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January 31, 2005

Carothers on democracy-promotion

It appears that voting has gone very well in Iraq. I take this from the Guardian and Le Monde as well as the US media. Michael Ignatieff is right that we should celebrate free elections in Iraq, mourn those killed as they tried to campaign or vote, and condemn the opponents of Iraqi elections as "fascists."

Nevertheless, the broader issue remains: Can the US directly promote democracy in the Middle East? On Friday, I had a chance to hear Thomas Carothers speak at Maryland. Carothers directs the "Democracy and Rule of Law Project" at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is a supremely sensible, cogent, experienced thinker about democracy. I did not take notes, unfortunately, but here are some key points as I remember them.

While American administrations have traditionally believed that our national interests are best protected by stability in the Middle East, the Bush people believe that the existing autocratic regimes hurt us, and that we would be better off with democratic ones. Many liberal types in Washington agree with this goal, although they doubt the administration's competence and sincerity. Thus "democracy-promotion" has achieved consensus in DC, at least as an ideal. However, in Western Europe and the Middle East, absolutely everyone is against a project of US-sponsored democratic regime change.

Carothers feels that the project will be extremely difficult, at best. The US lacks credibility with Arabs and Muslims because of our traditional support for autocratic regimes, our tilt to Israel, and our botched invasion of Iraq. Many powerful actors in the US have mixed motives, wanting to preserve cosy business relationships or to cooperate with Arab police states in the "war on terror."

Above all, democracy-promotion is difficult because regimes like those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Morocco are well-established, well-funded, and ruthless. They have plans for the orderly succession of power and face no dangerous insurgencies other than al Qaeda. It is extremely rare in human history for democratic movements to succeed under such conditions. This is not an argument that Arabs are unready or unsuited for democracy. However, democratic reform is always difficult, and the stars are very badly aligned in the Middle East.

Carothers doubts that there is any trick, any silver-bullet, any comprehensive strategy that we could employ to boost democracy in the region, even if our intentions were reasonably good. In theory, however, we could make democracy-promotion a consistent goal and then constantly seek opportunities to advance it: in diplomacy, military exchanges, trade policy, progaganda, and economic aid. If we also sought opportunities to work multilaterally--indeed, if we sometimes hid behind trusted third parties, such as the Nordic countries--then we could make incremental progress. At a minimum, we could gradually improve our credibility and thereby put ourselves in a position to help substantially if the situation ever changed in the Middle East.

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January 28, 2005

the murder of Marlowe

In the Milwaukee airport (which has a used-book store!), I recently bought Charles Nicholl's The Reckoning. This is a careful effort to solve the murder of Christopher Marlowe in 1593. Most people think that Marlowe, Shakespeare's rival, died in a tavern brawl. It turns out that he was killed after a long meeting in a respectable private house, owned by a woman who had government connections. The other people present were all professional spies, as was Marlowe himself. Nicholl painstakingly assembles evidence that suggests--although it doesn't prove--the following story. (Warning: I'm about to give away Nicholl's "plot," so skip if you think you might read the book.)

The Earl of Essex, who had a private intelligence service, wanted to finish off his chief rival, the disgraced Sir Walter Raleigh. In parliament, Raleigh had made speeches against the large population of Dutch merchants then resident in London. Essex' men posted an anoymous poem on the London streets threatening the Dutch merchants with a murderous riot; it quoted several of Marlowe's plays. The government formed a commission to investigate who had written this dangerous broadside. They arrested Marlowe's former roommate, the playwright Thomas Kyd. Among Kyd's papers (probably planted by the government), were "atheist" writings, "denyinge the deity of Jhesus Christ our Savior." Under torture, Kyd stated that the papers must be Marlowe's, and that Marlowe was a scoffer against religion. Whether or not Kyd said so explicitly, others held that Marlowe had shared his heretical opinions with Raleigh, who dabbled in magic and was often accused of atheism. In general, Marlowe and Raleigh moved in similar circles.

Marlowe was arrested. Perhaps the Essex faction expected to be able to condemn him and tar Raleigh with the association. Or perhaps they hoped he would actually give evidence against Raleigh. Unfortunately for them, Marlowe was released--almost certainly because he was an experienced agent in Robert Cecil's spy service. Accused, but evidently under someone's protection, Marlowe represented a risk for several parties. He might provide Cecil with evidence that would reveal the machinations of the Essex faction against Walter Raleigh. Or he might reveal too much about his own work for Cecil. The two major spy networks in the country both had reasons to silence him.

Somehow he was enticed to meet alone with several agents associated with Essex as well as one of Cecil's leading fixers. The meeting lasted all day and may have involved tense negotiations. In the end, Ingram Frizer, probably a spy for Essex, killed Marlowe. The three spies presented a highly implausible story of self-defense to the coronor's jury, which accepted it. And so Marlowe was silenced.

A serious literary critic could interestingly explore the relationships between two kinds of "plotting" in Marlowe's life. Many Elizabethan espionage operations were elaborate fake stories, designed to influence popular opinion or to entrap an enemy. Spies were actors, playing parts. Elizabethan plays also had plots, half invented and half based on facts. Nicholl notes this relationship, but he doesn't have space to interpret Marlowe's plays closely in the light of his discoveries about their author's other life.

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January 27, 2005


I just met a group of Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy who are looking for research projects on political participation (for their poli.-sci. seminar). Most of them will look at big data sets like the National Election Study and try to figure out relationships and trends. That's fine, but I encouraged some of them to consider interviewing service people who had done "nation-building" work in Iraq. During the discussion, someone mentioned an officer (probably in the Army rather than the Navy or Marines) who had become the de facto mayor of a Bagdhad neighborhood. I'm curious about what skills and instincts for political work people in his position feel they possess. They may have gained good skills and instincts from growing up in the US or from their formal military training. But I'd also like to know what they feel they're missing, and what they are learning from their service in Iraq. Do they think that they can use the political and civic skills they acquire "over there" after they get back home?

