October 31, 2003
organizing for civic ed
I was in New York City today, trying to help raise foundation money for a campaign to implement the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report. (The last sentence contains far too many prepositions, but I'm too tired to fix it.) We are proposing that coalitions in several states would advocate policies to promote civic education. A multi-state advocacy campaign will cost a lot of money, but after today, I'm cautiously optimistic that we will be able to raise the necessary funds.
October 30, 2003
Democrats' problem is not how they play the game
En route from Colorado to DC: I frequently talk to progressives who claim that Republicans and conservatives play the political game more skillfully (and roughly) than Democrats and liberals, which explains the success of the Right. Democrats would win if they could come up with simpler and more effective messages; choose issues that embarrass Republicans or split their constituencies; and tie individual conservative leaders to scandals.
I find this vision deeply disturbing, because it would damage an already fragile civic culture. What's more, I don't think that Democrats can win by playing the political game with less sportsmanship than they exhibit today. It may be true that some aspects of the system are tilted against them: for instance, they get less than their fair share of campaign money and access to the mass media. But imagine that liberal leaders were granted two hours of Americans' time, unfiltered and uncensored. What would they say?
Democrats are in the position today of defending old institutions that they are also the first to criticize. Thus they favor increased support for public schools, yet they have been saying for generations that schools are alienating and dehumanizing as well as unfair to vulnerable minorities. They do have plans for school reform, but past reforms have always run aground. They support regulation, yet the most powerful and trenchant criticisms of expert-driven, centralized regulation have come from the Left. They defend the welfare state, yet they have been arguing for 50 years that welfare systems dehumanize "clients." They defend unions, yet unions violate modern progressive values by being hierarchical and disciplined (and often corrupt, to boot). Thus, at their most effective, today's "progressives" are actually conservatives, staving off radical change and defending old institutions as preferable to the market alternatives promoted by Republicans. Bill Clinton is a progressive hero not because of what he built, but because of the proposals he vetoed.
I actually think that the old institutions are preferable to markets; but no political movement can win by half-heartedly defending the recent past. Nor are public school, unions, and welfare programs worthy of more than half-hearted support. Thus what we need are new models, new institutional arrangements. The best of these, however, are still in a nascent, experimental, R&D stage. If that is our problem, then we will get nowhere by playing politics Texas-style.
October 29, 2003
Colorado Springs, CO: I'm at a conference of developmental psychologists, talking about service-learning. To repeat a definition used below, "service-learning" is some combination of community service with academic work on the same subject. Almost half of American high schools claim to use this approach. Most of the important debates about service-learning are really about values: Do we want to produce caring citizens who are likely to volunteer and provide face-to-face services? Do we want to produce citizens who are aware of social problems such as homelessness and hunger and may later act politically? What kinds of social and political knowledge do we want to foster? And so on.
The papers by the developmental psychologists were highly "normative": full of moral claims. I was a little afraid that they would want to present these claims as scientific, as based on technical expertise. In my view, that would be illegitimate. But the psychologists I talked to emphasized that their normative positions do not follow from their research. Rather, developmentalists enter the field motivated by a set of moral concerns, which draw their attention to certain facts about the way children grow. In particular, they tend to believe in the intrinisic value of activities that are normal at each stage in development. Thus they don't only see service-learning as an "intervention" that may produce discrete outcomes much later in life. Service-learning is rather something that people do for partly intrinsic reasons. This approach raises a researchable, empirical question: is service-learning deeply satisfying and rewarding for participants while they are doing it?
I find the moral motivations of developmental pyschologists (at least the ones I have met here) very attractive.
October 28, 2003
I'm in the air, en route to Colorado Springs for a conference on service-learning and cognitive science. I'll explain what that means once I've participating in some sessions and understand the topic better.
Yesterday, I spoke at a conference sponsored by the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools within the US Department of Education. This is the office that has responsibility for civic education, and the assignment may be a bureaucratic accident. But it does raise the question: Is there a form of civic education that can help makes schools safer? Perhaps a standard view is that "good citizens" are those who don't abuse drugs or act violently; thus "civic education" means reducing such antisocial personal behavior. I would like to endorse an alternative position advanced by Dr. Joel Westheimer at yesterday's conference. Joel argues that we'll only make schools safer by helping to create active, critical, participatory democratic citizens who strive for justice. "Justice-oriented" civic education will reduce crime because (a) teaching kids to be civic activists may steer some away from negative roles; and (b) if there is a critical mass of active citizens in a school, they may be able to address immediate causes of crime, such as a lack of after-school activities.
