Author Archives: Peter

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

assigning students to write cases

I think of a “teaching case” as a true story that culminates in a difficult decision that has confronted an individual or group. The decision is typically difficult because of conflicting values, incomplete information, and unpredictable outcomes. A teaching case is useful as a prompt for discussion and to teach the disposition of acting wisely under uncertainty, or phronesis. I especially like cases in which groups must decide collectively, because those stories allow attention to the dynamics of group decision-making. Here is a selection of such “civic” cases:

This semester, I have been co-teaching a course with Jennifer Howe Peace, who has extensive experience not only leading discussions based on teaching cases but also assigning students to write such cases. We did just that this fall. Each of our students selected a real-world situation, conducted research, wrote a 2-3 page case about it, and led a discussion.

I recommend this pedagogy for teaching the following essential civic skills:

  1. Identifying decisions worthy of discussion. Actual groups often overlook or evade decisions that they should discuss and spend time on matters that don’t require deliberation. (See “a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups.”) Writing a case means choosing a topic that should be discussed.
  2. Identifying the tradeoffs and other difficulties, such as incomplete information and unpredictability.
  3. Identifying who is in a position to make which choices. It is a costly distraction to ask what someone should do if they can’t do it. A good written case centers on one or more protagonists who are able to choose.
  4. Deciding when to start and end the story. This side of the Big Bang, every story has emerged from many previous ones. The web of human interaction has no beginning. The choice of when to start a written story frames it for readers; it is an act of judgment. (For instance, does the story of the USA begin in 1492, 1619, 1776, 1789 …?) Writing a case teaches the skill and ethics of picking beginnings and endings well.
  5. Eliciting interest and attention. A well-written case makes its readers interested. Getting people’s attention is a basic civic skill.

See also: A Festival of Cases, June 24; three new cases for learning how to organize and make collective change; practical lessons from classic cases of civil disobedience; Levinson and Fay, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics; Bent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesis;

values of a university

Leszek Kolakowski wrote “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist” in 1978. His short essay is a model of pluralism, in the sense that he intentionally combines values that are necessarily in tension.

Institutions can also be pluralist in that sense. Indeed, the best universities may be conservative liberal socialistic republican democratic anarchistic utilitarian communities. Yet they can also fall short on each or all of these criteria. Here is a framework for assessment:

Values espoused by a universityCharacteristic failures
Conservative: Preserving wisdom and excellence from the past and conveying it to young people.Arbitrary adherence to the past–or faddish novelty.
Liberal: Developing people’s capacity to be free individuals by allowing them to speak and think on their own.Group-think; social pressure to conform. Or irresponsible individualism.
Republican: Preventing individuals from dominating others by using arbitrary power.Domination, especially by senior faculty and administrators.
Democratic: Making decisions collectively and teaching that skill.Bureaucracy and hierarchy–or incoherent decisions by individuals.
Utilitarian: Producing knowledge and applications that increase human (or animal) welfare.Outcomes distorted by money or fame–or useless work.
Socialistic: Adjusting costs by income, pooling resources and distributing them equitably, and belonging–as a corporate body–to the state (in the case of public institutions).Social stratification; competition for admission and employment; specifically bourgeois values.
Communitarian: Serving as a supportive, affective groupLeaving some students and employees out of the community–or becoming an exclusive community that sees itself as superior to outsiders.
Anarchistic: The knowledge created by free people within the university is unowned and belongs to a global commons.Corporate enclosure and/or close affiliation with governments.

The Listeners

Low dropped ceilings, buzzing fluorescent tubes,
Dim, orangish light with sporadic
Flashes, damp patches, dusty tables.

On the radio, words mixed with static.
Martinez thinks she might hear a number
That matches a room on the list she’d stuck

To the beige paint on the wall that's nearer
Her desk than where she stacks food in boxes.
She’d better check it out. She picks neither

The hall with endless cartons piled in blocks
Nor the one lined on both sides with locked doors,
But the passage with booths and swivel-chair backs

Receding down one side, and desks and drawers
Dimly visible through the smudged windows 
Of offices on the other. Plump drips

Soak the carpet, and lint collects in wads.
At an intersection, a woman kneels
By a vacuum-cleaner with wet wipes.

Both know neither knows words the other knows.
They stare silently until the radio
Nudges Martinez on with a burst of noise.

Hand on her nightstick, eyes on the long row
Of interior panes and hollow-core doors.
A long walk now, not one you’d want to redo.

You can go in this direction for days,
But are there vending machines stocked with food?
Lights flicker and the radio’s volume drops.

In the sudden quiet, she is afraid.
Something is off. She is watched. Every hair
On her arms rises, taut. What she'd feared ...