The Midshipmen I met today are not ideally placed to conduct this research, although a few seemed game to try. I may also try to persuade some Maryland undergraduates to interview people at the National Guard's 352nd Civil Affairs Command, located near our campus. This is a specialist unit that’s been assigned to Iraq. I believe at least one officer has also been an elected official in Prince George's County, MD. Whatever we think of the invasion and occupation, it should create opportunities to learn how to build communities and democracies.

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January 26, 2005

diversity on campus

Last December, some colleagues and I held focus groups for 66 undergraduates at the University of Maryland. I thought their views of campus diversity were interesting and would generalize to other institutions.

By way of background: our incoming students are 11.5% African American, 11.1% Asian, 6.9% Hispanic, and 6.1% foreign. Students are also diverse in terms of religion, culture, and ideology, although we don't keep statistics on those factors. Participants in our focus groups were proud of this diversity. Some said that they chose to enroll here instead of at more competitive institutions because Maryland is more racially and ethnically diverse. One said that he would want his children to come here for that reason.

With a few exceptions (often students from Prince George’s County, MD), they see the University as much more diverse than their high schools and communities were. They feel that they have learned to appreciate diversity much better than their peers at other institutions. One White woman said that her friends from high school “make racial comments and slurs and things like that, and I’m sitting there like, ‘No, you’re wrong’; and I had never told any of my friends that they were wrong before.” Another student expressed a typical experience, although in an extreme form:

Before I came here, I was in a box. … I came from a community—we don’t even have a post office, that’s how small we are. Everybody who lives there, we’re all White, we’re all Christian. … I’m related to about half of those people. I came from a high school where there were two Black people in the senior class…. We were all at the same economic level, essentially. And then I came here, and it was, like, culture shock. I almost failed out my first semester, because I couldn’t understand what it was like to be somewhere so different. And obviously I’m very glad that I came here, but it was just insane. … And I was thankful for Lutheran Campus Ministries, because that was my one little teeny tiny connection to things back home.

Students cite diversity in their residences, in campus entertainment events and culture, and in public spaces. However, they see their own classes and student groups are more homogeneous. “There are times when I can walk down the Mall and be shocked by [the diversity] I see, but then again, I go into class and everybody looks the same.”

Some students feel that there’s too much complacency about the relatively large percentages of racial/ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious, and sexual minorities, but not enough emphasis on actually understanding differences. One student who had organized a large discussion of racial issues said, “While the University brings a lot of people together, it does a poor job of—not forcing interaction, but fostering interaction.” Another student said that in the absence of mandatory programs for dialogue, “It’s up to each individual person to decide whether they’re going to get out of their box.” A third participant noted that her roommate had never spoken to a Black person.

An African American participant said, “Minority students are automatically forced into diverse situations and I feel like everybody else should. … This University takes credit for the fact that they’re one of the top 20 public universities with the most African Americans, so I feel that they should make sure that everybody’s exposed to those African Americans.”

On the other hand, students have originated highly creative ways to foster interaction. For instance, they recently organized an event at which a Jewish student read the Jim Crow laws aloud and then an African American student recited the Nuremburg Laws.

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January 25, 2005

high school reform

I don't know as much about high school reform as I should, but I am picking up the following ideas.

First, over the next five years or so, high schools will be the topic of the most interesting debates and reforms in all of education. For elementary and middle schools, we have a regime in place, as codified in No Child Left Behind (NCLB). There are frequent statewide tests; scores are disaggregated by race, gender, disability, and language background; and every group must make "adequate yearly progress" on the tests or else schools face penalties. Like it or hate it, this is the status quo for grades 1-8; only adjustments are possible.

The formula embodied in NCLB doesn't affect high schools nearly as deeply, yet there is widespread agreement that they should be thoroughly reformed. In particular, many people criticize huge, themeless, "shopping mall" high schools that offer long lists of courses and activities (as well as cliques and networks) for a wide variety of students. Kids who enter on a very good track or who have positive support from peers and family may make wise choices about their courses, friends, extracurricular activities, and next steps after graduation. Other students will make bad--or inconsistent and incoherent--choices, and then pay for their own adolescent decisions for the rest of their lives. "Shopping mall" high schools also tend to have reasonably bad discipline, a general atmosphere of alienation, and lots of internal segregation by race, class, and subculture. Often, they occupy suburban-style campuses, set far apart from the adult community of work, family, religion, and politics. (The school where I often work serves a low-income minority population, yet it has an isolated building on a great big lawn.) Even worse, some of these huge schools occupy prison-like urban blocks, secured with gates and bars.

Most developmental pyschologists feel that adolescents need more moral and cultural coherence and guidance than the typical high school provides. Teenagers are not in much danger of being brainwashed by a strong institutional culture; rebellion comes naturally to them. They are in danger of becoming completely alienated and lost in an institution that lacks values and mission.

It's fine to let students choose among competing schools. Some students will do better in a school oriented toward scientific research, or service-learning, or the great books. But the choice should be carefully made among coherent, purposeful communities, not "a la carte" off a miscellaneous list of courses and other experiences. Perhaps more important, almost all schools should be small, so that no student is overlooked or forgotten.

