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November 30, 2006

classrooms never change

(en route to Dayton, OH) According to a fascinating article by Nicholas Orme in Oxford Today, medieval and renaissance English schoolboys spent most of their time translating passages into Latin. Latin was a practical, living language, and medieval teachers must have seen the research about motivating students by assigning culturally appropriate materials. They made up lists of highly topical sentences for their pupils to render into Latin.

In 1506, a teacher who was also Master of Oxford's Magdalen College published a translation textbook that included such useful schoolroom phrases as: "Thou stinkest," "Turd in thy teeth!" "I am almost beshitten," and "He is the veriest coward that ever pissed." A different text provided opportunities to translate the phrases, "Sit away, or I shall give you a blow" and "He hath taken my book from me."

Another teacher expected his students to translate his complaint about their behavior:

As soon as I am come into the school, this fellow goeth to make water, and he goeth out into the common draft [toilet]. Soon after another asketh license that he may go drink. Another calleth on me that he may have license to go home. These and such other layeth my scholars for excuse oftentimes, that they may be out of the way.

In 1346, the Oxford schoolmaster John Cornwall asked his pupils to translate the warning: "If I go to Carfax, I may be met by misdoers." That remains reasonable advice 660 years later, for Carfax is still a street in Oxford with a somewhat scruffy clientele.

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November 29, 2006

the state of play

Until recently, I would have summarized the partisan debate in the United States as follows.

On domestic policy, the Democratic coalition encompassed many factions, but the dominant one was led by Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin. Their priorities were: balancing the budget (as a means of supporting aggregate economic growth), followed by spending on education, welfare, and health, followed by tax cuts for lower-income families. The public recognized these priorities: Democrats were trusted on fiscal policy, overall economic policy, and health and welfare. Whether or not "Rubinomics" was adequate or desirable, it coincided with prosperity and it matched majority preferences. Once the Democrats settled on it as their dominant position after 1994, they made at least incremental progress in most elections that emphasized economic issues.

In contrast, the Republicans officially stood for tax cuts, followed by spending cuts to balance budgets. But they had decreasing credibility on these issues. In any case, the public did not put tax cuts first.

On social issues, the country had moved far in the direction of libertarianism, so that the live issues of the day (such as gay marriage) would have seemed very radical a generation before. However, on those live issues, the Republican position was more popular than the Democratic one. Hence, in elections that emphasized "values," Republicans usually prevailed.

On foreign policy, the Republicans stood for putting America first. They appeared more willing to use military force, but only in America's economic or security interests. This was a clear position--not one that I favor, but one that had pretty strong popular support. In contrast, the Democrats seemed highly conflicted, unable to resolve debates left over from the Vietnam era that pitted elements of isolationism, nationalism, human-rights idealism, pacifism, and Realpolitik. The public did not know where the Party stood, and that hurt Democrats when foreign affairs rose on the national agenda after 9/11. Kerry’s statement that he had voted for the war before voting against it epitomized the Democrats’ reputation on foreign policy. To be fair, many individual Democrats held consistent positions, but the Party had not worked out its debates, which is partly why Kerry emerged as the nominee.

The last two years have changed much of this. Republicans are now associated with foolish unilateral adventurism and a careless disregard for American national interests. Internal debates have erupted on their side. That is clearly one reason that the Democrats won the 2006 election. But they still lack a coherent philosophy in foreign affairs.

We could now enter a creative period in which new alternatives are developed, some enjoying bipartisan or "strange-bedfellow" support. Serious alternatives would combine broad philosophical positions with specific policy proposals.

However, we could also enter a period in which Democrats expect to coast while Republicans continue to suffer (deservedly) from the Iraq debacle. That period would last two years at the most, by which time the Republicans would find new leadership and the Democrats would be expected to hold persuasive positions on foreign affairs. Thus the Party should begin a robust and divisive internal debate right now, so that a winning faction may prevail before 2008.

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November 28, 2006

states and markets (the case of India)

I could write a long post criticizing "neoliberalism" for widening gaps between rich and poor, undermining local cultures, damaging the biosphere, and restricting the sovereignty of democratic governments. I'd vote for the democratic left if, for example, I lived in Latin America. Yet I'm haunted by the example of India, where people who shared my values set the nation's course from 1949 until the mid-1980s. Nehru and his fellow leaders of the Congress Party were democratic, civil libertarian, secular, nonviolent, pluralist, deliberative, and egalitarian. Opposing "globalization" before that word was coined, they tried to make India self-reliant and to help the least advantaged of their compatriots. It is at least possible that their well-intentioned policies caused hundreds of millions of people to live shorter, harsher, and narrower lives than they might have otherwise.

The following passage from Shashi Tharoor's India: From Midnight to the Millennium (pp. 166-8) has stuck with me for several years:

The government's indifferent attitude [in the 1970s] was epitomized by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's communications minister, C.M. Stephen, who declared in Parliament, in response to questions decrying the rampant telephone breakdowns in the country, that telephones were a luxury, not a right, and that any Indian who was not satisfied with his telephone service could return his phone--since there was an eight-year waiting list of people seeking this supposedly inadequate product.

Mr. Stephen's statement captured perfectly everything that was wrong about the government's attitude. It was ignorant (he clearly had no idea of the colossal socioeconomic losses caused by poor communications), wrong-headed (he saw a practical problem only as an opportunity to score a political point), unconstructive (responding to complaints by seeking a solution apparently did not occur to him), self-righteous (the socialist cant about telephones being a luxury, not a right), complacent(taking pride in a waiting list the existence of which should have been a source of shame ...), unresponsive (feeling no obligation to provide a service in return for the patience, and fees, of the country's telephone subscribers), and insulting.

Although some blame for this unresponsiveness should be assigned directly to Mrs. Gandhi and her ministers, the example surely illustrates a more general problem. Centralized state bureaucracies that deny market preferences tend to become arrogant. Of course, mid-20th century state-socialism and neoliberalism are not our only alternatives. There are various Third Ways, including efforts to decentralize democratic governance. Nevertheless, it's sobering to consider the enormous waste that good intentions can cause.

