Commentary: The fallacy of Chesterton’s Fence

I recently came across – in, of all places, an essay on tax polices for capital gains — a topic I think resonates in any discussion on education reform: The Fallacy of Chesterton’s Fence.

I like fallacies.  As a somewhat directionless undergraduate philosophy major, I lost interest in the Heidegger seminar, but I became increasingly entranced by basic logic and understanding how people think.  Fallacies are potholes in rational thought. Understand how to recognize them and one is more able to avoid them.  Help other people see them and you are more likely to find consensus.

The short version of the Fallacy of Chesterton’s Fence is this: don’t ever take down a fence until you know why it was put up.  Simple enough. However, particularly as it relates to education reform, the long version is worth reading:

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle […].  There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

There are a lot of fences in education policy, and there is often a rush to dismantle them.  In many cases this is justified.  In some it is not.  But in all cases, it is worth asking: why was this particular fence erected in the first place?

Take, for example, the single salary structure of most public school districts (including Denver).  This policy establishes strict uniform pay differentiated only by years in the job (and highest educational degree obtained).  It’s hard to argue in the current day that an elementary gym teacher and a high school science teacher have jobs that should be paid exactly the same – or that a gym teacher with more years in the job should always be paid more.  But before we decide to tear down the single-salary fence, why is it there?

Well, the single salary schedule was put in place in the early 20th century, in large part to prevent salary discrimination against women, who were often paid less than their male counterparts — particularly as teaching was one of the few jobs that was socially acceptable for women at all.  At the time, there was not much in the way of HR systems, it was not easy to compare or monitor pay systems. Without a clear problem of discrimination, and without other mechanisms to prevent it, a single, centralized plan made sense.  The single-salary fence was put in place with a pretty good purpose in mind.

I would argue – for lots of reasons – that this fence should now be taken down, but I would not argue against its original intent.  And if one wants to dismantle this particular fence (which, please note, is not an argument against either unions generally or collective bargaining), one should make sure that any change maintains the reason it was enacted in the first place.  Whatever pay program might replace single salary systems, it should not discriminate against women (or anyone else).  Understanding why a policy was enacted should help clarify a discussion to see if it is still serving the purpose for which it was intended.

It’s one of my general beliefs that a lot of the educational fences that reformers want to take down are there for reasons that many would have wholeheartedly agreed with at the time.  Many of these fences were built to protect the same principals that reformers now invoke to argue for their removal: fairness and equity.

The arguments in education these days are all too often about protecting or dismantling a policy and rarely about why the policy exists and if there is a better way to achieve the same goals.  My hope is that applying the fallacy of Chesterton’s Fence allows for more common ground.  When confronted with a policy fence, we should try to recognize the principals inherent in its creation, and if they are still served or if another structure is more appropriate.  We should all want fences placed so that everyone can be on the same side.

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