In lieu of a blog post by me, here is a profile of me by my colleague Luke Phelan. It is also a brief summary of the more philosophical and theoretical aspects of my forthcoming book–and an excuse to share the book’s cover. …
“Strategy is as intellectually challenging as empirical research and moral argument, but it’s much less studied, taught, and integrated,” said Peter Levine, Tisch College director of research and director of CIRCLE.
Levine lays out his vision for the importance of strategy in his book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America, forthcoming from the Oxford University Press. He spoke about his ideas at the Philosophy & Civic Engagement symposium. The symposium was organized to celebrate Levine’s recent appointment as the Lincoln-Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Service and his secondary appointment as a research professor in the School of Arts & Sciences philosophy department.
“Broadly, civic engagement is in decline,” said Levine. “We’ve lost the structures that recruit, educate, and permit people to engage effectively as citizens.”
However, Levine says we also live in a period of remarkable civic innovation.
“There are at least one million Americans at work right now on sophisticated and locally effective forms of civic engagement,” he said. “People are motivated to work together on public problems, but policies frustrate the best kinds of engagement. What’s needed are strategies to change those policies.”
Philosophy, particularly moral philosophy, has a special role in shaping those strategies and defining good citizenship.
“Moral concepts are indispensable,” said Levine. “Test scores are a good example. Research might show that smaller class sizes raise test scores, but it can’t tell you if those tests measure something valuable, or if the cost to hire more teachers and build more classrooms is worth paying, or if the state has the right to raise the necessary revenues. Those are value judgments, and civic engagement makes our value judgments wiser.”
Levine argues that the fundamental reason for the kinds of civic engagement that Tisch College promotes and that CIRCLE studies is to strengthen Americans’ moral reasoning and our capacity to solve social problems.
“Civil society functions best when many kinds of people bring their experiences into a common conversation, and then take what they’ve learned back to their work, in an iterative cycle,” he said. “If individuals constantly rely on the same small number of foundational beliefs, it quickly becomes impossible for them to converse or engage. It’s easier to talk to someone with many interests, commitments, and ideas, because each of those is a point of contact, like an organic molecule with lots of surfaces where other molecules can bond.”
Rather than understanding moral reasoning as a linear sequence of steps, Levine envisions it as a network that connects nodes of concrete data and abstract values in webs of associations and configurations, tied together by implications and influences.
For example, you may have a node that “love is good.” However, love can be wrong or can lead to tragedy, as in Romeo and Juliet. Levine argues that our minds are flexible enough to manage the complex meanings and associations that come with value-heavy terms like “love.” We have the capacity to route around conflicting assumptions.
“A strong network does not rest on a single node,” he said. “Its many pathways allow many routes from one node to the next. Yet, in real functioning networks, all the nodes do not bear equal importance: the most vital 20% carry 80% of the traffic. That’s true for the Internet, the brain, and, I think, civil society. A moral mind works like a robust network.”
Levine thinks that this network model of the moral mind captures both how deeply interconnected we are, and how social our processes of reasoning are.
“Each person’s network is at least slightly different from everyone else’s,” he said, “but any two networks share at least some of the same nodes. So we can think of the whole community as one elaborate interpersonal moral network, full of tension as well as consensus. Civic engagement is a process of enriching and enhancing that shared network.”
For Levine, civic engagement is most valuable when deliberation (talking and learning about public matters) is connected to work and making things, particularly collaborative efforts that produce things of public value. Talking and working together forges relationships that he calls “scarce but renewable sources of energy and power.”
We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For assembles evidence that this kind of engagement, although waning in America, actually solves social problems. The book concludes with strategies for civic renewal.