Monthly Archives: November 2010

Three C-s of Education Petition Campaign (College, Career and Citizenship)

From the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools:

    The Campaign is sponsoring a petition campaign to remind all policymakers of the essential and historic role schools play in providing the knowledge, skills and disposition for informed and engaged citizenship. The goal of education is more then preparing students for higher education and a successful career; equally important is the role schools play in providing civic participation skills. We are calling this the “Three C-s of Education Petition Campaign.” This petition is designed to remind policymakers and the public of the essential civic mission of schools. The petition language is attached. We ask you all to sign the petition. We also ask all associated with CMS to publicize the petition widely through your communication networks. We encourage those with websites to place the petition ‘widget’ on your site, providing a link to the petition page. The petition drive was launched at the annual conference of the National Council for the Social Studies where well over 1,500 signatures were gathered. This petition will be presented to local, state and federal education policymakers in 2011.

Click to sign:

American exceptionalism

Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum agree: the president and his allies in Washington deny “American exceptionalism” in a way that is unprecedented (Huckabee), “truly alarming” (Gingrich), or “misguided and bankrupt” (Romney). As for the president, he was catapulted to national fame by his 2004 speech in favor of American exceptionalism.* Apparently, everyone must propound some version of this doctrine; to doubt it is dangerous business.

For myself, I am not sure that our particular recipe of social policy is, overall, the best one available today. But I am sure that no group (whether a team, a firm, or a country) succeeds in fierce competition by constantly reaffirming that it already does everything better than everyone else and that no loyal member may doubt its superiority on all fronts. That is the intellectual style of GM ten years ago or of the British Empire before 1900. It is the pride that comes before the fall.

My old boss Bill Galston thinks Republicans have introduced the exceptionalism issue (with remarkably little textual basis) as “a respectable way of raising the question of whether Obama is one of us.” Maybe, but I think there are deeper anxieties at work. I even see an interesting symmetry between the discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. Here, if you criticize aspects of the US system, you are denying American exceptionalism and must wish you lived in France. Over there, if you suggest trimming welfare benefits or liberalizing markets, you have fallen prey to neoliberalism, the “Washington consensus,” and rapacious Anglo-Saxon values.

From a global, trans-historical perspective, the nations of Europe, North America, and the Pacific rim are quite similar. We all have mixed economies, democracies with technocratic institutions, similar parties, similar corporations, open flows of capital, and substantial flows of people. One could illustrate the similarities with a raft of statistics. For example, the income tax rate for an individual who has the mean national income and no child in France: 13.1%. In the USA: 16.5%. Total federal revenue as percent of GDP in Germany: 11.5%. In the USA: 10.9%. Total expenditure on welfare as percent of GDP in Canada: 16.9%. In the USA: 16.2%.

To be sure, there are also large differences on particular measures between particular countries. I have cherry-picked numbers that are similar. But the overall point is valid: we have fundamentally similar systems, compared to the vast diversity found in the world today or in history.

But within each of the wealthy, democratic, OECD countries, we are anxious: anxious that we may be overtaken by China, that our consumption is unsustainable, that we cannot afford the entitlements we have today, that we are losing our edge. The mainstream parties within each OECD country (including the US) do not differ from each other by nearly as much as their rhetoric suggests. They all have the same anxieties and similar proposals. For instance, Democrats and Republicans both believe in a mixed economy with a federal welfare state, and the proportion of GNP that they would dedicate to the federal government (if they didn’t have to negotiate with each other) would differ by just a few percentage points.

But the EU countries lie to the left of the Democrats in the US; and the US lies to the right of the center-right parties in Europe. Thus the rhetoric plays out as follows. If you’re an American liberal, you can score effective debating points by noting failures of our current system. For instance, we spend more on public health care than the other OECD countries, yet we only cover a small slice of our population with Medicare, Medicaid, and VA benefits, whereas the European countries cover everyone for less. A tempting counter for conservatives is to accuse liberals of preferring Europe and not being part of our patriotic team.

Meanwhile, if you’re a European of the center-right, you can score valid points by noting that their social welfare states are unaffordable (because of an aging population) and their labor markets are sclerotic. A tempting counter for European social democrats is to accuse the center-right of preferring America and the Washington Consensus.

I don’t suggest this comparison in order to excuse those American conservatives who view President Obama as unpatriotic. Their position is infuriating, especially given the similarities between his policies and rhetoric and theirs. I think the effort to squelch criticism and to prevent borrowing from overseas is potentially catastrophic for our national competitiveness and progress. Yet I suspect its causes are deep and pervasive.

