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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To Future Generations

A poem for the summer of Ferguson, Gaza, ISIS, and Ukraine: Bertolt Brecht’s An die Nachgeborenen (1939), in my translation from the very simple and direct German.


Truly I live in dark times!
A sincere word is folly. A smooth forehead
Indicates insensitivity. If you’re laughing,
You haven’t heard
The bad news yet.

What are these times, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many misdeeds,
When, if you’re calmly crossing the street,
It means your friends can’t reach you
Who are in need?

It’s true: I earn a living.
But believe me, that’s just a coincidence. Nothing
of what I do entitles me to eat my fill.
It’s a coincidence that I am spared. (If my luck stops, I’m lost.)

They tell me: eat and drink! Be glad that you did!
But how can I eat and drink if
What I eat is snatched from the hungry,
My glass of water from someone dying of thirst?
And yet I eat and drink.

I would like to be wise.
The old books say what wisdom is:
To shun the strife of the world and spend the short time
You’ve got without fear.
Do without violence.
Return good for evil.
Not fulfilling desires but forgetting
Counts as wisdom.
I can’t do any of that:
Truly I live in dark times!


I came to the cities in a time of disorder.
When famine ruled.
I came among the people in a time of turmoil
And I rebelled with them.
So the time passed
That was given me on earth.

I ate my food between slaughters.
Murder lay over my sleep.
I loved carelessly
And I looked upon nature with impatience.
So the time passed
That was given me on earth.

In my time, roads led into the swamp.
Speech betrayed me to the slaughterer.
I could do very little. But without me,
Rulers would have sat more securely, or so I hoped.
So the time passed
That was given me on earth.

Energies were low. The goal
Was far in the distance,
Clearly visible, though for me
Hard to reach.
So the time passed
That was given me on earth.


You who you will emerge from the flood
In which we have sunk,
When you speak of our weaknesses
And of the dark time
That you have escaped.

For we went, changing countries more often than shoes,
In class wars,* desperate
When there was only injustice and no outrage.

This we knew:
Even hatred of humiliation
Distorts the features.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when
one can help another,
Think of us

*I translate Brecht’s phrase literally, although I do not agree that in his time or ours the situation can be adequately described as die Kriege der Klassen.

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job openings in civic renewal (7)

(Washington, DC) This is #7 in an occasional series. See also #6, from late July.

Tenure-track Assistant Professor, Department of Public and Community Service Studies at Providence College. “We invite applicants with teaching and scholarly interests that focus on service learning and community-based research, with particular expertise in the area of diversity and cross-cultural engagement. The first interdisciplinary major of its kind in the United States, since 1994 the Public and Community Service Department has partnered with nearby communities and organizations in the City of Providence.

Research Postdoc, The Center for Promise, Tufts University and America’s Promise Alliance. The Center conducts applied research, exploring how all children and youth experience the key developmental supports they need to thrive and graduate from high school ready for college, work, and life.  Given the collaborative culture of the Center, the person appointed to this post-doctoral position will work on multiple projects. However, his or her primary assignment will be on the following two projects. From Re-engagement to Graduation and Developing within a Youth System.

Senior program officer for the Democracy Fund, The Open Society Foundations. The senior program officer will have primary responsibility for work on two strategic goals:

  • Establishing a governing interpretation of the Constitution that allows for sensible regulation of money in politics to promote a vibrant and inclusive democracy;
  • Promoting progressive Constitutional values in legal and popular discourse while ensuring diversity of race, gender, professional experience, and ideology on the federal courts.

Senior Public Engagement Associate, Public Agenda. Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate complex, divisive issues. The Senior Public Engagement Associate works with the Public Engagement (PE) team to develop, coordinate and implement engagement projects across a range of issues areas around the country.

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how to teach the constitution of cyberspace

Tomorrow at the American Political Science Association, I’ll be joining Hahrie C. Han (Wellesley College), Cathy J. Cohen (University of Chicago), and Joseph Kahne (Mills College) on a panel on Civic Education after the Digital Revolution Date (10:15 AM-12:00 PM, Omni Palladian Ballroom, DC).

