May 30, 2003
at the ECSp>I'm still at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, discussing state standards in civics. One distinguished colleague argued that no educational reform really succeeds unless a state has all of the following elements in place: appropriate standards, tests, courses, textbooks, funding, and professional development opportunities. (It can also be useful to have appropriate admissions requirements at the state university.) Unfortunately, all the elements of an effective civics program are missing in most states today. This is a serious matter, for young people are being inadequately prepared to participate in politics in civic life, and consequently many are not involved at all. (We make this general argument in The Civic Mission of Schools report.)
May 29, 2003
the risks of controversy in schools
I'm in Denver, at the Education Commission of the States, talking about state standards in civics and social studies. The topic is what students should know, think, feel, and do about politics and civil society. The group is very well informed and represents all the relevant disciplines and professions. So far, there have been few (if any) broad and systematic disagreements. Most experts feel some tension about standards, accountability, and testing. They ask themselves: are these things inherently harmful, since they reduce schools' capacity to operate democratically, or do we need good standards and tests to encourage civics? There was also a very interesting discussion that pitted academics (including me) against a school superintendent of a fairly major school system. The academics worry that schools are suppressing discussion of controversial political issues. The superintendent told horror stories about teachers who proselytize for various fringe political causes. I certainly could see his point about the risksboth moral and politicalof encouraging teachers to bring politics into the classroom. On the other hand, if we prevent teachers from advocating for political causes, then there is a risk that students will never meet any adults who are politically active and articulate.
May 28, 2003
the 2004 election will be close
A report for Washington: I know many Democrats, and they all seem highly pessimistic about 2004. They think that Karl Rove is a genius, that Bush will coast to re-election because of the Iraq war, that Republicans have enormous advantages in money and media support, that the country is moving rightward, that the Democratic leadership is weak and dividedin short, that we are headed for a landslide.
I dislike political prognostication and am generally not good at it. (It seems to me that the important question is not who will win, but what policies we should want to prevail.) Nevertheless, I cannot resist observing that the future is completely unpredictable and that a Democrat could be the one to win by a landslide in '04. The economy will need to improve quickly to get above the level that usually re-elects presidents (3% annual growth). Surveys show very little support for the Bush economic strategy if it is separated from his personal popularity. The stimulative effects of the new budget are likely to be small, and the expected postwar bounce has been modest. Iraq represents a genuine victory right now, which no one should gainsaybut unfortunately for all of us, it could still easily turn into a momentous disaster. Cutbacks at the state level are going to remain a huge issue, and state leaders will have justifiable reasons to blame Washington. If governors start accusing Bush of cutting taxes at their expense, it could create a serious political problem for him. (The $20 billion in aid to states that Congress just passed may inoculate Bush against charges that he abandoned the states, so it very lucky for him.) The Republicans are planning to use Sept. 11 politically, even choosing New York City for their conventiona strategy that will backfire if New Yorkers effectively protest the way that they have been mistreated since 2001. (Or if, God forbid, we are attacked again.) The demographic trends in states like Florida point the Democrats' way, and they start with a 2000 base that was bigger than Bush's. The absence of serious third-party competition from the left will help too. Even the media may be neutralized if reporters shift, pack-like, from adulating Bush to criticizing him once his popularity starts to slip for other reasons.
In short, this is a nonpartisan blog, but I wouldn't bet a lot of money on a Republican victory, even if I were a Republican.
May 27, 2003
a "gift" from Bill Gates?
Microsoft is giving away free software to nonprofits, and critics charge that this is a deliberate plot to undermine open-source alternatives that were gaining ground in the nonprofit sector. I'll have to leave it to economists to decide whether Microsoft's strategy is good or bad for nonprofit organizations in strictly economic terms. (Economists might also ask whether it is a good deal for taxpayers to let Microsoft take a tax deduction for donating Windows, each copy of which actually costs the company nothing). Likewise, I'll have to defer to antitrust lawyers about whether this strategy violates laws against anti-competitive pricing. My concern is different from either of these. It may be that open-source software is good for civil society because it promotes cooperation in the writing and improving of the code; diversity (since open-source products can be tailored for various purposes and produced by many actors); and creativity by a wide range of individuals and groups. Whether open-source products such as Linux actually have these effects is an empirical matter than needs to be assessed. I suspect, however, that nonprofits like to use open-source products for these reasons and not merely to save money. If that is true, then Microsoft's donation is insidious.
