« August 2008 | Main | October 2008 »

September 30, 2008

ideological diversity on campuses

On one of my recent visits to a college campus, I met a bunch of students who began by telling me all the excellent ways they are involved in civic and political affairs. One young woman mentioned some hospital volunteering and research overseas. A couple of others said (among other things) that they worked for Democratic candidates. The conversation then turned political and very anti-Republican, with students saying that it was important to vote because the GOP had practically ruined the country over the last eight years.

I noticed some quiet people at the table. I intervened and asked them to speak freely. It turned out that the hospital volunteer was also the president of the Young Republicans on campus. Apparently, she hadn't wanted to mention that role when we introduced ourselves.

Once, at the University of Maryland, a senior who was working on a scholarship essay "came out to me" as a conservative. A conservative thesis seemed to fit his essay best, as I observed; but he thought he'd better not own up to such ideas. He said I was the first professor to whom he had admitted his conservative leanings.

I don't think these stories support the right-wing charge that academia has been captured by lefties. If we can generalize from them at all, I think they show our polarization. We have liberal campuses and conservative campuses just as we have liberal zip codes and conservative zip codes. People sort themselves. What we lack are mixed places.

I'm as progressive as the next person, but I think we are losing valuable educational opportunities this way. I used to find that many of Maryland's best students, who came to me for help with their applications for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, had never encountered conservative ideas. This made them rather naive debaters. A liberal today who cares about homelessness--for example--ought to be very familiar with the thesis that the government worsens homelessness through rent control (which reduces the supply of housing), or that homeless people need spiritual help from "faith-based" organizations. Maybe these ideas are wrong, but they should not be new to college graduates who care about homelessness.

Posted by peterlevine at 3:42 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 29, 2008

an effort to add civic questions to the debate

The following is a message from the November Fifth Coalition ...


There has been a lot of talk this presidential election about "who makes change?" -- John McCain or Barack Obama. We need to change this conversation. It's sometimes easier to pretend we are spectators. But we all need to be involved if we are to see the changes we need.

The Second Presidential Debate on October 7th offers the opportunity to make this point and help change the focus from "them" making change to "all of us" making change. The debate has a "Town Hall Format" with opportunities for electronic questions, already open. We encourage citizens of all views and persuasions to query both candidates through email on some version of these questions, using an issue you are passionate about (e.g. the economy, health, global warming, education, poverty):

To submit a question: go to www.MyDebates.org by October 2nd (the last date for submission).

Background: This call for us all to claim the role of change agents comes from the cross-partisan November Fifth Coalition (www.novemberfifth.org), which formed last year to put active citizenship in the presidential election. We declared that the election is about all of us, not simply candidates.

For more information on the debate format and to spread the word go to http://tinyurl.com/3kzaca. To find out more about November Fifth Coalition, go to this FaceBook page.

Click http://www.belmontdebate08.com/faq for Frequently Asked Questions about the debate.

To submit a question: go to www.MyDebates.org

Posted by peterlevine at 4:29 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 26, 2008

onward with the Civic Mission

Here is Justice O'Connor, co-chair of the national advisory council of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. She is standing with the Campaign's Steering Committee, only some of whom fit within the column width of my blog, on the terrace of the Newseum in Washington, DC. The Steering Committee represents almost all of the specialized organizations that offer various forms of civic education or service-learning, plus many important stakeholders such as the teachers' unions and the National Association of School Boards. I think that's me in the back, although it could be some other civic ed guy with short hair.

Anyway, after this picture was taken we repaired to a conference room and spent a profitable day (last Monday) discussing next steps in the struggle for civic education.

Posted by peterlevine at 1:47 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 25, 2008

the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act

[Note: a revised and improved version of this post was published in Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly: PDF]

The Kennedy-Hatch “Serve America Act of 2008” (S.3487) would dramatically expand federal support for civilian service programs. Both major presidential candidates took time out on Sept. 11 to endorse the bill in New York City. As Senators, they are also co-sponsors. Given their support and the leadership of Senators Hatch (R) and Kennedy (D), I'd say the bill has pretty good odds. Here is a "bill tracker" that will automatically show its latest progress:

The objective of the bill is to get 250,000 Americans (of all ages) involved in federally supported "service" every year. "Service" could mean a lot of things. It could mean paramilitary work, with people in uniforms patrolling our borders or building defense installations. It could mean individual acts of charity, such as helping elderly people to cross the street. It could mean controversial and aggressive political activism.

In practice, the term "service" in federal-policy talk really means a heterogeneous but finite list of programs. Some, like the Peace Corps, are directly run by the government. These programs can provide full-time jobs with serious responsibilities and high standards. In 2002, for example, there were 215,000 requests for applications for the Peace Corps, yet the Corps had just 7,500 open slots and picked extremely well qualified experts (many of them with years of experience). In contrast, Youth Build is a private, nonprofit corporation that is partly funded by the US government. It enrolls poor people between the ages of 16 and 24, most of whom have been homeless, in foster care, or in prison or probation. Only 11 percent have high school diplomas. Participants learn building skills and receive a dose of civic education. To name a third example, Learn & Serve America is a federal program that funds schools and colleges and state education agencies to help them provide "service-learning"--academic teaching enriched by service experiences. No one is enrolled in Learn & Serve America, but many thousands of students are somewhat affected by it.

For a philosopher who wants to discuss whether "service" is a good thing, the heterogeneity of these programs poses a challenge. It's impossible to define them by naming necessary and sufficient conditions. They do not even share the same objectives. The Peace Corps seeks to promote development overseas in the interests of US foreign policy. YouthBuild tries to enhance the job prospects of its participants. Learn & Serve America is focused on academic skills.

