Monthly Archives: August 2007

national service

Time Magazine’s editor, Rick Stengel, makes the case for a large-scale but voluntary national service program in an editorial that accompanies a whole cover issue on service and volunteering. It’s a useful contribution because:

  • It’s a concrete policy recommendation that would respond to a widespread feeling that our communities and democratic institutions have weakened dangerously. Stengel assembles rather specific ideas for federal service programs.
  • Stengel wisely builds on our experience with existing projects. Domestic service goes back to the New Deal, but the most immediately relevant programs are part of AmeriCorps, which was founded in the Clinton years
  • Stengel wisely recommends a voluntary program. He writes, “Americans don’t like to be told what they have to do; many have argued that requiring service drains the gift of its virtue. [The new programs] would be based on carrots, not sticks.” I would add another reason. It is crucial to offer high-quality programs, and we’ll need to build those incrementally. A universal requirement would doom many young people to poor programs, with counter-productive results.
  • Service opportunities for people in their twenties would help them navigate an increasingly long and difficult transition to adulthood.
  • Service has potential appeal to conservatives and liberals, and it’s a big enough idea that it could help to define a campaign or party.
  • good news about NCLB

    Rep. George Miller, who leads the House Democrats on education policy and strongly backed No Child Left Behind, has issued draft language regarding reform of that Act. It says, in part:

    Title I, Part I, includes a new program to provide funds to low-income districts to support high quality instruction in music and arts, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, history, geography and physical education and health. Funds would support expanding the amount of instructional time in such subjects, developing high quality curriculum, providing essential materials and textbooks and partnering with community- based organizations to increase student learning in these subjects.

    This is a big deal in my little world of “civic ed.” But I’d suggest it matters to all Americans, and the full argument goes like this:

    Children who have experiences to participate as citizens and learn about their communities and politics flourish better in adolescence and develop lasting habits of civic participation that benefit our democracy.

    … but …

    Current education policy revolves around the testing of reading and mathematics. As a result, schools, and especially those with low rates of academic success, are cutting civics, arts, and community partnerships.

    … so …

    We need incentives for schools–especially those with low academic performance, which usually enroll mostly poor kids–to provide civic opportunities. And this is what Mr. Miller appears to be trying to do.


    If Senator Larry Craig opposed gay rights and said hostile things about gays while occasionally soliciting gay sex, he was hypocritical. Hypocrisy is one of the easiest faults to prove, but it is not one of the worst faults, especially in a leader.

    Hypocrisy is easy to establish, once the facts are out, because it involves a contradiction between the person’s statements and his actions. (Likewise, lies are evident when a person’s statements contradict what he knows or believes.) You can have very few moral commitments and very little knowledge of issues, and yet detect other people’s hypocrisy.

    But what if Larry Craig were completely heterosexual and totally faithful to his wife, yet anti-gay? In my view, his position would then reflect injustice and intolerance. These are worse faults than hypocrisy; they have far more serious consequences. But many Americans are uncomfortable about charging anyone with injustice. That’s because: (1) the charge is controversial, given that definitions of justice vary; (2) the accusation reflects deep moral commitments, which are incompatible with moral relativism or skepticism; and (3) the claim requires knowledge of issues and policies. The issue of gay rights happens to be relatively easy to understand, but I would argue that Senator Craig’s votes on economic policy display equally serious injustice. To make that claim, I have to follow politics fairly closely and develop strong moral commitments.

    Thus I think that Americans who are disconnected from politics and issues tend to jump on evidence of hypocrisy as if it were very momentous (and interesting) news, whereas far worse faults are ignored.

    (It’s not even crystal-clear that Larry Craig is a hypocrite, because one could oppose certain rights for gays and yet be gay or bisexual, without a contradiction. If Craig is a hypocrite, it’s not because of his policy positions but because he falsely denies being gay himself–or so his accusers claim. I happen to feel considerable sympathy for a gay person who hides his orientation, given the general climate of intolerance and the tendency of police to entrap gay men. But hypocrisy, while not the worst moral fault, is wrong. The wrongness, it seems to me, lies in the failure to treat other people as responsible and rational agents who can make decisions on the basis of facts. Instead, the hypocrite feels it necessary to deceive in order to get the results he wants. This is manipulative; it is using someone else as a means to one’s ends, not as an end in himself. But of course there are many forms of political manipulation that do not involve hypocrisy–for example, fear-mongering and exaggeration.)


    (On the MARC commuter train) I just spent the day in Baltimore, first with a community-based youth group (Students Sharing Coalition), and then at a public high school, City College High. Baltimore is the next city up the east coast and the major metropolis in the State of Maryland, which employs me at our flagship public university. Thus I have reason to be interested in, and to care about, Baltimore–and I do. However, the University of Maryland is deep inside the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, and my family and I are residents and citizens of the District of Columbia itself. Thus I don’t know Baltimore particularly well. I do feel moved, after a day in the city, to note that it is a complex and varied place. The Wire, while an excellent piece of realistic fiction, hardly describes all aspects of a city rich in stately architecture and full of civic institutions. It turns out that many kids who attend City College High School live in the specific neighborhood where The Wire is filmed; some have acted on the show; and Ed Burns is an alumnus. Yet The Wire depicts a community in which no one is on a path to academic success, whereas City College High School is evidently a fine and successful institution. Just an hour or so in the hallways and classrooms told me that it’s a school with high expectations, good order, and positive energy. This is not to say that The Wire is false–only that reality is complicated.

    portrait of a library

    Last April, I posted a poem that Stephen Dunn wrote about the home in which I was raised–a home most remarkable for the 30,000 books that my Dad has collected and used for his scholarship. People liked the post, presumably because of Dunn’s fine poem rather than my short commentary; and several readers requested pictures. On our latest visit to Syracuse, I took some photos and turned them into a short movie segment (below). It starts outside, works its way through the house to the attic, and ends in the basement, where most of the books are kept in library stacks.

    I’m not satisfied with the aesthetics. You’re looking at the house under a pretty harsh direct flash, which turns dark-blue walls pale-blue, whitens the pine shelves, and reveals the wood behind the books. But at least I’ve documented the objects that Dunn wrote about, including the chairs that his ghosts sat on and the “startling print” upstairs.