Thus we see the Gates Foundation and major school districts like New York City investing heavily in small, themed schools, many of which connect academic instruction to internships or community service. High school reform, so conceived, has risks and drawbacks. Students may choose schools in ways that reinforce inequality. For example, children of lawyers and doctors may migrate to the "great books" schools; poor children, to service-learning academies. Some schools will choose foolish ideas for their themes or will implement their ideas poorly. Finally, it takes many small schools to replace a few huge ones. While the small ones are being built (and this will inevitably take years), most students will be left in the old "shopping malls," which may degenerate further because they will be slated for destruction--and the more motivated students will escape first. Nevertheless, I think high school reform is highly promising, and we need to figure out how to do it right.

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January 24, 2005

strategy, for intellectuals

In a comment on last Thursday's post, Michael Weiksner argues that political theorists employ a "high risk/high return" strategy for social change. They develop comprehensive, sometimes radical arguments that can be used in public debates. Mostly, such arguments have little influence, if only because there is no organized constituency or institution with the capacity to realize them. "But every now and again, you have Machievelli or JS Mill or Rawls, and their frameworks impact society for decades or longer." In contrast, Michael says, people like me take a "hedged position." We work closely with practitioners and communities. This strategy increases our odds of making a small difference but rules out any major effect. For instance, as a result of the projects I'm involved in, some day there may be better civics courses in high schools. There will definitely not be a new social order.

One problem with the high-risk strategy is that it may achieve catastrophically bad results. From Plato through Calvin to Marx, many of the most influential theorists have been, in my opinion, disastrously wrong. They have been wrong precisely because they have not been anchored in practical experience.

But there are also drawbacks to the low-risk strategy. Some thinkers who are deeply immersed in practice suffer from narrow horizons or excessive caution. John Dewey was an exemplary "engaged scholar," yet he made some spectacularly bad calls (applauding World War I and opposing US entry into World War II, for instance). In any case, there is nothing dangerous about most of today's highly abstract political theory. For example, Elizabeth Anderson's arguments against natural property rights, posted on left2right, were what originally got me thinking about the role of political theory. If Anderson were somehow to influence popular opinion, no harm would follow--perhaps some good.

Nevertheless, I'm against the high risk/high return strategy for a different reason, one that's specific to our time. Mainstream political philosophy has long been consumed with questions of distribution--who should get what goods and rights. For most liberals, property should be redistributed (to some limited degree). For most libertarians, existing property distributions should be left alone. I suppose that on a completely theoretical level, I lean the liberals' way. But I see two problems with this whole debate:

1. The only mechanisms we have for distributing wealth and protecting rights are the actual governments that exist today. I can argue for equality of opportunity (or even for some degree of welfare equality), but I cannot defend the proposition that our government spends our money very effectively, transparently, accountably, or equitably. Thus a debate about how much wealth individuals should keep and how much should be redistributed is fundamentally sterile. It's politically irrelevant because it doesn't confront the main argument against government, which is not libertarian but pragmatic (i.e., government doesn't work very well). The debate is also normatively weak because it assumes that we can have better institutions than we do. That's like the economist on the desert island who "assumes a can-opener."

2. The premises of the debate are zero-sum. Politics, according to both left-liberals and libertarians, is a mechanism for distributing the goods that already exist. But citizens also have constructive potential; through politics, we can make new goods. Of course, one could develop an abstract political theory in favor of political creativity. But I suspect this would be very vague and unpersuasive unless it were anchored in current examples.

By coincidence, I recently read two separate scholarly descriptions of government in Hampton, VA. Hampton is an old, blue-color city, not in any way privileged. Yet the city has thoroughly reinvented its government and civic culture so that thousands of people are directly involved in city planning, educational policy, police work, and economic development. The prevailing culture is deliberative; people truly listen, share ideas, and develop consensus, despite differences of interest and ideology. Young people hold positions of responsibility and leadership. Youth have made believers out of initially suspicious police officers and school administrators.

Imagine that the whole country were more like Hampton. Then we could have a really interesting debate about distribution. If some people argued that the government should tax and spend more, their fellow citizens would see the potential advantages. They would feel capable of influencing the use of tax money. Meanwhile, libertarians would be able to make arguments in favor of markets and individual freedom; they might even prevail. But the whole discussion would be the opposite of sterile.

So how can intellectuals help to make America more like Hampton? First of all, they should aware of the civic innovation that is going on today. Thanks to the scholars who identified Hampton as a site of innovation, I was able to read two articles about that city. These scholars found Hampton through their own networks of practitioners. We need plenty more of that kind of writing. Second, we must grapple with the subtle and difficult issues that all such cases raise. How did Hampton get where it is today? Are its achievements sustainable? Are they replicable? Is the city's deliberation truly inclusive? Does all that participation generate good economic and social outcomes? Is democracy worth all the time people have to spend in meetings? To me, these are the crucial questions, much more likely to yield real social change than any novel argument in favor of equality.

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January 21, 2005

ending tyranny in our world

It's easy to criticize the man who gave the Inaugural Address yesterday—for his hypocrisy in not promoting human rights and freedom in allied countries that happen to be tyrannies, for his incompetence in the effort to develop democracy in Iraq, or for his failure to protect civil rights in the United States. However, the speech itself was a ringing endorsement of traditional American liberalism: internationalist, committed to human rights, ecumenical, and respectful of pluralism. There was not a conservative word in the speech, for better or worse.

I think it’s important to take statements as well as people seriously—and then to hold the speakers to what they say. Thus I applaud the speech (hear! hear!), but I hope we can remember which countries need the most attention if we are really going to make it "the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." According to FreedomHouse (pdf), political liberties are least available in: Burma, Cuba, Haiti, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. Civil liberties are most absent in: Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Turkmenistan. Note the mixture of nations on the Bush enemies list (Cuba, North Korea, Syria), countries that are rarely mentioned by the US government or press (Swaziland, Turkmenistan), and countries that collaborate with us closely in military matters (Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia). Our good friend Pakistan just barely misses the FreedomHouse list of worst offenders. What's the plan for Pakistan?

