civic education in a time of inequality and polarization

(Amtrak between NYC and Boston) Here are opening remarks I gave today at a Ford Foundation convening on Educating for Democracy:

I have attended many meetings on civic education over the past 20 years. This one looks much more exciting than almost all of them, for two major reasons: the range of people who have come here today, and the seriousness of the main discussion topics.

Civic education is not a matter of consensus. It is not one uniform movement. It is—and it ought to be—a field of diversity and disagreement, just like our democracy itself.

Some in our field are concerned primarily with ensuring that young people understand the basic structure of the U.S. government as it is enshrined in the Constitution and its amendments. They argue that our republic deserves respect and support, and they fear that the system will weaken unless students are taught to understand and appreciate it. They tend to emphasize the founding era and the national level of government and want to foster an appreciative attitude toward the political system and a sense of unity about our history and principles.

Other advocates are concerned primarily with empowering young people to participate in civic life, with an emphasis on civic action, most of which takes place at the local level. From this “Action Civics” perspective, it may be worthwhile to gain some understanding of the U.S. Constitution (for instance, students should know that speech enjoys constitutional protection), but it may be just as important to investigate local social conditions or to know who exercises real power in the community. Besides, those who favor “Action Civics” tend to value a critical stance toward the existing political system, and they often call for instruction that emphasizes the value of diversity, localism, criticism, and action, not patriotism and unity and an understanding of core political documents and principles.

Those are just two philosophical orientations toward civic education. Many more exist.
People in this field also differ in the kinds of civic activity that we imagine as the successful outcomes of civic education. Are we looking for voting and participation on juries? Or social movements that challenge the justice system?

Are we hoping for voluntary service in communities? Following and discussing news produced by major professional news outlets? Or creating news and opinion?

Do we want to develop relatively small numbers of ethical and effective leaders in all communities, or get the average student to a higher level of civic knowledge?

Maybe most people in this room would say “All of the above,” but the list suggests a range of emphases and core concerns.

We also differ in where we see the most valuable forms of civic education occurring. Some would cite a mandatory civics class in middle school or high school. It reaches most kids in most states, lays an essential foundation of knowledge, and gives the students the benefits of trained and dedicated adult educators. Others would rather be almost anywhere except a 7th grade civics class. They may see the most important venues for civic education as grassroots community organizations, or church basements, or Twitter.

If you gave people involved in civic education the opportunity to ask all American kids to read just one item today, I’ll bet the nominations for that reading assignment would range from a pie chart of the federal budget to Elie Wiesel’s Night, from the “Mayflower Compact” to this hour’s Tweets with the “BlackLivesMatter” hashtag—and many, many more.

The purpose of today’s meeting is not to resolve these differences and reach consensus.

I’d actually like to repeat that: The purpose of today’s meeting is not to resolve these differences and reach consensus.

That will not happen with so many people and so little time. I don’t even think we want it to happen, because a robust effort to engage our young people in civic life must be diverse, heterogeneous, contested, and even competitive among different approaches and ideals.

We do hope that by bringing together a reasonably diverse range of perspectives and approaches we can help everyone understand that diversity. Each person here today should learn more about the points of agreement and disagreement and reflect on where you stand as individuals and organizations.

We are also hoping that you will leave today having seen new opportunities for your own involvement—opportunities to support the forms and venues and purposes that resonate most with you. We are hoping to display the powerful and exciting diversity of civic education.

Along the way, we also plan to explore three serious, difficult, challenging topics that confront everyone in the field. Each challenge will get a session to itself, but the day may do more to define and clarify the problems than to resolve them.

The first challenge is inequality. Our educational and political systems are profoundly unequal. They offer unequal opportunities to learn and to participate. How can we provide more equal civic education under those circumstances?

By the way, civics is not only a victim of deep social inequality but potentially part of the solution. We may be able to give youth the tools they need to run the country more equitably when they take it over, which they will in the 21st century. We also know that certain well-designed civic engagement programs help the individual kids who participate in them to flourish in our current society—to do better in school and life.

So inequality is the first topic. The second is polarization. The US political system is deeply polarized ideologically, and the American people are, too. That context makes civic education more difficult, because every classroom discussion, textbook adoption, or comment by a teacher is a potential flashpoint. Even the word “democracy” (as the name for what we are trying to teach) is now politically divisive in a way that was not true in the 1980s.

