college students’ civic knowledge “appalling” … in 1943

Thanks to a Twitter thread by historian Meredith Henne Baker, I read an article from The New York Times entitled “Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen.” In that piece, Benjamin Fine reported the results of 7,000 surveys completed at a substantial set of participating institutions, from Boston University to Yeshiva College.

The results look pretty awful. “A large majority” could not answer questions about Lincoln, Jefferson, Jackson, or Lincoln. Twenty-five percent did not know that Lincoln was president during the Civil War. Students’ geographical knowledge was also deemed poor: “Most of our students do not have the faintest notion of what this country looks like.” Asked about the Bill of Rights, many respondents named rights that are not in that document, including FDR’s four freedoms and women’s suffrage.

None of this sounds like news. We have surely heard it all before. See, for example, “Failing Grades on Civics Exam Called a ‘Crisis’” (New York Times, May 4, 2014).

The interesting point about Fine’s article is its date: April 4, 1943. He uses a lot more words than his 2014 successor, and he combines commentary with reporting in a looser or breezier style. Otherwise, these articles almost rhyme.

I might have expected the results to look better in 1943. College freshmen were a more elite subgroup of the young-adult population then, the curriculum was narrower (giving American history potentially a larger share), and the US was fighting a highly patriotic all-out war. But overall, the statistics looked no better in those days, and maybe worse than today.

When arguing for better civics and historical education, we should avoid the language of decline or current crisis. In reality, levels of civic and historical knowledge–as measured by such instruments–appear remarkably flat despite dramatic changes in education and society. These surveys and their specific questions are subject to debate; people know important things not reported in these articles. Still, it is worth seriously investigating why basic political and historical knowledge seem so persistently poor.

One implication is that quick and easy solutions are unlikely to work. Requirements for courses and tests have come and gone over the past 80 years, with sometimes statistically significant results but no fundamental change.

Another implication is that political reforms must accompany changes in education. Just to name one example, Gimpel, Lay & Schuknecht (2003) found that young people learned and knew more about politics if they grew up in competitive electoral districts rather than “safe” seats. Thus gerrymandering reform would help civic education. That is just an example of how civic knowledge has a demand side as well as a supply side. The more adults are invited to play consequential political roles, the more youth will seek and receive civic education. However, to empower citizens is usually a struggle, because it usually comes at the expense of current power-holders.

A third implication is that we would need bolder policy reforms to improve civic education substantially. Adding or removing a test may matter, but it is a pretty modest intervention. If knowledge of the political system and its history are truly important, we will need more than a course or test.

We have never really tried a sustained and coherent effort to set targets, enact requirements, educate educators, produce materials, assess students, evaluate programs, and improve all the inputs. Educating for American Democracy offers a roadmap for such an effort, and it would be unprecedented.

bootstrapping value commitments

On the third day of the 2022 version of ICER (the Institute for Civically Engaged Research), I am thinking about the normative commitments of engaged scholars–their theories of justice or social ethics.

All research requires and reflects normative commitments. Even a highly positivistic study addresses specific topics and questions for a reason, whether or not that reason is acknowledged. We should be accountable for these normative commitments, willing to defend them in public, respond to criticisms of them, and modify them when the criticisms seem valid.

I don’t believe we have a right to “outsource” that process to other people. For instance, it’s not acceptable to say that the community you study has certain values and that you simply report them without influencing them. Whether you are right to study this particular community in this way is a question about you, and you are responsible for answering it to the best of your ability.

On the other hand, we can acknowledge our frailties and limitations as individuals. We have cognitive and moral limitations–in fact, we are foolish and selfish. It can therefore be wise to consider questions of justice in the company of others and to make oneself open to their views.

That raises the question: Which others? In the projects I briefly described yesterday, the community is the border region of metropolitan San Diego/Tijuana. Making oneself part of that community, and accountable to it, directs one’s normative reasoning in particular ways. That choice is debatable: some people would say that employees of California’s state university system should make themselves accountable to that state, whose southern border runs between San Diego and Tijuana.

Reflection on justice is a bootstrapping process. We begin in communities; we refine our sense of which communities we belong to; we explore what is right with other members of those communities; and then we reflect on whether we want to remain fully engaged with those communities or redefine our memberships again.

