September 30, 2004
art as intellectual property
Emboldened by the fact that Tongues of Fire is downloaded from this site 25 times a week, I'm thinking of putting another, more ambitious work of fiction online. I'd like to illustrate it and otherwise add elements of "multimedia." The perfect illustrations (since I cannot make my own) would be certain Old Master drawings by the likes of Guercino and Domenichino. Unfortunately, there are remarkably few such images online, because the owners of the originals tend to refuse permission to disseminate them electronically. Even public museums usually block people from photographing their collections unless we agree not to sell or give away the images we make. For the same reason, the countless beautiful illustrations in my University's Art Library are not to be copied. I have been looking at old books--volumes published more than 75 years ago--that reproduce baroque master drawings. They contain many beautiful images that would fit my purposes perfectly. The books are in the public domain, but what about their illustrations? Does the Queen of England own the rights to a photograph taken of one of her drawings in 1900? What about an etching or mezzotint that reproduces a drawing that she owns?
I am trying to obey the law, but only because I don't want to encounter problems later. From a moral point of view, I find it outrageous that owners of beautiful objects, especially public libraries and museums, should prevent their electronic reproduction. As a result of this short-sighted and selfish policy, an extraordinarily small proportion of great art can be found on the World Wide Web.
September 29, 2004
blogs by experts
Matthew Yglesias bemoans the lack of blogs by specialists. Most bloggers who cover social issues and policy are generalists with opinions, not people with expertise (whether formal or informal) or new information to share. Of course, there are exceptions, and some good ones are listed in the responses to Yglesias' post. For some reason, most of the exceptions are political theorists and constitutional law professors. There are very few blogs devoted to aspects of public policy (as opposed to electoral politics), other than the few listed on Crooked Timber. I do like these:
There are 3.6 million blogs, and some of them must be highly focused and well-informed. But they aren't very prominent, and I'd be glad to know of more.
September 28, 2004
skepticism about surveys
I keep encountering new reasons to be skeptical about survey results. The moral is not to dismiss everything you read that's based on polling, but to use surveys very carefully.
1. We looked at the percentage of young people who said they were registered at several moments during each of the last four presidential campaigns. The results show lots of up and down movement, including quick declines of as much as 10 points. This doesn't make sense, since people register during the campaign season and don't lose or drop their registration in large numbers. Furthermore, self-reported registration rates at any given month do not predict turnout in November--at all. For example, self-reported registration rates were consistently the highest in 1996, the year when we saw the lowest youth turnout ever. September of 2000 looked terrible, but then the registration rate rose to the highest ever recorded in November of 2000--even though actual turnout was poor that year. The registration number seems to move randomly and isn't meaningful.
Since all election polls use registration questions to screen voters, this finding should make one skeptical of horse-race polls.
2. Some states (e.g., Michigan and Minnesota) collect hard data about voters, such as their ages. In these states, one can compare the demographics of the actual voters against exit poll data. We have found striking discrepancies in past years. Presumably, problems arise because people are not equally likely to participate in exit polls, and many now vote absentee.
3. When pollsters call random phone numbers, in theory they should reach a representative sample of Americans. In fact, as I know from bitter personal experience, they tend to reach samples whose demographics differ greatly from the Census Bureau's--and not in predictable ways. Therefore, pollsters almost always "weigh" their samples. If they reach half as many African American males as they should, then each Black man in the sample counts for two. But there are huge questions about which variables one should "weigh," and by how much.
I put more faith in trends, rather than snapshots. For example, I'm very skeptical about claims like "Bush has 52% of the vote," because they are based on calculations involving who is registered; but I'm more persuaded that Kerry has lost three points since the last Gallup poll. However, even an apparently identical survey does not give you comparable results if the sample is weighted differently each time.
One can improve the quality of a survey by spending the time and money necessary to reach a high proportion of the people who were on your original, random list of phone numbers; or even better, by supplementing phone calls with home visits. Such efforts will be reflected in a high "response rate," such as we see in Census polls. But the response rates of other polls are rarely disclosed and vary enormously. Many respectable firms have disturbingly low response rates. I think the lesson is to distinguish between a few solid polls and many dubious ones, and to pay attention only to the former.
September 27, 2004
deliberative democracy and tolerance
Last Friday, I heard a colleague present a good paper on tolerance and deliberation. I don't want to summarize his position here, but I think that mine would be different. I see a tension between public deliberation and tolerance. In a true "deliberative democracy" (which, in practice, we can only approximate), everyone who is potentially affected by an issue discusses it together, without limitations as to topic or outcome, giving reasons and considering underlying values and principles. Deliberation can increase tolerance as people come to understand one another's perspectives; but that's hardly guaranteed. Such conversations often reveal profound differences of principle, which are closely connected to identity. Karl Mannheim argued that "political discussion" characteristically turns into a fundamental attack "on the whole life-situation of the opponent." He exaggerated, but he had a point.
