January 31, 2003
a textbook idea
I've been writing my proposal for an innovative high school civics textbook. I'm tentatively calling it Civics for Citizens. Unlike any competing text, it will combine challenging academic content with exercises and materials designed to help students experience civic life through discussions and community service. Furthermore, in the part devoted to academic instruction, Civics for Citizens will present an unusual selection of topics. Many high school civics and government texts contain difficult and detailed information about the structure and process of government, but they never introduce students to basic concepts from social theory, philosophy, and economicsterms such as "externality," "utilitarianism," and "free rider." Yet these are the most influential ideas in policy debates among researchers, regulators, and legislators. If young citizens never learn these ideas, then they cannot participate in (or even follow) crucial debates and must leave the outcomes to elites.
Consider the concept of an "externality," which seems at first
glance to be too technical for a civics class. Sometimes, a voluntary
exchange among free individuals creates harms for others who did not agree
to the deal. For instance, companies produce goods that their customers
willingly buy, but they also generate pollution that affects everyone.
This is an example of an externality. If you think that externalities
are serious problems, then you may want the government to interfere to
mitigate the damage. On the other hand, if you think that externalities
are mostly not serious problemsor that the burdens of regulation
are worsethen you may want less government interference. The debate
about how much the government should regulate is perhaps the central political
argument in modern times, and it rests on conflicting ideas about externalities.
As you go through life, your personal experiences and your understanding
of current events may help you to decide what you think about externalities
and regulations. But first you need to understand the underlying concepts.
January 30, 2003
the public interest media groups
I agreed today to serve on the dissertation committee of a graduate student who wants to study the political strategy of the "progressive" public-interest groups that lobby for changes in federal communications policy. These groups (the so-called "geektivists") are concerned about the way the Internet is regulated, legal treatment of software monopolies, excessive intellectual property rights, and erosion of privacy. I know them well; I have often been the sole academic at Washington strategy meetings involving their issues. I encouraged the student's dissertation, because I am dissastisfied with the general approach of the progressive national groupsan approach that derives from Ralph Nader and the other consumer advocates of the early 1970s. They analyze complex issues to determine what is in the "public interest"; identify enemies; "expose" their crimes and misdemeanors; develop a simple, marketable "message" through public opinion research, and then "mobilize" popular support by making people angry. I find this approach ethically dubious, because it isn't sufficiently democratic (respectful of ordinary people's opinions and capacities) or deliberative (willing to recognize alternative points of view). By making people angry, it often discourages them or turns them away from politics. Above all, approach tends to fail when pitted against professional corporate lobbying campaigns. Thus I think that the proposed dissertation could be useful for activists well beyond the telecommunications field.
January 29, 2003
an oral history interview
Our high school students interviewed a woman today who was one of only two African Americans at an all-White junior high school in 1956, and then the only one when her friend quit. She later chose to attend an all-Black high school because she couldn't stand the incessant (unprintable) racial slurs and social ostracism. She related well with our kids (more than half of whom were born in Africa), and gave them good arguments for voting and otherwise participating. We also talked with the class about how to present their historical research on their Website at www.princegeorges.org and came up with ideas that excited both them and us.
January 28, 2003
the State of the Union
I'm less reflexively anti-Bush than many of my friends and family members, and I didn't hate the State of the Union. But the "compassionate" parts are disturbingas a reflection of our political culture, if not of George W. personally. The two new domestic programs (addiction treatment and mentoring) combined will cost about one third of $1 billion a year. That's one six hundredth of the average annual cost of the proposed tax cuts (if one assumes that the alternative minimum tax will be reduced, as everyone expects). Since we are running huge deficits, this $1 billion of new compassion is not actually spending; it's borrowing against future generations. I don't necessarily think that these particular programs should be larger than Bush has suggested; it's just that a president should not be able to distract attention from major issues by proposing such tiny initiatives. (Clinton, of course, mastered this art under the tutelage of Dick Morris). As for the AIDS funding for Africait's welcome. But we have a clear and unavoidable moral obligation to spend modest amounts of money to lengthen millions of human lives, so the self-congratulation that accompanied this announcement is annoying. Apparently, there was no prior consultation with African governments, so this was effectively manna from heaven. And there was no hint that maybe the high cost of drug cocktails results from patent laws in rich countries.
