Monthly Archives: October 2012

foreign policy, ideology, and the election

At their final debate, the two major party candidates seemed to converge on a doctrine that might be called cautious amoralism. All that counts are the economic interests of the United States and the security interests of the US and Israel–but we won’t promote those interests through large-scale, unilateral, military actions, because that is too expensive and risky.

This may not be either candidate’s real position. Bill Clinton tried to justify US intervention in Bosnia on the grounds of economic self-interest, and that was a classic example of virtue trying to pass as vice. Likewise, in their different ways, Obama and Romney may be more idealistic than they sounded on Monday night. (Or less so.) But they chose to converge on a rhetoric of cautious amoralism.

Polls show that most Americans don’t care much about foreign policy, but among those who do, two groups should strongly dissent from this consensus. I will name them together without suggesting an equivalence of worthiness or influence. It’s just that in political terms, they are rivals and foils.

Neoconservatives profess to believe in muscular, Wilsonian interventionism, “toughness” in support of American security and “democratization” overseas. They are relatively eager to use on-the-ground military intervention.

The peace movement thinks that American military and intelligence power is not a solution; it is a problem. Guantanamo, drone strikes, US invasions, West Bank settlements, and even the sanctions against Iran are threats to world peace and American values.

Both of these groups “lost” on Monday night, because neither one had a supporter on the debate stage. But the political situation is different for each.

Despite getting no explicit support from Moderate Mitt, neoconservatives have written enthusiastic reviews of his performance. Kevin Drum has a summary. Why would they react so positively? I propose: 1) They think that Romney will actually support their positions, or at least the expansion of military spending, and they want him to win. 2) They are somewhat chastened by reality and don’t believe that we will actually invade Iran, so they will settle for Romney’s recent positions 3) They hope for jobs in a Romney administration–for themselves or their friends–and that depends on his winning. And 4) Even though they disagree in part with Obama, they never believed the Tea Party talking points about “apology tours” and anti-Americanism in the White House, so they don’t mind Romney’s dropping those points to look moderate.

At least some on the peace side of the spectrum have been far more critical. Glenn Greenwald called the debate “horrid,” “wretched, with almost no redeeming qualities.” He live-blogged:

US foreign policy actually does have a significant relationship to the economy- namely, the massive military, the constant aggression, war and occupation, the hundreds of military bases around the world all drain resources away from far more constructive purposes – but neither of these two candidates will dare to question any of those imperial premises, so they can’t actually address the prime economic impact of US foreign policy. … Obama boasts of the massive amount of military spending under his presidency. Romney then says he wants to spend more.

Greenwald argued that Obama was playing George W. Bush to Romney’s John Kerry on Monday night.

Neoconservatives have far more influence than people in Greenwald’s camp, regardless of the current political situation. Neoconservatives always retain their ties to the military, their binders full of experienced individuals who can step into senior administration roles, and their platforms in the US media (rather than the Guardian, where Greenwald blogs). Being more powerful and more in synch with actual policy–even under a Democratic president–they can afford to tolerate a little laxness in their nominee’s rhetoric.

But that doesn’t mean that Obama should ignore the peace camp. There are always people to the left of an incumbent Democratic president; the Median Voter Theorem suggests that’s pretty much inevitable. As someone who’s not very radical on most issues, I don’t especially mind seeing the president outflanked. But this is going to be a close election in which turnout will be key. Obama needs the people to his left to vote. My social network connections tell me that a bunch of them do not intend to turn out. Many were already mad about the president’s economic policy, but I sense they would vote for him–or at least against Romney–if economics were all. Right now, it’s not the lack of a public option in the health bill that concerns them; it’s the drone strikes. They may only represent 2% of the electorate, but that’s about the margin in this election. I think it would be smart politics to give them some respect.

CIRCLE in the news

(Woods Hole, MA) With our new report on civic education published recently–and the election coming up–we have been in the news a lot lately. Here’s a sampling of recent coverage:

Nora Fleming, Out of School Engagement in Civic Education and the 2012 Election, Education Week, 10/10/2012 (interview format)

Education Week: And in the future? Is there more interest now in early engagement around elections, politics, and civic life than in the past?

Peter Levine: It’s a mixed picture. I think more organizations and individuals are concerned about these issues and doing their best to help. I think some of the new strategies are very innovative and promising, such as the use of computer simulations to teach politics. On the other hand, as our new study shows, states have cut back a lot on civics requirements, and social studies tests have shifted to exclusively multiple-choice. Neither No Child Left Behind nor Race to the Top did anything positive for civics. So policies have been unhelpful.

