May 16, 2011

this site is moving

After more than eight years at this address and more than more than seven years blogging with the same old version of MovableType software, I am shifting over to WordPress and a new blog homepage: If you follow this blog by bookmarking it or by RSS, please change your settings. (Here is the new RSS feed.) I will leave the old blog archives up for the time being, although they are reproduced in full on the new WordPress blog. After a while, I will make the old blog homepage "redirect" to the new one; then the page you are viewing will vanish.

Some advantages of the new WordPress blog: a whole new look (I was deadly tired of the old one), integration with Facebook and Twitter, a better commenting system, and a chance to rewrite and redesign all my static pages.

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May 13, 2011

why young people don't vote

This graph (using Census survey data from 2010) presents an interesting contrast:

Reasons Given for Not Voting, 2010

College students are much more likely to cite being out of town or away from home as the reason they didn't vote. That make sense: they tend to live away. Their peers who are not in college are somewhat more likely to cite a lack of interest or faith in the impact of their vote. They are also more likely to give miscellaneous "other" reasons.

We are aware of the limitations of survey data about reasons for non-voting. Individuals may not know or disclose their own true reasons. And some of the answers are ambiguous. For example, if you say that you were "too busy," does that mean that you absolutely could not get to the polls or that voting was a relatively low priority for you? (Would motivating you make any difference, or not?)

Still, this graph suggests that the obstacles to voting are quite different for current college students and for their more numerous contemporaries who are not in college.

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May 12, 2011

the ideological position of a pro-democracy campaign

Paul Evans, a democracy advocate in the UK, is intrigued by our Campaign for Stronger Democracy and explores the need for a similar coalition in his country. The British have Liberty, a major lobby for human rights and civil liberties, comparable to the American Civil Liberties Union, but that is not the same as a democracy lobby. Individual civil rights and positive opportunities to participate are mostly complementary, sometimes in tension, but certainly not synonymous. Democracy lacks an effective lobby on both sides of the ocean.

Paul asked his network for feedback and got some critical reactions:

The first one was that [the Campaign for Stronger Democracy] looked like a surrogate campaign for the US brand of left-liberalism. The focus has a clear appeal more to the US left than the right and one suspects that the demands for ‘democracy’ are for a version that wouldn’t have cross-partisan appeal in the US. The second problem my interlocutors suggested was that there aren’t the kind of agreed definitions of democracy in the UK that could make for an effective campaign without being hi-jacked...

Paul responds with a thoughtful list of 17 principles that, he thinks, define the democracy movement, are neutral ideologically, and deserve to be championed by some kind of campaign. Examples include: "Wider participation in policy formation is a good thing--it increases the public stake in collective decision-making." "Interest groups are good at achieving their aims at the expense of everybody else. These powers must be counterbalanced." The whole list is worth reading.

In the US, I see an important debate about the relationship between democratic or civic reform, on one hand, and partisanship and ideology, on the other. Some proponents of civic renewal regard it as ideologically neutral and scrupulously nonpartisan, an effort to improve our democratic processes that should be welcomed by well-meaning political activists across the spectrum. For instance, Martín Carcasson and his colleagues see "passionate impartiality" as one of the "Key Aspects of the Deliberative Democracy Movement" (which, while not identical to a civic renewal movement, bears a close resemblance to it).

Others view civic renewal as ideologically centrist, filling a gap between the hostile major political parties and appealing to moderate voters. For example, the Declaration of the No Labels campaign states, "We believe in the vital civil center."

Yet another group holds that civic renewal is the heir to participatory democracy in the 1960s--the decentralizing and populist impulses of the New Left--and is thus the best strategy to revive the political left, including Greens, democratic socialists, and left-liberals.

A few thinkers have argued that civic renewal is authentically conservative in its embrace of small, voluntary groups and local traditions.

These disagreements are by no means an embarrassment but represent an opportunity. Many different kinds of Americans can find a place in discussions of civic renewal and contribute their own insights. It would be a victory if the major political parties began to incorporate insights from their respective allies who are working on various flavors of civic renewal. We need to have a debate about what "democracy" means and how to promote it, much like the debates we already have about what "prosperity" means and how to attain that. The result will not be consensus but helpful competition.

Within the democracy field itself, we should expect the internal ideological debates to be heated and divisive, because the underlying disagreements are genuine and important. For instance, the Coffee Party split in 2011 when a faction committed to liberal economic and social reforms created Coffee Party Progressives as a left counterforce to the Tea Party. On behalf of the original Coffee Party, Eric Byler responded that, although he welcomed "an energetic, populist left" to participate, his vision was a broader, more ideologically diverse movement that would reduce political polarization. This kind of disagreement is to be expected, possibly even welcomed, but it will not always be pleasant.

For myself, I believe we need to pursue the cause of stronger democracy where it takes us, even if that makes us seem partisan or ideological because one party happens to agree with more of our principles than the other one does. My Ten Point for Civic Renewal plan is not all about neutral processes. I favor controversial policies, from charter schools to campaign finance reform, as means to strengthen citizenship.