January 27, 2003
we need new civics texts
I'm working ineffectively on lots of separate projects, including trying to fix the NACE Website so that it works for older Web browsers. In between things, I've been writing a proposal for a new kind of high school civics textbook. If I ever found a publisher interested in it, I'd have to shelve a lot of other writing projects, but it would be worthwhile.
The leading texts for high school government classes are basically political science primers written at the tenth- or twelfth-grade level. They describe the mechanics of the federal government as if from a distance, without explaining how an ordinary citizen can play important roles in community affairs, without addressing complex ethical and moral questions; without helping students to reason about contemporary issues, and without describing civic and political institutions other than the federal government (which is remote from students' lives).
Because textbooks deal mainly with the structure of the national government, government classes have little connection to students' direct experience of civic and political issues, which they gain through community service, membership in groups outside the school, and extracurricular participation. Meanwhile, students' practical experiences are largely separate from their academic work, despite evidence that community service best encourages civic development when it is combined with learning in the classroom.
In short, there is a profound need for a textbook that combines analysis of political institutions; guidance about how to think about complex public issues at all levels from the school to the world; a thorough and challenging treatment of ethics; and practical instructions for meaningful community service projects.
January 24, 2003
state voter guides
I spent the morning discussing policies of the National Alliance for Civic Education. The meeting was at the American Political Science Association (APSA) headquarters near Dupont Circle in Washington. I love the building, which is an elegant, Victorian, stone row house. I think the architecture could be described as Byzantine Revivalthere's an arch over the door carved with intricate plant forms. Inside, it's rather ramshackle: little rooms, piles of reports, filing cabinets that don't quite fit, window air-conditioning units. It reminds me of the houses at the periphery of major universities that get turned into anthropology departments or study-abroad offices.
Two draft articles have come across my desk lately indicating that peopleespecially
young people without a lot of educationare more likely to vote if
they receive a state voter guide in the mail. Washington and Oregon
produce guides that give space to every candidate to describe his or her
positions. Everyone (or every registered voter?) in the state gets one
automatically. I'm becoming a zealot for voter guides because they lower
the cost of acquiring information. They are also a form of campaign-finance
reform, because they subsidize communication with state moneyequally
for all candidatesand thereby lower the value of each dollar of
private money. Finally, you can make the candidates who choose to participate
swear that their statements are truthful. Rep. Wes Cooley (R-OR) was convicted
of lying on official documents when he claimed in the voter guide
that he had served in the special forces in Korea, when he had done no
January 23, 2003
paid public service (etc.)
My first stop today was a meeting with people who counsel Maryland's applicants for national scholarships, such as the Rhodes and Marshall. I advise our Rhodes applicants, partly because I want to level the playing field between this state university and the private institutions that win most of the awards. I served on the Rhodes Trust's selection committee in the early 1990s and can give our applicants good advice. It's also an opportunity to push for more paid public service at Maryland. Our applicants are often at a disadvantage because they must work 40 hours a week for money, which is not the case at well-endowed private universities. However, this liability actually looks like an advantage when one realizes that public service shouldn't be a discretionary, volunteer activity that is sandwiched between work, family, and leisure time; it should rather be an aspect of our paid, professional lives. (See www.publicwork.org.) Many of our students are idealistic but not rich, so they have found ways to be paid for working in government or the nonprofit sector. Others have turned ordinary jobs into public-service opportunities. For instance, one recent candidate worked at a bank where she organized an important outreach program. This was an impressive achievement that predicts a lifetime of public service. I have been arguing that we should encourage, recognize, and reward such workboth because it is the right thing to do and because it is a good long-term strategy for Maryland to win prestigious scholarships.
