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December 22, 2009

good tidings

We are off to Macon, Georgia for the holiday. I am going to take a break from writing and reading blogs until next week. Meanwhile, today (Tuesday) is the official release date of my latest book, Reforming the Humanities: Literature and Ethics from Dante through Modern Times, available from Amazon and elsewhere. You could always ask your library or bookstore to order a copy!

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December 21, 2009

an organizing strategy for civic renewal

There is no lobby for the kind of civic reform we need today, which would address both the formal processes of government (things like campaign finance and congressional procedures) and the capacities and organization of citizens. The earlier generation of civic organizations--like my first employer, Common Cause--still try to reform government, but they can no longer count on citizens to support their advocacy or to make use of the reforms they advocate. For example, disclosing federal data will do no good if citizens can't use these data to hold officials accountable. The information will simply be exploited by sensation-seeking reporters, professional lobbyists, and strong partisans.

But there is good news. Hundreds of thousands of Americans--maybe a couple of million--have done work that I consider part of the solution to our problems as a democracy. They have participated in local, deliberative discussions organized by the National Issues Forums, Everyday Democracy, AmericaSpeaks, or homegrown alternatives; or they have led kids in interactive civic courses or programs that combine research, discussion, and service; or they have volunteered through strong AmeriCorps programs; or they have created and managed online spaces for sharing news and information; or they have sustained important local civic institutions like libraries and meeting spaces; or they have collaborated with government agencies to restore watersheds; or they have organized neighborhoods, using techniques that include a lot of listening and open discussion.

Nobody has organized these people, asking them to meet one another, share ideas, collaborate, discuss a national agenda (including policy reforms), or contribute money to the common cause. Most of the organizations that support this kind of work can't afford to do grassroots canvassing or fundraising, nor do they advocate for reforms. Almost all of the money that supports these national organizations comes from a few foundations, plus some specialized endowments.

I wonder if one national organization with credibility and capacity--or else a small coalition of such organizations--could do the organizing footwork. The other groups would share their lists on the condition that they took a large share of any funds raised. The extra money could be used to support the civic lobbying function that is otherwise missing.

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December 18, 2009

different voices

On the Microdemocracy Blog from The Right Question Project, you can read comments by Dominique, a young woman in Philadelphia who is working on her GED and becoming involved in politics and community organizing.

Meanwhile, Brett Campo is a member of the Mississippi Superintendent’s Youth Advisory Committee and a successful college freshman. He had dropped out of high school, but he now travels the state urging his peers to stay in school. He also has a blog.

I appreciate this combination of getting on a strong academic track through civic engagement and describing your work online.

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December 17, 2009

what hard looks like

Remember on Inauguration Day, when fans of Barack Obama felt admiration for the new president as a person--mixed with a foreboding sense that things would soon become difficult for him? That's the sense I felt on the National Mall last January. But what did people imagine that "difficult" would look like? Did they think that poor Barack would have to stay up late every night working on legislation? Or that he would consistently propose policies that we support and be criticized by people we abhor?

If those were our thoughts, we were naive about politics and American society. Governing under difficult conditions means exactly the kind of compromise and negotiation that we see today--that's what "hard" means. I've been critical of the administration, and I will gradually raise my bar of expectations over the coming years. Criticism is appropriate--helpful, even. But if anything disappoints me, it is not the choices of the administration. It is the sense that we were entitled to be handed "change" by the new president after we had finished our job by electing him last November. He always said quite the opposite--that the burden was going to fall on us.

I keep hearing friends and colleagues shake their heads in disappointment that the president has let us down. I want to shake them and shout, "What have you done lately?" I'm sorry, but I missed the millions of liberals marching though Washington to demand a single-payer health system. I noticed the tea party protesters, the insurance lobbyists, and Fox News. I watched public support for health care reform fall to the low thirties in recent surveys. I have not seen much counter-pressure. True, Organizing for America has been weak so far--but since when did liberals count on an incumbent president to organize a grassroots advocacy effort to put pressure on himself from the left? That's our job.

These are the specific policies that most seem to disappoint the left:

Again, my point is not that the administration is amazingly admirable or that Barack Obama should be our personal hero. My point is that nobody can accomplish "change" for us. There are plenty of ways to engage, and if you don't use at least one of them, you have no business complaining.