If you want people to get along, to "live and let live," then you may want to take certain issues off the table. For example, the Constitution bans state-sposored religion. This narrows the range of serious discussion but probably increases tolerance. You may also want to create mechanisms for reaching decisions without direct interaction among people who disagree. Elections and markets provide such impersonal interactions.
Many proponents of deliberative democracy are upset by the profound gap in values between, for example, Greenwich Village and rural Mississippi. They'd like these two "communities" to sit down together and come to understand each other's values. I also favor diverse and inclusive conversations, but not because I expect them to increase tolerance. I think the best way to help Greenwich Village and rural Mississippi to coexist peacefully is to keep them separate and allow their elected representatives to logroll and compromise their way to a deal. Some federal money can go to arts subsidies, some can go to farm supports, and both sides can purchase goods on the same market. If they don't deliberate, neither group has to think too hard about the other.
By bringing disagreements to the surface, deliberative democracy threatens tolerance, but it also depends on it. Without a basic willingness to put up with people who disagree, conversations will go badly. Thus, if we are committed to public deliberation (perhaps because we believe it will create better policies and help people to develop and refine their own opinions), then we're going to have to work hard to keep the peace.
September 24, 2004
the "democracy advantage"
Just now, I heard my former student Joe Siegle give a sneak preview of a book that he has written with Morton Halperin and Michael Weinstein, The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace. The conventional wisdom among powerful experts holds that democracy arrives only at the end of a process of economic development. First, says Fareed Zakaria, a country must reach a per capita income of $6,000; then it can democratize. Below that level (allegedly), autocratic governments are better than democracies at marshalling resources, working for the long-term, suppressing conflicts, and thereby getting their countries to $6,000 per person.
Siegle et al. find that this is all thoroughly wrong. Among low-income countries over the last 40 years, democracies have grown as fast as autocracies. Most of the successful autocracies have been the "tigers" of East Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, and the like). If you exclude them from the sample, low-income democracies perform much better than autocracies. The data would favor democracies even more clearly if we had economic statistics from all the dictatorships. The worst tyrannies are very secretive and don't release plausible development statistics, but clearly countries like North Korea would pull the autocracies' average down if they were counted.
One of the reasons for democracies' strong economic performance is their consistency. Compared to autocracies, they don't collapse as often, and they don't collapse as badly. Of the 80 worst cases (losses of GNP within a single year), only five have been democracies.
If one moves beyond GNP per capita or GNP growth, the other human development statistics favor democracies much more. For example, in poor countries, democratic government seems to confer about 9 extra years of life expectancy, compared to autocracies. And citizens of poor democracies are 40% more likely than citizens of poor autocracies to attend secondary school.
September 23, 2004
what's going on at the office
(From Greenville, SC): Periodically, I get the urge to download what I'm doing onto my blog. These posts usually lead people to email me with questions or concerns, which is why I allow myself to write them now and then. (I believe that a high proportion of the readers of this blog are somehow professionally associated with one of the organizations that I work for.)
First, we are trying to set up and fund a series of randomized field experiments connected to this year's election. For each experiment, we must connect a funder, a researcher, and a political group that is doing actual fieldwork--and they must all agree on the details of project. The researcher always takes a list of registered voters (or residents) and randomly selects a subset of them. The political group contacts that subset in a particular way or with a particular message. Finally, the researcher consults voter rolls to see how many of those who were contacted actually voted, compared to those who were not contacted. The difference is a very reliable measure of the effect of the canvassing method. (This [pdf] is an example of a recent experiment.) Experiments conducted since 1998 have revolutionized campaigns by proving that door-to-door and phone canvassing work. Mark Lopez and I are also writing an overview article on the subject.
Several colleagues and I have been running after-school programs at the local high school, most recently with support from the National Geographic Foundation. This fall, our high school students will continue studying geographical factors that increase obesity, and will produce a radio show with their results. For the most part, I have been addressing various bureaucratic obstacles.
I've taken over an undergraduate program called Leaders for Tomorrow and have been working with 14 exceptional freshmen to develop a collective project that combines scholarship, leadership, and service. Speaking of scholarship, I have been coaching a strong crop of Rhodes candidates from the University of Maryland.
John Gastil and I are nearing the finish line with an edited book of essays, probably to be called The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the Twenty First Century. Meanwhile, Jim Youniss and I are at the first stage of a funded project to explore how changes in the US political system affect young people's political development.
I'm chairing a subcommittee at the University that is trying to identify all the opportunities that our undergraduates have for civic engagement and leadership on campus.
The Deliberative Democracy Consortium is beginning to plan a second meeting of researchers and practitioners in the field; the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is preparing materials for its new state teams; and the Alliance for Representative Democracy is planning the second annual Congressional Conference on Civic Education. I'm on the relevant steering or planning committees for each of these projects.
September 22, 2004
My organization, CIRCLE, jointly released a poll with MTV yesterday. (That should raise my hipness quotient at least a bit.) It was a survey of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. Some of the highlights:
Meanwhile, I'm off to Greenville, South Carolina to speak about civic education at the State Bar Association meetings ....
