summit on civic engagement and higher education

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass.—In collaboration with the White House, Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service will convene higher education leaders to examine the important topics of civic engagement and active citizenship at a Civic Learning and National Service Summit to be hosted at Tufts this fall. Tisch College is a leader in civic learning, political engagement and service among young people.

The upcoming summit at Tufts, which was unveiled during the AmeriCorps 20th anniversary celebrations, will address two key topics: the value of civic engagement and how to measure civic engagement commitments and outcomes. The meeting is expected to include national policy makers, higher education scholars and practitioners, and other thought leaders in the fields of education, philanthropy, business, community and government.

Alan D. Solomont, Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of Tisch College, said, “More than ever before, young people today are eager to serve and they are looking for support and inspiration. We welcome this opportunity to work with the White House, leaders in higher education, and others to assess how civic engagement and service can address pressing national challenges.” Solomont, former U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra also chaired the bipartisan board of directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees such domestic service programs as AmeriCorps, Learn and Serve America, VISTA and Senior Corps.

Peter Levine, associate dean of research at Tisch College who is spearheading the upcoming summit, added, “Many colleges and universities offer excellent programs that educate their students for democracy, but there is an urgent need to make these experiences expected for all colleges and students, and to assess the outcomes.”

Tisch College will announce further details of the Civic Learning and National Service Summit in the coming weeks.

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the history of civics and news literacy education

I’m in Chicago for Poynter’s News Literacy Summit, entitled “Because News Matters.” Participants promote (to varying degrees) such outcomes as: following and understanding the news, taking informed action as citizens, understanding how the media work, critically interpreting news, understanding society and politics, valuing high-quality news, understanding media effects on individual behaviors and attitudes, being well informed about current events, civilly discussing controversial issues, valuing First Amendment freedoms, making news media, and making other forms of media.

Each of these objectives has been pursued for a long time. John Dewey, for example, was a great proponent of news media literacy. To get a rough sense of what has been taught over time, consider this graph of the percentage of American students who’ve had various courses on their transcripts:

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 10.58.02 AM

This is a complex picture, without simple trends. I would, however, emphasize a few observations:

1) A course that truly focused on using the news media was “problems of democracy,” which typically involved having to read the daily newspaper in order to prepare for pop quizzes on current events and classroom discussions. That course had its heyday in the 1940s and is now largely gone.

2) Courses that look like college-level social science are much more common today than they were in the past.

3) American Government is a hardy perennial course. But it has to cover a wide range of material, including the history and structure of the US government. Following current events is often an afterthought, not aligned with standardized tests.

Sources: Up to 1994, Richard G. Niemi and Julia Smith, “Enrollments in High School Government Classes: Are We Short-Changing Both Citizenship and Political Science Training?” PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Jun., 2001), pp. 281-287. After that, the National High School Transcript Study; CIRCLE’s 2012 survey.

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Dr. Tim Eatman at Frontiers

To end the week, here is a video from Frontiers of Democracy 2014. It shows Dr. Tim Eatman, Co-director of Imagining America at Syracuse University, talking about “The Center of the Civic.” And not only talking–Tim has the courage to sing a cappella near the end. This is also a quiet tribute to Nancy Cantor, I believe.

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the Brennan Center’s Student Voting Guide

(Orlando, FL) The laws governing registration and voting are confusing, rapidly changing, sometimes deliberately restrictive, and different in every state. In our 2012 youth survey, we found that substantial majorities of 18-29-year-olds did not know or misunderstood the laws that would govern their own voting, just four months before Election Day. Although only a minority of young adults are college students, students face an extra layer of laws governing registration at their campus addresses and use of their college ID at the polls. Students should therefore make sure to use the Brennan Center’s new Student Voter Guide. By clicking on your state, you can immediately see accurate and current information about registration, residency, allowable ID, absentee voting, and early voting.

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beyond small is beautiful

(Orlando, FL) So many of the initiatives that I admire happen to be small: classrooms devoted to reflection and service, deliberative meetings of citizens, one-on-one interviews with community organizers, efforts to restore wetlands and woods. Their leaders do not necessarily favor smallness; they may wish to “go to scale.” Yet the values they prize seem linked to smallness, and I suspect that the “Small is Beautiful” movement of the late 1960s is somehow in their heritage, whether they know it or not.