At the same time, civic education may contribute to addressing the challenges of polarization, if we can help young people learn to handle disagreement better than we older people do.

The final problem is scale. It is clear that many smallish programs work. They are great for the students who participate. It is also clear that our best classroom civics teachers have huge benefits for their own students. But it is much less clear how we can dramatically increase the scope and scale of such opportunities so that we reach all of our kids.

Some of the most obvious tools for increasing scale, such as tests and mandatory courses, are problematic. Either we already have these policies in place and they don’t seem to work, or they are politically untenable, or we have reason to doubt their potential. Yet we cannot be satisfied with excellent civic education as a sporadic, largely voluntary affair. We must take it to scale, even if no single strategy for accomplishing that will work on its own.

In my opinion, if we could make progress on inequality, polarization, and scale, we would move a long way forward. That would not only be a victory for civic education but for American democracy. I do not expect that everyone gathered here today will come to agree on one strategy for addressing these three challenging topics. That is not only unrealistic; it might actually be a little bit creepy. We should count it as a success if we have invited people here today who favor a range of strategies and disagree in part.

I can’t wait for the conversation to begin.

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social criticism as reading social forms

Patterns and forms are very common in the social world. In Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, my sister Caroline Levine focuses on the four forms named in her title. She acknowledges that her list may not be exhaustive, and one form that I might add is clustering, which arises when cases congregate near a mode that is seen as normal. But certainly, her four forms are ubiquitous.

To take a very simple example: Employees A and B work at Organization C. (They are within the same bounded whole). A was hired first, has more seniority, and will retire first. (Rhythm.) A supervises B. (Hierarchy). A and B exchange information. (Network.)

Some social theorists would argue that one of these forms is logically or temporally primary or is simply more important than the others across a wide range of cases. For instance, Marx recognized trade networks and the bounded wholes of states and classes, but for him, the key question was hierarchy: which class was dominant? Some current network theorists are eager to understand everything (including organizations’ hierarchies) as special forms of networks. But there is no a priori reason to presume that any of these forms is primary. They overlap and interact. If, within some broad domain (such as religion, or America, or postindustrial capitalism) one form is most important, that is an empirical generalization, not an analytical truth.

Why do we use certain forms to construct society?

I can imagine three mutually compatible reasons for the frequent appearance of these forms in the social world. First, they work. They have various practical advantages, or, as Caroline says, “affordances.” If you want to protect a group, then building a wall or perimeter around them can be a good idea. If you want information to flow, then a network of dirt paths or fiber-optic cables can be useful. Sometimes what people intend is irrelevant. A form just turns out to have practical value, and therefore it survives and spreads regardless of the intentions of its designers, revisers, and adopters.

Second, the same forms and patterns are very common in nature, and particularly in biology, where the study of them is known as morphology. Sometimes we imitate natural forms as we construct social phenomena.

Third, our brains may be designed to detect the forms found in nature, so that we are good at making (and also noticing) similar forms in society and culture. My dog is good at noticing bounded wholes (the perimeter of our house or any place we stay), rhythms (he expects to be fed at exactly 6:00 pm) and hierarchies (he understands himself as the lowest creature on the family’s organizational chart). But I am not sure he recognizes networks. If humans shared that limitation, then our society might not have any networks—because we couldn’t create them—or it might have networks that we couldn’t detect. And just as Barkley probably cannot see networks, we may miss forms that arise in nature or society.

By the way, we are not considering categories such as before and after or near and far that might be viewed as features of being (Aristotle) or thought (Kant). We are rather considering concrete and constructed distinctions such as inside/outside the prison or on the sabbath/on a workday. The question is not whether these distinctions are metaphysical or epistemological (or linguistic). They are social facts that we make. The question is whether they resemble similar forms in nature because lawlike tendencies govern both domains, because we choose to copy nature, or because we think that we see forms in nature that look like the forms of our social life.

Emile Durkheim navigated these waters and found himself, I would say, in roughly the right place. He held that the categories of thought had social origins. For instance, the rhythms of time with which a scientist measures biological or geological change have origins in the social rhythms of work and festivals.

