Education as an Institution for Coordination

By Daniel Tippens

With Felicia Chacon

One of the best things about a best friend, a BFF, is that usually the two of you are coordinated. As a child you can play an imaginary game with your BFF, where you agree to fictional rules, are tolerant toward eachother when light breaches in these rules occur, and work together — communicating with eachother — to achieve some fictional goals. Later, as an adult, you can engage in real, meaningful projects with your BFF, where you set a goal, have common knowledge of pre-made rules (laws, norms, etc.), can be sympathetic to eachother’s slight missteps, and work together — communicating with eachother — to achieve your goals. Sometimes those goals are social, other times political, and often they are business-related. You and your BFF are coordinated with eachother as children, and later as adults. You have shared goals, can work together, and communicate with eachother, to achieve those goals. Sometimes your plans might not work out, but you are both able to try.

An encounter I had recently on the University of Miami campus made me think of this. I had only been able to catch a few hours of sleep, and spent the morning and early afternoon handling tedious logistical matters which every graduate research assistant knows well. Once I finished, lighting up a cigarette seemed like it would be a good release. Knowing that the campus is smoke-free, I decided to walk to the parking lot which, while still technically part of campus, would not have many people nearby, and got started. After taking a few puffs, an older-looking woman appeared, walking in my direction. As she approached, she looked at me and slowed her pace, squinting her eyes and furrowing her brows, glaring. After a moment of hesitation, probably considering whether or not to say anything, she committed to ending my smoke-break with full vigor. “This is a smoke-free campus. Put out your cigarette now,” she said, her eyes wide and unblinking. “Okay, I will in just a minute,” I replied, taking another hit. “No, put it out this moment, or I’m calling security. You’re forcing me to walk through that smell.“ She began to reach for her phone — perhaps she had security on speed dial. “Do you also ban restaurants which waft odors that you dislike?” I asked her sarcastically. “I’m calling security now,” she replied. Apparently, her only method of response to slights against her is to fall back on the law. 

What struck me about this encounter was the reason that this woman cited for wanting to invoke security on me — the smell of the cigarette disgusted her. When I smoke, I feel relaxed. When she imagines smoking, she feels disgusted, and this disgust is strong enough for her to call security on me. 

Could this woman and I ever have shared goals? Even if we could, could we ever work together to achieve them? I feel relaxed by smoking, and so will do it often. She feels disgusted by it, so much so that she would call security on me. I’m dubious that we could ever be coordinated — in this case, sharing excitement toward the same object/goal, such that we can pursue it, together. But of course, this concerns me, because while she is a stranger to me, I still have a tie to her — we are fellow citizens, in the sense that we are both members of the group of people that is governed by, at least, U.S. federal law. As such, we may — and indeed likely will — need to coordinate for political action against overreaches of the governing body, at times during our lives.

Why can I be fully coordinated with by BFF, but not capable of coordination with my fellow citizen? Here, I suggest that the reason is that my BFF and I share what I will call a congruous common sense, whereas my fellow citizen and I do not. But of course, citizens need to have some degree of congruous common sense with one another — some capacity for coordination; a capacity to have overlapping reactive attitudes toward the same objects, given all the political problems they will need to solve, together. 

But how is a common sense acquired at all? Using Tolstoy’s theory of art, I suggest that engaging in shared reactive attitudes (awe, wonder, fear, anger, etc) when we view art as citizens, instills in us a common sense. Public Education, I argue, is the lymph node in which future citizens congregate to co-react to art — to literature, philosophy, fine art, music, etc. — qua citizens. What gives generations of citizens a common sense, is public education. There is a shared curriculum so that children can co-react to art in all of its forms, and acquire the capacity for coordination, as a generation. In the end, I will argue that Public Education, in ensuring the conditions under which coordination is possible, also ensures a certain kind of freedom — the ability to take risks, together, as citizens. 

