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  • Guest Editor's Introduction:On Reintegrating Facts,Values, Strategies
  • Peter Levine (bio)

A sharp distinction between facts and values is widespread in modern times but is an obstacle to civic work. To be a responsible citizen requires combining facts and values to develop appropriate strategies. Bringing facts, values, and strategies together is therefore a fundamental task of "Civic Studies," defined as a field of rigorous scholarship that aims to enhance citizenship. This special issue explores several approaches to this task.

A good person asks, "What should I do?" A good citizen asks, "What should we do?" The question must become plural for two reasons: we cannot accomplish much alone, and we must reason together to improve our opinions and to check biases and self-interest. We become good citizens, not merely ethical individuals, when we ask this plural question.

Many academic disciplines are taught and practiced today in ways that marginalize the citizen's question. For example, social scientists have developed sophisticated tools to combat bias and uncertainty. Although they are aware that we can never discover certain and object truths, truth remains their goal—rather than judgment or prescription. "The majority of sociologists [for example] consider it illegitimate to move from explanation to evaluation. In their view, sociology should strive to be value-free, objective, or at least to avoid making explicit value-judgements."1

To shift from description to prescription, we need something else: opinions, preferences, or values about what should be. Those cannot come from science as that endeavor is generally understood. They may come instead from public opinion or from policymakers, or perhaps from a different [End Page 195] discipline, such as philosophy. Wherever they come from, they must be added to the facts that science unearths to produce policy recommendations. Moreover, policy recommendations do not jump off the shelf to implement themselves. Someone must take strategic action to implement them. That someone is usually quite separate from the social scientist who originally studied the truth about the social world. Policy recommendations plus strategic action equals change: a formula that implies a very specific and limited fact-finding role for the scholar.

There are many problems with this standard model. To start with, norms or moral commitments are not mere biases. If I say, "Education is good," I am not expressing an opinion that might bias my analysis. I am proposing a truth, albeit one that needs more detail. (What kind of education is good? Good for whom? Why?) How to ground or justify moral claims is a complex question, but it is nihilistic to treat facts as objective and all moral claims as subjective in the sense of arbitrary. There are better and worse moral claims—each human being's personal experience testifies to that fact.

Meanwhile, data are—and should be—imbued with norms. When we measure an educational system by calculating graduation rates or test scores, we are claiming that these outcomes are valuable. A set of requirements for graduation or a list of questions on an exam must reflect value-judgments. There is no such thing as a value-neutral measurement, nor should we aim for one. Social scientists recognize that they have values that may influence their observations and conclusions. But these are treated as biases to be disclosed, not as truth claims to be defended. Selecting appropriate values is not typically accepted as a goal of social science.

Not only must values influence empirical information, but data must also rightly and inevitably influence values. After all, why do I think that education is good? In part because we have more than a century's experience with near-universal schooling. It has not benefited every student but it has been good enough for enough children to support the ideal of making school available to all. Our experience influences this normative judgment.

Another rationale for the norm in favor of education is that we have a strategy for making schooling universal. We know how to pass laws that require enrollment and how to fund a system of public education. There are many other ideals for which we have no strategies—for example, we do not know how to realize the ideal that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 195-201
Launched on MUSE
2018-08-25
Open Access
No
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