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May 31, 2006

youth media

I'm still in Seattle for an academic conference on youth media. I'm struck by how essentially normative (value-laden) our definitions of "politics" and "civic engagement" are. Ask yourself whether the following behaviors are "political"? It depends on whether you think their goals are worthy:

  • Using the raw material of an advertisement to create an anti-corporate parody ("culture jamming").
  • Providing free technical guidance to assist fellow users of proprietary software.
  • Organizing a petition to persuade a record label to give your favorite artist a new contract. (Does such a petition stake a claim of partial ownership to the music, therefore challenging corporate capitalism?)
  • Organizing a reform movement within a massive multiplayer game? (Is the virtual world of the game a public good worthy of such concern?)
  • Posted by peterlevine at 5:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 30, 2006

    taking back the culture

    (Seattle) Here's a speech for a presidential candidate in '08:

    "American popular culture is hurting us. It subjects our children to explicit sexuality and violence. It's relentlessly consumerist and materialist. It tells the rest of the world that we are a nation obsessed with violence, sex, and consumer goods, lacking spiritual depth. Our movies and music are popular, but people in other countries regard them as low pleasures.

    "How did we let this happen to us? Have we not produced twelve Nobel laureates in literature, the world's greatest research universities, inspiring religious and political leaders, and major movements in all the arts? Are we not the home to global religious denominations and the birthplace of the environmental movement? Why do we let media companies and celebrities define us?

    "Censorship is not the answer. Broadcast media can be regulated to a degree, but most communications have already moved to cable, DVD, and the Internet. The courts--rightly, in my opinion--will block most efforts to regulate the content of these media.

    "Censorship empowers the government to make decisions, and politicians can abuse that power. Besides, we don't need to be babysat.

    "We do need to control our own culture. We can do that, to a degree, through our own decisions. For example, we can turn off the TV. At the grassroots level, people can act together to change their media consumption--for instance, by scheduling community events for prime time, so that kids have alternatives.

    "But the government also has a role.

    "First, the United States must stop carrying Hollywood's water. Other countries want to limit the amount of US media that's shown on their broadcast channels. Our government fights tooth and nail to remove those limits. That stance may create a few jobs in Hollywood, but it also floods foreign countries with media that depicts us in a bad light. The US was defeated, 158-1, in a recent UNESCO vote on preserving cultural diversity. We need to drop that position until our media companies make products that serve us better.

    "More important, people need help in creating alternative media that are more responsible, that reflect their best values. In public schools, we should teach all kids to make digital media: websites, movies, audio segments. Students will be supervised, so their products won't be profane or violent or sexually explicit. The idea is to teach them how to make--and appreciate--responsible media. A public school teacher cannot lead a class in making religious videos. But students can use the skills and habits of media-creation that they learn in schools in other venues, including their religious communities.

    "Finally, we need to create a new model for public broadcasting. PBS, NPR, and the rest of the public system was created after Newton Minow observed that television had become a "vast wasteland." He said that in 1961; the situation is worse today. But the public system is obsolete. Most people won't give money to sustain programs on one channel out of 80 or 95. Public broadcasting increasingly relies on corporate sponsorship: advertising by another name. And it has become a political football, because people are offended when their taxes support opinions that they dislike. With Jefferson, they believe that 'to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.'

    "In the future, public broadcasting should support a diverse range of voluntary citizens and groups to make high-quality content. It should supply facilities, broadcast spectrum, training, quality-control, and archives of raw material. Public broadcasters should not monopolize channels, but should empower citizens to produce their own media.

    "Nowadays, whenever politicians want to make something sound important, they connect it to national security. Well, the way we present ourselves to the world really is a national-security issue, for today the great struggle is for the respect of a global population. But even if al-Qaeda and other enemies went away, it would still be crucial to take control of our own media. We are not a self-governing and free people if we allow a few corporations to define our fundamental character."

    [Note: There is much talk right now about where the Democrats should place themselves on a left-right ideological spectrum. But there are many critical issues that don't fit anywhere along that line. Taking a hard line against corporate media is an example of a position that is neither to the left nor the right of the Democrats' current mainstream; it takes us off in a different direction entirely. Republicans, too, ought to consider a positive response to cultural pollution.]

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:14 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

    May 26, 2006

    beachfront property

    Via Crooked Timber: Alex Tingle has created a great online gizmo that allows you to see how much dry land will vanish as seawater rises by x meters. A rise of 14 meters (the maximum Tingle allows) would put the bank of the Potomac at the south porch of the White House.

    ... Not a bad deal if you live there.

    Posted by peterlevine at 2:03 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Meier and Ravitch show the way

    Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch have an article in Education Week entitled "Bridging Differences." Meier is a hero for many progressive educators; her small schools in East Harlem are democratic communities that give significant voice to students and faculty in developing their own curricula. Ravitch, in addition to being an excellent historian of education, is a prominent proponent of a national core curriculum backed with exams.

    The two distinguished women were supposed to debate No Child Left Behind, but instead they had a long and personal conversation that generated a tremendously insightful article, written in the first-person plural. Their human connection--their mutual sense of respect and trust--is tangible. They write movingly near the end of their article:

    As the lunch ended, Diane said to Deborah, 'I would be glad to see my grandchildren attend a school that you led.' Our macro-level differences do not interfere with our mutual respect for each other's work. That itself is something we hope our schools can help teach young people.

    They disagree about much and candidly explore their disagreements, which mostly concern matters of educational policy, such as whether to use NAEP scores for assessment. Their agreements about the political situation are striking. Specifically:

    1. They agree that all well-intentioned reform ideas become bastardized because of the way public institutions are run today. "As we talked, we found ourselves deeply frustrated, even angry, as we realized that the so-called reforms of the day are too often a perverse distortion--one might say an 'evil twin'--of the different ideas that each of us has advocated." Small schools (which Meier advocates) become places "to park some difficult dissidents to quiet them while other schools are brought into compliance." Mandatory curricula (which Ravitch favors) are watered down and filled with foolish content.

    2. They agree that part of the reason for bad governance is a lack of citizen-based, independent institutions in which matters of value can be debated and diverse people can find positive roles and build countervailing power:

    Almost all the usual intervening mediators--parent organizations, unions, and local community organizations--have either been co-opted, purchased, or weakened, or find themselves under siege if they question the dominant model of corporate-style "reform." All the city's major universities, foundations, and business elites are joined together as cheerleaders, if not actual participants, offering no support or encouragement to watchdogs and dissidents. This allows these elites the opportunity to carry out their experiments on a grand, and they hope uninterrupted, "apolitical" scale, where everything can, at last, be aligned, in each and every school, from prekindergarten to grade 12, under the watchful eye of a single leader. If they can remain in power long enough, it is assumed (although what actually is assumed is not easy to find out) that they can create a new paradigm that no future change in leadership can undo.