She is running, vision jerky, with her
Hands out as if to ward something away.
At the corner, the vacuum-cleaner's there,

But no woman. Martinez thinks she knows why.
She will call it in. "Incident," she says.
"Unresolved. Urgent." Things are awry.

She hears fizzling and some words. Her SOS
May have drawn their attention, or else not--
Martinez can never tell. Her breath subsides.

In place of panic, anger rises next.
Into the radio, she states: "I quit.
I'm out. Confirm." She strikes a cabinet

To make a bang they'll have to hear, quite
Sure the sound resounds on their end, too.
It does. They hear her and make themselves quiet.

Their strange stillness answers her, an undertow
Beneath the buzzing and the steady drip.
They don't want her to hear them. They wait to
Resume until she lets her radio drop.

(Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners” meets “The Backrooms” of urban legend, in terza rima with slant rhymes.) See also: “Arachne,” “the laughter of the gods,” “what it looks like to live,” and “self help: a short story.”

civic leverage

The illustration with this post illustrates an idea from my book What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life, but it is not included in the book (because I just thought of it.)

The circle labeled “institutional design” refers to a process of establishing rules, norms, membership criteria, etc. for any group. Unless an institution evolves from its predecessors, it is usually designed by a single founder or a small leadership team. An inchoate collection of people cannot design an institution from scratch. Only once the design is reasonably effective will many human beings be able to coordinate their behavior sufficiently to accomplish anything worth discussing. The options for designs include democratic processes, market mechanisms, strong leaders, bureaucratic structures, and many more.

From a civic perspective, a good institution is one that encompasses some variety of perspectives and values and that enables its members to express their contrasting views in ways that inform the whole. The circle labeled “conversation about values” can mean a deliberative democracy, but it can take many other forms as well. For instance, although the Catholic Church does not purport to be a democracy, it is a rich platform for discussion and debate. Conversations about values increase the chances that a group will make wise choices and allow individuals to exercise voice and agency, which is part of a good life.

When people in a functioning group discuss values, they may motivate themselves to make sacrifices (the third circle in the diagram). Even an ordinary voluntary association asks people to spend time attending its meetings. A movement that confronts violent repression may ask its participants to put their lives at extreme risk. The degree of contribution varies, but some level is inevitable. “Organization is sacrifice,” as WEB DuBois once wrote.

Sacrifice can affect the original institutional design. For instance, an ordinary voluntary association will wax or wane depending on who gives time and money, and how much. A social movement may change the fundamental structure of the government itself.

This cycle must occur at a human scale. It’s about discussion, relationships, and individuals’ impact on groups. Participants must know one another. The maximum number of people who can engage together is not clear, but it is much less than the eight billion people who share our earth today. Thus the limitation of this cycle is its size in comparison to the scale of our problems.

The answer must be leverage–smallish groups affecting much larger groups by influencing governments, markets, corporations, or media-producers.

Leverage affords power, but it is problematic because it is unidimensional: some people affect others without knowing them or hearing from them. I think we must accept the moral disadvantage of leverage, but we can mitigate it by expecting the people who exercise power over others to do so as members of groups that are somewhat diverse and porous (or connected to other groups) and that go through the cycle of institutional design, conversation about values, sacrifice, and re-design. That process increases the odds that they will be wise in their treatment of strangers.

See also du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence; a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups; both detailed institutional analysis and holistic critique;  a template for analyzing an institutionComplexities of Civic Life, etc.

Embedding Engagement in Climate Policy

On Wed, November 30, 2-3pm ET, the National Civic League is hosting a Promising Practices webinar, “Embedding Engagement in Climate Policy.” To register or get further information, click here:

The webinar is based on the report, “Civic Engagement in American Climate Policy: Collaborative Models,” which seeks to develop federal policy designs based upon robust civic engagement models across multiple fields of practice. The report considers how to build the civic and institutional capacity for resilient and just communities in face of the twin crises of climate and democracy. It was published by Civic Green, an initiative of Tisch College.

More than sixty scholars, as well as practitioners from civic and professional associations and all levels of the federal government, contributed to the report. Three of them will join Rebecca Trout of NCL for a discussion:

Carmen Sirianni, editor-in-chief of CivicGreen, and author of Sustainable Cities in American Democracy (University Press of Kansas, 2020).

Mary Ellen Sprenkel, President & CEO, The Corps Network.

Merlene Mazyck, Acting Director, Workforce Development Partnerships Civilian Climate Corps Coordinator & NRE Liaison, US Forest Service

See also: Civic Engagement in American Climate Policy: Collaborative Models; A Civic Green New Deal; welcome to CivicGreen; the major shift in climate strategy;