Clearly, creating "justice-oriented citizens" would be good even if it didn't make schools safer. Whether there is a link between the best forms of civic education and safe schools is an empirical question. I don't know whether it has been answered. But it is plausible to imagine that youth civic engagement would reduce crime.
October 27, 2003
the Amish and freedom
We're just back from a family weekend in Lancaster, PA--Amish country. It's dispiriting to watch real Amish people walk or trot in waggons past huge Amish-themed tourist attractions. (One store is actually called "Amish Stuff Inc.") Extreme simplicity seems to attract the worst form of consumerism.
The Amish raise a philosophical dilemma that has often been written about. If you believe in freedom, this must include freedom of religion, which means the ability to raise your own children within your faith. Central to most religions are detailed rules or traditions concerning the rearing of children. However, if you believe in freedom, then you must believe in the right of individuals to choose their own values and commitments. Parents can interfere profoundly with such freedom. Indeed, all parents necessarily do. Anyone who grows up in a family is constrained by the legacy of family beliefs and values. (Even those who rebel have been influenced.) However, the tension between parental freedom and children's liberty is especially sharp and clear in cases like the Amish, who prefer to be as isolated as possible from the rest of the world. In particular, they prefer their children to "drop out" of school in late childhood.
This means, on the one hand, that Amish kids lack the skills and breadth of experience necessary to understand or pursue a wide range of alternative forms of life. A book that I skimmed in Pennsylvania claimed that it was "nonsense" to complain about the limits that Amish children face, for those who leave the faith can always find work locally as farm hands. To me, this proves the point.
On the other hand, if we bring children up in a "liberal" way, so as to maximize their ability to make free choices, then they cannot become Amish. Amish culture would be entirely different if most of its members spent their childhood and adolescence in mainstream society. Being Amish means being intentionally naive; it means not knowing much about the corrupt modern world. It means living with a small group of people who all came from the same background, very few of whom leave the fold. And it means valuing communal solidarity more than choice. Thus, if we insist on children's freedom of choice, then we can't let the Amish raise their kids as they want. Not only would this reduce the freedom of each adult generation; it would erase an alternative culture whose existence broadens all of our horizons.
I'm still seeing powerful mental images of Amish farmers walking behind their horse-drawn plows past huge outlet stores. The stores represent "choice" in its most extreme form: millions of affordable items for your house, stomach, and wardrobe. But how much choice do you have if you don't realize that choice is itself an option, and incompatible with some of the best ways of living?
October 24, 2003
a true public intellectual
In recent entries, I considered what might define a "public intellectual." (I'm being interviewed on that topic for an article.) I then spent the last three days in the company of the Harvard political scientist Jane Mansbridge. To me, she is a perfect example of what a public intellectual should be. Not many people who hold very distinguished professorships at Harvard would take three days to attend a "researcher & practitioner" meeting on any subject, especially if most of the practitioners ran small, little-known organizations, and the researchers were mostly junior professors. Jane Mansbridge not only attended; she participated modestly but helpfully in every breakout session, listened to every story, developed relationships with many people in the room, and seemed to care about every phrase that was written on a flip chart.
Many of her comments were based on her own very influential and sophisticated research. For example, we had to face the issue of whether to include people who didn't attend the conference in the immediate next steps of our work. The risks of being exclusive and inclusive are best explored in Mansbridge's own writing. So she brought her research to bear on this and other practical questions faced by a concrete community of peers. Her research, in turn, has always been based on close and respectful observations of activists and other citizens. So I assume that she was busy learning at the conference, just as she has learned from meetings throughout her career.
Mansbridge is deservedly famous, but her fame doesn't interfere with her constructive participation in this kind of activity. She is not a "public intellectual" because she is a participant in social movements and civic reform efforts who also happens to be a professor; rather, her public participation is truly "intellectual," since the advice she offers is rooted in ground-breaking research of the highest quality. Furthermore, her stance is independent and helpfully critical, yet she doesn't try to stand apart from social movements. I have long admired the title of her book Why We Lost the ERA. The analysis is scholarly and objective, so she could have called it "The Discourse of Rights and the Construction of Majoritarian Patriarchy: The Struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment" (or something like that). Instead, she called in Why We Lost the ERA--associating herself with the movement, even as she revealed why it had failed.
October 23, 2003
competing forms of deliberation
We are now two days into the "Researcher & Practitoner" meeting that I described yesterday. We tried to get consensus (among 40 people) on a set of factual statements about public deliberation that we could post on a website for public use. For the most part, the academics in the group rejected the statements that the practitioners proposed, on the ground that the research base was too weak. Therefore, we harvested a very long list of plausible, informed hypotheses about deliberation. This may be a more useful product than a set of consensus propositions.
