Category Archives: memoir

some notes on receiving tenure

This week, the Tufts Trustees voted to grant me tenure and make me a full professor. I am very grateful to them, the Political Science Department (which is my tenure home), the Tisch College of Civic Life (which will remain my main base) and its dean, Alan Solomont, and the other people–known and anonymous to me–who were involved in advancing and reviewing my case.

I have been working full-time in universities (Maryland and then Tufts) since 1993. However, I don’t believe I should have held tenure until now. Tenure means job security for teaching. It’s a way of protecting instructors’ intellectual freedom. Until now, I have never held a teaching position. More years than not, I’ve taught at least one credit-bearing college course, but not as part of my paid employment. Instead, my salary has come from external sources (philanthropy, contracts, and–in the early years–a state appropriation). These funds have supported me and my colleagues to serve external constituencies with research and organizing. That kind of work must be contingent on funding and performance or it would turn into a sinecure.

So really the big change in my life is that I will be teaching virtually full time, starting in 2019-20. One motivation is our new Civic Studies major at Tufts, which is a major commitment of mine. This major is also part of a more general strategy of making the study of civic life a core academic focus at Tufts, which is another personal commitment for me and a key strategy for Tisch College. At the same time, I am looking forward to the role of a teacher/individual scholar, because that should allow me to explore certain topics more deeply than I have so far–mainly, topics in political theory.

My career is unfolding in backwards order. My degree is in a humanities field, philosophy. Humanists usually start by teaching alone and doing single-authored research: in short, reading, writing, and presenting. Some of them gradually begin leading departments, serving on committees, planning conferences, conducting collaborative and interdisciplinary research projects, and interacting with publics.

I started in an externally-funded center within a state school of public policy, where our work was applied, interdisciplinary, collaborative, and done in public. From an early age, I was heavily involved in working with other people. I was rarely in a classroom but almost constantly on the phone or email, communicating with peers. My most significant publications were co-authored; the Civic Mission of Schools report lists 60 authors.

I will not give up that kind of work but I do plan to spend more time teaching and conducting individual research. If this backwards order makes any sense intellectually, the advantages will be: 1) Breadth–I never sought tenure in a discipline that would have expected me to demonstrate deep specialization, but I had to learn a bit about a lot of things, and 2) Experience in how knowledge, power, money, networks, and organizations relate to each other in the 21st century. I’m hoping to make that second topic a focus of my research.

The immediate plan is to keep doing the collaborative work that I’m doing now (so don’t be alarmed if you are a collaborator) while developing several new courses in 2019-20. I have completed a book manuscript that is under review, so if that goes reasonably smoothly, I will feel free to focus a lot of attention on curriculum and pedagogy during the next academic year. I also have a sabbatical coming up, and I plan to spend that time learning network science and continuing to collect network data of different kinds, toward one or two books on networks and political/moral thinking.

It’s very rare for someone to switch to the tenure track after 26 years in the business. It’s like lifting a heavy locomotive and putting it down on different rails. Tufts has been tremendously supportive, flexible, welcoming, and creative in making this possible in my case. I feel a deep sense of gratitude and loyalty to this institution and my colleagues and students.

on hedgehogs and foxes

“A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one important thing” — Archilochus

This proverb is in the news lately because Philip Tetlock has shown that foxes (flexible and curious generalists) are much better at predicting events than hedgehogs (specialists who hold deep expertise). See David Epstein’s Atlantic article on Tetlock, and see Axios for a current competition funded by the US intelligence agencies to test his theories.

Tetlock draws from Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay, which is light but offers some insights, I think, about specific authors. Berlin argues that Tolstoy was psychologically a fox but believed–for theological/ideological reasons–that we should all be hedgehogs. Our one big idea should be the Imitation of Christ. This tension was at the heart of Tolstoy’s books and life. I also endorse Peter Hacker’s view that Wittgenstein was temperamentally a hedgehog who forced himself self-consciously to become foxlike in his late work.