But if the categories originally only translate social states, does it now follow that they can be applied to the rest of nature only as metaphors? If they were made merely to express social conditions, it seems as though they could not be extended to other realms except in this sense. Thus in so far as they aid us in thinking of the physical or biological world, they have only the value of artificial symbols, useful practically perhaps, but having no connection to reality….

But when we interpret a sociological theory of knowledge in this way, we forget that even if society is a specific reality it is not an empire within an empire; it is a part of nature, and indeed its highest representation. The social realm is a natural realm which differs from the others only by a greater complexity. …. The fundamental relations that exist between things … cannot be fundamentally dissimilar in the different realms. [The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. J.W. Swain, 1915]

Thus, by building and interpreting social structures that involve boundaries, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks, we gain the vocabulary and conceptual apparatus to attain real understanding of similar forms in nature.

Value judgments of social forms

One thing that we do—and nature does not—is to make value judgments about the instantiations of the various forms. For instance, if A supervises B, we may judge that wise and fair, unfortunate but necessary, or oppressive. If A and B belong to the same organization, but C does not, we may likewise judge that arrangement to be desirable, acceptable, or unjust. And of course, we can broaden the lens, making judgments not about A and B but more generally about employment, organizations, states, and markets. Asked why we make any of these judgments, we may cite a whole range of relevant value considerations: equity, liberty, desert, obligation, virtue, precedent, and more.

We could think of each judgment as a tag or descriptor applied to the case under consideration, but here is where I see my own recent work on moral networks as relevant. After all, our various judgments are connected. They form structures of their own.

In fact, it has often been noted that moral judgments can take the form of bounded wholes. All lies are unethical, Kant argued—putting a boundary around a large set of cases.

It has also often been noted that moral judgments can be placed in hierarchies. J.S. Mill began On Utilitarianism: “From the dawn of philosophy, the question concerning the summum bonum, or, what is the same thing, concerning the foundation of morality, has been accounted the main problem in speculative thought, has occupied the most gifted intellects, and divided them into sects and schools, carrying on a vigorous warfare against one another.” Highest goods and foundations are metaphors of hierarchy. For Mill, the principle of utility was supposed to govern our other moral ideas, much as the leader of an organization directs her employees.

And it has often been noted that moral thought, which has extension in time, involves rhythms. You sow what you reap; punishment follows the crime. Far more complex moral rhythms can be found in novels and works of narrative history.

I am interested in adding moral networks to the other three types of moral forms (boundaries, hierarchies, and narratives), because I believe that we connect our specific moral ideas to others in numerous meaningful ways. We see causation, implication, similarity, and other relations between pairs of moral ideas; and the result is a complex network that has interesting network features (centrality, modularity, gaps). But this way of thinking about morality does not exclude the categories of wholes, rhythms, and hierarchies. In fact, often the ideas that we connect together into networks are claims about boundaries; portions of our networks take the form of hierarchies; and our networks evolve over time.

So now we see at least four formal types (the keywords in Caroline’s title) playing out in at least three domains: nature, society, and ethics. Moreover, those three domains are intimately linked. Durkheim already explored how biological and social forms connect. I would add that moral judgments are closely and reciprocally connected to social forms. B accepts A’s supervision because both believe that A has an obligation to guide B. (Then the social form gains its power from its perceived moral significance.) A stranger who independently criticizes their arrangement must have learned to make her judgments as a social being enmeshed in her own wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks. (Her moral structure has a social origin). She thinks that B should be liberated from A’s oversight because she has observed a different society in which people are not so supervised. (Her moral norm derives from analysis of an actual social structure). And so on.

Moral judgment deals with emergent and evolved natural and social realities rather than simple categories and scenarios. Social realities are complex because millions of diverse people have constructed them over long periods and under conditions of imperfect communication, collective-action problems, path-dependence, incomplete information, mixed motives, etc. Hardly any societies look neatly designed.

If we make value judgments based on rough heuristics and instincts that our ancestors acquired millennia ago in simpler social situations, we are poorly prepared to deal with this complexity. To the extent that our instincts guide us, we are prone to serious error. But instincts may not guide us to the degree that it appears if one studies moral psychology by asking subjects their gut reactions to stylized cases, such as out-of-control trolley cars. What we actually do all day is to navigate complex, overlapping social forms. We may be a bit better at that task than current psychological data suggests.

