« February 2006 | Main | April 2006 »

March 31, 2006

worth reading

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.]

Posted by peterlevine at 1:45 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:05 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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.)

Posted by peterlevine at 11:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:51 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:17 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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"
  • Posted by peterlevine at 10:37 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    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)

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:34 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    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.

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

    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.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:01 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    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.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    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.

    The graph shows enormous inequality. That is a bit counter-intuitive; we might expect that given millions of choices, people would distribute their interest evenly across the whole web. However, we want to know what's going on in the most popular nodes of a network such as the blogosphere. Therefore, we visit those nodes and comment on them, thereby making them even more popular. In other words, network traffic tends to concentrate.

    Clay Shirky thinks that blogs fall in a power-law distribution, so that the line above can be plotted as y=axk. Drezner and Farrell think the line is lognormal. That's better news. A lognormal distribution is less steep, so it suggests that unknown websites sometimes gain popularity; the pattern is not perfectly self-reinforcing. In any case, the data clearly show a huge tilt toward top-ten sites.

    Some factor must cause mass attention to focus on certain targets rather than others. That factor could be quality, but it could also be precedence--older sites will tend to beat newer ones. For instance, I can't believe that Instapundit is orders of magnitude better than the average blog, but it is older.

    Along similar lines, I observed recently that college applicants want to attend competitive universities, so that they can be exposed to other bright students and gain the reputational advantage of a degree from an institution that is known to be hard to get into. Thus we might expect the number of applications to follow a power-law distribution, with a few universities receiving overwhelming interest. But I don't think that's the case. The reason, surely, is that admission to a college (unlike access to a website) is selective. If you want to get into your "best" option, then you must apply to institutions to which you have a reasonable chance of being admitted. If everyone applied to Yale (currently the university with the lowest acceptance rate), then most would waste their application fee. I cannot find a table with the number of applications per institution. But I suspect that the number of applicants/per places does not vary enormously between the most competitive college in America and the nearby branch of the state university, especially if one could control for quality of education. People do tend to prefer already popular institutions; but that preference is countered by their fear of being rejected. [Yale admits 10% of applicants; University of Maryland--many rungs down the ladder--admits about 20%.]

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

    March 16, 2006

    Fukuyama and BHL on intellectuals

    Thanks to reader Joe Sinatra, here's an interesting dialogue between Francis Fukuyama and Bernard-Henri Lévy (two political theorists who write best-sellers). It ends with an exchange about the role of intellectuals. BHL criticizes neoconservatives--who supported the Iraq intervention for reasons of principle--for lining up with Bush on all other issues (e.g., the death penalty, gay marriage, stem-cell research). Since they are educated and worldly people, surely they can't be against gay rights. BHL suspects they have compromised their principles to gain access to power.

    Fukuyama suggests that neoconservatives sincerely agree with Bush on these questions of social policy, much as this might shock a European. And then he makes a more general comment about intellectuals who work in institutions:

    The idea that an intellectual must always speak truth to power and never compromise means for ends seems to me a rather naive view of how intellectuals actually behave, and reflects in many ways the powerlessness of European intellectuals and their distance from the real world of policy and politics. Of course, the academy must try to remain an institutional bastion of intellectual freedom that is not subject to vagaries of political opinion. But in the United States, to a much greater degree than in Europe, scholars, academics and intellectuals have moved much more easily between government and private life than in Europe, and are much more involved in formulating, promoting and implementing policies than their European counterparts. This necessarily limits certain kinds of intellectual freedom, but I'm not sure that, in the end, this is such a bad thing.

    Fukuyama describes his own time at RAND, where there was no intellectual freedom but many opportunities to influence policy and learn. To which BHL replies:

    That's it. I think we have come to heart of what divides us. ... The problem lies with the definition of what you and I call an intellectual, and beyond its definition, its function. Unlike you, I don't think an intellectual's purpose is to run the RAND Corporation or any institution like it. Not because I despise RAND, or because I believe in Kubrick's burlesque portrayal of it. No, I just think that while some people are running RAND, others no more or no less worthy or deserving should be dealing with, shall we say, the unfiltered truth. ... America needs intellectuals with a selfless concern for sense, complexity and truth.

    Four observations:

    1. One does not have to choose between working in powerful institutions or being fully independent and providing the "unfiltered truth." One can also work within organizations that represent ordinary people or marginalized groups or that grow at the grassroots level. Dewey spent a lot of time in schools and settlement houses. Jane Addams' thought was grounded in even deeper experience. Or consider Dorothy Day or various Marxist intellectuals who have worked inside independent socialist and labor organizations.

