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June 10, 2009

beyond civic piety

This is one of the most popular quotations in my world. I can't count how many times I've seen it printed out and hung on office walls. I think I understand the motivations that led Mead to say it. She was exhorting us to work together and make the world better.

But what she said isn't literally true. Technological changes, institutional inertia, markets, clashes of social classes and other demographic groups, disciplined organizations, violence, tyranny, and sheer accidents also "change the world." For instance, a big flood recently changed New Orleans a whole lot. It changed the city for the worse, and that brings up a separate problem with Margaret Mead's quotation. Changing the world is morally ambiguous--it can be good or bad. The World War I veterans who gathered around Mussolini and Hitler were "small group[s] of ... committed citizens," and they made the world a lot worse. I deleted the word "thoughtful" in describing them, but they did think a lot about social issues and strategies. They just thought in a bad way.

I don't mean to take cheap shots at Margaret Mead, but rather to emphasize that we need a really serious investigation of these questions:

Of course, there is great writing on these topics, of which we selected some favorite texts for our Summer Institute's syllabus. But I believe there is much less scholarship than you would expect, for these reasons:

June 10, 2009 12:00 PM | category: none


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