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November 30, 2009

Wikipedia entries as class assignments

Jon Beasley-Murray, a Canadian professor of Spanish literature, assigned to his students the task of writing Wikipedia entries on various important Spanish-language novels. Each student would receive an A if his or her work achieved "GA [good article] status," and an A+ if the work was named a Featured Article (of which there are about 2000 in English). Indeed, his student's page on El Señor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias became a Featured Article.

There is an insightful interview with Beasley-Murray on Wikipedia Signpost. He tells interesting stories about challenges and strategies for overcoming them. He also makes the general point that "educational technology" tends to ghettoize students' work on private, amateurish sites. He prefers to involve his classes in producing real social media. His students' best articles are being viewed about 600,000 times a year.

I like the idea of asking students to contribute to Wikipedia. Apparently, quite a few other professors and some secondary-school teachers have done so. In a similar vein, I asked my students this fall to publish their weekly writing assignments on a blog. We all agreed that it would not get much traffic, and it will probably be temporary, because the class is helping to build a much more sophisticated social networking website that will make the blog obsolete. Still, the act of "publishing" their work--making it accessible to search engines--has ethical and motivational significance. It means that they must consider what a community member would feel who came across their work. They are in the public sphere, which is where real citizenship takes place.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:57 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 25, 2009

the Center for Civic Education audit

The Center for Civic Education, a national nonprofit organization that is mostly funded by the United States Department of Education, was recently audited. In USA Today, Matt Kelley's article is headlined, "Audit: Civic education group misused $5.9M." The Center is responding aggressively, disputing most of the accusations and asserting that the media coverage (which I think means only the USA Today story so far) "contain[s] numerous inaccuracies." Their full response is here (PDF).

The Center is correct to note that the "audit is the first step in a process that could take several months and will result in a resolution made by the Department of Education." We should hope that this process ultimately vindicates the Center and the charges turn out to be inaccurate or merely technical. I have read the full report but have neither the expertise nor the standing to assess it.

I am concerned that the fallout from this news may damage federal support for civic education, which is already very weak. Public schooling was originally established in the United States in order to prepare Americans for democratic participation. Even before the launch of universal public schools, during the founding era, Congress decided that since schools were "necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind," "education shall forever be encouraged." That statement is from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which provided for the creation of public schools in the new territories of the west. Founders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush advocated more ambitious schemes of public education--not to improve students' employment prospects or to boost the economy, but to help Americans to participate in self-government.

Today, the federal investment in civic education is minuscule: about 0.06% of federal education spending. Civic education was absent from No Child Left Behind and has a marginal place in the federal bureaucracy. In schools and classrooms across America, actual civic education is often scarce, or dry and alienating, or reserved for more successful students (who also tend to be more affluent). There are severe gaps in opportunities for civic learning. Those gaps reinforce unequal outcomes. The voting and volunteering rates are twice as high for young people on a college track as for their non-college-bound peers.

Thus the federal government has a fundamental responsibility, not to provide civic education to American youth, but to help develop and encourage effective methods that can educate and motivate all students, including marginalized ones. At present, almost all of the federal investment for that purpose takes the form of subsidies to the Center for Civic Education. There are arguments for and against that strategy. I have argued against it, but I acknowledge that the Center's earmark has helped keep civic education alive in dark times and has created a durable, national network of civic educators. Whatever happens to the Center now, Congress and the Administration must increase--not drop--their support for civic education.

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November 24, 2009

accountability: relational and informational

Borrowing an idea from the Kettering Foundation President, David Mathews: Today's policymakers and experts tend to define "accountability" in terms of information. For instance, No Child Left Behind requires schools to collect and disclose reams of data about students' performance, teachers' credentials, etc. The idea is that well-informed parents will be able to apply pressure and make good choices for their kids. Similarly, the Administration has pledged to reveal unprecedented amounts of information about the stimulus spending (and is being beaten up for inaccuracies).

But most people do not think of accountability in informational terms. They think in terms of relationships. For example, in focus groups that Doble Research Associates conducted for the Kettering Foundation (back in 2001), parents were highly resistant to the idea that tests would be useful ways to hold school accountable. For one thing, they wanted to hold other parties accountable for education, starting with parents. A Baltimore woman said, "If kids don't pass the test, is that supposed to mean that teachers are doing a lousy job? That's not right. I mean where does the support come from? You're pointing the finger at them when you should be supporting them." Another (or possibly the same) Baltimore woman explained, "When I think about accountability, I think about parents taking responsibility for supervising their children's learning and staying in touch with teachers." This respondent not only wanted to broaden responsibility but also saw it in terms of communication. Many participants wanted to know whether schools, parents, and students had the right values. They doubted that data would answer that question. And although the report doesn't quite say this, I suspect they envision knowing individuals personally as the best way to assess their values. The focus groups turned to a discussion of relationships:

And so on--the conversation continues in this vein. Note that this is supposed to be a focus group about accountability in education. One Atlanta woman summed it up: "What we've got to do is develop a stronger sense of community between the schools and families in the community."I suspect that she envisions a situation in which school staff and parents know each other, share fundamental values, and commit to support one another. Information is pretty much irrelevant.

