adult civic education in the Workforce Redevelopment Act

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 consolidated federal adult education programs. Congress just passed a re-authorization that has gone to the president for his signature. Section 201 deals with Adult Education and Family Literacy. The reauthorized section 201 “create[s] a partnership among the Federal Government, States, and localities to provide, on a voluntary basis, adult education and literacy activities.” The list of purposes for these activities begins with employment and job skills, as one would expect for a Department of Labor program. But the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools alerted me to section 4(b), which mentions another outcome: “acquiring an understanding of the American system of Government, individual freedom, and the responsibilities of citizenship.” Section 243 then specifically mentions “integrated English literacy and civics education.” Funds for this purpose are to be allocated–in part–on the basis of the number of newly naturalized citizens per state. Money can flow to nonprofits, state agencies, universities, libraries, etc.

Of course, everything depends on how these provisions are implemented. Civics education for new immigrants could be mere jingoistic propaganda, or it could be well-intentioned and yet poorly handled. However, as I argued in a column last year, we can and should educate new immigrants for effective and responsible civic participation. That will be good for them as individuals, good for their communities, and good for democracy. I am enthusiastic about these provisions in the Workforce Investment Act. It is now up to us to make sure they are well implemented.

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Frontiers of Democracy 2014

I’m with more than 140 scholars, practitioners, and activists from as far away as India, Ukraine, and Israel at Frontiers of Democracy 2014. We are streaming some of the conference live, but another good way to check in on the conversation is to follow the Twitter hashtag #demfront. So far, I’ve hear lots of tough, passionate, and thoughtful conversation about whether the small-scale democratic practices that we create–practices marked by deliberative and relational values–have anything to do with the large-scale structures that dominate our lives. One way that they might relate is by actually shoring up existing institutions, at the expense of justice. But can we critically assess powerful structures in a way that gives us agency? If this conference became a critical seminar on global crony capitalism, would we do anything differently after we left?

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makers and takers, from Galbraith to Romney

Mitt Romney hurt himself in the 2012 campaign by saying that only 47% of the American people were “makers,” while an outright majority were “takers.” This thesis came from Arthur Brooks and Nicholas Eberstadt. They have argued that people who receive more than they pay into the welfare state will vote to expand it. They have also argued that the proportion of net beneficiaries has risen to become, for the first time, a majority. They see that shift in the political balance as fatal to capitalism. In the age of Ronald Reagan, conservative economic proposals often had a populist and majoritarian ring, but now some leading laissez-faire thinkers are hostile to majoritarian democracy on the grounds that the mass public has lost its commitment to free enterprise.

I don’t know if it has been noted that the current right-wing argument is a mirror-image of the left-wing diagnosis popularized in the late 1950s by John Kenneth Galbraith. The concern then was that a majority had become bourgeois, leaving an outvoted minority in real deprivation. Just as today’s American Enterprise Institute economists dread that voters will kill capitalism, so Galbraith and his social democratic colleagues feared the death of the welfare state at the hands of an affluent majority.

In the Affluent Society, 1958 (40th anniversary edition, p. 235), Galbraith argued that cumulative postwar economic growth had “reduce[d] poverty from the problem of a majority to that of a minority. It ceased to be a general case and became a special case. It is this which put the problem of poverty into its peculiar modern form.”

He explained (pp. 238-9):

With the transition of the very poor from a majority to a comparative minority position, there has been a change in their political position. Any tendency of a politician to identify himself with those of the lowest estate usually brought the reproaches of the well-to-do. Political pandering and demagoguery were naturally suspected. But, for the man so reproached, there was the compensating advantage of alignment with a large majority. Now any politician who speaks for the very poor is speaking for a small and generally inarticulate minority. …

In consequence, a notable feature of efforts to help the very poor is their absence of any great political appeal. Politicians have found it possible to be indifferent where they could not be derisory. And very few have been under a strong compulsion to support these efforts.

The concern for inequality and deprivation had vitality only so long as the many suffered while a few had much. It did not survive as a decisive issue in a time when the many had much even though others had much more. It is our misfortune that when inequality declined, the slate was not left clean. A residual and in some ways rather more hopeless problem remained.