On the other hand, speaking for myself, I do not think this is a liberal agenda. It challenges some prevailing elements of modern American liberalism, such as faith in expert-driven, centralized, regulatory solutions. In the field of education, for example, I support lots of local public participation in schools. Smart liberals like Jonathan Chait hold exactly the opposite position. Chait says that local control would strangle reform. "'Local control' almost invariably means letting a policy question be dominated by the strongest local economic interest, with no countervailing power. In education, the only real economic interest with skin in the game is the teachers' union." I don't want teachers' unions to exercise all power, but I see huge untapped potential in community engagement for better schools. To get citizens engaged means empowering them. That is far from a mainstream liberal view; it may even get a better hearing from today's conservatives.

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May 11, 2011

the university, a bud forever green

This is the beginning of Section II of William Carlos Williams' long poem Paterson (1946), which is a kind of portrait of the author's home city in New Jersey.

Robert Lowell confidently says that the "bud forever green / tight-curled, upon the pavement, perfect / in juice and substance but divorced, divorced / from its fellows" is the university, scholarship, or science, divorced from the city and its democratic life. I cannot vouch for that allegorical reading (bud=university), but the poem is surely about some kind of "divorce" between abstract thought and human needs. We know how things are going--badly enough to howl--but not why. Intelligence does not shape the flow; we watch coldly from afar.

These are challenging words for us who enjoy being inside that tight-curled bud.

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May 9, 2011

the promise and perils of volunteering

(Washington, DC): In lieu of a separate blog post, here is an interview of me with Youth Volunteer Corps. A few excerpts:

Do you have any anecdotal and/or quantifiable information about the impact that diversity has on the success of youth volunteer programs?

There is some evidence that students learn more when they work together with people who are different from themselves on community projects. (See this, for example.) There is also some evidence that it is harder to have frank discussions of pertinent issues when the group is diverse. In this paper for CIRCLE, David Campbell reports, “as the percentage of white students increases, black students are less likely to report that their teachers encourage political discussion in class, and as the percentage of black students increases, white students report less discussion in schools with a larger black population. In other words … teachers appear to shy away from the discussion of political and social issues in schools where students have divergent views.” That is a problem that requires constant and skillful attention. The best scenario may be a diverse group led by a skillful person (either an adult or a youth) who knows how to support frank yet civil discussions. But that situation appears to be rare.

Do you have any anecdotal and/or quantifiable information about how the “spirit” of a youth project impacts its success?

I think it is very important for the spirit of the program to match the real needs of a community and the values of the young people who serve. In this paper for CIRCLE, Michelle Charles finds that many African American teenagers from the inner city of Philadelphia are unmotivated by projects that involve street cleaning and graffiti-removal (to which they are frequently assigned), because they “see first-hand how the clean-up sites repeatedly become trash-strewn after all their organized efforts,” and because such work may seem to deserve pay by the city government. On the other hand, in the same study, African American youth were observed “thriving in their mentoring roles with younger children,” which they regarded as a path to long-term and fundamental change.

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a ten-point plan for civic renewal

In 2006, I proposed a Ten Point Plan for Civic Renewal: a set of policy proposals for the federal government. Reviewing that list recently, I found that one item had been accomplished (the expansion of AmeriCorps, only recently put in doubt by the House Republicans), but harmful decisions and developments have created new needs. Considering the current state of play, I would now propose the following Ten Point Plan:

1. Choose one grave national issue and use federal policy to support participatory, deliberative solutions. The issue could be, for example, the high school dropout rate, constantly rising costs of medical care, the loss of jobs and population in our post-industrial cities, childhood obesity, or the failure of policing and sentencing to deter crime. Regardless of the issue, the response would involve a substantial amount of decentralized decision-making and direct work by empowered local bodies that are supported with funds and education and held accountable for results. Youth would be recruited, trained, and rewarded to play important roles in both the discussions and the work.

To be sure, each social or environmental issue connects to others; people do not live within particular institutions such as high schools or clinics. However, the momentum for civic renewal is too weak to permit the federal government to use civic strategies broadly right away. Too few citizens and leaders are now demanding such strategies and are equipped to help implement them. A deep investment in one issue area would provide a high-profile model. At the same time, it would train and empower hundreds of thousands of active citizens, some of whom would later create or demand civic opportunities in other issue domains. For example, if the U.S. Department of Education (reversing twenty years of momentum in the opposite direction) were to delegate important decisions to empowered bodies of parents, teachers, students, and other residents, some members of those bodies would become active at the local level in related topics, such as crime and obesity. Many historical case studies indicate that the strongest impact of particular projects comes later, when participants start unanticipated initiatives of their own.

2. Pass the Fair Elections Now Act or a close equivalent. This legislation would provide clean public funding for candidates who were able to raise sufficient numbers of small private contributions to demonstrate a base of support. It would not only reduce corruption—in the broad (ethical, not legal) sense of that word—by making wealthy donors less influential; it would also articulate a public philosophy that money is problematic in politics. Money is not equivalent to speech and participation. What should count is the best argument, not the most cash.

3. Make voluntary national service a means to develop civic capacities. Early in the Obama Administration, Congress voted on a bipartisan basis to authorize the tripling of federal voluntary service programs (Americorps, Senior Corps, Peace Corps, and others). That was an important step that only became controversial after the Republican Congressional victories of 2010. Maintaining or expanding the size of national and community service is valuable, but at least as important is to make service programs opportunities for civic discussion and learning. Every participant should have opportunities to discuss and influence the strategies used in his or her service program and should be expected to obtain skills for deliberating, facilitating meetings, recruiting citizens, analyzing issues, and advocating publicly. To achieve that objective would require setting standards for learning across all the federal service programs.

