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April 30, 2008

racial classification as an illustration of complexity in government

I've spent the last two days helping to advise the government on the design of background questions that will accompany the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a test-like survey of American kids. The background questions are about demographics and students' experiences in and out of school. They help researchers to interpret and explain trends and gaps in the academic performance of our students.

The process for designing and administering the assessment is complex. It exemplifies the moral and practical complexity of government, and makes me wonder whether governance could be simpler. (I'm not sure that it could be.)

Take the example of how to categorize people by race and ethnicity. In the 1990s, people who considered themselves "multiracial" started lobbying for a separate category on the Census and other official data-collections. There were some objections, for instance, by people who didn't want to reduce the count of African Americans because that would affect policies regarding legislative districts. Believe it or not, the Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) contracted with my colleagues and friends at the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy to decide what to do. OMB recognized that the problem was basically moral, not empirical. My colleagues recommended that respondents be allowed to check as many categories as they liked. There would be no "multiracial" category, but researchers could construct it by counting all the respondents who checked more than one box.

That became federal policy, which means that NAEP must now use a racial/ethnic identity survey that allows respondents to "check all that apply. But that leaves many questions:

♦ Who should answer the questionnaire: students, parents, or educators?
♦ When should it be answered (e.g., while taking a test, or at some other time)?
♦ Must students who have already been categorized now be recategorized according to the new scheme, or can they be "grandfathered in"?
♦ How many separate racial and ethnic categories should be offered? What should they be called (e.g., Hispanic or Latino)?
♦ How quickly must the new scheme be implemented?
♦ How should trends in educational performance be calculated and reported after any changes in methodology? For instance, it has been proposed to separate Asians from Pacific Islanders. Historically, Asians perform much better on the NAEP (on average). Separating the groups will therefore boost Asians' scores and create a bigger gap, especially between Asians and African Americans and Latinos. The impact of the change, however, will be small. Should the trends in performance be reported without comment, with a huge caveat to discourage the public from paying attention, or not reported at all?

Those questions are hard enough, but there is another layer of issues about who decides. The NAEP itself can't do anything; it's just a survey. People have to make changes. The people involved include the National Assessment Governing Board (a politically appointed lay panel); its staff; the National Center for Education Statistics (a federal bureau); the Educational Testing Service, a private contractor that has the contract to write the items; states, which have much discretion about how to administer the NAEP; and teachers and school administrators, who will not change their behavior without some mixture of incentives, penalties, persuasion, and training--most of which the federal government cannot offer. Authors of reports about NAEP also have choices to make about how to present results. As a result, hundreds or even thousands of people are involved in discussing how to implement the OMB's rule for the NAEP.

Matters would be easier if we did not collect data about race and ethnicity. But I happen to think that such data is important for reasons of justice. Matters would be simpler--but not better--if we lived in a dictatorship or a highly centralized national bureaucracy. Matters would be easier within a corporation, although the private sector would not produce consistent data, which is a primary objective of the NAEP.

These tradeoffs among efficiency, rigor, responsiveness, and participation are built into our democracy. The amount of work is discouraging, but participants seem to be motivated by ethical principles and are sophisticated about research. Is this kind of system as good as it could be?

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"social citizens"

Here is Allison Fine's important new paper for the Case Foundation on young citizens and the Internet. It's an excellent summary. As I read the first 50 pages, which are mostly celebratory, I kept asking questions about the drawbacks or limits of online engagement. But then Allison asks what I consider the three main questions: Who doesn't use the online media for political/social purposes? Do "bubble" cultures inevitably form online because it's a medium of choice? Can online activism link effectively to government and policymaking? I might add a fourth question: Are young online citizens right to feel "a higher degree of confidence in corporations than in government institutions"? They "are drawn to brands with strong socially responsible cultures, such as Patagonia, Nau,Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Ben & Jerry’s." But is that naive?

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April 29, 2008

the Joseph Levine memorial

The memorial celebration for Dad was wonderfully life affirming. All the speakers gave thoughtful, carefully crafted speeches and collectively recalled most aspects of his life, from his skillful and dedicated parenting to his civic participation to his sense of humor. Below are two of his grandchildren and the venue, Syracuse University's stately Hendricks Chapel. It was a fitting scene in which to recall a man who was one of the world's experts on neoclassicism. Since he was highly appreciative of Christian cultures and a great fan of churches, the Methodist origins of the chapel did not concern me in the slightest. Still, I was glad to quote the Hebrew words that must have been spoken over his ancestors for a thousand years or more: Olav HaShalom, may he rest in peace, and may his name be a blessing for all who knew him.

Click to listen to the service.

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April 28, 2008

three different ways of thinking about the value of nature

These are three conflicting or rival positions:

1. People value nature, and the best measure of how much they value it is how much they would be willing to pay for it. Actual market prices may not reflect real value because of various flaws in existing markets. For example, if you find an old forest that no one owns, chop it down, and burn the wood for fuel, all that activity counts as profit. You don't have to deduct the loss of an asset or the damage to the atmosphere. However, it would be possible to alter the actual price of forest wood by changing laws and accounting rules. Or at least we could accurately estimate what its price should be. The real value of nature is how much human beings would be willing to pay for it once we account for market failures.

