Monthly Archives: July 2005

the mailbag

I receive relatively few comments per visitor on this blog, but some very thoughtful responses do appear, often buried deep in the archives. Today, I’d like to mention a few.

1. The rationale for business schools. In January 2004, I asked whether “business schools belong in universities.” My thought was: business schools do not provide independent, critical views of the pros and cons of business, as political science departments debate the pros and cons of government and politics. Nor do they prepare graduates for professions that license people to practice in return for adherence to elaborate ethical codes. (Compare schools of medicine and law.) Instead, business schools provide practical training that has direct economic value for each graduate. Should this kind of education be subsidized by the state and protected by tenure and peer-review, or would it be better offered by the marketplace? David Jacobs and Hugh Wilmott, two professors of business or management, have similar concerns, and both point me to resources on “critical management studies.”

2. The press, moral standing, and an anti-gay preacher. Much more recently, I asked whether television news stations and the Washington Post were justified in camping outside a church to see whether a minister (and former mayoral candidate) would apologize for anti-gay remarks. I wanted to emphasize that the press exercises power when it demands a response from an individual, and that power (while protected by the First Amendment) deserves moral scrutiny. Even if someone says a very bad thing, it doesn’t follow that he ought to be forced to apologize–or say “no comment”–on live TV. However, arguments by Mike Weiksner and Richard Russo have persuaded me that I picked a bad example. Given Rev. Wilson’s public role in our city, it’s appropriate for the press to hold him accountable. (I’ll also take this opportunity to emphasize that I personally abhor what he said–but that’s a different issue.)

3. “Democracy” or “civic renewal”? Harry Boyte of the University of Minnesota is a major influence on this blog and all my work. He responded recently to my series of posts about the civic renewal movement. His response is characteristically rich and provocative; I’ll consider some of his themes in subsequent entries. However, one of his suggestions is quite straightforward. The movement I describe, he says, should be named a struggle for “democracy.” That is a word with deep roots and broad, international appeal. “Civic renewal,” in contrast, sounds narrow and a bit obscure.

I agree with this, although I think I’ll continue to talk about “civic renewal” myself. That’s because “democracy” is such a broad term that it covers all kinds of things I disagree with, including the invasion of Iraq. While we should try to reclaim the best aspects of the word “democracy,” I don’t have enough influence to make much of a difference in how it’s used. I like “civic renewal” because anyone who understands it at all knows what it means; it unambiguously names work that I support. But I’d be happy if our work in favor of “civic renewal” fed a movement for “democracy.”

civic skills, workplace skills (take 2)

I received some interesting comments in response to my recent post on the relationship between democratic education and education for the 21st-century workforce. So here is a different take, influenced by some good points from friends:

1. Jobs in the “information economy” require skills that are also essential for citizenship. Achieve, a nonprofit research organization created by the National Governors Association, has conducted surveys to determine the skills that are most demanded by employers and by college admissions officers (who, in turn, are gatekeepers to most of the best jobs). Achieve finds that successful workers in a knowledge economy must be able to collaborate in teams with diverse partners, communicating clearly and with civility. They must also be able to evaluate news reports critically, distinguish between reliable and unreliable online information, make public presentations, and in many other ways demonstrate skills that are equally necessary in a democratic community.

2. Intentional civic education is a good means to prepare people for skilled employment in the 21st century. Modern civic education includes classes on government, social studies, and history (which may involve debates, research projects, and site visits); service-learning opportunities that often combine practical problem-solving in the community with research and writing; appropriate student participation in the governance of schools; and simulations of lawmaking, judicial processes, and diplomacy. All of these pedagogies–which combine direct, practical experience with reflection on perennial issues and concepts–stand to teach the very skills that colleges and employers increasingly demand.

Nevertheless …

3. Good education for the job market is not adequate preparation for citizenship. There are two major reasons for this. First, even though all good jobs now require relatively advanced skills, they do not all demand civic skills. For example, the Achieve study finds that two manufacturing occupations that are growing and that pay good wages require advanced mathematics and literacy skills, including the ability to write memoranda and other analytical documents collaboratively. These occupations do not, however, require the ability to make oral presentations or to interpret the news–essential democratic skills. Thus, even in the 21st-century, a person can be well prepared for work and yet lack certain skills that would enable him or her to participate effectively in a democratic community.

Second, democratic participation requires some habits, skills, bodies of knowledge, and attitudes that are unnecessary in almost all jobs. For example, Achieve finds that high school graduates should be able to “analyze foundational U.S. documents for their historical and literary significance (for example, The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address,’ Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’). Indeed, citizens must understand these texts, which teach us our rights and responsibilities and the purposes of our public institutions. Many colleges rightly expect students to have such understanding–but that is because good colleges care about democracy. There is no necessary connection between understanding the founding documents of the American Republic and being effective in the workplace–as shown by the success of firms and employees in many foreign countries.

4. Communities are more economically successful when their residents have civic commitments and abilities. Statistics reveal a strong correlation between sustained prosperity and “social capital” (i.e., trust for other people and membership in groups). This correlation probably arises because people who work together to address local problems can form economic networks more efficiently, can reduce crime and corruption without as much dependence on the government, can gather and share information about assets and opportunities, and can persuade educated young people to stay in their community. However, successful civic collaboration requires habits and skills that, as Elinor Ostrom has shown, are counter-intuitive and contrary to people’s immediate, narrow self-interest. Therefore, participation in communities must be taught; it will not develop automatically.

