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October 30, 2007

markets, schools, and hypocrisy

This afternoon, I'm off to Paris for a few days of meetings, about which I hope to blog (if the rules of the conference permit disclosure). I won't be online again until Monday. Meanwhile, a thought about vouchers:

I found Megan McArdle's argument for school vouchers via what appeared to be a very strong endorsement on Kevin Drum's liberal blog. It turns out that Drum didn't mean to endorse McArdle's essay, but it is still worth attention. She analogizes education to iPods, asserting that if everyone had the ability to choose schools--as the rich do today--then many excellent institutions would spring up to fill the demand. It is hypocritical, she says, to exercise school choice by putting your own kids in a private school or by moving to a suburb, while opposing vouchers that would offer the same opportunity to poor families.

I am open to vouchers, in principle, and I favor more experimentation. As a parent of a DC Public School student and a spouse of a DC Public School teacher, I can vouch for the negative part of the argument: some big urban school systems are dysfunctional, and we ought to consider radical alternatives.

However, the analogy to iPods isn't satisfactory. The market for electronic goods is a classic one. Apple wants to sell as many iPods as it can, and customers want the best devices at the lowest cost. There are powerful incentives for quality and innovation. The situation is different for prestigious private schools. Parents choose to apply to these institutions, but the schools select their students. In other words, "choice" is exercised by the schools, at least as much as by the parents--which is not the case in the market for electronic goods.

The motives are different, too. Fancy schools don't want to maximize the number of customers; if anything, they want to be able to admit the smallest possible percentage of applicants. Selectivity means prestige. Besides, kids actually benefit from being in highly selective company, surrounded by other students who are above grade level, very well behaved, and raised in wealthy, highly-educated homes.

Based on close observation, I do not believe that private schools add more value than public schools do--at least, not on average. The "product" isn't any better. Instead, kids benefit from being enrolled with other privileged kids. If more parents had the opportunity to pay for private schools, new institutions would spring up. But the ones at the top of the pecking order would certainly not admit children who had discipline problems or academic "issues." On the contrary, they would continue to skim the top 5% of applicants.

Thus I don't think it's hypocritical to send your own child to a highly selective private school while opposing vouchers. You're not benefiting from a good that would be available to others if only the government provided vouchers. You're benefiting from a good that exists because private schools are allowed to select their student bodies, and your kid has value in the market. This may be morally problematic, but the problem isn't hypocrisy. Nor can the problem easily be solved by law, because private schools are associations that have (in my opinion) a constitutional right to select their own members.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:10 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 29, 2007

social accountability and public work

(En route to Baltimore) "Social accountability" means various techniques for getting citizens involved in monitoring government. The World Bank has published a booklet called "From Shouting to Counting" (pdf) that provides examples. In Uganda, the government provides detailed information about how it actually spends its education funds, disseminating the data by radio and newspaper. At the same time, control over education has been somewhat decentralized. Armed with detailed information, Ugandans are able to demand efficient performance from their local schools. In more than 100 Brazilian cities, the municipal government empowers large, basically voluntary citizens’ councils to allocate a proportion of the municipal budget through a process called Participatory Budgeting (PB). And in Rajasthan (India), a non-governmental organization began demanding public records and holding informal public hearings to uncover waste and corruption.

I suspect that it would be wise to embed social accountability in a broader concept of "public work" (see Boyte and Kari, 1996). Here's a table to clarify what I mean:

  Social accountability as a stand-alone process Social accountability as part of "public work"
example Project in Malawi in which citizens are recruited to audit public spending Project in the Philippines in which citizens monitor the distribution of school textbooks and (when necessary) physically move them to schools
major analogy Citizens as legislators or jurors Citizens as voluntary workers
nature of power Zero-sum: more for citizens means less for the state. Thus power must be granted by, or seized from, the state Potentially expandable: by working together, citizens create greater capacity
intended outcomes More efficiency and less corruption in the administration of a government program. Defining and addressing a community problem
state and civil society Two sectors that exchange information and negotiate Lines are blurred: government employees are seen as citizens
options when problems are uncovered Legal remedies (lawsuits, calling the police); public disclosure and shaming Legal remedies and public disclosure; direct voluntary action to remedy the problem
accountability By government, to citizens In principle, by everyone to everyone
recruitment Representative sample of citizens is recruited for the task of monitoring government Members of an association take on a voluntary task. They also develop the next generation of active members
preconditions Legal rights of assembly and expression; formal system for accountability Legal rights of assembly and expression; active voluntary associations

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October 26, 2007

civic blogs

(In Cambridge) I've been blogging since early in '03, and I didn't used to have much company in the civic field. But I'm very happy to say that there are now several active and well-established civic blogs:

Cindy Gibson's CitizenPost consists of provocative mini-essays (with apt illustrations).

The Study Circles Resource Center has Democracy Space, with regular news and analysis.

The Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota has unveiled its new By the People blog, mostly devoted to the Center's own civic activity.

Mike Weiksner's Connected Conversations bridges technology, deliberation, and civic engagement.

The Democracy Movement is a group blog devoted to public deliberation and related topics, with good mini-essays.

Smart Communities is Suzanne Morse's very substantive blog, based mainly on her important projects that get citizens involved in addressing crucial issues.

Redeeming Hope presents Rich Harwood's thoughtful reflections on current issues from a civic perspective.

And coming soon: the Mobilize.org blog.

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October 25, 2007

rumors greatly exaggerated

(In Cambridge) Anthony DeStefano quotes me in a NY Post article about Simonetta Stefanelli. This actress starred in "The Godfather" at age 17 but is now dead, according to several prominent websites. This upsets her, since she is actually alive and well. DeStefano asked me about the prevalence of false information online and what we should do about it.

One of the offending sites was Wikipedia, which can easily be corrected, as I pointed out. Indeed, the Wikipedia page on Stefanelli now says: "She is alive, and not dead, as reported previously." So that's one answer: there's false information online, but you can correct it. Unfortunately, Signora Stefanelli and her family didn't know how to edit Wikipedia, and it took a newspaper article to prompt the correction.

Sometimes people give another answer: we need to teach students how to differentiate reliable from unreliable sources. I'm skeptical about this idea, because I don't want to load an additional teaching function onto our overburdened schools. I also doubt that there are special techniques for identifying reliability online. Instead, I suspect that the ability to tell which websites are reliable is a direct function of one's general literacy and factual knowledge .

Nevertheless, I believe it's worth building websites that are comprehensible, comprehensive, up-to-date, and reliable. Then at least we can steer potentially naive readers to safe places. An example is MedlinePlus, the US Government's medical portal, which costs the federal government money to build and maintain but seems worthwhile. I am, as DeStefano says, "an advocate for funding by government and institutions of reliable Web portals."

