New philosophy center to focus on educational policy

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Philosophers shaped our earliest ideas about education. From Plato and Aristotle, to John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (plus dozens more in the modern era), the debate on education is centuries-old — and philosophical in nature.

But today, the results of empirical studies tend to get more play than philosophical ideas. This creates a gap in understanding, according to Harry Brighouse, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"Empirical studies can tell you a great deal about what is happening, and how, but almost nothing about why or how we should change things," says Brighouse.

To address this gap, Brighouse and Anthony Laden, a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, will launch a new center to incorporate philosophical thinking into educational policy and practice.

The Center for Ethics and Education will be funded by a recent $3.5 million grant from The Spencer Foundation, a Chicago-based institution committed to supporting high-quality investigations of education through research programs. The Center will be housed in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research in the School of Education.

Brighouse, who has studied ethical issues and values-related problems in education for the past 20 years, had long noted a lack of serious work done in philosophy departments on relevant issues in education, and a similar dearth in philosophy training among experts in the worlds of education policy and practice.

"Philosophers and social scientists work very differently — and they too often work apart from one another," Brighouse says. "Through the center, we hope to bring together people separately engaged in these distinct conversations and encourage them to talk and work with one another. There are subtle yet powerful ways in which our thoughts about access to education, and then how that education is to be delivered, influence our society."

Center researchers will look especially closely at issues of inequality in education. Rather than just noting how trends in inequality are perpetuated over the course of multiple generations, Brighouse hopes to shift the conversation toward questions about why this inequality persists.

"We're going to examine the values people hold dear, many of which are so embedded that they are taken for granted," says Brighouse. "For example, the notion that parents have a moral obligation to protect their own child's best interests could help explain why we have policies that lead to disparity in educational outcomes. But do parents in fact have that obligation?"

Brighouse also envisions involving community practitioners (teachers, administrators) in the new center. Events and programs could explore questions of pedagogical ethics, testing, what constitutes a valuable education, whether charter schools serve the 'greater good,' and much more.

"Making value judgments about education issues, which affect large populations, is not just a matter of finding data to support a point of view. It's a matter of thinking hard about what really matters, and why," says Brighouse.