March 31, 2006
Three items from my email inbox support the case for democratic education:
1. Nick Bromwell, an English professor, reviews some important recent books about democracy in the Boston Review. He argues that democracy requires a balance of liberty and equality. Although Americans value and understand liberty, we are in danger of losing political equality. Not only are our political institutions actually unfair, but people are forgetting what it feels like to have an equal share in politics. "To resonate with Americans, equality must be something they feel, something they believe in because they sense its presence within them. This means that what we might call the 'subjective' dimensions of democracy must be excavated. Democracy is not just a set of institutions, a cluster of marble buildings, and a collection of laws. Democracy is about self-government, and therefore the nature of the self stands at its center." The books under review are full of practical suggestions.
2. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Gov. Roy Romer have become co-chairs of the National Advisory Board of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. As a debut, they published a joint op-ed in the Washington Post on March 25. It's now behind the Post's dreaded firewall, but this is my favorite part: "We need more and better classes to impart the knowledge of government, history, law and current events that students need to understand and participate in a democratic republic. And we also know that much effective civic learning takes place beyond the classroom--in extracurricular activity, service work that is connected to class work, and other ways students experience civic life. ... We need more students proficient in math, science and engineering. We also need them to be prepared for their role as citizens. Only then can self-government work. Only then will we not only be more competitive but also remain the beacon of liberty in a tumultuous world."
3. The O'Connor/Romer op-ed is timely given this major new finding from the Center for Education Policy: "71% of school districts reported that they have reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematics—the subjects tested for NCLB purposes. In some districts, struggling students receive double periods of reading or math or both—sometimes missing certain subjects altogether." One administrator whom CEP surveyed wrote that No Child Left Behind "has torn apart our social studies curriculum. We are raising tomorrow’s leaders and [NCLB is] forcing us to fill their heads with math facts that do not make them better leaders or help students make choices."
[Thanks to Scott Richardson, here's a link to the Post op-ed.]
March 30, 2006
scholarship & teaching
(Pasadena) Sometimes I find it strange that we pay scholars to teach young people. Scholarship and teaching are often such different affairs. A society could employ scholars to conduct research and teach apprentice scholars but never expect them to come into contact with regular undergraduates.
However, last weekend, I found myself at an academic conference session that reminded me why it's important for researchers also to teach. It was a very strong panel of pyschologists who study adolescents' engagement in school (not their civic engagement; their commitment to academic work). That's an important subject, because kids who are disengaged tend to drop out of school and then pay a very serious price for the rest of their lives. The presentations described rigorous and relevant research. I had a somewhat detached perspective on the whole business, because I've never even taken a psychology course; I had few preconceptions or opinions about "scree charts," "eigenvalues," and "confirmatory factor analysis"--the topics of the discussion. It occurred to me that when social science works well, matters of great public importance are divided up into chunks that can be addressed through rigorous, cumulative research. Scholars build on previous work and use the most advanced available tools on manageable questions. Everyday presentations and discussions within the discipline tend to be narrow and technical. All of that is fine--as long as the whole enterprise moves toward important general conclusions. Thus it's valuable for specialists to have to present their whole subject to novices who want to know why it matters. I watched last weekend's presenters talk about factor-analysis with their colleagues from around the country and imagined them also lecturing to undergraduates about American education. It seemed to be just the right combination.
March 29, 2006
Annette Lareau (III): civic implications
This is my third consecutive post about Unequal Childhoods. Here I explore the book's civic implications, which Lareau does not address very explicitly. Organizing people to address their own problems from the grassroots up is an alternative to all the ideologies I described yesterday, and it might be the best way to solve the problems that Lareau uncovers. However, it's hard to take successful grassroots political action without good civic education, and that is something that children of all classes lack.
All the families Unequal Childhoods have problems that are "political." In other words, they cannot solve their dilemmas without coordinating their efforts with many other families and individuals. For the most part, the problems of the poor and working-class families involve dysfunctional public institutions or a lack of resources and opportunities. For example, one girl in the study has learning disabilities. She is receiving no special help at school. According to the rules of her school district, it would take a minimum of 120 days (out of a 180-day school year) for her to be assigned to special education (pp. 210-1). These rules--at least as Lareau describes them--must be changed; but it takes collective action to change bureaucratic procedures.
In general, the problems that face middle-class suburban families result from competition among themselves, not from underperforming or under-funded institutions. They are very good at obtaining excellent services from schools, doctors, and other organizations. If their schools were unresponsive, they would simply move. Nevertheless, their lives are not idyllic. They rush from activity to activity. If a parent refuses to take her kid to an inconvenient soccer practice, the child will be cut from the team. And if the child is cut from the team, she will lose access to peer networks and learning experiences. One parent says (p. 49) "There's something arrogant about soccer. I mean, they just assume that you have the time, that you can get off work, to lug your kids to games. What if you worked a job that paid an hourly wage?"
One middle-class family struggles with an unmanageable load of homework. As the father says (p. 188), "I don’t think I did that much homework in college." This burden could be the fault of teachers; but I suspect the underlying cause is pressure from other middle-class parents. It would take counter-pressure from many families to lower those demands.
