Monthly Archives: February 2008

testing, testing

(Cambridge, MA) I have spent the last two days reviewing, editing, and occasionally creating test items for the National Assessment in Education Progress (NAEP) in Civics, which will be given to a large and representative sample of American students next year. The NAEP is an evaluation of our school systems, not of our kids–no scores are calculated for individual students. I am on the NAEP’s “background variables” committee (which choses demographic measures) as well as its Civics committee. Producing questions for a civics test raises all kinds of interesting issues: moral, methodological, statistical, developmental, factual, political, and practical. However, I am somewhat constrained by test secrecy–and very mentally tired–so I’m not going to be able to comment tonight.

inequality in youth participation

About one in four college students and young college graduates have been voting in the 2008 primary season. But only about half of young Americans attend college. For those with no college experience, the voter turnout rate has been about one in fourteen this year. One important reason is unequal civic education. The activities in school that help people to participate are basically reserved for our more successful students.

These are results of major new CIRCLE studies released today. You can read our fact sheet on primary turnout (pdf), download an important new working paper by Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh (pdf), read the AP article based on our study, or listen to Audie Cornish’s story an “All Things Considered” that quotes me and uses our data–but more importantly, captures the voices of non-college youth.

levers of democracy

(On an airplane over Ohio) Let’s assume that you want to increase the quantity, equality, impact, and quality of political participation. Which institutions would give you the most leverage? Put another way, by reforming or enlisting which of the following institutions would you have the most impact?



the pros


the cons


electoral politics One-person-one-vote enhances equality. Voting holds political leaders accoutantable. A campaign is a prompt for discussion and deliberation. The vote is a crude instrument for communication. Choices on the ballot are inevitably limited. Accountability is sporadic. Each vote counts for little. Money and campaign tactics influence outcomes.
government Capable of shaping society through laws and taxation. Mechanisms are available to promote deliberation and partnerships. Some civil servants are eager for public participation. Bureaucracy; hierarchy; the "iron law of oligarchy." Technical expertise suppresses ethical issues. Vulnerability to special interests.
higher education Trains all professionals. Gateway to the middle class. Influences other institutions, such as the professions and k-12 schools. Quasi-autonomous, with a civic mission and heritage. Not-for-profit. Physically connected to communities (unable to flee). Educates only half the population. "Ivory Tower" ethos. Fierce competition for students, who seek skills and prestige. Insulated from democratic pressure (partly for good reasons). Physically isolated by walls and grounds.
k-12 education Influences everyone at a malleable age. Civic mission and heritage. Devoted to discussion and analysis, but also capable of promoting action. Located in all communities. Democratically governed and decentralized. Deeply segregated by race and class. Locally–thus, inequally– funded. Burdened with other purposes: economic development, health, social control. Bureaucratic and technocratic. Separates the young from adult life.
the news media Source of information for all ages. Quality can be high because of professionalism. Makes a direct connection to politics and government, which are subjects of coverage. Privately owned and run. Sensationalism pays. Only a few professionals (reporters and editors) can speak. Coverage does not automatically generate action.
the "new media" (blogs, etc.) Open, cheap, flexible, interactive. "Cyberbalkanization" (people seek information and ideas they already know they like). Unreliable information. Link to offline action is unclear; information alone does not promote civic capacities or identities.
nonprofits Autonomous, diverse, plural. Capable of reflecting diverse values, e.g., religious ones, without coercion. Increasingly powerful as employers and investors. A small portion of the economy, without regulatory power, and dominated by donors, who tend to be wealthy.
arts Presenting or enacting values, imagining the future, and memorializing the past are political acts. Also, the arts are pluralistic, and the avant-garde stimulates deliberation. The avant-garde lacks influence. Community-based cultural groups are small and marginal compared to mass media.
community organizing Broad-based or open-ended community organizing promotes deliberation and has tangible impact (building houses, passing laws) Most sectors of American society haven’t been touched by such organizing. Prevailing cultural values are opposed to it.
the learned professions Legal monopoly to practice (e.g., law or medicine) is granted in return for a public duty. Traditions of idealism and public engagement. Economic interests with considerable advantages. Technical expertise can make them arrogant. Members increasingly identify with the profession, not with a community.
organized labor Brings democratic principles into the workplace. Influences government. Has an incentive to recruit new members and teach civic skills and identities. Shrinking because of changes in the economy. Subject to hierarchy, bureaucracy, and corruption. Interests can conflict with those of outsiders (e.g., unionized teachers versus students).