Put together, these four points support the need for collaboration among civic educators, the business community, and those who are primarily concerned about students’ preparation for work. Civic education is not the same as training for the workforce–not even in a knowledge economy. Nevertheless, there is an important overlap between civic skills and workforce skills that suggest the need for dialogue and collaboration.

four kinds of unions

It is hard to know whether the breakup of the AFL-CIO is a good move or not. Making a reasonable guess would require a lot of detailed information (which I lack) about the differences among the breakaway unions and the ones that remain. However, from a theoretical perspective, I think it’s useful to distinguish four types of unions. These are “ideal types” in Max Weber’s sense; in the real world, they overlap and merge.

1. A classic craft union. Members share a similar expertise or training. They do not work for the same firm or even in the same industry; they may be freelancers. They have an interest in limiting the number of workers (or machines) that compete with them. Therefore, they form an association that provides training and licensing as well as other services, from insurance to social activities. In addition, the union tells employers that its members will only work in shops or on projects that are reserved for members alone. A craft union raises its members’ wages, but sometimes at the expense of those outside; and it may discriminate in invidious ways.

2. A public employee union. Teachers, police officers, firefighters, and welfare careworkers, among many others, hold difficult jobs in public service for which they often receive lousy wages and poor treatment. Therefore, it seems appropriate for them to organize and use both lobbying and strikes (or the threat of strikes) to protect their own interests. However, given any level of funding for public services, there is always a tradeoff between the interests of public employees and those of their “clients” (problematic as that term may be). Therefore, while I support the right to unionize in the public sector, I do not automatically take the unions’ side in actual disputes. In the case of education, which I know best, it seems to me that unions are right to demand higher wages and to oppose arbitrary authority, but wrong to protect seniority systems that send the newest teachers into the “worst” schools.

3. A political lobby. This kind of union organizes as many workers as possible, collects dues in return for representing its members in collective-beargaining, but puts most of its energy and discretionary resources into politics. It sees legislation, rather than employment contracts, as the best means to advance labor’s interests. It uses campaign contributions and volunteer labor either to support one party or to bolster pro-labor candidates in both parties. I believe that unions have a right to represent themselves politically (a form of “petition” protected in the First Amendment), and I think that their power can be a useful counterbalance to corporate power. However, there are many problems with this political strategy. Organized labor has limited power in an economy like ours, where many people work in jobs that don’t easily unionize. Also, there may be a very loose fit between the opinions of the rank-and-file and the negotiating position of their lobbyists and leaders. Finally, unions enter politics with a fiduciary responsibility to maximize the welfare of their members; therefore, they cannot participate very easily in open-ended deliberations about public policy that might take into account other issues.

4. An industrial union. This kind of union tries to raise its members’ salaries, benefits, and security by organizing as many workers as possible within a single industry. Whereas a craft union seeks to limit access to union jobs, an industrial union tries to grow as big as possible. It then uses the threat to withhold labor to strengthen its hand in direct bargaining with employers. An industrial union can make a mistake by demanding more that an industry can genuinely afford. However, I suspect that those mistakes are relatively rare. And barring a strategic error on the part of union leadership, I think the more they win at the bargaining table, the better.

It’s probably clear that I prefer “ideal type #4” to the others, although I believe that they too have rights. It appears that SEIU, the main breakaway union, is trying the hardest to be like #4, an industrial union in the old CIO mold. Therefore, my only question is whether SEIU’s departure from the AFL-CIO will enhance industrial unionism in America or only hasten its decline.

youth-led research on obesity and immigration

There is a cool new movie on the Prince George’s Information Commons website that students created as part of a project that I directed. You can click here to view it, but first, some background ….

More than a year ago, we received a grant from the National Geographic Foundation to help high school students study the “geographical causes of obesity.” There is an obesity epidemic that’s costing lives and that’s especially concentrated among adolescents of color; and our students at Northwestern High School were concerned about it. Our idea was to look for causes in the local landscape–in addition to more familiar factors like corporate advertising. This focus seemed promising for two reasons. First, young people might be able to do something about local land-use (and learn political skills in the process), whereas fast-food advertising campaigns are fairly intractable. Second, the literature suggests that local factors do matter. Having connected and well-lit sidewalks encourages walking. Having affordable, convenient sources of fresh produce encourages healthier eating; and so on. We happen to work in an area that is consistently low- to moderate-income, but the development pattern differs dramatically from block to block. Some places are suburban subdivisions; others look like part of a traditional city. So we hoped to explain the variation in food consumption and exercise patterns as a function of street layouts and other land-use patterns. And we hoped to do that as youth-led research, with high school students in charge.

This was too hard. The students did collect some data, but it was very equivocal, incomplete, and imperfect. Therefore, after several changes of course, we focused on a different intersection between geography and nutrition. Northwestern High School has a very large immigrant population, along with African American students who have typically migrated to Maryland from the South via DC. We thought we would investigate the way that food and exercise changed as families moved here from far away.

After many months of work, our student team has created a flash movie to capture their main findings. (They left much information on the cutting-room floor, but culled some highlights for a short video.) Their product is exciting for me, because I was present when all the audio and other data were collected, but I had nothing to do with creating the movie itself. I see some mistakes that need to be corrected sooner or later, but overall, I like it a lot.

a quick way to say “re-send”

Here’s an easy way to reply when you receive an email without the promised document:

please re-send email with document attached

You are welcome to borrow this image by right-clicking and saving to your computer, or by pasting the following into the source code of your email:

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