three ages


The sidewalk is significant.
Its ridges hamper wheels,
Its cracks harbor meadows
And little things with wills.
It is safe–the street, maleficent.
It is hard–it doles out blows.


The sidewalk barely registers:
Eyes on faces, signs, and lights.
Can you say what bore your shoefalls
As you strode down streets and flights?
Thoughts on larger characters,
You miss the fragile kid who falls.


When that child belongs to you, though,
Down you’ll stoop to scoop her up.
For you again it matters that
A stick is in a cup.
Significant is the crust of snow
And sun stripes on the cat.

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the #1 goal of civics: making kids interested

Washington (DC): I am on a civics road trip: the First Annual Civics Literacy Conference in Massachusetts, an advisory board meeting for iCivics inside the Supreme Court building, and then a meeting with executive branch people.

The public discourse about civic education often takes the form: “Why don’t people (meaning adults) know basic facts about politics? Why do 10% of college graduates think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court? We should teach schoolkids these facts!”

But almost all students study and face some kind of tests on facts like the number of US Senators. The problem is, adults don’t remember what they learned as kids.

That is because adults are not obligated to retain or update their civic knowledge. You spend 13 years of school learning to read and write. Then, if you have a job that involves written words, you must constantly update your literacy skills. You spend a few dozen hours in school learning about politics, and then you’re a citizen—but that role comes with no rewards or penalties. Nothing bad happens to you if you forget what you learned. Yes, politics affects us all. It is interested in you even if you aren’t interested in it. But just because it affects us all, each of us can let others take care of it.

Some of us do update and even dramatically expand what we learned as kids about civics. The reason is: we’re interested. Something made us feel that politics was intriguing, important, dramatic, and rewarding for us as individuals. I conclude that the main purpose of civic education in k-12 schools is to increase the proportion of young people who reach that conclusion.

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Walter de la Mare, Fare Well

Derek Walcott says that he always “cherished” the poem “Fare Well” by Walter de la Mare “because of its melody and its plaintiveness.” I think Walcott proceeds to recite it from memory rather than read it, because his spoken rendition differs in very minor respects from the printed versions that I have found online (“or” instead of “nor”, “dost” instead of “wouldst”). Walcott’s recommendation is enough for me, so I offer de la Mare’s text below:

Fare Well

When I lie where shades of darkness
Shall no more assail mine eyes,
Nor the rain make lamentation
When the wind sighs;
How will fare the world whose wonder
Was the very proof of me?
Memory fades, must the remembered
Perishing be?

Oh, when this my dust surrenders
Hand, foot, lip, to dust again,
May these loved and loving faces
Please other men!
May the rusting harvest hedgerow
Still the Traveller’s Joy entwine,
And as happy children gather
Posies once mine.

Look thy last on all things lovely,
Every hour. Let no night
Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
Till to delight
Thou have paid thy utmost blessing;
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
In other days.

It’s quite straightforward, but I’ll add a few notes.

  • The “melody” that Walcott admires could be parsed as six rhyming couplets (AA, BB, CC) with 15 syllables before each rhyming word, arranged in in a pattern of trochee, trochee, trochee, spondee [line break], trochee, trochee, anapest [line break], trochee, spondee. It could be easily set to music.
  • De la Mare introduces some surprises. You would think that once you’re dead and buried, what you’ll miss is light. The narrator says instead that you will no longer see “shades of darkness,” which is true enough. A.E. Hausman read the poem in a version with a misprint: “rustling” instead of “rusting harvest hedgerow.” Hausman knew right away that the original must have read “rusting,” because the sound of wind in leaves is a cliché and unrelated to the poem’s theme, whereas “rusting” evokes autumnal colors and an imminent fall.
  •  “Wonder” is “the proof of” the narrator. Does “proof” mean a test that the narrator faced, or evidence that the narrator lived?
  • I take it the “thou” addressed in the third stanza is a reader after the narrator has died. We are to appreciate the beauty of the world as if it were about to pass and remember that those who have passed appreciated it before us.
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the remarkable persistence of social advantage

Matthew Yglesias draws attention to a study showing that if you were wealthy in Florence in 1427, there is a statistically significant greater chance that your descendants are wealthy in Florence today (where “wealth” is defined as your relative standing atop the economic hierarchy of your own time). I’ve had the chance to live in Florence and have observed that the local aristocracy of the present bear the same names that grace the elegant chapels and palaces of the 1400s. This persistence should surprise us, however, because Florence has gone through tremendous political, economic, demographic, and technological change over the past six centuries.

Yglesias also cites evidence that people who have noble surnames in Sweden have above-average wealth today, even though Sweden stopped ennobling families in the 16o0s and has now had a century of democratic socialism. Yet you’re still likely to be wealthier in Sweden today if your paternal ancestor was an aristocrat in 1650.