The conversation has generally been very rich and disciplined (and hard to summarize). Instead, I'll report the following thought that occurred to me. We seem to have a choice between two general approaches. We can randomly select people to deliberate on a public issue (giving them incentives to participate, as if in a kind of jury); or we can try to motivate a large and diverse segment of the population to seek out voluntary opportunities for deliberation. Both approaches are widely used by practitioners in the field of Deliberative Democracy.
Randomly selecting a small sample cannot change the habits or skills of the overall population, who are not involved. Furthermore, if a random group is given the power to make public decisions, then other citizens may feel that they have no right or means to influence the results. And the random group must get its power as a grant from some authority, which can always withdraw that power. In short, deliberation by randomly selected groups generates very interesting results, but it cannot change the overall dynamics of a society.
Mobilizing people to attend (or demand) various kinds of public meetings can change the overall power structure. However, this approach is subject to manipulation. Special interests can make sure that their people show up and speak from a script. Voluntary participants tend to be privileged, because deliberation is easier for people with more education and higher status. Therefore, good organizers deliberately work to increase the participation of disadvantaged people. Unfortunately, if it's possible to influence who attends, then it's possible to stack the deck in favor of one's own position.
October 22, 2003
call for papers
I'm on my way to the National 4-H Center for a meeting organized by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. We're calling it a "Research & Practitioner Meeting," because it combines leading scholars who study public deliberation with practitioners who run actual public discussion forums. Our goals are to set an ambitious research agenda for the field, and also to pick some small projects that can be funded out of our existing money. I was on the planning committee for the conference, so I'm excited about it.
Connected to this conference is a proposed book that John Gastil has organized, although I'm the co-editor. Anyone who might like to write a chapter on a particular approach to public deliberation should check out the Call for Papers that John has written.
On a completely unrelated note, I had a chance last week to meet Maryland's Senator Barbara Mikulski. With the loss of Senator Wellstone, she is the only community organizer in the Senate. Not knowing anything about me, she said that America needs a new progressive era. I couldn't help replying that I had written a book with that very title. I'm sure this made me sound like a self-promoting academic; and if I were going to promote myself, I would have preferred to tell her about our community work in Prince George's County. In any case, she then made a speech in support of Americorps, which she has championed since it was created.
October 21, 2003
the capabilities approach
I was just refreshing my memory about the "capabilities approach" pioneered by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and others. (I have been asked to comment on a paper about "positive youth development," and I thought that Sen's ideas would be relevant and helpful.) The rough idea is that we ought to implement social policies that maximize people's capabilities. The important human capabilities can be listed, although theorists differ somewhat about what belongs on the list. Enhancing capabilities is better than maximizing a set of behaviors or goods, because people should be able to choose what to own and how to behave, within broad limits; and different things are valued in different cultures. Thus trying to maximize goods or behaviors is too prescriptive. Enhancing capabilities is also better than simply giving people what they say they want or need. People can want completely bad things, e.g., crack cocaine. Or they can want too much, as in the case of Hollywood actors who want to have six Hummers. Or they can want too little, which is a common problem among the world's very poor.
In contrast, capabilities are inherently good things, yet increasing one's capabilities does not restrict one's freedom. Furthermore, capabilities are defined loosely enough so that they are compatible with various forms of diversity. For instance, I would say that there is a capability of "raising children." Increasing this capability does not compel anyone to raise actual children. And people can choose to express it in diverse ways, from parenthood within a nuclear family, to participation in a peasant village where everyone raises all the kids, to working in a convent orphanage.
Applying the capabilities approach to adolescent development would mean saying that we want (and will help) teenagers to develop a list of capabilities, such as: providing for themselves financially; loving others; expressing themselves creatively; developing spiritually; understanding nature; raising the next generation; and participating politically.
October 20, 2003
hard-headed research on service-learning
I am going to give a plenary address to the annual Service-Learning Research Conference in a few weeks. ("Service-learning" means a combination of community service with academic work on the same topic: a common approach today.) I'm going to argue that research on service-learning needs to be much more tough-minded. Proponents need to show that average service-learning programs produce better outcomes over the long term than rival approaches, considering not only the benefits but also the costs (in time and money) and the risks. Such research requires random assignment of students to service-learning projects and to rival methods, and then long-term follow-up.