Incidentally, there is pending legislation that would force colleges to use more of their federal work-study funds to pay for off-campus jobs with a service element. This was originally a major purpose of the work-study program, but today colleges spend just seven percent of their funds for off-campus employment. (They prefer their subsidized student workers to distribute their department mail and clean cafeteria dishes.)
Later in the day, amid much practical work involving The Civic Mission of Schools, I made a showing the population of Prince George's County, by race, since 1940. There was a huge egress of White people starting at just the same time as busing (1971). Of course, the mere departure of White people is not necessarily a bad thing, nor was busing necessarily the cause. But it's food for thought, and we will bring the graph to class next week.
January 22, 2003
the value of studying history
As usual, the most interesting part of my day is working with the class of students at Northwestern High School. They interviewed a White teacher who had taught in the County schools from 1968 to the present, as his students changed from all White, to Whites plus one African American kid, to almost exclusively children of color. The teacher claimed that this change had occurred slowly enough that he hardly noticed it and that it made no difference, since "teenagers are teenagers." He asked the kids what they had learned in our class so far. Several said that they had gained an appreciation of Prince George's County. This is surprising, since the history we have studied is mostly about racism and exclusion. But one young woman said, "I thought it was the boringest county ever." The fact that dramatic changes had occurred here made our community seem interesting. The fact that the changes involved school policies made the kids feel part of an important (and contested) institution. And the fact that teenagers were sometimes protagonists in the civil rights stuggle gave them a sense of their own power and responsibility. At least, this is my interpretation of what the students said.
We have now conducted half a dozen interviews as a whole class or as individuals. Meanwhile, I have been thinking a bit about historical method. We have encountered several contrasting perspectives on the same eventsespecially the arrival at Northwestern of one African American student in 1955, which we've heard described by himself, his sister, and a teacher. It's not hard to see that there's one truth about the past, albeit a complex one.
January 21, 2003
A bad day for blogging, because I'm very busy with the technical details of preparing our joint report with the Carnegie Corporation, the Civic Mission of Schools. Choosing paper stock is not interesting to write about. I did quickly email the National Library of Medicine to ask about the budget and mission statement for Medline. The reason is that I am supposed to work with some Dutch colleagues on a project concerning "the reliability of medical information on the Internet." (We are funded by the Netherlands government, which is one reason I took the job.) The tension I hope to explore is between medicine as a standardized discipline and the Internet as a wide-open medium. Medicine has been standardized because there is supposed to be "one best treatment" for a given condition (when fully described), based on the best scientific evidence available at the time. Although physicians still have great discretion and often offer divergent advice, powerful forces work to standardize medicine. It is illegal to practice medicine without a license or to use or sell regulated drugs without a prescription. To gain a medical license, one must pass through an elaborate training and socialization process, including graduation from an accredited medical school and apprenticeship under experienced physicians. One then bears marks of membership in an exclusive body: diplomas on the office wall, a white lab coat, an expectation that one is to be addressed as "doctor." The Internet, poses a threatnot only to these professional prerogativesbut also to the "one best treatment" ideal. Someone who wants to locate medical information or advice online can easily find herself looking at a mix of official recommendations and highly eccentric ideas promoted by laypeople. It is considerably harder to tell the difference between official and unofficial advice than it was in the old days, when the main sources of information were people in white coats and refereed journals. In response, the National Library of Medicine, a $250 million/year federal agency, has created a single Website that lays out the "one best treatments." I am going to try to assess the result. To put my basic question boldly: should we hope that everyone who goes online for medical advice goes to Medline? If yes, what policies can the government adopt to channel people there? If no, why not?
January 20, 2003
with Volokh, Reynolds, and Balkin
A little more than two weeks ago, I moderated a panel at the Association of American Law Schools Conference. Two of the panelists were famous bloggers (so I'll use their full names): Glenn Reynolds and Eugene Volokh. I had not selected the panelAmitai Etzioni had arranged the whole eventand I was so ignorant about blogging that I failed to mention their blogs when I introduced these two panelists. (Meeting them may partly explain why I got into this business.) In any case, I have continued to think a lot about the discussion that evening.
