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February 29, 2008

testing, testing

(Cambridge, MA) I have spent the last two days reviewing, editing, and occasionally creating test items for the National Assessment in Education Progress (NAEP) in Civics, which will be given to a large and representative sample of American students next year. The NAEP is an evaluation of our school systems, not of our kids--no scores are calculated for individual students. I am on the NAEP's "background variables" committee (which choses demographic measures) as well as its Civics committee. Producing questions for a civics test raises all kinds of interesting issues: moral, methodological, statistical, developmental, factual, political, and practical. However, I am somewhat constrained by test secrecy--and very mentally tired--so I'm not going to be able to comment tonight.

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February 28, 2008

inequality in youth participation

About one in four college students and young college graduates have been voting in the 2008 primary season. But only about half of young Americans attend college. For those with no college experience, the voter turnout rate has been about one in fourteen this year. One important reason is unequal civic education. The activities in school that help people to participate are basically reserved for our more successful students.

These are results of major new CIRCLE studies released today. You can read our fact sheet on primary turnout (pdf), download an important new working paper by Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh (pdf), read the AP article based on our study, or listen to Audie Cornish's story an "All Things Considered" that quotes me and uses our data--but more importantly, captures the voices of non-college youth.

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February 27, 2008

levers of democracy

(On an airplane over Ohio) Let's assume that you want to increase the quantity, equality, impact, and quality of political participation. Which institutions would give you the most leverage? Put another way, by reforming or enlisting which of the following institutions would you have the most impact?



the pros


the cons


electoral politics One-person-one-vote enhances equality. Voting holds political leaders accoutantable. A campaign is a prompt for discussion and deliberation. The vote is a crude instrument for communication. Choices on the ballot are inevitably limited. Accountability is sporadic. Each vote counts for little. Money and campaign tactics influence outcomes.
government Capable of shaping society through laws and taxation. Mechanisms are available to promote deliberation and partnerships. Some civil servants are eager for public participation. Bureaucracy; hierarchy; the "iron law of oligarchy." Technical expertise suppresses ethical issues. Vulnerability to special interests.
higher education Trains all professionals. Gateway to the middle class. Influences other institutions, such as the professions and k-12 schools. Quasi-autonomous, with a civic mission and heritage. Not-for-profit. Physically connected to communities (unable to flee). Educates only half the population. "Ivory Tower" ethos. Fierce competition for students, who seek skills and prestige. Insulated from democratic pressure (partly for good reasons). Physically isolated by walls and grounds.
k-12 education Influences everyone at a malleable age. Civic mission and heritage. Devoted to discussion and analysis, but also capable of promoting action. Located in all communities. Democratically governed and decentralized. Deeply segregated by race and class. Locally--thus, inequally-- funded. Burdened with other purposes: economic development, health, social control. Bureaucratic and technocratic. Separates the young from adult life.
the news media Source of information for all ages. Quality can be high because of professionalism. Makes a direct connection to politics and government, which are subjects of coverage. Privately owned and run. Sensationalism pays. Only a few professionals (reporters and editors) can speak. Coverage does not automatically generate action.
the "new media" (blogs, etc.) Open, cheap, flexible, interactive. "Cyberbalkanization" (people seek information and ideas they already know they like). Unreliable information. Link to offline action is unclear; information alone does not promote civic capacities or identities.
nonprofits Autonomous, diverse, plural. Capable of reflecting diverse values, e.g., religious ones, without coercion. Increasingly powerful as employers and investors. A small portion of the economy, without regulatory power, and dominated by donors, who tend to be wealthy.
arts Presenting or enacting values, imagining the future, and memorializing the past are political acts. Also, the arts are pluralistic, and the avant-garde stimulates deliberation. The avant-garde lacks influence. Community-based cultural groups are small and marginal compared to mass media.
community organizing Broad-based or open-ended community organizing promotes deliberation and has tangible impact (building houses, passing laws) Most sectors of American society haven't been touched by such organizing. Prevailing cultural values are opposed to it.
the learned professions Legal monopoly to practice (e.g., law or medicine) is granted in return for a public duty. Traditions of idealism and public engagement. Economic interests with considerable advantages. Technical expertise can make them arrogant. Members increasingly identify with the profession, not with a community.
organized labor Brings democratic principles into the workplace. Influences government. Has an incentive to recruit new members and teach civic skills and identities. Shrinking because of changes in the economy. Subject to hierarchy, bureaucracy, and corruption. Interests can conflict with those of outsiders (e.g., unionized teachers versus students).

