Thursday, September 11, 2008

Values in Everything

Peter Levine makes a nice point about value judgments in testing:
It would be possible to create a valid and reliable test of the 10 greatest virtues of Saddam Hussein. Those virtues could even be facts about him: for example, that he was unafraid to die. Such a test would be morally worse--really worse, not just worse in my opinion--than a test of students' understanding of the First Amendment.

We have limited cognitive resources, so educators must choose which facts or issues warrant raising to salience. I take it the Saddam example is disturbing because it fails on two counts: (1) it is not as important for students to learn about as (say) the First Amendment; and (2) it could leave students with a distorted impression of Saddam's overall moral character -- which is (again) more important than simply learning a few truths about his virtues (such as they were).

Now compare political reporters:
On the one hand, they perceive their role as entirely above the fray – they cover political controversies but aren’t supposed to be embroiled in these controversies themselves. On the other hand (and this is a point that both netroots types and bloggers like Ezra Klein have hammered home again and again), they themselves play a crucial and unacknowledged political role in deciding what is salient news and what isn’t – controversies don’t usually become controversies until they are described as such in the big newspapers and cable tv talkshows.

Once again, "value neutrality" is not really something to aspire to. (That way lies worthlessness -- or worse, naked David Broder [safe link, don't worry].) What we require is normative discernment, an apt appreciation of what matters and what doesn't, or - most simply - good judgment.

That's not to excuse blind partisanship, of course. Party identification seems an incredibly common cause of poor judgment, or moral/intellectual blindness. But it's the blindness that's the problem, not partisan support per se. One should criticize the flaws that most warrant criticism, and it's hardly an a priori truth that these will be equally distributed across all parties and politicians.

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