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July 31, 2007

strategies for broadening the curriculum

I'm with those (including Senator Harkin--see yesterday--and George Miller, who is a key US Representative) who decry the narrowing of the American school curriculum in recent years. The reason seems to be relentless pressure to raise math and reading test scores. Social studies, science, arts, music, physical education, extracurricular activities, and service-learning appear to have suffered.

It's not self-evident that this is a problem--maybe we should focus our attention on attaining universal numeracy and literacy. But I believe that the narrowing is harmful because education should have broader and higher goals than basic academic skills. Besides, Senator Harkin is correct that activities like music and service motivate kids and keep them in school.

But what to do about the narrowing problem? I can think of six policy options, none perfect:

1. Fund particular programs or types of programs, such as arts or service. Drawbacks: The amounts of money will be small and may not make much difference for most kids. Small programs use up a lot of their funds on administration. We can't trust the worst school systems to spend the money well or devote it to the kids who need it most.

2. Increase general funding for education, on the theory that dollars are fungible; if we cover fixed costs like facilities or special education, schools will spend more money on arts, service, etc. Drawback: They may not actually spend the money for those purposes, or use it well. Also, money is not the only limited resource; equally important is time.

3. Hold schools accountable for providing specific educational opportunities, such as school newspapers, music, or service-learning classes. Drawbacks: This means extra layers of accountability for schools that are already buried in rules. Unless these mandates come with cash, the burden is particularly unfair.

4. Hold schools accountable for student outcomes in areas like civics, arts, and health. Drawbacks: This means an extra layer of tests. Besides, tests don't always measure the impact of programs; they may reflect students' home backgrounds. And it's hard to develop high-stakes tests of attitudes and values.

5. Relax federal tests and rules that interfere with broad education. Drawbacks: Civil rights organizations will--with some justification--complain that relaxing the rules will allow schools again to tolerate poor outcomes for minority kids, poor kids, and disabled kids.

6. Avoid federal law altogether and focus on the states or school districts. Drawbacks: It's very hard to organize systematic change in 50 states, let alone tens of thousands of districts.

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July 30, 2007

Senator Harkin on education

I'm on Capitol Hill at a meeting of United Voices for Education, a group organized by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) to support the aspects of education that are overlooked in current policy: the arts, civic and character education, extracurriculars, service-learning, physical education, and the like. Senator Harkin addressed us. His views matter because he chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and serves on the Senate authorization committee for Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The Senator said that he voted for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) but now wants to work with UVE to improve it. He said, "we're all concerned about the imbalances ... that have come about." He cited the recent study by the Center for Education Policy that found cuts in social studies, arts, and other subjects that are not tested under NCLB. "I find this extremely disturbing," he said. "For many children, what motivates them and keeps them in school is things like music, theater, clubs, and field trips."

This is a view of youth as assets. But Senator Harkin said that he voted for NCLB because it addressed the "savage inequalities" identified by Jonathan Kozol. He cited Kozol as saying that the learning abilities of disadvantaged kids have been "destroyed" by the time they reach secondary school. This is partly because of inadequate funds and partly because schools discriminate against minorities and disabled students. However, if teenagers are already crippled by a lack of early support, then why will they flourish if we give them positive opportunities? If school systems are discriminatory and inequitable, why should we trust them with funds for positive opportunities like arts and service?

Senator Harkin said that he wanted to amend NCLB to provide "appropriate assessments" that measure social, behavioral, and mental health services in the community and the school as well as (or instead of?) student performance. He also wanted federal funds for elementary school counselors.

In general, the Senator said that NCLB requires more money. It has been underfunded by a total of $56 billion so far (using the original authorization levels as the benchmark). He is obviously most comfortable with federal funding for school facilities (to fix "our crummy infrastructure") and nutrition programs. These forms of federal support do not require testing, control over curriculum, or accountability; they merely reduce local schools' costs. Senator Harkin claimed that our system is the best in the world for creativity, thanks to local control; our weakness is the inequality of funding. Thus the main federal role should be to support facilities.

He argued that we can rely less on standardized tests because we can trust teachers to assess the kids in their class, just as we ought to allow judges to set sentences. Assessments, he said, should be holistic and should take into account behavior and values as well as knowledge. "What good is it if someone is intelligent, but they don't respect other people's views? I don't mean to get philosophical, but I think one of the things that's happened in this country is, we've lost respect for other people's views."

I detect a tension in the Senator's remarks between a redistributive progressivism of the Jonathan Kozol variety and respect for teenagers and teachers. I also detect a tension between trusting schools and teachers and viewing them as discriminatory. Saying that schools need more funds for facilities bypasses those tensions, and it is a valid point. I'm not sure, however, that it is an adequate approach to education policy.

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July 27, 2007

teens address school reform

On Wednesday night, we finished our summer program for 13 kids, ages 12-14. They built a website on issues in the Prince George's County (MD) school system, which they attend. Their site is part of the Prince George's Information Commons, which we have been building--slowly and sporadically--since about 2002.

We did almost all of the computer work, but the kids developed the site plan and wrote virtually all of the text. They chose all but a few of the audio clips that are scattered through the site; and they were completely responsible for the interviews that generated those clips in the first place. We will now work with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin to develop software that will help students to build their own sites for community research--removing people like us as technical intermediaries.