First of all, I've been thinking about public engagement. Professor Volokh graduated from UCLA with a BS in computer science at the age of 15, and then worked as programmer for some time before he became a law school professor. I asked him why he made the switch, and he explained that he wanted to lead a "public life" by testifying, writing opinion pieces for newspapers, etc. This kind of opportunity has a certain appeal for me, too, although I'm not sure that I could break into the mass media even if I triedand I don't try very hard. The reason I don't try is that I want to lead a different kind of "public life." My goal is to help build and sustain public institutions or communities. That is quite different from expressing opinions (even informed and interesting ones) on broad matters of national or international concern. Institutions don't primarily need people to express opinions; they need organizational work and products appropriate to their mission. Also, the institutions within which someone like me can have an impact are necessarily limited in scope. They either work in particular geographical locations or else they deal with fairly narrow issues. Unless you're the Pope or the president, you can't work through institutions and deal directly with all the great issues of the world. So I think that there is a trade-off between addressing a big audience and working within organizations. I seem to have chosen the latter course.
Second, the panel was populated by First Amendment lawyers, and for them the Internet is primarily interesting as a venue for cheap speech. It's extremely expensive to communicate through media like print or television, but it's cheap to operate a Website or to send out bulk emails. Thus the Internet is supposed to be very good for freedom of speech. I find myself unpersuaded. The more people communicate on the Internet, the more they have to split the available audience, to the point that the average online "speaker" (that's me) probably talks to two or three people. Being able to communicate to such a small number is no great advance over the olden days, when you could put up a poster. Also, "cheap speech" often turns into the blather of chat rooms. That is because people abuse common spaces by dumping ill-informed or uncivil speech into them. So I have realized that I am interested in the possibilities of the Internet for "affordable speech," not "cheap speech." Given the new digital technology, we can now create such goods as streaming videos, interactive online maps, local newspapers, and structured deliberations. These goods cost thousands of dollars instead of hundreds of thousands. The result is a great advance for the First Amendment, as many more people can participate in creating things of value. However, "affordable speech" is not freeindeed, it's out of the reach of most community groups and non-profits. Which is why I am so interested in creating institutional support for public uses of the Internet.
"Blog" is short for "Weblog"and a Weblog is a very frequently updated Webpage, often a kind of public diary. One person can be solely responsible for a blog, or several people can collaborate to produce it, or it can be open to anyone to post messages. For some time, I have overseen an institutional Weblog for the National Association for Civic Education (NACE).
The conventional format is to post the newest entry at the top. Often, it is wise to scroll down some distance to find a starting-point, and then read up the page in chronological order.
I am interested in the public possibilities of personal blogs. Can you write about yourself, but in a way that is valuable to others? I'm more interested in a public diary than in a conventional, private one, because I've always found it artificial to address myself in writing. I realize that the audience for this blog is likely to be very small, but the structure of the Internet insures that it will have visitors (even if they come accidentally and never return).
Because this is a public document and I represent various institutions, I cannot make judgments (even positive ones) about individuals here. This makes the blog somewhat impersonal, but I don't think it reduces its public value. So far, my policy is to avoid names unless a given person is a public figure, or if he or she appears frequently (in which case I use a first name only, to help readers keep track).
I would welcome other people's contributions, although I don't expect them. To contribute, email me and state clearly that you want your comments to be posted here. I will decide whether to include them.
-- Peter Levine, January 20, 2003
January 17, 2003
war after 9/11
I have been a member of The Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy for just over ten years. Although I am now involved with several other institutions, this is the one I care most about. We had a regular staff meeting this morning. The Institute has just produced a book entitled War After September 11. It's a good small volume of essays, and it appeared in bookstores just six months after we conceived the idea. Today we discussed creating a whole series of such "fastbacks" on the philosophical dimensions of current issues. The next volume, we agreed, will concern biotechnology.