Some people object that it is unfair to demand such scrutiny. Why should we have to prove the cost-effectiveness of an intervention that clearly benefits some kids (and helps them to participate politically)? We rarely hold other major policies to the same standard. For example, Congress is about to pass an energy bill, ostensibly to increase domestic supplies of energy, that will cost about $16 billion. The aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to cost $87 billion for this year alone; its purpose is to build stable and friendly countries. And Congress has already cut taxes by $1.3 trillion over the next ten years, claiming that this will stimulate the economy. None of these huge bills had to pass any kind of rigorous, independent research test before it was enacted. In contrast, the total budget for Learn & Serve America (federal support for service-learning) has never surpassed $43 million. That's about one four hundredth of the size of the energy bill, and one four millionth the size of the tax cut. So why the need for elaborate research on service-learning?
The answer is that we live in a time when people are unwilling to part with money to help low-income kids, or kids of any background. I'm not just talking about Republicans; Democrats aren't much different. And I'm not just talking about politicians; a majority of American voters have the same attitude. Thus we face two alternatives: we can complain that our leaders won't take a chance on a promising approach, or we can figure out which approach will really make the most difference per dollar, and put all our energy into getting that approach implemented. Service-learning may fit the bill. It may benefit kids and also turn them into political actors, thereby changing the balance of power. Or it may not work; only rigorous research will tell.
October 17, 2003
defining "public intellectuals"
I'm still being interviewed (by email) for a journal article. In response to one question, I proposed a general definition of a “public intellectual.” This is someone, I said, who tries to help (or even prod) concrete groups of people to become self-reflective and thoughtful about their own problems and interests; conscious of their own opportunities, choices, limitations, and tradeoffs; aware of their disagreements and the reasons for them; and capable of “political” action (broadly understood).
Offering professional facts or opinions can advance these goals. For example, if a scholar writes an editorial about some public problem, this may help a community to become self-aware and may modestly increase the chance that citizens will act politically. However, I am much more interested in other ways of helping communities to understand themselves and to become politically effective. Specifically, I admire efforts to organize collective projects of research or deliberation in which non-scholars play leading roles. When scholars assist or lead communities in such projects, they may be guided by their own disciplinary training. For instance, I’m working with social scientists who use computers to represent human geography; this is a powerful tool that communities can use to become more self-aware. Using methods developed by geographers, groups of citizens can pose their own questions, collect street-level data, and see illuminating visual representations of their environment. However, instead of contributing disciplinary expertise and toolkits, public intellectuals may sometimes offer practical skills that they pick up in the academy, such as writing grants, convening meetings, and persuading policymakers.
October 16, 2003
analytic versus continental philosophy
Ten to 15 years ago, when I first studied philosophy, the great divide was between the "analytic" and "continental" traditions. Some people wouldn't talk to colleagues in the opposite camp, and departments fell apart as a result. I think the conflict is dying down today, partly because of the waning significance of the French postmodern thinkers. They were the figures in the continental canon who provoked the deepest contempt from the analytic side. Many analytic philosophers can understand why one would study Hegel, Nietzsche, or Husserl, but not Derrida or Baudrillard.
The two groups are difficult to define. (One analytic colleague told me, in all seriousness, that "continental" means "unclear"—an example of an unhelpful definition.) In my view, analytic philosophers are those who treat science as the paradigm of knowledge. Science is cumulative, so studying its past is not particularly important for progress. Everyone admits that scientists have cultural biases, but science aims to be universal and uses techniques to overcome bias. Not all analytic philosophers are pro-science; some are skeptics, relativists, or political critics of organized science. However, they all see science as the paradigm of thinking, even if they criticize it. And some actually see philosophy as a branch of science (consisting of the most abstract parts of physics, math, and neurobiology).
In contrast, continental philosophers think that philosophy is an expression of a culture. Thus there is Greek philosophy, German philosophy, and post-modern philosophy, but philosophy per se is only an abtraction. As Richard Rorty said, philosophy is a kind of writing, similar to other written cultural products such as novels and plays. This does not mean that continental philosophers must always be relativists. Some discern a pattern in cultural history: for example, a story of progress (as in Hegel and Marx) or decline (as in Heidegger). Or they may believe that it's possible to advance a rational critique of a culture from within. But they see philosophy as more similar to fiction and literary criticism than to science.