I think David Mathews' theory needs more investigation, including national survey data, because we don't know for how many people accountability is relational rather than informational. But let's assume that he's right about most Americans. In that case ...

First, we might discuss whether ordinary people or experts are wiser. There are pros and cons to both sides. Thinking about accountability in relational terms can be misleading. Just because you have known the new principal since you were kids and she wants her students to succeed doesn't mean she is doing a good job. Besides, once we are dealing with state or national policy, you cannot possibly know leaders personally. Thus you may start trying to assess their "character" based on imperfect and often biased sources instead of measuring their performance.

On the other hand, the focus group participants are right that any informational measure, such as a test score, is narrow and simplistic and even trivial. Many of the most important issues are values; over-reliance on information can sideline those issues and drive a wedge between citizens and institutions.

Regardless of who is right, I think this theory has powerful political implications. Especially on the left, leaders (often highly trained and skillful with information) keep hoping that by providing the public with data, they will make people happier. But parents like charter and voucher-funded private schools even when they perform poorly. I am convinced that that's because they feel they have a genuine relationship with those schools. There is a profound lesson here about how to reform education and other sectors.

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November 23, 2009

how to get better citizens

In the Sunday Times, Tom Friedman lists some of our grievous national problems and concludes:

I agree with that and have staked my whole career on this premise. But how do you get "better citizens"? Probably the most common answer is somehow to send people better messages: broadcast shows, ads, news articles, or speeches that are more accurate, complete, informative, and motivating. Since most actual messages are delivered by the mass media (and most serious observers from across the spectrum hold the mass media in contempt), another prevalent answer is to criticize or--ideally--to reform the media.

I am basically skeptical of this diagnosis and strategy. A large and diverse population can choose among a vast array of media sources, most of which survive by selling advertising. This audience varies a great deal in ideology, and also in knowledge and interest; but the average level of interest in serious public affairs is not high. Inevitably, the media fragment, pursue niche audiences, and provide a great deal more entertainment than news. Even the most ambitious reform proposal--a kind of BBC for the United States, with a nonpartisan board and lots of public money--would have a limited impact on the whole landscape. (The BBC's flagship "News at Ten" draws about 10 percent of the British population.) I know many people who hold Fox News responsible for bad aspects of our politics. But I see that channel less as a cause than an outcome of public tastes and values, plus media fragmentation. Conservatives who are frustrated by the "liberal media" should feel the same way about their least favorite channels.

To put the problem more concretely: I don't think you can send a sufficiently powerful "message" to promote good citizenship (even if your name happens to be Barack Obama), because you'll be competing with far too many other messages in an astoundingly crowded market driven by pre-existing motivations and tastes.

I therefore work on two alternatives:

1. Get them while they're young, receptive, and a captive audience. Build really engaging, unbiased, motivating, and informative civic education into the school curriculum. My blog posts categorized as advocating civic education and a high school civic curriculum are about that.

2. Reform institutions so that hands-on participation by ordinary adults is welcomed and rewarding. The theory is that people who see tangible impact from their own civic engagement (mainly at the local level) will want to be informed and to exchange ideas and perspectives with people different from themselves. My blog posts about deliberation and civic reform are about that.

I welcome Friedman's conclusion but wish he would get behind concrete solutions.

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November 20, 2009

burning carbon

(On a flight from Miami to Boston) I have a budding friendship with the airport taxi dispatcher in Watertown, MA. A TSA guy at Logan has recognized me: "You're the one with the DC driver's license." This fall, I've gone as far as Birmingham and Miami and back, each in a day. I know how to pick a seat on the Washington shuttle to maximize the chance of a view down the National Mall without obstruction from the wing.

I may be traveling a bit too much.

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November 19, 2009

some balance, please, on ACORN

I've been critical of ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) for its internal financial scandals and for its hard-edged, rather scripted mobilizing strategy which I have often observed to conflict with the kind of diverse, asset-based, skill-building, relational organizing that I admire more.

Still, the current criticisms of ACORN are ridiculously overblown. Because I am a federal grantee, my inbox contains a stern message not to let any of our federal money go to ACORN. That's because of an act of Congress that specifically names the organization and denies it all funds. I think such legislation is an unconstitutional bill of attainder, because Congress has penalized an individual organization without a trial. It passed the House by 232-178 and the Senate by 67-25.