September 21, 2004
around, about, and go to
If you hang around social and political activists nowadays, you'll hear them say things like, "That organization does work around brownfields regulation," or "We had a great conversation around making our messaging work more impactful." If you spend your time with humanities scholars, you'll hear sentences like, "Nabokov's later texts are about the primacy of the personal," or "The discourse of late modernity is about alienation." And lawyers have always been taught to say, "This testimony goes to my client's whereabouts on the night of Sept. 20" or "That point goes to Justice O'Connor's dictum in City of Richmond v Croson ...."
These are three ways of connecting bodies of words, on one hand, to particular issues or subjects, on the other, when the speaker is not sure about the nature of the connection. Obviously, it's better to avoid any of these expressions, which are overly vague. However, we all have our linguistic weaknesses, and I find the differences in dialect interesting.
September 20, 2004
the vision thing
In the last New York Times poll, 57% of registered voters said that John Kerry has not "made it clear what he wants to accomplish in the next four years as president" (pdf, p. 26). I can't say I blame them. Granted, it's very difficult to develop a plan for Iraq, since there are no good options there, and a future president could undermine his negotiating position by broadcasting his intentions. However, John Kerry has plenty of opportunity to say what he would do back home. He has a health care plan, but I'd be surprised if one in a hundred Americans knows what's in it. As far as I can tell, Kerry never explains it. I realize that most people won't want to sit through a long lecture on the details of the proposal (nor would the press report such a speech). However, the Democrats could use their health plan--which is by far their biggest domestic initiative--to exemplify their general philosophy of government. Kerry should describe his proposal as innovative and unprecedented, or market-based and efficient, or bold and revolutionary, or cost-effective and moderate, or whatever he imagines it to be. This should then become the hallmark of a general vision for the next four years, of which he should be able to provide more examples.
Since 1900, no Democrat has been elected president without some kind of positive vision, which has combined general slogans and novel turns of phrase with exemplary policy proposals. I don't believe that the conditions are right for a revolutionary vision like those of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, but Kennedy and Carter were elected on the basis of moderate philosophies and small-scale exemplary proposals.
I see only two ways that Kerry can win in 2004. Either he develops a coherent domestic-policy philosophy within the next 2-3 weeks, or he achieves an unprecedented victory premised only on the need to defeat a failed incumbent. I frankly doubt that the latter is possible.
September 18, 2004
varieties of relativism and particularism
The big guns of the blogosphere are suddenly discussing moral relativism and particularism, topics about which I'm supposed to know something. It all started when Eugene Volokh came to liberals' defense, arguing that we lefties are not the moral relativists that conservatives call us, because we tend to believe strongly in moral principles that apply everywhere. Besides, liberals and conservatives agree that principles "admit of exceptions." Matthew Yglesias (who has good philosophical training) then argued that relativism is a position without any practical consequences; it's a meta-ethical view that tells us something about the nature of our moral beliefs, not how we may or should act. Brian Weatherson, on Crooked Timber, considered all the claims made in the earlier posts and concluded that Volokh was talking about "particularism," not relativism. Furthermore, Yglesias was partly mistaken, since relativism sometimes has moral consequences.
Philosophers love to make distinctions, and maybe these will be useful:
One can be a "moral universalist" about …
|species||cultures||the scope of duties||the nature of reasoning|
|Moral rules are independent of specifically human cognition; they come from God or pure reason||The same rules or judgments ought to apply to members of any culture||We have the same duties to all human beings. For instance, perhaps we are required to maximize everyone’s happiness, to the best of our ability, not favoring some over others.||What is right to do in a particular case is shown by the correct application of a general moral rule|
The opposite is of this kind of universalism is ...
|Naturalism: Moral rules are created by human beings and derive from our nature.||Cultural relativism: At least some moral principles are particular to cultures (they only bind people who come from some backgrounds).||Communitarianism: We have stronger obligations in particular people, such as our own children or compatriots.||Moral particularism: we can and should decide what to do by looking carefully at all the features of each particular case. General rules and principles are unreliable guides to action. Any rule or principle that makes one situation good may make another one bad.|
These columns are completely independent; you can mix and match answers from the top and bottom rows.
In my view, the distinction in column #1 makes no practical difference. It doesn't matter whether moral principles derive from Reason or from human thinking, because they govern us either way. The distinction only matters if you think that morality comes from God, and God's will is knowable from a source such as the (inerrant) Bible.
A lot of post-modern leftists favor cultural relativism (column #2), to the annoyance of conservatives--but I think that's a mistake. True progressives and liberals have always believed that certain moral principles apply universally, regardless of what anyone may think in the local culture.
Communitarianism (column #3) is controversial on both sides of the political spectrum. However, some neoconservatives and many liberals share a belief in Wilsonian universalism and oppose a narrow commitment to national interests. They mainly differ in the means they favor for improving the world (unilateral force versus multilateralism).