    I read "apolitical" to mean: driven by experts, free of overt debate about values, technical and difficult to grasp, conducted in private, and closed to citizens. Ravitch wants a national debate about what is essential to learn, culminating in the design of public standards. That's a political process at a large scale (although she would leave lots of room for teachers to make other decisions). Meier wants a robust debate within each school about what is most important. That's also politics, but at a decentralized level. Neither one wants consultants, pyschometricians, and managers hired from corporations to make critical decisions without public debate and involvement.

    3. They emphasize the civic mission of schools, partly because they believe we need a robust civil society to prevent the poor governance that we observe in today's large school systems. A precondition for civil society is democratic education:

    During our animated conversation, we agreed that a central, abiding function of public education is to educate the citizens who will preserve the essential balances of power that democracy requires, as well as to support a sufficient level of social and economic equality, without which democracy cannot long be sustained. We agreed that the ends of education--its purposes, and the trade-offs that real life requires--must be openly debated and continuously re-examined. Young people need to see themselves as novice members of a serious, intellectually purposeful community. We think that it would be healthy if students listened to and participated in such discussions, and came to understand the purposes for their schooling beyond the need to acquire more certificates.

    4. They share an ideal of the teacher as a professional. She should be trusted to make important judgments about values and techniques based on her experience and her relationships with her own students, while being held accountable. They see all major current educational reforms as hostile to such professionalism.

    5. They believe that a respectful dialogue among people with divergent views is both possible (as they demonstrate in the article) and essential to progress on education.

    By criticizing "apolitical" reform efforts and modeling a mutually respectful dialogue about values, Ravitch and Meier exemplify a form of politics that we desperately need.

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

    May 25, 2006

    smoking me out

    I'm in Dayton, OH, for a seminar at the Kettering Foundation. I had written a chapter last fall describing the interaction of two generations on our college campuses. I wrote that some Boomer professors (ex-participants in the tumultuous sixties and seventies), "developed a new perspective" during the 1980s and 1990s. "While still reformist and egalitarian," they became "increasingly pragmatic, open-ended, and solicitous of institutions, of existing communities, of civic culture, and of public deliberation, regardless of its outcome." Meanwhile, they took new scholarly interest in public deliberation, civil society, civic virtue, and related themes. In the 1980s, they encountered Gen-X students who were alienated from formal politics but idealistic and interested in direct service. The result was a rash of experimentation, including service-learning, deliberation in classrooms and on campuses, community-based research, and work that celebrated cultural diversity as an asset.

    A colleague wrote a spirited critique of my chapter, as lengthy as my own contribution. She argued that the real trends in higher education during the period that I described included a neoconservative assault on intellectual freedom and a rise of economic insecurity that undermined democracy. Under those circumstances, she implied, it was futile to retreat into small-scale service-learning and community-research projects. We don't need civil deliberation as much as radical, ideological critique. Those who do civic work on campuses present ourselves as non-ideological and open to all views; but actually we are moderates or incrementalists, closed to more radical alternatives.

    The discussion began. Unfortunately, my colleague was on the phone (rather than present in person) because her flight had been delayed by 24 hours at O'Hare. Suddenly, a disembodied corporate voice in the background told her to get on the plane, and she had to stop participating. That seemed to support her point about the source of real power in contemporary life.

    But seriously: No one who promotes civic renewal is ideologically neutral. Certainly, I have an ideological position (a relatively comprehensive worldview) that supports my own commitment to civic work, at least at this moment. My view includes these premises: people can create wealth through voluntary collective action in a society like ours; although private property is fine, capital mobility is problematic; it's possible to build economic institutions that are rooted in communities; social problems have cultural roots and cannot be fully solved through welfare programs; mid-20th-century public institutions are obsolete but there are emerging models that are less centralized.

    Although I believe these premises--provisionally--I don't like to use them as arguments in favor of civic work. That's not because I'm afraid of controversy, but rather because I recognize that people come to service-learning, deliberation, local media work, and other civic activities for a variety of reasons. That heterogeneity seems healthy to me. I don't think it's necessary to spell out a comprehensive worldview that would alienate some potential partners. Like any social movement, the movement for civic renewal requires some ideololgical ambiguity to allow it to encompass diversity.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:06 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 24, 2006

    New Voices

    The New Voices project at J-Lab makes small grants to citizen groups to create news media. I've served on the selection committee. There is a nice 3-minute video about some of the grantees on the Knight Foundation website.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:00 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 23, 2006

    the power of community organizing

    Yesterday, I showed the correlation between economic development and political participation. I also pointed to some cases--South Africa, India, Tanzania--in which there was more participation than one would expect given the level of development. All three countries are famous for democratic political leaders and grassroots democratic organizations. It seems that people like Gandhi and Mandela and the movements they represent can make a big difference.

    Closer to home, the West Side of Chicago shows the same pattern. According to this fascinating paper by Gregory B. Markus, there is broad and deep democratic participation in the West Side despite its entrenched poverty and unresponsive government. The West Side was home to Jane Addams, Saul Alinsky, and many grassroots organizations that last to this day. They have had a clear impact.

    Markus and colleagues surveyed 5,626 residents in a diverse set of 14 American cities. Overall, they found powerful correlations between the amount of civic participation, on one hand, and residents' approval of local government, education, crime, and community, on the other. Markus' scatter-plots look just like mine from yesterday, only with US cities instead of nations.

    But the West Side of Chicago stands out on the graph. This is a poor area: 40% of households had less than $15,000 in income in 1996; 86 percent were people of color; only a third had education beyond high school. According to Markus' survey, they tend to distrust "other people" and the local government. Indeed, Chicago's government has been untrustworthy in its treatment of West Siders. With a few bright spots, City Hall has been notably corrupt, unjust, even brutal. Residents are very unlikely to believe that they can understand government or that officials care about people like them. The schools are some of the worst in America.

    Yet levels of civic and political participation on Chicago's West Side are extraordinarily high. Once you control for demographic factors, the West Side is first among the fourteen communities in both electoral and civic participation. What's more, residents of a particularly poor district within the West Side are more engaged than those in a more middle-class enclave. The most highly engaged group of all are African American residents of the particularly poor Southwest part of the West side.

