A Public Philosopher, and A Great Teacher

It was good to hear Professor Michael Sandel back on Radio 4 this morning: Sharing The American Dream


Various issues were raised in the programme, which took the form of a Socratic dialogue with an audience at Harvard University:

What is a fair society?
Who is entitled to what?
What is freedom?
What is coercion?
Why do we need taxation?
Why is public health and public education important?
What is a healthy society?
Why does a democracy need an informed, knowledgeable citizenship?
Why does a democracy need its citizens to be healthy – especially mentally healthy?
Do we have any responsibility for one another?
What is interdependency?
What is mutuality?
What is kinship?
What is a social contract?
Is it right to redistribute wealth?
Does redistribution also serve our self-interest?
To what extent are we endebted to one another?
Should there be guarantees of a minimum standard of living?
Should we seek to eradicate poverty?
Why are there competing conceptions of freedom and coercion?
Can we ever call ourselves free if we’re burdened or disadvantaged by poor health, poverty and lack of education?
What is social solidarity?
What is the common good?
What are mutual responsibilities?
Why are pensions and unemployment benefits so important?
Who said, “Necessitous men are not free men”?
Is social solidarity and the common good a moral question or a political question?
Is there anything wrong with the top 1% in the USA having more wealth than the bottom 90% put together?

The brilliance of Prof Sandel is that he allows all points of view to be objectively aired, analysed and debated. He’s not actively pushing his own point of view or his personal agenda, other than one of enlightenment. He can’t know for sure what members of the audience will say. He lets the dialogue take its own course and trusts that superior arguments will eventually triumph, just as inferior points of view will ultimately perish.

Is there any reason why all teachers in every type of school can’t engage in this type of interactive Socratic teaching and learning? – given that it teaches pupils how to think, how to articulate their points of view, how to engage with others in discussion and debate, how to evaluate the strengths and merits of particular points of view? Of course not, and of course we should ensure that there’s room in the curriculum for the history of philosophy as well as for learning the rudiments of philosophical debate. Good schools already do this. All schools should consider how they will do it in the future.


For those who missed Michael Sandel’s Reith Lectures on Radio 4 back in 2009, here’s the essence of the first of the series:

New Citizenship
Michael Sandel
Reith Lecture

We need to think afresh.

We must foster spiritual values and ask ethical questions – and construct a moral system as part of our citizenship.

A new USA president is taking new directions. (end of neo-conservatism, market worship and the shock doctrine?)

We need to consider ideas about morality and politics and justice.

We must return to fundamental values – economics doesn’t question these.

We’re in a time of financial crisis and economic crisis – the need is pressing.

It’s a time for civic and moral renewal.

There’s public outrage at what’s been happening in civic and public life.

We need a politics oriented towards the pursuit of the common good, not individual gain.

We need to ask what it really means to be a citizen.
We need a robust public discourse that engages with moral and spiritual values.

We need to reinvigorate public discourse about the common good.

We need to rethink the role of markets – and the moral limits of markets.
We’re experiencing the economic fallout of a huge financial crisis.
We’re at the end of an era of market fundamentalism and a mania for deregulation.

Markets cannot be the mechanism for achieving the public good.

We need more than regulation and re-regulation of the markets – we need to rethink the role of markets.

We need to reconnect markets with values.

Greed and irresponsible risk-taking must be replaced with responsibility, trust & integrity.
We need to return to proper personal values – and think about the effect of markets running amok.
Markets always run on self-interest & greed.

Conservatives have always claimed there’s some sort of moral alchemy of markets. Plainly this is nonsense. (I’m paraphrasing.)

We need the restoration of integrity.
We have to rethink the role of markets and keep them in their place.

Some things money can’t buy.
There are other things that money can buy but shouldn’t.

We’ve seen the expansion of markets into spheres governed by non-market norms – education, health, policing, the military.

Some are now advocating paying kids to get good scores on standardised tests and paying kids to read books. Some are even saying we should sell citizenship to those who can best afford to pay.
All of this is nonsense.

Markets embody certain norms.
They leave their mark on social norms.
So where do markets belong and when should they be kept at a distance?

Monetary incentives undermine intrinsic incentives.
Market mechanisms become market norms.
There’s a corruption of real incentives.

Consider the issue of fees v fines.
Should we allow countries to pay their way out of reducing greenhouse gasses? Would that be a fine or a fee?
Should we buy and sell the right to pollute?
This is ridiculous. What we need is a new set of attitudes.

Some things in life are corrupted and degraded if they are turned into commodities.
(eg SATs and other examinations? As a teacher should you sell your soul, cram the kids, forget about real education, do to them “whatever works” to raise test scores . . . Should we ‘fine’ those schools who don’t score high by labeling them failures and forcing them to change their educational philosophy, and even sack their senior managers?)

We need to bring moral and spiritual norms into public discourse.

“Efficiency” cannot be the only thing we take into account.

[Our need to consider these ideas as though they’re something new tells us all we need to know about what a dumb society we’ve become. Political, social and philosophical thinkers understood all this centuries ago – Rousseau, Marx, Engels, Thomas More]

Cultivating a shared life and a shared citizenship.

Altruism and civic spirit.


Justice – A Journey in Moral Reasoning

This link might take a while to download because it’s a video of Prof Sandel ‘lecturing’ to a vast hall of students at Harvard, and contains clips of students commenting on the impact of the session(s) and his style of ‘delivery’. It’s also a superb example of what great, interactive teaching should be all about:


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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5 Responses to A Public Philosopher, and A Great Teacher

  1. Oh! How much I appreciate this!
    True values are being lost daily and majority of the people don’t even seem to notice.
    I am so glad that some people are still thinking. Without reasoning, activities can accumulate into a pile of mess. Thanks for sharing this!


    • 3D Eye says:

      Thank you teecee. Our view is that we must all consider which values we hold to and which virtues we aspire to – beginning in every school and every family. However, it’s a sad fact that most schools avoid these areas of learning or else they cover them too fleetingly – possibly because they believe they have no time for them since they’re too busy teaching other things! It’s way past time we insist on addressing our educational priorities if we really care about the wellbeing of individuals, societies and in fact our entire planet.


      • I perfectly agree with you. When our actions as a society are leading in the opposite direction from our desires, it is a signal that we need to get thinking and putting things right.
        Keep up the good work.


  2. Thank you for stopping and following my blog. I loved the eloquent questions posed above. We need to ask those questions more and not expect the answers without a genuine and deep conversation.

    Take care,



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