Finally, I don't see a left/right tilt in the debate between particularists and moral universalists (column #4). In the 1960s, there was a fairly silly view called "situation ethics" (which Kevin Drum rightly mentions as a backdrop to today's debates). Joseph Fletcher and other situation-ethicists of the sixties emphasized that moral rules were subject to frequent exceptions; they used these examples to argue against the whole of conservative religious morality. Understandably annoyed, religious conservatives are still prone to see particularism as a threat. But sophisticated particularism is not lax and permissive, nor is it the enemy of religious orthodoxy. Indeed, Jesus was a particularist compared to the Pharisees (see John 8:2-11 and elsewhere).
September 17, 2004
volunteering versus politics?
On Monday evening, I’ll be speaking to a bunch of young volunteers who serve through Greater DC Cares, a large “coordinator of volunteerism and corporate philanthropy” in our area. I think I’ll start by pointing out that young Americans often view volunteering as a substitute for political engagement. Voting by people under the age of 25 has declined by one third since 1972, although turnout by older people has not fallen in that period. Yet young people have become more likely to volunteer over the last 15 years. In a 2002 survey, CIRCLE’s colleagues found that young people were just as likely as older people to be heavily involved in “civic” activities, such as volunteering, working on local problems, and belonging to groups. However, they were considerably less likely to be involved with electoral politics. When Campus Compact hosted a summit of campus leaders in 2001, many said that they deliberately rejected formal politics—for reasons of principle—and preferred helping people face-to-face.
There are two influential criticisms of volunteerism. One comes from the left: it says that volunteering is at best a Band-Aid, a palliative. At worst, it preserves the status quo. For example, if some people must get their food from a soup kitchen, that’s a sign of deep social injustice. If the food is served by smiling, kind, concerned people of wealth and privilege, then the recipients may “learn” not to demand radical change, and the servers may convince themselves that they are doing all that they can.
The second critique is less ideological, but radical in a different way. Conventional volunteering doesn’t take the volunteer very seriously as a citizen, capable of changing the world and creating public goods. In the 2002 survey I mentioned before, only 20 percent of the volunteers (and 10 percent of young volunteers) described their participation as a way to address a “social or political problem.” In a qualitative study of Minnesota citizens completed in 2000, respondents said that volunteering often consigned them “to positions of mediocrity with the assumption that they lacke[ed] the capacity to work on big issues that impact the community.” People want to do demanding, creative, responsible, serious forms of public service. Volunteering rarely meets that standard.
If volunteering is often mediocre and superficial, then one response is to encourage young people to participate in conventional politics. If idealistic people and young people don’t vote, don’t lobby, don’t join parties, and don’t debate elections and legislation, then policy will be set by powerful and often cynical professionals.
The students convened by Campus Compact reject this option (pdf, p. 11):
For the most part, we are frustrated with conventional politics, viewing it as inaccessible. [However,] while we are disillusioned with conventional politics (and therefore most forms of political activity), we are deeply involved in civic issues through non-traditional forms of engagement. We are neither apathetic nor disengaged. In fact, what many perceive as disengagement may actually be a conscious choice; for example, a few of us … actively avoided voting, not wanting to participate in what some of us view as a deeply flawed electoral process. … While we still hope to be able to participate in our political system effectively through traditional means, service is a viable and preferable (if not superior) alternative at this time.
They cite “guerilla theater, music, coffee houses, poetry, and alternative newspapers” as non-traditional forms of engagement that they embrace. As they note, these forms of politics tend to explore and express identity, more than they analyze and change policy.
Part of me wants to push back and say that formal politics is no worse—no more corrupt or inaccessible—than it was in previous generations. There’s more transparency (because of disclosure laws and an aggressive media), and therefore we read more scandalous news every day; but the reality is probably better. Journalists constantly tell us that politicians are only concerned about re-election, but there is little evidence of that, and it mainly reflects reporters’ inability to follow real policy debates. Shunning politics means surrendering to the cynicism of the mass media. It’s a cop-out. If political institutions really are “antiquated and irrelevant to [our] concerns for social justice” (as the student leaders say), then we need to reform those institutions through political action.
But part of me wants to embrace the possibilities of an alternative politics, rooted in identities and communities, voluntary rather than institutionalized (see the Campus Compact pdf, p. 28), and built from the ground-up on the basis of face-to-face relationships.
When I meet the group of young volunteers on Monday, I’ll present them with three simplified choices and let them develop their own synthesis:
1. Volunteering (as we normally do it) is valuable and rewarding and should be our focus.
2. Volunteering is problematic on its own, but it can and should be a bridge to formal political participation (voting, lobbying, protest)
3. Volunteering is problematic on its own, but it can be connected to new styles of politics that are alternatives to conventional participation.