2. Nature has value regardless of whether people are willing to pay for it. Perhaps nature's value arises because God made it, called it "good," and assigned it to us as His custodians. Or perhaps nature has value for reasons that are not theistic but do sound religious. Emerson:

The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. ... The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.

Emerson's view is sharply different from #1 because he believes that his fellow men do not value nature as they should. "To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. ..." Thus prices do not reflect nature's value.

If you're an economist or a scientist, you may not personally feel that God is present in nature or that nature is ineffably precious. Regardless, you can respect your fellow citizens who hold those feelings. One version of scientific positivism says that there are (a) testable facts about nature and (b) opinions about nature as a whole. The latter are respectable but not provable. They are manifestations of faith, neither vindicated nor invalidated by science. This sounds like the early Wittgenstein.

3. Nature has value irrespective of price: real value that may or may not be recognized by people at any given moment. But this value does not derive from a metaphysical premise about nature as a whole, e.g., that God made the world. We can make value judgments about particular parts of nature, not all of which have equal value. We can change other people's evaluations of nature by providing valid reasons.

Yosemite is more precious than your average valley. How do we substantiate such a claim? Not by citing a foundational, metaphysical belief, but by describing Yosemite itself. Careful, appreciative descriptions and explanations of natural objects are valid arguments for their value, just as excellent interpretations of Shakespeare's plays are valid arguments for the excellence of those works.

This view rejects a sharp distinction between facts and values. "Thick descriptions" are inextricably descriptive and evaluative. This view also rejects the metaphor of foundations, according to which a value-judgment must rest on some deeper and broader foundation of belief. Why should an argument about value be like the floor of a building, which is no good unless it sits on something else? It may be sufficient on its own. (This all sounds like the later Wittgenstein.)

This third position contrasts with Emerson's. He says:

Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood.

This third view says, pace Emerson, that nature varies in quality. Tigers are more magnificent than roaches. A good way to make such distinctions is indeed to "extort [the] secrets" of nature. When we understand an organism better--including its functioning, its origins, and its place in the larger environment--we often appreciate it more, and rightly so. The degree to which our understanding increases our appreciation depends on the actual quality of the particular object under study.

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April 25, 2008

memorial service for Joe Levine

We're on our way to Syracuse today so that we can attend my Dad's memorial service at Syracuse University's Hendrick's Chapel on Saturday afternoon at 3. The speakers include the following good friends:

♦ Dean Cathryn R. Newton, College of Arts and Sciences, Syracuse
♦ Lucy Freeman Sandler, Helen Gould Sheppard Professor of Art History, NYU
♦ Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Professor of History, Syracuse
♦ Ralph Ketcham, Professor of History Emeritus, Syracuse
♦ Gordon J. Schochet, Professor of Political Science, Rutgers
♦ Craige B. Champion, Chair, Department of History, Syracuse
♦ J. Paul Hunter, Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Professor of English Emeritus, University of Chicago
♦ Herbert Finkelstein, Ossining, NY
♦ Jean Stinchcombe, Syracuse, NY

The speakers were invited because of personal friendships, but the range of their disciplines is meaningful. Dad's work in intellectual and cultural history was directly relevant to, and widely read in, the fields of English, art history, and political theory.

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April 24, 2008

an open Embassy

The Swedish Embassy in Washington is a gift to our city. It's a Nordic modernist building right on the Potomac, with a public esplanade that helps form a continuous riverfront walkway. The building itself is made largely of glass and has no evident security at its doors. It symbolizes transparency and accessibility. One day, my 8-year-old, some family friends, and I visited for a free circus show on the lawn. Inside was a highly educational and interactive kids' science exhibition, free of charge and open for wandering in and out. Downstairs was a very serious exhibition about child trafficking, with advice on how you can get involved in addressing the problem. I love the combination of entertainment, instruction, and social activism.

I realize that the United States cannot play the same role as Sweden plays in today's world. If we built a glass-walled embassy in the middle of a foreign city and invited people to stroll through, it would probably be blown to bits. Still, we have tilted awfully far in the opposite direction, our embassies and cultural facilities surrounded by blast walls and Marines. The Swedish gift to DC is at least a reminder of what we have lost.

PS I wanted to illustrate this contrast by showing the US Embassy in Stockholm, because I suspected it might be a rather forbidding structure like those in London and Moscow. But it was built at a time of greater confidence and openness, in 1954. The Minnesota-based architect was Ralph Rapson. It's not my favorite kind of building--rather isolated from the city's fabric, designed to be reached by car, and set in a suburban lot. But those were the ideals of the time--not least in Scandinavia--and it was meant to look open and cheerful.

