Monthly Archives: January 2003

state voter guides

I spent the morning discussing policies of the National

Alliance for Civic Education. The meeting was at the American Political

Science Association (APSA) headquarters near Dupont Circle in Washington.

I love the building, which is an elegant, Victorian, stone row house.

I think the architecture could be described as Byzantine Revival—there’s

an arch over the door carved with intricate plant forms. Inside, it’s

rather ramshackle: little rooms, piles of reports, filing cabinets that

don’t quite fit, window air-conditioning units. It reminds me of the houses

at the periphery of major universities that get turned into anthropology

departments or study-abroad offices.

Two draft articles have come across my desk lately indicating that people—especially

young people without a lot of education—are more likely to vote if

they receive a state voter guide in the mail. Washington and Oregon

produce guides that give space to every candidate to describe his or her

positions. Everyone (or every registered voter?) in the state gets one

automatically. I’m becoming a zealot for voter guides because they lower

the cost of acquiring information. They are also a form of campaign-finance

reform, because they subsidize communication with state money—equally

for all candidates—and thereby lower the value of each dollar of

private money. Finally, you can make the candidates who choose to participate

swear that their statements are truthful. Rep. Wes Cooley (R-OR) was convicted

of lying on official documents when he claimed in the voter guide

that he had served in the special forces in Korea, when he had done no

such thing.

paid public service (etc.)

My first stop today was a meeting with people who counsel Maryland’s

applicants for national scholarships, such as the Rhodes and Marshall.

I advise our Rhodes applicants, partly because I want to level the playing

field between this state university and the private institutions that

win most of the awards. I served on the Rhodes Trust’s selection committee

in the early 1990s and can give our applicants good advice. It’s also

an opportunity to push for more paid public service at Maryland.

Our applicants are often at a disadvantage because they must work 40 hours

a week for money, which is not the case at well-endowed private universities.

However, this liability actually looks like an advantage when one realizes

that public service shouldn’t be a discretionary, volunteer activity that

is sandwiched between work, family, and leisure time; it should rather

be an aspect of our paid, professional lives. (See

Many of our students are idealistic but not rich, so they have found ways

to be paid for working in government or the nonprofit sector. Others have

turned ordinary jobs into public-service opportunities. For instance,

one recent candidate worked at a bank where she organized an important

outreach program. This was an impressive achievement that predicts a lifetime

of public service. I have been arguing that we should encourage, recognize,

and reward such work—both because it is the right thing to do and

because it is a good long-term strategy for Maryland to win prestigious


Incidentally, there is pending

legislation that would force colleges to use more of their federal

work-study funds to pay for off-campus jobs with a service element. This

was originally a major purpose of the work-study program, but today colleges

spend just seven percent of their funds for off-campus employment. (They

prefer their subsidized student workers to distribute their department

mail and clean cafeteria dishes.)

Later in the day, amid much practical work involving The Civic Mission

of Schools, I made a showing

the population of Prince George’s County, by race, since 1940. There was

a huge egress of White people starting at just the same time as busing

(1971). Of course, the mere departure of White people is not necessarily

a bad thing, nor was busing necessarily the cause. But it’s food for thought,

and we will bring the graph to class next week.

the value of studying history

As usual, the most interesting part of my day is working with the class

of students at Northwestern High School. They interviewed a White teacher

who had taught in the County schools from 1968 to the present, as his

students changed from all White, to Whites plus one African American kid,

to almost exclusively children of color. The teacher claimed that this

change had occurred slowly enough that he hardly noticed it and that it

made no difference, since "teenagers are teenagers." He asked

the kids what they had learned in our class so far. Several said that

they had gained an appreciation of Prince George’s County. This is surprising,

since the history we have studied is mostly about racism and exclusion.

But one young woman said, "I thought it was the boringest county

ever." The fact that dramatic changes had occurred here made our

community seem interesting. The fact that the changes involved school

policies made the kids feel part of an important (and contested) institution.

And the fact that teenagers were sometimes protagonists in the civil rights

stuggle gave them a sense of their own power and responsibility. At least,

this is my interpretation of what the students said.

We have now conducted half a dozen interviews as a whole class or as

individuals. Meanwhile, I have been thinking a bit about historical method.

We have encountered several contrasting perspectives on the same events—especially

the arrival at Northwestern of one African American student in 1955, which

we’ve heard described by himself, his sister, and a teacher. It’s not

hard to see that there’s one truth about the past, albeit a complex one.

standardizing medicine

A bad day for blogging, because I’m very busy with the technical details

of preparing our joint report with the Carnegie Corporation, the Civic

Mission of Schools. Choosing paper stock is not interesting to write

about. I did quickly email the National

Library of Medicine to ask about the budget and mission statement

for Medline. The reason

is that I am supposed to work with some Dutch colleagues on a project

concerning "the reliability of medical information on the Internet."

