« March 2005 | Main | May 2005 »

April 28, 2005

New Voices media projects released

A brief post from California--The New Voices project at the University of Maryland has released a list of the ten micro-news projects that we decided to fund this year. In these projects, citizens (not professional journalists) create high-quality news stories and share them with their communities, using all kinds of novel media. Several of my colleagues on the New Voices Advisory Board have contributed comments about the funded projects.

Posted by peterlevine at 4:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 27, 2005

heading West

Today, among other tasks, I'll be helping to choose the projects that CIRCLE will fund under our "youth-led research" grant competition. We have hundreds of applications to choose from, many excellent. All across the country, groups of adolescents are conducting research on issues that range from gentrification and disparities in local school funding to teen pregnancy and crime. Many have applied to us for small grants to pursue this work.

After the meeting, I'm on my way to California for a conference on civic education convened by the state's Judicial Conference. My family and I will then spend Friday and the weekend on vacation along the California coast, so I don't really expect to post again until Monday.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:38 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 26, 2005

foundations and k-12 education

Last fall, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute wrote an article in Philanthropy that was largely critical of the "new" education funders: especially the Bill & Melinda T. Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Milken Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation. According to his article, the "old" funders used to assume that education needed more money, so they gave cash to schools (or to students). The "new" funders believe, in contrast, that ordinary grants won't make much difference, because total foundation support for education amounts to less than $2 billion, compared to about $427 billion in public funds for k-12 schools. (These figures come from Jay Greene's paper). Thus the "new" funders aim to use their money as leverage to change education policy.

Their ideologies and strategies are diverse. Some fund charter schools, some give school systems incentives to introduce merit pay, and some subsidize transitions to small schools. In his article, Hess endorsed the idea of trying to change policies, but he argued that the new funders are not particularly effective. Yesterday, AEI held a conference that gave a wide variety of speakers a chance to address Hess' thesis. (Philanthropy also gave Hess' targets a chance to respond.) I was only able to attend the AEI event briefly, but the papers are online.

People certainly disagree about what changes we should be trying to effect in school systems. But even if we agreed about the desirable changes, there would still be a debate about philanthropy's proper role. Either,

a) Given the relatively small amount of money available to philanthropy and the deep problems evident in public school systems, funders throw their money away if they merely support schools. They are obligated to use their resources as leverage to achieve fundamental changes in educational policy.

or ...

b) Public schools are controlled by the public through elections. It is undemocratic for rich organizations to try to change school policies. This is also a dangerous approach, since foundations have often been deeply misguided. For example, the current effort to create small high schools, which I find attractive, can be seen as a response to the effort to create large schools in the 1950s. Both efforts were heavily funded by precisely the same foundations.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:53 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 25, 2005

how to argue for the moral value of literature

At least since Ovid (see EI.VI:1-54), some people have argued that reading fine literature improves us morally. In particular, fiction and poetry are supposed to enhance our empathy and make us more humane. This effect is a staple theme--perhaps even a cliche--of commencement addresses and English textbooks.

Judge Richard Posner has considered that case and found it lacking. "There is no evidence," he writes, "that talking about ethical issues improves ethical performance. This is not the place to expound and test a theory of how people become moral. Genes, parental upbringing, interactions with peers, and religion must all play a role. That casuistic analysis stimulated by imaginative works of literature also plays a role is unproven and implausible. Moral philosophers, their students, literary critics, and English majors are no more moral in attitude or behavior than their peers in other fields."

Since Posner wrote that passage, a tidbit of relevant evidence has emerged. A survey sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004 found that reading "literature" (defined as "any novels or short stories, plays, or poetry") correlated with habits of volunteering and charity work when education, gender, income, and race were statistically controlled. This finding is consistent with the theory that stories and poems enhance human sympathies, but the data certainly do not prove causation. Much more social science would have to be conducted before we could assess the impact of various types of literature on various moral attitudes and behaviors, or compare literature to other forms of communication.

Besides, anyone who wants to claim that literature has morally good effects must explain cases in which the opposite is true. For example, I have argued (in an article and a book chapter) that Nabokov's Lolita is a devastating portrait of selfishness, moral blindness, and rape. The four-foot-ten child whom Humbert Humbert calls "Lolita" is actually Dolores Haze (sad and bewildered). She is repulsed by her rapist but maintains a certain dignity despite him.

Unfortunately, many of Nabokov's contemporaries reached the opposite conclusion. Lionel Trilling excused Humbert by claiming that Lolita, "perpetually the cruel mistress, lacked any emotions that could be violated." Robertson Davies asserted that Nobokov's theme was "not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child." Soon the word "Lolita" entered the English language as a synonym for an adolescent temptress (not a pre-adolescent rape victim).* We might conclude that Nabokov's masterpiece had bad effects; it reinforced an urge for selfish sexual "liberation" among leading (male) critics of the 1950s.