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December 16, 2009

the Census to measure civic engagement

The United States Census is about to begin measuring civic health in its annual Current Population Supplement. Census had already measured voting and volunteering; the additional measures will be added because of a provision in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009 that requires a partnership between Census, the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, and the National Conference on Citizenship to assess the nation's civic health. Because of the huge size of the Census surveys, we will be able to see levels of civic participation by state, by large city, and by demographic group, and investigate the relationships between things like education, health, and military service and civic participation.

This effort has been a goal of mine for more than a decade. In the late nineties, when I was Deputy Director of the National Commission on Civic Renewal, my job was to develop the Index of National Civic Health (INCH), which was comprised of about 40 indicators drawn from various public surveys. (It showed deep decline since the 1970s). In the current decade, the National Conference on Citizenship developed a similar index and began fielding an annual survey to collect the data. CIRCLE and I were deeply involved in their survey design and analysis. Various people involved in that effort were then able to get the index written into federal law and selected questions included on the annual Census surveys.

For now (according to federal websites), the items will be:

(These are not the actual questions, which are longer and more explanatory. These are just my headlines for the questions.)

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December 15, 2009

too much information?

Roger Bohn and James Short estimate that the average American consumes 100,500 words of written text per day and 34 gigabytes of data (most of which comes in the form of moving images). Their report, entitled How Much Information?, describes their data sources and methods very briefly, but apparently they drew for the most part on commercial marketing data. Assuming they are even roughly correct, the implications seem fairly profound to me.

First, there is the question of quality, which the authors themselves raise in noting that Lincoln just took a few words and bytes for his Gettysburg Address. In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts found "literary reading ... in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature." But according to Bohn and Short, people are absorbing just about one novel's worth of text every 24 hours--day in and day out. I think the net change is bad--you're much better of with one book about Lincoln or one novel by Virginia Woolf than 10 times as much text in the form of error messages, repetitive ads, and weather forecasts. I would not assert than any novel is better than any short electronic message--after all, this is a blog, which I take seriously and am happy to write. But the ratio of trivial to profound information must be changing for the worse, and one reason for falling quality is surely the overwhelming increase in quantity, which is extremely difficult to resist.

Bohn and Short estimate that the time spent consuming information grew from 7.4 hours per person per day in 2000 to 11.8 hours in 2008 (double-counting any hours spent consuming two or more information sources simultaneously). They consider that a fairly modest rate of increase, as is the increase in the number of bytes consumed: 5.4 percent per year (compounded). This rate seems low to them because the number of bytes that our electronic devices can handle doubles every other year, according to Moore's Law. Watching a movie on NetFlix involves enormously more bytes than playing PacMan on your computer in 1980.

Evidently, lots of data are delivered to us but not used. We are filtering, ignoring, and searching more, and absorbing less--both for better and worse. At the same time, I would argue (against Bohn and Short) that we are actually increasing our data consumption at an extraordinary rate. We are not doubling our internal processing capacity every other year, so we are organisms under considerably strain.

Finally, the shift from TV broadcasts and books to computer searches and games means an increase of "interactivity." The authors write: "we estimate that a full third of our [words consumed] is now received interactively, and 55 percent of our [bytes consumed]. This is an overwhelming transformation, and it is not surprising if it causes some cognitive changes." Working interactively with data might seem liberating and empowering, compared to receiving someone else's prepared stream of text or images. But I am not so sure about that. To struggle with a novel, a historical narrative, or a book-length argument means having to suppress to a degree your own assumptions, preferences, and habits in favor of the author's. This can be profoundly liberating. On the other hand, to read what your own search queries generate, or to communicate in short bursts of text with your own friends, may do nothing but reinforce the views you started with. Just because it is intractable, an old-fashioned book can be quite a bit more "interactive" than the latest technologies.

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December 14, 2009

we've got problems; you're the solution

I'll be talking today to a bunch of Boston-area high school students who have been part of Generation Citizen, a program that "emphasizes grassroots community building strategies and effective advocacy" by youth. These are some notes toward my speech. ...

We have serious problems as a country right now.

We have put 2.3 million of our own people in prison, far more than any other nation in the world. (China comes second with only 1.5 million incarcerated people.) That is incredibly expensive, and it represents millions of tragedies for all those convicts and their victims. Yet imprisoning all those Americans doesn't make us safe. Our homicide rate remains at least three times as high as the rate in any other wealthy nation in the world.