4. Prepare a new generation of active and responsible citizens. People form attitudes and habits related to civil society when they are young and keep them for the rest of their lives. But civic education has been cut in most school systems, and there are too few opportunities for young people to learn through service and extracurricular activities. Congress should revive the small Learn & Serve America program that provides competitive grants for service-learning, eliminated in 2011 after 21 years of work. Congress should also restore funding for civic education in schools (eliminated in 2011), but direct the funds to organizations that test or expand innovative educational methods and rigorously evaluate their impact. Meanwhile, the Office of Civic Education within the U.S. Department of Education should be elevated from its current low status (within the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools) and given a leadership role in coordinating the civic education functions of all federal agencies, including the National Parks Service, the national endowment for the humanities and the arts, the Defense Department, and Homeland Security.

5. Put citizenship back in the civil service. Because of the looming retirement of Baby Boomers in public service, the federal and state governments face an enormous challenge in recruiting and hiring adequate numbers of highly skilled workers, even if they cut their payrolls because of budget cuts and efficiencies. The Partnership for National Service estimates that the federal government alone needs about 91,000 new employees every fiscal year for positions defined as "mission-critical." Governments’ need to attract and retain qualified civil servants creates an opportunity for civic renewal. Public sector jobs would become more attractive if they are were more creative, collaborative, and rewarding. Encouraging public employees to work in partnership with communities and civic groups would help. At the same time, government should declare that they are looking for employees with demonstrated experience and skills in deliberation, collaboration, and public work. By setting specific criteria for new employees, they could change curricula in colleges and universities.

6. Support charter schools, Community Development Corporations, watershed councils, and Federally Qualified Health Centers: These are examples of public institutions that have expanded opportunities for civic engagement. Citizens may found such organizations or help guide them by serving on their boards. Their structures vary in ways that matter for civic renewal. For example, a charter school that has a board composed of parents and community members promotes active citizenship more than a charter school dominated by its charismatic founder. A school that must accept students from a lottery promotes equity better than one that can select its student body. Thus, the government should sustain or expand support for these innovative institutions while also moving them in maximally "civic" directions.

7. Give the public a voice in policymaking. When members of Congress meet the public in open sessions misleadingly called "town meetings," they encounter polarized and mobilized members of advocacy groups, acting strategically. But when citizens are convened to discuss complex and divisive issues, majorities usually choose reasonable policies and almost all the participants report satisfaction with the process. A model is the national deliberation called "AmericaSpeaks: Our Budget, Our Economy," which convened 3,500 participants to develop budget outlines for the federal government in 2010. Participants, although highly diverse, shifted toward a mixed package of revenue increases and budget cuts. Ninety-seven percent thought that "People at this meeting listened to one another respectfully and courteously," and 81 percent thought that "Decision makers should incorporate the conclusions of this town meeting into federal budget policy."

To make such processes common and enhance their influence on policies and on the broader political culture, Congress should take two major steps. One would be to fund a high-profile deliberation on a divisive and important topic. The participants’ favored policy would come back to Congress as a bill requiring an up-or-down vote. The other important step would be to create an infrastructure that is ready to organize this and other public deliberations when needed. The infrastructure would consist of standards for fair and open public deliberations, a federal office that could coordinate many simultaneous forums and collect all their findings, and a list of vetted contractors that would be eligible to convene public deliberations with federal grants.

8. Use the Internet to make the regulatory process more deliberative. Regulation by administrative agencies has become a dominant mode of law-making, but it is problematic. Appointed officials lack the legitimacy to make explicit value-judgments, so rulemaking degenerates into a combination of bargaining and cost-benefit analysis that is not morally justifiable. Citizens’ voices can help, and administrative agencies have long been required to receive and formally consider public comments. But the influential comments tend to come from well-placed experts and stakeholders. In October 2002, the federal government launched eRulemaking, an initiative to allow the public to comment electronically on pending rules and to search and read others’ comments. The resulting system has won awards for technical excellence and for making government more accessible and transparent, but it still does not favor deliberative norms. Each comment is a separate communication to the government; participants do not exchange reasons, judgments, and evidence with one another. One important exception is the Peer-to-Patent website of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which encourages a community of volunteer reviewers to assess pending patent applications collaboratively. Assessing the merits of a patent claim is a relatively technical and non-ideological matter. The next step is to build similar websites that encourage users to discuss controversial that have come before federal agencies. The goal would not be consensus—which could suppress the right of individuals to petition the government in their own voice—but rather an illuminating public dialogue.

10. Launch a Civic Communications Corps: The metropolitan daily newspaper and its professional roster of reporters was a pillar of civil society for more than a century, complementing voluntary civic associations. Newspapers and traditional journalism are in dire condition. Without government’s help, citizens are creating diverse and interactive new forms of media—mostly online—to counteract the decline of the commercial news and entertainment businesses. But many Americans cannot participate in or benefit from these new media because they lack equipment and broadband access or the necessary skills to be creative online. Meanwhile, thousands of young adults (including many without college educations) have relevant skills, from highly technical expertise with computers and networks, to human relationships in their communities, to creativity with videos and music.

