February 18, 2011
We are heading overseas for a vacation until Feb 28. I will be back online then.
February 17, 2011
the civic value of extracurriculars
The evidence is very strong that extracurricular activities enhance democracy, yet there is little explicit advocacy for extracurricular participation. Some adult groups support and defend student groups that specifically interest them, whether that means Christian bible clubs or Gay, Lesbian and Straight Alliances. Civil libertarians defend students' legal rights to associate. But nobody is organized to say that there should be adequate funding, support, space, and time for a whole range of voluntary associations in all of our schools.
All students should have opportunities to join voluntary groups that have serious functions and that are adequately supported with money, equipment, and adults' time. Many studies have found lasting relationships between participation in such school groups and membership and service in adulthood. In some studies, membership in school groups turns out to be a better predictor of adult engagement than is education or income.
In turn, adult membership is valuable because voluntary associations do important public work, and their members also tend to read the newspaper, vote, and otherwise engage. Thus to recruit students into satisfying extracurricular activities may help make them civic activists, news consumers, and voters—even thirty or fifty years later. Presented with this argument at a meeting of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recalled that she had been a shy high school student until she joined a school group. She was then on a path to become an attorney, an influential state legislator, and the first woman Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Almost any school houses a "civil society" composed of organized groups and various informal networks and interest groups. In CIRCLE's 2006 national survey of youth, 62 percent of high school students said that they were "currently participating in any organized groups or clubs in high school such as sports teams, band or chorus, language clubs, or the like." Unfortunately, the most common types of groups (athletics, cheerleading, music, drama, debate, newspaper, yearbook, student government, subject matter clubs, and vocational clubs) shrank between 1972 and 1992, attracting smaller proportions of our young people.
There are several plausible reasons for the link between extracurricular participation and lifelong civic engagement. Belonging to school groups may build confidence, or it may be sufficiently satisfying that members develop a taste for participation. People may form networks in school groups that keep them connected to associations as they age. Not least is the educational value of extracurricular activities. In the terminology of University of Illinois psychology professor Reed Larson, students can obtain opportunities for "initiative" by participating in voluntary, purposive, collective activities such as publishing a school newspaper or organizing a dance. [See also Eccles and Barber.]
Further, as the Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom notes, people must learn how to overcome the problems that beset all collective human enterprises. She writes, "At any time that individuals may gain from the costly action of others, without themselves contributing time and effort, they face collective action dilemmas for which there are coping methods. When de Tocqueville discussed the ‘art and science of association,' he was referring to the crafts learned by those who had solved ways of engaging in collective action to achieve a joint benefit." Ostrom has found that we do not automatically know how to address the problems that beset all voluntary associations, so we must learn strategies from experience. Solutions "must be taught to each generation as part of the culture of a democratic citizenry."
Extracurricular participation can teach people, among other things, how to keep records and chair meetings, how to respond when some members shirk their duties, how to handle a budget, how to persuade groups of peers, and how to advertise the benefits of an association to outsiders. Once these skills are learned, they enhance participation in civil society.
I have been arguing that extracurricular participation helps make students into active and responsible democratic citizens. It is also worth noting that active and responsible civic participation in school helps young people succeed in other aspects of life. Alberto Dávila and Marie T. Mora found [pdf] that "involvement in student government between 1990 and 1992 increased the odds of being a college graduate by 2000 by nearly 18 percentage points." Jacquelynne S. Eccles and Bonnie L. Barber also found strong and lasting correlations between participating in school groups and healthy development: namely, completing high school, succeeding in college, and avoiding drugs and alcohol. They found somewhat ambiguous results for sports, but the advantages of volunteering and church attendance were strong.
In a 2010 study, Reuben Thomas and Daniel McFarland found that participation in extracurricular groups (as a general category) boosted students' voting rates. In their study, high school performing arts were especially helpful for encouraging voting. That may seem surprising since the purpose of a school play has little to do with elections. Perhaps students who bond during a school production also talk about politics and gain a sense of confidence and commitment that encourages them to vote.