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February 26, 2008

Dewey's lost chance

(Dayton, OH) On my way to a meeting with two of its authors (and others), I read Dewey's Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform (Temple, 2007), by Lee Benson, Ira Harkavy, and John Puckett. It's a manifesto for reform, which I would like to write about on another occasion. It also tells a story about the great progressive thinker/activist John Dewey, as a kind of "near-miss" (my phrase, not the authors'). In their view, Dewey almost opened a path to deep democratic renewal but made fatal errors. This is the outline:

1888 or earlier: John Dewey, a philosophy professor, decides that philosophical problems can only be addressed experientially and collaboratively. He begins to define "democracy" as a culture and a set of institutions optimally designed for learning. Achieving real democracy (in this sense) requires reform.

1888-92: Thinking strategically about reform, Dewey identifies the news media as the best lever of change. He tries to create a democratic newspaper, Thought News, to achieve "socialism of the intelligence and the spirit." It is a complete practical failure. (Although it fails, this experiment foreshadows modern uses of innovative media for democratic reform.)

1894: Dewey comes to Chicago and, because of agendas within the University, he is recruited to study education. He decides that schools, not communications media, provide the best levers for democratic change. He creates the Chicago Laboratory School. Its curriculum is experiential and collaborative but completely artificial and driven by Dewey, not by the community. It is a flawed conception, although it could have evolved in better directions.

By 1902, Dewey has spent considerable time at Hull-House, Jane Addams' great community-based institution for learning, culture, and reform. Having learned from this example, Dewey writes the "School as Social Center," a manifesto for public schools as hubs of learning deeply embedded in, and owned by, communities. The Lab School could have turned into such an institution, but ...

1904: Dewey leaves Chicago for New York where he retreats from full engagement. He focuses on reforming philosophy and deprecates schools as venues for learning and reform. He becomes interested again in the news media but has very vague ideas about it.

ca. 1912-ca. 1939: American schools are deeply influenced by Dewey, but his ideals are often watered down and distorted. Experiential learning becomes a means of accommodating kids to existing social institutions, not a spur to social reform. But there are a few excellent examples, such as the rural schools founded by Dewey's student Elsie Clapp.

1939: Dewey praises Clapp's schools but claims that they only work because they are located in rural communities that still embody preindustrial values. He has abandoned the idea that community schools might transform mainstream American society.

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February 25, 2008

the word "populism"

A European reporter asked me today why there is so much alarm about "populist" politicians in Europe--such as Jean Marie Le Pen in France and the late Pim Fortuyn in Netherlands--whereas American politicians with similar views seem to be considered perfectly mainstream. He could have added Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, or even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, as examples of leaders who are called "populists" and who alarm Americans.

Fortuyn was a libertarian who seemed hostile to immigrants because they were too conservative about religion and sexuality. Ahmadinejad is on precisely the opposite side of those issues. Le Pen is a hyper-nationalist who is often described as racist. Chavez is also nationalistic but his political base is people of color. These people have only one thing in common: they hold views that highly educated people consider bad and dangerously "popular." In turn, these diverse foreign populists have various views in common with American politicians as disparate as Dick Armey, Ron Paul, and John Edwards.

The problem, it seems to me, is terminological. In many countries, "populist" is an epithet. It's OK to be popular, but to be a "populist" means becoming popular by adopting positions that one shouldn't. Thus it's populist to hand out goodies derived from oil sales (bad economics), and it's populist to criticize immigrants (bad values). In Europe and Latin America, you don't generally say that you're a populist; you reserve that term for your opponents.

In America, however, candidates proudly call themselves "populists." The term recalls a controversial but certainly respectable American political tradition going back to the 1890s, if not before. The People's Party and the Populists took various economic positions, e.g., against tariffs. Whether or not those positions were sensible at the time, they are now obsolete. But the original Populists also emphasized procedural reforms, such as the direct election of Senators. They pioneered forms of politics, voluntary service, and institutions that are still highly valuable. And they embodied a culture of populism which was respectful of local and vernacular traditions, unpretentious, but also dedicated to education and creativity.

Incidentally, the discussion page attached to the wikipedia entry in "populism" is a great introduction to the debate.

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February 22, 2008

we're moving to Tufts!

During the summer of 2008, CIRCLE will move to Tufts University, becoming part of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. My family and I will be moving to the Boston area as well. CIRCLE will leave a satellite office in the DC area, but our home will be Tufts. Working with colleagues there and partners at other institutions, CIRCLE will help to build an innovative, ambitious, and rigorous research program that will influence scholarship and practice and thereby help to renew democracy. I have written more about our agenda here (pdf).

