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July 29, 2005

the mailbag

I receive relatively few comments per visitor on this blog, but some very thoughtful responses do appear, often buried deep in the archives. Today, I'd like to mention a few.

1. The rationale for business schools. In January 2004, I asked whether "business schools belong in universities." My thought was: business schools do not provide independent, critical views of the pros and cons of business, as political science departments debate the pros and cons of government and politics. Nor do they prepare graduates for professions that license people to practice in return for adherence to elaborate ethical codes. (Compare schools of medicine and law.) Instead, business schools provide practical training that has direct economic value for each graduate. Should this kind of education be subsidized by the state and protected by tenure and peer-review, or would it be better offered by the marketplace? David Jacobs and Hugh Wilmott, two professors of business or management, have similar concerns, and both point me to resources on "critical management studies."

2. The press, moral standing, and an anti-gay preacher. Much more recently, I asked whether television news stations and the Washington Post were justified in camping outside a church to see whether a minister (and former mayoral candidate) would apologize for anti-gay remarks. I wanted to emphasize that the press exercises power when it demands a response from an individual, and that power (while protected by the First Amendment) deserves moral scrutiny. Even if someone says a very bad thing, it doesn't follow that he ought to be forced to apologize--or say "no comment"--on live TV. However, arguments by Mike Weiksner and Richard Russo have persuaded me that I picked a bad example. Given Rev. Wilson's public role in our city, it's appropriate for the press to hold him accountable. (I'll also take this opportunity to emphasize that I personally abhor what he said--but that's a different issue.)

3. "Democracy" or "civic renewal"? Harry Boyte of the University of Minnesota is a major influence on this blog and all my work. He responded recently to my series of posts about the civic renewal movement. His response is characteristically rich and provocative; I'll consider some of his themes in subsequent entries. However, one of his suggestions is quite straightforward. The movement I describe, he says, should be named a struggle for "democracy." That is a word with deep roots and broad, international appeal. "Civic renewal," in contrast, sounds narrow and a bit obscure.

I agree with this, although I think I'll continue to talk about "civic renewal" myself. That's because "democracy" is such a broad term that it covers all kinds of things I disagree with, including the invasion of Iraq. While we should try to reclaim the best aspects of the word "democracy," I don't have enough influence to make much of a difference in how it's used. I like "civic renewal" because anyone who understands it at all knows what it means; it unambiguously names work that I support. But I'd be happy if our work in favor of "civic renewal" fed a movement for "democracy."

Posted by peterlevine at 10:01 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 28, 2005

civic skills, workplace skills (take 2)

I received some interesting comments in response to my recent post on the relationship between democratic education and education for the 21st-century workforce. So here is a different take, influenced by some good points from friends:

1. Jobs in the "information economy" require skills that are also essential for citizenship. Achieve, a nonprofit research organization created by the National Governors Association, has conducted surveys to determine the skills that are most demanded by employers and by college admissions officers (who, in turn, are gatekeepers to most of the best jobs). Achieve finds that successful workers in a knowledge economy must be able to collaborate in teams with diverse partners, communicating clearly and with civility. They must also be able to evaluate news reports critically, distinguish between reliable and unreliable online information, make public presentations, and in many other ways demonstrate skills that are equally necessary in a democratic community.

2. Intentional civic education is a good means to prepare people for skilled employment in the 21st century. Modern civic education includes classes on government, social studies, and history (which may involve debates, research projects, and site visits); service-learning opportunities that often combine practical problem-solving in the community with research and writing; appropriate student participation in the governance of schools; and simulations of lawmaking, judicial processes, and diplomacy. All of these pedagogies--which combine direct, practical experience with reflection on perennial issues and concepts--stand to teach the very skills that colleges and employers increasingly demand.

Nevertheless ...

3. Good education for the job market is not adequate preparation for citizenship. There are two major reasons for this. First, even though all good jobs now require relatively advanced skills, they do not all demand civic skills. For example, the Achieve study finds that two manufacturing occupations that are growing and that pay good wages require advanced mathematics and literacy skills, including the ability to write memoranda and other analytical documents collaboratively. These occupations do not, however, require the ability to make oral presentations or to interpret the news--essential democratic skills. Thus, even in the 21st-century, a person can be well prepared for work and yet lack certain skills that would enable him or her to participate effectively in a democratic community.

Second, democratic participation requires some habits, skills, bodies of knowledge, and attitudes that are unnecessary in almost all jobs. For example, Achieve finds that high school graduates should be able to "analyze foundational U.S. documents for their historical and literary significance (for example, The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, Abraham Lincoln's 'Gettysburg Address,' Martin Luther King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'). Indeed, citizens must understand these texts, which teach us our rights and responsibilities and the purposes of our public institutions. Many colleges rightly expect students to have such understanding--but that is because good colleges care about democracy. There is no necessary connection between understanding the founding documents of the American Republic and being effective in the workplace--as shown by the success of firms and employees in many foreign countries.

4. Communities are more economically successful when their residents have civic commitments and abilities. Statistics reveal a strong correlation between sustained prosperity and "social capital" (i.e., trust for other people and membership in groups). This correlation probably arises because people who work together to address local problems can form economic networks more efficiently, can reduce crime and corruption without as much dependence on the government, can gather and share information about assets and opportunities, and can persuade educated young people to stay in their community. However, successful civic collaboration requires habits and skills that, as Elinor Ostrom has shown, are counter-intuitive and contrary to people's immediate, narrow self-interest. Therefore, participation in communities must be taught; it will not develop automatically.

Put together, these four points support the need for collaboration among civic educators, the business community, and those who are primarily concerned about students' preparation for work. Civic education is not the same as training for the workforce--not even in a knowledge economy. Nevertheless, there is an important overlap between civic skills and workforce skills that suggest the need for dialogue and collaboration.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:53 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 27, 2005

four kinds of unions

It is hard to know whether the breakup of the AFL-CIO is a good move or not. Making a reasonable guess would require a lot of detailed information (which I lack) about the differences among the breakaway unions and the ones that remain. However, from a theoretical perspective, I think it's useful to distinguish four types of unions. These are "ideal types" in Max Weber's sense; in the real world, they overlap and merge.

1. A classic craft union. Members share a similar expertise or training. They do not work for the same firm or even in the same industry; they may be freelancers. They have an interest in limiting the number of workers (or machines) that compete with them. Therefore, they form an association that provides training and licensing as well as other services, from insurance to social activities. In addition, the union tells employers that its members will only work in shops or on projects that are reserved for members alone. A craft union raises its members' wages, but sometimes at the expense of those outside; and it may discriminate in invidious ways.

