Monthly Archives: September 2005

ideology and the professoriate

I’m in New Brunswick, NJ, for the Imagining America national conference. I’ll speak tomorrow. My assigned theme is “difficult dialogues.” The other panelists will discuss a large, Ford-funded initiative by that name that seeks to “promote pluralism and academic freedom on campus.”

When I think about “difficult dialogues” in relation to the arts and humanities, the dialogue that strikes me as the most difficult and most necessary of all is a conversation between academics–who tend to be liberal or radical–and the 62 million Americans who voted for George W. Bush last November. I plan to argue that:

1. Academics are overwhelmingly liberal, especially in the arts and humanities. (I’ll cite some data to this effect.)

2. The gulf in attitudes between academics and the median US voters is causing tangible problems for intellectual culture and academia.

3. We can take some constructive steps to improve the situation.

I’ve covered several of those points on this blog before. However, I haven’t previously considered the following explanation for the gulf in attitudes between academics and median American voters. In global perspective, it is the US electorate, not the American professoriate, that is out of the mainstream. American professors are cosmopolitan, and thus share more with foreign peers and colleagues than with the ideological outliers back home.

Indeed, on a one-dimensional ideological scale from left to right, the median American voter is quite far to the right compared to the world’s population, and the median American academic is closer to the global middle. But this one-dimensional scale conceals all kinds of complexities. There are ways in which American voters-?populist, anti-authoritarian, libertarian, multiculturalist, and rights-oriented?-can be more “radical” than Europeans. There are certainly homegrown traditions of radicalism that are concealed if one applies the international definition of the “left.”

Besides, even if it’s true that American academics are centrists in the global dialogue and outliers only in our own country, that’s still a problem. Our country is where we live, earn our salaries, find our students, and?-in many cases?-hold citizenship. The gap may not be out fault, but it is our problem, because no one else is going to solve it for us.

I believe that a solution lies in an idea that Harry Boyte is developing. Boyte wants us to see ourselves as “culture makers” in a democratic society. Many Americans consider mass culture to be coarse, commercial, celebrity-driven, and violent. It’s very slick and doesn’t provide openings for ordinary people to create anything for a public audience. Culture also feels dangerously uncontrollable. You can’t shield yourself or your children from the vulgar aspects of mass culture without also insulating yourself from the news and public life. Hollywood and the music industry occasionally respond to targeted protest campaigns, but they don’t seem in general to care about people’s thoughtful and deliberative opinions about quality.

Democratic action through the state probably can’t make much difference. The First Amendment rightly protects media companies, even if they create coarse and violent material. But there is great potential for partnerships between lay citizens and professional “culture-makers” who want to create alternatives that are more responsible, ethical, and serious. Academics, along with clergypeople, entertainers, journalists, and other professionals in the knowledge and communications business, can exercise powerful leverage.

I don’t imagine that there is consensus about what’s wrong with pop culture. For some people, it’s the pervasive anti-gay prejudice; for others, it’s the increasingly tolerant representation of homosexuality. But we don’t need consensus; we just need more chances to reason together about what culture should mean and to create things–not in one big, homogeneous group, but in diverse and sometimes overlapping communities. Universities should be at the heart of this work.

the trial of William Penn

I was looking for a quote (which I didn’t actually find), and I ended up reading an entire account of William Penn’s trial in 1670. I believe the account–available with modernized English spelling on a University of Texas website–was written by Penn himself, so it is not unbiased. In fact, I find it somewhat hard to imagine that the wicked judge would actually mutter to himself, “Till now I never understood the Reason of the Policy and Prudence of the Spaniards, in suffering the Inquisition among them: And certainly it will never be well with us, till something like unto the Spanish Inquisition be in England.” Nevertheless, the story makes gripping theater and has contemporary resonance. (I recommend skimming until p. 4, where the action really starts.)

For background: Penn (a Quaker) had been preaching in violation of the Conventicle Act, which forbade “all meetings of more than five persons beyond a household, if any, for worship other than that prescribed by the Liturgy.” The Sheriff of London and other authorities were afraid to charge Penn under the Act, lest it be overturned. Instead, they arrested him and William Mead on undisclosed charges. The two Friends were subjected to Newgate Prison’s “Bale-dock, and Nasty-hole, nay, the menace of a Gag, and Iron Shackles too.” They were brought before a Middlesex (London) jury. The trial itself shed no light on whether the defendants had broken any law, but it did (according Penn’s account) involve such entertaining exchanges as the following:

Clark: Bring William Penn and William Mead to the Bar.

Mayor: Sirrah, who bid you put off their Hats? Put on their Hats again.

Observer [Penn himself]: Whereupon one of the Officers putting the Prisoners Hats upon their Heads (pursuant to the Order of the Court) brought them to the Bar.

Recorder: Do you know where you are?

Penn: Yes.

Recorder: Do not you know it is the King’s Court?

Penn: I know it to be a Court, and I suppose it to be the King’s Court.

Recorder: Do you not know there is Respect due to the Court?

Penn: Yes.

Record: Why do you not pay it then?

Penn: I do so.

Record. Why do you not pull off your Hat then?