Nevertheless, "service" constitutes a real community of practice, with many overlapping networks of alumni and leaders, similar funding sources, frequent meetings and conferences, a common genealogy dating back to the Roosevelt Administration, and a shared political agenda--currently focused on the passage of Kennedy-Hatch. This should not be surprising. Regardless of their original, official purposes, institutions and professional communities typically evolve and develop into heterogeneous collections of programs. We ought to be able to say whether supporting such "fields of practice" is good public policy. (Of course, we can also propose to shift such fields by preferring some of their elements over others.)

On balance, I think the field of "service" merits more federal support today. Despite the diversity of programs that would be supported, "service" generally advances several important goals.

First, it treats people of all ages as potential public assets, as contributors to the common good. This is philosophically appealing to me because it reflects a basic principle (which we could call Kantian) of respecting other people's moral agency. It also reflects a psychological theory known as "positive youth development." This theory proposes that young people, especially, are more likely to avoid pitfalls such as crime, unwanted pregnancy, suicide, and academic failure, if they are given opportunities to contribute their talents to the community. Most of our schools and other institutions basically treat them as bundles of problems or risks and seek to evaluate, track, prevent, and punish their failures. Cumulatively, such treatment sends a debilitating message. Opportunities to contribute can provide a powerful antidote.

This theory may seem romantic, but it is empirically testable and has been demonstrated in numerous studies. For example, a randomized experiment showed that it was possible to cut the teen pregnancy rate by offering young women service opportunities.

The bulk of the research has been focused on teenagers and young adults--hence the term "positive youth development." But there is no reason to think that the advantages of service to those who serve stop at age 25 or 30. We know that among elderly people, service correlates with mental health.

This first justification of "service" applies best to programs like YouthBuild that enroll young people at risk and predominantly aim to enhance the participants' welfare. An evaluation of YouthBuild for the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the program generated relatively few new housing units, even though participants spent their time building homes. But 29% of participants who entered without having graduated from high school obtained diplomas while they served, and 12% pursued higher education afterwards. Although there was no control group to provide a comparison, this appears to be evidence of substantial positive impact on the participants (PDF).

For the highly selective programs like Peace Corps and VISTA, different educational outcomes are appropriate. The Peace Corps, for example, takes partial credit for the achievements of its alumni, who range from the distinguished sculptor Martin Puryear (whose work shows evidence of his service in Sierra Leone) to Senator Chris Dodd.

Of course, the Peace Corps is not mainly an educational program. It is mainly a tool of international development--and public relations for the United States. Its most important impact is on the communities served, not the people serving. Such impacts vary enormously from program to program. It therefore makes little sense to promote "service" (in general) as an efficient or reliable means to deliver benefits to service-recipients.

But I would argue that "service" as a category holds some promise for improving the relationship between citizens and the government. It hardly needs saying that this relationship is bad. In 1964, three quarters of Americans said that the government in Washington did the right thing just about always or most of the time. By the late 1990s, only about one in four had that level of confidence. Many reasons have been proposed for the decline in trust, and probably many are true. Watergate and Vietnam, the new news media, and Republican ideological critiques no doubt all played their parts. But I'm convinced that part of the problem is a kind of identity gap between citizens and employees of the government.

Elinor Ostrom has shown that in the mid-twentieth century, a substantial proportion of American households had members who served on elected public bodies, such as school boards, at one time in their lives. Consolidation of governments and heavy use of professional managers has reduced such participation to a trivial level. Americans were also more involved with schools thirty years ago than they are today. Again, there are many explanations for the decline, but surely one reason is the growing monopoly of schooling and education by credentialed, professional experts: teachers, administrators, and writers of tests and textbooks. When standardized tests drive teaching and learning, there is less for parents and other citizens to do. Today, some Americans are in "public service," and the rest are not. (Meanwhile, the all-volunteer military, for better and for worse, sharply separates civilians from professional warriors in a way that was not true under the draft.)

I believe we need to weaken this distinction--to have people move in and out of government so that each side learns more about the other. One powerful tool is national and community "service," which means temporary but full-time work funded by the government but often organized by private contractors.

What happens if more people move in and out of government is up to them. They may decide that bureaucracies are better than they appear in popular culture and politicians' speeches and favor more funding and responsibilities for the state. But they may decide that there are superior alternatives to state agencies. The charter school movement is heavily populated by alumni of Teach for America, a service program that places its volunteers in difficult public schools. Many (although not all) decide that quite radical reform is essential. Traditional liberals, libertarian-leaning conservatives, good-government reformers, and others will have different hopes about what a stint on the public payroll may teach. In my view, we should learn from young people who have that experience.

Having mentioned some advantages of service, I would like to note some drawbacks. Federally funded "service" is only a temporary opportunity available to a minority of Americans. It has official limitations; for instance, AmeriCorps forbids political activity. And the quality of service opportunities varies immensely. Peace Corps volunteers may be involved in complex problem-solving in exotic locales, but some service programs just put kids on a bus to clean up the local park.

For these reasons, we must make sure that the service agenda does not swallow up a broader agenda for citizen engagement. In the recent National Conference on Citizenship survey that we helped to write and analyze, 69% of people strongly supported the ideas embodied in the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act; another 18% supported it (not strongly); and only 9% opposed it. But we know, from asking people what the word "service" connotes for them, that it implies episodic charitable or "helping" behavior. In the same survey, we asked Americans whether they favored “changing the law so that local citizens must take the lead in setting standards and choosing tests for students in their local schools.” Fifty percent favored increasing local citizen control (34% strongly); but 36.5% opposed this idea (21.5% strongly). In general, people with more education were less supportive, perhaps reflecting their comfort with expert-designed tests and curricula. People at least 25 years old who had never attended college were very supportive (60% in favor, 40% strongly), whereas respondents with graduate educations were strongly opposed.

In short, "service" is the politically easy part of restoring active citizenship in America. It holds promise, but it also faces limits. I support S. 3487 as a piece of the reform agenda, but I worry that it will come to represent success.