That would be true, yet the fault would lie with the critics and not with the text. While some of the early consequences of Lolita were harmful, the book is profoundly good, and one can justify that assessment with a close reading. Even if most literature has negative effects on most people (which is surely too pessimistic), our first duty is still to use it for our own moral growth and improvement.

In short, I believe that literature is morally justified, but not because of its consequences. One might ask what is so great about stories if even the morally best ones can have bad effects. I would answer: if you read it correctly, a good narrative contains moral truth--which is available nowhere else. In my current work, I'm trying to explain what makes a morally good narrative and a morally good reading.

*One of the search terms that often brings people to this website is "Lolita." I don't think they are looking for articles about Nabokov's ethics, but I hope this entry will make them pause. The word "Lolita" derives from a book about a lecherous middle-aged man who rapes a child and then tries to justify his behavior in hundreds of pages of brilliantly insidious rhetoric. Despite Humbert's best efforts to dominate and control his readers, Dolores' perspective emerges between the lines. Abused but unbroken, she is Nabokov's greatest heroine.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:04 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 22, 2005

the civic education movement comes of age

Between 1970 and 2000, most academic researchers said that adults' political and civic behavior was not affected by what they had learned in their schools. In short, civic education didn't work. Meanwhile, schools were moving away from their traditional mission of creating good citizens--among other things, by dropping their courses on civics, government, and contemporary issues. Nevertheless, some nonprofit groups labored to provide good civics textbooks and curricula; some teachers worked hard to implement those programs or ones of their own devising; and a few scholars collected data on civic development.

Because that body of research and educational work existed, it was possible around 2000-2 to gather the field together in several venues and forums (at the Education Commission of the States, under the aegis of NACE, and then at the invitation of Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE). At these meetings, the participants agreed that there were specific forms of civic education that worked, as shown by fairly rigorous research; but public policies needed to be changed to allow all students to benefit. One result of those discussions was the launch of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, whose Steering Committee met today.

At the meeting, which I chaired, we were shown an elaborate website that allows anyone to find civic education "practices" (curricula, programs, etc) by type, state, purpose, or grade level. This website is a useful tool created by the Campaign. More important, it collects much of the valuable work on which the campaign itself is based. The launch of the website is thus a significant symbolic moment for my little community.

We also saw (most of us for the first time) a set of exam and survey questions that can be used to assess civic learning. These quuestions have been selected by some of my colleagues from hundreds of tests and surveys conducted since 1973. Their collection of vetted and approved questions is another handy tool--and another symbol of past work that supports current and future practice.

Posted by peterlevine at 4:30 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 21, 2005

me on the radio, from down under

People are interested right now in the "Straussians"--the somewhat cliquish followers of the late Leo Strauss, some of whom hold influential political positions in the Bush Administration. In my Nietzsche book, I argued that Leo Strauss was not the conservative proponent of natural law that he appeared to be on the surface; he was actually a secret Nietszchean with radical, "postmodern" beliefs. This interpretation became the basis of my novel Something to Hide. I've summarized the arguments in a previous blog. Recently, I was interviewed on the subject for an Australian radio program. The audio file is available here.

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

April 20, 2005

youth protest and media bias

Yesterday, I heard Sarah A. Soule, an Arizona sociologist, present a paper on "Student Protest and Youth Collective Action in the United States, 1960-1990." She and her colleagues have coded thousands of stories from The New York Times that mention a wide range of collective political actions, from riots and "melees" to lawsuits and petitions. Their huge dataset allows them to observe the frequency of youth protests over time, the rate of collective action on any particular topic (e.g., civil rights), the percentage of protests that involve violence, and many other matters. I won't "scoop" Soule by describing her results in any detail, but they are deeply interesting. One unsurprising result is a substantial decline in student protest between 1970 and 1990, partly offset by a rise in campus events that favored White supremacy during the 1980s.

Reliance on The New York Times raises methodological issues. It's certainly possible that The Times has a consistent bias--or worse, has changed its bias over time, thus giving an inaccurate impression of trends in actual political behavior. Soule is something of an expert on media bias, so she is well equipped to handle the methodological problems. Nevertheless, most of the questions from the floor yesterday pressed her hard on the potential for bias. I may be reading too much into these questions, but I thought I detected the following implicit idea: The Times (a representative of what one person called the "corporate media") avoids reporting on leftist protests, especially those led by students and youth. In reality, youth opinion is further to the left than we think, but the press overlooks the evidence, thereby making elites feel that they can move to the right.