Nora Fleming,  Civic Education Found Lacking in Most States, Education Week, 10/10/2012

“The standards in most states include some high aspirations, but typically have nothing to do with assessments. The standards are miscellaneous, the assessments are lacking, and when they are high stakes, they are trivial,” Levine said. “I think in a big, deep way, civics and preparation for citizenship has been left out by policymakers, who think in terms of preparation for college and for a difficult labor market but don’t think of civics as part of this.”

Amelia Woodside, Parenting young voters: There’s still time in this election season, Christian Science Monitor, 10/12/2012

“Young people age 18-29 are a large bloc of 46 million eligible voters, larger than the senior population, and they tilted sharply in favor of Obama in 2008,” writes Peter Levine, director of The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) & Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Tufts University in an e-mail interview. “If their turnout is much lower, or if Mitt Romney controls more of their votes than John McCain did in 2008, that could have a substantial effect on the outcome. In 2008, if young voters had not supported Obama, he would have lost Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia.”

Steven Yacino, Colleges Take a Leap Into Voter Registration, The New York Times 10/13/2012

Roughly 11 million eligible voters ages 18 to 24 are in college, about a quarter of all eligible young voters, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

Zoë Carpenter, The Missing Millenials, The Nation, 10/17/2012

The public discussion about millennial turnout has focused on educated voters like Amber rather than her sisters. “The media talks about college students as if they’re all young people, and all young people are college students,” CIRCLE’s Peter Levine says. “And that contributes to the fact that noncollege youth are overlooked.” Voter registration and turnout are strongly correlated with education, and about 42 percent of the current youth population has never been to college. However, studies show that when undereducated youth are registered to vote, they do so at rates similar to nearly every other group. It’s the classic chicken-or-the-egg problem: campaigns don’t target poor and uneducated voters because they’re considered “low potency,” while those populations are less likely to vote because they aren’t engaged by the campaigns. The destruction of institutional networks in poor neighborhoods has further increased their distance from the electoral process. Older generations left high school, joined unions and worked in organized workplaces such as factories. They read newspapers and went to church. That is no longer the case, according to Levine: “They’re on their own in a way that is unprecedented.”

Fawn Johnson, Growing Young Voters (Without Boring Them), National Journal (online)  10/22/2012

If the casual mention of a high school social studies class makes your eyes glaze over, you aren’t alone. The stereotype of the throw-away, easy A class taught by the football coach is there for a reason.

But you also aren’t thinking about civics the way that education scholar Peter Levine thinks you should. “In 1948, 41 percent of American kids took a class called Problems of Democracy. It was reading the newspaper and discussing the issues and writing papers about it, which is pretty much what I would want to happen. …It’s basically gone now,” said Levine, who runs the civic engagement organization CIRCLE.

Levine worries a lot about how kids learn to become citizens. He says schools aren’t teaching them about civics in any consistent or meaningful way. CIRCLE’s research on government curriculum finds that all states require some form of social studies, but most states don’t test on it and those that do use the cheapest multiple-choice tests.


the civic mission of higher education

I am going to Woods Hole, MA, today to speak to the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Science, Technology and Law. I have been asked to brief them on civic education at the college level, but I hope to broaden the conversation a bit. This is what I plan to say:

Civic education is one of the ways that higher education serves American democracy and civil society.

Civic education may also have other advantages for students:

  • It can be moral education, making people into better individuals.
  • If civic education involves working together to address social problems, it can enhance the skills that individuals need to succeed in a 21st century workforce.
  • Civic education can be a form of liberal education. A civic framework is a fruitful one for considering texts in the humanities and questions and results in the social and natural sciences.
  • Civic education can give students a sense of purpose and well-being. For example, we found through a rigorous longitudinal study at Tufts that students “flourished” better if they engaged for a sustained period in community service perceived as contributing to social change.

But I will focus on civic education as a way of strengthening democracy and civil society.

American colleges and universities have always claimed to serve the republic, but their idea of what that requires has changed over time and varies among institutions:

  • A typical 19th century college sought to create gentlemen who knew their responsibilities to ascribed groups, such as their community, state, region, and denomination. The college president was usually a minister who taught a mandatory “morals” course.
  • The great 20th century research universities tried to create independent, critical thinkers capable of making informed choices on the basis of information. Intellectual freedom and independence from politics and faith replaced loyalty as the cardinal virtues. The University of Chicago’s reforming president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, said in 1933: “‘education for citizenship’ has no place in the university.” He meant that a modern research university must seek dispassionate academic knowledge.
  • There have been plenty of other models, too: land-grant universities proposing to strengthen democratic communities, Jesuit institutions devoted to social justice, etc.

Let’s say we want to evaluate whether we are doing civic education well enough already–or perhaps we want to develop a plan for doing it better. We need to know what works, and there is a growing body of research on specific practices, from service-learning to inter-group dialogue. I’m happy to answer questions about that literature if people want. But more fundamentally, we must decide what our democracy and civil society need from citizens. Should we be most concerned about information and knowledge? Skills? Civility? Devotion and duty? Independence?