Meanwhile, you can find daily accusations that ACORN steals elections. For instance, Doug Hoffman, the conservative Republican candidate in New York's 23 congressional district, claims that ACORN has been "scheming behind closed doors, twisting arms and stealing elections from the voters," thus allowing Democrat Bill Owens to claim more votes. If you Google the words "acorn steal obama election," you get 2,510,000 hits.

As far as I can tell, these accusations all stem from the fact that ACORN has submitted false names on voter registration lists--for instance, Mickey Mouse and the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys. That's because ACORN pays canvassers, and some of those canvassers try to cheat by filling their sheets with made-up names. ACORN is then required to submit the whole sheet (including the transparently fake names), because if an organization could cross off names, it could disenfranchise real voters. ACORN has flagged the obvious fake entries for special attention by elections officials. In any case, the only victim here is ACORN; Mickey Mouse is not going to vote.

Overall, ACORN does not represent my favorite style of organizing. But it is being relentlessly attacked for different reasons--because it represents poor people, and because it has network ties to Barack Obama and many other national Democrats.

Our system for voter registration is unconscionably complicated and difficult, and that's just an example of bureaucratic systems that make life hard for all Americans and especially for poor people who have rights to specific services. A lot of ACORN's work involves signing them up for their legal rights, including their right to vote. We shouldn't be picking on them for that reason.

[PS: "A new Public Policy Pollling survey finds that 52% of Republican voters nationally think that ACORN stole the Presidential election for Barack Obama last year, with only 27% granting that he won it legitimately."]

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November 18, 2009

online civic games

On a frenzied work day, these are sites I should not be visiting--but they are great ideas.

Impact-Inc. is a game (modeled on Mafia Wars) that lets you simulate running a nonprofit organization. This is where to click and play if you have a Facebook account.

Redistricting the Nation opposes gerrymandered electoral districts--one of our most serious political problems--and their site offers an opportunity to draw your own (imaginary) districts.

Our Courts (started by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor) provides Do I Have A Right? (a game in which you are a constitutional lawyer), and Supreme Decision (in which you are clerk to a Supreme Court justice).

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November 17, 2009

tensions over technocracy

Ina very valuable piece for National Affairs, William Schambra argues that Barack Obama is the epitome of a policy-oriented progressive; in fact, he is the first "genuine, life-long true believer" in that philosophy ever to occupy the Oval Office. The Progressive "policy approach" presumes that social science can tell us how to fix social problems. Problems are interconnected, hence they require comprehensive reforms rather than programs in separate silos. Standing in the way of the appropriate reforms are local prejudices and interests and "politics"--meaning horse-trading among popular leaders with interests and biases. The perfect manifestation of the Progressive policy approach is the appointment of a policy "czar," an expert, to resolve a broad and interconnected problem. The opposite is a compromise among ill-tutored Congressmen, or a loud objection from some morally outraged cultural group.

Schambra writes:

I endorse much of Schambra's critique of policy-oriented Progressivism. He believes it is an unrealistic doctrine and also undesirable because the clash of interests that it tries to replace with "science" actually reflects cultural vitality. This seems right to me:

I agree with that but am not sure that I share Schambra's reading of Barack Obama. Based on the president's writing and speaking, I think Obama understands the intractability and merit of moral commitments and disagreements. He sees personal behavior and community norms as essential components of social issues--and is often criticized from the left for that. He takes an "asset-based" approach to communities and is an excellent listener. His move away from discrete programs can be seen as arrogant (that's Schambra's view), but it can also be interpreted as a critique of the technocratic idea that problems can be disaggregated; Obama's is a more "holistic" approach. The modesty of the health care reform bill (for it is very modest) speaks to a recognition that you have to mend the ship of state while at sea. An arrogant--or more confident--Progressive would favor single-payer.

Finally, Obama has been criticized by the left for allowing Congress to horse-trade on essential issues like the stimulus package and health care, rather than presenting a detailed proposal from the administration. In that sense, it seems to me Obama has broken with technocratic Progressivism rather than epitomize it.

But in the end, I think the struggle over how to apply science to policy--and how to deal with moral resistance and disagreement--runs through the Democratic Party, the Obama Administration, and the president himself. Schambra has nicely identified one side of that argument, even as he underestimates the importance of the other side.

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November 16, 2009

where the corruption lies

I haven't seen polling on corruption, but I suspect that most Americans see some aspects of our society as "corrupted" in an important sense of that word. Institutions' appropriate, original purposes have been twisted or adulterated until they serve harmful purposes. The great dividing question is, Where do you see the most corruption?

The libertarian/conservative story is that the federal government was created for very limited purposes (the enumerated powers of the Constitution) and has since been corrupted by elites to serve their own illegitimate ends at the expense of individual freedom. One can debate whether the functions of the modern federal government are appropriate and beneficial. Regardless, I disagree with the premise that the federal octopus keeps expanding. As a percentage of GDP, federal revenues have been steady at about 17-20% since the Depression. That means that if increased taxation is a sign of corruption, FDR corrupted us but there has been little change since. What has changed is the nature of federal regulation and activism. Forty years years ago, the national government was involved in welfare (AFDC) and school integration (busing), it drafted many young men to fight in an unpopular and deadly war, and it regulated the financial markets, which were basically public stock and bond exchanges. It has retreated in all those important--and potentially invasive--areas.