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April 23, 2008

an unsolicited, but welcome, endorsement

"CIRCLE is a critical resource for groups like the Hip Hop Caucus and others who are trying to engage young people in the political process. Research directs our strategy for our work in the community, and the team at CIRCLE is always willing to provide us with the data and analysis that we need in order to have real impact and to reach the young people who are the least civically engaged."– Rev Lennox Yearwood, Jr. President, Hip Hop Caucus

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April 22, 2008

against legalizing prostitution

The Eliot Spitzer fiasco generated some blog posts (which I neglected to bookmark) arguing that prostitution should be legal. The bloggers I read acknowledged that Governor Spitzer should be liable for breaking the law, but they argued that the law was wrong. Their premise was libertarian: private voluntary behavior should not be banned by the state. One can rebut that position without rejecting its libertarian premise, by noting that many or most prostitutes are actually coerced. In the real world, incest, rape, violence, and human trafficking seem to be inextricably linked to prostitution. But that fact will only convince libertarians if the link really is "inextricable." If some prostitution is voluntary, then it should be legal, according to libertarian reasoning.

Which I reject. Libertarians are right to prize human freedom and to protect a private realm against the state; but issues like prostitution show the limits of libertarian reasoning. We are deeply affected by the prevailing and official answers to these questions: What is appropriate sexual behavior? What can (and cannot) be bought and sold? Our own private, voluntary behavior takes on very different meanings and significance depending on how these questions are answered. Answers vary dramatically among cultures and over time. Deciding how to answer them is a core purpose of democracy.

This position can make liberals uncomfortable because of its implications for other issues, such as gay marriage. One of the leading arguments in favor is that adults should be allowed to do what they like, and the fact that two men or two women decide to marry doesn't affect heterosexuals. Actually, I think gay marriage does affect heterosexual marriage by subtly altering its social definition and purpose. I happen to think that the change is positive. It underlines the principle that marriage is a voluntary, permanent commitment (which is clearly appropriate for gays as well as for straight people). Other moral principles also favor gay marriage, including equal respect and, indeed, personal freedom. But for me, personal freedom does not trump all other considerations.

By the way, because prostitution seems to be so closely linked to incest, rape, and violent coercion, I think the best policy would be very strict penalties against soliciting. It is buying, rather than selling, sex that seems most morally odious.

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April 21, 2008

what I'd like Europeans to know about us

I try not to be thin-skinned about European anti-Americanism. They have legitimate complaints, and besides, we're the great power and ought to be able to handle criticism. People around the world hold other negative stereotypes (for instance, against Islam and against Africa) that are much more disturbing to me than the bad opinions many Europeans currently hold of the USA. But a stereotype that's wrong can lead to false conclusions. Thus, in the interest of their own clarity and judgment, I would want Europeans to understand a few points about us:

1. Popular culture portrays the United States in fictional forms. This popular culture is a global phenomenon; it feeds international demand, using international financial investment. It happens to be headquartered Los Angeles and New York, much as the production of software is concentrated in Silicon Valley and Seattle. The concentration of production could be explained in economic terms without assuming that American culture is especially prone to mass production. On the contrary, mass popular culture is in tension with all kinds of indigenous, amateur, classical, academic, and local cultures, including the ones that emerge from American communities. Lots of Americans are as offended by Hollywood's fictions as Italians and Germans are, and for similar reasons.

2. We are not as culturally new or young as Europeans sometimes assume. To be sure, Las Vegas sprang out of the desert and borrowed all its cultural icons from the old world, in tacky versions. But most Americans don't live in Vegas. Cities like Philadelphia and New York basically developed their current shapes and characters during the nineteenth century, growing from substantial eighteenth-century cities. Their streets and buildings are not, on average, much newer than the buildings of Paris or Vienna. They are probably considerably older than the buildings of Berlin. And often our political institutions are much older than our buildings. The federal Constitution is more than two centuries old, and local institutions can be older. I am typing this blog in a county that was chartered in 1696, and whose current government derives from that charter.

3. We are more culturally and ethnically diverse than many Europeans seem to realize. I met a kid in England a few years ago who assumed that my children had never tried Asian food before, because we were Americans, and Americans eat burgers and fries. I think he would be rather startled to find himself in LA, for instance, where 10 percent of the population is Asian, 58 percent speak a language other than English at home, and 41 percent were born in a different country.

4. We have a federal system of government, so national leaders are less powerful and representative than they from seem abroad. We didn't hire George W. Bush to run our education system, for example. He has executive control over only about 7% of the national education budget. The kind of hard-edged, militaristic conservatism that he represents would never get him elected to the governor's office in most of our states.

5. Many of the awful social phenomena that make headlines in America--from school shootings to the obesity epidemic--are not fundamentally American. In my view, they are symptoms of modernity and therefore they inevitably appear in other countries that have similar economic and social structures. These phenomena seem to be American inventions and exports simply because we have a large population and an advanced economy. Thus the odds are high that the problems will hit us first. But it is an analytical mistake to identify them with American culture.

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April 18, 2008

how presidential campaigns are changing

Ronald Brownstein writes in the National Journal, "In scope and sweep, tactics and scale, the marathon struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton has triggered such a vast evolutionary leap in the way candidates pursue the presidency that it is likely to be remembered as the first true 21st-century campaign."

The visible differences include dramatically increased spending (Obama has already raised more money than George W. Bush raised in his whole reelection campaign); a huge number of contributors (1.3 million people have given to Obama); an immense number of "contacts" between campaigns and voters in various settings (e.g., 37 million viewers have watched particular videos on YouTube); lots of communication among voters; and rapidly rising turnout.

