Monthly Archives: August 2012

shaping our future: how can higher education help us create the future we want

As we head away for a long weekend, I share the invitation below. Participants at our Frontiers of Democracy II conference deliberated about the role of higher education using an issue guide created by the National Issues Forums Institute and its partners. Many other citizens across the country have also begun to use that guide. Next Tuesday in Washington–and online–the national discussion will be formally launched.

Shaping Our Future: How Can Higher Education Help Us Create the Future We Want? 

 Watch the launch online

Join us online on Tuesday, September 4 to kick off Shaping Our Future, a year-­long national dialogue on the future of higher education. Through this initiative, students, faculty, administrators, employers, and members of the general public will reflect on how colleges and universities might help the country tackle some of its most vexing problems. Shaping Our Future is organized by the American Commonwealth Partnership and the National Issues Forums. The kick-­off event will include information about forums now being planned on campuses and in communities nationwide.

  Presentation and Panel Discussion

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

 9 to 11 a.m. Eastern Time, National Press Club

 Speakers and Panelists:

Martha Kanter, U.S. Undersecretary of Education

Nancy Cantor, Chancellor, Syracuse University

Muriel Howard, President, American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU)

Bernie Ronan, Chair, The Democracy Commitment

Kaylesh Ramu, President, Student Government Association,

University of Maryland Baltimore County

Scott Peters, Co-­Director, Imagining America

Harry Boyte, National Coordinator, The American Commonwealth Partnership

Bill Muse, President, The National Issues Forums

David Mathews, President, The Kettering Foundation (via video)

Click here to watch the launch online, September 4, 2012, 9 a.m. (ET)


mapping a moral network: Auden in 1939

We can think of a person’s moral mentality as a network. The nodes are ideas or values; the links are various kinds of connections among the ideas: implications, explanations, influences, and meaningful tensions. For instance, I believe that all human beings have exactly equal value, yet I also believe that my primary obligations are to my own family. These are two nodes in my personal moral network, connected not by a contradiction but by a tension.

A good moral mind comprises important and correct nodes. For instance, it is better sincerely to endorse a principle of equality than to advocate hating some of one’s fellow human beings. That example shows that a single node can affect–even determine–a person’s character. But it is hard to argue for any given idea all by itself. (Why equality, for instance?) And it is not enough to have the right principles; they must also be well organized.

Those two considerations lead us to think not merely about which principles are right or good, but also about the overall shape of a person’s moral network. Does it include enough ideas to handle the actual complexity and variety of human affairs? Are weighty and serious ideas central to the network? Do ideas just stand by themselves, or are they linked together in meaningful ways?

I’ve been thinking about these questions introspectively–but that is a somewhat private matter. Another way to demonstrate this kind of analysis is to examine the moral network map of a famous person.

A full personality would be an immensely complicated thing to map, since it comprises all kinds of principles, desires, aversions, memories, virtues, vices, memberships and identifications, hopes, plans, skills, and facts. It changes constantly and is inconsistent, replete with thoughts that are only half-endorsed, only half-sincere. But if we are interested in moral questions–What should we do? How should we live?–we can simplify the analysis to a person’s moral ideas.

Most people (including me) are not sure what those are; we would have great difficulty explaining our moral premises adequately to other people. We are not terribly clear or articulate. Fortunately, some writers describe moral ideas cogently and concisely, not merely listing them but putting them in a formal arrangement that reflects appropriate amounts of tension, irony, ambivalence, and ambiguity. Whether the resulting text reflects the author’s sincere, inner motivations doesn’t matter; we are not interested in psychoanalysis, but in finding a moral worldview to analyze. It is the text, not the writer, that we will use for analysis.

Morally conscious lyric poets are especially helpful for this purpose because their writing is concise and is concerned with form and organization as well as discrete ideas. Also, poetry can accommodate abstract concepts, concrete stories, personalities, reasons, and emotions–as the poet sees fit. I don’t believe we should screen out any of these kinds of ideas in advance but should see how they work together in a particular mentality.

Recently, I offered a brief reading of a great and influential moral poem, W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” I explored the complexities of Auden’s pronouncements, some of which we know he did not mean literally. For instance (as he himself said later), the line “We must love each other or die” is false, since we will die even if we do love each other. So its place in the poem is more complicated than just a proposition that Auden endorsed. The setting–a gay bar on the first night of World War II–may be as important as some of the abstract themes.

One way to think of the structure of the poem is as a literal network map. See the top of this post for an example. To make that image, I selected ideas (and in some cases, quotes) from the poem. I used software to place them in literally random locations on a blank plane, connected the ones that seemed related–using dotted lines for nodes that are in mutual tension–and then applied an algorithm that moves the nodes around as if they were billiard balls connected by springs, until the diagram stabilized at an equilibrium. That yielded a picture of the relationships among Auden’s ideas as presented in this (partly fictional) poem.

