Monthly Archives: January 2003

a textbook idea

I’ve been writing my proposal for an innovative high school civics textbook.

I’m tentatively calling it Civics for Citizens. Unlike any competing

text, it will combine challenging academic content with exercises and

materials designed to help students experience civic life through discussions

and community service. Furthermore, in the part devoted to academic instruction,

Civics for Citizens will present an unusual selection of topics.

Many high school civics and government texts contain difficult and detailed

information about the structure and process of government, but they never

introduce students to basic concepts from social theory, philosophy, and

economics—terms such as "externality," "utilitarianism,"

and "free rider." Yet these are the most influential ideas in

policy debates among researchers, regulators, and legislators. If young

citizens never learn these ideas, then they cannot participate in (or

even follow) crucial debates and must leave the outcomes to elites.

Consider the concept of an "externality," which seems at first

glance to be too technical for a civics class. Sometimes, a voluntary

exchange among free individuals creates harms for others who did not agree

to the deal. For instance, companies produce goods that their customers

willingly buy, but they also generate pollution that affects everyone.

This is an example of an externality. If you think that externalities

are serious problems, then you may want the government to interfere to

mitigate the damage. On the other hand, if you think that externalities

are mostly not serious problems—or that the burdens of regulation

are worse—then you may want less government interference. The debate

about how much the government should regulate is perhaps the central political

argument in modern times, and it rests on conflicting ideas about externalities.

As you go through life, your personal experiences and your understanding

of current events may help you to decide what you think about externalities

and regulations. But first you need to understand the underlying concepts.

the public interest media groups

I agreed today to serve on the dissertation committee of a graduate student

who wants to study the political strategy of the "progressive"

public-interest groups that lobby for changes in federal communications

policy. These groups (the so-called "geektivists")

are concerned about the way the Internet is regulated, legal treatment

of software monopolies, excessive intellectual property rights, and erosion

of privacy. I know them well; I have often been the sole academic at Washington

strategy meetings involving their issues. I encouraged the student’s dissertation,

because I am dissastisfied with the general approach of the progressive

national groups—an approach that derives from Ralph Nader and the

other consumer advocates of the early 1970s. They analyze complex issues

to determine what is in the "public interest"; identify enemies;

"expose" their crimes and misdemeanors; develop a simple, marketable

"message" through public opinion research, and then "mobilize"

popular support by making people angry. I find this approach ethically

dubious, because it isn’t sufficiently democratic (respectful of ordinary

people’s opinions and capacities) or deliberative (willing to recognize

alternative points of view). By making people angry, it often discourages

them or turns them away from politics. Above all, approach tends to fail

when pitted against professional corporate lobbying campaigns. Thus I

think that the proposed dissertation could be useful for activists well

beyond the telecommunications field.

an oral history interview

Our high school students interviewed a woman today who was one of only

two African Americans at an all-White junior high school in 1956, and

then the only one when her friend quit. She later chose to attend an all-Black

high school because she couldn’t stand the incessant (unprintable) racial

slurs and social ostracism. She related well with our kids (more than

half of whom were born in Africa), and gave them good arguments for voting

and otherwise participating. We also talked with the class about how to

present their historical research on their Website at

and came up with ideas that excited both them and us.

the State of the Union

I’m less reflexively anti-Bush than many of my friends and family members,

and I didn’t hate the State of the Union. But the "compassionate"

parts are disturbing—as a reflection of our political culture, if

not of George W. personally. The two new domestic programs (addiction

treatment and mentoring) combined will cost about one third of $1 billion

a year. That’s one six hundredth of the average annual cost of the proposed

tax cuts (if one assumes that the alternative minimum tax will be reduced,

as everyone expects). Since we are running huge deficits, this $1 billion

of new compassion is not actually spending; it’s borrowing against future

generations. I don’t necessarily think that these particular programs

should be larger than Bush has suggested; it’s just that a president should

not be able to distract attention from major issues by proposing such

tiny initiatives. (Clinton, of course, mastered this art under the tutelage

of Dick Morris). As for the AIDS funding for Africa—it’s welcome.

But we have a clear and unavoidable moral obligation to spend modest amounts

of money to lengthen millions of human lives, so the self-congratulation

that accompanied this announcement is annoying. Apparently, there was

no prior consultation with African governments, so this was effectively

manna from heaven. And there was no hint that maybe the high cost of drug

cocktails results from patent laws in rich countries.

we need new civics texts

I’m working ineffectively on lots of separate projects, including trying

to fix the NACE Website so that it works for

older Web browsers. In between things, I’ve been writing a proposal for

a new kind of high school civics textbook. If I ever found a publisher

interested in it, I’d have to shelve a lot of other writing projects,

but it would be worthwhile.

The leading texts for high school government classes are basically political

science primers written at the tenth- or twelfth-grade level. They describe

the mechanics of the federal government as if from a distance, without

explaining how an ordinary citizen can play important roles in community

affairs, without addressing complex ethical and moral questions; without

helping students to reason about contemporary issues, and without describing

civic and political institutions other than the federal government (which

is remote from students’ lives).

Because textbooks deal mainly with the structure of the national government,

government classes have little connection to students’ direct experience

of civic and political issues, which they gain through community service,

membership in groups outside the school, and extracurricular participation.

Meanwhile, students’ practical experiences are largely separate from their

academic work, despite evidence that community service best encourages

civic development when it is combined with learning in the classroom.

In short, there is a profound need for a textbook that combines analysis

of political institutions; guidance about how to think about complex public

issues at all levels from the school to the world; a thorough and challenging

treatment of ethics; and practical instructions for meaningful community

service projects.