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March 31, 2008

a strange journey

I had an invitation to attend a conference at Ditchley, a Georgian mansion in Oxfordshire, early last December. On my way to Dulles Airport, I learned that my father was in some danger; a cancer that we thought had been removed might have spread to his lungs. But the lab results were not expected for several days, my trip was short, and I decided to proceed. I arrived at Heathrow early the next morning, worried but not in panic.

The journey from the airport to Oxfordshire was familiar; I had taken the same early-morning ride every time I arrived for terms of graduate school at Oxford. That morning, the views from the van were exceptionally beautiful: the landscape miraculously green compared to Maryland in late fall, and perfectly trimmed and manicured. Some of the villages northwest of Oxford--clusters of limestone buildings behind ancient walls--are so picturesque that they have been purchased by international billionaires as vacation homes. One that we drove through apparently belongs to a Saudi prince.

And then there was Ditchley. Some sentences from Brideshead Revisited just happen to describe it, down to the details: "We came to our destination: wrought-iron gates and twin, classical lodges on a village green, an avenue, more gates, open parkland, a turn in the drive; and suddenly a new and secret landscape opened up before us. ... The woods were all of oak and beech, the oak grey and bare, the beech faintly dusted with green ... ; they made a simple, carefully designed pattern with the green glades and the wide-open green spaces ... and, lest the eye wander aimlessly, a Doric temple stood by the water's edge, and an ivy-grown arch spanned the lowest of the connecting weirs."

The house itself (the real Ditchley, not the imaginary Brideshead) was a great stone rectangle, its stern lines broken by cheerful statuary on the roof and curved symmetrical glass passageways leading to the wings. We sat, still dressed in clothes worn overnight, in a Louis Quinze "saloon" beneath an elaborate ceiling of plaster and fresco. There were antlers on the walls among the stucco pilasters and a misty view of the folly through the grand French doors.

It was hard to communicate with the States: no cell phone coverage and only two cranky computers in the basement. But news of my Dad was beginning to trickle in and it was looking very worrisome. Still, there didn't seem to be anything to do but participate in the reception, the first "debate" (as the English call a plenary discussion), and a fine dinner.

The next morning, there was still no definitive information from home. After the morning sessions, I went along for a visit to Broughton Castle in the afternoon. Broughton was four centuries older than Ditchley. Apparently, Henry James called it "perfection, what with moat, gatehouse, church, and gorgeous orange and buff stone." We drove over the moat and into the front court to park beneath the gothic windows of the great hall. The door was opened by none other than Lord Say and Sele, resident of the house, as all his ancestors have been since 1306. He and Lady Say and Sele collected small admissions charges from each of us and then took us on a tour of their home. (Broughton has a castle blog, by the way.)

They were a completely charming elderly couple, unpretentious, humorous, and apparently interested in the opinions and backgrounds of their visitors. Lord Say and Sele took particular delight in the fake stones and synthetic carpeting that Hollywood film crews had left behind after using his house as a set. The moat, he told us, had no military purpose; it was just one of those things you had to have (in the fourteenth century) to impress your neighbors. One fireplace upstairs was carved by the same continental artisans who decorated Henry VIII's palace of Nonesuch, which later burned to the ground. Thus the Broughton fireplace is one of a tiny number of truly sophisticated Mannerist works that survive in England, where it looks two centuries ahead of its time. The kitchen, built in the middle ages beneath Gothic arches, is still the best place to prepare food, so now it has a refrigerator with art by grandchildren, hanging cabinets, and a range.

Not long after we had returned to Ditchley, I spoke to my mother and learned that my father's cancer was aggressive and untreatable. He had only a short time to live. I made arrangements for an early return but could not get out of Oxfordshire until the next day at the earliest. So there was nothing to do but attend another reception and then the formal dinner. It was a black-tie affair, although I had forgotten to pack mine. We spoke of the differences between US and British social policy. A countess sat opposite me and a retired British Army officer to my right.

I like to think I am blasé about stately homes. Not only did I grow up partly in England, but my father was an authority on some aspects of English historical culture. He wrote, for instance, a whole book about neoclassicism; and Ditchley is a neoclassical house. I was not to the manner born, but I was to many manors dragged from a tender age, and I know a thing or two about places like Ditchley--even a bit about its architect, James Gibbs. But it was hard not to be impressed by the candle-lit dinner scene.

Not too many hours later, I was sitting with my father in his hospital room, showing him brochures of Broughton that he managed to enjoy. He was being quite amazingly brave. Less than two months later, he was dead.

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March 27, 2008

happiness over the course of life

Imagine two people who experience exactly the same amounts of happiness over the course of their whole lives. A experiences most of his happy times near the beginning, whereas B starts off miserable but ends in happiness.* We are inclined to think that B is more fortunate, or better off, than A. If the story of A's life were written down, it would be tragic, whereas B's tale has a happy ending. But does B really have more welfare?

One view says no. The happiness of a life is just the happiness of all the times added up. Maybe we feel happier when we are on an upward trajectory, but that extra satisfaction should be factored into an accurate estimate of our happiness. If A and B really have identical total quantities of happiness over the courses of their lives, they are equally well off. Any aesthetic satisfaction that we obtain from the happy ending of B's life is no reason to declare him better off.

Another view says says that happiness is equally valuable at any time, but we wish devoutly that our own happiest times are still to come. That wish colors our estimation of other people's lives; but perhaps it shouldn't. Just because I want the end of my life to be (even) better than the beginning, it doesn't follow that B was better off than A. Once the ledgers are closed at death, it no longer matters how the happiness was distributed.

