Category Archives: academia

we should be debating the big social and political paradigms

[The following post is inspired by Rogers Smith’s recent APSA presidential address, and I believe is consistent with it, but I incorporate some additional elements.]

Consider a sample of articles about politics, or society more generally. One might be an interpretation of some remarks by Thomas Jefferson. Another reports an experiment in which people are more likely to vote when contacted one way rather than another. A third is a critique of a prevalent word (say, “security”) from the perspective of Michel Foucault. A fourth shows that rational agents in a certain situation are better off when rules are externally imposed on them.

Each of these articles presumes, and contributes to, a larger paradigm that combines values, causal theories, and methods. Perhaps the interpreter of Jefferson believes that the United States is still founded on its written Constitution and that the intentions of the founders matter today. The experimentalist presumes that voting in a regime like the modern USA is a consequential act, and it would be good to increase voting by several percentage points if possible. The critic of “security” sees a world of pervasive injustice sustained by ideology, in the sense of distorting views that preserve the status quo. The rational-choice modeler thinks that all (or many) institutions can be analyzed as the interactions of utility-maximizing individuals.

(For the sake of space, I have omitted a classical Marxist, a deep feminist, a post-colonial theorist, a Prospect Theorist, a radical environmentalist, and many others who deserve places on the list.)

In these articles, you will not see much about their larger paradigms, worldviews or schemata. Their paradigms may not even be mentioned. Instead, you will see evidence in support of the specific claims of each article (whether in the form of statistics, quotations, or equations).

Of course, journals offer limited space, and there may not be room to present a whole paradigm. In addition, citing your scheme may only hurt you in the review process. Reviewers who happen to oppose your overall paradigm may be alienated, when they would have been persuaded by your detailed findings if presented alone.

For instance, imagine that you discover that texting people increases their turnout more than emailing them. That is more persuasive as a bare finding than as part of an argument for the significance and value of voting in a mass democracy within a capitalist market economy.

A certain form of positivism (or verificationism, or empiricism) is still widely influential. It holds that facts can be verified directly. Larger mental constructs are fashioned by us and are only valid to the extent that they match all the facts. If big, general ideas influence our beliefs, they are sources of bias. Therefore, we may need to disclose our paradigms as caveats, but we don’t want to focus on them.

Some people would hate to be described as positivists but end up in a similar place for a different reason. They presume that they have a right to their fundamental views as a matter of identity. “As a migrant from the global south, I explore the colonization of indigenous spaces …” This is not a disclosure of bias, nor a defense of a thesis; it is a claim to be recognized as a member of the scholarly community. To disagree is to deny the author’s place in the community.

I believe that the really important task is to select our worldviews, our big normative/conceptual schemes. It matters which of the available choices we adopt, and maybe we can create better ones. Therefore–as I think Rogers Smith argued–it is a real weakness in any intellectual community if the paradigms are implicit or merely stated, rather than explained, justified, and put into competition.

Within political science, many contrasting worldviews are available. You can walk down the hall of the APSA Annual Meeting past rooms in which everyone accepts the basic normative principles of contemporary electoral democracy, and other rooms in which people are quoting Slavoj Žižek about ideology.

It is hard to compare such worldviews or paradigms, because they have different normative, epistemic, and sometimes metaphysical premises. A finding within one paradigm does not disprove a different paradigm. A certain kind of relativism interferes with comparative assessment.

However, we can consider a whole body of specific findings along with their shared overall claims. We can ask whether this whole literature is coherent, whether it generates persuasive specific findings by its own lights, whether it informs practice in any useful way, whether it makes sense of other literatures, how it handles criticisms and rival views, whether it is responsive to new evidence and events, and whether its normative implications are defensible when fully articulated. Each paradigm has points of relative strength and weaknesses.

It would be helpful if people had that discussion in print, instead of always only writing within paradigms (at least for journal articles.)

See also trying to keep myself honest, how philosophy is supposed to work

AAC&U Webinar: Sept 19 2019

“The Confounding Promise of Community: Why It Matters More Than Ever for Student Success,” September 19, 2019; Online, 2:00-3:00 p.m. (ET)

In this webinar, I’ll be discussing my recent article in Liberal Education entitled, “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses.” Other authors in the same special issue of Liberal Education will also share their work.

Webinar Registration
Cost: Free for AAC&U members; $99 for nonmembers
Check your institution’s membership status here

What is the role of community—as a concept, an outcome, and an entity—in a liberal education, and how can community contribute to student success? How do students experience community, on and off campus? This webinar will examine emerging definitions of community, ongoing efforts to create inclusive pathways for engagement, and ways community-based practices can advance inclusive excellence. From multiple institutional perspectives, presenters will explore how a collective understanding of community can shape a commitment to equity and student success.