With that in mind, I’ve looked superficially at E.F. Schumacher’s popular 1973 manifesto, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Some passages seem to me insightful. For example:

In the affairs of men, there always appears to be a need for at least two things simultaneously, which, on the face of it, seem to be incompatible and to exclude each other. We always need both freedom and order. We need the freedom of lots and lots of small, autonomous units, and, at the same time, the orderliness of large-scale, possibly global, unity and coordination. When it comes to action, we obviously need small units, because action is a highly personal affair, and one cannot be in touch with more than a very limited number of persons at any one time. But when it comes to the world of ideas, to principles or to ethics, to the indivisibility of peace and also of ecology, we need to recognise the unity mankind and base our actions upon this recognition (p. 61).

Forty years later, it is not longer so obvious that “action” requires small scale, on the basis that “one cannot be in touch with more than a very limited number of persons at any one time.” A person can have thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Moreover, networks of people who associate voluntarily can now quickly become large and powerful. Bennett and Segerberg (2012) cite, for example, los Indignados, a movement composed of 15 million protesters in 60 Spanish cities that arose in 2011. These protesters kept “political parties, unions, and other powerful political organizations out: indeed, they were targeted as part of the political problem. … The most visible organization consisted of the richly layered digital and interpersonal communication networks centering around the media hub of Democracia real YA!

Thus I would no longer draw the line between small and big. But Schumacher was right that “action is a highly personal affair”; and domains of personal action require relationships among human beings who know and hear each other and cooperate in tangible ways. Thus we can draw a distinction between personalized politics and institutionalized politics that roughly maps onto small versus big. Schumacher would say that we need both.

 personalized institutionalized
main forms of interaction talk, collaboration, relationships rules, incentives, directives, measurements
major advantages ability to take tangible action; responsiveness to individuals’ needs fairness, efficiency, predictable general rules that permit individuals to live freely, the ability to address big problems
major disadvantages exclusiveness, petty politics and bullying, failure to address macro issues individuals have modest or intangible impact
equity and inclusion mean responding to each member’s needs and interests appropriately; inviting outsiders to join rules and rights that enhance equality of opportunity and/or outcomes for a population; applying these rules impersonally
democratic decision- making can sometimes be consensual. Always requires a concern for the feelings of each member majority vote or a market system for aggregating preferences
how to deal with collective action problems personalized appeals; sometimes a violator is ostracized requirements, monitoring, and penalties (e.g., in a system of taxation)
roles are relatively informal and can be equivalent for all members formalized and differentiated

One of the most difficult questions is how to connect institutionalized and personalized politics together so that we can get the best of both. We cannot ignore big systems in order to live within our chosen networks, because the big systems govern us and ultimately decide the fate of the small associations. But as we try to move from relational politics to institutionalized politics, we often lose the distinctive virtues of the former, especially deliberate human agency.

The two main methods for expanding the scope of relational politics are: 1) replication and 2) leverage–that is, either finding ways to make relational practices happen over and over and networking them together, or else using instruments like laws or the mass media to achieve the ends that we have selected in personal interactions. Neither is easy to accomplish with integrity, and I think the whole question of how relational politics can influence mass systems is seriously under-explored.

[Sources: E.F. Schumacher (1973), Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, Harper & Row; W. Lance Bennett & Alexandra Segerberg (2012) The Logic Of Connective Action:  Digital Media and the Personalization Of Contentious Politics. Information, Communication & Society (15)5:739-768.  See also Jane Mansbridge's Beyond Adversary Democracy.]

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Illinois adopting the “C3″ Social Studies framework

This is exciting news for me as a co-author of the College, Career and Civic (C3) Framework for the Social Studies, a long-time ally of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, and a friend of Shawn Healy:

State Superintendent of Education Christopher A. Koch has announced that he has requested a review of the state’s arts and social studies education standards. …

Another group of education partners will form a task force, led by the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, to develop new social studies standards. The task force will consist of teachers representing various grades, as well as representatives from the disciplines of civics, economics, geography, history and sociology. The panel will review the College, Career and Civic Framework, which was published last fall by the National Council for the Social Studies, to guide its efforts. The group will also draw from the experiences of several other states that have recently embarked on a similar process.

“Strong social studies standards join the core disciplines of math, English language arts and science to help not only prepare students for college and careers, but for engagement in civic life,” said Shawn P. Healy, chair of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and the Civic Learning and Engagement Scholar at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. “This is a promising step in reviving the civic health of our state.”

Other states–at least including New York, Connecticut, and Kentucky–are also using the C3 to help revise their standards.