As David Moore observed in a comment on Monday, each class would benefit from interacting with the other. The working-class kids miss educational opportunities that the middle-class children take for granted; and the middle-class kids miss opportunities to invent their own activities and manage their own affairs. In the fiction that suburban kids read, the young protagonists always decide what to do from hour to hour--something that only working-class kids actually do. Getting the two groups together would help both--but that, too, would require collective action.
In short, families' most serious problems require political skills to address. To what extent do children learn such skills? Again, it depends on their families' social class. Middle-class kids learn their rights. They know how to understand professionals and institutions and get the most out of them. They exchange information with one another. But they have no experience in organizing collective action and will usually respond to dissatisfaction by simply exiting from an institution--not a solution to all their problems. Working-class kids, meanwhile, learn how to self-organize and mediate conflicts. But they have low expectations of institutions and do not know how to navigate or change them.
In an inner-city school, the phrase "good citizenship" means "restraint ..., avoiding fights, being respectful" (p. 235). In contrast, a middle-class Mom arranges music lessons because (p. 113) "I'm convinced that this rich experience will make him a better person, a better citizen, a better husband, a better father--certainly a better student." Middle-class kids also have a precocious sense of their rights, as reflected in this comment by a fourth-grader: "This is America. It's my prerogative to change my mind if I want to" (p. 130).
Poor and working-class children can organize themselves, because they must fill hours of unstructured time. They "learn how to be members of informal peer groups. They learn how to manage their own time. They learn how to strategize. Children, especially boys, learn how to negotiate open conflict during play" (p. 67). Poor boys "play games that they have devised themselves, complete with rules and systems of enforcement" (p. 80). They thereby obtain "skills in peer mediation, conflict management, personal responsibility, and strategizing." These are certainly civic assets, and ones that schools usually overlook. However, poor kids lack experience in following organizations' rules and don't know how "to pressure an organization to be responsive to ... individualized needs" (p. 81).
Their parents have great difficulty interpreting institutions. They "merge authority figures into one indiscriminate group. Thus, classroom teachers, resource teachers, librarians, and principals are usually all referred to as 'the school.'" (p. 238). They rarely exchange information with other parents about school policies (p. 214). Above all, they feel powerless and resentful. Ms. Yanelli says (p. 205), "I think, 'Why do you let the school do this to you time after time?"
Meanwhile, middle-class children have been placed in neighborhoods, schools, and organizations that work. Their parents demand excellent and tailored services to meet their "specialized needs" (p. 173). Parents exchange detailed information about schools and other institutions. They also encourage their children to advocate for their own interests, even to the point of interrupting and challenging a physician. "The incivility of interrupting a speaker is overlooked in favor of encouraging children's sense of their individual importance and of affirming their right to air their own thoughts and ideas to adults" (p. 125).
Middle-class children develop skills that will be useful in some forms of political action. They can make speeches, marshal evidence in favor of their views, confidently address adults, work with acquaintances and strangers, and follow and criticize institutional rules. Finally, they are explicitly educated about politics. Their parents read the daily newspaper. In one family, "The African American Baptist church they attend each Sunday includes sermons on social and political issues such as the national debt, welfare policies, and poverty programs. They also discuss political issues at home over the dinner table" (p. 119).
However, the middle-class kids are basically being prepared for white-collar work. Their first strategy, when they are confronted with institutions that don't respond to their needs, will be to "exit" in favor of other options. They have little experience in organizing peers to take collective action.
Lareau cites "Family Life First," an excellent collective effort by parents in Minnesota. Participating parents ask coaches to reduce demands on all kids at once. This is a rare effort and one that goes against the competitive logic of modern bourgeois culture. (It was started, although Lareau doesn’t explain this, by Bill Doherty, a family counseling professor who realized that his clients' stress arose from competition and required a political response rather than a therapeutic one.)
March 28, 2006
Annette Lareau (II): ideological implications
(From Pasadena, CA) Unequal Childhoods (see yesterday for a summary) catches children in the process of replicating their parents’ class positions. When children who start in poor or working class families end up as poor adults (which happens frequently), they are deprived of health, longevity, and rich human experiences. The replication of social class is by no means a new problem or a new topic of research, but it is acutely important today, when solid working-class jobs are disappearing. Just as access to the middle class is narrowing, the price of not making it there is rising.
Lareau cautions (p. 251), "Untangling the effects of material and cultural resources on parents and childrens' choices is beyond the scope of this study. These two forces are inextricably interwoven in daily life." Yet our choice of ideology depends on how we untangle these effects. In a previous post, I argued that responses to poverty vary along three axes: 1) the degree to which we believe that money (versus culture) determines economic outcomes; 2) the degree to which we like (versus dislike) the dominant, white-collar culture; and 3) the degree to which we trust (versus distrust) the state to ameliorate poverty.
Despite Lareau's disclaimer, her findings have implications for three important positions on this chart.