Posted by peterlevine at 3:55 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 24, 2008

The Democracy Imperative

(en route from Washington to Bates College in Maine, via Boston). I'm on a sort of a road trip with not much time in front of computers for blogging. Instead I would like briefly to advertise The Democracy Imperative, whose website is now full of useful and current material. TDI fills an important niche: deliberative democracy in colleges and universities. It's not only a gathering of college professors and administrators who use deliberation in their own classrooms and dorms, but also a place to think about deliberation in the governance of colleges and about true dialog between colleges and their communities. Membership is free; here's where you join.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:09 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 23, 2008

public opinion about "community organizing"

(Washington, DC) Sarah Palin and Rudy Guiliani used the phrase "community organizer" as an epithet at the Republican National Convention, evidently hoping that many Americans would associate the phrase with leftists (or perhaps with urban minorities). I think this was a mistake. In the 2008 Civic Health Index (pdf), we had asked respondents to offer any words that came to mind when they heard the phrase "community organizing" (along with "service," "democracy," "citizenship," and several others).

The most common category of responses to "community organizing" (at 31%) involved helping others locally. These responses suggested that the respondents basically identified community organizing with volunteering or charity, although sometimes there was an emphasis on the process of being organized (e.g., “group of people getting together for one cause”). Older respondents were less likely to mention helping behaviors. Twenty-one percent said they did not know what this phrase meant. Ten percent gave a vague positive response (“good,” “important”) and five percent offered a vague negative answer (“opinionated,” “pushy,” or “waste of time”). Almost 6% mentioned a particular community organization such as the YMCA, labor unions, or a neighborhood watch. A total of about 5% either cited political activity or the government in some way. When the survey was conducted in July, only seven individuals out of almost 700 respondents mentioned Barack Obama, who had worked as a community organizer.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:26 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 22, 2008

an exciting day for CIRCLE

(Madison, WI) I wrote this on Sunday in preparation for an exciting day at the National Archives and the Newseum in Washington, DC.

First, at the Archives, the National Conference on Citizenship will release its 2008 national survey of Americans' Civic Health, which includes questions about public support for policies that would encourage citizen participation. A whole "civic policy agenda" emerges from the survey data. CIRCLE designed and led the analysis of the survey. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and others will speak on the program at the Archives. Check out NCOC.net for the survey results.

Second, in the same venue, the Corporation for National and Community Service will announce a set of new grants. CIRCLE won several of these. We received $570,000 to build (and study) a new online social network for college students in the Boston area. Students will conduct community research, discuss, compete, and thereby strengthen their service and activism. We were also asked to serve as the lead evaluator for a whole group of new grantees who are working on social networking projects. And we received a separate grant to analyze national data on volunteering and other forms of engagement.

Third, the National Conference on Citizenship will hold a kind of mini-conference on how to carry civic engagement past Election Day, with many experts and leaders around the table to discuss strategy.

I'll be blogging about the Boston social network, the survey data, new strategic ideas, and other substantive matters in the weeks to come.

Posted by peterlevine at 3:13 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 19, 2008

time to get an economic message

My mentor and former boss Bill Galston has a sharply worded message for Barack Obama: "You are in danger of squandering an election most of us thought was unlosable. The reason is simple: on the electorate’s most important concern – the economy -- you have no clear message, and John McCain has filled the void with his own." Bill adds that Obama needs a tight diagnosis of the current fiasco plus a "focused, parsimonious list of remedies."

I think voters have plenty of reasons to oppose the Republican ticket in 2008. Therefore, it doesn't matter much whether Americans know about McCain's changes of position or Palin's tanning bed (or McCain's lobbyist advisers and Palin's ethics investigation). Nor will the election be affected much by my favorite issues--service, civic engagement, and political reform. It all boils down to what people think Obama would do about the economy.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:01 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 17, 2008

how to honor Constitution Day

Yesterday was Constitution Day. It's so named because it marks the anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution in 1787. It's certainly an auspicious date. Since 2005, every educational institution in America that receives federal funding--from a kindergarten to a graduate school--must observe Constitution Day by providing some kind of educational program about the Constitution. Apparently, the legislation that created this obligation (an amendment to the 2004 omnibus spending bill introduced by Senator Robert Byrd) is constitutional (pdf). That means that no court should strike it down. Nevertheless, I think students could profitably observe Constitution Day by asking:

Posted by peterlevine at 8:34 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

the civic potential of video games

Many adults who care about civic and ethical education are hostile to video games. We assume that gaming is a solitary, passive, violent activity, unrelated to issues in the real world. Actually, games vary enormously; some of the most popular ones are challenging simulations of democracy and social issues. And gaming is not always solitary; sometimes it is a social and cooperative passtime.

According to the most ambitious and careful study to date, "Civic Implications of Video Games," what matters is not whether or how much kids play video games. The question is which games they play and how they play them.

For example, there are strong positive correlations between playing the Sims and active civic engagement in the real world. This is perhaps not too surprising because the Sims requires active thinking about social issues in a fictional setting. In contrast, Halo is a "first-person shooter" game. The report doesn't say that it correlates with traditional civic activity, but Halo does involve collaborating with other players online. Those who collaborate with others online are also more engaged in active citizenship. For instance, they are much more likely to talk about elections. Thus even Halo has some civic potential. We need to promote and celebrate the best games, develop more like them, and use them in conjunction with school, community, and family activities.

The whole report is worth careful study. It was written by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in collaboration with the Civic Education Research Group at Mills College.

Posted by peterlevine at 2:02 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 16, 2008

Sarah Palin and the cultural divide

Although this is already well-traveled terrain, I'd like to venture a few paragraphs about why Americans seem so divided in their early reactions to Sarah Palin.