We now need to figure out what we learned from the summer's experience. I haven't had a chance to reflect enough, but I think we learned that: Group interviews of activists and officials provide great educational opportunities. ... It's hard to present a website to a live audience, as our kids tried to do on Wednesday night when their parents and others adults gathered to see their work. ... Kids have a hard time imagining that their work will have any public impact--although I think it could have an impact if the project is well planned and disseminated. ... Kids are experts on certain aspects of their own world, such as discipline issues in their schools. Adults will (rightly) defer to their expertise. ... Children's behavior is very dependent on context. Give 13 young teens an opportunity to interview a public official in her office, and they will act like 40-year-olds. They will discuss issues such as truancy and vandalism with great maturity. Yet we know that some of the same kids have had their own discipline problems.

For me, as a proponent of positive youth development, the program was both inspiring and sobering. It was sobering because the youth and their interviewees so often identified student misbehavior as a major issue in their schools--a key barrier to learning. Those of us who talk about youth as assets don't often emphasize teenagers as dangerous and self-destructive. Yet the program was inspiring because it showed how well teens respond when they are taken seriously.

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July 26, 2007

welcome, fundamentalists

We live in Cleveland Park, DC, an affluent, liberal, urban neighborhood of mostly single-family homes (median family income= $124,000; average family size=2.57; 84% white). I don't think the US Census collects data on religion, but I would not be surprised if the biggest single group in our area consists of secular Jews. There is an impressive conservative synagogue on the main drag, while the (high-church) Episcopalian National Cathedral marks the western border. Both of those congregations draw from well outside the neighborhood.

photo by KCIvey, creative commons license.

One of the main secular landmarks is the Uptown Theater, an art-deco building that shows premieres and popular movies. Recently, the McLean Bible Church, an evangelical congregation in Northern Virginia, announced plans to hold Sunday services in the Uptown, carrying a video feed from its large suburban church. This is part of "City Impact," "a movement within McLean Bible Church designed to empower leaders and new ministries to carry out the vision of the church--to impact secular Washington with the message of Jesus Christ. The mission of City Impact is to inspire individuals and teams to share their passion for Christ with specific, targeted groups outside of the church." Another part of City Impact is a "Jews for Jesus campaign" that was evident in our neighborhood earlier this month.

Cleveland Park has a very active email list with 5,498 members as of yesterday. The arrival of the McLean Bible Church has sparked a lively exchange, which I follow through the f2f intermediary of my wife Laura. Although there have been calls for tolerance, a lot of the comments have been angry.

Just to get an obvious point out of the way, the McLean Bible Church has the legal right to say anything they want about secular Washington on public streets or in any building they choose to rent. The only question is whether people should be angry about their arrival. This is my thought: It's very uncomfortable when someone declares an intention to change your values and core commitments. Many people receive such declarations as attacks on their own identities.

The McLean Bible Church is "targeting" (their verb) secular Washington, along with "Russian Jews, Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, and Jews who are totally unaffiliated." But before we get too upset, we should reflect that a desire to convert us represents a form of care and concern, from the perspective of the evangelicals themselves. Besides, by putting their bodies in our neighborhood, the missionaries risk encounters that could change them more than us. Such encounters are disturbingly rare in modern America, where we sort ourselves into neighborhoods by partisanship, religion, education, race, income, and aesthetic taste. I see the weekly arrival of evangelicals as a dose of welcome diversity, and I look forward to "us" rubbing off on "them."

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July 25, 2007

civic engagement in Britain

Centralized executive power is dangerous--but it provides great opportunities when the chief executive happens to have good ideas. The new British Prime Minister has committed to civic engagement. Since he has the votes to control Parliament, he should be able to implement his concrete policy proposals, which include (according to The Guardian):

  • grants for a new national youth community service program
  • endowments for new local foundations
  • grants for training and education in community work
  • a plan to let nonprofits take over unused public buildings
  • a social investment lending pool capitalized with funds held by private banks
  • Britain already has in place a well-regarded, ambitious civic education curriculum for all of its students.

    Gordon Brown's rhetoric sounds maybe a little too communitarian to match my personal ideals. I would emphasize public work, deliberation, decentralization, and problem-solving rather than giving and belonging. But it's an impressive set of concrete policy proposals, the likes of which would be hard to accomplish here (save for the youth service corps, which we got under Bill Clinton).

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    July 24, 2007

    public participation in grantmaking

    Led by Cindy Gibson, a group of us has helped the Case Foundation to develop an innovative grant competition that involves online voting about which proposals to fund. The Chronicle of Philanthropy ran a story about this competition that, as Cindy says, was "fairly balanced and thorough." However, it put most of the focus on the voting part of the competition. A vote can be "gamed" or manipulated in various ways. It doesn't necessarily reflect a group's judgment, nor does it necessarily increase accountability to the public (since the whole public won't vote).

    I like the Case Foundation's experiment with voting because it's part of a broader foray into public participation. There will not just be a vote, but also a structured discussion. Crucially, the proposals will be evaluated for how much they enhance public voice. As in the formal political system, granting people a vote is a gesture of respect; it says that power will not be monopolized at the center. But the vote is insufficient to achieve public judgment. If anything, the voting portion of the Case Foundation's new program is valuable as a symbol of a deeper commitment. Case is experimenting with a new relationship between the foundation (whose funds are tax-exempt by law) and the public.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    July 23, 2007


    Early in P.D. James' mystery Death in Holy Orders (2001), she establishes that her characters will speak formal, allusive, complex English of the type that an average reader could never master in real speech. Here, for example, a divinity teacher is addressing his student:

    "You might as well take your essay. It's on the desk. Evelyn Waugh wrote in one of his travel books that he saw theology as the science of simplification whereby nebulous and elusive ideas are made intelligible and exact. Your essay is neither. And you misuse the word 'emulate.' It is not synonymous with 'imitate.'"

    "Of course not. Sorry, Father. I can imitate you but I cannot hope to emulate you."