I’d add this passage from Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 (p. 110):

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 3.58.02 PM

You would think that after barbarian invasions, the collapse of civilization as it was known, the replacement of aristocratic paganism with a radical religion of equality, and the rise and fall of barbarian kingdoms, the old pagan Roman landowning families would have slipped a notch or two. On the contrary, they seem to have morphed into powerful and wealthy bishops in Merovingian Gaul. Brown doesn’t trace the story after that, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the provincial gentry of today’s France descend from these bishops’ families.

We needn’t be fatalistic. Societies change, often for the better. But it’s interesting that neither a radical Millenarian religion nor socialism–nor invasions and civilizational collapse–necessarily interrupts the transmission of advantage from one generation to the next. I presume that social and cultural capital can survive immense disruptions of physical capital, or–to put it more bluntly–people who know how to play one system make sure that their kids do well in the next one.

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the Massachusetts Citizens Initiative Review

A Citizens Initiative Review is a very clever innovation. A randomly selected jury of citizens assesses a pending ballot initiative or referendum, deliberates, and produces an explanation (and in some versions, an opinion) of the measure that is disseminated to the voters at large. It’s a promising form of voter education, a way to counter money in politics, and even an experiment in connecting high-quality, relational, but small-scale politics to the mass scale. (I think the gap between human-sized politics and public policy is one of the flaws of our current system.) My CIRCLE  colleagues evaluated the degree to which the Oregon Citizens Initiative Review was covered in the media and found good results.

This summer, we will bring the CIR to Massachusetts. As Michael P. Norton of State House News Service writes:

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 18, 2016….In an era of expensive initiative petition fights, Watertown Rep. Jonathan Hecht this year will lead a new way for voters to scrutinize a ballot question and then inform their fellow voters of their findings. …

In the coming weeks, a Massachusetts Citizens’ Initiative Review Advisory Board featuring Democrats and Republicans will notify the campaigns pressing forward with November ballot questions that one of their proposals will be chosen for a vetting process unlike any that’s occurred in Massachusetts. …

Hecht and the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University are partnering with Healthy Democracy, which implemented Oregon’s citizens’ initiative review system in 2010, on a privately funded examination of a Bay State ballot question. …

Project organizers plan in June to assemble 20 Massachusetts voters, a group that will be balanced to reflect the demographics of the state’s electorate. In July, the advisory board will select the ballot question that will be the focus of the review. From Aug. 25 through Aug. 28, at the Atrium School in Watertown, the citizens panel, led by professional moderators, will conduct a public appraisal of the ballot question, hearing from supporters, opponents and policy experts. The panel will then put together a statement of findings and disseminate it in September and October, using traditional and social media and in the process potentially influencing voter opinions on the chosen ballot question. 

Hecht said project organizers will send a mailer to 10,000 randomly selected voters inviting them to participate in the pilot. Twenty will be selected from those who indicate a willingness to participate.

Students from the Harvard Kennedy School, Suffolk University and Tufts University will assist with staffing for the project, handling policy research and other tasks. An evaluation of the effort will be led by John Gastil, a professor of communications at Penn State who plans to examine the quality of the deliberations and whether the findings improved voter knowledge and understanding of the question.

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who says that binary thinking is Western?

I often hear that binary oppositions are typical of Western thought. The implication is that “we” should strive to avoid being trapped by such oppositions.

To be sure, certain distinctions (white/non-white, male/female, Christian/non-Christian) are the basis of injustices. Those distinctions have been important in Western Europe and have been used to justify oppression. As a result, some people are moved to challenge what they call Western dualism. But the problem isn’t dualism–after all, the whole point is to promote justice over its opposite, injustice–nor is it helpful to introduce a binary distinction between the West and the rest. It seems odd to invent a very simple and global binary in order to criticize dualism.

I’m skeptical of the very notion of the West, because it encompasses so much diversity and has overlapped with so many other parts of the world for so long that I don’t know how to define it. But one thing the West has not been consistently is dualistic.

Christianity is surely a Western phenomenon, and a core Christian idea is that Jesus is both divine and human, both a person and one with the persons of God and the Holy Spirit. Another orthodox Christian assumption is that nature/the world is good and is solely God’s creation, yet it is not identical with God. Many of the thinkers who have been formally condemned as heretics by Christianity have been banned for adopting dualistic views either of Christ or of nature.

Nobody could be more dualist than George Boole, the inventor of Boolean logic (in which all values are reduced to TRUE or FALSE). Apparently Boole was deeply influenced by classical Indian logic, which is rife with sharp distinctions. Taoism is also described as fundamentally dualist. All of which is to say that binary oppositions don’t seem to be particularly “Western” to me.