This decision was basically an institutional one. If we had a formal board, they would have voted (I am confident) in favor of a move to Tufts. The University of Maryland is a great land-grant state institution. But Tufts, because of its resources, its people, and its tremendous institutional commitment to civic engagement, will give CIRCLE better opportunities to grow and affect the world.

But even if the choice was pretty obvious for CIRCLE, it was a difficult one for my family and for me, personally. I've had a terrific time and learned almost everything I know at the University of Maryland since 1993. I had to think seriously about my own identity and trajectory in order to decide which institution to commit to. At Maryland, I wear several hats, including a research scholar in the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy, which applies philosophical ideas to a range of public issues. That work matters to me; but faced with a choice, I've decided it's not my identity. I would like to say that I'm a scholar with normative concerns who interacts daily with the practical movement to enhance the quality and breadth of civic participation in America.

Already during the summer after my sophomore year in college, I went to the Kettering Foundation in Dayton (of which I am now a Trustee) to study the National Issues Forums. I must have won that internship based on an application essay that indicated some interest in public deliberation. I then became president of the Yale student government on a platform of increasing the quality and quantity of student engagement in New Haven and Yale. Although it wasn't my idea, I'm proudest of one successful and lasting policy change that we achieved in that era: a scholarship program for students who conduct summer internships and report their results to local alumni clubs.

I was a philosophy major and received a doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford, but I might not have followed that route if I hadn't received a Rhodes Scholarship. Winning the Rhodes was, of course, mostly a matter of luck; but my application was all about civic engagement. My first job after graduate school was with Common Cause, the citizens' lobby. On the strength of that practical experience plus my doctorate, the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy decided to hire me. And the Institute turned out to be a fabulous platform for conducting research and experimenting with practice in civic engagement. It was the base of the National Commission on Civic Renewal, the National Alliance for Civic Engagement, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), the Prince George's Information Commons, and numerous other projects. Only because of the institutional and personal resources available to me at Maryland have I been able to find a place in strategic national discussions about civic renewal.

Tufts is committed to precisely this role of generating rigorous and independent scholarship on civic engagement, in dialog with practice and political reform. It might be possible to sustain that work at Maryland, but I believe the odds are better at Tufts that we can expand the seriousness, originality, and rigor of our scholarship and its impact on society.

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February 21, 2008

chamber music

Last Saturday in Syracuse, my Mom and I heard the Rossetti String Quartet play works by Mozart, Dvorak, and Debussey. Such events always provoke nostalgia for me, because chamber music used to play a very important role in my life. In my young adult years in New Haven, Oxford, and Washington, I used to attend concerts at least once a week. I usually went by myself. In childhood, however, I usually attended with my father, who died just weeks ago. He and I often had tickets to the very same concert series, the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music. In London, we went to many venues, but I especially remember the rather drab hall of the Ethical Culture Society, in which we heard fine performances. And other locations occur to me as stray thoughts--for instance, a basement in Lucca, Italy, where we once heard the Chilingarian Quartet. To tell the truth (at last), I really went along because I liked Dad's attention on the trips to and from the concert halls. I used to count the minutes until each recital ended; but a habit formed.

I had other reasons to be nostalgic last Saturday. The Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music has moved from the University to a public middle school. It's not a school that I attended, but it's part of the same district, and the students' art and official warning notices on the walls were timelessly familiar. The concert program contained a memorial notice for my own music teacher, who recently died. I recognized many subscribers to the notice; some were parents of my childhood friends. And I knew members of the audience. They were almost uniformly white-haired. The median age must have been 75. These were the same people, indeed, who belonged to the Friends of Chamber Music 35 years ago. They were much the same kind of people who filled Wigmore Hall or Alice Tulley Hall in 1970 and who still predominate at the Phillips Collection or the Library of Congress recitals in Washington.

When we consider why the audience for chamber music has aged and shrunk, it's tempting to revive the usual explanations: inadequate musical education, limited funds, the kids today. But I suspect a deeper reason, which makes me even more nostalgic or elegiac. If the heart of the chamber music tradition is the string quartet, the piano sonata, the art song, and the trio, then it really lived from about 1750 to 1950. When the audience at last Saturday's concert was young, Shostakovich and Bartok were still writing chamber works in that tradition. The latest works of that era commented on the classic ones in the repertoire. To be sure, there are still composers today, and they still produce quartets and sonatas. But as far as I know, their style is abruptly different from that of the nineteenth-century masters. They are too hard for almost anyone to perform, and rather difficult to enjoy. They have an audience, but it is small and highly sophisticated. Meanwhile, the tradition of Mozart and Brahms is no longer alive. It is an antiquarian or historical interest. I doubt it will ever die off completely; in the age of Amazon.com, even the most obscure tastes can find markets. But I don't think it will fully revive unless contemporary music itself reconnects with the classical background--which may not be a natural or even a desirable development.