We spend more per kid on education than almost any other country, yet one third of our young people drop out before they complete high school. Considering that almost all stable and well-paying jobs today require more than a high-school diplomat, the dropout crisis is a human disaster.

We spend far more on health care per citizen than any other country in the world, yet unlike any other wealthy nation, we provide no health insurance at all for many of our people. Something like 45,000 Americans die every year for lack of medical care. Even if Congress passes a reform bill this year, we will still have the most expensive system in the world, with some of the worst outcomes for poorer people.

Most scientists believe that humans are causing the atmosphere to warm by taking stored carbon out of the earth in the form of oil, gas, and coal and burning it. The consequences of global warming may range from intense human suffering in the poorest parts of the globe, plus the extinction of animal and plant species, to a worldwide catastrophe. The United States burns more carbon per person by far than any country in the world except the tiny kingdoms of the Persian Gulf.

Plainly, our institutions do not work. Their failure is not just wasteful; it is deadly. They are not just broken; they are corrupt--making some people rich and comfortable while failing the rest of us. These are the institutions that we older people are handing over to you.

Can't we adults fix these institutions with better laws? For example, couldn't we slap a tax on carbon and cause people to burn less of it? Couldn't we use that money to make every American eligible for Medicare? Couldn't we reform criminal sentencing laws and cut the prison population?

Well, maybe--but I wouldn't count on us adults to solve these problems with laws and reforms.

First of all, we adults don't have the political will to do anything difficult. Just look how hard it is to get even a very modest health reform bill through Congress.

Second, we don't necessarily know the answers. I just mentioned some radical ideas, like enacting a huge new tax on carbon. In the past, a lot of great ideas--liberal, conservative and otherwise--have failed because they didn't turn out as expected in the real world. Especially when institutions are broken and corrupt, you can't count on even great laws to be implemented well.

Finally, we can't always use laws to make people and institutions work better. Some of our school systems have plenty of money, yet they still produce high proportions of dropouts. We could change our criminal penalties, but that wouldn't stop individuals from committing violent crimes and victimizing others. We can provide better health insurance by law, but if our doctors don't want to provide primary care to low-income residents, the insurance won't help.

To make schools and neighborhoods and hospitals work better, you have to get inside them and change people's hearts and minds--not reform just the rules or provide more cash.

You have to do this work because you have the motivation. You're the ones who may be living with climate change for the next 50 years and with a health system that has collapsed from uncontrolled costs. Just because you're young, you have different self-interests from older people, and if you don't advocate for your long-term interests, they will be ignored in favor of short-term gain.

You're the ones who have the knowledge and skills to tackle some of our major problems. For example, how are we going to understand and fix the causes of the high school dropout crisis unless we have high school students' help? You're the ones who know what it's like day-to-day in our schools.

And by the way, by participating in service, or activism, or civic engagement, you can gain skills and motivations and values that will serve you in life. Students who volunteer are dramatically less likely to drop out of high school than those who don't. So the simple act of being engaged can be part of the solution to a serious social problem.

Of course, we older people must back you up, guide you, and give you opportunities for service and activism. That's the point of City Year, where we're meeting, and Generation Citizen, which has recruited you. It's the point of our work at Tufts and CIRCLE.

We may be doing this work for you, but we're certainly doing it for ourselves as well. Strengthening youth civic engagement is our way to create a better form of politics for everyone. Projects like Generation Citizen provide alternatives to the politics we are saddled with today.

In general, we treat young people as baskets of problems or potential problems. But high-quality civic education treats young people as assets and contributors. That approach models a better way of treating citizens of all ages.

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 governments-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. Generation Citizen is an example of 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.

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.

Programs like Generation Citizen model 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.

Thank you for being part of this essential work. I'm looking forward to hearing about your projects and achievements, now and in the future.

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December 11, 2009

the most enjoyable novel of the 1800s

Having just finished Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868), I want to report that you cannot have any more fun reading a novel from that century. (Which is saying a lot.) It's a detective story with some initial elements that later become commonplace: a country house party with eccentric guests, a missing diamond, incompetent local constables, a lovely young lady, a likable young man, and a genius of a detective who has an absorbing hobby. ("The Great Cuff" cares for roses as Holmes loves his violin and Nero Wolfe, his orchids). All this is described by a Watson-like narrator who has trustworthy motives but less perception than the reader.