All I can say is, I wish it were so. If anything, I suspect that The Times is biased in favor of reporting certain types of liberal student protest. For example, it gave very intensive coverage to the anti-Apartheid student movement that developed at Yale while I was an undergrad there. (After all, there's a Times stringer on campus.) It gives hardly any attention to campuses of comparable size and location whose students are more likely to be mainstream conservatives. Quinnipiac University, Albertus Magnus College, and Southern Connecticut State are all very near Yale but never make The Times. Meanwhile, The Times has mentioned the Campus Crusade for Christ just 76 times in the last 33 years, according to Nexis; and most of those mentions were incidental. Campus Crusade for Christ claims 110,000 staff and trained volunteers.

I mention these factoids not because I am conservative or angry at the "liberal media," but only because I believe good strategy begins by facing reality. Soule's data, major opinion surveys, and personal observations all tell us that committed young leftists are relatively rare today, and there is a groundswell of genuine grassroots support for conservative causes. That should be the beginning of the conversation.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:06 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 19, 2005

Suzanne Morse

Suzanne Morse has launched a blog. She's just getting started, but this is a significant development, since Suzanne, President of the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, plays an important role in our increasingly coherent and robust movement for civic renewal. The movement, as I see it, encompasses all efforts to enhance the capacity of citizens to address common problems--including civic education, national and community service, community planning and asset-mapping, public deliberation, civic journalism, and new collaborative uses of the Internet. Suzanne has been deeply involved in many of these fields. I've been learning from her since I was a sophomore in college--or, as she says, since before my hair turned gray.

Suzanne's blog mostly reports news from the civic renewal field. It joins a set of "newsy" sites on related topics, all structured as blogs. See, for example, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools Community Exchange, the Public Journalism Network, and the National Council for Dialogue and Deliberation's Thataway Forum. It occurs to me that a page (possibly the one you are looking at) could present the latest entries from all these blogs via RSS feed and thereby indicate what's going on, day-by-day, in the movement. Can anyone recommend software that places RSS feeds on a blog page?

Posted by peterlevine at 8:00 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 18, 2005

the left and liberty

Bill Galston has an important article in the Washington Monthly entitled, "Taking Liberty: Liberals ignore and conservatives misunderstand America's guiding value: freedom." Although Bill is my boss and friend, we have never discussed this essay or its arguments. I basically endorse it, but I would put the matter in a slightly different way.

The deepest political change in North America, Europe, and East Asia since World War II has been a great increase in the importance and value of individual choice. We can observe this change in family structures and courtship practices, labor markets and educational institutions, media offerings and cultural identities, and religious denominations and political parties across the industrialized world. It is bad news for traditionalists, communitarians, trade-unionists, and democratic socialists, but good news for libertarians of all stripes.

Indeed, three major libertarian groups are influential today:

1. Right-libertarians argue that unregulated markets are the linchpin of all freedom. To be sure, markets require certain virtues that do not arise naturally or automatically. However, right-libertarians are confident that voluntary associations can promote these virtues better than states. Governments are prone to use their financial and police power to restrict choice in insidious ways.
2. Liberal libertarians argue that people are freer when they receive government financial support; but state funds should come without strings attached. For instance, schools, welfare systems, and arts programs should provide students, poor individuals, and artists (respectively) with economic resources, but should not intervene further in their individual decisions. I think that liberal libertarianism has been the dominant ideology of the national Democratic Party since the 1970s.
3. Radical libertarians and anarchists criticize both states and markets for restricting liberty. In contrast to liberal libertarians, they are deeply suspicious of governments, so instead of decrying cuts to welfare and education, they try to build private non-market alternatives.

I am somewhat libertarian myself, but I worry that choice isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Choice trades off against solidarity, equity, and security. It can even be a kind of trap, when we make decisions based on our own past experiences and preferences and are never forced to expand our horizons. It seems to me unfair to give young people lots of choices and then expect them to bear the consequences of their mistakes. As for poor people--I'm not sure that they can gain substantial political power without belonging to disciplined organizations (like unions) that restrict their choices. Finally, there is something to be said for what Benjamin Constant called the "liberty of the ancients", that is, the ability to participate in weighty group decisions. To the extent that individuals make all the important choices for themselves (the "liberty of the moderns"), collective decision-making becomes inconsequential, and then we lose a kind of liberty.