    2. The independence that BHL prizes is quite hard to find. If you teach in a university, then you work for a powerful institution whose social function is subject to criticism. If you write a best-seller, then you are paid by a big media corporation. Working at RAND is not necessarily more problematic.

    3. I believe in truth, but it requires method. Truth doesn't just pop into one's mind, even if one has graduated from the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Many methodologies are helpful--among them, what Fukuyama calls the "discipline" of operating in "the real world of power and politics." I haven't read BHL's new book, American Vertigo, but presumably his method there is to travel and observe for short periods. I find that method quite problematic. (See Marc Cooper's first-person description of BHL in the field.) If BHL developed a complex and novel social theory or collected data (qualitative or quantitative), I would be more impressed by his claim to "truth."

    4. Tony Judt is very insightful about "the demise of the continental [European] intellectual.* On May 31, 2003, Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas (together), Umberto Eco, Richard Rorty, and several other leading intellectuals published coordinated essays about Iraq in distinguished European newspapers. The result "passed virtually unnoticed. It was not reported as news, nor was it quoted by sympathizers. No-one implored the authors to take up their pens and lead the way forward. ... The whole project sputtered out. One hundred years after the Dreyfus Affair, fifty years after the apotheosis of Jean-Paul Sartre, Europe's leading intellectuals had thrown a petition--and no one came."

    Judt suggests several explanations. Intellectuals can no longer get fired up about social-liberal causes, because their position prevails across Europe. Capitalism remains a target of criticism, but no one knows what to do about it. I would add that most European intellectuals lack the discipline of working inside institutions. Such work would give them more access to truth as well as more credibility.

    *Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York, 2005), pp. 785-7

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:19 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    March 15, 2006

    higher education: civic mission & civic effects

    The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and CIRCLE today released a consensus report entitled "Higher Education: Civic Mission & Civic Effects." The report was jointly written by 22 scholars representing the fields of political science, developmental pyschology, sociology, economics, philosophy, research on higher education, and women's studies. The scholars met last fall in a conference that we jointly organized with our friends at the Carnegie Foundation. I then managed the drafting-and-revising process that led to the new report. It does the following:

  • emphasizes that colleges and universities have a civic purpose
  • explores profound changes in the civic mission of universities since 1900
  • examines that somewhat ambiguous evidence about the effects of college attendance on students' civic knowledge and behavior
  • recommends certain approaches to teaching civic education at the college level
  • discusses some obstacles to civic education, and
  • outlines an agenda for further research
  • Posted by peterlevine at 3:02 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 14, 2006

    trademarks and URLs

    Nowadays, you can pretty much assume a one-to-one correspondence between website addresses and the names of corporations. Take a famous name like Coca Cola, Microsoft, or General Motors, add ".com," and you'll find a website owned by the company. However, I remember the late nineties, when sometimes a URL with a corporate name would belong to a squatter who was hoping that the big company would buy him out. And sometimes the website was used to criticize the company in question--as an exercise of free speech, in my opinion.

    Perhaps the "squatters" were all bought out, or perhaps they were scared away by cease-and-desist letters like this one:

    Your registration of this domain name, which is essentially identical to our client's trademark, is likely to cause confusion, mistake and deception, and hence constitutes infringement of our client's trademarks and copyrights, as well as constituting unfair competition. Your offering the domain name for sale constitutes "cybersquatting," and violates our client's trademark and copyright rights. In view of the foregoing, we demand that you immediately cancel your domain name registration and provide us with copies of the executed cancellation documents.

    I do not understand all the nuances of trademark law, although this site from the Berkman Center is helpful. I can, however, venture some opinions about the public interest:

    1. It is important for people to be able to express and disseminate independent views about major corporations. For that reason, we have free speech rights to use the names of corporations in print and even in prominent places like the titles of books and tv shows. The Internet is a communications medium, built originally with public funds. I see no grounds for giving companies the rights to their own names in URLs any more than they should be allowed to control the titles of books.

    2. It would be possible for someone to infringe a trademark by appearing to be, say, Coca-Cola. If I took the URL cocacola.com and sold soft drinks online, I would be confusing customers and profiting from the company's investment. That would be against the public interest. However, there is no confusion at all if I operate cocacola.com as an anti-soft-drink website. Then clearly I'm not Coca-Cola. If I lower the company's sales by criticizing it, then Coca-Cola must answer my arguments in the public forum.

