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June 30, 2008

the Public Education Network (PEN) and its civic index

I believe that communities educate children, not just schools; and it is a false hope that we can achieve dramatically better results by tinkering with the structure of schools: their governance, funding, incentives, and regulations. Most experiments that focus narrowly on schools, from Reading First to privatization in Philadelphia, seem to fail. PEN, the Public Education Network, is a great leader in promoting this idea:

While there is a broad public understanding about the important role that schools play---teaching, learning, curriculum development, assessment, discipline, student development---few individuals in communities understand their civic role, whether they be parents, or adults without children in school, in contributing to quality public education for all students.

Communities provide the social, financial, and political capital that is crucial to school and student success. Citizens vote for elected leaders, pay taxes that fund schools, and also participate in powerful social networks that shape how schools and communities address the educational and developmental needs of young people. There is an inextricable link between high achieving schools and the community actions that support these schools. Without public action, there can be no quality public schools.

With a small assist from CIRCLE, PEN recently unveiled its "Civic Index for Quality Public Education," which is a survey that any community can conduct, compare its local results to national data, and develop strategies for improving civic engagement.

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June 27, 2008

losing color

Robert Darnton, the great Princeton historian, is no Luddite. He welcomes Google's Book Search, which provides direct access to scanned versions of books from the New York Public Library, Harvard, Michigan, Stanford, and the Bodleian. However, he lists several reasons not to give up on traditional, bricks-and-mortar libraries or to assume that a digital archive can replace them. I will add another reason, which applies (an any rate) to the current version of Google Book Search. Google uses black-and-white photography to reproduce books that were originally printed in black ink. But all real books have color--especially the old ones, whose paper yellows unevenly. In Google's photographs, all the books published before 1900 look bleached and considerably less attractive than they really are.

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June 26, 2008

moving day

Pockmarked with nails, the walls echo. Dust clots mark the outlines of cozy furniture. The cat slinks in search of cover. In a long hall where once a toddler learned to run, flinging herself again and again on parents' knees, stacks of cardboard cubes are marked with one word each: "pots," "toys," "coats." The boxes carry away traces of Thanksgiving meals, birthday parties, imaginary villages, winter walks. A key in the lock, a backward look. Onward.

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June 25, 2008

college and kids

I guess this is a well-known story, but I wanted to document it. Here is the median age that American women have their first child (in dark blue) and the percentage of younger women (age 25-34) who have completed four years of college (in red). From 1945-1965, women bore their first babies at an increasingly early age, and women's educational attainment did not rise much. This was the era of the Feminine Mystique and "Leave it to Beaver." Then we see a very substantial rise in educational attainment, and childbearing is delayed. Today, it is common for a woman in her late 20s to have a college degree and children in her future, but none born yet. That combination was really quite rare in 1960.

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June 24, 2008

The Bradley Report: E Pluribus Unum

I just read the Bradley Foundation report on America's National Identity, entitled E Pluribus Unum. It argues that "America is facing an identity crisis," because we do not know enough information about our founders; students are not "taught about America's great heroes, dramatic achievements and high ideals"; and "there's too much attention paid these days to what separates different ethnic and racial groups and not enough to what they have in common." (The last claim was tested in a Harris poll and drew the support of 80 percent of respondents, including majorities of Latinos and African Americans). The report bemoans a "tendency to separatism" -- reflected in ethnic-themed residency halls -- and a turn to global citizenship in place of the "distinctive features of American citizenship."

I think there is a legitimate debate about the balance of unity and diversity in American culture. James Madison pointed out that "faction" (the development of separate interest groups) was an inevitable result of freedom and vitality. On the other hand, he also believed in the common good, "the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Americans should be free and even eager to associate in groups with particular interests and values; but they should also have concern for the whole. If we lose the latter, we are in some danger.

To this extent, I can endorse the Bradley Report. But I am struck by its very weak and sloppy empirical basis.