Secular universities tend to be uncomfortable with that discussion because it is openly normative (about values) and controversial. Yet colleges and universities create cultures with powerful norms and values—so pretending that they can avoid that discussion is a mistake. And if they put individual choice and freedom ahead of all other values, that is itself a value-judgment with significant consequences.

I approach this debate with a normative framework that says: citizens are people who deliberate with peers to define public problems and then collaborate with peers to address those problems. In doing so, they honor certain virtues, such as a degree of loyalty to their communities that does not preclude critical thinking and dissent. The government is a tool that they can use to address public problems. It had generic strengths and weaknesses as a tool, and people will disagree about that. The role of the government is one of the things they must deliberate about. So citizenship is not an appropriate relationship with the government; rather, government is a topic for citizens to discuss. Note also that collaboration—actual work—is just as important as deliberation. People who merely talk about public issues are ineffectual and often naïve or misinformed; we learn from acting together. Citizens construct or build public goods: tangible good like parks and schools, and intangible ones like traditions and norms, In doing so, we create civic relationships, which are scarce but renewable assets for civil society. The literature on “social capital” is really about those relationships.

If one adopts this normative framework, then there are positive things to say about today’s America, but we face some alarming declines. Between 1975 and 2005, membership in groups was down by 14%; being interested in public affairs, down by 31%; working on community projects, down by 38%; and attending community meetings, down by 44%. These trends do not reflect changing choices and values alone–they also show evidence of weakening institutions. But it is clear that simply giving people the choice to be active citizens does not yield sufficient levels of citizenship.

Meanwhile, most prevalent and influential groups are no longer general-purpose associations with fairly diverse and active members who care about one another. Those associations have been replaced with single-issue organizations that members pay to pursue particular goals or benefits. And communities have segregated or re-segregated by ideology, race, social class, and culture.

If you share my normative framework, then one question you can ask about modern colleges and universities is whether they produce citizens who are capable of deliberating, collaborating, and building civic relationships. You will not be as interested in whether they know what James Madison thought about the Bill of Rights or who is the vice president of the United States. These are worthy topics but they do not seem essential for effective citizenship. (I defend that position in my chapter in this book.)

If you share my framework, you probably want college students to work together on complex, applied, sustained projects that address social issues and that require deliberation. That seems a promising approach to pedagogy (and it comes in many flavors and forms). It also implies some interesting new approaches to assessment. But you should not be satisfied with improving civic education for college students.

Why not?

First, because 42% of young Americans do not attend college at all, and only about one in four completes a four-year degree. Civic engagement is strongly stratified by education, and BA students are already highly engaged compared to their peers. So by focusing on better pedagogy for undergraduates alone, you risk exacerbating the gaps.

Second, people attend college rather briefly, and are unlikely to remain very different as citizens decades later just because they took some special civics courses as undergraduates.

And third, equating the civic mission of colleges and universities with undergraduate civic education misses our most exciting potential.

Institutions of higher education are anchors in their geographical communities, unable by charter to move and thus committed to where they are. They have resources, ideas, information, and the ability to convene citizens to talk. These assets are becoming relatively more important as certain other civic institutions, such as metropolitan daily newspapers, local political parties, and unions, are collapsing. If colleges and universities step up as civic institutions, they will also improve learning opportunities for their students.

Academia also produces knowledge that all citizens–not just undergraduates–need to be responsible and effective. It is not easy to know how to address complex social problems. That raises difficult questions of fact: what are the problems and what causes them? It raises difficult questions of value: what are good means and good ends and who has the right to decide? And it raises difficult questions of strategy: how can an individual or small group organize an effort or movement that succeeds?

Although academia produces plenty of scattered findings relevant to all these questions, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Value questions are sharply divided from factual questions–into separate departments and disciplines. The social sciences focus on how institutions work, not how individuals can be effective. Themes like deliberation, human agency, collaboration, and public reason are marginal across the disciplines. Civic Studies would be that field or discipline that pulled together relevant methods and insights to inform active and responsible citizens. It would not just be a pedagogy or an educational program but also an advanced research agenda. If we could reorient universities to that agenda, our students would benefit–but so would society as a whole.

[I find that I gave a somewhat similar talk at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta in 2007.]

what is wrong with this campaign, in a nutshell

We will field a survey immediately after the election that will assess, among other things, whether people voted knowledgeably and in synch with their own values and beliefs. We will ask them their top policy issue, followed by a policy preference about that issue, followed by some questions about the candidates’ stances on that issue. We want to know whether voters can pick an issue, know where the candidates stand on it, and voted for the one who shared their opinions.