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October 23, 2007

global warming: three responses

(In Cambridge, Mass.) I presume that human beings are causing the world to warm by burning carbon fuels. I know this the same way I know that evolution occurred, that the earth goes around the sun, and that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare -- not from direct personal experimentation or a deep immersion in the scholarly literature, but basically because I trust certain institutions, such as major newspapers and universities.

Still, this premise permits at least three responses:

1. The damage from global warming will be very serious, but it could still be tangibly mitigated if we cut carbon emissions. Individuals do not have to pay when they damage the planet by burning carbon. Therefore, they have an incentive to burn carbon as long as the benefit exceeds the price of the coal or oil that they consume. The only way to reduce emissions substantially is to tax carbon on a global scale. (Cap-and-trade systems, by the way, are simply efficient taxes.)

2. Although the previous point is partly true, it's also true that people want to cut the cost of the fuel they burn. If we invested heavily in technology that increased fuel efficiency, people would happily buy and use that technology. Subsidies for efficiency can at least partly replace taxes.

3. The cost of reducing carbon emissions will be enormous, and the payoff will be unsatisfactory. The world will be worse off as it grows warmer, yet the marginal benefits of money we invest in reducing emissions are too small to matter. It is more efficient to mitigate the damage by, for example, allowing Chinese factories to burn as much coal as they like but protecting Bangladesh from floods.

I lean toward response #1 for reasons of temperament and ideology. (I am cautious and tolerant of state action). But it would be wrong to presume that response #1 is the only morally acceptable one--it all depends on the facts.

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November Fifth Coalition statement

The November Fifth Coalition--an assemblage of organizations and individuals devoted to civic renewal in America--has a new statement on its website. The statement will become a petition that people can sign and thereby join an email list for the Coalition. At this stage, it's not quite ready for electronic signatures, but comments are welcome.

We also have a Facebook page.

Posted by peterlevine at 3:21 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 22, 2007

nostalgia, imagination, redemption

On plane rides last week, I very much enjoyed reading Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Chabon imagines that in 1941, a temporary refuge was created for European Jews around Sitka, Alaska. The piny islands filled with millions of Yiddish-speaking, urban "Yids" who created a kind of shtetl or Brooklyn of the North. Unfortunately, their lease ends around the present time, which is the time of the narration. Thus the whole district is threatened with "reversion"--which means a new diaspora for the population. In this context, a Raymond Chandleresque detective story unfolds.

Nostalgia and imagination are two keynotes of the Jewish experience. The religious are nostalgic for the ancient Kingdom; they imagine the Messiah. The secular are nostalgic for Poland ca. 1920 or Brooklyn ca. 1950. They are prone to imagine Marxist or Libertarian utopias; fictional narratives built out of nostalgia; or successful assimilation. At the personal level, nostalgia for youth and flights of imagination seem especially common among Jews, although maybe I'm just thinking about myself.

Michael Chabon imagines--with phantasmagoric clarity--a whole world of Sitka Jews. He threatens this world with closure, thereby making his main characters and his readers nostalgic for a completely imaginary past. The Sitka world itself is built on nostalgia and imagination: as in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the rabbi's house is an exact replica of his old home in Eastern Europe, but the inhabitants dream of Zion. Chabon is nostalgic, too, for hard-boiled detectives who live in flop-house hotels and walk noir streets. Out of that material, he imagines something completely original.

If nostalgia and imagination are two thematic centers in the book, a third is redemption. Chabon sets up a powerful contrast between religious redemption and the redemption that involves two human beings who forgive one another and decide to move forward together. Achieving that requires imagination and some suspension of nostalgia.

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October 19, 2007

college, from scratch

(On an airplane between Denver and Charlotte): I'm sure people learn something in college, but the evidence is not strong that, on average, they learn very much. Students perform better on assessments of knowledge and critical thinking at the end of college than at the beginning. But the gains are fairly consistent regardless of the type, size, and mission of the institution.* This finding suggests to me that students aren't much affected by the educational opportunities that colleges offer. And that doesn't surprise me, because their main opportunity is the chance to sit in a large lecture-hall listening to a distant figure who might as well be on TV.

If students don't learn all that much in college, why do they (or their families) pay tuition? And why do students struggle away on schoolwork for four years? One answer is: sorting. Students with good grades from fancy institutions get better jobs than students with poor grades from easy-to-enter colleges, who get better jobs than people with no degrees at all. This is because employers use admission, graduation, and grades as measures of how desirable students are. The fanciest colleges, being the hardest to get into, can pick the applicants who are on course to being the most desirable employees. Merely by admitting a kid, they raise his lifelong income, especially if he performs as well or better than his peers.

In order to attain a privileged position in the market, colleges need not actually educate students. Instead, they need need a reputation for being difficult to get into. To attract applicants, it also helps to provide very comfortable facilities and lots of services outside the classroom; and to appear in the newspaper often for excellent research or athletics. Harvard, for example, employs 5,102 "administrative and professional" staff (excluding clerical and technical workers and those in "service and trades"). Harvard has 112 full-time professional and administrative workers in its athletics department alone. This compares to 911 tenured faculty (or 2,163 total faculty).

I exaggerate this picture, of course. But I fear there is truth in it.

If you wanted to start completely over, you could imagine a college like this:

  • No frills. Minimal student services, no intercollegiate athletics, but virtually all the tuition money goes to faculty, who are required to teach.
  • The admissions office looks for students who are likely to benefit from the education, not for students who have beaten the competition in high school. Those most likely to benefit will be motivated and will have baseline skills; but they will not all be at the top of their classes in prep schools and suburban megaschools.
  • All courses are seminars or labs, with lots of assignments that require collaboration on lengthy projects. Working with others is a crucial skill that should be learned in college. Besides, such collaboration would compensate for a lack of extramural sports and other expensive extracurriculars
  • Residences for students, classrooms, professors' offices, and apartments for some of the faculty are combined in the same buildings. All these buildings are constructed simply and cheaply, with techniques to reduce energy use, and are designed to be decorated over time by the students. All arts, architecture, design, and landscape architecture courses are devoted to beautifying the campus.
  • The faculty is selected for excellence of teaching and research, but with no attention to their fame either within their own disciplines or in the media. Criteria for excellence are set by the institution itself; external offers, peer-reviews, and other measures of market value are proudly ignored.
  • A system of assessment or evaluation involves graded group projects at the beginning and end of each academic year. The college discloses changes in the students' scores on these projects over time and claims any positive changes as evidence of its actual impact. When the impact is weak or negative, the college changes its curriculum.
  • *Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students: Vol. 2, A Third Decade of Research (Jossey-Bass, 2005).