An important disclaimer: the labels of those nodes are simplistic; they reduce subtle and ambivalent ideas to slogans. So you must actually read the poem. Nevertheless, the network analysis brings out certain points:

Auden presents a rich view in just a few pages. I found 16 nodes and 52 links, and I’m sure I could have found more. None of these nodes can be collapsed into others, but a few separate areas of emphasis emerge. As shown at the bottom-left of the map, Auden is anti-collectivist: against the state, mass society, and ideologies (including corporate capitalism). He admires personal conscience–but not the retreat into private life.

Another important ideal for him is disinterested love, which is threatened by the universal desire to be loved exclusively.

I put “gay identity” on the map because the setting is known to have been a gay bar, and Nijinsky/Diaghilev (mentioned in the poem) formed a same-sex couple, as did Auden/Kallman. But I can’t connect that node to others because Auden is not explicit about homosexuality. This is a case where what is unstated is also part of the map.

economic benefits of civic engagement

Last year, CIRCLE and partners released a study showing that US communities that had stronger “civic health” were better able to withstand the effects of the recent recession. Since then, my colleagues and I have been working with the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) to explore that connection much more rigorously and comprehensively. Our new study is in production and will be released at the NCoC’s 67th annual conference in Philadelphia on Sept. 14.

Meanwhile, here is an interesting study consistent with our findings and distinctive because of its method. Eagle, Macy, and Claxton analyzed the actual phone calls and other electronic communications in Britain. Instead of using a poll or other sampled data, they actually analyzed all 368,000,000 contacts. They found that the diversity of communications networks in a given community strongly predicted its economic welfare. They say, “Although the causal direction of this relation—whether network diversity promotes opportunity or economic development leads to more diversified contacts—cannot be established, social network diversity seems to be at the very least a strong structural signature for the economic development of a community. ”

In our forthcoming work, we do investigate the causal direction. We argue that civic engagement strengthens networks and that networks improve economic performance.

Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot)

Pierre Hadot (1922-2010) was a careful empirical scholar of ancient thought and a clear and modest writer, yet he defended a conception of philosophy that was exciting enough to attract the enthusiastic support of Michel Foucault. I’m becoming directly acquainted with Hadot for the first time via a collection entitled Philosophy as a Way of Life, edited by Arnold Davidson (1995). These are some of Hadot’s most important points:

In the Greco-Roman world, a philosopher was someone who lived the good life. What made a life fully good was a matter for debate, but it was widely understood to involve equanimity-in-community (borrowing a phrase from Owen Flanagan): that is, inner peace or control over one’s own emotions combined with active and ethical engagement with other people. Another essential element of the good life was freedom from error. That didn’t mean full understanding, which was impossible, but the avoidance of logical, scientific, and moral mistakes.

A philosopher need not develop or hold original views or arguments. Socrates was the model sage of all the ancient schools, and he didn’t even write anything, let alone teach positive doctrines of his own. His life–including his dialogic relationships with other Athenians, and the equanimity he displayed on the point of death–was what made him a philosopher.

All the ancient schools developed spiritual exercises designed to train the practitioner to be more philosophical. These exercises included, for instance, describing emotionally fraught situations from the dispassionate perspective of nature or science, and learning to focus on the living present, because it is all that really exists, while the past and future are  sources of irrational emotions. Debating abstract issues with other people was yet another spiritual exercise. While participating in an argument, one took the propositional content seriously, but the point of the dialogue was to improve the participants’ personalities and their relationships.

The philosophical writing that comes down to us, then, wasn’t what the ancients called “philosophy.” It was just the offshoot of one of their philosophical exercises: abstract disputation. Writing was not a satisfactory substitute for actual dialogue, which must involve real people who were friends as well as debating partners. All the schools disparaged as “sophistic” the view that a text could suffice. Nevertheless, the philosophical writing that survives is excellent, especially if one reads it with proper attention to genre, purpose, and form. For example, Marcus Aurelius didn’t report his actual mental states or try to advance true and original propositions. Instead, he recorded standard Stoic moral exercises, beginning with his daily thanks to each of his moral teachers (book 1), and ending with a reminder that all famous men end as “smoke and ash and a tale” (book 12). He listed his own teachers and the exemplary men by name because he would actually visualize each of these people in turn. Those were just two spiritual exercises for which the Meditations was a notebook.

Hadot argues that the ancient conception of philosophy as an integrated way of life shifted, during the Middle Ages, into philosophy as argumentative writing about abstract topics. Early Christians fully understood the ancient ideal, but they split it into two parts. Monks borrowed, developed, codified, taught, and described the spiritual exercises of the ancient schools. The life of a hermit, monk, or friar became “philosophical,” in the ancient sense. Meanwhile, the task of reasoning about logic, metaphysics, and ethics was assigned to universities and understood as a tool for improving theology, supplying “the latter with the conceptual, logical, physical, and metaphysical materials it needed.” Hadot observes,

One of the characteristics of the university is that it is made up of professors who train professors, or professionals who train professionals. Education was thus no longer directed toward people who were to become educated with a view to becoming fully developed human beings, but to specialists, in order that they might train other specialists. … In modern university philosophy, philosophy is obviously no longer a away of life or form of life unless it be the form of life of a professor of philosophy [pp. 270-1].

