Monthly Archives: December 2012

a national discussion on safety

The New York Times has published an “Invitation to a Dialogue” by our friend Harry Boyte. Harry writes:

In response to the killings in Connecticut (“Looking for America,” column, Dec. 15), Gail Collins calls for breaking the silence about gun laws. But the discussion needs to address more than guns and extra bullet capacity.

The spreading pattern of violence grows from many sources, not simply guns. These include television news coverage, video games and movies, as well as family and community dynamics.

Public policy on guns can play a role. But mitigating the devaluation of human life will require a much more powerful civic response. Families, schools, colleges, congregations, businesses, consumer groups and others need to work together to challenge and change the culture of violence, reaching well beyond debates about the Second Amendment.

For instance, parents and teachers can develop early warning strategies; local journalists can spotlight programs that work for disaffected young adults; and young people themselves can organize peer-to-peer anti-bullying and anti-violence campaigns.

We need a broad citizen movement if we are to reweave the social fabric.

Readers are invited to respond today in order to for their comments to be considered for publication on Sunday. E-mail:

I’ll offer a few comments about what would make for a good discussion:

1) Everything should be on the table, certainly including gun control. That issue must not be suppressed because of the Second Amendment, the power of the gun lobby, or the fact that the President has been accused of wanting to take away people’s guns when actually he had no intention of addressing that issue. On the other hand, we shouldn’t ignore the very spotty empirical evidence for the benefits of the various gun control provisions that are being serious considered. Symbolic legislative victories do us no credit. For example, to reinstate the old federal assault weapon ban seems irrelevant, since Connecticut already had the same policy via state law, and the gun used in Newtown was legal.

2) We should define the problem broadly and with analytic clarity, not being driven by Newtown or any other notorious case alone. Huge numbers of young Americans are killed by guns every year. Policies and community actions that would reduce the overall homicide rate may be irrelevant to the still-rare cases of mass murder/suicide.

Online, you can find many comparisons of the numbers of children killed in Newtown and in Chicago this year. In Chicago, the 2012 toll is said to be 58, although I can’t confirm that from official statistics. In any case, 290 school-age children were shot in Chicago in 2009, and that is completely unacceptable. As I’ve written before, “If the fundamental responsibility of a government is protect citizens’ lives, then such violence puts the very legitimacy of the regime in question, to say nothing of the human tragedy that each gunshot represents.” But teen homicide rates have generally been falling, and although Chicago draws appropriate attention because of its recent spike, New York City has seen  declining numbers of homicides for 20 years. A productive discussion would not assume the premise that violence is rapidly increasing, because that can lead to irrelevant solutions. By the way, plausible explanations for the general decrease in violent crime include lead-paint abatement and immigration:

3) As Harry argues, we should think about much more than governmental policies and the kinds of causes that governments can address. I suspect that two reasons for the rash of mass school shootings are the general glorification of violence and the obsessive media attention devoted to tragedies in schools. The government cannot regulate the news and entertainment media (in relevant ways), but we citizens can choose which media to consume and produce. Citizens’ movements have influenced prevailing attitudes towards race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, littering, and drunk-driving, among other matters. The glorification of violence in our culture–whether that is increasing or declining–is an example of a problem that we must address without much help from the state.

Meanwhile, pervasive community-level changes are being made without getting a lot of attention. Elementary schools now drill students on how to respond to violent attacks; schools’ security systems and policies are being redesigned. Are these changes wise? Are the best strategies being used? Do we talk about these threats in appropriate ways?

4) How to define the topic or set the frame of the discussion is a difficult question, as anyone knows who has organized deliberative events. Watch the president take a question on gun control and try to place that issue in the larger context of children’s welfare and safety. To be sure, he has political reasons to try to make that shift–he has done a lot for children’s health but little about gun violence. Nevertheless, he may be right that child welfare rather than school shootings or gun control is the best frame.

CIRCLE’s finds iCivics boosts writing skills

Today, CIRCLE released the results of a randomized experiment using a computer-based teaching module called Drafting Board, from the nonprofit organization iCivics. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded iCivics to improve civic education through video games and related products.

Drafting Board is not exactly a game; it’s a computer-based lesson that takes students through the steps of writing an argumentative essay. It includes tools like the Issue Analyzer, the Claim Creator, and the Critic Crusher.