    The explanation is fairly evident: deliberate community organizing. Chicago has been an extraordinary laboratory for such work since the days of Addams and Alinsky. It is the national headquarters of the Gamaliel Foundation, the Industrial Areas Foundation, and National People's Action. There are famous community development corporations like Bethel New Life; powerful religious congregations; neighborhood associations; and engaged colleges and universities. There are countless links among these groups; activists in IAF, for example, spend their time launching other associations and persuading institutions to be more engaged.

    One quarter of all West Siders (and more in the poorest district) are members of a block club or neighborhood association. Almost one fifth have served on a nonprofit board. Those who participate explain their reasons as: making the community a better place to live (71%), influencing policy (51%), being with people I enjoy (43%), and meeting new people (40%). Especially in the poorest district, a substantial group claims that participation is "exciting." These statistics reveal a neighborhood in which people are used to political group-membership, which they see as both powerful and enjoyable.

    Thanks to Robert Putnam and others, we know that in general people who trust one another and trust the government are more likely to participate in their communities and in politics. Those relationships are real and important. But in the West Side of Chicago, we see a place where membership and participation has not produced a high level of trust in other people, confidence in the government, or even political "efficacy." Yet West Siders participate.

    Two questions arise for me. First, is all that participation effective at addressing the problems that people care about? In general, rates of engagement correlate with social outcomes, as least as rated by citizens. But Chicago's West Side is an outlier in the survey because residents are highly dissatisfied with schools, the government, and crime, yet they participate. Does this mean that raising participation does not improve social outcomes, despite the general correlation between the two? Or are education and crime in the West Side substantially better than they would be absent the participation? (Chicago has fared better than some of its peers--St. Louis, Detroit, and Cleveland--and the difference could be attributed to strong neighborhood-level politics.)

    Second, how long does it take and how hard is it to raise civic engagement through community organizing? The Chicago case shows what is possible, but that process can be traced back 120 years. What does that history mean for a city like Santa Ana, CA, which rates very poorly on civic engagement in the Markus survey? Are there any shortcuts?

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

    May 22, 2006

    political participation and economic success

    It probably won't surprise you that there's a positive relationship between political participation and social/economic development. In countries where people are doing better (living longer, attending more years of school, spending more money), they also vote, protest, and petition more.

    I've illustrated that relationship with this graph. The United Nations Development Programme's Index of Human Development is on the y-axis, and the percentage of the population that votes and says they join petitions, boycotts, or protests (averaged together) is on the x-axis. The graph only includes countries with a history of real elections, and it misses most poor countries, because they don't participate in the World Values Survey. There were 62 countries in my sample, but I deleted some of their names to make the graph legible:

    The correlation is compatible with several rival theories. Maybe participation helps with development, or maybe affluence gives people the luxury to participate. Or maybe there's another underlying cause, such as trust, sociability, the quality of the media, or the size of the middle class. I'd like to believe that political participation is good for development (as Amartya Sen and others have argued), but I don't have the data to prove that.

    I can, however, note some interesting patterns.

    1. There's a cluster of former British colonies that chose to participate in the World Values Survey and that show similar results. These countries (near the bottom-left of the graph) under-perform economically considering the robustness of their civic participation. (Or they over-achieve as democracies, considering their poverty.) Within that group, however, there's a correlation between democratic participation and social development. In the cases of Tanzania and India, I think we're still seeing the legacy of centralized democratic socialism--which tolerated and even encouraged participation but monopolized economic power.

    2. Singapore has achieved high social development with low civic engagement. It's a rare enough case that no one should argue for the Singapore model. Several of the major new democracies in Eastern Europe and Latin American also have relatively low civic engagement, considering their level of social development, but they are not far from the norm.

    3. The World Values survey asks people whether they take "local community action on issues like poverty, employment, housing, racial equality." Answers to that question did not correlate at all with socio-economic development. Therefore, I dropped that indicator from the graph. However, it's important to note that "local community action" is most common in the poorest countries (Bangladesh, Tanzania, and China). It is more common in the USA than in other developed democracies.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:18 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

    May 19, 2006

    "Civic Renewal in America"

    Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly has just published my article on civic renewal. The pdf is available here. The article begins:

    Our formal political system is coarse, unproductive, and short-sighted. Outside of formal politics, however, a robust movement is beginning to renew civic engagement in America. In this article, I define what I mean by "civic" work. I then describe some important current examples and contend that the whole field is growing stronger and more unified. (This independent analysis supports the results of a new book by Carmen Sirianni and Lewis A. Friedland entitled The Civic Renewal Movement.) Finally, I argue that this kind of work should matter to academic philosophers--and vice-versa.

    This is my effort to pull together all my professional work since 2001 (leaving aside certain themes in moral philosophy that I've been writing about). Every section of the article appeared first on this blog, but the printed version is more coherent. The heart of the essay is a list of important, ongoing, practical experiments. Before I get to that list, I propose an argument for the importance of civic renewal, defined in a certain way. I then use network mapping software to show that the various experiments on my list are interconnected. At the end, in what amounts to a defense of my eccentric professional work, I argue that civic engagement is essential for the discipline of political philosophy at this point in its evolution.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 18, 2006

    immigration legislation: a prediction

    The future is inscrutable, and I'm bad at prognostication, but I suspect that Congress will pass no major immigration bill in the near future. Clearly, the congressional leadership would like to pass a bill so that they can avoid attacks for "doing nothing." However, the gap between the House and Senate looks huge. For most Republican Members of Congress, it's preferable not to vote up or down on a final bill that will be a compromise and not fully satisfactory to anyone. It's better to have two bills stuck in conference committee and to be able to attack one or both. This is a great opportunity for Republican candidates to distance themselves from the congressional leadership and the president.

    The risk, from a Republican point of view, is that a stalled bill will continue to divide the caucus and anger some key constituencies (especially anti-immigrant activists and conservative Latinos) right through November. Nevertheless, that's a smaller risk for them than having to pass a compromise bill without any Democratic votes. If they're lucky, TV will show footage of National Guardsmen watching the southern border and expressing support for their new mission. (I don't think deploying the Guard requires any legislation.) The GOP leadership can also try to make something else--homeland security or gay marriage--the legislative priority in the fall. Meanwhile Republican candidates can inveigh against their own leaders for failing to pass the legislation that they think their own constituents want. The result will be the status quo (plus a short-term deployment of the Guard).

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 17, 2006

    the age of reason?

    Does it make any sense to call the 18th century the Age of Reason? The primacy of reason had been argued long before then and would be defended later. Most (if not all) of the main techniques of rational analysis had been discovered earlier. And many of the era's leading thinkers held mixed or even negative views about reason. For instance, Hume: "Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

    Nevertheless, the Age of Reason seems an apt title, as long as we define "reason" in a certain way. It strikes me that 1689-1788 was a time of judicious selectiveness, a period when the intellectual options were deliberately narrowed according to certain rational criteria.