1. Many libertarians (like Milton Friedman, shown on the diagram) believe that everyone would be better able to obtain the material goods that they need--including such fundamental goods as education and health care--if the government stopped distorting markets by taxing, spending and regulating, and if it stopped using mandatory schools and welfare agencies to mis-educate people.
This theory is hard to sustain if parenting has a powerful and lasting cultural impact, and if culture affects material outcomes. Libertarians admire the dominant culture of competitive capitalism; but parents, if left to their own devices, will not necessarily prepare their kids for it. Lareau observes suburban parents who have trained their children (by the fourth grade) to be highly effective and confident participants in a white-collar work environment. Meanwhile, inner-city parents have given their kids very few skills, norms, or assumptions that are advantageous in the modern labor market. In fact, they morally oppose efforts to train their kids for work, feeling that children should be allowed to develop naturally instead of being overburdened with planned experiences.
It is very hard to see how less government would improve the workforce training of children from poor and working-class families. In particular, if the poor parents in Lareau's study were given more choice among schools (e.g., through vouchers) they would systematically choose schools that put less academic pressure on their kids. They distrust teachers and other educational professionals who use "concerted cultivation" and who expect them to do the same at home.
Middle-class families would prefer schools that resembled colleges or white-collar workplaces, with constant negotiation and reasoning, competition, public performances, and challenging linguistic tasks. Working-class parents would select schools that allowed their kids to develop and play (and fight) in a much more laissez-faire way. Social class would be replicated in the next generation.
2. Old-style liberals and democratic socialists believe that people need material goods to get ahead. They are ambivalent (at best) about the dominant capitalist culture, but they believe that the state can help people to obtain health, education, and welfare by giving them economic assistance. They belong at the top left of the diagram above.
Lareau herself believes that "state intervention would probably be the most direct and effective way to reduce the kinds of social inequality described in [her] book" [p. 252]. She favors per-child cash allowances, vouchers for extracurricular activities and transportation, and more education funding.
To a degree, her research supports these recommendations. For example, Willie Driver, a child of a poor single mother, wants to play organized hockey, but it is far too expensive. Ms. Driver "wishe[s] that there were programs 'where kids could just go and play for nothing.'" If she had vouchers for activities and transportation, Willie would play hockey, thereby gaining some of the advantages of the heavily scheduled middle-class kids. Ms. McAllister's son also wants to play sports, but there are no opportunities in their neighborhood. More important, if there were universal health insurance, Ms. Brindle could worry less about the care of her older daughter who is HIV-positive. That child might possibly have avoided infection in the first place if she had had access to preventive care.
However, Lareau's research reveals the limits of state assistance for just the same reason that it challenges libertarianism. Both are "materialist" theories that ignore cultural factors. Participation in extracurricular activities is a function of class not only because middle-class parents can afford teams and music lessons, but also because they fully understand the educational advantages of such activities. In their culture, scarce time must be invested in kids' human capital. As one Mom says, Saturday morning TV doesn't "contribute" anything, so she gets her son out to "the piano lesson, and then straight to choir for a couple of hours" [p. 112]. In contrast, the working-class parents view team sports and other extracurricular activities as forms of entertainment that they will consider only if their kids demand them. Thus, even if they had much more cash, they wouldn't spend their days ferrying their kids from practice to practice. They don't see the point. (Ms. Taylor takes her son to free football practices, at his request, but finds the process draining and "pray[s] we don't have to do it again.")
Lareau notes that the working-class school in her study has many fewer resources that the middle-class suburban school. I'm in favor of more funds for inner-city education. However, many of the problems that she observes in the urban school have more to do with cultural gaps between families and teachers than with lack of funds. Besides, it is possible (for instance in my city) to spend a lot of money per student and yet obtain poor outcomes. Cooperation between parents and teachers is an important factor, and it is much more likely to exist when the two groups share the same norms and priorities.
3. Moynihan-style liberals want to use the power of the state to change working-class culture so that kids are better prepared for capitalism. In fact, Lareau's proposal of vouchers for activities would have this effect. Why not give Ms. Driver cash and let her spend it on whatever she thinks is most important? Presumably, the answer is that she ought to spend money on extracurricular activities for her son, because such activities would have educational benefits that she doesn't understand. She is a highly intelligent, courageous, and caring mother, but she doesn't have middle-class values. Vouchers would reshape her priorities to be more like those of "soccer moms."
Unequal Childhoods provides some support for this style of liberalism. But it also provokes two major worries. First, Lareau's positive depiction of working-class culture should make us wonder whether we ought to manipulate those families so that they turn out more like suburbanites. Maybe the problem isn't inequality but a lousy bourgeois culture of competition, negotiation, entitlement, hectic travel, and whining. Second, some of Lareau's stories illustrate how state efforts to change culture can backfire. For instance, faced with educational institutions that criminalize corporal punishment and ban fighting even in self-defense, many of Lareau's poor urban parents (white and African American alike) simply resent and resist the schools. Teachers try to make poor parents behave more like middle-class soccer moms, but their lectures merely alienate.
