Tisch Program in Public Humanities

Tisch College has a Program in Public Humanities. As of today, the Program has its own webpage, which I invite you to visit.

The webpage introduces the Program’s director,  Diane O’Donoghue. An art historian, Diane first came to Tisch College as a Faculty Fellow in 2013—working on a Nazi-era restitution project in Vienna—after chairing the Department of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts.

The page also describes a major exhibition that celebrated a century of printing in Boston’s Chinese community. In addition to serving scholarly and cultural purposes, this exhibition drew attention to the need for a public library in Chinatown. In January 2017, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh announced that library services would be restored to the neighborhood.

On the same page, you can read about our current research on the Pao Arts Center in Chinatown, Diane’s spring course on “Public Amnesias and their Discontents,” and past and future presentations on the public humanities.

I have argued that the humanities and civic life have an intrinsic connection. “Humanist” was originally an informal term for someone who taught rhetoric, history and ethics to future public leaders–in contrast to philosophy and theology, which prepared clergymen. Citizens must make ethical judgments in concrete circumstances, and the humanities are disciplines that combine ethics, judgment, and concreteness with analytic and conceptual rigor. In recent decades, the professional humanities have had a somewhat distant or even fraught relationship with public life, but that is changing, thanks to the kinds of scholars, artists, and practitioners who congregate in Imagining America or in the North Eastern Public Humanities Consortium, of which Tisch College is a charter member.

From the perspective of Tisch College, Public Humanities is one component of Civic Studies, which also encompasses empirical research on civic engagement in the US and abroad, Civic Science, community-based participatory research, civic math, and other strands of research.

See also: what are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists)the public purposes of the humanities (a brief history)the state humanities councils, connecting the public to scholarship; and “Rethinking the Humanities

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ethan Zuckerman on the #ObamaSummit

I’ve been blogging almost daily since January 2003, and I would normally write reflections on something as interesting as the Obama Summit that took place this week as the kickoff event of the new Obama Foundation. However, my motivation to write is somewhat diminished by the fact that my friend Ethan Zuckerman has said everything I would–and very well–in a piece for Medium. To be sure, Ethan and I are similarly positioned, with similar demographics and job descriptions. I am sure there were other ways to perceive the Summit, but I saw the same event that Ethan did and I recommend his report.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The truth in Hayek

(Washington, DC) You are reading English; I am writing it. English has elaborate rules and conventions. You can break the rules, but that has consequences beyond your control. Mess up your grammar in a job interview and you may not get the position. On the other hand, talk very formally in a dorm hallway and you may come across as a geek.

English also has many limitations. There are things for which we lack words. There are words without rhymes. There are words that sound awkward together. Using the language can be a struggle for people at any level of proficiency. It was a struggle for Shakespeare, as you can sense when you see him trying to convey ideas that had never been said before in his language.

Yet hardly anyone experiences the rules and limitations of English as an infringement on liberty. Why not?

  1. No individual or committee designed the language. Its limitations, therefore, are not the result of anyone’s will. Not being able to express something in English is like not being able to run at 60 miles/hour: a constraint, but not an example of coercion, because no one is coercing you.
  2. No one can change the language wholesale. We can work to change it, one piece at a time. In my lifetime, “man” has ceased to mean “human being.” That change is a result of deliberate argument and advocacy. But it’s a change of one word, and it required lots of voluntary agreement to become a new norm.
  3. Language is predicable. Within any linguistic context, the rules-in-use (not necessarily the official rules written down in grammar books) are quite stable. Change is gradual. Therefore, we can usually predict how a listener will understand a given phrase. Its predictability makes language a tool for intentional agents, something that we can plan to use for our own ends.

Friedrich von Hayek admires emergent systems. They are “complex and orderly and, in a very definite sense, purposive institutions [that] owe very little to design” (Constitution of Liberty, p. 58). Each system is a “self -maintaining whole which is kept going by forces which we cannot replace.” (p. 70). It is “not invented but arose from the actions of many men who did not know what they are doing.” (pp. 58-9). It demonstrates “organic, slow, half-conscious growth” versus “intelligent men coming together for deliberation about how to make the world anew” (pp. 56-7).

Hayek sees an intrinsic link between emergent systems and liberty, for the three reasons numbered above. Another advantage of emergent systems is that they avoid human cognitive limitations. They create complexity without relying on anyone’s brainpower to design the whole system well.

Hayek thinks of markets as emergent systems, and that is why he is associated with the political right. He opposes the idea of “social justice” (p. 65), arguing that to assess a complex system according to your own idea of justice is actually antisocial. You are substituting your opinion for what a whole society has created through emergent processes, such as market exchange.

