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December 31, 2004

particularism and coherence

I’m a moral particularist. I believe that some words and concepts have moral significance, but we can only tell whether they are good, bad, or neutral in particular cases. Abstracted from any specific context, they have indeterminate significance. Examples include love, loyalty, pleasure, courage, and generosity. These words and concepts are indispensable. We cannot replace them with ones that have determinate and predictable significance without oversimplifying morality. Therefore, moral judgment ought to be about whole situations, not about abstract concepts.

I’m also a cultural particularist. I believe that people have large sets of values, experiences, preferences, and opinions that jointly constitute their “cultures.” Often, many people who live at roughly the same time and place share a lot of ideas, values, etc., and then we say that they belong to the same “culture.” However, there is usually no single perspective, worldview, premise, or foundation that defines or underlies their culture. Thus there may be no precise boundary to a culture; and we can often classify one person as a member of several cultures at once. Some philosophers have argued that the various cultures of the world are fundamentally incompatible or unable to comprehend one another. But every member of a complex, reasonably free society will have slightly different ideas, experiences, and values, so each person can be described as having his or her own “culture.” This is a reductio ad absurdum; it suggests that there can be no deep incompatibility among cultures (or else no one could understand anyone else). If everyone in a society does share exactly the same set of values, then we suspect that they are deprived or politically repressed.

These two forms of particularism are independent and separable, but they go together well. The combined position has implications for moral reasoning and the humanities. I’m spelling out the implications in my book on Dante, which is nearly finished.

However, I recently realized that there is a phenomenon that particularists have difficulty explaining: coherence.

[Substantially revised on Jan. 3]: If "morality" is the set of all the right judgments about all the situations in the world, then I don't actually believe that it is very coherent. We should respond the same way to any two situations that have exactly the same morally significant empirical features. Beyond that, there is not much coherence to morality: there are just incorrect and correct judgments of cases.

However, cultures are different from "morality." They are plural, because they consist of aesthetic, spiritual, and moral judgments as well as goals, preferences, empirical beliefs, and expectations about certain questions. Why are cultures often internally coherent? Why is the set of values and preferences held by a group often harmonious, not completely random and unpredictable? We could also ask this question about individuals. Why do all the opinions and values of a person tend to cohere, at least to some degree?

I acknowledge the phenomenon of coherence. I suspect it arises for several reasons. First, some people have a preference for coherence itself. They believe that all their separate judgments ought to arise from as few premises as possible. They also believe that everyone should share these premises. If this wish came true, then the whole society would become uniform and consistent. We see a preference for coherence in Calvinists, utilitarians, Marxists, and Freudians, among others—despite their deep disagreement about virtually everything else. This preference is not a good thing, in my view. It doesn’t reflect some deep truth about the universe (i.e., that everything must follow from one or a few assumptions). On the contrary, it causes people to force situations into a Procrustean bed. But I recognize that the preference is widely held, and it has caused people to make their various views cohere.

Second, some people are deeply influenced by a few stories or situations. Whether one is especially moved by the Passion of Christ, the Holocaust and the foundation of Israel, or one’s own rags-to-riches story, it can have a powerful influence on many or all of one’s moral judgments. If a group of people constantly refer to few stories or situations, then they will share a culture that is relatively coherent. As a particularist, I don’t believe that any story ought to provide the foundation of morality. But I acknowledge that a story may provide the basis for all the views of certain people and societies at certain times.

Third, institutions prize coherence—and for good reasons. For example, even though the best moral judgments arise only from careful consideration of particular cases, we worry that real judges and juries may be biased, incompetent, or simply unpredictable. Therefore, we define legal concepts in general terms and ask courts to enforce them almost mechanically. This is beneficial even though there must be an imperfect match between law and morality. Religious denominations and educational institutions also pursue a degree of internal coherence. Furthermore, it is useful for the various institutions of a single society to harmonize with one another. Thus there is social pressure toward coherence, for basically pragmatic reasons.

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December 30, 2004

the Dutch evade the "resource trap"

Last week, I participated in a conference on the "ethical aspects of ultrafast communication." It was funded by the Netherlands government as part of a massive technological program. Apparently, most of the Internet is now carried on fiber-optic cables that were laid during the dot-com bubble of the 90s. But the signals have to be switched, stored, and buffered using traditional circuits--with electrons rather than light waves. These switches and other components are slower than fiber-optic cables by several orders of magnitude. The Dutch are now optimistic that they can build "all-light" components that will increase the speed of the Internet by at least 100-fold, thereby expanding opportunities for voice, video, and interactivity.

The money that they are investing in this research comes from giant natural gas deposits that were discovered around Groningen in 1959. I asked whether the financial returns of the "ultrafast communications project" will go to the Dutch government, universities, specific companies, or to no one at all (if the inventions are put straight into the public domain). No one at the conference was sure. Nevertheless, the investment sounds smart to me.

There is an interesting contrast with countries like Nigeria, Venezuela, and Iraq, which seem to be much worse off because they have vast deposits of valuable raw materials than they would be otherwise. Countries fall into a "resource trap" when their governments can capture the revenue from raw materials and buy popularity with targeted social programs, while also maintaining advanced police states. The extraction of raw materials does not create many jobs or allow workers to form large unions, but it does bolster the state. Since good government is the key to economic growth, and natural resources often support bad governments, they can be a curse. But not in countries like the Netherlands, Norway, and Iceland, where excellent democratic government and an engaged citizery predated the discovery of oil or gas. In those cases, free resources are--as you might expect--a good thing.

