Monthly Archives: July 2003

civic engagement in “the projects”

I was in New York City today, meeting with people who help young

people play serious roles in HUD’s HOPE VI program. This is the program

that tears down very troubled federal housing projects—usually dense clusters

of crime-ridden high-rises—and replaces them with more dispersed, small-scale,

economically diverse housing. In quite a few HOPE VI sites across the country,

young people from "the projects" are participating in planning, mapping

assets, or starting "social entrepreneurship programs" such as micro-businesses

and farmers markets. These are powerful stories and there’s a lot of potential

for more good work in HOPE VI sites.

against intuitionism


still in Indianapolis at the Kettering Foundation

retreat. Meanwhile, here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately:


moral philosophers appeal to intuitions as the test of an argument’s validity.

At the same time, they presume that our moral judgments should conform to clear,

general rules or principles. An important function of modern moral philosophy

is to improve our intuitions by making them more clear, general, and consistent.


methodology can be attacked on two fronts. From one side, those who admire the

rich, complex, and ambiguous vocabulary that has evolved within our culture over

time may resist the effort to reform traditional moral reasoning in this particular


As J.L. Austin wrote: "Our common stock of words embodies all

the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and all the connexions they have

found worth marking, in the lifetime of many generations." Thus there is

a lot of wisdom contained in the vague and morally indeterminate vocabulary that

ordinary language gives us. Words like "love" introduce complex and

not entirely predictable penumbra of allusions, implications, and connotations.

Barely conscious images of concrete events from history, literature, and our personal

lives may flit through our heads when someone uses words. Everyone may recall

a somewhat different set of such images, sometimes with contrary moral implications.

This array of sometimes inconsistent references is problematic if we prize clarity.

Hence moral theorists attempt to excise overly vague terms or to stipulate clear

meanings. But the complexity and vagueness of words is beneficial (rather than

problematic) if human beings have embodied in their language real family resemblances

and real ambiguities. There really are curries, and it would reduce our understanding

of food to ban the word "curry" for vagueness or to define it arbitrarily.

Likewise, there really is "love," and it would impoverish our grasp

of moral issues to try to reason without this concept or to define it in such

a way that it shed its complex and ambiguous connotations, some of which derive

from profound works of poetry, drama, and fiction.

The methods of modern

philosophy can be attacked on another flank, too. Instead of saying that philosophers

are too eager to improve our intuitions, we could say that they respect intuitions

too much. For classical pagans and medieval Christians alike, the test

of a moral judgment was not intuition; it was whether the judgment was consistent

with the end or purpose of human life. However, modern moral philosophers deny

that there is a knowable telos for human beings. Philosophers (as Alasdair

MacIntyre argues) are therefore thrown back on intuition as the test of truth.

Even moral realists, who believe that there is a moral truth independent of human

knowledge, must still rely on our intuitions as the best evidence of truth. But

this is something of a scandal, because no one thinks that intuitions are reliable.

It is unlikely that we were built with internal meters that accurately measure


some pedantry

I’m en route to Indianapolis for

the summer retreat of the Kettering Foundation.


is a completely unrelated and pedantic issue, but I have to get it off my chest.

There is (or should be) no such word as "syllabi." "Syllabus"

is a fourth declension Latin noun, so its plural is not "syllabi" but

"syllabûs" (pronounced "syllaboos"). Since handing out

the "syllaboos" on the first day of class would make anyone look like

the world’s most extreme nerd, I use "syllabuses"—perfectly good


For exactly the same reason, there are no "octopi." "Agendae"

is another Latin-sounding word that isn’t grammatically valid. The word "agenda"

is already plural, meaning "the things that need to be done." If we

want to make it plural, then "agendas" will do. I haven’t heard "agendae"

much, but Google finds 2,760 uses of it.

While we’re at it, "hoi

polloi" means "the people," so "the hoi polloi"

means "the the people." Which is kind of like saying "the La Brea

tar pits" (literally translated as "the The Tar tar pits.")


I’ve said my piece.

historians on the civic ed. bill

This is from the National

Coalition for History (NCH)

Washington update:

We now have some additional information

and some troubling news … The Senate appropriations committee recommends a program

increase of $15 million specifically for the President Bush’s "We the

People" initiative [to promote the teaching of history and civics in

schools]. While at first the increase might appear to be a cause for celebration,

the committee failed to embrace the administration’s recommendation of $25 million

and it made it clear that it wants the final design of the NEH’s "We the

People" initiative to reflect "congressional priorities" — meaning

pending legislation (S. 504) sponsored by Senator Lamar Alexander — the "American

History and Civics Education Act of 2003" — that recently passed the

Senate 90-0 and is currently pending in the House.

For what

little it’s worth, I have endorsed the

Alexander bill, which would mainly create summer academies for teachers and students.

However, it would be troubling if the necessary money came straight out of the

NEH budget.

According to the NCH, some in the "history community …

point out that the Alexander bill is heavily loaded with what is characterized

as ‘value-laden concepts,’ thus raising concerns about ‘the politicization of

the teaching of history.’" The ideal of value-free history is dubious, for

both epistemological and moral reasons. However, I can see the historians’ point

that it is dangerous for Congress to mandate particular values in the teaching

of history. At least, this should be done carefully and with public debate. I

also think that there is a difference between "civics" (which ought

to be heavily value-laden) and history (which needs to be more "objective").

This difference makes it problematic to lump history and civics together in the

same federal program with the same authorizing language.

a civics textbook

It’s looking increasingly likely that I will write a short,

commissioned book between now and mid-September: an introduction to issues and

ideologies for first-time voters. Getting it done by then will be a sprint, but

I think it will be worthwhile. We may give away some of the content on a free

public website—both as a modest public service and also as a way to generate

interest in the book.