2. A public employee union. Teachers, police officers, firefighters, and welfare careworkers, among many others, hold difficult jobs in public service for which they often receive lousy wages and poor treatment. Therefore, it seems appropriate for them to organize and use both lobbying and strikes (or the threat of strikes) to protect their own interests. However, given any level of funding for public services, there is always a tradeoff between the interests of public employees and those of their "clients" (problematic as that term may be). Therefore, while I support the right to unionize in the public sector, I do not automatically take the unions' side in actual disputes. In the case of education, which I know best, it seems to me that unions are right to demand higher wages and to oppose arbitrary authority, but wrong to protect seniority systems that send the newest teachers into the "worst" schools.

3. A political lobby. This kind of union organizes as many workers as possible, collects dues in return for representing its members in collective-beargaining, but puts most of its energy and discretionary resources into politics. It sees legislation, rather than employment contracts, as the best means to advance labor's interests. It uses campaign contributions and volunteer labor either to support one party or to bolster pro-labor candidates in both parties. I believe that unions have a right to represent themselves politically (a form of "petition" protected in the First Amendment), and I think that their power can be a useful counterbalance to corporate power. However, there are many problems with this political strategy. Organized labor has limited power in an economy like ours, where many people work in jobs that don't easily unionize. Also, there may be a very loose fit between the opinions of the rank-and-file and the negotiating position of their lobbyists and leaders. Finally, unions enter politics with a fiduciary responsibility to maximize the welfare of their members; therefore, they cannot participate very easily in open-ended deliberations about public policy that might take into account other issues.

4. An industrial union. This kind of union tries to raise its members' salaries, benefits, and security by organizing as many workers as possible within a single industry. Whereas a craft union seeks to limit access to union jobs, an industrial union tries to grow as big as possible. It then uses the threat to withhold labor to strengthen its hand in direct bargaining with employers. An industrial union can make a mistake by demanding more that an industry can genuinely afford. However, I suspect that those mistakes are relatively rare. And barring a strategic error on the part of union leadership, I think the more they win at the bargaining table, the better.

It's probably clear that I prefer "ideal type #4" to the others, although I believe that they too have rights. It appears that SEIU, the main breakaway union, is trying the hardest to be like #4, an industrial union in the old CIO mold. Therefore, my only question is whether SEIU's departure from the AFL-CIO will enhance industrial unionism in America or only hasten its decline.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:43 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 26, 2005

youth-led research on obesity and immigration

There is a cool new movie on the Prince George's Information Commons website that students created as part of a project that I directed. You can click here to view it, but first, some background ....

More than a year ago, we received a grant from the National Geographic Foundation to help high school students study the "geographical causes of obesity." There is an obesity epidemic that's costing lives and that's especially concentrated among adolescents of color; and our students at Northwestern High School were concerned about it. Our idea was to look for causes in the local landscape--in addition to more familiar factors like corporate advertising. This focus seemed promising for two reasons. First, young people might be able to do something about local land-use (and learn political skills in the process), whereas fast-food advertising campaigns are fairly intractable. Second, the literature suggests that local factors do matter. Having connected and well-lit sidewalks encourages walking. Having affordable, convenient sources of fresh produce encourages healthier eating; and so on. We happen to work in an area that is consistently low- to moderate-income, but the development pattern differs dramatically from block to block. Some places are suburban subdivisions; others look like part of a traditional city. So we hoped to explain the variation in food consumption and exercise patterns as a function of street layouts and other land-use patterns. And we hoped to do that as youth-led research, with high school students in charge.

This was too hard. The students did collect some data, but it was very equivocal, incomplete, and imperfect. Therefore, after several changes of course, we focused on a different intersection between geography and nutrition. Northwestern High School has a very large immigrant population, along with African American students who have typically migrated to Maryland from the South via DC. We thought we would investigate the way that food and exercise changed as families moved here from far away.

After many months of work, our student team has created a flash movie to capture their main findings. (They left much information on the cutting-room floor, but culled some highlights for a short video.) Their product is exciting for me, because I was present when all the audio and other data were collected, but I had nothing to do with creating the movie itself. I see some mistakes that need to be corrected sooner or later, but overall, I like it a lot.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:20 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 25, 2005

a quick way to say "re-send"

Here's an easy way to reply when you receive an email without the promised document:

please re-send email with document attached

You are welcome to borrow this image by right-clicking and saving to your computer, or by pasting the following into the source code of your email:

<DIV><IMG alt="please re-send email with document attached"
hspace=0 src="http://www.peterlevine.ws/images/nonattachment.jpg" align=baseline border=0><DIV>

Posted by peterlevine at 6:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 22, 2005

the civic renewal movement and partisanship

In three fairly recent posts, I described a "strong, coherent, interconnected movement for civic renewal" that exists in America despite our sense that official politics is harsh, coarse, and unproductive. (See the first, second, and third posts.) Today my theme is the relationship between this movement and the two main political parties.

I believe that the civic renewal movement should retain a non-partisan core, because one of its main virtues is its open-endness, its neutrality between liberal and conservative ideas, which allows productive deliberation. Nevertheless, I doubt that any political movement can make much progress unless at least one party gets behind it. Partisan support for civic renewal will be inconsistent and strategic, to be sure, but it is crucial.

There is a precedent for that kind of partnership. In the Progressive Era (and at later times, when people pushed for clean, transparent, professional government), independent reformers made important alliances with parties. Sometimes the basis of this alliance was very short-term and tactical: for example, a party might attack "graft" because it was out of power. But there were also deep ideological affinities in both parties. Democrats typically wanted clean government for reasons of equity and efficiency. They assumed that privileged people were most likely to benefit from corruption. When public money was stolen or wasted, needy people would suffer. Republicans typically had moral objections to waste and fraud. Even if most politicians in both parties turned a blind eye to corruption, reforms came periodically from both right and left.

The civic renewal movement is not an attack on corruption, nor a call for professionalism in government. (In fact, "professionalism"--as generally understood--can be part of the problem, if it means that narrowly trained experts displace ordinary citizens.) Nevertheless, the civic renewal movement is like a "good-government" crusade in its relationship to partisan politics. It can serve the narrow, tactical interests of parties, especially when they are out of power; and it can tap deep principles in each party. Yet it is fundamentally different from a partisan movement.

For Democrats, our argument should be that existing state-based programs for helping the poor and disadvantaged do not work terribly well, nor do they have deep popular support. This is because: (a) citizens aren't given important roles to play in these programs--public schools are an excellent example; (b) many of the ideas and models used in the public sector are out-dated; and (c) citizens have so little contact with those unlike themselves that they lack mutual empathy or understanding. Thus we need more public deliberation and more opportunities to work together on concrete public problems. There is a good chance that the result will be more net spending on social programs over the long term, although that remains to be seen.

A Democratic supporter of civic renewal should be especially enthusiastic about:

  • public support for community development corporations, land trusts, and other wealth-generating companies that are accountable to local citizens; see Community-Wealth.org for examples.

  • service-learning, service programs such as YouthBuild and Americorps, and other initiatives that are likely to enhance the civic capacity and empathy of youth.

  • charter schools (and perhaps analogous programs in health and welfare), which give citizens the opportunity to be creative within the public sector.

  • easier certification of unions, because unions build civic skills and social capital.