That we are divided seems clear. Even before there was much publicly available information about Gov. Palin, The New York Times ran an op-ed explaining what would happen if a vice-presidential nominee had to quit; and Republican consultants were recorded saying that her nomination was disastrous for their side. But also before any of us had much information, some Americans were so excited by her arrival on the national scene that the Republican ticket bounced up in the polls. This trend reflected an average--closer inspection showed enormous differences by state.

Pretty clearly, some kind of "elite" is opposed to some kind of a "populist base" on the question of Sarah Palin, who supposedly belongs to the latter camp. But this elite cannot be defined by money, because the Palins have quite a bit of that--as do many of the excited Republican delegates and voters. Nor is it about power: she is a governor, selected for national leadeship by a senior Senator. Nor is it about intellect, because none of us have any basis on which to judge how smart she is. If the "elite" side assumes she is dumb, that is about them, not her.

So maybe we should drop the term "elite" for the purposes of this discussion. There are relevant cultural divisions among wealthy and powerful Americans. For instance, Sarah Palin graduated from college after obtaining credits from several state schools; she married a man without a college degree. Barack Obama was the editor of the Harvard Law Review and an instructor at the University of Chicago. It would be extremely rare for someone in his shoes to marry a woman with much less than Michelle Obama's educational attainment (a Princeton BA). I say this not as a value-judgment. I would be the first to dispute the assumption that Princeton and Harvard add more value, or educate better, or produce more qualified graduates, than Western state colleges and fishing crews. I merely state, as a sociological observation, that people like Barack Obama value certain kinds of educational attainment so much that they expect it of their spouses and children. The same is true of many strong Obama supporters and Palin denigrators. They may not have Harvard degrees, but they value them.

Harvard and Princeton are just symbols of this divide. They are not "liberal" institutions in any tight sense of that term (they are enormously rich; lightly regulated, private institutions that graduate tons of Republicans). But they stand for one side of a Kulturkampf. Other markers of this divide include evangelical Christianity, hunting and fishing, the suburbs versus the cities, and one's attitudes toward the metropolitan coasts. If you have lots of money and you're on Sarah Palin's side of the divide, you're likely to spend it on country club memberships and hunting trips. On the other side, people travel to Tuscany and drink those lattes whose mention is inevitable in posts such as this one.

We don't have to like each other, but we are going to have to live together, and that means that it's important not to let these differences blow out of all reason. There are, after all, fundamental ways that people like Obama and Palin are alike. There are also many, many Americans who are not much like either of them. It's not a bipolar country; it's a great kaleidoscope.

Posted by peterlevine at 5:31 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 15, 2008

in Western New York State

I'm traveling to SUNY Geneseo in the western Finger Lakes region of New York State to give a seminar and a talk. I'll be back in the blogging business tomorrow.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 12, 2008

video from the Service Nation summit

I continue to be very impressed that our colleagues from the service movement managed to get both national presidential candidates to endorse a service agenda on 9/11 in New York City, as a centerpiece of their "truce" on that auspicious day. CNN has lots of interesting video clips from their interviews.

Here is Barack Obama talking about "active citizenship" (that's exactly what we call it at Tufts) in thoughtful ways and then summarizing his policy agenda for civilian service and service-learning:

The clip entitled "A Reminder of the American Spirit" is longish but it's interesting at the end when Obama starts talking about concrete ways that citizens and government could work together on key national challenges.

And here is John McCain making two fair points--the climate of the campaign would have been better if Obama had agreed to meet him in frequent town meetings; and he does respect community organizing:

PS: I just read this denunciation of McCain's claim about town-hall meetings. As a clarification, let me say that I do not believe those meetings would have improved the climate because the candidates would have gotten to know each other better. Personal dynamics would have had nothing to do with it. Forums would have improved the climate because they would have attracted a lot of attention and thereby made other forms of media somewhat less important. During the forums themselves, the candidates would have been rewarded for relatively substantive and respectful discourse.

This is a nonpartisan blog. From my nonpartisan, civic perspective, I will argue that both campaigns could behave better (and that both have been helpful at times--as shown above). My nonpartisan stance will not, however, prevent me from opining that the McCain campaign has deliberately taken the low road in deeply disappointing ways that will damage both the civic climate and the candidate's own reputation for honorable leadership.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:58 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 11, 2008

value-judgments in testing

It would be possible to create a valid and reliable test of the 10 greatest virtues of Saddam Hussein. Those virtues could even be facts about him: for example, that he was unafraid to die. Such a test would be morally worse--really worse, not just worse in my opinion--than a test of students' understanding of the First Amendment.

I write this to try to shake people's confidence in a prevalent theory about research, evaluation, assessment, testing, and accountability. This theory holds that measurement should be scientific. Everyone knows that evaluators always hold opinions and make value-judgments. But their values are often treated as problematic, as evidence of bias or subjectivity or political agendas. Values should be disclosed, investigated, and minimized: the hold of that positivist theory is strong even decades after it was rejected in philosophy.

The alternative, of course, is to say that when we evaluate, we make value judgments. Some judgments are better than others. Our most important responsibility is to hold good values. Since our value-judgments differ, we'd better discuss them--not just to disclose them and acknowledge our differences, but to reason together about what is right.

I currently serve on a federal test committee. We receive "items" (test questions) written by consultants. We reject some proposed questions on scientific grounds. For instance, when tested in a lab, some items prove to be confusing for reasons unexpected by the writers. That is an empirical finding that should matter. We also rely on scientific expertise to tell us how many questions we need to obtain a reliable measure, how many kids need to be tested to make estimates about populations, and so on.

But ultimately the item-writers choose questions because of their beliefs about what kids should know. They are guided by written standards, which are themselves statements of moral value, albeit rather vague ones. When we on the committee reject questions, it is usually because of our values. For instance, we may say that a topic is trivial. We have expertise, but that really means that we have clawed our way into jobs that allow us to express opinions about what is important. We also decide how difficult each question is. That depends somewhat on empirical evidence about what average kids actually know. But it also essentially depends on what we think they should know.

