Monthly Archives: March 2009

national service passes

Today, Congress passed the GIVE Act, also known as the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which will expand AmeriCorps by 170,000 positions and direct much of the service toward three national priorities: reducing the high school dropout rate, conserving energy, and providing health care to needy people. Contrary to some rumors floating around the rightward reaches of the blogosphere,* the program is completely voluntary and will, I’m sure, have to turn away most of its eager applicants. (Also, it funds independent nonprofits that provide service opportunities; it’s not really a national corps.) My full analysis is here.

The Act represents the biggest expansion of civilian service since the New Deal. In a way, the story of “service” has been continuous since the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. Its thread passes from the CCC to the Peace Corps, VISTA, the Points of Light Foundation, AmeriCorps, and USA Service Corps.

But I think the Kennedy Act represents a major milestone for a particular movement that arose in the 1980s to promote voluntary, educational service opportunities for young people. The Campus Opportunity Outreach League or COOL was founded in 1984, Campus Compact in 1985, Youth Service America in 1986, City Year in 1988, and YouthBuild USA in 1990. These groups and their supporters helped make voluntary national service a popular issue and achieved the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993, which launched AmeriCorps. But after that launch, AmeriCorps always had to struggle with declining resources. The Kennedy Act puts it back on a growth path. Many of the leaders of the effort to pass it are veterans of the 1992-1993 struggle.

The immediate next step for the movement is to get the Act fully funded, and then help to implement it well so that the volunteers really learn and make a difference on the three important problems. That is a tall order by itself.

Unfortunately, the task is bigger still. As I’ve argued before, no national service bill can engage most Americans in productive civic work. AmeriCorps is open to citizens of all ages, but most volunteers will be young adults who can take a year for educational service or k-12 students who will benefit from the service-learning provisions. We must treat the Kennedy Act as a positive step and a momentum-builder, but not as an adequate way to fulfill the President’s pledge to make “service and active citizenship” a “central cause” of his administration.

*A Google search will reveal lots of comments that equate the bill with the Hitler Youth or with various Communist organizations. (Conflating Nazism with Communism seems to be a standard trope on the right.) In fact, if you search for “Obama active citizenship,” most of the hits will be right-wing responses that mention Hitler. This reaction is evidence of profound distrust for Democrats and for the federal government in some quarters. Moderate Republicans tend to like voluntary national service because of its moral orientation and its suggestion that citizens–not the state–can address public problems. But if you start with the assumption that federal authorities and Democrats want to steal all your rights, then a national service program for youth must indeed sound creepy. First big rallies, then a massive crowd on the National Mall shouting “O-BAM-a,” then the government buys banks and car companies, and finally a “national service” bill passes. It’s all enough to frighten you–if you start out as profoundly disaffected and suspicious. Such a reaction would be easy to mock, but I recommend taking the underlying fear quite seriously.

strategic and open-ended politics

The Washington, DC public school where my daughter used to study and my wife used to teach is a little chaotic, inefficient, and inequitable, but it is also very diverse, participatory, and tolerant. It has its successes: academic, ethical, and cultural. In other words, it is a public institution (and a community) that can easily flourish or fail–or do a bit of both at the same time. Many adults devote attention and passion to trying to make it flourish, rarely in unison but with overlapping values and goals.

One of the most obvious problems that this particular school faces is the system’s bureaucracy, which is often arbitrary and wasteful. Charter schools are permitted to operate independently of “downtown.” They have grown to such an extent that more than half of Washington’s public school population now attends charters. So whether to turn our old school into a charter is an obvious issue for discussion. As a matter of fact, I didn’t notice much talk about charters–partly because many people were ideologically opposed to them, and partly because a group of parents had actually left the school to launch a charter. But it’s easy to imagine a conversation beginning.

With that background, consider two ways that a charter debate might unfold within a school like ours:

1. Strategic politics: Advocates favor charters (in general) for several quite different reasons. Some see them as means to introduce competition into education. Others see them as opportunities for teachers to obtain professional autonomy and dignity. For either group, an individual charter school is an experiment designed to test a general principle. That principle can generalize, not only beyond the individual school, but beyond education altogether. For instance, libertarians have seen charters as a way to demonstrate that competition can improve outcomes even for one of the most traditional and accepted functions of government–the school. If charters work, libertarians feel they gain an argument in favor of a different kind of society, which is also why some of their opponents try to block charters. Again, libertarians provide only one example; there are also leftist charter-advocates who want to test principles of localism and teacher-control.

Unless you are an unethical ideologue, you must care about local issues, such as the impact of any policy on individual kids and the proper timing, risk, cost, and inconvenience of a particular change. You should also be open to the possibility that your experiment will fail. Yet if you are strategic, you believe that society as a whole would be better off if your theory were applied more generally, and you are right to look for opportunities to test it responsibly. From that perspective, a school is a chance to try the theory.

2. Open-ended politics: Members of our old school community might not be interested in charters, pro or con. They might care instead about what’s good and bad in their own school and how to improve it. In other words, their unit of analysis might be the building and the people in it, not something as general as charters, let alone competition or professionalism. Each participant in such a debate would have slightly different objectives and different beliefs about what works. But they would share a primary concern for the particular institution.

Most people will bring into such particularistic discussions some prior opinions about general concepts, such as bureaucracies, charters, teachers, competition, liberalism, etc. But if their focus is on the school itself, such concepts will arise as just one type of consideration among others. Instead of debating whether charters advance a general cause, they may be concerned about the school principal (who happens to be good at her job), and ask how she would fare if the school became a charter. Or they might worry about the effects of any controversial change on the cohesion of their community. For them, turning into a charter competes for attention and credibility against modest, everyday changes, such as beefing up the fifth-grade curriculum or raising more money at the annual auction. They look inside the “black box” of the school and are concerned about each teacher, curriculum, test, and rule.

I am not against strategic politics. I have my own general beliefs and I think they matter. But I think that open-ended politics is:

  • Under-studied, notwithstanding some great work by the likes of Harry Boyte, Lewis Friedland, Archon Fung, Jenny Mansbridge, Carmen Sirianni, and Mark E. Warren. There is incalculably more research about interest groups and ideologies than particularistic, open-ended public work.
  • Under-resourced, because vast quantities of money and skill are devoted to various kinds of strategic politics, but hardly anyone subsidizes or rewards open-ended politics.
  • Rather counter-cultural, because a group of Americans who assemble today to discuss an issue are quick to seize on a general cause and look for “messages” and strategies to persuade others.
  • Disfavored by modern policies, which often implement very general theories. (An interesting exception, however, may be the charter school movement itself, if you think that a charter creates an opportunity for open-ended politics.)

the purposes of the humanities

I just heard an anecdote: several candidates for president of a major university were asked about the purposes of the humanities. All but one talked in terms of “art appreciation.” As a result, the committee–which included scholars from the humanities–selected the one remaining candidate, who understood how to talk like a modern humanities professor.

This anecdote reminded me of a scientist whom I used to hear holding forth to his graduate students at a take-out restaurant in College Park. Once he advised them to take an art appreciation course to meet women. Apart from other problems with this advice, the University of Maryland does not offer art appreciation. It offers art history, a discipline that sees itself as just as rigorous as the natural sciences.

Within the humanities themselves, I think the prevailing view is almost the opposite of this scientist’s. Rather than teach “appreciation,” we teach critical distance. A major goal of a class in English or art history is to help students learn how cultural products are made and how they function so that the students shed their automatic reactions and assumptions. When we understand works of art and literature, sometimes we like them more, but sometimes less. The point of a humanities course is not to raise or lower approval, but to enhance critical understanding.

My own view is that critical distance is a moral stance, and often a good one; but it is only an example of a moral position. In general terms, the purpose of the humanities is ethical thought. What ethics demands is sometimes criticism, but sometimes it is tolerance, solidarity, or even appreciation. The sciences and social sciences provide information relevant to ethical choices, but they deal with “is,” not “ought.” Only the humanities address, in various ways, the questions of how one should live and how a society should be structured.