Monthly Archives: February 2006

Shakespeare in retirement

I recently finished Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, a chronological series of essays about Shakespeare’s life and its influence on his work. It leaves me thinking about the reasons for Shakespeare’s early retirement around 1611. That year he turned 47 and was probably not in bad health, for he had bought an expensive annuity that would only pay off if he faced decades of retirement (Greenblatt, p. 364). Why then did he quit London and write nothing more on his own? Greenblatt explores three explanations, and I will add a fourth of my own that’s completely speculative:

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a market failure in higher ed (the Summers case)

In the highly competitive global market for college students and faculty, Harvard is the leader. A major consulting firm that was hired to advise Oxford (I think it was McKinsey & Co.) found that Oxford could potentially compete with any institution in the world except Harvard. In a business obsessed with rankings, Harvard sits on top, and everyone else emulates it.

President Larry Summers was popular with students (Harvard’s “customers”), but unpopular with faculty (the employees). He was forced out by the Trustees, who have a fiduciary duty to protect the institution. Although we know that students never have much clout, it’s a bit of a puzzle that the faculty should prevail in an organization that is so successful at attracting student-applicants.

Of course, it’s possible that Summers was forced to resign because he was wrong on the merits, and the Trustees saw that. I suspect, however, that the issue was not his comments about women scientists or his confrontation with Cornel West (on which the Trustees might have thought he was wrong). The issue was a set of curricular and budgetary reforms that promised to enhance Harvard’s actual education while eroding the power of tenured professors in the Arts and Sciences. On those matters, Summers was very likely correct.

I want to emphasize that I don’t see students as customers. Nevertheless, an economic analysis is useful for revealing how institutions actually work (as opposed to how they should work). Here are two contrasting views of the economics of the situation:

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young people and rebuilding after Katrina

According to the latest AP-Ipsos poll, “About half the under-30 poll respondents — 52 percent — said they were confident federal money for the Gulf Coast recovery was being spent wisely. The number was much lower for respondents of all age groups — only 33 percent.”

We have three possible explanations for this gap, which are all quoted in an article by Ryan Pearson for AP’s youth-oriented wire service, ASAP news. First, the youngest generation has consistently been less critical of government than older generations. More of them agree than disagree that the federal government usually acts in the genuine interests of the public. (However, a plurality won’t answer the question at all because they are undecided). Second, younger people are often less well informed about current events, so perhaps they know less about the mismanagement after Katrina that has been heavily reported in the press. Third, they may be in the middle of a learning process. In the ASAP story, Abby Kiesa mentions CIRCLE’s focus groups on Katrina. Abby heard mostly questions rather than firm opinions. Youth wanted to know what was happening after Katrina, why we weren’t better prepared, and who was a credible source. As Public Agenda and its co-founder Dan Yankelovich argue, we often make a mistake when we confuse settled opinions with developing views–although they can look alike in a standard survey.

the Bahamas

Over the President’s Day weekend, my family and I visited the Bahamas. I have hesitated to blog about our trip, because I don’t want to presume any knowledge or insight about a country that I saw so briefly. I find life in America mysterious and complicated enough; to say something about a foreign nation on the basis (mainly) of a two-hour tour provided by a friendly taxi driver is presumptuous.

But I enjoy recording what I happen to notice. In Miami, on the way home, I saw scores of homeless men under a kind of portico in a blighted downtown district. Back in our own neighborhood in Washington, someone asked me for money for food. I didn’t see anyone that badly off in Nassau. There were some very small houses–maybe 10 feet by 10 feet. But they were mixed in with larger homes and shops. People of all ages seemed comfortable out on the streets. There may be crime, but there was no sign of fear. Our taxi driver emphasized that health care is free except for a $10 co-pay if you stay overnight at the hospital.

I don’t want to romanticize life in a place that, to repeat, I know so little. But it turns out that the adult literacy rate in the Bahamas is 95.5%, life expectancy at birth is 67.2, 97% of the population has access to water and up to 94% can afford essential drugs. There are 106 physicians per 100,000 population. Women hold 20% of seats in parliament and are slightly more literate than men, although their earned income is only 64% of men’s. By way of comparison, life expectancy in the US is 78 years, 100% of our population is considered to have access to safe water, and there are about 549 physicians per 100,000 people (but a lot of people can’t afford to see them). I can’t find adult literacy statistics for the US or the percentage of Americans who can afford drugs defined as essential–I doubt that either rate is higher than in the Bahamas. Women hold 15.1% of the seats in Congress and earn 62% as much income as men.