I don't believe that the irreducibly moral nature of testing and evaluation is a problem. It reflects the irreducibly moral nature of everything that matters in life. Nor is it necessarily a mistake to hire experts and consultants to write tests. We need reasonably independent, experienced, committed referees who can focus intensely on the task of evaluating kids. What is a mistake is to interpret the results of a test as "scientific" or to regard the intrusion of values as "bias" or as "politics." The only alternatives to "politics" are boring homogeneity, spurious objectivity, utter thoughtlessness, or a dictatorship.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:55 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 10, 2008

my stump speech

Within the next few weeks, I will be speaking to students and faculty at SUNY Geneseo and Bates College, high school teachers in Wisconsin, and assorted leaders in DC. I'm working today on my generic talk, which I will customize for the various audiences. I call it somewhat jokingly my "stump speech." I realize that the outline looks more like a lecture than a speech, although I do mix it up with stories and rhetorical asides when I'm actually on the podium. (The whole key to effective speaking, as the ancients knew and the better speakers at this year's conventions demonstrated, is variatio: shifting from anecdote and low-key information to passionate exhortation, to keep people interested.) Anyway, if by any chance you plan to attend one of my live talks, read no further; I don't want you to be bored. If not, you can click below to see the draft speech.

Young people are very engaged in this election. In the primaries, youth turnout doubled compared to 2000. Anecdotes and some survey evidence show that young people are also:


I’ve been saying that the kids and the candidates are both acting differently. (Excuse me for saying “kids”; it alliterates with “candidates.”)

Reporters ask me what the candidates are doing to reach young people online. I say that this is the wrong question. Obama’s Facebook page is not causing young people to “friend” him. It’s not better than McCain’s Facebook page. And Obama’s campaign didn’t even create his page—independent students did. So the online activity is mostly driven by the kids, not the candidates. That is a very important shift in power.

By the way, the increase in youth turnout is not all about Obama. It started in 2004, when he was not yet on the ballot. It propelled Mike Huckabee to his victory in Iowa—and it was a deliberate part of his strategy there. And overall, a majority of young primary voters (counting both parties) voted for someone other than Obama. He came in first, but he did not utterly dominate.

I would claim that the increase in youth turnout is a Good Thing. Why?

It is a sign or symptom that kids are involved in other ways besides voting. Voting doesn’t stand on its own. It correlates with things like following the news, caring about social issues, talking to other people about issues, and belonging to groups. These forms of participation are good for young people.

Lots of evidence shows that kids who are engaged with social institutions do better in life. They are more likely to stay in school and stay out of trouble. This is consistent with the psychological theory known as “positive youth development,” which says that if you want young people to thrive, you should give them opportunities to contribute. It is not effective to treat them as a bundle of problems or potential problems and test, treat, survey, and discipline them. They need a feeling of purpose and value that you undermine by treating them as crises-waiting-to-happen. Service and activism programs have been found to prevent pregnancy and reduce dropout.

By the way, I doubt that voting itself is much of a positive developmental experience. If you could get an at-risk kid to vote but not do anything else, that probably wouldn’t help him or her to thrive. That’s why I said that the rise in voting is a good sign or symptom of greater youth engagement. And indeed, youth are doing better than they were in the 80s and 90s—teen crime, violence, pregnancy, and drug-use are all down.

What I just said was a very non-political take on voting; but of course voting also has political value. So let me turn to that.

Youth voting is important because youth have different interests than older people, and they need to be represented. For instance, Social Security is a bigger issue for seniors than for youth, and it gets disproportionate attention from politicians. Unemployment for ages 16-19 is 18%, compared to 3.8 percent for ages 25 and older. But candidates never talk about unemployment as a youth issue—because youth don’t vote enough.

More importantly, we need to tap young people’s energies to address our national challenges, and especially the challenges that involve young people themselves, such as the high school dropout rate.

My list of grievous national challenges would include the dropout rate—which is about one third—the enormous deficit, homeland security threats, and global warming. Your list might be different, but we all agree that the country must deal with complex and serious problems.

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

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

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

If we want this to happen, we must focus on youth It is very hard to think of programs, projects, or even movements that have changed passive adults into active citizens.

Again, voting is only one way to address public problems. It’s part of a package, not the be-all and end-all. But if young people are NOT voting, chances are they’re not finding ways to address serious problems. Maybe all they are doing is direct, one-on-one service, which is fine but inadequate.

So young people are involved in this election, and that’s a Good Thing. Can we relax?

No, for several crucial reasons.

First, youth participation is very uneven. If we look at college students and young adults with some college experience, about one in four voted in the primaries. But only one in fourteen young adults WITHOUT college experience voted. And they represent half of all young people.

Class differences in political engagement are severe and worse than they were twenty years ago. The gaps are just as bad for volunteering, joining groups, attending meetings, and working on community projects.

Part of the reason is that it’s harder to reach young adults in the workforce than to reach college students. Especially nowadays, young workers are dispersed. They’re not all together at a unionized factory; they’re all apart at strip malls and convenience stores.

But we also make matters worse by reserving almost all of the experiences that connect young people to politics for our more successful students. So in high school, you are much more likely to have a student government, a school newspaper, a service opportunity, or a discussion of current events if you’re on track to college. College provides additional experiences that you miss if you don’t attend college. And many special opportunities are competitive and monopolized by strong students. Those who need civic education most, get it least.

There are other gaps besides the big class gap. Turnout differs enormously from state to state, in part because levels of competition are so different. Youth turnout is often twice as high in Minnesota as it is down the big river in Mississippi. That suggests that the issue isn’t “youth,” it’s how youth engage in various contexts. And we can change those contexts through political reform.