In the Thomas and McFarland study, sports stood out—in a bad way. Athletic participation was associated with lower voter turnout. On the other hand, Mark Hugo Lopez and Kimberlee Moore found statistically significant, positive relationships between team sports (on one hand) and volunteering, registering to vote, voting, watching the news, and feeling comfortable making statements at public meetings (on the other hand). Overall, the evidence for the civic impact of sports is mixed—perhaps because students' experience with athletics varies so much. The civic impact of other extracurriculars is unambiguously positive.
A wide range of student associations is valuable, and we should not merely support those whose missions are explicitly civic or political. People who participate in extracurricular activities are more likely than others to engage in community service (even once we adjust for background characteristics), which again suggests that being involved is a good thing, almost without regard to the form of involvement.
In some schools, every student has a roughly equal opportunity to participate; in others, most are left out. In some schools, voluntary groups bridge race, ethnicity, culture, and class; in others, they divide students along those lines. In a given institution, the biggest and most influential groups may emphasize athletic competition, school pride, service, artistic creativity, cultural diversity, or political activism. I am not aware of research that allows us to assess the impact of the overall "ecosystem" of extracurricular groups.
However, if we treat a school's collection of clubs as a microcosm of civil society, then some propositions about the adult nonprofit sector ought to apply. For adults, pluralism and choice are valuable; people cannot be "shepherded" into groups that others may consider most valuable. Even more than adults, adolescents must experiment in order to develop their interests and identities; they should be able to try various roles even if we might not fully approve of them. But even if individuals must be allowed to choose their groups, it is better when civil society cultivates what the Bowling Alone author, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, calls "bridging social capital." That is, people ought to learn to work together with those different from themselves and develop trust and useful networks that "bridge" differences; they should not merely use associational membership to differentiate in-groups from out-groups. In American schools, voluntary associations tend to be exclusive. Without being overly manipulative, adults should foster "bridging" activities and groups.
Finally, certain student groups have explicitly civic purposes and they seem to be especially important for promoting discussion and collaboration across the whole student body. Those include student newspapers (and other publications) and student governments.
February 16, 2011
why we need civic education
I enjoyed conversations with about 75 supporters of civic education in Colorado yesterday, in three different meetings. They represented school systems, the state education agency, local nonprofits, foundations, and school board members. My comments at the first session are on the Education News Colorado blog, under the headline "Why we need civic education." The comments give a flavor of the conversation.
February 15, 2011
with Facing History and Ourselves and others in Colorado
Denver, CO: I am here for a series of conversations about civic education, youth civic engagement, and education reform in Colorado. My hosts are Facing History and Ourselves, the Colorado Legacy Foundation, and the Donnell-Kay Foundation and I look forward to seeing other proponents of civic education, old friends and new ones.
Since my main host is Facing History and Ourselves, this is an appropriate moment to introduce the program. It provides curricula, professional development, and materials related to historical examples of severe intergroup conflict, such as the Holocaust. Students are encouraged to discuss and critically evaluate their own identities and responsibilities in response to these cases. Probably the best evaluated program in the field, it has been the subject of roughly 100 published studies, including, most recently, a national randomized experiment which found strong positive academic outcomes (such as improved skills for interpreting historical evidence) and civic benefits (such as increased tolerance and belief that one can make a difference). Participating teachers were more likely to create serious, intellectually focused, ethical communities in their classrooms. These outcomes are not only important later, once students have graduated and become adults with influence in civil society; they also matter immediately, because schools in which students and teachers work tolerantly and constructively together are the best environments for learning.
February 14, 2011
a real alternative to ideal theory in political philosophy
In philosophy, "ideal theory" means arguments about what a true just society would be like. Sometimes, proponents of ideal theory assert that it is useful for guiding our actual political decisions, which should steer toward the ideal state. John Rawls revived ideal theory with his monumental A Theory of Justice (1971). His position was egalitarian/liberal, but Robert Nozick joined the fray with his libertarian Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), and a huge literature followed.