I think Galbraith was right at the time. His argument implied that Reaganite/Thatcherite conservatism would be popular–and its time came. But that doesn’t mean that Romney et al. are completely wrong in their political diagnosis today. Nearly forty years of declining living standards for the median voter and rising economic inequality could shift the balance back in favor of redistribution.

See also “Ulrich Beck v Mitt Romney: makers and takers in the Risk Society” and
why is oligarchy everywhere? (part 2).”

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needed: the case method for civics

David Garvin has written, “All professional schools face the same difficult challenge: how to prepare students for the world of practice. Time in the classroom must somehow translate directly into real-world activity: how to diagnose, decide, and act. A surprisingly wide range of professional schools … have concluded that the best way to teach these skills is by the case method.”

I propose that we need cases for citizens. Of course, there are many case studies available. Participedia provides hundreds of examples of citizens’ engagement with government. Many books (including my own) tell stories of successful or failed civic efforts.

But the case method is a little different. A “case” in this context means a deliberately incomplete story. It ends at a point of decision for a character or small group. The decision is contrived or chosen to be difficult in the specific sense that it is unresolvable by any formula or algorithm. Such difficulty may arise because the situation involves conflicting and incommensurable values or because the facts and likely outcomes are uncertain–or both. These two sources of indeterminacy are extremely common. Yet we must act. Garvin writes:

“The case system, ” business school alumnus Powell Niland, now of Washington University, has observed, “puts the student in the habit of making decisions.” Day after day, classes revolve around protagonists who face critical choices. Delay is seldom an option. Both faculty and students cite the “bias for action” that results—what Fouraker professor of business administration Thomas Piper calls “courage to act under uncertainty.”

In the Summer Institute of Civic Studies last week, we discussed a case study from Harvard’s Pluralism Project. It involves an adult leader (who, coincidentally, I happen to know) who helped youth organize an interfaith event in a synagogue and who must decide, at very short notice, what to do about a sign that says, “We support Israel.” This is a case about religious pluralism, but we could also consider it a case of civic action. We need more cases like it.

By the way, if you follow the argument of Bent Flyvberg (whom we also read in the Institute), then you will conclude that all knowledge of the social world is particularistic and case-specific. The only valid knowledge comes from cases. I think that is too strong. General knowledge is also helpful. If there are no laws or algorithms that tell us what we should do, there are at least useful rules-of-thumb and principles, both explanatory and normative. Yet cases play an essential role, especially if the purpose is to educate citizens to act.

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explaining Dewey’s pragmatism

In the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, we read chapter 5 of John Dewey’s The Public and its Problems, which exemplifies pragmatism as a method or as a theory of knowledge and value. This year, we are also reading a lecture by Hilary Putnam entitled “The Three Enlightenments” (from “Ethics without Ontology”), which I find helpful for elucidating Dewey’s method.

Putnam distinguishes three stages of enlightenment, of which the last is the “pragmatic” stage inaugurated by Dewey. We can consider Putnam’s three stages using an example–voting–that he does not use himself.

1. The Greek stage of enlightenment is exemplified by Socrates’ going around Athens, asking “why?” Socrates won’t do or endorse anything until his “why?” question is answered. As Putnam says, Socrates seeks “reflective transcendence” as he tries to throw off both “conventional opinion” and “revelation” and make his own reason the only judge.

If Socrates encountered our practice of regularly voting for our leaders (which, of course, originated in his culture), he would say, “Why do you do that?” We could not reply: “Because it’s in the Constitution.” Or “Because it is our custom.” We would have to give a reason that could overcome his skepticism.

2. The Age of Enlightenment stage repeats this skepticism but adds two big ideas capable of offering answers: the social contract and natural science. Actually, each offers a potential justification of voting. If society is and ought to be a social contract, then giving everyone a vote to select their leaders is a means of renewing the contract. Or one could say that voting is a right that people would demand before they entered the contract in the first place. Further, we can study whether voting leads to good outcomes, such as social welfare. That kind of investigation employs the tools of natural science to study a social phenomenon.