Implications for structure and agency

Learning to make better moral judgments is then a matter of interpreting complex, overlapping forms—not only social structures but also moral ones. I am interested in solitary methods for improving that analysis, such as literally mapping our own networks of moral ideas and looking for formal strengths and weaknesses.

But we have grave cognitive limitations, so moral learning is intrinsically social and cumulative. Durkheim again:

Collective representations are the result of an immense co-operation, which stretches out not only into space but into time as well; to make them, a multitude of minds have associated, united and combined their ideas and sentiments; for them, long generations have accumulated their experience and their knowledge. A special intellectual activity is therefore concentrated in them which is infinitely richer and complexer than that of the individual.

This seems correct as far as it goes, but it can imply that individuals really don’t have much agency or choice and we cannot achieve intentional social improvements. Consider this passage from Talcott Parsons’ An Outline of the Social System (1961):

… As the source of his principal facilities of action and of his principal rewards and deprivations, the concrete social system exercises a powerful control over the action of any concrete, adult individual. … The patterning of the motivational system in terms of which he faces this situation also depends upon the social system, because his own personality structure has been shaped through the internalization of systems of social objects and of the patterns of institutionalized culture. This point, it should be made clear, is independent of the sense in which individuals are concretely autonomous or creative rather than “passive” or “conforming,” for individuality and creativity are, to a considerable extent, phenomena of the institutionalization of expectations.

Although Parsons denied he was dismissing agency, this passage certainly seems to. But we can look at the same phenomena another way. Some social systems reflect accumulated, collaborative learning. They do not just exist and control us; we have made them, working together and expressing our diverse values and interests. They are also responsive to our further learning.

To the extent that we persuade ourselves that existing patterns are all-powerful, we renounce our capacity and obligation to change them. The opposite view has been staked out by Roberto Mangabeira Unger, who argues in False Necessity that the analysis of society in terms of inflexible structures arbitrarily blocks our freedom. Unger takes “to its ultimate conclusion” the thesis “that society is an artifact” (p. 2). All our institutions, mores, habits, and incentives are things that we imagine and make. Unger “carries to extremes the idea that everything in society is politics, mere politics”–in the sense of collective action and creation (p. 1). According to Unger, even radical modernists have assumed that some things are natural, although we can actually change them. Importantly, radicals have assumed that the relations between one domain (or type of form) and another are given. For instance, for Marxists, the economy is fundamental and it always determines politics. Unger thinks we can change any part of the picture. He wants to get rid of all “superstitious inhibitions.”

I am drawn to Unger but worry that his mechanical model overlooks the degree to which a society is like an organism: sensitively interconnected and not so easy to retool without doing unanticipated damage. In any case (and here Unger would agree), social systems differ in the extent to which they embody and enable collaborative learning.

Caroline uses the depiction of Baltimore in HBO’s series The Wire as an exemplary analysis of overlapping social forms, which it is. And Baltimore (as depicted in The Wire) does reflect some democratic agency and learning—more so than North Korea would, even though North Korea could also be interpreted as a pattern of human-made boundaries, hierarchies, networks, and rhythms. But even if Baltimore is better than North Korea, it is far from optimal as a venue for democratic learning because of poverty, violence, racism, and bad institutional design.

In The Public and its Problems, John Dewey wrote (p.158), “philosophy [once] held that ideas and knowledge were functions of a mind or consciousness that originated in individuals by means of isolated contact with objects. But in fact, knowledge is a function of association and communication; it depends upon tradition, upon tools and methods socially transmitted, developed, and sanctioned.” Nevertheless, said Dewey, we need not continue doing what we have done so far. We can ask whether we should change our political system. As Hilary Putnam Putnam writes in “The Three Enlightenments” (from “Ethics without Ontology”):

For Dewey, the problem is not to justify the existence of communities, or to show that people ought to make the interests of others their own [that much is natural and unavoidable]; the problem is to justify the claim that morally decent communities should be democratically organized. This Dewey does by appealing to the need to deal intelligently rather than unintelligently with the ethical and practical problems that we confront.