Recently, various authors have been publishing critiques of ideal theory. I am, for example, reading Raymond Geuss' Philosophy and Real Politics (2008) right now. One of the most prominent critiques is by Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice (2009). Sen argues that there is no way to settle reasonable disagreements about the ideal state. Knowing what is ideal is not necessary to make wise and ethical decisions. Even an ideally designed set of public institutions would not guarantee justice, because people must be given discretion to make private decisions, but those decisions can be deeply unjust. Finally, there is an alternative to the tradition of developing ideal social contracts, as Plato, More, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls, Nozick, and many others did. The alternative is to compare on moral grounds actually existing societies or realizable reforms, in order to recommend improvements, a strategy epitomized by Aristotle, Adam Smith, Benjamin Constant, Tocqueville, and Sen (among many others).
I am for this but would push the critique further than Sen does. The non-ideal political theories that he admires are still addressed to some kind of sovereign: a potential author of laws and policies in the real world, a "decider" (as George W. Bush used to call himself). Sen, for example, in his various works, addresses two kinds of audiences: the general public, understood as sovereign because we can vote, or various specific authorities, such as the managers of the World Bank. In his work aimed at general readers, he envisions a "global dialogue," rich with "active public agitation, news commentary, and open discussion," to which he contributes guiding principles and methods. In turn, that global dialogue will influence the actual decision-makers, whether they are voters and consumers in various countries or powerful leaders.
Unfortunately, no reader is really in the position of a sovereign. You and I can vote, but not for elaborate social strategies. We vote for names on a ballot, while hundreds of millions of other people also vote with different goals in mind. If I prefer the social welfare system of Canada to the US system, I cannot vote to switch. Not can I persuade millions of Americans to share my preference, because I don't have the platform to reach them. Even legislators are not sovereigns, because there are many of them, and the legislature shares power with other branches and levels of government and with private institutions.
Thus "What is to be done?" is not a question that will yield practical guidance for individuals. It is a more relevant question for Sen than for me, because he has spent a long life in remarkably close interaction with famous and distinguished leaders from Bengal to California. (The "acknowledgments" section of The Idea of Justice is the longest I have ever seen and represents a Who's Who of public intellectuals.) But if Sen's full "theory of change" is to become internationally famous and then give advice to leaders, it will only work for a very few.
What then should we do (I who writes these words and you who read them, along with anyone whom we can enlist for our causes)? That seems to be the pressing question, but not if the answer stops with changes in our personal behavior and immediate circumstances. National and global needs are too important for us only to "be the change" that we want in the world. We must also change the world. Our own actions (yours and mine) must be plausibly connected to grand changes in society and policy. Thinking about what we should do raises an entirely different set of questions, dilemmas, models, opportunities, and case-studies than are familiar in modern philosophy.
February 11, 2011
keep on TRUCEN
Flying from Boston to Washington: I was in DC briefly today for a meeting of The Research University Civic Engagement Network (TRUCEN): representatives of research-oriented, selective, four-year universities that are trying to work with communities to address public problems and strengthen democracy.
Overall, higher education is a powerful sector. In the United States, it spends $136 billion annually, holds $100 billion in real estate, employs many thousands of individuals, and operates in most communities. "Civic engagement," however you choose to define it, has not been a strong focus for these public or quasi-public institutions. But today the leading engaged universities are contributing at substantial scale.
One category consists of state universities, often Land-Grants, which (by both charter and tradition) operate major public programs other than scholarship and education on their own campuses. Those programs include hospitals and clinics, agricultural extension offices (operating in almost every county of the United States), consulting and training opportunities for adult citizens and organizations, museums, and enrichment programs for k-12 education. One example gives an indication of the scale of this work: the Industrial Extension Service at North Carolina State reports that it "hit its target of $1.0 billion" in impact on local businesses in 2010. Today, many state universities coordinate such programs under the heading of "civic engagement," combining their public service functions with education, research, and partnerships with communities. Many now have either centers or senior administrators, or both, to coordinate civic engagement across their campuses.