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January 20, 2005

political theory and me

(Warning: the following is probably self-indulgent, because it’s my effort to define my own scholarly career in contrast to other people’s. Please skip ruthlessly if you find this uninteresting.)

I have become a regular reader of Left2Right, a group blog written by a 29 distinguished political theorists, political philosophers, and constitutional scholars from the moderate to radical left. Two of the contributors are friends; I deeply admire them and several of the others whom I have never met. I received a similar professional training and hold similar views. I would eagerly trade my own skills, knowledge, and record of contribution for any of theirs.

Yet I’m evidently not doing the kind of work described on Left2Right—and not merely because I lack the necessary ability. I have chosen a different path from most of the contributors, and I think my choice is defensible.

The first difference is one of scale. Modern political philosophers and theorists mostly consider the overall structure of a society and the definition and distribution of rights and goods to all the society’s members. Meanwhile, ethicists consider decisions and dilemmas faced by professionals, such as lawyers and physicians, in their dealings with individual patients. In short, most normative scholarship deals either with the largest or the smallest scale of human interaction.

In contrast, I am interested in the middle range, in the strategic choices faced by concrete institutions, networks, and social movements at the present historical moment. For example, I am deeply immersed right now in discussions about the reform of civic education and the mobilization of young voters. I work on those issues, not with fellow political theorists, but with civic educators and nonpartisan political operatives. I am interested in their choices and priorities for two reasons:

1. My “theory of change” is different from that of mainstream political theorists. To the extent that they want to influence the world at all, they seek to address the sovereign: the power that can shape the overall structure of their society. In olden days, the sovereign was the monarch, so philosophers from Plato to Bacon tried to get the prince’s ear. Today, the sovereign is supposed to be “the people,” so engaged political theorists attempt to influence public opinion. They do so by translating their abstruse (but impressive) ideas into relatively readable, public arguments. Left2Right is a typical effort of this type. (Its name implies that leftish scholars want to persuade right-leaning voters to change their opinions.) Many of its contributors have also been successful “public intellectuals” in the older media: newspapers, radio, and television.

I am skeptical that I can change public opinion by making philosophical arguments. Besides, even if people come around to my opinion, they also need skills, confidence, and institutions through which to act. Thus my “theory of change” is to find congenial organizations and social movements that have broad constituencies. I then become involved in their discussions about goals and strategies. They are the “change-levers”; I try to influence their choices.

2. My style of engagement is relatively open-ended or ideologically agnostic. I do have political opinions, and I think it’s fine to express them. However, as a professional, I take the stance that we Americans need to develop, refine, and pursue our political goals better than we do today. We need not only better dialogue and deliberation, but also more opportunities for concrete experimentation in the real world. Thus I have participated in movements for election reform, broadcast media reform, civic uses of digital media, public journalism, “civic philanthropy” (grantmaking that enhances civil society), face-to-face public deliberation, democratic libraries, stronger undergraduate student government, service-learning, civic education, and youth voting. All of these movements are relatively open-ended about the structure of our overall society. Their goal is to enhance the public’s voice.

The model presumed by many political theorists is: (a) develop and refine views about how society should be organized; (b) promote those views in public fora; and (c) hope that legislation is passed to implement the vision. My model is (a) find organizations that seem to be enhancing the quality and quantity of public engagement; (b) help address the ethical and strategic questions those organizations face; and (c) sit back and see what citizens come up with.

My focus strongly influences my methodology or “modus operandi.” If you are concerned about the distribution of goods and rights in a society, then you must know the facts about wealth, poverty, justice, and injustice at a macro scale. You should also master arguments in political, moral, and legal theory. The Left2Right group knows all this material better than I (although I once spent the better part of a year studying labor unions in a fairly mainstream, detached way). But I want to address the concrete moral and strategic choices that face people like social studies teachers and campaign workers. I cannot learn about them from books. Usually, there are no current studies at all, and the few that exist are biased and inadequate. If I want to reflect on the progress of current institutions and social movements, I must attend their meetings. They won’t invite me unless I come as a participant. Thus my usual stance is one of participant-observer.

I also do pure philosophical work on the nature and justification of moral claims. I believe that moral theory has deep implications for the daily work of democratic institutions, and vice-versa. My work in moral theory happens to be as idiosyncratic as my political work, but that's another story.

Finally, I should acknowledge that I have role models. Some theorists participate in open-ended movements for civic renewal and democratic engagement. I listed several in a previous post, including Archon Fung, who recently joined Left2Right. Nevertheless, Left2Right mainly reflects an approach to political thought that I have chosen not to pursue, although I respect it and consider it important.

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January 19, 2005

a blog just for civic education

Readers of this site know that I often discuss "civic education," broadly defined--all our efforts to prepare the next generation for democratic self-government. In the narrower (but crucial) domain of formal, pre-college civic education, an important force is the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which has several million dollars to advocate policy changes at the state and federal level. As of yesterday, the Campaign has established its own blog. The main authors will be members of our steering committee (who are leaders of two dozen relevant organizations), key members of the national staff, and people from the Campaign's 18 state teams. A graduate student who works for me under the aegis of the National Alliance for Civic Education (NACE) will post news items on the Campaign's blog almost daily. Of course, anyone can post replies and comments. If civic ed is your thing, please bookmark and contribute.