A third view says: even if the amount of happiness is the same at two times of life, somehow the quality of happiness is better if it comes later, because then it's more likely to be the outcome or satisfaction of one's plans and one's work. That is sometimes true, but it's not necessarily the case. One can be happy late in life because of sudden dumb luck. One can have early happiness as the well-deserved accomplishment of youthful efforts.

I incline to a fourth view. Happiness is not more valuable if it happens to come later. But a morally worthwhile life is one that develops, and one should take satisfaction in one's own development. Thus we think of the old person who has learned, grown, and become better--and who is satisfied with that achievement--as a moral paradigm. He or she happens to be happy, but what matters is that the happiness is justified. The child who is naively happy makes us glad but does not inspire our admiration. Thus our intuition that happiness is better late in life does not mean that it has a greater impact on welfare. Our intuition is a somewhat confused reflection of our admiration for a particular kind of mature satisfaction.

*This topic was raised by Connie Rosati in a fine paper she delivered at Maryland this week. These views are my own and I'm deliberately not summarizing her interesting thesis because I didn't seek permission.

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ignorance and apathy?

I'm having an email correspondence about whether Americans are politically ignorant and apathetic. Those are harsh and undiplomatic words, but they could be true.

Are we apathetic? Voter turnout is low compared to other countries, around two thirds in presidential years. But about 60 percent of Americans volunteer, according to the DDB Needham survey; and that represents an enormous voluntary contribution of time and energy. Just under 50% attend meetings at least annually. That rate is lower than it used to be, but it's still a large voluntary contribution of time.

Are we ignorant? I'm not sure. According to Pew, 93% can identify Hillary Clinton. 88% know about the surge in Iraq. 69% can generate the name of Dick Cheney, but apparently more can pick him off a list when offered a multiple-choice format. Are these numbers too low? It may help to set them in context. For example, 49% of Americans think that antibiotics affect viruses. Just 60% can pick the right definition of DNA off a multiple-choice list ( source). 37% think that kissing can spread HIV, and 16% think you can get it from a toilet seat (source). 14% of adult Americans score "below basic" level in literacy, meaning that they have no more than "simple and concrete literacy skills." In short, more people can identify Hillary Clinton than can read a paragraph of prose. Many more are right about the Iraq surge than about how one contracts AIDS.

This interests me because literacy and medical information pay off directly for an individual. Even people who are rather selfish should be motivated to obtain skills and knowledge that they can use in their own lives. Political knowledge, in contrast, does not pay off for an individual who thinks in selfish or narrow terms. Maybe being well informed will make you a better voter or help you in a community meeting. But there are hundreds of millions of other people who vote and attend meetings, and you can easily get away as a free-rider.

A model, then, of human behavior as self-interested would predict very low levels of political knowledge and interest. What we observe seems better than that to me. Surveys always reveal disturbing gaps in knowledge, whether we ask about geography, science, religion, or any other topic. Politics doesn't stand out as a particularly weak point.

This is not to say that we shouldn't work to enhance both knowledge and participation, especially so that we can reduce inequality by social class. That will require more than "messages" that provide citizens with information or exhort them to participate. I think a feeling of responsibility already has some positive effects on people's political behavior. Without it, 110 million people wouldn't cast ballots in election years. We need to reinforce people's sense that they ought to engage by providing stable rewards for participation, such as institutions that actually respond to their legitimate activism. It is, for example, hard to persuade people to vote in congressional elections when the districts have been drawn so that only about 10% of them are even remotely competitive. It's hard to follow the news when the local TV station serves up only rapes, fires, and murders. It's hard to improve local education if the No Child Left Behind Act has centralized educational policy. And it's hard to seek office in a union if the union has closed.

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March 26, 2008

Case Foundation MIYO Award

I've been involved in this project for some time, so I am pleased to post the following announcement:

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March 25, 2008

the "general turn to ethics" in literary criticism

I need to revise my book manuscript about Dante, which is under consideration by a publishing house. In the book, I argue that interpreting literature has moral or ethical value. Literary critics, I claim, almost always take implicit positions about goodness or justice. They should make those positions explicit because explicit argumentation contributes more usefully to the public debate. Also, the need to state one's positions openly is a valuable discipline. (Some positions look untenable once they are boldly stated.)

I had taken the stance that contemporary literary theorists and academic critics were generally hostile to explicit ethical argument. My book was therefore very polemical and critical of the discipline. But I was out of date. In Amanda Anderson’s brilliant and influential book The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory (Princeton, 2006), she announces: "We must keep in mind that the question. How should I live? is the most basic one" (p. 112).

This bold premise associates her with what she rightly calls the "general turn to ethics" that's visible in her profession today (p. 6). This turn marks a departure from "theory," meaning literary or cultural theory as practiced in the humanities from the 1960s into the 1990s. "Theory" meant the use of (p. 4) "poststructuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism, and queer theory" in interpreting texts and discussing methods and goals within the humanities.

"Theory" tended to deprecate human agency. Poststructuralism "limit[ed] individual agency" by insisting that we could not overcome (or even understand) various features of our language, psychology, and culture. Multiculturalism added another argument against human agency by insisting "on the primacy of ascribed group identity." Anderson, in contrast, believes in human agency, in the specific sense that we can think morally about, and influence, the development of our own characters. We don’t just "don styles [of thinking and writing], … as evanescent and superficial as fashion" (p. 127). Instead, we are responsible for how we develop ourselves.