All webinar registrants will be eligible for a 20% discount on copies of the new issue of Liberal Education, which fully explores the webinar topic. In this issue, authors—many of whom are webinar presenters—share research findings, commentary, and recommendations on the confounding promise of community. 


Ashley Finley
Senior Advisor to the President and Vice President for Strategic Planning and Partnerships


Geoffrey Buhl
Professor, Mathematics and General Education Chair
California State University Channel Islands

Leeva Chung
Professor, Communication Studies
University of San Diego

Marta Elena Esquilin
Associate Dean, Honors Living-Learning Community
Rutgers University-Newark

Jason Leggett
Assistant Professor of Politcal Science and Criminal Justice
Kingsborough Community College

Peter Levine
Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Lincoln Filene Professor for Citizenship & Public Affairs
Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life

conservative engaged scholarship

For the sake of argument, let’s define “engaged scholarship” as …

The organized production of knowledge by groups that include some professional academic researchers and some people who are not academics and belong to the communities, populations, or organizations being studied.

I don’t have a representative sample of projects of engaged scholarship, but I would venture these generalizations:

  1. Often the topics are issues that are priorities on the left or center-left, such as health disparities, access to government services, or environmental damage.
  2. Often the communities that participate in the research lean left: low-income urban neighborhoods, migrant farmworkers, etc. (In 2004, I met with Penn State faculty interested in community-based research and observed that most did not work in their surrounding communities–conservative central Pennsylvania–but drove to Philadelphia to do their engaged research.)
  3. Yet some of the underlying values of this approach can be seen as conservative: a preference for the local and the nonprofit/voluntary sector over Big Government, deep appreciation for local traditions, and a tendency to do something directly about problems rather than trying to win elections to change laws. I’ve even argued that the most authentically Burkean conservative field in the US today is the field that connects universities with communities through service, community-based research, and other partnerships.

Especially given the third point, you’d expect to see conservative engaged scholarship. The academic researchers might vote Republican instead of Democratic or Green, they would work in and with communities that preferred Trump over Clinton, and they would study issues like taxes, regulation, zoning, and abortion (as problems).

But I am hard pressed to find any examples. There are cases in which conservative adolescents conduct research on issues of their choice and scholars support them. But in those cases, the scholars’ focus is usually on the kids and their learning, not the issue that the students have chosen to address.

Why the dearth of conservative engaged scholarship? I can imagine five answers:

  1. It’s not missing; I just haven’t found it. Here is one program at Ashland University that might qualify, and maybe there are more.
  2. Conservatives are simply scarce in the social sciences and relevant humanities (especially in fields like public health and education, in which applied work is most common), and this scarcity explains why not many conservatives do engaged scholarship.
  3. Conservatives have found other rich veins to mine: quantitative economic modeling, Austrian School economics (which is not at all quantitative but is favorable to libertarian principles), constitutional law, and some domains of intellectual history. They’re busy there.
  4. Despite not liking government as much as (some) liberals do, conservatives are more aware of its power, including at the local level. Therefore, they are skeptical that working with a local nonprofit on a research study will make nearly as much difference as, say, running for office or advocating ideas that win elections.
  5. Principled conservatives haven’t yet figured out that they should embrace engaged scholarship. They should develop experience and exemplary cases that strengthen conservative voices in engaged scholarship.

I hope that the last point is true, because it would be good for the gatherings and networks of engaged scholars if they included more conservative concerns, populations, and thinkers.

See also: America’s authentic conservative movement; the left has become Burkean; ideology in academia and elsewhere; trying to keep myself honest; scholarship on engaged scholarship; engaged political science; loyalty in intellectual work; the state humanities councils, connecting the public to scholarship;

What is the appropriate role for higher education at a time of social activism?

(Posted in Madrid) In the current issue (and available free online) is my article entitled, “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses,” Liberal Education, Winter 2019, Vol. 105, No. 1.

This is the first of several pending articles in which I explore the interactions between social movements and institutions. My motive is to encourage people who sit in institutional settings to pay attention not only to activists who make demands but also to the movements to which these activists belong. In order to relate appropriately to a given movement, it’s important to assess whether it has robust internal discussions, whether it is a space for learning, how it develops leaders, what norms it enforces on its members, and other such characteristics. Interpreting a movement is valuable whether you want to be a good ally, merely treat the movement fairly, or actively counter it because you oppose its influence.