  • media reform to make space for more voices, including low-powered radio stations and various non-commercial alternatives.
  • For Republicans, the argument should be that technocratic elites have amassed too much power in the state sector; and the market is amoral. If the American people deliberate and work together to solve common problems, they will safeguard traditional values better than either bureaucrats or corporations. A Republican supporter of civic renewal should be especially enthusiastic about:

  • public support for community development corporations, including those based in churches and religious movements.

  • charter schools (for the same reasons mentioned above--plus a belief that competition will help education).

  • service programs (not so much to promote equality of political voice and empathy as to enhance patriotism)

  • reform of the broadcast spectrum to allow more voices onto the airwaves (thus undermining Hollywood)
  • Neither party can be counted on to promote redistricting reform or a better campaign-finance system, although these are essential to enhancing democracy and improving public debates.

    I have argued that John McCain is likely to pick up the mantle of civic renewal if he runs in 2008. We'll see if anyone on the left develops a progressive alternative, because then we would have an extremely productive election.

    Posted by peterlevine at 4:45 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    July 21, 2005

    the Patriot Act and electronic grassroots lobbying

    This week I received two emailed requests to blog on particular topics. First, Jed Miller from the ACLU asked people to blog about reforming the Patriot Act. He and the ACLU have provided "tools for bloggers," including a "news feed" for the latest relevant information, a set of background facts (from the ACLU's perspective, of course), a blog, and a means of contacting your local ACLU affiliate. I'm happy to link to this material.


    Then Nick Beaudrot sent me a PDF of a recent report entitled, "Communicating with Congress: How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy." According to the report, the total volume of messages received by Congress has quadrupled since 1995. Email and other electronic communications are responsible for the entire increase. Members of Congress and their staff say that they like the new avenues of communication and believe that relationships with constituents have improved as a result. However, most of the people who email Congress are heavily involved in other ways, so it's unlikely that total levels of political participation have increased much because of the Internet. Also, Members of Congress are very concerned about the difference between authentic expressions of individual citizens' opinion, on one hand, and various covert mass campaigns, on the other. (For example, groups broadcast emails that citizens are supposed to forward to the Hill without necessarily caring much or understanding the content.)

    As the volume of messages to Congress increases, beyond a certain point we would expect the value or impact of each message to decline. Congress can only make a finite number of decisions. If 5 million people try to influence it from different directions, they must each have less impact than if only 500 people weighed in.

    The two items in this post are connected, of course. The ACLU is trying to generate pressure on Congress through electronic means. I linked to their site without having a deep knowledge of the Patriot Act, and without having explored alternative positions in any detail. Nevertheless, I like the ACLU's approach, because: 1) it supports civic creativity by providing tools for bloggers, who can do what they want with the ACLU's materials; 2) it's fully transparent; and 3) it potentially links people to the ACLU's system of local chapters, where they can get an authentic participatory experience.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:21 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    July 20, 2005


    I was talking to my doctor today (I'm fine, thank you--a routine visit), and he happened to ask whether I had ever fainted. I told him that I had--twice, as a matter of fact, at about age 9 and age 12. The first time, the teacher was explaining about an addict's heroin-withdrawal symptoms. The second time, a different teacher was telling us about the torture of a political prisoner. In both cases, crash!--I fell off my chair unconscious.

    My doctor said, "I guess you're not the kind of guy they use to apply pressure down in Guantanamo." I replied, "I don't think there's any connection between my kind of empathy and real morality. But you're probably right; I'm not suited for Gitmo."

    (It seems to me, by the way, that morality takes guts, judgment, and principle as well as softness of heart.)

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    July 19, 2005

    civic skills, workplace skills

    Through most of the twentieth century, it seemed that democratic skills conflicted with workplace skills, just as the organizational structures of democracy were inefficient for producing consumer goods. Engineers divided factory production into the smallest possible units; workers were trained in specialized tasks and given little discretion. They weren't supposed to address problems or set an agenda for their organizations. Meanwhile, white-collar professionals were also expected to specialize. They had no normative insight--no claim to know what should be done--but only a grasp of the most efficient means to a given end. Their amoral knowledge conferred power. In contrast, democracy was supposed to be egalitarian and concerned with normative questions about a society's goals and ends. Democratic citizens were supposed to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and moral agents.

    Unfortunately, training for the workforce would tend to undermine civic skills, and vice-versa. A highly critical, independent-minded, generally educated citizen would simply be miserable in a factory. To make matters worse, scientific rationality and specialization were seen as synonymous with efficiency. Therefore, if a democratic government wanted to be an efficient check or counterweight in the marketplace, then it needed to become like a big firm, rationalized, hierarchical, and specialized--in a word, bureaucratic. But then there would be less work for citizens to do in the public sector (for which they would nevertheless have to pay taxes). The result was a deep dilemma for democracy, and especially for those who hoped that public action might reduce human misery.

    According to a fascinating article by Dorf and Sabel, "A Constitution of Democratic Experimentalism" (click for the huge .doc file), the tension between civic skills and organizations and the norms of the factory lessened when Japanese manufacturers revolutionized industrial production by replacing assembly lines with teams of generalists. Instead of giving each worker a set of unchanging tasks, the Japanese car companies established benchmarks for production and challenged work teams to beat them. Even after these techniques began to spread to the US (and especially to white-collar work), there remained a tension between the workplace and democracy. But today the contrast in values and skills is less stark than it used to be.

    That trend is evident in certain current efforts at educational reform. The National Governors' Association uses Achieve, a nonprofit, to conduct surveys and other studies to determine empirically what skills workers need for today's jobs and higher education. Achieve publishes lists of such skills. To a striking degree, what workers need are also what citizens need: abilities to work together in groups to define and address problems. See "below the fold" for a list of Achieve skills that strike me as highly civic.

    (NB: Before we get carried away with enthusiasm for the new workplace and its civic character, it's worth noting that Achieve correlates skills to particular job titles. Even according to their analysis, machine operators and wafer fabrication and manufacturing technicians--two of the 10 jobs provided for illustrative purposes--need none of the advanced civic skills.)

    According to Achieve, the successful high school graduate can ...

    a. 7 Comprehend and communicate quantitative, technical and mathematical information.

    Give and follow spoken instructions to perform specific tasks, to answer questions or to solve problems.
    (Associated Workplace Tasks: #1 and 2)

    B2. Summarize information presented orally by others.

    B3. Paraphrase information presented orally by others.

    B4. Identify the thesis of a speech and determine the essential elements that elaborate it.

    B5. Analyze the ways in which the style and structure of a speech support or confound its meaning or purpose.

    B6. Make oral presentations [with 7 specified attributes, including "support[ing] pport judgments with sound evidence and well-chosen details;
    mak[ing] skillful use of rhetorical devices."

