Category Archives: civic theory

social education as learning to improve models

Some theses for consideration:

  1. Everyone who acts to change society has a mental model that represents portions of the social world.
  2. It is better for our models to be explicit in our own minds, so that we can be clear about what we are assuming and open to changing our assumptions.
  3. Our models must be sufficiently complex. (For instance, if you think that the Israel-Palestine conflict has just two parties, that is unacceptably simple.) But a model cannot be as complex as reality. Modeling is a matter of judicious simplification.
  4. Our models may include causal elements: e.g., “This phenomenon affects that one.” But they also inevitably reflects values. It is better for the value components to be explicit. They may take the form of ideals, goals, specific injustices, and other objects. Or they may be normative connections among objects, such as: “This situation merits that response.”
  5. A model may be an application of a more general framework to specific circumstances. In that case, we are obliged to have a good framework and to apply it correctly.
  6. We must check our models against events, observations, and other kinds of information from the world.
  7. We must compare our model to other models (and our framework to other frameworks) and constantly reconsider whether the alternatives offer insights. The assessment of social models is comparative: it’s a question of choosing the best model for the situation, given the alternatives. If we don’t seriously consider other models, we are not thinking hard about our own.

I think that educating for responsible civic participation is substantially about developing the skill of forming and improving social models. I am very skeptical of curricula–at any level–that offer students one model. That is not even a satisfactory way of understanding the model that is presented, because full understanding requires comparison. And it discourages the essential civic skill of critically assessing one’s model.

See also: making our models explicit; decoding institutions; a template for analyzing an institution

introduction to Gandhi

This is a lecture that I pre-recorded for Introduction to Civic Studies this semester. It provides some background about the life and fundamental ideas of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Students will also read these texts:

  • Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World (2018), chapter 16 (on the Great Salt March)
  • Gandhi, Satyagraha (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing Co., 1951): excerpts
  • Gandhi, Notes, May 22, 1924 – August 15, 1924, in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes,  28, pp. 307-310

In class we will will discuss such questions as these: How (if at all) can one organize voluntary collective action at a sufficient scale to bring about change in Gandhi’s preferred ways? Is Gandhi right to demand sacrifice and to see sacrifice as intrinsically meritorious? How can Gandhi know whether his stance is correct when he finds himself in conflict with other idealists, such as B.R. Ambedkar? And is it fair for Gandhi to claim that he only knows the means, not the result, of the struggle, if the end is actually predicable?

See also: Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 by Ramachandra Guha; Gandhi versus Jinnah on means and ends; Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends; notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; Rev. James Lawson, Jr on Revolutionary Nonviolence; etc.

making our models explicit

We owe it to ourselves to develop an explicit model of any situation that concerns us. Whether we choose to share our model with other people is a choice, but we should always be ready to describe it to ourselves.

A good model simplifies reality in a way that enables wise judgments. It should include the most significant components of the situation and link them together. It will certainly not be complete or conclusive; in fact, an important reason to make our model explicit is to help think about what it may omit, what it assumes without sufficient evidence, how it may appear wrong to people who’ve had different experiences, and how it would change if the world changed.

In our Introduction to Civic Studies course so far this fall, we have already explored various models. For instance, Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues developed a template for modeling almost any institution, the Institutional Analysis and Design (IAD) framework. I discuss that framework in this 11-minute recorded lecture. (I also offer an introductory lecture about Ostrom). Later, we examined the social theory of Jürgen Habermas, which I presented as a model involving the Lifeworld, Public Sphere, and Systems in this 29-minute lecture. Both examples can be represented in the form of flow charts. But we also unpacked Robert Putnam’s model of social capital, in which the main construct–composed of numerous elements–causes good social outcomes (see this 18-minute lecture). And we discussed the mental model that guided the leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott when they chose to target the city’s bus company.

As these examples suggest, models can come in many forms. They need not be presented visually; Putnam’s model is an equation, and narratives also work. (We read a little of Pierre Bourdieu, who presented a model in the form of an emblematic story.) The components can be many kinds of things, from actors to psychological constructs to ideals. And the connections can be equally various. One component may cause or influence another, or it may exemplify, help to compose, encompass, intend, ground, block, explain, or evolve into another part of the model.

I would go so far as to describe making and critically assessing one’s own models as a fundamental civic skill.

