Monthly Archives: April 2008

racial classification as an illustration of complexity in government

I’ve spent the last two days helping to advise the government on the design of background questions that will accompany the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a test-like survey of American kids. The background questions are about demographics and students’ experiences in and out of school. They help researchers to interpret and explain trends and gaps in the academic performance of our students.

The process for designing and administering the assessment is complex. It exemplifies the moral and practical complexity of government, and makes me wonder whether governance could be simpler. (I’m not sure that it could be.)

Take the example of how to categorize people by race and ethnicity. In the 1990s, people who considered themselves “multiracial” started lobbying for a separate category on the Census and other official data-collections. There were some objections, for instance, by people who didn’t want to reduce the count of African Americans because that would affect policies regarding legislative districts. Believe it or not, the Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) contracted with my colleagues and friends at the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy to decide what to do. OMB recognized that the problem was basically moral, not empirical. My colleagues recommended that respondents be allowed to check as many categories as they liked. There would be no “multiracial” category, but researchers could construct it by counting all the respondents who checked more than one box.

That became federal policy, which means that NAEP must now use a racial/ethnic identity survey that allows respondents to “check all that apply. But that leaves many questions:

♦ Who should answer the questionnaire: students, parents, or educators?

♦ When should it be answered (e.g., while taking a test, or at some other time)?

♦ Must students who have already been categorized now be recategorized according to the new scheme, or can they be “grandfathered in”?

♦ How many separate racial and ethnic categories should be offered? What should they be called (e.g., Hispanic or Latino)?

♦ How quickly must the new scheme be implemented?

♦ How should trends in educational performance be calculated and reported after any changes in methodology? For instance, it has been proposed to separate Asians from Pacific Islanders. Historically, Asians perform much better on the NAEP (on average). Separating the groups will therefore boost Asians’ scores and create a bigger gap, especially between Asians and African Americans and Latinos. The impact of the change, however, will be small. Should the trends in performance be reported without comment, with a huge caveat to discourage the public from paying attention, or not reported at all?

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“social citizens”

Here is Allison Fine’s important new paper for the Case Foundation on young citizens and the Internet. It’s an excellent summary. As I read the first 50 pages, which are mostly celebratory, I kept asking questions about the drawbacks or limits of online engagement. But then Allison asks what I consider the three main questions: Who doesn’t use the online media for political/social purposes? Do “bubble” cultures inevitably form online because it’s a medium of choice? Can online activism link effectively to government and policymaking? I might add a fourth question: Are young online citizens right to feel “a higher degree of confidence in corporations than in government institutions”? They “are drawn to brands with strong socially responsible cultures, such as Patagonia, Nau,Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Ben & Jerry’s.” But is that naive?

the Joseph Levine memorial

The memorial celebration for Dad was wonderfully life affirming. All the speakers gave thoughtful, carefully crafted speeches and collectively recalled most aspects of his life, from his skillful and dedicated parenting to his civic participation to his sense of humor. Below are two of his grandchildren and the venue, Syracuse University’s stately Hendricks Chapel. It was a fitting scene in which to recall a man who was one of the world’s experts on neoclassicism. Since he was highly appreciative of Christian cultures and a great fan of churches, the Methodist origins of the chapel did not concern me in the slightest. Still, I was glad to quote the Hebrew words that must have been spoken over his ancestors for a thousand years or more: Olav HaShalom, may he rest in peace, and may his name be a blessing for all who knew him.

Click to listen to the service.

three different ways of thinking about the value of nature

These are three conflicting or rival positions:

1. People value nature, and the best measure of how much they value it is how much they would be willing to pay for it. Actual market prices may not reflect real value because of various flaws in existing markets. For example, if you find an old forest that no one owns, chop it down, and burn the wood for fuel, all that activity counts as profit. You don’t have to deduct the loss of an asset or the damage to the atmosphere. However, it would be possible to alter the actual price of forest wood by changing laws and accounting rules. Or at least we could accurately estimate what its price should be. The real value of nature is how much human beings would be willing to pay for it once we account for market failures.

2. Nature has value regardless of whether people are willing to pay for it. Perhaps nature’s value arises because God made it, called it “good,” and assigned it to us as His custodians. Or perhaps nature has value for reasons that are not theistic but do sound religious. Emerson:

The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. … The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.

Emerson’s view is sharply different from #1 because he believes that his fellow men do not value nature as they should. “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. …” Thus prices do not reflect nature’s value.

If you’re an economist or a scientist, you may not personally feel that God is present in nature or that nature is ineffably precious. Regardless, you can respect your fellow citizens who hold those feelings. One version of scientific positivism says that there are (a) testable facts about nature and (b) opinions about nature as a whole. The latter are respectable but not provable. They are manifestations of faith, neither vindicated nor invalidated by science. This sounds like the early Wittgenstein.

3. Nature has value irrespective of price: real value that may or may not be recognized by people at any given moment. But this value does not derive from a metaphysical premise about nature as a whole, e.g., that God made the world. We can make value judgments about particular parts of nature, not all of which have equal value. We can change other people’s evaluations of nature by providing valid reasons.

Yosemite is more precious than your average valley. How do we substantiate such a claim? Not by citing a foundational, metaphysical belief, but by describing Yosemite itself. Careful, appreciative descriptions and explanations of natural objects are valid arguments for their value, just as excellent interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays are valid arguments for the excellence of those works.

This view rejects a sharp distinction between facts and values. “Thick descriptions” are inextricably descriptive and evaluative. This view also rejects the metaphor of foundations, according to which a value-judgment must rest on some deeper and broader foundation of belief. Why should an argument about value be like the floor of a building, which is no good unless it sits on something else? It may be sufficient on its own. (This all sounds like the later Wittgenstein.)

This third position contrasts with Emerson’s. He says:

Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood.

This third view says, pace Emerson, that nature varies in quality. Tigers are more magnificent than roaches. A good way to make such distinctions is indeed to “extort [the] secrets” of nature. When we understand an organism better–including its functioning, its origins, and its place in the larger environment–we often appreciate it more, and rightly so. The degree to which our understanding increases our appreciation depends on the actual quality of the particular object under study.

memorial service for Joe Levine

We’re on our way to Syracuse today so that we can attend my Dad’s memorial service at Syracuse University’s Hendrick’s Chapel on Saturday afternoon at 3. The speakers include the following good friends:

♦ Dean Cathryn R. Newton, College of Arts and Sciences, Syracuse

♦ Lucy Freeman Sandler, Helen Gould Sheppard Professor of Art History, NYU

♦ Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Professor of History, Syracuse

♦ Ralph Ketcham, Professor of History Emeritus, Syracuse

♦ Gordon J. Schochet, Professor of Political Science, Rutgers

♦ Craige B. Champion, Chair, Department of History, Syracuse

♦ J. Paul Hunter, Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Professor of English Emeritus, University of Chicago

♦ Herbert Finkelstein, Ossining, NY

♦ Jean Stinchcombe, Syracuse, NY

The speakers were invited because of personal friendships, but the range of their disciplines is meaningful. Dad’s work in intellectual and cultural history was directly relevant to, and widely read in, the fields of English, art history, and political theory.