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    October 18, 2007

    in retreat

    (Clinton, TN) I spent yesterday in the office of a Washington, DC law firm, which Streetlaw was borrowing for a board retreat. We sat around a marble table in suits and ate delicious catered food for lunch. Today, I'm at Alex Haley's former farm in Clinton, Tennessee, now owned by the Children's Defense Fund and used as a meeting site. I'm here for another retreat: this one convenes community activists, mostly people of color, and mostly young. There are rocking-chairs on the porch and pictures of people like Maya Angelou on their visits here. And tomorrow I'll be in Denver for a conference of the American Association of Colleges & Universities. The setting will be a big Marriott, and most of the attendees will be professors or college administrators.

    There are some consistent themes--education; seeing young people as citizens--and some commonalities in the formats of these meetings. For example, we take turns talking; we don't sing or shout. But you could write a book about the differences.

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    October 17, 2007

    face validity and value-judgments

    It's very common in psychology (and in all the disciplines influenced by psychology) to construct scales that measure mental constructs. We can't directly observe confidence, responsibility, spatial awareness, or any type of intelligence. But such mental constructs can exist even if they can't be observed--unless the behaviorists were right, but they seem mostly to have disappeared.

    The standard psychological method is to generate a list of survey questions (or checklists to be used by observers) that seem to measure some aspect or component of the mental construct that's being studied. These items are said to have "face validity"--on their face, they are relevant to the mental construct of interest. These questions are then asked of a sample of people. The questions that cluster together statistically are kept; the outliers are discarded. The list is reduced to a small set of questions that can explain most of the variance in the results. Often, items can be separated into different categories that do not correlate with each other. Then one concludes that the mental construct actually includes several underlying "factors."

    I see the value of doing this, in part because I do believe in empirically identifiable mental constructs that aren't directly observable. However, as a philosopher, my instinct is to see decisions about "face validity" as basically value judgments. For example, if we listed the behaviors and attitudes that make someone an "engaged citizen," the reason to include each item would be our belief that the particular attitude or behavior was good. Voting is on CIRCLE's list of civic indicators, and to defend that choice, we owe an argument about why people should vote. Whether voting correlates with volunteering or protesting may be interesting, but it isn't necessarily the point. Either voting is part of civic engagement, or it isn't; the reasons have to do with our sense of how a society should function.

    My concern, in short, is that psychological research may look more scientific than it is, and the really important questions may be value-judgments buried at an early stage of the empirical method.

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    October 16, 2007

    come with me

    Oh, come with me and be my love,
    For Saturday night--that's enough.
    Next week, I've got a paper due,
    A service gig, an interview too.
    "Come with me": remember, from our course?
    (Also a pun, which I'd better not force.)
    Yes, I deleted "live"--but you can stay
    'Til ten. Then I'll work on my résumé.
    Slippers and buckles of the finest gold:
    One day you'll have those, and someone to hold.
    But I'm by myself now; the market's tight;
    For now, I've got to focus, network, fight.
    Wait 'til we're forty, and then maybe
    You can be my love and live with me.

    [For ease of reference, here's the Marlowe original and previous replies by Walter Ralegh, C. Day Lewis, William Carlos Williams, and Odgen Nash.]

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    October 15, 2007

    Edwards' democracy agenda

    Senator John Edwards has announced a platform called "The One Democracy Initiative: Returning Washington to Regular People." Under the heading of "open and democratic media," Edwards endorses net-neutrality rules and laws against concentrated media ownership. He proposes full public financing of Congressional elections, which I believe is the only way to reduce the power of special interests. He also proposes a ban on campaign contributions from lobbyists and a ban on bundling. Under the heading of election reform, he calls (among other things) for a universal system of paper ballots.

    Overall, the Senator has chosen to adopt the strongest versions of the ethics and "good government" proposals that have been considered since Watergate by Public Citizen, Common Cause, the League of Women voters, and their allies. I defended all these ideas in my 1999 book, The New Progressive Era (although I talked about common-carrier rules instead of "net neutrality"). It's intriguing to imagine what would happen to Edwards' platform in Congress. Of course, for him to win the presidency, there would first have to be a pretty profound shift in the political landscape.

    Meanwhile, Edwards calls for national deliberation to take place every two years on a different issue. He would use a combination of technology and face-to-face meetings to involve one million citizens. Edwards cites AmericaSpeaks and the November Fifth Coalition as sources for his "Citizen Congress."

    It's a strong program, but there's room for other candidates to match Edwards or to make forays into other aspects of a "democracy agenda"--for instance, expanding the opportunities for national and community service, improving civic education, rethinking the federal civil service, and revising No Child Left Behind so that citizens can get more involved with their schools.

    [See also Archon Fung's op-ed in the Boston Globe.]

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    October 11, 2007

    the gentry as caste and class

    I recently read Brat Farrar, a good old mystery by Josephine Tey. I suspect she had very strong class prejudices, but that didn't prevent me from enjoying the novel. It did make me think about why people who make their living from renting land should have higher status than everyone else--at least in the England of 1950, and perhaps even today. Renting agricultural land doesn't seem like a particularly distinguished or refined way of life.

    I think this is the reason. In the early middle ages, land wasn't really owned. It wasn't a commodity. Instead, some people were assigned to work certain parcels of land, and others were supposed to guard it. King Alfred, in his very loose translation of Boethius (book 2, xvii), wrote that the King "must have men of prayer, men of war, and men of work." The men who worked were peasants, expected to toil on the land that their fathers' had tilled. The men who fought were equestrian soldiers--knights. The local knight was the lord of the manor. He had a lord who was a noble, and that noble had a lord who was the king. Each had different roles in wartime. The best analogy is a modern military structure, not a system of private property. This made sense because the peoples of Europe had been nomadic: mobile fighting groups rather than property-owners.

    As the middle ages progressed, a new class silently arose: people who made their living from trade. They became wealthy and powerful, but they didn't fit the social theory of feudalism that King Alfred had presumed. In the 15th-century chronicles (e.g., Froissart), all non-nobles are "villains," even though the most powerful people of his day, arguably, were the merchants.

    Between the 15th and the 19th century, the feudal system of agriculture transformed into a system of private property. The lord of the manor became its owner, and his title to his land was just like the title to his townhouse or his horse. He could sell it at will. The peasant became a renter. The greater nobility lost its special function and became large landowners. Only the monarch retained his traditional role as the lord and protector, but not owner, of the land.