I had a conversation and did some emailing today on the whole idea of using mapping software to diagram the field of deliberative democracy I now have a clearer idea how this could be done, technically. I also agreed to go to Connecticut in April for a conference on deliberation sponsored by the Democracy Project of the Center for Values in Higher Education. And the proofs of The Civic Mission of Schools arrived, looking fine.
January 16, 2003
My commute to the University of Maryland takes me about an hour and fifteen minutes each way (I live in Washington and take the Metro to work). Therefore, I like to cluster my downtown meetings on the same days, rather than shuttle back and forth between DC and Maryland. Todaythe coldest day so far this winterI had a string of meetings neatly arrayed across downtown. The first was a breakfast with my good friends from the Study Circles Resource Center. They support thousands of local "study circles" around the countygroups of citizens who meet face-to-face to discuss issues. We ate in an Irish-themed hotel restaurant near Dupont Circle and talked about ways to promote a national deliberation for young people on the topic of young Americans' role in public life. As a researcher, I am interested in what would happen if several organizations that promote deliberation in very different ways all conducted a deliberation on the same topic at the same time. For example, there are online deliberation sites like E-ThePeople; grassroots networks of citizens involved in face-to-face discussion like the National Issues Forums; groups that convene randomly selected bodies of citizens for intensive, lengthy conversations; and groups that manage very large summit meetings of citizens all convened together in a single place. I am interested in the differences among these methodologies. However, as a result of the discussion with Study Circles, I realized that the important differences are not really in methods. There probably isn't even a huge difference between online and face-to-face conversations. The important distinction is the way that these groups fit into a larger social context: how they recruit people, who participates, and what outcomes potentially result from the deliberation.
Next stop was a meeting with United Leaders, a Massachusetts-based group that has a Washington outpost in a major law firm. So I found myself sitting in the lobby of an elegant office building, decorated with scupltures that looked like Henry Moore's. (They weren't.) The flagship program of United Leaders is a summer internship for young people, and they wanted me to help them get some support from the University of Maryland. I'm going to do my best.
Then on to the Council for Excellence in Government, a major nonprofit, where my colleague Deborah has an office. I wanted to camp out there for a little while, get Internet access so that I could catch up with the latest developments with The Civic Mission of Schools, and talk to Deborah.
At 3, my colleages Margaret and Carrie and I met with Dorothy Gilliam, a distinguished Washington Post reporter who now manages the Post's programs in journalism education. Our goal was to acquaint Ms. Gilliam and her colleagues with our work with high school students in Prince George's Countywork that involves a lot of journalistic skills (from interviewing citizens to interpreting news articles). We were not well prepared and did not have a good answer when we were asked what we wanted from the Post. I blurted out that we were simply hungry for guidance from people who had more experience than we do in journalism education. I don't know how we came across, but I did enjoy the conversation about young people of color and their relationship to news and newspapers.
Margaret and Carrie and I then had a quick coffee near my house to debrief, and that ended my work day.
January 15, 2003
oral history of desegregation
I spent most of the morning advising a potential applicant for the Rhodes Scholarshipsomething that I do on the side because I feel that Maryland students need coaching. (We haven't won since the mid-1970s.)
In the afternoon, our class at Northwestern High School interviewed two people for our oral history project on the desegregation of Prince George's County schools. One interviewee was the first African American student at the school. (He was still the only one when he graduated three years later). He said: "Initially I was actually hoping that it wouldn't work. My parents had said that if there was a lot of violence, we would back up. Instead of violence, there were three years of hostility." His main motivation was to be "part of something bigger," the Civil Rights Movement. He later became a successful chemical engineer. I found him enormously appealingand easily understood what he meant in his understated way, but the kids took his reticence about his own emotions as evasiveness.