Focusing on character does not imply a faith in untrammeled free will or individualism. "Such an exercise can (and, in my view, ideally should) include a recognition of the historical conditions out of which beliefs and values emerge (psychological, social, and political) that can thwart, undermine, or delay the achievement of such virtues and goods" (p. 122).

Anderson takes the side of liberals, Enlightenment thinkers, and proponents of deliberation in the public sphere, theorists like Jurgen Habermas (p. 5). But she emphasizes that a rational, critical, analytical stance--sometimes seen as the liberal ideal--is just one kind of character. Like other character types or identities, it must be cultivated in oneself and in others before it can flourish. Thus a Kantian or Habermasian stance is not an abstract ideal, but a way of being in the world that requires education, institutional support, and "on ongoing process of self-cultivation" (p. 127). Like other character types, the critical rationalist and the civic deliberator must be assessed morally. The primary question is how should one live. Living as a critical rationalist is just one response, to be morally examined like the others (p. 112).

For all that they seem to reject deliberation about how to live, postmodernist theorists also have views about ethos (character). For example, Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty have presented the ironist as an ideal character type. “With varying degrees of explicitness and self-awareness, I argue, contemporary theories present themselves as ways of living, as practical philosophies with both individualist and collective aspirations” (p. 3) Most of The Way We Argue Now is devoted to close, often sympathetic, but also critical readings of theoretical texts. Anderson is very insightful about character, form, irony, ambiguity, and development in these works--elements that we usually associate with literature, not with literary theory. She defends several postmodernist and multicultural authors by showing that they embody moral stances or characters that have value. She is a pluralist, in contrast to a liberal or deliberative democrat who would see the only valuable theory as one that embodied the character traits of reasonableness or tolerance. She believes that the question, "How should I live?" opens a broad discussion in which the radical theoretical movements of the 1960s to 1990s have a place.

To investigate the link between each theory and the character of those who endorse and live by it would broaden the discussion beyond "identity politics, performativity, and confessionalism," which "have exercised a certain dominance" (p. 122). Identity politics reduces the choice to either the "espousal" or the "subversion of various ascriptive and power-laden identities (gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality); such enactments are imagined, moreover, as directly and predominantly political in meaning and consequence." There is more to be discussed than how we relate to ascribed identities in political contexts. "Ultimately, a whole range of possible dimensions of individuality and personality, temperament and character, is bracketed, as is the capacity to discuss what might count as intellectual or political virtue or, just as importantly, to ever distinguish between the two" (pp. 122-3)

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March 24, 2008

Woolf's Orlando

I picked up and read Virginia Woolf's Orlando over the weekend. Generally not my cup of tea--I could do without the coy inside jokes and the motif of "barbarian" Africa, which begins on p. 1 and runs throughout. However, I found myself developing respect for two aspects of this highly unusual novel.

First, it is impressive how the narration evolves to match the historical period described on each page. The language shifts from courtly Elizabethan prose to the rapid-fire, cinematic feel of a movie. James Joyce does the same thing even more radically in Episode 14 of Ulysses. Perhaps Woolf's subtler experiment is more satisfactory; but in neither book is this technique a gimmick. I think modernism arises when artists, in any medium, realize that you cannot simply describe the world. You always do so in a style; and styles vary. The problem is: Why should you pick one style instead of another? Why, therefore, should you make art at all? One answer is abstraction, which means dropping the pretense of objectivity. Woolf and Joyce try something different; they make the change of style itself the subject of their story.

Second, I came to see that Woolf respects her protagonist. Orlando is generally identified with Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf had a relationship. For quite a few pages, I thought the portrait of Sackville-West was patronizing. Orlando has great legs and lots of money. He (later she) yearns to be a writer, but writes nothing of value. I cannot imagine that Sackville-West would want to be so portrayed. But it turns out that Orlando matures as the novel progresses, and the story of his/her development is moving because it reaches a conclusion in full, self-conscious, capable and creative adulthood.

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March 21, 2008

tips for student interviewers

Students often seem to be required now to interview "experts" as sources for their term papers. For whatever reason, I get several interview requests each week from students who are not enrolled at my university. I am generally inclined to help them, but I've developed some tips that other interview targets might want to borrow, and professors might want to recommend to their students:

  • Don't tell me that you want to interview me because you need several sources for a required paper. Tell me that you are interested in an important topic and want to talk to me because I seem to know something about it.
  • Before you contact me, read at least some of the most prominently posted material on my organization's website. I will help you to navigate through our site, but I want you to look first. Ideally, your questions will be prompted by something that my colleagues or I have written or said.
  • Send me the questions by email so that I can respond right away and don't have to email you back to schedule a time for a call.
  • Be polite. For example, "thank you" is considered a nice ending to an email. (Email, btw, is an old-fashioned alternative to texting.)
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    March 20, 2008

    part of the problem

    I generally don't like to quote at length from prominent blogs, but I can't improve on this reaction by Jay Rosen:

    I was watching CNN for Obama's speech. Moments after it concluded Wolf Blitzer was asked to tell us what he heard in it. Wolf's ear is the big ear for the Best Political Team on Television, according to CNN. So he went first. And according to Blitzer, Obama's speech boils down to a "pre-emptive strike" against various attacks on the way: videos, ads, and news controversies that are sure to keep Reverend Jeremiah Wright and "race" in play as issues in the campaign. (I don't have his exact words; if someone out there does, ping me.)

