« April 2004 | Main | June 2004 »

May 31, 2004

exploiting the war dead for "politics"?

Beth Gillin wrote Saturday's lead story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about peace activists who commemorate slain American soldiers in public ceremonies. She also discussed Ted Koppel's decision to read the names of the American dead on "Nightline," and Gary Trudeau's naming some fallen soldiers in Doonesbury. I saw this article because Gillin interviewed me and quoted me twice, but I didn't give her any interesting or profound ideas to use. (You have to register with the Inquirer to read the story, unfortunately.)

Many of today's peace activists say that they are against the war but not against our troops. They want to distance themselves from that wing of the anti-Vietnam movement that vilified American soldiers of all ranks. They explain that they are deeply saddened by the loss of American lives; indeed, that's one of their reasons for opposing the war. They want to grieve publicly and also to draw attention to our losses, as part of an argument against the invasion and occupation.

Koppel (whose program provoked massive controversy) denies having an anti-war motive, but he admits trying to make an editorial point:

The reading tonight of those 721 names was neither intended to provoke opposition to the war, nor was it meant as an endorsement. Some of you doubt that. You are convinced that I am opposed to the war. I’m not. But that’s beside the point. I am opposed to sustaining the illusion that war can be waged by the sacrifice of the few without burdening the rest of us in any way. I oppose the notion that to be at war is to forfeit the right to question, criticize, or debate our leaders’ policies. Or, for that matter, the policies of those who would like to become our leaders. “Nightline” will continue to do all of those things in the weeks and months to come. But not tonight. That is not what this broadcast was about.

Meanwhile, defenders of the war argue that it is wrong to commemorate our dead in these ways, at this time. They argue that it shows a lack of balance to emphasize casualties without providing context, such as lists of Saddam's victims. They accuse Koppel and Trudeau of doing something inappropriate for their respective roles. (Koppel is supposed to break news; Trudeau is supposed to entertain; and a list of people killed in the past is neither news nor entertainment.) They worry that public grieving will weaken morale. Finally, they smell political manipulation. They see reciting the names of dead Americans as a way to play on citizens' emotions, to attack the incumbent administration under the cover of patriotism. They claim that the deaths of military people are being exploited to attack the military itself.

I'm strongly in favor of these commemorations. Since I'm basically skeptical of the war itself, my stance wouldn't surprise or persuade anyone on the other side of this particular issue. However, I think it's worth considering a more general point. In modern America, we tend to see "politics" as deeply suspect. Thus any mixing of "politics" with journalism or with mourning and ceremony strikes us as inappropriate. But "politics" includes trying to persuade one's fellow citizens about important issues--including war and peace. Thus understood, "politics" is a very noble and serious matter. There's no pollution or manipulation involved in combining "politics" with other things. Indeed, one cannot create serious art, religion, or journalism in times of war without some admixture of "politics."

Many people have made up their minds about the war. They intend to vote accordingly in November, and they believe that everyone else should vote the same way, or else the election will be a travesty. In this context, people are looking very critically at news organizations, schools, and religious congregrations for signs that leaders are trying to influence the vote. Regardless of our opinions about the war, however, we ought to be able to stomach emotional and powerful statements by people on the other side. Otherwise, we evidently lack the maturity to handle "politics" when the stakes are high.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:41 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 28, 2004

"media literacy" means believing some things

I'm back from a conference on the reliability of information on the Internet. The motivation for the meeting was a concern about false information and people's excessive credulity. There was a lot of talk about the need to educate young people not to believe everything they read online.

I'm beginning to think that credulity may not be our biggest problem. Every belief deserves to be tested. But what can you test a belief or claim against? Answer: other beliefs. In principle, science can proceed like that forever, testing each proposition and each method. But in practice, you can't make any progress at all unless you treat much of what you know as reliable. If you doubt everything, you can say and do nothing. To borrow Otto Neurath's metaphor, we are at sea, and we can repair our boat, but only one plank at a time. If we reject the whole thing, we sink.

I mention this because I suspect that some Americans--especially younger ones--suffer from a blanket skepticism. They doubt everything that politicians say, so they tune politics out. They doubt everything that journalists write, so they don't use the press. And they note the prevalence of disagreement and uncertaintly in medicine, so they allow themselves to ignore all medical advice (especially the painful parts, like "eat your broccoli"). Thus I'm not as concerned about teaching young people to doubt what they read. I'm more interested in helping them to develop some sources on which they can rely.

The graph shows young Americans' confidence in the press since 1972. (Source: General Social Survey; sample: ages 18-30). The dramatic drop in trust coincides with a steep decline in readership. Alternative news sources such as the Internet and talk radio have not come anywhere close to replacing newspapers as a source of information for young people.

Posted by peterlevine at 1:26 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

May 27, 2004

on the road

I'm enjoying Chicago--which is exquisite on a cool, clear May day--but I'm so fully booked that I don't expect to be able to post anything until Friday.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:02 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 26, 2004

a varied life

I am fortunate to enjoy a lot of variety in my professional life. Yesterday was a nice example. On my way to work, I thought about a seminar from the previous day when several senior colleagues had discussed a philosophical paper of mine. That discussion was challenging, intense, and enjoyable.

When I arrived at work, I wrote yesterday's blog about Stanley Fish, mainly so that I could send it to a group of people (all targets of Fish's critique) who have been discussing his article by email.

After some discussion of CIRCLE's media strategy, I participated in two long conference calls: one for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the other for a taskforce of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. Each group is a coalition of organizations and individuals who have banded together to advance their field. Both coalitions have won foundation grants for their core operations, but they also depend upon voluntary contributions of labor from their members. Therefore, the discussion on both calls was largely about how we can work together more productively.

Finally, three colleagues and I picked up a batch of high school kids and took them out into their community to rate grocery stores and supermarkets for the quality of their food. I had drawn up a quick scoring rubric. Students were supposed to assign a store 1/3 of a point for each type of fresh fruit or vegetable it sells, 1 point for whole-wheat bread, 1 point for yogurt, and so on. The kids took their scoring sheets into stores and jotted down notes in the aisles. Twice in a row we were thrown out by managers who said, "You can't do that here." (What we were doing didn't seem to interest them.) I felt increasingly uncomfortable about putting kids in this position--especially since they're African-American adolescents, who don't need extra occasions to be treated rudely by store managers. We gradually developed a method for surreptitious assessment. We'd reread our scoring sheets to remind ourselves of the questions, then enter the store, split up, and act like shoppers. It worked pretty well. (The product, for those new to this blog, will be a map to be posted on a community website.)

