The Educating for Democracy Act of 2020

Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) have introduced the Educating for Democracy Act of 2020. It would significantly increase federal investment in civic and history education. It is the Senate companion to the U.S. House version of the Educating for Democracy Act that was introduced on September 17th by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK). 

Note those D’s and R’s–this is bipartisan legislation with support from influential Members on both sides of the aisle.

The Act would authorize $1 billion in federal investment in civic and history education, including research, innovation and teacher professional development. Funds would go to state and local education agencies to strengthen and improve civic and history education; to non-profit entities to develop or expand access to curricula, instructional models, and other programs; and to colleges and universities to educate future elementary and secondary school teachers. The bill would also require the National Assessments of Educational Progress (NAEPs) in civic and history education to be conducted every two years at grades 4, 8 and 12, with state level results made publicly available so that states can be tracked and assessed.

The full bill summary is available here

Senators Coons and Cornyn and Representatives DeLauro and Cole will reintroduce this legislation in the new congress in January, but it is important to persuade U.S. Senators to co-sponsor the bill now. Please be in touch with your own Senators.

we are just more pretentious than the other beasts

The dog bounds into the house. If he were human, he’d be saying, “Mom! Mom! Guess what? We saw this squirrel? It walked right onto the sidewalk and then ran away! You should have seen it!”

I don’t believe that he has this thought or that his objective is to transfer information about the squirrel to a human. But his behavior–other than the words–is exactly like that of a 7-year-old who just had an exciting experience outside.

It makes me think that the behavior is generic: both species like to communicate excitement when seeing a loved one. You can imagine that this desire is adaptive for social animals. Humans just happen to use words for the purpose.

A bunch of geese gather in a rough circle. One is backed up and hissing. Most of them are honking and splashing their wings aggressively, perhaps forming two opposing groups. If they were humans, they would be deeply invested in the precise content of their words. “You always say …” “Yeah, well, you promised …” “I know what you’ve been saying behind my back …”

Again, the behavior is exactly the same as ours, but we care about the propositional content of our words, and the geese don’t need that to establish boundaries.

These are just some untutored speculations at the border of ethology and linguistics–which is, of course, a topic for real science. For me, the takeaway is existential. Let’s recognize that all the detailed things we think and say are not all that important; we’re just exhibiting behaviors.

who needs civic education?

The Monmouth University Poll released on Nov. 19 asked people (among other questions), whether Trump has done more than other presidents to undermine or to uphold the Constitution, whether respondents fear what their political opponents would do to the country, and whether Donald Trump has “drained the swamp” or made corruption worse. Here are the responses by age group.

Young people are the least likely to think that Trump upheld the Constitution, least afraid of their opponents governing, and most likely to believe that Trump worsened corruption.

I suppose reasonable people might debate these questions. A very conservative person might believe that Trump’s judicial appointments are saving the Constitution. A thoughtful progressive might fear what Trumpian Republicans would do to the country.

But generally, we would want people to answer these questions in the negative. Citizens should know that Trump disparages the Constitution, that it’s important to cede power when opponents win elections, and that the forms of corruption reported during the Trump administration are deeply problematic.

Of course, everyone needs civic education. The young need it most because they are the future and because they must be equipped to become more effective as citizens. But if you want to know who demonstrates the greatest deficits in basic civic dispositions, it is not the young.

Putnam and Garrett, The Upswing

This is a video of Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett discussing their new book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again in a Tisch College Distinguished Speaker event last night. Our dean, Alan Solomont, introduced everyone and then I interviewed and moderated Putnam and Garrett.

I really do recommend the book and intend to write about it in more detail. It’s methodologically and conceptually interesting. More importantly, it’s a hopeful and patriotic book that comes at an urgent moment.

During our conversation, I proposed a summary of the book’s position that the authors seemed willing to accept. They advocate an appropriate balance between individualism and communitarianism. They believe that a society can be too communitarian, and perhaps that was even true of the US ca. 1960. But now we are far too individualistic. The balance can be restored, as it was in the half-century after 1900. To accomplish that change requires a decentralized and pluralistic effort that encompasses social innovation and social entrepreneurship, organizing and advocacy, cultural work, leadership, and policy changes at all levels of government. This effort should be pragmatic, not ideological, although it can attract people with a mix of ideological views and agendas who overlap on the idea that America should be more of a “we” and less of an “I” society.

An excellent example was the “high school revolution,” a decentralized movement that raised the proportion of Americans who completed high school from less than 10% to more than 70% in a few decades, fueling economic growth and equity. No single law accomplished this revolution; no individual is especially associated with it. It was a “viral” movement that, in turn, contributed to a much broader movement to strengthen American community. I’m guessing that various agendas converged to make this happen, from local boosterism and immigrant assimilationism to ambitious reform agendas, including socialism.

The implication is that we can do the same again, and it might even turn out that leaders as disparate as Barack Obama, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Patrisse Cullors, and Mike Lee–plus countless founders of nonprofits and community organizers–will turn out to be early participants in a new upswing. We certainly need it.

some notes on identity from a civic perspective

In a course on Civic Studies, we recently began a unit on identity. The first readings were the biblical Book of Nehemiah; Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House; and ”Steve Biko, “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity.” Here are some notes.