We conducted a study in urban Florida schools, involving 3,700 students. About half were randomly assigned to use Drafting Board; the rest used their regular curricula. Afterwards, every student hand-wrote an additional argumentative essay in the form of a letter to their school newspaper regarding a hypothetical proposal to lengthen the school year. Graduate students at Tufts graded all the papers, blind to whether the students had used Drafting Board or not. Those who had used it scored considerably better on the essays, despite the fact that they had used Drafting Board for only 2-3 sessions, and even though the students in the treatment group happened to be less advantaged than those in the control group.

I consider this study a double win for civic education. First, it establishes the quality of an iCivics’ product, and iCivics is a valuable player in the field. Second, the outcome–writing a persuasive essay on a policy issue–is itself a civic achievement.

Please see please see Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, “Summary of Findings from the Evaluation of iCivics’ Drafting Board Intervention,” CIRCLE Working Paper #76 (2012).

the spatial logic of cities

Michael E. Smith writes, “The spatial division of cities into districts or neighborhoods is one of the few universals of urban life from the earliest cities to the present. Neighborhoods are even found in some large village settlements, and they seem to appear quickly in ‘spontaneous’ informal settlements (shantytowns).”

I found this article via a note in Robert Sampson’s Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Sampson shows that neighborhoods have durable characters and reputations that deeply influence the prospects of their residents. A neighborhood’s character may remain even if its entire population changes–for instance, African Americans replacing Italian Americans. Although people make choices about where to live, our choices are much more influenced than we believe by the logic of the city. Given vouchers to move to higher-income neighborhoods, for example, residents overwhelmingly move to particular neighborhoods linked to their current locations.

Sampson’s study focuses on a brutally unequal and racially segregated city, but the same patterns have been found in Stockholm. The most dangerous neighborhood of Stockholm are safer than Chicago’s safest neighborhoods, but in both cities, neighborhoods differ and are related in the same ways.

Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography is far less systematic and persuasive than Sampson’s book, but Ackroyd also cites intriguing evidence that particular spots in London have retained the same character since Roman times. A given street corner near Holborn may be mildly scruffy and transitional now, and archaeological evidence suggests it had the same function 2,000 years ago. I think a pattern was established by the high Middle Ages that the dominant areas were north of the Thames, the commercial center lay to the east, the government center to the west, and the socioeconomic gradient generally rose as one moved westward through London. That logic has withstood everything from a Great Fire to the Blitz and the Docklands restoration.

Clearly, there is no one pattern to the spatial organization of cities. In many American towns, the poor districts are central, and the suburbs are affluent. The reverse is basically true in Paris. But there may still be some general principles. The affluent want to live apart from the manufacturing center. It needs to lie near transportation hubs. The political/military core occupies the most strategically valuable land, whether a hilltop, an access point, or simply the center of town. The rich want to live within easy access of the political core.

The implication is that we must consider the spatial organization of cities as well as the bundle of goods, rights, and services that individuals receive, if we want to help improve lives.

religious freedom and non-discrimination at a private university

What should a university do when a religious student group applies internal rules that are discriminatory? For example, theologically conservative Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox Christian, and Muslim groups may want to discriminate against gay students or may maintain that clerical roles are only open to men and expect their lay student leaders to endorse those views.

Tufts seeks to protect members of religious groups, women, and gay students against discrimination. When religious associations discriminate, that creates a dilemma. Indeed, the Tufts student government recently withdrew recognition from the Tufts Christian Fellowship on the grounds of discrimination against gays. On appeal, the Committee on Student Life (predominantly professors) ruled that the student government had enforced existing policy appropriately, but that the rules should be changed to accommodate religious freedom. The resulting decision deserves to be read in full, because it is fairly subtle and complex. In summary, it has these features:

(1) It distinguishes between membership and leadership. Tufts Hillel is required to admit Catholic members, but it could (in theory) choose to reserve its officer roles for observant Jews.

