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.

civility as equality

Nowadays, the word “civility” is often used to mean politeness or adherence to locally recognized norms that divide appropriate speech from inappropriate speech. You might, for example, be “uncivil” if you are too loud or too angry. Such norms can be helpful, but they risk suppressing authentic and justifiable emotions.

The word has a different origin, closely related to “citizen.” In republican political thought, it it can mean equal standing to participate in politics, rather like the classical Greek word isonomia (roughly: the right to look any fellow citizen in the eye and say what you think). Almost the opposite of etiquette, it connotes a kind of plain, direct, and honest speech.

As Renaissance Florence developed a full-blown ideology of republicanism, the city embraced norms, rules, and customs that were meant to convey the equal standing of all citizen men and to discourage distinctions of caste or power based on military might. Just as one example, no man raised his hat to another Florentine. Professional soldiers were led by paid foreigners, never by Florentines, and these mercenaries had to swear loyalty to the republic’s councilors. The plutocrat banker Cosimo de Medici was wise enough to honor republican norms and manipulated the city’s policies quietly through his networks, without seeking offices or titles or any special personal treatment.

The republic finally ended for good when Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, an heir of Cosimo’s vast fortune, got himself installed as a monarchical ruler and brutally suppressed dissent. A Florentine chronicler, Giovanni Cambi, noted that Lorenzo had been raised in monarchical Rome, where he had learned to expect deference. Lorenzo was surrounded by retainers who called him “padrone” and doffed their hats to him. This was evidence that he knew nothing of “civility”:

Guiliano de Medici, blood brother of Pope Leo X, who had ruled the city of Florence, was living in Rome, and deprived of the city government altogether. He awarded that government to his nephew Lorenzo. Because this Lorenzo had been a child when his father was expelled from Florence, when he returned to Florence he did not know a single citizen, and he was not used to civility (civilta), and instead he aspired to arms and to dominate; and he succeeded in that; for although most citizens were displeased, nevertheless in their ambitiousness and avarice, they pretended to rejoice.

Istorie di Giovanni Cambi cittadino fiorentino, p. 67 (my trans.)

We might assume that doffing hats and using titles exemplifies civility–for better or worse. But the opposite was true in Renaissance Italy. Courtly politeness was a symptom of domination, incompatible with civic virtue and “civility.”

[I am drawing on Richard C. Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence, 1991. See also: civility: not too much, not too little; what to do about the guy behind the desk; civic republicanism in medieval Italy: the Lucignano council frescoes; what does the word civic mean?]

what to do about the guy behind the desk

A guy sits at a desk, resolving people’s requests and issuing orders. Most people who encounter him think he’s making their lives worse. What do you assume is going on?

  • Maybe it’s capitalism and the profit-motive. The guy is probably corporate, and if he works for the government, that shows that it’s a “neoliberal state” (captured by capital.)
  • Maybe it’s state-backed coercion: a denial of free choice. The guy is probably a state bureaucrat. If he works in the private sector, he still reflects the power of the government, which flows from the mouth of the gun. If free individuals were left alone, they wouldn’t come into a room like this.
  • Maybe it’s colonialism. Rooms with desks arrived with Europeans and replaced other (presumably better) ways of relating that were indigenous and traditional. Even if the guy behind the desk descends from indigenous people, his behavior is colonial.
  • Maybe it’s patriarchy. I intentionally called him a “guy” to suggest that his behavior might be gendered.
  • Maybe it’s a bureaucracy in Weber’s sense, a technology for coordinating specialized labor, which is much more productive than unspecialized labor. It is an unavoidable price of progress.

There can surely be truth to each of these theories, but it interests me how many different kinds of people sit behind desks giving out orders: corporate executives, civil servants, military officers, monsignors, mullahs, associate deans, chiefs of pediatrics, union shop stewards, Soviet commissars, Confucian officials ….

A desk sounds somewhat culturally specific, but with a change of furniture, one might imagine the same behavior from a Sumerian temple scribe, an Aztec huecalpixque (regional tribute manager), an iyase from the Kingdom of Benin, or a Tibetan abbot. Considering the globe as whole, the person behind the desk is probably not white, and quite often, not a man.

