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Fr. 770

March 1, 2017


As an illustration of Rawls’ “backwards” approach, Weber takes up the question of distributive justice with regards to funding, opportunity and equality in education. The author’s main contention will be that Rawls’ theory calls for educational policies which he would be unable to countenance as real options. If we allow that education represents a pivotal test case for Rawls’ principles of justice insofar as it concerns distributions of money, property, but also of individual ability, the findings from such a test will prove of great use in determining the viability of those principles.

Weber suggests that Rawls’ difference principle proceeds from an admixture of egalitarian utilitarianism, a self-limiting maximization. As such, it must face the question of whether equality is that of outcome or opportunity. Rawls seemingly sides with equality of outcome, allowing for discrepancies in opportunity. As proof thereof, Weber cites a passage from Theory in which Rawls suggests that more resources might be dedicated to the less intelligent rather than the more, in order that they reach the same level of education. The author sees therein the confirmation that Rawls’ difference principle covers not only human interaction but inborn characteristics.

Although Rawls’ suggestion might seem similar to the case of disabled students and hence strengthen his case, Weber contends that it is nothing of the sort. After all, these students are no less intelligent but, rather, possess only different needs in order to engage with their education. (The distinction is perhaps not so clear-cut as Weber makes it out to be.) All of which leaves the thinker in a position where he must make evident the precise reasons for which “greater funds should be focused on the latter students” (p. 125). Instead, one could reasonably counter with the claim that one can “either fund each group of students equally or fund those of greater intelligence more” so as to fulfil their full potential (idem.). Weber adds Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of education thereto in order to show that the question of educational distribution is fraught with complications which cast doubt on Rawls’ otherwise neat solution.

Indeed, that solution is in tension with itself, as Weber perhaps fails to make sufficiently clear. As Rawls elsewhere admits, inequality of outcome is just when those inequalities promote the overall well-being of society, within the limits imposed by the maximin principle. Yet equality of outcome with regards to education may lead to a situation in which society suffers for imposing arbitrary limits to the potential of its more intelligent students. (To that end, Weber cites several examples from Mill.) More simply, it remains to be seen whether we must promote equality of opportunity, outcome or end-based ability.

To help illustrate Dewey’s contention to the contrary, namely, that societal inequalities may only reflect natural inequalities, Weber draws on Nozick’s critique of redistribution through his Wilt Chamberlain example. In short, supposing an initial, equal distribution of resources, inequalities may arise over the course of individual transactions, and there seems little reason to support isolating the total distribution of resources at a given time to be so unjust as to undo the transactions which led to that state. End-state outcome approaches, like Rawls, are inherently flawed in their focus on a moment which “can only exist momentarily” (p. 129).

As the author makes clear, Dewey would diverge from Nozick on the need to limit justice to the consideration of individual transactions rather than group or societal (states) of transactions. The latter may nonetheless prove telling in tracking societal inequalities. Where this maps onto Rawlsian distributive justice is at the level where Rawls’ version is pursued to its logical conclusion. Of a passage from Theory in which Rawls expresses some doubts as to the most just form of childrearing, namely removing children from their parents in order to ensure equality of upbringing, one sees the applicability of critiques of end-state outcome approaches.

As a way of closing the section, Weber briefly casts doubts on Rawls’ distinction between political and ethical liberalisms and the way in which, at the level of education, political liberalism inevitably violates its own neutrality and shows its ethical colors. Indeed, the conflicts of liberalism with educational theory apply, whether the liberal version in question be ethical or political. Moreover, education is not merely valuable as an instrument of democracy but also in itself.


The fourth section takes up criticisms of Deweyan education. The most common include Marxist challenges on two counts. First, the educational system in a capitalist system would merely serve to perpetuate class distinctions and alienation. Dewey’s focus on adapting education to students and environment, in particular, might run foul of this charge, or at least a perversion thereof. Secondly, they took issue with Dewey’s unflagging optimism and saw him as leaving behind the working class in favour of the upper and middle. In his defense, Weber points out that Dewey agitated for public education which required upkeep and continual work for its own sake. At no point did Dewey tether public education to an outside aim, like the development of citizens or the perpetuation of class oppression.

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