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February 29, 2004

Helen Vendler

Because she's one of my favorite critics, I just read Vendler's new book, Coming of Age as a Poet (Harvard, 2003). It's a study of the first mature and fully successful verse of four major poets: Milton, Keats, Eliot, and Plath. Vendler argues that poets change their themes, topics, and messages during their careers, but they often achieve a stable poetic personality in their twenties. From their first "perfect" poem to the end of their careers, they retain a hard-won combination of: certain formal and stylistic habits (including characteristic diction); physical and historical milieux that they typically describe; major symbolic references; characters or types of characters whom they include in their verse; and some sort of (at least implicit) cosmology.

Vendler touches on problems of "existential" importance: for example, whether Sylvia Plath's extreme pessimism can be valid, and whether Plath is morally blameworthy for it. She defends strong aesthetic judgments on the basis of an implicit theory of poetry. She treats any excellent poem as the difficult and worthy achievement of a deliberate artist, which means that she links her aesthetic judgments to judgments about character (and an implied theory of the good life). Vendler's own writing is dense, careful, perceptive, and concerned with vital matters--not just poems, but the topics that they wrestle with. She works with the even more concentrated, complex, and passionate words of four major poets. The combination of her acuity and theirs is very challenging. I kept thinking, "Why don't I have a coherent style and world-view? Why can't I read with this degree of care and accuracy?" Like a good sermon, Coming of Age as a Poet is an exhortation to try harder, be tougher, do better--not necessarily as a poet, but as a person.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 27, 2004

"social capital": political and apolitical

Robert Putnam is mainly famous for reviving the concept of "social capital." As he measures it, social capital is the aggregate of certain habits and attitudes that individuals possess--especially trust for other people and membership in groups.

There are two main interpretations of social capital theory. The political interpretation says that people deliberately develop organizations and networks in order to solve public problems. Trust is a by-product of this work; it is also something that people deliberately enhance by developing personal relationships and by raising children as members of communities. It is good to develop social capital because it enhances a community's capacity to solve problems in the future.

The apolitical interpretation assumes that social capital goes up or down because of large social forces and trends, such as suburbanization, the work environment, and exposure to television. (TV makes people less trusting and less sociable.) The reason we should care--according to this interpretation--is that social capital correlates with mental health, longevity, and good educational outcomes. Therefore, if we can, we should tinker with big institutions to increase social capital.

Although these two theories reflect different values, there are also empirical differences. It is either true or false that people can create social capital through deliberate action at the local level. I'm optimistic that they can, but I'm not sure how strong the evidence is.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:00 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 26, 2004

the press and respect (Part II)

If reporters showed more respect for democratic institutions (see yesterday's post), they might also think about "balance" in a different way. Journalistic "balance" usually means quoting an equal number of people on both sides of an issue--an approach that's sometimes mindless or even misleading. But if reporters and editors tried to respect public institutions, they might ask instead:

  • Are we providing the right balance between campaign news and other news about issues and government? After all, campaigns do not necessarily affect many parts of the government, let alone other public institutions--nor are they the only opportunities for citizens to influence the system. What about (for example) the federal administrative agencies, which are enormously powerful, largely immune to changes in party control, and yet subject to citizens' influence?

  • Do we balance scandalous news and news about the day-to-day work of public institutions? Or do we only tell the public about certain federal and state agencies, political leaders, and major nonprofits when they are accused of misbehavior?

  • Do we offer the right balance between news about powerful leaders and news about ordinary Americans who address public problems?

  • Do we give an accurate impression of the balance of power among the branches of government; among local, state, and federal governments; between the public and the private sectors; and between the United States and global institutions? Or do we focus unduly on the US presidency, partly because it is glamorous and easy to cover?
  • Posted by peterlevine at 10:04 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    February 25, 2004

    the press and respect for democracy

    Jay Rosen has posted a brilliant and comprehensive essay about the poverty of political coverage in America. He ends with a long list of proposals for different attitudes and methods that reporters might adopt. Along similar lines, I've been asking myself, "What would happen if reporters showed more respect for our democratic institutions?"