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November 27, 2006

growing up in a library

(Syracuse, NY): We're stuck in my hometown after Thanksgiving weekend because of a delayed flight. Over the weekend, my wife Laura and I measured the bookshelves in the house where I grew up. We estimate that my Dad has filled 2,663 linear feet of shelving with his books, which he has collected over fifty years in several countries. We were interested in the aggregate length of his shelving because all of us want to know how much space the books would occupy if we had to move them. Apparently, we would need about 110 standard-size, eight-shelf bookcases--but since Dad really packs the books in tightly, I think we might need 125. We didn't count volumes, but a rough estimate would be 27,000-30,000.

Sometimes an increase in quantity causes a change in quality. To grow up in a smallish house that contains that many books is to grow up in a different kind of place: a library rather than a standard home. The books were unusual, too. Most were published before 1900 and some are as old as the late 1500s. They are musty, worn, crumbly, well-traveled, and well used.

Social scientists often ask children how many books are in their homes, because this is a proxy for socio-economic status (SES). Kids can estimate numbers of books better than they can guess their own parents' incomes and educational credentials. By that measure, I was enormously privileged--far better off than any billionaire's kid. In reality, there may have been some diminishing returns after the first, say, 20,000 volumes arrived in our home. But it was a privilege to grow up amid so much vellum and parchment and so many carefully written words.

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November 22, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

We're on our way to a family gathering, and I do not expect to post again until Nov. 27.

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November 21, 2006

starting from what?

I am attracted to two ideas that are in some tension:

1. We should prize very open-ended public deliberations (enriched by practical experiences) in which people try to set aside all ideological assumptions so that they can discover unrecognized needs, unimagined goals, and novel strategies. Open-ended deliberation would be less valuable if we had an array of persuasive ideologies to choose from; but today we do not. None of the major ideologies addresses the root causes of our problems, which I believe are largely cultural. In open-ended deliberations, young people have special potential because they have fresh perspectives, unconstrained by existing ideologies.

2. Good moral and political judgment is a matter of adopting and adjusting our store of accumulated beliefs. There are no fundamental reasons or self-evident truths that can justify our political choices. Our arguments and reasons always derive from a heritage or tradition, although we inherit divergent values and are thus able to make choices. To use Otto Neurath's metaphor, we repair our boat while we are at sea.

These two ideas conflict because the actual traditions on which people depend are often ideological. Someone who grew up in a union hall and a Catholic congregation probably learned to apply a harmonious set of general principles to a wide range of political questions (which is my definition of an ideology). That's a clear example, but somone who grows up around suburban soccer leagues and carpools also receives a big dose of ideology. My instinct in favor of open-ended, presupposition-free deliberation argues for putting such inherited principles aside (and trying not to indoctrinate young people with them). But I also have an instinct to prize our existing normative commitments, following Bernard Williams' advice: "Theory typically uses the assumption that we probably have too many ethical ideas, some of which may well turn out to be mere prejudices. Our major problem now is actually that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can."

One way to combine these two ideas was proposed by Karl Mannheim, who suggested a generational division of labor. The young should provide a fresh perspective, while the old should offer principles derived from their experience that they crystallize into ideologies.

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November 20, 2006

civic renewal in a state legislature

I've recently met several state legislators in basically social situations. It occurs to me that their job isn't all that great nowadays. People strongly dislike politicians as a class, yet legislators must interact daily with strangers--and consistently treat everyone politely. As candidates, they are asked to complete questionnaires that will commit them to the specific legislative priorities of various interest groups. Once they are elected, the interest groups and parties closely track their votes and expect loyalty and consistency. Reporters generally ignore the legislature, but are ready to pounce at basically arbitrary moments.

Vote-counts, questionnaires, and investigative news articles provide accountability in politics in much the same way that multiple-choice exams promote accountability in schools: they are crude measures that overlook subtler but more important forms of excellence. For example, legislators get no points for changing their minds as a result of good arguments and evidence, for making especially thoughtful arguments in public settings, for wisely compromising to get "half a loaf," for working across the aisle, for bringing new people into public life, or for focusing on neglected issues that lack attention from organized groups.

As Abraham Lincoln said when he heard about a man who had been tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail, "If it wasn't for the honor of the thing, I'd rather walk."

To restore the value of their own work, a bipartisan group of legislators in Minnesota has created a Civic Life Legislative Working Group. In some ways, they are following in the footsteps of the bipartisan "Congressional Retreats" of the 1990s, which were replicated in some state legislatures. (I attended one in Virginia.) But the Congressional Retreats attempted to improve bipartisan comity by addressing shared issues such as the quality of life within the legislature. The Minnesota Working Group has chosen a different approach--improving the civic culture of the state.

The Working Group has already met intensively, but they came out publicly last Sunday by publishing an op-ed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

We see the Civic Life Legislative Working Group taking a number of different approaches that will allow the Legislature to assume a variety of leadership roles in this effort, depending upon the issue.

For example, on issues where the dissemination of information is needed--such as senior issues--legislators could act as conveners, connecting constituents with information, helping them sort through the options available to them, sparking conversation among seniors about these options, not only with us as legislators. Think Medicare Part D or the myriad of options for home health care.

On issues where a comprehensive and statewide approach is necessary, the working group would take the role of architect, helping build consensus, mapping out a plan and tapping citizen and community energies to solve problems. The model for this would be the bipartisan Early Childhood Caucus, which since 2002 has helped to influence and shape public policies that impact Minnesota's youngest children, their families and caregivers.

One of great things about the caucus--and one of the primary reasons it has been successful--is that it has not only helped educate legislators, but also created a dialogue within our communities and provided a vision of where we need to go when it comes to early childhood issues.

Finally, we also see the working group as a philosophical body, defining who we are and what we want to be as a state. There are numerous examples of the Legislature fulfilling this role. Think back to the Minnesota Miracle and the debate about the role the state should play in funding our public schools, or the creation of MinnesotaCare in the early 1990s, which established Minnesota has a leader in health-care innovation and access. Both of those accomplishments required genuine bipartisan cooperation and community involvement, as well as a view to the long term.

I'm told that the idea of being "philosophers" came from the legislators themselves and especially motivates them. They are brave to use a word that could sound corny or pretentious. Presumably, they see a "philosopher" as the opposite of a legislative infighter, a deal-maker, or an instrument of organized pressure groups. Good for them.

(As the Minnesota Daily reports (pdf), this project is part of a broader initiative called "Minnesota Works Together" that has beensupported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation through the University of Minnesota's Center for Democracy and Citizenship: www.publicwork.org.)