Second, there are big differences in opinion about the current election. [Embargoed stats here on attitudes, from a forthcoming poll]

Third, and most important, there is no reason to think that engagement WITH an election will translate into engagement AFTER the election. Youth turnout rose sharply in 1992, the year of Bush I versus Clinton and Perot. Nevertheless, the 1990s were a decade of low and declining youth engagement. Voting and other forms of political engagement rise and fall in response to major political events. Other forms of engagement shift gradually as a result of deep social factors such as changes in the economy, technology, and demographics.

When we asked people recently whether they think they will be involved with the issues debated DURING the election AFTER Nov. 4, their expectations were fairly low. [Again, embargoed survey data to come]

But Americans are philosophically in favor of citizen engagement. They clearly believe that things work better when citizens and the government collaborate. And we know, from social science, that they are right. Schools, for example, are much more successful when parents and other citizens and also other organizations (like churches and colleges) share responsibility for education.

So how can we sustain engagement after November Fourth?

For k-12 teachers, probably the most important message is to promote civil, balanced discussions of current events both during the election and in the years to come. Kids who study civics know more and are more interested than kids who don’t. Some research finds that the whole impact of civics classes on civic engagement is thanks to the discussions that happen in class.

Promoting discussion in class can also send off interesting ripples. Mike McDevitt has found that such discussions contribute to conversations at home and even raise parents’ voter turnout.

These discussions need to be moderated, which is a skill. It is especially challenging for younger teachers to moderate current events discussions because the examples we see on TV are awful shouting matches, and few classes used discussion back in the 1980s and 1990s when today’s younger teachers were students. They need professional development. There are also good materials and models from the National Issues Forums, Public Agenda Foundation, Choices, and other groups.

We also need to change reward structures so that teachers CAN promote discussion of current events. Skills and knowledge related to current events are not measured on tests, which is a disincentive. There used to be whole courses devoted to reading the newspaper and discussing issues, but those have been cut. And controversial discussions can get teachers into hot water. They need policymakers’ support.

For other citizens, we need policies to institutionalize and promote civic engagement between elections and throughout the lifespan. We have tested some proposed policies in national surveys [more embargoed results here] and some ideas attract strong, bipartisan support.

There is strong support for expanding national and community service, which means federally run or funded programs that range from the Peace Corps and VISTA to City Year and Youth Build. Most of these programs have to turn away most of their applicants. They provide pay or tuition benefits, but the rewards are very modest. There is strong support for increasing these opportunities. On Sept 11 in New York City, both presidential candidates took a “time out” from campaigning to endorse the idea. [details on their endorsements]

So it appears that national and community service programs will expand. Those will give some people opportunities to be engaged. Much depends on the nature of the engagement. Providing direct, hands-on service is OK, but that’s a lot like a regular job. It’s important for the national and community service programs to involve elements of deliberation, collaboration, and problem-solving. The Peace Corps and VISTA certainly do so already. The other programs may need to be rethought somewhat.

There is also strong support for more public deliberation. An organization on whose board I sit, AmericaSpeaks, has developed a proposal called “Millions of Voices.” Millions of Americans would be recruited to discuss a particular issue, such as climate change. They would develop ideas, deliberate, and vote. Congress would be required to hold legislative hearings on their recommendations. [Poll data here on that idea]

In my opinion, these special opportunities and processes are important, but insufficient. They cannot be allowed to stand alone, so that when you’re NOT voting, working full-time for an Americorps program, or attending a deliberation, you’re not involved.

I would like to see us restructure our regular programs and institutions so that they encourage more civic engagement. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001—the most influential education legislation in 30 years—continues a recent trend of centralizing power of schools. What kids study is increasingly determined by what is tested. Experts in places like Princeton, NJ write the tests. All kinds of value-judgments and decisions about priorities can no longer be made at the local level. As a result, citizen involvement in schools is no longer as important as it once was.

In fact, citizen involvement in schools has been falling for thirty years, and while the reasons may be complex, one cause is the gradual takeover of education by small numbers of experts, epitomized but not begun by NCLB.

Reversing that trend is controversial. [embargoed poll data].

Education is just one example—we could also be talking about how to increase citizen involvement in the environment, crime prevention, and even national security. But that’s the hard part and there are many tough issues and resistant constituencies.

Let me end by suggesting why all this is important.

Civic engagement, at its best, is an alternative to politics as we know it. Good examples of service-learning, youth-led research, youth media production, and deliberation of current issues, are profoundly counter-cultural. They exemplify a kind of politics that is in desperately short supply today.

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

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

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

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

In general, our politics is state-centered. Liberals want the government to accept new tasks, such as health insurance; whereas conservatives believe that problems would be mitigated if the state were shrunk.

Governments are important, but they are not the only institutions that matter. Furthermore, a state-centered view of politics leaves citizens little to do but inform themselves and vote. Youth civic engagement at its best epitomizes a citizen-centered politics in which people form relationships with peers, express their interests and listen to others, and then use a range of strategies, some having little to do with the state.

In general, our politics is manipulative. Experts—politicians, pundits, consultants, marketers, leaders of advocacy groups, and the like—study us, poll us, focus-group us, and assign us to gerrymandered electoral districts; they slice-and-dice us; and then they send us tailored messages designed to encourage us—or to scare us—into acting just how they want.

This is true of liberal politicians as well as conservative ones. It is true of public interest lobbies as well as business lobbies. It is true of big nonprofits as well as political parties.

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

Americans know they are being manipulated, and they resent it. They want to be able to decide for themselves what is important, what should be done, and then act in common to address their problems. They are interested in what other people think; they want to get out of what students call their “bubbles.” They want an open-ended, citizen-centered politics in which the outcomes are not predetermined by professionals.