    Wasn't the speech about that very pattern?

    This is the style of analysis--and the level of thought--we have become miserably utterly used to, especially from Blitzer, but also many others on TV: everything is a move in the game of getting elected, and it's our job in political television to explain to you, the slightly clueless viewer at home, what the special tactics in this case are, then to estimate whether they will work.

    That Blitzer, offered the first word on that speech, did the savvier-than-thou, horse race thing tells you about his priorities (mistakenly "static," as Obama said about Wright) and his imaginative range as an interpreter of politics (pretty close to zero.)

    Compare Wolf to active, thoughtful citizens who care:

    "The Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of a mostly white evangelical church of about 12,000 in Central Florida ... said the Obama speech led to a series of conversations Wednesday morning with his staff members. "We want for there to be healing and reconciliation, but unless it’s raised in a very public manner, it’s tough for us in our regular conversation to raise it."

    Julie Fanselow: "Time and again Tuesday, speakers at Take Back America and writers on blogs like The Super Spade and Booker Rising and Pam's House Blend echoed and dissected and even wept over what Obama had said in Philadelphia."

    Rich Harwood reflects on what we should do when someone (such as Rev. Wright) "cross[es] the line of politeness and rupture[s] norms of give-and-take." We should, says Rich, "step forward and renounce them in ways that reflect the kind of public life and politics we seek to create. Let us take in the fullness of their argument and respond in kind - with clarity, forthrightness, and strength of conviction, even love. I do not suggest that anyone should back down, but neither do I advocate a slash and burn response that poisons the very public square we wish to invigorate."

    Less favorable to Obama, but equally responsible and deliberative, is Bill Galston's take.

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    March 19, 2008

    guest blogger: Doyle Stevick

    Doyle Stevick is an education professor at the University of South Carolina. Here is his contribution to the CANDE newsletter. (My contribution was yesterday's post.) The assignment, again, is to describe an ideal civics class, without worrying about what might be politically palatable or practical.

    Between 2001 and 2004, I spent hundreds of hours in civic education classrooms all over Estonia. I observed teachers in different cities, sometimes on the same day, and the drives gave me a great deal of time to reflect on things I’d like to see change in civic education generally. Here, I’ll keep myself to just three.

    In my exposure to civic education materials, I have seen very little representation of children as social actors. And yet children do and have done extraordinary things. It is one thing to see the work of Craig Kielburger, who traveled around Asia at age 12, founded an international children’s organization, and the like. His is an inspiring tale, well represented in his own words in his book “Free the Children” and the Bullfrog Films documentary “It takes a Child.” Yet, as with college students who read about Paul Farmer in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, the sheer scale of his accomplishments can overwhelm rather than inspire and inspire a sense of civic self-efficacy in children.

    One of my undergraduates at Indiana University brought me the magazine Marie Claire, in which girls from around the world were profiled taking action in their own communities around local problems. Although they dropped the pictures from the website, the eight profiles can be found here. In Estonia, an official working in the Ministry of Education told me about children who organized when their school was going to be closed down, gathered information, held rallies, and got the government to rescind its order. I believe that school materials should be full of these kinds of real-life, local, relevant examples. Too often, citizenship is seen as something in children’s futures, not in the present. Just as they should appear in the media.

    I recently drove past the Penn Center on Hunting Island, South Carolina. An institution with an incredible history, it sits on a road named after Martin Luther King. There are countless reasons to honor King, but aren’t there enough local heroes to honor in South Carolina’s efforts for civil rights? Shouldn’t an institution with a history like this one have a name with more local ties? Joseph Armstrong DeLaine, Harry Briggs, Septima Clarke?

    This leads me to my second point: let us call attention to the local in our schooling. I have a wonderfully diverse set of students in Educational Administration at the University of South Carolina, but black or white, the stories of Septima Clarke and Judge Waties Waring come as revelations to them. Even in Charleston itself. Not only does history come alive—or can it—when we study what happened RIGHT HERE—but it is also empowering: this is what people right here have been able to do. This isn’t some distant event in Washington DC. These are people in our neighborhoods.

    Part of my worry about the national and distant focus on much civic education (and history) is that it is so disempowering. In a context of 300,000,000 people, few of us can hope to influence the president (whose election gets the lion’s share of attention.) Yes, we an often get form letters back from our representatives. But we are often able to get things done in our local communities. This is one great feature of Project Citizen. But we can match that with a sense of local history.

    My concern is that our exclusive focus on King (and his corollary, Rosa Parks) can be disempowering if he is perceived to be a great man, whom none of us could ever hope to match. Rosa Parks, in too many of our stories, is just a tired old lady on a bus, and not a committed activist who worked with hundreds of others to accomplish what she did. We need to pull more of these people into view to understand what it takes to make a difference. And these people are often in our very communities, waiting to be sought out in community-based inquiry projects.

    When the latest research came out telling us how ignorant our 17-year-olds are, it came out that 97% could identify Martin Luther King. Could a number that high in some way be indicative of a problem in our accounts and presentation of the civil rights movement? When I toured the National Civil Rights museum in Memphis, Tennessee, in the former Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated, the displays run chronologically up to his assassination. The final room is 306, where he stayed before his death. But it is also the end of the museum, as if the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement were over the moment he was killed. The conflation of his life with the movement was too great for me. Is the degree to which we focus on King a product of the Great Man theory of history? We can never underestimate his influence and importance, but if we aren’t careful to indicate that others were involved, too, we may be disempowering those we hope to engage.