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November 17, 2006

Linda Faye Williams (1949-2006)

Dr. Linda Williams died on Oct. 16. She had been a senior professor of Government & Politics at the University of Maryland. Before that, she had taught at Howard and other universities and had served in senior positions in most of the African American political organizations, notably the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Congressional Black Caucus.

Linda was a fighter. She battled prejudice against Blacks, women, people from tiny, poor Texas towns, activists with PhDs, and professors who spend too much time in politics. She battled stupid policies, shortsighted leaders, and very serious illness. She fought on her own behalf but mainly for her students, her community, and all oppressed people.

But to call her a fighter, while completely true, is also misleading. She was one of the very warmest, funniest, most caring, cheerful, and generous of our colleagues. The picture above captures her wry smile and her fondness for the photographer (who happens to be our mutual friend Margaret Morgan-Hubbard). The books and the punching bags in the background are perfect symbols. Linda was a careful scholar who also took swings at the powerful.

At today's memorial service, a dozen young African American professors from across the country took the stage together. They were among Linda's PhD students from the 1990s. She had broken down doors for them, challenged them intellectually, and given them courage. But for me the most moving testimony was about their children. It seems that in homes where a parent has studied with Linda, the children know "Dr. Williams" as a shorthand for excellence. That is an astounding legacy.

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November 16, 2006

bridging the gap between what universities can offer and what students can do

At its best, a college education offers students--regardless of their career plans--opportunities to participate as apprentices in real research that addresses unanswered and pressing questions. That experience is good for the mind and the character. I think people understand the value of such work in a scientific context; they realize that they (or their children) would benefit from a summer's work in a biology lab. The humanities, the arts, and the social sciences offer comparable benefits.

It is largely in order to create such opportunities that we train college teachers in PhD programs that emphasize research; that we grant them tenure in return for a record of active scholarship; and that we expect them to publish in peer-reviewed journals.

But the fact is that most students never experience actual research. Most do not come to college with the skills and knowledge necessary to take advantage of such opportunities. Many would not willingly choose to participate in research. A majority of American professors are not actually and currently involved in scholarship. And some of the most prolific and talented scientists and scholars are uninterested in teaching of any kind. The combination of those factors reduces the set of students and faculty who work together on real research problems to a very small number.

I'd resist any reforms that would reduce the size of that set or that would limit such experiences to elite institutions. Thus I'd resist efforts to move professors away from scholarship. But I also reject the status quo. We can't be satisfied if most students miss the intended benefits of higher education--benefits that are supposed to derive from tenure, peer-review, and graduate education. Nor can we simply wring our hands in despair or blame other institutions, such as high schools, if there is a gap between students' backgrounds and the best opportunities we offer at our institutions. We have to take responsibility for the gap.

Some of the most promising answers, such as the Gemstone Program at my university, pull together teams of students to conduct ambitious collaborative projects over more than one semester. This is a different model from the individual student in the lab or seminar room. The research is student-led, hence not really at the frontier of an academic discipline. In some cases, students pursue questions that have already been answered; they reinvent the wheel. But their projects are challenging, and the professors who coach them can draw on their expertise.

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November 15, 2006

Murtha is completely unacceptable

Here is the full FBI surveillance tape from the Abscam investigation, dated January 7, 1980. That's Representative Murtha on the couch. Scroll forward to about 12:00 on the tape and listen until about 18:35. (The most dramatic part is toward the end of that segment.)

The question is not whether the Congressman committed a felony; there's some doubt about that. The questions are: What is Mr. Murtha doing in that townhouse? What's his view of his job? What does he consider an appropriate "deal"? How does he comport himself as a Member of the United States Congress and a representative from Pennsylvania?

There should not be any possibility that Mr. Murtha could be elected or even considered as Majority Leader. That would be a strategic disaster for the Democrats. We've been debating whether the Party should emphasize Republican corruption over the next two years, or concentrate on passing social legislation. It hadn't even occurred to me that the issue might become Democratic corruption. But that is highly likely if the Democrats elect an Abscam congressman as their Leader and appoint an impeached federal judge to chair the Intelligence Committee.

You might say: That's not fair, because the problem was never a few bad apples on the Republican side. The problem was systematic corporate influence, as represented by the K Street Project. However, Democratic candidates certainly featured Republican "bad apples" in their campaign commercials; and turnabout is fair play. The last thing the Dems need to do is elect their own bad apples to leadership positions. Besides, they are by no means immune to systematic corporate influence when they have power.

Beyond partisan strategy, of course, there is a fundamental question of ethics. I'd consider forgiving Mr. Murtha if he had showed evidence of contrition and had spent the last 25 years fighting for reform. Far from it. He now claims that showing the Abscam video is a "Swift Boat attack." The question should be whether the Democrats admit him to their caucus, not whether they make him Leader.

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November 14, 2006

politics as a spectator sport

In the Baltimore Sun on Nov. 5, Michael Hill wrote a piece entitled "Insiders' game: More and more, governing has become a process that leaves ordinary Americans watching from the sidelines." He began:

This time of the year, there is a seamless flow on television as Sunday morning turns to afternoon, from the political talk shows to the NFL pre-game programs.

Both feature pontificating pundits chosen as much for their personalities as their insight. Style is at least as important as substance.

Most significantly, both are spectator sports. Professional football was designed as that. American politics was not.

Even on the verge of an election that has energized the electorate more than most mid-term votes, it still seems that the citizens are on the sidelines of a game that was once famously said to be "of the people, by the people and for the people."

Hill then quoted Benjamin Ginsburg and Matthew Crenson, co-authors of Downsizing Democracy : How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized its Public; Harry Boyte from the University of Minnesota; and me.

I'm as satisfied as the next blogger about last week's good thumpin', which was richly deserved. Further, I don't blame the Democratic Party for the way they played the game. Under the circumstances (one-party rule in disastrous times), the election was inevitably a referendum on the incumbents' performance. To have injected other themes might only have created ambiguity.

Nevertheless, we can pause and lament with Hill the reduced role that citizens now play in politics.

First, it's striking that turnout in such a high-stakes election was so poor. Only 40 percent of the eligible electorate voted, according to Curtis Gans. There were big increases in turnout in some states, but they were undermined by decreases in other places. For most citizens, a Congressional race is largely meaningless because the outcome is foreordained by the way districts are drawn.