Notwithstanding all these worries, I agree with my boss Bill that the tide is running with individual freedom. To criticize choice in favor of equity or solidarity is a losing strategy. Galston recommends: (1) emphasizing that classic liberal programs, such as Social Security, actually benefit individual freedom; and (2) revising some progressive programs so that they promote equity in maximally libertarian ways (for instance, via vouchers). I'm afraid that this strategy will never allow us to address some of the real disadvantages of choice. In fact, to paraphase Churchill, I suspect it's the worst strategy--except for all the others that we've tried already.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:40 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 15, 2005

youth arts projects & civic engagement

Last Wednesday, I was privileged to visit an arts program in Washington. A very diverse group of more than 50 kids work together all year, starting by discussing the issues that concern them most and ultimately producing an original musical about those themes. The students come from fancy private schools, from ordinary suburban schools, and from troubled DC schools. They represent diverse cultural backgrounds, but all seem to be articulate and confident, mutually respectful, artistically talented, and skilled at handling their differences.

As far as I can tell, they address issues connected to individual behavior and attitudes. For instance, a gay member of the group had recently been attacked by pipe-wielding bigots, which launched a discussion. Apparently, the group had previously discussed why its white members tend to take over conversations. One participant said she balances strong Christian faith with liberal attitudes toward sexuality--evidently creating some tension inside her family.

These are the concerns that will animate their musical production. They are important issues, they emerge from the students' daily experience, they can be dramatized in a theatrical performance, and they allow kids to use the interpersonal and expressive skills that they are good at.

While I was talking to these kids, my wife happened to be attending a DC City Council hearing on education. There she learned that the DC school system spends $11,000 per student per annum, but only about $5,000 is spent in schools for each pupil who attends. Part of the extra $6,000 goes to an extremely expensive system for leasing private buses to transport special-ed kids. Some of it goes for overhead in the downtown headquarters.

As they work on their musical, it's unlikely that the kids in the arts group will move from their personal experience with racism, sexism, class-inequality, and homophobia to issues like the DC school budget, or unemployment, or criminal law. Several said that they loved the program because it forced them to "take risks" and "move outside their comfort zone." I respect those feelings, but I note that a different kind of program might confront them with the budget for their own school system and teach them to analyze it critically. I suspect that a balance sheet would fall much further outside their "comfort zones" than even the most emotional discussion of sexism. After all, they can observe other young people discussing personal behavior on reality-TV shows. They have volunteered for the arts program because they are interested in such discussions. But it's unlikely that anyone has ever taught them to perform roles that are essential in their community: fiscal watchdog, policy analyst, expert witness, reporter, lobbyist.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:03 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 14, 2005

a resurgence of community media?

I spent most of last Monday with my colleagues on the J-Lab New Voices Advisory Board, going through 250 applications for "micro-news" projects so that we could pick the top ten to fund. (J-Lab will announce the winners soon.) I was impressed by the exciting things people are doing today with community blogs, elaborate "content management systems" that allow many citizens to contribute news to local websites, and "podcasting" projects (in which people make audio news files that others can elect to receive automatically over the Internet). Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis (who's also a J-Lab advisor) have been describing many of these projects on their blogs.

It makes me think that maybe we're seeing a second wave of efforts to use the Internet for civic purposes.

The last surge occurred in the mid-1990s, when grassroots civic groups often provided free email accounts and helped local citizens and organizations to establish free web pages and discussion forums. For example, in Charlotte, NC, a community computer network called “Charlotte’s Web” once offered free email and Web access to at least 6,000 people, including residents of public housing projects and homeless men. Hundreds of local churches and civic groups created pages for the Charlotte’s Web site with help from volunteer webmasters.

However, private companies soon offered the same basic services (free email and Website hosting), and the Charlotte Observer started its own Website devoted to “community.” Local government agencies decided that they no longer needed to fund Charlotte’s Web, since residents could get all the same goods free of charge from the private sector. When government grants vanished, the bank executives on Charlotte’s Web’s board judged that it was no longer viable. The Observer offered to join forces and was rebuffed by the volunteers at Charlotte’s Web, who were suspicious of a corporate enterprise. But when Charlotte’s Web ran out of funds, the Observer bought all of its assets and canceled the free Internet access program. Gradually, the community-oriented, civic, and political aspects of the new commercial site have vanished. Today, it has nothing to say about local nonprofits; and there is no space for citizens to describe their own work. It is a glitzy, professional site, full of advertising.

Charlotte’s Web failed because there were insufficient nonprofit resources to produce goods such as email accounts and web hosting that the market can provide more efficiently. This was a typical story in the mid- to late-1990s. However, the new wave of collaborative, community-oriented work uses technologies that have developed since 2000: blogs, wikis, podcasting, and the like. The cost of these activities is lower and the potential may be greater.