    A few pages earlier, in discussing an anonymous letter, another character says, "And the writer is educated, I'd say. He--or she--has got the punctuation right. In this under-educated age I'd say that means someone middle-aged rather than young."

    I think this is a relatively easy game to play. In the quiet of her study, the author composes careful sentences that incorporate quotes from books she happens to have at hand. In the text, she explicitly mentions the difference between educated, erudite speech and ordinary talk. She thereby creates an air of superiority that some readers seem to enjoy.

    Thus I have to admit I was pleased to encounter the following sentence of narration early in the novel: "In addition to its size, Father Sebastian's office contained some of the most valuable objects bequeathed to the college by Miss Arbuthnot." This is a howler--the room doesn't contain its own size. The Baroness James has committed a basic grammatical error. Ha! I only hope the plot turns out to be good.

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    July 20, 2007

    Sekou Sundiata, 1948-2007

    I was very sorry to read in The New York Times that Sekou Sundiata has died. I once had the privilege to speak on a panel with him and have heard some of his performances. (Visit Salon for some sample audio.) Sundiata was a poet, performance artist, and organizer of community performances. His "the 51st (dream) state" is a remarkable portrait of the US after 9/11, full of hope and openness. He was a serious critic of White racism and he had an African aesthetic. Born in Harlem as Robert Franklin Feaster, he took an African name. But "the 51st (dream) state" is intensely patriotic about the USA. We all have complex and overlapping identities. Sundiata had the talent and the integrity to explore his own identities with eloquence and an open mind; and he was brilliant at helping other people to do the same.

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    July 19, 2007


    Here's our mapping class, a bunch of kids between the ages of 13 and 15 who are interviewing a former chair of the County Council about how to improve their public school system. (I show a photo because we are taking lots of pictures to build a multimedia website.) They have come to the campus of the University of Maryland for the interview. An hour earlier, I was in the adjacent building for a dissertation defense. The (successful) candidate, a philosophy PhD student, had written her thesis on empowerment in international development, drawing on the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum.

    Despite tremendous differences in vocabulary and methodology, there were some common themes in the two discussions. Both the middle-schoolers and the professors wanted to know how to reform institutions to enhance human development.

    I have plenty of insecurities as an academic. I don't do technically complex work; I don't have field position within a major discipline. I don't publish in distinguished venues, and I haven't synthesized whatever I've learned in original, ambitious ways. I don't know whether I'll ever make substantial progress on those fronts. But on days like this, I am deeply grateful for the richness and diversity of the conversations I have the privilege to join.

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    July 18, 2007

    stability of character

    I think most people believe, as a matter of common sense, that individuals have stable characters. In fact, it turns out that the word "character" comes from a Greek noun for the stamp impressed on a coin. We think that adults have been "stamped" in some way, so that one person is brave but callous; another, sensitive but vain. We make fine discriminations of character and use them to predict behavior. We also see categories of people as stamped in particular ways. For instance, we may think that men and women have different characters, although that particular distinction is increasingly criticized--and for good reasons.

    Experiments in social psychology, on the other hand, tend to show that most or all individuals will act the same way in specific contexts. Details of the situation matter more than differences among individuals. For instance, in a famous experiment, seminary students on their way to give a lecture on helping needy people are confronted with an actor who is slumped over and pretending to be in distress. Whether the students stop depends on how late they believe they are--a detail of the context. All the self-selection, ideology, training, and reflection that goes into seminary education seems outweighed by the precise situation that a human being confronts on his way to an appointment.

    On a much broader scale, we are all against slavery and genocide today. But almost all White people condoned slavery in American ca. 1750, and almost all gentile Germans turned a blind eye to genocide ca. 1940. It seems safe to say that context made all the difference, not that our characters are fundamentally better than those of old. (For a good summary, see Marcia Homiak, "Moral Character," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Spring 2007 Edition], edited by Edward N. Zalta.)

    My question is why the common sense or folk theory of character seems so attractive and is so widespread. If human behavior depends on the situation and is not much affected by individuals' durable personality traits, why do we all pay so much attention to character?

    In fact, most people we know are rarely, if ever, confronted with new categories of challenging ethical situations. Neither the political regime nor one's social role changes often, at least in a country like the USA. An individual may repeatedly face the same type of situation, and these circumstances differ from person to person. Thus a big-city police officer in the US faces morally relevant situations of a certain type--different from those facing a suburban accountant. An American lives in a different kind of social/political context from an Iraqi. Individuals occupy several different social roles at once. But the roles themselves are pretty stable. They are, to varying degrees, the result of choices that we have made.

    Thus what we take to be "character" may be repeated behavior resulting from repeated circumstances--which, in turn, arise because of the roles we occupy, which (to some degree) we choose. In that case, it is reasonable to expect people to act "in character," yet situations are what drive their behavior. By the way, this seems a generally Aristotelian account.

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    July 17, 2007

    polarization in American communities

    At yesterday's conference, someone in the audience raised a question: Why are public discussions so polarized and dominated by hot-button issues? The questioner came from Kansas, and she specifically mentioned local discussions of education. Thus I suspect she was thinking about the well-publicized evolution/creationism debates in her home state. Abortion would be another example of a "hot," divisive issue.

    Her question wasn't directed at me, but this would be my tentative answer. First of all, we have actual disagreements that split us into groups, and we sometimes have to deal with these issues. But they seem over-represented in our public life.

    This is partly because most of us lack practical experience in mobilizing people except when issues are polarized. From countless news stories and movies, we know the "script" for angry, adversarial politics. We know how to organize our allies when we are angry at another group: we can call for a march or a rally, put up flyers, alert the media. There are also techniques for organizing people around less contentious issues--ways literally to get citizens out to meetings and then to achieve social change without relying on polarization. These techniques include the "one-on-one" interviews popular in community organizing; Study Circles and other deliberative forums; and volunteering opportunities that are connected to discussion and reflection. But such techniques are not widely reported or described in fiction; even less are they taught in schools.

