Monthly Archives: May 2006

youth media

I’m still in Seattle for an academic conference on youth media. I’m struck by how essentially normative (value-laden) our definitions of “politics” and “civic engagement” are. Ask yourself whether the following behaviors are “political”? It depends on whether you think their goals are worthy:

  • Using the raw material of an advertisement to create an anti-corporate parody (“culture jamming”).
  • Providing free technical guidance to assist fellow users of proprietary software.
  • Organizing a petition to persuade a record label to give your favorite artist a new contract. (Does such a petition stake a claim of partial ownership to the music, therefore challenging corporate capitalism?)
  • Organizing a reform movement within a massive multiplayer game? (Is the virtual world of the game a public good worthy of such concern?)
  • taking back the culture

    (Seattle) Here’s a speech for a presidential candidate in ’08:

    “American popular culture is hurting us. It subjects our children to explicit sexuality and violence. It’s relentlessly consumerist and materialist. It tells the rest of the world that we are a nation obsessed with violence, sex, and consumer goods, lacking spiritual depth. Our movies and music are popular, but people in other countries regard them as low pleasures.

    “How did we let this happen to us? Have we not produced twelve Nobel laureates in literature, the world’s greatest research universities, inspiring religious and political leaders, and major movements in all the arts? Are we not the home to global religious denominations and the birthplace of the environmental movement? Why do we let media companies and celebrities define us?

    “Censorship is not the answer. Broadcast media can be regulated to a degree, but most communications have already moved to cable, DVD, and the Internet. The courts–rightly, in my opinion–will block most efforts to regulate the content of these media.

    “Censorship empowers the government to make decisions, and politicians can abuse that power. Besides, we don’t need to be babysat.

    “We do need to control our own culture. We can do that, to a degree, through our own decisions. For example, we can turn off the TV. At the grassroots level, people can act together to change their media consumption–for instance, by scheduling community events for prime time, so that kids have alternatives.

    “But the government also has a role.

    “First, the United States must stop carrying Hollywood’s water. Other countries want to limit the amount of US media that’s shown on their broadcast channels. Our government fights tooth and nail to remove those limits. That stance may create a few jobs in Hollywood, but it also floods foreign countries with media that depicts us in a bad light. The US was defeated, 158-1, in a recent UNESCO vote on preserving cultural diversity. We need to drop that position until our media companies make products that serve us better.

    “More important, people need help in creating alternative media that are more responsible, that reflect their best values. In public schools, we should teach all kids to make digital media: websites, movies, audio segments. Students will be supervised, so their products won’t be profane or violent or sexually explicit. The idea is to teach them how to make–and appreciate–responsible media. A public school teacher cannot lead a class in making religious videos. But students can use the skills and habits of media-creation that they learn in schools in other venues, including their religious communities.

    “Finally, we need to create a new model for public broadcasting. PBS, NPR, and the rest of the public system was created after Newton Minow observed that television had become a “vast wasteland.” He said that in 1961; the situation is worse today. But the public system is obsolete. Most people won’t give money to sustain programs on one channel out of 80 or 95. Public broadcasting increasingly relies on corporate sponsorship: advertising by another name. And it has become a political football, because people are offended when their taxes support opinions that they dislike. With Jefferson, they believe that ‘to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.’

    “In the future, public broadcasting should support a diverse range of voluntary citizens and groups to make high-quality content. It should supply facilities, broadcast spectrum, training, quality-control, and archives of raw material. Public broadcasters should not monopolize channels, but should empower citizens to produce their own media.

    “Nowadays, whenever politicians want to make something sound important, they connect it to national security. Well, the way we present ourselves to the world really is a national-security issue, for today the great struggle is for the respect of a global population. But even if al-Qaeda and other enemies went away, it would still be crucial to take control of our own media. We are not a self-governing and free people if we allow a few corporations to define our fundamental character.”

    [Note: There is much talk right now about where the Democrats should place themselves on a left-right ideological spectrum. But there are many critical issues that don’t fit anywhere along that line. Taking a hard line against corporate media is an example of a position that is neither to the left nor the right of the Democrats’ current mainstream; it takes us off in a different direction entirely. Republicans, too, ought to consider a positive response to cultural pollution.]

    Meier and Ravitch show the way

    Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch have an article in Education Week entitled “Bridging Differences.” Meier is a hero for many progressive educators; her small schools in East Harlem are democratic communities that give significant voice to students and faculty in developing their own curricula. Ravitch, in addition to being an excellent historian of education, is a prominent proponent of a national core curriculum backed with exams.

    The two distinguished women were supposed to debate No Child Left Behind, but instead they had a long and personal conversation that generated a tremendously insightful article, written in the first-person plural. Their human connection–their mutual sense of respect and trust–is tangible. They write movingly near the end of their article:

    As the lunch ended, Diane said to Deborah, ‘I would be glad to see my grandchildren attend a school that you led.’ Our macro-level differences do not interfere with our mutual respect for each other’s work. That itself is something we hope our schools can help teach young people.

    They disagree about much and candidly explore their disagreements, which mostly concern matters of educational policy, such as whether to use NAEP scores for assessment. Their agreements about the political situation are striking. Specifically:

    1. They agree that all well-intentioned reform ideas become bastardized because of the way public institutions are run today. “As we talked, we found ourselves deeply frustrated, even angry, as we realized that the so-called reforms of the day are too often a perverse distortion–one might say an ‘evil twin’–of the different ideas that each of us has advocated.” Small schools (which Meier advocates) become places “to park some difficult dissidents to quiet them while other schools are brought into compliance.” Mandatory curricula (which Ravitch favors) are watered down and filled with foolish content.