    And can we stop pretending that gay people don’t exist? Is it fair to talk about King and nonviolence without talking about Bayard Rustin? When the author of the country’s best selling middle-school US history textbook told me about writing the conclusion to the book just before 2000, he said that he talked of challenges and issues the country would have to grapple with in the future—the environment, the gay rights movements, etc., the publisher refused to publish it. They would not even permit gay people to be mentioned, whether good or bad. It was not acceptable to acknowledge that they exist. I would love for teachers to understand this much about the content they are provided to teach. And I would love for them to help students learn about Rustin.

    Ordinary people, playing a role in important changes. A stronger connection to local issues and history, to local governance. And, in Kara Brown’s phrase, attention to the school-scape. Can we not feature local cultures, local people, local history, on the walls of our classrooms? Many do, of course. But there is power in seeing someone’s picture in school, and having people around who know her.

    Finally, can we reconsider this idea of neutrality? I struggled with this for years before learning of Diana Hess’s research. In the former Soviet Union, teachers who were not enthusiastic about Marxist/Leninist content still taught it, but often with sufficient detachment and disinterest that students got the hidden curriculum, even if the teacher retained deniability. In the post-Soviet period, however, teachers often felt powerless in society and lacked democratic experiences, which undermined their ability to promote civic self-efficacy, but they also strongly resisted the notion that they should ‘push’ ideas onto anyone.

    This is what the Soviet state did—teachers feared that if they expressed a view, they were propagandizing, and that was wrong. The problem was that the detached teaching style, learned and practiced over decades, was often passed down as traditional pedagogy, the way one taught. But it undermined engagement in times when people were feeling relatively powerless in the face of the collapsing economy and other difficult changes in society. For students to feel respected, and trusted, we should not conceal our views from them. This is not pushing our views, or using class as a soapbox, but responding candidly to student inquiries while respecting differences. This is modeling respectful dialogue across differences. We need not proffer views. But let us know constrain democratic dialogue and deliberation behind troublesome notions of neutrality and objectivity, notions which are ripe for reexamination.

    We can never underestimate his influence and importance, but if we aren’t careful to indicate that others were involved, too, we may be disempowering those we hope to engage. If there is any prominent figure in American history that we would want virtually every American to know about, it should be Dr. King. But for school students, for civic purposes, wouldn’t it be ideal to have them know Barbara Johns and what she accomplished at Moton High School? According to Wikipedia, “In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, author Taylor Branch remarks upon Davis v. Prince Edward:

    [T]he case remained muffled in white consciousness, and the schoolchild origins of the lawsuit were lost as well on nearly all Negroes outside Prince Edward County. ... The idea that non-adults of any race might play a leading role in political events had simply failed to register on anyone — except perhaps the Klansmen who burned a cross in the Johns' yard one night, and even then people thought their target might not have been Barbara but her notorious firebrand uncle.

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    March 18, 2008

    civic education without constraints

    I have been asked to write a short article about my ideal version of democratic education. This is an opportunity to ignore the usual constraints: time, money, and political pressures. The venue for my article will be the CANDE newsletter.* I think I'll say:

    We ought to treat students as citizens, giving them assignments that really matter and that stretch them both intellectually and ethically. Research shows that such opportunities boost their skills, knowledge, and habits. Besides, it is an ethical imperative to treat our fellow human beings--including our youth--as responsible members of the community.

    Too often, I think, we ask students to investigate issues and problems that arise within the adolescent world--such as drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, or their own stereotypes and prejudices--without asking them to evaluate and change the world that we have created for them. That world starts with the massive and powerful institutions that we have built to school them.

    If, as in many school systems, the downtown bureaucracy consumes much of the funding, the most experienced and successful teachers gravitate to the least challenging schools, or the textbooks don't match the standards, kids will feel the consequences. Therefore, one ideal form of civic education would be research by students into how their own systems are run. They will probably find that the educational system bears some responsibility for any shortcomings or inequities. But they may also find fault with other actors, such as the government as a whole, the teachers' unions, the taxpayers, or parents and the students themselves.

    As long as we are fantasizing (and ignoring all political constraints), we could imagine kids filing Freedom of Information requests, interviewing teachers off the record, attending public meetings, and taking photos of facilities. They could create spreadsheets to estimate the real expenditures of their school system, thereby learning valuable civic and business skills and obtaining power through information. When they uncovered waste and mismanagement, they could develop strategies for reform: alerting the media, filing class-action lawsuits, building public websites, or even working with political challengers. (I said I would ignore all real-world constraints!) They might also discover genuine choices, dilemmas, and constraints that confront their school district. Kids could promote discussion of these choices by providing background materials and convening public meetings.

    In my ideal world, research and action on educational issues would continue over years and accumulate. Often, we ask classes to develop their own plans for service or community research, because we see choice as empowering. However, short-term projects rarely amount to much, and they don't replicate real civic work, which has to be cumulative to be successful. I would love to see new waves of students recruited into ambitious, ongoing programs that combine research, deliberation, direct service, and political action--all focused on their own school systems.

    *Citizenship and Democratic Education (CANDE) is a special interest group in the Comparative and International Education Society. With scores of participants from around the world, the SIG provides a community for scholars, practitioners and graduate students concerned about the role of education in democracy. The CIES conference will meet in March in New York City, and anyone interested could participate in March, 2009, in Charleston, South Carolina. The SIG is chaired by Doyle Stevick, University of South Carolina, and editor (with Bradley Levinson) of two books of possible interest to people concerned about civics: Reimagining Civic Education: How Diverse Societies form Democratic Citizens (2007) and Advancing Democracy Through Education? U.S. Influence Abroad and Domestic Practices (in print, 2008).

