Monthly Archives: July 2011

how will we remember the Great Recession?

(Macon, GA) The Great Depression of the 1930s left a visual signature: black-and-white images of hobos and 5-cent apples, Hoovervilles and gaunt Appalachian farm women.

What will be the memorable images of the Great Recession? That aesthetic question is certainly not the most important one, but it raises deeper issues about what kind of period we are going through, how it compares to our national experience, and how it will be remembered.

I pose the question on a day when we learned that GDP growth rate remains miserable three years after the initial crash and has been worse that whole time than we thought–while Congress is considering an austerity package that may cut another half percent off GDP.

We should be cautious comparing our times to the Great Recession. As this helpful table from CNN indicates, all the gross economic statistics were much worse then. Besides, the baseline was much lower in 1928; thus people were far more vulnerable to destitution. The Great Depression produced clearly visible signs of suffering, such as thousands of people loading their last few possessions onto Model T’s and heading to California.

But the current recession is quietly devastating. It has, for example, reduced the median net worth of Hispanic households to $6,325 and of African-American households to $5,677–figures that have a 1930s ring to them.

Moreover, those black-and-white WPA photos tell an exaggerated story when juxtaposed to today. Life went on in 1931, as it does in 2011. In fact, my family’s house and our whole suburban neighborhood were built early in the Great Depression. The ceilings were lower than they would have been in the 1920s–to economize on heating–but they were middle-class homes, experienced in living color by the people who owned them. At the peak of the Depression, one quarter of American workers were unemployed, but three quarters were still at work, doing things like building our suburb.

So what will evoke our times decades from now? Images of foreclosure signs in desert subdivisions? Abandoned strip malls? Or will we think of iPads and Facebook and let memories of the economic decline slip away?

content of an intro course on active citizenship at Tufts

(Macon, GA) Next year, I will teach the introductory course (“Education for Active Citizenship”) for the Tisch Scholars for Citizenship and Public Service program at Tufts. Most of the Scholars’ work involves conducting community projects of their choice, beginning in our “host communities” of Medford, Somerville, and Boston’s Chinatown. The purpose of the introductory course is to convey the concepts, skills, and information that students will need to be effective Tisch Scholars for the next several years.

Designing the course is challenging because so much could be included: various (often conflicting) conceptions of good citizenship; social theories and philosophies that might prove relevant to the Scholars’ projects; information about our local communities, their current issues, and organizations; the skills and values that students need if they are to work well in community settings; and questions of personal identity and ethics (such as how to think about one’s own privilege as a student at a selective and expensive private university). Each of these topics could fill a whole course. The good news: students have several more years of undergraduate study ahead of them, so a major goal is to help them choose wisely the subjects that they will study next to become good citizens.

I am thinking about asking my class to begin building a public website about our host communities. This product would be a genuine public resource, not just an educational exercise for the students’ benefit. They would not produce all its content in a semester, but would rather begin a cumulative project of producing and revising text, data, maps, and images–to be continued by successive classes.

Each week, the class would operate a little like a traditional newsroom, developing and assigning story ideas. Since we need an overall focus for the readings on the syllabus and for students’ mini-research projects, I am thinking of asking them to investigate population changes. in our host communities.

The demographics of Somerville, Medford, and Chinatown have changed and continue to change rapidly because of a combination of gentrification, de-industrialization, immigration, and social policies (such as the construction of highways and subway lines). Some of the most wrenching issues in the history of greater Boston have been related to demographic change, and today’s shifts in population are relevant to policy issues–from education to carbon consumption. The mass movements of people also raise complex theoretical and moral questions. So I think population movements in our host communities would be a good theme for the first year of work, after which annual themes might include: power dynamics, economic conditions, assets for learning in the host communities, or cultural and linguistic diversity.

insanity and evil: two paradigms

The lawyer for Anders Behring Breivik says that his client, accused of murdering at least 76 people, is “insane.” That word belongs to a vocabulary set that also includes “mentally ill,” “abnormal,” and “unhealthy,” as well as their opposites, “healthy” and “normal.” We have available to us a different vocabulary as well, one composed of words like “evil” and “good,” “immoral” and “moral.” The two sets are not logically exclusive: a person can be described as both insane and evil. But they have different implications for judgment and response. For instance, someone who is mentally ill deserves treatment; someone who is evil deserves punishment.

It seems to me that this choice is one of the great divides in modern and postmodern culture. It doesn’t simply divide us into two groups–the moralists and the psychologists–because many people straddle both camps.

I doubt the choice between the two vocabulary sets rests on empirical evidence, at least not in a straightforward way. These are more like paradigms or conceptual schemes than theories. I suppose some psychologists might claim that their medical-sounding terminology is empirical and scientific, whereas moral judgments are subjective, and that is the difference between the two ways of talking. But I don’t think that distinction will fly. “Insane” and “mentally ill” are loaded with value. They mean abnormal, atypical, and far from the mean–but only in a bad direction. Nobody calls the abnormally good “insane.” By the same token, it is not merely a matter of opinion to say that Breivik was “evil.” I am as sure of that fact as I am that Norway is west of Sweden.