    2. They agree that part of the reason for bad governance is a lack of citizen-based, independent institutions in which matters of value can be debated and diverse people can find positive roles and build countervailing power:

    Almost all the usual intervening mediators–parent organizations, unions, and local community organizations–have either been co-opted, purchased, or weakened, or find themselves under siege if they question the dominant model of corporate-style “reform.” All the city’s major universities, foundations, and business elites are joined together as cheerleaders, if not actual participants, offering no support or encouragement to watchdogs and dissidents. This allows these elites the opportunity to carry out their experiments on a grand, and they hope uninterrupted, “apolitical” scale, where everything can, at last, be aligned, in each and every school, from prekindergarten to grade 12, under the watchful eye of a single leader. If they can remain in power long enough, it is assumed (although what actually is assumed is not easy to find out) that they can create a new paradigm that no future change in leadership can undo.

    I read “apolitical” to mean: driven by experts, free of overt debate about values, technical and difficult to grasp, conducted in private, and closed to citizens. Ravitch wants a national debate about what is essential to learn, culminating in the design of public standards. That’s a political process at a large scale (although she would leave lots of room for teachers to make other decisions). Meier wants a robust debate within each school about what is most important. That’s also politics, but at a decentralized level. Neither one wants consultants, pyschometricians, and managers hired from corporations to make critical decisions without public debate and involvement.

    3. They emphasize the civic mission of schools, partly because they believe we need a robust civil society to prevent the poor governance that we observe in today’s large school systems. A precondition for civil society is democratic education:

    During our animated conversation, we agreed that a central, abiding function of public education is to educate the citizens who will preserve the essential balances of power that democracy requires, as well as to support a sufficient level of social and economic equality, without which democracy cannot long be sustained. We agreed that the ends of education–its purposes, and the trade-offs that real life requires–must be openly debated and continuously re-examined. Young people need to see themselves as novice members of a serious, intellectually purposeful community. We think that it would be healthy if students listened to and participated in such discussions, and came to understand the purposes for their schooling beyond the need to acquire more certificates.

    4. They share an ideal of the teacher as a professional. She should be trusted to make important judgments about values and techniques based on her experience and her relationships with her own students, while being held accountable. They see all major current educational reforms as hostile to such professionalism.

    5. They believe that a respectful dialogue among people with divergent views is both possible (as they demonstrate in the article) and essential to progress on education.

    By criticizing “apolitical” reform efforts and modeling a mutually respectful dialogue about values, Ravitch and Meier exemplify a form of politics that we desperately need.

    smoking me out

    I’m in Dayton, OH, for a seminar at the Kettering Foundation. I had written a chapter last fall describing the interaction of two generations on our college campuses. I wrote that some Boomer professors (ex-participants in the tumultuous sixties and seventies), “developed a new perspective” during the 1980s and 1990s. “While still reformist and egalitarian,” they became “increasingly pragmatic, open-ended, and solicitous of institutions, of existing communities, of civic culture, and of public deliberation, regardless of its outcome.” Meanwhile, they took new scholarly interest in public deliberation, civil society, civic virtue, and related themes. In the 1980s, they encountered Gen-X students who were alienated from formal politics but idealistic and interested in direct service. The result was a rash of experimentation, including service-learning, deliberation in classrooms and on campuses, community-based research, and work that celebrated cultural diversity as an asset.

    A colleague wrote a spirited critique of my chapter, as lengthy as my own contribution. She argued that the real trends in higher education during the period that I described included a neoconservative assault on intellectual freedom and a rise of economic insecurity that undermined democracy. Under those circumstances, she implied, it was futile to retreat into small-scale service-learning and community-research projects. We don’t need civil deliberation as much as radical, ideological critique. Those who do civic work on campuses present ourselves as non-ideological and open to all views; but actually we are moderates or incrementalists, closed to more radical alternatives.

    The discussion began. Unfortunately, my colleague was on the phone (rather than present in person) because her flight had been delayed by 24 hours at O’Hare. Suddenly, a disembodied corporate voice in the background told her to get on the plane, and she had to stop participating. That seemed to support her point about the source of real power in contemporary life.

    But seriously: No one who promotes civic renewal is ideologically neutral. Certainly, I have an ideological position (a relatively comprehensive worldview) that supports my own commitment to civic work, at least at this moment. My view includes these premises: people can create wealth through voluntary collective action in a society like ours; although private property is fine, capital mobility is problematic; it’s possible to build economic institutions that are rooted in communities; social problems have cultural roots and cannot be fully solved through welfare programs; mid-20th-century public institutions are obsolete but there are emerging models that are less centralized.

    Although I believe these premises–provisionally–I don’t like to use them as arguments in favor of civic work. That’s not because I’m afraid of controversy, but rather because I recognize that people come to service-learning, deliberation, local media work, and other civic activities for a variety of reasons. That heterogeneity seems healthy to me. I don’t think it’s necessary to spell out a comprehensive worldview that would alienate some potential partners. Like any social movement, the movement for civic renewal requires some ideololgical ambiguity to allow it to encompass diversity.