"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Remember Missouri's Education Commissioner's Love for Cass Sunstein?

Who could forget Commissioner Chris Nicastro's admiration of Cass Sunstein as noted in Missouri's first Race to the Top application?  From ed.gov and the Missouri application (pg 9):

Core Student Learning and Outcomes Goals
The Race to the Top has provided an unprecedented opportunity for Missouri to bring its citizens together, to identify common goals and to develop a plan for a decade of educational reform designed to give Missouri’s children a competitive edge in tomorrow’s international competition. Our vision for reform embraces the notion advanced in the book, Nudge, where Thaler and Sunstein outline the need for "choice architects" to subtly steer choices toward positive results while leaving people, districts and schools "free to choose".  We know that if Missouri’s public schools are to be the best choice for our citizens, they must produce the best results. This Race to the Top competition has provided the "nudge" Missouri needed to pick up the pace.
Missouri Education Chris Nicastro based her proposal to Race to the Top on this theory; perhaps she is employing the current theory present throughout all the government entities; schools, the EPA, the Department of Education and the State Department. Here's an excerpt from the book's review:
Every day, we make decisions on topics ranging from personal investments to schools for our children to the meals we eat to the causes we champion. Unfortunately, we often choose poorly. The reason, the authors explain, is that, being human, we all are susceptible to various biases that can lead us to blunder. Our mistakes make us poorer and less healthy; we often make bad decisions involving education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, the family, and even the planet itself.

Thaler and Sunstein invite us to enter an alternative world, one that takes our humanness as a given. They show that by knowing how people think, we can design choice environments that make it easier for people to choose what is best for themselves, their families, and their society. Using colorful examples from the most important aspects of life, Thaler and Sunstein demonstrate how thoughtful “choice architecture” can be established to nudge us in beneficial directions without restricting freedom of choice. 
From Nicastro's own words in the application process: her vision of reform is based on  the theories in Nudge (rather than the Constitution).  Missouri didn't win RTTT money but we sure got stuck with its mandates (such as Common Core State (sic) Standards) when Nicastro signed on to the ESEA waiver.  
What is Sunstein up to these days?  From Althouse:

Cass Sunstein reviews "Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism."

That's a book by Sarah Conly, published by Cambridge University Press. 206 pages, $95. $95! Fortunately, we cannot be coerced to buy that. I will exercise my autonomy and refrain from buying it. I'll just read Sunstein, for free, here.
[A] significant strand in American culture appears to endorse the central argument of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty....
the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.
Sunstein refers to social science research that shows people actually aren't very good at making decisions for themselves. We have "present bias" (and don't pay enough attention to the future), we're bad at assessing probability, and we're "unrealistically optimistic."
Until now, we have lacked a serious philosophical discussion of whether and how recent behavioral findings undermine Mill’s harm principle and thus open the way toward paternalism. Sarah Conly’s illuminating book Against Autonomy provides such a discussion....

To Mill’s claim that individuals are uniquely well situated to know what is best for them, Conly objects that Mill failed to make a critical distinction between means and ends. True, people may know what their ends are, but sometimes they go wrong when they choose how to get them....

If the benefits justify the costs, she is willing to eliminate freedom of choice, not to prevent people from obtaining their own goals but to ensure that they do so....

A natural objection is that autonomy is an end in itself and not merely a means. On this view, people should be entitled to choose as they like, even if they end up choosing poorly. In a free society, people must be allowed to make their own mistakes, and to the extent possible learn from them, rather than facing correction and punishment from bureaucratic meddlers. Conly responds that when government makes (some) decisions for us, we gain not only in personal welfare but also in autonomy, if only because our time is freed up to deal with what most concerns us....
 As for Sunstein himself, he prefers a softer form of government manipulation, described in the article and in his book "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness."

Heh. Various readers comment on Althouse about Sunstein:

I heard Sunstein on a radio show many years ago (I think he appeared with Althouse). I was very unimpressed with him -- a defensive dumbass was my take. But then again, he was a lawprof at an elite school so he must be really really smart. 
Easy to understand Sunstein (a proxy for our government) = fascist
These ideas are as old as humanity. The entire concept of the feudal nobility is based around the idea of a class of people who just know better than the foolish underclasses.  

and finally

I'm reminded of the story about Sen Phil Graham (R) questioning a child-hood Govt pre-K advocate during hearings when this came up the first time around in the late 70s (iirc)

Graham was making the point that no govt bureaucrat could care for his children better than he, Phil Graham could, and that tax-payer dollars should not be used to fund a brogram designed by faceless bureaucrats and carried out by teachers not related to the children. "But Sen Graham," the HHS guy replied, "we're concerned for your children's welfare just as much as you are." "Oh really, " Phil replied. "O.K., then, if you say you care about them just as much as I do, tell me their names."

There are many other responses you might want to check out.

Should we be impressed or worried that our Commissioner of Education wants Missouri's educational vision to follow Cass Sunstein's?  I bet I know the answer to that question if I posed it to Althouse readers.

1 comment:

  1. "Should we be impressed or worried that our Commissioner of Education wants Missouri's educational vision to follow Cass Sunstein's?"

    Oh, we should be worried, very worried. But I'm more worried for other reasons. I'm worried that those who'd defend us against Sunstein's ilk, attempt to do so while buying into the very same reasoning that Sunstein uses to make his 'we know what's best for you' argument (a pivot he is extremely deft at making in his own arguments), that being the utilitarian credo that what makes for the most 'happy', wins.

    Look at the quote cited from Sen Graham. His argument is that he knows what's best for his kids, and so he should be free to do what's best for them. Not because they are his kids and that no one else has the right to even attempt to 'provide care' for them against his wishes, but only that he can do it better.

    To argue for 'better' is to concede the argument. There is no winning using their argument. Witness the last 100+ years.

    We are where we are because of what we don't remember of what we once understood and believed.


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