Second, although I am closely attentive to national news, I heard little or no talk about critical issues such as the federal deficit, poverty, global warming, high school dropouts, or crime and its consequences. I suppose the minimum wage debate represents a proxy for poverty issues, but it is very far from adequate as a policy lever. One of the best arguments for national elections is that they provide an opportunity for public discussion and learning. That opportunity was missed.

Third, there was no empowerment agenda--no talk of how citizens have become spectators but could be given new responsibilities for self-government. This is a deep problem exacerbated by the complexity of modern issues, the delegation of power to administrative agencies and courts, the weakness of grassroots groups, and the influence of specialists (lawyers, economists, professional educators).

Conservatives respond to public unease about spectator politics when they attack "activist judges" for "legislating from the bench"; but their critique is usually inconsistent and opportunistic. Some progressives may have seen voting as a sufficient form of empowerment in 2006--but it isn't. We will need richer and more demanding forms of civic engagement if we are really going to grapple with our problems.

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November 13, 2006

an analogy

The Sixties The 2000s
1960 election: Reflects unusually high degree of ideological consensus. The main issue is the personality of the incumbent VP versus "change." 2000 election: Reflects unusually high degree of ideological consensus. The main issue is the personality of the incumbent VP versus "change."
Series of national traumas: Assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, race riots, Kent State Series of national traumas: 9/11, anthrax, Katrina
Escalating war in Southeast Asia Escalating war in Southwest Asia
Left mounts strong challenge to the ideological status quo (with a basis in cultural/personal issues) Right mounts strong challenge to the ideological status quo (with a basis in cultural/personal issues)
Ideological backlash: Nixon elected Ideological backlash: Democrats take Congress
Residue: cultural change in a libertarian direction, lingering resentment on the right, generally more conservative economic policies Residue: ???

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November 10, 2006

the long-term political trends

Here are trends for Democrats versus Republicans and liberals versus conservatives over several decades. The sources are National Election Studies for 1952-1992, and exit polls thereafter.

Democrats lost their advantage in registration during the 1990s, mainly because conservative Democrats quit. The party held a very slight (2-point) edge in 2006, but the score is basically tied. Independents have become much more numerous among actual voters than they were in earlier decades.

Self-described "conservatives" have substantially outnumbered self-described "liberals" for decades, although the definition of those terms has changed as the country has moved leftward on some social issues and rightward on some economic ones. (A typical liberal in 1960 believed in very high marginal tax rates but would probably have rejected gay marriage out of hand.) Both ideologies have lost favor lately, liberalism just as much as conservatism. The "good thumpin'" experienced by the GOP last Tuesday certainly creates an opportunity for Democrats to build support for a genuinely liberal (or call it "progressive") agenda. After all, people voted Democratic despite being warned that Nancy Pelosi was a liberal. But her victory was a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for progressive revival. Now she and her party must lead both effectively and progressively, or else the blue lines will continue downward.

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November 9, 2006

service-learning: why we do it, and how to show it works

Below the fold is a speech I gave on November 1 at the annual convention of the grantees of Learn & Serve America, the federal program that supports community service tied to education. I used the opportunity to make some pretty broad points about evaluation (both pro and con) and about civic renewal in America.

Service-learning: Why We Do It, and How to Show It Works

Peter Levine, Nov. 1, 2006

I have been asked to speak about the measurement and assessment of service-learning. Our work at CIRCLE [The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement] involves civic engagement. So I will first discuss civic engagement, then argue for measurement and assessment, and finally try to say what is so important about service-learning.

CIRCLE recently released a major survey of young people that tracked 19 different forms of civic engagement--voting, volunteering, attending meetings, contacting the media, persuading other people about elections, boycotting, and more.

I think it’s a pretty good list; but a list is not a definition. So what is civic engagement?

Some people define it in terms of sectors. It’s civic engagement if you work without pay (which makes you a “volunteer”), or if you influence the government (then you’re a “voter” or an “advocate”), or if your paycheck comes from the government or a nonprofit organization (which makes you a “public servant”). In other words, you’re civically engaged when you’re outside of the market sector of society.

I don’t think that definition can work. Newspapers fill a civic role; people who work for them are civically engaged. But newspapers are usually profit-making corporations that pay their reporters and editors. Harry Boyte notes that grocery store owners who display fruits and vegetables outside their businesses at night contribute civically by making city streets safer and more attractive.[i] When people boycott and “boycott,” we say they are civically engaged even though they are consumers who attempt to influence companies.

I would drop talk of sectors. As a rough alternative, I’d say that “civic engagement” is any ethical way of addressing a public or common problem.

But what’s a public problem? Is pornography a public problem? Maybe one person’s private behavior isn’t other people’s business. What about poverty? Some don’t think that’s their business or problem, either. Cancer? That does seem to be a public problem, but if it is, then scientific researchers must be civically engaged when they’re working in their labs. (And maybe they are.)

The definition is essentially controversial, but I don’t think there’s any substitute for defining legitimate public problems and then saying that civic engagement addresses those problems. Participating in the debate about what is a public problem is itself a form of civic engagement.

Why do we need civic engagement? Why can’t we leave governing to the government, and expect public institutions (such as schools) to provide public services? Why must many citizens participate?

First, institutions work better when participation is widespread.

For example, Robert Putnam has shown that schools work better in “states where citizens meet, join, vote, and trust [one another].” Putnam finds that such engagement is “by far” a bigger correlate of educational outcomes than is spending on education, teachers’ salaries, class size, or demographics.[ii]

Second, social outcomes are more likely to be just when participation is equitable.

We know that people who are better off participate more. Americans with family incomes under $15,000 voted at half the rate of those with family incomes over $75,000.

And they get results proportionate to their participation. Larry Bartels has found that wealthy constituents have three times more influence than poor ones on U.S. Senators. In fact, Bartels could find no impact—zero impact—of people in the bottom third of the income scale on their own “senators’ roll call votes.”[iii]

Third, some crucial public problems can only be addressed by people’s direct “public work”--not by legislation.[iv]

Effective governments are capable of redistributing money and defining and punishing crimes. But rarely can governments reduce prejudice, change public attitudes toward nature, or deliver personalized care. Even when the state funds healthcare and higher education, the actual work is usually conducted by associations that can be more diverse, participatory, and sensitive than the state.

Finally, broad civic engagement is necessary to support a healthy, democratic culture.