    3. There seems to be a moral problem with obtaining a website that includes the name of a famous company simply in order to sell it to the firm. This is classic "squatting." You are monopolizing a piece of the commons that you know has special value for one particular entity. I don't think that's admirable. However, I'm not sure that it's worse than other forms of rent-seeking that are perfectly legal, e.g., staking a claim to the best piece of land or building a bridge at the narrowest point on a river and charging tolls. The "other" Peter Levine who owns www.peterlevine.com has inconvenienced me, but he certainly hasn't violated my rights. Besides, if you obtain a URL that includes the name of a corporation and you sell it to the highest bidder, you are offering critics of the company a chance to buy a platform for free speech. If the company places the highest bid, it has paid a premium for fending off critics. Perhaps that's not such a bad thing.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:04 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 13, 2006

    strategic vs. principled politics (on Randy Brinson)

    Amy Sullivan and I have something in common. Dr. Randy Brinson, the Chairman of Redeem the Vote, calls each of us periodically. Sullivan, in a piece called "When Would Jesus Bolt?" depicts Brinson's disenchantment with the current leaders of the national conservative movement and asks whether Democrats could "change the entire electoral map" by attracting members of Redeem the Vote, thereby "peel[ing] off a few percentage points" from the GOP's religious-conservative constituency. Sullivan is especially interested in Brinson because "Redeem the Vote registered more voters than all of the efforts of the Christian Right heavyweights--Focus on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention, American Family Association, and the Family Research Council--combined."

    To put my reaction bluntly: Sullivan wants to use Brinson and his people just as the Republicans have: strategically. Like Karl Rove, she wants to have some conservative evangelical voters in her column (although she'd settle for a smaller proportion). She's thinking about what shifts in rhetoric, emphasis, and actual policy the Democrats could make to "peel off" some evangelical Christians.

    Strategy is necessary in politics. If you think you have good ideas and core principles, then you should try to win elections to implement them. In order to win a national election, you need an ideologically diverse majority coalition. And to get to 51% or higher, you need to win over some strange bedfellows by making political compromises or by finding partially overlapping goals. To shun all strategic thinking is simply to cede the field.

    Nevertheless, strategic thinking can corrupt. Winning can become an end in itself. Any tactic or position that builds the coalition becomes desirable. Anyone not already on your side becomes a target who should be talked into joining for any reason that works. You may listen to opponents to find openings, but not to learn new ideas and perspectives.

    It's precisely this kind of corruption that has made Brinson mad at the Republicans (who are indeed very strategic at this late point in the "conservative revolution"). If Brinson gets the same treatment from Democrats, he's not likely to admire them either. So let me suggest an alternative ....

    I start with the assumption that there are principled conservatives who basically disagree with principled liberals about some core issues. Their differences cannot just be compromised away but must be contested in elections. Nevertheless, it is very valuable for liberals and conservatives to address issues that do not divide them. Brinson models such collaboration when he works with civil-libertarian groups to promote a Bible course that is truly appropriate for public schools.

    Moreover, liberals and conservatives can work together to improve the political system and the political culture in which they both operate. Again, Brinson is a model: his form of voter mobilization increases turnout without manipulating new voters into lockstep support for any one party. He is enlarging the base of genuinely active, independent voters. That's a goal that many principled progressives share, and there would be ways to coordinate their efforts.

    Brinson also expresses sincere respect for liberal groups like People for the American Way. Such displays of respect are important. Many Americans shun politics because they dislike conflict, especially when it seems petty, unnecessary, or personal. I'm convinced that our highly conflictual political culture suppresses participation. If evangelical conservatives sincerely respect their liberal opponents, politics will seem more constructive and will draw in more citizens. But the converse is equally important. Liberals like Amy Sullivan must sincerely respect people like Randy Brinson. Respect means not using others as means to one's own ends. (Compare this subtle argument about why one should usually overlook one's opponents' hypocrisy.)

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:31 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 10, 2006

    citizen media update

    As I mentioned earlier this week, the New Voices project is making a second round of grants to citizens (all kinds of people who are not professional journalists) to produce news in various media. Here are some of my favorite grantees from the first year:

  • The Forum, from Deerfield, NH, an online newspaper created by a co-op of citizen journalists. Coincidentally, at about the same time that The Forum was launched, Deerfield voted to end its town meeting. The website is the substitute public space.

  • Hip-Hop Speaks, with very nice flash animations that take serious (but engaging) looks at issues facing hiphop culture.

  • The Twin Cities Daily Planet from Minnesota, which aggregates good stories from the mainstream media and adds some citizen journalism to produce a website that rivals many metropolitan dailies.