    Another reason for polarization is the narrowness of the topics about which we invite public discussion. I believe that citizens have deep and diverse moral concerns about schools: how students treat teachers, how boys relate to girls, what topics are presented as especially important, and how competitive our schools' teams are. We do not agree about these issues, but we aren't necessarily polarized about them, either. For example, most of us want more orderly schools, although we may disagree about the means.

    These issues are considered the province of professional educators--teachers, administrators, school psychologists, test-writers, and others. Communities aren't invited to discuss them, let alone act on their discussions. But no one can stop activists from suing or organizing a political slate on a hot-button issue, such as prayer in school or evolution. These issues pay off for political partisans and organized ideological interests. Consequently, some citizens channel their political energies into fundamentally unproductive topics that serve as proxies for deeper discontents. (For instance, I'll bet that most proponents of prayer in school would trade that objective for schools that were more orderly and less sexualized.) Most other citizens simply stand on the sidelines, unwilling to clash on the hot-button issues but not sure how else to engage.

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    July 16, 2007

    the purposes of political philosophy

    (In Philadelphia for the National Conference on Volunteering and Service) Why would a person sit down at a desk to write general and abstract thoughts about politics? This is a significant question, because people who think hard about politics are likely to be interested in social change. Yet it is not obvious that writing abstract thoughts about politics can change anything.

    One might write political theory in order to persuade someone with the power to act on one's recommendations: for instance, the sovereign. Machiavelli addressed his book The Prince "ad Magnificum Laurentium Medicem"--"to Lorenzo (the Magnificent) de' Medici"--a man who surely had the capacity to govern.

    Today, political theorists still occasionally write papers for the World Bank or a national government, preserving the tradition of philosophy as advice to the ruler. Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, et al. sent a brief to the Supreme Court whose first section was headed, "Interest of the Amici Curiae." The authors explained their "interest" as follows: "Amici are six moral and political philosophers who differ on many issues of public morality and policy. They are united, however, in their conviction that respect for fundamental principles of liberty and justice, as well as for the American constitutional tradition, requires that the decisions of the Courts of Appeals be affirmed."

    Unfortunately, one rarely finds a sovereign willing to act on morally demanding principles. And if one's principles happen to be republican, one may not wish to serve or help the sovereign at all. (It is a subtler question whether a powerful Supreme Court is compatible with republicanism.)

    Rousseau, being a republican, thought that Machiavelli's advice to Lorenzo had to be ironic. Machiavelli's real audience was--or so Rousseau presumed--the Florentine people, who would realize that a prince, in order to be secure, must be ruthless and cruel. They would therefore rise up and overthrow Lorenzo, becoming what they should always have been: the sovereign. In this "theory of change," the philosopher addresses the sovereign as an apparently loyal courtier, but his real effect is to sew popular discontent and rebellion.

    Whether or not Rousseau's reading of Machiavelli was correct, many philosophers have addressed themselves to the public as the sovereign. Rousseau himself dedicated his Discourse on Inequality "To the Republic of Geneva." He began: "Magnificent, very honorable, and sovereign sirs, convinced that it is only fitting for a virtuous citizen to give to his nation the honors that it can accept, for thirty years I have labored to make myself worthy to offer you a public homage. ..."

    There is, I'm sure, some irony in Rousseau's dedication. He didn't expect the oligarchs of Geneva to whom he addressed his discourse to act in accord with his ideas. He understood that "la Republique" was not the same as the "souverains seigneurs" who might actually read his book.

    Today, a dedication or appeal to the public would seem pretentious in a professional philosophy book--partly because it's clear that "the public" won't read such a work. John Rawls' Theory of Justice is dedicated to his wife, a common (and most appropriate) opening. Still, I think we can assume that Rawls wanted to address the whole public indirectly. He believed that the public was sovereign. He knew, of course, that most citizens would not read his book, which was fairly hard going. Even if it had been an easier work, most people were not interested enough in abstract questions of politics to read any "theory of justice." But Rawls perhaps hoped to persuade some, who would persuade others--not necessarily using his own words or techniques, but somehow fortified by his arguments.

    This is a third "theory of change" that may be implicit in most modern academic political theory. The idea is: We must first understand the truth. Since it is complex and elusive, we need a sophisticated, professional discussion that draws on welfare economics, the history of political thought, and other disciplines not easy for a layperson to penetrate. But the ultimate purpose of all this discussion is to defuse diffuse true ideas into the public domain. We do that by lecturing to undergraduates, writing the occasional editorial, persuading political leaders, filing amici briefs, etc.

    This theory is not foolish, but I don't believe in it. I doubt that a significant number of people will ever have the intellectual interests or motivations to act differently because they are exposed to philosophical arguments.

    I further doubt that one can develop an intellectually adequate understanding of politics unless one thinks through a theory of change. It is easy, for example, to propose that the state should empower people by giving them various political rights. But what if saying that has no effect on actual states? What if saying it actually gives states ideas for propaganda? (Real governments have sometimes used political theory as the inspiration for entirely hypocritical rhetoric.) What if talking about the value of particular legal rights misdirects activists into seeking those rights on paper, when the best route to real freedom lies elsewhere? In my view, an argument for political proposition P is an invalid argument if making it actually causes not-P. And if you argue for P in such a way that you can never have any impact on P, I am unimpressed.

