I heard a story in the news in the last year or so about California’s swelling prison population and the enormous strain a mammoth penal system places on a state budget that is perennially in crisis. One of the major causes of this problem is the number of arrests due to minor drug possession and trafficking charges. These arrests have increased, one report claimed, because the number of arrests in a year is one of the primary metrics used to evaluate the performance of police departments and officers. An unintended negative consequence of this metric has been to decrease the number of officers committed to detective work in more serious cases such as murder and rape, a path that results in fewer arrests because of the time required for such investigations. This trend, as well as other social trends like grade inflation, I believe, is a result of the pragmatism that has come to dominate the American mind.
Pragmatism is a philosophy of life that judges the truth or goodness of a belief or action based on how well it works, or in other words, “The end justifies the means.” If an action produces a desirable result, then the action is good; if it fails to produce the desired result, it is not good. This preoccupation with results necessitates methods to quantify them so that the effect of actions can be measured, tracked, and compared. These numerical results then become the primary criteria for the evaluation of individuals, organizations, and institutions.
In the case of law enforcement, pragmatism does not judge a police department by how well it promotes good and punishes evil, or according any principles of justice and the rule of law, but by quantifiable criteria like the number of arrests. In the case of education, pragmatism does not judge a school by the soundness of its teaching practices or the integrity of its grades, but by percentages (grades, graduation rates, etc.). The problem with pragmatism is that it is arrogant. It pridefully assumes that we can know all the causal links between human actions and consequences, and that we can manipulate outcomes to our liking. This thinking fosters a short-term mindset because it cannot accurately judge and demonstrate the long-term consequences of actions. And short-term thinking tends to be self-centered, focusing on immediate and temporary benefits to the actor.
Short-term, self-centered thinking characteristic of pragmatism underlies the demise of education in America and drives grade inflation in particular. Much criticism has been rightly leveled against the widespread practice, a corollary of grade inflation, of advancing children to the next grade level who have not demonstrated the requisite knowledge and abilities. In high school, the parallel focus is the graduation rate, which is a major success criteria under No Child Left Behind. The administration at the public school where I taught seemed much more concerned about the graduation rate than ensuring that the children were educated to flourish in 21st century society. By overlooking and concealing students’ intellectual, academic, and moral deficiencies by inflating grades, schools benefit in the short-term by having higher graduation rates, but at the expense of the long-term good of the student, their family and ultimately society. It is much more difficult in the short-term to deal with the problems revealed by grades that tell the truth about what students are learning than to pass these problems on for future educators or employers to deal with later.
What is needed in place of short-sighted pragmatism is a principled approach to education based on a time-tested philosophy of education informed by biblical revelation. My aim in upcoming posts will be to articulate such a philosophy and suggest some implications for educational policy and practice.