And now I'm on my way to Chicago for an American Libraries Association meeting on the reliability of online information. I really am grateful for this breadth of daily experience.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:10 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 25, 2004

Stanley Fish vs. civic engagement

Last Friday, Stanley Fish wrote an essay in the New York Times attacking the "Civic Responsibility of Higher Education" and everything that document stands for. Fish is a brilliant Milton critic, controversialist, and builder of academic empires. It's said that he's proud to be the model for Morris Zapp, the cigar-chomping, aphorism-dispensing, fast-car-driving, bed-hopping hero/villain of two David Lodge novels, whose ambitions include being the best paid English professor in the world and saying everything that can possibly be said about Jane Austen, so that everyone else will have to shut up about her. The "Civic Responsibility of Higher Education," meanwhile, is a sober and idealistic statement of the university's role in democracy, written by some distinguished members of my organization's Advisory Board and signed by 528 college presidents.

Fish raises some valid concerns. Those of us who work to enhance the civic purposes of higher education must keep in mind the dangers of that enterprise. Colleges are not necessarily good at creating active citizens. Trying to motivate young people to be active in civil society and politics can undermine the search for truth. Scholars can squander their credibility by opining on issues beyond their competence. Tom Ehrlich, one of the authors of "The Civic Responsibility of Higher Education," quotes a similar warning written by Judge Learned Hand in his magnificent style:

You cannot raise the standard against oppression, or leap into the breach to relieve injustice, and still keep an open mind to every disconcerting fact, or an open ear to the cold voice of doubt. I am satisfied that a scholar who tries to combine those parts sells his birthright for a mess of pottage; that, when the final count is made, it will be found that the impairment of his powers far outweighs any possible contribution to the causes he has espoused. If he is fit to serve in his calling at all, it is only because he has learned not to serve in any other, for his singleness of mind quickly evaporates in the fires of passions, however holy. ("The Spirit of Liberty," p. 138)

This is a useful caution, yet I think Fish is wrong to defend the "Ivory Tower" and disparage civic education and engagement in universities. I'd like to respond to four major points in his essay.

1. Colleges should do just one job, the only one for which they are qualified: "performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level." They should have but one goal: "the search for truth."

A college that pursued only knowledge and that exclusively hired people qualified for pure scholarship would look like the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton or All Soul's College, Oxford. It would resemble a university minus the professional schools and occupational training programs, the departments of performing and creative arts, the offices of cooperative extension and tech transfer, the chapels and chaplains, the student centers and dorms, the teaching hospitals and lab schools, the athletic teams and marching bands. Frankly, it wouldn't admit undergraduates, because education is not itself the "search for truth."

Such an institution might be a nice place to work, but it's hard to see how it could be funded. Fish warns, "don't surrender your academic obligations to the agenda of any non-academic constituency—parents, legislators, trustees or donors." This sounds right until you realize that these "constituencies" pay our salaries, and they must believe that we are serving valuable purposes. At no time in our history have Americans been satisfied with knowledge as the main purpose of higher education. They've paid to train the clergy, to educate young people, to expand access to the middle class, and even to win bowl games, but not primarily to pursue the truth. Consequently, faculty and staff are not (and have never been) solely expert at scholarship and science. They have many other skills.

2. There is a fundamental difference between scholarly argument and what we conventionally call "politics"; and the two should never mix. For example, "a dispute between scholars [about welfare reform] will not be political in the everyday sense of the word, because each side will represent different academic approaches, not different partisan agendas."

This is a difficult issue, and I'm not satisfied with my own thinking. There is--and should be--an important difference between discussions of policies and issues in the academy, on the one hand, and in the political arena, on the other. But it's relatively hard to put your finger on the difference. It's certainly not true that academics take different sides on political issues because of their different academic approaches--as if all those who favored welfare reform were statistical modelers and those who opposed it were ethnographers. Ideology is a major (and appropriate) part of academic debate, as Fish well knows. Conversely, debates in legislatures, courts, and regulatory agencies are not devoid of controversy about research methods.

So there must be a large gray area. Nevertheless, we want scholars to think somewhat differently from activists and politicians: to take a longer view, to be less influenced by immediate tactical concerns, to be less committed to parties, to be more openly engaged with their intellectual opponents, to offer more complex and nuanced views. These values are more attainable in academia than in politics, and we should protect them. Yet they are compatible with "civic engagement," done right.

3. "Universities could engage in moral and civic education only by deciding in advance which of the competing views of morality and citizenship is the right one, and then devoting academic resources and energy to the task of realizing it. But that task would deform (by replacing) the true task of academic work: the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching."

Here Fish ignores a form of civic education that's compatible with the classical liberal belief in personal freedom. He assumes that civic education means herding students along particular paths. It can be something quite different: expanding the breadth of their choices as adults by helping them to experience various forms of political and civic participation (along with various forms of artistic creativity, scholarly inquiry, appreciation of nature, and spirituality). Unless young people are explicitly taught about citizenship, they will not be free to choose to be active citizens, because they will know little except consumerism, entertainment, and careerism.

4. There is a zero-sum relationship between scholarship and engagement. "Performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level is a job big enough for any scholar and for any institution. And, as I look around, it does not seem to me that we academics do that job so well that we can now take it upon ourselves to do everyone else's job too. We should look to the practices in our own shop, narrowly conceived, before we set out to alter the entire world. ..."

Fish is right about certain research programs in certain disciplines. If you're a student of Milton, you might learn something relevant by participating in current debates about religion. But such participation is equally likely to distract you from your best sources of information, which are in the library. There is, however, such a thing as research that contributes important new methods and knowledge to its discipline as a result of close engagement with communities.

For example, I doubt that Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues at the University of Indiana could have made crucial contributions to the theory of collective action if they had not worked closely with people who manage “common-pool resources” (forests, fisheries, irrigation systems, and grazing lands) on several continents. They have drawn advice and inspiration from these people even as they have provided technical assistance and derived generalizable lessons. Likewise, Jane Mansbridge’s discovery of regular norms in consensus-based democratic organizations arose from her close and collaborative work with such groups.

These examples of engaged scholarship epitomize the "search for truth." They also provide a way to address a sense of alienation that professors often feel. Many of us enter the profession with idealistic motivations, but find that we only contribute incrementally to the knowledge of fellow specialists, with whom we interact sporadically at conferences or by email. Engaging with communities can be profoundly rejuvenating.

As a Dean, Fish has clashed with "members of Congress, Illinois state representatives and senators, the governor of Illinois, the governor's budget director, and the governor-appointed Illinois Board of Higher Education." He says that he views all these people as "ignorant, misinformed, demagogic, dishonest, [and] slipshod." They simply refuse to leave scholars alone to pursue knowledge (at public expense.) This kind of relationship with the outside world must be downright exhausting for Fish. He might find that civic engagement is a relief.