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Jonathan Haidt’s six foundations of morality

Jonathan Haidt and colleagues propose that human beings have six different areas of moral concern: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and purity. They argue that individuals and cultures differ in how they define and value these six areas, which they call “Foundations.” For instance, secular Westerners are unusual in giving very heavy weight to the first three. Within the USA, conservatives care about all six and realize that liberals are only concerned about the first three; but liberals fail to grasp conservatives’ concerns for loyalty, authority, and purity. Therefore, conservatives can predict liberals’ answers to specific questions quite accurately, but liberals do not understand conservatives–with consequences for elections and public debates.

I find these results illuminating. For example, it rings true that liberals are pretty immune to traditional concerns about purity; and even when we oppose something because it’s impure (such as completely consensual incest), we refuse to invoke concepts of purity in our reasons. At the same time, we liberals may actually have our own purity concerns. For example, I would never leave a glass bottle in the woods, and I would be at least mildly upset to see one there. I suspect the damage caused by an inert glass bottle is minimal; producing my breakfast probably hurt nature much more than a little littering. But I regard the woods as pure, and a human deposit there as a pollutant–in the moral sense.

We could call my reaction “irrational,” but that would presume that only care, fairness, and liberty are rational concerns. Haidt, who is explicitly Humean, would say that reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions. We human beings happen to have six (not just three) bases for our moral passions. Liberals are just odd; we are not distinctively rational.

The main method is factor analysis influenced by conceptual categories. Factor analysis, which is used very widely, takes people’s actual responses to surveys and looks for clusters that suggest an unobserved “factor.” For example, people may not know that they are driven by a concern for care, but their answers to a range of more concrete questions may cluster together empirically, and “care” may be a good label for this cluster. Since “Individuals are often unable to access the causes of their moral judgments,” the real causes must be unconscious and instinctive. We may not know that care is one of our Moral Foundations; that is an empirical finding.

For Haidt et al., moral factors must have two characteristics in addition to statistical clustering: 1) they must be found empirically in many cultures across the world–although it is to be expected that some cultures will miss some factors–and 2) there must be a Darwinian evolutionary explanation for why human beings would have developed these concerns.  Darwinian explanations are supposed to be not mere stories that illustrate evolutionary theory but findings of biology or archaeology.

Finally, Haidt’s method is cumulative and falsifiable. He and his colleagues propose six “Foundations” right now, but they expect to add more.

A lot of assumptions are built into these methods. Arguably, the assumptions are vindicating themselves pragmatically by yielding valuable insights; but it may also be the case that the assumptions drive the methods, which determine the results. Either way, I see these premises:

1. Haidt et al. are interested in very broad categories (“Foundations”) and will even sacrifice tighter correlations if necessary to bring more survey response under broad headings. One could instead investigate the pervasive but subtle differences that arise between two people of the same cultural and ideological background, or within one person’s thinking about one moral concern. For example, I may think about care in five different ways in respect to one complex interpersonal situation.

2. Haidt et al. broaden the definition of morality to include matters–such as authority and purity–that are viewed as extra-moral by, for example, Kant. But they still name six domains as moral and exclude other psychological constructs that may explain our judgments (e.g., competition, lust, and hatred) from the list. This seems to imply a substantive theory of what counts as “moral,” despite Haidt’s repeated claims that he is a naturalist who seeks to describe, not prescribe. What if I insist that authority is not moral or that Will to Power is?

3. Haidt acknowledges that moral norms and beliefs change, but the Foundations Theory does not seem useful for explaining such changes. Haidt is a liberal who argues that liberals are rhetorically hobbled by our inability to invoke loyalty, authority, and purity. Nevertheless, the country has moved dramatically in a liberal direction on social issues that are entwined with purity and authority (e.g., gender roles). How could that happen so quickly?

4. This stream of research is concerned with the often unconscious causes of our moral judgments. It is not concerned with the way that we articulate reasons and arguments to justify our conclusions. This is because Haidt et al.–like most empirical psychologists–find that our explicit reasons are poor predictors of our concrete judgments. Our reasons are not causal.

And yet I would maintain that our reasons can be good or bad, and it matters that they are good. We are morally accountable for the quality of our reasons. It is not only important to judge and do right, but to think right. Besides, we sometimes form judgments contrary to affect because of our reasons, or we decide what to do when our instincts conflict by considering the applicable reasons, or we persuade other people by citing reasons, or we construct institutions on the basis of reasons that then constrain our behavior. Thus the ways we connect our ideas have at least some significance.

Ultimately, I think that the Foundations Theory is a form of science. It is a cumulative and falsifiable body of research, generating useful findings. Yet one can start in other places and also make progress.

