Lecture Hall: Assistant Professor Jal MehtaBy Lory Hough
Atul Gawande’s book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, became a favorite among Jal Mehta‘s students at the Ed School — they even made related t-shirts — because it embodies an attitude Mehta has long admired: Make do with what you have, and try to leave everything a bit better than you found it.
This is exactly what Mehta is trying to do for education reform through his various research projects, including The Chastened Dream, a book-in-progress that has him on leave for the next year to be a fellow at Harvard’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. The book explores the idea — the dream — that social science can inform social policy to achieve social progress. Institutions like the Ed School were started with this dream in mind. Mehta believes in the dream, too, but he’s also a pragmatist: He knows that reality, especially the reality of fixing schools, is much more complicated. Still, he remains optimistic. In July, he spoke to Ed. about the limits of the dream, what motives him, and why being impractical isn’t such a bad thing.
What are the limits of the dream?
I identify four: that science cannot settle questions of value, that experts cannot settle questions of democracy, that social science is epistemologically limited, and that social policy is just one input on people’s lives. One contention in the book is that we at professional schools now know at some level the original dream is flawed, and tell our students as much, but we continue to act as if the old equation is true because we don’t have much to replace it with.
Can this be changed?
A goal for the latter part of the book is to try to reconstruct a thicker view of how to connect knowledge to public action, one that recognizes the importance of values, welcomes democratic decisionmaking, is aware of the limits of different forms of knowledge, and is not utopian in its aims but is still hopeful about how we can make public progress on a range of social problems.
What do you mean by connecting knowledge and action?
All of us at professional schools are in the “knowledge and action” business — we hope to develop knowledge or teach students things that will help people act for better in the world. The question I’m interested in is what sorts of knowledge actually enable people to act more effectively. Sometimes in the academy we act as if the only sort of knowledge is scientific knowledge. Effective practitioners possess what Aristotle called phronesis, or practical wisdom drawn from experience.
How did you get interested in all of this?
I grew up in Baltimore, which is a city that is as divided as any I know by race and class. Where in Baltimore you grew up very likely determined what kind of opportunities you were going to have in life. That seemed very unfair to me as a kid, and it seems just as unfair now. My work is motivated by trying to remedy that injustice.
And you think schools are an important part of the equation?
I started by getting a Ph.D. in sociology and social policy, and continue to be interested in the range of social policies and institutions that can be used to remedy inequality, but have come to see schools as potentially the most transformative lever for breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty.
What about your own school experience?
A big influence on my work has been my parents, who were both educators, and my school, the Park School, which prided itself on promoting critical thinking and student inquiry. I believe strongly that educational environments should be lively, interesting, and challenging places. Schools are not only places that help people get jobs, they are also places that can potentially transform who people are, what they value, and how they think.
You joke about thinking too much in your own life.
I love to think about things — you can ask my wife, I’m terribly impractical — and I think there is beauty and honor in really thinking hard, which is part of what makes schools potentially such special places. In that sense, all of the projects I’m involved with are motivated by the question of how we could give the kind of education I had to all of our fellow citizens.
You had a son, Alex, this year. Has that changed your perspective on any of this?
It reminds me that we don’t just want our kids to be educated. We also want them to be happy. In theory, it matters if he makes his developmental milestones; in practice, all I want is to make him smile and hear him laugh. He also has been very popular with the students — they’ve already recruited him for the “I’m Always For Better” campaign.