Pen: Because I do not believe that to be any Respect.

Record: Well, the Court sets forty Marks a piece upon your Heads, as a Fine for your Contempt of the Court.

Penn: I desire it might be observed, that we came into the Court with our Hats off (that is, taken off) and if they have been put on since, it was by Order from the Bench; and therefore not we, but the Bench should be fined.

The judge demands that the jury find Penn guilty, although without stating the charges. Penn makes a stirring defense of the jurors’ rights as Englishmen. I won’t spoil the suspense by relating the conclusion, in case you don’t happen to know what happened. The official US Court system website provides a summary of the whole event that concludes–rather surprisingly–with a positive account of jury nullification.

9/11 and civic participation, revisited

In a recent post, I took issue with an op-ed that Tom Sander and Robert Putnam had written in the Washington Post. I thought they were arguing that 9/11 had caused young people’s values to change, and as a result young adults had become more involved in civic life, broadly defined. I suspect, in contrast, that what matters is the opportunity and the invitation to participate, not one’s values. Thus 9/11 wouldn’t matter unless it caused adults to create more civic opportunities for youth. I cannot prove this thesis, and in fact I am currently seeking money for a longitudinal study to test it. In any case, Tom Sander has replied to my blog, noting correctly that I had misread aspects of his original op-ed. He and Putnam did not claim that 9/11 changed values, leading to more volunteering. Instead, they believe that 9/11 helped to increase interest in politics and discussion of current events–which I find quite plausible. Sander and Putnam have adopted a subtle position for which there is some evidence (although I wonder why youth turnout declined slightly in 2002, if interest in politics was up). Anyway, I don’t want to confuse the major question–“Values or opportunities?”–by misrepresenting anyone’s views.

Incidentally, the following article is relevant:

Edward Metz and James Youniss, “September 11 and Service: A Longitudinal Study of High School Students’ Views and ResponsesApplied Developmental Science, 2003, Vol. 7, No. 3, Pages 148-155. This is a “study of a suburban public high school near Boston. … Results from our pre-post measures revealed only an immediate increase in students’ political interest and no changes in intended civic participation. Descriptive findings showed that most students’ view of the world was changed after 9/11. Yet, fewer students reported that their view of themselves had changed. … Statistical analyses showed that students who organized service had enhanced and sustained levels of intended civic participation compared to students who responded through other means or not at all.”

the difficulty of changing educational policy

I should be optimistic about the prospects for better civic education–and (more generally) the potential for civic renewal in America. Within the last 10 days, I?ve had a chance to testify before the new American Bar Association Commission on Civic Education, which is co-chaired by Sandra Day O?Connor and Bill Bradley and includes other distinguished leaders. I?ve attended the National Council on Citizenship?s annual conference, with hundreds of participants. Next was an advisory board for America’s Promise, an organization with considerable clout that wants all adolescents to have, among other things, opportunities to serve in their communities. And today I?m participating in the third annual Congressional Conference on Civic Education, which convenes delegations from all 50 states. At the Congressional Conference, Justice Stephen Breyer, Howard Baker, Lee Hamilton, Tom Foley, Margaret Spellings, and other luminaries have addressed the plenary group with enthusiasm.

Yet I don?t think I?ve ever been so aware of the barriers to change. We know (more or less) what students should experience in schools to prepare them for democracy. They should take classes that introduce them to great principles and issues of democracy and that help them to see how these themes relate to their own practical concerns. Students should be able to serve in their communities and write about or discuss their service. There should be youth groups that they can join, including student governments and school newspapers. They should have opportunities to discuss current issues with neutral and well-informed adults as moderators. They should get a hearing when they express their views on the governance of their own schools. And they should occasionally play challenging civic roles in simulations such as Model UN, mock trial, or computer games about politics.

We know much less about how to change policies so that kids have better odds of experiencing good civic education. To influence education, legislatures and other powerful institutions can create or enact mandates for courses; mandatory assessments (either with our without high stakes for students); educational mandates and/or support for teachers; rules promoting freedom of speech and assembly and free, meaningful participation within schools; changes in the certification of education schools; and even changes in the fundamental structure of schools, for example to make them smaller, more diverse, or more thematically coherent. Lawmakers can also repeal excessive mandates in other subjects that compete with civics. They can provide additional funding, especially for extracurricular activities; or purchase particular textbooks and other teaching materials.

These decisions are made by school administrators, school systems, state agencies, the federal government, and independent associations such as accrediting organizations. Many thousands of policymakers have a say; often some groups play others to stalemate. The division of responsibility is one reason that successive waves of educational reform have left actual practices (both pedagogy and curriculum) remarkably unchanged over 50 or even 80 years. Of all areas of education, civics is particularly hard to shift, since very few policymakers are concerned about civic outcomes.

We are trying to create a movement in favor of the necessary reforms. The movement now has some traction, as shown by the prominent and dedicated people who have come aboard. But the effort would be much easier if we could formulate a short list of priorities that would apply everywhere. For example, it would make life easier if we could say that every student should have a service-learning class, or that every school should have a school newspaper. These proposals are brief enough to fit on a bumper-sticker and easy enough to be widely repeated.

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