If you take the proverb literally, it seems more impressive to be a fox. The fox uses its brain to hunt and escape, whereas the hedgehog just instinctively rolls up to take advantage of its best physical asset, its spines. But the metaphor is loose. Human hedgehogs are among our deepest, most original thinkers. They are the ones with the discipline to construct whole, coherent worldviews. They don’t merely employ a strategy but create it.

In contrast–and I write this as very much a fox–foxes can be ad hoc and derivative, eclectic in a bad way. A fox can employ the available ideas that seem to fit the situation without generating any new frameworks for others to use. A fox can be a jack of all trades, master of none. We foxes need hedgehogs to develop new ways of thinking, from which we borrow superficially and pragmatically.

But it is interesting that the hedgehogs are so consistently wrong about what will happen next. They are more likely to suffer from confirmation bias. They can make any data fit their theory. And they are worse than foxes at recognizing exceptions, tradeoffs, and zones of uncertainty. They lack phronesis, practical wisdom.

I therefore think it’s a problem that hedgehogs have an advantage in the competition for attention. If you are associated with one big idea and you keep hammering away at it, you have a “brand.” People turn to you to say that one thing, even if they don’t agree with it, and so your fame rises. You must compete with the other people who say the same thing, but if you’re first or more effective at communicating it, you can own the space.

So as not to offend anyone alive, I’ll use the case of my late colleague Ben Barber, who was early to revive the idea of “strong democracy.” (More democratic engagement is always better; the good life is lived in public; liberalism is too individualistic; etc.) He wrote several best-sellers, and I attribute his success in part to his capturing a particular brand. For courses, debates, conferences, etc., you may need someone to say, “More democracy!” Barber cornered that market.

Temperamentally, I am with the foxes. As soon as I write an argument for anything, I immediately become fascinated by the arguments against it. I have a limited attention span and jack-of-all-trades tendencies. I frequently disappoint practitioners and advocates, who know that I have written in favor of campaign finance reform, public deliberation, service, or civic education and want me to say it again to a new audience with more conviction. In fact, I am almost always on the verge of apostasy and retraction.

I really do admire the hedgehogs. But I’ll say a few things in favor of foxes.

First, the moral world is immensely complex, because it emerges from myriad human interactions and takes the form of communities, cultures, and institutions that overlap, interrelate, and become loaded with historical resonances. Thus an adequate moral theory is almost certainly partial, inconsistent, and ad hoc.

Second, acting like a fox keeps you mentally alive. It may be a self-indulgent concern, but I fear ceasing to think. Even the greatest hedgehogs, it seems to me, have stopped their quest for knowledge. They already know, and know that they know, and are done.

I’ll also say one thing against foxes. At least in folkore, a fox is a solitary hunter. What if you also like people and feel loyalty to groups of peers who share goals and missions? Then you cannot simply act like a fox.

To switch metaphors, Keats admired the “quality” that forms a “Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I also admire Negative Capability, but it is a virtue of the poet, not the ally. Negative Capability is good for writing fiction that explores many different perspectives; it is not so helpful for co-writing a mission statement for an organization and then following through.

So I would like to be a fox who is helpful in a pack. The question is to what degree that’s possible.

See also: the politics of negative capability; loyalty in intellectual work; in defense of Isaiah Berlin; structured moral pluralism (a proposal); and Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Orwell

Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and memories of Rust Belt adolescence

Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw (pictured below) were born in urban Michigan during the 1950s. By the time they were art students in the early 1970s, they’d seen all the stuff you don’t study in a University of Michigan classroom: doodles drawn in ball-point pen on lined paper while the teacher isn’t looking, fundamentalist tracts, album covers, semi-professional local ads, cable-access shows, comics, sci-fi paperbacks, D&D manuals, second-hand children’s book covers, toy packages from the dime store, pinups, and posters for high school plays. They collected that material, imitated it, and mashed it together in their gallery art and for the stage performances of their punk band Destroy All Monsters.