Tomorrow, I will discuss the civic implications of Unequal Childhoods and draw more optimistic conclusions.
March 27, 2006
Annette Lareau (I)
(From San Francisco) This is the first of several consecutive posts about Annette Lareau's book, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. It's the most stimulating work of social science I have read for a long time, and I hope to explore its implications for political philosophy, education policy, and civic engagement in subsequent posts. But first, a brief summary of Lareau's method and argument.
She and her students chose children from the same metropolitan area who were middle class, working class, and poor. From each of these groups (defined by the parents' profession, not their income), they selected both African American and white children. They obtained permission to observe the kids' lives--in school, in the neighborhood, at home, and on visits to church and medical appointments. They interviewed the parents and teachers, but mostly they just hung around, lying on the floor with the kids, riding in the back seat on the way to appointments, playing cards or ball, sleeping overnight in their homes.
Lareau finds that the middle-class parents in the study, without regard to race, use a strategy of "concerted cultivation" to raise their children. They devote almost every waking minute of the day to giving their kids educational experiences. The children are very heavily scheduled with organized after-school activities, to the point that they lead hectic lives with much rushed traveling and many overlapping or conflicting appointments. Even ordinary conversations are opportunities to develop kids' cognitive and language skills. Parents use persuasion and negotiation to influence their children's behavior--a laborious and slow way to get them to comply, but one that constantly challenges them mentally. Kids talk as equals with adults, including teachers and physicians.
Working-class and poor parents, on the other hand, attempt "the accomplishment of natural growth." They are just as loving and concerned as middle-class parents, but they are much less likely to arrange activities, to teach verbal skills, and to negotiate. They protect their kids' health and safety and then leave them to be kids. They defer to schools and medical professionals to diagnose and address any problems that arise.
Lareau has some of the ethnographer's reluctance to judge, to apply normative opinions. Besides, she evidently likes all the kids in her study; she depicts them all sensitively and sympathetically. Nevertheless, her findings support strong and perhaps unexpected comparative value-judgments. The poor and working-class kids are in many ways more attractive than the middle-class ones. They obey their parents' (relatively infrequent) instructions without whining--which is the bad side of negotiation. They are creative and skillful in organizing their own activities, including complex games. They are almost never bored. They fight with their siblings much less than middle-class children do--in fact, they rely on their relatives for support and entertainment, and enjoy one another's company. They play happily in groups of mixed ages. Their parents like them to have free time because they don't want them exposed (yet) to the daily grind of adult life.
In contrast, the middle-class kids are immediately bored when not provided with organized activities. They compete for attention with their siblings. (After all, when Mom is at brother's soccer practice, she's not doing anything for sister.) They constantly bargain with adults, including authority figures. They have a pervasive sense of entitlement to expensive goods and individualized services. They lack experience working with others of different ages or solving problems without adult intervention. Again, each subject is a likable human being, but many aspects of middle-class family childhood are unappealing.
Although the middle-class kids are less attractive than the poor and working-class children, their parents' investment will probably pay off for them. These children have precocious skills of verbal expression and negotiation, time-management, and public performance that will serve them well in the white-collar world. They consider themselves entitled to excellent services and demand it from adults and institutions. Their expectations and behavior are perfectly in synch with those of middle-class professionals (teachers, coaches, and physicians), who respond to their needs. As kids, they are tired and quarrelsome. As grownups, they will prosper.
This is Lareau's main argument. It fits with my own unsystematic observations in three schools where I have worked or my kids have attended. I found only one aspect of the main argument unpersuasive. Lareau sees classes as distinct, each with its own "logic," or "culture." She criticizes the more common theory that people are smoothly distributed along gradients of income and education, so that any change in wealth or years of schooling will influence outcomes. Lareau may be correct, but her data can't prove her point, because her sample was deliberately constructed by drawing from two distinct groups: upper-middle class suburbanites and poor to moderate-income urban residents. It didn't contain gradations of socio-economic status that might produce gradations in parenting styles. In one family (Chapter 9), the mother has a community-college degree instead of the advanced degrees possessed by the other suburban parents. She attempts a partial strategy of concerted cultivation with mixed results. I suspect that a larger sample would find many other intermediate cases like this one.
March 24, 2006
websites for civic renewal
Along the right-hand column of this page, I've been running automated excerpts from blogs about civic renewal. Below is a list of these blogs, including some exciting newcomers. All these sites provide a high dose of news and information (along with some commentary and opinion) and emphasize civic work of various kinds:
Civic Mission of Schools blog, with the daily news on civic education and youth service, provided in part by CIRCLE graduate assistant Gary Homana. Smart Communities, a blog by the President of the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, Suzanne Morse The Public Journalism Network Blog: keeping alive the spirit of public or civic journalism The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation's news page, for practical work on public deliberation International Civic Engagement blog from Park University Public Engagement, a blog by the University of Minnesota's Associate VP for Public Engagement, Victor Bloomfield Silver in Seattle, by David Silver, guru of online civic work Otherwise Engaged by Alexandra Samuel: "Every blogger's guide to civic engagement. Every citizen's guide to blogging." Democracy LABlog, with Lars Hasselblad Torres' "updates from the field"
March 23, 2006
democracy as education, education for democracy
I've been commissioned to write an article about John Dewey's 1927 book, The Public and its Problems, and what it implies for contemporary democratic practice. Given my own interests, I have focused on its implications for public deliberation and civic education. My whole first draft is pasted "below the fold" for anyone who's interested in Dewey or the philosophy of democratic education.
