Monthly Archives: April 2004

embarrassment of riches

I don’t have an especially good CD collection. Nevertheless, I can listen any time I like to great performances of some of the most challenging and profound musical masterpieces ever written. I can half-listen to Casals play his heart out while I read a book or play with my kids. I can command Horowitz to re-play the same historic concert so many times that I’m bored of it. I can use a Bach keyboard CD as a little refresher between two grand operas. If we’re more in the mood for drama, the local video store has hundreds of superb movies, each the equivalent of an excellent theatrical performance. I sometimes think this easy access to masterpieces is almost sickening, as if our walls were lined with the freshest and most sumptuous creamy ?clairs and champagne poured from our faucets; or as if we were lazy emperors with bevies of geniuses for slaves. Once upon a time, even if you were rich and lived in a great cultural capital, you could only hear a Beethoven symphony once in a while. The other day, I listened to a beautiful passage that was on the radio in our supermarket–but I left when all my groceries were in the bag.

I’m not at all sure that this is a good way to live. It makes it hard to appreciate ordinary performances or to play music (or act) oneself. It probably lowers the demand for live music and drama and thus makes it harder to earn a living in those fields. It deadens our responses to the great works of the past. And it must be a terrible burden for people who want to create new works.

(These problems seem less serious in the visual arts, since photographs never come close to capturing the impact of original buildings, paintings, and sculptures. It also seems less serious with books, because one has to devote many hours of complete attention in order to read a book at all.)

moderate “particularism”

Here is an argument for a moderate form of the philosophical position known as “particularism.” A full-blown particularist believes that whole situations are either good or bad; they can be validly judged. However, the separate qualities or aspects of situations can only be assessed in context. A quality is neither good nor bad in all the cases where it arises. The very same quality may make x better and yet make y worse. For instance, the quality of generosity is (normally) good if it makes me donate to the homeless, but it is bad (and makes matters worse) if I give generously to a terrorist organization.

According to particularists, the moral aspects of situations are analogous to splashes of red paint. (This is Simon Blackburn’s analogy.) Adding a red splash might make a painting by de Kooning better, but a Vermeer worse; by itself, the red splash it is neither beautiful nor ugly. The de Kooning (overall) is a good painting and the Vermeer (overall) is a great one. We can make valid judgments, but only about whole works of art, not about small components of them.

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the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools

A coalition has formed to advocate implementing the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report across the United States. The coalition includes 42 individuals and groups, including such major stakeholders as both national teachers unions, the National Council for the Social Studies, the American Bar Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Education Commission of the States, the Center for Civic Education, and many more. The campaign has raised $2 million, most of which will be distributed to teams that will advocate civic education in their own states. The full plan calls for raising roughly another $1.6 million. The Campaign has not been formally launched with press releases and a website, but it is certainly no secret, having been announced at several large conferences. Last week was its second Steering Committee meeting, which I attended. (In fact, I’m the chair, although I don’t take that title overly seriously). Conversation was focused, thoughtful, and civil all day.

One of many issues that arose was how to make civic education seem more urgent to the many people who like the sound of it, but aren’t moved to promote it. I don’t know the answer, but I think that many people are deeply dissatisfied with the political culture (writ large). They don’t like the conversation they see on political talk shows, the campaign ads, the leaders of either party, or even the heads of our major non-profits. Certainly, some of these dissatisfied people have unrealistic expectations or have jumped to overly hostile conclusions. But some very thoughtful citizens rightly dislike the general tenor of political debate and the quality of our leaders. To them, we need to say, “What kind of leaders can we expect in 10 or 40 years if we don’t do a better job of civic education? Kids are being ‘educated’ by such spectacles as the White House press conference last week–and worse. If this is the only kind of education they get, then our public institutions and communities will face big trouble in the decades to come.”

thinking about my generation

When I was younger, I resisted thinking of “Generation X” is an important part of my identity. This was partly a personal trait: to the best of my limited ability, I wanted to be mature and not to follow reflexively the characteristic interests of people in their twenties. My resistance was also–paradoxically–a trait of Generation X. We were born in a demographic trough, outnumbered and often overlooked. We were at least somewhat alienated by our predecessors’ talk of a Generation Gap, a Youth Movement, a Sexual Revolution, and a campus counterculture. We couldn’t detect any major social upheavals that distinguished us from the late Boomers. In 2002, 54.4% of us (i.e., those who were then between the ages of 26 and 37) said that “There is nothing particularly unique or distinctive about my age group.” In contrast, 68.7% of the younger adults and 50.8% of the “Greatest Generation” people said, “My age group is unique and distinct from other age generations.” (The Boomers themselves were split almost 50/50 on this question.)

Now, in my thirties, I’m much more likely to think of myself in generational terms. Because of my work with CIRCLE, it’s my job to study age cohorts. In particular, I’ve been much impressed by Karl Mannheim’s theory. Mannheim noted that babies are born every minute, so it is somewhat arbitrary to divide individuals into discrete generations. He argued, however, that our political and social opinions are relatively flexible when we are young. (I would explain this in terms of “rational ignorance”: we must form opinions, but once we’ve got them, it’s usually not worth the effort to change them.) Thus, whenever a major historical event occurs, it most deeply affects those who are between the ages of 15 and 25 at the time, and they turn into a “generation” with lasting traits.

The classic case was the World War I generation; service in that unbelievable slaughter permanently distinguished an age cohort from those too old or young to be drafted. The Vietnam generation went through a faint echo of the same phenomenon. (Incidentally, the big generation gaps are marked by changes in hair–World War I vets shaved off the Victorian mustaches, goatees, and long tresses of their fathers, whereas Boomers let their hair grow long. We in generation X have been characteristically unsure how to differentiate ourselves, hair-wise.)

Mannheim explains that each generation plays an essential role in the healthy evolution of a society. The older cohorts preserve memory and experience, but the younger ones help by not remembering too much. For example, we Gen-X’ers don’t remember Vietnam well enough to let it overwhelm the rest of modern history. In the nineties, I knew many young Madeleine Albright fans–people who wanted to avoid repeating Munich and cared less about Tet or Kent State. Boomers, of course, play an equally important role by keeping alive the traumas of more modern history.

Meanwhile, at a personal level, I’m beginning to draw some guidance and psychological support from identifying with my age cohort. Some of my peers are fabulously successful, running important firms and organizations like the ACLU, writing masterpieces, or holding senior academic positions at distinguished universities. But most of us are in the middle ranks. We are frequently called– as parents, teachers, and supervisors of younger colleagues–to share memories and experiences going back to the seventies. At the same time, we have parents, teachers, and supervisors of our own, who remember and know more than we do. We play a mediating role at this point in our lives.