September 16, 2004
on the Greyhound
I took a Greyhound bus to Charlottesville on Tuesday, all dressed in my best suit to speak at UVA. It turns out that the bus to Charlottesville continues on to Atlanta, mainly on smaller roads so that it can stop in places like Orange, VA. The guy next to me had been hitching from the suburbs of Philadelphia toward the Gulf coast of Mississippi, but with all the rain coming up with Hurricane Ivan, he had decided to backtrack to Virginia and get on a Greyhound. He had about 18 hours left before Mobile, where a friend would pick him up.
The driver was friendly and had a rapport with the passengers, who were going to be with him for a long time. He said that he was required to announce that alcohol and drugs are forbidden on the bus--but (he added) most everybody had just been given a drug test, anyway. This wasn't a joke, to judge by the passengers' response. I wondered why most people on a Greyhound would have been drug-tested very recently. Is it because they work for companies that constantly test their employees' urine?
In this and many other respects, a Greyhound trip through the rural south is different from the USAir shuttle that I took last Friday. I don't mean in any way to romanticize the life of the people on the bus. But nobody on the shuttle offered me half of his peanut butter crackers and told me his life story. Nor would all the passengers immediately try to help if there were a minor mechanical problem on USAir--as they did when the back door wouldn't close on the Greyhound.
September 15, 2004
public social science
I recommend an article by Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council, entitled Toward a More Public Social Science (pdf). I endorse all of Calhoun's key points:
1. "Engagement with public constituencies must move beyond the dissemination model. It is not enough to say that first scientists will do whatever 'pure' research moves them and then, eventually, there will be a process of dissemination, application, and implementation." Instead, social scientists need to develop appropriate two-way relationships with journalists, librarians, non-specialist readers, policymakers, and others.
2. "Public social science does not equal applied social science. More 'applied' research may be helpful, but the opposition of applied to pure is itself part of the problem. It distracts attention from the fundamental issues of quality and originality and misguides as to how both usefulness and scientific advances are achieved."
3. "Problem choice is fundamental." There is no pure scientific agenda; the choice of what to study is always a matter of values. These values should be articulated publicly, acceptable to non-scientists, and informed by public deliberation.
4. "A more public social science needs to ask serious questions about the idea of 'public' itself. What is 'the public'? How are its needs or wants or interests known?'"
September 14, 2004
I'm on my way to Charlottesville for a panel discussion, organized by Prof. Larry Sabato, on "Young People and the 2004 Election." I'll be the geek on the panel, which will also include Rock the Vote President Jehmu Greene, "American Candidate" Malia Lazu, and others. I'll probably summarize some points I've made here before. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Plain Dealer quotes me on the same topic:
Peter Levine, deputy director of CIRCLE, said there are increasing signs that young people are paying attention to this election and that turnout among young Americans could climb.
How many are likely to vote?
"I think that depends on how the two parties conduct themselves," said Levine. "If it turns into a 'hackfest,' I think that's going to turn off young people."
Update, Sept. 15: The New York Times has a very optimistic front-page story that cites CIRCLE and quotes my colleague Carrie Donovan. Probably as a result, our server can't handle the traffic and keeps going down.
September 13, 2004
"transnational youth activism"
On Saturday, I attended a meeting on “transnational youth activism” in New York City. The classic “transnational activists” are opponents of corporate capitalism who also distrust all hierarchical, disciplined organizations (such as nation states and unions). They build SPINs—“segmented, polycentric, ideologically integrated networks”—that are united by common values rather than by centralized leadership, rules, or market relations. Their tools include the Internet and open-source software projects as well as face-to-face meetings, co-ops, squats, and community-supported agriculture projects. As a matter of strategy, they choose to work in loose networks rather than organizations so that “there is no head to cut off.” At the same time, they see networks as morally superior to organizations.
We debated how far beyond the paradigm cases to go in conducting research. Should a research project be limited to the youthful left (mainly anarchists, pacifists, and radical Greens), who work internationally and adopt new social forms? Should the project also include various right-wing groups that are opposed to existing social institutions, that work internationally, and that form networks instead of top-down organizations? Should research on “transnational youth activism” even encompass various moderate young people who are perfectly happy with traditional institutions, such as the Catholic Church or UNESCO?
How you answer this question may depend on your own ideological opinions. However, I believe that there is an important empirical question, the answer to which would help decide the scope of any plausible research project. We know that there are radical leftists who are young, who work across national boundaries, and who use new social forms. But how many right-wingers also fit this description? Are there just a few skinheads, or is there a broad movement? And how many politically moderate, traditionalist people are involved in work that could be called “transnational youth activism”? If the answer is “hardly any,” then it’s appropriate to limit the research to the radical left—regardless of what one thinks of this movement. However, if there are transnational youth activists from across the whole political spectrum, then it seems necessary to study the full range in order to place each group in context.
I don't know how much transnational youth activism exists outside of the radical left, but I'd like to learn more about that.