May 26, 2003
the intellectual crisis of the Left
Adam Clymer has an article in today's New York Times about the Democrats' search for a broad and coherent message. The party is a coalition of disparate, often antagonistic interest groups, according to this articlenot a movement inspired by coherent principles. The Republican pollster Ed Goeas made the same charge at a public event I attended recently.
Democrats have had this problem for over a century: they used to be a completely incoherent coalition composed of liberals, Northern white ethnics, and Southern segregationists. The New Deal was much criticized for lacking principle and merely representing the aggregation of these groups' demands. From that period until the 1990s, the Democrats consistently held a national majority and controlled the House. This situation prolonged their reliance on coalition politicsfor two reasons. First, since they had a majority, their leaders didn't have to develop a broad, coherent agenda to win. Instead, they tended to fight over the spoils of their regular victories. Second, the House (with its 435 independently elected members) teaches and rewards coalition politics, whereas the presidency is usually the source of broad ideas.
In my view, the historic character of Democrats as a coalition party was not a serious impediment until a separate phenomenon developed: the intellectual collapse of the left. Conservatives win elections, I believe, not because they cheat (that is, spend more money, or get more support in the media), nor because they are better than liberals at communicating their message. They win because they have broad, coherent principles, which boil down to this: "Families use their discretionary income to buy things that make them happy, to exercise their freedom, and to enrich their spiritual lives if they so choose. Therefore, we should maximize the aggregate disposable income of American families. Government does not create income and tends to waste it, so its size should be minimized."
The left has a set of cogent criticisms of this position. Contrary to what conservatives say: (a) Government does create wealth by providing necessary public goods such as universal education, research, and transportation. (b) Maximizing aggregate wealth is not an adequate goal, because we can achieve that end by making the rich much richer while leaving the poor where they areand this does not increase happiness or freedom. (c) We should care about the prosperity of future generations, not about short-term growth, and therefore we should not cut taxes if this will increase the deficit. (d) All wealth circulates through households, but it most of it also passes through corporations. Large firms have great power and are not accountable to citizens unless regulated by the state. (e) Maximizing aggregate wealth is not sustainable, because human consumption degrades the environment. (f) Maximizing aggregate wealth is incompatible with preserving traditional human cultures and cultural diversity. (g) Maximizing disposable income should not be our only goal; we should also be concerned about how safe, available, and rewarding work is. (h) Private goods are not the only important things; nature, science, and art also matter, and they require public support. (i) Unregulated capitalism is not meritocratic: over time, it creates a class of wealthy and lazy heirs.
These are sensible criticisms, but they are somewhat at odds with each other, and each appeals to a different set of Democratic constituencies. Moreover, Democrats cannot conceal their differences by uniting in support of a concrete national policy. Despite their criticisms of conservatism, they do not believe in the traditional mechanisms for generating equity, sustainability, safety, and the other progressive goods. Above all, they do not believe in centralized state bureaucracies. Thus they fight fairly half-heartedly in defense of traditional institutions, from public schools to unions to the EPA, while failing to articulate a coherent, principled message. And this is why they lose. In short, the problem is intellectual-ideological, not merely tactical, and thus it will not disappear soon.
May 23, 2003
perils of fameI received this year's edition of The Higher Education Exchange today, with an interview of me by David Brown. The interview starts with me worrying about academics who pursue fame. I think that the desire for fame is a major motivation in academia; in fact, status and fame seem to be professors' main selfish goals. (Curiosity is one of their main unselfish motives.) I'm interested in this because I think that both the pursuit of fame and its attainment can have distortingeven corruptingeffects on scholars. I also think that fame goes to the already famous in a way that's unfair and that undermines meritocracy in the university. This would be a good subject for a serious philosophical article, I believe.