But then, since Collins is a fount of plot ideas rather than a derivative writer, the story veers away from what will later become the formula of a drawing room detective story. We are soon reading text by other narrators and following the course of a troubled love story. By the time we're done, we've been to India, heard the lamentable story of man from the colonies whose life is ruined by racist prejudice as well as disease and scandal, and observed a scientific experiment meant to reveal the location of the lost Moonstone.

It is all very suspenseful, and suspense is an explicit topic of the narration. (The experiment at the end, in particular, requires creating suspense for several onlookers.) All this was grist for my sister's mill. In The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt, Caroline Levine argues that Victorian novelists developed new techniques for creating suspense. This was not just a trick or a way of providing entertainment and pleasure. Rather, they put their readers through an experience of suspending judgment and awaiting evidence that was reminiscent of science and that had a similar moral purpose. In the Moonstone, as she notes, the suspense catches the attention of onlookers who have been confused by prejudice and makes them reach the moral truth.

In passing, she explains that Collins was one of the first novelists to complain that reviews gave away too much plot. The same writer who more or less invented the detective novel was also an early critic of "spoilers." Strangely enough, the back cover of my copy of the Moonstone (Barnes & Noble Classics, 1993) gives away a major event that only occurs on page 447 of a 472-page novel. It was probably the worst spoiler that I have ever seen on a book cover, but fortunately I came to believe it was an outright error and so was pleasurably surprised when the event actually occurred.

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December 10, 2009

civic engagement of non-college-bound youth

I am going to DC very briefly today for the launch of a new paper by Jon Zaff, Jim Youniss, and Cindy Gibson, entitled "An Inequitable Invitation to Citizenship: Non-College-Bound Youth and Civic Engagement." The paper was commissioned by PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement) with the support of the Case Foundation, and will be released at the Case offices. It is a broad overview of the research and a strong call to action.

As the following graph from CIRCLE's website shows, young people without any college experience are less engaged across the board than their predecessors were 30 years ago. In my view, that's because of the collapse of institutions that could once compensate for a lack of education--metropolitan daily newspapers, grassroots political parties, broad-based social movements, and unions (most of whose young members now have college degrees).

The other crucial point to recognize is that about half of young Americans have no college experience today. Some may attend college later in their lives, but (for the time being), they are "non-college-bound youth."

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December 9, 2009

Winter is icumen in

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,
So 'gainst the winter's balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

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December 8, 2009

the Open Government Directive

The White House has released its Open Government directive (PDF), an order from the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to all federal agencies concerning "openness." It is a step toward implementing the President's Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, which he signed on his first day in office. I hope it is only a first step because the President's Memorandum was broad and inspiring, and this Directive seems narrow.

The focus of today's order is transparency: publishing government information online and improving the quality of that information. It's hard to argue against those goals since we citizens have a right to know what our government does. It's also plausible that transparency reduces corruption and enhances the quality and efficient of government. ("Sunlight is the best disinfectant," said Louis Brandeis.)

But this strategy has severe limitations. After all, we citizens already have access to enormous reams of data about the government (but much less about corporations and other powerful private actors). When the volume of data is overwhelming, interest groups and the professionals whom they employ can use the data selectively to advance their agendas. At the same time, the press can comb through the information looking for embarrassing stuff--which is helpful to the extent that their scrutiny reduces corruption, but bad if they just paint a misleading overall picture.

Consider, for example, the way that Politico chose to report the newly accessible data on Congressional office expenses. Their headline was: "Nancy Pelosi spends $2,993 on flowers." But $300 million of spending had just been disclosed, and Politico didn't choose to tell us how the other 99.999002% of our money was spent. Did most of it go for staff? If so, what jobs do they do? Evidently, Politico thought that itemizing Nancy Pelosi's flower bill was the way to get readers.

Again, it's hard to argue that we shouldn't have access to information about Congressional office expenses. We have a right to know about Congress and about executive agencies (which are the addressees of today's Directive). But I am unconvinced that much good will come of this disclosure.

Meanwhile, the "collaboration" and "participation" aspects of the president's original memorandum were extremely promising. Real participation by citizens and real collaboration with nonprofits and communities would change government and enhance civic skills. But those sections of today's Directive are very short and vague, and the concrete passages disappoint me. For instance:

I predict that organized stakeholders will dominate open online forums and will win most of the prizes and competitions, leaving most Americans with no new ways to participate. But I could certainly be wrong, and I hope I am. I also look forward to future initiatives, because I assume that the original Memorandum remains a promise that can inspire further action.

