Monthly Archives: May 2004

exploiting the war dead for “politics”?

Beth Gillin wrote Saturday’s lead story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about peace activists who commemorate slain American soldiers in public ceremonies. She also discussed Ted Koppel’s decision to read the names of the American dead on “Nightline,” and Gary Trudeau’s naming some fallen soldiers in Doonesbury. I saw this article because Gillin interviewed me and quoted me twice, but I didn’t give her any interesting or profound ideas to use. (You have to register with the Inquirer to read the story, unfortunately.)

Many of today’s peace activists say that they are against the war but not against our troops. They want to distance themselves from that wing of the anti-Vietnam movement that vilified American soldiers of all ranks. They explain that they are deeply saddened by the loss of American lives; indeed, that’s one of their reasons for opposing the war. They want to grieve publicly and also to draw attention to our losses, as part of an argument against the invasion and occupation.

Koppel (whose program provoked massive controversy) denies having an anti-war motive, but he admits trying to make an editorial point:

The reading tonight of those 721 names was neither intended to provoke opposition to the war, nor was it meant as an endorsement. Some of you doubt that. You are convinced that I am opposed to the war. I?m not. But that?s beside the point. I am opposed to sustaining the illusion that war can be waged by the sacrifice of the few without burdening the rest of us in any way. I oppose the notion that to be at war is to forfeit the right to question, criticize, or debate our leaders? policies. Or, for that matter, the policies of those who would like to become our leaders. ?Nightline? will continue to do all of those things in the weeks and months to come. But not tonight. That is not what this broadcast was about.

Meanwhile, defenders of the war argue that it is wrong to commemorate our dead in these ways, at this time. They argue that it shows a lack of balance to emphasize casualties without providing context, such as lists of Saddam’s victims. They accuse Koppel and Trudeau of doing something inappropriate for their respective roles. (Koppel is supposed to break news; Trudeau is supposed to entertain; and a list of people killed in the past is neither news nor entertainment.) They worry that public grieving will weaken morale. Finally, they smell political manipulation. They see reciting the names of dead Americans as a way to play on citizens’ emotions, to attack the incumbent administration under the cover of patriotism. They claim that the deaths of military people are being exploited to attack the military itself.

I’m strongly in favor of these commemorations. Since I’m basically skeptical of the war itself, my stance wouldn’t surprise or persuade anyone on the other side of this particular issue. However, I think it’s worth considering a more general point. In modern America, we tend to see “politics” as deeply suspect. Thus any mixing of “politics” with journalism or with mourning and ceremony strikes us as inappropriate. But “politics” includes trying to persuade one’s fellow citizens about important issues–including war and peace. Thus understood, “politics” is a very noble and serious matter. There’s no pollution or manipulation involved in combining “politics” with other things. Indeed, one cannot create serious art, religion, or journalism in times of war without some admixture of “politics.”

Many people have made up their minds about the war. They intend to vote accordingly in November, and they believe that everyone else should vote the same way, or else the election will be a travesty. In this context, people are looking very critically at news organizations, schools, and religious congregrations for signs that leaders are trying to influence the vote. Regardless of our opinions about the war, however, we ought to be able to stomach emotional and powerful statements by people on the other side. Otherwise, we evidently lack the maturity to handle “politics” when the stakes are high.

“media literacy” means believing some things

I’m back from a conference on the reliability of information on the Internet. The motivation for the meeting was a concern about false information and people’s excessive credulity. There was a lot of talk about the need to educate young people not to believe everything they read online.

I’m beginning to think that credulity may not be our biggest problem. Every belief deserves to be tested. But what can you test a belief or claim against? Answer: other beliefs. In principle, science can proceed like that forever, testing each proposition and each method. But in practice, you can’t make any progress at all unless you treat much of what you know as reliable. If you doubt everything, you can say and do nothing. To borrow Otto Neurath’s metaphor, we are at sea, and we can repair our boat, but only one plank at a time. If we reject the whole thing, we sink.

I mention this because I suspect that some Americans–especially younger ones–suffer from a blanket skepticism. They doubt everything that politicians say, so they tune politics out. They doubt everything that journalists write, so they don’t use the press. And they note the prevalence of disagreement and uncertaintly in medicine, so they allow themselves to ignore all medical advice (especially the painful parts, like “eat your broccoli”). Thus I’m not as concerned about teaching young people to doubt what they read. I’m more interested in helping them to develop some sources on which they can rely.