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January 17, 2005

restoring trust

Instead of writing something for this blog today, I've contributed a fairly long post to a "symposium" on Rich Harwood's website. My topic is why and how George Bush should begin to restore public trust. You are also invited to join the symposium by clicking the ad to the right.

As the Inauguration lays out a vision for the next 4 years, engage with Richard C. Harwood of The Harwood Institute and the leaders of Rock the Vote, Meetup.com, and other organizations that are on the forefront of change as they discuss the next chapter of America's story. All this week on Redeeming Hope.

(The Harwood Institute is an important small institution that works with communties, newsrooms, organizations, and others to improve public life.)

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kids' voices

I spent today listening to kids--16 boisterous, funny adolescents from the nearby high school. We had recruited them to talk about their experiences as immigrants (or migrants), and how their eating habits had changed as they had moved to Maryland from West Africa, Central America, the West Indies, the Philippines, or Washington, DC. We taped the whole day so that a smaller group of volunteer students will be able to shape the best parts into an audio documentary on immigration and food. This is the latest stage of our National Geographic project on nutrition.

The parts of the discussion that will find their way into the documentary will be about recipes, memories of meals, shopping and cooking, and health concerns. For today's blog, I'd like to report on a different topic, a digression. Most of the immigrant kids agreed with one who said: "Living in St. Lucia, I thought [the US] was the great land of opportunity. I never thought it was heaven, like some people do; but if you work hard, you can achieve anything." (This is a close paraphrase, not a precise quote). When an adult asked if the kids thought that poverty came from laziness, they resisted that thesis, but they kept coming back to it. "If you really want to get something, you can do it. There was a homeless person who went to Harvard." They acknowledged that there were insurmountable barriers to economic success back in their home countries--for example, the tuition required to attend elementary school. But in the US, success "depends on a person's drive."

The same theme of self-reliance and personal responsibility returned when they discussed fast food. "It's your responsibility what you eat. After all that healthy food back home, you see a big hunk of meat [at McDonalds], you know it's gotta be bad for you." One young woman said that advertising could influence people to eat fast food. "Yeah, but that's your fault cause you can't control yourself."

A student from Cote D'Ivoire said that back home, people viewed African Americans as lazy, and white Americans as "slave-drivers." She said, "I don't think America is that great of a place, but I do think freedom of speech and freedom of religion--a lot of places don't have that."

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January 14, 2005

what should we expect from local work?

When students frame, study, and address local problems, they are likely to acquire local knowledge. For example, if a high school class studies a nearby watershed, develops a restoration plan, and presents it to the local government, the students will surely learn more about the watershed itself. I see three ways of assessing such learning.

1) Maybe the only point of education is to develop knowledge, skills, and dispositions that would apply anywhere. Thus students in the imaginary watershed project should understand science better (thus scoring higher on instruments like the NAEP Science Assessment) and also perform better on CIRCLE's "Indicators of Civic Engagement," which measures behaviors like voting, following the news, and attending meetings. We might also expect them to stay in school longer and have fewer disciplinary problems.
2) Maybe we should expect students to improve along dimensions that aren't well measured by existing standardized tests and surveys--but that could be so measured. For example, engagement with local problems over time could increase students' teamwork skills, capacity for public speaking, etc. These are generalized outcomes that we may not value sufficiently; but we could assess them.
3) Or maybe we should be glad that students have learned about the watershed itself. After all, nowhere is it written that the proper unit of analysis is always the nation. Just as we would like Americans to understand the Bill of Rights, so we might like residents of a county to understand the source of their own water--not because this knowledge will apply elsewhere or lead students to acquire generalized knowledge later on, but because it is valuable in itself.

If the third option holds any appeal, then it raises new questions about standardized tests. Almost by definition, they cannot adequately value local knowledge.

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January 13, 2005

"community as text"

Last night and today, I'm attending a meeting organized by the Coalition for Community Schools. The Coalition has convened representatives of six movements:

  • service learning: community service combined with academic work and reflection

  • environmental education: studying environmental science and applying the knowledge to understand local ecosystems

  • place-based education: studying local communities in order to increase appreciation (as well as knowledge) of disparaged places, such as poor rural areas

  • civic education, which should include the study of local issues and structures of government

  • work-based learning, as defined in the School to Work Opportunities Act of 1990, which supports programs that place students in job settings for academic study.

  • community youth development: which treats young people as assets in community development, and trains and supports them to participate in local organizations and networks.

  • Each of these movements or philosophies of education treats the local community as a "text" for students to interpret--and, to some degree, "rewrite." There are many examples and stories of truly exciting results. For example, students in a Texas border school district conducted oral histories of their elderly, immigrant relatives, translated the results into English, and used the resulting English/Spanish narratives as textbooks in their schools. On the other hand, using "community-as-text" is hard and often frustrating work, especially when communities do not embrace the participation of students.

    In the end, I think that using the "community as text" is one of several strategies that can bring coherence, purpose, and passion to education. It is not better than an arts focus, a global-cultures focus, a history focus, a tech focus, or various other choices. I do believe, however, that it implies its own set of principles and values, which can be particularly attractive in certain settings. For example, we are motivated to use the community as text in Prince George's County, MD, because the students are growing up in a fascinating jurisdiction--diverse and rapidly changing--yet people of all ages tend to overlook or discount it as a community. Thus studying the county and disseminating the results is a means of (much needed) community organizing.

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    January 12, 2005

    is policy just too complicated?

    Some people think that it's harder for citizens to participate in politics today than it was 50 years ago, because issues have simply grown more complex. The G.I. bill was relatively simple legislation, so it was easy to organize members of veterans' groups and others to support it. But health care reform in the 21st century is enormously complex. No one really knows what should be done. Some people argue that public engagement has declined as a result.