To take advantage of their potential, the government should launch a small new Civic Communications Corps within AmeriCorps. Full-time volunteers would be placed in community organizations to serve their communications needs and would also meet at the municipal level to work on city- or county-wide strategies for enhancing the flow of information and discussion. They would generate software, examples, training videos, and other resources for the rest of the national and community service world to use in serving public communications needs. College and universities would also be encouraged to use these tools to become communications hubs for their neighboring communities.

10. Incorporate immigrants into civic life. As a result of the great modern migration into the United States, more than one quarter of young Americans could be classified broadly as "immigrants" (having at least one parent born abroad). Despite variation among immigrant groups—and changes over the course of most immigrants’ lives—their levels of active civic engagement are lower than average, even once education and income are taken into consideration. Our goal should not be to wash out the distinctive aspects of immigrants’ political and civic cultures. On the contrary, communities that value immigrants’ distinctive contributions see much higher levels of immigrant civic engagement. But it will take investment and reform to raise their rates of civic participation. Two important steps would be to make the naturalization process a supportive education in civic engagement rather than a hurdle to be jumped, and to pass the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which would make undocumented young people eligible for financial aid.

The theory behind this Ten Point Plan is not that federal policy reforms can cause a renewal of civic life in America. Well-chosen reforms may provide some support for civic renewal in the form of financial incentives, legitimacy, publicity, relevant jobs, and training. Just as important, the successful pursuit of policy reforms may turn disparate and politically weak organizations into a movement.

The Voting Rights Act offers an analogy. Its passage did not (by itself) change the balance of political power in the United States. Separate from the law, the Civil Rights Movement had to educate, motivate, and register voters, recruit and develop political candidates, change the consciousness of African Americans and whites, reform the inner workings of the Democratic Party, and litigate for reforms in district maps, ballots, election dates, and many other details of the electoral system: a struggle that continues today. Nevertheless, the Voting Rights Act was a powerful tool for activists, and the struggle to pass it was a unifying and inspiring goal for the Civil Rights Movement. The same could be said today of policy reforms for civic renewal.

I have emphasized federal reforms here for the sake of brevity, but states and localities could be equally important if one or more jurisdictions became genuine Laboratories for Democracy. There should also be crucial struggles for civic engagement in universities, nonprofit service agencies, professional associations, unions, religious congregations, and newsrooms, to mention only some of the important venues outside government.

Some of the most promising steps may seem rather far removed from you and from me. For example, the first item on the Ten Point Plan was to drive civic renewal strategies deep into the work of at least one federal agency. That would take a committed, skillful, and experienced cabinet-level official. Unless you are the president of the United States, you cannot nominate individuals for the cabinet. Unless you are so nominated (and confirmed by the Senate), you cannot lead a federal agency. Few of us will ever play either of those roles.

Nevertheless, if you work at the local level on a particular issue—say, education—in ways that combine deliberation and work and that develop your own and others’ civic capacities, you are building the foundations for strategies at the federal level. A successful federal initiative would not be possible without persuasive examples and evidence, local organizations and individuals capable of handling grants and power, and active supporters who defend civic strategies. By working at the local level, you can help provide those conditions for success at the federal level. You can do more if you recruit new people to such work, build networks connecting your projects to other similar ones, view yourself as part of a nascent movement for civic renewal, encourage peers to think of themselves in similar ways, and provoke conversations about the broad topic of civic engagement.

Those conversations should encompass facts, values, and strategies. The factual questions to pose (regardless of the scale of one’s civic work) include: Who is engaging and who is left out? What are the consequences of our civic activities, both positive and negative?

The values questions include: Are our goals consistent with justice? Are our discussions and processes ethical and fair? What are the consequences of our work for the virtues and dispositions of the people involved?

The strategic questions include: What resources and opportunities (including funds, skilled people, legal rights, and responsive institutions) do we possess for our civic work? What resources and opportunities do we lack? What would it take to get what we need? That last question moves us to consider reforms in institutions and policies as well as changes in our own behavior.

Overall, the goal is to replace a vicious cycle of citizens’ disempowerment and public corruption with a virtuous cycle of re-engagement and reform. The obstacles to changing our national direction in such a profound way are serious. They include a disempowered and divided citizenry, a shattered civic infrastructure, and a set of interest groups that will fight to defend the status quo. But the opportunities are also significant: they include a substantial base of skillful, motivated, and increasingly experienced and interconnected civic reformers.

Cynicism and pessimism are themselves obstacles to reform that we (you and I) should strive to counter. After all, cynicism and pessimism are belied every day by the many organizations already working on civic renewal in America. Although success is hardly guaranteed, the consequences of failure are dire. In the words of the Port Huron Statement, "If we appear to seek the unattainable, it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable."

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May 6, 2011

how to save the Enlightenment Ideal

If there is such a thing as the "Enlightenment Ideal," it says that individuals should hold general, publicly articulable, and correct moral principles that, in turn, guide all their opinions, statements, and actions. That is a view that--with some variations--Kant, Madison, J.S. Mill, and many others of their era explicitly defended. None of those writers was naive about the impact of "prejudice [and] voluntary ignorance" (Mill), "accident and force" (Madison), or "laziness and cowardice" (Kant) on actual people's thought and behavior, but they presumed that ideals could have causal power, shaping actions. Reasons were supposed to be motives.