For John Dewey, the link between democracy and learning was profound and reciprocal. Dewey defined "democracy" as any process by which a community collectively learns, and "education" as any process that enhances individuals' capacity to participate in a democracy. Although these definitions pose difficulties, they constitute an insightful and original theory that remains relevant 80 years after Dewey wrote The Public and its Problems. His theory is especially illuminating for those concerned about public deliberation and civic education.
On a conventional definition of "democracy," it as a system of government that honors equity and freedom. In a democracy—-or so we are taught—-every adult has one vote, and all may speak freely. For Dewey, however, such rules were merely tools that happened to be in current use. No institution (including free elections and civil rights) could claim "inherent sanctity." There were no general principles, no "antecedent universal propositions," that distinguished just institutions from unjust ones. The nature of the good society was "something to be critically and experimentally determined." [1927, p. 74]
As described so far, Dewey's theory of democracy gives no guidance and makes no distinctions. If we reject all "antecedent universal propositions," then we cannot know that a system of free elections is better than an tyranny. However, Dewey had one profound commitment, to collective learning. Thus he valued the American constitutional system, not because all human beings were truly created equal, and not because elections would generate fair or efficient outcomes, but because democracy promoted discussion, and discussion was educative. "The strongest point to be made in behalf of even such rudimentary political forms as democracy has already attained, popular voting, majority rule and so on, is that to some extent they involve a consultation and discussion which uncover social needs and troubles."[1927, p. 206]
If learning is our goal, then we could spend our time reading books or observing nature. However, the kind of learning that Dewey valued most was social and experiential. A democracy was a form of social organization in which people realized that they were interconnected and learned by working together. "Wherever there is conjoint activity whose consequences are appreciated as good by all singular persons who take part in it, and where the realization of the good is such as to effect an energetic desire and effort to sustain it in being just because it is a good shared by all, there is in so far a community. The clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy." [1927, p. 149]
It might seem strange to evaluate societies and institutions largely as opportunities for collective education. But that approach emerged from Dewey’s beliefs about the purpose of life itself. In Democracy and Education (1916), he argued that individual life had value as experience; and the richer the experience, the better. The value of a society was to permit individuals to share and enlarge their experiences by communicating. "The ulterior significance of every mode of human association," he wrote, is "the contribution which it makes to the improvement of the quality of experience." [1916, p. 12] It followed that a "democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communal experience." [1916, p. 93]
I think that Dewey's rejection of universal propositions in favor of continuous collective learning was problematic. As he noted, "every social institution is educative in effect." [1916, p. 12] However, not every educative institution is democratic. Consider science, which Dewey valued very highly. Science is a collective enterprise and an excellent means of learning. However, when it works as advertised, it is meritocratic, not democratic. If we equate democracy with collective learning, then we may weaken our commitment to equality and try to organize the government on the same principles as science (as Dewey recommended in Liberalism and Social Action, 1935), or we may try to democratize scientific research. Both reforms are mistakes, in my view.
Or consider any society in which some oppress others and deprive them of rights. Such arrangements are consistent with "learning": the oppressors learn to dominate, and the oppressed learn to manage. Indeed, the two classes learn together, and they may learn continuously. I would deny that such a system is democratic, because it violates antecedent principles of equality. But Dewey's deep pragmatism prevented him from endorsing such external principles.
In Democracy and Education, Dewey recognized that "in any social group whatever, even in a gang of thieves, we find some interest held in common, and we find a certain amount of interaction and cooperative intercourse with other groups. From these two traits we derive our standard. How numerous and varied are the interests which are consciously shared? How full and free is the interplay with other forms of association?" In a "criminal band," Dewey thought, the shared interests must be narrow ("reducible almost to a common interest in plunder") and the group must isolate itself from outsiders. [1916, p. 89]. In a good society, by contrast, everyone has everyone else's full range of interests at heart and there are dense networks connecting all sectors.
This ideal seems more satisfactory than a simple commitment to "learning," but it relies on the kind of abstract moral principles that Dewey elsewhere rejects. For example, concern for the holistic wellbeing of all fellow human beings is a strong moral commitment, characteristic of Kantianism. It does not derive logically from the concept of communal learning, but is a separate principle. It is not clear to me how a Deweyan pragmatist can embrace it.