This is one topic I’d like to discuss: Students should understand and be able to critically assess the basic rules and structure of the Internet, much as they should understand and be able to criticize the US Constitution. But the Internet is harder to grasp, for both teachers and students. How should the “constitution of cyberspace” be taught (if at all)?

The US government as an institution that students should understand in order to critically assess it. To be sure, the government is large and complex, it has changed over time, and it has both proponents and sharp critics. Yet it has one fundamental document (the US Constitution) and one impressive justification (in the Federalist Papers) that provide focal points of debate. Students can learn a lot by reading the Constitution, some of the Federalist Papers, and some critics of the Constitution and then applying their knowledge through discussions of historical and current controversies.

In contrast, Web 2.0 has no constitution and no Federalist Papers. I admire perceptive theorists of the new media landscape: Benkler (2006), boyd (2008), Castells (2000), Lessig (2000), Shirky (2008), Sunstein (2007), and others. None of these authors would claim to be the James Madison of cyberspace. They did not have the authority to write its fundamental rules, and they do not offer highly general justifications of it. Their writing is too difficult to be assigned directly in most k-12 classrooms. Their scholarship has not been digested for youth audiences, nor has it prominent expression in political discourse. If there is a Gettysburg Address for the new media environment, I have not seen it.

I do not presume that the US Constitution is preferable to the rules of cyberspace or that the framers of the Constitution are more admirable than the architects of the digital world. The Constitution requires critical evaluation; the Internet has attractive features. I would simply assert that it is harder to understand cyberspace than the US government because only the latter has an authoritative code (the Constitution) and official justifications that we can read and critically evaluate.

Posted in advocating civic education, Internet and public issues | 2 Comments

“based off of”?

I notice that Americans under the age of 30 are now saying “based off of” instead of “based on.” I Googled to see if that was a trend and found this handy graph by Ann Curzan:

In published books, “based on” still outnumbers “based off of” by a ratio of 100,000:1, but “based off” has risen (from zero instances) since ca. 1980. Of course, books do not provide a representative sample of all communication, since young adults publish relatively few of them, and young authors tend to be copy-edited by older people. In speech and emails, “based off of” is clearly becoming more common.

I personally prefer “based on” because one preposition is neater than two in a row, and the metaphor makes more sense if something is on rather than “off of” a base. I concede, however, that language evolves and there is nothing sacrosanct about which prepositions follow each verb. (And if I’m going to complain, the use of “around” to indicate a topic seems worse.)

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academic freedom and the Steven Salaita case

I want to draw additional attention to the case of Steven Salaita, because it poses a threat to academic freedom. Here is the petition to reinstate him, which I have signed.

Last year, the University of Illinois granted professor Salaita a tenured faculty position as a professor of American Indian Studies, subject only to a vote of the Board of Trustees, which was described to him as a formality. He did what you’re supposed to do and resigned his position at Virginia Tech as he prepared to move to Illinois to start teaching this fall. He then composed a series of tweets against the Israeli invasion of Gaza.

With support of the Board of Trustees, the Illinois Chancellor revoked the position offered to Prof. Salaita. They made no bones about the fact that his tweets were the reason for their decision. In an explanatory letter, the Trustees endorsed freedom of speech but went on to say:

Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views.  We … write today to add our collective and unwavering support of Chancellor Wise and her philosophy of academic freedom and free speech tempered in respect for human rights – these are the same core values which have guided this institution since its founding. … The University of Illinois must shape men and women who will contribute as citizens in a diverse and multi-cultural democracy. To succeed in this mission, we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.

Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend. There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university [emphasis added].

I have argued that a university may assess the quality and content of a professor’s public communications in deciding whether to hire her, publish her, or invite her to speak. “Civility” could be relevant to those judgments. (Jennifer Saul makes that point well.) However, it is very hard to see Prof. Salaita’s tweets as uncharacteristically lacking in civility or as especially demeaning. What they are is critical of Israel.

