By: Alexis Jimenez Maldonado
Meira Levinson, Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at Harvard and Co-director of our Graduate Fellowship program, is a normative political philosopher who works at the intersection of civic education, youth empowerment, racial justice, and educational ethics. She draws upon scholarship from multiple disciplines as well as her eight years of experience teaching in the Atlanta and Boston Public Schools in her work. She is currently working to start a global field of educational ethics, modeled in some ways after bioethics, that is philosophically rigorous, disciplinarily and experientially inclusive, and both relevant to and informed by educational policy and practice.
This conversation happened on October 21, 2021. The transcript of the interview has been edited for clarity.
Alexis Jimenez Maldonado: You have been a part of the Center since 2015. Your roles have included being a part of the faculty committee, co-directing the Graduate Fellowship Program, and now directing the Design Studio for our ethics and civics education work. Can you talk about the evolution of your time and roles here at the Center?
Meira Levinson: I basically became associated with the Center when Danielle [Allen] came on board as director. It's been a joy to come to understand the Center and its different forms. As a member of the faculty advisory board, I've learned a lot about the different ways in which people think about what the roles, responsibilities, and capacities for impact the Center for Ethics has at Harvard in particular, but then also nationwide and globally. I’ve learned a ton, and been inspired to think more carefully about the relationships among ethical scholarship, ethical behavior, and ethical teaching across multiple disciplines.
Relating to my role as the co-convener of the graduate fellowship, it is fun every year to see students grapple with the normative dimensions of their work, particularly if they are coming from disciplines or departments where normative considerations may be more implicit rather than explicit. Our graduate fellows apply to us in part because they want to have the opportunity to think in above-ground ways about the ethical dimensions of their work and it is exciting to see that happen. I also get to learn a ton from our graduate fellows: how people used “disaster astrology” in early modern Europe to claim epistemic, normative, and political authority; the ethics of metropolitan climate change planning; theories of punishment in ancient Greece; how surgeons are taught to think about mistakes – the list could keep going! The graduate students are phenomenal, and they have a wide range of interests, so that keeps it really fun for me, too. I've especially appreciated learning more about science and technology studies and about design since these are far outside my expertise.
The Design Studio gives me the opportunity to pull all of those things together. It is new, so I don't know yet what my experiences in the Design Studio are going to be exactly, but the Design Studio brings together research initiatives, faculty, students, and staff who are thinking really hard about the intersections between ethics and civics research, learning, and practice. We are doing this work in a way that's not like, “we here from on high at Harvard are going to come tell you what to think and do,” but instead is really iterative and collaborative, in which we have mutual learning, mutual exchange of ideas, a system of trying things out and modifying as we go. That's a model I've always believed in my own practice, and it's really exciting to see this model also be one that we're trying to flesh out and build at the Design Studio.
AJM: As co-director of the graduate fellowships and an advisor for several of our recent Ethics Pedagogy Fellows, can you share your perspective on the graduate students that are in our community at EJSCE? Has anything stood out to you about the graduate fellows over the years?
ML: The graduate fellows are smart and really humane. They tend to be passionate about what they are doing, but also passionate about being good people in the world. They are excited to build community with other graduate students and with our faculty fellows as well. It's a little circular and self-serving to say that I find them fascinating and wonderful because, of course, Mathias and I usually choose the graduate fellows. But, in the context of the seminars, for example, they respond to each other with such generosity of spirit. They really try to understand where their colleagues are coming from, while also asking them provocative and useful questions that will often transform their work.
The ethics pedagogy fellows have been a real pleasure and privilege to work with. I think it's also exciting for them to see how people from other disciplines and experiences makes sense of and construct what it’s like to teach ethics. There’s been a really good exchange around simulations in particular because of intersections among Chris [Robichaud’s] work, the normative case studies and digital ethical simulation we have created in EdEthics, Jake [Fay]’s work through the Intercollegiate Civil Disagreement Partnership [ICDP], and Alison Simmon and Jeff Behrend’s work with Embedded EthiCS. I think the graduate Ethics Pedagogy Fellows approach their work with a real sense of creativity, curiosity, and enthusiasm for mutual learning.
AJM: Your work is at the intersection of civic education, youth empowerment, racial justice, and educational ethics. Could you talk about EdEthics and how your work might connect to the Center and its mission?
