Defending Rawls: Radicalizing The Way We Talk About “Rights”

Radicals and post-modernist scratch their heads about my use of Rawls. This aims to address some of their concerns.  Another excerpt from the revisions I’ve undertaken towards turning my dissertation, Social Justice and Educational Measurement, into a book for Routledge.


While many philosophical and ethical ideas are discussed, focus throughout this work is placed primarily on the methods and models of the great moral philosopher, John Rawls (1921-2002). Narrowing the focus to a single thinker is intended to simplify the discussion of social justice—drawing on the value of an exemplary theory instead of trying to draw on the value of a set of theories or constructing a whole new theory of justice.

There are, in fact, many theories of justice that could be used to clarify the relationships between standardized testing and social justice along the lines undertaken here. Habermas, Nussbaum, Dewey, and Freire all come to mind. No doubt, taking these different theories as a starting point would result in an argument different from the one developed here. Yet it is hard to imagine (given the continuities of these ‘competing’ theories of justice) that there would not be an “overlapping consensus” on many of the central insights. In any case, the goal here is to demonstrate as clearly as possible the social justice issues implicated in standardized testing, not to engage in philosophical debates about competing theories of justice. Rawls is taken as a primary guide not because his is the only or best theory, but because, for the purposes of this study, his views provide the minimal complexity necessary to deal with the issues that are of primary concern in addressing the relationships between testing and social justice. As a result of this near singular focus, this work serves as an interesting, if unconventional, introduction for educators to the central ideas of one of the twentieth century’s greatest moral philosophers. But it is not merely an exegesis of Rawls. This work is an original application of his ideas in the domain of educational theory and the philosophy of education.

There is much to disagree with in Rawls, no doubt. The secondary literature on many of his key ideas is extensive and contentious. In particular, I find the radical critiques leveled by many neo-Marxist and critical or heterodox political economists compelling, especially when they question the discourse about “justice” and “rights’ as a whole. This suspicion of “rights talk” is, of course, one of the shadows of the radical Left: “the Marxian theoretical lexicon does not include such terms as freedom, personal rights, liberty, choice, or even democracy (Bowels & Gintis, 1986 p. 19). The argument is that these terms have been tools of bourgeoisie reformers and often functioned as part and parcel of capitalist state domination. In a geo-political context where words like “liberty,” “democracy” and “freedom” have been used as slogans for wars and for economic expansionism, I understand how it might appear naïve to focus on a theorist who exemplifies the broad consensus of mainstream liberals about the goals of a progressive political life.

Indeed, the shadow of the liberal mainstream represented by Rawls is a “lack of fundamental terms representing the conditions of material [and educational] exploitation” (Ibid p. 15). While Rawls provides a framework focused on liberty and rights, he “never inquires into whether liberty is violated by the surrender of disposition over one’s [education and] services [to the state or] in return for a wage” (Ibid, p 71).  Rawls never carried out any detailed work about the mechanisms or impacts of actually existing injustices, nor did he look behind the façade of the post-war American economic prosperity he lived in, which seemed to foretell expanding opportunities for carriers open to talents and a benign and progressive expansion of the welfare state. As we will see in Chapter 5, these kinds of post-war prophecies of a just and peaceful American meritocracy, exemplified by the founding of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), would never materialize. Rawls was very much a part of this era when there was a certain faith in the basic structures of democratic government and capitalist economic systems. We no longer live in this era; so it is important to remember when and where Rawls was writing.

As I will show in the discussion of civil disobedience below, Rawls is not a political radical, even if he is a radical in some other ways, namely in the radical primacy he gives to social justice above all other concerns. Yet while he is a strong critic of the overextension of the economic logic of efficiency and profit, he is not concerned with questioning the foundations of the Western tradition, including its commitments to that unique and powerful combination of individualism, private property, capitalism, representative government, and militaristic nation states. Therefore, in so far as you are opposed to any of these staples of modernity you will feel opposed to aspects of the Rawlsian framework. This has left Rawls open to receive the (at times deserved) post-modern “great theorist” bashing and straw man effigy burning.

While his later work, Political Liberalism, was explicitly and masterfully addressed to issues of pluralism and multiculturalism, to his credit Rawls (1996) never stepped back from his overall commitments to a discourse about rights and liberty, and he never wavered in his belief that fundamental insights are to be found in Western social contract theory and the cognitivist ethical tradition stemming from Kant (discussed further in Chapter 1).  In a sense, Rawls can be seen, like Habermas (1987), as a one of the last great defenders of a radical philosophical universality and normativity, which is perhaps the true core of what was positive and progressive in modernity. Rawls is also, like any great philosopher, much more complex and nuanced than secondhand accounts reveal. So I have offered a detailed exegesis of his key writings (to be found in Chapters 1 and 2 in particular).

In making use of Rawls with eyes wide open I have, in fact, followed the suggestions of the great critical theorists of education Bowles and Gintis (1986) and Michael Apple (2004) who point out the strategic political importance of a radicalizing of the discourse about rights and the discourse around Rawls in particular. The great movements of social change in recent memory have all involved the radicalization rights claims. That is, they have involved groups appealing to society’s sense of justice concerning basic rights, such as the right to vote, to a living wage, or the right to equal opportunity free from racial and gender based discrimination. The global revolutions of 1848 and 1968 were largely been about the expansion or recognition of rights—for workers, for women, and for monitories (Wallerstein, 2006). This explains some of the impact of the statements in the opening paragraphs of this Introduction, where I claim that many standardized testing practices violate the basic civil rights of students and teachers, and this can be said in the same way it can be said that certain conditions of employment (like sweatshops) violate the rights of workers. These ideas draw on a powerful tradition of political discourse about rights, and they seek to clarify the seriousness of the connections between testing and civil rights.