This explains the prevailing difference in methodology. Analytic philosophers try to solve problems. They do think about others' work, especially recent articles that embody the latest thinking. But a perfect analytic argument would require no footnotes or quotations; it would be self-contained and persuasive, without any recourse to authority. By contrast, the typical continental philosopher tries to show what Famous Dead Philosopher X thought about an issue of his day. For continental philosophers, the history of the discipline is not merely of "antiquarian" interest, as it would be for an analytic philosopher. Rather, the deepest philosophical truths (if there are any to be known) are patterns in the history of thought.
October 15, 2003
China in outer space
Today, the Chinese put a man in space. US newspapers explain that the Communist Party is trying to establish China as a great power—rich and technologically advanced—and to impress its own people. Much the same was said about America's motivations for the Apollo Project. Allegedly, presidents Kennedy and Johnson sent people into space to impress the world with the superiority of democracy and capitalism. I don't know if this is the best historical explanation. However, assuming that NASA was created for propaganda purposes, that doesn't strike me as the worst thing. Our system was superior to the Communist alternative, and demonstrating its success may have been worthwhile. Space travel was harmless; it had some scientific value; and the symbolism was cosmopolitan or humanistic as well as nationalistic. ("One great step for mankind ....") To be sure, we could have spent the money impressing the world by reducing misery and diseases. In fact, we did launch the War on Poverty and the War on Cancer in the same era, only to falter in the eighties. We also fought a shooting war in Vietnam that didn't work out too well. In that context, the Apollo project seems reasonably honorable to me, even if it was primarily for show. Similarly, the Chinese space program is not as wise as spending the same money on poverty-reduction; but it's far better than showing off by invading Taiwan or testing new nuclear weapons (the approach India has chosen).
October 14, 2003
the evils of "districting"
I think that the process for drawing legislative districts is the single worst feature of US democracy today, worse than the scandalous campaign finance system. Politicians have drawn congressional districts so that fewer than 50 out of 435 are at all competitive. This means that in the remaining 385 districts, there really isn't any point to voting. That's one reason why turnout is so low. Meanwhile, incumbents in uncompetitive seats are not accountable to the voters for anything but the grossest misbehavior. Nor is there any public political debate in these districts. As a result, Americans tend to see disagreement as something that only arises far away in Washington; they interpret it as a sign that professional politicians love to argue instead of solve problems. Citizens don't realize that we Americans have real disagreements that need to be addressed.
The recent redistricting of Texas looks like a sign that things are getting even worse. Now legislatures will redistrict for small partisan advantage every time they see an opportunity, no longer waiting for the next decennial Census results. But I see a silver lining. Maybe this is the reductio ad absurdum of the whole process. As one state after another dissolves into constant conflict over legislative lines, maybe people will start demanding the process used in Iowa, where a non-partisan commission is appointed to draw the districts.
If I had my way, districts would be drawn by computers that were programmed to maximize competitiveness and compactness, while preserving opportunities for minority candidates. I suspect there's no magic algorithm that will maximize these three goals at once, but a computer could compromise arbitrarily. I know that making a goal out of competitiveness is a pipe dream; no incumbent government will ever create such a system. However, we have nearly the opposite today: a map that is skillfully designed to minimize competition. This is really outrageous.
October 11, 2003
conservatives on campus
David Brooks' Sept. 27th New York Times column, "Lonely Campus Voices" claimed that conservative graduate students face job discrimination, mainly because of the topics they prefer to study (e.g., warfare instead of social history; Churchill instead of Ghandi). These students can't survive in academia, although some make their way successfully in Washington. My favorite line was at the end: "Last week the professors at Harvard's government department reviewed the placement records of last year's doctoral students. Two had not been able to find academic jobs, both of them [students of the conservative scholar Harvey Mansfield]. 'Well,' Mansfield quipped, 'I guess they'll have to go to Washington and run the country.'"
Brooks' column has provoked a lively debate among law and politics professors, which Dan Pinello has collected on his website. Much of this discussion focuses on one conservative scholar, Princeton's Robert George, who (according to various participants) believes that homosexuality violates natural law and teaches this position in his classes, while treating alternative views respectfully. I do not know George's work in any detail, so I would prefer to discuss a hypothetical case. Is it OK for a professor to tell students that in his opinion homosexuality is sinful, if he gives arguments for this position, invites and even describes counter-arguments, and treats all positions equally for the purposes of grading? The following positions (among others) have surfaced in the debate:
Telling a class that homosexuality is sinful is akin to expressing the view that non-Whites are intellectually inferior; both positions are deeply hurtful to vulnerable minorities, and thus cannot be expressed ethically by a professor or other authority figure.
It undermines freedom of speech and open academic culture to stifle a view such as moral opposition to homosexuality.
