Monthly Archives: December 2013

two op-eds on civic engagement

I am on a winter vacation and not blogging, but two op-eds of mine have been published this week:

High school students still read in textbooks about how the legislature is designed to work, and how government depends on the consent of the governed. But Congress passes virtually no bills, and almost all adults seem to despise the government.  …

This is compounded by another problem. At times in our history, we have seen people distrust the national government but trust one another. That combination encourages populist reform proposals like term limits, referenda, and campaign finance reform that increase the people’s control over the government. However, today we are living in a time when Americans trust “the people” almost as little as they trust the government in Washington….

If you grow up not trusting the government and not trusting your fellow Americans, you will not admire the political system, but you will also be unmoved by proposals to reform it by empowering the people. That combination is a recipe for cynicism and withdrawal. Unless we want to live in that environment of distrust and suffer its consequences for many decades to come, we must change the situation quickly. …

In schools that serve low-income and minority students, kids are less likely to experience interactive civic education, meaning discussion of current events, participation in school governance and school media, field trips and simulations, such as mock trials. In schools that serve economically diverse students, those who are headed to college tend to get most of these interactive experiences. And in schools that serve several different racial groups in significant proportions, discussions of current events are particularly rare.

wrapping up the year

(en route to Georgia for the holidays) As it says on the CIRCLE website:

It has been a busy, productive, and satisfying year. In the past 12 months, we have released a groundbreaking major report, taken a leadership role in several initiatives to improve civic education, advised and evaluated youth development programs, and even helped design and evaluate an innovative multiplayer game.

Last month, we released the CIRCLE Annual Report, which offers an overview of all our work from August 2012 to September 2013. Some highlights:

The Annual Report also looks ahead to the work we will embark on in the near future. For example, we are excited about opportunities to play a role in evaluating and refining emerging tools for civic education like multiplayer games, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and e-portfolios of students’ civic work.

We are extremely grateful to our many friends, funders, colleagues, and collaborators from the past year. See you in 2014!

Read the full 2012-2013 Annual Report.

our study of state policies for civic engagement

Just published: “Policy Effects on Informed Political Engagement” by Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and me. It is in American Behavioral Scientist and available online. (A print copy is coming soon.)


For this article, we tested whether and to what extent young people’s rates of informed voting are influenced by laws and policies that regulate the electoral system and by civic education policies. Education policies and state voting laws vary widely and are in rapid flux; their impact is important to understand. Immediately after the 2012 election, a sample of 4,483 youth was surveyed that included at least 75 respondents in each of the 50 states and national oversamples of African Americans and Latinos. Their experiences with civic education and support from their families predicted their informed political participation as young adults, but variations in the existing state policies did not matter. This may suggest that the kinds of policies that states have enacted—such as allowing early voting or requiring one course on government in high school—are not helpful but policies that promote extracurricular participation and discussion of current issues in schools could be much more effective.

Robert Pinsky, Impossible to Tell

Imagine a group of people taking turns making clever remarks, echoing and developing each others’ cues. To play the game well is to extend the discussion for another round in a pleasurable way.

For instance, they might be middle-aged Jewish men trading Jewish jokes, like the one

About two rabbis, one of them tall, one short,
One day while walking along the street together …

Or they might be “Basho and his friends,” drinking saki one 17th-century night and improvising long chains of the linked haikus called rengas:

Threading a long night through the rules and channels
Of their collaborative linking-poem
Scored in their teacher’s heart: live, rigid, fluid
Like passages etched in a microscopic circuit.

Or all the stories might flow from a single speaker who has a desperate need, like Scheherazade, not to stop entertaining. And that person might not be an Arabian princess but rather a small boy in a sad apartment, whose mother

… tells the child she’s going to kill herself.
She broods, she rages. Hoping to distract her,
The child cuts capers, he sings, he does imitations
Of different people in the building, he jokes,
He feels if he keeps her alive until the father
Gets home from work, they’ll be okay till morning.