3. The third stage is Deweyan and pragmatic. It is a “criticism of criticisms.” It rejects enlightenment reason. For instance, the concept of a social contract is an invention. Even if we accept it, it does not answer all the “Why?” questions. Why should there be a social contract? Why should persons be equal? Further, no empirical study of voting can vindicate it by demonstrating its positive outcomes. Why, after all, should we value those outcomes? Why did we decide to measure them as we do?

In contrast, Dewey would say that he was formed by a society in which voting is a norm. He does not have a vantage point completely independent of that society. That is the basic reason that he and the rest of us vote. It is not appropriate to ask the “Why?” question as if one could stand apart from this society. That kind of skepticism leads nowhere. As Dewey puts it (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.”

However, we do not have to continue doing what we have done. It is appropriate to ask whether we should change our political system. The evidence we need to make that decision is much more than data about causes and effects.

As Putnam says, Dewey is “simultaneously fallibilist and anti-skeptical.” To be fallibilist is to presume that what you believe today may be wrong. To be anti-skeptical is to believe that you ought to go forward even if you cannot answer every “Why?” question adequately. Putnam adds that “traditional empiricism is seen by pragmatists as oscillating between being too skeptical, in one moment, and insufficiently fallibilist in another of its moments.” For instance (a pragmatist might argue), empirical political science is too skeptical when it treats value-judgments about matters like democracy as mere matters of subjective opinion; but it is insufficiently fallibilist when it treats data about things like voting as reliable bases for deciding what to do. And political philosophy is insufficiently fallibilist when it strives for permanent answers to questions like, “Should we vote?” The answer will be different a century from now.

Putnam writes:

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.

So what about voting (as an example of a social practice that we should assess)? It is what we have inherited, so we must start with it. It has arisen as a tool for making our social life more intelligent–or it is useful for that purpose, regardless of its original reasons. But it is merely a tool, and there may be better ones.

[We] must protest against the assumption that the [democratic] idea itself has produced the the governmental practices which obtain in democratic states: General suffrage, elected representatives, majority rule, and so on. … The forms to which we are accustomed in democratic governments represent the cumulative effect of a multitude of events, unpremeditated as far as political effects were concerned and having unpredictable consequences. …

The strongest point to be made in behalf of even such rudimentary political forms as democracy has already attained, popular voting, majority rule and so on, is that to some extent they involve a consultation and discussion which uncover social needs and troubles.

See also “Dewey and the current toward democracy.”

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watching a community form

The 2014 Summer Institute of Civic Studies consists of 24 people who differ by discipline and profession, age, gender, race/ethnicity, ideology/religion, and nationality. (India, Iran, Ukraine, German-speaking Northern Italy, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Francophone Canada, Mexico, and the US are represented.)

Before the Institute began, I asked each member to tell me as many as five general principles that she or he strives to live by; up to five truths about life that she sees as relevant to her moral decisions; and up to three methods that she uses to make moral decisions. I then gave them back their own lists of ideas and asked them to link any pairs that they saw as strongly connected. That allowed me to map each person’s moral worldview as a network of ideas.

The resulting maps differed not only in their content, but also in their form. Here is a network that is small (just six nodes) and largely centralized around a single idea: “Love the world.” This individual felt that Loving the World implied three other very general ideas. He added two more ideas that he chose not to connect to anything. That produced a disconnected network with a highly centralized core:


In contrast, this person produced a much larger and denser network in which many nodes are connected but there is no clear core:


I believe that moral reasoning is intrinsically social–we believe what we do because of our interactions with other people, and we have better beliefs if our interactions go well. I think we each start with the network of ideas that our context gives us, and our duty is to improve it through interaction. I posit that different network forms are better or worse for interaction.

Because some members of the Institute provided identical (or substantially identical) responses to the questions I had asked before we met, I could graph all of their ideas and connections as one network. Once we convened at Tufts, I gave them opportunities to discuss their own network maps with their colleagues. I did not encourage them to link their ideas together, but some chose to do so, and others simply borrowed ideas from their fellow participants. I edited the database when people changed their responses. As a result, the class map became gradually denser. Here is an illegibly small image of all 272 ideas and how they relate in the minds of our participants on Day 6 of the Institute. (Responses are color-coded by individual.)