To conclude: we must analyze any social situation for its formal patterns. We must make value judgments about those patterns. Our value judgments are also patterned, so we should reflect on their structure, not only on each opinion by itself. Finally, we must ask whether these patterns (in the social world and in our own thought) permit human agency and desirable change. Effective and responsible agency is not solitary but requires deliberation with people different enough from ourselves that their perspectives challenge and expand ours, but close enough to us that we can build new structures with them using the shared material at hand. In turn, that requires certain political and social conditions, which we must work to attain.

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deindustrialization and Ferguson

“With Selma and the voting rights bill one era of our struggle came to a close and a new era came into being. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., March 18, 1968

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 7.46.55 PM

When we consider the events in Ferguson, MO and their aftermath, we need to take account of the trend shown to the left. Almost half of all manufacturing jobs in greater St. Louis, MO have been lost since 1990. Unfortunately, I cannot find a longer trend line, but the deepest job cuts probably came well before 1990. Some cite 1981 as the turning point, the year Corvette moved its plant from St. Louis to Kentucky.

People came to St. Louis for manufacturing jobs. They included African Americans, moving north as part of the Great Migration. Having an industrial job indicated market value. People can turn market value into civic and political power. As an example of that process, during World War II, 8,000 Black workers were hired in St. Louis defense contractors’ factories. Not coincidentally, the First African-American St. Louis Alderman was elected in 1943, and in 1944, the city passed its first integration ordinance.

The reverse is true as well. If you do not have market value, it is very hard to attain or retain political power–or even the ability to stand safely before authority in everyday interactions. Maybe “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”; but injustice can be borne for a long time by people who are viewed as economically dispensable before the rest of an affluent society pays a price for it.

Half the industrial jobs in the St. Louis MSA have disappeared since 1990. Put another way: about 90,000 industrial jobs have been removed in one metropolitan area in one generation. That is an unimaginable blow to the traditional industrial working class. Race definitely enters the picture–in numerous ways. But the graph above is economic; the problem it depicts is deindustrialization; and unless we address its consequences head on, I don’t think we can make real progress.

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we don’t know whether students know more or less about civics

(Arlington, VA) It would be nice to know whether civic knowledge–defined in any way you choose–has been rising or falling. But I don’t think we know the trend at all.

Public survey data don’t help much. The questions that pollsters have repeated over time are ones like “Who is the Vice President?” That is an important correlate of voting and news interest, but it doesn’t reliably measure general knowledge or changes in knowledge. After all, responses to that question would rise if the current VP became more prominent.

The best official source is the federal NAEP Civic Assessment, which I am in Virginia to help plan and have been involved with since 2008. I cannot emphasize enough how dedicated and careful the NAEP’s staff and contractors are. They make every decision with extreme scrupulousness. That includes all the decisions–large and small–that contribute to making each iteration of the NAEP as comparable as possible to previous years. And therefore, I don’t think anyone could produce more reliable trend lines than these (taken from the NAEP Civics Report Card):

The asterisks mark changes that are statistically significant in the sense that there is a very small chance (less than 5%) that the changes were due to random variation in who took the test.

But there are reasons to be wary of these as trend lines:

  • Connecting the dots with straight lines suggests that American kids’ knowledge followed that path over time. But we really just have three measures taken at three moments over 12 years. The actual trend could have bounced up and down over that time.
  • Civics involves understanding the world around you. The world changed from ’98 t0 2010. NAEP generally tries to the keep its constructs and even some of its questions identical over time, in order to preserve the validity of the trend. But the same construct (e.g., “petitioning the government”) meant something very different under Clinton than it does under Obama.
  • Despite Herculean efforts to measure whether each test is comparable to the previous one, that process introduces error that is not measured by the statistical significance test.
  • The population of kids in k-12 schools has changed dramatically in that timeframe. For instance, more students are reaching 12th grade.
  • NAEP is not, and does not pretend to be, a comprehensive assessment of civic knowledge. For instance, it omits current events (in part because the assessment takes three years to design and field). NAEP scores could remain flat even if knowledge of current events soared–or plummeted.

Overall, I think we can guess that American kids’ civic knowledge has been pretty flat since the 1990s. Even rougher comparisons to the earlier Civics NAEPs suggest that knowledge has been pretty flat since the 1970s. Dramatic changes would likely have been noticed. But I don’t think we can reliably say that knowledge has ticked up or down. For that, we would need much more regular assessments.