    *”Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy; our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over 200 years ago. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ That is the true genius of America.”

in the debate about the civic purpose of education

My blog entry entitled “Should we teach patriotism?” will be anthologized in a book series called Current Controversies (Greenhaven, 2011). And Elizabeth Kish and J. Peter Euben discuss my blog entry entitled “Stanley Fish vs. civic education” in their chapter in Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University (Duke, 2010), pp, 78-70. I didn’t anticipate or seek these uses of my blog, but I’m pleased that posts I’d long forgotten still have some life.

what to do about an unwise public

The following appeared first on the Huffington Post.

On the American Prospect blog, Jamelle Bouie cites the latest Pew survey of public knowledge (only 38% of Americans can identify the incoming House Speaker; only 14% know what the inflation rate is) and concludes, “If there’s a pundit trick that annoys me the most, it’s the tendency to attribute particular ideological views to the public at large. In reality, the public doesn’t actually know very much and isn’t particularly ideological.” Her His advice for politicians: “The best anyone can do is to meet the needs of your constituents, work on economic growth, and maintain good relationships with party leaders and activists. In the end, it’s probably not a good idea to try to divine the ‘wisdom of the people; from an election outcome, because by and large, the people don’t have much wisdom.”

But what happens if politicians don’t try to meet the real needs of their constituents and don’t take steps that will actually promote economic growth or other goods, such as security, freedom, sustainability, and equity? According to Joseph Schumpeter and kindred thinkers, that won’t be a problem because the voters can judge overall success in periodical elections. They need not master specifics; they must simply assess their own circumstances and fire the incumbents if things go badly. Then the incumbents will be motivated to do a good job and can ignore citizens’ advice about how to go about it.

This is not a crazy theory, and it rests on the valid premise that Bouie cites: “most people aren’t terribly interested in public affairs or the minutiae of politics and come to their views by way of partisan affiliation and broad heuristics about the world.” But clearly our Constitution is not designed for Schumpeterian politics. Division of power, staggered elections, bicameral legislatures, judicial review, and federalism all dilute and check the power of any particular incumbents and make it impossible to remove the people responsible for poor performance–unless voters are well informed about “the minutiae of politics.” For example, in the last election, voters probably fired the Democratic majority because unemployment was stubbornly high. That was a smart and helpful move if the Democratic congressional majority was responsible for high unemployment. I think not, but I could be wrong. The important point is that our system makes it foolish to vote on overall performance.

So we need people to know enough to be wise.Some candidates for what we should know or understand as citizens include: the Constitution, statistics, the carbon cycle, the Holocaust, the positions of powerful politicians, the chief principles of Islam, the biography of Abraham Lincoln, macroeconomics, the Atlantic Slave Trade, accounting principles, the geography of Afghanistan, the contents of the recent health care reform, the major components of the federal, state, and local budgets, evolutionary biology, the tenets of classical liberalism and civic republicanism, Spanish, what causes AIDS, the rudiments of criminal procedure, important interest groups, the mechanics of voting, Keynes versus Hayek, Brown v. the Board of Education, how a bill becomes a law, the King James Version, our rights, the fact that half the world’s population lives on less than $2/day, Letter from Birmingham Jail, and how to moderate a meeting.

That’s a long list that could be much lengthened. I think we all need to avoid the kind of argument that runs: “People are ignorant of the things I know. That’s why I vote right and they vote wrong.” Liberals are deeply invested in that argument right now, and the relevant evidence is the public’s ignorance of climate science, the composition of the federal budget, and the actual contents of the recent health care reform. But conservatives can play the same game with equal sincerity. For instance, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute regularly surveys college students and finds (to their way of thinking) woefully low levels of knowledge of the following issues on elite campuses: why capitalism allocates resources efficiently; what Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas thought about natural rights; how the Soviet Union dominated other nations; and the origin of the notion of separation of church and state.

I’d like to change the subject. Our system does require public knowledge and virtue. Schools should teach all of the topics mentioned above, along with civic values. There is room for improvement in public education, but we cannot expect everyone to learn and permanently retain the entire corpus of modern knowledge. My own understanding is profoundly limited.

Thus we must identify the most important knowledge and find ways to teach it that go beyond schools. We need “lifelong learning.” Although I respect many other kinds of knowledge, I most want citizens to possess a set of considered judgments about how public institutions should run. People can and should disagree about that question, but everyone’s judgments should be based on informed and reflective thoughts about how to balance equity, participation, minority rights, and efficiency; how much to reward innovation and hard work versus protecting people against failure; when to preserve traditions and when to innovate; how much to demand of individuals and when to leave them alone; and how to relate to newcomers and outsiders. They should also know how to participate in constructive debates about such issues when people disagree.