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    March 17, 2008

    science from left and right

    On the left today, most people seem to think that science is trustworthy and deserves autonomy and influence. The Bush Administration must be a bunch of rubes, because they continually get into struggles with scientists. Thus, for example, the first masthead editorial in today's New York Times is entitled "Science at Risk." The Times says:

    As written in 1970, the [Clean Air Act] imposes one overriding obligation on the E.P.A. administrator: to establish air quality standards "requisite to protect the public health" with "an adequate margin of safety." Economic considerations--costs and benefits--can be taken into account in figuring out a reasonable timetable for achieving the standards. But only science can shape the standards themselves.

    Congress wrote the law this way because it believed that air quality standards must be based on rigorous scientific study alone and that science would be the sure loser unless insulated from special interests.

    But the definitions of "requisite to protect the public health" and an "adequate margin of safety" could never be scientific. These were always value-judgments--implicit decisions about how to balance mortality and morbidity versus employment and productivity. Costs always factored in, because the only level of emissions that would cause no harm to human health is zero. EPA has allowed enormous quantities of emissions into the air, surely because the agency balances moral goods against moral evils. What the Clean Air Act said was: professional scientists (not politicians or judges) shall estimate the costs of pollution. Since it is unseemly to talk about human deaths and sickness as "costs," scientists shall not use this word, nor set explicit dollar values on lives. Instead, they shall declare certain levels of safety to be "adequate," and present this as a scientific fact.

    I well remember when people on the left were the quickest to be skeptical of such claims. Science is frequently an ally of industry and the military. It is intellectually imperialistic, insensitive to cultural traditions. It is arrogant, substituting expertise for public judgment even when there are no legitimate expert answers to crucial questions. (For instance, What is the economic value of a life?). Science is a human institution, driven by moral and cultural norms, power, and status. It is not an alternative to politics.

    So progressives used to say. Yet scientific consensus now seems to favor progressive views of key issues such as climate change. The conservative coalition encompasses critics of science, such as creationists. And, as Richard Lewontin wrote immediately before the 2004 election, "Most scientists are, at a minimum, liberals, although it is by no means obvious why this should be so. Despite the fact that all of the molecular biologists of my acquaintance are shareholders in or advisers to biotechnology firms, the chief political controversy in the scientific community seems to be whether it is wise to vote for Ralph Nader this time."

    These are short-term political calculations that lead progressives to ally themselves with science and endorse its strongest claims to power. If we are going to defend science, we should do so on the basis of principle, not political calculation. I agree with the Times that the EPA should clamp down on air pollution. I disagree that this would represent a triumph of science over politics. It would be a moral and political victory--and that is all.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:01 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    March 14, 2008

    two traditions of organizing in the '08 elections

    As Harry Boyte argues on the generally lively and interesting By the People blog, Senators Clinton and Obama embody rival traditions that derive from the Chicago community organizer Saul Alinksy. Clinton wrote her undergraduate thesis on Alinksy, and Obama cut his teeth working for a Chicago organization in Alinsky's orbit, the Gamaliel Foundation. That is a remarkable point of connection between the two leading Democratic candidates.

    But Alinksy's legacy is profoundly contested. One stream, which Harry labels "mobilization," developed techniques to derive money, votes, and protesters from poor and middle class communities for the purpose of reform legislation. The mobilizers' techniques included tools such as door-to-door canvassing and mass mailings, and a rhetorical style that emphasized victimization and outrage.

    The other stream, which Harry calls "organizing," developed equally refined and sophisticated methods for helping people to talk together and form their own opinions and agendas. The organizers' techniques included (for example) one-on-one interviews, house parties, and meetings that shifted from one venue to another through the community. The rhetorical style emphasized assets, power and dignity, and unity.

    Clinton and many of her supporters at the grassroots and netroots have been deeply shaped by mobilization. (I know and recognize this culture from working in "public interest" groups in Washington on issues like campaign finance and media reform.) Obama has equally been shaped by organizing.

    Harry argues that Obama has not figured out--because no one has--how to translate the organizing approach to the huge scale and compressed timetable of national politics. Nor has he developed a strategy for overcoming profound cultural barriers:

    Obama has not addressed the tension between the implications of civic agency and the immensity of the changes that would be needed for agency to become a widespread experience for most citizens. In recent decades customer service has become the dominant motif in government and elections alike: people are far more prone to ask “What can I get?” than “How can I help solve public problems?” Feelings of powerlessness are widespread after decades in which civic institutions like unions, political parties, congregations and schools have been increasingly shaped by experts who provide services to needy clients and demanding customers.

    If I were Obama, I would probably try to win Pennsylvania--although I am not certain he needs to win there to take the nomination--by acting like a mobilizer. I would say: "Senator Clinton and I have similar goals for health care reform, but her approach will be defeated by powerful special interests, just as it was in 1993. Our campaign has enlisted millions of active supporters at the grassroots level. We will ask them to go door-to-door in their diverse communities, speaking language appropriate to where they live, making the case to their neighbors and friends for health care reform. They will inoculate us against the inevitable Harry and Louise ads of the 2009."