    B7. Participate productively in self-directed work teams for a particular purpose (for example, to interpret literature, write or critique a proposal, solve a problem, make a decision), including:

    * posing relevant questions;
    * listening with civility to the ideas of others;
    * extracting essential information from others' input;
    * building on the ideas of others and contributing relevant information or ideas in group discussions;
    * consulting texts as a source of ideas;
    * gaining the floor in respectful ways;
    * defining individuals' roles and responsibilities and setting clear goals;
    * acknowledging the ideas and contributions of individuals in the group;
    * understanding the purpose of the team project and the ground rules for decision-making;
    * maintaining independence of judgment, offering dissent courteously, ensuring a hearing for the range of positions on an issue and avoiding premature consensus;
    * tolerating ambiguity and a lack of consensus; and
    * selecting leader/spokesperson when necessary.

    C4. Drawing on readers' comments on working drafts, revise documents to develop or support ideas more clearly, address potential objections, ensure effective transitions between paragraphs and correct errors in logic.
    (Associated Workplace Tasks: #4, 5 and 6)
    (Associated Postsecondary Assignments: #4, 5 and 6)

    C5. Edit both one's own and others' work for grammar, style and tone appropriate to audience, purpose and context.

    D3. Make distinctions about the credibility, reliability, consistency, strengths and limitations of resources, including information gathered from Web sites.

    E1. Distinguish among facts and opinions, evidence and inferences.

    E4. Evaluate the range and quality of evidence used to support or oppose an argument.

    E6. Analyze written or oral communications for false assumptions, errors, loaded terms, caricature, sarcasm, leading questions and faulty reasoning.

    F5. Interpret and use information in maps, charts, graphs, time lines, tables and diagrams.

    H1. Demonstrate knowledge of 18th and 19th century foundational works of American literature.
    (Associated Postsecondary Assignment: #6)

    H2. Analyze foundational U.S. documents for their historical and literary significance (for example, The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail").

    H8. Analyze the moral dilemmas in works of literature, as revealed by characters' motivation and behavior.

    L2.1. Evaluate reports based on data published in the media by considering the source of the data, the design of the study, and the way the data are analyzed and displayed.

    L2.2. Identify and explain misleading uses of data.

    L2.3. Recognize when arguments based on data confuse correlation with causation.

    Posted by peterlevine at 2:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    July 18, 2005

    moral standing

    Like many news stories, this one began when an influential local figure made remarks that were seen as offensive. Willie F. Wilson, former mayoral candidate and current pastor of a Southeast Washington Baptist church, said in a taped sermon that "lesbianism is about to take over our community. ... Sisters making more money than brothers and it's creating problems in families ... that's one of the reasons many of our women are becoming lesbians. ... I ain't homophobic because everybody here got something wrong with him. But --" and he proceeded to make disparaging remarks about gay sex which I'd rather not paste on this PG-rated website.

    By the following Sunday, according to the Washington Post, "TV trucks were in front of the church and reporters were in the pews," waiting for Rev. Wilson's apology. But he said, "I ain't got nothing to say to you. You don't know us. You don't care about us. Get off this phone. Don't call me no more."

    Let me stipulate: a) I don't condone the Reverend's comments, and b) reporters and other people have a legal right to ask questions about what he said and to request an apology--the First Amendment covers their speech and allows them to stand outside the church. But these are my questions: Is the content of a sermon anyone else's business? Is it appropriate for those TV trucks to park outside the church, demanding a public response? When does speech become "public" in the sense that the speaker owes an apology if what he says is wrong or offensive?

    On the one hand ... There is a lot of violence and discrimination against gays. While Rev. Wilson's sermon did not explicitly incite mistreatment of lesbians, the minister used his religious authority to denigrate gays, which surely increases their vulnerability. Since the clergy have a First Amendment right to say bad things about gays, the only possible response is for gay people--and their straight supporters--to intervene rhetorically. Thus it's appropriate to quote Rev. Wilson's speech, to criticize it, to ask him to apologize, and to stick TV microphones in his face.

    On the other hand ... I am moved by Rev. Wilson's statement about the media: "You don't know us. You don't care about us." Even if what he said was completely wrong (factually and morally), that doesn't mean that reporters have standing to make an issue out of it. It's not as if the daily work of the Union Temple Baptist Church gets much coverage in the Washington Post. (There have been 443 mentions of the church since 1987, but most appear to be very incidental.) The whole neighborhood tends not to be covered unless murders occur there. The Post has no ongoing relationships with the congregation.

    When reporters decide to quote a statement, and then call other people who may be offended to get their responses, they are making a choice. They are claiming an oversight or "watchdog" role with respect to the person who spoke. If they heard a teenager making an anti-gay slur while walking down the street, they would not write an article about it. They surely should tell us if an elected official utters a slur, even in private. Their decision to quote the Rev. Wilson's sermon shows that they believe that what goes on inside his church is public business. But on other occasions, they don't treat his congregration as if it had public importance.

    I confess that I am protective of Union Temple Baptist Church and its privacy because I generally feel that the press is unfair and unhelpful to poor, African American urban communities. They only show up at the embarrassing moments. However, what Rev. Wilson said--"You don't know us. You don't care about us"--could also be said by a white fundamentalist preacher in the suburbs.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:25 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    July 15, 2005

    experiments with get-out-the-vote

    In 2004, my organization, CIRCLE, sponsored randomized field studies to test the effectiveness of various approaches to mobilizing voters. In these studies, some people are randomly selected to receive a "treatment" such as a phone call, a visit, or a mailing. Other people are deliberately left off the list. After the election, researchers consult voter rolls to see who actually voted. The difference in turnout rates between the treatment group and the control is the effect of the GOTV.

    Professors Don Green and Alan Gerber (Yale) have revolutionized the study of voting by promoting the use of such experiments. Until the first Green/Gerber experiments of the 1990s, almost all research had counted the number of people reached by a mobilization effort or had polled citizens to ask them whether they had been contacted. These methods can be very misleading.

    As an illustration, consider a study that CIRCLE funded in 2004, in which college students were sent emails, approved by their universities, that encouraged them to register and then gave them an opportunity to do so by clicking a link in the email. Tens of thousands of students clicked the link. By traditional standards of measurement, the project was a success. However, since this was a true experiment, students were randomly selected either to receive the email or not. Those who did not receive the email were just as likely to register as those who did. Thus the emails had no effect whatsoever and were not cost-effective, even at their low price. Every student who used the email link to register would have registered by another means without it. We believe that a considerable amount of offline voter mobilization has been similarly ineffective. Large numbers of people are contacted and then turn out, but they would have voted anyway.

    On the other hand, the Green-Gerber studies proved, contrary to conventional wisdom, that young people can be mobilized cost-effectively with face-to-face visits and phone calls. Both major parties and many independent political groups have changed their campaign tactics as a result. The competition between the Democrats and Republicans to mobilize young voters in 2004 may partially explain why we saw the highest youth turnout in any election since at least 1992.