    In the seventeenth century, alternatives had proliferated. There were countless Protestant sects as well as new strains of Catholicism. The Scientific Revolution occurred, yet alchemy and astrology also flourished. Vital political ideologies ranged from royal absolutism to the communism of the Diggers, by way of constitutionalism, the Mayflower Compact, and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Scholars had unearthed a great variety of ancient texts--not only the ones that we view today as "classics," but also various Hellenistic, late-Roman, and early-Christian books that few people read any more. More Western scholars could manage Greek than at any time since the fall of the Roman Empire; some also learned Aramaic and Coptic. They not only admired Plato and Aristotle, but also Hermes Trismegistus, Dionysus the Psuedo-Areopagite and Zoroaster. Jesuit missionaries and others brought back the earliest reliable information about China, Japan, and India. See the Wikipedia entry on Athanasius Kircher for a sample of what an intellectually omniverous man could know ca. 1660.

    To people of education and discretion a century later, it appeared that men like Kircher knew too much. Some of their erudition had been wasted on fruitless topics. The Age of Reason, if we can generalize about it at all, was a time for sorting out the heritage of early-modern Europe, distinguishing science from the occult, the literary canon from the rest of the library, mainstream religion from various radical sects, civilized people from barbarians, and reasonable political options from crazy ones.

    Such consolidation was perhaps inevitable, but gradually a desire built up for broader and less temperate options. A rough definition of Romanticism could be: Views and ideas that would have been dismissed as "irrational" between the Glorious Revolution and the storming of the Bastille.

    Posted by peterlevine at 2:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 16, 2006

    Congress vs. Facebook

    Any American between the ages of 15 and 25 (or any parent or teacher thereof) has probably heard of Facebook, Friendster, and MySpace, the social networking services. Users create webpages with their pictures and self-descriptive information. Visitors can also leave notes and see links to the owners' friends' pages.

    Such services are hugely popular; in fact my college students use Facebook instead of email. The general idea has lots of potential for other applications. For example, e-ssembly is a new social networking service explicitly designed to facilitate political discussion and organization.

    However, via Mobilizing America's Youth, I learned about HR 5319, the "Deleting Online Predators Act" of 2006. This bill would require schools that accept federal discounts for Internet service to:

    prohibit access by minors without parental authorization to a commercial social networking website or chat room through which minors may easily access or be presented with obscene or indecent material; may easily be subject to unlawful sexual advances, unlawful requests for sexual favors, or repeated offensive comments of a sexual nature from adults; or may easily access other material that is harmful to minors.

    I can't imagine a way to block all "harmful" material on a social network. That means that the bill would force high schools to ban social networking software. Granted, the expansion of Facebook to high schools has provoked criticisms. Among other problems, there is some potential for stalkers to create accounts. However, young people have First Amendment rights and need to be able to use new modes of communication. For example, almost everyone agrees that teenagers should be allowed to use email and the web, even though both contain much harmful material. When it comes to social network software, schools can set their own rules and don't need to be babysat by the federal government. Surely there must be a better way to prevent stalking than by banning social software in all the high schools of America.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:23 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    May 15, 2006

    the "silent disease" of technocracy: an illustration

    Last week, Harry Boyte wrote on this blog: "Technocracy, spreading through society like a silent disease, presents itself as an objective set of truths, practices, and procedures. But it turns people into abstract categories. It decontextualizes problems from civic life. It privatizes the world and creates a pervasive sense of scarcity. It profoundly erodes a culture of equal respect."

    These are strong words, but I'd like to support and elucidate his position with an example. Today, powerful institutions and constituencies are concerned about high school dropouts. They address the dropout problem by trying to isolate discrete underlying causes. Consultants tell them that "reading proficiency in third grade [as measured by test scores] is the single strongest predictor of high-school dropout rate." When the Business Roundtable and others notice this correlation, they increase the already intense pressure to improve third-grade reading scores. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools are required to make "adequate yearly progress" toward uniform success on reading exams. At the third grade, reading tests emphasize phonics and decoding skills. Therefore, teachers--encouraged by consultants and companies that sell tools for diagnosis and instruction--spend a great deal of instructional time teaching decoding skills, often using meaningless text for practice.

    This is a perfect example of viewing students as bundles of problems, isolating discrete causes, and applying interventions developed by experts. However, pure phonics instruction probably does not work, even for the advertised purpose of raising reading scores at third grade. Learning to read also requires motivation, cultural knowledge, and comprehension skills. Even if current strategies did produce higher reading scores at age eight, they probably would not mitigate the high-school dropout problem. Although literacy at third grade and completion of high-school are correlated right now, that does not mean that the former causes the latter. Recent evidence finds that many high school students who drop out can manage the academic curriculum but are profoundly bored or alienated in school.

    In a technocratic age, people are prone to identify pathologies and provide expert-driven remediation. However, in dealing with the high school dropout problem, we have a clear alternative. Proponents of "positive youth development" hold that adolescents are not incomplete adults who are prone to various pathologies (such as illiteracy and dropping out). Instead, by virtue of their energy, enthusiasm, and fresh outlook, adolescents have special contributions to make: aesthetic, spiritual, athletic, intellectual, and civic. By giving them opportunities to contribute, we actually reduce their odds of getting into trouble more than we would through prevention, surveillance, and discipline.

    The research on positive youth development is not yet as strong as we might like. However, assume (on the basis of numerous impressive examples) that it would work better than the technocratic approach described above. Positive youth development would need experts: researchers, consultants, and others who would share accumulated knowledge. But it couldn't be dominated by specialists. That's because providing youth with positive opportunities requires local knowledge and voluntary support from across a community, including from youth themselves. No "off-the-shelf" package for community-engagement could possibly be sufficient.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:25 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    May 12, 2006

    a mild protest

    At the University of Maryland, we have a Coalition for Civic Engagement and Leadership. I serve on it, along with many administrators and a few professors and students. A group of undergraduates recently learned of our coalition. Critical of Maryland for failing to encourage activism and engagement, they decided to show up uninvited at our meeting and make a statement--whether we liked it or not.

    Of course, we were excited and delighted. What are we but a bunch of ex-student activists who long for the scent of tear gas in the groves of academe? (Or at least a good anti-apartheid rally.) We planned to rush through our official business an hour early so that we could turn our attention to the students when they showed up. Some of my colleagues even helped the protesters to locate the room. They dutifully filed in, exactly on time, and took their seats: some in dreadlocks and tie-dyed shirts. Extremely nice, cautious, and a little diffident, they began to speak about their goal of making the campus, like, more engaged?