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op-ed on including civics in the new education bill

(Arlington, VA) I am here for a meeting on the NAEP–the National Assessment on Education Progress. Meanwhile, Scott Warren of Generation Citizen and I have an op-ed in The Hill calling on Congress to remember civics when they revisit the Elementary and Secondary Education Bill. We begin:

With a new Congress in power and the Obama administration looking for issues that have a chance for bipartisan support, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called to replace the landmark No Child Left Behind education law. The proposed new law would focus on quality universal preschool education, better support for teachers, and a reform of assessment standards. As the administration works with Congress on the largest change to education policy in the last 14 years, it should emphasize another initiative in the rewrite: reviving effective civics education and ensuring that our students are learning the core tenets of active citizenship.

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on the radio, talking about civic education

On January 6, I joined the inimitable Arnie Arnesen on her New Hampshire-based Pacifica Radio show to discuss civic education. She thinks efforts to repress political participation are responsible for the marginal place of civics in our schools. The audio is here; my segment starts at about 27:45 and goes to the end.

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everyone unique, all connected

Reading my sister Caroline Levine’s extraordinary new book Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, I’ve been reflecting on similar ideas that I have come to quite independently.

In college, I was deeply struck by the argument that human beings (whatever we all share as members of the same evolved species) are also divided into large clusters whose members think alike in important respects but differ with outsiders. Those clusters can be called cultures, worldviews, Weltanschauungen, etc. That these groupings are internally consistent but different from one another is an essential premise of philosophers like Hegel and Herder, of founding anthropologists like Boas and Malinowski, of New Historicist critics like Catharine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, and even of deconstructionists who seek to rupture such “bounded wholes” (see Caroline Levine, pp. 26, 115-16). I’ve found the same assumptions elsewhere, too. The influential psychologist Jonathan Haidt assumes that each person subscribes to a “moral matrix” that “provides a complete, unified, and emotionally compelling worldview, easily justified by observable evidence and nearly impregnable to arguments from outsiders.” And (although different from Haidt in most other respects) John Rawls called a “plurality of reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines” a “fact” about the world.

At one moment during the summer of 1989 (crossing the street in Rosslyn, VA), I thought: But each of us belongs to many of these clusters at once. The clusters overlap; their borders cross. In fact, even twin siblings would have somewhat different influences and assumptions. I drew this pair of diagrams, which appear in my Nietzsche and the Modern Crisis of the Humanities (1995, p. 188-9).


I favored what I pretentiously called the “postmodern paradigm” of fig. 2 and claimed that it dispelled some of the dilemmas of value-relativism and skepticism that bedeviled modernity. This was before the large literature on “intersectionality” really got going. I agree with the argument that (for example) race, gender, and class can “intersect,” but I would push that to its limit. Our backgrounds intersect in so many ways that everyone stands at a unique intersection.

Now I am more likely to draw a different kind of map, one that treats each person’s mentality as a network of ideas, such that the nodes are typically shared by people who interact, but each person’s overall network is unique. (This is the map of the ideas identified by my students in a recent class. Each student is displayed in a different color, and their networks touch where they disclosed the same idea.)

class map 1.17

Caroline would describe figs. 1-2 as sets of bounded wholes, and the third diagram as a network map. Wholes and networks are two fundamental forms in her account–she also investigates rhythms and hierarchies. Indeed, the two forms I display above are limited in two respects. They are time-slices that fail to capture change. (Rhythm is missing.) And they are all about ideas and values, not about institutionalized forms, such as hierarchies. I think she is correct that all four types of form–and no doubt more as well–overlap and contend, creating the structures in which we live but also offering opportunities for emancipation if we figure out how to put them together in new ways.

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why volunteering has gone up while other forms of civic engagement have declined

Because you get what you pay for. To elaborate. …

The Associated Press-GfK recently repeated survey questions that they had asked in 1984 about voting, volunteering, serving on a jury, reporting crime, knowing English, and keeping informed about news and public issues. Voting has been fairly flat, although turnout rates vary from year to year and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction depending on the competitiveness and importance of the election. Four of the measures have fallen since 1984. But volunteering is up, buoyed by a substantial increase in young people’s commitment to service.