September 10, 2004
civic learning in dark times
(On the shuttle to New York): I gave a speech this morning to the state directors of Youth for Justice programs. These are federally-funded initiatives to teach young people about the law, through courses, classroom visits by lawyers and judges, and youth courts—among other methods. I spoke about civic education. I hesitate to blog about my comments, because we are in the middle of an intense presidential campaign, terror and war are all around us, and I’m sure that many readers will click right past a blog entry about “civic ed.” But maybe this is a good time to remind ourselves that our Republic will endure, no matter who wins the presidency, and we need to get on with the perpetual work of preparing the next generation. Possibly the election is more important than civic education (or possibly it isn’t); but in any case I would rather discuss and try to make positive change in a limited domain, rather than play the role of a tense and horrified spectator of national politics.
So, in my speech, I began by offering a personal definition of “civic learning.” This is a phrase that, according to our recent focus group research, is more politically palatable than “civic education.” (The latter phrase connotes boring lectures about “how a bill becomes a law.”) In any case, “learning” is the point; formal instruction is just one opportunity to learn.
In my view, “civic learning” means learning to work together on common problems, whether through government, private voluntary associations, or even informal networks such as those that develop in neighborhoods. It may seem communitarian or statist to emphasize the importance of working together. Not so. Even libertarians, the staunchest defenders of individual liberty and uncoordinated private behavior, must value civic learning. That is because:
Progressives favor civic learning for somewhat different reasons, but there is a lot of overlap. (Progressives also need people to solve most problems through voluntary action, because government can only do so much.) And all sides should want there to be an informed, thoughtful, public-spirited debate about how best to address public problems: through the state, market competition, or voluntary collaboration.
Civic learning should build:
It is not in individuals’ self-interest to develop these attributes, nor do they come naturally. For example, many of the skills needed for working together in groups are counter-intuitive and must be learned through experience or as a result of deliberate instruction. This is why associations have always taught each rising generation civic skills. Given the weaker associations we have today, we need better civic learning in schools.
September 9, 2004
Today I was named to the Board of Streetlaw, Inc., a nonprofit that produces the nation's most popular high school textbook for "law-related education," conducts an annual teacher's institute at the Supreme Court, supports youth courts (in which adolescents actually sentence their peers), and runs various international programs, among many other services. Streetlaw is 32 years old and is one of the important independent associations that provide materials and training for civic education. (The Center for Civic Education, the Constitutional Rights Foundation, and the Bill of Rights Institute are other examples.) In general, there is no shortage of good curricula, textbooks, electronic simulations, program guides, and other materials. The bigger challenges are getting those materials used in schools and providing teachers with adequate training and support to use them.
September 8, 2004
the decline of reading
On July 8, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released a report entitled "Reading at Risk" which uses Census Bureau data to track a substantial decline in the percentage of Americans who read any books, but especially works of "literature" (defined simply as all forms of fiction, drama, and poetry, without regard to quality).
For those of us who are concerned about civic engagement, it is interesting that regular volunteers are more likely to read than other people. In fact, according to the NEA's fairly sophisticated statistical model, volunteering turns out to be an independent predictor of literary reading. In other words, if you compare two people of the same race, income, age, employment, etc., if one volunteers and the other doesn't, the volunteer is more likely to read fiction or poetry.
This is only a tidbit of information. I would love to know whether literary reading also predicts other forms of civic engagement, such as voting, joining and leading associations, and protesting. And I would be interested in qualitative research (such as in-depth interviews) that shed some light on why volunteers read--and readers volunteer. In any case, this is an important empirical question. I'm a philosopher, trained in normative (moral or ethical) reasoning, and I have written two books arguing for the moral and civic value of the humanities. But empirical questions are also important. For example, if we argue--in the tradition of Greek Sophists and Renaissance humanists--that stories teach moral lessons, then we should see some behavioral differences between avid readers and non-readers. Apparently, we do.
Rivka, author of the excellent "Respectful of Otters" blog, raises a series of doubts about the NEA study. Unfortunately, I think she's wrong.
First, she cites a Gallup release entitled "Poll Shows Continuing Strong American Reading Habits." That survey does present some good news and should be taken seriously. However, it's not strictly comparable to the NEA/Census report, because it includes non-fiction, whereas the NEA focusses on fiction, drama, and poetry. Moroever, in the Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who did not read books at all doubled between 1978 and 1990, then remained pretty stable until the last poll was conducted in 1999. This is consistent with the NEA/Census trend. I haven't find other studies that go back several decades, but the Ipsos surveys show the same distribution of book-buyers by age, income, and region as the NEA/Census.
Second, Rivka notices readers all around her and recalls huge positive changes, such as the expansion of Barnes & Nobles franchices into towns that were previously without bookstores. How do those observations fit with the NEA study? One answer is that all concrete, personal observations are selective and need to be checked against representative data. How many independent bookstores have gone out of business while B&N expanded? For every commuter train full of readers, how many houses are there without any books? Besides, there is a pretty simple explanation for the evident quantity of readers today--population growth. There are more people, but the average person reads less, so the number of readers has remained flat since 1982: about 96 million people.