    But the traditional social scheme lingered remarkably--it may even linger today. Contemporaries of Shakespeare and Jane Austen could take money that they earned in trade and buy land to rent out. Their children, who grew up only on the proceeds of rent, were gentry. They were "men of war" instead of "men of work," except that no fighting was really necessary any more.

    In Brat Farrar, the family occupies a manor house that they have inherited from centuries of direct ancestors. They cannot afford to live their comfortably middle-class life on their rent alone. They seem not much wealthier than their tenants, one of whom buys a better horse than they can afford. They supplement their income with a small business. But still, even in 1950, they are fully respectable because some of their cash comes from renting land.

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    "Politics and the Internet, Medium of Maximum Individual Choice"

    I'm speaking tomorrow at the Library of Congress. The venue is the Federal Library and Information Center Committee (FLICC), and the conference is on "Social Computing and the Process of Governance." I anticipate that most of the discussion will concern technologies that the government should deploy to serve citizens better. I will talk about the citizen's side of the equation. In order to use any sort of technology voluntarily, a person needs skills, motivations, and confidence (as well as sheer access). People have the motivation to use online government services, for instance, to renew their driver's licenses. They benefit by saving time for a task that is required. But using the Internet to contribute to the public debate, to organize fellow citizens, or to address social problems--that takes a high level of motivation and skill that does not come naturally.

    Of course, that problem is not new to the Internet. It also takes motivation, skill, and confidence to organize a face-to-face meeting. But I think the situation is especially challenging in the age of the Internet--not because of the net itself, but because of the trend it represents. The trend is toward maximum individual choice, and therefore maximum individual responsibility for taking any civic or political action.

    Jump back to the mid-twentieth century, when about 35 percent of jobs are unionized, more than 30 percent of the population identifies "strongly" with one party (and party identification remains remarkably stable for individuals over their lifetimes), most people attend a place of worship regularly, many Americans belong to associations with ethnic, religious, or local-community flavors, most people read a metropolitan daily newspaper, and (by the 1960s), a majority of Americans watch the network news on one of three TV channels most nights.

    It's a hierarchical world. Civic participation is a duty, not a choice or a way to express personal preferences based on your own opinions. You join a union because you need a job, and perhaps because your father already has a union card. You join and support a party because of your regional and ethnic identity and family tradition. The same is true for the Knights of Columbus or the NAACP. You have some choice among newspapers and broadcast news channels, but there's nothing else on TV except news at 6 pm. Newspapers also represent a larger share of print media than they do today; there's no People Magazine.

    Partly because citizens have relatively little choice, the people--mainly men--who run these institutions have a lot of leverage. Some groups are completely excluded: no women in the Jaycees; no Blacks in many unions or in the Southern Democratic Party. And there can be a long period of apprenticeship/hazing for young members.

    On the other hand, all these institutions need their members' support. It is possible, for example, to vote for the other party, to move to another church, or to change the channel at 6 pm. You can certainly decide not to show up at the Rotary Club meeting or go door-to-door for the party. Therefore, there is a kind of contract between the institutions and their members. Trust in unions, associations, religious congregations, parties, and the press is very high, as recorded in surveys.

    These institutions have an incentive to give their members civic identities--to get them to vote, give money, lobby, protest, or at least follow the news. Such participation increases these organizations' power and market share. They have a special interest in recruiting new members, which means that they devote attention to youth and provide "civic education" (broadly defined). They also give their own members a built-in audience for public speech. If you write for the church newsletter, send a letter to the newspaper editor, or give a speech at the union hall, there are people to listen--people with similar interests and a similar context.

    I will show graphs depicting very serious declines in all these forms of membership. Those trends are by no means simply bad news. They reveal a dramatic increase in choice. You now have one hundred channels to watch at 6 pm (most of which avoid news altogether). You can join a wide array of national and international associations with very specific purposes and flavors. You can express spirituality in many ways, and certainly pick among many religious congregations--some highly political, some completely devoid of politics.

    Schools also reflect this shift to choice, as mid-sized high schools with coherent--mandatory--curricula have given way, first, to large shopping-mall high schools with lots of tracking, and then to an array of small, "themed" charter schools. Choice is the byword because students who are allowed to choose are thought to be more motivated and engaged.

    The advantages are pluralism and leverage for individuals versus their own voluntary associations. Because members can exit easily, leaders must improve their customer service. But there are also disadvantages. For people who have no civic or political identity to start with, it's very easy to avoid news, political ideas, and political or civic discussions. The major institutions can't put resources into developing active citizens--let alone require their members to participate in politics. Instead, today's political parties are collections of entrepreneurial candidates who depend mainly on rich donors and communicate to likely voters via broadcast television; many churches put on entertaining shows in huge suburban arenas; and local organizations are giving way to trade and professional associations. As ordinary people have gained leverage over the groups they choose to join, they have lost leverage over massive institutions such as the government and the mass media.

    The Internet epitomizes all these trends, with its enormous array of choice, easy exit, and low sense of obligation. It is a powerful tool for people who have civic or political commitments, which is why civic uses of the Internet correlate positively with face-to-face civic work. But it cannot develop civic identities in people who start off without civic or political interests and beliefs.

    The Internet provides an enormous audience--billions of eyeballs, in theory. But it's also a competitive marketplace for attention, in which a few sites draw disproportionate traffic. The old, face-to-face associations gave members ready-made audiences who would be interested in their views because their fates were tied together. For most Internet users, the audience is limited to a few "friends." Opportunities for using a public voice have actually shrunk.

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    October 10, 2007

    speech on service-learning

    I gave the lunchtime plenary speech at the annual service learning research conference on Saturday. I have pasted the text "below the fold." (Click "continue reading" to continue reading the speech.) I argued that proponents of service-learning--and of other forms of youth civic work--need to engage the national policy debate. One way is have influence is to generate the kind of research that may impress particular categories of national leaders, such as those who really care about equity in education. The other way is to provide an alternative model of politics and thereby change the way that the national political debate unfolds.

    A valid criticism of my speech is that I gave too little attention to the hard and successful work that has already been done to build service-learning as a bottom-up movement. It has spread from school to school; and as it had grown (with minimal federal support), the quality has probably improved. However, I believe that the movement remains limited and vulnerable without more favorable national policies--and no one but us can influence policymakers.

    I come to you from Washington, DC, which has been as warm and humid as Tampa for many months. We have no manatees, but we do have some sharks. You may have seen some of them on the Sunday morning talk shows.

    The word "Washington" and the phrase "DC" mean different things to people from that area.

    Washington means Members of Congress, lobbyists, lawyers, reporters; K Street and Chevy Chase; The LaGuardia Shuttle, and Air Force One, McMansions and the Watergate.