As I said in the AP article, “That’s partly [because] we have built up our institutions for volunteering. … Something like 30 percent of high schools have service learning programs. They didn’t have that in the 1980s.” We could also cite a substantial investment in youth volunteering through AmeriCorps, Campus Compact’s member colleges, and so on. Proponents of service have won new funding and rewards for volunteering, positive media coverage, intensive research and evaluation, and favorable policies, including mandates in many school districts.

There has been no comparable investment in the other forms of civic engagement. That is why they have stagnated or fallen. If, for example, schools cease to emphasize news literacy education, and the news industry fails to encourage young readers, then “keeping informed about news and public issues” will fall. Measures of civic obligation are mostly proxies for the civic opportunities we offer people.

I’d also offer an observation about the obligation to know English, one of the variables in the AP survey that fell between 1984 and 2014. It’s unique among the items because everyone who took the survey did know English. (It was an English-language instrument.) Thus the decline is not attributable to falling levels of engagement among people in the sample. Instead, respondents essentially had to decide whether it was a civic obligation for others to know English. I can imagine that the decline is explained by a lessening belief that immigrants are obliged to learn English, although (importantly) young immigrants do learn the majority language. An alternative explanation is that people are less likely to see the purpose of learning English as civic because they see civic engagement as less salient than they did in 1984. That would be bad news–but again, more a symptom of declining opportunities for engagement than a moral slide.

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Charlie Hebdo, American academia, and free speech

David Brooks begins today’s column: “The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.”

It’s critical to distinguish between two questions: 1) How should I (or a small group) manage a forum of communication that is under my or our control? and 2) What rights do people have to run their own fora?

A forum might be a newspaper or a magazine, a course, a speaker series, a website, or the wall outside my office. If I (either alone or with colleagues) am responsible for that forum, then I must decide how it should be run. It can be an open forum in which anyone may post anything. But that is a choice, not an obligation, and often it’s a bad one. I much prefer the edited and curated homepage of the New York Times to an unmoderated chat. Assuming we choose to manage a space, we must make constant decisions about what and whom to include and exclude. It is appropriate to consider questions of relevance, quality, impact on various people, diversity, consistency, fairness, and more.

A society, however, should not be a forum with one set of rules and values. It should include an enormous array of quasi-autonomous fora under many different managers, rules, and value-systems. Individuals and voluntary groups should have very extensive rights to create and run their own fora in their own ways.

Thus there is no contradiction at all between saying (a) I would rather not post an anti-Islamic cartoon on my website or invite an anti-Islamic speaker to address my class, and (b) the cold-blooded murder of Charlie Hebdo’s staff was a fascistic assault on human rights and liberty. These are actually closely related ideas, because both stem from the fundamental principle that forums of communication must be plural and autonomous.

Thus I am not concerned or embarrassed that American academic institutions may be reluctant to invite inflammatory anti-Muslim speakers. That’s a reasonable judgment by the organizers of those particular fora.

One thing that does worry me is the gradual evolution of each American university from a plural array of fora into a singular forum. In some ideal world, a university would be a space in which tenured faculty and students can exercise a high degree of free speech, creating their own mini-fora: diverse classes, speaker series, associations, and publications. To be sure, certain aspects of the university–such as the annual commencement address–must be chosen by the institution and thus must be governed by uniform criteria and processes. But in a healthy university, those centralized fora do not crowd out all the diversity.

I see increased centralization of control over a university’s discourse and inquiry, due to: the influence of external donors, the severe shortage of tenured positions, the rising share of contingent faculty, IRB review, multiplying layers of administration (so writes an associate dean for research), increasingly sophisticated PR efforts, and the growing role of metrics and assessments. Campus speech codes and other explicit regulations of speech may also play a role–and I am skeptical of these interventions–but I don’t think they represent the main threat to pluralism.

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the core of liberalism

Real ideological movements are under no one’s control. They shape-shift and amalgamate until it is both difficult and misleading to define them in terms of core principles. The  debate about their meaning not only reflects authentic intellectual inquiry but also a series of power-plays. If you can make conservatism mean what you want it to mean, for example, then you can line up support from people who identify as conservatives.

Michael Freeden studies the patterns of ideas that form political ideologies, which he calls their “morphologies.” He notes, “Morphology is not always consciously designed. Even when design enters the picture, it is partial, fragmented, and undergirded by layers of cultural meaning that are pre-assimilated into rational thinking.”*

Still, we can learn from ideologies, and not only from the relatively transparent and organized arguments that their theorists set down on paper. Political movements reflect accumulated experience. Although some movements are beyond the pale, all reasonably mainstream political ideologies invoke clusters of central ideas that deserve consideration.