I would start with the assumption that human beings are evolved animals whose brains are the product of Darwinian design. But I would also note that we human beings live and think in immensely complicated social settings that have emerged from the uncoordinated choices and actions of billions of people over thousands of years. Emergent phenomena, such as actual languages, religions, governments, and communities, are at the heart of our moral concerns. Although human beings with evolved characteristics have made these institutions, they take on lives of their own and influence us profoundly while also structuring the decisions we make. For instance, our institutions officially embody norms that we may find onerous and undesirable once applied. Although we may not be psychologically influenced by the abstract ideas that we endorse, we are politically influenced by the abstract ideas that we have written into our constitutions and catechisms. I think most of the action is at this level–in how we navigate complex and emergent systems rather than how we apply very basic biological drives.

Although people from different backgrounds hold contrasting values, there are some commonalities across time and culture. Haidt et al. and many other empirical psychologists assume that these commonalities came first and are morally fundamental, and the differences are relatively superficial. Michael Walzer summarizes this view: “Men and women everywhere begin with some common idea or principle or set of ideas and principles, which they then work up in many different ways. They start thin, as it were, and thicken with age.” “But our intuition is wrong here,” Walzer writes. “Morality is thick from the beginning, culturally integrated, fully resonant.” When we find commonalities in distant places, these  are simply “reiterated features of particular thick and maximal moralities.”

[Sources: Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012); Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek, Jonathan Haidt, Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, and Peter H.Ditto, "Mapping the Moral Domain," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 101(2), Aug 2011, 366-385; and Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), p. 4, 10.]

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social capital and economic mobility

My colleagues and I have a stream of work that argues that civic engagement is valuable economically–it helps the individuals who engage and their whole communities. I would never argue that civic engagement is the only thing that matters; an economy can be crushed by external, macro-level changes, such as the demise of an industry or a bad policy. But how we associate is an important factor.

A strong contribution to this literature is by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez, “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States,” NBER Working Paper No. 19843 (January 2014). The authors examine the tax records of 40 million parents and then their children as adults. They find that where you grow up has a major effect on your mobility–on whether you move up the income distribution compared to your parents when you were a child. The raw differences between a childhood in San Jose and in Charlotte, for example, are striking.

The next question is what about these communities matters. In a model that also includes many other plausible factors, the authors find the largest effects from racial segregation (not being African American, but living in a community that is predominantly African American is bad for mobility); inequality (being a child in a more equal community boosts mobility); the quality of primary schools; social capital (“proxies for the strength of social networks and community involvement in an area”); and family stability.

The authors find that these factors are statistically independent, but I would argue they are conceptually related and tell a coherent overall story. For example, segregation is a different empirical construct from social capital–you can have a community rich in associations even though it is racially segregated. And Chetty et al find that both factors matter independently for mobility. Yet the fact that they both count seems to suggest a broader story: we are better when connected. Likewise, school quality is a different matter from family stability, and yet both may reflect a greater capacity to provide structure and care for our children. And certainly, social capital is good for school quality.

[Some cautions here about using empirical evidence to make a case for something that you would value anyway, such as civic engagement.]

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was Montaigne a relativist?

The most interestingly radical form of cultural relativism has three elements, I think:

  1. People’s norms, habits, values, and ways of thinking are pervasively diverse.
  2. The variation is not so much among individuals as among large groups; or (to put it another way) beliefs and values cluster into composites that we call “cultures.”
  3. Since our perceptions and assessments of any culture are shaped by our own, we cannot know or judge objectively.

I do not necessarily share these premises but believe they are essential to the history of thought. Modernism and postmodernism (in all their varieties) are basically responses to these three ideas. I am open to the possibility that cultural relativism was discovered/invented several times in human history–e.g., in India in the 15th century–yet I have long believed that the rise of cultural relativism in Europe around 1800 was epochal; it prompted entirely new ways of thinking that spread with European power around the world.

But what about Montaigne (1533-92)? A case can be made that he was already a thoroughgoing cultural relativist during the Renaissance. Unlike the later figure of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), who has also been called a relativist, Montaigne was hardly obscure in his own time. He had a profound and direct influence on thinkers as important as Shakespeare, Bacon, Pascal, and Descartes. Thus I can see three possible theses:

  1. Montaigne was a cultural relativist, and these other figures understood that. They were exposed to cultural relativism far before the modern era and either endorsed it privately or deliberately rejected it–but in either case, it was in their worldview.
  2. The major thinkers whom Montaigne influenced did not understand the idea of cultural relativism. They read the relevant passages in his Essais without seeing their radical implications, as we do.
  3. Montaigne did not conceive of cultural relativism. Neither he nor his early readers understood his writing as relativistic, in the modern sense. Nor should we.