May 22, 2003
a debate about reading
Yesterday, our high school class interviewed a 30-year veteran teacher at their school, mainly about racial issues. He saidamong other thingsthat people in his home county (Montgomery, MD) read, whereas young people in Prince George's do not. They just watch television, he said; and if they read, it's "trash." Montgomery is predominantly White; Prince George's is majority Black. After he left, I asked the students what they thought about this particular comment. Some were evidently offended and suspected that the teacher was relying on racial stereotypes. Others thought that he was factually correct. We held a debate on the question: "Do people read more in Montgomery?" I said that I honestly didn't know, but that I wouldn't jump to conclusions just because Montgomery is whiter and richer than Prince George's. One male student who was offended by the comparison said that girls read in Prince George'salthough boys don't. This comment received a lot of assent.
May 21, 2003
discipline or cooptation?
Here is an issue that arose several times at last week's Argentine/US conference on deliberative democracy. Citizens who are given the power to deliberate and make formal decisions often learn about legal, political, and economic constraints and recognize the necessity of making changes one step at a time. They tend to drop their radical ideas and become critical of outsiders who do not understand the process that they have mastered.
There are at least two ways to interpret this change in attitude:
First, we could say that giving citizens real power is a form of civic education. Deliberators develop discipline and an understanding of real, unavoidable constraints. They gain the skills, knowledge, and networks needed to make tangible improvements in their communities. Civic Innovation in America, by Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland, is (partly) the story of some "sixties radicals" who gained civic skills and discipline by working within democratic institutions, and thereby become highly effective agents of change.
Alternatively, we could say that incorporating citizens into a system of constrained deliberation co-opts them. The process is biased in favor of moderate, meliorist policies and cannot embrace radical proposals. Yet there are good arguments for radical change, especially in a country like Brazil, where the world's most interesting experiments in deliberative democracy take place in the context of massive inequality.
May 20, 2003
the erasure of a people
According to Amos Elon's review of Queen Noor's autobiography in The New York Review of Books (May 29, p. 7), the Queen once suggested to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife that it would be good if Israeli textbooks stopped spreading the "propaganda" that Palestine in the 1940s was "a land with no people for a people with no land."
"What do you mean?" Mrs. Netanhayu replied. "When the Jews came to this area, there were no Arabs here. They came to find work when we built cities. There was nothing here before that."
I find this retroactive erasure of a population truly chilling. (Mid East Web, while obviously not an impartial source, provides plausible statistics on the demographics of British Palestine.)
May 19, 2003
Leo Strauss in the news
Odd as this may sound, we live in a world increasingly shaped by Leo Strauss, a controversial philosopher who died in 1973. Although generally unknown to the wider population, Strauss has been one of the two or three most important intellectual influences on the conservative worldview now ascendant in George W. Bush's Washington. Eager to get the lowdown on White House thinking, editors at the New York Times and Le Monde have had journalists pore over Strauss's work and trace his disciples' affiliations. The New Yorker has even found a contingent of Straussians doing intelligence work for the Pentagon .
In the International Herald Tribune, William Pfaff calls Strauss "the main intellectual influence on the neoconservatives," listing as Straussians: "Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Abram Shulsky of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, Richard Perle of the Pentagon advisory board, Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council, and the writers Robert Kagan and William Kristol."
In her 1988 book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, Shadia Drury argued that Strauss was not really a cultural conservative committed to natural law and transcendent truths; he was actually a nihilist who promoted conservatism as a golden lie for the masses. Some of John Gunnell's articles from the 1970s and 1980s had reached similar conclusions. In my 1995 book, Nietzsche and the Modern Crisis of the Humanities, I sharpened this analysis somewhat by arguing that:
- Nietzsche was a duplicitous or esoteric author, teaching public doctrines (such as Will to Power and Eternal Return) that he did not believe, because he feared the impact of the nihilistic Truth; and
- Strauss was systematically and profoundly influenced by Nietzsche's conclusions and methods of writing. Thus he was a Nietzschean, if anyone deserves that title.
