Monthly Archives: November 2011

new federal measures of civic engagement

Formal systems, such as governments, tend to measure what they value. Thus I take it as a good sign that the federal government has been gradually expanding the forms of civic engagement that it measures regularly through the Census Bureau’s annual Current Population Supplement survey.

Voting intrinsically involves counting, so we have turnout statistics going back to George Washington. The Census asked about volunteering in 1974 and 1988 and has fielded an annual measure of volunteering since 2002. With the passage of the Kennedy Serve America Act in 2009, the Census was required to ask about more forms of engagement and has added measures of group membership, meeting attendance, media use, boycotting products, and communicating with friends and family, among others. Now, according to our friends at the National Conference on Citizenship, the Census is adding:

  • Voting in local elections (such as mayor or school board)
  • Using the internet to express opinions about political or community issues
  • Communicating with family and friends
  • Trust in neighbors
  • Confidence in corporations, the media and public schools

These measures are very helpful for tracking civic engagement in the nation and communities and for other research efforts, such as our study that linked engagement to employment. But many other outcomes could be measured, in principle:

  • Civic skills
  • Changes in young people’s civic knowledge, skills, and interests. (Civic measures have been included on federal longitudinal surveys, but not recently)
  • Jobs that have civic or service aspects
  • Positive interactions between governments and citizens, e.g., in good community policing or participatory planning
  • Intensive and personal forms of philanthropy, such as sheltering and feeding non-family in one’s home
  • Non-compliance, foot-dragging, and the other strategies of dissent that James C. Scott has argued are the tools of the world’s poor

I certainly don’t expect the federal government to measure all of the above, but even if the government measures valuable things, we should care about more than what is measured.

three truths and a question about happiness

I am a cheerful guy, happy with my work and family life, able to enjoy mundane events and relish extraordinary experiences. But for me, as for virtually everyone, an undercurrent of sorrow and fear is never completely absent. The sorrow is for pain and loss; the fear is anticipation of more. The individuals who are suffering or who will inevitably suffer include the billions of strangers whose pain is superficially noted in the  newspaper; the hundreds of strangers whose tragedies are vividly described every day; one’s close friends and family (including the ones who happen to be healthy, safe, young, and happy today); and oneself. The Buddha was right that the First Noble Truth is suffering.

I respect, and perhaps envy, people who believe that suffering is limited or illusory because a reward follows death. I may envy, but I do not respect, people who simply don’t care, who live for themselves or in the moment and push suffering out of their minds. Even if not caring were possible, it seems dishonorable.

I can imagine a state that requires neither supernatural intervention nor moral oblivion. This state would be difficult to attain, and in fact I do not expect to see it. But it violates no laws of nature. I take some consolation merely in envisioning it.

In the state that I imagine, I would live a life partly devoted to improving or repairing the world. Here is why: Complex and intricate systems are more likely to survive and reproduce if they have an inner drive. That is true of trees, cities, and anthills: they strive to grow, which is why they are prevalent. But they don’t know that they are striving, hence they do not suffer. Sentience is a particular kind of will that is useful for promoting survival. We happen to have it and it explains why we have grown to number seven billion. Because every sentient system is vulnerable and ultimately dies, sentience introduces fear and suffering into the universe. That is a version of the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth.

At the same time—and on this point I think the Buddha might disagree—the existence of animals and other complex, fragile, sentient systems creates opportunities to reduce suffering and to promote at least a transient security and happiness. If one envisions, helps to create, enhances, or preserves a garden, a city, an institution, or a life, it does not become immortal, but one’s work reduces the suffering and enhances the flourishing of sentient beings, including oneself.

Note that “service” will not quite capture what it takes to improve the world. It is not about acting for others, but participating in the development and maintenance of complex systems that include oneself. Much evidence suggests that people who work in that way are happier: not liberated from the fundamental reality of suffering, but absorbed pleasurably in their activity while it lasts.

To devote oneself with perfect efficiency and relentless focus to public work would be excessive. If everyone did that, there would be no point to any of it: we would be taking in each other’s laundry. Or (to use another analogy) it would be like envisioning and building a great cathedral which no one ever visited for prayer or pleasure. So, in the state that I imagine, I would place work in balance with two other activities. One is intimacy, time with family and friends, whom I would treat with partiality and loyalty regardless of their needs. The other is pleasurable appreciation of the complex systems around me, especially people and animals, society, nature, and art.

Co-construction, intimacy, and appreciation are already components of my life, and of most other lives. But I don’t manage them with what could be called equanimity. Here is a little fable about how life could be lived better.

One day, I would go to my doctor’s office for a checkup. I would chose to do that because my life, although fragile and limited, has value, and it is my duty to preserve it if the means are reasonable. On the way to the doctor’s office, I would not be able to work or to spend time with the people I love, so I would appreciate the world. Instead of fruitlessly fretting about the tasks ahead, or even about more important causes and issues, I would be absorbed appreciatively in physical things. They could be evidently beautiful objects: the changing leaves glimpsed through a bus window. Or they could be objects whose beauty is easily overlooked: the impasto of scraps on the wet floor of the bus. One can always turn inside– to the reality of one’s own breath, the feel of one’s weight–or to language and imagination.