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December 28, 2004

aesthetics and history

Last week in Bruges, Belgium, at the medieval Hospital of St. John, we saw an altarpiece by Hans Memling that's sometimes entitled the "Mystic Marriage of St. Catharine." (The picture to the right is just a detail; click here for a photo of the whole original painting.)

Even if you knew nothing about this work, you might like it--not necessarily in a digital photograph, but in its original 31 square feet of paint. The figures are extraordinarily realistic. The cloth is rich; the colors are luminous and balanced. The woman wears an expression of repose and kindness. Her pale white skin, the ruddier skin of the man behind her, and the wool of the lamb create interesting tactile contrasts. However, if you somehow thought this were a modern illustration, you might not give it a great deal of thought. You would have to acknowledge the artist's technique, since practically no one can paint light, texture, and skin so naturalistically today. But then again, naturalistic oil painting isn't very useful now that we have color photographs. And if the image turned out to be a photo of models in medieval clothing, it would be downright strange.

Actually, the altarpiece was painted from 1474-79. That fact makes it much more beautiful than it would otherwise be, I believe. But how can an external fact increase the beauty of an image? The colors would be as rich and harmonious if they had been painted yesterday.

I think that the date and provenance of a work are relevant to its aesthetic value--for two reasons. First, a painting can evoke a whole lost culture. Flanders in the 15th century was cruel, superstitious, oppressive, dirty, and sometimes vulgar. (There is even some vulgarity in the right wing of the "Mystic Marriage of St. Catharine.") The same civilization was also dynamic, prosperous, and vigorous--the world's leader in international commerce--yet capable of spiritual purity and calm. An image like Memling's altarpiece reflects the best of its entire cultural milieu, which greatly increases its beauty.

Second, a great work from the past belongs to the "history of art." We tell this story as a series of discoveries and revolutions (borrowing ideas from other fields of history). It is a heroic tale, beginning with the Archaic Greeks and ending with Picasso and Matisse, if not with post-modernism. Each era or movement is described as solving problems or overcoming prejudices inherited from the past. Once the great artists of a particular moment have solved their problems, we no longer admire repetitions of their success. Thus Memling is impressive because he can imply complex interactions among multiple figures much better than his teachers, Van Eyck and Van der Weyden, could. But any journeyman artist of the 17th century could place eight people in an organized open space and show how each related to the others. So what is original in Memling is commonplace two centuries later. And what is original is also beautiful, because we view the whole history of (Western) art as a moving narrative.

Our emphasis on the historical development of art is itself a feature of our own civilization, not something universal. The first people to tell heroic stories about the development of art were Pliny and Vasari, each coming after a great era of creativity. Their way of appreciating painting and sculpture works perfectly in a secular museum, less well in a temple or a church, which has a different purpose. Memling himself would have had a very limited understanding of the history of art, as shown by the fact that he placed biblical figures in late-Gothic, Flemish settings. Yet our historical sense is what makes us find Memling so beautiful.

Posted by peterlevine at 4:24 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 27, 2004

stones of London

I'm reading Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography, a 750-page book with one dominant theme. Fire, riot, real-estate speculation, bombs, and state planning have caused constant and brutal change throughout London's 2000 years. But despite all this disruption, many streets and districts mysteriously retain consistent functions and characters over very long periods. Sometimes a place will have a modern use (and name) that evokes the same site before the Romans arrived.

I think Ackroyd sometimes stretches a point and is not perfectly reliable. However, his theme has personal resonance for me. I partly grew up in London, spending five school years there, plus every summer (save one) until I was nineteen. We usually rented a new home each year, so we lived all over the city. Now I return with my own family almost annually. Thus I have seen London's evolution since the 1970s in a kind of freeze-frame--skyscrapers sprouting; cockney cafes giving way to Starbucks; Bangladeshis following Ugandan Indians and Jamaicans; bowler hats, Mohawks, and backwards baseball caps in procession. In my lifetime, London has extended its ancient pattern of destruction, immigration, and reconstruction.

As a child, I was deeply interested in London's history. This interest came from two main sources, my parents and my school. My mother took us down to the muddy banks of the tidal Thames to dig up clay pipe stems from pre-industrial times and helped me find chalk fossil shells deposited eons earlier. We also went on guided walking tours. I especially recall a geologist's tour of the stone used in West End buildings; a walk along the remains of the Roman wall (which now runs through the glass blocks of the financial center); and nighttime visits to the Tower of London, led by a Beefeater. We went to the theater often, and such plays as Bartholomew's Fair and The Knight of the Burning Pestle evoked old London for me.

For three years, I attended the only state primary school within the City of London, Prior Weston. The imaginative, progressive faculty emphasized local history. They made their mix of cockney and yuppie students feel citizens of the old London "commune," with its guilds, monastic orders, councils, traditions, and civic privileges. The city was being torn up then, as usual, huge towers rising from bomb sites. Ugly and anonymous as the new buildings were, they followed ancient roads and their foundations laid bare the remnants of Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Medieval, Tudor, Stuart, and Victorian London. I was especially possessive of the bomb site next to our school, which we viewed as a "nature preserve," since it had sprouted wild flowers and sheltered hardy urban birds. We agitated to preserve it, but a massive building soon appeared in its place. Meanwhile, outside the school's main door, vegetables were still sold from wooden barrows as they had been for a thousand years.