Civic engagement, at its best, is open-ended politics. We don’t try to manipulate our students or neighbors into adopting opinions or solutions that we think are right—-at least, we shouldn’t. We give them opportunities to deliberate and reflect and then act in ways that seem best to them. In a time of increasingly sophisticated manipulative politics, these opportunities are precious.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:19 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 9, 2008

"love" as a family-resemblance word

This is one of several recent posts in which I struggle with definitions of the word "love" as a way of thinking about how we define moral concepts, generally. Here I borrow the idea of “family-resemblance” from the later Wittgenstein. Sometimes, we recognize that people belong to a family, not because they all have one feature in common, but because each individual looks like many of his or her relatives in many ways. Maybe eight out of twelve family members have similar noses; a different six out of the twelve have the same color hair; and a yet another seven have the same chin. Then they all resemble each other, although there is no (non-trivial) common denominator. Wittgenstein argued that some--although not all--perfectly useful words are like this. They name sets of objects that resemble one another; but members of each set do not share any defining feature. Their resemblance is a statistical clustering, a greater-than-random tendency to share multiple traits.

A good example is “curry,” which the dictionary defines as a dish flavored with several ground spices. The word “curry” thus describes innumerable individual cases, where each one resembles many of the rest, but there is no single ingredient or other characteristic that they all share. Nor is there a clear boundary between curry and other dishes. Is bouillabaisse a curry? Clearly not, although the dictionary’s definition applies to it. Indeed, any definition will prove inadequate, yet we can learn to recognize a curry and distinguish it from other kinds of food. If we want to teach someone how to use the word “curry,” we will serve several particular examples and also perhaps some dishes that are not curries. If the student draws the conclusion that a curry must always contain coriander, or must be soupy, or must be served over rice, then we can serve another curry that meets none of these criteria. Gradually, he will learn to use the word. Even sophisticates will debate about borderline cases, but that is the nature of such concepts. Their lack of definition does not make them useless.

It seems to me that “love” is also a family-resemblance word, because there is no common denominator to love for ice cream, love for a newborn baby, love of country, brotherly love for humanity, self-love, tough love, Platonic love, making love, amor fati, philately, etc. Some (but not all) of these forms of “love” involve a high regard for the object. Some (but not all) imply a commitment to care for the object. Some (but not all) signify an intense emotional state. Dictionaries cope by providing numerous definitions of love, thus suggesting that “love” means “lust” or “enthusiasm” or “adoration” or “agape” or “loyalty.” But “love” never quite means the same as any of these other words, because we faintly recognize all of its other meanings whenever it is used in a particular way. For instance, “love” is always different from “lust,” just because the former word can mean loyal adoration as well as sexual desire.

The experience of love is complex because one has usually loved before in several different ways and has seen, heard, or read many descriptions of other loves; and these past examples and descriptions become part of one's present experience. “Love” is a family-resemblance word that brings its family along when it visits.

When we read a literary work that vividly describes an example of love, it changes our experience of the concept. Any philosophical discussion of "love" must be a discussion of the experience; and therefore what we conclude philosophically must depend (in part) on how love has been portrayed for us in the arts. (Cf. Tzachi Zamir, Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama, p. 127).

Posted by peterlevine at 2:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 8, 2008

McCain and Obama in dialogue with young citizens

Sabrina Karim critically reviews statements that Senators McCain and Obama provided for the latest issue of Teaching Tolerance Magazine. Karim's critique is thoughtful and target, but it also seems worth noting that both national candidates chose to write for this venue and both addressed young people as active, contributing citizens. They wouldn't have thought that way 5 or 10 years ago.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 5, 2008

Palin on commmunity organizing

This line from Sarah Palin's convention speech has people in my world--the non-partisan world of civic engagement--furious: "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities."

I wrote a letter to my new home-town newspaper, the Boston Globe, but they printed a better one instead. I submitted mine online and didn't keep a copy, but the gist was this. It's strange that a Republican candidate would imply that only people who work for the government and use tax dollars have "responsibilities." Community organizers organize citizen volunteers in civil society, in the great tradition of the Committees of Correspondence, the abolitionists, the Civil Rights Movement, and the labor movement. There was a time when Republicans prided themselves on recognizing the power and responsibility of the private sector. But apparently they are so zealous to retain control of Washington power that they are willing to disparage active citizenship.

Posted by peterlevine at 2:28 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

September 4, 2008

what would Kant say about Peggy Noonan?

Yesterday morning, the speechwriter and columnist Peggy Noonan published a piece in the Wall Street Journal arguing that Sarah Palin was a great choice for vice president: potentially a "transformative political presence." Later the same day, she was recorded saying that Palin was not the best qualified person and was chosen because of "political bullshit about narratives and youthfulness."

What's wrong with this? Perhaps it's evidence of a lie. In the morning, Noonan published a proposition about her own feelings toward Palin. In the afternoon, she said a different proposition about her own feelings. If the two claims were contradictory, then she lied unless she changed her mind. But I'm not sure they're flatly contradictory, since the original column was at least somewhat conflicted: Palin, she wrote, "is either going to be brilliant and groundbreaking, or will soon be the target of unattributed quotes by bitter staffers shifting blame in all the Making of the President 2008 books." I think that's compatible with saying that Palin was chosen for a foolish reason. Noonan could be hopeful about Palin, yet suspicious of the reasons she was chosen. In short, the case for a lie seems weak to me.

Instead of treating Noonan's private remarks as evidence of mendacity, we could accuse her of violating Kant's principle of publicity: "All actions relating to the right of other human beings are wrong if their maxim is incompatible with publicity." The idea is that one can test the rightness of an action by asking whether the actor's private reason for so acting could be made public. If you cannot disclose the reason you have done P, you should not do P. Peggy Noonan's private remarks suggest that she thought Palin was probably a bad choice. But she could not say that in the Wall Street Journal without hurting the Republican ticket and costing herself powerful friends. So she shouldn't have written her Wall Street Journal column, according to at least one interpretation of Kant.