Another category (more common at well-endowed private universities) consists of multi-purpose centers that provide specialized courses with community-service components, that sponsor research in and with their local communities, that develop partnerships with local NGOs, and that invite speakers and organize faculty fellowships and seminars. Some of these centers are large: for example, the Center for Social Concerns at Notre Dame, which conducts research, education, and outreach related to civic engagement, has about 32 full-time employees.
A third category involves intensive and widespread civic opportunities for students. For example, Duke Engage has funded more than 1,000 Duke undergraduates who conduct individual or small-group projects in Durham, NC, the rest of the state, and 44 other countries. Increasingly, "study abroad" programs are being tied to service objectives. For instance, UConn "emphasizes community engagement through is 200+ Study Abroad programs around the world." At the same time, many TRUCEN campuses have chosen particular local neighborhoods or towns in which to invest heavily.
One factor that works against civic engagement in the TRUCEN campuses is a set of expectations for tenure and promotion that favor abstract, generalizable, methodologically complex research over applied or collaborative research. But many TRUCEN institutions are reforming their expectations. For example, the University of Minnesota now says that "'Scholarly research' must include significant publications and, as appropriate, the development and dissemination by other means of new knowledge, technology, or scientific procedures resulting in innovative products, practices, and ideas of significance and value to society." That definition permits a broader range of research to be rewarded, as long as the research is done well.
February 10, 2011
forays into postcolonial literature
- "Is there another side?" I said.
"There is always the other side, always."
-- Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
A couple of weeks ago, flying to California, I finished Jane Eyre and bristled a bit at the way the narrator shapes our emotional responses in line with her own rather specific moral worldview. The very next day, as I flew back to Boston, I read Jean Rhys' 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which imagines the life of Antoinette (Bertha) Mason before she is taken to England to be the madwoman on the third floor of Thornfield Hall.
In Jane Eyre, the first Mrs. Rochester is the inscrutable, horrifying Other. A sexually licentious madwoman, she is the precise opposite of the reasonable, composed Jane. Jane has a "little pale face," whereas Bertha--a "Creole"--has dark hair and features. Rochester says that he longed for "the antipode of the Creole" and found it in Jane.
In rebellion against Jane Eyre, the Dominica-born Jean Rhys starts her story with Antoinette's childhood (not Jane's) and allows Antoinette to narrate much of it. (According to Wide Sargasso Sea, "Bertha" is not her preferred name but is a hated nickname applied to her by Rochester.) Rhy's novel is not the converse of Jane Eyre; it doesn't replace one narrator's subjectivity and values with another. Instead, it deliberately shifts among voices, so that Rochester narrates parts of the plot and emerges as a partially sympathetic character, just as Antoinette seems both pitiable and frightening. Whereas Jane Eyre resolves suspense by revealing what Rochester has thought and done, Wide Sargasso Sea leaves us deeply uncertain about whether Antoinette is mad at all, and whether her madness is hereditary or caused by other people.
Because Rhys' novel takes place in Jamaica and Dominica shortly after the emancipation of slaves on those islands, the book has a new "other": black people. Antoinette is white, the daughter of slave-owners. Some of the current debate about Wide Sargasso Sea concerns the degree to which the black West Indians are represented fairly and given adequate voice. Unlike Bertha in Jane Eyre, they do speak--at considerable length--but they are not narrators and their inner thoughts are relatively mysterious. This debate seems appropriate to me, but I can only say that Christophine (an ex-slave and spiritual healer) is my favorite character. If I were transported into the world of the novel, I would much rather talk to and learn from her than any of the white people. (That is a statement about the novel, not about me.)