Posted by peterlevine at 1:05 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 24, 2004

intellectual roots of liberalism (continued)

Yesterday, I responded to a comment by Jacob T. Levy. He has since posted more (including a response to me)--and that's just the tip of the iceberg. For a month now, influential bloggers have been discussing why liberals don't seem to prize and utilize their own intellectual tradition as much modern conservatives do. The whole conversation was started in a critical vein by Jonah Golberg.

I think that what we call "liberalism" is not a coherent ideology. It is rather an effort to balance a set of conflicting principles. It combines majority rule, protection for individual rights against the state, a minimum level of welfare to be guaranteed by the government, pluralism and an independent civil society, individual choice, disciplined organizations (such as unions), prosperity (created by allowing the market to allocate investments), some redistribution via taxation, environmental protection, neutrality about the good life, and state sponsorship of scholarship, natural assets, and high culture. Does this combination amount to "intellectually flabby, feeling-based pragmatism"? Or is it defensible?

I think liberalism is highly defensible--indeed, preferable to any purer alternative. It's the result of more than a century of problem-solving and "experiential learning" by a democratic people. We Americans decided that censorship is a problem, so we invented a solution: the modern First Amendment. We viewed poverty and early death as problems, so we invented Social Security and Medicaid. There's been a constant cycle of identifying problems, proposing solutions, experimenting in the real world, and debating the results.

Libertarians want to set limits on this debate, perhaps even amend or reinterpret the Constitution to forbid popular state action. Marxists view public debate as badly distorted by inequality. They also see it as unnecessary, because their theory tells them what we need to do. In deliberate contrast to laissez-faire conservatives and Marxists, my heroes in the Progressive Era defined themselves as experimental democrats.

Pragmatism is not an adequate political theory. We can't just do "what works" without having either (a) criteria for good outcomes, or (b) procedures for deciding what we value. If we opt for procedures, then they must reflect some principles or values other than pragmatism itself. Progressives like Jane Addams, John Dewey, Louis Brandeis, and Robert M. La Follette combined pragmatism with a strong commitment to political equality and freedom of debate.

Even if pragmatism isn't adequate, it still teaches a very important lesson. As Dewey wrote:

There is no more an inherent sanctity in a church, trade-union, business corporation, or family institution than there is in the state. Their value is ... to be measured by their consequences. The consequences vary with concrete conditions; hence at one time and place a large measure of state activity may be indicated and at another time a policy of quiescence and laissez-faire. ... There is no antecedent universal proposition which can be laid down because of which the functions of a state should be limited or should be expanded. Their scope is something to be critically and experimentally determined. ... The person who holds the doctrine of `individualism' or `collectivism' has his program determined for him in advance. It is not with him a matter of finding out the particular thing which needs to be done and the best way, under the circumstances, of doing it.

I think this kind of pragmatism is fundamental to the Progressive Era and the New Deal--what we call "liberalism." If "liberals" are highly pragmatic, then it is no wonder that they rarely cite great theoretical works in making their arguments. Thus I disagree in part with Jacob Levy. He explains that conservatives and libertarians were forced to refine their theories because they were "shut out of power" for a half century, while the center-left could put its energy "into actually doing stuff in government or on the courts." I think that "doing stuff" is the essence of what we Americans called "liberalism" during the 20th century. Progressives and New Dealers were pragmatic experimentalists even in periods (such as the twenties) when they were shut out of power. Meanwhile, the American center-right has been consistently concerned with political theory, because what we call "conservatism" is heavily influenced by classical liberalism, which is a coherent (if unrealistic) political theory.

(By the way, our terminology is a nightmare. Today's conservatives are actually classical liberals, and modern liberals make Burkean conservative arguments in favor of preserving the welfare state.)

In a blog posting and an article in The American Prospect, Mark Schmitt ("the Decembrist") lists some thinkers whom liberals should read today: Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, and Daniel Bell. [Revision, 4/28: I don't think that Mark means this list to be a canon of the greatest liberal thinkers, nor is it a syllabus that liberals ought to work through; Mark simply offers a few examples to demonstrate that there are major historical thinkers on the center-left who continue to provoke constructive thinking. With that in mind, let me discuss his examples briefly ...]

I've cited Dewey here. He's a frustrating writer--vague just want you want him to be precise--but he epitomizes the spirit of experimentation and learning that is central to Progressive politics. Croly was influential mainly for arguing that America needed a strong federal government and a concomitant sense of national community. I don't see Croly's nationalism as essentially leftist; there have been Progressive proponents of localism as well as conservative centralizers (such as John Ashcroft). Therefore, as important as he was historically, I wouldn't cite Croly as a great Progressive or expect today's left to learn much from him. Schlesinger, Galbraith, and Bell are all concrete thinkers rather than abstract philosophers--a virtue, in my opinion.

Finally, Rawls has come up a lot in this conversation, starting here. Here's my take. By the time Rawls wrote his Theory of Justice, liberals had engaged in 70 years of debate about the proper role of the state power in a modern economy. They had developed a miscellaneous set of institutions that were sometimes in fruitful conflict, ranging from an activist Supreme Court to an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies to the AFL-CIO. Rawls was like a rapporteur who observed the results of this long conversation and said, "This is what you mean, in essence." His contribution was important, but it could never replace the history of experimentation and adjustment that had created a liberal society in the first place.

Finally, I'd like to say that my own complaint about modern progressivism is not its weak basis in political theory, but rather its flagging commitment to pragmatic experimentation. Such institutions as public schools and labor unions are starting to have "inherent sanctity" for liberals, which betrays the spirit of 20th century Progressivism.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:08 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

May 22, 2004

liberalism's great texts

Although I don't usually blog on weekends, I can't resist responding to Jacob Levy's comments about why liberals don't seem to understand--or care about--the intellectual tradition of their own movement.

I see modern liberalism as an eclectic mix of institutions and principles: an expansive First Amendment; cultural pluralism; public education; labor unions; welfare entitlements; a strong private sector; environmental protection; campaign finance reform; and more. After the fact, John Rawls managed to make all the ingredients of the modern liberal state appear to flow from a few fundamental principles. His effort was valiant and skillful, but it came too late to influence actual liberal institutions, which were already in decline. (As usual, the Owl of Minerva flew at dusk). Besides, Rawls did not identify the psychological and cultural roots of the institutions that he defended. Liberalism didn't spring from abstract principles, but rather from experimentation, experience, accommodation, and compromise.