    This is a mobilizing approach, because it doesn't take the time to develop long-term relationships, open a broad discussion of means and ends, or develop skills and agency. But it's hard to see how you can use organizing rather than mobilizing if you're running for president or facing your first Hundred Days in the White House. If I were Obama, I'd settle for mobilizing right now, but retain an ethical vision of organizing to use in other ways at other times.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:11 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    March 13, 2008

    a loss for service

    From Nelda Brown at the National Service Learning Partnership earlier today:

    The U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass the GIVE Act (H.R. 5563), which would have updated and reauthorized the national service programs, including Learn and Serve America--the only federal program dedicated to supporting service-learning in local schools and communities.

    The vote was 277 in favor and 140 against, but passage required a two-thirds majority because of the parliamentary situation. It was tantalizingly close and a real blow to lose this bipartisan bill that would have supported positive, civic opportunities for our young people.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 12, 2008

    conservative relativism

    Moral relativism is the idea that there isn't any objective or knowable right or wrong; there are only the opinions of individuals or cultures at particular times in history. Some famous conservatives have made their names by attacking moral relativism: Bill Bennett and Allan Bloom, for instance. Many of us also object to it from the left, since it undermines claims about social justice. But conservatives and liberals sometimes make moral-relativist arguments when it suits them.

    Consider Justices Roberts and Thomas in the case of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District (2007). This is racial segregation/integration case. Defendants want to use race as a factor in assigning kids to schools, for the purpose of increasing diversity or integration. They claim that this goal is benign, unlike segregationists' use of race, which was malicious. They ask the court to allow racially conscious policies that are well-intentioned, reasonably supported by evidence, and enacted through democratic procedures.

    In response, Justice Roberts quotes Justice O'Connor from an earlier case: "The Court's emphasis on 'benign racial classifications' suggests confidence in its ability to distinguish good from harmful governmental uses of racial criteria. History should teach greater humility… . '[B]enign' carries with it no independent meaning, but reflects only acceptance of the current generation's conclusion that a politically acceptable burden, imposed on particular citizens on the basis of race, is reasonable." Justice Thomas likewise argues that allowing a school system to promote diversity through racial classification means acceding to "current societal practice and expectations." That was the approach, he argues, that led the majority in Plessy v Ferguson to uphold Jim Crow laws, which were the fad of that time. "How does one tell when a racial classification is invidious? The segregationists in Brown argued that their racial classifications were benign, not invidious. ... It is the height of arrogance for Members of this Court to assert blindly that their motives are better than others."

    These justices doubt that there is a knowable difference between benign and invidious uses of race. But surely there are moral differences between Seattle's integrationist policy of 2005 and the policy of Mississippi in 1940: differences of intent, principle, means, ends, expressive meaning, and consequences or outcomes. If we cannot tell the difference, we are moral idiots. There can be no progress, and there isn't any point in reasoning about moral issues.

    To be sure, Seattle's policy is open to critique. The conservative justices quote some politically correct passages from the school district's website to good satirical effect, and the policy could also be attacked from the left. Whether Seattle should be able to decide on its use of race, or whether that should be decided by judges, is a good and difficult question. But it's almost nihilistic to assert that "benign" has "no independent meaning" and reflects only the opinions of the "current generation." That equates Seattle's policy with that of, say, George C. Wallace when he "barred the schoolhouse door."

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:22 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 11, 2008

    equity in civic education

    Joe Kahne and I had an op-ed in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle entitled "Voter turnout spotlights educational need." We used the turnout gap between college students and non-college-educated youth as an argument for more equal civic education. This is a link to the online version. According to a friend who lives near San Francisco, "the story was the whole front page of the 'Insight' section - complete with rear view picture of tattooed legs at the voting booth."

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:38 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 10, 2008


    To bleg is to beg on your blog, your blog.
    A blog made of movies: a vlog.
    To twitter's to text folks your latest post;
    A flog is a blog by a corporate ghost.
    A blath is on math; a blawg covers law;
    A troll will pounce on your teeniest flaw.
    An attorney whose mind is a fog
    Should post his bleg on a blawg web log.
    To clog a blog, you jam it with spam:
    Just ping that thing a link to your scam.
    The blogosphere, it's got it all:
    Rolls and blolls and folderol.
    Post anything on yours--it's fine;
    Just don't forget to link to mine.
    Quotes and lies, it all is free;
    Just don't forget to link to me.

    (If you think I made any of this up, click here.)

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:13 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 6, 2008

    what the campaign is about

    I have my own preference in the Democratic primary, which is probably clear enough to regular readers. But this is a non-partisan, politically nonaligned blog that's a vehicle for my work for various independent, nonprofit, civic organizations. In that spirit, here's what I think the current Democratic primary debate is about.

    It can't be about "change" versus "experience" (vacuous categories drawn from exit polls), nor about nominating the first woman versus the first person of color. Those choices are beneath our dignity as a people. And the campaign cannot be about policy differences, because any differences between the position papers of Clinton and Obama are so subtle as to be completely lost in the legislative process. So I think the campaign is, or ought to be, a choice between two views of America and our future.

    One view says that what's wrong with America is the Bush Administration and its allies among Republicans and conservative groups. They really messed up the country through some unprecedented combination of malice and incompetence. To solve that problem, they need to be defeated, and it has to be clear that the voters have rejected them. (That way, they won't just bounce back for another round). The ideal Democratic candidate is someone who represents a restoration of the situation before 2000, and none better than the wife of the last Democratic president. Further, Senator Clinton is thought to be especially tough and skillful in the face of the politics of personal destruction, which (according to this viewpoint) is the specialty of today's Republicans.