Since finishing Wide Sargasso Sea, I have also read J.G. Farrell's, The Siege of Krishnapur, a 1973 novel (and Booker-prize winner) that is often described as post-colonial. Pankaj Mishra explains that there was a Victorian genre of the "Mutiny novel," in which a dashing and attractive young couple meet on the voyage "out" to India, find themselves in the middle of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, have many hair-raising escapes, and live happily ever after. The Siege of Krishnapur is a parody of this genre.
It begins with a rather arch description of young English ladies and gentlemen flirting in Calcutta. This sentence is typical: "Although he generally liked sad things, such as autumn, death, ruins, and unhappy love affairs, Fleury was nevertheless dismayed by the morbid turn the conversation had taken."
The racism of the Empire is scathingly satirized, although native Indian characters have no speaking roles (with the exception of one young prince with a British education). Some of the young ladies and gentlemen find themselves besieged in the fictional town of Krishnapur, where they behave in rather valorous and chivalrous fashion. But they are also beset by scurvy, cholera, and famine, which degrades them sufficiently that by the time their rescue party arrives, they stink and look horrifying. Meanwhile, the travesty of their "civilizing" mission has been thoroughly debunked. They have even fired busts of great Western thinkers like cannon balls into the Sepoy lines, literally killing the Indians with Shakespeare. (But Keats' curls make him an ineffective missile).
Ferrell and Rhys were white Britons who wrote relatively early post-colonial novels that debunked imperial fiction. Of the two, Wide Sargasso Sea is incomparably a greater work, in large part because Rhys' imagination encompasses the colonized as well as the colonizers.
February 9, 2011
homage to Hannah Arendt at The New School
In New York City--At 6 pm today, I will speak at The New School on a panel entitled "Civic Engagement and Higher Education in the United States: What Do College Students Gain From Civic Engagement Experiences?" My co-panelist is my friend and collaborator Connie Flanagan from University of Wisconsin. Admission is open to the public and free.
The New School was where Hannah Arendt taught from 1967 (when I was born) to her death in 1975, and her concept of "natality" is fundamental to the whole issue of youth and politics.
We often give pragmatic or utilitarian arguments for engaging young people. For example: (1) Teenagers perform much better in school when they are attached to communities. (2) If we seek an equitable political system in the future, we need to intervene with our youth today, to give them all the skills and motivations to participate. (3) Today's young generation already has praiseworthy values and talents that will help them to reform the society that we older people have messed up.
These are valid reasons, but Arendt gave deeper ones. Her teacher Martin Heidegger had seen mortality, the inevitable movement toward death, as the fundamental metaphysical fact. In politics, he had been a Nazi. Without naming him, Arendt replied to him in The Human Condition (p. 9): "Since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, not mortality, must be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical thought.”
This was the response of a little-"d" democrat, someone who believed that we should create the world freely but together. She derived this commitment from the fact that human beings are constantly being born, thus renewing the world and making its future basically unpredictable and up to us. Racism, to name just one example, is not written in nature but is produced by people, and the new people who arrive on earth every few seconds do not have to reproduce it. Later in the same book, Arendt elaborates:
- The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their glad tidings: ‘A child has been born unto us.’
I have written elsewhere about hope and loyalty as cardinal intellectual virtues. (See also this post on loyalty in academia.) Arendt was right--I believe--that our highest calling is to love the world. To love the world is to remake it in each generation with our contemporaries, which is "politics." We count on the newly born to replenish our efforts, and we owe them the virtues of hope and loyalty. We owe them, in short, a genuine welcome to the political world.
February 8, 2011
educating for civility
I am concerned about civil society and active citizenship, not about civility per se. I think an obligation to be polite can suppress engagement or can favor one side over the other (normally the side that is invested in the status quo). Sometimes, an angry critique is just what we need.
But there is a sense of "civility" that means a willingness to listen to others and learn from them. Civility in that sense is vital unless one is certain one is right. Only a few people should enjoy that certainty. (For example, Frederick Douglass appropriately refused to hear or answer arguments in favor of slavery.)