    "DC" means teachers, police officers, artists, bus drivers, receptionists, and janitors; U Street, 18th St, Georgia Avenue; Metro trains, the Beltway, and Greyhound; row houses with decorated brick cornices and wooden front porches

    Washington has the World Bank; DC has SunTrust Bank. Washington has Reagan National Airport. DC just as National. Washington has the CIA. DC has the DMV.

    I am not wholly of either place, having grown up in upstate New York. I certainly don't have any standing in the corridors of power, nor am I truly a member of the DC community. But I have some vicarious insight into both places. I work in a school of public policy, which means I am supposed to study national politics, and I participate in the world of nonprofits that try to influence policy. I've at least had the opportunity to learn from failure.

    Meanwhile, my daughter is enrolled in a DC public school and my wife teaches in one; she is also civically engaged as a very local elected official.

    Washington is relevant to service-learning because I believe that national policy is basically hostile to what we're trying to do. I believe our research should address the national policy debate. This seems essential if we want service-learning to grow. I also believe it is a civic duty to engage with national policymakers, who (after all) represent the American people through the only system of representation we've got. I did not say that we have to agree with policymakers, only that we have to participate in the same debate.

    By the way, it is not means only--or mainly--the Bush administration, Republicans, or conservatives who have the most difficult agenda for us. If they were the problem, some in this room might adopt the strategy of waiting for a change of power. But that would be a serious miscalculation, in my opinion.

    In the current political climate, service learning is fairly marginal. The president has requested zero dollars each year for the federal Learn & Serve America program, which funds service-learning in kindergarten through college. The service-learning community successfully fights back, winning some appropriations in each Congress, but only with much effort--and the program has shrunk in inflation-adjusted terms.

    Meanwhile, The No Child Left Behind Act, signed in January 2002, is the apogee of a national movement to focus on reading and mathematics. This movement has probably caused schools to reduce the time devoted to civics and service.

    Several foundations have moved out of the field of service-learning or youth politics. These trends have threatened the various nonprofits that develop curricula and programs for civic education.

    If we take a broader view, we may notice that new federal laws no longer guarantee or allocate money for any educational opportunities. Lawmakers don't say that they're going to help kids by requiring or funding or rewarding service, extracurricular participation, student voice in schools--or art, music, foreign language, or practically any input. Instead, NCLB requires outcomes, such as passing scores on reading and math tests.

    The underlying reason is that policymakers do not trust public schools. Conservatives see them as bureaucratic, unionized, and godless. But liberals see them as unfair, corrupt, and repressive institutions.

    In fact, some of the authors of NCLB and its strongest backers are liberals and members of the national civil rights groups. They believe that schools deliver poor education to disadvantaged kids. They say that if schools are simply given resources or told to provide services or opportunities, the results will be bad. If, for instance, the federal government told schools that they must provide service-learning opportunities, some schools would offer very ineffective, hollow versions of these programs. Instead, we need to hold them accountable for measurable outcomes and allow them to develop their own strategies for meeting those goals.

    This is where my experience with DC (not Washington, but DC), is relevant. The DC Public School System spends about $13,000 per child--an amount that has risen rapidly as enrollments have dropped--but only $5,355 is spent on teachers, classroom equipment, and other forms of "instruction." Test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of success are among the lowest in the nation, and highly unequal by race and class.

    Anyone who knows the system from the inside knows that it is extremely dysfunctional. I, for one, do not believe that if the system were given a substantial budget for service-learning, the results would be any good. Thus I understand why national policymakers, when asked the question, "What are you going to do to educate our least advantaged kids?" do not answer: "Provide opportunities."

    Now, this focus on outcomes instead of opportunities bothers me for several reasons.

    First, NCLB--unavoidably--selects a small list of outcomes: all ones that can readily be measured in high-stakes exams. Those of us who also care about civic knowledge and habits, artistic development, foreign languages, and moral learning are faced with a dilemma. Either we demand tests in our favored areas (some of which aren't very testable), or we try to smuggle our subjects into schools without testing them. The latter course is difficult when schools are struggling to get their kids through the required exams.

    Any quantitative assessment 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 Tampa Bay might learn about the Bay, not about the US Constitution. To learn about their own place 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

    Second, a focus on outcomes encourages us to think of children and teenagers as people who are prone to fail. We work hard to identify those most "at risk" and to intervene so that they avoid clear marks of failure (mainly, bad test scores). As a result, we may set our sights too low, forgetting that flourishing people need more than adequate test scores. As Karen Pittman says, "Adolescents who are merely problem-free are not fully prepared for their future."

    Third, not everything we do in school should be measured by its effects on individual students. Whatever skills schools may provide, they are also places where we spend some 18,000 hours of our lives. Some activities during those hours ought to be instrinsically satisfying or else meaningful because they benefit other people (or nature), not because they enhance students' individual skills.

    A school is a community, and communities ought to have news sources, discussions of their own issues and problems, and opportunities to serve. Thus I would support student newspapers and other media; students' discussions of local issues; and service programs even if they had no demonstrable impact on students' skills or knowledge.

    These activities should be done well. There is a big difference between a fine scholastic newspaper and a poor one. But the difference is not measured by the impact on kids' reading scores. It has to do with the seriousness, breadth, and fairness of the coverage and the impact on students' knowledge of their own community. Likewise, the quality of service projects has much to do with whether the service actually addresses problems, quite apart from whether the participants gain skills and knowledge.

    Fourth, 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.

    Finally, deep distrust for institutions like schools is fundamentally unhealthy. It leads to simplistic, top-down, punitive solutions that fail to capture the energy and enthusiasm of our teachers, administrators, parents, activists, and students. In any case, this distrust is unjustified; most of our schools actually do pretty well considering their limited resources, the onerous demands and mandates they face, and all the social problems that we expect them to solve on their own.

    But …. the other side of the argument is that some of our children cannot read or understand basic math. About one third of all our youth are not completing high school by age 19. They are at great risk of failure in life. They will be unable to participate as citizens or create works of art if they are poor and sick and prone to arrest--all of which are consequences of dropping out and of illiteracy. Our urgent priority must be to identify them, help them, and punish those adults who "leave them behind."

    That is the prevailing mindset. It reflects idealistic motives and a certain amount of research and data. Because some of the motives behind NCLB are very idealistic, good arguments and evidence may change the opinions of important people--people like George Miller, the Democratic leader on education.

    But the kind of evidence that we provide needs to change somewhat. We know that a small service-learning class, organized by a charismatic and dedicated teacher and provided in a favorable setting, has positive effects. That is not the question policymakers ask when they consider whether to set aside millions for service learning or build service learning into state standards. They want to know what is the impact of a policy--such as a requirement or a funding stream. And they want to know how that policy compares to others.