I disagree with this important strand in Hayek. I view markets as substantially the products of political power and intentional design, in the form of laws that create and structure economic activity. I also view modern markets as the domain of large corporations that are run by (more or less) “intelligent men coming together for deliberation.” For instance, the online marketplace is not just an emergent system but an archipelago of designed islands (Amazon, Google, Facebook, the App Store). Finally, I don’t think that liberty, in Hayek’s sense, is the only important good. So even when markets do meet Hayek’s criteria of emergence and thus generate liberty (in his sense), I’m not satisfied if they are also deeply unequal, destructive, or inhumane. Note that Hayek may agree on this point (p. 18).

Having noted my disagreement with Hayek on the question of markets, I would like to underline the value of his overall view. Even with respect to economics, it is important to recognize the link between markets and liberty in the specifically Hayekian sense. His argument is not that markets offer negative liberty (freedom to do what you want), nor that they guarantee happiness or prosperity. His argument is that markets allow you to form and implement your own plans, which is a form of liberty. There is considerable truth to this position.

Besides, markets are not the only examples of emergent systems, and not the purest or best ones. Consider indigenous human cultures that are deeply embedded in natural ecosystems. The people who admire such examples and want to conserve them against the imperialistic forces of science and the state are typically on the left. Here I am not only talking about hunter-gatherer societies in distant rainforests. Plenty of leftish Americans will regard an elaborate but fragile community, like Boston’s Chinatown, as a valuable emergent system and will strongly oppose planning that disrupts it. So you can be a left-Hayekian.

Another example is the Internet. Today it is dominated by such large designed platforms as Amazon. But I remember when it emerged with very simple, very stable protocols that allowed maximum scope for creativity. The result was beautifully Hayekian, in contrast to the planned network of the telephone company. The fact that it has evolved to be dominated by multi-billion-dollar companies with centrally planned algorithms is an argument against Hayek’s pro-market complacency. The market has undermined Hayekian values. Still, the best response is to make the Internet more of an emergent system through rules like net-neutrality—not to try to design the content of the World Wide Web.

Finally, I tend to agree with Hayek’s view of ethics. Moral rules are, “next to language … the most important instance of an undesigned growth.” We observe them because of their consequences even though we do not know what their consequences will be (p. 67). That makes sense given human fallibility. Hayek rejects the Socratic ideal of questioning everything. “This givenness of the value framework implies that, although we must always strive to improve our institutions, we can never aim to remake them as a whole and that, in our efforts to improve them, we must take for granted much that we do not understand” (p. 63). Habermas uses the word “givenness” in exactly the same way when he also argues for criticizing values one at a time, never wholesale. Here the Austrian School and the Frankfurt School coincide.

[See also:  Lifeworld and System: a primerit’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedFoucault and neoliberalism]

Posted in civic theory, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

the online world looks dark

(Chicago) I’m at the #ObamaSummit, much of which can be followed online.

In the opening plenary, several speakers (including President Obama) noted the drawbacks of social media: psychological isolation, manipulation by powerful companies and governments, fake news, balkanization, and deep incivility.

I remember when discussions of civic tech were generally optimistic: people saw the Internet and social media as creative and democratic forces.

I went to the specialized breakout session with “civic media” entrepreneurs and asked them whether they shared the dark picture painted by the plenary speakers. Each gave an interesting and nuanced answer, but in short, they said Yes. The reason they build and use digital tools is basically to combat the larger trends in social media, which for the most part, they see as harmful. Even Adrian Reyna of @ United We Dream, a leader of one of the best social movements that has used online tools, emphasized that relying on civic tech can disempower people and alienate communities.

This is no reason to give up on improving the civic impact of digital media. The work remains as important as ever. It’s just that the atmosphere now feels very sober; the heady days of cyber-optimism have passed, at least for people concerned about politics and civic culture.

[See also democracy in the digital age and four questions about social media and politics]

Posted in Internet and public issues, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life

I read Kieran Setiya’s Midlife (Princeton, 2017) not only because I have that condition and am sometimes troubled by its complaints, but also because I appreciate the style of thought that Pierre Hadot named “philosophy as a way of life.” Practitioners of this style acknowledge that it is important to develop and test arguments. The philosophical life is one of critical reason. However, arguments should have a purpose: to improve a life. And we must remember that people are habitual and affective creatures. Therefore, arguments—no matter how valid and rigorous—will not change us. We also need practices or mental disciplines to accompany our arguments. But a mental habit or practice can lead us away from the findings of our critical reason. We may train ourselves to be foolish or selfish. So we need habits that are at least consistent with the best arguments, and, ideally, habits that actually include argumentation.

