Monthly Archives: May 2012

in search of common themes

As I shuttle among meetings this week, I am looking for common themes.

Tuesday: a gathering of the colleges and universities that have grants from Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP). That is a project that aims to enhance: (1) college students’ civic engagement, (2) their psychosocial well-being, and (3) their academic engagement and success. The project and its grantees investigate the empirical links among these three concerns while also trying to improve their own students’ educations.

Wednesday: a board meeting of AmericaSPEAKS, a nonprofit whose most famous product is the 21st Century Town Meeting, a deliberative session for thousands of citizens who are recruited to represent their community and who make collective decisions or recommendations. AmericaSPEAKS also offers other processes that reflect the values of deliberative democracy.

Thursday: an important staff meeting of my own organization, CIRCLE, which tries to enhance the quality, quantity, and equality of youth civic engagement in the United States by providing valuable and relevant research.

Thursday evening-Friday, the Knight Foundation’s Tech for Engagement Summit at MIT’s Media Lab, a gathering of people who develop, study, or promote digital tools for civic engagement.

not to mention …

Monday: a Memorial Day parade through our town, featuring my own kid, who, like her peers, is being raised to make music, learn the tools of success, and become a loyal member of both the local community and the Nation State whose flags and songs surrounded them. (A cynical reflection on the same event from two years ago, here)

What are the common themes? Psychological health requires engagement with other people. Individuals need supportive contexts to develop as citizens.

the Engagement Commons from Code for America

(Washington, DC) In preparation for a conference later this week on “Tech for Engagement” (at MIT), I have been exploring the Civic Engagement Commons, a compendium of apps and sites that help citizens to engage with government, use or generate public data, or create and circulate news. The focus seems to be on municipalities around the world–the anticipated user is a public official–but the diversity of tools and purposes is worth exploring. It’s interesting to compare this compendium to Participedia, a broader collection of projects that engage citizens in government and politics. Both sites are global and collaborative; they welcome additions from anywhere. One question I will be asking is whether these tools or projects can spark civic concern, confidence, and skills in people who weren’t already interested in participating. That’s perhaps the greatest need in civil society now that we have lost large “recruitment” organizations, such as labor unions and grassroots political parties.

for Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins, interred
Two lifelengths long in loathèd Irish sod,
Somehow through the raked pebbles heard
A tourist throng his verse applaud.
Straining, he understood the docent say
That he’d been superstitious,
unpublished, bipolar, gay.
Born later, he’d have had his wishes;
Fame, sprung rhythms (think of rap!),
Love for man without the monkish trap.
He thought: this is the end I always mourned for;
This is the blight that I was born for.

the service patch

David Brooks’ column entitled the “Service Patch” is insightful in several respects. Brooks is right that highly successful students nowadays see two options: “crass but affluent investment banking” and “the poor but noble nonprofit world.” They show “little interest in or awareness of the ministry, the military, the academy, [or] government service.” I frequently ask young liberal activists–people who favor expanding the government–whether they would work for the government, and they almost all demur. Incidentally, if there are two political movements in America: the people who argue for government but would despise working for it, and the people who argue against government, the latter will win most elections.

Brooks is also right that the phrase and concept of “community service” has replaced thinking about character, justice, and social impact. “Service” means unpaid or not-for-profit activity that helps people who can’t afford to pay. That is not necessarily good for the world, and it is certainly not the only way to advance justice. Like Brooks, I think that deciding what makes a good life “require[s] literary distinctions and moral evaluations.” Finally, Brooks is wise to follow the work of Rob Reich (“not the former labor secretary, the other one”).

I would push Brooks’ points a little further. People have much less capacity than they believe they have to make the right decisions once they are in a particular situation. The general finding of social psychology is that context determines behavior most of the time. So if you work for a hedge fund, you are going to do what hedge fund managers do, which is influenced by economic opportunities and local norms and expectations. You are not going to become the heroic exception who does good while everyone else does well.

But you can decide which situations to place yourself in. Wall Street and an urban public school both present opportunities and temptations, but they are very different. You are not going to strip industrial firms for short-term profit if you teach elementary school, but you are not going to neglect needy kids if you work for a bank. So you have to decide what opportunities and temptations you want to face. That will determine the quality or value of your life. It is a matter of deep and reasoned introspection, which should be an essential function of college.

Tufts, for example, educated JP Morgan Chase executive director Jamie Dimon; he majored in pysch and econ here. I don’t think Tufts could have taught him much that would have changed his decisions once he took his job, but I do think we could have helped him to think about whether to start on the path he’s on. To switch universities: in 1970, 5 percent of male Harvard graduates worked in the financial sector. In 2007, 58 percent of male Harvard seniors said they were heading for finance jobs. I think that is an indictment of higher education not because the financial industry is unnecessary (we do need it), but because four years of reasoned introspection about the good life should not end with a majority of students choosing the same path: “crass but affluent investment banking.”

the Right Question

I’ve written before about our friends at The Right Question Institute, authors of the book Make Just One Change. I can testify–from having gone through their training myself–that it is not just disadvantaged and marginalized people who don’t know how to ask questions that elicit what decisions are being made, by whom. If you can’t find that out, in many situations, you are powerless. But you can learn it in a matter of an hour or so if you experience The Right Question model, as I did. Leon Neyfakh describes the process in an excellent and prominent Sunday Boston Globe piece, entitled “Are we Asking the Right Questions?” Here is a flavor, but read the whole thing:

Figuring out what makes a good question—or rather, what kind of question will get us the information we want—isn’t such a simple thing, even for grownups. It requires stopping to think about what we’re trying to find out, what the person we’re talking to might know, and what words we should use to coax them into helping us. Donald Rumsfeld infamously said in 2002, in reference to the Iraq war, that there were “known unknowns” as well as “unknown unknowns,” or “things we do not know we don’t know.” The statement was mocked at the time, but in fact it reflects the difficult abstract reasoning we all engage in when we’re trying to fill gaps in our knowledge. Being good at asking questions is the art of identifying those gaps, sorting them, and figuring out how to fill them. Considered that way, it is a strange skill: “the ability to organize your thinking around something you know nothing about,” said [Dan] Rothstein.