(2) It requires religious groups to state explicitly that they dissent from aspects of Tufts non-discrimination policy. For example, if they discriminate against gays, they have to say so. That may harm their overall reputation, but it’s fair enough because they should be accountable for their views. By the way, this policy opens a valuable opportunity to discuss what counts as discrimination. The Tufts Christian Fellowship requires chastity, presumably for all students regardless of sexual orientation. But it is discriminatory if straight students can hold hands when gay students cannot. The transparency policy requires them to make those judgments publicly and to pay the price in public opinion.

(3) It permits discriminatory policies within religious groups only if they are consistent with “doctrine”; and the chaplain’s office must review whether a doctrine really supports any given discrimination. It will be interesting to see how the professionals in the chaplain’s office make those judgments. One consequence will be to put a whole denomination in the hot seat if its representatives on campus assert that its doctrine is in conflict with Tufts anti-discrimination policy.

(4) It encourages pluralism. Tufts has a non-duplication policy: the university won’t recognize, for example, two evangelical Protestant student groups unless they differ in some meaningful way. Given the transparency policy, it is now possible for evangelicals who are pro-equality to create a rival group to the one that has taken a discriminatory stance.

I don’t believe that a university is simply a free speech zone that must give equal recognition and support to all views just because they are freely expressed. A university is primarily in the business of favoring excellent speech and disfavoring bad speech. Some religious speech that is discriminatory should be disfavored. For instance, many denominations were at one time openly racist. If they stuck to those views, a private university would be right to deny them official certification.

So why is it OK to express discriminatory positions about gays and women? I don’t think this is morally acceptable, but the question is what to do about it when the world’s biggest faiths remain widely committed to such discrimination. If a predominantly secular university like Tufts responds by decertifying religious groups that follow their own mainstream doctrines, then I think we will lose religious students and the opportunity to interact with them. The purpose of many religious student associations is to convince and persuade–to make converts or at least strengthen the faith of their own adherents. But conversion runs two ways. If religious students study at a place like Tufts, they are likely to liberalize their views of homosexuality and gender roles. If we chase them away, we lose that opportunity.

Overall, I think the new policy is sophisticated and wise. That’s easy for me to say as a straight man. No one is adopting formal positions that disparage my identity. So I recognize that I may be too tolerant of intolerance against other people. But I think the argument for deliberative accountability and pluralism is pretty strong, and it has the best chance of producing more equitable views in the long run.

(See also: On religion in public debates and specifically in middle school classrooms; and A theory of free speech on campus)

the campus building boom

The New York Times reports today that “A decade-long spending binge to build academic buildings, dormitories and recreational facilities — some of them inordinately lavish to attract students — has left colleges and universities saddled with large amounts of debt.” It’s not hard to see why:

David K. Creamer, vice president for finance and business services at Miami University, said the importance of college rankings had pressured administrators to spend more and more. In some rankings, the effect of spending is direct because institutions with “the best dorms” or “the best athletic facilities” are singled out. The effect on other rankings is indirect: better facilities attract better students, and that ultimately raises rankings, Mr. Creamer said.

“There is nothing in there that says if you become more efficient, your ratings will go up. They will probably go down,” he said.

Of course, the problem is not the rating systems themselves, but the demand they serve. Students want to attend “good” colleges, and that doesn’t mean colleges that educate; it means colleges that attract particularly strong student bodies and faculties. Their preference is not irrational. “Good” colleges are prestigious, and being around well-prepared teachers and students is educational. But what causes prospective students and professors to flock to some schools and not others? Beautiful facilities help, as UVA, Yale, and Stanford have found over many decades. Lovely campuses are expensive, but lots of the best-prepared, highest-scoring prospective students can afford the price. They now come from wealthy backgrounds, in part because they benefit from escalating investment starting in infancy. Some of the most desirable students are not rich, but you can always set your full tuition costs high and use the margin to subsidize a substantial minority of non-wealthy students.

The results include social stratification and a lack of attention to actually educating students; you’re already successful campus if your admissions office brings you a high-scoring freshman class. Online and for-profit education is disrupting this model, but it will not threaten the high-end institutions, which sell prestige and network benefits. They also offer learning opportunities, but not efficiently. I continue to wonder whether there may be a niche for new institutions that sell membership in a genuine learning community without frills. I think you could offer a good liberal arts education for less than $10,000 if you didn’t worry about the “inordinately lavish” facilities described in today’s Times.