    The dozen studies we sponsored in 2004 were selected to fill gaps in our accumulated knowledge. Some of the preliminary results involve messages. Before 2004, most studies had found no difference in the effectiveness of GOTV efforts depending on the message used. The medium, not the message, seemed to determine the results. This was perplexing, since we would assume that it would matter what a canvasser said to a potential voter. Presumably, telling people that Elmo loves them would not encourage them to vote, but all actual scripts and messages seemed to produce similar results.

    In 2004, researchers pressed this question by deliberately comparing negative and positive messages, partisan and nonpartisan messages, information-rich messages versus simple exhortations to vote, and messages about potential barriers to voting, aimed at African Americans and Whites.

    In general, it still appears that medium matters more than message. Results are available from an experiment that directly compared negative and positive messages; there was no difference in turnout. Various messages and combinations of messages did have different impacts in certain communities. For example, a self-interest appeal was more effective among Chinese Texans than an appeal to ethnic solidarity. In general, however, changing the message did not change the results dramatically. I continue to find this pattern puzzling.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:47 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    July 14, 2005

    Seamus Heaney on terrorism

    On Crooked Timber, Kieran Healy quotes the poem "Claudy" by James Simmons as a kind of memorial for last week's bombings in London. "Claudy" is a ballad about an IRA bombing in 1972: very direct, song-like, and simple. It made me think of the following passage from Seamus Heaney's Nobel Lecture. These words are not verse but they are poetic in their concentrated power and wisdom:

    One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, "Any Catholics among you, step out here". As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don't move, we'll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.

    It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power. I remember, for example, shocking myself with a thought I had about that friend who was imprisoned in the seventies upon suspicion of having been involved with a political murder: I shocked myself by thinking that even if he were guilty, he might still perhaps be helping the future to be born, breaking the repressive forms and liberating new potential in the only way that worked, that is to say the violent way - which therefore became, by extension, the right way. It was like a moment of exposure to interstellar cold, a reminder of the scary element, both inner and outer, in which human beings must envisage and conduct their lives. But it was only a moment. The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:02 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    July 13, 2005

    why I don't care about Karl Rove

    If Karl Rove committed a crime, then he should face the consequences, and it's a matter for the criminal justice system. It's a different question whether the rest of us--the press, the political parties, and the public--should focus attention on this case. I say no, for the following reasons:

    First, the public consequences are unlikely to be good. If Rove is forced to resign in disgrace, voters will not be one ounce more likely to favor progressive policies or to trust the Democrats as the party of solutions. The President will lose Rove's daily presence, but no one's advice is all that valuable--and even if Bush fires Rove, he will still be able to consult his consigliere privately. One clear consequence will be the continued impression that Washington careers end with criminal prosecutions on obscure statutes. That impression is not helpful if we hope to attract good people to public service. Rove may be at fault for bringing an investigation on himself. But that doesn't make the investigation a good thing, nor should we all follow the case intently and try to milk it for political purposes. The political "milking" of scandals is unsightly.

    Second, Rove's alleged leak, if it occurred, was wrong. However, there are vital public issues that should provoke our outrage, and I don't see why we should focus any of our limited emotional energies on a classic case of Beltway Hardball. I'm trying to save my own attention and energy for our high school graduation rate (which is about 68%), the 5.6 million Americans who are in jail or have been released from prison, the global AIDS epidemic, our reliance on foreign oil, the pending fiscal crunch as the Boomers begin to retire, and Iraq. What Karl Rove said to whom is just a diversion.

    Third, if we spend time thinking about Rove, then we must have decided that we are a virtual jury. Our job is to decide whether powerful celebrities are guilty or innocent and register our verdicts in opinion polls (if anyone happens to poll us). Or perhaps we think of politics as a contact sport, played by two relatively small teams of national pros. Then the question is whether Rove can play the second half--or was his foul so bad that he has to sit it out? Whether we're a bunch of spectators or a virtual jury, we have no serious responsibilities or opportunities. But if we were focused, for example, on the high school graduation rate, then there would be much for us to do--starting in the schools of our own communities.

    Fourth, despite claims by Frank Rich and others that the Rove case is "worse than Watergate," I see it as a perfect cliche. With the heat and humidity of a Washington July, we almost always see criminal investigations of high officials in the incumbent administration, especially during a second term. This is not so much the tragedy of Watergate repeating as farce; it's the annual ritual, replayed without conviction or intensity. I'm ready to change the channel.

    Finally, the Rove case raises interesting issues (about the press, confidentiality agreements, the Supreme Court, the legal system, etc.) Like any national scandal, it can have an educative purpose for adults as well as kids. However, if we're not careful, most of the "lessons" will be harmful. We will reinforce the proposition that "politics" involves a few powerful people in Washington--mostly in the executive branch--rather than a million decisions made throughout society. We will confirm people's sense that politics is a nasty game, and the endgame is usually prosecution. And we will continue to teach journalists that their heroes ought to be Woodward and Bernstein. As Jay Rosen writes:

    Watergate has been treated by journalists as a consensus narrative, with an agreed-upon lesson for all Americans. The Fourth Estate model not only works, it can save us. The press shall know the truth and the truth shall check the powers that be, whether Democrat or Republican. Chasing stories, exposing corruption, giving voice to the downtrodden: that's what we in journalism do, the myth says. We do it for the American people. And they understand because they know from legend--from the movies--how it was when the country was in the dark about Nixon and Watergate.

    But if our problems are incarceration, high school dropout rates, oil dependence, and Iraq, then the press certainly cannot "save us" by revealing who said what about Valerie Plame.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:11 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    July 12, 2005

    limits of market mechanisms in education

    I suspect that increased choice and competition may improve educational outcomes to a degree. I am fairly agnostic about the advantages and disadvantages of market mechanisms. However, the potential drawbacks are at least worth listing:

    1. Motivation: Usually, if a company makes money on each client, then it wants to attract more. It is motivated to please its customers and develop a good reputation. However, many educators prefer to work in smaller schools and within smaller organizations. They are not automatically motivated to attract more "clients" (in this case, students and parents). If we decide to reward them for increasing the size of their schools or for founding new branches, then those benefits will to some degree counteract their desire to remain small. It would be a good idea to reward educators for expanding their organizations if we thought that big schools (or chains of similar schools) tended to work better than small ones. But the contrary is more likely to be true.

    2. Sorting problems: Parents want their kids to get good educations. But they also want their own kids to be among other children who are relatively well-off and academically successful. I know this for a fact, since I hear parents in my neighborhood talking about the percentage of students in each local school who are "out-of-bounds." The in-bounds kids around here tend to be affluent and White; the out-of-bound students tend to be poorer and very diverse. Many parents quite blatantly choose their home addresses so that their own children can attend schools without many pupils from poor neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the private schools are highly exclusive, and that exclusivity is one value that parents are buying (for $20k/year). It doesn't matter if a private school adds much value through the quality of its teaching; as long as the student body is highly selected, kids' talents and advantages will rub off on one another.