No professor should express his or her views on any contested topic. A good teacher's own political views will be literally impossible to detect by students.
There are pervasive liberal biases built into modern academic culture; thus the explicit conservative biases of a few professors should not draw special attention.
For what it's worth: I try to frame debates for my students and don't promote my own positions. However, I am fully aware that my choice of topics is not neutral, and that in general the topics we study in the humanities and social sciences are driven by left-of-center concerns. (The same is not true in professional schools.) I don't think this is necessarily wrong, since there is no principled reason to try to cleave to the current political center, wherever it may happen to be. However, acknowledging that the curriculum is tilted leftward robs liberals of an argument against conservative dissidents. It is not only the Robert George's of academe who are "biased."
Furthermore, I am not sure that it is bad for students to experience a teacher's passionate and reasoned commitment to a particular point of view. I think young adults are hard to brainwash. I also think that a consistent refusal to take positions suggests that there are no right answers to moral debates; thus everything is a matter of opinion and no statement should be taken seriously. As an alternative, it can be salutary for students to encounter a teacher who frankly promotes his own views. Opposition to homosexuality is a troublesome extreme case, since gay students are an embattled minority, subject to regular abuse by peers and national figures alike. Yet I am quite uncomfortable with the idea that conservative natural-rights theory cannot ethically be taught in a modern university.
October 10, 2003
new work on the commons
I have just posted two new articles about the idea of a "commons." Both are defenses of a particular position, which I would summarize as follows: The Internet should be an open arena for creators to make and give away digital material. That is how the Net was born; but this commons ideal is now under serious threat from government censorship and especially from corporate control of the Internet's "architecture" and intellectual property. So far, my argument is completely indebted to work by Lawrence Lessig, James Boyle, David Bollier, and Yochai Benkler, among others. I add the view that we won't ever succeed in protecting the commons through legislation, court decisions, or clever software that circumvents corporate or state control. We need formal associations of citizens who have personal experience with the new digital media and commitment to using it for civic purposes. In "Building the E-Commons," The Good Society, vol. 11, no. 3 (2002), pp. 1-9, I discuss one such association and then move to a general argument for the "associational commons" as our ideal. In "A Movement for the Commons?" The Responsive Community, vol. 13, no. 4 (Fall 2003), pp. 28-39, I start with the legal battle over intellectual property, and again conclude that we need citizens' associations to protect and enrich the commons.
October 9, 2003
how senior scholars get published
Months ago, a colleague in another department told me that his chair was pressing the faculty to submit more articles to peer-reviewed journals, because that's good for a department's reputation. "Who does that?" the colleague said; "I'm always busy writing articles that my friends have asked me to contribute." I took this as evidence of a kind of corruption in higher education. Scholars of my generation don't have friends who run journals or edit prominent books. So they compete with one another for the few genuinely open publication slots. Only the ones who frequently succeed in publishing get tenure. Meanwhile, the senior faculty who sit on their tenure committees lengthen their resumes with non-reviewed articles that they write for one another.
This sounds bitter, but it doesn't reflect a personal complaint. I've been very fortunate with easy opportunities for publication. I'm just angry on behalf of other people my age and younger.
October 8, 2003
the California recall
I've been looking at the California recall election results as measured by exit polls. I note a couple of interesting points:
1. For those of us in the youth civic engagement business, it's interesting that 25-29 year-olds were the least likely of all age groups to support the recall. 18-24's were more likely, but they still lagged the older generations. So this was not a case of millions of young people turning out for Arnold. On the contrary, they were his weakest constituency. One possible explanation: our surveys show that young people are less distrustful of government than older people are. So maybe they were less taken by the idea that the bum needed to be thrown out of office. Also, they may be more savvy (or cynical?) about celebrities.
2. There was a strong ideological color to the results. Voting for the recall were: 24% of liberals, 56% of moderates, and 85% of conservatives. To me, this is good news. I don't regard the election as a failure for democracy if Arnold won because his views most closely approximated those of the median California voter. (Or more precisely, the median California voter preferred Arnold's likely policies to those of the actual incumbent.) I would view the election as a major fiasco if a majority of Californians voted for Arnold because they were completely perplexed by the mess in Sacramento, blamed it on professional representatives, and just wanted a charismatic, macho guy to run things better.