Today, various groups of Americans criticize mass media and mass culture for being secular, materialistic, superficial, violent, sexist, and racist, and for undermining local, traditional, and minority cultures. These critiques are not always mutually consistent and may not all be valid. But it seems clear that people feel powerless to change mass culture, and that feeling demonstrates the tension between mass culture and democracy.

A democratic group or community must be able to illustrate and memorialize its own values and present its own identity to outsiders and future generations of its own people. Many communities choose to display their identities through music, statuary, graphic design, narrative history, and other forms of culture. Their culture is idiosyncratic and local, because engaged, active people clump together in communities and associations, and each one takes on a distinct character through their work. Thus diverse culture is evidence of civic engagement.

On the other hand, a homogeneous, mass culture arises when people are not heavily engaged. Mass culture is a threat to democracy, because when only a few people produce products that reach a mass market, they obtain great influence.

If we want to improve public skills, attitudes, and habits relevant to liberal democracy, we must focus on youth.

It is very hard to think of programs, projects, or even movements that have changed passive adults into active citizens.

But many specific interventions aimed at youth have been found to work. The longest study that I know of has followed the high school class of 1965 until today. It was conducted by Kent Jennings and colleagues, and they found that participation in student government and other civic extracurricular activities in the 1960s still boosts people’s participation in civil society almost forty years later.

More than a dozen other 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.

Also, whole generations have enduring civic characters, and that is probably because certain experiences were shared by many contemporaries in their adolescence. The he New Deal and World War II provided a form of “civic education” that caused members of the “greatest generation” to be engaged throughout their lives.

Most small children are insulated from the big world of politics and current events. They don’t have to have opinions of it. But teenagers are confronted with politics, social issues, and civil society and must develop some kind of stance. They may be uninterested, which is the default, or they may choose 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. When adults change their political identities, the change usually 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 malleable or “plastic” than adolescents and less susceptible to deliberate civic education. We should look for models, such as public meetings and innovations in the news media, than can enhance the civic engagement of people who have passed the age of 25 or 30. But it is especially important 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

Young people also do better in life if they engage civically. Volunteering and belonging to groups improves their academic performance, it lowers their pregnancy rate, it reduced their tobacco use, it keeps them engaged in school.

The most ambitious explanation is the theory of Positive Youth Development, which says that kids flourish when they can use and develop their assets for valuable purposes. If we treat adolescents as a bundle of problems, we alienate some of them. But if we recognize that they have passion, energy, creativity, and their own social networks to contribute, we can help them to succeed.

Many students drop out of high school because the assigned work is boring and because they lack personal connections to teachers. In a 2006 study of recent dropouts, more than half said they had satisfactory grades before they left school (“C” or better), but half said that classes were boring. There have been rigorous evaluations of programs that help students to work on community problems in collaboration with adults. For instance, an evaluation of the Quantum Opportunities Program studied randomly selected students and a control group. For about $2,500/year over four years, Quantum was able to cut the dropout rate to 23 percent, compared to 50 percent for the control group. QOP’s approach included mandatory community service

What’s promising about service-learning as a form of civic education?

As you well know, “service-learning” means an opportunity for students actually to serve in their communities while they study, discuss, or reflect upon their service. It thus implies a deliberate combination of academic study and practical work. Service-learning has a long heritage in the United States and in many other countries and cultures. To consider just one example, as early as the twelfth century in Europe, mendicant friars (monk) of the Franciscan and Dominican orders were expected to learn from serving the poor.

In the mid-twentieth century there were some excellent programs that we would now call “service learning.” For instance, in the 1940s the City Planning Commission of a small city in the northeast of the United States asked social studies teachers to recruit high school seniors who designed and conducted community surveys, produced maps, and wrote recommendations.[v] Other settings for service learning (before that jargon was coined) included settlement houses like Hull-House in Chicago, the Appalachian Folk Schools (of which Highlander in Tennessee was most famous), and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided formal civic education programs connected to service work.[vi]

The phrase itself seems to have been coined in 1967.[vii] Service-learning then developed into a movement, complete with dedicated journals, standards for “best practice,” several annual conferences, public and private funding sources, and networks of practitioners and advocates. In 1999, about half of high schools claimed to offer service-learning opportunities.[viii]

In practice, both the service and the learning in “service-learning” differ widely. “Service” may mean tutoring, visiting elderly people, raising money for charity, cleaning up public spaces, taking soil or water samples for environmental monitoring, creating websites or broadcast segments, or organizing communities for political action. “Learning” may mean discussing a service experience in class, writing journal entries about the underlying issues, or even conducted elaborate research studies.

There is no doubt that the best service-learning works. It not only enhances students’ skills and interests; it changes their fundamental identities so that they become—and see themselves as—active citizens.[ix] However, there is a range of quality in service-learning. I’ll return to that issue in a few minutes.

What about measurement and outcomes?

In my experience, a pretty high proportion of service-learning folks are at least somewhat skeptical of quantitative research and evaluation. I think I understand their concerns, and I certainly do not dismiss them.

• Quantitative evaluation can miss subtle but important changes in youth that don’t show up in questionnaires.

• Quantitative measures are usually generic--they would apply anywhere. For example, we test students on their understanding of the US Constitution, or we ask them about their interest in voting. These are generic questions. But a good service-learning project might have idiosyncratic results appropriate only for the local community in which it occurs. For example, students who clean up a river might learn about that river, not about the US Constitution. To learn about their own river is an achievement, but not one that would show up on generic evaluations.

• Quantitative evaluation can be--or at least seem to be--highly technical, and therefore the business of experts. But service-learning is about allowing kids and other “ordinary people” to make their own decisions

• Quantitative evaluation makes everything sound worthwhile only if it achieves outcomes for individual kids. We’re used to saying, for example, that if Head Start does not raise kids’ test scores when they reach high school, it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. But regardless of what skills schools provide, they are also places where we spend some 18,000 hours of our lives. Some activities during those hours ought to be intrinsically satisfying or else meaningful because they benefit other people (or nature), not because they enhance students' individual skills. Schools are communities; and communities ought to include service—regardless of the impact on those who serve.

A one-time service activity is very unlikely to make a lasting difference to the kids who serve. Does that make it pointless? Or might it be intrinsically or morally worthwhile?