  • And I already mentioned the Madison (WI) Commons. The Commons provides citizens with journalism training in order to generate a lot of hyper-local stories. Its curricular materials are also online and free.
  • Posted by peterlevine at 12:39 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 9, 2006

    George W. Bush and Woodrow Wilson

    It's pretty common to compare (or contrast) Bush II and Wilson, because the Bush neoconservatives are seen as Wilsonian internationalists, at least in their rhetoric. We could note more similarities. Viz.,

  • Wilson ran on a platform of staying out of World War I, but he took the US into a conflict that killed about 8 million people, including 126,000 Americans. He justified our entry on the allied side as a way to make the world safe for democracy, to end all wars, and to punish Germany for attacking American civilians at sea. George W. ran on a platform of resistance to "nation-building," but he invaded and attempted to remake a foreign country, saying that he wanted to punish terrorists, expand democracy abroad, and reduce the chances of future wars in the region. In both cases, critics of the war said that the real motivations were economic.
  • Each man represented the party then based in the South and West, with a tradition of distrusting eastern elites and the federal government. Both ran on platforms of decentralization and localism. Yet both dramatically expanded the power of the federal government: Wilson through the Federal Reserve Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act, and child labor laws; Bush through No Child Left Behind and the Patriot Act.
  • Both presidents spoke in favor of personal freedom, but each was responsible for undermining civil liberties. Wilson's Espionage and Sedition Acts (respectively, of 1917 and 1918) were the worst legislative assaults on free speech since 1800. Wilson's government also deported immigrants who held radical views and jailed Eugene V. Debs--who had run against Wilson in 1912 and won six percent of the vote--for speaking against the war. I must say that Bush's assaults on civil liberties, although egregious, do not compete with Wilson's Red Scare.
  • Both consistently disparaged Congress and, once in the White House, attempted to expand presidential power. (As a political scientist, Wilson had argued strenuously against checks and balances.) Both employed "heavies" to enforce presidential and federal power (A. Mitchell Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover; John Ashcroft and John Yoo).
  • Clearly, there are differences. Wilson was a brilliant academic, one of the founders of the modern research university. Bush was a mediocre student. Wilson was a true racist, but I don't think that's a fair criticism of GWB. Wilson was a multilateralist in principle (although he took America into the Great War as an "associate" power, not part of the Western Alliance); Bush is a unilateralist.

    Still, the similarities are interesting and raise important questions about why we produce such leaders. The comparison that supposedly serious people make between Bush and Hitler is not only profoundly offensive; it's also obfuscating. I see no evidence that our political culture or system favors the likes of Adolph Hitler. But we do generate zealots in the cause of democracy whose moral certainty leads them to expand their own power at home and abroad.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:11 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 8, 2006

    reasons for dropping out of high school

    My friends at Civic Enterprises recently released a report, funded by the Gates Foundation, on high school drop-outs. It's based on a survey of 467 recent drop-outs plus focus groups. This research addresses the very serious problem that one third of all American students, and half of all African American and Latino youth, withdraw before they receive high school diplomas. The consequences are very dire, as the report explains. For instance, drop-outs are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than those with high school diplomas; they are also sicker and poorer.

    Some of the survey results are at least somewhat surprising. For example, while about one third of the drop-outs had been struggling academically, 70 percent were confident that they could have graduated. Many said that school was too easy and that they would have worked harder if more had been asked of them. They complained about boredom in class and the feeling that course content was irrelevant.

    It is possible for students to find a worthy topic boring and irrelevant. However, I think we should at least consider increasing the rigor of school for some students who are at risk of dropping out because they feel unchallenged. Of course, the point is not to make school harder, but to make it more intellectually challenging. This wouldn't work for all kids (not for the roughly 35 percent who had trouble keeping up or passing). However, as the report wisely says, there should be different schools and curricula for different students--and there's a substantial group that needs more of a challenge, along with appropriate guidance and support. (This guidance must include teachers who know them individually--something that many say they lacked.)

    A substantial group of drop-outs (38 percent) complained of "too much freedom." I have argued that we give young people too much choice among courses, extracurriculars, and social networks. The stakes are too high, and the kids who lack family support are prone to make bad decisions. However, that's not what "too much freedom" means in the new report. The drop-outs complain that they were excessively free not to attend class or indeed to withdraw from school. Almost all conveyed "great remorse for having left school and expressed strong interest in re-entering school with students of their own age."

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 7, 2006

    citizen media

    I'm busy reading a thick pile of applications for J-Lab's New Voices grants. These grants support "innovative community news ventures in the United States"--ranging from electronic magazines produced by identity groups, to podcasting services, to low-power radio, to public databases of value to geographical communities. The proposals are imaginative and various, just as they were last year.

    One of last year's winners is particularly interesting to me. It's the Madison Commons in Madison, Wisconsin--an elaborate community news portal that combines reporting by ordinary citizens with news provided by professionals. The Commons also offers workshops to enhance citizens' journalism skills, and it has developed partnerships with two for-profit print newspapers.