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February 20, 2008

an opening for the news media

David Carr, a financial reporter for the New York Times, argues that the rising youth turnout rate offers the news media an opportunity to expand their audience among young people. He quotes me, saying, "I think that there is a clear message in here for the media: these campaigns have made very direct and serious pitches to young people and they have responded. ... I think it demonstrates that if you approach them in a specific way about things they care about, they will engage."

This is certainly an important issue, because using the media (especially a daily newspaper) correlates powerfully with voting and all forms of civic participation, including membership in groups. For young people, news consumption has fallen:

This graph provides an incomplete picture. It doesn't continue until 2004-7, when you would see some increase in newspaper readership. And it omits other news sources, such as the Internet. But notice that the decline was long, slow, and steady and started well before the Internet achieved mass scale.

I serve as a trustee of the Newspaper Association Foundation and do other work in this field because I believe that the news media (as well as schools and other institutions) need to invest more in building young people's interest in the news. They are also going to have to rebuild trust, because American youth are more cynical--or sophisticated--about bias and spin in the press than they used to be. The graph below shows trends in trust; our qualitative research finds that young people are especially sensitive to perceived bias and manipulation.

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February 19, 2008

one "gotcha" interview that didn't work

(Syracuse, NY) It's fun for reporters to pick out young people on the street and ask them hard, policy-wonk questions to show that they don't know anything. This, however, was the wrong young man to condescend to:

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February 18, 2008

expertise in education

(Syracuse, NY) This evening, I will participate in a panel at Syracuse University on the topic: "Who Knows Best How to Educate You for Citizenship?" My co-panelists will be Samuel Gorovitz, professor of philosophy, and George Saunders, essayist and MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow. Sam Gorovitz has posed the main question:

As we follow the coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign, and of other aspects of public affairs, we encounter the many diverse views of experts of all sorts. But do these experts merit our trust? Is expertise real, or an illusion? We should consider what voices to heed, as we think about how to function as citizens in a democratic society.

That's a very general question; but the panel will be focused on education and (specifically) civic education. I will need both of my hands for the discussion, because:

On the one hand, expertise about matters like civic education is problematic. Such matters involve deep moral or ethical questions, and it is unlikely that anyone is an expert about morality (although that question has been debated since Socrates and Protagoras took it up). When we allow experts to manage civic education--or any education--the key issues inevitably become test scores and other statistics. Experts have no special credibility or legitimacy about moral matters, so the whole expert debate narrows to measurement and causation. Relying on statistics conceals the fact that tests--and all other measures, quantitative or qualitative--reflect value-judgments that are not themselves statistical or otherwise "scientific."

Furthermore, when we turn education over to experts, we reduce the scope and impact of participation by other people, especially teachers, parents, and students. Yet we know that schools perform much better when these people are fully engaged.

On the other hand, I am an expert on civic education. I don't say that arrogantly or to claim any particular knowledge. I mean it in a very literal sense: I am paid to provide what is called expertise. For example, next week I will attend a meeting to help design the National Assessment of Education Progress in Civics. Our committee, funded by the Feds and chosen for its ostensible expertise, will make decisions about what questions thousands of kids must answer. In such contexts, I am very aware that it is helpful to know certain things: psychometrics and test design; facts and concepts in political science and history; educational policy and how classrooms work. Knowing these things is better than not knowing them, and such knowledge could be called "expertise."

So there are two sides (at least) in the debate about expertise. Maybe I can help the audience to weigh the question by directing attention to three kinds of expertise in education:

1. Expertise about curriculum and instruction--about how and what to teach. This expertise is widely shared. Teachers certainly have it. Parents may have it, and even students do. Higher up the food chain, professors of education, senior administrators in k-12 school systems, textbook authors, test writers, psychologists, and policymakers claim expertise about curriculum and instruction. The question is what balance of expertise we need. To what extent is the teacher's expertise, based largely on experience, to be honored? To what extent should that expertise be influenced by specialists, such as brain scientists, or by outsiders whose job is "accountability"? The answer depends not only on our assessment of who has the best and most knowledge, but also on political questions. Yielding all judgment to students and teachers reduces accountability. But seizing all judgment from teachers makes their jobs miserable and is unlikely to produce good results.