Notwithstanding this qualification, there is much of value in Dewey's theory. For those who promote concrete experiments in public deliberation, a theory of democracy-as-learning is inspirational. It explains why adults should be, and are, motivated to gather and discuss public problems: discussion is virtually the purpose of human life. Dewey's theory also provides a response to those who say that small-scale public deliberation is "just talk," that it lacks sufficient impact on votes and policies. Dewey would reply that the heart of democracy is not an election or the passage of a law, but personal growth through communication. "There is no liberal expansion and confirmation of limited personal intellectual endowment which may not proceed from the flow of social intelligence when that circulates by word of mouth from one to another in the communication of the local community." [1927, p. 219]
Dewey's endorsement of verbal communication does not mean, however, that speech should be disconnected from action. "Mind," he thought "is not a name for something complete by itself; it is a name for a course of action in so far as that is intelligently directed." [1916, p. 139] Likewise, deliberation (which is thinking by groups) should be linked to concrete experimentation. Public deliberation is most satisfying and motivating-—and most informed and disciplined—-when the people who talk also act: when they argue from personal, practical experience and when their decisions have consequences for their individual and collective behavior.
Dewey was a developmental thinker: he understood that human beings change over the course of the lifecycles and that a society needs different contributions from each generation. For adults, learning must be collective and voluntary. Adults cannot be given reading assignments on government or public affairs. The forms of adult learning that most interested Dewey were face-to-face adult deliberations, membership in voluntary associations, and communication via the mass media (in his day, newspapers and radio).
However, in a complex society, he thought, children have too much to learn in too short a time for them to be allowed simply to experience discussions and associations. For them, "the need of training is too evident; the pressure to accomplish a change in their attitude and habits is too urgent. ... Since our chief business with them is to enable them to share in a common life we cannot help considering whether or no we are forming the powers which will secure this ability." Thus the need for a "more formal kind of education": in other words, "direct tuition or schooling." [1916, p. 10] Note again that the purpose of education is to prepare students to "share in a common life" of continual learning.
Contrary to what some critics of Dewey claim, he favored "direct tuition" as an efficient means of transmitting accumulated knowledge to children so that they could become competent citizens within a reasonable amount of time. However, he recognized that merely imparting information was not good pedagogy. "Formal instruction ... easily becomes remote and dead-—abstract and bookish, to use the ordinary words of depreciation." [1916, p. 11] Besides, the most profound effects of education (for better or worse) came from the way schools operated as mini-societies, not from the formal curriculum. "The development within the young of the attitudes and dispositions necessary to the continuous and progressive life of a society cannot take place by direct conveyance of beliefs, emotions, and knowledge. It takes place through the intermediary of the environment." [1916, p. 26] In other words, what adults demonstrated by how they organized schools was more important than what they told their students in lectures and textbooks.
Dewey argued that young people were more "plastic" than their elders, more susceptible to being deliberately educated. Recent research bears him out. There is ample evidence that civic experiences in adolescence have lasting effects. For example, in an ongoing longitudinal study of the high school class of 1965, Kent Jennings and his colleagues have found that participation in student government and other civic extracurricular activities has a positive effect on people's participation in civil society almost forty years later. More than a dozen longitudinal studies of adolescent participation in community service have found positive effects as much as ten years later. And Doug McAdam's rigorous study of the Freedom Summer voting-rights campaign shows that the activists' experience in Mississippi (admittedly, an intense one) permanently transformed them.
In contrast, few studies of deliberately educative civic experiences find lasting effects on adult participants. We can explain the difference as follows. Young people must form some opinion about politics, social issues, and civil society when they first encounter those issues in adolescence. Their opinion may be the default one (disinterest) or it may be critical engagement, enthusiastic support, or some other response. Once they have formed a basic orientation, it would take effort and perhaps some psychological distress to change their minds. Therefore, most young adults settle into a pattern of behavior and attitudes in relation to politics that lasts for the rest of their lives, unless some major shock (such as a war or revolution) forces them to reconsider. In a country like the United States, when adults change their political identities, the change results from voluntary experiences, not from exhortations or any form of mandatory civic education.
It would be immoral to write off adults because they are much less "plastic" than adolescents and less susceptible to deliberate civic education. But it is crucial to invest in the democratic education of young people, since they will be permanently shaped by the way they first experience politics, social issues, and civil society. Civic education, as Dewey recommended, must include not only formal instruction but also concrete experiences and the whole "environment" of schools. Indeed, "one of the weightiest problems with which the philosophy of education has to cope is the method of keeping a proper balance between the informal and the formal, the incidental and intentional, modes of education." [1916, p. 12]
Dewey and some of his contemporaries tried to "reorganize" American education "so that learning takes place in connection with the intelligent carrying forward of purposeful activities." [1916, p. 144]. Dewey called this reorganization "slow work," and it did encounter many frustrations. Nevertheless, he and his fellow educational Progressives achieved some striking reforms.
First, to give students opportunities for purposeful civic activities, the Progressives founded student governments and school newspapers. Evaluations find that these activities have lasting positive effects on students' civic engagement, yet the percentage of American students who participate has declined by 50 percent since the 1960s, in large part because high schools have been consolidated. (Fewer schools means fewer school governments and newspapers.)