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December 17, 2004

to Belgium and Georgia

My family and I are going to Belgium today. We'll stay in Bruges and I'll commute to a conference at the University of Tillburg on "The Ethical Implications of Ultrafast Communications." From Belgium, we'll go directly to Macon, GA for Christmas. I clearly need a break from computers, so I won't go online (let alone blog) until December 27 or so. Until then, I wish you happy holidays and leave you with some genuine Flemish phrases to translate:

  • Klik op de fotos voor meer detail.

  • Deze on-line versie van de sociale gids geeft u recente informatie over alle sociale organisaties in Brugge.

  • [Newspaper headline:] Amok over fiscale amnestie!

  • Meer info?
  • (And they call this a foreign language?)

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:43 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    December 16, 2004

    is Google a "commons"?

    This was a topic of heated debate at the American Library Association meeting that I attended in October. It's all the more interesting now that Google has promised to help digitize the entire contents of several major research libraries.

    The answer to the literal question is "no." Google cannot be a commons because it is a corporation. A commons belongs to everyone in a community or to no one at all, whereas the ownership of a corporation is limited and proportional to an individual's financial investment. However, the interesting question is whether the whole web, when navigated using Google's search engine, is a commons. The web doesn't belong to anyone--or we could say that everyone owns it. Its elements are privately owned and controlled, but it's quite easy for anyone to add a new page to the pool. While access to (and use of) some webpages is restricted, most of the web has an open feel, just like a classic physical commons.

    But what happens when we use Google to find our way through the web? The Internet itself may be unlimited, but the list of top-10 results for any given Google search is very limited and is under the company's control. Google uses a proprietary database and search algorithm to generate results. In principle, Google's management could block you from searching at all, or could promote a favored site to #1 for money--or for totally capricious reasons. The Google search algorithm is secret (necessarily, or else people would manipulate their websites to gain higher ranking). Google sells advertising space for cash.

    None of these features sounds compatible with a "commons." On the other hand, Google has chosen to create a space with many commons-like features. To the best of my knowledge, Google still ranks sites proportionally to the number of links from other sites. A link is a kind of gift or vote. A large number of incoming links does not indicate quality or reliability, but it does indicate popularity within the community of website-owners. Google's search results mirror that popularity. To be sure, money can buy popularity, yet there are many cheap sites that have become major nodes on the web.

    In theory, Google could start charging for placement (not only for the advertisements that appear on the right side of the screen, but also for basic search results). However, that would be a risky move for the company, since its popularity comes from its commons-like feel. Besides, Google's capacity to destroy the commons does not prove that there is no commons on its site right now. Every commons is subject to destruction and/or control. The Alaska wilderness is a commons (I think), yet the state and federal government could suddenly decide to charge large fees for access. Thus the question is not whether Google must create and preserve a commons, but whether it has done so to date.

    Some people feel that corporations are fundamentally incompatible with a commons. They may be attracted to the idea of the commons in the first place because they are hostile to corporate capitalism. It's worth asking, however, exactly what's wrong with corporations. Do they promote consumerism? Google is a portal to many political, civic, spiritual, and environmental pursuits as well as e-commerce. Are corporations undemocratic? Google has made money by using a fairly democratic system for ranking its search results. Its system is not perfectly equitable, but neither is any conceivable government. Are corporations greedy? Sometimes private vice brings public benefit.

    To me, the best question is: Compared to what? Google has created a tenuous kind of commons, with secret rules and concentrated power. But democratic governments tend to create commons with similar problems. And anarchic commons, such as the high seas, are easily destroyed by individuals' greed. I'd say that Google is about as good a large-scale commons as we have seen, although we'll have to keep a close eye on it. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, even in the 21st century.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:35 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    December 15, 2004

    against "cultural preservationism"

    Near the end (p. 227) of Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (which I discussed on Monday), there’s a dialogue between a doctor and psychotherapist. They have been talking about Lia Lee, the Hmong girl whose treatment for epilepsy violated several basic Hmong beliefs. I’ve reformatted Fadiman’s paragraphs into a mini-dialogue:

    Physician: You have to act on behalf of the most vulnerable person in the situation, and that’s the child. The child’s welfare is more important than the parents’ beliefs. You have to do what’s best for the child, even if the parents oppose it, because if the child dies, she won’t get the chance to decide twenty years down the road if she wants to accept her parents’ beliefs or if she wants to reject them. She’s going to be dead.
    Psychotherapist (tartly): Well, that’s the job you have taken on in your profession.
    Physician: I’d feel the same way if I weren’t a doctor. I would feel I am my brother’s keeper.
    Psychotherapist: That’s tyranny. What if you have a family who rejects surgery because they believe an illness has a spiritual cause? What if they see a definite possibility of eternal damnation for their child if she dies from the surgery? Next to that, death might not seem so important. What’s more important, the life or the soul?
    Physician: I make no apology. The life comes first.
    Psychotherapist: The soul.

    The psychotherapist mentions beliefs about the after-life, which are especially thorny because no one can know what happens after death—there is no empirical evidence. If a treatment saves lives but causes damnation, then one should certainly forgo the treatment. However, just because parents believe that a treatment will put their child’s soul in peril of eternal torture, that doesn’t make them right. Parents do not own their children. As I argued earlier in discussing the Amish, there is a profound conflict between children’s freedom and parental freedom. I believe that a liberal state should protect children against their parents, although it is harrowing to read about California’s unjust and harmful decision to take custody of Lia Lee.