The Brown University professor Bonnie Honig interprets his tweets as the opposite of uncivil:

Here is a man of Palestinian descent watching people he may know, perhaps friends, colleagues, or relatives, bombed to bits while a seemingly uncaring or powerless world watched. He was touched by violence and responded in a way that showed it. In one of the tweets that was most objected to (Netanyahu, necklace, children’s teeth), Salaita commented on a public figure who is fair game and who was promoting acts of terrible violence against a mostly civilian population. I found that tweet painful and painfully funny. It struck home with me, a Jew raised as a Zionist. Too many of us are too committed to being uncritical of Israel. Perhaps tweets like Prof. Salaita’s, along with images of violence from Gaza and our innate sense of fair play, could wake us from our uncritical slumbers. It certainly provoked ME, and I say “provoked” in the best way – awakened to thinking.

Prof. Salaita is also a strong supporter of the “boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” which I happen to oppose. I would reject any academic boycott, and I disagree that the one country in the world to single out this way is Israel. But if Prof. Salaita was “unhired” because he supports the boycott, that is a clear violation of his freedom of speech and association. He is entitled to advocate a boycott; I just don’t endorse it.

As Michael Dorf explains, it’s a little bit complicated whether Prof. Salaita had a legal right to his position. Illinois was not obligated to hire him in the first place. It did, however, extend him an offer. He was told that the Trustees’ vote was a formality, and, as Brian Leiter writes, “Such approval clauses … had, previously, been pro forma at Illinois, as they are at all serious universities: it is not the job of the Board of Trustees of a research institution to second-guess the judgment of academics and scholars.” Thus, arguably, the University was constrained to hire him.

One could argue the reverse–that the Trustees’ vote is precisely meant to be a check on the decisions of the faculty and administration, to be used rarely but at the Board’s discretion. That would be a legal defense of the Trustees’ decision (I cannot say how plausible), but it is not a moral justification of this particular choice, whose basis appears clear enough.

I am not sure I would go far as to say that the University of Illinois has “repealed the First Amendment for its faculty.” Professors already in place there cannot be unhired. This case actually reinforces the value of tenure. But it is a problem if you can lose your academic freedom during a period of transition. And the bigger problem is: a major state university cannot seem to tolerate criticism of Israel.

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Sen on climate change

Amartya Sen’s August 22 New Republic piece probably has an unfortunate title: “Stop Obsessing About Global Warming.” That is bad advice–and a poor summary of the article–if it means: “Care less about climate change.” But it is wise guidance if it means: “Care more about other things, too.” (The latter, by the way, is a valid gloss on “Stop obsessing”).

[8/25: the headline has been changed to "Global Warming Is Just One of Many Environmental Threats That Demand Our Attention"]

In any case, the article is vintage Sen, drawing on several of his lifelong themes:

  • Unidimensional moral reasoning is a mistake; moral judgment always requires balancing many goods. Just as raising GDP is too narrow, so is cutting carbon. “The recent focus of energy thinking has been particularly concentrated on the ways and means of reducing carbon emissions and, linked with that, cutting down energy use, rather than taking energy use as essential for conquering poverty and seeing the environmental challenge within a more comprehensive understanding.”
  • The poorest people of the world are constantly overlooked. They need more resources, not less. “In India, for example, about a third of the people do not have any power connection at all. Making it easier to produce energy with better environmental correlates (and greater efficiency of energy use) may be a contribution not just to environmental planning, but also to making it possible for a great many deprived people to lead a fuller and freer life.”
  • People have agency and freedom. They are capable of improving the world, and supporting their agency is generally the best way to help them. “The environment is not only a matter of passive preservation, but also one of active pursuit. Even though many human activities that accompany the process of development may have destructive consequences (and this is very important to understand and to address), it is also within human power to enhance and improve the environment in which we live.”
  • Economics, technology, and politics interrelate; you cannot ignore politics when assessing an economy. For instance, we can imagine nuclear power being used safely, but that is like assuming that people will be rational enough to avoid war. We mustn’t forget “the risks of terrorism and sabotage (a strong possibility in countries such as India); the consequences of possible nuclear theft … ; and nuclear reactions that may be set off if and when a nuclear power plant is bombed or blasted with conventional weapons in a conventional war, or even in a rather limited local skirmish.”
  • Development is liberating, as long as we define it broadly and do not reduce it to the pursuit of GDP. Growth is desirable, not sinful. “In general, seeing development in terms of increasing the effective freedom of human beings brings the constructive agency of people in environment-friendly activities directly within the domain of developmental efforts.”