Then, in Something to Hide (1996), I published a comic novel about a conspiratorial group of nihilists/conservatives, loosely based on Leo Strauss. However, given the level of suspicion that Straussians now provoke in some quarters (e.g., among followers of Lyndon Larouche), I should say that I find the actual Straussians curious and sometimes interesting, but not dangerous or malevolent.
Here is the section from my 1995 book in which I assemble evidence for the hypothesis that Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom were Nietzscheans.
May 16, 2003
young elected leaders
At the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, I spent the day with a large group of young elected officials: city councilors and state legislators from all over the USA who are under the age of 35. (A few young U.S. Representatives were due to appear after I left.) The morning session was essentially a set of focus groups, one of which I was fortunate to be able to observe. I was especially struck by the degree of guilt that these young people feel. They are torn among family, paying jobs, civic obligations such as nonprofit boards, constituent service, and legislative work. "Guilt" was a word that they used frequently and passionately.
May 15, 2003
the arts in our community
Today the Democracy Collaborative convened scholars at the University of Maryland and community activists from Prince George's County to talk about working together. I participated in a session on the arts, which generated numerous concrete, practical ideas connected to the Prince George's Information Commons. There are ideas afoot in the County to develop it as an arts center with a strong African American aspect, profiting from the University's presence. The people who met today may be able to help by collecting information about existing arts assets and displaying them either on maps or public databases (or in other ways). I also think it would be useful to survey existing arts groups about their partnerships and collaborations, in order to construct a diagram of the arts network in the County. (Network mapping software can do this very nicely.)
May 14, 2003
deliberation in Argentina
I have just spent a very interesting two days at a conference sponsored by the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy and the Fundacion Nueva Generacion Argentina on the subject of "Deliberative Democracy: Principles and Cases." Essentially, the conference brought together four groups of experts into fruitful dialogue:
- The Fundacion sent Argentines who are deeply embroiled in their country's convulsive political crisis.
- Innovative grantmakers and aid experts talked about new approaches to development assistance that help democracy (or good governance) and civil society.
- Practitioners who organize human-scale deliberative experiments (e.g., Carolyn Lukensmeyer of America Speaks) talked about their work. Also, Gianpaolo Baiocchi contributed ethnographic research on participatory budgeting in Porto Allegre (which is turning into the Mecca for progessive and populist reformers); and Andrew Selee described participatory and deliberative experiments in Mexico.
- Several American theorists and social scientists gave papers on deliberative democracy. Jane Mansbridge argued for the significance of practice for deliberative theory, drawing some theoretical conclusions about the importance of self-interest and passion. Henry Richardson talked about the corrupting effects of being powerless, and the discipline that comes from having to make practical decisions together. Noelle McAfee distinguished three types of deliberative democracy. And Joel Siegel provided evidence that democracy contributes to economic growth in developing countries.
May 13, 2003
public work and multiculturalism
Here is a somewhat different way of analyzing the campus battles over "great books" versus "multiculturalism" or "diversity." Participants can be sorted into groups depending on what kind of works they think should be available or required in schools, colleges, and other venues. "Canonical classicists" want everyone to read great works from Plato to NATO. "Diversity proponents" want everyone to be exposed to works written (or composed, or painted) by people of multiple ethnic, cultural, religious, sexual, and racial identitiesin order to promote empathy, respect, tolerance, etc. And true "multiculturalists" want people of different cultural backgrounds to be able to study intensively works created by people like them, so that a campus will be home to multiple cultural communities.
This is one dimension that we can use to categorize the antagonists in the campus culture wars. But there is also another dimension. At one end of this second spectrum are those who emphasize that students should experience, appreciate, understand, or at least be exposed to works created in the past or in other places. Somewhat contentiously, I'll call this the "consumerist" approach. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who stress that we should create new cultural products, including stories and paintings, performances, critical interpretations, and historical narratives.