To some extent, those matters can be discussed in classrooms and informed by readings. But much of our learning is experiential. From Jefferson’s idea of a ward system to Tocqueville’s observation that juries and associations were schools of government to John Dewey’s notion of democracy as a set of learning opportunities, our wisest thinkers have always understood that the American system depends on knowledge and virtue that must be learned through experience.

Unfortunately, we have lost several of the most important venues for civic learning.

  • Because of the consolidation of school boards, water boards, and other local governmental bodies and the replacement of citizen boards with expert managers, opportunities to serve on such bodies have fallen by about 75% since the mid-1900s.
  • Because of the collapse of traditional civil society, the proportion of Americans who said they had attended a local meeting fell smoothly from about 65% in 1976 to about 35% in 2005.
  • Because of the standards and accountability movement, citizens’ participation in debates about schooling have become increasingly marginal.
  • Because of the mobility of capital, local governments are no longer able to make their own decisions about how to balance the interests of businesses against those of the community. Business that don’t get what they want can simply leave.
  • For reasons that I don’t fully understand, the proportion of children who participate in extracurricular groups has fallen.

Empowered associations, boards, meetings, and community debates are schools for democracy, and we are in serious danger of losing them. That’s a very different complaint from “the public is unwise,” and it suggests very different responses.

the Coburn anti-earmarking amendment

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) plans to introduce an amendment this week to ban all earmarks in fiscal years 2011-13. Apparently, the amendment has a decent chance of passing.

The Coburn amendment is not a powerful tool for budget-cutting, even assuming that spending cuts are desirable in the short term. Earmarks in total represent about 0.3% of federal spending, and they direct the government to allocate funds to certain purposes instead of others. In other words, if they were banned, spending would not decline, even by 0.3%. That amount of spending would simply move from some programs to other ones.

Fiscal conservatives make subtler arguments that link earmarks to the rate of overall spending. One argument holds that congressional leaders bribe members into voting for big budgets by giving them earmarks. Conceivably–but by the same token, Speaker Boehner could use earmarks as incentives for members to cut the overall budget. It all depends on the priorities of the leadership.

A second argument holds that members vote for big federal budgets because then there is plenty of room for their pet projects. I don’t see the logic of that. You can consistently vote to cut the federal budget and support an earmark that would allocate one millionth of the whole sum to your favored project.

The ability to add earmarks does allow Members of Congress to direct spending to their own districts in ways that may waste public resources and that help to buy them reelection. That’s a problem, as is the fact that earmarks flow to districts with senior members (not to the places where the most important projects are).

On the other hand, a lot of earmarks are not actually projects located in the sponsors’ own districts. For example, among the educational programs that have earmarks are Teach for America, the National Writing Project, National History Day, and Reading Is Fundamental. These programs are supported by large numbers of legislators. Their work is distributed nationally and they don’t especially benefit any particular districts, but the co-sponsoring legislators are convinced of the programs’ merits.

So the question becomes: Who should decide what is meritorious–Congress or the executive branch? There is an argument in favor of the legislature, an elected, accountable, deliberative body. The Constitution (article 1, section 1) vests “all legislative powers” in Congress, and arguably deciding to invest in Reading is Fundamental or National History Day is a legislative act.

On the other hand, when Congress earmarks money for a particular program, the executive branch agency that disburses the funds loses its ability to select the best organization through a competitive RFP process, and it loses its leverage over the recipient once the grant is made. The important assessment is conducted by legislators and their staff, not by specialists in the appropriate agencies. In occasional interactions with congressional staff, I have found them formidably smart and dedicated, but they cannot evaluate competing bids or evaluate programs, especially small ones. Thus the same earmarked programs tend to receive funds, year in and year out.

In sum, I think the Coburn amendment would do significant collateral damage by knocking out a bunch of small programs that Congress has wisely decided to fund and that the administration will not be authorized to fund. I fear that Congress won’t repair the damage by permitting federal agencies to spend the money for similar purposes.

That is not to say that the earmark process is by any means ideal. For several of the educational programs I know about (at both the k-12 and college levels), a competitive grant program would work better than a congressional earmark for a named program. But an earmark is better than nothing in a considerable number of cases. Congress should be able to decide what to fund directly and when to delegate that power, and we should hold Members accountable for those decisions.