You now need a lot more money, contacts, and votes to win. We don't yet know whether this new obstacle course will produce better or worse presidents than the old systems.

Before 1960, you had to get the support of political organizations that could field large numbers of paid workers and volunteers, who would carry your message face-to-face and door-to-door. The unions and political parties that could produce millions of campaign workers were hierarchical and discriminatory. On the other hand, they had real social contracts with their members. Candidates who rose to the top had paid their dues in ways that were sometimes unsavory (lots of back-scratching) and sometimes quite valuable. They had proven that they were trustworthy.

From 1960-2000, it was crucial to have a skillful political consultant who was responsible for fundraising, polling, and advertising. People like Rove and Carville were very powerful. The candidate also had to be able to raise money from rich people and perform well in debates (although I'm not sure what the research says about the impact of debate performance).

Now the candidate has to draw support from an enormous number of volunteers and contributors, which is an entirely different matter. Reporters often ask me why Obama is using the Internet more effectively than other presidential candidates. I think that's the wrong question. Obama isn't using technology much differently from other candidates, but his supporters are using online tools in greater numbers (he has 776,000 Facebook "friends" right now) and sometimes with more skill than the supporters of the other candidates.

The big story is a shift of power away from campaign apparatus to independent citizens. Brownstein writes, "[Obama's] aides insist that he has emerged not because they have mastered new technology but because he has inspired so many people." Part of the reason is that Obama and his lead organizers have entrusted volunteers with important roles. For example, they give their supporters direct access to their contact lists. But surely the main reason has to do with a message and style that happens to appeal to a large group of engaged--or potentially engaged--citizens. Perhaps the deepest question is what kinds of messages have that kind of appeal. Obama's particular combination of style and ideology is probably not the only one that will draw mass support in the new era of campaigning. In fact, the much more modest boom for Ron Paul suggests that candidates may be able to break in from various points across the political spectrum, including its edges.

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April 17, 2008

branding citizenship

This morning, I guest-taught a class of college students who are in Washington, DC for the semester. Without having planned it in advance, I asked them what they thought about the following words or phrases that might be used to promote civic participation:

♦ citizenship
♦ responsible citizenship
♦ service
♦ voluntary service
♦ public service
♦ networking for change
♦ community organizing
♦ activism
♦ political activism
♦ social entrepreneurship
♦ civic engagement

We can't generalize from this group, and they weren't in agreement. There was a lot of positive feeling about "social entrepreneurship." They were concerned that "networking for change" was too easy--it meant adding a link on FaceBook but not doing anything. Some defended "civic engagement" even though I suspect it sounds bland. (It's in the title of my own organization.) "Service" sounded conservative to this relatively liberal group, and they thought "activism" sounded too liberal to attract their peers.

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April 16, 2008

policies for youth civic engagement

Jim Youniss (a developmental psychologist from Catholic University) and I are editing a volume of essays on public policies that would help young Americans develop into active and responsible citizens. The various chapters defend policies for schools, political parties, local governments, and other institutions. We just received word that Vanderbilt University Press will publish the book, which means that it should be in bookstores--as they say--this winter. We could use a suggestion for a title. "Policies for Civic Education," the placeholder title, isn't very exciting and it probably suggests a narrow focus on schools.

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April 15, 2008

imagining a new college

This is part of a largely abandoned section of my home town of Syracuse, NY. It's very close to downtown and there are some lovely Victorian houses in the neighborhood, mostly boarded up today. A lot of it consists of empty parking lots where once there were factories. I'm surprised that this aerial shot makes it look so green. Most of the green areas must be overgrown but abandoned lots.

Imagine if a government or private donor had the resources to found a new college or university. Such an institution could be designed to create a vibrant new urban neighborhood in a place like this--enriched by students and faculty but not reserved for them alone. To create such a community, planners should harness and direct market energies, and thereby magnify the impact of their investment.

Here's one way to do this: Obtain most or all of the property, perhaps with some use of eminent domain. Select some non-contiguous blocks in which to build campus buildings. Each block could be designed by a different architect in order to promote variety. At the same time, each block would share some common features. They would all provide a mix of student residences, some apartments for faculty and staff, spaces for eating and studying, and classrooms. I like to imagine all these blocks being built around central courts, and each one might have a tower to create a dramatic skyline.

Then the remaining blocks could be sold or leased to developers. The college or university could use its market leverage to select proposals that contributed variety and quality of design. It could even impose unusual zoning rules, such as requiring developers to build a public inner courtyard in each block. If every courtyard opened to the street in the middle of every block, pedestrians could cross the neighborhood from court to court while traffic passed on the streets.

I'd keep the traditional street plan and retain any historic buildings and major trees. If new streets had to be laid out, I would make them narrow in order to concentrate foot traffic, slow cars, and generate a feeling of energy.

I suppose there are two basic models for universities, with various hybrids and exceptions. One is a park-like campus with the buildings set on lawns and connected by paths or private roads. The other is an urban neighborhood with academic buildings and student residences scattered throughout--the standard European model, which we also see at Boston University, the New School, and some other American institutions. I do not prefer the European model overall; both can be nice. I do think that integrating a new university into an urban neighborhood would be a powerful way to spur economic development and turn abandoned property into valuable real estate.

