Where We Go

Sigal Ben-Porath, in a recent book of essays about schools (Education, Justice and Democracy, eds. Danielle Allen and Rob Reich), has some useful things to say. Some of it is just taking note of the general condition:

In deeply diverse societies, education that aims to develop common values is continually challenged by individuals and groups who subscribe to value systems that they assume would be upended by certain aspects of substantive democratic citizenship. The pursuit of commonality seems always to trigger concerns about the loss of identity. An important response to these concerns is offered by diversity liberalism… Liberal theorists thus tend to focus on containing diversity within the polity and define citizenship as a form of identity as a way of responding to challenges from individuals’ affiliation with other subnational (or supranational) groups. (“Education for Shared Fate Citizenship,” E, J and D, pp. 83, 86).

Fair enough. Or rather, “fair enough” enough. “Diversity liberalism” makes us all give up a little of what makes us special, so that we can all get along together. If I believe that those who worship a different deity from mine are heretics and should be burned alive, I must refrain from putting that belief into practice, and articulate that belief only as a historical relic (what a group used to believe), a view about a perfect world (in an ideal theocracy, here’s what would happen), or an intimation about a future world (when eventually the truth is revealed, you will see that I was right, and…). Or we keep our conflicts out of public spaces and complain in private.¬†Or we agree on matters of procedure, so that the outcome, whatever it be, will be one that each of us owns and admits. Backing away from the idea that cosmopolitanism should replace powerfully held, nonreflective community beliefs, Ben-Porat holds up equality of participation and procedure as the antidote to accusations of brainwashing (p. 95).

Ben-Porat borrows from Bernard Williams the recommendation that “Having a sense of ourselves as members of a community of fate entails telling ourselves (true) stories about how we came to be connected” (cited, p. 88). This is good; thus a British citizen named Ng or Patel can forget about any supposed differences with the “native Britons” and add his or her story to the tale of the tribe as it came to be today.

“Shared fate,” however, is a mainly future-pointing category. This is the great change it brings to the theory of nationhood that emphasizes common origins. It sees the nation as “always a work in progress” (p. 91). What kind of a fate do we want to have, given that we will have it together and assuming that we can do something (through education) to affect it? Such a question addresses participants (particularly, schoolchildren) as having a stake in the future condition of the group.

As much as I like the idea of “shared fate,” it doesn’t address dimensions of inequality or religious diversity that have to do, very specifically, with the imagined future. Among “deeply diverse societies,” would Ben-Porat include the population of Israel and its occupied zones? Even the set of people holding Israeli citizenship includes a lot of people who are probably not conceiving of the future in the same way, or imagining themselves journeying off into it together–and I’m not just talking about an apocalyptic future.

Even less apocalyptically (but quite seriously), think of this mere policy measure: Social Security was invented to rescue people from the bad “shared fate” of getting through their old age without an income. For decades now, however, the gap in economic conditions between the people who are going to have to anticipate living on Social Security and those who have other irons in the fire is wide. Most of the influence over how we plan and discuss the future national budget resides with people for whom cutting Social Security benefits doesn’t involve any real or imagined pain, and who also probably can’t imagine a reversal of fortune that would land them in the category of Social Security dependents. Education, too, was invented, back in the cave days, as a way of preparing people for the challenges in their individual and collective futures. But if a certain pool of people are heading to a happy future along a path of well-designed, well-financed education, and another, larger pool are heading down a path of underfunded, incoherent, poorly-planned, incomplete education, and no conceivable future is there to switch people from one pool to the other, it will be hard to make the members of the two pools think of themselves as having a single “shared fate.”

Affirmative action was supposed to do this. Presumably, putting kids from different races in the same classroom would cause friendships to blossom and create a culture of mutual concern. I’m sure this has happened in many cases, but if you read the newspapers, you see a great deal of griping by well-off white people and the occasional half-hearted defense of the already weakened system. The reason, I suppose, is that nobody sincerely believes that people of all backgrounds in this country share a common fate. Some people here are going to heaven (or to the earthly image thereof) and some of us are going to hell. No wonder then that the weak devices meant to mitigate the parting of the ways aren’t taken seriously.

Only the North Koreans can bring us together with their indiscriminately destructive missiles. Or will the East Coasters consider this a problem for the West Coasters to deal with?