It occurs to me that if the 192 countries of the world were people, the US would be one of the richest, but would have some “issues.” The Bahamas would be upper-middle class and would have its act together pretty well.

youth civic engagement: an institutional turn

In 2005, my colleague Jim Youniss (Catholic University) and I organized a conference, funded by The Carnegie Corporation of New York, that explored a particular perspective on youth civic engagement. We tried to shift the focus away from direct efforts to change young people’s civic skills, knowledge, and behavior (for example, through civic education or voter mobilization). Instead, we wanted to talk about reforms of institutions that might make participation more rewarding and welcome. The problem is not always inside young people’s heads; sometimes they are right to avoid participation in the processes and institutions that exist for them. For similar reasons, it is important to study (and perhaps to change) their ordinary, daily experiences, which form the context for their civic and political engagement.

We convened more than a dozen experts: pyschologists, political scientists, sociologists, and scholars of communications and education. They ultimately produced 14 short essays that CIRCLE released yesterday as a package (pdf, 53 pages long).

I believe that these essays are quite rich and stimulating. At the risk of leaving out some of the best parts, I’ll mention a few samples:

  • Diana Mutz argues that deliberation and participation trade-off. She finds “that although diverse political networks foster a better understanding of multiple perspectives on issues and encourage political tolerance, they discourage political participation, particularly among those who are averse to conflict. Those with diverse networks refrain from participation in part because of the social awkwardness that comes from publicly taking a stand that friends or associates may oppose. … The best social environment for cultivating political activism is one in which people are surrounded by those who agree with them, people who will reinforce the sense that their own political views are the only right and proper way to proceed. Like-minded people can spur one another on to collective action, and promote the kind of passion and enthusiasm that is central to motivating political participation.”
  • Jane Junn challenges the idea that education is simply good for civic participation. “While formal education may encourage the development of cognitive ability and individual resources, it may also be the case that these skills are less relevant to one’s placement in the hierarchy of American life. Instead, the importance of education to stratification may be the role it plays as a powerful socialization device, teaching students who are successful and who progress through educational institutions to also become initiated into the hierarchical norms of commerce, politics, and social life. In short, education may be a particularly effective means of reproducing cultural, political, and economic practices. … Education may reproduce and legitimate structural inequalities that in turn drive vast disparities in wealth, and nurture the persistence of the dominance of the in-group to the systematic disadvantage of out-groups. … In its role as a powerful socializer, education teaches the ideology of meritocracy, by grading on normal curves and assuring those who finish on the right tail that they will succeed because they deserve to. … It is necessary to have some mechanism which reliably reproduces the ideology that maintains the positions of power for those at the top who benefit from the system as it already exists. When outcomes are positional or scarce–when not everyone can be rich, and not everyone can be granted admission into a top school–the liberal democratic ideology must have an answer to its production of unequal outcomes. Merit can be used as a justification for inequality of outcomes in a system where the rules are supposed to be fair.”
  • Dietlind Stolle characterizes the new forms of politics that we see in the anti-globalization movement and elsewhere. (1) “These new forms of participation abandon traditional (that is to say formal and bureaucratic) organizational structures in favour of horizontal and more flexible ones. Loose connections, in other words, are rapidly replacing static bureaucracies.” (2) “In general these new initiatives are also less concerned with institutional affairs, such as party politics, which brings them into sharp contrast with more traditional political organisations. Life-style elements are being politicized and although the actors no longer label their action as being expressly ‘political,’ these preoccupations do lead to political mobilization.” (3) “These new forms of participation … rely on apparently spontaneous and irregular mobilization. The signing of petitions, or participation in protests and consumer boycotts all seem based on spontaneity, irregularity, easy exit and the possibility of shifting-in and shifting-out.” (4) “New forms of participation are potentially less collective and group-oriented in character. … While this form of protest and participation can be seen as an example of co-ordinated collective action, most participants simply perform this act alone, at home before a computer screen, or in a supermarket.”