The Progressives also created the first courses on "civics" and "social studies." These subjects grew at the partial expense of history, which followers of Dewey saw (mistakenly, in my opinion) as an overly "academic" discipline. In 1915, the US Bureau of Education formally endorsed a movement for "community civics" that was by then quite widespread. Its aim was "to help the child know his community—not merely a lot about it, but the meaning of community life, what it does for him and how it does it, what the community has a right to expect from him, and how he may fulfill his obligations, meanwhile cultivating in him the essential qualities and habits of good citizenship."
In 1928-9, according to federal statistics, more than half of all American ninth-graders took "civics." That percentage had fallen to 13.4 by the early 1970s. In 1948-9, 41.5 percent of American high school students took "problems of democracy," another Progressive innovation, which typically involved reading and debating stories from the daily newspaper. By the early 1970s, that percentage was down to 8.9.
Nevertheless, the percentage of high school students who have taken any government course has been basically steady since 1915-1916. Although the historical data have gaps, it appears most likely that "civics" and "problems of democracy" have disappeared since 1970, while American history, world history, and American government have either stayed constant or grew. As Nathaniel Schwartz notes, the old civics and problems of democracy textbooks addressed their readers as "you" and advocated various forms of participation. Today's American government texts discuss the topics of first-year college political science: how a bill becomes a law, how interest groups form, how courts operate. Social studies arose during the Progressive Era, when philosophical pragmatists argued for a curriculum of practical relevance to democracy. Social studies and civics seem to be waning at a time when academic rigor is the first priority and high schools take their cues from colleges.
Finally, Dewey and his allies were interested in the overall design of schools: their location, physical architecture, bureaucratic structure, and rules of admission and graduation. They sought to integrate schools into the broader community and to make them into democratic spaces in which young people and adults would practice citizenship by working together on common tasks.
Today, however, many students attend large, incoherent, "shopping mall" high schools that offer long lists of courses and activities, as well as numerous cliques and social networks. Students who enter on a very good track or who have positive support from peers and family may make wise choices about their courses, friends, co-curricular activities, and next steps after graduation. They can obtain useful civic skills and habits by choosing demanding courses in history and social studies, by joining the student newspaper or serving in the community, and by interacting with administrators. However, relatively few students—usually those on a path to college—can fill these roles in a typical high school. Other students who are steered (or who steer themselves) into undemanding courses and away from student activities will pay a price for the rest of their lives. Serious and lasting consequences follow from choices made in early adolescence, often under severe constraints.
Typical large high schools also tend to have frequent discipline problems, a general atmosphere of alienation, and internal segregation by race, class, and subculture. Often, they occupy suburban-style campuses, set far apart from the adult community of work, family, religion, and politics. Even worse, some of these huge schools occupy prison-like urban blocks, secured with gates and bars. Parents and other adults in the community have little impact on these big, bureaucratic institutions. Therefore, schools are rarely models of community participation, nor do they create paths for youth to participate in the broader world.
Although large high schools offer opportunities for self-selected students to be active citizens—running for the student government, creating video broadcast programs, and engaging in community service—most of their fellow students have no interest in their work. Why pay attention to the student government, or watch a positive hip-hop video that your peers have produced, if you do not share a community with them? Commercial products are more impressive and entertaining.
Since the 1960s, one of the most consistent findings in the research on civic development is the following: Students who feel that they and their peers can have an impact on the governance of their own schools tend to be confident in their ability to participate in their communities and interested in public affairs. However, it is impossible for anyone to influence the overall atmosphere and structure of a huge school that offers a wide but incoherent range of choices and views its student population merely as consumers. To make matters worse, school districts have been consolidated since Dewey’s time, so that there are dramatically fewer opportunities for parents and other adults to govern their own public schools. According to data collected by Elinor Ostrom, the number of elected school board seats has shrunk by 86% since 1930, even as the population has more than doubled.
Those with the most education (relative to their contemporaries) are by far the most likely to participate in democracy—which suggests that education prepares people for citizenship. During the course of the twentieth century, each generation of Americans attained, on average, a higher level of education than those before. Educational outcomes also became substantially more equal. When we put these facts together, we might assume that participation must have increased steadily during the 1900s. On the contrary, voting rates are considerably lower than they were a century ago; levels of political knowledge are flat; membership in most forms of civic association is down; and people are less likely to say that they can make a difference in their communities.
Although many causes have been suggested for these declines, part of the problem is surely a decline in the quality of civic education. People are spending many more years in school, but getting less education for democracy. What we need is just what Dewey and his allies championed-—not merely government classes (although they have positive effects and are in danger of being cut), but also community-service opportunities that are connected to the academic curriculum, student governments and student media work, and the restructuring of schools so that they become coherent communities reconnected to the adult world.
Dewey, John, Democracy and Education, 1916 (Carbondale and Evansville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985).
----------------, The Public and Its Problems (New York: Henry Holt, 1927)
March 22, 2006
the Comic Book Project
I spent yesterday in Philadelphia meeting various people, including a representative from the Comic Book Project. This outfit is active in 10 cities. Kids--mostly in middle school--are taught to make comic books on various social themes. The results look fantastic, because the program can teach non-artistic kids to make nice looking art from models. (Two young guys chose to make a comic book that describes the process--their book is a good one to start with.) Making comic books has lots of potential to teach literacy and civic skills to kids who are not otherwise captivated by school.