ML: EdEthics is my slow-moving but persistent and tenacious attempt to create a field of educational ethics. It is modeled after bioethics in many ways, in that it both has the capacity to inform and is informed by educational policy and practice. Part of that means actually developing new and better theory. I see this as super-connected to the EJ Safra Center in its current form, because it focuses on both civic and ethical learning and engagement, which is at the heart of Danielle's leadership, and these are also core to the initiatives that are part of the Design Studio.
EdEthics is also tied to who we are as an educational institution and what our responsibility is as a center for ethics at a university. It harkens back to the Center's founding and the visionary leadership under Dennis Thompson. It’s really trying to create a conversation, field, and institutionalization of ethics in the education profession; these are goals that are inspired by the model that Dennis himself has articulated. By being in real conversation with the field and with the professionals in practice, I think of EdEthics as continuing as a tradition that the Safra Center has modeled for decades.
AJM: When I asked my fellow EJSCE colleagues for input or ideas about this interview, I heard from them that you are someone who takes the work of ethics and applies it elsewhere; they praised your ability to reach outside of the university. Is having this seemingly outward facing approach to scholarship something that you see inherent to your work?
ML: I spent a long time outside the academy in between finishing my dissertation and becoming a professor, and that practical experience beyond the university informs almost everything I do as a scholar and as a person. When I was earning my doctorate, although I loved the work I was doing, my basic thought was that if I'm not going to be John Stuart Mill or John Rawls or John Locke (one of the “Johns”?!) then I should do something that felt more concretely meaningful in the world. I felt like I had been incredibly privileged by my upbringing, and by the opportunities and choices that I had in the world, and it didn’t make sense to squander that privilege by becoming an adequate political theorist. I loved to teach and so I became a public school teacher. I taught middle schoolers for nearly a decade. I taught in the Atlanta Public Schools for three years, then in the Boston Public Schools for another three years. I then spent two years as a postdoc thanks to the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Afterwards, although I think most people expected I would use the postdocs to jump into a professorship, I returned to the Boston Public Schools and taught for another two years.
It was only quite slowly and reluctantly that I then returned to academia for good—and I did so for lifestyle reasons, truthfully, as being a Harvard professor is way, way easier than being a public middle school teacher. As a professor, I can eat lunch and go to the bathroom when I want to, I can walk the dog in the middle of the day, and I can stay home with my kids when they’re sick without having to stay up into the middle of the night writing sub plans and grading students’ work. I could never do those things when I was a school teacher!
But even since I returned to the academy, I am always driven by questions of educational practice and policy, not by questions of pure theory. During my postdocs, for instance, I drafted most of the manuscript for what became No Citizen Left Behind, but then I waited to publish it because I needed to see if the elevated thoughts that I had been thinking during my two years of postdocs were actually meaningful, relevant, and stood up to my experiences once I was back in the Boston Public Schools. That real-life test always drives me.
I’ve now been on the Harvard faculty for 14 years, so clearly I’ve made my peace with being an academic rather than a practitioner. And I’ve done so knowing that I am never going to be a 21st century John Rawls or John Locke or John Stuart Mill (for a whole bunch of reasons!). But I feel okay about that because I no longer aspire to do high theory. Of course, one reason that Locke, Mill, and Rawls are also so influential was that, in many ways, they didn't either. What they were doing was theory that spoke directly to their time, but in a way that was so well theorized that their works have had a very long life since. I don’t kid myself that my own work will live on the way that theirs has. But if I can get a field of educational ethics established, then that will have some lasting impact, I hope. And in the meantime, I hope I can help educators, policy makers, parents, and others on the ground and in the field figure out some answers to deep questions that matter to them. Or, if the questions can’t be answered, at least I can help them work out good processes and practices for reflecting on those questions with others in wise and productive ways.
AJM: Your multimedia case study (accessible here for Harvard Key holders) on educational ethics just won a major international award. Congratulations! I know there were several points of connection with the EJSCE community in developing this case and also in using it with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Can you tell me a little about the experience, and what the impact has been so far?
ML: We're really thrilled about the recognition that Promotion vs. Retention is receiving, and yes, support from Ethics Pedagogy Fellows has been key to its success! Maya Cohen and Tatiana Geron both contributed enormously to the development, implementation, and distribution of the case. They’ve tackled tough pedagogical challenges but also done amazing work navigating the technical side of SCORM packages, learning management system platforms, click data capture, and creation of visually appealing dashboards, as well as created facilitation guides, led professional development sessions with CPS educators, and presented about the case to colleagues.
Right now, the case is being used in a variety of universities like The Ohio State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Harvard, Marquette, McGill, University of Toronto, and elsewhere. It’s freely available, so I expect this list to grow a lot as we actually start to publicize the case, which we haven’t really done yet; it’s just been by word of mouth so far.