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December 7, 2009

what the leaked climate change emails tell us about our politics

Imagine that you are a specialist in climate science. Like 82 percent of your colleagues, you believe that "mean global temperatures [have] risen compared to pre-1800s levels, and ... human activity [has] been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures." You worry about the consequences, which may range from acute suffering in the world's poorest countries and loss of natural species to global catastrophe.

You also know what science is like--it is always uncertain and provisional. Every article has a "limitations" section, every data table has margins of errors and sources of bias, and rarely do two articles precisely agree. Nevertheless, you know that to change the course we're on will require millions of people to alter their political and consumer preferences. But people are fairly selfish and short-sighted. Besides, we have lots of other things to worry about, from our day-to-day practical struggles to spiritual concerns, plus all the alarms we receive from the mass media: serial killers, terrorist attacks, corrupt politicians, swine flu.

Given all this clutter, you, the climate scientist, decide that you'd better become much more effective at communicating a sense of alarm. You are constrained by ethical limitations (no outright lying, for instance, even to save the planet), but simplification, evasion of complexity, exaggeration of certainty--all that seems necessary.

These are the habits that one can see in the leaked private emails of climate scientists. Their messages include mentions of "tricks" in the presentation of data, data withheld from direct public inspection, and references to skeptics as "idiots." Reactions to the emails range from George F. Will (the documents "reveal paranoia on the part of scientists ... [N]ever in peacetime history has the government-media-academic complex been in such sustained propagandistic lockstep about any subject") to Paul Krugman ("all they show is that scientists are human, but never mind").

In my view, the emails reveal a shift from one kind of communication to another. Borrowing a distinction from the contemporary German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, I'd distinguish strategic, instrumental, means/ends communication from deliberation or dialog. When communication is strategic, you know what your goals or ends are, and you use efficient means to convince others. When communication is dialogic or deliberative, you reason with the other party about what the goals and means should be.

The leaked climate emails show scientists becoming strategic rather than dialogic. The reason is clear: modern society is so structured that strategic communication generally beats dialog, at least in the short term. It simply works better.

Yet strategic communication is unethical, insofar as it tries to manipulate the other person's reasoning capacity. It uses him or her as a means, not an end. It is also self-destructive in the long term. Our views of matters like climate change depend fundamentally on trust. I cannot directly sense changes in the climate, let alone their causes. Neither can scientists--despite their fancy equipment. An account of how and why the climate is changing requires aggregating the research of many scientists and collaborative teams. To use the aggregated information, you must trust all the contributors. Then, to make matters even harder, people like me don't read any of the scientific literature on climate. We read what we regard as high-quality news coverage of the scientific literature, which means that we must trust some reporters, as well as the scientists they cover. And we must trust the reliability of the relationship between them.

All of this works if we assume that scientific discourse and high-quality journalism are not strategic forms of communication. They are not supposed to pre-judge the outcome and try to convince. Rather, they are supposed to explore the truth in the company of their readers. To the extent that they communicate strategically, they are just interest groups, basically like all the others. They have goals; they may be willing to negotiate; but they cannot persuade on the basis of trust.

This analysis suggests a real dilemma. Dialogic communication won't change mass opinion, and counting on it may put the earth at risk. But strategic communication is unethical and ultimately self-defeating. It's the nightmarish side of modernity.

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December 4, 2009

my past from the air

(In DC for the Everyday Democracy board meeting): We landed through clouds that ripped open just as we passed above the Kennedy Center, revealing Northwest DC spread out over the airplane wing. It was my seventh landing in DC this fall and probably my twentieth since we moved away from the city in July 2008. Before that, I had spent two decades there. For me, the panorama of Northwest represents the place where our children were born, I was married, unforgettable good and bad news arrived, and the ordinary rhythm of commuting and shopping played through my twenties and thirties. When I see that view disappearing on northward flights, I feel that my youth is also falling behind in a great chunk.