That assumption has seemed to recede into implausibility as evidence has accumulated about the scant impact of reasons or values on actions. It seems that people cannot articulate consistent moral reasons for their opinions. We choose our moral principles mainly to rationalize our decisions after we have made them.*

Scholars who reflect on this evidence seem either to dismiss the relevance of morality entirely or to defend a different model of the moral self. This alternative model presumes that our intuitive, non-articulable, not-fully-conscious, private reactions to situations can be valid, can affect our behavior, and can be improved by appropriate upbringings and institutions. The new model retains some Enlightenment optimism about the importance of morality and education, but at the cost of treating moral judgment as intuitive and non-discursive.

I would propose that we misinterpret the empirical findings and miss their normative implications if we rely on a dichotomy of conscious, logical, articulable reasons versus unconscious, emotional, private intuitions. There is more than one kind of valid, publicly articulable reason.

The Enlightenment thinkers cited above and their skeptical critics seem to share the view that a good moral reason must be highly general and abstract. They have in mind a kind of flow chart in which each of one's concrete choices, preferences, and actions should be implied by a more general principle, which should (in turn) flow from an even more general one, until we reach some kind of foundation. This is not only how Kant thinks about the Categorical Imperative and its implications, but also how J.S. Mill envisions the "fundamental principle of morality" (utilitarianism) and the "subordinate principles" that we need to "apply it." Consistency and completeness are hallmarks of a good overall moral structure.

But many people actually think in highly articulate, public, reflective ways about matters other than general principles and their implications. They think, argue, and publicly defend views about particular people, communities, situations, and places. They do not merely have intuitions about concrete things; they form reasonable moral opinions of them. But their opinions are not arranged in a hierarchical structure with general principles implying concrete results. Sometimes one concrete opinion implies another. Or a concrete opinion implies a general rule. That may not be post hoc rationalization but an example of learning from experience.

Moral thinking must be a network of implications that link various principles, judgments, commitments, and interests. We are responsible for forming moral networks out of good elements and for developing coherent (rather than scattered and miscellaneous) networks. But there is no reason to assume that the network should look like an organizational flowchart, with every concrete judgment able to report via a chain of command to more general principles.

I plan to support this argument by comparing two clear and reasonable moral thinkers, John Rawls and Robert Lowell. Both lapsed protestants who were educated in New England prep schools, drafted during World War II, and taught at Harvard, they shared many political views. In his writing, Rawls both endorsed and employed highly abstract moral principles, but Lowell was equally precise and rigorous. His moral thinking was a tight network of associations among concrete characters, events, and situations.

*One summary of the evidence, with an emphasis on sociology, is Stephen Valsey, "Motivation and Justification: A Dual-Process Model of Culture in Action," American Journal of Sociology, vol. 114, no. 6 (May 2009), pp. 1675-1715.

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May 5, 2011

young people and the Osama bin Laden news

Yesterday, I was on KCBS radio news in San Francisco discussing why spontaneous public celebrations of the death of Osama bin Laden seem to draw mainly young adults. (A typical headline is this, from the New York Times: "9/11 Inspires Student Patriotism and Celebration.") Given the format of drive-time radio news, I just had time to say that today's 21-year-olds were at an especially impressionable age on 9/11/2001. They were first becoming aware of the big world of news and current events and did not yet have deeply held views. For them, the terror attacks would be especially influential, and Osama bin Laden would loom especially large.

I think that's true, but in a different setting, I would mention some nuances.

First, it's interesting that the celebrations were spontaneous and occurred in many different locations simultaneously. That suggests some breadth of interest and passion. Yet only a few thousand people participated, out of roughly 40 million young adults. I am not sure we should draw any generalizations at all.

Second, scholars like to try to distinguish between age effects and cohort effects. An age effect is the result of being at a certain point in one's life when something happens. For example, people who are eight years old at any given moment in history are less interested in sex than people who are 21 at the same moment. That says nothing about generational differences; it is a pure age effect. A cohort effect is the lasting consequence of going through an event when one was young. For example, people who experienced World War II have differed from other generations all their lives.

In this case, we don't know whether spontaneously shouting "U-S-A!" when Osama bin Laden was shot is an age effect or a cohort effect. It could be that people who are 21 (and especially if they are male) are always relatively likely to celebrate the violent death of a national enemy. Or it could be that people who were at an impressionable age when 9/11 occurred will always care more than others about the al-Qaeda story. There is not enough data to know which theory is right, if either one is. If I had to guess, I'd bet on an age effect.

There has also been a lot of discussion about a recent Red Cross poll that found: "Nearly 3/5 [of] youth (59%) – compared to 51% of adults – believe there are times when it is acceptable to torture the enemy." One of the leading explanations is a cohort effect: today's young people have (supposedly) been exposed to more favorable media depictions of torture than earlier generations were and are thus more likely to favor torture (now and in the future). Again, I'd bet on an age effect. I would guess that support for torture among today's young cohort will decline, simply as a result of their growing maturity.