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

April 13, 2005

the youth "lifeworld"

Before we try to engage young people in politics and civic life, it's important to understand their day-to-day concerns, habits, and background assumptions--what Lew Friedland calls their "lifeworld." As a start, consider the following data from the Reboot survey that I mentioned yesterday (pdf; go to p. 19). Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 said that they were "very worried" about the following issues:

getting a sexually transmitted disease 35%
your grades at school 26%
finding a job when you get out of school 23%
maintaining good relationships with your friends 19%
getting along with your parents 18%
your relationship with God 18%
deciding who to vote for 15%
making sure you are contributing to your community 11%
finding a spouse 7%
finding a girlfriend or boyfriend 4%
I was not surprised to find voting and contributing to the community pretty far down the list. (By the way, people probably overstated their concern for these matters because they know that they should care about them.) I was somewhat surprised to see the risk of STDs at the very top of the survey, and finding a girlfriend or boyfriend at the very bottom. I think my age cohort would have reversed that ordering, even though we came of age after AIDS.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:19 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 12, 2005

civic advantages of religion

Yesterday, a group called Reboot released a poll on young Americans' religiosity. My organization, CIRCLE, was a major funder of the survey, which contains numerous fascinating results. In my usual way, I refer you to the study itself for the main findings; here I present some data that just happened to interest me.

Pollster Anna Greenberg divided the full sample of 18-25-year old Americans into three groups: the Godly, the Godless, and the undecided middle. In almost all respects, the Godly are most likely to participate in civic life. They don't only volunteer more and participate in more religious groups; they are also more likely to protest and to buy "green" products. However, levels of religious faith and attendance are much lower for today's young Americans than for their predecessors. Therefore, it's not surprising that rates of civic participation are lower (leaving aside school-based volunteering, which has increased).

Posted by peterlevine at 8:14 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 11, 2005

using campaign money for relatives

As most American readers know by now, the New York Times reported last week that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has paid $500,000 of his campaign money to his wife and daughter since 2001. DeLay responded angrily to the Times report, noting that other Members of Congress (including two prominent Democrats) have also put relatives on their campaign payrolls. He accused the Times of personally attacking him for ideological reasons.

Indeed, the DeLay case is symptomatic of a broader, bipartisan problem (although that does not excuse the Majority Leader, whose half-a-million-dollar payment dwarfed the other nepotistic arrangements cited in the press). Congress has closed most opportunities to give things of value to elected officials, on the ground that donors might use gifts to buy influence. Under the Buckley v Valeo Supreme Court decision, we don't have a constitutional right to give money to politicians. However, under Buckley, we do have a right to give money to political campaigns. Electioneering is understood as a form of communication, as "speech." Thus paying for elections is covered by the First Amendment. Congress may limit the size of campaign donations, but may not ban them altogether.

The underlying theory of Buckley implies that candidates may use donations to campaign, but not for their personal enrichment. However, most incumbent Members of the House are safe in most elections. Therefore, they are not forced by competition to spend their money efficiently on electioneering. It is hard to know how the average incumbent spends his or her money, since spending reports are not combined into one dataset that can be analyzed easily. But when reporters from the LA Times aggregated all the expenditure reports in 1992, they found that House candidates spent only 27 percent of their funds on broadcast advertising, and another quarter on other forms of campaigning (such as direct mail and canvassing). They used most of their money for activities that benefited them without advancing their campaigns: lavish travel budgets, nice offices, meals, payrolls. Thus large campaign donations made politicians' lives more comfortable; they did not purchase "speech."

Mr. DeLay's contracts with his wife and daughter fit that pattern. They were campaign expenditures, thus protected as free speech under Buckley, yet their sheer size suggests that personal enrichment was a motive. The legal question becomes whether the payments so far exceeded market value that they did not represent "campaigning" at all.

Along with many other people, I feel that the Court erred in Buckley by equating "speech" with money. I would have no constitutional objection if all campaign contributions were banned. However, I don't think that reducing--or even prohibiting--private contributions would fix the system, because wealthy interests would simply pay for their own advertising, canvassing, and other forms of campaigning. Banning independent expression is impossible if we have free speech. For instance, my blog might conceivably help or hurt a candidate, and then it would represent an "independent campaign expenditure." But regulating my blog would violate my First Amendment rights. Thus, in my view, the only real solution is to provide free forms of communication (such as advertising time, televised debates, and mailings) that become important parts of campaigns. These free opportunities would be equally distributed to challengers and incumbents; they would be untainted by private interests; and they would be genuine "speech" rather than lifestyle-enhancements for politicians.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:43 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 8, 2005

exemplary civic projects

Within the last week, I've heard about two excellent projects. They each deserve a full post, but they also go so nicely together that I'll mention both here:

Citizen Joe is a website that provides substantive, ideologically balanced introductions to policy debates. It offers "weekly updates on the major bills being voted on in Congress," "guides to key policy issues with facts and a balanced pro & con," and "facts on over fifty policy areas with recommended links for readers who want to find out more." There is also a short, basic guide to civic engagement. I looked carefully at the subject areas that I'm supposed to know something about, such as education policy, and I found the guides accurate, balanced, and up-to-date. However, what's really impressive about this site is its origin. A band of volunteers have created it through their own free labor. At a time when the policy debate is fractured and shrill and the mass media typically neglect to explain basic matters of substance, it's great to see a few citizens work together to educate themselves and the public.