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April 14, 2008

me on the tube

Several film crews are going around interviewing people about citizenship or civic engagement. Last week, I was filmed for Song of a Citizen, which is still in production. The following clip is from iCitizen Forum, which is produced by Colonial Williamsburg.

My 8-year-old likes it but says that people will be surprised. When they hear the intro, she says, "they will expect an old guy with glasses."

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April 11, 2008

a national conversation on race?

Senator Obama said in a major speech, "race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now." The New York Times columnist Bill Kristol presumed that this comment would lead to a national discussion similar to the one that Bill Clinton formally launched in 1997, complete with op-eds, academic panels, and blue-ribbon commissions. Kristol hated the idea. "With respect to having a national conversation on race, my recommendation is: Let's not, and say we did."

I wouldn't be nearly as snarky as Kristol was about that idea. However, I find it interesting that two of our most experienced and thoughtful organizers of public discussions have separately argued against having a formal dialogue on the topic of "race."

Rich Harwood wrote, "I do not believe a so-called 'national conversation' on race is the way to go, if that means a repeat of former President Clinton's effort on this matter. Remember the national commission he appointed, which soon became embroiled in endless issues about its focus? That initiative had all the negative trappings of a high-falutin' blue-ribbon panel: formal hearings with far more posturing than conversation. After a much ballyhooed launch, the commission landed with a thud."

Rich offers six good pieces of advice regarding interracial dialogues, including this one: "It is important to actually do something together (the size and scope of the action does not matter as much as the action itself), because conversation alone cannot create the bonds of trust and relationships that we need. Deeper connections will emerge only by rubbing shoulders and finding solutions together to common challenges, demonstrating to ourselves and others that progress is possible."

Martha McCoy, the executive director of Everyday Democracy, has organized many Study Circles in racially divided communities. She provides a great post about how to make those conversations work. Like Harwood (but unlike Kristol), she thinks that we need to talk about racial tensions and about disparities in social advantages by race. But we need to talk in contexts where people can raise conflicts of interest and values, work through their differences, and accomplish something together. In other words, the issue cannot be reduced to our attitudes about race (why we "pre-judge and fear one another"), but must encompass the ways our communities and institutions are structured. In Study Circles, participants have patiently and carefully addressed gaps and disparities in ways that have led to real change.

So we need local conversations with racial differences very much on the table. We also need national conversations or deliberations about concrete policy options in various domains. It would be great, for example, for Congress to fund national public discussions about climate change and agree to hold hearings on the report that citizens wrote deliberatively.

But I'm not at all convinced that a formal, national discussion of "race" would be focused enough to produce tangible change. If it led nowhere, it would be worse than nothing at all.

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April 10, 2008

guest blogger: Diana Hess

Diana Hess is a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the leading expert on all the complex issues that arise when controversial issues are discussed in classrooms. I asked her to contribute an essay for this blog about a fascinating, moving, but ethically troubling video recently shot in a Bronx high school. She writes:

Last week I received an e-mail from Michelle Obama urging me to view a video of high school students in Jackson Shafer’s class at the Bronx High School for Performing Arts and Stagecraft. I watched it immediately because I am interested in hearing what high school students have to say about the campaign and the candidates--and I was so fascinated that I then watched it again. I forwarded it to some colleagues in civic education with this message: "First, what is it about Obama that these kids find so inspiring--why is he able to tap into this hopefulness when others are not? Second, what would it be like to be a Clinton or McCain supporter in this classroom--is this teacher just wisely making use of a teachable moment, or is he sending the message that the election is a question for which there is a right answer? Third, how much fun it would be to be teaching these kids!"

The next day I read a number of newspaper articles about the controversy that the video sparked. It seems that there is a New York City Board of Education policy that prohibits using students for partisan or promotional purposes. Because the video was on the official campaign website it gave the impression that the students (and perhaps the teacher and even the school) were officially supporting Senator Obama's candidacy. Moreover, in the same message from Michelle Obama, there was a request for donations, which made it appear that the students were being used to raise money, a fact that Mr. Shafer reported not knowing about in advance. There is talk of putting an official letter of reprimand in the principal’s personnel file. I find it astonishing that the Obama campaign would send a staff member into a public high school to shoot video of minors without obtaining required permission (which, it seems clear, would have been impossible to obtain given the policy). That being said, the video does provide an interesting snapshot of how some young people are responding to Senator Obama's campaign, and also raises hard questions about how a teacher can tap into students' enthusiasm for a political candidate without creating an environment that compromises democratic principles.

Although newspaper articles about the video report that Mr. Shafer is an Obama supporter, the video does not show him saying anything explicit about his own political preference. He does show his students the video of the now famous speech about race relations in the US, and the students develop and deliver personal "Yes We Can" speeches during class time, speeches that I found incredibly interesting, moving, and hopeful. One of the students reported talking with Mr. Shafer before school started on days following a primary about how Obama had fared.