Yahoo reported this week that two thirds of the people who searched the web with the phrase "who is osama bin laden?” were teenagers (ages 13-17). This fact has been interpreted to mean that "a goodly number of teenagers don't know who Osama bin Laden is." Kevin Drum, in particular, thinks that's an age effect: teenagers never know much about the news. I am not sure I agree: many kids who entered that search phrase may have been able to identify bin Laden but were looking for a biography or profile--a wise way to understand the news.

Finally, we don't know much about the motivations and ideologies of the people who spontaneously celebrated. Were they into the dramatic narrative of a bad guy being gunned down by Navy Seals? Were they moved by the attainment of justice? Was their motivation basically patriotic? Or did they seek the "comraderie" of a shared, positive, public experience, as one of my CIRCLE colleagues suggests?

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May 4, 2011

some surprising results from the 2010 NAEP Civics assessment

The headline in The New York Times says: Failing Grades on Civics Exam Called a ‘Crisis’. Whether that's how you read the data is a matter of opinion, but I can shed a little light on the source.

The National Assessment in Educational Progress in Civics is our best measure of what students know about civic, legal, and political concepts and facts. It is a no-stakes test of a representative sample of almost 20,000 American students. It assesses knowledge and skills that are relevant to civic participation, but they are fairly academic skills of individuals, not skills that people commonly use in groups. For instance, students may be asked to interpret the text of a speech, but not run a meeting.

The NAEP Civics assessment has been given only sporadically but is now on a regular three-year cycle. I was on the committee responsible for the 2010 assessment and will help again with the 2013 version. I would describe it as a rather hard test which most adults would badly flunk. It is closely tied to academic content in American history and government, so you have to recall quite a few Supreme Court decisions and constitutional principles to do well.

Today, the results were released for 2010. In brief, 4th graders improved their mean scores, whereas scores for 8th and 12th graders did not change. This is interesting because our research has found that time devoted to civics shrank recently in the early grades but not in the later grades, where the number of credits earned in social studies actually rose.

To be specific, time spent on civics or social studies shrank in the first through fifth grades from 1999-2004. (We don't know what happened after that.) Yet fourth-grade NAEP civics scores rose from 1998 to 2006 and again from 2006 to 2010.

According to the NAEP, 97 percent of twelfth-graders report that they have studied civics or government in high school. That is consistent with other research that finds most kids study the topic. It means that the solution to our concerns about civic knowledge should not be to require civics. It is already being studied. On the other hand, the high dropout rate means that a 12th grade assessment misses almost one third of our young people, and many of the dropouts received little civics education.

A closer look at the 12th grade results shows that most of our graduating seniors can identify an argument made in Marbury v. Madison or explain part of the Fourteenth Amendment. But very few can summarize the views of Reagan and Roosevelt on economics or compare the citizenship requirements of the US to other countries. They seem to score better on questions concerning constitutional and legal issues than on political matters.

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May 3, 2011

youth volunteering rate much higher than in the 1970s and '80s

At CIRCLE, we often receive questions about the youth volunteering rate today compared to past generations. The following graph, based on Census data, shows that young people are considerably more likely to volunteer than they were in 1974 or 1989, two years when the Census Current Population Survey included a volunteering question that has also been asked annually since 2002. There have been ups and downs in recent years, but the growth compared to 1989 is striking.

volunteering rate for ages 16-19

Data points from 1974 and 1989 were calculated by Grimm, Dietz, Foster-Bey, Reingold, and Nesbit (PDF). Data points since 2002 were calculated by CIRCLE. See more detail on recent years here.

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May 2, 2011

the case for civic renewal

Below are the first paragraphs of a new article by me in the centennial issue of the National Civic Review.* They are also the first paragraphs of a book that is just about complete. I argue that certain types of citizen participation are the only plausible solutions to our deepest and most intractable problems, at this particular stage in our political history. In the book, I then present political strategies for renewing civic engagement against the powerful forces that would rather hold it down.

    We Americans are in a bad mood about our nation and our public life. By two to one, we think that we are heading in the "wrong direction" rather than the "right track." Unemployment, bankruptcies, bailouts, and other repercussions of the Great Recession are surely on our minds, but our pessimistic mood started well before that. A majority of Americans said they were satisfied with the nation's course briefly at the conclusion of the First Gulf War and shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At all other times during the last 20 years, most Americans have been dissatisfied.

    Perhaps this is because we face an accumulation of profound problems. They have been called "wicked problems" because better policies alone could not fix them (although our bad policies surely make matters worse). Our problems interlock, so that each one can be seen as a symptom of another. They are entangled with cultural norms and personal behavior as well as conflicting rights and limited resources. Any of the purported solutions could do more damage than good. How to define and diagnose our problems is fundamentally controversial, inseparable from our diverse religious and philosophical commitments. Advancing some of our interests and values would set other Americans back. For those who identify with particular interests and ideologies, watching our opponents express themselves in public can be deeply frustrating. For those who feel little stake in national debates, the bitter controversy itself is alienating.

