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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Do Our Means Justify Our Ends?

Do Our Means Justify Our Ends?

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Indiana State University

Contributing as well,
Sethu Arumugam
Doctoral Candidate
Department of Educational Leadership
Indiana State University

I heard something this week that caught my ear.  In actuality, it was a statement of unintentional juxtaposition, and I found value in carrying through the thought processes that were inspired by its utterance.

We often hear the question, “Do the ends justify the means?”  Yet are we operating an American public school system where the reverse question has merit, “Do our means justify our ends?”

I shared a draft of this week’s Leadershop article with a few colleagues, one of which offered the following editorial commentary as a platform for discussion.  It is written by Indiana State University Doctoral Candidate, Sethu Arumugam, who is currently on assignment in the southern city of Chennai, India:

The intent of the saying, as I understand, is….

If “ends” are for a noble and just cause, it does not mean that one can use any “means” available to achieve even those noble-minded ends. If that is what it means, then shouldn’t the corollary also be true?  It should also mean that just because “means” are available, then it does not mean that one can pursue “any ‘end.’”

Whether it is having the support of the majority group, support of the business community, support of political power base, support of media that is willing to fall in line to advance a group’s agenda, a dictator willing to carry out a proxy war, etc., etc., “Are all various ‘means’ that could be available at one’s disposal?”  Such access to power and ability to shape outcomes comes with a responsibility in pursuing the “right” type of “outcomes” or “ends.”

In education, whether it is a “manufactured crisis” or “real crisis,” the current political climate provides the opportunities to address both the disenchantment and the disappointments that exist with some aspects of the status quo.  It sets the stage to provide the “means” to people in power and public domain to influence the desired outcomes or ends.  Having the “means” to influence the public sentiment does not mean that the opportunity should be squandered in waging a proxy war with parochial “ends.”
The future of our children, and by extension, the future of our country, is at stake when we talk about what type of educational system we want to continue to have in this country.  It needs to be a serious, thoughtful, and open-minded debate on all sides.  

Means and ends, both are equally important and need to be put on the opposite ends of the same weighing scale.  In other words, both should pass the morality tests.  If we don’t, then we are at the risk of getting conned by manufactured, noble-sounding ends. 

In the end, as much as ends don't justify means, means also don’t justify ends!

What of Sethu’s point?  Would you agree?  

Most I have spoken to concur, if by “justify” we define it as, “to prove to be right and reasonable.”  Yet, what if we used another definition – the second of two provided often --  “to give reason for …”? 

As Sethu did the first definition some justice in expansion, allow me to try my hand at the second.

The Means:

American schools operate under the principle of providing a free and appropriate education to students.  Through such, children are given the opportunity to attain the academic and occupational skills necessary for living personally meaningful lives, which are economically productive and socially responsible.  Toward that end, all children of school age are provided up to thirteen or more years of public education.

American schools do not differentiate, publicly, what is provided to children based on social class, economic status, or any other factors of race, color, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, marital status, national ancestry or origin, citizenship, or physical or mental disability.

Those are purported to be our means, de jure, anyway.

The Ends:

We have some incredible “ends” -- success stories across our nation of well-adjusted adults living self-actualizing lives, contributing economically to our society and raising children in that image.

Dr. Steve Gruenert, in conversation with me this week, mentioned as well the “ends” (results) of standardized testing.  He noted that according to many, these ends (the results shown through testing) are not going to change; thus, the means are always the point of scrutiny, as some would contend that we are perfectly aligned to get the results or ends we get.

What are these ends, that relate to Dr. Gruenert’s point? 

I would contend that these ends include egregious achievement gaps, and some would say the resultant economic disparity in a society where 46.2 million live in poverty (DeNavas-Walt & Proctor, 2012), and over 1 ½ million reside in our correctional institutions (Carson & Golinelli, 2013).

Granted other intervening variables to a certain degree effect (bring about) or justify those “ends,” can we say that our means, as we currently articulate them, are accurately portrayed?

I’m not sure I have an answer to these questions, except that my thoughts transcend points limited to the de jure.  

Exploratory Surgery on the Notion of “Justify”

I begin further exploration this week with a question: Do other, de-facto “means” exist within our nation’s school curriculum (what lurks beneath), and do they justify (give reason for) the ends listed above? 

Let’s particularize as we ponder:

To what degree are schools that expel students with no alternatives justifying our ends?

To what degree are teachers who refuse to modify, accommodate, or differentiate justifying our ends?

To what degree do schools that need posters reminding children of employability skills not spending enough time “living” the employability skills, and thus are justifying our ends?

To what degree is a system that provides systemic disincentives for educators to work with our most at-risk students justifying our ends?

To what degree is the predominantly Eurocentric instructional delivery style of teachers impinging upon the potential of offering instruction that is both culturally and ethnically relevant for students?

To what degree is a system that is allows the perception of mismanagement at all levels, yet particularly at the highest levels, inhibiting public support necessary for vitality and sustainability and thus, justifying our ends?

To what degree are punitive, statewide systems of school evaluation responsible for the atmospheres of distrust and brainstem behavior among adults that curtail risk-taking, problem solving, creativity, and the critical conversations needed for systemic improvements – thus justifying our ends.

My Confusion (as opposed to “Conclusion”):

The latter definition of “justify” [give reason for] seems psychologically, to be inescapably tethered in our minds with the former [to prove or show to be right or reasonable] -- for those of us in the children business, anyway.  It is almost as if we cannot talk about the one without lapsing into the other. I fall victim to that as well, and thus, with this inescapably a part of my writing this week, will further obfuscate with my final points.

When we as educators put the blame on parents, the media, and society for the lackluster performance and skill development that could be in part, responsible for “the ends” as we now experience them, are we saying that our current efforts are justifiable, given the raw materials we get? 

Justifiable … given the efforts that we expend? 
Justifiable … given the status quo as many defend?
Justifiable … given the bullies that still exist in our schools (I’m not talking about
the kids)? 
And justifiable … given an environment engendered through pundits who turn
public educators against one another and against potential partners in the
educational process?

Or … are they not?

Thus, we are left as we began, with a final question … then another, “Do ALL of our means as we are now delivering them, justify the ends that we are now living, both good and bad, in both senses of the definition?” 

 And … “Are we satisfied?”


Carson, E. C., & Golinelli, D. (2013). Prisoners in 2012 – Advanced Counts. NCJ 242467 Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs. Retrieved at

DeNavas-Walt, C., & Proctor, B. D. (2012). Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washingtonn, D.C. Retrieved at


Dr. Ryan Donlan has traveled a bit deeper this week and is not sure about the clarity of his piece, or pace.  He thanks Dr. Steve Gruenert for his thoughtful perspectives, as well as Sethu Arumugam, for the thought-provoking preface.  Please help extend this conversation if you desire by contacting Dr. Donlan at (812) 237-8624 or at  Thanks for staying with our complexity amidst its own ambiguity this week, within which we’re at times nestled.

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