The report says, "In the past, schools required an extended study of government. Today, high schools require one government course, compared with three before the 1960s." The footnote cites me as one of the authors of the document on which this claim is based. Actually, we used an article by Richard Niemi and Julia Smith, which should have been consulted directly. In any case, the facts are quite otherwise. Schools used to offer as many as three courses on civics, one of which emphasized controversial contemporary issues and another, the role of active citizens in their communities. The one course that is left--and almost universally required--is the one that the Bradley report recommends, a course on American government. The shift has been away from controversy and toward unity.

As I've noted here before, we surveyed young Americans about the themes they remember studying most in American government and history courses (pdf). The three main themes were the Constitution and the American political system, "great American heroes and the virtues of the American system of government," and wars and battles. Only 9 percent of young people recall any emphasis on "racism and other forms of injustice" in their social studies classes.

The Bradley Report asserts that today's attitudes "represent a sea change," but no historical data are offered as evidence.

It notes that Americans are racially segregated, but it blames colleges and universities for creating themed dorms. A tiny percentage of Americans are affected by these arrangements on our campuses. There is no mention of the dramatic resegregation of American k-12 schools.

The report uses a survey question to substantiate the claim that Americans are upset about ethnic separatism and multiculturalism, but there is no mention that alternative ideas were tested in the poll. For instance, I wouldn't be surprised if majorities would assent to the proposition that economic inequality has driven a wedge among Americans and undermined national unity.

The report cites troubling statistics about Americans' knowledge of the Constitution and American history. Ninety-nine percent of college seniors could identify Beavis and Butthead but fewer than one quarter could identify a major phrase from the Gettysburg Address. I think that's bad, but I would note that Americans' political knowledge has been remarkably stable for the 100 years. There is no evidence of decline, according to the most comprehensive study (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1997). Further, we do teach the Gettysburg Address and other founding documents. It is regrettable that Americans do not remember what they have studied, but that is true of biology and math as well as American history. It does not imply that schools have abandoned their traditional job of teaching any particular content area. In civics, NAEP scores are flat, which belies the claim of decline. But I can also say--as a member of the current NAEP Civics Committee--that decisions about how to define "proficient" and "advanced" performance on that test are casual and highly arbitrary. Thus I am never shocked to learn that most students don't score at a "proficient" level.

Finally, the Bradley report notes that new immigrants score lower on the NAEP civics test than native-born American students and that immigrants are less likely to consider themselves "Americans" after they have been enrolled in American schools for four years. The NAEP results should be controlled for family income; I hypothesize that immigrant youth will score at least as high as native-born youth of the same socio-economic status. And the factoid about students' attitudes should be put in context. There is a large body of evidence showing that young immigrants assimilate rapidly. I suspect that they temporarily feel "less American" after four years in school only because they realize how far they have to go to enter the economic and cultural mainstream, which is where many of them want to go.

It would be good to have a report on American citizenship that defended the conservative values of unity, tradition, and nationalism but that reflected careful scholarship and a weighing of evidence on all sides of the issue. Unfortunately, the Bradley Report isn't that. It's a good anthology of quotations from the founders but a weak exercise in social science.

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June 23, 2008

heading north

I'm not confident that I can blog substantively this week, because we are moving--home, family, office, organization, files, fiscal agent, everything--to Tufts. The first moving van comes today. I can, however, provide a link. My new employer, Tufts, is the home of Geek Girls. Their adviser, Professor Karen Panetta, says, "It's OK, it's smart, it's cool to be a nerd, and the girls are just embracing that."

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June 20, 2008

for peace in the Middle East

As the widget says, I do support the J Street Project, whose defense of diplomacy and negotiation in the Middle East is in Israel's best interest as well as the United States'.

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June 19, 2008


ServeNext is an organization started by young AmeriCorps alums who want to build support for national and community service. There is an entertaining article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about their national road trip. That's only one of their activities, and ServeNext is just one of several active and well-organized groups that are pressing for more and better federal support for service programs. The advocacy campaign as a whole is well organized and savvy and has the ear of policymakers, including leading Senators from both parties and both national presidential campaigns. I think Congress will pass significant new legislation to authorize many more service opportunities and will promote community service as a way to address important issues, such as the high school dropout crisis and our relationship with the Middle East. Whether Congress will appropriate sufficient funds seems more doubtful, given the awful federal budget situation.