Anyway, I have generally avoided debates about civility, but I was persuaded to write a chapter on the topic for a volume entitled Educating for Deliberative Democracy, edited by my friend Nancy Thomas. The book is now out. It is not available online, but Wiley has chosen my chapter as their free online excerpt (PDF).
February 7, 2011
voter ID requirements may not be a big problem
I do not favor voter ID requirements, because evidence of fraud is extremely scarce; some people don't have government-issued ID's; and in general, our voting process is too cumbersome, not too easy. But I would hesitate before putting major effort into fighting the ID requirements. In a carefully conducted survey,* Harvard political scientist Stephen Ansolabehere and colleagues asked 22,211 voters if they were (a) asked for ID at the polling place and (b) blocked from voting. Twenty-five respondents out of those 22,211 said that this had happened to them. That is slightly more than one tenth of one percent--and some of those may have been truly ineligible. In 2008, Ansolabehere and colleagues asked non-voters why they hadn't voted, and four people out of 1,113 non-voters cited ID requirements as one reason. (Those four people also cited other reasons, so it's not clear that abolishing the requirements would have caused them to participate.)
I can well imagine that the intent of ID requirements is to suppress voting. The requirements are being applied inequitably: according to the Ansolabehere study, African Americans are much more likely than whites to report that they were asked for ID. The intent is indefensible. On the other hand, if the actual reduction in turnout is much less than one percent, maybe we should put our attention elsewhere, whether that means effective civic education, adequate numbers of polling stations, same-day voter registration, or campaign finance reform.
*Stephen Ansolabehere, "Effects of Identification Requirements on Voting: Evidence from the Experiences of Voters on Election Day," PS, January 2009 pp. 127-30. The survey used an Internet sample, not a random-digit-dial sample, but the authors employed impressive techniques to test for representativeness.
February 4, 2011
Las Vegas--I am with more than 100 alumni of YouthBuild who have turned into effective leaders. Most are now professional youth workers, and many run organizations. When they entered YouthBuild, they were high-school dropouts. (That is a criterion for admission.) Most YouthBuild students also have many other challenges, from criminal records to drug abuse. On entering the program, participants estimate their own life expectancies at 40 (on average), whereas upon completing the program, they have raised the estimate to 72--evidence that they have gained a sense of opportunity, optimism, and purpose.* They join in order to earn some money and gain a GED, but they are treated from the beginning with genuine respect and are empowered to make important collective decisions. We believe their civic empowerment is an important reason for their success in the program.
This video below emphasizes the severe problems participants face before YouthBuild and the personal progress they make. It does not do full justice to their political empowerment--the degree to which they become effective public speakers, deliberators, and leaders.
There are 100,000 YouthBuild alumni--not all successful, but still the nucleus of a mass movement. Attending a conference of YouthBuild alumni makes you feel that the Civil Rights Movement is still alive.
*Andrew Hahn, Thomas D. Leavitt, Erin McNamara Horvat, and James Earl Davis, “Life after YouthBuild” (Somerville, MA: YouthBuild USA, 2004) via www.youthbuild.org.
February 3, 2011
learning from Las Vegas
Las Vegas--I am here for a gathering of the alumni of YouthBuild USA. More about that tomorrow. Meanwhile, unlike Boston, Milwaukee, or Atlanta, Las Vegas makes you ask: Is this the real America? Is this our distilled essence?
It is arbitrarily here. It has no historical roots other than what you might find in the Mob Museum. It is totally dependent on technology: the Hoover Dam, air-conditioning, and slot machines. It is relentlessly commercial, all of its landmarks basically advertisements. It makes nothing except opportunities to strike it rich by sheer luck. Its public spaces ring with the literal sound of money clinking: audiotaped money, not the real stuff. It is vulgar but inventive, often inventively vulgar. It is as subtle as its massive exploding desert fountains. It is profligate with water, carbon, alcohol, jumbo shrimp, and people. Its lumbering visitors care nothing for social rank but expect to be excluded from the blatant displays of wealth and power. Its shining towers of commerce are ringed--first by dusty slums, then by encampments of ranch houses, and finally by treeless mountains that look down in contempt.