We might reserve the word “insane” for people who are literally delusional or profoundly illogical: individuals who perceive nonexistent objects or connect means and ends irrationally. But Breivik fits neither category. Mark Thompson skillfully analyzes the “cold, appalling logic” of Breivik’s acts, including the way he chose to “to kill off an entire generation of multi-cultural political leaders-to-be in a small country.” Breivik chose the means best calculated to advance his chosen end; alas, his end and means were evil.

The claim that Breivik is evil would be complicated if his evil could be cured–perhaps by some easily administered drug. Then we might be tempted to say that he was sick. Indeed, I would give him the drug and, once cured, he would elicit some sympathy from me–especially if he took responsibility for what his prior self had done. But why should he regret what he did while ill? Being sick is not a choice.

The conclusion of that little fable makes us wonder whether punishment and even regret are unfortunate. Shouldn’t we wish that we could cure him and then forgive him and encourage him to forgive himself? I interpret it in a different way, as evidence that there is no solution or remedy for a heinous act. Punishment, treatment, exile, execution, suicide, remorse–nothing satisfies. I have long believed in “moral luck,” and so it comes as no great surprise to me that someone can be evil for unfortunate reasons, such as sickness. It is still evil.

what should New Hampshire do about civic education?

(Concord, NH) I have been meeting with the New Hampshire Task Force on Civic Education, which includes a very engaged and thoughtful Justice David Souter. The Task Force is seeking to define what “civic education” should achieve in the Granite State and has decided that providing voluntary educational opportunities for current teachers will be its best investment. I agree with that because there really isn’t any evidence that any set of state requirements, tests, or standards has changed students’ experiences or outcomes in civics. That means that the Task Force is unlikely to help kids by promoting any policy reform at the state level, unless there is a strong infrastructure for teachers to learn about both content and pedagogy.

reflections on the Frontiers of Democracy conference

The Frontiers conference took place at Tufts on July 21-23. We hadn’t invited many individuals or even advertised the conference widely, but 117 people attended, ranging from high school and college students to senior professors and CEOs of important civic organizations. They came from as far as Germany, California, and Forida.

As I said at the opening, it would be presumptuous to try to characterize all their views, but I think we formed a community that, in general,

  • Struggles for diverse, equal, and inclusive civic engagement.
  • Believes that “engagement” means more than just voting, but must also encompass better ways of talking and listening with fellow citizens.
  • Yet is not satisfied with deliberation alone but wants to connect it to action, work, co-creation, “civic artisanship,” or power.
  • Seeks innovative forms of democracy (“not your grandfather’s civic engagement”): hence the conference track on engaging the online public.
  • Creates spaces for people to make their own decisions and to set their own goals and values, and is therefore drawn to the ideal of “neutrality”–but is also committed to values such as equality and diversity. Hence our conference track on the dilemmas of neutrality.
  • Seeks to reflect on practice and to bring ideas and ideals into the real world: hence our track on theory and practice.

The Frontiers conference was modeled on No Better Time, a meeting held in 2009 at University of New Hampshire. The atmosphere then was optimistic, to say the least. Even the participants who had not voted for Barack Obama were encouraged by the outpouring of civic activism in 2008 and the expansion of relevant federal programs such as AmeriCorps. We talked then about how we would flourish as soon as the recession ended.

Now is not “no better time.” During our conference itself, the headlines screamed that a murderous racist had hunted and killed more than 90 children in one of the world’s safest and strongest democracies; the Speaker of the House walked out on the President of the United States during negotiations to save the full faith and credit of the Republic while the economy continues to sag; and the whole country baked in heat that seemed to portend the climate we will leave to our children. We conference organizers had hoped to engender optimism, hope, and confidence in our field. I am not sure we succeeded, or if that goal was possible.

But I did witness a great deal of learning, network-building, and productive mental and emotional struggle. To name one example, we had intentionally focused on the Nobel-Prize-winning theory of Elinor Ostrom because it is rich with possibilities for civic action and has been developed in close partnership with practitioners. Yet Ostrom’s work is not about deliberation nearly as much as it is concerned with changing the incentives for investment and consumption. If you are a deliberative democrat–like the majority of conference attendees–your ideal may be a room full of citizens talking and listening. If you are an “Ostromite,” you may think instead of municipalities, firms, and public boards negotiating contracts to govern the use of scarce water across the Los Angeles basin.

And yet deliberation can play an important role in such work; and getting people to deliberate is a collective-action problem for which Elinor Ostrom proposes solutions. So the potential is great for Ostrom’s economic theory to enrich deliberative democracy, and vice-versa, in both research and practice. Such are the exchanges and collaborations that I believe we began to build together at Frontiers.