I would posit that we have formed an intellectual community to the degree that the individual networks have linked up. This community is not defined by shared premises. There is no one idea that everyone shares–in fact, not even close–and several ideas on the map are mutually contradictory. (To name an evident example, the map includes both “God is loving and kind” and “God is dead–everything is permitted.”) The community is rather defined by its density and connectedness. These are matters of degree. Ten nodes are completely disconnected, and the network as a whole is only 1.5% as connected as it would be if every node were directly linked to every other one. But we have more of a community than we had on Day 1, as any participant would attest.

By the way, this means that John Rawls was wrong. Rawls saw a “plurality of reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines” as a “fact” about the world, or at least about the modern world. He explained: “a reasonable doctrine is an exercise of theoretical reason: it covers the major religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of human life in a more or less consistent and coherent manner. It organizes and characterizes recognized values to that they are compatible with each other and express an intelligible view of the world” (Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. xvii, 59).

Do we see a comprehensive doctrine here? Or two doctrines, or three? I know that the group includes an observant Mexican Catholic, a couple of explicit atheists, a highly Kantian liberal, and some Deweyan communitarian pragmatists. I can identify their favored ideas on the map. But I do not see separate islands of thought. A few people have organized their networks, made their ideas mutually compatible, and could summarize them by identifying one or more core premises from which they think the rest follow. Most people could not do that. To “express [their] intelligible view[s] of the world,” they would have to show their whole maps, which now connect to other people’s maps.

Diversity is a fact. A diversity of “comprehensive doctrines” is not.

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what qualifies a theorist to be part of civic studies?

We are almost halfway through the 2014 Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts University. A group of 24 professors, graduate students, and civic leaders from many countries (only half are from the US) are deep into discussing several thousand pages of theoretical readings. We present the readings as an emerging–and disputable–canon for a field we call “civic studies.”

What qualifies an author to be included?

I have argued here that the only serious question for human beings as members of communities is: “What should we do?” Importantly, the question is not “What should be done?” which is much more commonly addressed in modern scholarship. Thus we must reform scholarship to make it address the citizen’s essential question.

A contributor to the nascent discipline of civic studies helps us to decide what we should do. A theorist of civic studies is someone who doesn’t just address that question in a particular context (e.g., “What should we parents of X school do to improve it?”). Instead, she or he offers guidance about broad categories of situations–perhaps about all situations that confront human beings. That is the screen through which I put potential contributors to the canon of civic studies.

So far this week, we have considered Jurgen Habermas, Elinor Ostrom, Robert Putnam, Harry Boyte, Albert Dzur, and Bent Flyvbjerg. Roberto Mangabeira Unger is up next.

As an example, Habermas addresses the question, “What should we do?” roughly as follows. It is a moral question, about what is right or just to do. It is not the question: “What do we want?” nor “What does our perspective, bias, or interest cause us to want?” We may have to choose against our desires or interests. The claim that something is right is like the claim that something is true. In both cases, we put the proposition before other human beings and seek their free agreement. If, for example, I assert that it would be right or just for me to pay lower taxes, then–if the conversation is free and public–I will have to give reasons persuasive to my fellow citizens. It won’t matter what my motives are. My arguments will have to be valid from others’ perspectives.

(By the way, if I make a claim about my motives–e.g., “I really only want to pay lower taxes because I want to help others,” that is a separate proposition that can also be tested by other human beings. They can look for consistency and other evidence of sincerity. Claims of justice, truth, beauty, and sincerity require different justifications but are alike in that they are all requests for free assent and they all promote reasonable inquiry.)

Thus what we should do is (a) whatever we decide to do in a very good conversation. But that implies (b) that we must participate in such conversations. And since they do not occur automatically, we must (c) work to make them happen, which is not just a matter of organizing and facilitating discussions but also of changing the incentives and rules that apply in public life so that democratic discussions flourish more. Finally, discussion by itself is insufficient to accomplish justice, so we must (d) press the economic and political systems to respond to reasonable public opinion.

This leaves much to be worked out–and is not ultimately satisfactory to me–but it qualifies Habermas as a civic theorist.

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Everything is …

I quickly Googled the phrases “Everything is X,” where X was each of the words below. The link will take you to the top result for each sentence.