Orange Band is a student-organized project that has reached about 6,000 people so far. Organizers distribute "4x18 inch strips of orange fabric" to fellow students. Those who accept a strip write the name of an issue on it, thereby signalling their willingness to discuss that issue with people they meet. Many students wear the strips on a single campus, creating an impression of a community that is open to discussion. Orange Band also organizes educational forums on issues, with "with speakers, panelists, and video showings."

Posted by peterlevine at 1:08 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 6, 2005

Democrats on government waste

This is a fascinating chart from the Pew Research Center's "Trends" report.

Once upon a time, a Democrat was someone who believed that most existing government programs were worthwhile. A Republican was someone who thought that most government programs were a waste of money. There is now no difference between the parties on this question, although Democrats are slightly more likely to view federal programs as wasteful.

I suspect that Republican voters became more positive about government after the Clinton-era welfare reform, which ended the traditional federal subsidy to poor women with children. Perhaps they became even more positive once their party ran the government, and the most conspicuous federal programs became the "war on terror" and the invasion of Iraq (plus Social Security and Medicare)--all of which they support.

Conversely, Democratic voters don't like the administration's foreign policy adventures or the people in charge of them, and that may be part of the reason that they see government as wasteful. But here's an additional hypothesis that would help explain the current weakness of the left. Many Democrats have come to see existing government programs--including welfare, education, health, and housing initiatives--as wasteful. This suspicion has a profound effect on politics; it means that a Democratic candidate cannot whole-heartedly or passionately advocate a different position from the Republicans'. Even his or her core constituency doesn't believe that government programs really get good results. The best that Democrats can do is what Kerry did in '04: talk vaguely about the need for health care reform, knowing pretty well than any particular legislation is dead on arrival. All that's left is the ethical commitment to universal health insurance without any confidence that it can be achieved.

I see two main responses: (1) Democrats and liberals are simply demoralized, led into pessimism and cyncism by years of anti-state propaganda. They need to snap out of it--not just the leadership, but also the voters. Or (2) existing federal programs have a record of wastefulness and damage that has become too hard to ignore. We just can't overlook farm subisidies, huge prisons, urban neighborhoods bulldozed by HUD, and even large school systems like the one my kid is in, with high per-pupil spending but insufficient money trickling down to classrooms. Furthermore, no one has shown us how federal money might solve problems like rust-belt unemployment, high crime and incarceration, or global poverty.

If (2) is true, the Democrats aren't going anywhere until they develop bold and persuasive plans for reforming government.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:33 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Justice O'Connor on the independence of the judiciary

Last night, I attended Streetlaw's first annual awards dinner. As chair of the awards committee, I had the honor of presenting the Teacher of the Year award to Fred Cole from Marquette, Michigan, a fine social studies instructor who brings the Constitution alive in his classes.

Streetlaw's Chesterfield Smith award went to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who gave a speech about the rule of law. She emphasized the importance of civic education (in general) and Streetlaw's programs (in particular) as a foundation for a strong system of impartial justice. Before she took the podium, the American Bar Association President, Robert J. Grey, Jr., had given the evening's keynote address, in which he had explicitly criticized elected officials for trying to put pressure on the judiciary in the Terri Schiavo case. (Grey is quoted in today's New York Times on the same subject.) Justice O'Connor paused in the middle of her written defense of judicial independence to say (I paraphrase her closely): "And thank you, Robert Grey, for your earlier remarks on that subject. It's been a little troublesome lately in that respect."

When Congress passes a bill of attainder, attempting to coerce the judiciary to reach the conclusion it prefers, and then members of Congress explain the killing of judges as a reaction to public frustration with the judiciary, it's obvious what the true "conservative" response should be. Justice O'Connor provided it last night, in her pointed and rather tart defense of judicial independence, separation of powers, and rule of law.

(Senator Cornyn's full speech that caused all the controversy included some coveats and qualifications--and overlooked the Schiavo case completely. But there was an inflammatory passage that he must have expected to be noticed and quoted:

"Finally, I don't know if there is a cause-and-effect connection, but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country--certainly nothing new; we seem to have run through a spate of courthouse violence recently that has been on the news. I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters on some occasions where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds and builds to the point where some people engage in violence, certainly without any justification, but that is a concern I have that I wanted to share.")