    There's a big debate about whether reporters are too solicitous, or too critical, of various major figures, especially the President of the United States. But that's not what I mean. In fact, to respect democratic institutions might mean paying less attention to individuals and their motives and fortunes. For example, who cares whether George W. Bush supports the anti-gay-marriage amendment in order to appease his conservative base, as the Times explains in its front page "news analysis" today? (By the way, we can't know his motives, and the only people who possibly have insight are Administration insiders, who aren't trustworthy sources.) Imagine, instead, that the Times explained that a struggle between majoritarian institutions and courts has arisen because the fourteenth amendment requires "equal protection under the law," yet many voters see marriage as a sacrament that can only apply to heterosexual couples. Citizens need to wrestle with what the fourteenth amendment means and how it can coexist with one-person, one-vote. Respectful coverage might demonstrate that this is not an easy issue--not for those of us who strongly favor gay marriage but also believe in democracy; not for those who oppose gay marriage but also believe in equality. Hence those decision-makers in Washington are not just playing games for political advantage. They are in a tough spot morally and they are doing their jobs.

    The 14th amendment is a "civic ed" kind of issue--perhaps too dry and procedural. But respect for democratic institutions would mean more frequent and illuminating coverage of a wide range of organizations: not just courts and the Congress, but also unions, evangelical churches that are politically engaged, state legislatures, military units, regulatory agencies, community meetings. It would mean attending and observing these institutions day-to-day, not just when a scandal is unfolding.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:00 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    February 24, 2004

    Ralph Nader, 1934-2000

    Ralph Nader was a major figure. Along with John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, he was one of the leaders in a reform movement that reached its apogee around 1974. It was in many ways a revival of the Progressive movement exemplified by Louis Brandeis and Robert M. La Follette a half century earlier. All of the many groups that Nader founded and inspired had the following features:

  • They fought for general or public interests. It is absolutely fine for groups of Americans to advocate in their own interests. In fact, we will never achieve justice unless the poor and marginal defend themselves effectively. However, there is also an important category of issues that affect everyone, although they are not at the top of anyone's list of priorities. Consequently, people don't mobilize on these issues, and small special interests often have their way. Around 1912 and again around 1974, there was a groundswell of concern about those general-interest questions. Nader is associated with three issue areas above all: the environment, consumer protection, and good government. Everyone lives in the natural environment, everyone buys consumer goods, and everyone benefits from a responsive, efficient, transparent government. These were perfect topics for public-interest politics.

  • They were independent of parties, governments, and funders. Although they were not deeply hostile to the political system, they were relentlessly non-partisan and kept all official institutions at an equal distance.

  • They believed in the power of information. Brandeis had said that there is no better disenfectant than sunlight, but it was Nader's generation that won the Freedom of Information Act, open meeting laws, campaign finance disclosure, and public hearings for congressional committees. Nader and his allies collected previously private information and put it before the public, hoping and expecting that citizens would demand changes.

  • Their core constituents were highly educated, older, White Americans, most often from mainline Protestant and Jewish denominations. However, Nader and his allies brought these constituents into coalitions with poor people, immigrants, and people of color.
  • The progressive revival spurred by Nixon's malfeasance faltered by the later Carter years. It turned out that information was not enough; politics also requires motivation and organization. Far from motivating masses of people, the reforms of the 70s tended to undermine institutions (such as parties) that have the capacity to mobilize large numbers of people. Public Citizen and Common Cause pioneered a type of organization that provided relatively little for ordinary members to do beyond writing checks. Their heavy use of scientific studies and lawsuits helped to professionalize citizenship and reduce the role of ordinary people.

    The reformers' incessant attacks on regulators for being "captured" by special interests may have fed the anti-regulatory movement of Ronald Reagan. Finally, business lobbies learned to use the new political methods pioneered by Nader and Gardner in their own interests. They too could issue expert studies, organize petition drives, raise money via direct mail, and ask candidates to complete questionnaires. The public-interest style of politics increasingly served Nader's enemies better than his friends.