See also: two models for analyzing policy; why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon

decentralization and civic capacity in Ukraine

Ukrainian friends have been telling me for a decade about the value of decentralization in their country. Some have even argued that it helped prepare Ukraine for an effective and motivated military defense.

A new paper by Arends, Brik, Herrmann and Roesel (2023) offers relevant quantitative evidence. The authors explain that, in “2014, the Parliament of Ukraine amended the budget code to entitle villages and cities which amalgamated voluntarily into larger local governments, so-called ‘territorial hromadas’ …. Hromadas therewith become independent from local branches of the national administration. The newly created local governments also qualified for a 60 percent share of the personal income tax collected within their jurisdiction.”

In 2015, the hromadas gained power over schools, libraries, hospitals and health centers, local roads, and fire and emergency services. In 2018, they were also given “ownership of formerly state-owned land within their jurisdiction.”

The process was popular and widespread. By 2020, “more than 10,000 Ukrainian villages, settlements and cities were amalgamated into 1470 new hromadas now enjoying considerable autonomy over local affairs.”

Arends et al show that areas with and without hromadas started with similar levels of trust in local and national government, but the ones that created hromadas saw substantial increases in trust for local (but not national) government. This empirical evidence is strongly suggestive that the reform caused trust to rise.

Here are a few reflections based on theory and studies from other countries.

First, I don’t read the paper as a general argument for decentralization, per se. Independent Ukraine had inherited a highly centralized system from the Soviet Union, and it was wise to moderate that by strengthening the local layer. The study does not imply that more power should necessarily be devolved to localities if they are already strong.

More important, I suspect, was the way the reform was designed. Contiguous communities were permitted to assemble themselves voluntarily into hromadas. This was a bottom-up process, requiring substantial agreement at the local level. One advantage was avoiding corruption: politicians and bureaucrats could not extract benefits by deciding which new local units to create or by conferring autonomy on favored local leaders. Another advantage was civic experience. Quite a few local stakeholders had to come together to negotiate and present each plan for a new hromada. They would later be able to use their network-ties, deliberative experience, and confidence for other purposes.

Second, trust in government is not intrinsically desirable. People should distrust bad governments. Some have argued that “trust” is not quite the right word for an attitude toward the state, which should rather inspire “confidence” if it functions well.

But we have survey data on trust, and the authors make good use of it to support a valuable empirical case. Still, the really interesting question is whether governance improved as a result of the reform. For example, did corruption fall? Trustful opinions may indicate improvement, because citizens are well placed to assess government, but I think the accuracy of their opinions deserves further attention.

At the same time, trust in government is often found to be a component of the construct labeled “social capital.” And social capital is a resource that communities can use to address problems–including corruption. But although trust in government is empirically a component of social capital (meaning that it correlates with the other components), it doesn’t suffice. It would be interesting to know whether Ukrainians in hromadas also developed other aspects of social capital, such as habits of participating in discussions and meetings and helping each other voluntarily.

Reference: Helge Arends, Tymofii Brik, Benedikt Herrmann, Felix Roesel,
Decentralization and trust in government: Quasi-experimental evidence from Ukraine,
Journal of Comparative Economics, 2023. See also: two approaches to social capital: Bourdieu vs. the American literature; social movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own); civilian resistance in Ukraine, revisited.

turning away from disagreement: the dialogue known as Alcibiades I

The dialogue known as Plato’s Alcibiades I is now widely believed to have been written after Plato’s death, hence by someone else (Smith 2003). Perhaps that is why no one has ever told me to read it. But it is an indisputably ancient text, and it’s a valuable work of philosophy.

In several places, Michel Foucault discusses Alcibiades I as the earliest text that offers an explicit theory of what he calls “spirituality” (Foucault 1988, 23-28; Foucault 1981, 15-16). For Foucault, spirituality is the idea that reforming one’s soul is a necessary precondition for grasping truth. One way to summarize Alcibiades I might be with this thesis: You are not qualified to participate in politics until you have purified your soul enough that you can know what is just. That is an anti-democratic claim, although one that’s worth pondering.

At the beginning of the dialogue, we learn that Alcibiades will soon give a speech in the Athenian assembly about a matter of public policy. He is talented, rich, well-connected, and beautiful, and his fellow citizens are liable to do what he recommends. Athens is a rising power with influence over Greeks and non-Greeks in Europe and Asia; Alcibiades aspires to exercise his personal authority at a scale comparable to the Persian emperors Cyrus and Xerxes (105d). However, Alcibiades’ many lovers have deserted him, perhaps because he has behaved in a rather domineering fashion (104c). Only his first lover, Socrates, still cares for him and has sought him out—even as Alcibiades was looking for Socrates.