I am guessing that Sen has in mind The Population Bomb (1968) and debates of that era. Paul Ehrlich argued that the earth faced imminent catastrophe because of population growth. There were too many people, especially in the poorest countries, and they were using up finite resources of food, water, energy, and space.

As a result of such thinking, some developing countries imposed illiberal and undemocratic controls on population–not only communist China, but also India during the State of Emergency. These were the problems with that approach:

  • The diagnosis was wrong. With increasing demand, resources have been used more efficiently. India’s population has tripled since 1960, but its rate of malnutrition is less than half as high. Overpopulation has costs, but it is not a “bomb.”
  • The ethics was wrong. Poor people were treated as a problem, as fundamentally undesirable. They were not treated with dignity.
  • The politics was dangerous. Governments used population control to justify tyranny. As Sen famously noticed, famines never occur in representative democracies but are common under colonial rule and dictatorships, including the very tyrannies that control population growth.
  • The solution was wrong because it ignored agency and freedom. It turned out that the best way to reduce the pace of population growth was to educate and empower women, because then they had alternatives to bearing many children.

Perhaps Paul Ehrlich was the boy who cried “wolf,” and now a real wolf is at the door. Over-consumption is somewhat self-correcting because prices rise with rising demand, but carbon emissions have no price. So climate change could be a worse problem than over-consumption caused by population growth. If we are at severe risk of global environmental catastrophe, then Sen’s concerns seem misplaced, and we may regret that a Nobel laureate with progressive credentials published an article headed “Stop Obsessing About Global Warming.”

But if we learn from the previous crisis, then we should address the climate crisis in a different way. We should consider the severe costs and risks of carbon emissions along with other problems, such as poverty and lack of democracy. A top priority should be helping the poorest people in the world to use more energy with less carbon emissions. We should support them in exploiting solar power and alternatives like “biochar.” Finally, we should not treat human beings as sin in the Garden of Eden and try to minimize their impact. Sen writes:

The environment is sometimes seensimplistically, I believeas the ‘state of nature,’ including such measures as the extent of forest cover, the depth of the ground water table, the number of living species, and so on. It is tempting to go from there to the conclusion that the best environmental planning is one of least interference, of leaving nature alonethat the urgent need is for inaction, rather than for actions that may be best supported by reasoning.

Sen’s vision is a deeply humanistic one, in which all people have dignity and the capacity to improve the world, including the natural world. Again, that would be the wrong case to make right now if climate change poses an unprecedented threat to our very survival. Then we should be trying to persuade governments to regulate carbon–end of case. But we can’t literally make governments do what we want. So the real question is not whether states should focus narrowly on carbon (which they won’t do, anyway), but rather: How should environmental activists pose this issue? Should they try to raise the odds of significant regulation by using apocalyptic and unidimensional language about climate change? Or should rather adopt a more balanced rhetoric, in which growth is desirable but carbon has costs?

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on a quasi-vacation

(I’m taking a break from the blog and the office until August 21.)

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a real chance to improve civics in California

I am pasting excerpts of a press release below, because I am excited about what it announces and I have been involved as a consultant on the project. It is an example of the kind of strategy we recommended in the report of the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, entitled “All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement” (2013):

Sacramento, Calif., August 5, 2014 – California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torklakson today received the Final Report of the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning. The report is the culmination of a year-long process of assessing the state of civic learning in California schools, receiving input at regional meetings, and crafting research-based recommendations to ensure that all California K-12 students gain the knowledge, skills and values they need to succeed in college, career and civic life.  Both the executive summary and the full report are available online.