I. The Common Sense

On June 11th, 1963, the buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức sat down cross-legged in the middle of an intersection in Saigon, South Vietnam, pressed his hands together in prayer-like fashion, and had a fellow monk douse his body in gasoline. Moments later, he lit himself on fire. As the flames grew stronger, he remained in place, his body retaining an unwavering pose of stability as he disappeared into the flames. While this event was one of tragedy, it was also one of heroism. Thích was protesting the brutal persecution of buddhist monks (and nationalists more generally) by President Ngo Dihn Diem, and a New York Times reporter watching the event snapped the photo shown below:

Buddhist Monk

Once he took the photograph, Malcolm W. Browne rushed to get the image to the Associated Press. When it arrived 15 hours later, it was broadcast to the world. The reaction to the photo was dramatic, with U.S President John F. Kennedy later saying, “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion as that one.” Humanity, having a common sense of what is unjust, tragic, heroic, terrifying, and angering, felt the same reactive attitudes of indignation, profound sadness, compassion, horror, and rage, toward the same respective objects — the oppression in Vietnam, the cause of the monks, and Thích himself. Within weeks, waves of people around the world assembled to protest in solidarity with the monks. Kennedy, who had been promoting Diem’s regime, withdrew support. Humanity experienced the same reactive attitudes toward the persecution of the monks, forming a shared goal to end their suffering. Just a few months later, President Diem was overthrown in a rebellion, and the oppressive government was replaced. Humanity coordinated, and accomplished a  significant moral aim.

There are too many striking things contained in this event for one to unravel thoroughly, but one which particularly hit me is how people, of all stripes and cultural backgrounds around the world, felt the same reactive attitudes when they viewed the image. This easily could have failed to obtain. Suppose, for example, that Thích had decided on a different method of martyrdom, perhaps using a gun or a samurai sword, instead of fire. Had he used a gun, would the population in the U.S have felt the same reactive attitudes as another nation’s population, given our particular feelings about guns and suicide? Would the people in Japan have experienced the same reactive attitudes as the French, had he used a samurai sword? Moreover, what if Thích hadn’t sat still as he self-immolated, but rather expressed his pain by rolling on the ground? Would the world have reacted with the particular set of unified reactive attitudes that it did?

But things get even more interesting when you contrast this event with the collective reactive attitudes of the population of the U.S, throughout its history. Citizens of all backgrounds, having a common sense for what is tragic and unjust, reacted to the Pearl Harbor attacks with compassion for their fellow citizens and allies around the world, and anger toward the Axis powers. When the Pentagon Papers were released by Daniel Ellsberg during the U.S invasion of Vietnam, the citizens largely reacted in solidarity with him, feeling collective indignation toward the U.S government and the war of aggression. But these things make one wonder: why, when “we the people” were presented with the image of Donald Trump’s candidacy for President in 2016, did we not feel collective disgust, repugnance, and moral outrage? If humanity had a common sense for what is repugnant, ugly, and morally abhorrent — with respect to the situation in South Vietnam — why didn’t our common sense for these things ignite in us the same reactive attitudes during the 2016 election? Why did we not react with unity to the image of Trump, the way humanity did to Thích’s self-immolation? We certainly are capable of coordinating, but on this occasion, we did not.

P.F Strawson, inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas in Philosophical Investigations, popularized the notion of reactive attitudes in his landmark paper “Freedom and Resentment.” Reactive attitudes are our automatic sentimental responses to things we encounter. We laugh at jokes while leaning forward and holding our stomachs, the automatic behavior indicating that we sense that the joke is funny. We cry in movies and shed tears. We grow angry reading literature and clench our fists. We feel wonder, inspiration, and awe at art and dance, and our eyes widen and our mouths hang open, as we sense that the works are beautiful.

Strawson was interested in the question of how we come to hold people morally responsible for their actions, and this led him into a detailed discussion about our moral reactive attitudes — resentment, disgust, compassion, approval, disapproval, etc. — and the conditions under which they are apt. What he was not interested in, however, was the question of how we come to have the patterns of reactive attitudes that we do. How do we acquire a common sense of what is beautiful, such that many of us will feel the reactive attitude of awe, together? 