Their two-man gallery show, “Michigan Stories: Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw” (MSU Broad Museum), evokes the claustrophobia of adolescence, when you realize that you’re being raised to play a role in a society that you don’t much like. All those adults coming at you to tell you what to believe and do feel like monsters from a late-night horror film. Kelley, who died in 2012, was explicit that his adolescence was miserable.

That wasn’t my life. I was raised in a protective family, encouraged to explore a wide range of paths, and basically in love with the world. Yet I can summon memories of, say, junior high school in Syracuse, NY circa 1980 that powerfully evoke Kelley and Shaw. I was a half-generation younger, so when they were blasting their “noise rock,” I was afraid of big kids like them. But the graphic art and music of their cohort formed the backdrop for us early Gen-Xers.

For me, these guys evoke something more specific than perennial adolescent claustrophobia. They witnessed the particular disappointment of Rust Belt America when manufacturing crashed and the postwar promise turned out to be hollow. Black people and women captured some power in cities like Detroit and Syracuse, and everyone got permission to be a bit more free–just as capital and opportunity drained away. Kelley and Shaw were white boys watching a society that seemed unfair or cruel to others and pretty hollow for people like them. Out of that experience, they made some powerful visual art.

See also: Detroit and the temptation of ruin.

twenty-five years of it

Now 50, I can see that my scholarly or intellectual life has turned out differently from what I had imagined at age 25. Then I had a 9-5 job in politics–for the “citizens’ lobby,” Common Cause. I had written a dissertation that became an obscure book, and I was working on a novel that was later published, albeit without much notice. My job left me time to work on other research. I had no idea what I’d achieve, but I thought I knew what the goal looked like. I’d produce writing. It would be helpful (I hoped), but also distinctive, original, and influential. Most of my intellectual work would be done alone. I would stand somewhat aside from society and its institutions, offering critical perspectives. I would find new things to say to readers about perennial authors and issues.

Today, my actual work consists of meeting with people, reading and writing, preparing talks, reading others’ draft papers, grant proposals, budgets, and planning documents, proposing projects, sending emails to groups of colleagues on timely matters, starting and editing Google docs, and facilitating discussions, whether in classrooms or elsewhere. When I ask myself why I do any of these particular tasks, the answer is almost always that someone has asked me to. (My blog posts are exceptions, and misleading ones if they’re all you know about me.) I care about the person who has asked me for each task–usually at a personal level, but often also because of our respective roles in organizations. When things go well, I feel that my work contributes to a network. Even when I’m the sole author of a document, it is usually destined for a publication that has been jointly planned by a group.

My work is much less original than I might have hoped or planned for it to be. Not only are my thoughts typically in the same vein as what others have already said, but often I have said the same things before. For example, I have already argued for civic education in k-12 schools many times. But perhaps I have not made yet that case to school superintendents, or historians, or people in Ukraine. If the cause seems valuable, I’ll find a new way to make the same points.

I’ve focused much more intensively and narrowly than my natural inclinations would predict. Starting all the way back in grade school, I had a tendency to grasp concepts superficially: just well enough to be able to say something that worked for the situation. Then I would get bored and want to learn something new. This is mostly a vice. But as things have turned out, I’ve worked on certain topics (civic education in US schools, youth voting, public deliberative forums, measuring civic life, aspects of political reform) for decades. My views may be wrong–they are certainly fallible–but they are not superficial. I’ve heard cogent critiques from all sorts of angles and have made appropriate changes. I’ve pursued some questions like a bloodhound with his nose to the ground.

My work is much more empirical than I’d expected: I deal more with statistics than with classic texts. It’s more collaborative. It’s less glamorous. Of course, glamour is in the eye of the beholder, but writing about famous authors has a certain cachet that seems missing in a grant proposal or a budget report.

I’m motivated much more by demand than supply, to use economists’ language; or by relationships rather than self-expression. Sometimes I chafe at that, wanting to say something more ambitiously distinctive. But working for and with other people increases the odds of making a difference. So does focus, and especially focus on relatively narrow and overlooked topics.