"All America is Las Vegas" is the kind of thing that Jean Baudrillard would say. (Maybe he did say it: I haven't searched.) I resist the formula. Why isn't America equally reflected in some of the other places I have visited already in 2011, such as Gainesville, with its 65,000 wholesome and diverse youth filing to classes under Spanish moss? Or downtown Oakland, the place alleged to have "no there there," which still proudly raises civic buildings across the bay from San Francisco's glamor? Or the town greens of Middlesex County, whose cannons and puritan gravestones are lost deep under crusty snow? Finding our national essence in Las Vegas is like identifying the French with Brigitte Bardot's Riviera or the English with a fox hunt: it is a hostile interpretation.
But it is worth worrying about.
February 2, 2011
the greedy ghost of market madness in the university
Simon Head writes:
The British universities, Oxford and Cambridge included, are under siege from a system of state control that is undermining the one thing upon which their worldwide reputation depends: the caliber of their scholarship. The theories and practices that are driving this assault are mostly American in origin, conceived in American business schools and management consulting firms. They are frequently embedded in intensive management systems that make use of information technology (IT) marketed by corporations such as IBM, Oracle, and SAP. They are then sold to clients such as the UK government and its bureaucracies, including the universities. This alliance between the public and private sector has become a threat to academic freedom in the UK, and a warning to the American academy about how its own freedoms can be threatened.
The Golden Compass author Philip Pullman makes a similar argument about British public libraries in a speech about the "greedy ghost of market madness" that is widely circulating online. (Eighteen thousand Facebook users have "liked" it so far.) Both authors treat several phenomena as part of one package:
- Cuts in financial support from the government;
- Micro-management by state bureaucracies that employ business models;
- Demands for accountability by scholars, writers, or librarians to their state funders;
- The introduction of market-like competition, and in general, a market understanding of traditionally genteel professionals like scholarship;
- The influence of the United States and of neoliberal ideology;
- The influence of economics as a profession and of business consulting.
I would unpack this bundle because I don't think the elements all deserve the same response. Just because a policy originated at McKinsey & Co.--or Margaret Thatcher liked it--it doesn't mean it's wrong. The United States should not be synonymous with Philistine market fundamentalism, especially since our state universities have long been beacons of scholarship and service.
Nor is it gauche to think of scholarship and publishing as economic enterprises. They do cost money (which other people pay in taxes, tuition, or gifts), and they yield products. We must be able to answer questions about our efficiency and value; those questions are not out of bounds if we expect people to subsidize us. Any amount spent on universities or libraries is not spent on hospitals and wetland restorations--unless we are willing to raise taxes, which has real costs for taxpayers and which requires their assent.
The cuts in British social services sound draconian to me: they are damaging as macroeconomic policy as well as unjust to the people who need them most. But one could introduce accountability and competition while raising the amount of funds--that is the central direction of US education policy under Obama.
Simon Head rightly notes that American universities exploit adjunct faculty. That is unconscionable. But a four-year American college education is extremely expensive already, and if the only reform we make is to pay adjuncts fair wages, tuition will rise substantially. The whole model of selling students hours of exposure to professors may not be sustainable. We are only making it work by substituting graduate students and adjuncts for most of the professors. We may need entirely different models of learning, such as computer-based simulations, to complement the traditional classroom.
Ultimately, I think we need to be accountable for quality, efficiency, and impact, but we should borrow business and market methods only if they fit the situation. The British have adopted a foolish policy of measuring the quantity of peer-reviewed books and articles and the number of times they are cited. This truly is "market fundamentalism," because it assumes that decisions to publish or to cite someone else's work are evidence of demand, and demand is evidence of quality or relevance. Those assumptions make some sense when people choose to buy consumer goods with their own money. But citing someone else's work costs me nothing. It is not a valid "market signal."