The graph shows young Americans’ confidence in the press since 1972. (Source: General Social Survey; sample: ages 18-30). The dramatic drop in trust coincides with a steep decline in readership. Alternative news sources such as the Internet and talk radio have not come anywhere close to replacing newspapers as a source of information for young people.

a varied life

I am fortunate to enjoy a lot of variety in my professional life. Yesterday was a nice example. On my way to work, I thought about a seminar from the previous day when several senior colleagues had discussed a philosophical paper of mine. That discussion was challenging, intense, and enjoyable.

When I arrived at work, I wrote yesterday’s blog about Stanley Fish, mainly so that I could send it to a group of people (all targets of Fish’s critique) who have been discussing his article by email.

After some discussion of CIRCLE’s media strategy, I participated in two long conference calls: one for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the other for a taskforce of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. Each group is a coalition of organizations and individuals who have banded together to advance their field. Both coalitions have won foundation grants for their core operations, but they also depend upon voluntary contributions of labor from their members. Therefore, the discussion on both calls was largely about how we can work together more productively.

Finally, three colleagues and I picked up a batch of high school kids and took them out into their community to rate grocery stores and supermarkets for the quality of their food. I had drawn up a quick scoring rubric. Students were supposed to assign a store 1/3 of a point for each type of fresh fruit or vegetable it sells, 1 point for whole-wheat bread, 1 point for yogurt, and so on. The kids took their scoring sheets into stores and jotted down notes in the aisles. Twice in a row we were thrown out by managers who said, “You can’t do that here.” (What we were doing didn’t seem to interest them.) I felt increasingly uncomfortable about putting kids in this position–especially since they’re African-American adolescents, who don’t need extra occasions to be treated rudely by store managers. We gradually developed a method for surreptitious assessment. We’d reread our scoring sheets to remind ourselves of the questions, then enter the store, split up, and act like shoppers. It worked pretty well. (The product, for those new to this blog, will be a map to be posted on a community website.)

And now I’m on my way to Chicago for an American Libraries Association meeting on the reliability of online information. I really am grateful for this breadth of daily experience.

Stanley Fish vs. civic engagement

Last Friday, Stanley Fish wrote an essay in the New York Times attacking the “Civic Responsibility of Higher Education” and everything that document stands for. Fish is a brilliant Milton critic, controversialist, and builder of academic empires. It’s said that he’s proud to be the model for Morris Zapp, the cigar-chomping, aphorism-dispensing, fast-car-driving, bed-hopping hero/villain of two David Lodge novels, whose ambitions include being the best paid English professor in the world and saying everything that can possibly be said about Jane Austen, so that everyone else will have to shut up about her. The “Civic Responsibility of Higher Education,” meanwhile, is a sober and idealistic statement of the university’s role in democracy, written by some distinguished members of my organization’s Advisory Board and signed by 528 college presidents.

Fish raises some valid concerns. Those of us who work to enhance the civic purposes of higher education must keep in mind the dangers of that enterprise. Colleges are not necessarily good at creating active citizens. Trying to motivate young people to be active in civil society and politics can undermine the search for truth. Scholars can squander their credibility by opining on issues beyond their competence. Tom Ehrlich, one of the authors of “The Civic Responsibility of Higher Education,” quotes a similar warning written by Judge Learned Hand in his magnificent style:

You cannot raise the standard against oppression, or leap into the breach to relieve injustice, and still keep an open mind to every disconcerting fact, or an open ear to the cold voice of doubt. I am satisfied that a scholar who tries to combine those parts sells his birthright for a mess of pottage; that, when the final count is made, it will be found that the impairment of his powers far outweighs any possible contribution to the causes he has espoused. If he is fit to serve in his calling at all, it is only because he has learned not to serve in any other, for his singleness of mind quickly evaporates in the fires of passions, however holy. (“The Spirit of Liberty,” p. 138)

This is a useful caution, yet I think Fish is wrong to defend the “Ivory Tower” and disparage civic education and engagement in universities. I’d like to respond to four major points in his essay.

1. Colleges should do just one job, the only one for which they are qualified: “performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level.” They should have but one goal: “the search for truth.”

A college that pursued only knowledge and that exclusively hired people qualified for pure scholarship would look like the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton or All Soul’s College, Oxford. It would resemble a university minus the professional schools and occupational training programs, the departments of performing and creative arts, the offices of cooperative extension and tech transfer, the chapels and chaplains, the student centers and dorms, the teaching hospitals and lab schools, the athletic teams and marching bands. Frankly, it wouldn’t admit undergraduates, because education is not itself the “search for truth.”

