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March 31, 2003

following the war from Greece

We're back from a week in Greece. This is a civic/political blog, not a personal diary, so I will refrain from describing our many adventures. I can, however, file a report on how the current war looks from Greece. A few vignettes:

And now we're back. Time always seems to slow while you travel, or expand like a fan with all the details of each day still clear in your mind. It seems forever since you left your usual life. And then you return to your routine, and the fan snaps closed. You feel that you were gone for just a dimly remembered day or two.

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March 20, 2003


This blog is going on vacation as my family and I head off to Europe for ten days. I have some moral misgivings about vacationing abroad while people are being killed in the Middle East. I also feel some jitters about traveling with loved-ones while terror warnings are high and there are protests against my government (but not against my views) in the very places that we intend to visit. Basically, I am looking forward to the trip. This blog, however, is going to have to lapse into silence until I return, since I will have no Internet access.

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March 19, 2003

talking about desegregation

Our high school students interviewed a white graduate of largely African American public schools in Prince George's County (class of '98). It was interesting to compare her experience to that of the African Americans who first attended the County's all-White schools in the 50's. In short, she fared much, much better. She professed never to be uncomfortable because of race, although her friends were mostly among the other white students.

We asked our students to frame possible answers to the question: "What should have been done with the County's segregrated schools in 1954?" They come up with these options:

(I list the students' votes not because they necessarily represent the views of any larger population, but only to give a sense of the class's opinion.)

There could have been two kinds of "diversity" in the schools of 1954 when the County was about 11 percent African American. Some schools could have been predominanly Black and others predominantly white (diversity among schools); or all schools could have been 11 percent African American (diversity within schools). Our students, who are all kids of color, unanimously preferred the latter.

We also asked them about these value priorities:

*"quality of education" won hands down on the first ballot, so everyone had to vote for another choice.

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March 17, 2003

local government & online civil society

"Reduction in Civics Classes Mirrors Decline in Youth Vote": this is a pretty good article on youth civic engagement in yesterday's Boston Globe.

I gave a paper today at the American Society for Public Administration's Annual Conference, arguing that local governments should support independent voluntary associations in producing elaborate websites with databases, interactive maps, searchable archives, researched and edited articles, structured deliberation forums, and streaming videos. I believe that local governments can and should help in some of these ways:

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March 13, 2003

liquid reason

We met over lunch with the founder of Liquid Reason, an interesting Website whose purpose is to teach young people social marketing. I also answered quite a few press calls that arose from yesterday's press conference. Reporters are mainly interested in what is actually a fairly peripheral topic: the size of the decline in youth turnout since 1972. In the evening, I briefed students from University of Maryland and other Maryland state campuses about the Rhodes Scholarship. I tried to persuade them that the application process can be valuable, even though the odds of success are very low, because writing an application essay forces you to come up with a provisional plan of life just at the point when you are finishing college and your future is less planned than it has ever been before.

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March 12, 2003

the value of deliberating historical narrative

In our high school class, we spent almost two hours editing the text that accompanies the first seven pictures in this slideshow on the history of school desegregation in Prince George's County. We had planned to cover much more ground, but I believe the editing exercise was extremely useful.

First, I don't think the students usually edit what they write, so this was a valuable experience for them.

Second, there are profound political differences implied by small changes in the way you describe events. It sounds very different to say, "African American students were required to ride buses to predominantly White schools," or "The NAACP forced the County to bus students to promote integration." Both are true; but the political implications are hugely different. Trying to write narrative text is a wonderful way to learn skills of historical interpretation.

Third, I kept pressing the class to make sure we had evidence for our claims. They wanted to say, for example, that busing led to White protests in Prince George's County. This turned out to be true, but at first nobody could remember any evidence to support the claim. I tried to persuade the class that we have an obligation to prove to ourselves that our assertions about specific places and times are right.

The text that is currently on the Website does not yet reflect the students' latest edits. They were eager not to focus too much on their own high school (which used to exclude Blacks as a matter of law). Our students themselves would all be excluded today, but they still don't like the negative focus on their school. They also want to avoid a simple Black/White narrative, since the communities they know are more ethnically and racially diverse. But it's hard to figure out what to say about other races in the 1950s. It appears from old yearbooks that some people who would today be called Latinos attended all-"White" schools. We have no data on Hispanics/Latinos, since the Census did not use that category until the 1970s. As for Asians, there were only 283 in the County in 1950, according to the Census, so we don't know what happened to their kids.

I also had an interesting conference call with NACE members and participated in an "audio press conference" sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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March 11, 2003

helping with a website

I've been spending a lot of time trying to improve the Prince George's Information Commons history Webpage, which is modestly interactive. It's still a work-in-progress. It reflects the contributions of our high school students, although I ended up doing most of the technical work because we just don't have enough time with the kids to teach them oral history techniques, the issue of desegregation, and how to animate webpages. Tomorrow in class they will have a chance to critique what I've done intensively and then I will try to implement their ideas.

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reading George W. Bush

I've been thinking a bit about various theories that eorge Bush is pursuing war for unstated motives, some nefarious and some honorable. These thought are prompted by a Michael Kinsley editorial and various conversations and email exchanges with friends. As a general rule, I don't believe that we should try to assess leaders' motives. That's because:

  1. We can never tell for sure what their motives are. (Or even what motivates our own actions.)
  2. Motives don't matter. You can do a bad or stupid thing with the best intentions, or you can do a great thing for awful reasons. We need to spend our time thinking about policies, not policymakers.
  3. A focus on motives makes us turn for advice to insiders, those who may have insight into leaders' secret thoughts. (For example, presidential advisors, speaking off the record.) We should instead listen to fellow citizens and experts with knowledge of the substantive issue.