The publicity principle can seem over-demanding. Does it mean that one cannot mutter something to one's spouse unless one would also announce it in an office meeting? The glare of publicity can expunge the safe shadows of a private or personal life. That thought gives me a little sympathy for public figures like Peggy Noonan who are caught on tape being frank with friends. (Jesse Jackson and many others have done the same.) But Kant offered his publicity principle in a book about politics (Perpetual Peace), and he qualified it by limiting it to "actions relating to the right of other human beings." In other words, it applies to willing participants in the world of power, law, and politics--not to private individuals. By writing a column in the Wall Street Journal, Noonan committed herself to a public role. The implied promise to her readers was that she was acting transparently and sincerely in that public arena. If her private remarks show otherwise, then she violated Kant's publicity principle.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:19 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 3, 2008

half the kids are below average

Charles Murray, notorious for The Bell Curve and other provocations, has a new book entitled Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality. I haven't read the book, so I shouldn't criticize it. But I have read the promotional materials and the op-ed version of Murray's argument, which I can criticize as independent texts.

Murray emphasizes that "Half of the children are below average. Many children cannot learn more than rudimentary reading and math." It supposedly follows that "too many people are going to college," and our schools are diverting too many resources to the impossible task of preparing everyone for higher education. "America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. An elite already runs the country, whether we like it or not. ... It is time to start thinking about the kind of education needed by the young people who will run the country. The task is not to give them more advanced technical training, but to give them an education that will make them into wiser adults; not to pamper them, but to hold their feet to the fire."

The op-ed version of this argument makes a very simple error. True, half the kids are below average, and it's impossible to "Leave No Child Behind" if that means leaving no one below the median. But it is very possible to raise the actual skills and knowledge of the whole student population so that the median student in 2010 knows more than the median student knew in 1990. Certainly, the median student of today knows a whole bunch of things that nobody knew a century ago (even as he or she has lost some knowledge that used to be more common, such as some grasp of Latin). If the goal of education reform is to remove variation in student outcomes, it is--as Murray argues--doomed. But if the goal is to teach all students more, that can be achieved.

I do, by the way, agree that education is partly a positional good--there are always people who obtain more of it than others do, and they always have social and economic advantages. Thus raising the quantity and quality of an educational system will not necessarily reduce inequality. I also agree that some kind of elite is inevitable and that it's important to teach them to connect their self-interest to the public interest. But neither of these doses of realism should discourage us from educating all kids better.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:34 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 2, 2008

the role of charity

When Hurricane Gustav set its sights on New Orleans, the national political campaigns and parties instinctively started to raise money for NOLA charities. They were following the example set after Katrina, when the private sector contributed at least $6.5 billion (PDF). (And that doesn't count the market value of volunteer time.) For comparison: the storm did an estimated $150 billion in damage; and the federal government has spent about $120.5 billion on relief (PDF). So the total value of Katrina philanthropy equals about 5% of federal funding.

Classic progressives might say that charity is too scanty, too episodic and unpredictable, and too unfairly distributed to matter much. Our attention should be focused on government aid. High-profile efforts to raise private money are distractions. Democrats should be especially reluctant to raise private money after a crisis, because their role is to put the government under scrutiny.

I only partly agree with this. Federal funding must and did dwarf private funding. But private money is useful for supporting experimental or adversarial activities that the government can't touch. Also, individual contributors and volunteers create contacts and social networks. One local activist, Tim Williamson, said "Pre-Katrina New Orleans was an insular, closed community. .... Katrina has opened up the networks." These human connections can be powerful. Finally, private money can support the kind of leadership and coordination that we normally expect of government. Foundations funded the Unified New Orleans Plan, a highly participatory and deliberative process. Compared to the structures created by local, state, and federal governments, the United New Orleans Plan was much better.

Overall, I would say that we need two things for any major public project (such as rebuilding a city): resources and structure. Resources can come from taxes or from private donors and volunteers. The danger of emphasizing private philanthropy is that it can let the government off the hook. But a balance of private and public funds is valuable.

Structure is at least as important as money and work, and we get structure from laws, regulations, and policies. But it is dangerous for official political leaders to set all the rules and priorities. Certainly, official institutions, from the New Orleans school system to the Army Corps of Engineers, made a hash of the job before Katrina. Governmental policies are generally better when citizens help to shape them more than they did in pre-Katrina NOLA. Besides, governmental policies are not sufficient because private institutions (from colleges and universities to churches) need to set policies and priorities, too. It's important to coordinate across sectors.

The Katrina tragedy showed that government resources were woefully inadequate for the city of New Orleans. But the lack of money wasn't as big a problem as the poor management of public institutions both before and after the storm. Katrina also proved that Americans are generous with their money and voluntary time. But the money and labor wasn't spent as effectively as it should have been, because civil society wasn't adequately organized and participatory.

Ideally, the parties would be debating these issues instead of just dialing for dollars.

Posted by peterlevine at 1:46 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 1, 2008

executive experience

I was thinking about the charge that Barack Obama lacks executive experience: they say he has even less than Governor Palin. It occurred to me that a modern presidential campaign is a rather large enterprise of which the candidate is the executive. That thought sent me to OpenSecrets.org, which provides some handy charts of campaign contributions and expenditures. Obama has raised about $390 million so far and spent $312 million. That's a lot less than the $4.3 billion annual budget of Alaska; but it's a lot of money, and he controls it all directly. He's spent a little less than half--$152 million--on media, the vast majority of that on broadcast. I don't know how many people he employs, but he has spent $40 million on salaries, not counting consultants and vendors. This whole enterprise is an enormous start-up, operating in a highly competitive environment and under relentless scrutiny. One can debate whether running such an operation is a good test of the skills required of a president. That it represents "executive experience" seems clear.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:39 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Site Meter