at least a bachelors degree (and often a Masters degree to teach high school) and Waldorf training. Since our society is so biased against minorities to begin with, statistically a much smaller percentage of the minority population completes college. So arguably requiring a college degree puts an extra barrier in front of minority applicants. Likewise the Waldorf training requirement can be construed as bias against minorities in the hiring process. Waldorf training is expensive and time-consuming, and there is not much scholarship money available. Since minorities in our society are statistically more likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged, they are therefore also less likely to have the money and the time to be able to undertake a formal Waldorf teacher training. But even if minorities are able to meet the hiring requirements, there is always the hiring process itself. I will look at that and then make suggestions for change tomorrow.

Why is minority representation in the Waldorf movement is so low?

In addition to the "Waldorf schools are no better, though no worse, than anywhere else in society" reasons that I outlined in my last post, there may be additional things particular to the nature of Waldorf schools that additionally work to discourage minorities from applying. This area, too, requres more inviestigation. One area to look would be curriculum.

Numerous people have commented on how the grade school curriculum appears to have a strongly western and European bias, especially in the history curriculum. Other people have denied that this is the case, but the perception seems to arise spontaneously with some frequency. In the schools with which I am familiar the Eurocentric bias is not nearly as pronounced as some people claim, but there is doubtless some validity to the concern. It is also important to note that the subject matter is not central to what makes Waldorf education; the pedagogy is adaptable to multiple different cultures, as the success of Waldorf schools in Africa, Asia, and South America attest. But it is and interesting question to what degree American Waldorf schools have adapted to the changing ethnic composition of the country. It seems to me that where changes have been introduced, they have tended to trail public opinion rather than lead it. Now I am certainly not calling for a complete overhaul of the entire grade school curriculum, but apropos the question of why there are so few minorities at most Waldorf schools, that may be an area to examine. Doubtless there are more.

Why is minority representation in the Waldorf movement is so low?

With demographics (as I discussed in my last post) being to my mind the largest factor, there are still plenty of other reasons why minorities may or may not be attracted to Waldorf schools. In preparing and teaching my "Minorities and the American Experience"course I read through quite a few books on the sociology of race relations in late 20th and early 21st century America. One thing that several sources identified was that whites are as a whole comfortable with their status as the majority and culturally normative group, and therefore often don't see the many ways in which they inadvertently offend members of other groups. Waldorf people like to think of themselves as the most progressive and open-minded bunch of people around, but they are just as susceptible to giving inadvertent offense as anyone.

Further, we live in a society pervaded by racism on many levels, and much of it unconscious. Inasmuch as people involved with Waldorf schools belong to the dominant white majority, they are generally susceptible to broader cultural influences from the society in which we all live. Put another way, things taht are common in our society are probably fairly common in Waldorf schools as well. It is quite common for people today to believe that they harbor no animus towards members of any minority group, but careful sociological testing for unconscious biases continually reaffirms that whites consistently get favored treatment, both from other whites and from minority groups as well. This is something we all live with in modern American society; Waldorf people just as much as anyone else. For this reason members of minority groups may feel themselves no more welcome in Waldorf schools than anywhere else.

How much of a problem is this in actual fact? I'm afraid I don't know, but it would be an interesting area to research. What are the experiences of minority parents and students in Waldorf schools and how do their perceptions of their status aligns with the perceptions of white parents, teachers, and administrators? In society at large a fairly wide "perception gap" exists between how minorities feel they're treated and how whites feel they treat minorities. Such a gap probably exists in Waldorf schools as well. If it didn't that would be remarkable. In any case, research on the issue is needed before we can know for sure one way or the other.

Someone asked me recently why minority representation in the American Waldorf movement is so low. That got me thinking, and I have a few ideas. The Waldorf school of Garden City is the most diverse Waldorf school in North America (if by diversity you mean lots of different minorities; The Baltimore Waldorf School and the Milwaukee Waldorf Charter have more nonwhites in total, though they are all from one group). The reasons for Garden City’s diversity are doubtless numerous. However, demographics play a large role. If you pull out a map and a compass, put the point on the school and draw a circle representing a one-hour commute around the school, in Garden City you have 3 to 4 million people. That probably represents at least 200,000 children. If you further reduce the pool to only those whose parents could afford to pay for the Waldorf School, you still likely have 20,000 possible students. Among those 20,000, perhaps as many as 30% are nonwhite. That means the school could draw from at least 6000 minority students, should they be able to convince those student’s parents to send them. With full enrollment of 380 students, that's a big pool to draw from. The biggest reason why The Waldorf School of Garden City doesn't have more minority applicants is probably the competition from numerous other private and Catholic schools who are also trying to increase minority enrollment.

Now compare this to the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School in upstate Columbia County, New York. Drawing from a one-hour-drive radius, the total number of potential students is barely enough to even sustain the school, and the applicant pool – reflecting the demographics and economics of the area – has virtually no minorities to begin with. So even if the school made every effort humanly possible to attract every last potential minority student in the entire region, it would still barely make a dent in the overall proportion.

Most of the Waldorf schools in the country follow one of those two patterns. Either they are located in a major metropolitan area (Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego) in which case there are lots of other private schools actively courting the minority applicant pool, or they are in rural or semi-rural areas that are demographically nearly all white to begin with, in which case they struggle with enrollment generally, and have virtually no minorities applicants in the community who are financially able to afford a Waldorf education.

That's my first thesis, my "back of the napkin" numbers. It would be interesting to see how this holds up under more detailed analysis. Refining the numbers a bit using more detailed demographic data might prove interesting.In the next few days I will look at some additional reasons why minorities are underrepresented in the Waldorf movement.

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