    I think there must be something to this theory. Between 1952 and 1992, the National Election Study (NES) asked people whether they agreed with the following statement: "Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can't really understand what's going on." Generally, people have found politics too complicated--or at least, have doubted their own capacity to understand it. However, the results do not show a lot of decline in Americans' sense that politics is too complicated for them. The trend is pretty flat. Unfortunately, the question was dropped in 1996, and it changed a bit in 1988, when people were offered the option of refusing both choices ("too complicated" and "not too complicated"). If we assume that the people who chose "neither" would otherwise have said "too complicated," then there was an erosion of confidence after 1984. But that's a big assumption.

    By the way, people's impression of complexity is not the only thing that might affect their participation. Regardless of their subjective beliefs, the actual complexity of policy issues might block their engagement. And perhaps we should be a little disappointed that people haven't gained confidence in their understanding of politics. Before World War II, the mean level of educational attainment of the US population was elementary school; by 2000, it was two years of college. Yet we feel no more capable of understanding policy--perhaps somewhat less.

    Posted by peterlevine at 2:58 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    January 11, 2005

    a map of civic renewal

    Here's a map of the civic renewal network. I made it in the following way. I visited TouchGraph's amazing GoogleBrowser, which generates diagrams of the links among websites, as recognized by Google. I entered three URLs that to me represent important nodes in the real (not merely virtual) network for civic renewal in America:

  • The Civic Practices Network, a gateway to such fields as asset-based community development, public journalism (i.e., news that tries to support citizen participation), and civic environmentalism (efforts to protect nature collaboratively).

  • CIRCLE, where I work. We try to cover the fields of civic education and youth politics, since it's critical to prepare the next generation of citizens.

  • Common Cause, an organization that seeks to reform government and make it more responsive to citizens.
  • TouchGraph generates a dynamic map that moves and expands as you adjust it. It's great to watch. The map that you can view on my site is static, because I pasted it into a graphic file. Nevertheless, it neatly shows the relationships among such fields as neighborhood activism, civic engagement on college campuses, public deliberation, national service, and public journalism. It is evidence of a robust and fairly tight network of organizations that are improving the quality and power of citizens' public work.

    This is a map of civic renewal, not the map. It has at least three major limitations: (1) I chose the three initial nodes--not arbitrarily, but guided by my personal experience; (2) Google's database of links is imperfect and incomplete; and (3) links among websites are not always meaningful. One site can link to another without having anything to do with it; or two groups can work closely together but neglect to exchange links on their sites. (They might not even have websites.) In short, I find my own map fascinating, but my main advice is to use TouchGraph to make your own.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:27 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 10, 2005

    funding opportunity for micro-level news online

    The New Voice project launched its website today and issued a Request for Proposals. The proposal deadline is March 17. As the website says,

    New Voices is a pioneering program to seed innovative community news ventures in the United States. Over the next two years, New Voices will help fund the start-up of 20 micro-local, news projects with $12,000 grants; support them with an educational Web site, and help foster their sustainability through $5,000 second-year, matching grants. New Voices is administered by J-Lab at the University of Maryland and supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

    Disclosure: I'm on the project's advisory committee and will help read applications.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:01 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 8, 2005

    an AARP for youth?

    Should there be a large membership organization for youth that lobbies on economic issues that affect them--an American Association of Young People? I can think of three major arguments in favor. First, there are huge and perhaps unprecedented issues of generational equity. The government is borrowing and spending with wild abandon and saving the bill for younger people; and things are likely to get worse as the boomers age. The injustice (and short time horizons) reflected in current policy seem to require an organized response. Second, young people tend to be low political priorities because they don't vote and aren't organized to lobby. An "AAYP" would help. Third, it's important for people to have reasonably positive political experiences when they're in their late teens and twenties, because Karl Mannheim's classic theory of development suggests that early experiences permanantly shape people's civic identity, making them active or passive for the rest of their lives. If young people were more organized as a political bloc, then parties and interest groups would compete for their support, and as a result they would have more experiences of being important and sought after.

    There are also some arguments against an "AAYP." First of all, organizing it would be heavy-lifting. Young people are comparatively hard to organize at all, since they are relatively unlikely to give money and to voluntarily support disciplined organizations. Besides, compared to their elders, they are not too interested in the kinds of programs and issues that involve generational equity--Social Security, Medicare, and the like. For example, only six percent of under-25s (and 3 percent of college students) picked medical care as the top voting issue in the 2004 elections. To the extent that young people do think about Social Security reform and other relevant issues, they certainly disagree about what should be done, which would make it hard to show a united front. In any case, young people may be relatively unconcerned about the impact of these issues on youth because they don't see themselves as essentially young. They expect to move on and become middle aged, whereas the AARP consituency is "retired" for good.

    Some people see the AARP's model as bad for democracy because it empowers a few experts in Washington to decide what makes good policy and then "sell" their ideas to a huge population using advertising techniques--not very empowering. It's also a special-interest model, and a clash of special interests does not often make good policy. Then again, if the over-60s have an expert-driven, special-interest organization with 35 million dues-paying, voting, letter-writing members, then maybe youth need one too.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:35 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 7, 2005

    this blog turns two

    (From Wingspread, WI): I first posted on Jan. 8, 2003, so tomorrow will be the second birthday of this blog. I've posted every weekday since then, except when I've been away on vacation with my family. There have been 514 entries, total. I've already told the story of how I started, but in brief: I was asked to moderate an academic panel on "community in cyberspace." The panelists included Eugene Volokh, Glenn Reynolds, Jack Balkin, and Amitai Etzioni. Although I knew about blogging, I didn't know that Reynolds and Volokh had hugely popular blogs--which is why they had been invited for the panel. I hastily wrote introductions based on their university web pages, which only mentioned their scholarly and teaching interests. But the conversation turned to blogging, naturally, and I decided to get into the game. Etzioni and Balkin also started their blogs within a month of that panel.