Unfortunately, we cannot make a very intelligent judgment about war in Iraq, because so much of the important information that George W. Bush has on his desk is classified. Also, much depends on how the war will turn out in the end. No one knows, but George Bush's motives are relevant, since he will make many crucial decisions. Thus it is hard not to think about his motives as a surrogate way of grappling with the issue.

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March 10, 2003

local governments and independent civic websites

I'm beginning to think about my presentation at the American Society for Public Administration conference next Monday. (Click for the practical details.) My title is "Local Governments and Independent Civic Websites." I submitted the following abstract: "Communities benefit when they have strong, broad-based, active, civic organizations. Today, there is a need for new civic organizations or networks that are devoted to producing public goods for distribution on the Internet: things like searchable databases of local assets, interactive digital maps, structured forums for informed public deliberation, alternative local news sources, and art and history projects. These goods are not widely available, because businesses have not learned how to make money from them, and they are too expensive to be produced by individual citizens. However, for a reasonable price, local governments can support such work without compromising its independence."

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March 7, 2003

a day without blogging

My day was consumed with three activities that are not appropriate topics for a public/professional weblog: visiting my younger daughter's nursery school; preparing a two-year budget for CIRCLE; and planning for a spring-break family vacation in Greece. This blog will be back in action on Monday.

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March 6, 2003

what is moral philosophy?

My Dante book (in progress) is really an essay on the limitations of moral theory. But what is that? I'm playing with the following definition: Moral theories are collections of descriptive terms, each of which has a known moral valence. For example, "unjust" is a descriptive term with moral significance. We might argue that anything that is "unjust" is wrong—at least all else being equal. In that case, the moral valence of the term "unjust" is negative; calling something "unjust" pushes us toward rejecting that action (or institution, or character).

Knowing the moral valence of a descriptive term does not always tell us what to do, because a single act can be described in multiple ways. A given action may be "unjust" but also "loving." (For example, a parent might favor her own children over others.) In such cases, the negative moral valence of injustice is countered by the positive moral valence of love, and we have a difficult decision to make. In another kind of situation, an action may be "unjust" but also "necessary"; and if something is necessary, then we may have to ignore moral considerations altogether.

Few (if any) philosophers have ever believed that moral theories could be sufficient to determine action; we also need judgment to tell us which moral terms to apply in particular cases, and how to balance conflicting terms. Nevertheless, philosophers generally think it is useful to have a moral theory composed of terms with known moral valences.

A moral theory can simply be a list of such terms (this was W.D. Ross' view); but preferably it is an organized structure. For example, a theorist may argue that some moral terms underlie and explain others, or trump others, or negate others. The more the full list can be organized and/or shortened, the more the theory has achieved.

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March 5, 2003

talking about race

During our high school class today, we had a good and useful time talking about statistics on race and school enrollments. The bottom line is that the proportion of African American students in Prince George's County school soared upward by 72 percentage points from 1960 to the present. Around 1980, the Black and White student populations were about equal. Since there was mandatory busing in those days, we assume that a lot of students attended truly integrated schools. Then the White students left, at a faster rate than the White population of the county. Now the "exposure" of Black students to White students (as measured by civil right lawyers) is very low compared to other counties.

I think our students learned a fair amount about statistics and were intrigued by the facts. But when we started asking them what they thought about the trends, they clammed up. The history of school desegregation in this County could be viewed as a temporary success (until the 1980s) and a long-term failure because schools are almost as segregated today as they were in 1960. Or one could say that the departure of White students is not bad news at all, since the Black population is extremely diverse (65 languages are spoken at Northwestern High School alone), and the median income of the County is much higher than the national median—so there are plenty of resources for an excellent school system. Our students wouldn't say what they thought, and I don't blame them. Not only is this a difficult issue, but three White college employees were suddenly asking them for their candid opinions of a sensitive racial issue—a really unfair demand. Yet I was disappointed, because I would like to know what they think.

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March 4, 2003

a civic approach to local history

The Civic Mission of Schools, our report on civic education, has been getting quite a lot of press—most of it positive. But Chester Finn wrote a critical review that has been provoking some discussion in the civic engagement world.

Over lunch today, my colleagues and I planned a deliberative Website on the history of desegregation in Prince George's County. We're thinking that the "intro" will show class photos from Northwestern High School, each year gradually morphing into the next as the school moves from segregated white, to white with one black student in 1955-8, to today's mosaic of ethnic groups. Next, visitors will be invited to explore a page that our high school students have already constructed, with a timeline of County history and interviews of participants in the integration stuggle. Visitors will then be able to move to a page that presents three contrasting answers to the question: "What should the County have done in 1955 to address school segregation?" Finally, they will be transferred to an online discussion forum to post their opinions.

A major goal is to help our students see history not only as the record of state actions, powerful people, and downtrodded victims, but also as a story of communities making difficult decisions.

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March 3, 2003

what Dante knew about Francesca

Notwithstanding all this civic engagement stuff I try to do, I'm actually a moral philosopher. I have an incomplete manuscript of several hundred pages on the story of Paolo and Francesca and what it means for moral theory. (See this webpage.) It occasionally bothers me that I have left so much material untouched for so long. Today I sensed a lull and took out chapter one. It's a mess, but I enjoyed starting to reorganize it.

Dante ended his life in the household of the lord of Ravenna, one Guido Novello da Polenta. Dante was Guido's close friend and courtier. Guido's aunt was Francesca do Rimini, one of the most famous damned souls in Dante's Inferno. So it's intriguing—although not profoundly important—to ask whether Dante was already close to Guido when he wrote about Francesca. I spent this morning organizing the available (scanty) evidence: a nice break from more current concerns.

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