This is some of what Rawls can give that is invaluable for those seeking to address the injustices surrounding testing: a philosophical theory addressing the interface of social policy and social justice, couched in the language of rights, justice, and democracy—that is, couched in the language of mainstream political debate. Even a passing glance at academic texts dealing with “critical theory of education” show many of them to be largely self-marginalizing and insular, weaving complex terminology (often translated from French) to address problems that almost every teacher already has a clear intuitive sense for (see Apple 1995, for more on these self-defeating communicative strategies of academic critical theory). Even well meaning and intelligent attempts at theory-practice “bridging” or “go-between” struggle to render these theories in ways that can be used in a school board meeting or professional development programs for teachers. (I once tried using Habermas to frame some issues for a room full of teachers, principals, and superintendents, and was quickly written off by some as supporting a fearful European Socialism; switching to Freire would obviously not have helped.)

As I will show, Rawls provides a relatively simple and useful language about rights and social justice that can be used to great effect in public discourse. Moreover, as discussed in the next section, Rawls’s methods are philosophical practices for self-clarification—he is trying to help us reconstruct and articulate what we already know. Unlike a great deal of theory that is basically written to tell readers what they do not know. Rawls is trying to bring our attention to a preexisting sense of justice that is always already present in all individuals (as potential, or in actuality). He offers a straightforward set of decision procedures and thought experiments that are useful for gaining clarity about complex ethical issues like, for example, considering the allocation of educational goods or dealing with conflicting rights claims (see Chapters 1 & 2).

However, when considering the discourse about rights it must be remembered that the other major global social revolution we are living in the wake of—what is sometimes called the neo-liberal counter revolution (Harvey, 2014)—has also been based on a radicalization of the discourse about rights, except in this case it is a discourse about the rights of corporations and shareholders, even the rights of capital itself. So it is that the rights of workers to a livable wage are countered by the rights of corporations to move their operations to find cheaper labor markets. The rights of children to receive individualized education are countered by the rights of multi-national testing and curriculum conglomerates to achieve economies of scale and turn a profit. Beginning in the 1970’s and leading up through the first decades of the 21st century, educational systems became increasing characterized by career oriented technical knowledge, conservative social values, standardized forms of curriculum and testing, authoritarian social relations, privatization, and marketization.

One of the essential pillars of this trend, sometimes refereed to as the global education reform movement (aka: GERM, see: Sahlberg, 2012), has been sophisticated and self-conscious political organization and activism on the part of a small number of powerful political and economic agents. The efforts of the so-called “billionaire boys club” have been documented (Ravitch, 2013). This handful of men (sic) have leveraged their positions as captains of industry and technology to wield unrivaled influence over the shape of educational reform, so drastically shaping the funding landscape that many self-ascribed liberals have embraced policies that would previously have only appealed to conservatives (e.g., for-profit charter schools, school choice, marketization, accountability-oriented testing). A few wealthy individuals are drastically and unilaterally impacting the shape of schooling, displaying undisguised the interests and power of capital in shaping human development. All this supports the ideas of those who fear a return to the patterns of the Gilded Age (Piketty, 2014), which was the only other time in history that the power of capital to shape education was so extreme.

Testing has always been tied into larger changes in the capitalist world-system, as I explore in the historical chapters: IQ testing as we know it would not have arisen were it not for the massive military mobilization preceding World War I; the Educational Testing Service and its use of the SAT to shape collage admissions was a product the Cold War vision of American education beating the Soviet threat through the scientific selection of the best minds. And so today, in the US, the new drive towards national standards and a single national testing infrastructure is a reflection of broader global trends involving the dismantling of pubic sector services and their replacement by privatized industries. Well before the recent push of legislation in the US aimed at creating a single core curriculum and testing infrastructure, Michael Apple (2001) pointed out that it would be much easier to turn the American school system into a marketplace if there were a single set of national standards and single national testing infrastructure. This is because there would then be a single clear axis of comparison between competing educational ventures. His words are proving to be prophetic. The US educational system is undergoing a transformation into a largely market driven and privately run collection of enterprises. Things have changed so rapidly and radically that even mainstream one-time-conservative policy makers are beginning to take note (Ravitch, 2013). Standardized testing is at the center of a sweeping neo-liberal revolution in mass education.

As explained in Chapter 3, the entire movement towards the privatization of schools is based on the presumption that testing can be used to quantify and thus monetize educational value. I argue that is this way of thinking involves an oversimplification of educational value and an overvaluation of tests as measures of educational processes. Nevertheless, if things go according to the plans of the billionaire class the coming decades will involve a testing-based overhaul of the global educational system. State run schools will largely be replaced by a diverse and socio-economically stratified educational marketplace, with national tests and standards playing a major role towards ensuring that schools in the educational marketplace can be compared to each other and be shown to meet state specification of quality and efficiency. But this is all ahead of the story unfolded in Chapters 4 and 5.