Libertarians constantly return to an impressive canon of major theorists, because libertarianism is the application of a few simple theoretical concepts to reality. Likewise with Marxists. Even Christian conservatives have modern theorists who help them to interpret their biblical sources. Modern liberalism is fundamentally different. It is pragmatic and eclectic rather than theoretical, and I think that is its great strength.

Moreover, liberals do have classic texts to which they constantly return for guidance and inspiration. These aren't theoretical treatises, but rather chapters in the history of experimentation from Reconstruction through the Progressive Era and the New Deal to the Great Society. The "primary sources" of liberalism are speeches by leaders like FDR, JFK, and MLK Jr.; the biographies and autobiographies of Jane Addams, Robert M. La Follette, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia, Ralph Bunche, Hubert Humphrey, and many more; and major judicial opinions. The "secondary sources" are histories of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and other efforts to push back Darwinian capitalism, Marxism, and ordinary bigotry. The importance of these "secondary sources," by the way, means that historians, rather than political theorists, are often the most influential liberal authors.

Posted by peterlevine at 3:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 21, 2004

why you should read the newspaper

We're told that the President of the United States doesn't read beyond the front page because he detects a hostile ideological bias in most reporting. He says:

My antennae are finely attuned .... I can figure out what so-called 'news' pieces are going to be full of opinion, as opposed to news. So I'm keenly aware of what's in the papers, kind of the issue du jour. But I'm also aware of the facts. .... It can be a frustrating experience to pay attention to somebody's false opinion or somebody's characterization, which simply isn't true.

Meanwhile, I have known many colleagues who think that all reporting and commentary in the "corporate" press is false and deliberately misleading. These leftists would be just as happy as Instapundit to see the word "lies" spray-painted across the New York Times.

I'm a consistent critic of the major newspapers myself--and TV news is beneath contempt. But I don't see how you can be a responsible observer of the world unless you use the raw material that the mainstream press provides. Sometimes the quality of coverage is poor. But to reject it all is to walk in that "absolute night when all cows are black." If you despise the most detailed sources of information, then you can make no distinctions except on the basis of your original prejudices.

Besides, sometimes we distrust the news because it's uncomfortable stuff. Conservatives don't like to read about incompetent Republican presidents or about the prevalence of poverty and racism. Liberals don't like to read about the real failures of government and the real costs and limits of regulation. Centrists don't like to read that there are legitimate arguments between right and left. Yet real progress comes from facing these difficult facts.

I'm increasingly worried about a kind of criticism that I suspect George Bush employs, along with many other Americans. Chris Betram puts it well: readers look for "symptomatic silences" and "accuse people of indifference or lack of balance for failing to mention some event or incident."

It's easy to play this game. You make up your own mind about what's important (based on reading some news source) and then assess other publications--including editorial columns and blogs--to see whether they accord an appropriate amount of space to each story. I guess that's an acceptable way to criticize newspapers that claim to report "all the news that's fit to print" (or the equivalent). However, it should never be an excuse for failing to read the news. Even if a newspaper devotes the wrong amount of space to each item because of a systematic ideological bias, we can still get lots of information from reading it. To assume that other people will be miseducated because editors emphasize the wrong stories is to hold our fellow citizens in rather low regard.

For my own part, I can't figure out how to assess charges of left-wing or right-wing bias in the press. There's too much diversity in the coverage, and the political spectrum is too poorly defined today. [Follow up: see Jay Rosen's latest post on the same subject.] I do detect a disturbing set of professional biases in favor of ....

  • conflict rather than consensus

  • deficits rather than assets

  • political strategy rather than policy

  • motives of political actors rather than quality of decisions

  • campaigns rather than government

  • federal government rather than states

  • government rather than civil society

  • the US rather than the rest of the world
  • These are problems, but they don't excuse us from reading the news.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:40 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    the Nuremberg defense

    I have long supported the Nuremberg Doctrine: soldiers are individually responsible for war crimes, and following orders is no excuse. Nor is it an excuse to say that an action seemed acceptable and triggered no feelings of bad conscience. War often suppresses our conscience or turns it upside down, causing us to view mercy as a tempting form of weakness that we are obliged to avoid. Nevertheless, when we carry guns, operate prisons, or give orders, it is our responsibility to make sure that our conscience is working right. As Hannah Arendt observes, "politics is not like the nursery." A person with a gun is not a child who knows that he is good if only he is obedient. One can follow orders without meaning to violate a law, and still be culpable.

    However, I now see a complication. In the military, you are legally required to disobey illegal orders, but you are equally obligated to obey every legal command. A mistake in either direction can send you to a court martial. In civilian life, we have much more margin for error. If someone, even my boss, tells me to do something, I can say, "I don't know if that's legal (or moral), so I won't do it." Or I can make an arbitrary excuse to get out of doing something that I fear may be wrong. The worst that can happen to me if I avoid making a yes-or-no decision is losing my job. Because we have this leeway, we should be held fully accountable for participating in any illegal acts, even if we don't understand the law or realize that we're doing something wrong. It's our responsibility to do the right thing, and if we're not sure, we can duck the issue.

    But soldiers are in a much tougher position. They must obey or disobey--immediately. It may be genuinely difficult to see that a grievous wrong is illegal under the hellish circumstances of war. Both historical evidence and experiments in social pyschology show that most people will do the wrong thing in hellish contexts. They will kill and maim other human beings out of duty, even though they don't want to harm anyone. If most people will act this way, then I must assume that I would, too. And if I have no leeway, no opportunity to get myself out of the situation, then I am especially likely to make the wrong choice.

    Thus it seems to me the rule ought to be: Don't obey patently illegal orders. Indeed, this appears to be the legal standard. It is then a hard question whether the despicable acts committed at Abu Ghraib were obviously illegal. If the accused soldiers were free-lancing--deciding on their own to humiliate and abuse prisoners, and hiding their actions from their superiors--then they are guilty. If they were following orders, even vague ones, then I am open to a verdict of "not guilty," as long as their commanders are held accountable.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:31 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 20, 2004

    charter schools and democracy

    I'm enthusiastic about charter schools, but not for the standard reasons. A charter school is a public institution that operates independently, free from most of the usual bureaucratic tangles, with a direct "charter" from some higher authority such as the city or state. Charter schools are supposed to improve outcomes for the kids they enroll, by providing alternative approaches precisely tailored to their students. They are also supposed to improve the performance of public education generally, by incubating new models and by increasing parental choice (hence, competition).

    Charters don't seem to work particularly well for these purposes--no better than standard schools. (See, just for example, this RAND report, in .pdf.) It's too early to say for sure, but charter schools certainly don't look like a magic formula for higher test scores or graduation rates.