    Finally, I doubt that philosophical arguments about politics are all that persuasive, except as distillations and clarifications of experience. Too much about politics is contingent on empirical facts to be settled by pure argumentation. (In this sense, political philosophy is profoundly different from logic.) Thus I read The Theory of Justice as an abstract and brilliant rendition of mid-20th-century liberalism. But the liberalism of the New Deal and Great Society were not caused in the first place by political theory. They arose, instead, from practical experimentation and negotiation among social interests. Rawls' major insights derived from his vicarious experience with the New Deal and the Great Society--which makes one wonder how much efficacy his work could possibly have. It was interesting analysis, no doubt; but could it matter?

    A fourth "theory of change" is implicit in a work like John Gaventa's Power and Powerlessness (1980). This book has no official dedication, but the preface ends, "Most of all, I am indebted in this study to the people of the Clear Fork Valley. Since that summer in 1971, they have continued to teach, in more ways than they know." It's not clear whether Gaventa expected the residents of an Appalachian valley to read his book, but he did move to the region to be a leader of the Highlander Folk School. Gaventa's theory was: Join a community or movement of people who are motivated and organized to act politically. Learn from them and also give them useful analysis and arguments. Either expect them to read your work directly, or use your academic work to develop your analysis and then share it with them in easier formats.

    I am the opposite of a Marxist in most respects, but I think we have something to learn from Marxists on the question of "praxis": that is, how to make one's theory consequential. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx wrote, "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." That seems right to me, not only because we have a moral or civic obligation to work for social change, but also because wisdom about politics comes from serious reflection on practical experience.

    Thus I will end with one more quote from a preface--the 1872 preface of the German edition of the Communist Manifesto. Here we see Marx addressing an organized social movement: "The Communist League, an international association of workers, which could of course be only a secret one, under conditions obtaining at the time, commissioned us, the undersigned, at the Congress held in London in November 1847, to write for publication a detailed theoretical and practical programme for the Party. Such was the origin of the following Manifesto, the manuscript of which travelled to London to be printed a few weeks before the February Revolution."

    Now that is political writing with a purpose.

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    July 13, 2007

    global warming and citizen participation

    I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a leading environmentalist. On the basis of that conversation, I'm wondering whether many of his colleagues might be willing to endorse a statement that said something like this:

    We believe that global warming is a profound challenge. Unless we reduce carbon emissions by two percent per year starting very soon, civilization is in danger. We trust scientists on this question, regardless of what democratically elected officials may say.

    Yet we also believe that civic engagement and participation are crucial. Civic participation is not a luxury, something that you can worry about when life is going well and you face no fundamental threats. On the contrary, it is when threats are profound that we especially need the ideas and energies of all our citizens and institutions.

    Despite our conviction that global warming is a serious problem caused by human action, we recognize that many aspects of the issue are unresolved and need public deliberation. In particular, the tools that should be used to mitigate the problem (such as cap-and-trade regulations) are by no means clear. A truly open, public discussion is needed.

    Furthermore, we doubt that the government could solve this problem through command-and-control regulations, although regulation may play an important role. Other sectors, beyond the government, also need to change and innovate. Just as one example, colleges and universities can cut their own carbon emissions.

    Not only big private institutions, but also individuals can and must address global warming. There are cultural and spiritual dimensions to the problem, which is profoundly connected to other social and human issues, such as poverty and over-consumption. Although we are confident about some facts (e.g., that human consumption of carbon causes global warming), no one has adequate solutions. Many perspectives are valid and useful; many people have the capacity to help.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:28 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    July 12, 2007

    an appetite for deliberation?

    Several recent studies have argued that Americans are resistant to controversy. Therefore, we tend to avoid voluntary opportunities to exchange ideas with people who are different from ourselves. [See three Cambridge University Press books: Nina Eliasoph, Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life (1998); John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs About How Government Should Work (2002); and Diana C., Mutz, Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy (2006).]

    Based on some quite ambitious current empirical work, I'd propose a different hypothesis. College students (at least) are hungry for a particular kind of conversation that is serious and authentic, involves diverse views, but is free of manipulation and "spin." They want discussions that are open-ended in the sense that everyone is truly trying to decide what should be done.

    Today’s young people are barraged with messages that have been designed to persuade them to do things that someone else wants. They experience an unprecedented amount of commercial advertising: companies spent $17 billion to advertise to children in 1992 (when our college student sample was entering grade school)--up from $100 million in 1983. Commercial advertisers use increasingly sophisticated techniques of persuasion, based on detailed public opinion research. The government, political candidates, parties, interest groups, and reporters and pundits also use such techniques. For example, political messages are now pre-tested in randomized experiments to measure their impact on specific demographic groups.

    I believe that college students are aware that they are targets of manipulation; they resent it; and this is one reason that they are reluctant to engage in politics. They see such manipulation at work in several domains--the news media, political advertising, and their fellow students who are activists for social causes. However, a considerably proportion of college students can recall particular conversations that they've had that seemed open-ended. They seem grateful for those discussions, which took them out of what they call their "bubble."

    Posted by peterlevine at 2:37 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    July 11, 2007

    the Party for the Presidency

    Mobilize.org is recruiting 435 young activists, one from each Congressional District, to attend The Party for the Presidency (P4P) in late December:

    This conference will consist of a series of workshops and opportunities for the young leaders to learn from each other. Additionally, we will be hosting the Mobilize Awards and launching the Declaration of Our Generation at the P4P. The Declaration of Our Generation will focus on uniting values that are commonly held throughout our generation that we’d like our candidates to address.

    The Declaration is being written in a highly interactive way, with face-to-face forums and an online discussion that has already begun--visit Mobilize.org to weigh in.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:26 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    July 9, 2007

    the end of narrative?