It is one thing to ask about the general causes of these reactive attitudes I have alluded to; it is another to ask about the variations to which they are subject, the particular conditions in which they do or do not seem natural or reasonable or appropriate; and it is a third thing to ask what it would be like, what it is like, not to suffer them. I am not much concerned with the first question; but I am with the second; and perhaps even more with the third (Strawson, 1962; my emphasis).

What I have been calling a common sense, broadly, is what I take to structure our patterns of reactive attitudes. It is a shared set of rules for which sorts of things are funny, beautiful, infuriating, etc. If you and I cry at the same scene in a play, then we have a common sense of what is sad, and our tears reflect our sense of that property in the object. If we crouch down together and hold each other in fear when a loud noise booms above us, then we have a common sense of what is dangerous; we will sometimes co-react to the same objects — loud booms (even artificially emitted ones). As long as we have at least one object that we co-react to, we share some common sense, with respect to the relevant property. 

Common Sense: A shared set of rules for what is dangerous, respectable, disgusting, ugly, friendly, etc. which structure patterns of co-reactivity toward the same kinds of objects, in groups of people, from certain perspectives.

What it means to have a common sense from a certain perspective is something like this. As parents, we have a common sense of what is dangerous: local child abduction, pedophilia, unemployment, online bullying, etc. We have a perspective as parents, then, insofar as we have our own set of objects that we have acquired a common sense for, as parents.

As citizens of the U.S, we have a very different common sense of what is dangerous — ISIS, police brutality, North Korea, Russia, etc. While we don’t have direct access to these things through perception (most U.S citizens can’t see North Korea), mention of them will bring about reactive attitudes of fear in us when we are engaging with the world as citizens.

When we take a perspective as parents — perhaps when playing with our children at the park — we are concerned with child abduction, sharp objects, and bullies, not threats from Russia. When we go as citizens to meet with our congresswoman about climate change reform, we will be concerned with more national issues. The citizens of another country may not share our common sense of what is nationally dangerous, and so they may not manifest any reactive attitude toward these things when they are mentioned. Of course, we also have a common human sense of certain things — remember that, ceteris paribus, all of humanity, when presented with the image of Thich’s self-immolation, felt compassion, fear, horror, anger, and sadness.

We feel patriotism toward the flag, pride in our national accomplishments, awe at our national attractions (New York City skyline, California beaches, etc.), and fear toward terrorism. We reacted together and went to war as a nation, when we were attacked on December 7th, 1941. 

II. Coordination and Common Sense

But what happens if we don’t share a common sense? Or if we share a common sense but they are  incongruous? To not share a common sense would be to fail to have the relevant perspective. For example, in some tribes, there are no governments, only friends, family, and tribesman. As such, they might not have a citizen perspective, since they never co-react to objects as citizens. If I were to view a newspaper article with them containing a headline about Police Brutality, as a citizen I react with sympathy toward the brutalized citizens and anger toward the brutalizing state-agents, they will look at me with raised eyebrows, confused by my reaction. Despite their confusion, coordination, here, is at least possible. I could engage in practices with them as a tribesman, and acquire their common sense. We could eat, dance, and drink together, waking up later and viewing their artworks together. They could also engage in practices with me and some of my fellow citizens, and acquire our common sense. 

But to have incongruous common senses is much worse. For this means that we have the relevant perspective as citizens, but we attach incompatible reactive attitudes toward the same objects. Conservatives, for example, react to Barack Obama with anger, but liberals react with joy. These are incompatible in the sense that coordination is not possible between them. if a conservative and a liberal hear mention of “Barack Obama,” the former will grow angry and the latter will grow happy. So when someone asks them to sign a petition promoting Obama’s healthcare reform, the conservative will balk and refuse, and the liberal will joyfully pen his signature. The inverse will happen if a conservative asks them to sign a petition against Obamacare. They are incapable of having a shared goal — promoting or denigrating Barack Obama — and thus cannot coordinate. Additionally, how are they to work together even if they could share a goal — by coercion, perhaps — if their citizen common senses are so strongly incongruous that they have incompatible reactive attitudes toward all relevant political objects (climate change, GMO’s, police brutality, immigration, etc.). How are they to work together if what makes one citizen angry makes the other joyful, in all circumstances, and vice versa.

