Monthly Archives: March 2003

the value of deliberating historical narrative

In our high school class, we spent almost two hours editing the text

that accompanies the first seven pictures in this slideshow

on the history of school desegregation in Prince George’s County.

We had planned to cover much more ground, but I believe the editing exercise

was extremely useful.

First, I don’t think the students usually edit what they write, so

this was a valuable experience for them.

Second, there are profound political differences implied by small changes

in the way you describe events. It sounds very different to say, "African

American students were required to ride buses to predominantly White

schools," or "The NAACP forced the County to bus students

to promote integration." Both are true; but the political implications

are hugely different. Trying to write narrative text is a wonderful

way to learn skills of historical interpretation.

Third, I kept pressing the class to make sure we had evidence for our

claims. They wanted to say, for example, that busing led to White protests

in Prince George’s County. This turned out to be true, but at first

nobody could remember any evidence to support the claim. I tried to

persuade the class that we have an obligation to prove to ourselves

that our assertions about specific places and times are right.

The text that is currently on the Website does not yet reflect the students’

latest edits. They were eager not to focus too much on their own high

school (which used to exclude Blacks as a matter of law). Our students

themselves would all be excluded today, but they still don’t like the

negative focus on their school. They also want to avoid a simple Black/White

narrative, since the communities they know are more ethnically and racially

diverse. But it’s hard to figure out what to say about other races in

the 1950s. It appears from old yearbooks that some people who would today

be called Latinos attended all-"White" schools. We have no data

on Hispanics/Latinos, since the Census did not use that category until

the 1970s. As for Asians, there were only 283 in the County in 1950, according

to the Census, so we don’t know what happened to their kids.

I also had an interesting conference call with NACE

members and participated in an "audio press conference" sponsored

by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

helping with a website


been spending a lot of time trying to improve the Prince George’s Information

Commons history Webpage,

which is modestly interactive. It’s still a work-in-progress. It reflects

the contributions of our high school students, although I ended up doing

most of the technical work because we just don’t have enough time with

the kids to teach them oral history techniques, the issue of desegregation,

and how to animate webpages. Tomorrow in class they will have a

chance to critique what I’ve done intensively and then I will try to implement

their ideas.

reading George W. Bush

I’ve been thinking a bit about various theories that eorge

Bush is pursuing war for unstated motives, some nefarious and some honorable.

These thought are prompted by a Michael

Kinsley editorial and various conversations and email exchanges with friends.

As a general rule, I don’t believe that we should try to assess leaders’ motives.

That’s because:

  1. We can never tell for sure what their motives are.

    (Or even what motivates our own actions.)

  2. Motives don’t matter.

    You can do a bad or stupid thing with the best intentions, or you can do a great

    thing for awful reasons. We need to spend our time thinking about policies, not


  3. A focus on motives makes us turn for advice to insiders,

    those who may have insight into leaders’ secret thoughts. (For example, presidential

    advisors, speaking off the record.) We should instead listen to fellow citizens

    and experts with knowledge of the substantive issue.


we cannot make a very intelligent judgment about war in Iraq, because so much

of the important information that George W. Bush has on his desk is classified.

Also, much depends on how the war will turn out in the end. No one knows, but

George Bush’s motives are relevant, since he will make many crucial decisions.

Thus it is hard not to think about his motives as a surrogate way of grappling

with the issue.

local governments and independent civic websites

I’m beginning to think about my presentation at the American Society

for Public Administration conference next Monday. (Click for the practical

details.) My title is "Local Governments and Independent Civic

Websites." I submitted the following abstract: "Communities

benefit when they have strong, broad-based, active, civic organizations.

Today, there is a need for new civic organizations or networks that are

devoted to producing public goods for distribution on the Internet: things

like searchable databases of local assets, interactive digital maps, structured

forums for informed public deliberation, alternative local news sources,

and art and history projects. These goods are not widely available, because

businesses have not learned how to make money from them, and they are

too expensive to be produced by individual citizens. However, for a reasonable

price, local governments can support such work without compromising its


a day without blogging

My day was consumed with three activities that are not appropriate topics

for a public/professional weblog: visiting my younger daughter’s nursery

school; preparing a two-year budget for CIRCLE;

and planning for a spring-break family vacation in Greece. This blog will

be back in action on Monday.