The second interviewee was a current member of the County Council, a white man who was formerly a civil rights lawyer. He had sued to force bussing in the county schools and then arranged the settlement that ended bussing. He moved to the County in 1971, and his family was the only White one in the local community. At a community meeting, "I said I was a civil rights lawyer and I wanted to be active in the community." A community leader said, "Man, you are a phenomenon. Most white people are trying to move out of here." In the 1970s, roughly 100,000 African Americans relocated to Prince George's County (mostly from Washington), and roughly 100,000 White people lefta pattern that continued for the next 20 years. "Those folks who moved in the seventies were running from black folks In the eighties and nineties, it had more to do with the aging of the population and the changing of circumstance." People left for upper income housing and better schools.
"My dream in the early eighties was that this is the place where we would make it work. This is the place where we would demonstrate to America that it can work like it says in social studies books. Today I would say that we are still working on that."
January 14, 2003
In the midst of a hectic and bleary day, I participated in a conference call for members of the steering committee. I proposed an idea that seemed to get a lot of support. Sociologists sometimes survey individuals or organizations, asking them with whom they interact most. They create a database showing all the individuals and their mutual relations. They then use "relationship-mapping" software to spit out maps that cluster all the most closely related individuals together and use lines to show how they are linked. If we did this to all the groups involved in the field of deliberative democracy, then we could see which ones work together, which ones are completely separate, and which organizations serve as bridges between clusters of groups. This is the kind of analysis that political organizers have always used; software can help to do it more easily and thoroughly.
January 13, 2003
earned and unearned income
The President's surprise proposal to abolish dividend taxes is big news. There are many ways to evaluate the idea, including consideration of the effects on short- and long-term economic growth, equity, and the federal budget. The Administration also emphasizes that a dividend tax is unfair, since the income that was used to buy the shares was already taxed once. (The response from commentators like Paul Krugman is that there are many double taxes, including all sales taxes.) Another consideration seems to be overlooked. I believe we should retain a distinction between earned and unearned income, and we should be less hesitant to tax the latter. There is nothing wrong with investment income. But workpurposeful human effortis much more closely linked to human dignity and value. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Laborem Exercens (1981), "Work is a good thing for man-a good thing for his humanity-because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes 'more a human being.'"
Robert Nozick, the great libertarian philosopher, denied that there was any moral difference between work and other activities (such as investing) that produce value. He was reacting to the old leftist idea that labor alone creates value, and therefore laborers deserve the full price of their products. It is a scandal of capitalism that some of the reward goes instead to capitalists, who do not work. In the words of Ralph Chaplin's old Wobbly anthem, "Solidarity Forever" (1915):
It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid
* * *
All the world that's owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.
This song implies that we should recoup the money that capitalists have taken from the workers who really made everything. Dividend taxes would then be a good idea, and the higher the better. Unfortunately, the song is pretty clearly wrong: investors, managers, and inventors create value, just as workers do. However, we can still understand labor as morally different from other economic activities. Compare two people, one of whom makes a living by digging ditches, while the other profits from inherited stocks even though she is comatose after an accident. The first labors; the second does not. An intermediate case is someone who actively invests, mixing knowledge, intellectual labor, and accumulated capital to generate wealth. I think that the work aspect of wealth-creation is virtuous, onerous, and not sufficiently rewarded by the market. This is an argument for policies (such as dividends taxes) that favor work.
(All this is "auto-plagiarized" from a law review article I wrote some time ago.
My wife and I went to an event at my 3-year-old's nursery school today. She saw me still in my pajamas just before she left for the day, and said "Daddy, you will get dressed before you come to my school, won't you?" This is the beginning of at least 18 years of her worrying about whether I am about to embarrass her in public.
A long day that ended at 3:00 am when I finally submitted The Civic Mission of Schools to the designers10 hours late. I spent most of the middle of the day participating in spirited email discussions about specific points in the 40-page document that raised problems for some of our endorsers. I think we have everyone on board.