Posted by peterlevine at 9:49 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 5, 2005

New York's aesthetic

I went back to New York yesterday, to hear former Governor Jim Hunt, Federal Judge (and Pennsylvania First Lady) Midge Rendell, Wendy Puriefoy of the Public Education Network, and others speak in support of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools.

As a child and a young adult, I spent a lot of time in New York City, and it left a powerful imprint. However, I don't get there much these days. With the benefit of distance, I decided yesterday that the city's distinctive aesthetic can be captured by three simple concepts.

First, it is a strongly rectangular place, on account of the famous Manhattan street grid and the vertical rectangles of the buildings. Second, everything seems to be covered with fine, intricate patterns. That's because you can see a long way in Manhattan: far along the straight streets and up the sides of the buildings (or down them, if you're inside). In a city like Washington, you can't get far enough away from a window or a car to see it as a shiny point in a pattern. If you do get a distant view of a building, it lies low on the horizon, so that most of your visual field is sky and trees: lumps of color. But in New York, the distant windows and balconies etch regular patterns on the massive rectangles all around you, patterns that are complicated by tree limbs, wires, cornices, fire-escapes, and signs. The rows of buildings make thin vertical stripes as they recede toward the vanishing point; and the cars on Park Avenue or the FDR Drive are numerous enough to form their own mosaics. Even human crowds turn into patterns.

Third, New York is huge. Even if you’re moving quickly in a car down a long avenue, you're conscious that there's much, much more of the central city than what you can see. In this respect, it's different from the densest and tallest sections of Chicago or Philadelphia.

Rectangularity, delicate pattern, and vast scale: these three concepts combine to give New York (and especially Manhattan) its distinctive look. Within this structure, more concrete and idiosyncratic aspects of the city awaken my oldest memories: the quick double-taps on car horns, the smell of chestnuts and hotdog-water from vending carts, the deadened roar of traffic heard from 20 or 40 stories up; the surge of pedestrians jay-walking at the first break in traffic.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:19 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 4, 2005

high schools in a high-risk era (2)

Here's another take on an issue that I've written about recently, the "rat race" in our high schools:

We live in an era of expanded opportunities. There are more careers and lifestyles to choose from. Some people have confidence that they can innovate successfully, realizing their private ideas and goals. The "dot-com" expansion of the late 1990s was just an example of that opportunistic spirit.

The other side of the coin is individualized risk. We don't have as many strong, tight-knit neighborhood communities as we used to. The array of voluntary associations has changed; fewer groups provide guaranteed support in return for long-term commitment. The government's safety net is weaker, and fewer people belong to unions. Corporations don't even pretend to offer long-term job security. Public-sector careers are less desirable than in the past.

If your job is to educate adolescents in this climate, then you may feel that you must tell them about these opportunities and risks. They cannot rely on peers, communities, or voluntary associations to get ahead. Instead, they must develop marketable skills. A skill or experience that can be recognized formally is better than one that eludes classification.

There is one national or international employment market; many kids would be smart to get out of their own neighborhoods, family networks, and cities in order to compete in that market. College is the first step out. Public Agenda Foundation recently polled a national sample of young adults and conducted some focus groups of the same population. One young Hispanic man reported the message that he had received from his parents, which was fairly typical: "It's basically, you go to college you get to live well. ... They used to tell me and my brothers and sisters, 'Do you want to be succcessful? Do you want to live in a house? ... Go to college.'"

Unfortunately, only about two thirds of adolescents (and half of Latinos and African Americans) complete high school; and only about one third attend college. Colleges are arrayed in a national "pecking order" of prestige. They all demand roughly the same skills and experiences from their applicants. Every kid had better try to get into college, and the "best" college he or she can.

One young adult in the Public Agenda study gave this advice to a younger sibling who is just entering high school: "Know your conselor and tell her, 'This is what I want to do; help me find the best school that I could get into.'" If teachers and counselors fail to teach working class and rural or inner-city kids how to play the game, then those students will have an extra, unfair disadvantage versus the children of yuppies, who understand the rules.

There are advantages to this new system, but it also has some disadvantages. First, teenagers are being asked to make decisions that have excessively serious long-term consequences. While adults should normally pay the price for decisions we make, it's too much to ask unsupported 14-year-olds to make choices that will affect them 30 years later.

Second, schools face two basically unpalatable choices. They can try to motivate all their students to play the game as hard and as well as possible (which is difficult and creates intense pressure), or they can serve as "gatekeepers," deciding which kids may take honors courses, which ones may serve on the school newspaper, which ones may apply to Harvard. Then schools have enormous power.