    All of this means that in a true market, kids' socio-economic status and test scores will be valuable commodities. Those who are better off will be desirable, both to schools and to other parents. The result will be increased sorting--which we already see in markets like DC where there is a lot of private education.

    3. Public goods: Our surveys and focus groups have often found that parents want other people's children to be educated for citizenship; they are not so concerned about civic education for their own family. This may be because civic skills and attitudes are examples of public goods. If a child becomes a capable and responsible citizen, then everyone benefits. In contrast, economic skills benefit the individual first, and society only indirectly. In a market, parents are likely to demand information about the effects of schools on their own kids' economic skills. Such data will be provided, and parents will choose schools accordingly. They are much less likely to demand evidence that schools are enhancing public goods such as citizenship, social cohesion, and equity. Thus a market mechanism is likely to enhance certain kinds of education over other kinds.

    4. Bad parents. It's politically incorrect to suggest that some parents are not up to the task of selecting schools. And indeed, I am often the first to complain that big school systems undervalue their parents and take too little advantage of citizens' talents and energies. However, some parents are the problem. Yesterday, Kate Zernike wrote in the New York Times:

    Nationwide, the Drug Enforcement Administration says that over the last five years 15,000 children were found at laboratories where methamphetamine was made. But that number vastly understates the problem, federal officials say, because it does not include children whose parents use methamphetamine but do not make it and because it relies on state reporting, which can be spotty.

    In a true market, there is no "paternalism," because customers make their own free choices. But in education, kids are not the decision-makers; parents are. So there is no escaping paternalism. The only question is what balance of power we want to accord to literal parents versus the community or the state. While this balance should favor parents, it can't tip all the way over, as long as some adults are abusive and neglectful.

    Finally, I am convinced that much of the enthusiasm for markets arises because people believe that teachers and administrators, on the whole, are lazy and/or incompetent. Thus "market discipline" would squeeze out the waste and enhance efficiency. But my many visits to urban public schools tell me that teachers and administrators, with some exceptions, are hard-working and idealistic. Increasing their motivation through market mechanisms wouldn't help, since they are motivated already.

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

    July 11, 2005

    books I read as a teenager that I'd like to read again

    On the blog "Balloon Juice," John Cole lists five books that he read as a teen or young adult and that he considers worth re-reading today. He asks some other bloggers to compile similar lists, picking them out by name. By way of Laura at 11D, the game reached Russell Arben Fox at In Medias Res, who passed it on to me. I'm flattered to be "tagged." Besides, nostalgia is one of my most pervasive and favorite emotions. So here goes ...

    When I turned 12 and 13, I attended a very scary English school, then for boys only, physically resembling Hogwarts but much more concerned with corporal punishment and personal neatness. To get there, I rode British Rail by myself and often read the newspaper on the way. (The headlines must have been about recession, oil shortages, racial conflict in London, terrorist bombings, and revolution in Iran. The details change, but the wheel keeps turning.) Most of my books came either from the school's library or from the public library branch behind Victoria Station, where I would walk on my own.

    I mention all this because it's only by thinking of physical places that I can conjure up titles of books from that era. Among the ones that I would like to read again were Rudyard Kipling's Kim and William McFee's Casuals of the Sea (1916). I thought Kim was a great adventure (no parents, espionage, mysticism, the Empire--what more could a boy want?). Later in life, I would have assumed that it was sheer imperial propaganda. But Pankraj Mishra's recent essay in the New York Review of Books has made me want to look at it again (although I'd rather read Mishra himself). As for Casuals of the Sea--it was some kind of fictional biography, beginning with the hero's conception in an extramarital sex scene that I shouldn't have read when I was 12 (although I suspect it was tame). The protagonist then lived in London and worked on ships, but I remember little else.

    During those years, I read a series of Napoleonic sea novels that traced the hero's career from midshipman to admiral. It wasn't the "Horatio Hornblower" series, because I had read that earlier. I vaguely remember that the author's name was Irish. Could I have been reading the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brien? It seems unlikely, especially since I read Post Captain in 2004 and had no recollection of it whatsoever.

    For the next five years, we lived in Syracuse, New York, making frequent, long visits to New York City and spending the summers in England, with two separate months in Paris. I believe a read a lot of history and archaeology in those years. The one book that I recall well enough to want to re-read is Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station, which is basically the history of the idea that human nature is highly changeable. I would call that idea "historicism," and it became my main intellectual interest right through graduate school. Wilson brilliantly combines intellectual history with portraits of major political figures: above all, Lenin.

    In about tenth grade, I read a series of anti-totalitarian novels from the 1930s, cementing my liberalism. They included Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four (which I was assigned to read, with millions of others, in 1984), Malraux's Man's Fate, and Koestler's Darkness at Noon. The 1930s seemed much closer then than they do today, partly because another 20 years have elapsed, and partly because the Soviet Union still existed.

    I also read lots of mystery, suspense, fantasy, and adventure, ranging from Ivanhoe to John le Carre. I fondly remember Ursula Le Guin as well as Tolkien. I have no idea whether I would find the Earthsea trilogy fascinating or sheer hokum today, but I'm looking forward to trying it with my little daughter in a few years.

    One summer in my later teens, I went each day to the National Art Library inside the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is open to the public as a nineteenth-century venture in democratic education. There I read Ernst Gombrich's Art and Illusion with great interest. Gombrich was deeply influenced by his friend Karl Popper; he saw the history of art as a series of scientific experiments in representing the world realistically. Since the stone age, people have found or randomly created objects that happen to resemble the world. They notice the resemblance and so learn to imitate nature. But each imitation is wrong in some ways; later artists learn to correct it. One of Gombrich's aphorisms is "Making comes before matching."

    By the way, Gombrich's account of art history is intended to answer the following question: "Why is it that different ages and different nations have represented the visible world in such different ways?" He replies that art has always had a single purpose--representation--and it has proceeded by trial and error. This theory contradicts a historicist account, according to which each "culture" has its own fundamental conception of art. In my late teens, I wanted somehow to put those two ideas together.

    So whom do I "tag" to continue this game? How about: Prairie Weather, Brad Rourke, Brett Marston, Ciarán O'Kelly, "Imshin", Anjali Taneja, and Eli.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:25 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

    July 8, 2005

    the Prince George's Information Commons

    Today was the last day of the Leaders for Tomorrow summer program. Eleven University of Maryland undergrads have been in residence on campus since Memorial Day, working with me and my excellent graduate assistant Libby Bixby Skolnik, to create materials about our community. Their products range from an audio portrait of the County's diversity (a set of musical clips that you can hear by clicking on a map), to a detailed explanation of mission planning at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, to a short story about teenagers' experience of busing in 1973. All these products have been fed into the Prince George's County Information Commons website, which is also the home for work created by high school students. (In fact, by July 15, we expect to be able to post a nice new video feature on obesity, created by students from Northwestern High School as part of a project that I direct.) Other material is also on its way, including a "flash" (i.e., movie) introduction to the whole site.

