Friday, November 2, 2012

One True Thing from Chris Doyle: Ethics Trump Technique

I first met Chris Doyle as a brand new teacher at Farmington High School, in Connecticut. Immediately, Chris became both a role model and a mentor for me. His incredible passion for ideas, truth, ethics, and his insistence on challenging his students to think far beyond grades and status-quo celebration was deeply inspiring to me. Chris was always ready for an intellectual conversation that challenged my own thinking, and that encouraged me to become the kind of teacher I longed to become. Students in Chris' classes left his classroom with a more clear view of the world and the issues we face within--not narrowed down to sound bites but rather viewed in their full complexity and authenticity. Chris is the kind of inspiring thinker, teacher, and writer who is never satisfied with falsehood, ease, or empty standards based on the status-quo. Instead, Chris Doyle is a person who says, in the words of Socrates, "I prefer nothing, unless it is true." So I am very excited to share Chris Doyle's beautiful and thought-provoking One True Thing. 

Ethics Trump Technique
by Chris Doyle

Our culture prioritizes technique at the expense of goodness. Walk into a bookstore and you’ll see shelves full of self-help books, study aids, how-to manuals (“for dummies,” even), and guides to better eating, better sex, better personal finances. You might not find, however, even a single contemporary, secular, work devoted to ethics; if you want to read up on those, your best bet is the classics section. 

We wall off ethical discussion, often confining it to religion, where it can be embraced, or not, as part of one’s personal faith. Thus ethical debates go missing from public schools, universities, and civic life. The press might ask: “Can we win the war in Afghanistan?” The media rarely, if ever, questions whether that war is moral. I taught recently at a school whose articulated values included “efficacy,” that which produces a desired outcome. Absent from the value statement were words such as justice, love, compassion, wisdom, virtue, or fairness. 

I have learned not to be surprised when my high-school students stumble over fundamental ethical questions. They prize technique and the status that derives from it; that’s what they learn to value. I don’t think it has to be this way, though, and I don’t think it’s futile to replicate the kind of tough ethical questions that Socrates modeled. What counts as truth, beauty, wisdom, and love? How do we acquire such traits? In our world, these questions are subversive. They get beyond technique and undercut it. What would happen if pursuit of the good took center stage in American education reform? What would it mean, then, to “race to the top,” “leave no child behind,” “compete in the global economy,” or deliver “a world-class education?” I’m for trying to find out.