I do see other profound forms of corruption:

Financial markets are supposed to allocate resources to the most productive purposes, but the cost of the financial sector has grown from 1.5 percent of the economy in the 1800s to almost 8 percent in 2008--a sure sign (along with Wall Street bonuses and other blatant evidence) that this sector is seizing value for itself and not allocating it productively.

Corporate boards are supposed to oversee companies in the interests of shareholders; and in a competitive market, whatever serves customers best should benefit shareholders as well. But boards seem eager to protect the salaries and job security of senior managers, with whom they interlock.

Medical science is supposed to develop objective understand of diseases, which leads to treatments that will be employed in the maximum interest of patients and with full respect for patients' dignity. (Health care uses 16% of GDP.) Instead, drug companies ghost-write journal articles advocating for their products and block independent studies designed to compare the efficacy of different treatments. Insurance companies decide how patients are treated.

The courts and criminal justice system are supposed to protect the peace and promote individual liberty and security, but they now absorb massive social resources to incarcerate 2.3 million Americans. Lawyers, companies that build and staff prisons, towns that house prisons, law-enforcement agencies, and organized crime syndicates are some of the institutions that benefit from this diversion of resources.

Legislatures are supposed to deliberate in public about the common good, but Genetech lobbyists were able to write floor statements for 42 Members of Congress (22 Republicans and 20 Democrats). Of course, that is just a window into the pervasive influence of well-funded lobbyists on lawmakers.

Universities (almost 3% of GNP) are supposed to enhance people's knowledge and wisdom, but they seem as likely to sell research to industry, field professional sports teams using unpaid athletes, and select privileged young people and grant them diplomas after housing them in Club-Med-like arrangements.

I think corruption (writ large) is a major political issue. Perhaps John McCain understood that when he made corruption on Wall Street a signature theme (much to the dismay of Dick Armey). But McCain offered no serious policy response, because he always personalized the problem. Systemic corruption arises because of the rules, incentives, or norms of large institutions. Punishing a few malefactors is rarely more than a small part of the solution.

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November 13, 2009

why community organizing is essential

(On a flight to Atlanta) For my class on social networking, I have put together a series of readings that make the following argument. I believe this argument is important and broadly applicable.

1. Uncoordinated human behavior can produce tragic results

The most famous example is the Tragedy of the Commons. If anyone can take fish from the ocean, we'll keep harvesting until the there are no more fish. Whoever takes the last fish will understand the dire consequences, but will still do it. If he doesn't, someone else will.

I wanted to use an example of uncoordinated human behavior that was closer to our class's focus on the Boston area. So I moved away from environmental issues and "commons" problems and instead looked at demographic changes in neighborhoods. Boston is infamous for "white flight," although there have been other rapid and painful population shifts here as well--for instance, gentrification. In at least one example (documented in Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar, Streets of Hope), African Americans rapidly left a South End neighborhood out of fear that it would "tip" into a Hispanic area. So the generic problem is the tendency for individuals to move under pressure, causing others like them to move as well.

There are many explanations for such demographic shifts, including racism, economics, and policy. But my former colleague Tom Schelling famously showed that segregation will occur even if political and economic causes are neutralized. If individuals are free to move, and if they do not want to be a minority in their immediate vicinity, they will self-segregate even if they are equal and actually have a preference for diversity. You can see Schelling's model play out in a computer simulation.

2. Social capital, institutions, and rules help

I assigned an essay by Robert Putnam to show that when people trust one another and belong to voluntary groups, they are able to overcome such problems of uncoordinated behavior. For instance, Americans support the common good of public education more effectively (not only with tax dollars, but also by participating constructively) when social trust is high. Social trust at the state level is a better predictor of educational outcomes than are student demographics, school spending, or average class size. That would suggest that a neighborhood with strong trust will be less likely to fall apart under demographic pressure.

I then assigned Gerald Gamm's Urban Exodus to complicate Putnam's theory. Gamm starts with two communities: an Irish Catholic parish and a Synagogue in South Boston. When African Americans began to move into their neighborhood, the Jews left for the suburbs and their synagogue went with them. The Catholic parish remained in place, along with much of its original congregation, although it gradually became multiracial. Gamm argues that the two communities had the same social capital (and wealth), so social capital cannot be an adequate explanation. Instead, he emphasizes rules and institutions. A synagogue is a voluntary, self-governing membership organization. Schelling's model predicts what happens when such an organization faces demographic pressure: individual choices determine the collective outcome. In contrast, a Catholic parish answers to a hierarchy that can require the church and clergy to stay in place. If the hierarchy makes a serious commitment to maintaining the parish, individual members can be confident that it will stay and can thereby overcome the Schelling model. Rules either substitute for trust or create trust, or both.