    The Madison Commons can be traced back to a series of discussions in the late 1990s about "community information commons." The Prince George's Information Commons also originated in those discussions, which were funded by Ford. We envisioned a network of such projects at land-grant state universities. See this white paper (PDF) for the whole plan. The Madison Commons is much more robust than our Prince George's County version, but it's nice now to have two nodes--the beginning of a network.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:44 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 6, 2006

    further thoughts on intelligent design

    1. I think it is constitutional to teach intelligent design (ID) in a public school. Teaching ID is a very bad idea, in my opinion, but it shouldn't be blocked by a court. I say this partly as a matter of (amateur) constitutional interpretation. It seems overly broad and arbitrary to interpret the Establishment Clause to forbid the teaching of theories favorable to theism (while allowing those theories that undermine traditional faith). The First Amendment bans the "establishment" of religion, and teaching ID is not that.

    When the public rules, not all their decisions will be wise ones. However, if you try to block the majority, they will get back at you--for example, by refusing to fund public schools at all. Besides, as I wrote here, I prize Benjamin Constant's "liberty of the ancients," the freedom to participate in a community’s self-governance. I would much rather lose a political struggle and live under laws framed by the opposite side than not to have that struggle at all. If a school teaches my kids ID, I suppose my children and I will lose a small measure of Constant's "freedom of the moderns" (freedom from state coercion). But when a court bans the teaching of ID, it ends public participation on that issue and so takes away our political freedom.

    2. Notwithstanding this first point, I really think that ID is a bad strategy for religious people. In fact, I think it verges on blasphemy. A person of faith in the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem tradition believes in a Creator Who is infinitely powerful, omniscient, and good. Faith is not based on evidence; it may even be demonstrated by its conflict with evidence: credo quia absurdum. It can therefore coexist with any scientific theory.

    Seeking empirical evidence of the Creator creates three spiritual hazards:

    a) You are testing God by asking whether the available evidence supports God's existence; this seems contrary to the notion of faith.

    b) At best, you will find empirical evidence of some intelligence in nature--some intentionality and mental ability greater than bare chance would provide. But that is not the equivalent of omniscience and omnipotence. An intelligent designer who outperforms chance by some modest degree cannot be the God of Nahum I, Who acts directly and without constraints for moral reasons:

    4. He rebuketh the sea, and maketh it dry, and drieth up all the rivers: Bashan languisheth, and Carmel, and the flower of Lebanon languisheth.
    5: The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein.
    6: Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? his fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him.
    7: The LORD is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble.

    The intelligent designer of ID theory doesn't act like this. It must be another non-corporeal being, unmentioned in Scripture, or else a God of considerably less power than in Jewish, Christian, and Moslem orthodoxy.

    c) Empirical investigation requires separating intelligence from goodness, since the two are not logically identical. The intelligent designer might turn out to be smart--but bad. To name just one of many troubling examples: eagles give birth to two chicks at once, and often the stronger chick pecks its sibling slowly to death. "Should one chick decide to kill its sibling, neither parent will make the slightest effort to stop the fratricide" (source).

    It is not hard to see why an intelligent designer might choose this device to select healthy eagle chicks to reproduce. But why would a good and omnipotent designer opt for such cruelty? Why not simply make all the eagles healthy?

    I am by no means denying that there is an omnipotent and perfectly good deity. However, I recommend against trying to derive evidence of this deity directly from the natural record. The more we think that an intelligent architect wants things to be just the way they are in nature, the less likely it seems that this designer is moral. Tennyson asks:

    Are God and Nature then at strife,
    That Nature lends such evil dreams?
    So careful of the type she seems,
    So careless of the single life.

    If God is good, Tennyson says, then one must find Him not directly in nature but "Behind the veil, behind the veil."

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:19 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 5, 2006


    As mentioned earlier, this page is up for "best expert blog." If you are so moved, you may vote for it by putting a comment here or emailing the authorities. In the "best new blog" category, I voted for Phronesisiacal (twice, but that was by accident).

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 3, 2006

    why there is no "civics" discipline, and why that matters

    I'm writing a book about youth civic development and have just drafted a section entitled "There is no academic discipline of 'civics.'" In that section, I argue that the lack of such a discipline has negative consequences for research and teaching in schools and universities. It prevents us from understanding participation as well as we should and keeps us from preparing young people to be active and responsible participants. I explore some reasons that political science, literature, history, and moral philosophy--all defended from time to time as civic disciplines--do not meet the need today. Finally, I suggest two responses: trying to create a new discipline, or distributing the study of citizenship throughout schools and universities. Both approaches are problematic. (The excerpt is pasted below.)