March 21, 2006
digital media: the audience problem
I'm writing a mini-proposal for a project on the digital media and civic engagement. I'm thinking of exploring the following problem.
A new generation is coming of age at a time when various electronic media are ominipresent, cheap, and sophisticated. Two contradictory aspects of the new media will influence civic development. On one hand, people around the world can, with increasing ease, get access to the same materials--whether music, video, or political speeches and statements. Some items become extraordinarily popular. They often feature talented celebrities who have the support of technical experts. Although some products backed by big corporations fail in the marketplace, corporate investment at least increases the odds of obtaining a large audience. There is also the network-concentration problem that I mentioned last Friday: a few websites draw an enormous amount of traffic, presumably because they are popular; therefore, people (including me) want to know what they're saying. What is popular tends to become more so.
The easy availability of celebrity culture reduces demand for ordinary people's creativity and makes the world more homogeneous, thus frustrating local communities (and even whole nations) that want to govern their own cultures. The more that slick, professional products penetrate the international market, the less scope exists for ordinary people to create cultural products that others will value. This phenomenon is relevant to "civic engagement." We participate not only by influencing our governments, but also by helping to shape our cultures.
On the other hand, the same technology that gives billions of human beings instant access to the world's most popular culture also allows the same billions to produce and disseminate their own ideas, which can be diverse and relevant to their communities. Never has it been as cheap or quick to produce text, sound, or moving images. This opportunity for creativity has great civic potential; it could turn people from spectators and consumers into creators.
However, most young people do not have such extraordinary talent (or privileged positions in networks) that they can gain huge followings. If there are several million blogs, then the average blog will attract just a few visitors. The topics that young people know best are very local, and that means that not many other people have an interest in what they say. And even if you attend the same school as someone, you may not be interested in her views about local issues like school uniforms or cafeteria food--not when you can download a professional video for free.
An audience needn't be big, but it must be interested and responsive, or else creativity is discouraging. What can help an ordinary group of kids to build a responsive and interactive audience? Do some technical choices matter? For example, is podcasting promising? Or must we change the context in which youth spend their time? For example, it seems plausible that students who attend a small high school with a coherent academic theme will be more interested in one another's cultural products than students who attend a large "shopping mall" high school with lots of separate cliques. I would like to investigate these topics by looking for online youth products that do and do not have responsive audiences, and asking about the reasons for the differences.
March 20, 2006
Israel's "right to exist"
My colleague Jerry Segal is also president of the Jewish Peace Lobby. He has an interesting recent editorial in Ha'aretz in which he recalls his meeting with senior PLO officials in Tunis in 1988. They were willing to accept peace with the state of Israel and to renounce terrorism, but not to accept Israel's "right to exist." Khalid al-Hassan, a Fatah official, told Segal that this right was "ideology."
Segal explains that to accept Israel's "right to exist" is ambiguous. It could just mean that Israel, as a member of the United Nations, may not be invaded or threatened with conquest. However, given the way the phrase is commonly used, it could imply that it was morally legitimate to create a Jewish state in the Middle East in 1948; in other words, that Israel had a moral right to exist from its birth. That affirmation is too much to ask of a Palestinian, who may believe that the foundation of Israel was a violation of the Arab residents' rights.
Speaking for myself, I think that it was legitimate, on balance, to partition Palestine and to create a Jewish state in one portion of the territory. But there were reasonable people on all sides (including Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber) who disagreed. In any case, the Palestinians' obligation today is only to make peace with the actual state of Israel. They shouldn't be required to affirm that its foundation was legitimate. After all, almost all states have dubious origins--including the United States, which traces its history to European conquest of Native Americans' land. Nevertheless, the United States has a right under Article II of the UN Charter not to be attacked or threatened with attack. This right seems justified because: (a) millions of Americans have made homes in US territory and support the US government, and (b) peace and development are generally best served if nation-states "live together in peace with one another as good neighbours."
Thus Hamas (which has a right, thanks to its electoral victory, to control its own nascent nation-state) should be pressed to undertake a peace treaty with Israel that sets legitimate and inviolable borders. Such a treaty would recognize Israel as a legitimate party to negotiations with the Palestinian state--something that Hamas currently resists. But Hamas should not be pressed to acknowledge Israel's "right to exist," which (in the context of the historical debate) means acknowledging that the Zionist project was right from the start. That would be a humiliating -- and unneccessary -- abandonment of some core principles of Palestinian and Arab nationalist ideology. Members of Hamas may retain a permanent grievance about '48 as long as they accept Israel as a fait accompli and renounce war.
March 17, 2006
a steep popularity curve
The following may be very elementary, but I'm just trying to figure it out for myself. ...
Websites often exhibit a pattern in which a few sites are far more popular than the rest. See, for example, this graph by Daniel Drezner and Henry Farrell, which plots the number of incoming links to each blog versus its popularity rank.