    I've recently read two reviews that are highly pessimistic about narrative. Daniel Mendelssohn reviews 300, the film by Zack Snyder about the Battle of Thermopylae. He notes that the movie (which I have not seen) lacks a meaningful plot. Neither side seems to be fighting for any particular reason. Their characters and their choices have no discernible consequences. He compares the film to a video game, meaning a shoot-em-up game in which the hero mows down aliens or monsters. The popularity of "300" strikes him as deeply ironic since the first great original narratives of the Western tradition (Herodotus' History and the attic tragedies) came soon after the Battle of Thermopylae itself. Mendelssohn suspects that the grand narrative of the Persian invasion stimulated the Greeks' interest in meaningful stories. As they saw it, a Persian king of cruelty and hubris was defeated in a struggle against freedom and virtue. Thus ethos (character) and daimon (destiny) were meaningfully linked. That was the mainstream spirit of Western literature until--well, possibly until the movie "300."

    Meanwhile, Edward Rothstein reviewed Lawrence Kramer's book, Why Classical Music Still Matters in The New York Times. Rothstein argued that the Western art music tradition produced complex and lengthy narratives in which the components were abstractions (melodies or themes). That was an impressive achievement, but it is dying with the manifest decline in classical music since 1950.

    These two arguments are parallel, and they are both worth worrying about. I'm not actually too concerned about narrative in films and books. "300" sounds like a shoot-em-up video game, but there is nothing profoundly new about such entertainment. (There were very popular bear-baiting shows right next door to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.) In our time, fictional and historical narratives seem to be in pretty robust condition.

    However, I agree with Rothstein that power and vitality is slipping away from the Western art music tradition, which includes not only classical music but also ambitious forms of jazz. That doesn't mean that the future is barren; we could see a revival. But the Western art music tradition was much shorter than the tradition of meaningful text narrative. It started with the sung masses of the late Middle Ages but really flourished, as Rothstein says, during the "long 19th century" (ca. 1775-1914). There's no guarantee that it will recover, whether in the form of jazz or any other style.

    Posted by peterlevine at 5:18 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    July 7, 2007

    the problem with strategic rhetoric

    This is a belated comment on David Ignatius' column of July 5, in which he lamented that a terrorist attack on the United States would provoke liberals to criticize President Bush for making America more vulnerable by invading Iraq--and conservatives to criticize liberals for weakening us by coddling terrorists. "America's political disharmony is scary," Ignatius wrote. What we need is bipartisan collaboration to improve our actual defenses.

    Various bloggers noted, in Matthew Yglesias' words, that "disagreement is a real phenomenon of American life." (Cf. Steve Benen.) Atrios went further: "Disagreement is the root of politics." These bloggers predicted that we will not come together after a terrorist attack because we are not together. We have sharp disagreements about foreign policy and domestic security, and that's to the good.

    All three bloggers further argued that resistance to debate is an elite phenomenon, resulting from "too much time inside the Beltway." Yglesias wrote, "There's an enormous desire on the part of the people near the top of the political-media pyramid to believe that they are participants in some kind of ethereal realm of Pure Ideas. The idea that politics is a clash of interests is disturbing to their self-image."

    I have a different take, more sympathetic to Ignatius. The problem with partisans is not that they disagree and criticize one another; disagreement and criticism are healthy. The problem is that they are highly strategic in their use of information. Liberals want us out of Iraq, and they might use a terrorist attack to support that goal. Conservatives want an aggressive foreign policy, and they would use terrorism for those ends.

    One can see strategic politics very clearly by looking at a blog like Think Progress, which is really a compendium of news stories that are useful to a Democratic policy agenda. I read Think Progress because I have a leftish political identity and I am comfortable with strategic politics. I think I know where I stand on most issues and I want ammunition for my positions.

    But many people are turned off by strategic politics--by "spin." We just conducted 42 focus groups on 11 college campuses, involving 356 students. Many of these students expressed a resistance to political debates in which the participants try to persuade you of something that they already believe. Politicians and pundits feed you partial information and try to manipulate you. They don't recognize shades of gray. For this reason, they are not trustworthy. Many college students say that they turn away from politics because it is manipulative ("strategic," in my sense).

    These students are the opposite of an elite. In fact, the students who attended the fanciest colleges were the most comfortable with political debate. Likewise, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found deep distaste for disagreement among ordinary Americans. Thus I think that Yglesias, Benen, and Atrios have it backward. They are right to see the necessity of disagreement, but wrong to think that "elites" want consensus and unity. Elites are good at using news, data, and examples for their ends. It's ordinary Americans who want unity and a certain open-mindedness about politics.

    The practical implication is as follows. I think American voters would respond very favorably if politicians did not use news events to score points. Imagine that a liberal politician responded to a terrorist attack on the USA (and God forbid that there should be one) by blaming only the terrorists and expressing a willingness to work with the president to strengthen our defenses. I think this would go over much better than attacking the president's Iraq policies at such a time.

    But what if we want American troops out of Iraq? What if we sincerely believe that the invasion has increased the odds of a terrorist attack on US soil? Isn't it appropriate, then, to use news of a terrorist attack as an opportunity to criticize the president? Well, maybe--there can be value to strategic rhetoric, which is why smart people use it. But before I used a terrorist attack as an example to support my policy position, I would ask whether doing so would really persuade anyone not already on my side--and whether the strategic benefit was worth the price.

    Posted by peterlevine at 5:17 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    July 6, 2007

    school names

    According to Jay P. Greene and colleagues, there has been a big decline in the proportion of new schools that are named after presidents and other historical figures. For instance, "In New Jersey, naming schools after people dropped from 45 percent of schools built before 1948 to 27 percent of schools built since 1988." It is now especially common to name schools after geographical features or biological species (e.g., the 11 "Manatee Schools" in Florida).