Alcibiades admits that you should not expect a person who is handsome and rich to give the best advice about technical matters, such as wrestling or writing; you should seek an expert (107a). Alcibiades plans to give a speech on public affairs because it is “something he knows better than [the other citizens] do.” (106d). In other words, he claims to be an expert about politics, not just a celebrity.

Socrates’ main task is to dissuade Alcibiades from giving that speech by demonstrating that he actually lacks knowledge of justice. Alcibiades even fails to know that he doesn’t know what justice is, and that is the most contemptible form of ignorance (118b).

Part of Socrates’ proof consists of questions designed to reveal that Alcibiades lacks clear and consistent definitions of words like “virtue” and “good.” The younger man has no coherent theory of justice. This is typical of Socrates’ method in the early dialogues.

A more interesting passage begins when Socrates asks Alcibiades where he has learned about right and wrong. Alcibiades says he learned it from “the many”–the whole community–much as he learned to speak Greek (110e, 111a). Socrates demonstrates that it is fine to learn a language from the many, because they agree about the correct usages, they retain the same ideas over time, and they agree from city to city (111b). Not so for justice, which is the main topic of controversy among citizens and among cities and which even elicits contradictory responses from the same individuals. The fact that the Assembly is a place of disagreement shows that citizens lack knowledge of justice.

In the last part of the dialogue, Socrates urges Alcibiades to turn away from public affairs and rhetoric and instead make a study of himself. That is because a good city is led by the good, and the good are people who have the skill of knowing themselves, so that they can improve themselves. For Foucault, this is the beginning of the long tradition that holds that in order to have knowledge–in this case, knowledge of justice–one must first improve one’s soul.

Socrates verges into metaphysics, offering an argument that the self is not the observable body but rather the soul, which ought to be Alcibiades’ only concern. This is also why Socrates is Alcibiades’ only true lover, for only Socrates has loved Alcibiades’ soul, when others were after a mere form of property, his body.

The dialogue between the two men has been a conversation between two souls (130d), not a sexual encounter or a public speech, which is an effort to bend others’ wills to one’s own ends. Indeed, Socrates maintains from the beginning of the dialogue that he will make no long speeches to Alcibiades (106b), but will rather permit Alcibiades to reveal himself in response to questions. Their dialogue is a meant, I think, as a model of a loving relationship.

Just to state a very different view: I think there is rarely one certain answer to a political question, nor is there a decisive form of expertise about justice. However, good judgment (phronesis) is possible and is much better than bad judgment. Having a clear and structured theory of justice might be helpful for making good judgments, but it is often overrated. Fanatics also have clear theories. What you need is a wise assessment of the particular situation. For that purpose, it is often essential to hear several real people’s divergent perspectives on the same circumstances, because each individual is inevitably biased.

Socrates and Alcibiades say that friendship is agreement (126c) and the Assembly evidently lacks wisdom because it manifests disagreement. I say, in contrast, that disagreement is good because it addresses the inevitable limitations of any individual.

Fellow citizens may display civic friendship by disagreeing with each other in a constructive way. Friendship among fellow citizens is not exclusive or quasi-erotic, like the explicitly non-political relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates, but it is worthy. We need democracy because of the value of disagreement. If everyone agreed, democracy would be unnecessary. (Compare Aristotle’s Nic. Eth. 1155a3, 20.)

Despite my basic orientation against the thesis of Alcibiades I, I think its author makes two points that require attention. One is that citizens are prone to be influenced by celebrities–people, like Alcibiades, who are rich and well-connected and attractive. The other is that individuals need to work on their own characters in order to be the best possible participants in public life. But neither point should lead us to reject the value of discussing public matters with other people.

References: Smith, Nicholas D. “Did Plato Write the Alcibiades I?.” Apeiron 37.2 (2004): 93-108; Foucault, “Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault,” edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton (Tavistock Press, 1988); Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Lectures at the College de France 1981-2, translated by Graham Burchell (Palgrave, 2005). I read the dialogue in the translation by David Horan, © 2021, version dated Jan 1 2023, but I translated the quoted phrases from the Greek edition of John Burnet (1903) via Project Perseus. See also friendship and politics; the recurrent turn inward; Foucault’s spiritual exercises