    Ralph Nader himself had entered the history books by 2000, but by then he had changed American politics more than many presidents. Some of his reforms were counter-productive or soon outlived their usefulness; but all were well-intentioned and many strengthened our democracy.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:22 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    February 23, 2004

    Lord Mayor Peter Levine

    I admit it--I "ego-surf" now and then. Searching for my own name last week, I discovered that the Lord Mayor of London is none other than Peter Levine. This eminent person (no relation) gave a speech in California entitled "We Reinvented Government Before You Did." When English youths looted a McDonalds, he remarked, "These people, many with sincere points to make, allied themselves to a mob. The whole point they were trying to make has been lost." As Yoggi Berra exclaimed when he found out that the Lord Mayor of Dublin was Jewish, "Only in America!"

    The City of London, by the way, is the single square mile within Greater London that was originally settled by the Romans and then walled during the Middle Ages. The Lord Mayor is an honorary leader of this district, which has no real political autonomy. During the school year when I turned 7, and again when I turned 10, I attended the Prior Weston School, which was one of the very few state schools inside the City of London. In fact, it was almost underneath the Barbican, the huge (and terribly ugly) residential/arts complex that they were building in those years. Immediately next to the school was a bomb site, still left over from WWII, which we students wanted to turn into a nature sanctuary. (In the spring, it buzzed with life: bees, weedy flowers, centipedes, snails.) In the street outside the school, there was an old-fashioned vegetable market with produce on wheeled wooden "barrows" and grizzled old gents shouting their prices. We used to pick leftover lettuce and carrots out of the gutters to feed the school's pet rabbits.

    This was the seventies, and Prior Weston was a progressive school run by a Christian socialist named Henry Pluckrose. The student body was part genuine Cockney: working class kids born within the sound of Bow Bells. There were also yuppie families from Islington, which was then gentrifying.

    I mention all this because we were taught a lot of local social history at Prior Weston, which made us feel like citizens of the ancient City. We went to see the new Lord Mayor in his gilded coach-and-six, but we also studied the more plebeian past of Celts and Romans, medieval guilds and town criers, friars and Knights of St. John, Dick Whittington and his cat, puritans and actors, plagues and fires, bells and town criers. So it doesn't seem so very strange that my namesake is now the Lord Mayor.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:34 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    February 20, 2004

    Brett Cook-Dizney: political artist

    I heard a great presentation this morning by Brett Cook Dizney, a muralist/activist/hip-hop artist/teacher. He tells wonderful stories about his own "non-permissional" art works, like the time he erected big (illegal) murals of the police officers who beat Rodney King on a California street, or the time he painted an anti-violence mural on a wall that had been claimed by street gangs. This kind of work is free for anyone to see; in fact, it is often appropriated by anonymous strangers. In one case, a set of his huge murals mysteriously disappeared from a San Francisco street and then reappeared five days later. High-quality graffiti art, typical of the early hip-hop scene, contributed to a kind of "creative commons."

    I've written critically about the New York Art World. I've argued that art leaders are subversive or radical, but in a way that doesn't take alternative perspectives seriously and that doesn't persuade anyone. They create works that are intended to shock bourgeois Middle Americans, but they only reach their fellow bohemians. And when elected leaders resist funding them, they take immediate resort in the First Amendment.

    I stand by that argument, but it's good for me to be exposed to someone like Cook-Dizney. Sometimes, his work reflects the kind of radical politics that I think is over-supplied in the current art world. (For example, he erected a mural of Fidel Castro in Miami--shocking, brave, but offensive and unlikely to generate thought or dialogue in the audience that it reached.) However, he says that he has moved from merely saying what's wrong with society to helping to create a better world.

    A lot of his current work is intensely collaborative, involving (for example) street parties where everyone helps design and make a multimedia project. These projects make city blocks immediately more beautiful; they also create social networks and political capital. The fact that Dizney-Cook's work is now constructive does not mean that he has abandoned his independence or radicalism.

    In any case, a lot of his subversive statements on behalf of marginalized people are valid and thoughtful. (Example: he erected big panel portaits of Harlem residents inside the Harlem Studio Museum when it was not welcoming to people in the neighborhood.) I think if you are going to do political art, you should be judged on your politics as well as your formal technique. On those grounds, I would criticize an image of Fidel in Miami, but I think most of Cook-Dizney's work is wise and thoughtful.