    In this room, many of us--including me--would like to use service-learning projects as opportunities to learn how young people think about issues. But that question is not germane to the public policy debate. Again, we need to show that a policy in favor of service-learning--such as a financial investment of public dollars, a test or other evaluation, or a requirement--would have positive effects. To answer that question, we need research conducted in standard educational settings that are subject too public policy--especially public schools--with some kind of comparison. We at least have to compare the same kids to themselves before and after they experience service-learning. Better than that is to compare truly comparable kids who experience service-learning and some other respectable and promising form of education.

    What hypotheses would really move decision makers if we could prove them with research? I will suggest two.

    First, we might hypothesize that service-learning is good for young people.

    The prevailing view is that adolescents are "at risk" for academic failure, drug-abuse, and other pathologies and therefore require surveillance, assessment, prevention, and--when necessary--remediation and discipline.

    But adolescents also have assets that they can contribute to their communities: energy, idealism, creativity, and knowledge. By giving students opportunities to collaborate, discuss, serve, create cultural products, and address significant issues, we can help them to succeed.

    Considerable evidence supports the link between community service and extracurricular participation, on one hand, and healthy development, on the other. For example:

    Marie Mora just presented her research with Alberto Davila that finds that service projects and participation in student government substantially increased the odds that students graduated from high school and college. Service experiences--when required as part of high school courses--seem to raise the odds of graduation from college by 22 percentage points. "involvement in student government between 1990 and 1992 increased the odds of being a college graduate by 2000 by nearly 18 percentage points.

    Several programs have been shown in rigorous tests to cut the dropout rate or the teen pregnancy rate.

    We can be sure that these 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. Would policies that increased the scale of service learning work?

    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. 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.

    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 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.

    My first hypothesis was that service-learning is good for kids. The second hypothesis is that service-learning is good for democracy

    You may be thinking that policymakers don't care about "democracy" in an authentic and just sense. That may be true, but there are certainly some political leaders, at least at the grassroots level--and I believe also in Congress--who do want better democracy. They may not be sold on service-learning as a vehicle.

    In other words, there are decision-makers for whom the goals are social justice, diversity, or equality. That does not mean that they favor service-learning. They have alternatives, such as voter mobilization, media campaigns, door-to-door canvassing, and even social studies classes.

    We know that America faces grievous challenges, such as a high school dropout rate of one third, homeland security threats, and global warming. That's my list. Yours might be somewhat different, but we all agree that the country must deal with complex and serious problems.

    America has never overcome any major challenge without tapping the skills, energies, and passions of millions of our citizens. Collaboration is the genius of American democracy.

    Collaboration and problem-solving are in decline. People are substantially less likely to work on community projects or to attend meetings than they were a generation ago.

    This decline most seriously affects working-class and poor people and the communities in which they live. People without college experience have virtually disappeared from civil society. But we need all our people to participate in meetings and work on public problems.

    If we want this to happen, we must focus on youth, because they are more malleable than adults. Very few interventions have been found to have lasting impact on adults. But specific interventions aimed at youth have been found to matter. E.g., 40 year effects from extracurricular activities (Jennings and Stoker).

    But does service-learning in ordinary schools make a lasting difference in students' civic knowledge, commitment, and skills?

    A recent study in the Chicago Public Schools found that service learning had substantial positive effects on students' civic commitments. The authors, Joe Kahne and Sue Sport, ask us to imagine a Chicago student who is average with respect to demographics and receiving and average CPS schooling and set of extracurricular activities. "Imagine further that this student comes from a family where his/her parents rarely discuss politics or current events and from a neighborhood where there is little social capital –in fact assume that this student is only at the 16th percentile in both of these variables. If the student experienced opportunities to learn about civics and to participate in service learning at the sample mean in this study, that student's commitments to civic participation would be at about the 40th percentile. If, however, the student experienced opportunities to learn that were one standard deviation above the system average, then, despite the lack of focus on these issues in the students' neighborhood and home, that same student would be expected to develop civic commitments that would place him/her well above average--in fact at about the 70th percentile."

    This is an important study and a model of the kind of research we need to persuade decision makers that service-learning really enhances youth civic and political participation. But we need more of that kind of research, and we need especially to ask:

    What kinds of political participation does service-learning encourage?

    How does it compare to other forms of education, such as social studies classes or youth media production?

    How lasting are the effects?

    I have been talking as if our job is to accommodate ourselves to political reality. I do believe we have a responsibility to engage with politics and policy, but we need not surrender to the status quo.

    Service learning, like all good civic education, provides opportunities to reform politics and public institutions such as the Washington DC public schools.

    Teaching students to admire a flawed system is mere propaganda. If we try to raise students' interest in politics but leave our institutions unchanged, we are setting them up for disappointment and alienation. But we will fail in reforming the political system unless we have a new generation of citizens who are concerned, active, and informed. Thus civic education and political reform must go hand-in-hand. We must prepare students for citizenship but also improve democracy for citizens.

    In the Progressive Era, great reformers like Jane Addams and John Dewey and their followers invented many important opportunities for students to learn civic skills. This was the period when student newspapers, student governments, and service clubs were invented. But the same reformers who fought to give students opportunities to participate also tried to change big social institutions. Once the social reform movement ran out of steam, the Progressive educational methods became ways to accommodate young people to the existing political system.

    Service learning, at its best, provides alternatives to politics as we know it. It exemplifies a kind of politics that is in desperately short supply today.

    In general, we treat young people as baskets of problems or potential problems. But service-learning embodies the alternative approach of "positive youth development."

    In general, we see education as the job of teachers and principals in schools (public or private). It's a specialized task to be measured by experts. Success then boils down to passing tests. But education should be a community-wide function, the process by which a whole community chooses and transmits to the next generation appropriate values, traditions, skills, practices, and cultural norms. Service learning at its best crosses the lines between schools and communities and reflects a more inclusive definition of "education."

    In general, our politics is constrained by the fact that investments can quickly be moved away from communities that decide to impose regulations (or cultural norms) that businesses don't like. It's hard to impose liberal policies, like higher taxes, if companies can move away to avoid them. It's also hard to impose conservative policies, like preferences for heterosexual marriage. It's hard to govern.

    But schools (and colleges) are important economic institutions that are rooted in their communities and dependent on them. If teachers and students perform service and research, then schools become institutions that have value for their communities and that can be governed.

    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. Youth civic engagement at its best epitomizes a citizen-centered politics in which people form relationships with peers, express their interests and listen to others, 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.