(We are funded by the Netherlands government, which is one reason I took

the job.) The tension I hope to explore is between medicine as a standardized

discipline and the Internet as a wide-open medium. Medicine has been standardized

because there is supposed to be "one best treatment" for a given

condition (when fully described), based on the best scientific evidence

available at the time. Although physicians still have great discretion

and often offer divergent advice, powerful forces work to standardize

medicine. It is illegal to practice medicine without a license or to use

or sell regulated drugs without a prescription. To gain a medical license,

one must pass through an elaborate training and socialization process,

including graduation from an accredited medical school and apprenticeship

under experienced physicians. One then bears marks of membership in an

exclusive body: diplomas on the office wall, a white lab coat, an expectation

that one is to be addressed as "doctor." The Internet, poses

a threat—not only to these professional prerogatives—but also

to the "one best treatment" ideal. Someone who wants to locate

medical information or advice online can easily find herself looking at

a mix of official recommendations and highly eccentric ideas promoted

by laypeople. It is considerably harder to tell the difference between

official and unofficial advice than it was in the old days, when the main

sources of information were people in white coats and refereed journals.

In response, the National Library of Medicine, a $250 million/year federal

agency, has created a single Website that lays out the "one best

treatments." I am going to try to assess the result. To put my basic

question boldly: should we hope that everyone who goes online for medical

advice goes to Medline? If yes, what policies can the government adopt

to channel people there? If no, why not?

with Volokh, Reynolds, and Balkin

A little more than two weeks ago, I moderated a panel at the Association

of American Law Schools Conference. Two of the panelists were famous bloggers

(so I’ll use their full names): Glenn

Reynolds and Eugene Volokh.

I had not selected the panel—Amitai

Etzioni had arranged the whole event—and I was so ignorant about

blogging that I failed to mention their blogs when I introduced these

two panelists. (Meeting them may partly explain why I got into this business.)

In any case, I have continued to think a lot about the discussion that


First of all, I’ve been thinking about public engagement. Professor

Volokh graduated from UCLA with a BS in computer science at the age of

15, and then worked as programmer for some time before he became a law

school professor. I asked him why he made the switch, and he explained

that he wanted to lead a "public life" by testifying, writing

opinion pieces for newspapers, etc. This kind of opportunity has a certain

appeal for me, too, although I’m not sure that I could break into the

mass media even if I tried—and I don’t try very hard. The reason

I don’t try is that I want to lead a different kind of "public life."

My goal is to help build and sustain public institutions or communities.

That is quite different from expressing opinions (even informed and interesting

ones) on broad matters of national or international concern. Institutions

don’t primarily need people to express opinions; they need organizational

work and products appropriate to their mission. Also, the institutions

within which someone like me can have an impact are necessarily limited

in scope. They either work in particular geographical locations or else

they deal with fairly narrow issues. Unless you’re the Pope or the president,

you can’t work through institutions and deal directly with all the great

issues of the world. So I think that there is a trade-off between addressing

a big audience and working within organizations. I seem to have chosen

the latter course.

Second, the panel was populated by First Amendment lawyers, and for them

the Internet is primarily interesting as a venue for cheap speech.

It’s extremely expensive to communicate through media like print or television,

but it’s cheap to operate a Website or to send out bulk emails. Thus the

Internet is supposed to be very good for freedom of speech. I find myself

unpersuaded. The more people communicate on the Internet, the more they

have to split the available audience, to the point that the average online

"speaker" (that’s me) probably talks to two or three people.

Being able to communicate to such a small number is no great advance over

the olden days, when you could put up a poster. Also, "cheap speech"

often turns into the blather of chat rooms. That is because people abuse

common spaces by dumping ill-informed or uncivil speech into them. So

I have realized that I am interested in the possibilities of the Internet

for "affordable speech," not "cheap speech." Given

the new digital technology, we can now create such goods as streaming

videos, interactive online maps, local newspapers, and structured deliberations.

These goods cost thousands of dollars instead of hundreds of thousands.

The result is a great advance for the First Amendment, as many more people

can participate in creating things of value. However, "affordable

speech" is not free—indeed, it’s out of the reach of most community

groups and non-profits. Which is why I am so interested in creating institutional

support for public uses of the Internet.