In between work on youth civic engagement, I’m writing a book about moral philosophy, using Dante as the main text. I recently remembered a relevant but unpublished article that I had written about 1991–when I was approximately 24 and finishing graduate school. Although I couldn’t find an electronic copy of the essay, I did manage to dig up an old dot-matrix printout of it, with corrections pasted over the mistakes to save printer paper. I remembered nothing about the content, so reading it was like reading someone else’s work, except that I happened to own the intellectual property rights. I’m not sure that I want to reuse any of it in my current work, because the argument is now rather unfamiliar to me, and I haven’t decided what I think of it. Meanwhile, it occurred to me that I cannot do philosophical work that’s much (or any?) better than that article today. This is disturbing, to say the least, because I don’t think of myself as being much of a scholar ca. 1991. I certainly had difficulties getting things published in those days, and probably for good reason. Yet I have no confidence that my current book-in-progress is any better than that old article. At any rate, it starts with a good quote (from the preface to Dewey’s Philosophy and Civilization, 1931):
philosophy, like politics, literature and the plastic arts, is itself a phenomenon of human culture. Its connection with social history, with civilization, is intrinsic. There is current among those who philosophize the conviction that, while past thinkers have reflected in their systems the conditions and perplexities of their own day, present-day philosophy in general, and one’s own philosophy in particular, is emancipated from the influence of that complex of institutions which forms a culture. Bacon, Descartes, Kant each though with fervor that he was founding it anew philosophy because he was placing it securely upon an exclusive intellectual basis, exclusive, that is, of everything but intellect. The movement of time has revealed the illusion. … Philosophers are part of history, caught in its movement; creators perhaps in some measure of its future, but also assuredly creatures of its past.
The National Security Archive (a private group that sues to declassify government documents) released a set of very important materials today. This is the story they tell: in 1983 and 1984, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran and against Kurdish “insurgents” within Iraq. On March 5, 1984, the US acknowledged and publicly criticized these attacks. However, there followed a series of private meetings with Iraqi officials that had a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” quality to them. At a meeting involving Secretary of State George Schultz, the Americans “clarified that our cw [chemical weapon] condemnation was made strictly out of our opposition to to the use of lethal and incapacitating cw, wherever it occurs. They emphasized that our interests in (1) preventing an Iranian victory and (2) continuing to improve bilateral relations with Iraq, at a pace of Iraq’s choosing, remain undiminished.” (Emphasis added.) These are quotes from a briefing memo for Donald Rumsfeld, who was preparing to go to Iraq, where he presumably delivered a similar message while shaking Saddam’s hand. On Nov. 26, 1984, the US and Iraq restored diplomatic relations. In 1988, Saddam used chemical weapons on a much larger scale against Kurdish villagers.
I recognize that the US had a legitimate interest in containing Iran. Furthermore, there is something to be said in defense of our system: despite its desire for good relations with Iraq, the US government had to acknowledge Saddam’s use of poison gas publicly, thus embarrassing him before the world. On the other hand, the public denunciation had little force if very senior US officials also conveyed the message that our interest in good relations “remained undiminished.” Thus the record should show that the US chose not to warn Iraq against using poison gas in 1984. The subsequent use of chemical weapons against Kurds constituted genocide, for which the United States must therefore bear some moral (if not legal) responsibility.
Today was a day for thinking about youth civic engagement from various angles. It started with a long conference call to go over the results of a new national youth poll that some partners and CIRCLE will release in January. Then some University of Maryland colleagues and I went to a high school in Hyattsville, MD to talk to the principal about three classes that we’re organizing for his kids. They’re all civics courses, in the broad sense. One will concern youth relations with the police. A second will continue oral history research that we have done in the past–the topic being the desegregation of the county schools. (This is the history website that our kids built last year.) And the third will involve mapping the food and exercise assets of the community. After almost two hours with the principal, I went to my office and worked on a meeting that we’ll hold in January to discuss the latest research on how to mobilize young voters. And then I spent some time on the phone discussing the organization of the “Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools,” as we’re now calling a coalition effort to implement the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report. All this talk leaves me with no energy for a blog on any other topic, but it was a rewarding day.
I love Gareth B. Mathews’ Philosophy & the Young Child (1980). It’s full of dialogues in which kids between the ages of 4 and 10 explore profound issues of metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethics with an adult who’s genuinely interested in their perspective. They supply fresh vision and curiosity; the adult provides some useful vocabulary and provocative questions.
Mathews believes that it’s hard to think straight about fundamental philosophical questions once you’ve been encumbered by a bunch of conventional theories–and once you’ve been told that most deep questions are really simple and obvious. For example, we’re inclined to think that a kid is silly if she asks why she doesn’t see double, since she has two eyes. Actually, this is not such an easy question to answer, but most of us are soon socialized to dismiss such matters as childish.
Thanks to an excellent speech by Dan Fallon (a former colleague of mine, now at Carnegie Corporation), I understand education policy much better. Dan shows that in the 1960s, experts and policymakers were much influenced by James Coleman’s massive studies, which were later confimed by Chrisopher Jencks. Using the data they had, these scholars found that you could predict academic success very accurately by looking only at the home and the neighborhood from which a kid came. In other words, schools didn’t matter; society did. Coleman in particular expressed caveats about this finding, but it was the simple summary of his work.