It is always dangerous to make judgments about what is happening in a classroom without having a more complete picture--we do not know whether the students came up with the idea to create "Yes We Can" speeches or whether that was an assignment that Mr. Shafer created. And we do not know if Mr. Shafer has provided opportunities for students who do not support Senator Obama’s candidacy to voice their opinions. We do not even know what subject this class focuses on--is it social studies? English? But let's imagine for the sake of argument that the 13 minute video is representative of what is happening in the class writ large. That being the case, what judgments could we make about what is going on here?

First, Mr. Shafer seems like an effective and committed teacher who is willing to ask his students to discuss the very issues of race and how it impacts their lives that we know many teachers shy away from. One student reported that after talking about racism in the class, she began chastising her friends for using racial epithets in conversation--and it seemed to be working. Her friends now say "dude" instead of using epithets. While I have heard from a number of high school teachers that this primary has sparked a level of engagement from the students that they have not seen in past presidential primary election seasons, the students in Mr. Shafer’s class seem exceptionally engaged generally--and remarkably engaged in the elections specifically. The primary is causing them to pay attention to the news. As one student commented, "I never knew what channel CNN was, now I know all the channels."

Second, the students who speak in the video seem to assume that their opinions about Senator Obama are shared by all of their classmates. As an Obama supporter myself, the partisan part of me was happy to witness how his campaign is touching these young people. But as a teacher, I am of two minds about whether what is happening in this classroom should be lauded or criticized. Providing the students an opportunity to talk about race and how it impacts their lives is clearly important and rare. If Mr. Shafer is using Senator Obama's campaign as a lever to promote these conversations, then it may simply be the case of a teacher knowing his students well enough that he can tap into their interests to provoke important learning.

On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that all the students in the class are Obama supporters. Keep in mind that Senator Clinton won the New York primary, and even though she lost the youth vote overall, there were still substantial numbers of young people who supported her then and most likely still do now. It is also likely that some students in the school support Senator McCain, or don't know which candidate they support yet. And even if all the students in the class support Senator Obama, do we really want public high school classrooms to turn into de facto campaign events? I think not-- because the presidential campaign is actually one of many mega controversial issues--and like other such issues, our job as teachers is to promote the consideration of multiple and competing perspectives.

It is not always clear the best way to accomplish this goal. In some instances, teachers may have to give more weight to a particular perspective to counterbalance the majority in order to ensure that controversial issues do not turn into questions for which students think there is only one answer. And teachers need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater--which could happen if students are not allowed to voice their genuine and authentic perspectives on issues in the interest of "balance."

It is hard to tell from this video whether Mr. Shafer is being sufficiently attentive to the fact that the campaign should be treated as a controversial issue. But if attention is not being afforded the other candidates, and if Senator Obama is put forward as an icon instead of a candidate, then not only has a line been crossed, but an opportunity has been lost. For Mr. Shafer appears to be a strong teacher who has the respect of his students, and the students are amazing--sharp, engaged, spirited, and fun. The class has loads of diversity, including racial, ethnic, linguistic, and gender. And my guess is that there is lots of ideological diversity in the class as well. Thus, we have all the ingredients for exceptionally high quality democratic education: a strong teacher, engaged students, and diversity. Engaging students in deliberation about highly controversial issues, like the presidential campaign, in such an environment is an opportunity that is too powerful to waste.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:04 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 9, 2008

politics in extraordinary circumstances

'Tis the season for dissertation defenses, apparently, and I'm participating in two over the next 48 hours. One concerns abortion escorts, those people who voluntarily walk women into abortion clinics that are surrounded by anti-abortion protesters. The other is a history of congressional pages, those boys (and now also girls) who work for the House and Senate while they attend a special school. The page program is formal and rather prestigious. The escorts are at the opposite extreme: they do not even have an organization, let alone an official place inside the US Capitol. Yet both groups represent particularly intense and demanding forms of "citizenship."

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April 8, 2008

John the Baptist, raw and cooked

It occurs to me that a structuralist anthropologist could make hay out of Matthew 3:4 ("And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.")

As I understand it--barely--the distinction between raw and cooked is one of the central oppositions that creates the structure of any culture, according to the pioneering anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. He notes that human beings are capable of eating a very wide range of things either raw or cooked. What is considered edible varies enormously by culture. But the distinctions of raw/cooked and edible/inedible always exist and create a whole set of rules and norms by which people live. The category of the raw is always associated with the natural and often with the dangerous or forbidden. The cooked is associated with culture and with fitness for human consumption. Thus people are never to be cooked. In some cultures, pigs can be cooked; in others, not. In some cultures, you must cook fish to make it edible; in others, it can be eaten raw (but elaborately prepared). The cook is always a borderline or "liminal" figure who selects what to prepare and thus transforms it from a raw to an edible state. We then take the food into our bodies and make the natural into the human.

So what of John the Baptist? He is a wonderfully liminal figure, bridging the Old Testament and the New. Catholics see him as a Hebrew prophet who dies before the Crucifixion and can never take communion (which is eating the body of Christ); yet he recognizes Jesus as savior. He comes from civilization but wanders in the desert alone like a beast. The two items that he eats are especially interesting from a Levi-Straussian perspective. Honey is a carefully prepared ingredient, but it is made by bees in their elaborate society, not by humans in ours. We don't heat it to prepare it for our consumption, but eat it "raw." And locusts are generally considered inedible, although John subsists on them. He ends up with his head on a plate, but served raw at Salome's table. Most interestingly of all, John's main function is to pour water on Jesus' head to transform him and begin the new dispensation. That sounds a lot like cooking.