    Posted by peterlevine at 4:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    February 19, 2004

    a free novel on this site

    In 1995, I published a mystery with St. Martin's Press, entitled Something to Hide. I then wrote another novel, a thriller called Tongues of Fire. I accumulated some flattering letters from publishers, but no contract offers for this second book of fiction. Yesterday, it suddenly occurred to me that I should give it away on my website. That's the 21st-century way, after all. Click here to read the beginning and then download the whole thing if it appeals to you.

    By way of background: Tongues of Fire is a thriller set just before the Second World War. The Nazis believe that they will gain enormous power if they can put together the shards of a universal language that are preserved in the various occult traditions of the world. Our skeptical hero, an American linguistic professor, begins to investigate their plot only because he has been forced into service by a Soviet agent (who is the main female character).

    This isn't Literature, but I think it's fun. It's also slightly "educational," since the plot revolves around some issues in the philosophy of language. If one person enjoys the online version, that will be one more person than if I had left it on my hard-drive.

    Posted by peterlevine at 1:04 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    February 18, 2004

    deliberation book

    John Gastil of the University of Washington and I are co-editing a book on deliberative processes. We have the chapter authors lined up and are about to sign a contract. Each chapter will describe a concrete experiment that involves citizens in structured discussions of public issues or problems. A non-exhaustive list of these experiments would include the National Issues Forums, Study Circles, Deliberative Polling, and America Speaks in the US; several online experiments; and very important non-US cases such as the participatory budging process in Porto Allegre, Brazil (in which very large citizens' councils actually allocate a portion of the city's budget).

    Posted by peterlevine at 1:51 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    February 17, 2004

    youth voting, from various angles

    The most interesting reading on this blog today are the comments and the link that others have contributed in response to my post on Howard Dean. (See yesterday.)

    On a similar topic: I spoke this morning to the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) conference. I talked about the importance of civic education and the main threats to it, hoping to recruit some Secretaries of State as allies. They are, after all, responsible for the election system in its broadest sense; and civic education makes people into voters. Then a bunch of colleagues and I held a conference call to discuss how we can fight to retain the NAEP civics assessment. (See February 6th's post.) I'm quoted in a Gannet News Service story: "Young voter turnout did jump initially — up fourfold in Iowa — though it has leveled off as it appeared the Democratic nomination had been settled. 'There’s no place where the turnout was down,' said Peter Levine, deputy director of a Maryland center that studies young voters. 'It probably bodes pretty well for the general election.'" And now I'm off to talk by speaker phone to a class of University of Wisconsin students about why youth don't vote.

    Posted by peterlevine at 6:35 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    February 16, 2004

    Jay Rosen on Dean

    Jay Rosen is one of my very favorite media critics and theorists of democracy. Still, I'm slightly surprised by his retrospective enthusiasm for the Dean campaign. Those who were closely involved with the campaign feel they lived through something important and noble, and their feelings can be contagious. Nevertheless, I don't buy that the "distributed" methods pioneered by Joe Trippi will do anything to improve our democracy.

    Jay writes: "The miracle is that an alternative to campaigns-as-usual had finally become visible with the Internet's semi-maturation as political tool. ... This alternative had proven itself in the one way that counts on everyone's scorecard: raising money. That Dean had raised it in small amounts, in distributed fashion, aided by a social movement which began to gather online and kept gathering, along with the blogs and the spirit of active participation-- all of that motion meant something."

    Dean's cash may have been raised in a "distributed" way, but like most campaign money, it came from rich people. Thomas B. Edsall and Sarah Cohen analyzed Dean donors statistically and described them in the Washington Post: "They are young. They propel urban gentrification. They shop at Banana Republic, read Vanity Fair, like Audi A4s and watch reruns of 'Friends.' The $54,117 median family income of these well-educated, Internet-savvy professionals is relatively low in part because so many are single and live alone." The smallest contributions in American politics come through non-"distributed" channels: unions and other political action committees that collect dues from many members and make large contributions that are bundled in one way or another. I have always opposed both "soft money" and PACs, but Internet-based fundraising strikes me as a recipe for rule by yuppies.