    On the other hand, they do no harm, at least on average. And they have a huge advantage that's distinct from student educational outcomes. As a society, we need more opportunities to propose solutions to public problems, band together voluntarily, and then work directly to implement our ideas. This is "public work"--one of the most satisfying aspects of citizenship, and a great American tradition. In general, opportunities for public work have shrunk over the last century because of increasing professionalism, standardization and bureaucracy, and a diminished role for the public sector as a whole. Social work and education used to be great fields for public work, but they are now exclusively the domains of credentialed specialists who are often unable to innovate.

    This is where charter schools come in. Someone has a new idea, persuades a few friends to join her as teachers, and together they create a new institution. At any rate, that's the story of the charters that I know personally: Cesar Chavez in Washington and the East Bay Conservation Corps in Oakland. Typically, a charter school can't get off the ground without supportive parents, so the odds are relatively good that parents will play active roles in its governance. Flexibility, creativity, and parental participation don't guarantee better educational results, as the RAND study shows. But they are intrinsically valuable goods--much more important, in my book, than a few extra points on the SAT.

    Some ideas for charter schools are good; others are lousy. And some of the best ideas aren't well executed. The average results for charters appear to be about the same as the mean for other public schools, but I suspect this masks a lot of variation--a wide range from best to worst. That range is a consequence of democracy. The worst charters can be shut down, but the damage they do is the price we must pay for creativity in the public sector. I think that price is well worth paying.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:03 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 19, 2004

    attitudes toward gay rights, by generation

    Yesterday, Matt Yglesias wrote on his very popular blog: "Some social conservative types have speculated to me that the overwhelming pro-gay sentiment among young people can be counteracted by the natural conservatizing effects of aging." In other words, people will "naturally" grow more hostile to gay marriage as they enter adulthood. Yglesias disputed this prediction, and he's right. Some pretty specific data show that people tend to grow increasingly tolerant toward gays as they age--at least in the current era.

    No one conducted surveys on gay marriage until recently. Our own survey found strong support for gay marriage and civil unions, but it was a snapshot of young Americans, with no adult comparison group, and it told us nothing about trends. However, the General Social Survey has consistently asked questions about other gay rights since 1973. For instance, the GSS asks: "what about a man who admits that he is a homosexual? Should such a person be allowed to teach in a college or university, or not?" This is a useful question statistically, because it divides the population into comparable-size groups that are for and against. (The GSS code name for this question, amusingly, is "colhomo.")

    As shown in the following graph (and as one would expect), tolerance for gay college teachers has increased since 1973, when the question was first asked. At any given time, the most tolerant people are the youngest:

    However, this first graph doesn't tell us whether individuals become more or less tolerant over time. Perhaps each new generation starts life more tolerant than the previous ones, and thereby causes the average level of tolerance to rise, yet individuals tend to become more conservative as they age. To see whether that's true, I looked at cohorts, and graphed their evolution over time. With the possible exception of those born in the 1930s (for whom we don't have much data), it appears that people grow more tolerant as they age. Each of these lines represents an age cohort (i.e., part of a generation), and seven out of eight lines slope upward:

    Social scientists talk about "age effects," which hit average human beings as we move through the stages of the life-cycle. For instance, becoming more interested in politics is an age effect of early adulthood. They also talk about "cohort effects," which are qualities that a group of people has permanently, by virtue of what happened to their society when they were young. For example, Baby Boomers were permanently marked by post-War affluence, suburbanization, and Vietnam. Finally, there are historical effects that hit everyone in a society at a given time, regardless of their age. It's my sense that there may be a small age effect here: people become more tolerant of gays as they mature and get to know openly gay people. (This was a finding of our survey.) However, the biggest effect here is historical. Everyone is becoming more tolerant, regardless of age.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 18, 2004

    why stories are good for moral thinking

    I believe in the moral value of narrative. A story, whether fictional or historical, is a coherent description of a set of events. Its coherence is not simply causal, such that the first event causes the second, which causes the third, etc. Instead, narrative coherence can take many forms, including: unity of character (one agent does a set of things sequentially); unity of community (a set of connected agents do a set of things); teleological unity (a set of events build up to a significant conclusion); or thematic unity (many things with similar meanings are described). Often more than one form of unity applies.

    I would like to mention four features of narratives that make them useful for moral reasoning:

    1. Narratives enable “thick descriptions.” In Gilbert Ryle’s famous example, we may either say that someone “contracted his eyelid” or that he “winked conspiratorially.” The former is a thin description; the latter, a thick one. Thick descriptions often have moral significance. Contracting an eyelid is neutral, but winking conspiratorially is morally dubious. If it turns out that the contracting eyelid was a signal to commit murder, then that even thicker description marks the act as prima facie immoral.

    What justifies a thick description is almost always a story. For example, a video camera would record a wink as a wink, whether it was a signal to commit murder or the result of biting a lemon. We know that it is one thing rather than the other because of what comes before and after it. But we don’t consider every prior and subsequent event, nor do we focus exclusively on actions that cause the wink or are caused by it. Rather, we “thicken” the description by placing the event within a coherent narrative. This brings me to the second point …

    2. The selection of events in a coherent narrative is moral: Human institutions and actions are always dramatically overdetermined; they arise because of many events that are insufficient but necessary parts of unnecessary but sufficient (INUS) conditions. It is a common ambition of social science to measure as many of these factors as possible in order to assess their relative contribution to the outcome. For instance, we try to predict the decision to vote in terms of factors like the voter’s demographics, the nature of the election, and the voter’s opinions and preferences. Only an unreconstructed positivist would claim that this approach is value-neutral. Social scientists must always omit some contributing factors, and they must always decide how to measure the factors that are included in their models. (For example, demographic background includes race, which is a morally contested category). Nevertheless, social science aspires to neutrality and comprehensiveness. Ideally, every contributing factor goes into the model. If the morally significant factors play no explanatory role, so be it.

    In contrast, a historian almost always emphasizes factors of moral significance—especially the intentions of human beings. (So does a novelist, in constructing fictional narratives). Writers of narrative combine causal explanation with moral judgment by making salient those causes that they deem most morally weighty. They are not engaged in retrospective prediction; their goal is much closer to moral interpretation. I think social science is extremely useful, because it allows us to assess causes that may not be deliberate or intentional. But if we want to make judgments and decisions, we need to tell stories.

    3. Narratives help to ascribe responsibility for collective actions: Chris Kutz argues that we make the following assumptions: “I am accountable for a harm only if what I have done made a difference to that harm’s occurrence.” And “I am accountable for a harm’s occurrence only if I could control its occurrence, by producing or preventing it.” Unfortunately, we may belong to groups that do very serious harms, yet each member of the group can rightly say, “I made no difference to the outcome, and I couldn’t control what happened.” In these cases—which probably create the bulk of the world’s evils—no one is responsible or accountable for the wrong.