    We see this as pretty innovative, because it is ...

  • organized spatially, chronologically, and by topic, so that most of the projects can be found by browsing on a map, scrolling through a timeline, or looking at subject headings. This is an interesting way to portray a large community--different from a magazine or newspaper.

  • highly "scalable"--it will be easy for all kinds of groups on campus and in the community to add their own projects, which visitors will be able to find by place, time, and topic.

  • interactive: already, visitors can put comments almost everywhere; and we plan to have more ambitious interactive features like maps that visitors can annotate for others to see.

  • predominantly created by youth, but open to others to participate.

  • Posted by peterlevine at 9:01 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    July 7, 2005

    "internal accountability" in education

    When we think of "accountability" in education, we usually envision standards (written by school systems, states, or the federal government), combined with measures to see if schools are meeting those standards--e.g., exam results, graduation rates, per/pupil spending, and teachers' qualifications. This is "external" accountability: it comes from outside of each school. Most people think such pressure is necessary and appropriate. Schools are public institutions, so they should be accountable to the public through its elected representatives. Besides, there must be some device for keeping educators honest and up-to-speed. The main alternative to external accountability is market discipline (i.e., letting parents decide which schools are working best). There may be a place for some market discipline in education, but it has severe limitations. Thus legally-mandated standards and tests seem necessary.

    However, "external" standards demonstrate a lack of trust for teachers. I know from the experience and testimony of friends and close relatives who are classroom teachers that this lack of trust is hard to accept, especially when a person is a good educator and the standards and exams are at least partly foolish (as they tend to be). Moreover, "external" accountability measures are always blunt or crude, whether they are used in business, medicine, education, or any field. Any such measures will apply unjustly or inappropriately in certain particular circumstances. And if people want to resist them, they can--by shifting blame, "working to rule," or even cheating.

    Therefore, we shouldn't forget about "internal" accountability. For example, a good teacher feels that she doesn't want to let her kids down or disappoint their parents, her peers, or her principal. "Internal" accountability is also what drives really successful students. It's not the grade they care about, ultimately, but what their teacher and parents think about their work.

    So the question becomes: How can we increase "internal" accountability in schools? Some promising ideas: --

  • Dramatically shorten the list of "external" standards and yardsticks, but make the ones that remain really count. For example, school systems should be held strictly accountable for their graduation rates and the basic literacy and numeracy of their kids at specific grades. However, state assessments should not measure students' mastery of long and heterogeneous lists of facts. For the most part, teachers and schools should decide how to assess their students' knowledge of "content" areas, with some non-binding guidance from the state about what is important.

  • Make schools smaller, so that faculty can't as easily hide their performance from their colleagues. I know there's a lack of hard data that correlates school size to academic performance. Nevertheless, I think that small schools represent a promising development.

  • Use juries to assess some student work, and put several teachers as well as community members on each of these juries. That way, colleagues will be able to assess the work that's going on in other classrooms.

  • Pay for time during the day when faculty can meet to discuss students. Not only will such planning time allow them to develop appropriate responses to kids' problems; it will also help each teacher to see what the others are doing--or failing to do.

  • Without necessarily reducing class size at the high school level, reduce the number of kids who are in contact with each teacher during their four-year school careers. The goal is to strengthen relationships and prevent students and adults from hiding from one another.
  • Posted by peterlevine at 1:14 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    July 6, 2005

    "small schools" meeting

    Today is CIRCLE's event at the National Press Club on the civic potential of the "small schools" movement. In all, thousands of new high schools are being created in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other big cities. In addition to being small, they tend to have a strong sense of internal community, connections to outside organizations, and coherent curricular "themes," so that a whole school may be devoted to science and technology, or community service, or Asian studies. (This means that students have more choice among schools but less choice once they enroll in a particular building). We're going to hear from former Gov. Bob Wise, various experts, educators, and students about the potential civic advantages of these schools. C-SPAN is planning to cover the whole day, but I don't know when their tape will air (and they have a tendency to change plans if breaking news develops elsewhere). Click below for more details about the day.

    Alternatives to Large, Traditional High Schools:
    Can They Enhance Students’ Preparation for Work, College, and Democracy?

    A public event organized by CIRCLE and funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York


    The National Governors Association recently found that “America’s high schools are failing to prepare too many of our students for work and higher education.” Even though a diploma is seen as a minimum requirement for entry into the workforce, one third of all adolescents (and half of all African American and Latino students) do not complete high school at all. Many who do graduate are not prepared for the 21st-century economy. Various fundamental reforms are being considered to increase students’ academic success and economic potential.

    The discussion about high school reform often overlooks schools’ civic mission: to prepare young people to become active citizens in our democracy. However, research tells us a great deal about how schools should be organized to achieve civic outcomes.

    Some people believe that one stream of reform has both economic and democratic promise. They want to transform traditional, large, omni-purpose, relatively anonymous high schools into institutions of smaller size, with more coherent focus, more student participation, and more connections to the surrounding community.

    To what extent would this kind of reform enhance or interfere with students’ academic success and their education for democracy?

    Panel I: 9:30 am-11:00 am

    Can the small schools movement increase graduation rates and academic preparation for work and college?

  • Michelle Cahill, Senior Counselor to the Chancellor, New York City Department of Education

  • Susan Sclafani, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education

  • Thomas Toch, Education Sector

  • Gene Bottoms, Senior Vice President, Southern Regional Education Board
  • Moderator: Peter Levine, Deputy Director, CIRCLE

    Panel II: 11:15-12:30
    What does the research say about effective civic education at the high school level?

  • David Campbell, Professor of Political Science, Notre Dame University

  • Diana Hess, Professor of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison

  • Joseph Kahne, Professor of Education and Director of the Institute for Civic Leadership, Mills College

  • J. Celeste Lay, Professor of Political Science, Tulane University
  • Moderator: Mark Hugo Lopez, Research Director, CIRCLE

    Lunch: 12:30-1:30

    Lunchtime speaker: The Honorable Bob Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent Education; Former Governor of West Virginia

    Panel III: 1:30-3:00
    Schools that work: perspectives of educators and students in reformed schools that prepare students for work, college, and citizenship

  • Shelley Berman, Superintendent, Hudson Public Schools, Hudson, Massachusetts

  • Sarah Kass, founder, City on a Hill, Boston

  • Luke Kashman, student, Arsenal Technical High School, Indianapolis

  • Toya Cosby, student, Northwest High School, Indianapolis
  • Moderator: Carrie Donovan, Youth Director, CIRCLE

    Moderated Discussion: 3:15-4:15
    The economic and democratic potential of the small school movement

    Moderated by Bill Galston, Director, CIRCLE, with additional thoughts by Daniel Fallon, Chair, Education Division, Carnegie Corporation of New York

    Posted by peterlevine at 6:43 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    July 5, 2005

    the new missionaries

    I didn't watch any of the Live 8 concerts, but I was intrigued enough by the newspaper coverage that I checked out the official website and some prominent links, including DATA ("debt, AIDS, trade, Africa"), which is supposed to be the source of information for the Live 8 movement. I am struck by the overwhelming image of Africa as pathetic and needy, exemplified by the videos of orphans and "street toddlers." With the exception of Nelson Mandela, there are no prominent African adults on these websites, saying what they think about the continent. There is very little about the assets and capacities of Africans. The few positive remarks tend to emphasize the crucial role of outside assistance. For example, "Mozambique's economy grew at an astonishing 12 per cent in the 1990s when aid constituted 50 per cent of its income." (Could Mozambique's growth rate have had anything to do with its own people and government?)