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June 18, 2008

did the Supreme Court repeal the Supremacy Clause?

I was always under the impression that when the United States ratified a treaty, it became the law of our land. I got that idea from the U.S. Constitution, Article VI, section 2: "all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the Constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding."

Because this seems like strong language, I was actually open to the argument that the US should be careful about signing international human rights treaties. Famously, we and Somalia are the only two countries that have not signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I thought: That's not good, but part of the reason is that we take treaties very seriously. To ratify the Convention would add a layer of law in our country and give individual children rights that courts could enforce. Courts might even order changes in state or federal budgets to comply with their reading of the Convention. Maybe there is a democratic argument against ratifying.

But then came the case of Medellin v. Texas, decided last year. Mr. Medellin was sentenced to death, but appealed on the ground that he had been denied the right to help from Mexico's consulate, as provided by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (which we have ratified). The International Court of Justice (IJC) ruled that he had a right to review of his sentence. The Bush Administration actually took the IJC's position and said that Texas should grant an appeal. But the majority of the US Supreme Court took Texas' side and permitted an execution. As Justice Roberts wrote for the court, "In sum, while the ICJ’s judgment ... creates an international law obligation on the part of the United States, it does not of its own force constitute binding federal law that pre-empts state restrictions on the filing of successive habeas petitions."

In other words, because we signed the consular treaty, Congress should pass laws guaranteeing aliens the right to assistance by diplomats. But if Congress does not pass such laws, individuals have no enforceable rights under the treaty. And there is no sanction against Congress if it fails to pass laws.

I have friends who think the Medellin decision is an outrage. They say that the conservative justices ignored the plain text of the Constitution and 200 years of precedent. They offer two possible reasons: (1) The Court simply wanted Texas to execute Jose Ernesto Medellin (after all, Justice Roberts described his crimes in gory detail). Or (2) the Court dislikes international law so much that it will ignore a treaty that the Senate has ratified.

Whether these criticisms are fair depends--as such matters often do--on questions of precedent. If Medellin overturns 200 years of well-established law and makes the US an exception among nations, it is outrageous. If American precedents and the rules in other countries are more complex, then it is a more reasonable decision. I don't know which interpretation is correct.

Leaving questions of legal interpretation aside, I think it is often (but not inevitably) good for the US to sign onto widely ratified treaties that grant individuals rights against governments. I would like such treaties to be enforceable, regardless of what Congress chooses to do. On the other hand, I also believe in the obligation of the US Congress to make all laws. When the US ratifies treaties, only the Senate and the president must agree, and they can agree to a very vague principle. Before the Medellin decision, courts would have to decide how precisely to implement a treaty. Thus I can see a fairly reasonable argument that Congress should always pass specific enabling legislation after a treaty is ratified.

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June 17, 2008

why study service-learning?

I'm at Brandeis for a meeting of "emerging scholars" who study service-learning. They are paired with established mentors who advise them, and they enter a network of other new scholars in the field. This is a project (which we are helping to run) that is part of a larger effort to build the field of service-learning. I also participate in the "emerging leaders" part of the effort, which supports younger managers and organizers. Both aspects are funded by the Kellogg Foundation.

This seems an appropriate moment to ask why anyone should study service-learning (the combination of community service with academic study). I would say:

1. Because studying young people who are asked to work on a community problem or issue is a great opportunity to investigate large issues about human development, the reproduction or reform of institutions and cultures, learning, deliberation, racial conflict, and many other issues. In other words, service-learning is an opportunity for social science.

2. Because service-learning is common--present in about half of American high schools--yet the quality is very uneven. Research can identify what aspects of service-learning generate good results in various contexts. Once we know that makes service-learning succeed, we can inform future teachers in their education courses, explain the criteria in program guidelines, and so on.