That is exactly the combination offered by the Hellenistic Schools (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism) and by the classical Indian traditions. It has been relatively weak in the modern West. Setiya shows that it can be practiced today.

He is a professional philosopher in the Anglophone, analytic tradition. A clue that he is trying something different in Midlife is the book’s grammar. Setiya often writes in the second-person singular: “You should …” (as in “You should not prefer to rewind time, erase your son, and try again.”) He also sometimes uses the first-person singular or plural: “I wish …”; “We think …” Midlife reads like a conversation that reports Setiya’s real efforts to combat his ennui in order to improve your life, too.

Midlife is almost free of jargon. But one person’s jargon is another’s helpful terminology, and Setiya makes occasional use of specialized words. His distinctive stylistic move is not his informal vocabulary but his shift to the second-person, which implies a stringent test that can be applied to each sentence and chapter: would an actual “you” find this text useful?

Another clue that Setiya is working in the tradition of philosophy as a way of life is that he recommends repeated practices, habits, or meditative exercises at the conclusion of each chapter. These are meant to turn the arguments of the chapter into therapies that might change our mental habits.

Many of Setiya’s recommendations are drawn from the history of ethics, not original to Midlife. Of course, that is fine; it is useful to review and revive others’ points. But some of his arguments are novel, and I will mention two.

Continue reading

Posted in philosophy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

working on civic education in Ukraine

(Kyiv, Ukraine) I am here for just a few days, working with Ukrainian civic educators and my American colleagues at Street Law, Inc. I’ve served on Street Law’s board for more than a decade, but this is my first time directly helping with a project. Ukraine’s plans to revamp democratic education in their primary and secondary schools seem highly promising, and I’m pleased to be able to participate. This effort also connects to another project I’ve done with Ukrainian colleagues since 2014: the European Institute of Civic Studies (which is aimed at adults). Finally, it’s nice to be back in this handsome city as the leaves turn yellow and the air is cool and damp.

Posted in advocating civic education, democratic reform overseas, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

the Tisch College initiative on gerrymandering

Gerrymandering displays several features that are typical of 21st century problems. It’s a consequence of deliberate human action that’s not in the public good. It’s highly technical. If you possess the data, the methods, and the authority, you can draw district lines that will give your side enormous advantages. These methods are scarce and monopolized by self-interested actors who have power of various sorts. It’s tempting to imagine a technical solution, such as programming computers to draw electoral districts, but there is no self-evidently best map. Well-intentioned people who draw district lines (or who write algorithms for computers to draw maps) must balance valid goals, such as competitiveness, compactness, and representativeness. Each of these general values can be defined in several reasonable ways. Tension among values under conditions of great technical complexity is typical of our age.

I’m proud, therefore, of Tisch College’s Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, led by Tufts Math Professor Moon Duchin. Her Group conducts advanced research on the math of redistricting, helps develop a more diverse cadre of people who can participate in these debates (including as expert witnesses in litigation), and educates the public. One of their approaches to education is working with k-12 teachers to teach the geometry of district maps.

Moon and I have a new piece in The Conversation drawn from this work: “Rebooting the mathematics behind gerrymandering.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis by Hollie Russon-Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman

About $3 billion was contributed to influence 2016 federal campaigns. In a new paper entitled “Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis,” Hollie Russon-Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman suggest a much better way to spend some of that money.

I realize, by the way, that political donors want candidates to notice their support. It would nevertheless make all the difference if they gave one percent of their $3 billion to activities that strengthen democracy–compensating for irradiating the body politic with polarizing and demoralizing messages. Progressive donors would also build the base for more progressive policy by investing for the longer term.

Russon-Gilman and Rahman argue “that today’s populist moment emphasizes the need to create a genuinely responsive, participatory form of democratic politics in which communities are empowered, rather than alienated.” They advocate investments that “self-consciously strive to build constituencies and identities that are more inclusive and accommodating. Think of this as ‘us’ populism, as opposed to ‘them’ populism.”

That basic stance supports two strategies:

  1. More investment in community organizing, especially the types that build “new bridges across racial, gender, and geographic divides.” Russon-Gilman and Rahman advocate broad-based, long-term organizing instead of mobilizing people around specific issues.
  2. “Reforming our institutions of governance” so that agencies offer citizens more “hooks and levers” to influence power, and so that public sector workers have skills and incentives to engage the public better.

These strategies imply (as the authors note) a broad understanding of democracy. It is not all about elections, nor even about the official government. It’s about how people come together and exercise power.