Third, everything seems to matter only for its impact on adult life. Kids don't learn because subjects are interesting; they don't participate in extracurricular groups because they're fun. Instead, they do what they need for their resumes. In the Public Agenda survey, 49% of young adults said that college is most important because it provides "a credential that employers with good jobs look for"; 26% said that it's important because it "helps make you a responsible adult"; and 23% say it's important because it provides "real skills."

Finally, this kind of pressure is not good for civic learning, because it doesn't reward students for caring about their immediate surroundings--their peers and communities. It doesn't teach cooperation. It doesn't emphasize shared or public problems, because the only goal is to impart individualized "human capital" for the marketplace.

If all this is roughly right, then the question is: Can high schools be redesigned so that they promote collaboration, equity and mixing, concern for community, and civic skills? Will that kind of reform simply leave working class kids at a disadvantage in the race against yuppy children whose parents know how to make sure they obtain "human capital"? Or can small "learning communities," authentic "service opportunities," and "community-based learning," make life better for all adolescents?

In some ways, this is the heart of the debate about high school reform, as reflected in recent public statements by Margaret Spellings, Diane Ravitch, and others. The key question is: Must we ratchet up the pressure on all students (and their teachers) so that everyone gets off to a better start in the marketplace? Or can we make high schools a partial refuge from an intensely competitive world in order to enhance other values?

Posted by peterlevine at 7:33 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 1, 2005

sticks and stones ...

Civility is important. When public figures attack individuals and their motives rather than ideas and policies, they can make it harder to work together--even on completely unrelated issues. Furthermore, politics as a whole can become unpleasant, in which case some citizens will avoid participating.

Tom DeLay and his friends have certainly not been "civil" in their response to the Schiavo case:

'The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today,' said Mr. DeLay. .. Saying that the courts 'thumbed their nose at Congress and the president,' Mr. DeLay, of Texas, suggested Congress was exploring responses and declined to rule out the possibility of Congressional impeachment of the judges involved. [...] Dr. James C. Dobson, the founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family, said the judges who would not stop the removal of Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube were 'guilty not only of judicial malfeasance' but of the cold-blooded, cold-hearted extermination of an innocent human life."

I am not going to defend these statements, but I will propose some reasons not to take them overly seriously.

First, although civility is desirable, it is not always possible. Politics is infused with life-and-death issues, and people on all sides of the debate have principled reasons to hold their opponents guilty of killing. DeLay, Dobson, and their allies think that judges killed Terri Schiavo. Many of my friends and colleagues believe that George W. Bush has "cold-bloodedly" and "cold-heartedly" sent American soldiers and Iraqi civilians to their deaths. When the Environmental Protection Agency sets an allowable level of pollution, it recognizes that x people in 1,000 will die as a result. Yet if it were to choose a lower level, possibly jobs would be lost and people would die from the resulting stress, crime, and suicide. Cuts in health spending may cause people to die. Certainly the electric chair kills.

This list is not meant to make light of any of the accusations that people make against judges, President Bush, Congress, or the EPA. Some of the charges are valid, and it's important to decide which are fair and which are not. At the same time, it's inevitable that political antagonists will see their opponents as guilty of homicide. We can't expect them to keep their beliefs secret, yet we must be able to live together in a peaceful polity.

Perhaps we should try to enhance civility by creating appropriate forums for moderated discussions, teaching young people to deliberate about serious issues--and marginalizing the likes of James Dobson. But ultimately, we need stronger measures than good manners and habits of deliberation. For example, federal judges are protected by life tenure. They should recognize that this privilege exists precisely because the elected branches of government are likely to lash out at them from time to time. Their responsibility is to ignore the taunts and keep doing their jobs. If Tom DeLay really tries to impeach them, he is likely to fail humiliatingly in his own House. And if he drops the threat, then the judiciary has won.

Besides, civility involves a tradeoff. On one hand, angry personal accusations can alienate people who want to participate in pleasant, constructive political discussions. On the other hand, passionate accusations can mobilize citizens. Thus, in 2004, when charges of genocide and treason were being flung around on all sides, we saw the highest turnout since 1968 (also a year when rhetoric reached a boiling point). I don't like the current rhetorical temperature, myself, but I don't want to be fastidious or thin-skinned. Although threats may cause violence, I'm not convinced that Tom DeLay's rhetoric has added to anyone's physical endangerment. We shouldn't quickly label rhetoric as dangerous, because then anyone who accused Bush of "murdering" Iraqis would have to be seen a threat to the president.

Posted by peterlevine at 1:10 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Site Meter