3. Because there is an opening for new policies that involve service. Senators McCain and Obama both favor service-learning, and there is an effective nonpartisan advocacy campaign for national and community service programs. It is fairly straightforward to design new policies for Americorps. But it's not so easy to say what a good service-learning policy should be for k-12 schools. Policies cannot automatically create high-quality educational experiences. They always operate through rather crude incentives or rules--for instance, grant opportunities, mandates, course requirements, standards, or state-sponsored exams. We need research about the likely impact of policies before we can tell friendly politicians which policies they should promote.

Note that even a friendly politician must make choices--must decide how much resources to put into service-learning compared to other activities, including other forms of experiential civic education. Responsible advice to policymakers thus depends upon careful and rigorous comparative research. It's not enough to say that service-learning is good; we have to know whether each marginal dollar is better spent on it or something else.

4. Because a lot of adults are involved in a field called service-learning, and it's a good group--diverse in goals and ideologies but idealistic and fairly coherent. To use an over-used term, it's a "community." Communities can deserve loyalty even if one doesn't believe that they are objectively better or more important than other communities. I'm not sure that I believe service-learning is a better, or even a more promising, intervention than some others. I am sure that the community that supports it is a good one. According to the great work of Albert O. Hirschman, when one wants to change a group, the two choices are "exit" and "voice." Exit is the main mechanism in a market, and it is a good one. We use "voice" when we cannot exit a group (e.g., a family or a nation), or when we are loyal. I think the service-learning world merits some loyalty, and that means using our voice to improve it. For those of us who are scholars, the best form of voice is research.

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June 16, 2008

the ethics of liking a fictional character

(Waltham, Mass.) I have mentioned before that Middlemarch is my favorite book. Specifically, I am fond of Dorothea Brooke, its heroine. I like her; I want her to succeed and be happy. Allowing for the fact that she is a fictional character, I care about her.

Such feelings represent moral choices. Caring about someone is less important when that person happens to be fictional, but novels are at least good tests of judgment. Thus I am interested in whether I am right to care about the elder Miss Brooke. It seems to me that George Eliot was also especially fond of her heroine, and one could ask whether that was an ethical stance. Or, to put the question differently, was Eliot right to pull together a set of traits into one fictional person and describe that person in such a way as to make us like her?

The traits that seem especially problematic are Dorothea's beauty, her high birth, and her youth. She is a young woman from the very highest social stratum in the hierarchical community of Middlemarch, surpassed by no one in rank. She is consistently described as beautiful, not only by other characters, but also by the narrator. In fact, these are the very first lines of Chapter One:

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible,--or from one of our elder poets,--in a paragraph of to-day’s newspaper. She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense.

This introduction contains no physical detail, in contrast to the portrayals of other characters in the same novel, such as Rosamond and Ladislaw. The simple fact of Dorothea's beauty is not complicated by the mention of any particular form of beauty that a reader might happen not to like.

We have a tendency, I think, to want beautiful and high-born but lonely young ladies to live happily ever after. When we were young, we heard a lot of stories about princesses. We expect a princess to become happy by uniting with a young and attractive man; and whether that will happen to Dorothea is a suspenseful question in Middlemarch.

If we are prone to admire and like Dorothea because she is beautiful, Eliot complicates matters in three ways. First, she produces a second beautiful young woman in need of a husband, but this one is bad and thoroughly unlikable. (At least, it is very challenging to see things from Rosamond's perspective, as perhaps we should try to do.) Second, in Mary Garth, Eliot creates a deeply appealing young female character who, we are told, is simply plain. Third, Eliot makes Dorothea not only beautiful, but also "clever" and good.

Evidently, beauty does not guarantee goodness, nor vice-versa; yet several people in Middlemarch think that Dorothea's appearance and quality of voice manifest or reflect her inner character. This seems to be a kind of pathetic fallacy: people attribute virtues to her face, body, and voice as poets sometimes do to flowers or stars. But of course the characters who admire Dorothea's appearance as a manifestation of her soul may be right, within the world that Eliot has created in Middlemarch. Or perhaps character and appearance really are linked. Rosamond, for instance, could not be the same kind of person if she were less pretty.