    In any case, the Hmong don’t believe in eternal damnation. Although Lia’s parents were concerned about what would happen to her reincarnated soul if her blood were drawn (violating a taboo), that was not the main problem. The main problem was their belief in the efficacy of traditional Hmong healing and their skepticism about the effects of Western medicine. In short, they thought that a Hmong shaman could cure their daughter, while American doctors were making her worse. Fadiman argues that there was some limited truth to this; the physicians made serious errors, whereas Hmong shamans are non-invasive healers who work only on the spiritual level and often get good psychological results. They would have done Lia no harm and might at least have helped her parents.

    But ultimately, Western medicine is going to work better than Hmong shamanism for a lot of diseases. Hmong people are learning this; some are even becoming doctors. Thus their traditional culture is bound to change. Even if they preserve shamanistic medicine, it will have a new meaning for them. They will either use it to fill gaps left by Western medicine (especially psychiatry), or they will choose to preserve it because of its cultural significance. But a ritual performed because it is traditional is fundamentally different from a ritual performed because it cures a disease.

    Cultural institutions address problems and must change when they are no longer effective. Sometimes there is a lag, because people understandably cling to what they know; but there is no way to stop history. Contrary to the racist articles that described Hmong immigrants as moving out of the “Stone Age” when they reached America, they had been part of history all along. In fact, they had participated in high-tech battles and suffered a holocaust during the Vietnam War. Some had learned to fly fighter jets. And this was by no means the first time that they had adjusted to a changing world.

    The argument against preservationism also applies to cases in the West. For example, some people want to preserve jobs for Yorkshire coal-miners and the Chesapeake Watermen. But their ways of life no longer make sense. Coal is expensive and bad for the atmosphere; crab-trapping doesn't pay. Preserving these traditional jobs and cultures would require state subsidies or new “business models” based on tourism instead of commodity sales. A tough, blue-collar culture must change fundamentally if its function changes. It cannot be “preserved,” because its traditional values included efficiency and self-sufficiency, and those are gone. The only way is forward.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:06 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    December 14, 2004

    micro-local news

    Free advice ... Today I met with the Washington Center for Internships to discuss possible ways to evaluate their program, and then went to Streetlaw, Inc. for their winter Board meeting. (Streetlaw provides a textbook, training, institutes, and other support for teaching about law and politics in schools.) Finally, I joined my colleagues on the Advisory Board of the J-Lab New Voices Project . Thanks to the Knight Foundation, New Voices will be able to fund "20 micro-local news projects" in which citizens generate information, commentary, and discussion for their communities. J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism, will also collect or create software and other support that anyone will be able to use for interactive or community news.

    We discussed some existing projects and products that exemplify community news on the Web. Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine was the source for most of these references. (On his blog, he says that he was in DC to meet with his CIA handlers, but they must have got to him later in the day.)

  • In Bakersfield, CA, residents of the northwestern part of the city produce all the content for an online newspaper that is also printed and distributed (with paid advertising). Essentially, everyone in the community can post blog entries with news, announcements, and opinions. However, thanks to clever use of iupload software, individual posts are classified in appropriate ways, producing a site that looks more like a newspaper than a blog. Simple announcements appear on a calendar. Crime reports go on a map. Sports news would be classified under "sports." Anything that an individual writes is also saved under her or his name, thus producing a traditional blog for each contributor. And a chief blogger puts the best posts on the main page.

  • Journalism students at Northwestern University quickly built an impressive community news site for Skokie, Il (GoSkokie), for which they and citizens produce content.

  • A "wiki" is a webpage that anyone can edit online. Wikipedia has turned into an amazing repository of information, thanks to untold thousands of volunteer contributors. Apparently, the same folks are working on a "newswiki" that could be used to describe events in a community. Anyone could add (or delete) text.

  • MIT hosts three community news sites for and by retirees, known as "silver stringers." The same format has been borrowed by groups abroad and by youth groups.
  • (See also Leslie Walker's recent Washington Post story on Bakersfield and GoSkokie.)

    Posted by peterlevine at 4:57 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    December 13, 2004

    the centrality of trust

    I'm reading Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the story of an epileptic Hmong girl and the cultural misunderstandings and outright tragedies that result when she is treated by American doctors. The book is rich, complex, and moving. Among its many themes, the one that interests me most is the role of trust in medicine—and by extension, in all professions and disciplines.

    American doctors are right: epilepsy isn't caused by a spirit that makes people fall down, but rather by electro-chemical "storms" in the brain. They are right, too, that giving an epileptic infant an elaborate set of medications can reduce the chances of severe seizures, thereby improving her odds of normal cognitive development and survival.

    However, in order to follow doctors' advice, one must understand it (a difficult matter when complicated prescriptions are written in English and constantly changed, and the parents speak only Hmong and cannot read in any language). One must not only understand but also trust what the doctors say. I would recommend trusting physicians because I believe that their knowledge of disease is based on cumulative, peer-reviewed, basic science, double-blind clinical trials, and other methods that strike me as reliable. I have a general sense that they are motivated by the best interests of their patients. I am impressed that the particular doctors in Anne Fadiman's book are well-trained, hard-working, and have chosen to serve largely indigent populations at high cost to themselves.

    However, imagine that you arrived in a strange foreign country basically against your will and had to decide whether to treat your suffering baby daughter as the local doctors advised. These experts do not even pretend to understand epilepsy fully, let alone know how to cure it. Each procedure and medication that they prescribe is painful and invasive; hardly any are expected to produce a noticeable positive effect while you watch. There is an obvious correlation between the horrible tasting medicines that they make you give your child and her painful symptoms, so it seems likely that the former cause the latter. When you leave your baby at the hospital, she frequently comes back distinctly worse, having suffered terribly.