Key passages to consider come from the essays “On Habit” and “On the Cannibals” (translated here by M. A. Screech). In “On Habit,” Montaigne first catalogs many of the bizarre ways in which behaviors and norms vary across history and geography. He lists nations where sons are supposed to beat their fathers, where people grow hair only on the left sides of their bodies, where women are the only warriors, where it is honorable to have as many lovers as possible, and where, over 700 years, no woman ever had sex outside of wedlock because it was unthinkable.

Apparently, Montaigne believes the first premise of cultural relativism that I summarized above–that manners are “infinite in matter and infinite in diversity”:

To sum up, then, the impression I have is that there is nothing that custom may not do and cannot do. … The laws of conscience which we say are born of Nature are born of custom; since many inwardly venerates the opinions of the manners approved and received about him, he cannot without remorse free himself from them nor apply himself to them without self-approbation.

Further, Montaigne seems to endorse the second principle of cultural relativism, that beliefs and values come together in whole structures that we might (today) call “cultures”:

It is greatly to be doubted whether any obvious good can come from changing any traditional law, whatever it may be, compared with the evil of changing it; for a polity is like a building made of diverse pieces interlocked together, joined in such a way that it is impossible to move one without the whole structure feeling it [emphasis added].

But I am not so sure that Montaigne believes the third premise of true relativism: that our understanding and assessment of cultures are determined by our own cultures. I think he rather argues that proper understanding and evaluation are more difficult than we assume because we are biased in favor of the familiar.

…. But the principal activity of custom is so to seize us and grip us in her claws that it is hardly in our power to struggle free and come back into ourselves, and reason and argue about her ordinances [emphasis added.]

“Hardly in our power” does not mean impossible or undesirable; on the contrary, our main duty is to “struggle free” from custom so that we can “reason and argue” better.

For instance, when Montaigne was disgusted by a French nobleman who blew his nose with his bare hands, he forgot to ask whether that might not actually be a good idea. “I considered that what he said [in his own defense] was not totally unreasonable, but habit had prevented me from noticing just that strangeness [about our own habits, such a blowing our noses into cloths] which we find hideous in similar customs in another country.”

In “On the cannibals” the main point is that we recoil at eating human flesh because it is not our custom, but we ignore the closer-to-hand horrors of torturing people on account of their religious faith. If we paid more attention to the strangeness and indefensibility of our own nation’s norms, we would discover the greatest (and most objective or universal) virtues, which include gentleness and tolerance. As Montaigne writes in “On Habit”:

The Barbarians are in no wise more of a wonder to us than we are to them, nor with better reason–as anyone would admit if, after running through examples from the New World, he concentrated on his own and then with good sense compared them. Human reason is a dye spread more or less equally through all the opinions and all the manners of us humans, which are infinite in matter and infinite in diversity [emphasis added].

Thus Montaigne is not skeptical about our duty–or our ultimate ability–to understand and judge the diverse ideals of human beings. He just thinks that this is harder than we assume. He is trying to shake our naivety in order to improve our reasoning, much like the Hellenistic philosophers when they taught paradoxes of logic and perception in order to strengthen our intellectual discipline and dissuade us from arrogance.

If this is not only what Montaigne meant, but also how his first readers understood him, then they did not derive cultural relativism from his texts. Instead, they drew conclusions reminiscent of Epicurean philosophy: it is hard to know what is right, foolish to set oneself above other people, and wise to focus on the inner life.

One more problem arises. If we detach ourselves as much as possible from our own local customs in order to attain objectivity, won’t we become critical of “traditional law” and then damage society by striving to undermine its norms? The solution to that problem is to live a contemplative and not an active life, to withdraw to one’s chateau and write introspective essais instead of trying to influence the world. For …

it is his soul that the wise man should withdraw from the crowd, maintaining its power and freedom to freely to make judgements, whilst externally accepting all received forms and fashions.

I conclude that Montaigne was not quite a relativist, nor was anyone for another century after him. Because he shunned politics, he was not the most helpful guide to the design of societies; but he was an excellent theorist of moderation, modesty, and introspection.

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Civic Studies article

My new article entitled “Civic Studies,” in Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly (Vol 32, No 1 (2014) is meant to be an overview in just a few pages. I also argue for the importance of conservative thought and suggest that much civic engagement work is conservative–in the best sense.

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