    I do not claim that our condition is worse than it usually is. On the contrary, we are richer, safer, and more respectful of rights than we were half a century ago—and far more so than when Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office. A consistent theme in American politics is the Jeremiad, a lament that we have suddenly lost our way and face imminent destruction. James Fallows notes that "only six years after the Arbella brought John Winthrop to Massachusetts, a Congregationalist minister was lamenting the lost golden age of the colony, asking parishioners, 'Are all [God's] kindnesses forgotten? all your promises forgotten?'' After four centuries of such Jeremiads, we should doubt that our current problems are unprecedented. The end is not nigh.

    But I do claim that the obligation to address our problems falls on us—American citizens—more profoundly than in the past. Our political institutions are inadequate to address our accumulated problems; and the prevailing ideologies offer no plausible solutions.

*Peter Levine, "The Public and Our Problems," National Civic Review, Volume 100, Issue 1, pages 42–50, Spring 2011

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April 29, 2011

the character of poets and of people generally

In Coming of Age as a Poet (Harvard, 2003), Helen Vendler interprets the earliest mature verse of four major poets: Milton, Keats, Eliot, and Plath. She argues that great poets reach maturity when they develop consistent diction and formal styles; favored physical and historical milieux; major symbolic referents; characters or types of characters whom they include in their verse; and some sort of (at least implicit) cosmology. They often retain these combinations to the ends of their careers.

Robert Lowell provides an example (mine, not Vendler's). From the 1940s until his death, his characteristic milieu is New England--specifically the coastal region from Boston to Nantucket--over the centuries from the Puritan settlement to the present. His diction mimics the diverse voices of that region's history, from Jonathan Edwards to Irish Catholics, but he brings them into harmony through his own regular rhymes and rhythms. His major symbolic references include gardens, graveyards, wars of aggression, the Book of Revelation, and the cruel ocean. He avoids presenting a literal cosmology, but he describes several worldviews in conflict. Sometimes, the physical and human worlds are cursed or damned and we are estranged from an angry, masculine God. Other times, the world is a garden: organic, fecund, and pervasively feminine. (See my reading of The Indian Killer's Grave for detail.)

A combination of diction, favored characters, milieux, subjects of interest, value-judgments, and a cosmology could be called a "personality." I don't mean that it necessarily results from something internal to the author (a self, soul, or nature-plus-nurture). Personality could be a function of the author's immediate setting. For instance, if Robert Lowell had been forceably moved from Massachusetts to Mumbai, his verse would have changed. Then again, we often choose our settings or choose not to change them.

A personality is not the same thing as a moral character. We say that people are good or virtuous if they do or say the right things. Their diction and favorite characters seem morally irrelevant. For example, regardless of who was a better poet, Lowell was a better man (in his writing) than T.S. Eliot was, because Eliot's verse propounded anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice, whereas Lowell's is full of sympathy and love.

So we might say that moral character is a matter of holding the right general principles and then acting (which includes speaking and writing) consistently with those principles. Lowell's abstract, general values included pacifism, anti-racism, and some form of Catholic faith. Eliot's principles included reactionary Anglicanism and anti-Semitism--as well as more defensible views. The ethical question is: Whose abstract principles were right? That matter can be separated from the issue of aesthetic merit.

I resist this way of thinking about virtue because I believe that it's a prejudice to presume that abstract and general ideas are foundational, and all concrete opinions, interests, and behaviors should follow from them. One kind of mind does treat general principles as primary and puts a heavy emphasis on being able to derive particular judgments from them. Consistency is a central concern (I am tempted to write, a hobgoblin) for this kind of mind. But others do not organize their thoughts that way, and I would defend their refusal to do so. What moral thinking must be is a network of implications that link various principles, judgments, commitments, and interests. There is no reason to assume that the network must look like an organizational flowchart, with every concrete judgment able to report via a chain of command to more general principles. The hierarchy can be flatter.

To return to Lowell, one way of interpreting his personality would be to try to force it into a structure that flows from the most abstract to the most concrete. Perhaps he believed that there is an omnipotent and good deity who founded the Catholic church when He gave the keys of heaven to Peter. Peter's successors have rightly propounded doctrines of grace and nature that are anathema to Puritans. Puritans massacred medieval Catholics and Native Americans who loved nature and peace. Therefore, Lowell despises Puritans and admires both medieval Catholics and Wampanoags. In his diction, he mocks Puritans and waxes mournful over their victims. His poetic style follows, via a long chain of entailments, from his metaphysics.

But I think not. It is not even clear to me that Lowell, despite his conversion to Catholicism, even believed in a literal deity. (Letter to Elizabeth Hardwick, April 7, 1959: "I feel very Montaigne-like about faith now. It's true as a possible vision such as War and Peace or Saint Antony--no more though.") The point is, literal monotheism did not have to be the basis or ground of all his other opinions, such as his love for and interest in Saint Bernard or his deep ambivalence toward Jonathan Edwards. Those opinions could come first and could reasonably persuade him to join the Catholic Church. By mimicking the diction of specific Puritans in poems like "Mr Edwards and the Spider," Lowell could form and refine opinions of Puritanism that would then imply attitudes toward other issues, from industrial development to monasticism.

Poets are evidently unusual people, more self-conscious and aesthetically-oriented than most of their peers, and more concerned with language and concrete details than some of us are. As a "sample" of human beings, poets would be biased.