2. Expertise about management. School systems don't only educate; they also construct and maintain buildings, handle payrolls, and negotiate with unions. In our worst-performing systems these functions are handled very badly. For instance, the Washington, DC School System (which enrolls my child and employs my wife) spends about $13,000 per child, but only $5,355 on teachers, classroom equipment, and other forms of "instruction" Some systems have tried to address these problems by choosing business executives for their superintendents or by hiring management consultants. For example, in Washington, the new Chancellor (who holds a Masters from the Kennedy School) has hired management consultants who have determined--very credibly--that the school system is wasting huge amounts of money by keeping schools open when their enrollments are very low. The Chancellor's plan to close schools has provoked angry resistance. Is this simply a case of valid expertise versus citizens' ignorance or short-sightedness? Maybe, but it is also likely that any real improvements in the efficiency of the DC school system will require changes in attitudes and values among school employees and parents. Many people who work in and around the system do not align their own interests at all with the interests of the kids. To change that, we will need a bottom-up movement (or possibly charismatic leadership)--not analysis by management consultants.

3. Expertise about incentives. Despite the mountains of writing that exists on curriculum, instruction, and management, those are not the main topics debated by high-level policymakers. The national debate is mainly about incentives. Liberals want to spend more money on teachers' salaries. Some liberals and some conservatives want to send money to schools where the kids pass tests and divert it from failing schools. And many conservatives want parents to be able to direct tax dollars to public or private schools that they choose for their own kids. None of these strategies says what should be taught or how. All of these strategies change the incentives or rewards. Given this approach to education, the expertise that is relevant is economic. I think it is foolish to ignore the power of incentives in determining how institutions function. However, it is also foolish to treat a school as a "black box" that takes economic inputs, such as cash, and produces measurable outcomes, such as test scores. Someone has to decide what to teach and how.

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February 15, 2008

why are young people voting

Because we calculate the youth turnout rate, we at CIRCLE are getting many press calls every day. We have shown that youth turnout is up dramatically--by a factor of three or four in many states. The main question is: Why?

The answer is not simply Senator Obama, because Senator Clinton has won the youth vote in several states (California, Arizona, and Massachusetts), and about one third of young voters have participated in the Republican primaries. That means that Senator Obama has received less than half of all young votes.

I am boiling down my answer to two parts: the kids and the candidates. The "kids," i.e., people now between 17 and 25 years of age, are somewhat different from their recent predecessors. If you want quantitative evidence of this change, the best single fact is the rapid rise in the volunteering rate. If you want qualitative context, I recommend our Millennials Talk Politics report. Either way, there is plenty of evidence that young people are concerned, idealistic, and aware of at least some social issues. If they volunteer at a homeless shelter, for instance, they recognize homelessness as a problem.

This does not mean that they are sold on voting and politics as solutions to social problems. One student told us in a focus group, "I have voted every time I’ve been given an opportunity, but I do it more as a symbolic gesture than an actual means of changing something." This was a common view. Still, students are ready to hear a pitch that a given campaign or candidate might be worth supporting as a way of addressing problems.

Which brings me to the candidates. They are making the pitch--literally contacting young people through grassroots organizing and by making high-profile visits, and arguing that elections can affect social issues. Obama, Huckabee, and Chelsea Clinton have all personally appeared on our campus. It may seem obvious that politicians would campaign to get young votes. However, in the 1990s, there was such strong conventional wisdom that young people didn't vote that often young citizens were literally deleted from contact lists.

When I mention the rising volunteering rate, sometimes reporters and others ask me whether this isn't simply a function of mandates. Some schools require community service; many colleges seem to value it in applications. These are valid explanations for the increasing rate of volunteering, but they don't negate its importance. For young people, experiences tend to cause attitudes, rather than the reverse. Providing incentives and opportunities for service is likely to change what young people value.

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February 14, 2008

"the predatory lending association"

This is extremely funny and very clever on several levels: as social criticism, as political rhetoric, and as a parody of current fads in website design. I have no idea who's really behind it.

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February 13, 2008

tertiary literature

I've previously confessed that I'm writing fiction about Elizabethan England. I have read some serious scholarly work for background. I'm also tempted to pick up relevant popular books when I see them for sale in places like airport bookstores. That is why I have recently read Stephen Budiansky, Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage; Benjamin Wooley, The Queen's Conjuror: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee; Peter Marshall, The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague; Antonia Fraser, Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot; and Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh.