    Today, there is no academic discipline devoted to questions about what people can and should do as participants in a democratic society. The lack of such a discipline has practical consequences. First, it means that questions about citizens' roles are not addressed with sufficient seriousness by academic scholars; there is not enough research about citizenship. To be sure, many universities try to enhance their own students' civic capacities by providing opportunities for service-learning, internships, foreign study, and dialogues with other students about issues and conflicts. However, these opportunities are not tightly connected to research or included in the courses that are most highly valued in the disciplines. Separating service from teaching and research has hurt all three activities, in my opinion.

    Second, high schools emulate college curricula, because schools are under intense (and perhaps appropriate) pressure to prepare their students for college attendance. If there is no college discipline of civics or citizenship, then high schools naturally provide classes on political science (under the name of "government") and history. These are academic disciplines for which PhDs are awarded. Those who defend civics or social studies as well as political science and history have difficulty answering Diane Ravitch's question: "What is social studies? … Is it history with attention to current events? Is it a merger of history, geography, civics, economics, sociology, and all other social sciences? Is it a mishmash of courses such as career education, ethnic studies, gender studies, consumer education, environmental studies, peace education, character education, and drug education? Is it a field that defines its goals in terms of cultivating skills like decision making, interpersonal relations, and critical thinking, as well as the development of 'critical' attitudes like global awareness, environmental consciousness, multiculturalism, and gender equity?"[1]

    Courses on civics and social studies were launched during the Progressive Era, to prepare youth for active citizenship. They grew at the partial expense of history, which some saw 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."[2] 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," 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.[3]

    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. Today, Advanced Placement American Government is the fastest-growing AP exam. As Nathaniel Schwartz notes, the old civics and problems of democracy textbooks addressed their readers as "you" and advocated various forms of participation.[4] 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 valued and colleges increasingly set the tone for high schools.

    There is nothing wrong with studying political science in high school or college. In fact, the discipline began with an explicit civic purpose. The American Political Science Association, founded in 1903, created four successive high-profile committees on civic education before World War II. John William Burgess, a major political scientist who died in 1931, saw his discipline as a way to "prepare young men for the duties of public life."[5]

    Today, however, while political science remains a challenging and important discipline, it has limited relevance to questions about what a citizen can and should do. That is partly because a certain logic has led political science to focus on the most powerful forces: nations, Congress and the presidency, major lobbying groups, and social classes. In the 1950s, Harold Lasswell, reflecting a view that had by then become standard, wrote: "Political science, as an academic discipline, is the study of the shaping and sharing of power." Hence serious political scientists should not worry much about citizens as agents: "The study of politics is the study of influence and the influential. ... The influential are those who get the most of what there is to get. ... Those who get the most are the elite; the rest are the mass."[6] Of course, there have since been numerous studies of local political institutions and of ordinary people's political behavior, but far fewer than one would find in a discipline devoted to citizenship.

    Second, political science (as its name implies) is an empirical and not a normative discipline, which means that it says little about what citizens should do as opposed to what they actually do. Although political science began in the late nineteenth century with ambitions to enhance civic engagement, that aim began to seem unscientific by 1920. In 1901 (before political science took its modern form), President Hadley of Yale had argued, "A man may possess a vast knowledge with regard to the workings of our social and political machinery, and yet be absolutely untrained in those things which make a good citizen."[7] He argued for civic education that would enhance motivations, virtues, and skills as well as knowledge. By 1933, President Hadley's view was giving way to that of University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, who announced, "'education for citizenship' has no place in the university."[8]

    A 1971 report by the American Political Science Association argued that the role of political education was to provide "knowledge about the 'realities' of political life." According to this report, most high school civics instruction imparted "a naïve, unrealistic, and romanticized image of political life which confuses the ideals of democracy with the realities of politics."[9] However, a curriculum focused narrowly on the "realities" of politics (emphasizing power, corruption, inequality, and conflict) will not inspire many students to participate, or give them the skills to do so.

    A third reason for the gap between political science and citizenship is the problem of expertise. While political scientists differ about the appropriate role of "ordinary people" in a modern democracy, the very concept of a sophisticated, highly quantitative discipline devoted to politics suggests that expertise is important. At times, political scientists have drawn rather undemocratic lessons from this suggestion. For instance, the APSA Committee of Seven's argued in 1914 that citizens "should learn humility in the face of expertise."[10] This is a form of civic education that is unlikely to promote active participation.