    My colleagues and I listed politely and then probed the students for more ideas and opinions. At the end, various members of the Coalition complimented the students for their political act, saying that they had already changed the campus for the better. On his way out, one of the young men asked me about admission to the School of Public Policy.

    I hardly know how to explore the comic possibilities here.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 11, 2006


    At a meeting yesterday, I said, "Leadership is choosing which pressure to cave to." I've had this thought for several years, although I'm not sure whether I made it up or borrowed it from someone. In either case, it was received as a scrap of wisdom, so I pass it on here.

    The corollary: To get what you want, organize people to put pressure on you that you want to cave to.

    Posted by peterlevine at 1:05 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    May 10, 2006

    a 10-point plan for civic renewal

    Major trends have worked against civic participation in America, although a network of dedicated people has struggled to improve our civic life. Fortunately, new national political leaders will emerge between 2006 and 2008. We can hope that at least one of them makes "empowerment" a leading theme in his or her campaign. Or perhaps candidates will speak of "true democracy at home and abroad." Or they could revive populism, along the lines Harry Boyte proposed here on Monday. In any case, the big message would go something like this:

    American citizens have been pushed out of all our major institutions--the government, schools, health care, environmental protection, crime prevention, city planning, and the news media. That's partly because lobbyists and other rich people have bought too much power. Sometimes it's because courts and bureaucracies have made decisions that should be left to communities. Often it's because experts claim too much authority. Although we should respect the expertise of lawyers, economists, regulators, and professional educators, these people don't know right from wrong better than anyone else. Nor do they understand everyone's needs and experiences. We must find ways to tap the energy, creativity, and values of many more Americans if we are going to address our communities' problems.

    To be credible, any such message must be backed up with reasonably specific policy proposals. Appropriate policies might include the following:

    1. Putting communities back in control of education. Whole communities educate kids, not just the professionals who work in k-12 schools. Although the No Child Left Behind Act has some merits, it is making standardized tests all-important, thus empowering the testing industry and preventing communities from deciding what they value most. Often, people prize moral and civic education as well as, or above, reading and math scores. The Act needs to be revised so that a core of reading, math, and language-arts remains, yet communities can set other priorities and participate in educating their children.

    2. Reforming Congress to check the power of professional lobbyists. Although basic ethics rules are important and must be enforced, the core problem is that lawmaking is not transparent. Therefore, well-placed insiders can obtain too much power. Dramatically simplifying the tax code on a revenue-neutral basis would reduce opportunities for special interests to seek special breaks. (The current code is about 10,000 pages long and generates about 4,000 pages of forms.) Congress should also create a bipartisan commission to simplify and regularize the Code of Federal Regulations, which is about 150,000 pages long.

    3. A national service agenda. Instead of cutting or trimming the federal voluntary service programs (Americorps, Senior Corps, Peace Corps, and others), Congress should expand their funding while keeping them competitive and demanding evidence of results from grantees. The next president should also name a highly respected and famous director for USA Freedom Corps who will not only seek adequate funding for all the service programs, but also fight to give responsible, meaningful roles to volunteers. FEMA, the Defense Department, and all agencies should use talented and experienced volunteers to their maximum capacities.

    4. Preparing a new generation of active and responsible citizens. People form attitudes and habits related to civil society when they are young and keep them for the rest of their lives. But civic education has been cut in most school systems, and there are too few opportunities for young people to learn through service and extracurricular activities. Congress should double the small Learn & Serve America program that provides competitive grants for service-learning. Congress should also preserve the Education for Democracy Act (slated for elimination in each of President Bush's budgets) and add a new competitive program for school districts that agree to implement district-wide civics programs and collect outcome data. The next president should name an interagency task force on youth civic development that includes the Defense Department, Homeland Security, and the federal research agencies as well as the departments specifically concerned with education and service.

    5. Rethinking government service. According to the Partnership for National Service, we would need about 800,000 new federal employees to replace those who are eligible to retire before 2010. Even if we assume that the federal workforce can be cut deeply, we still need about half a million recruits. Many younger people do not view the federal civil service as a desirable lifelong career. To meet the desires of college students as documented in a recent poll, we must create federal jobs that feel less bureaucratic and more interesting. (Raising pay is much less important.) This requires a new round of "reinventing government." This time, the goal of reinvention should not be to improve customer service but to find ways to make stints in the civil service feel more creative, collaborative, and rewarding.

    6. Charter schools: The charter-school movement is not a Trojan Horse designed to undermine public education. Charters are public schools--funded with tax dollars and authorized by the government. In fact, they stand to rejuvenate public education by giving more people opportunities to serve and innovate in the public sector. If there is any way to create the equivalent of charters in other areas of federal governance, that would be worth an experiment. An example might be community development corporations (CDC's) that can manage development assistance.

    7. A public voice in policymaking. Hurricane Katrina showed that the federal government is not ready to convene citizens to deliberate when we face crucial public decisions. Yet we know how to bring diverse citizens together in face-to-face and online settings and harvest their views. The federal government should create an infrastructure that is ready to organize public deliberations when needed. This infrastructure would consist of: standards for fair and open public deliberations, a federal office that could coordinate many simultaneous forums and collect all their findings, and a list of vetted contractors that would be eligible to convene public deliberations with federal grants.

    The Wyden-Hatch "Health Care that Works for All Americans Act" would organize large-scale public deliberations on what to do about the 41 million Americans who lack health insurance. It would be a great pilot for future conversations on other issues.

    8. Increase public deliberation through e-rulemaking. Only paid experts can possibly follow the thousands of new federal regulations that are proposed and enacted each year. That means that special interests that can afford expertise have a huge advantage, and many actual regulations benefit them alone. Proposed regulations should be issued in a searchable online format with threaded comments, opportunities to vote on the importance of proposals, and opportunities to add links and explanations. Then citizens will sort through this mass of material and add value.

    9. New public media. Without government help, citizens are creating more diverse and interactive forms of media--mostly online--to counteract the consolidation of the commercial news and entertainment businesses. But there are big holes that require federal attention. First, radio has dramatically consolidated. The FCC must support alternatives, including low-power radio. Second, it is increasingly difficult for people to make fair use of copyrighted media in documentaries, hip-hop, and other cultural forms that rely on borrowing. Congress must protect fair use. Third, most kids aren't learning sophisticated media skills. They must have opportunities to work with media in schools. Television is hardest to improve, but the next president should at least appoint leaders of public broadcasting who are willing to create an entirely new model to replace the current system of using membership drives and corporate advertising to support marginal programs.