3. We are not prisoners of the past.

Putnam believes that social capital can be created, but his theory has somewhat fatalistic implications. Some communities have social capital, some do not; and often they cannot escape from their history. In his great book on Italy, the high-trust North does well, and the low-trust South fails, because of traditions of membership and trust established as much as 700 years ago.

Likewise, Gamm emphasizes that the institutional structure of parish churches versus synagogues is "exogenous." Neither Catholics nor Jews choose or create their institutions' rules; they inherit them. One can understand why Jews would have originally created mobile and flexible congregations, and why Catholics would have preferred stability and hierarchy. But those decisions were made long ago and now determine outcomes even when alternative structures might work better.

To prevent fatalism, I assign Streets of Hope as the story of a deliberate community organizing effort in Boston's South End. Faced with middle-class flight, urban decay, ethnic divisions, and the threat of gentrification, people come together and created an organization (Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative) that provides direct services, lobbies for better city services and planning, develops new generations of leaders, and builds social capital even across lines of race, religion, and language.

That successful community organizing effort required a lot of resources, including large grants from the Riley Foundation. The question that we are considering is whether the right technological tools could make such organizing easier.

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November 12, 2009

what has no lobby

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama said that "active citizenship" would "be a central cause of my presidency." To make that promise a reality, the administration and other players will have to implement an ambitious reform agenda. A preliminary outline of the necessary reforms is contained in the Strengthening Our Nation's Democracy (II) report. That's a coalition document and I don't agree with every word, but I enthusiastically endorse the whole approach.

If you work through that list of reforms, you will find that none has an adequately powerful lobby behind it, but some ideas are better supported than others. Some reform proposals are on the agendas of organized advocacy groups; others fall through the cracks entirely.

One aspect of reform is improving opportunities for Americans--of all ages--to participate in public planning, rulemaking, and administration. The president laid out an agenda for this purpose very capably on his first day in office, when he signed an "Executive Order on Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration." But there are several planks in the platform, and they have very unequal support. "Transparency" means making governmental information public, and there is a skillful set of advocacy groups that lobby and litigate for that principle. "Collaboration" means reorganizing executive branch programs so that citizens and nonprofits can participate. There is no lobby for that. Many of the mainstream liberal advocacy groups are actually against participation--and the conservative groups don't approve of these programs in the first place. Thus when the Obama Administration cuts a program that has cultivated collaboration, no organized lobby complains.

Another aspect of reform is strengthening civic education for Americans of all ages, so that citizens and policymakers are better equipped to deliberate, collaborate, and self-govern. One piece of civic education is the "civics" class in high schools. When civics courses are cut, organized groups such as the National Council for the Social Studies respond. I am not saying that they have enough clout or support; they need our help. (I'm going to the NCSS conference in Atlanta tomorrow.) At the same time, it's important to note that certain other aspects of a civic education agenda have no support at all. For instance, the Civic Mission of Schools recognizes extracurricular activities in schools as important opportunities to develop civic skills. But there is no organized lobby for extracurricular groups in general; only a few particular types of groups have effective supporters. Likewise, no one advocates for adults to have voluntary civic learning opportunities.

We could continue this analysis in much more detail, identifying civic reforms that lack advocacy. This list should not be limited to "process" reforms, but should also include a critical review of mainstream policy issues from a civic engagement perspective. For instance, maybe adding co-ops to the health reform bill would have strengthened active citizenship. No one advocated for that idea, because the whole civic renewal movement is small and weak, and many participants are committed to a rigorous form of policy neutrality. They want to create open spaces for diverse people to discuss issues like health care, but do not want to advocate specific reforms, even if that's the best path to civic renewal.

Overall, it would help to have a single coalition that would identify tactical targets for policy reform while consistently articulating the overall vision of civic engagement. I am thinking of an analogy to my first employer, Common Cause, which began when John Gardner articulated a broad reform agenda in his book of the same name. He also created a new kind of organization, which depended on mass mailings, dues-paying members, and a professional lobbying corps in Washington (to which I once belonged). Gardner's policy agenda is now dated, his organizational model no longer works as planned, and Common Cause itself has had to specialize in a few aspects of democratic reform. We urgently need a new campaign with similar purposes and ambitions, but different priorities and an innovative structure appropriate to our times.

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November 11, 2009

they also serve at home

(On the way home from an AmericaSpeaks board meeting in Washington) "Recent veterans who have volunteered since returning to the United States show a better adjustment to civilian life than their fellow returned servicemen and women who have not volunteered, according to a new report issued in time for Veterans Day." That is the lead of CIRCLE's Veteran's Day release, based on a survey of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that we helped construct and analyze for Civic Enterprises. The implication is that we need to make sure returning veterans have opportunities to serve at home.