I presume that it is right to like someone for being good, but it is not right to like someone because she is beautiful. One could raise questions about this general principle. Is someone's goodness really within his or her control? Perhaps we should pity (and care about) people like Rosamond who are not very virtuous. On the other hand, if we can admire beauty in nature and art, why not in human beings? And what about cleverness, which is not a moral quality but is certainly admired?

One interpretation of the novel is that Dorothea does not have a moral right to her inheritance or to her social status. These are arbitrary matters of good fortune, and she is wise to be critical of them. She does, however, according to the novel, deserve a happy marriage to a handsome man because she is both good and beautiful (and also passionate). The end of the novel feels happy to the extent that she gets the marriage she deserves. Does this make any sense as a moral doctrine? Is it an acceptable moral doctrine within a fictional world, but inapplicable to the real world?

Beautiful people tend to find other beautiful people, just as the rich tend to marry the rich and (nowadays) the clever marry the clever. Lucky people have assets in the market for partners. But is this something we should want to see? What if the plain but nice Mary Garth ended up with a broodingly handsome romantic outsider, and Dorothea married a nice young man from the neighborhood? Would that ending be wrong because beauty deserves beauty, or would it only be an aesthetic mistake (or a market failure)?

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June 13, 2008

CIRCLE's youth primary wrap-up

Today we released our analysis of youth turnout in the whole primary season. Youth voting almost doubled, compared to the best comparison year, 2000. That makes the primary the third straight federal election in which there has been a substantial increase.

For ages 18-29, these are the recent trends in national elections:

CIRCLE's fact sheet and press release are here.

If the increase continues in the general, it will be interesting to see the impact on certain states where youth turnout was relatively low in 2004. Our interactive map allows you to explore these patterns. Especially interesting are Virginia (41% turnout of under-25s in 2008), New Mexico (42% turnout), and Florida (46% turnout). In each of these states, people between the ages of 18 and 25 represent 9% or 10% of the voting age population. For comparison, 69% of Minnesota's youth voted 2004 (28 percentage-points more than in Virginia). Substantial increases this year in states like Virginia and Florida could shape the Electoral College.

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June 12, 2008

the public and history

Here are two rival stories about the role of American history today:

1. American history used to be told in an elitist fashion. It was all about the intentions and actions of a few powerful individuals, almost all white men. Ordinary people (including ordinary white men) were marginal or invisible. Historical writing failed to give citizens a sense of agency, because all the power and influence seemed to belong to national elites. Then social historians began to democratize the past and bring it closer to students' and readers' experience by uncovering the daily world of farmers, soldiers, mothers, slaves, and others, in their specific circumstances. All kinds of people could find themselves in the past.

2. Many Americans are fascinated by great events and leaders. There is a huge audience for biographies, especially of presidents and generals. Millions visit battlefields and the historic homes of leaders; they want to know where Lincoln spoke or Stonewall stood. But historians write about minute details of social life, often using grand abstractions, like race and gender. They push schools and public facilities to emphasize traditionally oppressed people. For example, Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White noted at their talk on Tuesday that the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefield site has a sign about slave cabins even though there are no extant cabins or other remains to be seen there. Mackowski and White argued that this sort of display is alienating. People want to learn about Robert E. Lee, not about social history. Experts are responsible for the dominance of social history, which explains why students don't major in history and why young people don't know historical facts. (For instance, most 17-year-old Americans cannot place the Civil War in the period 1850-1900.)

I'm not sure what to think, myself. I will note that young people do study American history (it's a requirement virtually everywhere), and they still recall a fairly traditional curriculum. We find that the three themes that young Americans remember studying most are: the Constitution and the American political system, "great American heroes and the virtues of the American system of government," and wars and battles. Only 9 percent of young people recall any emphasis on "racism and other forms of injustice" in their social studies classes. Therefore, I can't buy the argument that because young people are forced to study depressing facts about social life, they don't know exciting facts about heroes. But that still leaves a deep question about what we ought to know.

