The Right to Education? (Pt. 5)

In The Right to Education? (Pt. 4) I laid out both Wayne Grudem and Michael Walzer’s proposed soultions to education inequality. Today we will take a look at their distincitve approaches to the solution, and their basis for their proposals. It will soon become evident that their solutions although are a bit similar, their presuppositions are is radically different…..

Differing Presuppositions: Authority

In Kingdom ethics Glen Stassen states that our perceptions powerfully shape how we approach any ethical issue. According to him there are four variables that “make crucial differences in how people perceive the context of action across the spectrum of ethical issues.” One of these variables is how we perceive authority. Some people have a high view about the present authorities, and believe that there is a God-ordained authority that everyone should obey.  Others believe that each of us is responsible to a certain extent, and that authority lies in the hands of the society at large. Either way there is a strong relationship between how people understand justice and how they perceive the authority variable.[2]

Before we move on to examine how Grudem and Walzer differ on the authority variable, it will be useful to make a few brief comments on basic convictions about justice. Both Grudem and Walzer believe that justice is something that all human beings should strive for. Both believe that justice is not an issue of merely distributing wealth. Although Grudem does not treat the issue of justice extensively in his book, he says that the government does not have the responsibility or the right to attempt to equalize the differences between the rich and the poor by taking money from the rich. This is because stealing property, in this case money, from anyone be it rich or poor is morally wrong.[3] In addition to the moral wrongness of simple distribution of wealth, it would not work. Grudem provides a thought experiment in which wealth is distrubted evenly, at the end of the thought experiment inequality would arise once again because some have saved, invested, or spent their money.[4]

Walzer makes a similar point, there can be no simple mode of distribution because no power is so pervasive as to be capable of regulating the patterns of sharing, dividing, and exchanging within a society.[5] Eventually it will be invested, spent, and saved.[6]

So then what is the solution to the injustice of poor education? Grudem’s solution relies on his theory of the government’s authority. Grudem believes that the government has several primary responsibilities. The government is to punish evil and encourage good. Grudem cites Genesis 9:5-6, Romans 13:1-7, and 1 Peter 2:13-14 as evidence for this.[7] The Government should safeguard human liberty. He says that “the Bible consistently places high value on human freedom and responsibility to choose one’s action.”[8] Finally, he says that the government should serve the people and seek the good of the people. He cites Romans 13:4 as evidence for his. It is this belief that serves as the foundation for his solution to the threat. He claims that it in regard to education it is goal of the civil government to produce educated citizens for the next generation. Although it is the primary responsibility of parents to train their children, it is in the interest of the government to help parents accomplish this goal. He thinks this because it is the purpose of “the government to promote the general well-being of a society, or as the U.S. Constitution says ‘to promote the general welfare.’” According to him the government should do all it can to enable its citizens to live adequately in the society.[9] Thus the government should provide enough funding so that everyone is able to gain enough skills and education to earn a living. We should note that Grudem’s belief is not based upon the idea of justice, that providing an education is the just thing to do, but that it is the government’s responsibility to promote the general welfare of its citizens that serves as the foundation for his solution to the threat.

Walzer on the other hand bases his solution to the threat entirely upon the idea of justice. He does not make a case that it is specifically the government’s responsibility to ensure the welfare of its citizens, but that it is in the interest of human society as a whole to bring about justice when it comes to education. He claims that justice is equality, but not the mere equality of possessions. It is not the elimination of differences, but the elimination of domination by others. For Walzer the aim is “a society free from domination.”[10]

Walzer notes that domination is always mediated by some set of social goods. These goods vary from society to society. In some societies domination is mediated by birth and blood, in others it is mediated by land and wealth. In our society it is capital and education. Thus education is a good which has been used to dominate others. If education is a good that perpetuates injustice, it must be reformed. Thus the solution to the ending of domination through social goods like education is to distribute it for distinct and internal reasons.[11]

If we are to focus upon reducing dominance, especially in regard to education, we need identify how education serves as a dominating social good. Walzer notes that education often reinforces structures of membership and hierarchy which tends to dominate others. Although domination is often what results from unequal education, it is in the interest of the community as a whole that all children be educated to be future citizens of that society. But equal citizenship requires common schooling in which everyone is taught the basic knowledge necessary for active citizenship.[12] Since education is in the interest of the society as a whole, “educating citizens must be a matter of communal provision, a kind of welfare” provided by the society.[13]

So it is helpful to think of educational equality as a form of welfare provision, in which all children, conceived as future citizens, have the same need to know, and where the ideal membership is best served if they are all taught the same thing.”[14] In conclusion, Walzer believes that education is a good which should be distributed equally by the society itself so that all members of that society may participate in it equally, keeping all people free from domination and injustice.

We should notice that the major point of difference between Walzer and Grudem is not their perception of the problem; they both recognize that failure to educate children harms the entire society. It is not their solution to the threat, both recommend vouchers as a possible solution. Their fundamental point of difference is in the government’s role in solving the problem. Grudem thinks it is the government’s responsibility to enable its citizens to receive an education in whichever form they choose to do so. Walzer believes that it is society’s role, not the government, to provide education so that no citizen will be dominated by the social good of education. Of course, for Walzer the government is an important part of society but it is just one part of society. Walzer does not emphasize the government’s role in stopping domination because Walzer is interested in justice that transcends time and culture. Grudem on the other hand is primarily concerned with a very specific government, the American government.

Before I state my personal belief on this variable of authority and its relationship to education, we should note that Grudem and Walzer are not advocating for conflicting views on authority. They simply disagree on what role the government plays in the creation of an educated society. Grudem places much responsibility in the government’s hands whereas Walzer places responsibility upon the whole society’s pursuit of justice and equality.

[2] Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 66.

[3] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 281.

[4] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 282.

[5] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 4.

[6] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, xi.

[7] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 77-81.

[8] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 91.

[9] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 281.

[10] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, xiii.

[11] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, xv.

[12] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 208.

[13] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 209.

[14] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 203.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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