This process reminds me of a Reformation debate. In contrast to the Catholic view that the church mediates between the individual soul and the divine, Protestants said that each sinner stands alone before the Maker. Why then should people belong to churches at all? The canonical Protestant answer is that we are individually accountable yet we should also be humble. We need other people to help us see, or remember, what is right.

Perhaps this Protestant heritage biases my thinking (even though I am not of that faith). Although the moral individualism inherent in what I have written here is not accurately described as “Western”–it contradicts Western Catholicism–it does have a specific European heritage. Still, this combination of individual accountability with humility seems about right to me. And perhaps it roughly resembles the combination of dharma and sangha and other hybrids of truth and community from around the world.

engaged theory and the construction of community

I’m at the 2022 version of ICER (the Institute for Civically Engaged Research) with 20 talented and dedicated political scientists, plus my co-directors Valeria Sinclair-Chapman and Amy Cabrera Rasmussen. Today, we learned from UCSD professor Fonna Forman about the Civic Innovation Lab and its projects in the “binational metropolis of San Diego, California and Tijuana, B.C., Mexico.”

The Lab collaborates on a set of ambitious, long-term projects that often take place in “UCSD Community Stations,” which are physical facilities located “across the border region” (on both sides of the wall) and “designed for engaged research and teaching on poverty and social equity.” Forman is also involved with the new Engaged Theory Community, which promotes “normative political theory that centers lived experiences.”

According to the Engaged Theory website: “Using a range of methods — interpretive, qualitative, and quantitative— practitioners of engaged theory seek to better align political philosophy with the questions, goals, and needs of communities seeking social justice.” In the case of UCSD’s Lab, the community is defined as the binational metro area in which the university is located. Thinking and working together with people across that region has revealed many empirical findings (such as the flow of pollutants north into San Diego County or the condition of housing immediately south of the border wall) and conceptual insights. For instance, collaborators in the project now see themselves as located along a global “Political Equator,” the 38th parallel, which is marked by conflict almost all the way around the globe.

Fundamental to the ideal of engaged research is accountability to a community: it is not research “on” or “for,” but “with.” If scholars happen to work for the University of California-San Diego, they could choose to define their community as the campus and its people, their discipline, the neighborhood near La Jolla, San Diego, CA, the state of California, the United States, or in other ways. Each of these communities would encompass diversity, yet each would have a different center of gravity. For example, the majority opinion about contested issues like immigration would differ depending on the definition of the community.

This project envisions the relevant political community as a concentration of 5 million people who are densely interconnected by water and air, animals and seeds, energy and waste, and their own migration, communication, and exchange–yet split by a wall. Defining the community this way gives the project a particular normative center. It makes the wall look problematic; migration looks natural. Meanwhile, the research also contributes (along with many other people’s work) to making San Diego/Tijuana into a political community–a “we” that can govern itself.

notes on religion and cultural appropriation: the case of US Buddhism

(With several colleagues, I will be teaching a pilot course on religious pluralism and civic life this fall. This post is one of several that reflect my pre-reading and thinking.)

In 1998, in a generally enthusiastic overview of Buddhism in the USA, Charles S. Prebish noted the “bifurcation” between Buddhism as the “native religion of a significant number of Asian immigrants” and “an ever-increasing group of (mostly) Euro-Americans who [have] embraced Buddhism primarily out of intellectual attraction and interest in spiritual practice.” He described the latter group as urban, highly educated, and “even elite in its lifestyle orientation”–and growing very rapidly.

More than 20 years later, the tensions seem more evident. Rev. Christina Moon critically assesses “the erasure of Asian cultures, and of Asian and Asian American people, in mainstream Western Buddhism.” She writes:

Over the fifteen years before coming to Chozen-ji [a temple and monastery founded by Asian Americans], I sat with more than a dozen different Buddhist communities where I was often the only Asian and sometimes one of the only non-white people in attendance. When non-Asian Buddhists (particularly at American Zen centers) wore Japanese clothes, bowed to me theatrically, referred to me as “Cristina-san”, responded to requests in English with “Hai!”, and expressed rigid attachment to the technical accuracy of certain Japanese and Buddhist forms, it looked more like cosplay [dressing as a character from a movie] than a means to enter Zen. 

I find this situation troubling, but it’s also a provocative case for thinking about culture, religion, and racial identity: how to define them in general, how they relate to each other, and what we should do as a result.