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June 11, 2008

philosophy and the city

I'm a philosopher by training. All my work now involves civic engagement or civic education (broadly defined). And I have always lived in and loved cities. Thus I am the perfect person to appreciate Sharon Meagher's website (and book) entitled Philosophy and the City. I learned about this project from Meagher herself, when she spoke yesterday at a conference called Beyond the Academy: Engaging Public Life. Meagher has her students investigate, explore, and appreciate Scranton, where they are enrolled as undergraduates. In the process, these young people (mostly from suburbs) think about cities: what they mean; how they are linked to virtues and vices (both in stereotypes and in reality); what defines citizenship of a city, and other great philosophical questions.

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June 10, 2008

simulating citizenship

It seems to be the season for new civic simulations. Yesterday, I introduced "Budget Hero" from American Public Media. The same day's New York Times covered Our Courts, a simulation promoted by Sandra Day O'Connor. ("Our Courts" does not seem to be ready to play quite yet.) Then this morning's Washington Post mentioned Peace Corps Challenge, a site that allows kids to pretend they are Peace Corps volunteers in the imaginary village of Wanzuzu. They get a local guide, Narina, with whom they tackle problems such as water contamination and girls' education.

Simulations are as old as Model UN and mock trial. Critics say that they convey the wrong message--that real citizenship begins only later on, when kids turn into adults. Simulations do not tap the actual assets of young people (such as their knowledge of their own communities) or allow them to address real problems. And most children will never grow up to fill the roles that they simulate in the game. For example, there is only one US Representative to the UN, out of 300 million citizens. The Peace Corps is more accessible, but it still turns away, I believe, three quarters of its applicants.

But games have advantages, too. They are absorbing, intellectually challenging, and cost-effective. They can be carefully constructed to promote particular lessons or skills that may then generalize to other domains. The Peace Corps simulation, for example, will be a success if it plants the idea of joining the real Corps or if players learn community problem-solving skills that they can use at home.

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June 8, 2008

a budget simulation

Budget Hero is a simulation of the federal budget that allows you to play various "cards" (such as repealing the Bush tax cuts or fully funding No Child Left Behind). You can see the impact on the federal budget after 10 years. There is good background information about each policy proposal. You have decide to play or not to play each card; you can't modify it. For instance, you can increase housing assistance to the poor by $4 billion, but not by any other amount. That makes a certain amount of sense for a simulation, because real lawmakers and presidents are usually presented with yes-or-no options, not sliding scales. In any case, it's probably a necessary simplification.

Many of the comments that have been posted so far are negative or hostile, from a libertarian direction. ("Only an NPR lackey could buy into an overly-simplified, obviously biased model like this.") I suppose the game could allow you to make more drastic cuts. I'm actually in favor of wiping out several federal agencies, even though I'm a progressive. On the other hand, as a simulation of the actual reforms being debated in Congress, this is quite informative. And some people just don't like it because it's constrained by fiscal reality.

Play the game by clicking here.

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June 6, 2008

rite of passage

Today was graduation day for our older daughter. A high school commencement always marks the moment when a community of students and parents dissolves and the students formally take their place in the larger adult world. In this case, the disruption of the old group--the class of 2008--seemed especially profound, because the school is small and continues from kindergarten all the way through twelfth grade. So we have known many of the families since our daughter was six and I was 28. An annual cycle of concerts, plays, exams, speeches, games, and potluck dinners is coming to an end.

As for the adult community that these kids will enter--that also is a special case. Their families may be diverse in terms of ethnicity, wealth, and power, but as a group, this class is an elite. They attend an expensive and selective private school in the capital of the world's richest nation. Some of their parents are wealthy, powerful, or famous. Other families in the class of '08 have none of these traits, but they are closer to power and glamor than most human beings are, simply by virtue of attending the school.

Although today's graduates may have trouble replicating the success of their parents, some will use their advantages to go much farther. I have an image of a generic large house, kept spotlessly clean by a housekeeper, with granite counters, a spacious bedroom for each child in which Legos and American Girl dolls have given way to laptops and lacrosse sticks, and perhaps a library. Each of these kids is heading out from such a home, on a path to own one, or both.