Given the need for coordination amongst citizens, acquiring a congruous common sense to some degree is paramount. We must have reactive attitudes that make shared goals possible, such that we feel some “spiritual union” when we encounter objects of political concern. Otherwise, we will be unable to coordinate with unity, to accomplish imperative ends, when major concerns for us, as citizens, arise. Fortunately, we usually have some degree of common sense, as citizens, but how do we acquire it? 

III. Emotional Communication and Spiritual Union

I think that an interpretation of Leo Tolstoy’s theory of art (Tolstoy, 1897) can help to answer our question. Tolstoy recognized art as a means of emotional communication between human beings. For him, something is a piece of art when it elicits shared reactive attitudes in the viewers, which the artist intended to elicit. 

“ Art is not… pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well‐being of individuals and of humanity…. however poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it)…. And if men lacked this other capacity of being infected by art, people might be almost more savage still, and, above all, more separated from, and more hostile to, one another… And therefore the activity of art is a most important one, as important as the activity of speech itself and as generally diffused (Tolstoy, 1897, p. 4)”

Crucially, the artwork is only successful if the audience, upon viewing the piece, undergoes those reactive attitudes together toward the same object, such that they feel what Tolstoy calls “spiritual union,” both with their fellow viewers and the artist. They all co-react, and sense that they are co-reacting, toward that object. An audience watching Saving Private Ryan sobs together, and feels that they are sobbing together (one can hear it), when Tom Hank’s character weeps over the loss of a young, brave, and loyal soldier under his command. All of the audience members who feel this “spiritual union” of sadness in the scene have undergone a reactive attitude toward the same object, and sensed that they were co-reacting. Now, they have a common sense of what is sad — the loss of an American soldier. They will feel sadness, together, when they are later informed of American casualties in war, or see similar images, or hear similar sounds. Engaging in the practice of co-reacting with one’s fellow citizens is what instills a common sense of what is sad for us, qua citizens.

If we accept this interpretation of Tolstoy’s view, we have an answer to the question that P.F Strawson was less interested in — how we come to have the pattern of reactive attitudes that we do, as citizens. We must congregate with our fellow citizens, and co-react to the same works of art. In this way, we acquire a common sense of what is beautiful, ugly, tragic, heroic, and so on. 

As adult citizens, we continue to acquire and maintain our common sense, then, by attending public museums of history and art, we read literature in book clubs, view comedy on national platforms, and watch movies together. When we co-react to these artworks together as citizens, we strengthen our common sense. But this kind of maintenance and updating of our adult citizen common sense is only minor, like trying to build muscle after already having reached your peak. Where we get the foundation of our congruous common sense, so to speak, is in Public Education, as children. As a generation of future citizens.

IV. Public Education

Discussion around what the aims of education are have frequently revolved around a few things — Truth, Critical Thinking, Understanding, or Virtue, of some kind or another (Goldman (1999); Siegel (1988); Elgin (1999); Brighouse (2008)). But isn’t it clear that these are but some of the things we acquire a common sense for when we attend public school. None take priority over the others, and none are the “true aim” of education. Among many other things. we must have a congruous common sense for which sorts of things are true, credulous, and reasonable, respectively. Otherwise, we will reach stalemates with regard to issues like climate change. Conservatives will react with incredulity to assertions that climate change is happening and will end us, and liberals will react with complete credulity. They will have an incongruous common sense of epistemology, as citizens. 

What is important to note, here, is that it matters less on my view, whether our congruent common sense of what is true or credulous in fact tracks the Truth. Since my view prioritizes making coordination possible, we can strive to teach the Truth, but what matters is simply ensuring that the children develop some congruent common sense of epistemology, not necessarily any particular one, so that they are capable of having shared goals. We will have to discuss, democratically, what that common sense will be, and continue to discuss it, as society develops. Of course, being able to do this requires that we be coordinated.