    This trend reminds me of the decline in two courses that predominated in American schools at mid-century: "civics" and "problems of democracy." Both courses dealt regularly with controversy. Many people think that that's why they were cut between 1965 and 1980. Likewise, it would be controversial to name a school after Robert E. Lee, Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, or any of the historical figures who inspired school-namers 25 or 50 years ago.

    But why are school systems more shy of controversy today? There was surely no lack of bitter political arguments back in the days of McCarthy and Wallace--or of Herbert Hoover and Huey Long. I don't know the answer, but I can think of some theories:

    1. Local elites were more secure in the past, partly because their communities were often homogeneous and stood behind them, partly because there was less power in state and federal agencies, and partly because citizens were generally more deferential to authority. Thus a school board in the South could name a school after Jefferson Davis without worrying about controversy. It was not that everyone in America felt the same way about Confederate history. It was rather than a local school board could make a decision and no one would be able to do anything about it--not minority citizens within the district, not the national media, and not state or federal officials. (By the way, Jefferson Davis is just an example. Another district could name a school after a liberal icon like Fiorello La Guardia or Walter Reuther without worrying that those figures were seen as communists elsewhere.)

    2. We are more shy of controversy as a people, and this is a sign of declining civic virtue. We have retreated to consumerism and celebrity culture because disagreeing about important matters is hard work. Yet we cannot engage in the public realm unless we risk disagreement. (This is a plausible theory, but I have never seen any data about trends in tolerance for controversy.)

    3. The nature of controversy has shifted. Adults were relatively comfortable when teenagers debated unions, wars, unemployment, communism, and the New Deal. They are uncomfortable with discussions of abortion, gay marriage, and sexual harassment. These topics are more central to politics than they once were. You might ask: what has this shift got to do with the naming of schools? In some cases, there's a pretty direct link. For instance, Eleanor Roosevelt (whose name graces many American schools) took liberal positions on sexual and gender issues. In other cases, the link may be more obscure, but it still matters. For instance, some Americans line up as conservatives today because of social issues, such as abortion. Perhaps they distinguish between conservative and liberal historical figures and do not want their schools named after the liberals--even though men like Lincoln and FDR had little to say about today's social issues. Likewise, liberals who are basically motivated by social issues may not want their schools to be named for dead white men who said conservative things about sexuality and gender. Manatees (which say nothing at all) are safer for everyone.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:28 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    July 5, 2007


    This is our mapping team, busily studying the school system of Prince George's County, MD, which they attend. Today, they interviewed an impressive and helpful state delegate. She thought the biggest problem in schools is discipline, because that's what drives teachers out of the profession and disrupts classrooms so that kids can't learn. Indeed, all members of our team raised their hands to say that their classrooms are often disrupted. Security guards come to remove students hundreds of times each year.

    Of course, naming the fundamental problem as "discipline" doesn't solve it. Some kids are disruptive--the question is what to do about that. If one in one hundred children were out of control, you could remove those few and give them special services. But I suspect the rate is quite a bit higher than that.

    Posted by peterlevine at 6:41 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    July 4, 2007

    against "making hay" from the Libby case

    Despite my reservations about the prosecution of Scooter Libby, I think it is lawless for a president to reduce the punishment of his own friend and ally, especially if the administration demands tough and automatic sentences for everyone else. I have no doubt that the president should be denounced for this act. I do, however, have some doubts about whether Democratic politicians should do the denouncing. It seems to me that Republicans are in the national dog house because they have a record of incompetence, rashness, and injustice. But Democrats are also in trouble, because people don't believe that they can govern. Only about one in four Americans currently approves of the Congress, slightly fewer than approve of the president. More importantly, most Americans distrust government today and are unwilling to give it new responsibilities--which is bad news for progressives. Under these circumstances, I disagree with liberals who say that Democratic politicians should "make hay" by criticizing Libby's commutation. If I were a Democratic elected official, I'd let the president's decision speak for itself--people don't like it. But I'd try to give the impression that I was spending all my time and energy solving your problems: Iraq, education, health care, global warming. "Shenanigans in the White House again? Sorry, but I really can't focus on things like that right now. We have an education bill we're working on."

    Posted by peterlevine at 2:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    July 3, 2007

    celebrity culture (and Diana)

    Eric Goodman sent me the following movie, prompted by my post on celebrity culture and politics.

    Goodman's movie is about paparazzi and celebrities and the case of Princess Di. (The end is especially strong and thought-provoking.) Coincidentally, on Sunday, my wife and I watched Stephen Frears' film The Queen, which is about the same subject. I think The Queen presents complex contrasts that are worth considering.

    First, there's the contrast between the stoical, laconic, stiff-upper-lip mores of the Royal Family and the outpouring of popular grief when Diana dies. In the film, Prince Phillip expects his grandsons to handle their grief by waking up early to hunt stags in the cold air of the Highlands. Meanwhile, millions of Britons who had never even met the princes' mother sit in public with tears streaming down their cheeks.

    I recognize the attitudes of the Royals from my days in an English school during the 1970s. There is much to be said for the franker and softer emotions that now prevail in Britain (and which Diana Spencer displayed). Among other things, the old stoicism could be bloody-minded; it was a military virtue that underlay imperialism. Today's Britain, being softer, is a relatively benign global presence.