I also work much harder than I did at 25. I think that’s driven by demand. When you’re a young scholar, you do what you must to be employed. Beyond that, you’re motivated mostly by factors internal to you: curiosity, ambition or sheer love of the material. Once you’re securely embedded in a network, the importance of all those motivations diminishes. Often I find myself hard at work late at night because someone who’s doing something valuable needs my contribution (no matter how modest it may be) by the next morning. The net result is a lot more work per week than I thought I could do half a lifetime ago.

I think that if I could beam a message back to myself at age 25 that described my current life, the youthful me would probably be disappointed. But that’s just because this 50-year-old wouldn’t be able to convey the satisfactions of a life focused on participation in organizations and networks.

my father’s books are going to James Madison’s desk at Montpelier

(Syracuse, NY) My father, Joseph M. Levine, collected more than 20,000 books as a working library of a professional historian. Many were published before 1800. I am a sort of trustee for this collection, happily responsible for its long-term future.

James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, collected a library of books that informed his thoughts about the Constitution. In his case, the next generation meant his ne’er-do-well son-in-law, John Payne Todd, whose gambling debts cost the family all their property, including the books.

Now the Madison home at Montpelier has been restored to look as it did in James Madison’s day. But Montpelier needs appropriate books to display beside the president’s desk. By mutual arrangement, ten feet of my father’s collection are going there on permanent loan. I am in Syracuse to pick out books that might have belonged in Madison’s personal collection ca. 1820.

This, for example, is the same edition of Montaigne on which James Madison took notes when he was a student. Those notes were the very first substantive writings Madison produced in his life.

CAM00067My father was a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, New York; a Dodgers fan; an FDR liberal. James Madison was a slave-holding Tidewater planter. My Dad studied English intellectual history and was something of an Anglophile. James Madison led the US in a war against Great Britain, yet he was very far from an immigrant New Yorker. How do all these pieces fit together?

The answer is a certain version of liberalism. Dad grew up in a liberal family and neighborhood, but an additional formative experience was studying at Cornell during the McCarthy period. Cornell was stocked with great thinkers, including refugees from totalitarianism and veterans of struggles at home. During Dad’s undergraduate years, Vladimir Nabokov, Frances Perkins, Edwin Arthur Burtt, Buckminster Fuller, Clinton Rossiter, and Richard Neustadt all served on the faculty. They pursued rich cultural ideas, developed the inner life, and fought for social reform. Cornell broadened and liberated minds. The Constitution and the fundamental principles of the American Republic stood with the university and against its enemies.

Dad became an historian to join this community of free inquiry, and also to understand the origins of the modern liberal world. He began his graduate studies interested in the founding period of the US Republic, but he soon moved backwards to explore its origins in Tudor and Stuart England. That period became his lifelong interest and caused him to spend many years in England and to ship literally tons of books and other artifacts back from there.

English history is morally complex, as is the legacy of James Madison. England was a monarchy and a colonial power. But England was also the birthplace of individual rights, representative government, and rule-of-law–at least as those institutions have come to the US. It not only gave us our liberal traditions but also our more radical currents. From the Agitators and Levellers of 1647 to the Commonwealthmen and Whigs of 1750 to the Chartists of 1838, English thinkers developed the idea that political liberty and equality should come first, with cultural equality and economic reform to follow. As the MP Thomas Rainsborough argued in the mid-1600s:

For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.

Madison would certainly have qualified that populism in many ways. The poorest in Virginia were slaves, and Madison wanted to send them back to Africa rather than admit them as equals to the commonwealth. Federalist 10 presents Madison’s objections to “a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.” He feared that “a common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole ….” But Madison constructed a political order that–when we honor its design–preserves individual liberties, defends minorities, promotes the “mild voice of reason,” and creates an important place for the “republican principle” of political equality.

It seems perfectly fitting that my father’s books should sit by the desk of the man who introduced the Bill of Rights and served as the second Rector of the University of Virginia.

[PS: I shouldn’t have written “desk,” as I believe the books are destined for a small room outside Madison’s study that he used as a library.]