The view is of "DC," the vernacular city of Metro trains, DC Public Schools, Safeways, summer evening concerts at the Zoo, and the dreaded DMV--not "Washington," the federal city of power and glamor, nor "Washington," the tourist destination with its museums and monuments. But the three cities intersect. If you live in bourgeois Northwest, you probably know people who know powerful and glamorous people, and you occasionally visit those museums and monuments by the Mall.

Today, while on a conference call by cell phone, I strolled through Oak Hill Cemetery, where lie Dean Acheson, Jefferson Davis' infant son, Myrtilla Miner (an abolitionist who founded the DC Normal School for Colored Girls), dozens of congressmen, several descendants of Martha Washington, a man who was "promoted to Assistant Chief Engineer, DC Fire Department," and a recently interred man with an Arab name and a quote from Khalil Gibran on his grave. They and many diverse others built the city that becomes one studded reliquary as you view it from the air.

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December 3, 2009

civil society and social knowledge

For a forthcoming Handbook on Civil Society, I have committed to write the article on "civil society and social knowledge." I may ask to change that title because I find, via Google, that "social knowledge" is commonly used in three ways that should not be the focus of my article for this Handbook. The phrase often means: (1) the knowledge that small children must acquire in order to be "social"; (2) the production of knowledge through social software, such as Wikipedia; or (3) the epistemological theory that knowledge is not objective but is "socially constructed" (a theory which I think is often grossly exaggerated, because facts are stubborn things).

I think the basic questions for my article should be:

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December 2, 2009

at the Kettering Foundation

(Dayton, OH) I am here for a board meeting of the Kettering Foundation. I remember when I first arrived in Dayton: the summer of 1987 when I was 20. I came for a summer internship at Kettering. It was my first substantive job (apart from babysitting and cleaning a health club), my first summer with my own apartment, and my first time off the East Coast of the United States--although Dayton, an automotive city, turned out to have very much in common with my birthplace of Syracuse, NY. I was strongly reminded of that first summer because last night was Kettering's annual holiday dinner, to which current and retired staff are invited. Most of the people I worked with in 1987 were at last night's dinner.

The Kettering experience was formative for me. You could describe it as an experience in "deliberative democracy," but I'd define the Foundation's perspective differently. I would say that Kettering is fundamentally populist. There is a deep commitment to the idea that all people are fully capable of self-government. Barriers to popular self-government, including spurious claims to expertise, need to be challenged. Yet for the public to govern well, we have to do things. We have to evaluate the quality of public dialog and public work and take steps to improve it. Deliberation, in the form of the National Issues Forums that the Kettering Foundation launched, is just one means to that end.

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December 1, 2009

what language to study

Our 10-year-old can decide whether to study Chinese, Latin, French, or Spanish in school, repeating a choice that our older kid got to make some years ago (minus the Chinese option). In my own childhood, I studied Latin and French and have since added some other languages, although none to a level of mastery. My school friends and I almost all chose French over Spanish. Perhaps part of the reason was that we lived near Quebec and very far from Mexico, and there were hardly any Latino immigrants that far north in those days. But the main reason was that French seemed to define a certain level of educational attainment (and therefore class status), not only for Americans, but for many people around the world.

I'm glad I learned French. It's a beautiful language, and I've had opportunities to read some literature in the original language and to spend time in francophone countries. These are mind-broadening experiences. But of course Spanish is also beautiful; there is more excellent literature in Spanish than one could read in a lifetime; and numerous countries speak Spanish. The same could be said of Chinese. The main reason we all chose French, I must admit, was to join a global class of people for whom French was an expected part of an education. This expectation began with the diplomatic dominance of France from the 17th to the 19th century, but its legacy lasted long after Napoleon, because once a language is a common expectation, it pays to acquire it. By the time I was born, English was far more widely spoken and useful than French, but French remained a privileged second language in anglophone countries. Often, French passages in Russian novels and French dishes on restaurant menus were left untranslated because the sophisticated reader was supposed to understand them in the original.

Pierre Bourdieu is the theorist of such "cultural capital." (By the way, you can read him in English.) He explains how relatively arbitrary bodies of knowledge become markers of status. For cosmopolitans of relatively high socioeconomic standing, knowledge of French has been part of the habitus. I believe that today the privileged position of French is slipping, although it may still have some force. I also believe in making choices for ethical reasons, not to maximize one's own cultural capital. Thus, on balance, I would probably choose Spanish or Chinese if I were ten, although not without a sense that I was missing a key to the kingdom if I didn't learn French.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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