See also Civic Enterprise's full report, All Volunteer Force, which we helped with and which was released in DC today with Michelle Obama and others in attendance.

Meanwhile, I thought the president's speech from yesterday was magnificent. "Long after they are laid to rest - when the fighting has finished, and our nation has endured; when today's servicemen and women are veterans, and their children have grown - it will be said of this generation that they believed under the most trying of tests; that they persevered not just when it was easy, but when it was hard; and that they paid the price and bore the burden to secure this nation, and stood up for the values that live in the hearts of all free peoples."

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November 10, 2009

service-learning, the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad

The phrase "service-learning" seems to date from 1966. Nowadays, it means organized opportunities in schools or other educational institutions that combine community service with academic instruction as part of a curriculum or program of study. Since the late 1960s, the concept has been institutionalized with federal and state legislation, formal policies in schools and colleges, advocacy groups, and a body of scholarship. In 2008, approximately 35% of American high schools offered service-learning.

It is a much older idea, though. Buddhism, for example, emphasizes that true wisdom comes from serving others. "The Buddha himself bathed and clothed sick bhiksus [monks], cleaned their rooms, attended their daily routines, comforted their bodies and minds, and threaded the needle for aged bhiksus to relieve the pain of their poor eyesight" (Yun, 2008). The Buddha’s enlightenment came from his compassion, which grew from his service.

About 500 years later, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus uses the example of a woman who has washed his feet--an act of service--to teach his disciples about the forgiveness of sins (Luke 7:38).

The Arabic word sadaqah (which is etymologically and conceptually similar to tzedakah in Hebrew) refers to voluntary acts of charity or service that are both virtuous in themselves and signs of faith. In Islam, sadaqah can be educational. Abu Huraira, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad who died about 1200 years after the Buddha, reported that Muhammad said: "Verily what a believer continues to receive (in the form of reward) for his action and his virtues after his death is the knowledge which he acquired and then disseminated."

Even secular service-learning is a venerable tradition. Three famous examples from before World War II are Hull-House, the Chicago settlement founded by Jane Addams, which closely connected education to service; the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which educated generations of labor and civil rights leaders using service experiences; and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided a whole curriculum along with its public work opportunities.

These days, I frequently argue in public discussions that the essential rationale for service-learning is moral; its moral premises deserve critical reflection; and empirical research that links service-learning to various outcomes (such as higher test scores) is mostly beside the point. I understand the tactical advantages of showing that what we value as an intrinsic good--in this case, service plus reflection--also pays off in standard utilitarian ways. But we shouldn't let our tactics obscure our fundamental commitments. Nor should we leave our moral commitments unchallenged, because there are critical responses to the ideal of "service."

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November 9, 2009

Senator Coburn v. the online town meeting experiment

I have enthusiastically summarized a recent NSF-funded experiment in which Members of Congress deliberated with randomly selected citizens about the hot-button issue of immigration. I presented this experiment as "the right way to do a town hall meetings." I noted, as one of the positive outcomes, that participants increased their favorable views of their elected officials as a result of the online deliberations. (We know that is a real effect because there was a randomly selected control group that didn't deliberate.)

I should have seen the objection coming. In fact, it came on the floor of the US Senate, presented forcefully by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Texas), and was then picked up by prominent blogs and mass media. One of the study's authors, David Lazer, has even graphed the way Coburn's speech diffused across cyberspace:

The critical argument is nicely summarized on the Heritage Foundation's web site: "This report urges Congressmen not to actually interact with their constituents, but to avoid them altogether by holding safe townhalls they can completely control. ... Congress is actually using your tax dollars to pay social scientists to find ways they can avoid actually talking to their constituents while improving their chances of reelection." Senator Coburn even used this project as an example of why the NSF should not fund political science at all.

On his blog, Lazer summarizes the various criticisms and responds with commendable civility. For my part, I would say: It was not a good thing in itself that participants became more supportive of Members of Congress. Some Members deserve low support--their reelection rate is, if anything, too high. But it is a good thing that people were able to exchange ideas and values in a civil format with national leaders. This is an educational process for both sides.

I mentioned the fact that politicians' approval ratings rose because I do not think they will be instinctively enthusiastic about this kind of format. Contrary to the fears of the Heritage Foundation, politicians cannot control a true deliberative forum.* Thus we are not likely to see many online deliberations unless Members of Congress stand to gain somehow from participating. It was helpful to learn that their approval ratings rose, because that might motivate them to do more deliberations.

