Monthly Archives: January 2011

installations that create conversations

At the University of Florida late last week, I heard a presentation by the staff of Local Projects, a design firm that creates interactive public installations that provoke constructive discussions. For instance, in StoryCorps, people enter a kiosk in pairs, interview each other, and their taped interview becomes part of a digital archive. When Local History created the installation for the National September 11 Memorial Museum, they asked people to contribute their own photos and text from 9/11 and produced a repository that is also accessible via one of the top iPhone apps. At the Contemporary Issues Forum of the National Museum of American Jewish History (shown below), visitors tape their answers to controversial questions. (The fact that participants’ arguments are recorded along with their real names and faces inhibits incivility.)

Advanced technology helps but isn’t essential. An early project involved a memorial in Washington for the New York City victims of 9/11. It was a large paper map of New York, onto which visitors could post their own hand-written notes on semi-transparent paper. Not only did the map become a repository of memories, but strangers had moving conversations.

There are precedents. In 1773, Philippe d’Orleans rebuilt the Palais-Royale in Paris with open arcades for cafes and entertainments. Throughout the Revolution, those spaces were bedecked with posters, pamphlets, and broadsides that prompted all kinds of conversations, including the famous speech of Camille Desmoulins that helped cause the Storming of the Bastille. Or consider the Egyptian Army tanks that are currently covered with democratic slogans. But despite these precedents, museum installations that create archives of visitors’ contributions seem to me basically a new genre–and full of democratic possibilities.

the good citizen and the good person

(In Gainesville, FL, en route to Orlando)–Yesterday, as I guest-taught a University of Florida class on “redefining citizenship,” several questions arose that I found interesting. Here are the questions, with answers that the students suggested (or that I have added myself):

1. A life of very active civic engagement and commitment is …

    a. No better than any other life, as long as each life meets some basic ethical standards such as not violating just laws.

    b. A good life, but no better than several other good lives, such as a life devoted to caring for family or creating art.

    c. Equivalent to a good life. If you devote yourself to art or to God (for example), you are doing it for the good of the world, so you are civically engaged.

2. If you are a resident of the People’s Republic of China today …

    a. You can be a good person and lead a good life, but you cannot be a good citizen, because that means exercising democratic rights and powers, which do not exist. You are not a citizen; you are a subject.

    b. You can and should be a citizen of China as a democracy. Since China is not a democracy, you are a good citizen to the extent that you fight the current regime in favor of democracy.

    c. Many people in China are good citizens. That means that they promote the common good by serving others, joining groups, fighting corruption, and supporting the Rule of Law.

the Bob Graham Center for Public Service

Gainesville, FL–I am visiting the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida today. Senator Graham himself is a strong proponent of youth civic engagement and the author of a wonderfully practical book about how to organize a movement and influence the government: America, the Owner’s Manual: Making Government Work for You. I will have a chance to meet him today, before he and William Reilly, who co-chaired the Oil Spill Commission, conduct a public event on the causes and consequences of the Gulf oil disaster. The Graham Center is an important institution in the field of civic education and engagement, and I am looking forward to learning more about their work.

a typology of denominations

I think that in the Abrahamic faiths, guidance and inspiration come mainly from four sources:

  • Scripture, understood as the written word of God, which may variously include the Pentateuch, the whole Hebrew Bible, both Christian testaments, or the Qur’an.
  • A personal relationship with God, manifested in prayer and the inner voice of conscience.
  • Tradition, understood as the ideas and actions of the historical community inspired by God.
  • Religious institutions that provide guidance and doctrine today.

Almost all believers will acknowledge all four authorities, yet the weight that they give each one varies substantially. That variation is so important that I almost think one can classify denominations by how they weigh the four.

For example, the Reformation doctrine of sola scritura (by scripture alone) implies, first, that the Christian Old and New Testaments have a unique status as the perfect and complete word of God, and second, that one needs no other guidance. The Bible is not part of tradition: it is the sole basis of tradition. It is not produced by institutions: it creates them. It checks and inspires personal prayer. Hence the reading of scripture is the most important religious act.

In sharp contrast, Orthodox Christians believe that the Bible is one manifestation of the true (“orthodox”) religious tradition. The Bible is not fundamentally different from other fruits of tradition, such as the liturgy, the writings of the Fathers, the icons, and the shape and orientation of churches. St. Luke wrote the Gospel named after him, but he also painted the first portrait of Mary and Jesus, which is the model for subsequent icons. St. Basil was post-Biblical but he was inspired in the same way St. Luke was. The decision of a church synod is only valid if it is consistent with tradition and becomes traditional.

Meanwhile, Catholics take seriously the Bible, tradition, and personal devotion, but a defining characteristic of Catholicism is the belief that the institutionalized church (founded by Jesus and headed by St. Peter) is able to teach “magisterially,” changing tradition, reinterpreting scripture, and redirecting belief.

Near the fourth corner of the graph would be denominations like the Society of Friends, which strongly emphasize the personal, inner voice of prayer and conscience. Quakers pray collectively as well as individually, but any individual may be moved to speak. They read the Bible but also other works that are seen as inspired, including (at least nowadays) non-Christian writings.

These are all Christian examples, but I think a roughly similar analysis would work for Jews and Muslims.

“A Tale of Two Cities”: comparing the best and worst cities for civic engagement

I am one of several co-authors of a new report released on January 24 in Miami by the National Conference on Citizenship and its Florida and Minnesota partners. According to Tale of Two Cities: Civic Heath in Miami and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami is the least civically engaged major city in the country, and Minneapolis-St. Paul is the most engaged metropolitan area.

In both communities (as elsewhere in the United States), people with more education and income tend to engage more in civic affairs. But individuals in Minneapolis-St. Paul who are in the lowest income group are more likely to volunteer, attend public meetings, work with neighbors, participate in politics outside of elections, and participate in associations than are people in the wealthiest tier in Miami. An individual with a high school education in Minneapolis-St. Paul is about as likely to be engaged as an individual with a college education in Miami.

The report finds that the civic culture of Minneapolis-St. Paul is oriented toward enlisting and empowering diverse people–paid employees as well as volunteers–in the common work of shaping the area’s future without abandoning their own cultural backgrounds and values. This culture of civic empowerment generates a widespread sense of optimism that people can shape their common future. Those norms are less evident in the Miami area, which appears to be more balkanized and less reliant on citizens to create a common future. Our colleague Harry Boyte provides a historical and interpretive portrait of civic culture in the Twin Cities that should inspire similar strategies everywhere.