Then as you mentioned, we have this partnership with the Chicago Public Schools where we piloted the case with 160 CPS educators in March 2021. Frankly, it was a humongous success. The educators loved it. Also importantly, we have evidence that they learned and grew from completing the case and participating in the conversations that we led with them. They're eager for more such learning, and so I’m excited to be expanding our partnership with CPS this coming year. It was also a great opportunity for us to learn from the CPS educators’ participation. Nearly all of them consented to participate in research, so we were able to collect rich data and answer some really important research questions about their learning, their levels and forms of engagement, how they think about values, how they related their values to their recommended actions, whether and if so how their professional and personal backgrounds impacted their approach to the case and to the discussion, and a bunch of other questions. We shared a series of five reports with our CPS partners, and are just now starting to write up an empirical research paper about what we learned.
I'm really excited at where the case is, but also even more excited about where I think it could be. We have a lot of interest from universities in Spain, Mexico, and Argentina if we can get it translated to Spanish. There's also interest in using it in professional development and university settings in China, if we can get it translated into Chinese. Because the case is about a really ordinary dilemma—what to do with a student who is over-age and a hard worker, but academically underprepared to move on to the next grade—it could be used in a really wide variety of settings and contexts.
I'm also excited that we are now also able to collect data from anybody who uses the case and consents to us holding on to their data for purposes of research (which is anonymized). We're building a large dataset from users in all kinds of different contexts. With this, we can start learning about people’s ethical reasoning that affect their feelings when they confront hard ethical problems. We can also learn about what kinds of ideas, values, principles, and approaches they take for ethical decision making and how those relate to contextual features of where they are studying, working, or whom they work with. This case—and other multimedia cases like it, if I can find funding to make more of them!—has the capacity to open up whole new avenues for research into ethical development and decision making, as the data from the real-time simulations allow us to see into the black box of people's ethical reflection and action. I think this could be a game-changer from both a teaching and learning and a research perspective, if we can find ways to expand the initiative. In the meantime, I'm happy that undergraduates, graduates, teachers, school administrators, and district leaders are finding this a worthwhile case to engage with.
AJM: Do you have any projects on the horizon?
ML: Ethics Pedagogy Fellow Ellis Reed and I are working together to create an online course version of an international workshop about normative case study research and writing that he, Jacob Fay, Tatiana Geron, and I developed last spring. Thanks to support from Radcliffe, we led a synchronous version of the workshop with about fifteen scholars from around the world in June 2021. The participants from that workshop have all been producing normative case studies that we will publish on my website, JusticeInSchools.org, as well as in a book on equity in international education. Because that workshop went so well, Ellis and I are working together this year on expanding the workshop and turning it into a mostly asynchronous course that will be much more globally available. We are hoping to pilot a version of the course this spring.
When she was an Ethics Pedagogy Fellow, Tatiana Geron also helped Jacob Fay and me direct a project on Educational Ethics During a Global Pandemic. As part of that project, we led conversations with over 120 educators from around the world about the ethical dilemmas they've been wrestling with while educating under COVID-19. The educators really appreciated the conversations themselves, and we’re now also trying to finish up some research papers for publication based on the project, as well as to develop resources for educators in the form of normative case studies. I’m hoping we’ll have at least two new case studies this spring; we may also use them in our partnership with Chicago if they think they’ll be useful. Some of the cases coming out of the international case writing workshop are also focused on ethical dilemmas arising during COVID; it’s possible we will therefore pull together a book of cases and essays specifically around educating during a global pandemic, although I frankly hope that this will be less useful in a year or two than unfortunately it still is now!
And speaking of normative case studies, I’m really excited about the new cases we’ll be publishing on JusticeinSchools.org over the next few months. In addition to the cases coming out of the international case writing workshop, HGSE alum Sara O’Brien has been working on a bunch of cases that former students have written and that she and I have written together; we recently published one on Taking the Action Out of Civics? and another (lead-authored by Ellis Reid) on the Varsity Blues case and the ethics of college admissions in an era of hyperinequality. As I mentioned earlier, I'm also really hoping to expand our library of multimedia cases now that this first one has succeeded so well as a proof of concept. I’d really like to develop at least five or six. We have about forty cases that we could draw from; we've identified about ten that would be a good basis for future multimedia cases. So I’m spending some of my time these days trying to figure out how to fundraise to create a suite of multimedia cases. Once we have that up and running, it would transform the kind of professional development courses, micro-courses, and micro-credentialling that we could do in educational ethics, educational administration, teaching – all sorts of areas!