These are not foolish or obscurantist claims. And they are not mutually contradictory, because it could be the case that everything is, for instance, both politics and education. (That would imply something interesting about the two concepts.) Some people place themselves within intellectual traditions or communities by making just this kind of claim. It may be important to a political theorist, for example, that everything is politics. But I must admit that I find the multiplication of such discourses increasingly amusing. We are getting to the point where Everything is everything.

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roots of crime

Since May, I have been able to spend time in two of the world’s biggest metropolises, Istanbul and Mexico City. They are similar in several ways beside their vastness. Each is the leading city of a substantial and proudly independent nation with a distinctive culture. In both, neighborhoods of poor, traditionally religious migrants from the countryside abut cosmopolitan secular districts.

One significant difference is the crime rate. Three people per 100,00 are murdered annually in Istanbul, versus 13.2 in Mexico City. This is a case where a quantitative difference becomes qualitative. In Turkey, crime is so low that I have seen—admittedly, in a smaller city than Istanbul—a whole shop’s worth of consumer goods left outdoors and unguarded overnight. In Mexico City, conversation quickly turns to avoiding violence. Is it safe to hail a cab? (Generally, the answer right now is: No.) Can you drive safely along a certain road?

According to Philip Mansel (in Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire), Istanbul was notably safe in the 1500s, when it was already one of the biggest—or perhaps the single most populous—city in the world. “Merchants could leave stalls unattended; pastry-sellers trusted members of the public to pay for the wares they left on a small round tray.” Mansel quotes Lord Charlemont’s report from the 1700s: “Housebreaking and street robbery, crimes so unfortunately common in our great towns as to render dwelling in them unpleasant and unsafe, never happen in the Turkish metropolis, and a man may walk its streets at all hours of the night with his pocket full of money, without the smallest fear of danger or molestation.”

Charlemont had an explanation: “the salutary rigour of frequent acts of execution.” It is hard to believe that executions were more frequent in Constantinople than in London or Paris, where a child who stole a roll would be hanged. And even if the Ottomans really used capital punishment more than the English or the French, I doubt the executions of those days can explain the safe streets now.

The “broken windows” hypothesis won’t explain the difference, because Mexico City and Istanbul are both rather chaotic and rife with violations such as illegal construction. Poverty is not a likely explanation, because Mexico City’s per capita GDP is twice as high as Istanbul’s, and its inequality index is not much worse. The proportion of residents under age 20 is virtually identical in both cities. Any explanation of the difference may have to be regional, because Mexico City shares similar crime rates with most other large cities in its region. (With Istanbul, it’s a little harder to say what the region is, and I cannot find crime statistics for possibly similar cities, such as Tehran.)

I’m sure there’s a large literature on this topic, but no persuasive explanation is well-known enough that it has reached me.

I suppose one possibility is that there is no root cause. Crime is part of a cycle: each act of violence begets more violence, puts strains on the state, and makes law-abiding behavior less rational for other people. Once you get into a high-crime pattern, it is hard to get out. But if you can avoid or stop the circle, you may be better off even five hundred years later.

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public deliberation: the state of the field

The current issue of the Journal of Public Deliberation (which offers open access) “assess[es] the state of our field, celebrates our successes, and calls for future innovative work. The authors are scholars and practitioners who represent the diversity of our field and provide a wide range of perspectives on deliberation, dialogue, participation, and civic life. The ideas from this issue will be discussed at the upcoming Frontiers of Democracy conference [at Tufts], after which the editors will write an ‘afterword’ reflecting on lessons learned.”

My own contribution is a short piece entitled “Beyond Deliberation: A Strategy for Civic Renewal.” My abstract says:

To expand opportunities for discussion and reflection about public issues, we should look beyond the organizations that intentionally convene deliberations and also enlist organizations that preserve common resources, volunteer service groups, civics classes, grassroots public media efforts, and partisan, ideological, and faith-based movements that have some interest in discussion. Many of these groups are not politically neutral; more are adversarial. But they have a common interest in confronting the forces and decisions that have sidelined active citizens in countries like the US. They are all threatened by the rising signs of oligarchy in the United States. Collectively, they have considerable resources with which to fight back. It is time for us to begin to stir and organize–not for deliberation, but for democracy.

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