    Things may be changing. The APSA's Strategic Planning Committee recommended in 2000 that the central purposes of the Association should again include "preparing citizens to be effective citizens and political participants." However, it remains to be seen how much impact that unmistakable shift in the Association's rhetoric will have on actual research and teaching in political science.[11]

    Political science is not the only discipline that first arose with the explicit purpose of enhancing citizenship, only to abandon that goal. In ancient Greece, the more responsible Sophists founded the rigorous study of literature as a means of civic education for participants in republican self-government. Protagoras, for example, invented the study of grammar through his careful, analytic reading of literature. He claimed a moral and civic purpose for this work. In Plato's dialogue that bears his name, Protagoras says, "The works of the best poets are set before [children] to read on the classroom benches, and the children are compelled to learn these works thoroughly; and in them are displayed many warnings, many detailed narratives and praises and eulogies of good men in ancient times, so that the boy may desire to emulate them competitively and may stretch himself to become like them."[12]

    Many centuries later, in Italian republics that somewhat resembled Protagoras' polis, people who called themselves "humanists" began to teach literature as a form of civic education (in preference to theology and moral philosophy, which were seen as other-worldly and non-political—better for clergy than for citizens). Humanists argued that stories depicted virtuous actions in concrete situations, while story-tellers exemplified eloquence, which was an essential skill for civic participation. As Francis Bacon observed, "it is eloquence that prevaileth in an active life."[13]

    However, today mainstream modern literary criticism is not a discipline devoted to civics, and there are major two reasons for that. First, in an effort to become professional, most critics have abandoned the practice of looking for explicit moral value in stories and are instead interested in issues more amenable to expert judgment, such as influence, genre, form, and rhetoric. As R.S Crane wrote in the 1930s, "The essential thing about the understanding to which the literary critic aspires is that it is understanding of literary works in their character as works of art. It is not criticism but psychology when we treat poems or novels as case books and attempt to discover in them not the art but the personality of their authors. …. It is not criticism but ethical culture when we use them primarily as a means of enlarging and enriching our experience of life or of inculcating moral ideas. … Criticism … is simply the disciplined consideration, at once analytical and evaluative, of literary works as works of art.[14]

    Second, modern critics are unlikely to endorse "eulogies of good men in ancient times," in part because the values of anyone from distant times and places do not seem directly relevant to the issues of our own era.

    History has also been advanced as a civic discipline. Like literature, it provides examples of virtue and vice and eloquent narration. Leibniz thought its purpose was to "teach wisdom and virtue by example": a commonplace view by his time.[15] In his famous address as president of the American Historical Association in 1931, Carl Becker said, "The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present." That is a civic justification of historical research (and Becker advocated research that was careful and rigorous).[16] Historical evidence and examples do seem essential for thinking about what citizens can and should do; but I am not sure that history is generally studied or taught with that purpose in mind.

    Finally, moral philosophy has sometimes been seen as civic discipline. However, modern professional philosophers mostly work at the largest or the smallest scale. That is, they either consider the overall structure of a society and the definition and distribution of fundamental rights and essential goods; or they consider decisions and dilemmas faced by individuals in private (e.g., whether abortion is moral). There is also important work on professional ethics, including the ethics of politicians and judges. But there is much less philosophical work on the ethics of participation in civil society or political movements—the topics of most relevance for citizens.

    It is intriguing to imagine a formal academic discipline of "civics." It might combine philosophical investigations of citizens' role in communities, historical research into changing forms of civic participation, empirical studies of political behavior and political development, formal study of rhetoric, and analysis of the frequent challenges that confront active citizens, such as free-rider problems in voluntary associations. However, it seems unlikely that such a discipline will develop in the near future. The alternative is to try to infuse many (or all) existing academic disciplines with civic themes and to organize educational institutions so that they draw their members' attention to the study and practice of citizenship. But that, too, is a tall order. There is a risk that civics, if diffused across the curriculum and research programs of a school or university, will never amount to much.


    1. Diane Ravitch, "A Brief History of Social Studies," in James Leming, Lucien Ellington, Kathleen Porter-Magee, eds., Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? (Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2003).

    2. Arnold Brown, The Improvement of Civics Instruction in Junior and Senior High Schools (Ypsilanti, MI: Standard Printing Co., 1929), p. 28).

    3. Richard G. Niemi and Julia Smith, "Enrollments in High School Government Classes: Are We Short-Changing Both Citizenship and Political Science Training?" PS: Political Science and Politics, vol. 34, no. 2 (June 2001), p. 282.