    You need not will an end to be responsible for it; you only have to be knowingly part of a group that is moving toward some end. And it doesn’t matter whether the predictable or intended outcome of the group is actually reached: you are accountable if you associate yourself with a group that has a bad telos. Unfortunately, it is often unclear whether a person is an intentional participant in a group. It’s one thing when I voluntarily join a defined and formal body. For example, if I choose to buy stock in a company whose negligence kills people, that is my problem (morally), even if I had no reason to know about the company’s behavior. But there are many harder cases, especially ones involving loose social networks.

    When we consider whether someone morally belongs to a group, the form of our reasoning is a narrative. We want to know whether people are intentionally part of a set of coherent actions that lead toward some telos. Novelists are good at showing that sets of characters are linked in morally salient ways; indeed, such linkages often provide the main themes of “bourgeois” novels. Like novelists, historians tell stories that link people together for teleological reasons. Their methods, which we also use in ordinary life, are the only means we have for ascribing responsibility for group behavior.

    4. Stories have themes. A theme is usually a concept or situation that is significant and that repeats throughout the narrative. Determining the theme of a story is a dynamic process. We become gradually aware that a concept or situation is going to be repeated. As we look for themes, we also decide what is literally going on in a text. For instance, in the first scene of King Lear, is Cordelia proud and hurt, or young and very shy, or perplexed by the formal ritual? Our answer does not determine the words she utters, but it decides much else (her tone, body language, location, expression). The only way to determine how she literally behaves is to consider what Lear is about as a whole. Thus Roger Seamon argues that a story’s theme is not some general proposition that we derive (validly or invalidly) from the words on the page. Rather, our emerging sense of a theme helps to tell us what literally happens.

    The importance of thematic interpretation has at least two moral implications. First, themes are essential to rhetoric. We deliberate by telling (putatively) factual stories that have themes; therefore we need to know how to tell good thematic stories and how to judge their quality.

    Second, it was Hannah Arendt’s view that modern history has no causal coherence. The terrible events of her century could not be retrospectively predicted by measuring the factors that jointly created them. We must understand these events, but their explanation beggars the mind. At best, we are capable of identifying repeating motifs in history. That is why Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism is not a causal explanation of Hitler and Stalin, but rather a search for relevant themes in preceding history. It describes “certain fundamental concepts which run like red threads through the whole.” If we can identify the major themes of our own time, we are doing the best that can be done.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:57 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 17, 2004

    Leaders for Tomorrow

    I've agreed to direct a new undergraduate program at the University of Maryland, starting next fall. It's called Leaders for Tomorrow. Participants will have access to funds to support their own travel, summer internships, and other activities relevant to their work. Everyone in the first batch of admitted LFT students has also received a full scholarship (including room and board) from some other source.

    The goals of the program are to attract some of the nation’s best undergraduates, to prepare them to compete for prestigious national scholarships such as the Rhodes and Marshall, and to enhance a campus-wide student culture of scholarship, leadership, and service. I'm particularly interested in helping talented undergraduates to bring some coherence to their various activities inside and beyond the classroom. I'm all for breadth, yet I think our students would benefit from being more strategic and purposive.

    If you attend an Ivy-size college (about 6,000 undergraduates), it needs an endowment of $276 million to generate $2,300 worth of special extracurricular programs for each student. My university is much bigger than that, but it has a much smaller endowment. However, we're earmarking something like $2,300 in cash to benefit each LFT student. I think you can make a pretty good case that Maryland (which has enormous shared assets) is a better place for these students to attend than some of the top colleges in America.

    I'm imagining that most of the LFT students will work independently on extracurricular activities and courses, and we will convene regularly to discuss our separate experiences and to participate in special programs such as "field trips" and service opportunities. However, I'll be especially excited if the LFT students do projects together. I have all kinds of ideas (creating a venue for publishing student research, organizing after-school classes in the County schools, etc. etc.); but I'm hoping that the LFT students can generate ideas of their own. They will have four years ahead of them when they arrive in September, so I'll be patient and let them consider alternatives for a year, if necessary.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:17 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 14, 2004

    Abu Ghraib

    We like to bomb from 30,000 feet,
    fly back to Whiteman, MO after the run,
    then drive to the mall for something to eat,

    Or wire funds to the guys who buy the guns
    that jab into the backs of old women
    who stagger away from burning homes.

    We don't do firing squads, rape rooms, mass graves,
    midnight arrests; we think we don't know how.
    A GI is a big buzz-cut guy who saves

    The cowering victims of a foreign war,
    or despotism, or incompetence.
    We can even oust regimes from afar.

    Dick and Lynne, in the VP's residence,
    once more shoulder the burden to maintain
    security, order, and common sense.

    They're grandparents with degrees, guardians
    of churches, agencies, and industries:
    they know just how to handle ruffians.

    Saddam built his own Lubyanka, grim and dank.
    Isaiah asked: "How hath the oppressor ceased?"
    The new commandant of Abu Ghraib's a Yank.

    And Babylon shall be as Sodom and
    Gomorrah; by her shall we sit and weep.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:48 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    May 13, 2004

    John Kerry in London (a fantasy)

    London, May 17--Senator John Kerry returned to London this morning after two days at Chequers, the Prime Minister's private retreat. Standing with Mr. Blair outside 10 Downing Street, Senator Kerry said, "We have agreed on a range of very promising options for managing the crisis in Iraq."

    The police closed Whitehall, a broad street near the Prime Minister's residence, to accommodate a crowd that was estimated at over 20,000. There were some hecklers, but Senator Kerry drew a roar of support when he waved through the iron gates.

    The two leaders refused to elaborate on their plans, saying that the situation in Iraq was changing quickly. However, Senator Kerry's entourage included Peter W. Galbraith, a former US Ambassador to Croatia who advocates dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomous constituent republics. Mr. Galbraith refused to comment.

    Mr. Blair, pressed to say whether he was endorsing the Democratic nominee, replied repeatedly that British governments "never pick sides" in U.S. Presidential campaigns. "The choice belongs to the American people, and our government will work effectively with either party," he said. "This was simply an opportunity for us to exchange ideas with another American political leader."

    Nevertheless, British commentators unanimously detect political advantage for Mr. Blair. Polls last week showed only 19 percent of respondents were satisfied with the Labour government, and Mr. Blair's personal loyalty to U.S. President George W. Bush has been a major liability. While most foreign leaders would hesitate to cross the President, Mr. Blair has kept 12,000 troops in Iraq and is immune to punishment. Any criticism from Washington would be a political gift. The Sun, a conservative tabloid, declared: "Bush's 'Poodle' Bites."