Third, Rivka detects a tone of elitism in the study and the New York Times' coverage of it:
I'm suspicious of arguments that the majority of people are stupid, uninformed, evil, or immoral, ranged up against a tiny minority of the righteous. In the circles in which I move, the claim that 'most people don't read' is often cited as evidence for this worldview. One of the most vicious online arguments I ever had was with a man who maintained that 'only one or two percent of Americans read anything at all,' and I see that similarly extreme claims have even made it into published books.
Fair enough, but the NEA study doesn't call people stupid and immoral, and it doesn't claim that no one reads. Ninety-six million adult readers are a lot of human beings by any standard. The question is: compared to what? It seems that we are less likely to read literature today than we were in the past, and that's a bad trend. We Americans seem to be more likely to read than Belgians and Portuguese, but less likely than Canadians, Swedes, and Brits. So there is no call for rending our clothes and putting sackcloth on our loins, but we ought to ask why the rate of reading is down.
Fourth, Rivka wonders about "literature." As she says, it's "a word with highbrow associations," and she wonders "how the average person applies it. If the Census Bureau asks a voracious consumer of Harlequin Romances about her tastes in 'literature,' will she consider that it applies to her daily reading, or will she deny that she reads any literature at all?" Actually, Census didn't use the word "literature": the survey asked about novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. Only the report uses "literature" as a catch-all. Perhaps some people don't know that the romances they read are "novels," but I would think that's a small problem.
One final point: in an effort to bridge the "two cultures" of math/science and the arts/humanities, the NEA provides a pretty clear and succinct discussion of statistical modeling at the end of the full report (pdf). I've never seen an explanation of logit models before in an arts report.
September 7, 2004
Boyte in the blogosphere
Harry Boyte, whom I have often mentioned on this site, has contributed a substantial and interesting comment. Apparently, this is his "first blog posting ever," and I am honored that it's here. It's a nice, brief statement of Harry's views about U.S. party politics. (He also has a lot of insight into other kinds of politics in the United States and in countries like South Africa.)
September 6, 2004
on Minnesota Public Radio
I was a guest this morning on a Minnesota Public radio call-in show, Midmorning with Kerri Miller. The topic was civic education and the civic and political behavior of young people. The other guests were Harry Boyte from "the U" (that's the University of Minnesota), who has been a huge influence on me for more than ten years, and Michael Kuhne from Minneapolis Community and Technical College, whom I had the pleasure to meet this spring in the Twin Cities. Since Michael and I are Boyte fans, we didn't disagree about anything.
The call-in questions were good and various. There was one surprising theme: three callers argued that American politics has been so corrupted by special-interest cash that no one should participate. I don't think that that's a very widespread view, but it's held by some Minnesota public radio listeners, who are ready to cite examples and statistics at the drop of a hat. I once wrote a book largely arguing for campaign-finance reform, so I believe in it. However, I don't think it's the full story--for two reasons. First, despite some corruption in American politics, ordinary citizens are doing very positive and significant political work all across the country. So we don't need to tell students that they have been rendered powerless by big money. Second, even if we could clean up the formal political system, Americans wouldn't automatically begin to participate. Many of us need better skills, knowledge, and attitudes before we can influence government or address social problems. So campaign finance reform is a good idea, but it's no panacea.
September 3, 2004
After 19 months and 422 posts, I think this blog needs a tagline. I'd like to write something brief and descriptive over on the left side of your screen so that people know what they're looking at; but I haven't come up with a satisfactory formula yet. I'm playing with: "A nonpartisan blog mainly about the arts and practice of civic participation, with themes of public work, deliberation, civic education, political and media ethics, and democratic theory."
September 2, 2004
My father owns about 20,000 books. They line virtually every wall in my parents' house and fill library-style stacks in the basement, often two rows deep or piled horizontally on the shelves for greater efficiency. There are university press books without dustcovers, paperback classics, coffee-table art books, and many leather-bound volumes, some 450 years old. As a child, I often went along while Dad browsed and shopped. Thus I remember ...
A grimy stretch of Farringdon Road in the City of London, between the headquarters of the then-Communist Daily Star and some open Underground lines. As the last vestige of a Saturday-morning book market, there were five or six "barrows" (the wooden carts used for selling produce) filled with books. George Jeffries, the last of the Farringdon Road wholesalers, would buy his stock during the previous week at estate sales. His goal was to get rid of books as quickly as possible, to avoid storage costs. Each barrow was covered with a mound of books under a canvass. Shop owners and a few hardy collectors would surround the pile, jostling for position. George would pull the canvass off and they would tear through the tattered paperbacks, magazines, instructional manuals, catalogs, and old Latin volumes. They would rush their prizes to the wall along the rail lines, where each shopperï¿½s pile was off-limits to his rivals, and then elbow their way back to the main action. Meanwhile, I would sit on my Dadï¿½s pile reading Enid Blyton books, or stroll up and down along the wall daydreaming about adventures of my own, or browse through magazines and childrenï¿½s books that I had found on the barrows once the grim professionals had moved on.
