Monthly Archives: October 2006

the republic of conscience

At Campus Compact’s 20th anniversary, Mary Robinson gave the keynote address. She is a distinguished lawyer, former President of Ireland, and former UN Commissioner of Human Rights. At one point, in her soft Irish accent, she read Seamus Heaney’s “The Republic of Conscience,” a poem that he has now given to Amnesty International. Read all 39 lines, but this is how it starts:

When I landed in the republic of conscience

it was so noiseless when the engines stopped

I could hear a curlew high above the runway.

At immigration, the clerk was an old man

who produced a wallet from his homespun coat

and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.

The woman in customs asked me to declare

the words of our traditional cures and charms

to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.

No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.

You carried your own burden and very soon

your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.

the origins of government

Would this work as a definition of a government? “An institution designed to outlast individual human beings that operates within a fixed geographical territory; it has permanent fiscal accounts, offices with mutually consistent and complementary roles that are held temporarily by individuals, and real property. It has some authority over all the people and institutions within its territory (where ‘authority’ means the ability to make and enforce rules claimed to be legitimate).”

If this definition works, then Florence had a government in 1300. Dante, for example, held various offices for his city, was paid for his work out of public accounts, made binding decisions while he was a city magistrate, and represented the government abroad. When he was exiled, he left the jurisdiction and employ of Florence; his office and legal power passed to another man.

In Dante’s time, England basically lacked a government. That is not to say that England was disorganized or backward. The English erected great cathedrals, castles, schools, and universities; their leading cities were international entrep?ts; their knights were capable of ransacking France. Nor was England an individualistic and atomized society–on the contrary, people were bound to one another by obligations, often inherited and unshakable.

But there was no English government. A baron was a personal vassal of the king, to whom he owed certain duties and from whom he could expect protection. Each baron had many vassals who owed him duties (as men personally obligated to other men). And each peasant was a vassal of a minor lord, entitled to certain birthrights, such as use of particular fields and woods, but obligated to work the land of his ancestral village and share the crop with his lord. The borders of the realm depended on what fiefs the monarch had inherited; thus the “national” territory might shift with each change of king.

None of the offices of the realm, from monarch to peasant, was governmental in the modern sense. Take Justices of the Peace: they were the closest equivalents of modern police, but they were not paid, trained, or overseen. They were just vassals of the monarch who were morally obligated to preserve the King’s Peace by sword or by persuasion. There was a public treasury, the Exchequer, but it had very minor importance. Even when Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, she was expected to pay for what we would call “government” (e.g., foreign embassies) out of her inherited wealth, rents on the extensive lands that she personally owned, plus some import duties. Her claims to sovereign power were controversial, and in any case, she lacked the personnel, the files, and the budget needed to “govern” in the modern sense.

She did obtain an effective espionage service when Sir Francis Walsingham started paying for secret information out of his own pocket; Elizabeth then authorized him to supplement those payments from her treasury. Even so, the English secret service was really just a group of Sir Francis’ servants and retainers, and he was a personal retainer of the Queen. When Walsingham died, so did the organization.

In men like Walsingham, we see the origins of government. He was a professionally trained expert (a lawyer), not a nobleman with any hereditary powers. He held an appointed office, Mr. Secretary, which he was free to quit. He structured his civil service as a bureaucracy and tried to serve the permanent interests of England as a Protestant state, not merely those of his Queen. However, had Elizabeth married Fran?ois, the Duke of Anjou and Alen?on (as she threatened), then Walsingham would have faced a choice. This Puritan lawyer could have become a personal servant of a Catholic French nobleman, or he could have quit public life.

The medieval case shows that we could have elaborate social structures without governments; that is a relevant conclusion at a time of globalization, when governments are losing authority over fixed territories. It is not clear, however, that we can have elaborate social structures and personal liberties without governments.

on opportunities and outcomes in education

Today’s dominant educational legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), requires outcomes–but it does not require opportunities or other “inputs.” Presumably, policymakers were skeptical about the quality of mandated opportunities, even if there were adequate funding. If, for instance, the federal government told schools that they must provide science classes, or after-school activities, or service-learning opportunities, some schools would offer very ineffective, hollow versions of these programs. Would they be considered in compliance with the law even if their outcomes were poor? Instead, Congress said that schools must achieve specific outcomes–mainly, reading, math, and science scores–but they could choose their own methods. (This is a simplification, but close enough for argument’s sake.)

The focus on outcomes instead of opportunities bothers me for several reasons, although I understand and do not dismiss the reasons behind it.