    It is also true of many ostensibly civic groups. For example, CIRCLE has been part of the movement to increase youth voter turnout. Techniques for that purpose are becoming increasingly sophisticated. In the 1990s, you might just mail people flyers reminding them to register. Then organizations began to test various messages with focus groups before they printed their flyers. Now they do true experiments, randomly selecting some addresses to receive one flyer instead of another and keeping track of the response rates. (The messages that people like best in focus groups often perform worst in the field.) This is just an example of growing efficiency in public-interest, nonpartisan politics.

    Americans 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 are interested in what other people think; they want to get out of what students call their "bubbles." They want an open-ended, citizen-centered politics in which the outcomes are not predetermined by professionals.

    Service learning, at its best, is open-ended politics. We don't try to manipulate our students or neighbors 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.

    I've argued that we are obligated to engage the national debate.

    Tougher measurement, evaluation, and research would make us more effective.

    But research is only a tool, not our goal.

    Service-learning is only a tool, not our goal.

    Our goal is to raise the next generation of Americans in and for a just and humane democracy.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:32 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 9, 2007

    the "civic core"

    (Tampa International Airport) Ron Fournier of the Associated Press wrote a nice news/opinion piece based on the America's Civic Health Index. It's on the Yahoo news portal and elsewhere. Fournier begins:

    WASHINGTON - It happens every election year: Pollsters slice and dice the electorate, identify an important new group and give those voters a fad-worthy monicker. Reagan Democrats. Angry Men. Soccer Moms.

    Here's a heads-up on what should be the dynamite demographic of 2008: "The Civic Core."

    That's the name given to 36 million Americans who actively discuss society's problems and work to solve them. These community-building citizens are both a key to the nation's future and a valuable resource for political candidates.

    And yet, with few exceptions, Democrats and Republicans alike are giving the Civic Core — and community service itself — short shrift.

    Thirty-six million is a soft estimate, because the survey questions on which it is based are all matters of degree. You can be more or less involved, for example, in addressing problems in your neighborhood. Therefore, you may answer a yes/no question about such involvement differently depending on the context in which you are asked. However, I pushed for throwing out some kind of estimate, because I want candidates to realize that millions of Americans are heavily involved in civic work and care about their opportunities to participate. As Fournier says at the end of his article: "Microtarget that."

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:54 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    October 8, 2007

    in Tampa

    I'm in Tampa for the service-learning research conference. When not in sessions, I'm relaxing with my family in the Gulf of Mexico. Back online tomorrow.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:06 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 5, 2007

    Mobilize releases the Declaration of our Generation

    Below in italics is the draft document, entitled Democracy 2.0 Declaration, that Mobilize.org has put together through an intensive collaboration. They will be posting it as a wiki so that it can be edited by other young people, although I don't see how it could be improved. Apparently, they finished the drafting well after midnight (in the great tradition of the Port Huron Statement) and carried it down to Washington's Tidal Pool to read it to Thomas Jefferson. Some say he shed a tear.

    [You may have heard of TJ. He was on the development team of Democracy 1.0. They used a lot of open source components from projects in Greece and England (believe it or not), but they really took the concept to scale for the US market. Their product was kind of buggy. Some users were dissatisfied and there was a big issue around 1860 that almost killed the business. Still, thanks to user input, it turned into a robust platform. The 2.0 upgrade is eagerly anticipated.]

    Democracy is an unfinished project. It’s time we upgrade.

    We, the Millennial Generation, are uniquely positioned to call attention to today’s issues and shape the future based on the great legacy we have inherited. Our founding fathers intended for every generation to build, indeed to innovate, on the American experience. We realize that as young people we are expected to be the leaders of tomorrow, but we understand that as citizens we are called to be the leaders of today.

    We are compelled by the critical state of our present democracy to establish a new vision.

    In a world often damaged by conflict and intolerance, we must commit to develop common ground through equality and open mindedness.

    In a world often damaged by social isolation and materialism, we must commit to community at the family, local, national and global levels.

    In a world often damaged by instant gratification, we must commit to creating sustainable solutions.

    In a world often damaged by apathy and disillusionment, we must commit to civic participation and inclusion of all voices.

    The present state of our democracy impedes opportunity for real change. We must connect the specific issues failing our population with their underlying systemic causes.

    Our government seems unable or unwilling to adequately address our broadest problems, including economic inequality, America’s role in the world, and the effect of money on the democratic process. But we must remember, our government is only as effective as the sum of its citizens. Low civic participation means the most disadvantaged people in society are neglected and we overlook many potential solutions to our problems.

    Our generation is telling a different story. We are uniquely positioned to foster community engagement through social networks of all kinds. It is our responsibility to use information and technology to upgrade democracy, transform communication and advance political engagement and civic participation.

    We are social networkers, we are multi-taskers, we are communicators and we are opinionated. The informality of our generation breaks down traditional barriers and opens doors for inclusiveness and equality. Most importantly, we are leaders in a society that yearns for leadership.

    It’s our democracy, it’s time to act.

    Posted by peterlevine at 1:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 4, 2007

    America's civic core

    Today, the National Conference on Citizenship released its annual Civic Index report, which we worked on heavily. The most innovative aspect of the report was a decision to focus on a new set of civic activities--not ones that we should hope everyone would undertake (such as voting and volunteering), but relatively demanding forms of engagement. We defined a group that does "citizen-centered work" (using the terminology of Cindy Gibson's white paper for the Case Foundation). This means a combination of talking about issues and working directly to address problems. Look at how heavily engaged this group of millions is:

    We also defined groups of "deliberators" (who participate in diverse discussions of issues) and "netizens" (who participate heavily online). They too are heavily engaged and well-informed.

    I can describe how I got to this approach by way of an imaginary dialog:

    Realist: Americans are resistant to conflict and controversy. They opt for consumerism and limit their political conversations to people just like themselves in order to avoid the tensions that arise when serious issues are on the table and participants have diverse values. ("Realist" may have been reading books that present impressive and depressing empirical evidence, written by Diana Mutz, Nina Eliasoph, and John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse).

    Idealist: We know how to recruit diverse people for deliberative forums, train them to hold respectful, productive discussions, moderate these discussions, reach constructive conclusions, act voluntarily, and bring their experience back into discussions. ("Idealist" may have been reading the Deliberative Democracy Handbook, edited by John Gastil and me.)

    Realist: What powerful, large, well-funded institutions have incentives to organize these forums? Not political professionals, corporations, parties, or the mass media. Deliberations will always be small-scale experiments, organized by boutique programs, and limited to highly civic communities.