• Finally, many of us think that we should be accountable to ourselves and to those whom we know personally for doing our best work. A good student feels that kind of accountability; she does her best work for her own sake or to satisfy her teacher or classmates. She doesn’t work hard to get a good grade. Quantitative evaluation makes us accountable for achieving targets that can seem external or artificial--kind of like doing our schoolwork just to get a high grade.

Those are valid points. Nevertheless, I am going to argue for using outcome measures and quantitative evaluation.

In fact, I think we need to go all the way to experiments, whenever possible. In an experiment, you randomly assign some kids--or some classrooms or schools--to receive a service-learning activity, while others do not, and then you compare the outcomes. That is challenging to organize, but if we were all looking for opportunities to conduct experiments, those opportunities would arise. And by the way, you do not have to deny opportunities to some kids in order to create a control group for an experiment. Usually, you are not able to serve everyone anyway--at least not all at the same time. So, instead of accepting people on the basis of merit, or first come/first served, you can randomly draw from the applicant pool and thereby create an experiment.

Here is my first argument for using experiments and other quantitative methods of assessing outcomes.

Service-learning is marginal in our schools. It’s not uncommon any more, but it is peripheral. Consider the way that funding for Learn & Serve America, in real dollars, has shrunk over the past decade.

This is because policymakers are not basically concerned about civic education, or moral education, or social and emotional learning. Even the most idealistic policymakers are mainly concerned that some of our kids cannot read or manage other basic academic skills.

If you can’t read, you’re on course to drop out and then to face poverty, ill health, and violence—especially in the increasingly competitive economy of the 21st century. So our educational leaders want to identify kids at risk of failing in basic academic subjects and help them. That is where all the energy is, and the money, and the instructional time.

Service-learning programs have sometimes been found to help keep kids in school and succeed academically. For instance, the Teen Outreach Program (or TOP) significantly reduced teen pregnancy, school suspension, and school failure. TOP was successful even though it focused “very little attention” on those problems. In other words, the staff did not directly address pregnancy or school-related problems. Instead, youth in the program were enrolled in service projects and asked to discuss their work in classroom settings. An average of 46 hours of service reduced teen pregnancy through the indirect means of giving young women valuable civic work to do.[x]

The evaluation of TOP was strategically powerful, because it might persuade policymakers to invest serious resources (money and in-school time) in service-learning. They would use service-learning to get what they say they want—better outcomes for kids.

But would other service-learning programs work as well as TOP? We need many more experiments to find out and to make the case to policymakers, even the most sincere and idealistic of whom are pretty skeptical.

In short if we are interested in expanding and enhancing Learn and Serve America as a program, we should be experimenting as much as possible, using outcomes that powerful people care about—not civic skills, but pregnancy rates, incarceration rates, and dropout rates.

Now a second argument for measurement and formal experimentation.

Even for our own purposes of increasing civic engagement, we need measurement to tell us what policies would help.

We can be sure that certain small-scale programs work. Our own eyes tell us that they are great when we observe these programs. But a policy is more than a small-scale program. By providing funds, or training, or incentives, or mandates--all different forms of policy--government could dramatically increase the quantity and quality of service learning. But would these policies work? We need hard data to know.

In their 1999 evaluation of Learn & Serve America, Alan Melchior, Larry Bailis, and colleagues found that funded programs had positive effects on students’ civic attitudes, habits of volunteering, and success in school. However, their study was limited to “fully implemented” service-learning projects: ones that involved “substantial hours” of high quality service, “face-to-face experience with service recipients,” and opportunities for reflection. Out of 210 programs funded by Learn & Serve America that the evaluators had randomly selected for their study, only seventeen met the criteria for being “fully implemented,” even though the rest would certainly call themselves “service-learning” and had won grants in a competitive process.[xi] If all 210 programs had been included, it is not clear that the average effects of service-learning would have been positive.

Alan and Larry collected their data almost a decade ago. The field has progressed since then. In a smaller study published in 2005, Shelley Billig and her colleagues found that average service-learning classes had slightly better civic outcomes than average social studies classes. Students who had been exposed to service-learning gained more knowledge of civics and government and felt more confident about their own civic skills, compared to a matched group of students who had taken conventional social studies classes. However, service-learning did not raise students’ sense of their own community attachment or their own ability to make a difference. (Possibly, the difficulty of the projects they undertook turned them into pessimists about achieving social change). In any case, these average results concealed very large differences between the best and worst service-learning. Some classes in Billig’s small study that claimed to use service-learning produced notably poor results.[xii]

If a school superintendent asked me what the research shows about service-learning, I would say that it supports creating a small competitive grant program and providing voluntary opportunities for teachers, such as seminars on how to organize a community-service project. The research does not, at this time, support allocating a lot of district money for service-learning or setting a high target for the rate of student participation.

In this respect, service-learning is different from social studies teaching. Standard social studies classes are much more common than service-learning programs and are probably distributed in a normal curve, such that classes of average quality are most common. We can tell from exam results that the average-quality classes have positive effects. Thus I would advise a superintendent or a state official to mandate social studies classes for all students (while also trying to support or weed out the worst teachers and reward the best ones). I would regard service-learning differently: as something to be cherished and admired when it is done well, but not to be rapidly expanded.

It’s not especially good news for Learn & Serve America if the existing research does not support the case for widespread adoption. But that’s partly because we don’t have much research that’s rigorous enough to persuade skeptics. Maybe more studies would reveal that some particular categories of service-learning are so good that they should be massively expanded, generously funded, or even mandated by law.

I have offered some arguments in favor of measuring and assessing service-learning, as a strategy for increasing its quality and quantity. Let me end by emphasizing what’s really at stake. We are not doing this because we want more dollars for Learn & Serve or bigger numbers of kids in service-learning programs.

We are doing it because service-learning represents an alternative to politics and education as we know them.

• In general, we treat young people as baskets of problems or potential problems and rely upon surveillance, assessment, diagnosis, discipline, and treatment to stop them from acting in damaging ways. But service-learning embodies the alternative approach of "positive youth development," which recognizes that young people have special assets to contribute to their communities—to repeat: creativity, energy, idealism, and a fresh outlook. If they are given opportunities to contribute, they develop in healthy ways. Major recent policies (such as the No Child Left Behind Act) have very little to say about providing positive opportunities for youth. Service learning is a powerful positive opportunity

• In general, our politics is state-centered. Liberals want the government to accept new tasks, such as health insurance; whereas conservatives believe that problems would be mitigated if the state were shrunk.