Putting the two dimensions together, we see that there are at least six possible positions in the debate:
The standard conservative view is (a)there is a fixed supply of
great works from the past that students should experience and appreciate.
The standard diversity view is (b)everyone should experience works
by authors of color. And the standard multiculturalism view is (c)people
should be encouraged to study works by members of their own groups, using
their own cultures' criteria of excellence. These positions are "zero-sum":
adding a text to the curriculum may require taking another text out. In
contrast, options (d)-(f) are potentially "win-win," and I think
they are underdeveloped. There is a fair amount of (e)i.e., people
of all colors and creeds should collaborate because this will create the
most interesting new works of art. But I think conservatives should work
on developing (d), if indeed it is a viable position. And multiculturalists
should develop (f), which would amount to the view that people of various
cultures should be assisted in producing new works, thereby contributing
to the global commons.
May 12, 2003
Brian Barry on inequality
Brian Barry spoke at Maryland on Friday, making a good old-fashioned case for economic equality. He cited the following statistics as evidence that we do not have much social mobility in the US: If you are a male born in the poorest tenth of the population, you have only a 1.3 percent chance of reaching the top ten percent during your lifetime, and just a 3.7 percent chance of becoming at all wealthy (in the top fifth). If you are born in the bottom tenth, the odds are more than even that you will never make it out of the bottom fifth. Barry's source is Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, "The Inheritance of Inequality," Journal of Economic Perspectives 16 (2002) 3 - 30, p. 3.
May 8, 2003
I have just published a new article on "information privacy." "Information Technology and the Social Construction of Information Privacy: Comment," Journal of Accounting and Public Policy Volume 22, Issue 3, May-June 2003, Pages 281-285)
The abstract says:
Privacy is not merely "socially constructed"; it is a good thing. We should defend privacy because it supports freedom, property rights, informed consent, personality development, happiness, equality of power, an appropriate separation of society into multiple zones, and rights of association, while helping to prevent discrimination and defamation. Accountants have a professional responsibility to help protect information privacy.
This short, commissioned piece begins with some comments about the methodology of another article in the same journal; these remarks are not very interesting for general readers. I think the main value of my piece (if it is useful at all) is that it lists the goods and rights that we can enhance by protecting online privacy. None of the items on my list is original, but they are all together in one place.
May 7, 2003
public work in the private sector
When I spoke a few weeks ago at Berkeley, Philip Selznick made an interesting point about the value of commercial firms that are not profit-maximizers. As he noted, the genteel old publishing houses needed to cover their costs, and probably wanted to make a comfortable profit, but they were at least as committed to producing public goods in the form of high-quality literature. By contrast, a publicly traded firm must maximize profits, so if it generates public goods, they come as unintentional collateral benefits (at best). My friend Harry Boyte has promoted a whole philosophy of "public work," which prizes the ability of every citizen to generate public goods, often in collaboration with others. One hallmark of public work, it seems to me, is an intentional focus on public benefits. That is what is missing in profit-maximizing firms, but it's very evident in certain less economically efficient private enterprises. Boyte's schema is useful, in part, because it allows us to reshuffle the traditional categories of state/market/civil society. Public work can take place in any of these sectors, or it can be absent or suppressed in any of them. For example, if a state apparatus becomes heavily bureaucratic and rigid, then civil servants will stop performing public work. Likewise, if traditional publishing houses are bought by international conglomerates that relentlessly aim at efficiency, then their editors must cease to do public work. (Obviously, I owe an argument here about why public work is valuable. In brief, I think there are objective benefits to the community and subjective or psychological benefits to public workers.)
May 6, 2003
At a seminar today, some colleagues and I discussed Senator John Edwards' proposal to eliminate the preference for "legacies" (children of alumni) in college admissions. Some people are saying that legacy preferences are on the same footing with affirmative action for racial minorities and women. If we ban affirmative action as a form of discrimination that undermines meritocracy, we should ban legacy admissions as well. If we keep one, we may (or must) keep the other. A third problematic policy is the preference that public universities often give to in-state students. Isn't it discriminatory for UC Berkeley to prefer Californians?