I find the demand for these books a little hard to understand. You could call them "tertiary literature" because they are basically summaries of the secondary literature, with maybe a few quotes from original sources and some journalistic writing about locations that the authors have visited for atmosphere. A tertiary book can be interesting if the author has a thesis. For instance Fraser has a view of the Gunpowder Plot that's interesting. (She thinks that Guy Fawkes really did it, but in a context of terrible anti-Catholic persecution.) But for most of these books, the thesis is simply that the subject is important. Thus, for example, Peter Marshall's point is that Emperor Rudolf was significant to history. I'm not sure why people would pay money to find this out. These books also tend to be very badly edited, with many misplaced modifiers and other errors. There seems to be a relative shortage of really compelling, literary narrative history for popular audiences.

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February 12, 2008

Obama and the civic populist tradition

Harry Boyte recently had an epiphany looking at the map of where Senator Obama has won primaries or caucuses. Many Obama states--a band from Illinois across to Washington--have strong traditions of civic populism dating back to 1890-1939. Others were crucibles of the Civil Rights Movement in 1945-1970--a band from South Carolina to Louisiana. These were distinct movements but they had more connections than is often recognized. My favorite example is the way that Miles Horton went to Chicago to learn from Jane Addams before he started the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, the center that helped train Rosa Parks, among many others. Nick Longo recovers this story in his book Why Community Matters.

Harry's analysis is as persuasive as explanations based on demographics or primaries versus caucuses. His epiphany is relevant to the outcome of the current election. In states where there is a civic populist tradition, people hear Obama's rhetoric in a particular way (like a "deep note vibrating in a base drum," Harry writes). Obama says, "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to make change in Washington…I’m asking you to believe in yours." People in states like Minnesota and Mississippi understand that it's possible to unleash public energies to address serious public problems. So they presume that Obama is talking about public participation after the election--participation in our schools, parks, and neighborhoods.

In other places, however, Democratic voters do not have this frame of reference. When they hear, "We are the ones we've been waiting for" (a powerful echo of the Civil Rights Movement), they think that they are merely being asked to vote for Obama or to volunteer and give money to his campaign. In their minds, the campaign is the opportunity to participate--and they are not sure they want to join up. The aesthetic of hip-hop artists and starlets singing along to Obama speeches may not appeal to them. Some may share Joe Klein's reaction (from TIME Magazine):

the campaign is entirely about Obama and his ability to inspire. Rather than focusing on any specific issue or cause--other than an amorphous desire for change--the message is becoming dangerously self-referential. The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is.

I don't actually think that this is fair, but the perception inevitably arises when people don't have experience with civic engagement. The smart strategy for the Obama campaign is to explain how President Obama will unleash the power of the American people after the election--how he will encourage Americans to cross differences and contribute their energies and talents to address social problems. That's a concrete goal and it requires concrete policies and examples.

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February 11, 2008

what publics do

In Publics and Counterpublics, the influential cultural critic Michael Warner writes,

All of the verbs for public agency are verbs for private reading, transposed upward to the aggregate of readers. Readers may scrutinize, ask, reject, opine, decide, judge, etc. Publics can do exactly these things. And nothing else. Publics, unlike mobs or crowds, remain incapable of any activity that cannot be expressed through such a verb. Activities of reading that do not fit the ideology of reading as silent, private, replicable decoding, curling up, mumbling, fantasizing, gesticulating, ventriloquizing, writing marginalia, etc. also find no place in public agency.

One one hand, Warner is right (and brilliantly astute) about the meaning of the word "public" in a certain literature, one in which the German theorist Jürgen Habermas plays a leading role. In this literature, the democratic public assesses, judges, opines, etc. All of this highly cognitive and verbal activity is much like reading--as we teach students to read in our schools and colleges. (It is not like reading in church, or reading a love letter.)

On the other hand, this whole literature misses functions of a democratic people that Tocqueville, Dewey, and many important current thinkers have emphasized (sometimes using the noun "public"). These functions cannot be performed by solitary readers, nor by the "mobs or crowds" mentioned by Warner. They include:

I find the notion of "the public" as a body of judicious observers completely implausible, both politically and psychologically. What would motivate people to serve as detached "readers" of public issues? Why would powerful institutions honor their opinions, once they had gone to the trouble of forming them? And how would they obtain knowledge of issues if they never did any public work?

[Disclaimer: I have not yet read Publics and Counterpublics. I came across the passage quoted above in a fine article by Warner entitled "Uncritical Reading," where he quotes his own book. A major theme of "Uncritical Reading" is the narrowness of our assumptions about how to read, e.g., our rule that one should always interpret passages in the context of whole books. Nevertheless, I must and shall read Publics and Counterpublics to grasp the whole argument.]