The same goes for Virtue. We must have some degree of congruent common sense of what is good, courageous, caring, just, etc. in order to coordinate. We must be able to engage each other in moral discourse, and if I want to argue to you that it is just to allow war-torn political refugees to enter our country, we must have some objects in our citizen common sense of what is just, in order to get traction. Otherwise we will react incongruently to all proffered cases in the discussion.

But in addition to Virtue and Epistemology, we go to school and, by standing and pledging allegiance to the flag, and discussing U.S history, acquire a common sense of what is patriotic and shameful (assuming a free educational system). We also read literature, and when we discuss the texts and co-react to them together, we acquire a common sense of what is sad, important, inspiring, patriotic, courageous, etc.. We go on field trips to public museums and begin to enter into spiritual union with our artistic ancestors, and with other fellow citizens, developing our congruent common sense. When we return to the classroom, we talk about the art, and in co-reacting with our peers, we modify and mold our common sense, as a generation of future citizens, hopefully in a congruent manner. 

It might be objected that this view is reckless, that its disregard for whether our common sense of epistemology actually tracks truth, or whether our citizen common sense of morality tracks facts about what is right and good. But to me, this represents more of an anxiety more than an objection, for it strikes me that a society can never ensure that they will not go astray, and create suffering. As we know, even with the most noble of intentions, the best laid plans of mice and men may go awry. All that a society can do is put into place the conditions under which we can coordinate. Yes, we may fail. We may war with one another, become extinct from denying climate change, or die in nuclear war. Perhaps worse, we may engage in horrendous acts of aggression, as a nation, colonizing and imperializing other groups of people, over a sustained amount of time.

But we also may band together to achieve flourishing. We may combat injustice — the evils of Nazi Germany, our own injustices in Vietnam, and the oppression of the Monks oversees. So long as we are capable of coordination, we are capable of achieving both Tyranny and Flourishing. Most likely, we will hover in between these states. But one thing is certain, if we are not coordinated, we will be unable to have shared goals, rendering us unable to take the risk of making a difference in the world, of trying to flourish. 

V. The Freedom to Risk, The Chance of Flourishing

“… who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?… Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘what a ride!’ -Hunter Thompson

There is an age-old response to the problem of evil which captures a sentiment I’m after, even if the response itself is inadequate at a theological level. The problem of evil is this — how could an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God allow evil to exist? If he (or she) is all all powerful, all knowing, and all good, then he knows when, where, why, and how evil is going to happen, and he has the power to stop it. Yet evil exists. But if he is all good, this shouldn’t be so. Therefore, no God with such properties exists. 

The standard reply given by your local pastor will be this: God, in being all good, gave us free will, and with that comes the possibility of evil. We are free to make choices, and since we aren’t all good, we will be wicked, and create evil. Evil becomes not only possible, but in all likelihood inevitable, if we are to have free will.

As reply to the problem of evil the argument is weak, since it only accounts for man-made evil (war, murder, etc.), but not natural evils (hurricanes and earthquakes, those sorts of thing). But the sentiment that the reply expresses — that human freedom, of a certain kind, requires the possibility of evil, is an important one. To live freely in this sense, human beings must be capable of taking risks, togetherIf you are excited about an idea, and can’t go to anyone to discuss it, develop it, and publish it, are you free to impact an audience? If every time you’re late to work, you get yelled at and fired immediately, are you free to pursue a career? To pursue your ambitions?

This notion of ability to take risk, is intended at the collective level. An individual is only free to take risk, in this sense, if she is able to coordinate with others to achieve a goal. As such, this sense of freedom is one that is dependent on others. An individual can’t be free unless others are capable of coordinating with her, such that she can co-react with them, fired up, excited, running together to achieve an end. 