The paper offers valuable case studies. For instance, under the heading of organizing:

  • “The Center for Rural Strategies (CRS) … based in Whitesburg, Ky. in the central Appalachian coalfields, provides rural communities and nonprofit organizations with resources on innovative media and communications strategies in order to strengthen their work.” CRS provides information, challenges stereotypes about its communities, and lobbies for better access to the physical infrastructure for communications, because both content and conduit matter. (See “Building Democracy in ‘Trump Country’” by Ben Fink for a similar case.)
  • “Coworker.org (Coworker) is a digital platform for workers’ voices founded in response to the decline of formal institutions organizing workers and geared towards building a twenty-first century model of worker power. The organization provides tools directly to workers to self-advocate within the workplace, usually where no labor structure or organizing already exists.” Like CRS, Coworker invests in people who develop as leaders.

Examples under the heading of institutions include:

  • “The Office of Community Wealth Building (OCWB) was established as a permanent city agency in Richmond, Va., in 2015 to provide anti-poverty strategy and policy advice to the mayor and to implement municipal poverty reduction initiatives and systemic changes around housing, education, and economic development.”
  • “The Public Engagement Unit (PEU) is a division in New York’s city government started in 2015 [is] devoted to knocking on doors and making calls to hard-to-reach constituents to enroll them in city services, as well as foster long-term individual relationships with city staff.”

Overall, “Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis” helps make the case for investments that are less short-term, less oriented to immediate efficiency, less split between government and civil society, but more experimental, more open-ended, and more truly inclusive than we normally see (especially, I would say, on the left).

See also: why the white working class must organizeto beat Trump, invest in organizingfighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism; and community organizing between Athens and Jerusalem.

Posted in populism, revitalizing the left | 1 Comment

new research on “civic deserts”

(Washington, DC) My colleagues Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Felicia Sullivan coined the phrase “civic deserts” to name places where there are few or no opportunities to be active and constructive participants in civic life. The analogy is to “food deserts”–geographical communities where there is little or no nutritious food for sale. You can still be an active citizen in a civic desert, just as you can grow vegetables in your back yard; it’s just that the whole burden falls on you.

Today at the National Conference on Citizenship, we are releasing Civic Deserts: America’s Civic Health Challenge by Matthew N. Atwell, John Bridgeland, and me. It’s a 36-page report that documents the declining opportunities for civic engagement in America. John Bridgeland and Robert Putnam also write about it today in a PBS opinion piece.

This is an example of a table from the report:

Thanks to friends at USC’s Center for Economic and Social Research, we were able to ask a  large, representative sample of Americans whether they belonged to various kinds of groups; if so, whether they participated actively in any of them; and if so, whether they thought that the group’s leaders (a) usually did what they promised and (b) usually tried to serve and include all the members. It turns out that only 28% of adult Americans actively belong to groups whose leaders are accountable and inclusive. That statistic does not tell us how much geographical space is taken up by civic deserts, but it suggests that they are common. And the historical data implies that civic engagement used to be much more widespread.

I separately formed a hypothesis that lacking direct, personal experience with good leadership would make a person more tolerant of the leadership style of Donald J. Trump, controlling for one’s political ideology. In other words, given two people who agree with Trump on issues, the one without experience of good local leadership would be more supportive of Trump as a leader. This was testable with the USC data, which includes a whole battery of questions about ideology, issues, and Trump. My hypothesis turned out not to be true: partisanship and media choice seem to explain opinions of the current president almost completely, and experience in groups adds no explanatory power. Still, I think there may be a more circuitous story about civic deserts as a cause of Trump’s victory: the decline of civic associations increases the power of partisan heuristics and ideological media. Even if that hypothesis is also false, civic deserts are still a problem, because civic engagement benefits health, economic development, safety, education, and good government.

See also: The Hollowing Out of US Democracy (my blog post for USC); Mitigating the Negative Consequences of Living in Civic Deserts – What Digital Media Can (and have yet to) Do (a new CIRCLE article); America needs big ideas to heal our divides. Here are three by Bridgeland and Putnam; and the power of the NRA in an age of civic deserts.

Posted in civic theory, Trump, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Comparative Effectiveness Research for democracy?

In health, we’ve seen an influential and valuable shift to Comparative Effectiveness Research (CER): measuring which of the available drugs or other interventions works best for specific purposes, in specific circumstances. Why not do the same for democracy? Why not test which approaches to strengthening democracy work best?

My colleagues and I played a leading role in developing the “Six Promising Practices” for civic education. These are really pedagogies, such as discussing current, controversial issues in classrooms or encouraging youth-led voluntary groups in a schools. Since then, we have been recommending even more pedagogies, such as Action Civics, news media literacy, and school climate reform. I am often asked which of these practices or combinations of practices works best for various populations, in various contexts, for various outcomes. This question has not really been studied. There is no CER for civics.