When a particular story happens to fit a theory perfectly, we cannot conclude that the theory is right. The story of Paolo and Francesca is a beautiful fit for Jacques Derrida's idea of logocentrism, but that doesn't vindicate Derrida. It is, however, satisfying to find a perfect illustration of a major theory, even one so out of fashion as structuralism.

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April 7, 2008

hyper-local news

Since 2005, I've served on the advisory board of the New Voices project, which supports hyper-local news. Last Friday, we met to choose a third round of grantees. The formats that we support include websites, wikis, and radio (among others). The topics range from general-interest news in small communities to specialized subjects such as climate change in Vermont. The news is always produced by people who could be called "citizens," meaning that they aren't professional journalists, government officials, or media companies--although these can be involved in various ways. Our small grants have seeded some impressive projects. For example:

♦ The Twin Cities Daily Planet in Minneapolis/St Paul (MN) is a whole newspaper-like website. Original material produced by citizens is combined with articles selected from the local professional media. It's got lots of updated content and substantial amounts of advertising revenue. It's also an association that provides training and social networks for citizen journalists.

The Forum in Deerfield, CT, came online just as the town ended its old tradition of town-meeting government. It gets 37 new citizen-generated articles per week, in a town of 4,000 residents. There's lots of online discussion. Advertising revenue is quite robust.

Vermont Climate Witness is a site where citizens can post and discuss evidence of climate change at the state level. Its central feature is a map onto which citizens can add all kinds of content.

NewCastle NOW is a community newspaper for the bedroom community of Chappaqua, NY that has 57 contributors and covers all its costs through advertising. Chappaqua, home of the Clintons, has a wealthy and highly educated population. Still, I think the grant was a great idea because the Chappaqua team is figuring out all kinds of practical strategies and tools that can be easily imitated elsewhere.

♦ Appalshop in the Kentucky Mountains trains local citizens as a Community Correspondents Corps. They produce radio segments that are broadcast on local public radio. The segments are also collected on a website and available as podcasts.

These projects are typical of a broader range of civic experimentation in America today. They are nonpartisan and they welcome diverse perspectives, yet they are not rigorously neutral and detached. They support deliberation combined with creativity and action. They are unaffiliated with major institutions such as governments, unions, and religious denominations, but loyal to particular communities. They try to develop skills and confidence even as they produce useful products on deadline. They deliberately combine politics and issues, culture and entertainment, and social networks. They are entrepreneurial and eager to mix for-profit with non-profit funding.

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April 4, 2008

philosophy of the middleground

1. Should the government require national service?

That's a question that modern political philosophers are primed and ready to address. It concerns the proper power of the state and the responsibilities of its citizens. Libertarians, communitarians, civic republicans, and others have fundamental principles that they can easily apply to this question. I call it a "background" issue because it deals with the fundamental rights and duties that define a whole society. It's like a question about whether everyone has a right to health care or free speech, or whether the government may compel taxation. These "background" issues are central to modern political theory.

2. Should I enlist in the military or join a civilian service program such as CityYear?

This is also a topic that political philosophers are equipped to address. It raises fundamental ethical questions about the use of force, membership in hierarchical organizations, duties to the community, and the shape of a good life. Pacifists, communitarians, various kinds of virtue-ethicists, pluralists, and others have fundamental principles that apply pretty directly to this question. I call it a "foreground" issue because it deals with a matter very close to the individual--a personal choice. It is like questions about whether to marry, have an abortion, or join a church. Such foreground issues are central to modern ethics.

3. What would a good service program be like and how could we make such a program come into being?

This is the kind of question that modern philosophers are not very good at addressing. One cannot easily answer it by applying the fundamental intuitions that drive mainstream theories of ethics and political theory. There isn't necessarily a libertarian or communitarian answer.

As a result, the question tends to be addressed in thoroughly empirical, administrative, or tactical ways. The empirical issue is what consequences result from various types of service programs. The administrative issue is what rules or processes increase the probability that the program will be run well. And the tactical issue is how one can build and sustain political support for the program.

All these questions have crucial moral dimensions. It's not enough to know whether a given program causes a particular outcome (such as higher incomes, or more civic duty). We must also decide whether those outcomes are good, whether they are distributed fairly, whether any harms to others are worthwhile, and what means for deriving these consequences are acceptable. Further, it's not enough to understand how to run or structure a good program. We must also decide what forms of governance or administration are ethical. (Mussolini made the trains run on time, but that was not an adequate defense of fascism). Finally, it's not enough to know that a given argument or "message" would produce political support for a program. We must also decide which forms of argument are ethically acceptable.

Thus it's a shame that philosophers tend to cede the "middleground" to social scientists, administrators, and tacticians. As a result, no one raises the serious, complex moral issues that arise when one thinks about political tactics, the design of programs, and their administration. This is not only bad for policy and public discourse; it is also bad for philosophy. Theories are impoverished when they miss the middleground. For example, it would be a decisive argument against requiring national service if it were impossible to build and sustain a good service program. So any argument for national service that depends entirely on first principles is a lousy argument. It needs its middleground.