We are having one heck of time choosing or writing questions that fairly and validly assess citizens’ knowledge of the candidates’ policy stances. On practically every issue, both candidates say inconsistent or fuzzy things or deny reasonably neutral characterizations of their positions. For example, is Romney in favor of Medicare vouchers? He says he isn’t. Even if one disagrees, it seems wrong to assess voters’ knowledge by asking them which candidate advocates Medicare vouchers. The fact that the candidate in question denies it is a pretty good excuse for not being sure.

Speaking emphatically for myself alone and not for the CIRCLE team–I think this is a lousy presidential campaign. The incumbent can’t say: “Vote for me so that I can veto Republican efforts to undo some of the unpopular but beneficial things I achieved in my first four years, but I will not be able to do much else.” And the Republican cannot say, “Vote for me so I can cut upper-income tax rates and raise the national debt even though I said I would reduce it.” So they spew a lot of Malarkey, and even if you worked for 15 years in a graduate school of public policy (as I did), you cannot write survey questions that reasonably assess their positions.

Lest I be accused of false-equivalence, I didn’t say that they spew equal quantities of malarkey and buncombe. I think the Romney campaign is substantially worse. But if you think the president is being straightforward, try writing survey questions that assess citizens’ understanding of his positions.

is all truth scientific truth?

In the 1600s, the enterprise now called natural science got fully underway. How to define it and determine its limits are controversial questions. Science cannot be limited to experiments (Galileo dropping spheres from the Leaning Tower of Pisa) because experiments do not stand alone, and scientists do other things: they measure, discover, observe, classify, and build models, for example. But even if we bracket the question, “What is science?” we should acknowledge that it has generated remarkable truths. The heart circulates the blood, germs cause disease, human beings evolved from other primates, and our values originated as adaptive traits of a primate species. These are not truths “for science” or “within the scientific framework”: they are true.

But if all truths were scientific truths, we would be in deep trouble. We would then reject  any claims that science cannot support. For example, do all human beings have equal value or worth? Either that makes no scientific sense (because objective or intrinsic value is not a scientific idea), or it is manifestly false, because science translates “value” into something like capacity or functioning, and then it is obvious that not all humans are equal. A hospice patient has nothing like as much capacity, potential, flourishing, or significance as, say, Mitt Romney.

Human equality is just one example of a truth that we would have to jettison if all truths were scientific. All other moral assertions would also have to go. There would not even be any point to practicing science. As an individual, I might have good reason to take advantage of pertinent scientific findings–for example, to take drugs that attack germs causing me harm. But I would have no reason to contribute to science or to acknowledge scientific findings that were inconvenient to me. I will only respect and support science if public service, the pursuit of truth, or integrity are values, but they are not discoveries of science. So the value of science is not a scientific truth.

Fortunately, we are already used to a pluralist world in which there are truths generated by science and also other truths. Mathematics, logic, and basic epistemological and ontological truths are not findings of science. Some are separate from science, and some are preconditions of science. That does not mean that science is relative (i.e., only valid if one adopts certain preconditions), because the preconditions may be truths as well. But they are not generated by science; they stand separately.

Along with science, we have another very richly elaborated way of thinking about human beings and the world. This moral or “agential” perspective does not regard people as complex biological machines in a causal network with all the other objects in the universe. We are indeed such machines, but as agents, we are also reasoning creatures guided by principles and objectives and responsible for the goodness and rightness of our actions. All the work of moral philosophers, novelists, and historians has enriched and complicated our understanding of human beings as moral agents.

So we have a choice: Science is the only source of truth, the agential perspective is the only source of truth, neither view is true, or both are true. The answer is not given by science, and science does not imply or presume that it is the only source of truth. Science just rolls along generating the kinds of truths that it generates, saying nothing about ontology, morality, or the role of science in a good life. Those questions are philosophical.

The way to think about this is to assess the benefits and limits of science from the outside. What perspective is available outside of science is a controversial question, but I would use an ethical/pragmatic stance, basically asking what contributes to a fully good human life. The answer, it seems to me, includes a very strong respect for science, because science provides knowledge that we need in order to act effectively and also because pursuing empirical truth is a virtue. But the answer also includes a strong critique of science, because science is amoral and can give us Zyklon B as well as penicillin, anomie as well as the “CUDOS norms,”and despair as well as hope.

[Disclaimer: This is basically a naive post because I have not read the vast and impressive literature on naturalism. I’ve been pondering these issues since hearing a good presentation by Mario De Caro, but one 30-minute talk, no matter how skillful, does not replace an entire literature review. Probably the best way to describe the above is as my default view–what I would need a good argument to be talked out of.]