    The physicians expect a high degree of respect, deference, and gratitude, but they don’t visit your home or inquire about your beliefs and values. During emergencies, you usually find yourself meeting a whole new set of doctors, or reencountering ones who don’t remember anything about you. Their expectation of deference can easily be taken as mere arrogance, especially when they threaten you with loss of custody since you are allegedly abusing your child by not following their rules. They believe in the drugs and procedures that they prescribe—not because these things work in “real time”—but because they have put their trust and faith in other authorities: drug companies, medical researchers, med-school professors. These authorities are complete strangers to you. Why should you put more faith in the powers that the doctors trust than in the unseen powers you learned about as a child?

    I don’t assume that Anne Fadiman is a perfectly reliable narrator, a transparent window through which we can observe Hmong culture and follow the true story of Lia Lee. I once spent a single evening tutoring Hmong people for the US Citizenship Exam, and my friend, a White graduate student who had learned Hmong, expressed some polite reservations about Fadiman’s account. (He was mainly concerned, I think, that she had won a monopoly position as the interpreter of Hmong-Americans to other Americans). However, no one is perfect, and Fadiman is a remarkable observer. More to the point, the story of Lia Lee would be profoundly credible and disturbing even if it were pure fiction (which it certainly isn’t). Trust is fragile, hard to earn and easy to squander. High-tech machines and chemicals cannot improve our health unless we trust them. Modern medical professionals have mechanisms for engendering trust, ranging from their white lab coats and titles to conflicts-of-interest rules and double-blind clinical trials. These “mechanisms” do not, however, include getting to know their patients as human beings or listening to alternative explanations. Many of us will continue to trust doctors because we are strongly committed to the general epistemology of scientific research. But we cannot observe the research itself, so our faith is actually in institutions, not in science. If the institutions are corrupt or have bad priorities, then our faith is foolish. This is why the increasing pace of scandal in medical research is so troubling.

    Posted by peterlevine at 2:31 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    December 10, 2004

    civics legislation

    Senator Lamar Alexander's bill S. 504 has now passed both houses of Congress and is on its way to the President.

    Last year, I described how this bill was temporarily scuttled by Gun Owners of America, who claimed that the legislation was "anti-gun." Their model letter to Congress said, "It will establish Presidential Academies on teaching civics and history which will use anti-gun texts like We the People -- the textbook that conforms to the federal guidelines on teaching civics and history. This book encourages students to start questioning the wisdom of the Second Amendment, asking the student whether the right to keep and bear arms is still as 'important today' as it was in the eighteenth century and to decide what 'limitations' should be placed on the right. This kind of discussion treats the Second Amendment as though it were not protecting a God-given, individual right."

    In fact, the bill makes no mention of We the People, and that text is judiciously even-handed in its treatment of the Second Amendment (which is precisely the problem, from the perspective of Gun Owners of America). Anyway, Senator Alexander (R-TN) and Representative Roger Wicker (R-MI) persevered and their bill passed. According to the email announcement I received:

    American History and Civics Education Act of 2004 - Authorizes the Secretary of Education to award up to 12 grants, on a competitive basis, to entities with demonstrated expertise in historical methodology or the teaching of history to establish: (1) Presidential Academies for Teaching of American History and Civics that may offer workshops for both veteran and new teachers of such subjects; and (2) Congressional Academies for Students of American History and Civics. Allows such grants to be made from funds appropriated for FY 2005 or any subsequent fiscal year for the Secretary's Fund for the Improvement of Education.

    Authorizes the Secretary to award grants to the National History Day Program to continue and expand its activities to promote the study of history and improve instruction.

    Meanwhile, apparently, Senator Byrd has inserted into the omnibus federal spending bill a clause that requires all schools and colleges to devote the whole of Sept. 17 every year to teaching the Constitution. While I believe that it is helpful to study and discuss the Constitution, it would be unprecedented for Congress to mandate any allocation of school time. If the Byrd amendment passes, you can imagine days being mandated for all kinds of purposes. I would think the Constitution itself suggests a little more respect for state and local discretion.

    Posted by peterlevine at 4:41 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    December 9, 2004

    the campus newspaper and civil society

    "There is a necessary connection between public associations and newspapers: newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers"--Alexis de Tocqueville.

    This week, some colleagues and I have been conducting focus groups with politically and socially active Maryland undergraduates, in order to identify opportunities for leadership, service, and civic participation on campus. We hope to publicize the full range of opportunities to other students; we will also think about how to fill any gaps in the array of student associations and programs.

    In both groups of student leaders that I moderated last night, there was tremendous antipathy to the campus newspaper, the Diamondback. Some participants acknowledged that it's a student product, published daily in color, and free--which is an impressive achievement. Nevertheless, they felt that the newspaper relentlessly criticizes the student organizations that it covers, while utterly ignoring many other groups. Thus, they said, it fails to inform students about opportunities for participation and instead tends to reduce trust and respect for the civic work that students do.