In this piece, I use as a hook a fascinating New York Times op-ed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in which he described the movement that had engulfed Historically Black Colleges and Universities by 1961. A sample passage from my article:

In the model of civic action that King describes, college students plug into national social movements that have leaders and organizations outside higher education. The students’ involvement is youth-driven: students recruit other students to participate. …

Like most participants in social movements, the students King describes in the Times essay have transformational goals. They do not aim to modify the policies and practices of existing institutions—such as their own colleges—but to rebuild or reconstitute the whole society. Student activists, King writes, are “seeking to save the soul of America. . . . One day historians will record this student movement as one of the most significant epics of our heritage.” Today, movements like Black Lives Matter and climate activism do not merely advocate specific policies but attempt to fundamentally transform society, from white supremacy to racial equity, or from carbon-dependence to global sustainability.

By contrast, colleges and universities—including the HBCUs of 1961—are institutions. As such, they are inevitably led by people who have extensive experience, who must therefore be older. Institutions can encourage youth voice and can change as a result of social movements. For instance, a range of curricular and policy reforms that promote greater racial equity and diversity can be traced back to the civil rights movement. But institutions will predictably resist more radical transformations. They are not movements; they are targets of movements.

The tension between movements and institutions is inevitable, but higher education has a particular commitment to ideological pluralism and debate. Although pure neutrality is impossible and a misleading ideal, colleges and universities must demonstrate a reasonable degree of impartiality about the contested issues of the day. As academic institutions, they value reflection and “organized skepticism.”11

When today’s colleges and universities go beyond classroom teaching to offer experiential civic education, a typical model involves supporting students to choose and define their own issues and to develop and implement plans of action—not signing them up for specific social movements that will demand sacrifice. Often, an institution’s recruitment takes the form of a general invitation to civic engagement, civic learning, or dialogue, not a call to join a movement.

See also: pay attention to movements, not just activists and events; the value of diversity and discussion within social movements; social movements of the sixties, seventies, and today; a sketch of a theory of social movements

college and mobility

Xiang Zhou has published “Equalization or Selection? Reassessing the ‘Meritocratic Power’ of a College Degree in Intergenerational Income Mobility” in the American Sociological Review–also available here. Like all multivariate statistical models, it’s subject to criticism and should be replicated using other datasets and specifications. But it’s certainly interesting and very well presented.

For background, here is Raj Chetty’s graph from a different source, showing the relationship between Americans’ family incomes when they were growing up and their incomes as adults, both expressed as percentiles.

If it showed a straight line from 0,0 to 100,100 with a slope of one, that would imply a perfect correlation between generations. It would imply zero mobility, although it would be consistent with some random movement up and down the income ladder that would be concealed by displaying averages. Instead, we see a basically straight line from 0,30 to 100,70 with a slope of about .4. People at the very bottom do tend to rise a bunch of ranks (if they survive to adulthood), and people at the very top do average below where their parents were. In short, there is a strong correlation across generations with some reversion to the mean.

The graphs in Zhou’s article use a similar format but they show the data for young US adults depending on whether they graduated from college or not. Graduates are shown in blue, non-graduates in red.

In this first pair, the graphs show the raw data and then the same data reweighted for a bunch of variables that were measured while the subjects were still in high school: their “gender, race, Hispanic status, mother’s years of schooling, father’s presence, number of siblings, urban residence, educational expectation, the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) percentile score.”

It’s clear that you should go to college. A person whose parents were at the 25th income percentile ends up at the 30th percentile if she doesn’t graduate from college, and above the 60th if she does. But the slope is flatter for college students than non-college students without reweighting; and the lines are closer together and parallel when reweighted.

Zhou interprets this pattern to mean that people who are able to attend college (due to financial resources, a high school diploma, motivation, etc.) end up better off than those who are not able to attend, but college itself adds no noticeable benefit. To put it another way, if we used public policy to move everyone to the blue line by making them all college graduates, the slope of the blue line would remain fairly flat and it would cross the y-axis at a lower point, because it’s impossible that everyone in a society should rise to a higher income percentile than their parents.

Here are the same patterns when Zhou distinguishes between selective and non-selective colleges. The slope for the non-selective colleges is steeper (which could imply that they are better at mobility), but the difference between the selective and non-selective colleges is not statistically significant after reweighting.

If Zhou is right, universal college would not improve economic mobility at all. The line would be fairly flat and lower than the current line for college grads. The economic advantages of college are due to stratification, not the experience of being in college.

See also: to what extent can colleges promote upward mobility?; sorting out human welfare, equity and mobility; social capital and economic mobility