(It is worth noting that being denied admission to Harvard because one's place went to a "legacy" is not a tragedythere are many other fine schools. Being denied admission or financial aid at Michigan because one lives in Kentucky is at least as unfair.)
I think this issue is fairly complicated. First, there are practical considerations. Presumably a policy banning legacy preferences would cause at least some rich alumni to curtail their contributions, thus removing some financial support from scholarship and education. Likewise, a policy banning in-state preferences could lead states to withdraw support from their own colleges. However, either or both of these fears might turn out to be unwarranted.
If one justifies legacy preferences mainly on practical, economic grounds, then it doesn't make sense to prefer the children of alumni who have never contributed anything to a college. Yet most colleges deny that they prefer donors' children; that would be too crass. Implicitly, their argument seems to rest on freedom of association and the value of preserving their membership as a community over time.
Private universities probably have a right as associations to prefer their own members (alumni, staff, and current students). That doesn't make a legacy policy morally admirable, however. It certainly has the disadvantage of preserving a heriditary elite and undermining meritocratic competition. Thus we might want to use the leverage of federal funding to discourage such preferences. On the other hand, maybe it is admirable to build community bonds within private associations. In that case, is it equally acceptable for states to treat themselves as exclusive communities that prefer their own citizens? Should federal policy allow or discourage this?
May 5, 2003
why Dante damned Francesca da Rimini
I looked at statistics for this site recently and was surprised to see that the most popular search terms that take people here include "Dante," "Paolo," "Francesca," and "Inferno." I am surprised because I think of myself as a civics, democracy, and political-reform guy; I have not contributed much to the study of Dante, and this website certainly doesn't offer much on the topic (beyond the one page about my ongoing Dante project). Today, however, I posted one of my published Dante articles, and I will add more soonall in the interests of serving my audience.
In "Why Dante Damned Francesca da Rimini," I argue that there are two explanations for Dante's decision to place Francesca in Hell (even though her real-life nephew was his patron and benefactor). First, he may have sympathized with this fellow lover of poetry who tells her own sad story so movingly, but he realized that she had committed the mortal sin of adultery. Thus he damned her because his philosophical reason told him that she was guilty, and he wanted to suggest that moral reasoning is a safer guide than stories and the emotions that they provoke. For the same reason, the whole Divine Comedy moves from emotional, first-person, concrete narrative toward abstract universal truth as Dante ascends from Hell to Heaven.
But there is also another, subtler reason for his decision. Francesca loves poetry, but she reads it badly. Her speech is a tissue of quotations from ancient and medieval literature, but every one is inaccurate. In general, she takes difficult, complex texts and misreads them as simple cliches that justify her own behavior. Meanwhile, she says nothing about her lover or her husbandnot even their nameswhich suggests that she cannot "read" them well or recall their stories. Her failure as a reader suggests that Dante was not necessarily against poetry and in favor of philosophical reason. Instead, perhaps he wanted to point out some specific moral pitfalls involved in careless reading.
May 4, 2003
on praising one's own children
I like to say nice things about other people, in their presence and also behind their backs. Yet I try not to say overly nice things about myself. Praising others makes me feel good (and often comes naturally); praising myself makes me feel guilty. I used to be able to follow both principles consistentlyuntil I had kids. Now, I often want to say nice things about my children, even when they are not around. But many people see praising one's own offspring as a way of bragging about oneself. This is especially true of other parents, for we moms and dads are a very competitive lot (even the nicest ones). Indeed, when I praise my own children behind their backs, I feel a tinge of guilty pride that resembles the feeling I would have if I had just bragged about myself, even though I honestly do not see myself as responsible for the good things that my children do. (Then again, I'm not sure that I'm responsible for any good things I may do.) Is this feeling of pride a sign that it is wrongimmodestto praise one's children when they are not present? Or is it right to praise them, as long as one does not feel pride when doing so? (After all, they are individuals in their own right, so why should anyone think about their parents when they are discussed?) Or is it right to praise them and to feel proud about their good qualities, even though it is wrong to praise oneself?