Jacques Derrida is cited as the source of the view that Western thought is binary, although it would surprise me if he really caused it to be so widespread. Besides, Derrida says things like this: “Doubtless Western metaphysics constitutes a powerful systematization of this illusion, but I believe it would be an imprudent overstatement to assert that Western metaphysics alone does so.”* Three points to notice about this sentence: 1) Derrida is talking about a specific tradition of philosophical thought (“metaphysics,” as Heidegger would define it), not about Western culture, more broadly. 2) He is not criticizing binary thinking per se but certain specific binaries, especially text versus reference. And 3) He doubts that Western metaphysics alone suffers from this “illusion.”

See also: to whom do the ancient Greeks belong?Jesus was a person of coloravoiding the labels of East and Westwhen East and West were oneon modernity and the distinction between East and West.

*Derrida, Positions, translated by Alan Bass (1982), p. 33

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youth turnout in the primaries

Follow CIRCLE for all the news on young people in the primaries and caucuses. The team reports that about 25% of West Virginia’s young people voted, many for Senator Bernie Sanders. The state’s turnout rate surpassed that of Iowa (11%), Florida (17%), and Virginia (18%), even though the race was considered by many to be over before it reached West Virginia. Youth turnout was also 25% in Indiana, where a majority of young people voted on the GOP side. Trump won a plurality of Indiana’s young Republican voters, but only narrowly edged Sen. Cruz. Finally, this is the latest cumulative youth vote tally:


Sen. Sanders has drawn almost three times more youth votes than any other candidate. Donald Trump surpasses Hillary Clinton, even though youth remain his weakest constituency on the GOP side.

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tracking change in a group that discusses issues

Colleagues and I just ran a mini-experiment in which students at two very different universities held online discussions of the same controversial current issues. Before and after each discussion, we surveyed them to ascertain their social networks within their own class. We assumed that a group of people who discuss issues exhibit three layers of network ties that can change over time:

  1. Social networks: affective ties among the people, defined by friendship or respect.
  2. Networks of direct address: When person A asks person B a question or endorses B’s view, that creates a tie, and many ties create a network.
  3. Semantic (or epistemic) networks: Ideas connected by explanations. For instance, if A says that racism causes unequal health outcomes, then A has connected two ideas.

I am interested in tracking the relationships among these networks, because some patterns seem more desirable than others, and it would be useful to recognize the differences. For example, if people who are popular in social networks receive most of the direct addresses and determine the group’s epistemic network, then the discussion looks like a popularity contest. But if a new idea causes people to revise their opinions of whose views should be respected, that is evidence of learning.

Here is a small illustrative finding from the data so far. Below I show the trajectory of two particular students within the Tufts University discussion thread. Both started off as somewhat less central than average in the class’s social network. At the start of the experiment, Tufts 06 was mentioned by three fellow students as a friend or an influencer, and Tufts09 got one mention. (Below I show the percentage of all mentions, to control for differences in the amount of text at each phase.)

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 12.11.56 PM

In the second discussion, which concerned the social determinants of health, Tufts09 posted the very first comment. She wrote, “the presentation given by Dr. [F.] was one of the best presentations given on social determinants of health that I have seen. … As a woman of black decent, I have taken these discussions and this knowledge very seriously, and I now view life with a completely different perspective. … When talking about the Flint, Michigan water crisis, it was shocking to hear that companies … are often built where the majority of the community is minority and low income. This infuriated me.”

Her comment was explicitly referred to by five other students and set the agenda for the whole discussion thread. When next surveyed, four students counted her as someone who had influenced them, up from one at the pretest. The number of mentions fell, however, to two at the end of the experiment.

It appears, then, that by making a forceful comment to start an online discussion—drawing on her own identity—Tufts09 may have gained social capital for a week or so. On the other hand, she did not need social capital before the second discussion to be influential in it.

Tufts 06 was the first to post in the the third conversation, writing: “As someone who has suffered from anxiety and depression, the topic of mental health stigma is incredibly important to me. In my family, nearly everyone on my mother’s side is on medication for anxiety, depression, OCD, or some combination of the three. We have had three suicides in our family (all before I was born) just because the treatments and attitudes toward mental health were not sufficient at the time those family members were suffering through their diseases.”

She received six mentions in the discussion thread, and in the subsequent survey, six students named her as influential (up from 3 at pretest). Again, she seemed to raise her social capital by making an influential point in the online dialog.

These are just two little anecdotes, and much remains to be explored. For instance: How typical is this kind of trajectory? Even in these two cases, did participation in the online discussion really cause social capital to rise? (The effect could be random or driven by some other factor.) And if these students were influential, was it because of what they argued, how they drew on their personal backgrounds, or simply the fact that they each posted first on the discussion thread?

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reinventing the high school government course

One of the most exciting current efforts in civic education–which also has applications far beyond civics–is a project on reinventing the high school civics course led by Walter Parker with Jane Lo and others.