Some areas of philosophy have developed a middleground and thereby not only served public purposes but also enriched the discipline. Medical ethics is the best example. It's no longer restricted to matters of individual ethics (e.g., should a physician conduct an abortion?) or matters of basic structure (e.g., is there a right to life?), but also to matters of administration, politics, and program design. Medical ethicists work in hospitals, advise commissions, and review policies. Harry Brighouse has argued that the philosophy of education should follow the same model. I would generalize and say that across the whole range of policy and social questions, it is worth asking moral questions not only about basic rights and individual behavior, but also about institutional arrangements and political tactics.

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April 3, 2008

for a better america

For a Better America is a student-generated forum for proposing and discussing ideas and connecting to peers. The young organizers cite lots of good, current writing on democracy and civil society and have built an elaborate platform for discussion and action. I like the way such ideas as "produce more environmentally friendly packaging materials" seem to ascend the rankings and get the most attention, whereas the lowest approval ratings go to "elect Mike Huckabee president," "elect Rudy Giuliani president," and "elect Hillary Clinton president." Evidently, For a Better America is about what we can do.

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April 2, 2008

leadership according to the Girl Scout Research Institute survey

The Girl Scouts have released a major survey of about 4,000 girls and boys (ages 8-17), focusing on their attitudes toward leadership. In the Washington Post, Laura Sessions Stepp summarized the report thus: "A new nationwide survey of girls and boys found that a majority of children and youths in the United States have little or no interest with achieving leadership roles when they become adults, ranking 'being a leader' behind other goals such as 'fitting in,' 'making a lot of money' and 'helping animals or the environment.'" She quoted me: "'The millennial generation has ambivalent, even negative, feelings about formal leadership,' said Peter Levine, director of a nonpartisan research center at the University of Maryland that studies young people and civic involvement. 'They prefer horizontal leadership in which everyone's a leader.'"

I will be on Minnesota Public Radio today from 10-11 Central Time discussing the report. I have read the full document this morning, and these are some points I notice:

  • Kids are much more likely to say, "A leader is someone who brings people together to get things done"--not "A leader is someone who is in charge of other people and makes decisions that affect them."
  • Being a leader ranks low on the list of goals. This may be partly because of ethical doubts about command-and-control versions of "leadership." But it's partly because young people put their own development first. Staying free of drugs and alcohol, doing well academically, and getting into college rank far above being a leader and helping your community. On the bright side, kids say that they rank fitting in, being popular, and being famous very low.
  • Given a long list of activities that show responsibility or leadership, girls are more involved in almost all ways than boys are--sports being the exception. This result is perfectly consistent with what we know about extracurricular participation in middle school and high school.
  • African American and Latino kids are more likely than Whites to see themselves as leaders, to enjoy leadership, and to want to be leaders. This comes as no surprise, since African American children (especially) are more engaged in problem-solving and "giving back" to their communities than Whites are.
  • The importance of "helping others" declines over the age range 8 to 17, but it falls much more for boys than for girls.
  • Girls and boys alike cite their mothers as by far the biggest influence on their leadership aspirations. This is consistent with other research showing that today's youth are close to their parents and especially their mothers. When I speak to groups of kids, I often ask them to raise their hands if they have a living hero. Many hands go up. I then ask them to put their hands down if their hero is their Mom. Most hands go down.
  • The differences in attitudes between girls and boys are quite modest. I suspect the interesting differences are by age, not gender. However, this survey does not include adults, so we cannot compare generations.
  • Posted by peterlevine at 9:38 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    April 1, 2008

    Agent of Democracy

    The Kettering Foundation Press has just published a new book entitled Agent of Democracy: Higher Education and the HEX Journey. The editors are my friends David W. Brown and Deborah Witte. (The word HEX in the title refers to the High Education Exchange, a journal long published by Kettering.)

    I have a chapter about how, after the academy moved away from sixties-style radicalism and social critique, a new generation of scholars developed ways of engaging with politics and social issues that were more "pragmatic, open-ended, and solicitous of institutions, of existing communities, of civic culture, and of public deliberation." Mary Stanley responds with a strong critique, arguing that the shift I celebrate is really a retreat in the face of corporate domination.

    Claire Snyder provides a chapter on the history of American colleges and universities in relation to democracy. Harry Boyte argues for "public work," his conceptualization of the citizen's central roles in democracy. Adam Weinberg, dean at Colgate, explains how public work was institutionalized at his college. Scott Peters focuses on the land-grant system and its powerful heritage of democratic work. Jeremy Cohen brings civil liberties and constitutional rights into the discussion. Noelle McAfee provides a somewhat different theoretical frame from Harry Boyte's--more grounded in deliberation and the public sphere. And then Douglas Challenger describes how deliberative democracy has been institutionalized at Franklin Pierce College.

    Since I'm in the book, it would be unseemly to plug it, but it is a nicely diverse conversation about the role of colleges and universities in our democracy.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:35 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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