George was himself a Communist with wild hair and terrible teeth who vacationed on the Soviet Black Sea, yet he was a ruthless entrepreneur. And apparently a chauvinist: he took his sons to the Crimean beaches, but not his wife and daughter. Among his regular customers was a lady who wore a motorcycle helmet into the scrimmage around the barrows. But I also remember ...
The last of the Fourth Avenue used bookstores in New York, of which the Strand is the monopolistic survivor. Once there were many little stores, jammed with paperbacks and battered hardcovers, lit with bare electric bulbs, enlivened by jazz l.p.'s, and frequented by graduate students, professors, and seedy independent intellectuals who might argue in loud New York accents. Again, I'd sit on stacks of books, reading Hardy Boys mysteries or Landmark biographies of Thomas Edison or Geronimo. And in those same years, I remember ...
Lilies, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire: a rambling old mansion in a substantial park. Its parlors with overstuffed chintz furniture, its creaky attic hallways--all were lined with books for sale. Dad and I would walk from Aylesbury along the side of the highway. He would work his way from room to room while I read Gerald Durrell or Roald Dahl or walked through the woods. Tea would be served in the late afternoon, usually to three or four customers. There was supposed to be a ghost, but he waited until after closing time to haunt. And then I remember ...
Book-filled barns in upstate New York, with cats and maybe chickens, NPR in the background, and country smells competing with the books' must ... the antiquarian books of Paris, each wrapped in translucent paper, sold from wooden boxes that were locked to the embankment walls of the Seine ... half-timbered houses in quaint English country towns with bookshelves nailed to every available space, even under the winding staircases ... Second Story's warehouse in suburban Rockville, MD, where books were once priced at $1 per full cardboard box ... Bryn Mawr alumnae bookshops in several American cities, staffed by tweedy volunteers from the class of '55 ... and sweaty high school gyms with books on the tables at 25 cents each.
September 1, 2004
why study real-life deliberation
John Gastil and I are co-editing a book, probably to be called The Handbook of Deliberation. Most of the chapters describe particular processes that bring diverse people together to discuss and reach judgments about public issues. These projects range from Brazilian participatory budgeting schemes (in which hundreds of thousands of people collectively determine portions of their city's budget), to Danish consensus conferences of 10-25 randomly selected citizens who report to Parliament on technological issues.
Meanwhile, scholars are busy writing about deliberation. In fact, it would be difficult to exaggerate their interest in this topic. There are too many substantial books to mention, but perhaps one indicator of scholars’ interest is the recent publication of at least five anthologies on the topic, most of whose contributors specialize in deliberation.*
Yet the academic literature pays remarkably little attention to the practices described in our book.
In many fields, there is a gap between research and practice, a failure to communicate between the academy and civil society. However, I detect particular reasons for the gap in this case. First of all, most academics are interested in deliberation that has a clear influence on political outcomes. They therefore focus on deliberation in powerful bodies like courts and legislatures, or they study long-term discussions that involve millions of people and play out in the mass media and major institutions. For them, a gathering of a few hundred citizens is not important enough to study. Scholars of deliberation see themselves as too practical and realistic to devote serious attention to idealistic experiments like those described in our book. The Brazilian experience is a notable example, precisely because it has achieved scale and political impact.
Practical projects could be used as laboratories to test hypotheses about how people discuss issues. However, only a few projects are controlled enough to serve as ideal experiments for the kinds of questions that researchers have pursued. For example, if social scientists want to study whether groups converge toward consensus positions, they may feel more confident experimenting with a random sample and a carefully chosen topic, rather than observing a messy and context-dependent process like a Study Circle or a National Issues Forum. The main exceptions are Jim Fishkin's Deliberative Polls, which have been used as formal experiments. The insights derived from Deliberative Polls are interesting, but they may not generalize to other practices.
One objective of our book is to demonstrate that there is a sufficient body of diverse practice to merit serious academic investigation. These projects are valuable experiments precisely because they exist in real-world contexts. If you want to know how deliberation works when people are motivated to attend because they care about the problems in their community, then you must observe a real deliberation, not a group that you pay to participate in an experiment. Both contexts are interesting, but motivated groups should be not be overlooked. Similarly, if you want to observe how interest groups, politicians, and citizens deal with each other in public meetings, then you need a real-life practice, not an experiment with a pre-determined topic and structure.
*Anne Van Aaken, Christian List, and Christoph Luetge, Deliberation and Decision: Economics, Constitutional Theory and Deliberative Democracy (Ashgate, 2004), James Bohman and William Rehg (eds.), Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics (MIT Press, 1997); Jon Elster and Adam Przeworski, eds, Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge, 1998); James S. Fishkin and Peter Laslett (eds.), Debating Deliberative Democracy (Blackwell, 2003); and Stephen Macedo, Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement (Oxford University Press, 1999).