Although Hadot admires the ancient conception of philosophy and argues that it has been forgotten in the Continental European university, he is not given to pessimism and cultural nostalgia. Matthew Sharpe writes,

Unlike many of his European contemporaries, Hadot’s work is characterized by lucid, restrained prose; clarity of argument; the near-complete absence of recondite jargon; and a gentle, if sometimes self-depreciating, humor. While Hadot was an admirer of Nietzsche and Heidegger, and committed to a kind of philosophical recasting of the history of Western ideas, Hadot’s work lacks any eschatological sense of the end of philosophy, humanism, or the West. Late in life, Hadot would report that this was because he was animated by the sense that philosophy, as conceived and practiced in the ancient schools, remains possible for men and women of his era: “from 1970 on, I have felt very strongly that it was Epicureanism and Stoicism which could nourish the spiritual life of men and women of our times, as well as my own.”

Hadot argues that the ancient tradition of philosophy has lingered among influential writers deeply schooled in Hellenistic thought: Montaigne, Spinoza, Goethe, the young Marx, Nietzsche, Bergson, and Wittgenstein, among others. And it has the potential to flourish again today.

I don’t know whether Hadot addressed the vexing questions that arise for me in reading his work on the ancients: Should philosophy be a way of life? How that would be practiced? By whom would it be taught? And what it would mean for the evidently fruitful and impressive enterprise of modern academic philosophy?

I would be most excited by a revival if it took seriously all three parts of the ancient ideal: equanimity or inner peace; avoidance of error; and ethical political participation. The last is easiest to overlook in an era of psychotherapy, when the “self-help” section of the bookstore is full of ancient philosophical works and modern popularizations, but we don’t seriously study how to improve the world. Hadot ends,

This concern for living in the service of the human community , and for acting in accordance with justice, is an essential element of every philosophical life. In other words, the philosophical life normally entails a communitary [sic] engagement. This last is probably the hardest part of carry out. The trick is to maintain oneself on the level of reason, and not allow oneself to be blinded by political passions, anger, resentments, or prejudices. To be sure, there is an equilibrium–almost impossible to achieve–between the inner peace brought about by wisdom, and the passions to which the sight of the injustices, sufferings, and misery of mankind cannot help by give rise. Wisdom, however, consists in precisely such an equilibrium, and inner peace is indispensable for efficacious action [p. 274].

Cf. some of my own thoughts: “happiness and injustice are different problems“; “If you achieved justice, would you be happy?“; “three truths and a question about happiness” (inspired by Buddhism rather than stoicism); “Must you be good to be happy?” (exploring some relevant psychological evidence); and “the importance of the inner life to moral philosophy” (arguing that the main schools of modern ethics neglect equanimity).

how do people actually reason in public?

Considering the vast literature on public deliberation and deliberative democracy, there’s surprisingly little research on how people actually reason when they meet in groups to discuss public issues. I was delighted, therefore, to read Brian E. Adams’ paper “Conversational Dynamics in Deliberative Forums: The Use of Evidence and Logic.”

Adams coded and analyzed transcripts of National Issues Forums. (For full disclosure, I sit on the board of the Kettering Foundation, which created and supports the NIF.) Participants voluntarily met for moderated discussions of immigration or energy policy. They tilted somewhat toward the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum but they were diverse.

Adams doesn’t assess the quality of their reasons, seeing such judgments as too subjective, but he does ask whether participants made proposals and supported them with clear and relevant reasons. He codes just 10% of the statements as “free-floating” conclusions or definitions, without any reasons. But he thinks that the “deliberators were unable to articulate their arguments clearly and develop logically sound reasoning.”

Sometimes, I think, Addams is too stringent in his judgments. For instance, this is supposed to be an example of a person who was “unable to articulate” both evidence and a conclusion:

Yesterday the headlines in the newspaper were “Al Qaeda finds that the best way to get into the country now is the Mexican border.” And we talked earlier a little bit about removing the border guards to some extent. That simply is not going to fly in this country in this day and age. Your point about the illegal trafficking, hey, that’s how they’re going to come in. And so … [trails off] (George, Cedar Rapids)

This is not a highly articulate remark, but I don’t think that George actually had to state that because terrorists could cross the Southern border, we need to make security tight. He has left some premises unstated, but that is an appropriate way to talk when others share your premises. Arguments with implicit but understood premises are “enthymemes,” and they are OK.  Of course, whether terrorists really come across the Southern border–and whether they can be efficiently stopped–are different questions, but George potentially contributes that that discussion.

I also think it’s fine that many remarks are simply questions. For example, someone says, “One of the things that we typically don’t address is what are realistic expectations for healthcare?” Adams first analyzes this remark as “avoidance of reasoned argumentation” because it lacks a conclusion or proposal, but I would read it more as a “springboard to further discussion” (a point that Adams concedes a bit later on).

Overall, I’d say that a certain style of public rhetoric (with explicit premises leading to policy conclusions) is desirable, and we ought to teach it because it doesn’t come naturally. But it is not the only kind of rhetoric that contributes to public reasoning. Throwing in a fact, asking a question, expressing a doubt, telling a personal anecdote, offering moral support–these are also helpful forms of discourse.