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September 30, 2003

exemplary projects in civic renewal

Dr. Henry Tam has just been named "Head of Civil Renewal" in the British Government's Home Affairs Department. He emailed a list of people to ask their advice about excellent projects in the US. I gave him my quick "top-ten list" of US projects in civic renewal:

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September 29, 2003

ideology and civic ed

The most passionately debated question in civic education is how to present the overall story of American history in schools. Is it a march toward freedom and democracy, a blood-soaked tale of oppression, or something in between? I can see three ways to address this question:

1. By trying to tell the truth. Some historical statements are verifiable (or falsifiable); and we should only tell students the ones that aren't false. However, the debate is not about whether particular facts are true; it's about which facts we ought to mention and emphasize. History is a "vast grab-bag" (as Robert Weibe once said in my hearing); and one can choose which items to pull out. As for grand assessments of the overall meaning of American history—they aren't precise enough to be either true or false, I suspect.

2. By conducting a normative (moral) debate. How to present American history is hotly debated because each approach seems to cohere best with a different moral/ideological worldview. Modern conservatives want to emphasize the degree to which our founding institutions have served us well; some liberals want to stress the March of Progress; and many modern leftists want to focus on violence, exclusion, and resistance. There is nothing wrong with having this debate. However, "is" never implies "ought." One could, for example, take a very dark view of the American past and still believe that students should love their country and its founding documents. Many complex combinations of facts and values are possible.

More importantly, "ought" never implies "is." It is intellectually dishonest to adopt a normative position and then try to teach students a set of historical facts that support that ideology, presented as the history of the United States. If I wanted to help students think about moral and ideological positions, I wouldn't proceed by trying to present a brief version of American history to them. I would teach them explicitly about conflicting values and methods of normative argument.

3. By predicting the effects of each version of history on students' attitudes and beliefs. Many ideologists in this debate assume that particular versions of history will have particular consequences for students' psychological development. For instance, a "triumphalist" narrative will create patriots—or will alienate students, especially minorities. An emphasis on exclusion and oppression will create social activists—or will breed despair.

There is not nearly enough research on this (empirical) topic. William Damon of Stanford argues that young people must develop a positive view of their nation before they can care enough about it to become engaged critics. This theory rings true in my own life. I was a jingoistic patriot at 10, only to become a critical activist by 20. However, I'm not sure that trying to impart a completely positive view of the Founders would work as well with young people of color as it did with me. In any case, I would love to see more research this field, using as many relevant methodologies as possible.

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September 26, 2003

Moussaoui prosecution

(On the way to Macon, GA): The government is moving to dismiss all charges against Zacarias Moussaoui, who is accused of being the 20th hijacker on 9/11—the co-conspirator who couldn't actually fly a plane because he was already in custody. Prosecutors now say that they are seeking to dismiss the charges so that they can appeal Moussaoui's right to question al Qaeda prisoners. But a well-informed person told me several weeks ago that he had heard from a reliable source inside the government that the real 20th hijacker is being held in Guantanamo. This would mean that Moussauoi is innocent of the precise charges against him, which may be the real reason why the charges are being dropped.

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September 25, 2003

imprisonment in the USSR and the USA

According to a scholarly article cited here, there were between 2 million and 2.5 million people in Soviet prisons and camps every year between 1938 and 1953. The current population in US jails plus prisons also exceeds 2 million (Bureau of Justice Statistics). This comparison has not escaped people's notice, as a Google search of "Gulag" and "prison population" will reveal.

Of course, there are differences between prisons in the US and in Stalin's Soviet Union. First, the vast majority of incarcerated people in America have committed crimes, and they have received due process, albeit flawed in some cases. Second, conditions in US prisons are better than conditions in Siberian work camps. Third, our incarceration rate is lower as a percentage of our population, although it may be higher in some inner-city neighborhoods today than it was in the USSR circa 1950. Fourth, the modern rationale for mass incarceration (reducing crime) is better than Stalin's reason (terrorizing people into submission to him personally). Above all, the Soviet terror involved mass killing as well as imprisonment.

Nevertheless, at the very least, the incarceration of 2 million Americans—with collateral damage to their victims, and to their families and communities—represents a social failure that's unique in today's world and comparable to the disasters under Stalin.

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September 24, 2003

no blogging today

CIRCLE has received more than 250 letters of inquiry responding to our three Requests for Proposals, which all had deadlines of last Friday. Today, reading letters, not blogging, is my clear civic duty.

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September 23, 2003

patriotism and civic

Some people who talk or write about civic education insist that the United States has the very best democracy (or society) in the world. In my opinion, the US is one of a few dozen polities that stand head-and-shoulders above the rest (due to good luck as well as wise ancestors). I think it's a goal of civic education to help students understand how fortunate they are compared to people who live in tyrannies or anarchy. I feel loyalty and gratitude toward the United States and not toward any other nation, and I think this is a good attitude for Americans to hold. However, it's far from clear to me that our polity is the single best in the world. We have low voter participation; our crime and incarceration rates are amazingly high; and we live shorter lives with more disease, compared to people in some of the northern European nations. Nor do we compare favorably with these countries if one thinks about the long term. Sweden, for example, has been stable and at peace for 200 years, progressing steadily toward liberty and democracy. These other democratic states are all to our left politically. Thus I wonder whether some people want to teach students that the United States is the best society in order to head off discussions about whether we should move somewhat leftward.

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September 22, 2003

Congressional Conference on Civic Education

I spoke today at the first annual Congressional Conference on Civic Education, which was attended by delegations from all fifty states, including state legislators, educators, and executive branch officials. I had served on the advisory committee for the conference, so I was glad to see it come to pass. It was also my third opportunity in 10 days to make a speech about the Civic Mission of Schools report. (The other two were the 50th anniversary of the National Conference on Citizenship and the Youth for Justice state directors' meeting.)