I can grasp a purist argument that any government is prone to protect its own interests, and therefore we should be vigilant about any effort that uses tax dollars and improves the reputation of incumbents. But if we are concerned about the unfair advantages of incumbents, the obvious issues to address are gerrymandered electoral districts, the huge fundraising imbalance, and free mailings for Members of Congress (the "franking privilege").

When incumbents choose to do things that citizens actually like--such as deliberating online; or passing good legislation--their approval is likely to rise, but we can hardly complain. In Federalist 27, Hamilton writes, "I believe it may be laid down as a general rule that [citizens'] confidence in and obedience to a government will commonly be proportioned to the goodness or badness of its administration." If deliberation is a form of "good administration," it will increase confidence in and obedience to the government. That sounds like a good sign.

*Heritage is concerned that "off-topic, redundant, unintelligible, or offensive questions were screened." They're worried that an angry opponent of federal policy would be blocked. Lazer responds, "As noted in the report, the possibility of screening anything as 'offensive' was theoretical. We did not actually exclude any questions for this reason. ... That said, it is worth noting that the medium is potentially manipulable, and there is nothing to stop someone who is doing an online townhall from excluding difficult questions. (Of course, all communication media are manipulable in some way, so it is not obvious that this is an advantage or disadvantage of online townhalls.) We had a neutral moderator, and included all questions that time would allow, in the order that were posted. This included some that were pretty hostile to the Member. Our assessment (and recommendation) was that these very confrontations made the events more effective, because they reflected the authenticity of the event. In short, the Members approval ratings increased because they had done the right thing."

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November 6, 2009

amor mundi

Regressions, pentameters, dialogues,
Memoranda of understanding, plots,
Research contracts, policy briefs, lectures,
Op-eds, philosophical arguments,
Budget narratives, translations, fact sheets,
Hortatory afterwords, blind reviews,
Close readings, scatterplots, interview notes.
These are things I write but not as well
As they are written. I read and relish
Much better than I compose and create.
A poor place to be at age forty-two;
The biography shelf stands in reproach.
I plead restlessness and indiscipline.
Dissatisfaction, ambition, ego--
Susceptibility to the thin charm
Of seeing first name, last name, title in print--
Lure of the easy August downhill path
Plus unconfessed daydreams of synthesis
And a hapless, unquenched love of the world.

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November 5, 2009

the complexity of race

(Washington, DC) At a conference here today, I heard a college senior give a talk about interracial dialogs. She looked like a white woman, and in fact she is phenotypically white--descended from Europeans on both sides of her family. If you read the text of her talk, you would call it academic, formal, and professional, and you would be wrong to draw any conclusions from the transcript about her ethnic identity, which could be anything. But if you only listened to her speak, you would say she was an African American woman from a working class neighborhood of a northern city.

This wasn't a matter of idioms or vocabulary. It was her accent, some subtle aspects of her vowels, a hint of a "k" before the "s" in "ask," certain intonations (like a drop in pitch on the word "really"), and also hand gestures and her a way of emphasizing points with her eyes that made me think she was culturally or linguistically African American. In fact, she grew up in an African American neighborhood in Detroit and sounds like her friends and neighbors there.

If the audience had all been white people, no one would have said anything about her accent--maybe some wouldn't even have noticed it. But the audience included five or six African American academics, several of whom wanted to talk about this young woman's speaking patterns during the plenary discussion. In fact, one African American professor said right away, "I want to name it: you sound more Black than me." This was a relevant comment, given the topic of the panel: interracial dialog. There was general support for the idea that the student should be able to participate in dialogs as an African American if she wanted to. After all, she had been elected president of her high school's NAACP chapter. Her Black friends consider her Black.

Until 18 months ago, I always lived in jurisdictions where the majority of residents were African American. Although segregation has been pervasive, and I am white, I have lived long enough to have known many African Americans as well as many whites who live and work in daily contact with African Americans. I have never before met a phenotypically white person who genuinely speaks like an African American--not as an affectation, or by borrowing a few phrases, but even while she makes a highly formal and academic presentation.

This fact itself is noteworthy. There are many people of color who sound like the majority of white people in their communities (in terms of accent and intonation). But the reverse is very rare.

I would hypothesize that a phenotypically white person who always--without making a choice--sounds like an African American will face some degree of anti-Black discrimination in the United States. I think racism is strong, and accent is as much of a trigger for it as skin color.

I would never say that an African American "sounds white." That would suggest that the default or norm, if you happen to talk like me, is to be white. White people don't own the accent and dialect that I use. Barack Obama has exactly as much claim to it as I do, and in that sense it isn't a "white" way of speaking. To jump to the conclusion that someone is white on the basis of a phone conversation is racist, or at least narrow-minded. Yet today's speaker did sound Black, and I think that is mostly because crossing over as she did is so rare. It's empirically true that her accent was "Black."