AJM: You have recently stepped into the role of Faculty Director for the Design Studio, succeeding Danielle Allen, the Founding Faculty Director. Could you talk about the work being done at the Studio and how you are adjusting to the role?
ML: We had a retreat in early October that enabled us to get to know each of the participants and our work. We discovered a huge number of synergies among the various initiatives and project leads, which is great.
We found that we have really clear ties in terms of both content and methods. We are all working on issues of civic and ethical learning across the life span: from late elementary and middle school through college and graduate school and into professional and civic life among adults. This was something that Danielle saw and helped to formulate when she founded the Design Studio, but I’m not sure it was as clear to the rest of us until we dug into each initiative at the retreat. So part of what I’m hoping to do now that I’ve taken on the Design Studio directorship is to help us build on each other’s insights about lifelong learning in the civic and ethical domains so we create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and that helps others see civic and ethical development in a new way across the lifespan, too.
All the Design Studio initiatives also have this common way of working that is very much informed by constant conversation with the field. We each work in an iterative cycle around problem definition, attempted intervention, and collective design research and reformulation, and we are all really committed to sharing our work with others rather than holding on tight to it. We're trying to build dissemination, scaling up, and shared ownership into the initial design of the work rather than tacking them on later. Again, this was an insight that Danielle had early on that the rest of us are coming to a bit more belatedly, but I’m really looking forward to the work we plan to do formulating our methods more clearly, for ourselves and for others, this spring.
In December, we’re starting monthly lab meetings for Design Studio members where we will come together to share problems of practice. We will also spend time at the end of each lab meeting thinking about what our learning during that meeting means for our collective work in the Design Studio more broadly. I’m excited to see what comes out of these meetings. Who knows, we might decide that we need a design-oriented building over the next three or five years!
AJM: Another staff question: what has it been like to be married to an epidemiologist [Marc Lipsitch] during a global pandemic? How has that influenced your work on expanding educational ethics to address the ethical challenges posed by school closures, reopening, remote schooling, etc.?
ML: Being married to an epidemiologist during the pandemic is both a blessing and a curse. On the blessing side, I have felt since the very start as if I knew as much as anybody could know about the science and the public health of the disease. I have been as informed as anybody could be about whether or not we should be washing our groceries (which we never did), seeing people outside (which we always did), and holding birthday parties (which was always very confusing). But of course there is so much that epidemiologists themselves haven't known. In that respect, it's not as if I was necessarily knowledgeable; I just knew that there wasn't anybody else I could turn to for more knowledge.
I think the curse is that we have been living COVID 24/7 for nearly two straight years, since Marc really started focusing on it as early as January 2020. Especially for our kids, there really hasn't been an escape, since home is as dominated by conversations about COVID as the outside world is. But they've been amazing and really understanding, even though it does impose some pressure.
It’s also been fun—or at least engaging—to collaborate with Marc during this time. He introduced me to an epidemiologist colleague of his at University of St. Andrews, Muge Cevik, and the three of us co-authored an article for the New England Journal of Medicine about the ethics of school closures and opening in COVID. Oddly, the other article he and I wrote together (along with Nick Evans), on the ethics of gain of function research, has also been relevant to COVID. I'm sure I would not have gotten into any of this work nearly as much as I did had I not been married to him. And, you know, I love being married to Marc. So since being an epidemiologist is who Marc is, I guess I must love being married to an epidemiologist!
AJM: What are your current hobbies?
ML: Knitting, swimming, and biking – and oddly, I’m still baking bread (usually during Zoom meetings!) even that’s now oh so first-wave of the pandemic. I desperately wish I were back to playing double bass and cello; I’ve played bass since I was ten and cello for about 20 years, and I miss them both a ton. The problem is that I can’t multitask and practice the bass during meetings!
AJM: Do you have a podcast or show that you are currently listening to/watching?
ML: I've been very belatedly watching The Crown. I’m finally in the middle of season four. I'm finding it totally fascinating and repellent, but really fascinating and very well acted. I'll also say that my 15-year-old got me to watch Shadow and Bone with her and I’ve been enjoying watching Jane the Virgin together with my 18-year-old.
AJM: What are you most excited about in the coming year?
I am really hoping that the combination of higher vaccination rates plus new anti-COVID therapeutics will enable us all to go back to a much more social and a less complicated life. And also that will enable us to start thinking about and addressing the other systemic issues in society that we would like to change!