Governments are important, but they are not the only institutions that matter. Furthermore, a state-centered view of politics leaves citizens little to do but inform themselves and vote. Service-learning epitomizes a citizen-centered politics in which people form relationships with peers, deliberate about their common interests, and then use a range of strategies, some having little to do with the state.

• In general, our politics is manipulative. Experts--politicians, pundits, consultants, marketers, leaders of advocacy groups, and the like--study us, poll us, focus-group us, and assign us to gerrymandered electoral districts; they slice-and-dice us; and then they send us tailored messages designed to encourage us--or to scare us--into acting just how they want.

This is true of liberal politicians as well as conservative ones. It is true of public interest lobbies as well as business lobbies. It is true of big nonprofits as well as political parties.

People know they are being manipulated, and they resent it. They want to be able to decide for themselves what is important, what should be done, and then act in common to address their problems. They want an open-ended, citizen-centered politics in which the outcomes are not predetermined by experts.

And service-learning, at its best, is open-ended politics. We don’t try to manipulate our kids into adopting opinions or solutions that we think are right—-at least, we shouldn’t. We give them opportunities to deliberate and reflect and then act in ways that seem best to them. In a time of increasingly sophisticated manipulative politics, these opportunities are precious.

Finally, a point about civic education in an imperfect political system. Maybe it isn’t reasonable to expect our young people to hold positive civic attitudes and be actively engaged. Citizens (both young and old alike) may rightly shun voting when most elections have already been determined by the way district lines were drawn. They may rightly ignore the news when the quality of journalism, especially on television, is poor. And they may rightly disengage from high schools that are large, anonymous, and alienating.

Civic education that teaches people to admire a flawed system is mere propaganda. We must prepare citizens for politics, but also improve politics for citizens. Neither effort can succeed in isolation from the other. Educational curricula and programs, including service-learning, if disconnected from the goal of strengthening and improving democracy, can easily become means of accommodating young people to a flawed system.

However, political reform is impossible until we better prepare the next generation of citizens with appropriate knowledge, skills, habits, and values. Students should feel that they are being educated for citizenship, but also that they can help to reform and revive democracy.

That’s what we are gathered here to do. Evaluation and measurement are just means to that end. They are powerful means, but they are not our goal--and neither is service-learning. Our goal is to renew American democracy.



[i] Boyte and Kari, Public Work {full citation}

[ii] Robert D. Putnam, “Community-Based Social Capital and Educational Performance,” in Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, eds., Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), pp. 69-72.

[iii] Larry M. Bartels, “Economic Inequality and Political Representation” (2004, revised 2005), at http://www.princeton.edu/~bartels/economic.pdf

[iv] Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari, Building America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996).

[v] James Beane, Joan Turner, David Jones, and Richard Lipka, “Long-Term Effects of Community Service Programs,” Curriculum Inquiry, vol. 11, no. 2 (Summer 1981), pp. 145-146.

[vi] Gary Daynes and Nicholas V. Longo, “Jane Addams and the Origins of Service-Learning Practice in the United States,” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, vol. 11, no. 1 (Fall 2004), pp. 5-13; Melissa Bass, National Service in America: Policy (Dis)Connections Over Time” (CIRCLE Working Paper 11) and “Civic Education through National Service” (CIRCLE Working Paper 12).

[vii] Peter Titlebaum, Gabrielle Williamson, Corinne Daprano, Janine Baer & Jayne Brahler, “The Annotated History of Service-Learning: 1862-2002” at www.servicelearning.org/welcome_to_service-learning/history/index.php

[viii] Almost half of US high schools offer service-learning programs. See U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Service Learning and Community Service in K-12 Public Schools” (Sept. 1999), table 1. Since the term was coined ca. 1990, it is difficult to measure the increase since the 1980s, but it appears to be very dramatic.

[ix] Youniss and Yates, pp.

[x] Evaluation by J.P. Allen et al, summarized in Eccles and Gootman, eds., pp. 181-184.

[xi] The Center for Human Resources, Brandeis University, Summary Report, National Evaluation of Learn and Serve America School and Community-Based Programs (Washington, The Corporation for National Service, July 1999), pp. 1, 2, 3..

[xii] Shelley Billig, Sue Root, and Dan Jesse, “The Impact of Participation in Service-Learning on High School Students’ Civic Engagement,” CIRCLE Working Paper 33, pp. 26-7.

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November 8, 2006

youth turnout sharply up

Washington, DC – An estimated ten million young Americans under the age of 30 voted in Tuesday’s midterm elections, an increase of at least two million compared to 2002, according to exit polls and early published tallies of votes that are likely to increase as additional precincts and ballots are included. The preliminary data were analyzed by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which is the nation’s premier research organization on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.

The estimated youth turnout rate or percentage of young eligible voters who cast votes also jumped from 20% in 2002 to at least 24% in 2006, an increase of at least four percentage points. Voters under the age of 30 accounted for 13% of all voters, which is an increase of about 2 points compared to the 2002 midterm elections.

“This is an extraordinary turnout for young voters,” said CIRCLE Director Peter Levine. “In a year of rising turnout, young people led the way—repeating the pattern that we saw in 2004. Youth were an especially high proportion of voters in Montana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Missouri. Nationwide, in House races, 61% of young people voted for Democratic candidates--the highest proportion for any age group.”

For more, visit CIRCLE.

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November 7, 2006

early exit poll results (because I can't resist)

Based on the national exit poll and some simple math, it appears that voters went for the Democrats over the Republicans in all U.S. House races by 54.6% versus 44%--which should translate into substantial gains for the Dems. For the Democrats, by far the strongest group was the under-30s: 61% versus 37%.

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youth turnout in '06

This is the place to come to find out how (and whether) young people vote. CIRCLE calculates the youth turnout after each national election, and we'll put estimates on the CIRCLE site as soon as we can tomorrow morning. I will then comment here.

We calculate youth turnout by starting with the national exit polls' estimate of the proportion of voters who were young, multiplying by state election officials' count of all the ballots counted as of Nov. 8, and dividing by the Census Bureau's estimate of the number of American residents who are young adults. The result is just an estimate, but that's all we can ever have when we look at turnout by demographic groups. Besides, in past years, this method has closely tracked the results of Census' November current population survey, which is the only alternative source.