1. The overall civic question is: “What should we do?”  An identity is an answer to the question: “Who am I?” (Or, “Who is he/she/they?”) For instance, Lorde self-identified as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”

How are these two questions related?

  1. You must consider who you are in order to figure out what “we” you are part of.
  2. Sometimes the “we” is defined badly, and that is the civic problem. People are excluded unjustly or included against their will.
  3. Even when the “we” is right, it may encompass differences of identity that create or reinforce injustices.

2. When discussing Elinor Ostrom and others in the first segment of our course, we were primarily focused on interests. The main solutions included various forms of negotiation and management. When discussing Jürgen Habermas and others in that segment of the course, we were primarily focused on opinions. The main solutions involved various forms of dialogue, deliberation, and communication. Now we turn to identities.

3. Interests, opinions, and identities are interconnected but are not the same. 

  1. Interest: “I want/need …”
  2. Opinion: “We should …”
  3. Identity: “Speaking as a …”

When interests conflict, they can be negotiated, and it is sometimes possible to design and maintain systems to manage interests fairly. When opinions conflict, they can be discussed, and well-structured conversations may (sometimes) convince individuals to converge on the same opinions. When identities clash, it is not clear that individuals should negotiate, compromise, or give reasons for their differences. But it can be controversial whether a given characteristic, such as adhering to a religion, constitutes an interest, an opinion, an identity, or more than one of these. Disagreements about such questions can lead to disputes about whether individuals should be open to negotiation and responsive to arguments, or not.

4. It can be problematic to talk about identity in general terms. Some identities are vastly more significant to social justice than others. For instance, racism is the USA is not just an example of an identity-difference. You can imagine two random groups that don’t happen to like each other and who demonstrate bias or division. That is a challenge, but it is not a good description of the differences that matter to our assigned authors. For Biko: conquest, colonialism, apartheid. For Lorde: 400 years of slavery, terror, and subjugation.

5. Each form of identity has a unique history. It may also have a particular logic. For instance, it’s possible to imagine a society with significant racial diversity that is also equitable. It is not possible to imagine a society with an upper class and a lower class that are equal.

6. Nevertheless, we can also gain some insights into important differences among identities by developing general theories of identity.

7. Two general theories are worth contrasting:

  1. When two groups of people act and think very differently and have little contact, a powerful identity distinction emerges that can be hard to bridge.
  2. When people are very similar, intimately connected, and liable to mix or exchange places, there is a powerful incentive to erect and insist on identity distinctions.

Examples of (a): Europeans encountering indigenous peoples, and vice-versa. Examples of (b): Modern antisemitism in Europe or the invention of race in 17th century Virginia. My understanding of the 17th-century story is that slavery came first; racism followed. The first rationale for enslaving people from Africa was religious: Christians could enslave “heathens.” But once the enslaved people converted, a different rationale was necessary. For a few decades, colonists tried the idea of “hereditary heathenism” (Goetz 2012), but that was incompatible with core Christian doctrine. So they invented, or re-invented, race. Since then, whites and African Americans have been in constant and intense interaction and have exhibited profound similarities. White privilege is a “common pool resource” in the specific sense that it benefits all white people, whether they want it or not, yet any of us can undermine it by promotion equity. All common pool resources are fragile, and it has taken concerted, sustained effort to maintain white supremacy in the face of actual similarities and actual interactions.

8. A synthesis? Identity distinctions are made by people in response to incentives created by institutions (such as states and markets), power differentials, network ties, and path-dependence, among other factors (Wimmer 2008).

9. Identities are made, but it does not follow that they are easily unmade. They become powerful realities. E.g., modern Americans racially classify a photo of a face in less than one tenth of a second and form affective reactions to that classification (Kubota & Ito, 2007).

10. Power influences how identities are created, but it does not follow that identity-creation is necessarily bad. It can be creative and empowering.

Lorde: “Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.” 

11. Questions from the readings:

  1. Do identity distinctions and boundaries enable collective action? If so, can we solve collective action problems without perpetuating unjust exclusions?

The Nehemiah story is about building a common pool resource and excluding outsiders. (A city wall is a common pool resource. The Jerusamelites have strong social capital. They apply many of Ostrom’s design principles, such as taking turns and enforcing the rules on the leaders) Must self-governance and exclusion go together?

  1. When should we accentuate “many differences,” and when should we look for “solidarity”?

Lorde: “It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians.” Biko uses “the black man” as a category that explicitly encompasses Zulus, Xhosas, Vendas, and South Africans of Indian origin, and implicitly includes black women. He discusses a “strong solidarity” that allows Blacks to “respond as a cohesive group.”

  1. Who has what responsibility for learning and teaching about what?

“Let us talk more about ourselves and our struggles and less about whites” (Biko). Asking oppressed peoples to educate their oppressors “is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.” For instance, to say that women of color must educate white women “is a diversion and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought” (Lorde)

  1. How radical a change is needed?

Lorde: tolerance is “the grossest reformism.” We need to “seek new ways of being in the world.”