January 9, 2003
the Civic Mission of Schools
This was a fairly short work day, because I was helping at home in the morning and then took a 2-hour lunch to discuss with colleagues the final grades for last semester's graduate course. (Three of us taught something called "The Proseminar in Politics, Philosophy, and Public Policy," a graduate-level introduction to the basic tools you need to analyze fundamental social and moral questions.)
The big thing that is going on at CIRCLE is our soon-to-be completed joint report with the Carnegie Corporation, entitled "The Civic Mission of Schools." We worked all fall to hold meetings and email discussions for about 55 people who are contributors to, and potential endorsers of, the report. The final draft is now with these people for their last comments, and they are to decide whether to endorse. Monday is the deadline. Some participants want changes; the big debate is about whether it is necessary to run schools in a more democratic manner. For some of our participants, this is the key to reform. For others, it is risky and unsupported by research evidence. We are working to develop compromise language that is meaningful advice to schools. I remain confident that we will have a solid report with 50 signatories. (Meanwhile, I'm spending a lot of my time on practical details like layout, copy-editing, scheduling the launch, etc.)
January 8, 2003
a first blog
Three scenes from my day:
9:10 am: In the Longworth House Office Building, sitting with two congressional staffers, my colleague Carrie, and one staffer's seeing-eye dogsharing information about youth voting. Congress has just established a program to promote youth participation in elections: young people will serve as poll-workers or will join in mock votes. The staffers who are meeting with us helped to draft the bill; now they want to make sure that it is well implemented. They seem interested in our data and our list of other people to contact. We suggest that the program needs to focus on high school kids who are not academically successful (because most college-bound students will vote anyway); and there ought to be young people on the appointed board. We are late for the meeting because we went to two incorrect offices before the found the right onewalking by way of various steam tunnels, back staircases, and corridors of power.
10:30 am: In an office loft on hip U Street, in a building occupied by a brewing company, a big gym, and many tech companies. I am in the offices of American Speaks, meeting with several new members of the steering committee of the , helping to integrate the new folks into an ongoing organization that they have just agreed to join.
My personal goal is for several groups that use different methods for public deliberation (e.g., interactive websites, large face-to-face groups, simultaneous church-basement conversations) to hold simultaneous national youth conversations on the following topic: "What should be young people's role in public life?" Some possible answers: "Politics is irrelevant; young people should volunteer and participate in their families and communities." "Politics is uniquely corrupt today, so we should await reform before we participate." "There are new forms of 'politics' that we young people are inventing and that are better than the old ones." "Politics is always a bit dirty and unpleasant, but it's no worse than usual; and you have to play the game or your interests will be ignored."
There seems to be considerable interest in the idea of a national deliberative exercise using several methods.
3:15 pm: At a High School in Hyattsville, MD, helping to teach a class on oral history. Our subject all quarter is the desegregation of the County's public schools. We are three white teachers and our dozen students are African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants. (Exactly half of the day's attendees were born in Africa.). The discussions are good, but often very intense and emotional. We are meeting today in the principal's windowless conference room to accommodate an elderly visitor who cannot manage the steps to our usual classroom. The visitor is a retired postal worker and community activist who attended segregated schools in the county, but her younger brother was the first African American student at the high school where we are sitting, and was also part of the first group of Black students at the University of Maryland. Her sister integrated a local junior high school. Her mother (who had an 8th-grade education) sent these siblings alone into all-White schools, so I asked whether her mother was part of a social network of African Americans that favored integration: "[Shakes her head] It came from her. My mother always thought that our schools were second-class. There were not many people in our community who thought that way. In the long run, in all instances, [desegregation] was not a better thing." I asked her whether she would have desegregated the schools, if she had been in charge of the school system back then: "I probably would have kept them segregated, and I would have demanded that the schools be given equal funding I think that the teachers I had in the segregated schools were much more dedicated than the teachers I have seen since."
I don't know what to think about desegregation, but I believe our students are learning something about how to grapple with a complex, emotional social issue that deeply affects their interests.