So much is already encoded in an 18-year-old. They are genetically encoded; their faces and bodies are turning into replicas of their parents'. And they carry cultural codes. When, for example, the student chorus performs old songs about romantic relationships, the kids are singing from limited personal experience, but mainly they are play-acting roles that are destined for them. (Adolescence is in part acting, in part actually being, and the line is always blurred.) They sing, speak, and even dress so well that the scene looks unrealistic, a Hollywood production with 20-something actors pretending to be graduating from high school. Cokie Roberts delivers the commencement address on a dappled lawn, facing a house built in 1803. The students' composure and competence are encoded, too. They don't have "self-esteem" --as that phrase is commonly used in relation to kids--but rather a solid awareness of their own actual talents, opportunities, attractiveness, and importance in the world. They have been groomed, if not to run the country, at least to enter the professional class of our metropolitan cities. They want to be responsible and ethical; we must hope that they will be.

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June 5, 2008

teach philosophy of science in high school

I think controversies about whether to allow the teaching of "intelligent design" and whether teachers should present global warming as a fact are more complicated than is presumed by most scientific and liberal opinion. To announce that evolution is "science," while intelligent design is "religion," begs a lot of questions about what science is and how it should operate. To say that global warming is a "fact" implies a view about facts and what justifies them. Serious people hold relativist views, arguing that what we call science is a phenomenon of a particular culture. Others favor what used to be called "the strong programme in the sociology of science." That is the view that science is a social institution with its own power structure, and one can understand current scientific opinions by understanding the power behind them. I don't hold that view myself, but it's interesting that it originated on the left, and yet many people who hold it today are religious fundamentalists. And you can understand (without necessarily endorsing) their perspective when you consider that people who are anointed as "scientists" by older scientists get to control public funds, institutions, degrees, jobs, curricula, and policies in areas like health and the environment. These scientists are mostly very secular and declare that only secular beliefs qualify as science. There is a prima facie case here for skepticism, and it deserves a reasoned response.

Even among people who are strongly supportive of science (which includes most contemporary philosophers in the English-speaking world), there are live controversies about what constitutes scientific knowledge, whether and how a theory differs from other falsifiable assertions, how and why scientific theories change, how theories relate to data, etc. To tell students that evolution is a theory and that creationism isn't is dogmatism. It glosses over the debate about what a theory is.

There are also important questions that cross over from philosophy of science to political philosophy. Does a teacher have an individual right to teach creationism if he believes in it? Does he have an individual right to promote Darwinism even if local authorities don't want it taught? Should the Institute for Creation Research in Texas be allowed to issue graduate degrees? Does it have a right of association or expression that should permit this, or does the state have the right--or obligation--to license certain doctrines as scientific. Why?

I am one of the last people (I hope) to pile more tasks on our schools. In fact, I published an article arguing that we shouldn't ask schools to teach information literacy, even though it is important, because they simply have too much else to accomplish. (Instead, I argued, we need to make online information and search functions as reliable as possible). Yet I think philosophy of science is a real candidate for inclusion in the high school curriculum--or at least we ought to experiment to see if it can be taught well. I'd stake my case on two principles:

1. Making critical judgments about science as an institution is an essential task for citizens in a science-dominated society; and
2. Students are being required to study science (as defined by scientists), and taxpayers are being required to fund it. Fundamental liberal principles require that such requirements be openly debated.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:22 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 4, 2008

blogging responsibly

I like to post every day, but a perfect storm of deadlines is going to make that an irresponsible use of time for today. Back online tomorrow.

Posted by peterlevine at 5:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 3, 2008

a generational shift leftward?

David Madland and Amanda Logan have published a report for the Center for American Progress entitled "The Progressive Generation: How Young Adults Think About the Economy" (pdf). They assert that today's young people are more favorable toward government-funded health care and unions than older people are today, and--more interestingly--than older generations were when they were young. The Millennials also support education spending, even if it requires tax increases; and (more generally) they like government intervention.