    This view is reinforced by: examples of Republican malfeasance, polls showing George Bush's unpopularity, and evidence of Senator Clinton's tactical/managerial skills. This view is undermined by: examples of social problems and bad government under Democrats, surveys showing a public desire for reconciliation, and doubts about Senator Clinton's public appeal or political skills.

    The alternate view says that what's wrong with America started well before 2000 and implicates the whole class of political leaders, Democrats and Republicans (although not necessarily to the same degree). This whole class has lost the confidence and support of Americans because of unproductive conflict in Washington and because leaders haven't called on--or even permitted--Americans to participate in solving our problems. The best president to bring about reconciliation would be a newcomer to the national scene, someone with experience in the nonprofit world, a progressive with the ability to understand and respect conservative views and a message of empowerment. Senator Obama fits the bill.

    This second view is reinforced by: new voters entering politics to support Obama, the resonance of his message, and evidence that we could address important social problems through popular participation and broad, cross-partisan dialog. This view is undermined by: doubts that Senator Obama's appeal is broad, evidence of unbridgeable gaps within the public, or arguments that Obama is only popular because of his personal charisma, which may prove evanescent.

    That's my best effort at a reasonably neutral summary. It seems an appropriate choice to put before the public. We should reason together and decide.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:06 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    free speech for the public as a whole

    Gay marriage is currently before the California State Supreme Court as a constitutional issue. News coverage of the case has made me think that there might be three ways of addressing the issue:

    1. Allow state legislatures (or voters in referenda) to deny to gay couples all the traditional rights of marriage. I believe that policy is discriminatory and counter to the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of "equal protection." I would like to see courts intervene against this policy even if they must defy popular opinion.

    2. Require states to offer marriage licenses--by that name--to gay and straight couples. That would be full equality. But it would be deeply unpopular, and it would block public participation and deliberation about an important issue. It would substitute the expert judgment of a few judges for the political process.

    3. Require states to offer all the traditional benefits of marriage to gay and straight couples, but allow states to reserve the word "marriage" for heterosexuals. That is not completely and absolutely "equal" treatment. But this third policy has the great advantage of offering a possible compromise. Besides, I'm not keen on courts' dictating what governments must say (as opposed to what they may do).

    For one thing, we should avoid abridging the collective speech rights of the people or their legislatures. In my view, not only individual people, but also "the people," should be able to say what they want (even if it's wrong). The remedy to bad public speech is to rebut or criticize the majority's view, not to ask a court to strike it down. One can also simply ignore what the government says by, for example, calling gay people "married" even if the state won't.

    Further, I think we should be careful about striking down state language or expression that treats citizens differently, even when the differences are invidious. That opens the door to all kinds of litigation about governmental expression. Do we want courts to decide the content of textbooks in public schools, the meaning of public statues and monuments, or statements made on the job by teachers and police officers? The state can do wrong by speaking offensively, but lawsuits are not the best remedy.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:15 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    March 5, 2008

    digital media and learning

    The MacArthur Foundation ran a very competitive contest for projects that use technology to enhance learning. These are the seven winners. They are all highly creative, innovative efforts that help young people to be civic or political actors and thereby learn a range of skills. Some of the projects are elaborate and challenging simulations, but most are intended to produce real public benefits.

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

    March 4, 2008

    youth unemployment rate hits 18%

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate for people between ages 16-19 was 18 percent in January, 2008. I'm looking at a table that goes back to 1998, and this is the highest rate shown. (It was 13.9 percent in January 1998). For ages 25 and older, the unemployment rate was 3.8 percent in January, and that's below where it was for most of 2001-5. In other words, the current weak employment market is mainly a problem for our youth.

    Why don't we hear more about this on the campaign trail? Although "young people" are now voting, young voters are mostly (79%) college students or people with some college experience. The other half of young people--those with no college experience--are not part of the campaign. Therefore, we hear some talk about the cost of college and some discussion (albeit not enough) about issues that especially concern idealistic college students, such as climate change. But there is silence about the serious plight of working-class youth.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:39 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    March 3, 2008

    on "balance"

    If you run a speaker series, edit an editorial page, produce a broadcast show, or manage a journal, you give numerous people opportunities to express their views, but you also exclude many potential guests. Attracting a diversity of speakers or writers is usually desirable, although the appropriate range varies depending on the circumstances. For example, an environmental round table seems to need a narrower range of speakers than the op-ed page of a major metropolitan newspaper, which would be "unbalanced" unless some of the contributors were critics of environmentalism.

    Choosing a list of contributors is hard. If balance is a criterion, around what center point should the list be balanced? If diversity is desirable, what kind? And what views are beyond the pale? Does President Ahmadinejad belong at Columbia? Does William Kristol strengthen or weaken the New York Times editorial page? Does an environmental series need critics of the greenhouse gas theory? Does a biology series need creationists?

    For what it's worth, I would propose these principles:

    1. Never give a voice to someone you believe is flatly wrong. That's patronizing, and it renounces your own judgment. If you have been chosen to make decisions of quality, you shouldn't decide against your own assessments in the interest of balance. But ...

    2. Make sure that your definition of wrong isn't too broad. I am a critic of libertarianism and of Marxism. Both views, I believe, dismiss the potential for beneficial collective action within a system like ours. But certainly neither view is stupid. On the contrary, I do my best thinking when I have to grapple with strongly argued libertarian or Marxist ideas. Thus, if I were running a series, I would bend over backward to have those two perspectives well and skilfully represented.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:11 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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