But they are a useful sample because they leave evidence of their mental wrestling. Poetry is a relatively free medium; the author is not constrained by historical records, empirical data, or legal frameworks. Poets say what they want to say (although it need not be what they sincerely believe), and they say it with precision.

I think the testimony of poets at least suffices to show that some admirable people begin with concrete admirations and aversions, forms of speech, milieux and referents, and rely much less on abstract generalizations to reach their moral conclusions. Their personalities and their moral characters are one.

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April 28, 2011

Not Quite Adults

Richard Settersten and Barbara E. Ray have published Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood and Why It's Good for Everyone (Bantam 2010). Their book is a product of the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy, an ambitious collaborative project that also yielded, among many other works, an article by Constance Flanagan and me on "Civic Engagement and the Transition to Adulthood."

Not Quite Adults is admirably broad, accessible, and well-written, enriched by the stories and voices of real people. (The Network conducted 500 interviews). It begins with a vignette of a typical young person of 30 or 50 years ago, who left home and started life immediately after high school graduation. Today, in contrast, half of 18-24-year-olds still live in the bedrooms where they were children. The ages at which people become financially independent, move out of their parents' homes, marry, vote, and finish their final degree have all risen rapidly.

One response is to view all these young people as slackers or immature. But that overlooks the profound difficulties young Americans face today in becoming independent. It also overlooks the many ways in which the third decade of life can be a valuable time for learning, developing skills and networks, and contributing to society. Finally, it overlooks serious gaps in the experience of different groups of young people. Some--Settersten and Ray call them "swimmers"--are using their young adult years to strengthen their positions, racking up advanced degrees and social networks before they settle into careers and families. This is all to the good (as long as their expectations of success aren't excessive, leading to disappointment). Others--whom the authors call "treaders"--struggle to move through the cross-currents of economic insecurity. For them, the third decade of life is increasingly difficult, and they need social investment. Settersten and Ray point to Youth Build, Youth Corps, and Civic Justice Corps as examples of programs that need more support.

The book has its own interactive website, including a blog on which Rick Settersten asks most recently, "Why do so many Americans have it out for young people?" At a time when many of the basic indicators of young people's well-being (crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and drug use) have been improving, older Americans seem convinced that the new generation is a threat. Asked to discuss "youth," working class Americans immediately identify behavioral problems--violence, crime, lack of respect for adults and for themselves--while elites are just as concerned about low test scores and dropout rates. Meanwhile, the data on young people suggest substantial improvement.

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April 27, 2011

college students expect service, study abroad, and extracurricular clubs but report stress and low emotional health

Trends in Expectations for College (CIRP Freshman Survey)

Using data from the College Freshman Survey of the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), John H. Pryor reports that incoming college freshmen are increasingly likely to expect that they will participate directly in extracurricular activities, community service, and foreign study--all experiences that have civic purposes and benefits.

But the same study also shows that incoming college students report increased levels of stress and historically low levels of emotional health. A record-high proportion of incoming freshmen (73%) say that the "chief benefit of a college education is that it increases earning power."

For institutions of higher education, these trends raise several questions: Are we meeting the expectations of our incoming students? Can meaningful service activities be antidotes to stress and poor psychosocial well-being? Can they enhance students' economic opportunities? Or do some students report being "overwhelmed" because they are pursuing civic experiences as well as academic work and jobs?

(Cross-posted from the CIRCLE homepage.)

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April 26, 2011

the Campaign for Stronger Democracy

The Campaign for Stronger Democracy pulls together activists for campaign and election reform, deliberative democracy, transparency, collaborative governance, civic education, national and community service, and community organizing. It is an unprecedented coalition, the need for which I tried to demonstrate rigorously through an exercise in network mapping. The Campaign's monthly newsletter is turning into my favorite compendium of relevant articles. You can register for the free newsletter here.

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April 25, 2011

the Eight Americas

Christopher Murray and six colleagues have published an article entitled "Eight Americas: Investigating Mortality Disparities across Races, Counties, and Race-Counties in the United States." They divide the entire US population into the following categories:

    1. Asian: Asians living in counties where Pacific Islanders make up less than 40% of total Asian population

    2. Northland low-income rural white: Whites in northern plains and Dakotas with 1990 county-level per capita income below $11,775 and population density less than 100 persons/km2

    3. Middle America: All other whites not included in Americas 2 and 4, Asians not in America 1, and Native Americans not in America 5

    4. Low-income whites in Appalachia and the Mississippi Valley (with 1990 county-level per capita income below $11,775)

    5. Western Native American: Native American populations in the mountain and plains areas, predominantly on reservations

    6. Black Middle America: All other black populations living in countries not included in Americas 7 and 8

    7. Southern low-income rural black: Blacks living in counties in the Mississippi Valley and the Deep South with population density below 100 persons/km2, 1990 county-level per capita income below $7,500, and total population size above 1,000 persons (to avoid small numbers)

    8 High-risk urban black: Urban populations of more than 150,000 blacks living in counties with cumulative probability of homicide death between 15 and 74 [years] greater than 1.0%

Disparities in life expectancy are enormous--for example, women in America 1 outlive men in America 8 by 20 years. It is illuminating to view these empirically-derived categories instead of the usual baskets (such as White versus African American). Below is my chart of selected disparities from the article:

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