    We're told, "LIVE 8 is about justice not charity." But saying that doesn't make it true. Justice would require collaboration and respect, which I don't see on the websites. Justice is a political concept, and the Live 8 movement has no politics (other than the demand that Western elites provide more cash).

    All this matters because the developing world is littered with the refuse of good intentions. From missionaries to the Western-trained mandarins who ran countries like Tanzania and India under Nehru and Mrs. Gandhi, people with good hearts and lots of cash have been damaging economies and undermining self-respect for generations. I think justice would mean considerably more aid, and better trade policies, for Africa. But it's not worth raising a few billions if Africans obtain no power, and all the decisions are made by Western celebrities.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:28 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    July 4, 2005

    "how to define progressives in ways that would excite young adults"

    This is a topic that Greg Anrig Jr. and then Matthew Yglesias have been discussing over at TPM Cafe. Most of the discussion has concerned issues--whether young people could be motivated by a particular approach to college loans, Social Security, or healthcare. Some participants believe that it is a mistake to develop special proposals for the young; it's more important just to propose good policies. Yglesias also notes a dilemma for the left. Young people are strongly libertarian on gay rights and other questions connected to sex and/or religion--the very questions that motivated many older Americans to vote for Bush. "The issues that tend to drive young people into the Democrats' arms are, unfortunately, precisely the sort of cultural issues that conventional wisdom says the party needs to de-emphasize."

    I'd like to suggest a few openings that are quite unlike the issue-appeals discussed over at TPM:

    1. The Democratic Party should give young people more substantive roles in campaigns. According to a study that CIRCLE commissioned from the political scientist Dan Shea (pdf), two thirds of the 403 local Democratic leaders who were polled said that a lack of youth involvement was a "serious problem." Democratic leaders were much more likely than their GOP counterparts to see the lack of youth participation as a serious issue, perhaps because young people are more engaged in the GOP, which has invested heavily in conservative campus newspapers and clubs and Washington internship programs. Nevertheless, most local leaders in both parties reported doing relatively little to groom the next generation by giving youth significant jobs. Most of their ideas for reaching youth were superficial--they thought they should become more "hip" or throw more parties. They often blamed the media for alienating young people, but seemed unwilling to invest their own resources. Local leaders (both GOP and Democratic) were asked to name the "most important demographic group for the long-term success of their party." Only 8 percent volunteered "young people." If they chose another group (most commonly, "seniors") they were asked to name a second group. Even after three opportunities, a total of only 38% named youth as an important group for the future of their party.

    2. The Democratic Party should give the impression that it is open-minded and committed to solving problems by any means that work. Today's young people appear to be even more pragmatic than their elders: unattached to existing ideologies but concerned about social problems. Marc Porter Magee has been arguing that idealistic young people shun bureaucratic organizations and the civil service, looking instead for opportunities to experiment and be creative in the non-profit sector. They also like such temporary (but paid) volunteer opportunities as Americorps. The country could invest much more heavily in service and what Magee calls "civic enterprise."

    3. We should start thinking about "sleeper" issues. These are issues that arise out of everyday experience and that take a long time to be named--even longer to be addressed. A political party or leader can score points by simply identifying such an issue early. For example, thanks to my colleague Lew Friedland, I'm convinced that high school students face excessive stress today because they feel that their long-term economic security is dependent on their performance in school and extracurricular activities. If anything, they overestimate the economic significance of their choice of courses and the grades they win; and they often perform community service in the belief that it's necessary for college admission. I think it's unjust to force young people to shoulder so much risk with so little support; and there may be ways to mitigate the problem. Smaller high schools, with more sense of community and less individual choice, might help. Making college admissions and financing more transparent and simpler would also be good.

    (Thanks to Nick Beaudrot for telling me about the exchange on TPM--I haven't been reading blogs much lately.)

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

    July 1, 2005

    don't call it "freedom"

    One of the buildings planned for the World Trade Center site is a museum, the International Freedom Center. As planned, the Center would offer space to several art galleries, some of which have previously shown controversial art. It would also provide a permanent exhibition called "Freedom's Walk," that would include displays about great tyrannies from the past. There would an educational and cultural center and a "civic engagement network" where people could find opportunities to volunteer in their communities. The plan recently attracted criticism from families of 9/11 victims, who want it to be a memorial to the tragedy of that day, and from conservative commentators, some of whom see the proposed museum as a "Marxist-left, anti-American media center." Special criticism has been reserved for one of the nonprofits offered space in the arts complex, the Drawing Museum, because it has previously shown art works based on the Abu Ghraib scandal, and other anti-Bush pictures.

    I happen to think that government funding for culture raises complex issues. Freedom is not the only value at stake; it's also important for government money to support art that's excellent, representative, inspiring, appropriate, consistent with democratic values, and so on. Moreover, I don't believe that it's possible to give out government money simply on the basis of "freedom." Someone must make decisions about who shall get the cash. If the government subcontracts its decisions to boards of artists or to museum directors, then it is simply annointing particular groups as its agents.

    Nevertheless, freedom is a great good--and we can maximize it. A cultural center devoted to freedom would indeed make room for controversial discussions, for art that challenges conventional views from various perspectives. It would indeed contain rooms like the "civic engagement network," whose content is contributed over time by multiple independent groups. There might even be a speaker's corner and facilities (such as video studios) that visitors could use to create ephemeral works of their own. Designed that way, the museum really would promote freedom, albeit at some cost to other values--national solidarity/patriotism, focus on the 9/11 victims, and popularity.

    Under the circumstances, I can understand the choice not to maximize freedom, but rather to create a more conventional memorial to the dead of 9/11. However, I am increasingly angry at the use of "freedom" when it doesn't apply. The President says that "freedom is on the march," thanks to his policies at home and abroad. But even a friendly reading of his motives would suggest that the United States is balancing freedom against national security, stability, majoritarian democracy, traditional values, prosperity, and other goods. If anything, freedom is waning in the United States thanks to the Patriot Act and other restrictions on individual civil rights. Maybe that's necessary--but don't call it "freedom."

    Somehow, the replacement design for "Freedom Tower" at the World Trade Center site--with its 200-foot, impregnable concrete-and-steel plinth--makes the point most clearly. Even as we restrict liberty, we are eager to use the rhetoric of "freedom."

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:33 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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