    For his part, Senator Kerry gains stature and offers a sense that the Iraq crisis may be solvable. Bush Administration officials scrambled to counter any advantage. Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said, "Senator Kerry is desperate to show that he is qualified to lead America. After more than 20 years of voting against a strong defense, he has to cross the ocean in search of supporters." On the Senate floor, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) challenged Senator Kerry to reveal his "secret plan" for Iraq. However, another Republican Senator who asked not to be named said, "This hurts, because Blair is not some foreigner meddling in American politics. He used to be George Bush's best friend."

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:44 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 12, 2004

    making maps

    Yesterday, in the late afternoon, I was back on the streets of Hyattsville, MD, mapping the neighborhood by entering data into a Palm Pilot pocket organizer. This week, unlike last, we had a large group of high school students with us, as well as five adults. Even though it was as hot and humid as August, and even though there are no sidewalks on many of the busy roads, we managed to cover some ground and enter a lot of data into our organizers.

    We have also collected data on about 50 kids--where they live, what they eat, where they get their food, and how and when they exercise. In addition, we have general Census data on the neighborhood. What we need at this point is a strong research hypothesis about the relationship between urban form and healthy behavior. We could continue collecting street-level data about types of businesses, sidewalk and street safety, and residential housing for years. It has been good to map some areas intensively, because we've learned how to collect and manage data (and how to get kids safely from A to B). But we need to focus on some compelling issue or finding; otherwise, we're going to run out of motivation. Ideally, the kids would come up with this focus. We will certainly consult with them, but we have so little time with them that I'm afraid the adults are going to have to develop the main ideas. As soon as I get some time, I'm going to sift through what we've collected and look for patterns.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:26 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 11, 2004

    students and the First Amendment

    The First Amendment Schools program would probably surprise many people--especially reporters--who examined it closely. One of its major sponsors is the First Amendment Center, which exists to advocate civil liberties. Its very name implies a commitment to protect and enhance liberties of speech, press, assembly, religion, and petition. Therefore, one might expect that First Amendment Schools would protect civil liberties within their own walls: for instance, by allowing student newspapers to publish without prior review, or by tolerating offensive t-shirts. Participating schools might also promote respect for the First Amendment by teaching students to understand and value a free press, free exercise of religion, and so on.

    Indeed, many First Amendment Schools do these things. I don't think that a school with a very restrictive speech code could participate. However, participating schools do a lot more than grant rights to their own students. They also ask students to learn and practice virtues and obligations of citizenship, such as deliberation, tolerance, and concern for the common good.

    I think this is great, because I would like high school graduates to understand the obligations as well as the rights of the press. Journalists do not have to do anything to earn their freedom; they have inalienable rights that students should understand and value. Nevertheless, as consumers and citizens, we can expect reporters to do a great deal.

    I personally think that reporters, especially in the broadcast media, are doing a miserable job of supporting our democracy and civil society. We might, for example, expect that a multi-million-dollar industry devoted to collecting important public information might have focused on terrorism before 9-11. There were plenty of public reports that could have alerted them to the importance of this topic. However, as Nightline's producer, Tom Bettag, said recently:

    If there were warnings throughout government about al Qaeda, let the record show that on the three network evening news broadcasts that summer and Nightline, the name “al Qaeda” wasn’t spoken––not a single time. The record will show that on the week of August 20, three weeks before the attacks, the story most covered on the three network evening news broadcasts was Gary Condit. It got twice as much coverage as the next story (Quoted in PressThink).

    In this case, the complaint is a failure to grapple with substance. In other cases, the news media can be charged with ignoring legitimate points of view, with sensationalism, with exploitation, with bias, and with many other sins. I wouldn't want high school graduates necessarily to share my negative view of the press, but I would hope that they'd become critical readers and viewers. Most of all, I would hope that some of them would respond to the failures of the mainstream media by creating alternatives of their own. In the age of the blog, you don't need a printing press to become a news producer.

    The genius of the First Amendment Schools project is to put the First Amendment in an appropriate context, without compromising individual rights but without forgetting civic obligations.

    Posted by peterlevine at 1:15 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 10, 2004

    the September Project

    The September Project is a great idea for promoting public deliberation. Libraries across the country will hold public discussions on the third anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. The library systems that have already signed up are shown on this map. Here's an overall description of the project, written by its organizers:
    On September 11, 2004, citizens across the U.S. will come together at their local libraries to discuss ideas that matter to all of us. Through talks, debates, roundtables, and performances, citizens will share ideas about democracy, citizenship, and patriotism. What better way to spend September 11th, recently designated "Patriot Day," than by participating collectively, thinking creatively, and becoming a part of the well-informed voice of the American citizenry?

    Public libraries provide all citizens open and free access to information. Almost all communities in the US have at least one library. There are over 16,000 public libraries in the US, and that's not including university libraries, K-12 libraries, and church libraries. In other words, libraries constitute an impressive national infrastructure. Moreover, 96% of public libraries have computer technology that can serve to connect events across the nation, thereby constituting a national and distributed media infrastructure. In this way, the September Project will foster a national conversation with, for, and by the people.

    The September Project has three goals:

    1) To coordinate with all libraries -- big and small, urban and rural -- to host free and public events on September 11;

    2) To work with all forms of media -- mainstream and alternative; corporate and independent; print, radio, film, and digital -- to foster and sustain public discourse about issues that matter;

    3) To foster an annual tradition for citizens around the world to recognize and give meaning to September 11th.

    The aim of The September Project is to create a day of engagement, a day of community, a day of democracy.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:47 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 7, 2004

    the proximity of evil

    I’m still at Wye River, at the end of two long but productive and interesting days discussing education and democracy. It’s a beautiful place. There must be four or five square miles of property, flat farmland surrounded by placid estuaries that drift imperceptibly toward the Chesapeake and buzz with insect life. Long paved avenues, lined by evenly spaced maples, connect the various buildings; in between are pastures with grazing cows, patches of pine woods, and open meadowland. During the break I saw deer, vultures, and schools of small fish. It’s very quiet here, and there’s been little time for following the news. It’s easy to make the evil world seem far away. Yet on the Web I see pictures of a smiling, wholesome, young American woman who has been credibly charged with torture in Iraq, and I reflect that the land that looks so lush and peaceful around me must have been worked by generations of slaves, brutalized by whips, guns, and rape, and I keep thinking that we need to face our own national character squarely. We do have a far better political system and a healthier culture than many countries’, but we also have a terrible tendency to sentimentalize ourselves. We like to think we’re all Jessica Lynch, the spunky survivor. But some of the alleged American torturers look just like her.