At all three events, there was discussion of the importance and difficulty of teaching controversial issues in schools. Today, I mentioned Gun Owners of America's attack on the civic education bill as evidence that there are people who do not want such discussion in classrooms. After the session, a state legislator from the West approached me and said that I had been un-civil in treating the Gun Owners as "nuts"; I should have made sure I understood and conveyed their position fairly. He said that my incivility was an example of what is wrong with civic education.

I was taken aback, since I feel that much of my work is aimed at promoting civil and respectful dialogue, and I strive to understand opponents' point of view. For example, I strongly disagree with the National Rifle Association's positions, yet I think its views are sincerely held, based on principles, sometimes unfairly caricatured, and conceivably correct. I suppose I would defend my criticism of the Gun Owners by noting that I didn't attribute a hidden agenda to them; I simply paraphrased their public statement, which is a pretty explicit attack on critical thinking in schools.

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September 19, 2003

the many Bachs

For some reason, I was thinking about all the dramatically different ways in which people have seen and admired J.S. Bach since his own day.

After writing a list like this, one is expected to say, "Of course, Bach was all of these things, and that's why he is so great." I'm going to be a little less predictable and say that Bach was all of these things, of course, but he was at his greatest as the composer of narrative works that were grounded in his understanding of human life and emotion.

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September 18, 2003

the Net and participation

Right now, Hurricane Isabel is howling around us and most work has ceased. The University has taken its server down, blessedly cutting off my email. Yesterday afternoon, when the skies were still clear, I met with Marty Kearns of Green Media Toolshed, who is full of fascinating ideas about how the Internet and other distributed technologies (including billboards and buttons) can be used for political activism. Meanwhile, I was reading reviews of Bruce Bimber and Richard Davis' new book, Campaigning Online: The Internet in U.S. Elections. Apparently, they argue that the Internet is effective for mobilizing strongly committed partisans, but it does not increase net participation in politics and elections. This is consistent with CIRCLE research on young people, and also with my predictions in a 2002 essay on the Internet and politics.

Marty Kearns makes me optimistic about the political power of digital technologies and their value for progressive organizations. But I also worry about the chief barrier to participation. It's not the digital divide, or technological literacy, or the power of major media companies to constrain the ways that the Internet is used. It's rather the lack of motivation to participate politically—the lack of identity as citizens—among many marginalized people. In the past, people developed that kind of identity and motivation by enrolling in disciplined organizations with strong cultures: unions, political parties, religious denominations. I'm not convinced that we've found replacements for such organizations in the digital age.

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September 17, 2003

mapping with kids

We've made it past the first stage of a grant competition to provide funds for our local mapping work with high school kids. That's great news, except that now I have to write a full proposal on short notice. Among other questions, I need to answer this: "What is unusual about your project?" We intend to help high school students who are not college-bound to play leading roles in original scholarly research on a matter of public importance, and see whether that work increases both their academic skills and their civic commitment. The topic, which I've discussed here before, is healthy nutrition and exercise and the degree to which these outcomes are affected by the physical environment.

The Orton Foundation provides a great collection of youth-generated maps at communitymap.org.

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September 16, 2003

John Bridgeland

I spoke this morning at the 50th anniversary of the National Conference on Citizenship. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) spoke later, as did John Bridgeland, Executive Director of USA Freedom Corps and advisor to President Bush. After Mr. Bridgeland spoke, someone in the audience rose to say that he had just seen a car blatantly stolen outside the hotel, and no one (except himself) had done anything to try to stop it. His implication: We need to teach young people good values, just like in the good old days. The standard politician would take the bait and say that morals have declined, it's a terrible thing, but this administration is committed to character education. John Bridgeland, however, is a thoughtful and sophisticated guy, and he immediately recalled the game-theoretical explanation of cases like this. For each person who witnesses the crime, the worst outcome is that no one does anything to stop it. But the second-worst outcome for each person is that he or she is the one who intervenes. Chart the situation on a game-theorist's grid, and you'll see that no one is likely to do anything. Mr. Bridgeland revealed that he was thinking about game theory when he called the situation outside the hotel a "chicken game." I found it appealing that he gave an answer that was interesting, probably true, and that didn't score him any political points. (By the way, chicken games offer the most useful advice ever generated by game theory. If you need immediate assistance, don't shout "help," to a crowd. Pick an individual arbitrarily and say, "You, please help me.")

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September 15, 2003

Public participation and the war on terror

Influenced by Harry Boyte, I believe that opportunities for people to contribute public goods have shrunk over the last century. Government is increasingly "rational" (in Weber's sense): this means that important functions are divided into specialized tasks and assigned to experts, who are given minimal discretion. The government as a whole does good, but relatively few people can gain deep personal satisfaction from their own public service. Meanwhile, the private sector grows ever more efficient and competitive. As a result, there are few niches for people who want to work in business for partly public purposes. (An example would be the demise of the old publishing houses, which were "for profit," but not very efficient about it; editors saw themselves mainly as friends of literature.)

The loss of opportunities for public work is unfortunate, because we waste the talents and energies of millions of citizens. It also means that people lose the very special satisfaction that comes from creating public goods. And I believe that it partly explains the decline of other forms of citizenship, such as voting and reading the newspaper. People who don't make public goods are less likely to participate in other ways.

Now we face a national crisis, terrorism, and it seems worthwhile to look for opportunities to involve many citizens in significant public work. Only an expert on national security could tell us what jobs people are equipped to do. Spying on our fellow citizens is not a good idea (the damage to privacy and due process is too great). Thus I offer some very ill-informed ideas about some other roles that citizens might play. My main goal here is to provoke others to think of better ideas:

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