    10. Incorporate immigrants into civic life: The many millions of new immigrants need civic skills and opportunities. The INS citizenship exam should be revised so that it is not longer a set of trivia questions but instead tests the knowledge that new citizens will actually need to participate. Immigrants, legal or illegal, should have access to education and service opportunities.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:38 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    May 9, 2006

    the future of gay rights

    In the Detroit News, Deb Price has an article entitled, "Gay marriage's future lies with DotNet youngsters." She writes:

    Even two years ago, 15- to 25-year-olds favored gay marriage by 56 percent to 39 percent, according to a national survey by the University of Maryland's youth think tank, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE at civicyouth.org).

    "Each generation has come of age being considerably more tolerant and become even more so," says CIRCLE director Peter Levine, who tracked the attitudes of generational groups over time.

    "This youngest generation is very tolerant, a very large group, and they have turned around the voting decline in the first election in which they could vote. If you put all that together, it spells a huge change in gay rights -- and one not very far off," he adds.

    I was thinking of this kind of pattern, which is also seen in other survey questions about tolerance for gays:

    [I'm also in a podcast by Joanna Welch, talking about the importance of being able to manipulate, recombine, and parody audio recordings of politics.]

    Posted by peterlevine at 5:05 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 8, 2006

    "Civic Populism," an essay by guest blogger Harry Boyte

    Harry C. Boyte is a senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. Harry started his career working for Martin Luther King, Jr., as a field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His many excellent books include Building America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work and CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics.

    Harry recently suggested that I write on this blog about populism. I said that I don't have the historical background to do it right, but I invited him to contribute something in his own voice. He has generously provided the following essay:

    Civic Populism, by Harry C. Boyte

    In common parlance "populism" means a folksy style or, negatively, demagogic leaders who profess to champion victimized people as cover for trouble-making. "Populism" or "populist" is thus the epithet used to criticize a group of Latin American leaders. Juan Forero reported in the New York Times (April 20, 2006) on "populist movements ... promising to redistribute wealth [that] threaten to create a political free-for-all that could weaken already unstable countries." Jorge Castañeda followed with an op ed ("Good Neighbor Policy," NYT, May 4, 2006), arguing that immigration reform is needed in order to halt "the wave of populism that has swept Latin American cities."

    Peter Levine, who invited me to reflect on populism in this civic space, has termed the rhetorical championing of innocent people against nefarious elites, "sentimental populism" (August 23, 2004). Yet in civic terms populism can be understood as something different, the heritage of democratic politics in the United States that is an alternative to liberalism and conservatism, with new currency today.

    Populism took explicit shape in the movement of black and white farmers and their blue collar and professional allies in the 1880s and 1890s, culminating in the short-lived "People's Party." In broader terms it is a tradition in which civic agency and civic life built through cooperative work formed an alternative both to the paternalistic state and the untamed market. As the historian Eric Foner has argued, "Precapitalist culture ... was the incubator of resistance to capitalist development in the United States. The world of the artisan and small farmer persisted ... into the twentieth century and powerfully influenced American radical movements. ... These movements inherited an older republican tradition hostile to large accumulations of property, but viewing small property as the foundation of economic and civic autonomy." Foner proposed that in the U.S. it was "not the absence of non-liberal ideas but the persistence of a radical vision resting on small property [that] inhibited the rise of socialist ideologies."

    The emphasis on civic agency took new forms in the 20th century in an identifiable strand of democratic thought and action, what can be called civic populism or citizen-centered politics. This combines democratic respect and democratic power with democratic development--the idea that "the people shall govern" as they prepare themselves to govern. Civic populism has surfaced in broad movements such as early 20th century progressivism, New Deal reforms in the 1930s and 1940s, and the civil rights movement. Civic populism includes figures as diverse as Jane Addams, Liberty Hyde Bailey, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Saul Alinsky, Ella Baker, the Rev. Martin Luther King, and Linda Chavez-Thompson in our time. It also runs as important threads in the policy ideas and civic philosophies of political leaders such as the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey and the late Republican governor [of Minnesota] Elmer Andersen.

    Civic populism once had wide foundations in what can be called mediating institutions connecting the civic life of communities to the larger public world. These included locally rooted political parties, religious congregations, businesses, unions, neighborhood schools, settlement houses, sometimes colleges and universities. Unions, for instance, were often deeply tied to communities. The black Minnesota union leader and civic populist Nellie Stone Johnson recalled that into the 1950s unions had store front offices, where people would socialize, discuss issues, and undertake community projects. Mediating institutions also included locally rooted public agencies, from local governments to cooperative extension and soil conversation districts.

    These were places where people acted on concrete interests and received tangible benefits, while also learning public skills and habits of dealing with others who were different--negotiation, problem-solving, the messy improvisations of everyday politics. They also experienced the equal respect, freedom, and generative power that comes from common labours freely undertaken. Nick Bromell has described what emerges from such experiences as "the understanding that human equality is rooted in the activities of human beings, not in abstract rules that treat humans as mere blanks. Democracy [in these terms] doesn’t just allow us to govern ourselves; it produces selves that find the labor of self-government worth the effort…because those selves are worthy of respect."

    Civic populism integrates particular interests into a larger vision of the commonwealth or common good, a theme recently advocated for the Democrats by Michael Tomasky in "Party in Search of a Notion" (The American Prospect, April 18, 2006). But civic populism is more than a notion to win elections. It is a tradition stirring to new life in a fledgling movement for civic renewal, often brilliantly chronicled on this blog. Its deepest impulse is to transform the "Me First Culture" into a "We Culture."

    Civic populism addresses the dysfunctions of a Me First Culture because it challenges the technocratic politics--domination by detached experts--that generates such a culture. Technocracy, spreading through society like a silent disease, presents itself as an objective set of truths, practices, and procedures. But it turns people into abstract categories. It decontextualizes problems from civic life. It privatizes the world and creates a pervasive sense of scarcity. It profoundly erodes a culture of equal respect.

    Civic populism counters the impersonal, hierarchical patterns of technocracy while transforming the Me First Culture of isolation, fear, consumerism and scarcity that is technocracy's degraded progeny. Civic populism retrieves citizen politics as the way we negotiate the plural, relational, narrative qualities of the human condition in order to solve problems and live together without violence. It revitalizes civic cultures of mediating institutions that have narrowed in recent decades to providing services to needy clients and consumers. It generates a spirit of abundance by tapping the enormous civic energies and talents now stifled by technocracy. Finally, civic populism cultivates civic habits and outlook among professionals and amateurs alike--an understanding of ourselves as citizens working alongside our fellow citizens, neither above nor below.