First, NCLB–unavoidably–selects a small list of outcomes: all ones that can readily be measured in high-stakes exams. Those of us who also care about civic knowledge and habits, artistic development, foreign languages, and moral learning are faced with a dilemma. Either we demand tests in our favored areas (some of which aren’t very testable), or we try to smuggle our subjects into schools without testing them. The latter course is difficult when schools are struggling to get their kids through the required exams.

Second, a focus on outcomes encourages us to think of children and teenagers as people who are prone to fail. We work hard to identify those most “at risk” and to intervene so that they avoid clear marks of failure (mainly, bad test scores). As a result, we may set our sights too low, forgetting that flourishing people need more than adequate test scores. As Karen Pittman says, “Adolescents who are merely problem-free are not fully prepared for their future.” Worse, we may overlook young people’s potential. They are capable of serving others, creating works of art, and organizing constructive activities. Treating them as bundles of problems instead of assets can help to drive them out of school, or so I strongly suspect. This is an argument for guaranteeing every American child opportunities for positive development.

Third, not everything we do in school should be measured by its effects on individual students. Whatever skills schools may provide, they are also places where we spend some 18,000 hours of our lives. Some activities during those hours ought to be instrinsically satisfying or else meaningful because they benefit other people (or nature), not because they enhance students’ individual skills.

A school is a community, and communities ought to have news sources, discussions of their own issues and problems, and opportunities to serve. Thus I would support student newspapers and other media; students’ discussions of local issues; and service programs even if they had no demonstrable impact on students’ skills or knowledge.

These activities should be done well. There is a big difference between a fine scholastic newspaper and a poor one. But the difference is not measured by the impact on kids’ reading scores. It has to do with the seriousness, breadth, and fairness of the coverage and the impact on students’ knowledge of their own community. Likewise, the quality of service projects has much to do with whether the service actually addresses problems, quite apart from whether the participants gain skills and knowledge.

The other side of the argument is that some of our children cannot read or understand basic math. They are at great risk of failure in life. They will be unable to participate as citizens or create works of art if they are poor and sick and prone to arrest–all of which are consequences of illiteracy. Our urgent priority must be to identify them, help them, and punish those adults who “leave them behind.”

Well, maybe. But that strategy is no use if kids hate school and drop out, or if kids pass our reading exams but cannot use written texts for practical purposes, or if kids make it through school but don’t know what to do with their lives.


We’ve been doing a lot of radio lately, because radio news programs seem interested in CIRCLE’s data on young people and civic engagement. Just today, I’m scheduled for a station in Norfolk, Virginia, College Connection (a syndicated radio feed), and the Kojo Nnamdi show on 88.5 FM in Washington, DC. I mention all this because the last can be heard live at 1:30 pm eastern via WAMU.

(You can stream the archived show, for what that’s worth, by clicking here.)

school choice

(O?Hare Airport, Chicago) I just attended a very stimulating large conference on ?values and evidence in educational reform,? organized by Crooked Timber?s Harry Brighouse and the Spencer Foundation. There were panels on standards and testing; charters and vouchers; and small schools–major controversies in educational policy today. The panels combined statements by passionate advocates of each reform; careful and dispassionate reviews of the empirical literature; and philosophical analysis of the underlying moral issues.

I?d like to summarize the most challenging of the presentations, but I?m not sure whether the ground rules permit such publicity. So instead I?ll offer a thought about ?choice? in education. Given the prominence of vouchers in the public debate (although not in our actual school systems), people tend to equate ?choice? with parents? options about where to send their kids, using public money. But there are other critical choices that people can be allowed to make; any given policy will combine several of these in varying degrees:

  • Parents? choices about where to try to enroll their kids
  • Kids? choices about where they want to enroll and whether to attend school at all
  • Kids? choices about which particular classes and other activities to participate in
  • Schools? choices about which kids to admit (or actively recruit)
  • Teachers? and coaches? choices about which of their students to involve in various classes and activities
  • Teachers? choices about where to work
  • Schools? or school systems? choices about whom to hire as teachers and administrators
  • Schools? choices about what to teach and how to teach it
  • Adult citizens? choices about how to assist or influence all kids? education
  • I doubt there?s a single ideal recipe, but I am at least somewhat enthusiastic about giving families choices among schools and giving adults choices about what and how to teach. (There is, however, a profound question about whether adolescents or their parents should choose schools, under various circumstances.) I don?t much like allowing public schools to choose their students, because then they can take the easy road to success: selecting and admitting those who are easiest to teach. Allowing teachers to choose where to work clearly worsens inequality–many of the best qualified instructors place themselves in easier school buildings and systems. However, simply denying choice to teachers is impossible: they can always quit altogether.

    We already have an educational system characterized by choice and constraints. The question is not whether to increase or reduce choice, but who should be allowed to choose what and when. The considerations mentioned above are just the beginning of that discussion.