    I've struggled with Realist's rejoinder for a while, and this is what I'm now prone to say:

    Peter (the chastened idealist): Everyone has the right and the intrinsic ability to participate, but we'll never have the resources or incentives to achieve a truly deliberative democracy on a mass scale. Yet our new survey shows that a significant minority of Americans actually do deliberate with other people and use the results to guide their civic behavior, such as their volunteering. Our strategy should not be to raise that proportion to 50% or 100%--although 25% might be achievable. Instead, we should strive to make the civic minority in America fairly representative of our nation's diversity. We should give those people the tools, institutions, and resources they need. We should increase their political clout. We should build networks to connect them with one another. And we should make sure that all Americans have a shot at entering this civic minority even if they come from very disadvantaged backgrounds.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:05 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 3, 2007

    Open Congress

    I like Open Congress. This group has now created a widget that you can place on your blog or other website to follow automatically the progress of a bill that you care about. I can't really use the widget right now, because the legislation that interests me most is Rep. George Miller's proposal for a renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act. Mr. Miller is the House leader on education, so what he puts in the bill that he actually introduces will be very influential. But right now there is much debate and advocacy going on, and I don't think Mr. Miller has yet introduced a bill. He has, instead, floated various draft documents. Those drafts cannot be tracked by something like Open Congress.

    This situation underlines a limit with any accountability mechanism that focuses on bills and votes. An enormous amount of what Congress does happens before a bill is introduced--or squashed. This is also where most special-interest pressure is exerted. I have no reason to think that special interests are influencing Mr. Miller on NCLB; if anything, he seems to be annoying all the major players. But the time when openness is most important and hardest to obtain is before a bill is introduced.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:59 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 2, 2007

    tightening the "nots"

    For what it's worth, I have listed my fundamental commitments and beliefs here. I can also define my own position by saying what kind of a scholar/writer I am not:

    Not a positivist, because I don't believe that one can isolate facts from values, nor that one can live a good life without reasoning explicitly about right and wrong.

    Not a technocrat, because I don't believe that any kind of technical expertise is sufficient to address serious public problems.

    Not a moral relativist, because the arguments for moral relativism are flawed, and the consequence of relativism is nihilism.

    Not a post-modernist of the type influence by Foucault (who is a major influence across the cultural disciplines), because I believe that deliberate human choices and actions matter and freedom is real.

    Not a social constructivist, because I believe we are responsible for understanding the way the world actually works.

    Not a utopian, because I believe that any persuasive theory of justice must incorporate a realistic path to reform. An ideal of justice that lacks a praxis is meaningless, or worse.

    Not a utilitarian, because I don't believe that any social welfare function can define a good society.

    Not a deontologist, because I doubt that any coherent list of principles can define a good society.

    Not a pure pragmatist, because we need criteria for assessing whether a social process for defining and addressing problems is fair and good. Such criteria are extrinsic to the process itself.

    Not a pluralist (in the political-science sense), because I believe there is a common good. But also not a deliberative democrat (in the Habermas version), because I believe that there are real conflicts of interest.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:27 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    October 1, 2007

    "the historic line of decency"

    I spent part of the weekend at a conference on the political process attended by some academics and reporters plus political operatives like Donna Brazile, Doug Bailey, and Ed Rollins. After dinner in a Washington steak house, participants rose to make impromptu speeches against the harshness and narrowness of today's political discourse. I'm afraid I found most of the speeches quite superficial and banal. While people spoke, a Republican lobbyist and former elected official made heckling remarks which indicated that she felt the room was biased against her worldview. She finally rose and said (in my paraphrase): "What if Columbia University invited David Duke instead of Ahmadinejad to speak? I think there would be a huge protest. There are some people in America who just need to shut up."

    The comment was a non sequitur; but based on her other remarks, I think she meant that Columbia University is part of a leftist establishment. The University invited the Iranian president to speak because it had some sympathy for his views. The problem with American political discourse is that such views are expressed and tolerated.

    I certainly didn't reply, but I think my considered response would go like this: Whether to invite Ahmadinejad to Columbia--and how to treat him once he arrived--were delicate questions. The University needed to consider John Stuart Mill's argument that we are always better off with a public debate versus the claim that offering an individual a prominent speaking role at a distinguished institution grants him recognition (which someone like Ahmadinejad doesn't deserve). The University had to consider the norms of hospitality and respect for a head of state versus the duty to speak truth to power. And it had to weigh its own principles versus the consequences of treating Ahmadinejad badly. It would, for example, be possible to denounce the president publicly (in keeping with Columbia's principles) and thereby strengthen Ahmadinejad's hand in Iran. In that case, principles and consequences would collide.

    In any case, it's a triple mistake to see Columbia's actual decisions as emblematic of any leftist agenda. First, Columbia encompasses ideological diversity; it isn't leftist. Second, the decision to invite Ahmadinejad was based on classical liberalism of the John Stuart Mill variety, not on some leftist doctrine. Third, if Columbia has a leftish bias, that puts it on the opposite side of the political spectrum from an Iranian mullah who despises homosexuality, favors theocracy, and wants to preserve traditional gender roles.

    I left the conference and poked around a little on the Web, where conservatives seem to be furious at MoveOn for rhyming Petraeus with "Betray Us," liberals are outraged that Rush Limbaugh called troops who favor a withdrawal "phony soldiers," Columbia is denounced for inviting Ahmadinejad, Stanford is attacked for hiring Rumsfeld, the denouncers of Columbia and Stanford are denounced for selectively ignoring free speech, and everyone sees hypocrisy everywhere. The game is to associate one's opponents with some of the worst statements made by people supposedly on their side in the debate, so that they either look bad or have to distance themselves from their allies.

    I don't think I can respond in any way that's less banal than the after-dinner speeches on Friday; but I would say: We have serious issues before us, such as what to do in Iraq. Especially when the issues are complex and difficult and there are no good answers, it is extremely tempting to conduct the debate by proxy--attacking Limbaugh and MoveOn (and Scooter Libby) instead of proposing and defending courses of action. The rhetorical temperature inevitably rises, and people start crossing what Senator Cornyn called "historic line[s] of decency." They attack generals, claim that soldiers aren't soldiers, and so on. But these lines of decency are vague and disputed, so there are all kinds of opportunities to find inconsistencies in the other side's position. How can a Senator vote to condemn MoveOn but not Limbaugh? How can a university invite Ahmadinejad but not Duke? And so on, endlessly.

    I fail to see how any of this serves the republic. In fact, if I were a Democratic Member of Congress, I'd be inclined to abstain on an anti-Limbaugh resolution, saying: "Enough is enough. We could spend the rest of the session finding stupid statements to denounce on a tit-for-tat basis. There's enough stupidity on all sides of the political debate to keep this body permanently busy with resolutions. Why don't we actually decide what to do about Iraq?"

    Posted by peterlevine at 6:52 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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