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Philosophy and Public Life

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The Point And Perils Of Public Engagement

Michael Hand considers the pros and cons of courting media attention.

As a philosopher of education, I do philosophy with a view to changing educational policy and practice for the better. I ask questions about what and how children should be taught in schools. I do this partly because the questions are philosophically interesting, but primarily because I think there is room for improvement on the answers currently institutionalised in national education systems. Insofar as I can offer, and justify, better answers than the institutionalised ones, I take it to be part of my job to communicate these to the people who can help put them into practice. Who are these people? Most immediately, they are educational policy-makers and practitioners. There is obvious value in communicating directly with the people who make the policies and engage in the practices one is trying to reform. But in a democratic society there is also a need for philosophers of education to address their proposals to the public at large. For one thing, elected representatives are unlikely in practice to seize enthusiastically upon educational policies that lack the support of the electorate, however reasonable those policies may be. For another, the basic form and content of state education in a democracy ought, in principle, to be determined by the people. It would be both ineffective and improper just to whisper in the ears of educational officials and experts: it is the body politic who must be persuaded of the need for educational change.

This is the point of public engagement for philosophers of education. But there is no doubt that the territory is beset with perils. I will illustrate some of these with reference to an attempt I made a few years ago to bring to public attention an argument against teaching children to be patriotic.

The argument, formulated in response to calls from across the political spectrum for schools to promote patriotism, was straightforward. Schools should encourage children to believe what is known to be true, and to disbelieve what is known to be false. Where the truth value of a proposition is unknown, schools should encourage neither belief nor disbelief: they should teach the matter as an open question. The claim that patriotism is good, or desirable, or virtuous, is a claim whose truth value is unknown. Therefore it would be wrong for schools to promote acceptance of that claim.

I set about communicating this argument to the general public by courting media coverage of the research report in which I first presented it, alongside an empirical survey of teachers’ and pupils’ views on the subject. The press office at my university helped me draft a press release, which was circulated on 31 January 2008. The media response was instant and startling. In the days that followed I gave three television and five radio interviews, and substantial articles appeared in the British national papers The Guardian, The Times, the TES, The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Star, the Morning Star, The Mail on Sunday and the News of the World.

Members of the public unsympathetic to my argument were not reticent in sharing their reactions. “Would you like to hear some of the messages we’ve been getting?” I was asked on air by 5 Live’s Nicky Campbell: ‘‘PC nonsense!” “This man is nuts!” “Get this idiot off the radio – if he has a problem with Britain, then leave!’’ Over the following few weeks I received an avalanche of letters and emails, ranging from terse one-liners urging me to emigrate, to a twelve-page, hand-written epistle chronicling the glorious history of the British Isles. But, notwithstanding the mildly threatening tone of one or two letters, it was not these robust expressions of disagreement with my position that troubled me about the whole experience.

So what did trouble me? First, I was much exercised by the perception in some quarters that normative claims [claims about what should or shouldn’t be done] are not news. It was made abundantly clear to me by my university press officer that the press release would instead have to focus on statistics from the empirical survey. It is news that 94% of teachers and 77% of pupils want schools to give a balanced presentation of opposing views about patriotism: it is not news that this is what schools ought to do. The draft press release went back and forth between us for several weeks, me producing ever more concise and pared-down outlines of the normative argument, she simply deleting these and replacing them with punchy statistics from the survey. In the end, we compromised on a version that, while leading with the numbers, gave due prominence to the norms. Interestingly, most of the ensuing media coverage paid far more attention to the report’s normative argument than to its empirical data, although it doesn’t follow that my colleague in the press office was wrong: perhaps normative stories must be hung on empirical hooks. If so, the point is of no little importance for philosophers interested in engaging the public.

Second, and predictably, I fell prey to the peril of media misrepresentation. The assertion on which my objection to teaching patriotism is founded – that patriotism is not known to be good – is obviously different from the assertion that patriotism is bad. Yet the latter view was ascribed to me in several national press articles. One News of the World columnist fumed: “I’d like to see Dr Hand and his cronies tell an American he should be ashamed of his country. Or tell an Aussie he shouldn’t fly his flag for fear of causing offence. I suspect the flag would be lodged somewhere that would make Dr Hand unable to produce any more silly surveys.” Needless to say, I did not claim – and do not hold – that people should be ashamed of their countries, or should refrain from displays of patriotic attachment for fear of causing offence.

The worry about this sort of misrepresentation is that it fatally obscures the arguments it purports to explain. It also makes them easy to deride: this particular columnist was quick to uphold her distorted account of my position as an exemplar of the ideological nonsense spouted by ‘tofu-eating tank tops’ and ‘hairy, sandal-wearing academics’ (though I shall not pretend that the latter description is wholly inaccurate in my case).

Third, I learned the hard way that one gets only one bite at the media cherry. In the genteel and unhurried interchange of academic life, one can develop, refine and amend an argument in multiple presentations over several years. But in the glare of the public eye there is no such luxury. Although I still hold that schools ought not to promote patriotism because the value of patriotism is uncertain, I now think I was wrong in the original report about the reasons for the uncertainty. I argued there that it is reasonable to doubt the value of loving one’s country because it is reasonable to doubt that one’s country is worthy of love. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the right wing press made much of my remarks about national histories blighted by war-mongering, imperialism and slavery. But it now seems to me that the merits and flaws of a country are largely irrelevant to the reasons for and against loving it. What should give us pause about loving our countries is not doubts about their worth, but the recognition that love tends to cloud judgment. In democratic nation-states we are collectively responsible for our countries’ public institutions and domestic and foreign policies, so we should be wary of emotional attachments likely to impair our civic judgment. Sadly, my efforts to interest the media in this revised argument have met with little success. The story has been covered; the media juggernaut has moved on.

I’m not at all sure that awareness of the perils of public engagement affords much protection against them: the forewarned may not in this case be especially well forearmed. I am sure, though, that the point of public engagement – the importance of bringing philosophical argument into the domain of public debate – makes braving the perils worthwhile.

© Professor Michael Hand 2013

Michael Hand is Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Birmingham. He works on policy-relevant topics in the areas of moral, political, religious and philosophical education.

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