    Yet the outpouring of public grief was not entirely praiseworthy, in my opinion. The public's view of Diana could surely be called "sentimental," meaning excessive, self-indulgent, idealized, and untempered by any critical thinking. Incidentally, there is nothing new or un-British about sentimentality, especially when its object is a reasonably attractive young princess. Consider Edmund Burke--that great conservative Englishman--writing on Marie Antoinette in 1793:

    It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like the morning star full of life and splendor and joy. 0, what a revolution! and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.

    Burke weighs the emotions of the young Queen much more heavily than the great issues of social justice that impelled the Revolution. He sounds a lot like the Londoners quoted in The Queen, who wish they "could 'ave done somefink for Di." We should seek, I think, some balance or median between the frostiness of Prince Phillip and the emotional indulgence of the British and American publics.

    A second opposition is between the private world of authentic human relationships and the public world of "the media." In the movie, the Royal Family seems extraordinarily private, surrounded by 65,000 acres of wilderness at Balmoral. We also see inside Tony Blair's private, middle class domestic sphere as he "does the washing-up" and tousles his kids' hair. In contrast, we see Princess Diana, hounded on a private date by paparazzi until her car crashes. Surely the private zone is what we should prize and protect.

    But again, the contrast is complicated. All the characters in the movie--certainly including the princess--use the mass media for their own ends. They even use it to influence their private relationships, as when Charles tries to get the press on his side as part of a classic struggle with his mother. It's possible to lead a private life, but not after you've appeared all over television and issued press releases about your emotions.

    The Queen is appalled by public spectacles of grief. She prefers dignity. But the monarchy has always been a show. Long before television was the medium of choice, monarchs used stone to send messages about their majesty and might. They built Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace to communicate to mass publics. Once the British crown lost most of its political power, it became almost nothing but a public spectacle. In the film, the Queen Mother is deeply offended that Princess Diana's funeral might be based on plans for her own. But that is not because the Queen Mother is a private person whereas Diana is a public figure. It's because Diana is threatening to take the Queen Mother's spectacle away.

    Anyway, public affairs are important. Because The Queen is a movie, it drives our attention to human dynamics--for instance, to the blossoming relationship between Blair and the Queen. But it's also very important that the Labour Party gained political capital from the funeral of Diana. How they used that popularity is a more significant question than whether Tony Blair saw the Queen as a mother figure. Labour's "spinmeisters" are depicted as villains in the film, but if they gained popularity in order to use it well, maybe they weren't so bad.

    A third opposition is between serious people of merit and talent and empty celebrities. Prince Phillip is horrified by the thought of Elton John at Westminster Abbey. Of course, Sir Elton has some talent as a singer, whereas Phillip is famous basically for impregnating the Queen. Movie stars and singers are unreliable role models and sources of wisdom on matters of public importance. Then again, so are hereditary monarchs, yet the British constitution now treats the sovereign as an official adviser to the Prime Minister. Once again, there is nothing completely new about celebrity culture. Queen Elizabeth I was already a kind of celebrity. But the scale and scope have expanded during the reign of QEII.

    In the end, I suppose I'm worried whenever there is a politically significant relationship between a great mass of people and very few individuals. This is always a fake and easily manipulated relationship, because we millions cannot really know those few famous ones. We millions appear fickle--a major theme of The Queen--because we are working from little information and much imagination. This is not an argument against democracy. It is an argument against forms of democracy in which the central question is what great numbers of people think about a few "leaders." A healthy democracy is rather a complex set of relationships among people and organizations.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    July 2, 2007

    the Supreme Court and "discrimination"

    I think my friend and sometime colleague Deborah Hellman has the best response to the Supreme Court's ruling last week on school desegregation. The Chief Justice, in his opinion that will block most efforts to integrate public schools, wrote, "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." Debbie notes that there are two meanings of the word "discriminate." It can simply mean to make distinctions: "For example, insurers routinely discriminate between potential insurance customers on the basis of the risk each poses of making a claim against the insurer during the policy period." Also, schools "discriminate" among kids by giving free school lunches only to poor children. Many conservatives seem to feel that it would be perfectly appropriate to mix students by economic class, which would require making discriminations by family income. The Census Bureau, as Debbie notes, "discriminates" by recording people's race.

    "Discrimination" can also mean an invidious bias: an expression of disrespect, an attempt to harm, or an unfair treatment. America has always discriminated against Black kids in this bad sense of the word. That was blatant in the days of segregation, but it is also obvious today. For instance, we would not allow large numbers of white children to attend schools like the ones that enroll the African American teenagers I'm working with this summer--huge institutions with rapid turnover of teachers, where frequent fights draw large crowds that the security guards cannot control.

    Justice Roberts says that you cannot cure "discrimination" (which presumably means invidious bias) by "discriminating" as the schools in Seattle and Louisville have done (i.e., by making school assignments to increase integration). He could be making an empirical claim. In other words, he could mean that to pay any attention to race will reinforce racist stereotypes. This empirical theory is likely false; in any case, it doesn't follow from the Constitution. Elected local school boards ought to be able to adopt other views and strategies.

    Alternatively, Justice Roberts could mean that attempting to integrate schools racially is discriminatory in the invidious sense. State discrimination in that sense violates the 14th Amendment. But, as Hellman writes, "racial balancing policies do not express that some students are less morally worthy than others or that their concerns are less important. Rather a policy of racial balancing expresses that a racial mixed environment is educationally useful and an important public good."

    Brown v. Board of Education banned racial discrimination in schools, where "discrimination" meant policies that both expressed contempt for Black children and harmed them. Those policies were rooted in hatred and violated the 14th Amendment. Last week's decision banned well-intentioned and plausible ways to improve the quality of public education by mixing kids of different races. To say that Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District was confused about "discrimination" would be charitable.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:26 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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