I appreciated that African Americans in the audience considered her African American. I think one reason for my appreciation was simply that it's appealing to see individuals included rather than excluded. There is no need for symmetry here: I wouldn't be happy to see an African American welcomed as "white" on the basis of his or her accent. But symmetry isn't the criterion of fairness. There are deep inequalities that sometimes require asymmetrical responses. Even if money and power were equal between Black and white Americans, there is the simple fact that the former are far out-numbered. So I'm happy to see a phenotypically White person authentically identify as, and be embraced as, African American, even though an African American who sounds like the majority of white people is still fully African American.

Finally, this case emphasizes the complexity of racial identity. As one member of the audience noted, you can be "African American" and thoroughly white if you are an Afrikaner immigrant from South Africa. You can have black skin but no roots in Africa if (for instance) you are an Aboriginal Australian. You can be African American and just arrived from Ghana, or an African American whose ancestors all lived in the American colonies before George Washington was born. You can have fifteen out of sixteen white great-great-grandparents and "count" as Black, or you can be white and never even know that some of your ancestors were Africans.

Complicating the issue doesn't make race or racism go away, but at a minimum, it makes life more interesting.

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November 4, 2009

what happened to the youth vote?

CIRCLE is the only source for actual youth turnout estimates from yesterday's elections. Nineteen percent of eligible under-30 voters turned out in New Jersey, 17% in Virginia, and 12% in New York City. The only previous Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections for which we have youth turnout data is 1997, and that year was better than yesterday--albeit only slightly better in Virginia. We can also follow the number of votes cast in certain college precincts in 2001, 2005, and 2009--three governor's races in a row--and that shows substantial decline this year.

As I wrote on Monday, it is a statistical error to generalize from a small number of cases. But we do know from much other research that young people turn out when campaigned to. As far as I can tell, there was more youth outreach in Virginia and New Jersey in 2005 than there was this year, including party operations and nonpartisan work. Under those circumstances, the low turnout seems fairly predictable. It is nevertheless a problem that less than one in five eligible young people should participate in this election--and just over one in ten in New York.

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November 3, 2009

the Chautauqua Charter School

(In Washington, DC for a Kettering Foundation board meeting): We have a partnership with the Chautauqua Learn and Serve Charter School in Panama City, Florida. This is a school that enrolls disabled children and adults and involves them in service and advocacy as part of their education. For example, the students have lobbied effectively for public transportation in their city. They visited me last week at Tufts, on their way to Iceland to see the self-sustaining village of Solihemar, which is a collaboration between disabled and non-disabled citizens. I have been following the students' travels on their blog (and recalling my own family visit to Iceland of several years ago).

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November 2, 2009

New Jersey, Virginia, and the Law of Small Numbers

It will be tempting to make predictions based on the elections that occur this week: the gubernatorial campaigns in New Jersey and Virginia, the gay marriage referendum in Maine, and the mayoral elections in New York, Pittsburgh, Boston, and elsewhere. People will try to generalize about whether liberals or conservatives have national momentum. They will also want to know whether particular demographic groups are energized or not. For instance, David Kocieniewski writes in the New York Times: "The outcome could also help answer a question nagging at Democrats nationally: Can they keep engaging those drawn to the polls by Mr. Obama’s charisma and historic campaign, or will last year prove a one-time surge for the party?" Even more forcefully, the Times' Adam Nagourney writes, "it seems difficult to argue that there are no lessons to be drawn from what happens Tuesday."

Well, here goes. It is a basic mistake of statistics, a fallacy, to use a few elections to make any generalizations or predictions at all. Each campaign is idiosyncratic; the candidates, strategies, local demographics, local issues, etc. all vary. In even-numbered years, 435 House races occur simultaneously, and the Law of Large Numbers means that the idiosyncrasies should average out and you can say something about the election as a whole. For instance, youth turnout may either rise or fall; the country may move rightward or leftward. But with two gubernatorial elections, there can be no meaningful pattern. To detect a pattern from two cases is to commit the fallacy sometimes called (tongue in cheek) "the Law of Small Numbers," a.k.a., the "fallacy of hasty generalization."

To make matters worse, the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections were not randomly selected. And, as governor's races, they make especially poor predictors of House campaigns.

Does this mean that you can't learn anything from case studies? On the contrary, they can be rich sources of information. But you can't learn from the simple outcome, such as the number of votes cast. You have to look at the details in context and develop insights into what they mean. For instance, Craig Berger criticizes the Corzine campaign for taking youth for granted and expects low youth turnout as a result. His criticism sounds plausible to me and would suggest a general lesson: don't ignore youth issues. That would be right even if Corzine happens to eke out a victory with youth support.

CIRCLE will release youth turnout numbers the day after the election; here is our press advisory. I think analyzing the turnout is the right thing for us to do, because it keeps young voters in the news and allows people to work with data rather than mere impressions. But I will be trying to argue against generalizing from the two data points we provide.

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