Before suggesting some general ideas about these issues, I should recommend Moon’s specific guidance related to Buddhism in the USA. She identifies a set of practices that are common across Asian and Asian-American communities, such as bringing food to share and helping people who are more experienced or older do menial tasks. She writes that “Asians do not own these behaviors,” but they are notable in Asian communities and are consistent with Buddhist ethics as described abstractly. Thus they are “ways to bring the dharma alive.”

For similar reasons, there is value in practices like “maintaining a shrine, prayer, prostrations and pilgrimage, engaging in the arts, [and] offering alms” that some converts to Buddhism might dismiss as “merely cultural.” More generally, we might identify virtues of respectful curiosity, fallibilism (i.e., any of my ideas can always be wrong) and mild self-abnegation. I think it is fruitful to understand these virtues in a specifically Buddhist way, but also to endorse and use them in other contexts–for instance, when one encounters an Abrahamic tradition.

I would propose some general propositions that extend beyond this case:

  • A religion is not best understood as a coherent set of abstract beliefs that are necessary and sufficient for membership and that contradict some of the beliefs of other religions. That is not a complete description even of the Abrahamic faiths; it is even less accurate for other religions. Instead, any religion is a whole body of accumulated beliefs, stories, values, practices, and institutions. It always encompasses a great deal of diversity and has porous and indefinite borders. In that sense, religion is very much like culture, or is even a category used–often by outsiders–to name certain aspects of culture. (See Wilfred Cantwell Smith, discussed here.)
  • A culture is not something to which individuals belong, and it does not affect individuals. A culture is a name for a large set of beliefs, values, skills, habits, etc. that individuals have and can use. Everyone has a unique set at any given moment. However, we sometimes gain insight by categorizing people within a culture when we notice that they share a lot of the same repertoire and differ from others whom they encounter. Often, what is salient about a culture is its tension with other cultures that it interacts with. (See “a mistaken view of culture“).
  • A race is a social construct that arbitrarily makes some extremely superficial attributes, such as skin color, falsely seem important. It originated in a desire to dominate and exploit. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored, because centuries of racial oppression have taught people to see in terms of race and have created injustices that require remedies. One result is that the loose categories that we name as “cultures” very often have racial overtones as well. In situations like the ones that Christina Moon describes, people should be mindful of race. (See “what would happen to race in a just world?“).
  • Specific ideas can be good or bad, right or wrong. For instance, I would defend Moon’s guidance for behavior in an Asian-American temple as good advice, not merely as an expression of a specific group’s values. Because we think–and sometimes correctly–that some of our own ideas are important and good, we are motivated to spread them, including to people who come from very different backgrounds. We are also motivated to absorb and adopt new ideas from diverse sources when we find them persuasive. Evangelism is not limited to Christianity and Islam and should not be equated with cultural imperialism. The traditions that originated in Asia, like those from the Mediterranean and elsewhere, have been deliberately propagated to outsiders and sometimes willingly received. In fact, we might say that all people have a human right to all sources of wisdom, regardless of where the ideas originated. (See “a richer sense of cultural interchange.”)
  • Whether the spread of a given idea is good depends on whether that idea is good. This is a question that each of us must consider with the resources we happen to have: the other ideas, values, skills, etc. that we have already absorbed. We should not be biased in favor of ideas that cohere well with what we already believe; that is “motivated reasoning.” On the contrary, we should try to be open to ideas that trouble our existing beliefs.
  • All cultures are hybrid. Nothing human is pure, and the desire to keep national cultures distinct, coherent, and homogeneous is pathological. It is the root of much cruelty and exclusion.
  • East and West are not useful categories. Although sometimes we gain insight by categorizing people, these particular classifications are far too vague to shed any light, and they have problematic histories and motivations. Besides, specific traditions that seem classically European or Asian have long been intertwined. For example, one of the most influential seedbeds of Buddhism was Greek-ruled Northern India after Alexander, when coins literally had Greek imprinted on one side and Sanskrit on the other. (See “avoiding the labels of East and West.”) Two concepts that can be more useful than East and West are imperialism and modernization. But these are not simply “Western” phenomena. Japan was imperialist, and all Asian countries have experienced modernization. (See “don’t name things Western but call out imperialism.”)

In the US, there is a certain tendency–I don’t know how widespread–to see Buddhist thought as ahistorical. The Buddha is treated as a contemporary; the meditating mind lives only in the immediate present. There is also a tendency to acknowledge Buddhism’s roots in Asia but to depict Asian or Eastern “culture” as monolithic, apart from superficial aesthetic differences that people can browse like consumers.