    4. Nathaniel Schwartz, "How Civic Education Changed (1960 to the present), MS paper, quoted with the permission of the author. However, observers have consistently complained that schools devote "the time almost entirely to a detailed study of the structure of government, with extremely little attention to the problem of behavior as a citizen." This is from Charles Clinton Peters, Objectives and Procedures in Civic Education (New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1930), but cf. Arnold R. Meier et al., A Curriculum for Citizenship: A Total Approach to Citizen Education (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), pp. 134-41.

    5. Quoted in R. Claire Snyder, "Should Political Science Have a Civic Mission? An Overview of the Historical Evidence, PSOnline, June 2001

    6. Harold D. Lasswell, Power and Society (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950), p. xiv; Laswell, Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), p. 13. Citations from Saunders, p. 16 (check orginals).

    7. Arthur Twining Hadley, "Political Education," in The Education of the American Citizen (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1901), p. 135.

    8. Quoted in William Talcott, "Modern Universities, Absent Citizenship? Historical Perspectives." CIRCLE Working Paper 39 (2005), p. 2.

    9. Quoted in Schwartz.

    10. APSA Committee of Seven (1914, p. 263, quoted in Stephen T. Leonard, "'Pure Futility and Waste': Academic Political Science and Civic Education," PSOnline (December 1999).

    11. Quoted in Snyder, "Should Political Science Have a Civic Mission?"

    12. Plato, Protagoras 325e-326a (my translation).

    13. Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, edited by William Aldis Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1880), II.xviii,i.

    14. R. S. Crane The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays Critical and Historical, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), vol 2, find p (probably 12).

    15. Leibniz, Theodicy, II:148.

    16. Carl Becker, "Everyman His Own Historian," Annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, delivered at Minneapolis. December 29, 1931, from the American Historical Review, Vol. 37, no. 2, p. 221-236

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:47 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    March 2, 2006

    campaign finance and the constitution

    Vermont's campaign finance law (with its stringent limits on both political contributions and campaign spending) faced tough questions at the Supreme Court on Tuesday. Vermont argued that the limits are necessary to combat corruption--specifically, a pattern of buying access to politicians. But Justice Kennedy said: "Let's assume that some members of the court simply accept the proposition that money buys access ... It's a common-sense conclusion. I tend to think that money does buy access. But what follows from that? ... Isn't the answer that voters can see what's going on and throw the incumbents out?"

    One response: We already have access to vast amounts of campaign finance data: more than anyone can take in. Challengers as well as incumbents accept money from interested parties with whom they meet privately. Disclosure doesn't give citizens enough recourse, because both sides in any serious race take money.

    There's also a deeper problem, going to the heart of what legitimizes a democracy. Assume that publicly disclosed campaign finance reports influence some voters. Then incumbents face pressure not to appear to do favors for their own donors. But they must also raise money, so they face pressure to do what potential donors want. At the very least, those politicians whose genuine views align with the interests of big donors have an advantage in elections. "Pluralist" political scientists have long argued that money doesn't simply purchase political influence; the market is more complicated. Donors have influence on politicians, but politicians have a choice about their donors; and voters and membership groups also make decisions. Multivariate models tend to show that campaign money itself has a small impact, once you control for other factors, such as candidates' ideologies and constituents.

    But the "pluralist" view of politics is fundamentally flawed. It legitimizes pressure from moneyed interest groups as long as other pressures counteract it. But money should have no impact at all; it's an illegitimate form of political power, even if it isn't decisive. Moreover, voters shouldn't have to rely on elaborate models to prove that money does not actually cause legislative responses, even though lobbyists who give money seem to get better legislation. It is unreasonable to expect people to trust a market-like system of politics when the fundamental ethic of democracy is not the ethic of a market. A representative democracy isn't legitimate when various interest groups and voters are in equilibrium and no one is able to purchase excessive influence. It is legitimate when the arguments that legislators make in public are their actual reasons, and financial pressure is absent.

    (I made this case at more length in a 1997 article, which later expanded into a chapter of my book on the New Progressive Era. See also this post, where I emphasize the inequality caused by campaign donations. Incidentally, I do not recommend Vermont's approach as the best public policy: stringent contribution limitations can restrict speech and favor incumbents. Public subsidies for campaigning are better.)

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:12 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    March 1, 2006

    the hortatory "we"

    "We must stop the obesity epidemic." "We need to tap the energies and talents of young people." "We have to defeat these incumbents." ... Those are exhortations aimed at an unspecified "we." They are very common in politics and political commentary. But I am increasingly impatient with that rhetorical style. It begs the critical questions: Who has a reason to, or an interest in, making the proposed change? How are such people organized? What assets do they have? What strategies or incentives would make them act in favor of the recommendation?

    Here's a paradox: We need to drop the hortatory "we" and start thinking more strategically.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:13 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    Site Meter