    I am not a regular reader of the Diamondback, nor have I asked its editors and writers for their side of the story. But the important questions go far beyond the performance of a particular campus newspaper. In the 1990s, under the heading of "public journalism," many reporters and editors began to re-consider their role in civil society. They asked whether some of their reflexive assumptions (for example, that good news is never newsworthy; or that all newsmakers are powerful people or criminals) were good or bad for civil society. Those questions prompted deeper ones about the role of the press in a democracy. Is a newspaper a watchdog, a gadfly, a dispassionate truth-teller, the "schoolhouse of the common man," a forum for debate, or a gateway to civic participation? Each of these roles is problematic in different ways.

    Unfortunately, public journalism (seen as a dialogue, not as a batch of projects and programs) has faltered in the mainstream press. Although I haven't analyzed the Diamondback itself, I suspect that student journalists copy what they take to be professional norms and roles (especially the notion that they are "watchdogs"); and they see student organizations as potential tyrants or malefactors, much as reporters view the state and corporations. Student journalists do not ask whether these roles make sense or are useful on a campus.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:36 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    December 8, 2004

    academia as a liberal bastion

    A lot of people are talking about the dominance of liberals in academia. (See, for instance, Timothy Burke). Some of this discussion was prompted by campaign finance data suggesting that professors at prestigious universities had preferred Kerry by huge margins and, indeed, represented the Democrats' single strongest financial base. Not only comp-lit professors and ethnographers tend to be leftists. The eminent Harvard biologist (and left-liberal) Richard Lewontin writes:

    Most scientists are, at a minimum, liberals, although it is by no means obvious why this should be so. Despite the fact that all of the molecular biologists of my acquaintance are shareholders in or advisers to biotechnology firms, the chief political controversy in the scientific community seems to be whether it is wise to vote for Ralph Nader this time.

    My own observations of social scientists and humanists support Lewontin's claim about natural scientists. But why should liberals predominate in academia? I'll offer five hypotheses for your consideration and invite you to think of more:

    1. Faculty discriminate (consciously or unconsciously) against conservatives when they hire and promote peers. This is a widespread charge from the right; it usually provokes an ad hominem reply from liberals, namely: "How can you believe that decision-makers in a competitive, decentralized business routinely discriminate on the basis of political ideology (even in fields like molecular biology), yet you deny that employers discriminate on the basis of race and gender? If they do discriminate on these grounds, then don't we need affirmative action for women, minorities, and (possibly) conservatives?" That's a good debating point, but it doesn't rule out the possibility that there is some ideological discrimination in academic hiring. The next question is whether some of that (alleged) discrimination is acceptable. For example, biology departments surely "discriminate" against Creationists, thereby excluding one category of conservatives from their ranks. Is that wrong? To what extent does such defensible bias explain the dominance of liberals across the academy?

    2. Perhaps academics are a class--not a great stratum of society like the bourgeoisie or the peasantry, but a social/economic group akin to the clergy or the landed gentry in olden times. They make a living in a particular context (competitive but non-profit, secular, globalized, specialized, and very dependent on state subsidies); and this context affects their interests and colors their perspectives. If this is true, we must ask whether the academic "class" is merely biased in its own interests or whether it brings an enlightened perspective to American politics. Other American groups are profoundly influenced by industry and commerce and/or religion, usually Christianity. These powerful forces make us more conservative than any other developed nation. Perhaps a class that is insulated from the market and religion offers a valuable corrective, much as monks countered the dominance of feudal lords in medieval Europe.

    3. Perhaps it's the Schlegels versus the Wilcoxes (the two families in Howard's End). In other words, perhaps middle class business-people believe that you should make products and meet a payroll. They think it is always problematic to live on tax money or charity and produce products without market value. They know that some people must work in the public sector, but they doubt the efficiency, motives, and merits of public employees. In contrast, academics (along with some writers, teachers, and social workers) believe that business people merely pursue their own narrow, economic interests and manipulate people into consuming disposable "stuff." Business has no intrinsic merit. The highest calling is education, or scholarship, or creativity. These two perspectives are most consistent with conservatism and liberalism, respectively. (There are other perspectives too, such as the attitude of the military officer class, some of whom believe that their subjection to discipline and physical danger make them more moral than either business people or professors.) In my view, there is truth in the perspectives of both the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes.

    4. Perhaps something other than academic culture underlies the tendency for academics to vote Democratic. Maybe the people who dominate universities are (for complex reasons) more likely than average Americans to be Jewish or Asian, to come from big East-coast cities, and to have graduated from college between 1965 and 1975. Perhaps these factors explain a large portion of the correlation between academic employment and partisan identification. On the other hand, professors seem less likely than other Americans to be Black, Latino, or female.

    5. Or perhaps conservatives who are seriously interested in politics are happier out of academia, because universities are not very influential compared to think-tanks and Congressional staffs. In September 2003, David Brooks told a now-famous story about the conservative professor Harvey Mansfield: "Last week the professors at Harvard's government department reviewed the placement records of last year's doctoral students. Two had not been able to find academic jobs, both of them Mansfield's students. 'Well,' Mansfield quipped, 'I guess they'll have to go to Washington and run the country.'"