    I believe that civic populism can be enriched, deepened, and translated into public debate by integrating themes of citizenship, community, and public life through the idea of a politics that aims at the strengthening of civic life. Civic life is a concept with broad resonance and appeal to many different groups. It suggests the context for cooperative labors, and the sense of public abundance that public work generates. Government in these terms is best conceived not as "the solution" or "the problem" but rather as the resource of the people in addressing our common problems and creating democracy.

    Politicians can play important roles in articulating civic populism, but the concept of the impact of public policies on civic life needs to come from many directions. Moreover, the concept of civic impact of policies--what practices and policies contribute to civic life and generate cultures of civic abundance, and what erode civic life--can be applied not only to assessment of government, but also to many other institutions.

    To renew democracy as a way of life will mean integrating civic populist examples into a broad challenge to a scarcity based technocratic politics. It will entail an alternative politics based on abundance. And it will mean remembering the heart of the populist faith, that democracy is embodied not mainly in structures or institutions, but in the wisdom, confidence, skills and habits of the citizenry.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:23 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 5, 2006

    stateless college students

    Doug McGray has a great cover story in the LA Times Sunday magazine about kids who complete college in the US despite being illegal immigrants. For example, Thi was born in Germany to Vietnamese refugees who took her to the US when she was very small. She is not eligible to work, live, or vote in any country. Her parents didn't initially understand their own immigration status, but when Thi finally learned from a lawyer that she is stateless, the lawyer said, "Grow some balls. This happens to people."

    People like Thi (an excellent student and great "citizen" who worked at a local police station during high school) are ineligible for in-state tuition and financial aid. She and many others make their way through college, anyway. Thi is a senior at UCLA. Yesterday, I met an originally undocumented Kenyan who had paid her own way through a BA and an MA in the US.

    There is legislation in Congress, the DREAM Act, that would grant high school graduates conditional resident status. If they graduated from college or completed military service, they would be eligible for Green Cards. The DREAM Act has been pending since 2001.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:55 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 4, 2006

    The secret thoughts of a Maryland School of Public Policy prof

    No wonk has ever won a vote, yet we're the ones who rule.
    For us, the whole of Washington's become a kind of school.
    The politicos are our students; they show up from the sticks
    With shiny smiles, fancy suits, and campaign-finance tricks.
    But when we talk cost/benefit, chi-squared, or Freddie Mac,
    Their brains feel slow, their spirits, low; their mouths look kinda slack.
    "You profs," they drawl, "it seems y'all know exactly what to do.
    You write the bill, just as you will, and tell us when you're through."

    In College Park, we've students, too; they're the ones who pay us.
    But they don't exactly have the clout to make us into playahs.
    That's why we love the World Bank, C-SPAN, or a think tank,
    Anywhere that cameras roll and the offices are swank.

    Civic engagement? Sounds like a drag.
    Public deliberation? Don't make me gag.
    A populist revolt? Not in our time.
    The people only care about celebrities and crime.

    Youth are dumb and selfish, but that's really no surprise.
    Their parents can't detect the most patronizing lies.
    Voting's overrated: I've hardly ever done it.
    As for the government, who'd really want to run it?
    And while I'm getting all of this off my panting chest,
    What about the folks who think that Maryland's the best?
    Please, a Terp is a turtle with his head up in his ... shell.
    Against a Blue Devil, he's got a snowball's chance in hell.

    The Terps are meek, the ozone's weak, our troops are up a creek.
    Philosophy's obsolescent and the future's looking bleak.
    Net intelligence is constant, but the population keeps on growing.
    We're out of cash, ideas, and friends, but the mess is still ongoing.
    The end is near, I sadly fear, for planet, country, school.
    But I get paid for opinions, so my future's looking cool!

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 3, 2006

    sites for youth discussion and debate

    Several ambitious websites try to give young Americans a voice in politics and policy:

  • The Youth Policy Action Center is an elaborate site that supports discussion of issues, provides links to opportunities for voting and volunteering, puts people in touch with like-minded peers, and shows off youth-produced videos and other media. It's a product of about 80 leading youth-oriented organizations.
  • The Association of Young Americans is an "AARP for youth," an idea that I floated in an earlier post. The AYP website provides issue briefs, mostly on economic matters of special relevance to the younger generations of Americans, and forums for discussion.
  • The Constitutional Rights Foundation--a group that I work with fairly often--has launched CRF Forum: For Youth, by Youth. Again, there is a discussion forum, a set of issue briefs, and opportunities to become involved. CRF is also running a photo contest. It's great to organize contests for young media-creators, because their lack of audience is a big problem.
  • WireTap is part of the AlterNet network, and it dates back to 1998. Its large audience consists of young (18-25) progressives. Its website provides blogs, news stories, and columns--often on economic issues like the prices of textbooks.

  • Posted by peterlevine at 3:17 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    May 2, 2006

    "debating, counselling, prophesying, voting"

    John Saltmarsh, a chaplain in the parliamentary army during the English Civil War (1642-6), wrote that "the interest of the people in Christ's kingdom is not only an interest of ... submission, but of consultation, of debating, counselling, prophesying, voting." We don't often think of these words together. However, consultation should precede voting, and prophesying can be a political act, as in the Civil Rights movement.

    One of Salmarsh's colleagues, another chaplain named William Dell, asserted that anyone might preach in his own way, since "unity is Christian, uniformity antichristian." He welcomed diverse voices and opinions because "the variety of forms in the world is the beauty of the world." John Robinson, the Pilgrims' pastor while they were in Leiden (1609-20), said that everyone should be encouraged to speak publicly after a sermon. At the Bell Alley Baptist Church in London in the mid-1600s, public debates were held as part of religious observances. Around the same time, George Fox, the first Quaker, used to travel from church to church provoking public arguments. Once, he recalled,

    I began to speak to [the minister after a sermon] and he began to oppose me. I told him his glass [half-hour] was gone, his time was out; the place was as free for me as for him; and he accused me that I had broken the law in speaking to him in his time in the morning, and I told him he had broken the law in speaking in my time.

    Modern American evangelical Christianity can be traced back to men like Saltmarsh and Dell and to the general atmosphere in the 1640s and 1650s. Radical protestants disagreed about many matters of theology (as do modern evangelicals), but they fought for the right to dispute in public. That is a valuable heritage for Americans who favor civil liberties and public deliberation. It is also, perhaps, an argument against mega-churches and TV ministries, which are very much one-way performances.