May 2, 2003
thinking about the fetus without analogy
Here's a question prompted by a seminar discussion today. (The speaker was my colleague Robert Sprinkle.) Would it be possible to consider the moral status of a human fetus without analogizing it to something else? The standard way to think about the morality of abortion is to ask what fetuses are most likebabies, organisms (fairly simple ones at first), or tumors. We know that babies cannot be killed, that simple organisms can be killed for important reasons, and that tumors can be removed and destroyed without regret. So an analogy can help us to answer the fundamantal moral question about abortion. (It's not necessarily the end of the matter. Judith Jarvis Thomson, and many others, have argued that you may kill a fetus even if it is like a person, because it is inside another person.) But a fetus isn't something else; it's a fetus. So could you simply consider it and reach moral conclusions? One might reply: "There is no way of reasoning about this entity; there is nothing to say to oneself about its moral statusunless one compares it to another object whose moral status one already knows." But how do we know the moral status of (for example) human beings? Presumably, experience and reason have rightly driven us to the conclusion that human beings have a right to life. Similarly, most of us have decided that insects do not have rights. Couldn't we reach conclusions about the moral status of fetuses without analogizing them to anything else?
(Some religious readers may say: "Experience and reason are not the basis of our belief in human rightswe get this belief from divine revelation." But there is no explicit divine revelation about fetuses, so the question arises even for religious people: Could we think morallyand perhaps prayerfullyabout fetuses, without analogizing them to other things?)
May 1, 2003
at the White House
Today was the White House Forum on American History, Civics, and Service, a big event in my field. Our Civic Mission of Schools report was distributed to all 250 of the White House's guests and received a lot of attention.
The Forum exemplified official Washington. The President delivered an especially prepared greeting from a gigantic video screen. Much was made of his new initiative to support history teaching. The First Lady and Lynne Cheney, guarded visibly by the Secret Service, made speeches; and everyone stood each time one of these women took the podium. (Some of the sanctity of high executive office transfers to spouses, apparently.) Patriotic video montages of American history were displayed on the screen. A huge reproduction of a manuscript copy of the Constitution was the backdrop all day. Teenagers were paraded (silently) on stage and bedecked with medalsquite literally. Speakers were introduced with long recitals of their achievements; there was also much thanks to funders and assembled dignataries. Almost all the speakers quoted at least one framer of the Constitution (often deploying little-known and highly relevant quotesto their credit). Martin Luther King Jr. was also cited widely; and many sentimental stories were told about disadvantaged children. No one mentioned the name of a political party or a major ideology, lest the spirit of nonpartisanship be disturbed. There was general air of congratulation, directed at the people and organizations in the room and at America itselfwith one exception: at least half the speakers wagged their fingers at young Americans today for their shocking ignorance of history.
My academic training makes me want to rebel against this kind of show. I want to ask: What do we know about the trends in historical knowledge over time? What do we know about the factors that make historical education successful? What is the impact of a historical education, or of historical knowledge, on people over their lifetimes? What will the impact of the new presidential initiative be? (At $100 million over three years, it represents a vanishingly small commitment in the context of the federal budget.) Since there are competing grand narratives of American history, how do we know which one is more correct? Is Howard Zinn's story of greed and violence (which was explicitly criticized during the session) false? Is it less valid than the "moderate triumphalist" narrative that one speaker recommended as an alternative? What are the effects of such stories on youth development?
Notwithstanding all these questions and doubts, I recognize that public institutions are not academic seminars. Mutual praise is oil that probably has to be poured periodically over civil society. Vague statements of commitment from the President of the United States are not empty; they are useful ammunition in struggles at the local level. And leaders are entitled to make a big deal about $100 million programs that they have proposed. You would have to be a kind of political puritan to expect them not to capitalize on the symbolism of such initiatives. It doesn't only take truth and critical debate to make large institutions run; they also need symbolism, ritual, and even etiquette. Washington does these things well.