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:30 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

    December 7, 2004

    public attitudes toward civics

    The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools has launched a spiffy website loaded with information. (The Campaign must really exist if we have a website.) On the homepage are the results of a new survey that we conducted jointly with the Alliance for Representative Democracy. It's a survey of public attitudes toward civic education. There is much good news, including the fact that 71% of adults consider it important to "prepare students to be competent and responsible citizens who participate in our democratic society." (There was no tradeoff question, however, which asked them to say whether they would put less money or time into basic math, reading, and science skills in order to enhance citizenship education.) In any event, I was somewhat disturbed by the answers to an open-ended question about "the most important reason for including civic education programs in k-12 public schools." My favorite reasons--encouraging civic or political involvement, preparing better leaders, and sustaining democracy--were mentioned by 13% of respondents, total. The most popular answer was "making better members of society." This result is consistent with research from focus groups in which many parents said that civic education was a way to improve the personal behavior of other people's children.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:03 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    December 6, 2004

    who you are

    I've been in meetings for eight straight days--including the weekend, which was swallowed by the huge Congressional Conference on Civic Education. During this period, eight or ten people have told me that they read my blog. I'm interested in that information, because I have very little other data about my readers. Technorati lists about 40 blogs that currently link to this one; I assume that their authors come here periodically. Otherwise, I don't know much.

    But now I have a theory. I believe that a high proportion of you work in various aspects of civic renewal. You are civic educators or service-learning instructors, you organize deliberations among adults, you register voters, you work to make libraries into truly public spaces, you assist in the democratic development of poor countries, you create software for civic purposes, or you study one or more of these efforts.

    Furthermore, based on some recent conversations, I believe that many of you are not generally interested in the "blogosphere." Indeed, this may be the only blog you ever read. That's one reason why there aren't many comments per visitor on this site--many readers have no other experience posting text online, and it doesn't come naturally to you. Why should it? Writing comments on a website is a strange thing to do.

    This provokes a thought about the role of blogs like mine. Serious analysts have determined that blogs obey a "lognormal distribution." If we array them in descending order of popularity, we find that a few sites have more than a quarter of a million visitors every day and more than 2,000 links from other blogs. Then there's a precipitous decline and a long "tail" of millions of blogs that have modest traffic and few incoming links (like the one you're reading).

    This is the explanation: a link from a super-popular blog like DailyKos would instantly give me thousands of readers. To get a big site to link to me, I should comment on it. Bloggers read comments about themselves and sometimes choose to reciprocate. But every time an ordinary site like mine links to a mighty incumbent in the hopes of attracting its attention, the major blog gets even more traffic. Thus the "rich get richer."

    None of this is bad. A huge network probably needs a few focal points, or (to change the metaphor), a few common spaces that many people visit. Although popularity reinforces itself, a blog must also be good to remain popular. There is competition at the top. One way to retain readers is to make useful judgments about other blogs. Instapundit is justifiably famous for distributing attention to newcomers, mostly (although not exclusively) on the right. Because he has used his focal position well, he has strengthened the overall "blogosphere" and especially the conservative side of it.

    I'd like to have ten times or 100 times as much traffic, but after 500 posts and two years of blogging, it's pretty clear that I'm not on my way to becoming a focal point of the blogosphere. So I'd rather change the criterion. I believe this blog addresses a diverse but relatively specialized community of people who are working on similar tasks. You're a reticent group (when online) so you don't comment a lot, but the comments are thoughtful. Some of you use this site as a kind of bridge to the blogosphere. You don't have much time to surf blogs, but you're happy enough when I refer to a relevant entry on some prominent site. You're not here because of a link from another blog--although I welcome those--but because you Google-searched a phrase like "youth civic engagement" and this page came up. Even more likely, a colleague sent you here. If you come back, and I hope you do, it will be because my hodgepodge of material roughly matches your own professional interests. We're in the same "community of practice."

    Is this true? I'd be glad if you'd let me know. (Email is fine.)

    Posted by peterlevine at 2:52 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

    December 3, 2004


    Today is the end of CIRCLE's annual Advisory Board meeting. Our Board, a very distinguished group (the best of whom read this blog!) meets around a long hollow table in a beautiful Greek-revival hotel in Washington. The table is set between rows of white Doric columns, beneath a plaster arch. In front of each participant is a funky contemporary white lamp and a microphone. Speakers rise to show PowerPoint slides of regression outputs and sociograms. African American youth are x percent less engaged than White youth, etc. There is talk of strategic planning and funders' priorities.

    I am paying very close attention to all of this (of course), but occasionally I remember scenes from my recent past. Tuesday, in Madison, Wisconsin: a "break-out" session with some Wisconsin social studies teachers. The assignment is to draw a picture illustrating the themes of a chapter of We The People: The Citizen and the Constitution, a textbook from the Center for Civic Education. My group of three gets the section on the philosophical roots of the American Constitution, something I'm supposed to know about. We draw a scale with a crowned king on one side and some people on the other. The people weigh more than the king: democracy! All the teachers in the room are white. There is a beautiful lake outside, gradually emerging from a thick fog.

    Wednesday: College Park, MD. My undergrads are supposed to be thinking about service or research projects that we could undertake together. They are sleep-deprived freshmen, a little alienated by their low place in the college hierarchy. We haven't really launched any project so far. (This is a four-year, non-credit program, so our lack of progress is not a big problem.) I show a PowerPoint presentation of my ongoing work with high school kids. The undergrads slouch in their chairs, laugh at the appropriate points, but don't have much to add.

    Later on Wednesday, in a Maryland high school. A group of kids are supposed to be interviewing neighbors about food and exercise and bringing full audiocassettes back to class so that we can listen, code, and sort the material. This has worked in the recent past, but today, nobody has any new interviews to share. My five cassette recorders are temporarily missing. Our excellent grad student, Jared, launches a discussion of how corporations control rap music. Three of the young women debate him boisterously and wittily, while the others watch quietly and one seems to fall asleep. All the kids are Black, either African-Americans or Carribbean immigrants. In his other life, Jared makes alternative hip-hop/news CDs that he distributes to more than 600 people. I try to establish this as an example of free, creative, democratic, fulfilling work. But it's not making him famous; fame is controlled by money.