I would only offer two caveats. First, the Millennials seem fairly genial or favorable toward most institutions, compared to their predecessors. According to the CAP report, young people are favorable to business as well as government; they like both corporate profits and government regulation. This is not contradictory--in fact, I think I agree with it. But it raises the question of whether the Millennials are progressive, or just (relatively) positive. On the other hand, they are not at all positive toward the press or President Bush. So maybe they are picking the institutions they like, and government is one of them.

The other caveat is that the following may no longer be true:

The general thrust of academic literature ... is that political ideas and attachments that are developed in early adulthood tend to last. Research suggests that a socialization process occurs that leads young adults to hold onto the party identification and opinions that they developed in their formative years.

This theory is important, because it suggests that today's youth will remain progressive as they age. It is plausible, but the direct evidence comes from decades ago when party identification was more a matter of ascribed identity (e.g., ethnic background) than of ideology. Also, the evidence comes from a time when people developed their political identity during adolescence. I think that political socialization may have shifted later in the lifecourse, along with many other aspects of human development. That change would raise doubts about directly comparing today's young adults with their predecessors 30 or 40 years ago.

Posted by peterlevine at 1:35 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 2, 2008

New York's golden age

A very brief stop in Manhattan last Friday prompted some thoughts about what New York City represents. Between 1920 and 1960, the apogee of American civilization was built in that place, or so I would argue.

I acknowledge some bias, because New York formed both of my parents. These days, I especially think of my father in connection with the city. He lived almost half of his life there and it shaped his identity. Much of the time that I spent in New York, from my early childhood until recent years, was with him; and he was a nostalgic person who would often reminisce about his youth. One of the last times I saw him in reasonably good health was last spring, when we walked together all the way from the Upper West Side to the Metropolitan Museum.

But even adjusting for my prejudices, I think New York City in the mid-20th century was a splendid achievement that embodied some (not all) of the best qualities of the United States as a whole. We could start with high culture: New York was the world's center of modernism in painting, music, architecture, poetry, and fiction after the Second World War. New York's high culture had diverse sources, including the Bohemia of Greenwich Village, the Harlem Renaissance, the uptown galleries, the old magazines and publishing houses (privately owned and not out to maximize profit), academic programs at Columbia and The New School--among other universities, the clusters of exiled Europeans, and well-endowed "establishment" institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum and the Metropolitan Opera.

A second layer was commercial culture, for it was private capital that erected the Chrysler Building, lit the lights of Time Square, published The New York Times and New Yorker magazine, and put on Broadway shows. And third--not below the others but on a par with them--were the city's various vernacular cultures: the lower-middle-class secular Jewish Brooklyn that nourished my Dad plus many others, including Spanish Harlem, the Irish-Catholic neighborhoods, the African American church, and on and on.

Culture does not make a civilization, but New York had the other essential components as well. Its institutions, although certainly imperfect, were impressive. The public schools, for example, enrolled around one million students and had a high reputation. City University represented another huge and successful foray into public education. The subways, the parks, and the harbor worked well--notwithstanding inequality, segregation, and corruption that were inexcusable but less destructive than we have seen in other times and places. New York developed impressive leaders--TR, FDR, LaGuardia--who were both disciplined and inspired by a tough and engaged citizenry. There were elites and masses, insiders and outsiders, but these relationships were dynamic and flexible.

I don't want to exaggerate or romanticize, but I suppose I have in the back of my mind a rather pessimistic account of how human beings live together in large numbers. It ought to be possible to surpass the model of New York City ca. 1950, but we have rarely done so.

Finally, I don't mean to suggest that the city is entirely in decline. There are respects in which it has improved. But I think the magic balance has been gone since the harbor shed hundreds of thousands of blue-collar jobs, the schools went into crisis, and the yuppies took over Bohemia. The most wonderful parts of New York today are either legacies of the mid-20th-century city or reprises of its spirit. For instance, the mix of immigrant communities in today's Queens seems a worthy successor of Brooklyn in the 1930s.

Posted by peterlevine at 4:05 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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