    Besides, George W. Bush has raised more than twice as much money through the Internet as Howard Dean. This suggests to me that online fundraising will soon be part of the standard arsenal of an "establishment" candidate.

    Jay's essay refers seven times to the "establishment" that brought down Dean. I am always suspicious of this abstraction, especially in those cases when it describes me. (I'm one of those who thought that the Good Doctor would be a disastous nominee.) In any case, I don't believe that the Establishment was against Dean. Just for example, in New Hampshire, Kerry did best among high school students and Dean did best among those with postgraduate study. I read Dr. Dean as a representative of upper-income, socially libertarian, well-educated, North-Easterners. If we are going to call anyone the Establishment, why not them?

    I'm going to come out and admit that I sent $50 to Dick Gephardt. I think we need candidates who are accountable to mass, democratic organizations like labor unions--groups that also engage in civic education and help raise ordinary people to have political identities. I recognize that Gephardt was yesterday's candidate; but if Dean is tomorrow's, I don't like where we're headed.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:00 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

    February 13, 2004

    the commons and youth development

    I'm writing a paper (for a conference organized by Lin Ostrom) that connects my two main preoccupations: the Internet as a commons, and youth civic development. Actually, I believe this link is very important. A "commons" is a public asset. It requires voluntary contributions, and it can be ruined by pollution or exploitation. Therefore, it depends on people who display trust, reciprocity, long time-horizons, optimism about the possibilities of voluntary collective action, and personal commitment. People have to be raised this way; they aren't born "civic" (i.e., with a deep feeling of belonging and responsibility for some common good).

    Lots of evidence shows that people develop durable attitudes toward the public sphere during adolescence. They either come to see themselves as efficacious, obligated, critical members of a community, or they do not. Their identity, once formed in adolescence, is hard to shake. This theory derives from Karl Mannheim, but it has considerable recent empirical support. In the 1920s, Mannheim argued that we are forced to develop a stance toward the public world of news, issues, and governments when we first encounter these things, usually in our teens. Our stance can be one of contempt or neglect, or it can be some kind of engagement, whether critical or conservative. Most of us never have a compelling reason to reassess this stance, so it remains in place throughout adulthood. That is why generations have enduring political and social characters, formed in their early years.

    Unfortunately, there is reason to suspect that young Americans are less likely to develop civic identities and values today than in the past. For instance, most of the decline in social trust since 1970 is a result of young Americans becoming highly distrustful of fellow citizens. This is bad news for any effort to develop a commons--whether a small-scale resource like a community garden or a vast social form like the Internet. There are (of course) some young people with habits and norms that are friendly to the commons, but not nearly enough.

    On the bright side, we know how to develop civic identities. Adolescents need to feel that they are assets, rather than potential problems; that they matter to a group. It also helps to have direct experience with civic or public work. This is the impetus behind much service-learning. It is also what we are trying to accomplish at Maryland by helping young people to create free public goods for display on a community website.

    Posted by peterlevine at 5:44 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    February 12, 2004

    gay marriage

    I'm very taken by the idea that the government should stop recognizing "marriage" at all. It should be up to religious denominations, families, and civil society to debate who can marry. Government should simply recognize certain contracts between pairs of adults that govern such matters as joint property, inheritance, adoption, and insurance. Those who oppose gay "marriage" can argue their position within their denominations and communities, and those in favor can develop appropriate rituals and ceremonies. But the government should not discriminate in recognizing contract rights, because of the Fourteenth Amendment.