California has been badly governed, but the problems are structural, and any solution would require very difficult tradeoffs. To assume that a movie star could balance the budget by force of will would reflect a deep lack of civic competence and responsibility. However, this is not what most people assumed. Forty-one percent of voters opposed the recall--I suspect on strictly ideological grounds (i.e., not liking Davis, but agreeing with his positions). Many of the rest voted to get rid of Davis for ideological reasons. Indeed, 38% of the electorate were Republicans, voting against a Democratic governor. Those Republicans, plus the anti-recall Democrats, added up to a majority who were trying to shape state policies in line with their policy preferencesï¿½the definition of electoral democracy. Meanwhile, only a minority conformed to the Hibbing/Theiss-Morse thesis about American politics. (This is the view that Americans lack policy preferences but believe that politicians are a corrupt class; thus we would always be better off with some one else in charge.) Unfortunately, the anti-political minority decided this particular election. Let's hope they get a better government than they deserve.
October 7, 2003
civic education day
Today was a day for thinking about civic education from several different angles. I participated in a Steering Committee meeting of the National Alliance for Civic Education; reviewed research grant proposals submitted to CIRCLE (on aspects of youth civic engagement); and worked on my own application to the National Endowment for the Humanities. This proposal is due next week, so I'm focusing a lot of my on budgetary and other practical details. (My colleagues and I are applying to replicate our high school students' unusual oral history project in several sites, including Jackson, Mississippi and Miami, Florida. The proposed topic is segregation and desegregation in local school districts, during the period 1954-2004. Students will interview surviving witnesses, think of several alternative strategies that could have been adopted in 1954, and create interactive websites to help community members think about what should have been done. That's not an easy question, since each strategy would involve different risks and tradeoffs.)
Coincidentally, I was recently asked to write an article on the following topic: "Civic involvement and democracy in the scholarly communication commons." I proposed this tentative abstract, inspired by the history work:
There are many projects underway that help non-scholars to create sophisticated intellectual products for free dissemination on the Web. Some of these projects enlist disadvantaged adolescents, a group that's particularly distant from traditional, professional researchers. So far, there are neither aggregate poll data nor experimental results that would help us to measure the effects of such projects on the participants or their target audiences. However, those of us who are working in this area hope for several benefits. Participants should gain civic skills and values as a result of creating public goods. They should also gain academic and technical skills and interest in attending college. They should develop an understanding of the digital commons and thereby enlarge the political constituency for policies that protect the commons. Meanwhile, communities should gain from the materials generated by diverse new groups; and powerful research universities should benefit from new opportunities to collaborate with students in their vicinity. As a result, it should be possible to persuade universities to use some of their research resources for projects that would increase youth civic engagement.
October 6, 2003
Jay Rosen's blog
I worked a bit with Jay Rosen, an NYU professor of journalism and guru of "public journalism," during the 1990s, when I was attending public journalism meetings and writing about the movement. Now Jay has a blog, and it promises to be great, because he is a consistently perspective, original, and constructive media critic.
October 3, 2003
I'm being interviewed by email for a journal article, and the first question asks me to define a "public intellectual." I'd like to avoid using that term (which originated with John Dewey and C. Wright Mills) to describe authors who are popular and accessible and reach large audiences. There's nothing wrong with being a best-selling author or a TV commentator, but people who are attracted to Dewey and Mills have something else in mind.
I don't yet have a general definition of "public intellectual," but I can think of three examples of the kind of work I mean. These examples come from my own life, which would be embarrassing and inappropriate if "public intellectual" were a term of praise, an honorific. However, I don't mean it that way. A public intellectual is something that any scholar can choose to be, just as any researcher can choose to be a specialist or a theorist rather than a generalist or an empiricist. One can be a good or bad public intellectual. I am (at best) a novice one whose work is rather scatter-shot and exploratory.
The first kind of work I have in mind is community-based research. This is work that involves a genuine collaboration between professional scholars and a concrete collection of other people. For example, we are beginning a project in Prince George's County, MD that aims to determine the effects of one's physical location on healthy behaviors (specifically, nutritious eating and exercise). This is a scientific research project involving an inter-disciplinary team at the University. The intention is to create generizable results, so that planners and others will be able to see whether communities can best reduce obesity by getting rid of fast-food outlets; or by attracting healthy restaurants; or by making grocery stores accessible by foot; or by clustering food stores near parks (etc). Our project happens to be public scholarship because a group of non-scholars—in this case, high school students—helped us to identify the topic and will help us to think about what variables probably affect their own behavior. They will also collect street-level data using Palm Pilots, and will learn to construct maps and graphs of value to their neighbors. It's this collaboration between professional researchers and non-professional community members that makes the research "public." (By the way, this particular project is intended to fund and otherwise strengthen a local nonprofit association, which is another sign of public-ness.)