I would avoid the kind of root-cause analysis that asks which underlying bad phenomenon explains all such cases. For one thing, that style often implies the possibility of an innocent condition, one without profits, rulers, settlers, or guns. But revolutionary and post-colonial systems often put new people behind the same desks. The myth of innocence can be a cover for new forms of tyranny. Besides–and I realize this is almost unprovable–I think that problems such as limited resources, conflicting interests, and cognitive biases are built into human interaction and cannot be wished away.

I would also avoid a blanket denunciation of everyone who sits at a desk making unpopular decisions. Maybe this is a hard-working, underpaid, front-line public servant, just doing her best.

Here’s a way of thinking about the problem without root-cause analysis. Human beings have a wide range of techniques for organizing complex interactions in the face of endemic problems like scarcity, conflict, and cognitive limitations. These techniques are the ingredients from which we make our social recipes. Examples include officials making discretionary decisions–that person behind the desk–but also secret-ballot votes, lotteries, auctions, exchanges, gifts, public deliberative assemblies, randomly-selected panels, turn-taking, adherence to precedent or original documents, obedience to unseen powers, inheritance, chance (e.g,., flipping a coin), blind peer review, randomized experiments, popularity scores, endurance challenges, romantic partnerships, kinship relations, teacher/pupil pairings, and many more. I have omitted the really awful forms and, of course, failed to list the many tools that have yet to be invented.

We can combine these forms in many ways. Before we assess the guy behind the desk, we should understand which other ingredients are involved in the whole recipe. Maybe he was randomly selected for a short term of service. Maybe he was appointed enthusiastically by a popular assembly. These facts would change our assessment.

The situation might involve domination: arbitrary control over another. That is the case if the guy behind the desk can choose at will and doesn’t have to give reasons or face an appeal. The situation might involve oppression, if the guy belongs to a social group that regularly treats a different group in ways that reduce their human flourishing. But it might involve only one of those things, or neither. The person behind the desk might belong to the same social group as those in front of it and might have no scope for arbitrary decisions.

Yet we shouldn’t be quick to accept a situation that–per the original story–makes most people unhappy. Many actual systems are very bad, and for very bad reasons. They emerged from conquest, subjugation, and cruelty. They manifest both domination and oppression. These systems now enjoy enormous status quo advantages. Organizing to replace them is very hard, especially in the face of powerful incumbents and elaborate justifications. They may inspire fear and awe. For an individual, compliance may be completely rational.

We must challenge domination and oppression and cook up better social recipes. The reason is not to combat capitalism, statism or colonialism, but to free people from oppression and from domination. That requires building better structures, which is as important as disrupting the bad ones. And it means addressing the endemic challenges of flawed creatures who are in (partial) conflict under conditions of scarcity.

See also: both detailed institutional analysis and holistic critique; Complexities of Civic Life; citizens against dominationavoiding arbitrary command; civic education and the science of association;  a template for analyzing an institutionthe legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School; avoiding a sharp distinction between the state and the private sphere; etc.

Equity Research Symposium

All are welcome to a webinar symposium presented by the Tufts Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth, and Civic Engagement on Friday, November 19, 2021 from 10:00 am to noon ET. Register here


(10-11:15) Presentations of current research, moderated by Shikhar Shrestha:

  • Jennifer Allen, ScD, MPH, Parents’ Willingness to Vaccinate Children for COVID-19: Conspiracy Theories, Information Sources, and Perceived Responsibility.
  • Eden Shaveet, BA, Marissa Gallegos, BS, Catie Urquhart, Web-Based Health Information Seeking Methods and Time Since Provider Engagement: Reflections on Access Equity.
  • Wenhui Feng, PhD, Ideology and health behavior.
  • Megan Mueller, PhD, Equity and the “pet effect”: Complexities in understanding how pets support health outcomes.

(11:15-noon) Panel discussion: Examining our Definition of Equity

What is implicit conception of “equity” is represented on the website, with its data-visualization tool? How should people think about equity?