    Some critics are saying that this approach is a slippery slope. If discriminating against gay couples is unconstitutional, why may the government forbid bigamy and polygamy? My answer would be: people may live in polygamous families if they really want to (although I'm against it, morally). And they may say that they're "married." However, the government may legally create a type of contract that can only be signed by two consenting adults.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    February 11, 2004

    a windshield tour

    Today, I rode with two colleagues up and down the streets of Hyattsville, Mount Rainier, and Riverdale, Maryland--communities northeast of the District of Columbia. We are planning a high school course for later this spring, in which students will make maps to show features of the local geography that might contribute to healthy or unhealthy living. This is a fairly complex and ambitious project, now involving six graduate students or colleagues from the university, one high school teacher, and a colleague from the Orton Foundation in Vermont. Today we were simply trying to decide what precise areas we should map. The landscape is largely suburban, with strip malls, big highways, and used car lots. There are also patches of older housing on urban grids, and some large apartment complexes. Although the topography is suburban (and sprawl is an issue), the population is stereotypically urban: most people are African American or Latino, with a low-to-moderate income level, and there is a sprinkling of mostly White graduate students and artists. Although I suspect that even most residents would not describe the setting as attractive, there is great cultural diversity. Planning to make maps of an area forces you to recognize the complexity and the wealth of human assets that it contains.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:56 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    February 10, 2004

    political consultants

    A Washington Post article suggests that perhaps Howard Dean's former campaign manager, Joe Trippi, decided to spend huge amounts of money on television because he is a partner in the firm that places ads for Dean's campaign, and it captures a percentage of every advertising dollar. In contrast, money spent on door-to-door canvassing, events, phone banks, and mass mail does not enrich Trippi personally.

    Trippi denies a conflict of interest and emphasizes that all his decisions were vetted by others. I don't much care whether he's guilty or innocent as an individual. I'm more interested in the general problem of consultants' conflict of interest . There is a lot of evidence that door-to-door campaigning wins votes, but hardly any evidence for the effectiveness of TV advertising. Canvassing is also more likely to increase overall turnout, which is good for democracy. Since candidates could win by putting money into canvassing, one would expect them to do so. But not if their consultants advise them to spend on broadcasting--which enriches them personally.

    Consultants reply as follows (I quote from the Post): "Although some disreputable practitioners may pad bills, other forces work against such behavior. Because ad strategists tend to make more money the longer a candidate stays in a race, it is self-defeating to spend wildly early on, they say. Moreover, winning is the best calling card of all: A successful campaign tends to burnish a media consultant's reputation and put the consultant in demand for the next election cycle."

    The pressure to win has some influence on consultants, but it is only one factor among many. Besides, the reelection rate in Congress is at least 83%, so most consultants work for candidates who are bound to stay in the race until the end, and then win. Yet they choose to spend their money on advertisements rather than campaign techniques that would strengthen democracy.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:05 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    February 9, 2004

    Bush on the budget

    When he interviewed the president on Sunday, Tim Russert spent most of the time asking about Iraq; this part of the interview has also attracted the most attention from pundits. But I was most struck by the following comment: "BUSH: If you look at the appropriations bills that were passed under my watch, in the last year of President Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15 percent, and ours have steadily declined." The Heritage Foundation provides a clear graph of annual changes in discretionary spending, which shows that growth in the discretionary budget never exceeded 2% under Clinton. By my calculation, there was a 10% increase in 2002 and a 14% increase in 2003 . (I'm using this table for those years). You get slightly different results if you measure "discretionary spending" differently, but the basic pattern is clear. Spending inched up under Clinton and soared under Bush. The president is flat wrong. ...

    He then says: "And the other thing that I think it's important for people who watch the expenditures side of the equation is to understand we're at war, Tim, and any time you commit your troops into harm's way, they must have the best equipment, the best training and the best possible pay. That's where -- we owe it to their loved ones." But the increase in non-defense discretionary spending was 5% this year, about twice the annual rate in the Clinton years.

    Will conservatives make Bush pay a political price for increasing federal domestic spending? The only way they can exact a serious penalty is by staying home in November--and they should do that, since the administration has completely betrayed conservative values. However, I suspect they'll come out for the president. Liberals may attack Bush, but with one hand tied behind their backs, because they don't see discretionary spending as a problem and won't promise to cut it. Thus I predict that the president will still be getting away with false statements about his own budget six months from now.

    Posted by peterlevine at 4:08 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    February 6, 2004

    no federal concern for civics?

    The NAEP, often called the "Nation's Report Card," is a voluntary, federally-funded assessment of students' progress in a field. Those who support the Civic Mission of Schools agenda favor a big expansion of the NAEP Civics Assessment. We want the Civics NAEP to be given every three years with separate representative samples in as many states as possible. We have argued that this is an important way to hold states--but not individual kids--accountable for civic outcomes. Furthermore, we believe that the NAEP civics assessment is a good instrument.