The second kind of work I have in mind involves participation in campaigns and social movements. Over the years, I have played small roles in non-partisan political movements for campaign finance reform, civic education, civic renewal, digital media reform, public journalism, civil investing, youth voting, and deliberative democracy. Each of these movements has united existing organizations in fairly formal coalitions. Coalition members have discussed, negotiated, and sometimes deliberated about tactics, strategies, goals, and values. Professional scholars hardly ever lead such movements, but they can help by introducing relevant research findings, writing for various audiences, and organizing activities within the academy (which is itself a powerful social institution). Their work is least valuable when it is strictly strategic: when the end is assumed, and intellectuals only think about means. Then they tend to conduct research that is aimed to support pre-ordained conclusions, which is not a good method. Fortunately, one can maintain intellectual independence and a certain critical distance, without being any less useful to campaign. If anything, it is a practically helpful to have people within a coalition or movement who periodically ask whether its goals are right.
The third kind of work involves research about social issues, communities, or institutions. This would describe most research in the social sciences, the professional schools, and the humanities. What makes some such work "public" is the presence of a real dialogue between the scholar and those studied. A literary critic who writes about contemporary Southern fiction is an intellectual. She is a public intellectual if she is eager for contemporary Southern novelists to read her criticism, if she writes in a way that will interest them, and if she listens to their responses and uses their converations to inform her own work.
In the past, I have implied that "public intellectuals" only study contemporary geographical communities. This is not true by definition or a priori. However, I do think that the urge to write about very large aggregations of people or for very large audiences can stand in the way of public scholarship. It is very hard to engage in a genuine dialogue with a huge population, or to give them a role in one's work. For example, I do not see how one can conduct participatory research on the United States as a whole. Nor can one involve dead people in one's research, which means that public intellectuals cannot study the distant past. They can study a geographically dispersed community, but only if its members work and communicate together, which implies a fairly limited scale and a robust set of connections.
I do not claim that we should only study communities of modest size, or contemporary communities rather than historical ones. But then I do not think that all intellectuals should be public intellectuals.
October 2, 2003
organizing for civics
I'm at the bucolic Airlie House retreat center in Northern Virginia, with a bunch of people who are trying to organize a lobbying/advocacy campaign to implement the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report. My organization, CIRCLE, doesn't do advocacy. We are a research center with a commitment to intellectual independence and to supporting a diversity of views. However, we didn't want to issue a report and then see it sit on a shelf somewhere. Thus we helped to convene a group of practitioners who might organize themselves for advocacy. I believe they are making good progress.
After dinner, we heard from Leslie Harris, a public interest lawyer and brilliant organizer of advocacy coalitions, including the movement to pass the "E-Rate" provision (which pays to wire schools and libraries). I had suggested that she speak to the group of civic educators, because several years ago I observed her skillful work in organizing a coalition of media reform organizations. This coalition later mobilized mass opposition to the FCC's media consolidation regulations. Tonight, she challenged leaders in civic education to develop "one big idea" that can motivate a coherent campaign. She also challenged the field the include youth in the development of its policy agenda.
October 1, 2003
Sunstein was right
I buy the argument in Cass Sunstein's book, Republic.com. Sunstein predicts that the Internet allows people to choose news and opinion that already interests them, while filtering out any views and facts that they find uncomfortable. As a result, the population splits into small communities of like-minded people who reinforce their shared views. Another result is a widening gap between those who are very interested in public issues and those who are not interested. Motivated citizens benefit from the availability of news and opinion online. Unmotivated ones can ignore the broader world much more then in the past, when they relied on TV for entertainment and the newspaper for want ads and crossword puzzles. Whether they liked it or not, in those days they saw news on television and on the front page of the newspaper.
Sunstein's book was mostly based on his theory of democracy and some experimental evidence about deliberation in narrow groups. His empirical evidence about the Internet was relatively weak. Thus many reviewers criticized him and offered anecdotes about the Web as a place for diverse public deliberations. Even Sunstein seemed to back off his own claims in the face of these criticisms. Yet I never thought he was proved wrong.
If Sunstein is right, then those who start off uninterested in politics will be less informed and therefore less likely to participate once they gain Internet access. Now a scholar named Markus Prior has demonstrated that Internet access indeed correlates with a lower probability of voting among people who start with a low interest in the news. (In other words, these people are more likely to vote if they do not have net access.) His article is entitled "Liberated Viewers, Polarized Voters: The Implications of Increased Media Choice for Democratic Politics," and it's in the Good Society.