    Some Americans think that our national record is basically one of sacrifice and service. We lost thousands of young men in two World Wars, saving our allies from tyranny. Thanks to us, there is democracy and prosperity in Japan and Europe (both east and west of the old Iron Curtain). We fought in Korea and Vietnam with good intentions, to say the least. Unfortunately, foreigners are often ungrateful for our aid and advice—perhaps jealous or resentful, or perhaps just so different from us that they can’t appreciate our help. This is what one group of Americans thinks, while another argues that our record is basically blood-soaked and imperialistic. We vaporized Nagasaki to intimidate the Soviets and to gain control over Asia; we created tyrannies in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Zaire, Chile, and elsewhere; and we support current dictators for financial gain. Which version of recent history you adopt will deeply shape your view of any contemporary American intervention overseas. My own position would fall somewhere between these two caricatures, but right now I’m very conscious of our faults. Americans were victims on 9/11, but that doesn’t mean that we are a nation of innocents. Democracy and service may be American traditions, but so is brutality. If we're going to try to improve other people's countries, we'd better remember our own capacity for evil.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 6, 2004

    democracy and education

    I'm on my way this morning to the Wye River retreat center on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where the 1997 Arab-Israeli agreement was hammered out. I'll be attending a much lower-profile event: a retreat for the First Amendment Schools project. Schools may apply to join this project if they want to increase student participation in their own governance as a means of civic education. For example, they may develop a school constitution, protect free expression for students, and strengthen student government and student news media. There are grants and other forms of support available for participating schools.

    Some people take the line that education for democracy must itself be democratic. This is the theme, for example, of Carl Glickman's Holding Sacred Ground. John Dewey is the patron philosopher of this movement. Dewey and his followers hold that democracy is not just a system of government; it's a way of thinking about all aspects of life, from ethics to education to science and art.

    My own view is a little different. I think that "democracy" means rule by citizens; it means elections and freedom of speech. It's an open question whether the best way to educate people for democracy is to organize schools in democratic ways. It doesn't follow logically that education for democracy requires democratic methods, and the empirical basis for this claim is not very strong. Nevertheless, I admire the First Amendment Schools, because I believe that it's good for educational institutions to embrace comprehensive and inspirational guiding philosophies. If a school embraces democratic education voluntarily and thoughtfully, it should get good results. However, democratic education is not the only way to make good citizens. I can imagine that a school might be organized according to scientific values, for example, and produce excellent citizens as graduates. Science, like democracy, is compatible with public education; but science is not the same as democracy. Likewise, a school might embrace artistic creativity as its core value and get good civic results. (Although some art is democratic, democracy is not the essence of art.) Religious instruction can also produce good citizens, as Yates and Youniss showed in their evaluation of a Jesuit high school that is not internally democratic. In my own work with high school students, we try to embody democratic values, but I regard this as only one road to civic education.

    Meanwhile, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools has officially announced its existence and has released applications for grants. State teams that want to improve civic education are encouraged to apply.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:40 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 5, 2004

    among the ethnographers

    I don't think I'll be able to write anything substantial today, because I have meetings scheduled virtually without a break from 9 am until the evening. The one I'm most looking forward to is actually a seminar. Some advanced anthropology students at the University of Maryland have been collecting data in the same location that our high school students are mapping (see yesterday). We're hoping to combine the findings from both groups, to generate really interesting maps. This evening, I'll observe while the students present their findings from the semester.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:20 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 4, 2004


    This afternoon, I was out in West Hyattsville, MD with a Palm Pilot, collecting data on restaurants and sidewalks. The data that we collected will help our high school kids to make maps of the factors that may influence obesity in their community. The kids themselves have been going out weekly with some graduate students. Since the grad students are about to finish their semester, I wanted to learn how the Palm's work so that I (and several colleagues) can take over, starting next week. Unfortunately, on this particular occasion, the adult team outnumbered the high school kids. Life is always chaotic at the school, and you never know how many students will show up. So we adults cheerfully picked up Palms and joined in the data-collection.

    I'd love to write something insightful about the commercial strip that we mapped. Any place is interesting if you observe it closely, and this happened to be a solid, working-class district of bodegas, barber shops, speciality stores (and empty lots with gang graffiti) that would provide lots to write about. Unfortunately, my eyes were glued to the screen of the Palm the whole time, so I saw nothing interesting. I did get very efficient at data-entry and rolled through a whole extra block on my own while the high school kids had an ice-cream break.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 3, 2004

    Iraq and the press: discussion

    I chaired a public discussion today about the media and Iraq. The speakers were:

  • Susan Moeller, a former photo-journalist and now a Journalism professor at Maryland who has written a fine paper on media coverage of weapons of mass destruction. Susan has also taught at Harvard, Princeton, Islamabad, and elsewhere and has published two highly relevant books, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, and Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat; and

  • Christopher Hanson, also a Journalism professor at Maryland and a former reporter who covered the first Gulf War and the civil war in Rwanda from the field. Chris is interviewed here.
  • I talked about why the quality of press coverage matters, in the first place.

    It's hard to summarize a wide-ranging and serious conversation, other than to say that everyone is deeply critical of reporting about Iraq. Everyone would like to read broader and more substantive stories, not about the daily body-count but rather about the status of Iraq's infrastructure, or about Iraqi culture and history, or about the reasons for the diverse opinions that Arabs hold. We would at least like to know: how many Iraqis have working electricity today?

    Here are some additional points that struck me as particularly useful:

  • The policy of "embedding" reporters with military units has made them reliant on their sources, but this is nothing new--it's the problem that usually afflicts "beat" reporters, who become close to the experts and officials in their area of coverage.

  • All the critical questions that should have been asked about the War were asked before the invasion began, but not conspicuously. They appeared once on p. 18 or p. 25, while the Administration's line apppeared daily on the front page.

  • Reporters take their cues from conflicts among political elites. When there's little dissent among elected leaders, the press cannot (or doesn't know how to) create stories that are independent of the official line. Thus the lack of Democratic dissent before the War prevented the press from developing critical articles. Howard Kurtz makes the same point to the BBC today

  • When editors and reporters learn that the public is misinformed about a topic that they are covering, some reply (explicitly): "We don't educate. Our job is to uncover new information." They don't take responsibility for the public's failure to understand the "big picture."
  • Whenever I hear that there is a lack of substantive news coverage (for instance, about the state of the Iraqi infrastructure today), I always wonder what factors are to blame: the cost of researching such stories; the (perceived) lack of audience demand for substantive news; a lack of skills in the press corps; or some kind of editorial bias among editors and publishers.

    Posted by peterlevine at 2:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Site Meter