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February 8, 2008

the narrowing of the curriculum

These two graphs indicate that the elementary school curriculum in the US has narrowed somewhat (not dramatically) in recent years. The first graph shows hours devoted to four major subjects throughout grades 1-5; the second tracks the percentage of kids who experience various "special" classes such as art and music. We see an increase in all the academic subjects and some of the "specials" in the 1980s and 1990s, as Americans became concerned about slackness in the whole education system. This was followed by a narrowing of the curriculum as the available time went into reading and math and away from social studies and arts after 1992-4.

Although these trends are not dramatic, I think they deserve public discussion. The cause is more than the No Child Left Behind Act, because the narrowing trend began before NCLB was enacted and is evident in private schools as well as public schools. I associate the narrowing with a whole set of decisions made by local, state, and federal authorities, teachers, schools of education, textbook publishers, and families.

Here are four perspectives that these stakeholders ought to consider and discuss.

1. Back to basics. Reading and math are fundamental. Performance in these subjects is inadequate for the whole population and very unequal. We need to focus our attention on these subjects until all kids can read, write, and calculate. The trends shown above are desirable.

2. The liberal arts. Education today is too instrumental. It's all about outcomes, especially economic outcomes. It overlooks the intrinsic value of subjects like history, fine arts, natural sciences, foreign languages, and current events. Although such topics can be taught under the heading of "reading," in fact reading instruction emphasizes skills, not content. Thus the trends shown above indicate a decline in the liberal arts.

3. Cultural literacy. The only way to be literate is to have a base of facts, concepts, and vocabulary. We obtain that base best by studying history, natural science, social science, and foreign cultures. The trends shown above mean that we are failing to emphasize cultural literacy and that is why reading scores are flat despite increased time devoted to reading/language arts.

4. Civic mission. The purpose of schools is not (only) to prepare workers, but also to create an active and egalitarian democracy. That mission requires widespread literacy and numeracy. But it also requires specific knowledge of history, government, social issues, and current events. Such knowledge also correlates empirically with using and enjoying the arts. We are losing those elements of the curriculum.

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February 7, 2008

exit poll predictions

Early on Super Tuesday evening, I guiltily visited the Drudge Report to see the leaked exit poll results, which showed Senator Obama with a big lead in California. Of course, that lead evaporated. Why were the exit polls wrong? In short, because they are not designed to predict the outcomes of elections.

To give a more detailed answer: Commercial and academic pollsters never really try to draw a random sample of Americans from which they expect to be able to derive results directly. Instead, they always construct a sample using a source other than the poll itself to guide them. Most often, they try to fill quotas of interviewees from various categories (e.g., race, region, and gender). Even after they have done their best to fill their quotas using quasi-random methods, they almost always "weight" their data to reflect the demographic breakdown of the population, according to the US Census. For instance, if only seven percent of the sample is age 18-25, when the Census finds that 14 percent of adults are in that age range, then each interviewee of age 18-25 counts for two. (Doubling the weight of some respondents is not uncommon.)

In the case of exit polls, the results are not "weighted" to match Census demographics, because exit polls are intended to describe voters, not residents. Instead, results are weighted to reflect the actual election results, as reported by officials. Thus, if 51 percent of voters cast ballots for Senator Clinton, but 55 percent of people who were interviewed in the exit poll said that they preferred Senator Obama, then each Obama supporter in the poll counts for more than one in the results.

I'm sure that the early results leaked to Drudge were unweighted, because the ballots had not yet been counted. Once they were weighted, they showed a Clinton victory in California, because that's what election officials reported. This is also why exit polls showed Bush behind in Ohio in 2004, yet he won the election.

This is a legitimate method, because any poll is designed to address only some questions, not all questions. An exit poll cannot predict who will win, but it can estimate (with various sources of error) what kinds of people voted for each candidate. That's what it's for.

Some of us are overly credulous about surveys. Others, having realized that surveys are imperfect, discount them all. I recommend carefully considering what questions any given poll can answer, and using it only for those purposes. (Remind me to stay off Drudge on November fourth.)

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February 6, 2008

keeping on top of those young voters

We were up most of the night crunching numbers on young voters in Super Tuesday. They turned out strongly, as predicted, and we're putting all the latest information on our homepage as we produce it. We've been getting lots and lots of press attention throughout the primary season, which is gratifying and a useful opportunity to get people thinking about young Americans as active citizens. The most fun media hit is my colleague Karlo Barrios Marcelo talking about young voters in a Manhattan bar--as seen on CBS news.

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February 5, 2008

this blog is five

I wrote my first post on January 8, 2003 and have posted almost every weekday since then--the biggest gap being last month. This is post number 1,261. When I started, most of my friends didn't know what a blog was, and I remember a huge room of people at a national conference scratching their heads when someone (not I) used the word. Now everyone seems to have a blog, and even I realize that hip people have shifted to other formats.