Members of the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning, co-chaired by Justice Judith McConnell and Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools David Gordon, presented the recommendations aimed at providing all students in California with the instruction, support and experiences they need to actively participate in society and succeed in the 21st century workplace.

These recommendations include:

  • revision of the California History/Social Science content standards;
  • integration of civic learning into state assessment and accountability systems;
  • improved professional learning for teachers connected to Common Core State Standards;
  • sharing of curriculum resources and best practices;
  • engaging stakeholders from local government, business, the courts, nonprofits, community organizations and parents; and
  • promoting funding in Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAP) through Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).
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what should an individual citizen do about money in politics?

(New York City): I am on a Washington-New York-Boston trip in which many of my meetings coincidentally touch on the same topic: what should we do about money in politics? Per my usual rant, the question is not what should be done. That is relatively easy. The question is: What should you and I do, granting that courts and legislatures are not going to do what should be done?

This is a question not only for you and for me, but also for the national organizations that work on this topic, such as my beloved first employer, Common Cause (now under the dynamic and visionary leadership of Miles Rapoport). Such organizations can communicate with the public and can enroll members, but ultimately they must ask citizens to do stuff. What should they ask?

They can’t just ask people to change their minds. Public opinion is at the heart of some problems. For example, climate change is worse because many voters do not believe it is happening, do not consider it a serious threat, or doubt that we can realistically do anything about it. Motivation is also a factor, because individuals, communities, and nations benefit by generating the problem (in this case, carbon emissions), and anyone who takes individual or collective action to limit pollution bears the price of that action. Climate change is thus the Mother of All Collective Action Problems, made worse by false opinions (which, in turn, result from targeted investments in misinformation). It is worth changing people’s minds to believe the facts and to vote and act differently.

Campaign finance is a different kind of problem. The public already thinks it’s terrible. Most people do not contribute to the problem, since only 0.18% of the population gives $200 or more. But it is against the interest of the majority of elected officials to do anything about money in politics, since they were elected under the current system. Democratic politicians tend to be more hypocritical than Republicans on this topic; neither party does anything about it, but some Republicans would defend the status quo on philosophical grounds.

Hobson, who offered one particular horse or none at all, and called that a choice.

Voters are typically offered a Hobson’s Choice: Vote for Candidate A–who shares your views on important issues like climate change but won’t do anything about campaign finance–or vote for Candidate B, who opposes your views of those other essential issues and won’t do anything about campaign finance.

I think that to some extent, politicians also face a Hobson’s Choice because of the recalcitrance of all the other politicians, a classic collective action problem. They can A) burn their capital trying to pass campaign finance reform, or B) actually pass health insurance reform, Wall Street reform, and environmental laws. Basically, my reading of President Obama is that he chose option B.

We would like everyone (voters and politicians) to change their priorities and put campaign finance reform higher–but in order to do what?

Well, there are things you can do. Join Common Cause, because it’s a robust membership organization that fights indefatigably for reform. Give money to Mayday PAC, which will intervene in “five districts during this election cycle, in a way that makes it clear that the most important issue was the role that money plays in politics.” Donate to Fund for the Republic, too. Tell your elected officials, even if they stand with you on other issues, that they risk losing your support unless they sign onto something like H.R. 20, the Government by the People Act.

I think these are worthy steps, but I am not overly optimistic they will work even if quite a few people do them. That is why I am obsessed with the problem of leverage, or how to turn ethical civic action into large-scale change in a given system of incentives and constraints, against dedicated opponents. After all, Margaret Mead was wrong: we should doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. They usually fail–or grow into a large group, maybe achieve something, and cease to be thoughtful and committed along the way. We must turn from a bunch of citizens who are angry about the status quo (and who perhaps take some modest actions) into an effective mass movement. That is a problem of organization and structure that I do not think we have cracked.

The Mayday PAC widget:

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