Typically, a civics course involves presenting and explaining a whole lot of material to students, who then face a test to see what they have understood and remembered. Walter has noted that, all around the world, the final-year of high school tends to be dominated by courses that are fast-paced surveys of information, known for being difficult mainly because they cover so much ground. It doesn’t seem likely that students obtain advanced skills or remember much of the content from these classes.

Walter and his colleagues worked with teachers of the American Government AP course to redesign it so that projects become fundamental. The redesign process was a collaboration with the teachers and involved iteration: trying projects, evaluating, and changing the design. In the fully redesigned courses, activities–such as a mock trial, or a model Congress–come first, and students learn the content that is tested on the AP because they need to know it in order to succeed in the projects. As Parker and Lo write in a very valuable new overview article, “Projects carry the full subject matter load of the course. They are not culminating activities that come at the end of an instructional sequence nor lively interludes inserted periodically into traditional recitation.”

As reported in earlier articles, students in the redesigned AP course “did as well or better on the AP test than students in comparison groups, and … found the course and projects personally meaningful.” That means that there is no tradeoff between learning to be an active citizen by participating in simulations and mastering the content tested by the AP. If teachers use this redesigned curriculum, they can achieve both outcomes together.

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three cores of contemporary social science

At the risk of annoyingly oversimplifying and omitting important exceptions,* I’d propose that three major efforts drive most of social science today:

1. Causal explanations of concrete human behaviors

People buy commodities at a given price, or vote for a given candidate, or even die at a given age. To explain why, social scientists often use either statistical models or controlled experiments. These two methods are conceptually related, because one interpretation of a regression model is that it mimics the results of an experiment.

Regression models are used across the social sciences, including such applied social sciences such as business and education. Economics is the discipline that historically has had the most influence on these methods, because economists tend to be good at math, the discipline is large and influential, and lots of concrete data on economic behavior is available. However, economists increasingly study all kinds of behavior that have nothing to do with money, and some sophisticated techniques for these purposes originate in other disciplines. For instance, education researchers developed Hierarchical Linear Modeling because they so often encounter individuals nested in classrooms, nested in schools, nested in communities. HLM is now used in other contexts as well.

2. Detection of unobserved psychological factors

Some important human characteristics are not concrete behaviors and are not directly observable. For instance, you can’t tell how much a teenager knows about US history by just looking at her. You can give her a 100-item test and compute a knowledge score from her answers, but much science and art goes into designing the test and interpreting the data. The same is true of emotional states, character traits, etc.

Once you have valid and reliable measures of such inner psychological states, you can put them into the kinds of causal models described in #1. But it is a major task just to determine who has which inner traits. By the way, if people know and can be trusted to disclose their own inner psychological states, then all this research is unnecessary. We’d just ask people whether they know US history, trust their teachers, or feel angry. An important premise is that we have unconscious or unarticulated inner lives that can be revealed better from outside. For instance, I’d find out how much US history I know by taking a test written by someone else.

Psychology–like economics, a large and influential discipline–has driven the development of these methods, but they are used across the social sciences.

3. Interpretation of purposive human activity in context

People’s behavior can (sometimes) be causally explained, but it also requires interpretation. Voting is a concrete act, but what does it mean for an American to vote in a church basement? (Note that this is not the same question as why some of our polling places are in churches. The causal explanation might have little bearing on the significance of this phenomenon.) Likewise, what are the meanings of a Balinese cockfight to the people who watch and participate–and, specifically, what does it mean when cockfighting is traditional yet illegal?

In ethnography, the emphasis is on interpretation, particularity, context, and translation rather than generalizable explanations or unconscious states. A characteristic method is to ask people what things mean to them in their most familiar settings.

Ethnography has–to me–an odd origin. Late-Victorian anthropologists wanted to turn traditionally philosophical questions about the nature of “Man” into empirical questions. They were Darwinians, so they presumed that our essential natures were evolved, clearly evident in prehistoric contexts, but obscured by subsequent cultural variation. So they visited so-called “prehistoric” communities to understand how they worked. Now most of that conceptual apparatus has been criticized. For instance, hunter-gatherer societies are in history, have often developed from other kinds of societies, and vary profoundly. But ethnographic techniques remain illuminating in all kinds of settings that no one would call “prehistoric,” including Silicon Valley office parks and even departments of anthropology. They are used across the social sciences, and they overlap with the humanities.

I haven’t mentioned a host of specific techniques or even whole disciplines, such as sociology and political science. But I’d propose that the three methodological programs described here are dominant. A field like political science takes its name from the phenomena it studies–government and politics–but it draws on, and contributes to, causal modeling, psychometrics, and ethnography. To the extent that all of these approaches make problematic assumptions (e.g., methodological individualism, or a simplistic fact/value distinction), then those assumptions are pervasive in the social sciences.

*e.g., Community Based Participatory Research, or historically-informed political theory, or research on social entities other than people.

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