Thus it’s possible that the white/European-American Buddhists whom Rev. Moon has encountered differentiate between the transcendent truths of the Buddha and optional traditions and behaviors that they label “culture.” They then pick and choose from the traditions without recognizing that they (highly educated, mostly White Americans) are every bit as immersed in their own stream of inherited behaviors, aesthetics, beliefs, and values, which influence their choices about what to borrow from Asian contexts. Linda Heuman writes:

The French philosopher and sociologist of science Bruno Latour famously described it this way: “A Modern is someone who believes that others believe.” A modern Buddhist, in Latour’s sense, is someone who believes that Asian forms of Buddhism carry the “baggage” of their host cultures but who remains unreflective about the assumptions that shape his or her own modern adaptations.

Any mind is ineluctably historical. As we develop from speechless infants into adults, we absorb a vast array of classifications, assumptions, and values that other people invented before us. We can never escape this historical contingency. You might think that you can have an unmediated experience of nature, but your tastes in nature, your words and concepts for nature, and even your physical location in front of a specific patch of nature are all historically conditioned. (See “the sublime and other people” and “the sublime is social“.)

History is highly complex, diverse, and often cruel, whether we happen to know the details or not. Evils are widespread–consider, for example, the use of Buddhist ideas in imperial Japan or in Myanmar today. Human beings widely and blatantly violate principles that they expressly teach, such as nonviolence and compassion. On the other hand, people all over the world also create practices and institutions that reflect wise goals and choices. What we think we know is a result of this complex, globally interconnected, and fraught past.

An ahistorical approach may actually contradict important Buddhist ideas. For one thing, the assumption that you can have an authentic, personal experience of nature or of your own body contradicts the idea of no-self, whereas to acknowledge that all your ideas originated with other people and will outlast you seems consistent with rebirth.

Besides, Mahayana Buddhists have presented the development of Buddhism as a series of “turnings of the Dharma wheel.” This story–rather like Hegel’s idealist history–understands the truth as we know it today as a historical achievement that reflects logical development over time. Idealist histories can offer insight by explaining the development of ideas as deliberate mental work. But it’s usually worth bringing materialist considerations into view as well. What we believe today may be a result of other people’s good thinking, or the outcome of power and self-interest, or both.

Unfortunately, analyzing the mind as historically conditioned–and history as rife with power and injustice–requires a lot of knowledge. My understanding of Mahayana Buddhist historiography could fit on an index card, and I would be hard pressed to learn a lot more, if only because I don’t know the relevant languages. I am supposed to know more about German idealist philosophy and historiography, but there too, I am woefully ignorant. And there are so many other traditions to learn.

Christina Moon’s description of cringy behavior at Zen centers is a portrait of people who want to pick and choose ideas and practices that they find comfortable without taking seriously the historical development and interconnection of those ideas, without being genuinely open to practices that might challenge them, without being careful about their own status and impact, and without wrestling with the connections among racial hierarchy and exclusion, everyday culture, and the abstract beliefs that we might classify as Buddhist philosophy or theology. Yet the solution is not to declare these beliefs off limits (nor does Moon suggest that), because everyone should always be looking for good beliefs to adopt. We just have to do it with a lot of care–not only about the ideas and their affect on our inner lives, but also about the other people we touch.

See also: a Hegelian meditation; diversity, humility, curiosity; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; Buddhism as philosophy; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; what is cultural appropriation?

Strategic Doing Institute

I don’t think I know anyone at the Strategic Doing Institute, but I really like their model. Groups of people come together, identify the resources that they personally control and are willing to deploy for their shared cause, and design a short-term project that they can do themselves–without any external support or permission–to build capacity for more ambitious work later. At any rate, that is my casual summary of their model.

It is consistent with the argument of my new book, What Should We Do?. I propose a general “theory of civic life” that is meant to apply to all kinds of groups, at all scales–including legislatures, nonprofit corporations, and social movements. For better or worse, my book is not a hands-on planning tool. Different kinds of groups need different sorts of tools, and I focus on more general concepts and values. That said, if you want an experience that is closely congruent with my argument, and if you are at an early stage of forming a voluntary coalition to address an issue, the Strategic Doing model looks like a good choice.