On this occasion, the doctor would have news for me: a brain tumor, giving me at most three months to live. As I left her office, I would have different thoughts from when I had entered. I would have to change priorities, giving more attention to planning an orderly succession and documenting my work than to launching new projects. I might be in a bit of a hurry after the appointment, because there would be a lot to do. Yet I wouldn’t feel fundamentally different. I knew my life was limited that morning; it is still limited now. It always promised suffering, but it also offered opportunities for absorption and construction. I would still have those opportunities.

On my way to the next activity–since once more I could neither accomplish work nor spend time with beloved people–I would again become thoroughly absorbed in the contemplation of physical objects, present or imagined. My immanent death would not be on my mind. I would heed the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth: suffering ceases with the abandonment of excessive attachment. Another way to put this point is that we are constantly being reborn, so the moments of biological birth and death are less important than we presume.

This fable illustrates a state that violates no laws of nature or of reason. In fact, perfectly rational people would never regret facts they cannot control. The obstacles to attaining equanimity are not external: rules, forces, or demands from outside. They are my own emotions. The Fourth (and final) Noble Truth is something like this: freedom of suffering is possible if one exercises the correct discipline, which is not merely a matter of managing emotions and thoughts but also of living right with other people. (It is what Owen Flanagan helpfully calls “equanimity-in-community.”) If that Truth is true, it offers me just as much consolation as I would derive from news of an afterlife. It represents a perfect solution: suffering would have no sting. Death would be like a wall bordering a field: visible, significant, but in no sense spoiling the space it surrounds.

This Fourth Truth could, however, be false if our physical constitutions simply preclude our attaining equanimity. But one thing is clear: we can envision that state. The question is whether dwelling with that thought and pursuing its actual attainment can take us on the right path.

could civic learning be on the verge of a breakthrough?

I see promising signs. H.R.3464, the Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Learning Act of 2011, would authorize the federal government to collect better data on students’ civic knowledge and would create a grant competition for innovative programs that focus on disadvantaged kids. It would require and fund evaluation, so this would be an innovation fund:

Meanwhile, Hawaii has required a new Participating in Democracy course for all its high school students. That is exactly the kind of experiential course that was common in the mid-1900s but that was cut almost everywhere after 1970 because it seemed too controversial and it didn’t imitate any particular college course. High school students still take social studies, but now most of their courses are in college disciplines like history, economics, and geography. (American Government is really political science). Hawaii’s new course revives the idea that actually experiencing citizenship should be part of the curriculum.

There are also stirrings of improvement in testing and evaluation–shifts away from pencil-and-paper tests (which poorly measure civic skills) toward group activities. And there is talk of better standards: not lists of concrete facts that people should know, but broader and deeper topics and skills that they should master.

understanding a diverse generation

Yesterday, CIRCLE released our major overview study of young Americans, coming into the 2012 campaign cycle.

The study is here. It includes a separate press release on African Americans, here.

I wrote an editorial for the HuffingtonPost, which is here. I also paste the text of the editorial below.

Here is some sample coverage: Ben Smith, “Breaking Down the Youth Vote” (Politico); Jenee-Desmond Harris, “Young Black Voters: Study Dispels Myths (theRoot).

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top ten questions about Occupy Wall Street

  1. Are OWS, the Madison protests of last winter, the Arab Spring, the Indian anti-corruption movement, and the Tea Party all examples of the same phenomenon? Are they miscellaneous stories plucked from the world’s headlines? Or–in the case of OWS and the Tea Party–are they contrary forces?
  2. Who is most susceptible to OWS pressure? Wall Street (I think not), municipal authorities, college presidents, the media, the Democratic Party?
  3. Structure: Is OWS an example of Jane Mansbridge’s “unitary democracy?” Of Clay Shirky’s organizing without organizations? Is it leaderless? Leaderful? Deliberative? Democratic, or anarchistic, or both? What are the prospects of survival, growth, and impact for such forms?
  4. Legal questions: Which Occupations are illegal? Do local authorities have the right, discretion, or obligation to enforce the laws that forbid encampments? Are there legal and ethical means to remove occupiers?
  5. What are the effects of OWS on public opinion? The media and public have given more attention to inequality of economic outcomes during the OWS period. Is OWS causing that change, or reflecting it?
  6. Learning and dialogue: Is OWS a space for people to change their minds and develop their thinking, or are participants repeating what they already believe to peers who already agree? Will OWS promote free speech and inquiry in larger environments, such as UC Davis?
  7. Ideology: what is (or will be) the predominant current within OWS: liberal reformism, radical anti-capitalism, or separatism (the creation of mini-utopias)?
  8. What are the connections to other forms of politics, such as campaigns and elections, public interest lobbying, litigation, and economic actions such as strikes and boycotts?
  9. Assets: what do the OWS participants bring to the table? Note that assets can be unconventional and overlooked–not just power, money, numbers of followers, and legal rights, but also values, innovations, stories. Still, not everyone brings every asset; what does OWS have and not have?
  10. Is OWS the beginning of an era of agitation from the left (and perhaps also the right), or will it be a footnote by next year?