Getting the news out was important in '04. As many readers of this blog know, the Associated Press misreported the turnout statistics last time. The AP reporter looked only at the percentage of voters who were young and concluded that youth turnout had fallen, when in fact it had surged by 11 points in a banner year for participation. I called her but she resisted my entreaties. DailyKos and other bloggers picked up the AP story as an explanation of Kerry's defeat. (Young people were supposed to turn out for Kerry; Kerry lost; ergo, young people must have stayed home. Which was bad logic, since Kerry's brightest news was his strong support from under-30s.)

Once the AP and the blogosphere had the wrong story, it built on itself. I watched a TV reporter ask a political scientist who shall remain nameless, "Why do you think the youth vote fizzled?" He replied with a long explanation about low trust in government, apathy, ignorance, blah, and blah. That story teaches a lesson about not accepting the factual premises of reporters' questions unless you know them to be true.

This year, I am somewhat worried that any real positive news about youth turnout will be mangled again, because reporters will compare '06 to '04 (which is unfair) or will again be confused by the difference between youth turnout and youth voters as a share of all voters. Still, we've done our best with press releases and advisories and are willing to stay up all night to obtain vote tallies so we can have a turnout estimate on our site ASAP tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we have detailed historical data on youth voting, including graphs for each state, here.

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November 6, 2006

what to do with a majority

There is a raging debate about how the Democrats should use a House majority, if they win one on Tuesday. On the left, some are framing the question as whether the Democrats will have the "courage" to tackle the Bush administration by conducting high-profile, aggressive investigations. (See comments here, or Paul Krugman.) In my view, it would take no "courage" at all to yield the House agenda to Henry Waxman and his investigations of procurement scandals and the like. "Courage" would mean passing a just budget or a bill to reduce Americans' consumption of coal and oil. But that would require focus, discipline, time in committees and on the floor of Congress, public attention and support, and partnerships with key congressional Republicans. If Democrats try to drive all the public attention to scandals, they will have no chance of pushing really significant legislation through the House.

Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, conservatives can be basically satisfied with the fundamentals of American politics. Politicians of both parties are embarrassed to mention raising taxes, even if the alternative is to borrow money from the next generation. None of them seriously wants to cut the incarceration rate or end the “war on drugs.” They are almost all afraid to criticize the military brass for anything it might do.

If I were a conservative, I would be hoping that a Democratic Congress would concentrate on the malfeasance of the Bush administration. In the worst case (from my imaginary conservative perspective), the Dems would uncover some really bad behavior that Americans don’t already know about. Fine--in that case I would join the Democrats in outrage against Bush and back a new set of Republican leaders in ‘08. All the fundamentals would still be in place.

In the best case (again from a conservative perspective), the Democrats would find nothing startlingly new, would waste two years, and would reinforce a reputation for lacking vision and competence.

My biggest fear, if I were a conservative, would be that the Democrats would largely ignore Bush and pass a series of smart, aggressive, progressive bills to help working families, ameliorate the sitation in the Middle East, strengthen education, and tackle oil dependence. Then my guys would have to filibuster or veto good bills, or else allow them to pass and thereby move the country somewhat leftward. By ‘08, Democrats would have a reputation for vision and competence and my side would be in real trouble.

I'll bet that the Democrats will not allow investigations to dominate their agenda or the news coverage, because they understand the need to look competent and forward-looking. They know that Bush is already history. However, I'll also bet (sadly) that they will fail to pass courageous, progressive legislation, precisely because public opinion is still basically conservative on fiscal questions, and liberals haven't figured out how to change that.

(See Rich Harwood's "Election Day hubris" for a related point.)

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November 3, 2006

how to report voting problems

This is a working form that collects real stories of problems at the polls. To put the same gizmo on your site, please visit VoterStory.org.

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November 2, 2006

the power of reputation

Here's an observation about networks. Some people know a lot of others within a field or community and are very widely liked. It is difficult to criticize anything they do or say, either in their company or behind their backs, because the odds are high that others present will like them and be biased in their favor. On the other hand, some people have made lots of enemies within a network. It is difficult to praise any of their work behind their backs, because other people tend to be biased against them.

Reputation is self-reinforcing--and more so in tightly woven networks. People who are liked and admired generate praise even when they are not present--and even when their actual work doesn't merit support. People who are widely disliked do not get the credit they deserve; they never fare well in conversations that occur out of their hearing.

There is a huge literature on social networks--even a specialized blog. I'll bet that literature includes studies of the pattern I mention here. In any event, smart activists understand it instinctively and work every day to bolster their reputations.

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November 1, 2006

top 10 paintings

The Guardian proposes "20 paintings to see in the flesh before you die." There's much discussion on the Guardian's site and on Crooked Timber. I happen to have my own list lying around. I notice that I have picked innovative pictures, because I believe that we derive aesthetic pleasure not only from a work in itself but also from the story of art, which is a sequence of courageous discoveries and experiments. Further, the following are mostly pictures that have something to say about art. They imply theories of painting and representation that we could try to paraphrase in prose. That makes them especially interesting. But they are not mere manifestos or illustrations of ideas; they are also extraordinary images.

  • Giotto, Scenes of the Passion, Capella Scrovegni (a.k.a Arena Chapel), Padua, 1305
  • Masaccio, Tribute Money, Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria della Carmine in Florence, 1426-8
  • Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Wedding, National Gallery, London, 1434
  • Piero Della Francesca, The Flagellation, Urbino, 1455
  • Giorgione and/or Titian, Fęte Champętre, Louvre, Paris, 1508
  • Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), Madonna di Loreto, 1603-05, S. Agostino, Rome
  • Diego Velázquez Las Meninas, The Prado, Madrid, 1655
  • Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, Mauritshuis, The Hague, ca. 1660-1661
  • Edouard Manet, The Old Musician, National Gallery, Washington, 1862
  • Some limitations: These are all paintings (not sculptures, drawings, stained glass, or buildings) that I have personally seen during my late adolescence or adulthood. I can't recommend such reputed masterpieces as Caravaggio's Burial of St. Lucy, because I have only seen them in illustrations. This stricture also explains the European bias; I've never visited Asia (beyond Turkey), Africa, or South America. Finally, my list doesn't adequately represent Modernism. I didn't want to add token works to represent a whole category of art; I wanted individual masterpieces. I had difficulty identifying specific Modernist works that could stand up to particular "Old Masters." (However, I was tempted to include a Picasso like The Guitar Player, or a Matisse.)

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