In “Impossible to Tell,” Robert Pinsky weaves these and other stories about story-telling together to create one jazz-like poem. He improvises on the title, which recurs three times in markedly different contexts. Parts of the poem are jokes that made me actually laugh. Parts are like haikus in their fresh descriptions of everyday reality: “In summer, gasoline rainbow in the gutter.” (Note the 7-syllable phrase.) And parts are very sad, like the death of Pinsky’s friend Elliot Gilbert, as seen by his family.

As for the child who tells jokes to keep his mother from suicide,

… maybe he became
The author of these lines, a one-man renga
The one for whom it seems to be impossible
To tell a story straight.

The Good Society symposium on Civic Studies

The new issue of The Good Society (vol. 22, no. 2) includes a symposium on The Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts University. The symposium articles are free and open on JSTOR. They are:

  • “The Summer Institute of Civic Studies: An Introduction” by Karol Soltan and me
  • “Civic Studies: Fundamental Questions, Interdisciplinary Methods,” by Alison K. Cohen, J. Ruth Dawley-Carr, Liza Pappas, and Alison Staudinger
  • “What Should You and I Do?: Lessons for Civic Studies from Deliberative Politics in the New Deal” by Timothy J. Shaffer
  • “Living Well Together: Citizenship, Education, and Moral Formation” by Elizabeth Gish and Paul Markham
  • “Civic Studies: Bringing Theory to Practice” by Katherine Kravetz
  • “The Civic Institute Relocated: Designing a Syllabus for Undergraduate Students at a Public University” by Susan Orr; and
  • “Deliberation and Civic Studies” by Matt Chick

As Karol Soltan and I write at the beginning of our introductory essay, the Summer Institute of Civic Studies is intended as a step in the development of a new discipline, by which we mean an intellectual community (a group of thinkers who learn from each other) that is institutionalized, with an association, a journal or journals, educational institutions, a recognized place in universities, conferences, and so on.

The aim of this symposium is to introduce the Summer Institute, mostly through the work of past participants. … Every year, it draws about 20 advanced graduate students, faculty, civic practitioners, and community leaders for two weeks of intensive discussions. Individuals have come from Bhutan, Singapore, Mexico, South Africa, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, Israel, and all corners of the United States to participate.

Like any healthy intellectual community, civic studies is a field of debate; participants do not sing in unison. But they do have common premises and purposes that, among other things, draw 20 of them to Tufts each July. Those premises could be formulated in several overlapping ways:

1. The goal of civic studies is to develop ideas and ways of thinking helpful to citizens, understood as co-creators of their worlds. Note that we do not define “citizens” as official members of nation-states or other political jurisdictions. Nor does this formula invoke the word “democracy.” One can be a co-creator in many settings, ranging from loose social networks and religious congregations, to the globe. Not all of these venues are, or could be, democracies.

2. Civic studies asks Shaffer’s question: “What should we do?” It is thus inevitably about ethics (what is right and good?), about facts (what is actually going on?) and about strategies (what would work?). Good strategies may take many forms and use many instruments, but if a strategy addresses the question “What should we do?”, then it must guide our own actions. For many of us, institutions and institution-making are crucial to this enterprise. They embody ideals and values. They can also be seen as crucial resources.

3. At the very beginning of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton asks whether “societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are f orever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Civic studies suggests that we can govern by reflection and choice. But more importantly, it looks for ways to make that happen. In other words, we are not especially concerned with an assessment of how much agency we actually have as reasoning citizens; we are concerned with enhancing our political or civic agency.

4. As co-founder of the Summer Institute and retiring editor of this journal Stephen Elkin reminds us elsewhere in this issue, [the Good Society’s] motto  is Walter Lippman’s statement that “the art of governing well has to be learned.” That is another way of formulating the task of civic studies.

Civic studies is an intellectual community in the making, based on an empirical observation that there are many thinkers, networks of thinkers (some overlapping), and traditions of thinking in a number of disciplines that share the goals listed above.