Dewey’s lost chance

(Dayton, OH) On my way to a meeting with two of its authors (and others), I read Dewey’s Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform (Temple, 2007), by Lee Benson, Ira Harkavy, and John Puckett. It’s a manifesto for reform, which I would like to write about on another occasion. It also tells a story about the great progressive thinker/activist John Dewey, as a kind of “near-miss” (my phrase, not the authors’). In their view, Dewey almost opened a path to deep democratic renewal but made fatal errors. This is the outline:

1888 or earlier: John Dewey, a philosophy professor, decides that philosophical problems can only be addressed experientially and collaboratively. He begins to define “democracy” as a culture and a set of institutions optimally designed for learning. Achieving real democracy (in this sense) requires reform.

1888-92: Thinking strategically about reform, Dewey identifies the news media as the best lever of change. He tries to create a democratic newspaper, Thought News, to achieve “socialism of the intelligence and the spirit.” It is a complete practical failure. (Although it fails, this experiment foreshadows modern uses of innovative media for democratic reform.)

1894: Dewey comes to Chicago and, because of agendas within the University, he is recruited to study education. He decides that schools, not communications media, provide the best levers for democratic change. He creates the Chicago Laboratory School. Its curriculum is experiential and collaborative but completely artificial and driven by Dewey, not by the community. It is a flawed conception, although it could have evolved in better directions.

By 1902, Dewey has spent considerable time at Hull-House, Jane Addams’ great community-based institution for learning, culture, and reform. Having learned from this example, Dewey writes the “School as Social Center,” a manifesto for public schools as hubs of learning deeply embedded in, and owned by, communities. The Lab School could have turned into such an institution, but …

1904: Dewey leaves Chicago for New York where he retreats from full engagement. He focuses on reforming philosophy and deprecates schools as venues for learning and reform. He becomes interested again in the news media but has very vague ideas about it.

ca. 1912-ca. 1939: American schools are deeply influenced by Dewey, but his ideals are often watered down and distorted. Experiential learning becomes a means of accommodating kids to existing social institutions, not a spur to social reform. But there are a few excellent examples, such as the rural schools founded by Dewey’s student Elsie Clapp.

1939: Dewey praises Clapp’s schools but claims that they only work because they are located in rural communities that still embody preindustrial values. He has abandoned the idea that community schools might transform mainstream American society.

the word “populism”

A European reporter asked me today why there is so much alarm about “populist” politicians in Europe–such as Jean Marie Le Pen in France and the late Pim Fortuyn in Netherlands–whereas American politicians with similar views seem to be considered perfectly mainstream. He could have added Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, or even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, as examples of leaders who are called “populists” and who alarm Americans.

Fortuyn was a libertarian who seemed hostile to immigrants because they were too conservative about religion and sexuality. Ahmadinejad is on precisely the opposite side of those issues. Le Pen is a hyper-nationalist who is often described as racist. Chavez is also nationalistic but his political base is people of color. These people have only one thing in common: they hold views that highly educated people consider bad and dangerously “popular.” In turn, these diverse foreign populists have various views in common with American politicians as disparate as Dick Armey, Ron Paul, and John Edwards.

The problem, it seems to me, is terminological. In many countries, “populist” is an epithet. It’s OK to be popular, but to be a “populist” means becoming popular by adopting positions that one shouldn’t. Thus it’s populist to hand out goodies derived from oil sales (bad economics), and it’s populist to criticize immigrants (bad values). In Europe and Latin America, you don’t generally say that you’re a populist; you reserve that term for your opponents.

In America, however, candidates proudly call themselves “populists.” The term recalls a controversial but certainly respectable American political tradition going back to the 1890s, if not before. The People’s Party and the Populists took various economic positions, e.g., against tariffs. Whether or not those positions were sensible at the time, they are now obsolete. But the original Populists also emphasized procedural reforms, such as the direct election of Senators. They pioneered forms of politics, voluntary service, and institutions that are still highly valuable. And they embodied a culture of populism which was respectful of local and vernacular traditions, unpretentious, but also dedicated to education and creativity.

Incidentally, the discussion page attached to the wikipedia entry in “populism” is a great introduction to the debate.