Such an institution might be a nice place to work, but it’s hard to see how it could be funded. Fish warns, “don’t surrender your academic obligations to the agenda of any non-academic constituency?parents, legislators, trustees or donors.” This sounds right until you realize that these “constituencies” pay our salaries, and they must believe that we are serving valuable purposes. At no time in our history have Americans been satisfied with knowledge as the main purpose of higher education. They’ve paid to train the clergy, to educate young people, to expand access to the middle class, and even to win bowl games, but not primarily to pursue the truth. Consequently, faculty and staff are not (and have never been) solely expert at scholarship and science. They have many other skills.

2. There is a fundamental difference between scholarly argument and what we conventionally call “politics”; and the two should never mix. For example, “a dispute between scholars [about welfare reform] will not be political in the everyday sense of the word, because each side will represent different academic approaches, not different partisan agendas.”

This is a difficult issue, and I’m not satisfied with my own thinking. There is–and should be–an important difference between discussions of policies and issues in the academy, on the one hand, and in the political arena, on the other. But it’s relatively hard to put your finger on the difference. It’s certainly not true that academics take different sides on political issues because of their different academic approaches–as if all those who favored welfare reform were statistical modelers and those who opposed it were ethnographers. Ideology is a major (and appropriate) part of academic debate, as Fish well knows. Conversely, debates in legislatures, courts, and regulatory agencies are not devoid of controversy about research methods.

So there must be a large gray area. Nevertheless, we want scholars to think somewhat differently from activists and politicians: to take a longer view, to be less influenced by immediate tactical concerns, to be less committed to parties, to be more openly engaged with their intellectual opponents, to offer more complex and nuanced views. These values are more attainable in academia than in politics, and we should protect them. Yet they are compatible with “civic engagement,” done right.

3. “Universities could engage in moral and civic education only by deciding in advance which of the competing views of morality and citizenship is the right one, and then devoting academic resources and energy to the task of realizing it. But that task would deform (by replacing) the true task of academic work: the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching.”

Here Fish ignores a form of civic education that’s compatible with the classical liberal belief in personal freedom. He assumes that civic education means herding students along particular paths. It can be something quite different: expanding the breadth of their choices as adults by helping them to experience various forms of political and civic participation (along with various forms of artistic creativity, scholarly inquiry, appreciation of nature, and spirituality). Unless young people are explicitly taught about citizenship, they will not be free to choose to be active citizens, because they will know little except consumerism, entertainment, and careerism.

4. There is a zero-sum relationship between scholarship and engagement. “Performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level is a job big enough for any scholar and for any institution. And, as I look around, it does not seem to me that we academics do that job so well that we can now take it upon ourselves to do everyone else’s job too. We should look to the practices in our own shop, narrowly conceived, before we set out to alter the entire world. …”

Fish is right about certain research programs in certain disciplines. If you’re a student of Milton, you might learn something relevant by participating in current debates about religion. But such participation is equally likely to distract you from your best sources of information, which are in the library. There is, however, such a thing as research that contributes important new methods and knowledge to its discipline as a result of close engagement with communities.

For example, I doubt that Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues at the University of Indiana could have made crucial contributions to the theory of collective action if they had not worked closely with people who manage ?common-pool resources? (forests, fisheries, irrigation systems, and grazing lands) on several continents. They have drawn advice and inspiration from these people even as they have provided technical assistance and derived generalizable lessons. Likewise, Jane Mansbridge?s discovery of regular norms in consensus-based democratic organizations arose from her close and collaborative work with such groups.

These examples of engaged scholarship epitomize the “search for truth.” They also provide a way to address a sense of alienation that professors often feel. Many of us enter the profession with idealistic motivations, but find that we only contribute incrementally to the knowledge of fellow specialists, with whom we interact sporadically at conferences or by email. Engaging with communities can be profoundly rejuvenating.

As a Dean, Fish has clashed with “members of Congress, Illinois state representatives and senators, the governor of Illinois, the governor’s budget director, and the governor-appointed Illinois Board of Higher Education.” He says that he views all these people as “ignorant, misinformed, demagogic, dishonest, [and] slipshod.” They simply refuse to leave scholars alone to pursue knowledge (at public expense.) This kind of relationship with the outside world must be downright exhausting for Fish. He might find that civic engagement is a relief.