    In the last year, some of my favorite moments were: learning that a college class had been assigned to read my post on what it means to be civic; suddenly getting a fair amount of attention for a mini-essay ("What's wrong with the left, and what to do about it?"); receiving a Christmas card from a reader; and having three academic articles accepted for publication that were entirely composed of assembled blog entries. Speaking of "community in cyberspace," I've also enjoyed my regular commenters and reciprocal visits to their blogs--for instance, Prairie Weather, Brad Rourke, Eli Edwards, In Medias Res, Mike Weiksner, Rick Emrich, Nick Beaudrot, and Anjali Taneja.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:39 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    January 6, 2005

    next steps after the big youth vote

    Today I'm going to Wingspread, the Johnson Foundation's retreat center near Racine, Wisconsin. It's a beautiful building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The nonpartisan youth voting folks will gather there to discuss what to do next. Young people turned out in 2004; we need to keep them engaged. I hope to post something substantive later, but right now, I have to catch my plane.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:24 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 5, 2005

    associational commons

    In a response to yesterday’s post, Mike Weiksner asks me to explain why I am enthusiastic about voluntary associations that create goods—one of the eight forms of “commons” that I had identified. I’m in favor of creating things, because creativity is a valuable and dignified aspect of human life. Although preservation is important, we also need to put our own stamp on the world. But why should we create goods as members of associations? Here is a detailed answer, partly auto-plagiarized from an article of mine that’s in the Digital Library of the Commons.

    Let me say, first of all, that associations are not always good. Just because a group is a nonprofit does not guarantee that it is fair, responsible, transparent, or honorable. Nevertheless, there is a great tradition of banding together into voluntary groups to make goods. This is what Alexis de Tocqueville found exemplary in the New World. He is often seen as a theorist of free association, but he especially admired groups that generated goods: “The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to diffuse books, to build inns, to construct churches, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.” I believe that such associational commons are the heart of “civil society” and explain a considerable part of its appeal.

    Furthermore, associational commons, while hardly infallible, have several advantages over other forms:

    1. Voluntary associations offer freedom of exit. In contrast, you have to emigrate to escape majority rule in a democracy; and tight communities of birth may keep their members from leaving by imposing serious psychological (and even financial) barriers to exit. Most voluntary associations also allow “voice,” because if they don’t listen to their members, then everyone will quit. (These concepts of “voice” and “exit” come from Albert Hirschman’s great book, Exit Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States) Related to freedom of exit is pluralism: there are many groups, and we have choice about which to join.

    2. An association can defend itself; it can litigate and lobby to protect the public good of which it is the steward. In time-honored fashion, associations give their members “selective incentives” (such as free access to the good that they control) in return for support. Thus, for example, a religious congregation may own a beautiful building that creates “positive externalities” for the broader community: nice views, free concerts, tourist revenues. The congregation may allow anyone who commits to its creed and pays tithes to join. Members then gain special access to the building (for instance, reserved pews and invitations to social events). In return, the congregation gains a bank balance with which it can hire masons if the building is damaged, and lawyers if there is a legal threat. In contrast, a libertarian commons such as the ocean suffers from a classic free-rider problem. Some people and groups benefit from degrading the commons, either by taking too much of it for themselves, fencing parts off as private property, or polluting it. Many people like the commons and wish to see it defended. But no one has a sufficient incentive to pay to defend a good that benefits everyone else as well.

    3. Even though an association is not a state, it can be democratic. It can offer its members opportunities to deliberate about policy and to make collective decisions with fair procedures. In contrast, a libertarian commons is difficult to regulate even if the vast majority of participants feel (and feel rightly) that particular rules should be imposed. Not all associations are democratic, but they allow at least the opportunity to "vote with your feet" by quitting.

    4. An association can publicly articulate a comprehensive set of values. A libertarian commons is free, but liberty may be the only moral norm that it embodies. In contrast, a university, a religious congregation, or a professional association can declare itself the defender of a basket of values, including freedom, public access, truth, sustainability, reliability, and/or decency. In some cases, a government may monitor the association to ensure that it serves its mission.

    5. An association can proselytize, in the best sense of the term. Any commons relies on a demanding set of norms and commitments, such as trust, reciprocity, long time-horizons, optimism about the possibilities of voluntary collective action, and personal commitment.

    People have a civic identity if they have internalized these norms in relation to a particular public good. Put another way, we are “civic” if we see ourselves as responsible for the good, and if we act accordingly. A civic identity is unlikely to develop automatically. We have to be taught to be civic; we aren’t born that way. Each generation must transmit to the next a moral concern for common goods. Young people must also be given particular skills, techniques, and “operational principles” to manage shared goods. As Lin Ostrom argues, “At any time that individuals may gain from the costly action of others, without themselves contributing time and effort, they face collective action dilemmas for which there are coping methods. When de Tocqueville discussed the ‘art and science of association,’ he was referring to the crafts learned by those who had solved ways of engaging in collective action to achieve a joint benefit. Some aspects of the science of association are both counterintuitive and counterintentional, and thus must be taught to each generation as part of the culture of a democratic citizenry.” [Ostrom, “The Need for Civic Education: A Collective Action Perspective” (1998), p. 1.]