One can easily imagine a group of 250 professors who do entirely cheesy and useless work. But they all busily cite each other, give each other favorable peer reviews, and demand that their universities subscribe to the journals that they produce for themselves. They look like a highly "productive" scholarly community, worthy of public support. Meanwhile, the solitary scholar who spends ten years writing an unfashionable magnum opus looks like a complete dead weight for at least nine of those ten years.
Although the British government has taken to a ludicrous extreme the habit of evaluating quality as a function of citations, American universities do that, too--on the ground that we lack the expertise to assess the intrinsic merits of our colleagues' work. (So we leave the assessment to other specialists in their field.) But whole fields can be worth more or less than other fields. There is no substitute for deciding what is good. Evaluation must be discursive; we must be able to offer and assess reasons and explanations.
Universities, literary publishing houses, libraries, and other cultural institutions should certainly fight brutal cuts, foolish ranking systems, and ignorant critics. But the responses of Head and Pullman strike me as overly defensive, as if we have always served the public fairly and well and all our problems originated "in American business schools and management consulting firms." Part of our response must be to explain how we will do better in the future.
February 1, 2011
Egypt as a velvet revolution
In a New York Review article in 2009, Timothy Garton Ash offered some generalizations about the "Velvet Revolution" [VR] as a historical phenomenon. Its archetype is Eastern Europe in 1989, but other important examples have occurred in South Africa, the Philippines, Chile, and now perhaps in Egypt. After the metaphor of velvet seemed to wear out, the language shifted to colors, so that we have now seen a Rose Revolution in Georgia, an Orange Revolution in Ukraine, a Pink Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, a frustrated Green Revolution in Iran, and a Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. I haven't seen much mention of a color in Egypt, but citizens there are clearly following the Velvet Revolution or Color Revolution script.
Painting with a deliberately broad brush, an ideal type of 1989-style revolution, VR, might be contrasted with an ideal type of 1789-style revolution, as further developed in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Mao’s Chinese revolution. The 1789 ideal type is violent, utopian, professedly class-based, and characterized by a progressive radicalization, culminating in terror. A revolution is not a dinner party, Mao Zedong famously observed, and he went on:
A revolution is an uprising, an act of violence whereby one class overthrows another…. To right a wrong it is necessary to exceed proper limits, and the wrong cannot be righted without the proper limits being exceeded.
The 1989 ideal type, by contrast, is nonviolent, anti-utopian, based not on a single class but on broad social coalitions, and characterized by the application of mass social pressure—"people power"—to bring the current powerholders to negotiate. It culminates not in terror but in compromise. If the totem of 1789-type revolution is the guillotine, that of 1989 is the round table.
Two other defining features of the Velvet or Color Revolution:
1) It locates the ideal outcome not in a hitherto unrealized future, but in a real past or in an actual existing situation from today's world. I cannot speak for Egyptians, but I suspect they want a society more like today's Turkey, Spain, or Sweden. In Velvet Revolutions, the actual parliamentary democracies of the present are treated as normal, and the goal is to attain normality. This is very different from trying to end history or achieve a novel kind of state.
2) It is self-limiting, concerned to avoid replacing the old tyrant with a new tyrant. Mass movements can easily be taken over by well-placed, professional revolutionaries who then become dictators. Mass nonviolent protests can easily turn violent, and once political killing becomes common, it is extremely hard to avoid civil war and then repression. Successful mass movements limit themselves by finding some bright-line rule, a restriction on their own power, that they demand their own members follow. Non-violence is one such rule, and it has the advantage of being clearly defined. But it is not the only workable rule. In Iran in 2009, protesters seemed to fasten on the rule: "Hurt the machines, love the human beings." They would violently pelt Revolutionary Guard motorcyclists with stones until the Guardsmen were unseated, at which point they would give them medical assistance. In Egypt, one emergent rule is: "Molotov Cocktails yes, Guns no."