In an earlier post, I argued that the valuable, core, animating impulse of conservatism is resistance to human arrogance. Conservatism can take different forms depending on the form of arrogance that is assumed to be most dangerous. If it’s the arrogance of central state planners, laissez-faire looks attractive. If it’s the arrogance of godless human beings, religious authority may look better. If it’s the arrogance of faceless corporations, small human communities may seem safer. Although these are disparate enemies, they are all charged with the same fundamental sin: blindness to human cognitive and ethical limitations.

What, then of liberalism? Empirically, it is at least as various as conservatism is. It would be appropriate to apply the word “liberal” to a New Deal social democrat or to a minimal-government libertarian, although they represent opposite poles in the US political debate.

Nevertheless, as with conservatism, we can undertake an appreciative reconstruction of liberalism as an ethical orientation. Its valuable, core, animating impulse is a high regard for the individual’s inner life–her ideas, passions, and commitments–and their expression in her personal behavior. That attitude can recommend a range of institutions, from a hyper-minimal state (to protect the individual against tyranny) to a strong social welfare state (to enable her to develop her individuality). That is why liberals span the US political spectrum. Yet not everyone is a liberal. If you see a community or a nation as having intrinsic value, you are (at least in that respect) distant from liberalism. If you see equality as an end, rather than as a potential means to individuals’ development, you diverge from liberalism. If you are confident that one or a few  ways of life embody the human good and should be encouraged or required, you are not fully liberal.

Although liberalism permits a wide range of political institutions, it has a fairly consistent cultural agenda. It favors the cultivation and appreciation of complex and diverse personalities. It is tolerant of the contemplative (rather than the active) life, of irony and ambiguity, of personal expressions against the crowd. Its most characteristic cultural form is the sensitive depiction of individuals in intimate relationships without the overlay of a strong authorial voice–as in the nineteenth-century novel or the Impressionist portrait. “Negative capability” (the ability not to take a position when describing the world) is the aesthetic analog of the liberal’s political principle of tolerance.

The poet Mark Strand gave a characteristic liberal’s response to the question, “What is your view of the function of poetry in today’s society?”:

Poetry delivers an inner life that is articulated to the reader. People have inner lives, but they are poorly expressed and rarely known. They have no language by which to bring it out into the open. … Poetry helps us imagine what it’s like to be human. I wish more politicians and heads of state would begin to imagine what it’s like to be human. They’ve forgotten, and it leads to bad things. If you can’t empathize, it’s hard to be decent; it’s hard to know what the other guy’s feeling. They talk from such a distance that they don’t see differences; they don’t see the little things that make up a life. They see numbers; they see generalities. They deal in sound bytes and vacuous speeches; when you read them again, they don’t mean anything.

These may be clichés (and Strand’s generalizations about politicians are just as empty as their alleged generalization about citizens). But in a poem like “The Way it Is,” Strand shows what he means. The narrator is beset by his jingoistic, gun-toting neighbor (“wearing the sleek / mask of a hawk with a large beak”) and by horsemen “riding around [the people], telling them why / they should die.” In other words, he fears the individual with no inner life and the faceless state. “I crouch / under the kitchen table, telling myself / I am a dog, who would kill a dog?” This is the liberal’s nightmare, but the poem is an act of freedom as self-expression.

Along similar lines, Lionel Trilling endorsed impersonal rules and institutions that enhanced freedom and happiness, yet he wished to “recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty.”** For Trilling, sensitive literary criticism was a characteristic liberal act because it involved the recovery of another individual’s thought.

On this definition, you can be a liberal and also a conservative, a socialist, and/or a majoritarian; those categories are not mutually exclusive. But liberalism points in certain directions and warns against certain dangers often forgotten in other ideologies.

*Michael Freeden, “The Morphological Analysis of Ideology,” in Freeden, Lyman Tower Sargent, and Marc Stears (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies (Oxford, 2013), pp. 115-137 (quoting p. 122.)

**Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (1950) (New York: New York Review of Books, 2008), p. xxi.

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