I began with something like an online diary, recording what I was up to. Gradually, I settled into a habit of writing mini-essays and deliberately trying to rotate my posts among political commentary, news about civic renewal, applications of moral/political philosophy to current issues, and cultural criticism. I have often used this space as a notebook. Much of my most recent book, The Future of Democracy, appeared here, one paragraph at a time. I allow myself to be self-referential about once a year, near the blog's birthday, when I write about my own blogging.

I keep up with other explicitly civic blogs and I'm delighted to have their company. For the most part, the political blogs I read are now the ones that have been formally incorporated into magazines such as The Atlantic and The American Prospect. I don't know whether this short list reflects laziness on my part or an inevitable winnowing-out process that has made the blogosphere more professional.

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February 4, 2008

Obama and race

Shortly before the Iowa caucuses, a senior political scientist said to me: "When you met me, you first saw a Black man. What do you see when you see Obama?" This colleague was trying to understand how my white-person's race-meter was responding to the Illinois Senator.

I believe that all Americans respond reflexively to the race of the people they encounter. And I believe that mostly negative stereotypes are triggered when we see someone as African American. The strength of these stereotypes varies, as does our ability to override them; but they almost always lurk beneath (even when the beholder is Black).

Thus we can presume that Senator Obama triggers racist stereotypes. But things are a little more complicated. First of all, I don't think that it's only the color of skin that moves Americans' inner race-meters. We also respond to signifiers of culture and class, such as accent. That's no less bad than responding to color, but it is a fact about the way we think. While Black Americans speak in every imaginable way, African American culture is marked by a set of accents that have a family resemblance to each other. Most African American accents are rooted in the American South. Senator Obama does not have such an accent, so he is less likely to trigger racist stereotypes.

Further, all kinds of subtle signs mark the Senator as upper-middle-class. Although African Americans belong to all social classes, stereotypes associate Blacks with the working class. Senator Obama thus evades some of the standard triggers of racial identity.

Finally, we don't meet the Senator the way I met my political science colleague: face-to-face and with a handshake. We meet the Senator on TV. It's a mediated relationship, the kind we also have with Oprah, Will Smith, Colin Powell, and many other African Americans. I don't know the relevant psychological literature, but I suspect that mediation reduces the impact of stereotypes that are deeply connected to motives like fear.

So what will it mean if Senator Obama wins the Democratic primary and the general election?

Not that everyone is willing to vote for a Black man, because most people won't vote at all, and many will vote for other candidates (reasonably enough, given their views on a range of issues). Adam Nossiter found plenty of examples of white voters for whom "mention of Mr. Obama merely provoked discomfort." Even if he wins the election, most people may fall into that category.

Not that we have achieved racial justice, because race will still be a major determinant of the quality of schools, public safety, health care, and employment opportunities that one receives. And ...

Not that the Obama voters have left racism behind, because they might not vote for a Black candidate who has a stereotypically Black accent or a working-class culture.

But it may mean that a governing coalition of Americans have shed racism sufficiently that they can overcome their reflex negative responses to dark skin--and that would be something.

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February 1, 2008

greatest poems

Years ago, I heard Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler speak at the Library of Congress. Their assignment was to read and reflect on their ten favorite poems. Vendler read some not-very-famous work by poets she knew, as well as some important poems that mattered to her for biographical reasons. Bloom then said something like this (in his stentorian voice, with his eyelids batting madly): "I like Helen, and I admire her criticism, but those were not the ten greatest poems in the English language. Here are the ten greatest poems in the English language." He proceeded to recite ten lyric poems about the self in a hostile world. I don't remember the list, but I recall that it began with Tom O'Bedlam's song:

From the hagg and hungrie goblin
That into raggs would rend ye,
And the spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moones - defend ye!

I simply don't read enough poetry to have a worthwhile top-ten list of my own, but I could cite some English lyric verse that has struck me as particularly magnificent over the years: Thomas Wyatt, "They Flee from Me that Sometime Did Me Seek" (chosen, I admit, because I am moved to hear a voice from so long ago); Shakespeare, the song from The Tempest ("Full fathom five, &c," because it is so abstract that it exemplifies lyric); Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"; Arnold, "Dover Beach"; Browning, "The Bishop Orders his Tomb" or another of his great dramatic monologues; Yeats, "Among School-Children"; Wilfred Owen, "Dulce et Decorum Est," Eliot, "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (on which Vendler is a superb guide). These authors are all dead white Englishmen, which simply reflects the limits of my reading.

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