    There was another face of 17th-century protestant politics. It was Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Parliament that, in 1656, criminalized "disturbances" in churches, reinstating a law that had been passed under the Catholic Queen Mary in the 16th century, but now to suppress Quakers instead of Calvinists. Today, the pious are still influenced by Puritanism, but it is worth remembering that some protestant fundamentalists have found in free debate the essence of their faith.

    [Quotations from Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside-Down, 1972]

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:38 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    May 1, 2006

    loyalty to place in the age of jet-set academia

    I grew up with Jason Stanley, who wrote a thoughtful post on the Leiter Report about changes in academia since our days as fellow faculty-brats. His father, Prof. Manfred Stanley (whom I knew well and miss) was committed to his institution and community, to such a point that the idea of moving "bewildered him."

    He tended to value conferences, reading groups, and the development of links between the university and the community at least as much as his own written work. ... His own production clearly suffered from his other activities. For example, he spent years working with a poor town near Syracuse on a project concerning the responsibility of companies to the communities they abandon. A lot emerged from this project; a documentary, several town-meetings, and a civics class for high school students in that town. But very few publications emerged from it. He also viewed his obligations to his community as extending to his family. For example, he sent his children to Syracuse city public schools. As a professor at the local good university, he felt an extra obligation to be a member of the community, rather than a lesser obligation.

    Jason believes that our "generation of academics is quite different." We change institutions regularly, or hope to do so. We think of ourselves as "free agents," willing to obtain better salaries, working conditions, and status by moving or threatening to move. Our communities are not composed of colleagues, let alone neighbors and fellow citizens, but specialists in our field whom we "see at conferences and talks, and chat with on e-mail and on the phone."

    I think at the deepest level what has happened is a form of Weberian rationization. (That seems a fitting theory to apply in a post that invokes Manny Stanley.) Increasingly, the whole population of college-bound students and faculty have in mind the same criteria of excellence. They rank all institutions on one great Chain of Being that has Harvard and MIT at (or near) the top, and the local community college near the bottom. Lew Friedland and Shauna Morimoto find (pdf) that all high school students in one midwestern town-- including those who are struggling in school--envision the same status hierarchy and believe that their life-prospects will be determined by how high they can rise on it.

    When everyone is trying to move up a single scale, certain practical consequences result. Actual, published rankings circulate and are influential. Rising in the rankings makes an institution more competitive, thus allowing it to admit better qualified students who are easier and more fun to teach. In turn, the rankings are affected by institutions' international reputation for research. As in any Weberian system, quantifiable and generalizable criteria begin to count: e.g., the number of publications, or the rate of publication in the most competitive journals. Professors are highly aware of their institutions' reputations and are very tempted to try to move up when possible. Hence there's a lot of moving around. Building a local reputation (on or off campus) doesn't increase one's market value, so we put our energy into national publications for the people who might write us recommendation letters.

    As Jason notes, there are advantages to Weberian rationalization. We always had a status system, but now it's more transparent and more open to people (students and faculty alike) who play their parts well. Back in the 1980s, we faculty-brats knew the best colleges and how to get into them, while our peers in other regions and communities were still happy to attend local institutions. Now everyone reads U.S. News & World Report and tries to get into the "best" college that will admit them. If you get high SATs and grades and make sure to log some hours of community service, you too can go to Yale.

    Jason fears, however, that "market forces [are] impinging on academia," which should not be "just another way to be a success." I agree and would elaborate his thesis by making the following points:

    1. There is no reason of principle always to prefer generalized knowledge over local knowledge, yet the academic marketplace certainly values the general. Manny Stanley's deep knowledge of a particular community near Syracuse would not help him to get a more prestigious job elsewhere or move his institution up the national rankings.

    2. Engaging patiently with particular communities is often a way to learn. That is especially true in certain disciplines, such as sociology, which Manny Stanley professed. I'm not saying that a medieval art historian should spend her work time listening patiently to her neighbors, but some of the best social theory (from John Dewey and Jane Addams to Elinor Ostrom and Jenny Mansbridge) has emerged from such engagement.

    3. When institutions are concerned about their national and international rankings, they tend to run away from their local communities, unless they happen to be located in glamorous spots like Greenwich Village. For instance, my university, which is extremely conscious of status and currently ranked 18 on the list of public research institutions, would like people to forget that it is located in the State of Maryland, let alone Prince George's County, MD. It also hopes that everyone misses its land-grant charter. We want people to think of us as a global organization with programs in China, Nobel laureates, and convenient access to the nation's capital. As a result, there is no serious investment in local work; and Prince George's County suffers.

    4. If being a successful college means being able to select a low percentage of applicants, and if attending a highly selective institution brings economic benefits after graduation, then there is no need for colleges to put resources into education. To demand good teaching might only drive away the faculty who have the best prospects elsewhere, thus making an institution look less prestigious. When experts investigate student outcomes from very different kinds of colleges (e.g., local state schools versus fancy private ones) they find differences in "career and economic attainment" after graduation, but few differences in what students actually learn. "These findings could be expected because in the areas of career and economic achievement, the status-allocating aspects of a college and what a degree from that college signals to potential employers about the characteristics of its students may count as much if not more than the education provided."*

    5. Belonging to communities is psychologically valuable and a great way to learn. At an institution like mine, which runs away from its geographical community, it is hard for students, faculty, and staff to belong to place-based organizations and networks. They participate in various dispersed (sometimes global) communities, and that is fine. But I think our students miss something like 40% of the opportunities for membership and participation that they would have if we were connected to our geographical area. Connections would be tighter if, for instance, faculty conducted research in the community. But that would be a bad strategy for advancement.

    6. I think that competition for status is fundamentally unsatisfying. Friedland and Morimoto detect a hollowing-out of adolescence as teenagers spend all their time doing activities they think will look good on their resumes. Many adolescent volunteers cannot explain why they perform particular service activities, other than for career advantage. For faculty, constant jockeying for position makes you into the "man in the grey flannel suit." There is no fundamental reason why you should publish more articles in competitive journals in order to receive offers from higher-status institutions. However, it can be profoundly rewarding to use one's academic freedom and skills to improve the place you are. As Albert Hirschman showed,** we have two strategies for addressing shortcomings in institutions: "exit" and "voice." When you try to use voice even though you could exit, you are loyal. And the best parts of life come from loyalty. I think the fact that modern academics prefer exit is what Jason means when he talks about "market forces." And we're the ones who lose.

    *Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students, vol. 2 (Jossey-Bass, 2005), p. 591
    ** Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Harvard, 1970)

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:06 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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