  • Peter Levine, PhD, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Tufts Johnathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life (moderator)
  • Lionel McPherson, PhD Tufts Department of Philosophy
  • Felipe Dias, PhD, Tufts Department of Sociology
  • Elizabeth Setren, PhD, Tufts Department of Economics 

(The graphic above is a sample result from the tool on the homepage.)

Society is corrupt? Found a new college!

I have all kinds of (unoriginal) doubts about the new venture called University of Austin. The promise to create a novel financial model sounds empty until they actually describe it. (Since more than 3,500 US colleges and universities compete today, I would guess that great ideas for saving money have already been tried.) At least in Bari Weiss’ version, the case for a new university rests on a damning portrait of the existing ones that doesn’t match what I observe. And, as someone who values freedom of expression and robust debate, I don’t see a serious effort to grapple with the challenges to freedom, such as directives by donors and foundations, state regulations, the decline of tenure, and shrinking liberal arts enrollments. (Liberal arts courses are the most natural homes of vibrant debate.)

On the other hand, there is nothing more traditional than a group of Americans issuing a jeremiad against their doomed and corrupt society and founding a new college as a solution. That describes Calvinist pilgrims, Jeffersonian democrats, Catholic immigrants, Midwestern progressives, formerly enslaved people, Mormons in Utah, boosters of new Western states, sixties idealists, fundamentalist revivalists, and more.

If anything, it is disappointing that the rate of founding new colleges and universities has slowed so much. Many of the new ones appear to be conventional branch-campuses of existing state systems–important for meeting demand but not necessarily innovations.

Fig 1, shows that the total number of colleges and universities rose rapidly from 1918 to 1998 but peaked around 2013 and has fallen since.

Data from Thomas D. Snyder, 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1993 (to 1970) and NCES Digest of Education Statistics, 2019 (NCES 2021-009) after that date

That graph does not adjust for population growth. If we value choice and innovation, we might like to see more colleges and universities per capita, which would mean fewer people per existing colleges (shown in my second graph).

The nineteenth century actually exhibited a worsening of this measure, because population growth outpaced even the rapid formation of new institutions. Much of the 20th century saw improvement, although the number of new institutions could not quite keep up with the Baby Boom in the 1960s. Of late, we have seen more people per college.

Same data as fig. 1, with population adjustments by author

The total number of colleges and universities that are open in a given year doesn’t quite indicate the rate of foundings, because older institutions go out of business. Tewksbury (1932) estimated that four out of five antebellum colleges failed. I can’t find continuous data on new foundings for US history as a whole, but the third graph indicates a rapid increase in that measure from 1820-1860.

Data from Snyder, table 27

I would place University of Austin in that tradition. I am not enthusiastic about their diagnosis or plan, but I think it’s appropriate for disaffected people to start new institutions so that we (and they) can find out what their ideas would really mean in practice. That is how we got the array of colleges and universities that we see today, from Oberlin College to Liberty University, from UCF (with 66k students) to Deep Springs College (with fewer than 30), from Notre Dame to Naropa University in Boulder, CO. I’ve mentioned some outliers, but the overall trend is increasing similarity or “institutional isomorphism.” I’m for innovations that mix things up.

See also: the Harper’s letter is fatally vague; the ROI for philosophy; rationales for private research universitiesthe weirdness of the higher ed marketplacewhat kind of a good is education?; a way forward for high culture etc.

Enjoy the Flight

You can’t track swans across the sky. No trace.
The air they’ve passed as clean as what they breathe.
This is because they never cling nor hoard,
Just stretch their necks and feet and beat their wings.
Or so it was said in a treasured verse:
Words uttered and echoed and inked and taught.
Yes, but what of those other travelers?
The ones who have stowed their treasures aboard?
The carpeted cabin is dimmed and hushed.
The engines that thrum and gently shake them
Churn and burn and scrawl a long vaporous line,
Orbiting the orb where swans swim in breeze.

(Weimar, Germany, Nov. 5-6)