    Knowing this, successful associations recruit members with an eye to the future, looking (for example) for young people who can replace their current membership and leadership in decades to come. Associations educate their recruits—and also the general public—about collective action in pursuit of their core values. If they have narrow constituencies, they may try to broaden their appeal. If they have broad but shallow support, they may try to develop a zealous core.

    Around 2000, I became interested in creating an association to manage a whole new top-level domain, the "dot-civ" realm, for which it would write rules and enforce norms. (See this pdf.) I'm not sure that this was a great idea, but it stands for the more general concept that associations can manage portions of the Internet. For example, it's a great idea to have an organized, very large-scale group blog for a geographical community, like the Bakersfield (CA) Northwest Voice. But many value-judgments have to be made in creating such a news source. I would like to see a voluntary association--rather than a company--in charge.

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

    January 4, 2005

    a commons taxonomy

    A commons (or, as the Brits say, "a common") is a shared resource. Some common resources are made by the group that shares them; others are found in nature.* Meanwhile, resources can be shared in a variety of ways. In a libertarian commons, no one owns the assets at all; since there are no property rights, everyone shares. In a communitarian commons, a tight group of people owns a resource jointly. Membership may come as a birthright, as in peasant villages. Members can't sell or trade their rights. Some such communities are very stable and efficient because there are thick bonds of trust and obligation within the group. In a voluntary/associational commons, membership is a matter of choice. One can join and quit at will (although joining may be subject to the group's approval). Whether it's an informal network or a registered 501(c)3, the association jointly owns certain assets. But associations differ from corporations in that ownership is not divisible, proportional to investment, or purchasable. If you quit the association, you simply renounce your stake. Finally, in a democratic commons, the government owns and manages assets and holds them in public trust. Combining the "made"/"found" distinction with the type of governance yields the following taxonomy:

      "found" "made"
    libertarian the oceans, the ozone layer; works of art from the past that are now in the public domain the Internet; open-source software; science, when it reflects R.K. Merton's CUDOS norms
    communitarian coastal fishing villages and other communities that subsist on natural resources; very conservative religious communities rural communities that create and share common pool resources, such as Alpine meadows and water districts; public spaces that belong to tight communities rather than democratic states
    voluntary/associational preservationist organizations that are stewards of some natural or cultural heritage clubs, religious congregations, political parties
    democratic oil reserves, national forests public spaces such as squares and museums; laws, legislative bodies


    All of these forms have advantages and disadvantages. However, I am especially enthusiastic about voluntary/associational commons that make goods. They are the heart of Tocquevillian civil society, in my view. Communitarian commons are too restrictive--and libertarian commons, too fragile--for my taste. In a lot of my scholarly and practical work, I'm trying to give the libertarian commons known as the Internet more of an associational feel.

    *The "made"/"found" distinction is really a matter of degree and can certainly be debated in particular cases. Simon Schama, in Landscape and Memory, argues that almost all "natural" landscapes have actually been deeply influenced by people.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:04 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    January 3, 2005

    the civic significance of "problem-solving courts"

    Rekha Mirchandani has written a fascinating short essay with the somewhat forbidding title, "Battered Women's Movement Ideals and Judge-Led Social Change in Domestic Violence Courts." It's in The Good Society, which is unfortunately not online.

    Domestic violence courts are an example of specialized judicial bodies; other examples include drug courts, mental health courts, and community courts. These bodies have been created since the 1980s to increase efficiency by streamlining the resolution of many similar cases. For example, all drug cases in a particular community may go to the "drug court." Each type of court is also a response to a social movement that has demanded special attention to its issue. A third motive for creating such courts is to combine punishment with counseling and other services.

    Thus domestic-violence courts were created to increase efficiency but also in response to demands from the women's movement. Feminists argued that battery was a deep (but remediable) social problem, arising because people viewed masculinity in terms of "power and control" and therefore excused criminal behavior when it occurred within households. Feminists sought domestic violence courts as a way to ensure that their concerns were addressed.

    As Mirchandani notes, we often assume that there's a tradeoff between efficiency (on one hand) and moral thoughtfulness, discretion, and dialogue (on the other). Domestic-violence courts achieve marked gains in efficiency by standardizing the treatment of similar cases and delegating most tasks to prosecutors and clerks. Defendants who plead guilty are moved rapidly through a series of steps from plea-bargaining to counseling and mandatory community-service, overseen but not personally managed by the judge. As a result, judges are able to devote their time to crafting the overall process, listening to victims and defendants, and making statements at appropriate times.

    For example, a judge may tell a victim who is present in court, "Nothing justifies the use of force. ... You do not need to take responsibility for what he did. He has to appreciate what he did." The judge may also tell a group of convicted fathers that domestic violence tends to recur in families. Thus, "You can make a big difference for your family now and for your child's family later and down on through the generations. It's a big responsibility. It's a big contribution to the community." (By the way, I hope that judges listen as well as lecture.)

    In short, the gains in efficiency that come from standardization allow the legal system (a) to respond effectively to a legitimate demand for more attention to domestic violence; and (b) to engage in a dialogue with defendants and victims, using ideas that first developed within a social movement and were later endorsed by a democratic government. Mirchanandi concludes, "In domestic violence courts, we see the values of efficiency and the values of social change, traditionally conceived as oppositional, coexisting pleasantly and effectively side by side."

    Domestic-violence courts are only helpful to the extent that the feminist theory of violence is valid--as I think it is. Drug courts may be less helpful, because their ethical assumptions may be misplaced. (One can even imagine a "problem-solving court" that embodied awful values and allowed a judge to hector cowed defendants with mere prejudices.) However, from the perspective of democratic theory, it is important to recognize that a system can become more responsive and more intentionally ethical as a result of being made more efficient.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:48 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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