    Now we learn that the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) has commissioned a report on the 12th grade NAEP, which will be received and publicized on March 5. We are told that this report will call for the abolition of all 12th-grade NAEPs other than reading, math, and science. This decision would represent a giant step away from our goal, at least at the federal level. On the other hand, if we can organize to block the change, we may gain some momentum and visibility. I think this is a crucial test.

    It's also a reminder of our fundamental goal. NABG is not contemplating the end of the NAEP Civics Assessment because it is a flawed instrument. Rather, they simply do not believe in the importance of schools' civic mission. They are asking all fields other than reading, math, and science to justify themselves. They are putting us all in a position where we will have to compete for survival: civics against history; civics and history against the arts. We would not face this highly unpleasant situation if people believed that schools have a civic mission.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:59 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    February 5, 2004

    youth support gay marriage

    On the very day when newspapers are covering the Massachussetts court decision that mandates gay marriage rights, CIRCLE and the Council for Excellence in Government released new polling data on young people's attitudes toward gay marriage and other rights for homosexuals. The story we tell is compelling: "By six-to-one margins, American youth support gay rights and protections related to housing, employment, and hate crimes and those sentiments are held by all ideological, partisan, racial, geographic, and religious groups. One out of two respondents said they know someone who is gay; knowing a gay person has a significant impact on attitudes." Also, a majority supports gay marriage.

    I think these findings should affect the political calculus--to a degree. In the 2004 election, opposition to gay marriage is probably the safer political course (although morally wrong, in my view). But those politicians who oppose gay marriage today are likely to look foolish in 2024, when today's youth predominate. I wonder whether fear of looking ridiculous in the history books will temper anyone's opposition to gay marriage.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:08 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    February 4, 2004

    teaching controversial issues

    I'm quoted in an article about how to manage controversial issues in elementary and secondary classrooms: see "Hot-Button Handling" from District Administrator Magazine. I make a couple of points in the article, but this is the one that I consider most important: "There is no question that there are horror stories about partisan teachers, racist teachers, teachers [who] give extra points for bringing in certain campaign signs. Those are disciplinary issues and should not be allowed to happen," Levine says. "But do we throw the baby out with the bath water?''

    I think we need to cut administrators some slack on those relatively rare occasions when teachers try to indoctrinate kids politically. If we punish administrators in such cases, they get very nervous and will discourage all political discussion in schools. And then kids can't learn about issues.

    Posted by peterlevine at 2:25 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    February 3, 2004

    at the Educational Testing Service

    I'm in Princeton, NJ, staying for 24 hours at the headquarters of the ETS, the people who bring you the SAT and your other favorite standardized tests. I'm here with a group of civic education advocates, trying to learn more about testing. A system of high-stakes testing may be good or bad for education in general (I'm genuinely unsure about that). For civic education, it poses three problems:

    1) Civic and political knowledge is usually not tested, at least not with high-stakes exams. What isn't tested, isn't taught. But even enthusiastic proponents of standards and accountability are leery about piling a civics exam on top of all the other tests. There is thus a serious danger that we will lose civics from the curriculum.
    2) Civic knowledge, while important, isn't all we care about. We also want students to develop civic attitudes, values, habits, skills, and behaviors. Yet we don't know how to test these things.
    3) A good approach to civic education is to involve students, teachers, staff, parents, and community-members in the governance of schools. But to the extent that important policy issues are determined by standards and tests, there are fewer important decisions to be made locally.

    Nevertheless, there may be ways to infuse some civic content into the existing system, and that's what I'm at ETS to explore.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    February 2, 2004

    website on Iraq

    Some colleagues and graduate students and I have created a new website called The War, the Press, and Democracy. It collects and organizes some of the best discussions of press coverage of the current war. We pose some questions about the obligations of the press and the public in wartime. There's also a discussion forum on which you can post your own comments. We encourage people to visit, participate in the discussion, and send advice on the site as a whole.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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