Here’s an example. Suppose you want to be an activist, to try changing society for the better, but you know that this involves public scrutiny into your personal life, including your family’s life. But you won’t do it unless they know the risks, for them, involved in your taking this action, and they still choose to support you. When you tell your family of your plans, and that this may imply disruptive public scrutiny into their lives, it is only if they share a common sense of what is important, or caring, with each other and with your — only if we enter into “spiritual union” —  will they agree. Sometimes, all this will mean is that we have a common sense of what is important, which includes what my family members want to do. 

When you become an activist, you may fumble, and as public scrutiny mounts, they may falter. You all could end up committing great evils! But you can only take the risk of being the activist — trying to change your society for the better — if you can rely on your family; if you have a strongly congruent common sense, such that they will share your goal with you, and will react congruently, with courage and care when you ask for their support. If you can coordinate with others, you are able to rely on them, and therefore to take your risk with them. Thomas Paine, in his pamphlet Common Sense, expressed this idea clearly:

Four or five united would be able to raise a tolerable dwelling in the midst of a wilderness, but one man might labour out the common period of life without accomplishing anything… (Paine, p.2, 1776).

Public Education ensures the political freedom that we ought to have as citizens — the ability to take risk, together, as a nation. Four or five united may be able to create shelter, but a nation can reach the moon, create cities and skyscrapers, and overcome evil. I don’t mean to imply that making coordination possible is all education can do, or does, but I think it serves a primary function that we, as citizens, pay for. If we pay federal taxes for something, it should have a public interest. Coordination strikes me as something of utmost public interest. Indeed, how could we have “public interests,” without it?

This view of Public Education also tells us why segregating schools, in any sense of the term — even if there were a totally just distribution of resources amongst the groups — should, in principle, never occur. To segregate schools — e.g blacks and whites — is to render these groups incapable of coordination, as citizens. It is to leave it merely to chance whether the common sense of the black citizens and white citizens will be congruent, instead of ensuring that there will be some degree of congruence. But as fellow citizens — governed by the same more powerful and potentially corrupt bodies — we must be capable of coordinating with each other, to have shared goals, to rise up against challenges together, co-reacting with congruence. 

The same applies to the privatization of education, which creates incongruous common senses between the rich and the poor. Wealthier kids will go to private school, and kids in poverty to public school. They are liable to being incapable of coordination, as citizens. If those who have no money are unable to coordinate with those who do, how will the rich and the poor be able to congruously co-react on a whole host of economic issues, like the 2008 housing crisis? Moreover, how can the poor ever take risks at all, if the only source of financial support is the benevolence of the rich, who have an incongruous common sense? Thomas Paine, I think, captured the idea with his description of the person who acts alone, without any support:

…when he had felled his timber he could not remove it, nor erect it after it was removed; hunger in the meantime would urge him from his work, and every different want call him a different way. Disease, nay even misfortune would be death, for though neither might be mortal, yet either would disable him from living, and reduce him to a state in which he might rather be said to perish than to die (Paine, p.2, 1776).

Alone we waste away, but coordinated we have the chance to flourish. A divided population, one with incongruous common senses — an uncoordinated citizenry — cannot rally to make progress in any direction. They cannot take collective risks, and they are not fully free. In this possible world, which I fear may be actual, our educational system has likely lost its way, succumbing to privatization or segregation, or chasing some particular aim, instead of coordinating us, grounding our ability to have shared aims at all, as a people. 


  1. Brighouse, H. (2008), Education for a flourishing life, Yearbook of the national society for the study of education, 107 (1), 58-71.
  2. Elgin, C. (1999), Education and the advancement of understanding, The proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, 3:131-140 
  3. Goldman, A. I., Knowledge in a Social World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  4. Paine, T. Common Sense, 1776.
  5. Strawson, P.F (1962) Freedom and Resentment, in Freedom and Resentment and other essays, Routledge, 1974.
  6. Tolstoy, L. What is Art?, Penguin Publishers, 1995.
  7. Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell Publishing, 2001.
  8. Siegel, H., Educating Reason: Rationality, Critical Thinking, and Education, London: Routledge, 1988.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s