    One more scene comes from my immediate future. This weekend will be the Second Annual Congressional Conference on Civic Education. I will attend as a member of the conference advisory group. Delegations will come to Washington from all 50 states and DC. They include teachers and principals, but also state judges and legislators. There will be speeches by the likes of Cokie Roberts and a "roll-call of the states," which I envision as an old-fashioned political convention.

    Perhaps I should leave the obvious unsaid, but these are four portraits of a single enterprise: the effort to develop the next generation of American citizens. We have a lot of work to do.

    Posted by peterlevine at 2:32 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    December 2, 2004

    why does the quality of journalism matter?

    I have an article in the Fall 2004 National Civic Review entitled "Journalism and Democracy: Does it Matter How Well the Press Covers Iraq?" It's not online yet, but I've posted a .pdf of the final draft that I submitted to NCR. The same issue of the Review also contains articles by my friends Cole Campbell, Rich Harwood, and Lew Friedland on various aspects of journalism and public life. Many similar themes are evident in all three pieces.

    My article mostly appeared first in this blog, in short segments. I submitted it many months ago, so it describes the 2004 election as a future event and Andrew Sullivan as a pro-war blogger (no longer true). I think I pose a fairly difficult question about why the quality of press coverage matters. I am not persuaded that we merely need good reporting to help us decide whom to support in the next presidential election; so I consider some alternative rationales. Unfortunately, my piece does a better job of raising questions than answering them.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:16 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    December 1, 2004

    youth research as civic education

    Today, I’ll be working with two groups of young people who are involved in community research: my undergraduate “Leaders for Tomorrow” (who are still in the planning stages of their project), and high school students who are taping interviews with community residents for a radio show. In general, I’m enthusiastic about community research and “youth-led research” as forms of civic education. In community research, students study their social environment, collecting and analyzing data under the leadership of a teacher or other adult. In youth-led research, students choose their own issues and questions and design their methodology, with appropriate guidance from adults.

    Such projects are reasonably common in schools and youth organizations such as 4H. However, I don’t know many curricula or teachers’ guides for community research or youth-led research. Instead, each project is unique and requires heavy investment by a talented teacher or a very well organized and prepared group of kids. To make community research easier, I can imagine a guide and an interactive website that helped classes and youth groups to conduct assignments like the following:

  • Survey local associations to find out which ones collaborate with which other ones. Once the data were entered into a database, software could spit out a diagram showing all the connections among groups in the community. Students could then examine the diagram to determine where there were gaps in the local social network. If a teacher repeated this assignment each year, students could begin to analyze the development of networks over time. And if students assigned each association a unique identifier (for instance, its phone number, including then area code), then a national website could begin to generate combined network maps using the data from multiple schools. Groups from different schools might find that their communities were linked and could discuss those links online.

  • Students could interview owners of local businesses and nonprofits, take photographs, and then enter the information into a GIS database. Software could automatically generate maps of the assets in the neighborhood, which could be posted on a public website. People would be able to click on a spot on a map and find out about each “asset.” (See our effort for an example that could be much improved.)

  • Students could conduct interviews with people who had lived through a problem or conflict in the community’s past, put the interviews on a website, analyze the historical issue to identify two or three reasonable but conflicting positions, and then host a moderated online discussion of the issue. This is what we did with the issue of desegregation in Prince George’s County, MD. Segregation is a continuing problem, but we chose to focus on the period from 1950-1970 because we wanted to experiment with a novel approach to historical education. However, a strictly contemporary issue could also be studied.
  • student research and service-learning

    Although student research needn’t be an alternative or competitor to service-learning, it’s worth considering the relative advantages of each. Service-learning means a combination of community service with reflection, writing, and sometimes research on the same social issue. It is very common today (present in as many as 40% of schools), and it can be a great civic pedagogy. Indeed, it can be a transformative experience for students and teachers alike, developing their skills and confidence, challenging them intellectually, and committing them to serious civic work later in life. However, service-learning often degenerates into cleaning up a park (or even stapling papers in the principal’s office) and then briefly discussing the experience. This happens because it is hard to organize challenging service-learning—as I know from my own, often unsuccessful efforts in the high school. Service-learning also degenerates because it implies and requires strong values, particular ideas of justice and virtue. These values are hard to sustain in pluralistic public schools that have not been formally charged with promoting ideals other than very vague and anodyne ones. Finally, service-learning sometimes degenerates because it is seen as a way to “engage” students who are not doing well in standard classrooms. Given this goal, some teachers avoid assigning intellectually challenging exercises in connection to service.

    Research, unlike service, is close to the main academic mission of schools. Yet community research can address public problems and enhance public goods. Thus I think research makes sense, at least as a complement to service-learning.

    Incidentally, CIRCLE has funded young people to organize research projects about youth civic engagement. This is the only form of direct work with kids that we may undertake as an organization, because we are a research center with a specific focus (youth civic engagement). The process of selecting youth groups to conduct these projects has taught us a fair amount about what seems to work. We have learned, for example, that student-run surveys of other students aren’t great. The size and quality of the samples is inadequate, so the kids don’t really obtain meaningful results. On the other hand, students can make excellent documentaries and run good focus groups.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:24 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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