Likewise, in 2005, John Gastil and I published The Deliberative Democracy Handbook. Each chapter describes a different model for deliberative forums or processes in communities. The processes vary in whether participants are randomly selected or not, whether they meet face-to-face or online, whether the discussions are small or large, etc. Again, I am asked which deliberative model works best for various populations, in various contexts, for various outcomes. There is some relevant research, but no large research enterprise devoted to finding out which deliberative formats work best.

Some other fields of democratic practice have benefitted from comparative research. In the 2000’s, The Pew Charitable Trusts funded a large body of randomized experiments to explore which methods of campaign outreach were most cost-effective for turning out young people to vote. Don Green (now at Columbia) was an intellectual force behind this work: one motivation for him was to make political science a more experimental discipline. CIRCLE was involved; we organized some of the studies and published this guide to disseminate the findings. Our goal was to increase the impact of youth on politics.

Our National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NLSVE) is a database of voting records for 9,784,931 students at 1,023 colleges and universities. With an “n” that large, it’s possible to model the outcome (voter turnout) as a function of a set of inputs and investigate which ones work best. That is a technique for estimating the results that would arise from a whole body of experiments. We also provide each participating campus with a customized report about its own students that can provide the data for the institution to conduct its own experiments.

So why do some fields of democratic practice prompt research into what works, and others don’t?

A major issue is practical. The experiments on voter turnout and our NSLVE college study have the advantage that the government already tallies the votes. Given a hard outcome that is already measured at the scale of millions, it’s possible to vary inputs and learn a great deal about what works.

To be sure, people and community contexts are heterogeneous, and voter outreach can vary in many respects at once (mode, messenger, message, purpose). Thus a large body of experiments was necessary to produce insights about turnout methods. However, we learned that grassroots mobilization is cost-effective, that the message usually matters less than the mode, and that interactive contacts are more efficient than one-way outreach. We believe that these findings influenced campaigns, including the Obama ’08 primary campaign, to invest more in youth outreach.

Similarly, colleges vary in their populations, settings, resources, missions, and structures, but NSLVE is yielding general lessons about what tends to work to engage students in politics.

Other kinds of outcomes may be harder to measure and yet can still be measured at scale. For example, whether kids know geometry is hard to measure–it can’t be captured by a single test question–but society invests in designing reliable geometry tests that yield an aggregate score for each child. So one could conduct Comparative Effectiveness Research on math education. The fact that mastering geometry is a subtler and more complex outcome than voting does not preclude this approach.

But it does take a social investment to collect lots of geometry test data. For years, I have served on the committee that designs the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in civics. NAEP scores are valuable measures of certain kinds of civic knowledge–and teaching civics is a democratic practice. But the NAEP civics assessment doesn’t receive enough funding from the federal government to have samples that are reliable at the state or local level, nor is it conducted annually. This is a case where the tool exists, but the investment would have to be much larger to permit really satisfactory CER. It is not self-evident that the best way to spend limited resources would be to collect sufficient data for this purpose.

Other kinds of outcomes–such as the quality of discourse in a community–may be even more expensive and difficult to measure at scale. You can conduct concrete experiments in which you randomly vary the inputs and then directly measure the outcomes by surveying the participants. But you can only vary one (or a few) factors at a time in a controlled experiment. That means that a large and expensive body of research is required to yield general findings about what works, in which contexts, for whom.

The good news is that studying which discrete, controllable factors affect outcomes is only one way to use research to improve practice. It is useful approach, but it is hardly sufficient, and sometimes it is not realistic. After all, outcomes are also deeply affected by:

  • The motivations, commitment, and incentives of the organizers and the participants;
  • How surrounding institutions and communities treat the intervention;
  • Human capital (who is involved and how well they are prepared);
  • Social capital (how the various participants relate to each other); and
  • Cultural norms, meanings, and expectations.

These factors are not as amenable to randomized studies or other forms of CER.  But they can be addressed. We can work to motivate, prepare, and connect people, to build support from outside, and to adjust norms. Research can help. It just isn’t research that resembles CER.

Democratic practices are not like pills that can be proven to work better than alternatives, mass produced, and then prescribed under specified conditions. Even in medicine, motivations and contexts matter, but those factors are even more important for human interactions. It’s worth trying to vary aspects of an intervention to see how such differences affect the results. I’m grateful to have been involved in ambitious projects of that nature. But whether to invest in CER is a judgment call that depends on practical issues like the availability of free data. Research on specific interventions is never sufficient, and sometimes it isn’t the best use of resources.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment