Monthly Archives: July 2010

on vacation

We’re going to Europe until August 5, taking advantage of frequent flier miles to get to Munich and then driving south into the Tyrolean Alps. I’ll be as offline as the nuns in this ancient convent (or maybe more so) and won’t post until next week.

what parents (and other adults) want from schools

These are some interesting tidbits from a recent (June 2010) Public Agenda survey of 1,400 Americans, including 646 parents of kids currently enrolled in k-12 schools.

First, people are more concerned about behavioral issues than about academic “performance,” as that is typically measured:

The most pressing problem in your local schools: parents all respondents
social problems and kids who misbehave 63% 56%
low academic standards & outdated curricula 27% 31%

Second, although people value basic writing and math skills, teamwork ranks higher on their list of priorities than scientific skills and principles.

Which of these are absolutely essential to learn in schools?: parents all respondents
basic scientific ideas and principles 60% 56%
being able to work in a team 80% 74%

Third, when asked what should be taught more or less in their own kids’ schools, elementary school parents seem basically satisfied, but the most common request for more time is for computer and technology skills. I wish parents wanted more social studies, but that’s second-to-bottom on their priority list, right above art. Middle- and high-school parents rank it a bit higher, above advanced science, advanced math, fine arts, and sports/gym.

we need more branches of government

Two very different authors whom we assigned in our summer institute both advocate adding branches to the traditional troika (legislative, executive, and judicial).* In general, a “branch” is a part of government with distinctive guiding principles and forms and functions appropriate to those principles. It has autonomous powers, checked by other branches. These checks are not only designed to prevent tyranny but also to promote various kinds of inter-branch collaboration for the public good.

The principle of division into branches could be carried further than it was in the US in 1788. Bruce Ackerman writes, “The separation of powers is a good idea, but there is no reason to suppose that the classical writers have exhausted its goodness. To the contrary.” He favors a powerful elected legislature, “checked and balanced by a host of special-purpose branches, each motivated by one or more of the three basic concerns of separationist theory.”

Here are my own top three ideas for new branches.

1. A regulatory branch. We pretty much have one of those already. Even though the US Constitution explicitly vests “all legislative powers” in the elected Congress, everyone knows that laws are also made by regulatory and administrative agencies. Ackerman advocates thinking of these agencies as their own branch.

I have written critically about the delegation of democratic responsibilities to appointed agencies and also against over-estimating the value of expertise, which is the trump card of bureaucracy. But it seems unrealistic and unwise to imagine that we can dispense with lawmaking administrative agencies in a modern economy. So perhaps the best course is to think of administrative agencies as part of a separate branch with its own virtues and principles but also with strict limitations.

The elected branches should not be able to interfere with administrative agencies in illegitimate and corrupting ways, e.g., with rampant earmarks, miscellaneous mandates, and patronage appointments. But they should be able–or even compelled–to review important value judgments and choices that the agencies make. Agencies should embody principles of professionalism and rule-of-law. That means, for example, that they should be required to codify their own decisions in consistent, transparent, and stable law rather than miscellaneous, ad hoc decisions. Courts should be able to review their procedures for adherence to these professional principles.

Note that some of this “reform” program is already embodied in the Administrative Procedures Act and case law, so all we need is to to think of administrative agencies as a branch and to tinker with the law accordingly.

2. An integrity branch. This is another suggestion of Ackerman’s. It is scandalous that we permit incumbent politicians to draw the legislative districts in which they will run for reelection; that we hold partisan votes for the secretaries of state who administer elections and decide where to locate voting machines (etc.), and that we allow private interests with financial stakes to fund campaigns. Many other countries have rigorously independent electoral commissions or agencies. The US version could be empowered to draw electoral districts, administer the vote, and subsidize qualified candidates with public funding (guaranteed by the Constitution or by a durable statute).

3. A reconstructive branch. This idea comes from Unger. It is aimed at the problems of sclerosis, corruption, entrenchment, and inertia–in the private and public sectors, local and national. Unger’s proposal is to let this new branch seize troubled entities temporarily, reconstruct them, and then let them go back about their business. Clear candidates for such reconstruction lately would include bankrupt Wall Street banks, bankrupt auto manufacturers, the state of California, and (due mainly to events beyond its own control), the city of New Orleans.

The obvious objection to this third proposal is the lack of democracy–a bunch of “suits” from Washington would be able to seize anything they wanted and revise it according to their pet theories. But that problem could be overcome with two provisions. 1) The reconstructive branch would itself be chosen in regular, competitive, popular elections for term-limited positions. 2) When reconstructing public institutions, the branch would be required to create fully democratic processes, not impose its own ideas. So both California and New Orleans would use popular constitutional conventions (or charter reviews) to design their new systems of governance. The process would be managed by the reconstructive branch, but the outcomes would be up to citizens.

*Bruce Ackerman, “The New Separation of Powers”, Harvard Law Review, 113 (2000): 642-729 and Roberto Unger, “Democracy Realized: A Manifesto” (pp. 263-77).

scrambling the ideological spectrum

Here is a quote from a text that we assigned for today’s session of the Tufts Summer Institute of Civic Studies:

    The first [kind of knowledge] is what may be acquired through intelligence, through the book or classroom, and skill in ratiocination. It is large in rules, prescriptions, and generalizations. The second is strictly limited to experience, to the doing of something, and to the making of what is learned an inalienable part of one’s very mind and personality.

Especially if you were told that the writer prefers the second kind of knowledge to the first (as he does), you might presume that he was a “progressive” educator, a Deweyan who promotes experiential education, service-learning, and constructivism as opposed to learning from the “book or classroom.” But this is a passage from Robert Nisbet, Conservatism: Dream and Reality (p. 32). Nisbet offers a full-throated defense of conservatism, arguing for authority and property as the two basic conservative values. In his opposition to abstract, theoretical knowledge and his celebration of experiential, emotional learning, he stands rather surprisingly with Dewey.

A Nation of Spectators

In 1998, the National Commission on Civic Renewal issued its final report entitled A Nation of Spectators. (I was the deputy director of the Commission; Bill Galston was the director.) It had a website: static and simple by today’s standards, but fully capable of presenting the report and some important ancillary information. The website lost its server as the years passed, and I did not keep a PDF of the report–although I do have a stack of very nice bound printed copies in my office. A Nation of Spectators had an influence on the civic engagement field. People periodically ask for it, and today I discovered it online thanks to the wonders of the Wayback Machine (an archive of the World Wide Web).

So here is the website of the National Commission and an html copy of A Nation of Spectators. The graphics and formatting have been lost because of the way the server was reorganized, but the content remains. The authors were:


William J. Bennett

Senator Sam Nunn


Elaine L. Chao

The Heritage Foundation

John F. Cooke

Walt Disney Company

Jean Bethke Elshtain

University of Chicago

Henry J. Fernandez

Yale Law School

Mary Ann Glendon

Harvard Law School

Peter C. Goldmark, Jr.

International Herald Tribune

Lloyd V. Hackley

Character Counts! Coalition

Anna Faith Jones

Boston Foundation

Michael S. Joyce

Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation

Richard D. Land

Southern Baptist Convention

Edwin Lupberger

Entergy Corp

Michael Novak

American Enterprise Institute

Barbara Roberts

Harvard University

Ismar Schorsch

Jewish Theological Seminary

William Shore

Share Our Strength

Arthur R. Taylor

Muhlenberg College

Gail L. Warden

Henry Ford Health System

Robert L. Woodson, Sr.

National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise