Monthly Archives: January 2014

what happens if EU members overturn their democracies?

I’ve had several moving conversations recently with democratic reformers from southeastern Europe. They are near despair about their respective countries. Instead of quoting their confidential assessments, I’ll cite this summary by Tamas Dezso Czigler of LSE:

I have previously written a great deal about Hungary; the latest development is that the government has changed the election rules once more, and introduced the anti-democratic pre-registration of voters, which further heavily distorts the election system. The government also continues to fire judges, even though the act which made this available was annulled by the Constitutional Court. In Romania, the problems are similar and obvious – the government simply does not respect democratic institutions like the Constitutional Court or the President.

Both Hungary and Slovakia have seen the possibly racially motivated murders of Roma in recent years (including children). In addition, Slovakia has introduced a heavily anti-democratic language act, which bans Hungarians from speaking Hungarian in government offices, even if the client and the officer both belong to the Hungarian minority. … There are also fears as to whether Croatia will be able to stay stable, since it has had an even darker history compared to the others. And we hear news about extreme corruption in Bulgaria every day.

Czigler does not happen to mention the strongly anti-Semitic rhetoric in Hungary and Romania. That isn’t the primary issue; I think Jewish residents will be safe against outright violence, and they are few. He is right to highlight the murders of Roma. However, given the historical role of anti-Semitism in this region, it is distressing that explicitly anti-Semitic parties can capture large shares of the vote. This is a sign of deeply anti-democratic and illiberal tendencies.

I would be the first to recognize that US states have also passed “anti-democratic pre-registration” provisions and laws targeting language minorities. But the question is not whose democracy is better. The question is what to do about anti-democratic threats in Europe, given the fragility of the continental system and the importance (to the whole world) of making it work.

Thus I wonder:

A nation must be a democracy to get into the EU. Once it’s in, what happens if it backtracks so that it would no longer meet the specific political criteria for membership? And what happens if a member drops all pretense of democracy and goes the way of Belarus?

EU members face judicial review at the European level. But the governments in Romania and Hungary are contemptuous of their own nations’ courts. What happens if EU members simply ignore the European Court of Human Rights?

I am told that some Hungarian Jewish families have fled to Austria. If true, it implies that there are already refugees of one EU nation in another one. How would the EU handle larger flows of political refugees?

The anti-democratic parties are mostly far-right and nationalistic. That may make coordination somewhat difficult, because a Greek nationalist doesn’t intrinsically care about Hungarian nationalism, for instance. In the 1930s, the attempt to build a Fascist International “was marred by serious conflicts between the participants.” Yet the far right of the various EU member states have common enemies and can do a lot of mischief together. Will they unite?

At least in Romania and Bulgaria, an underlying cause appears to be corruption, meaning the political power of economic oligarchs. Can European economic policy constrain them?

Will the EU ultimately make its weakest members more democratic and liberal, or will those states make the EU as a whole more authoritarian and illiberal?

How do members with deep civic traditions but poor current systems of government (Italy, Belgium) fit into the picture?

Democracy in schools: Albert Dzur talks with principal Donnan Stoicovy

Albert Dzur is breaking ground in political theory by revealing how professionals who interact with laypeople can create valuable democratic practices. Democratic theory has generally been blind to the positive potential of work sites, and especially public sector sites such as schools, hospitals, and courtrooms. It has also generally overlooked the democratic contributions of professionals who choose to engage citizens. Often, populist democrats want to trim the wings of professionals, seeing them as arrogant. But engaging citizens in complex institutions requires skill, dedication, and a kind of expertise–all marks of professionalism. Democratic professionalism is thus an important aspect of civic renewal. (See also “Albert Dzur and democracy inside institutions” and “Public Work and Democratic Professionalism.“)

In the The Good Society (which is now the journal of civic studies), Albert has posted an interview with one such democratic professional, Donnan Stoicovy, who is the principal of Park Forest Elementary School in Pennsylvania. For my friends who are interested in civic education and school reform more than political theory, this interview offers a nice overview of a school-wide intervention. It is not unique or unprecedented, but it is thoughtful and impressive. In essence, the principal asked her whole student body to participate in the writing of a school constitution as a way of meeting the state’s mandate to produce a “school-wide positive behavior plan.”

In other schools, administrators hold assemblies and hand out rewards to well-behaved individuals. At Park Forest, the assemblies were deliberative events aimed at setting rules and norms. As I have observed in other cases as well, the kids came up with more demanding rules than their teachers would have proposed.

This case exemplifies professionalism in several respects. One that I would highlight is the need to navigate tricky tradeoffs. The kids’ rules included “No Put Downs” but also “Speak what we believe and not be judged for it.” Sometimes what we believe comes across as a put down of someone else, especially when the individuals in question are ten years old. Skillfully navigating those tensions is complex work.

The interview ends with some discussion of expanding the scale of such examples. Stoicovy cites limited time as one obstacle; “and I think the other [need] is opportunity to collaborate with other people across the country—similar people who are thinking about this.”

Dzur asks whether universities could help. Stoicovy replies:

I would want everybody to know about democratic schools. I would want universities to be teaching more about democratic schools, in general. I would like more of the work at universities to be helping open students’ minds to thinking about having a responsive classroom, eliciting student voice and engaging students in their school. Not just “here’s what discipline is.” And oftentimes they don’t even teach that until they end up in school and it is modeled for them by whoever their mentor is. Universities need to go back to essential questions like “What is the purpose of public education?”

Universities could also model a more democratic approach. Some of them are getting better at having more engagement work, but without modeling it is hard to open peoples’ minds.

the president on citizenship: all rhetoric?

In all of his high-profile official speeches, President Obama makes sure to speak strongly and explicitly about active citizenship as the solution to our national problems. I like to highlight and analyze these passages because reporters always completely ignore them, treating them as mere throat-clearing. (See, e.g., my piece on “Taking the President Seriously About Citizenship” in Huffington Post.)

Last night was no exception. The president opened with examples of active citizens in both the public sector and the private sector: “Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades. An entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than eight million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years.” He added, “it is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong.”

President Obama then contrasted constructive citizens with the dysfunctional political system in DC. In the middle of the speech, he returned to the citizenship theme with a series of anaphoric paragraphs: “Citizenship means … Citizenship means. … Citizenship demands a sense of common cause; participation in the hard work of self-government; an obligation to serve to our communities.”

The problem is a gap between this expansive notion of citizenship and the policy agenda. For example, in k-12 and higher education, many wonderful educators and administrators are busy teaching students to be active citizens and trying to make their institutions into more valuable elements of local civil society. They have some friends inside the Obama Administration’s Department of Education. But the education agenda that the president summarized was exclusively about aligning school and college to current job requirements:

Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy – problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math.  …

We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career.  We’re shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education.

(The information that prospective students are being offered is limited to the cost of a degree, the likelihood of graduation, and employment rates of graduates.)

To be sure, work is not separate from citizenship. The president was right to characterize private and public sector workers as citizens. “Through hard work and responsibility, we can pursue our individual dreams, but still come together as one American family to make sure the next generation can pursue its dreams as well.” Still, workers and future workers must learn about and discuss common social issues. That implies an explicit focus on civics in schools and colleges and opportunities for adult citizens to make decisions together. Those ideas were missing in the State of the Union and have been largely overlooked in the administration’s actual policymaking.

mapping a class as a moral community

On the first day of the spring semester, I asked members of a small philosophy seminar to reflect on their own core moral ideas–meaning not only their abstract principles but also their concrete commitments and role models–and how those interconnect. They gave me their data (concealing any ideas that they wanted to keep private), and I mapped the results as one network for the class as a whole.

In general, the ideas cluster by student (each colored differently in this map); but when two or more people share an idea, the borders among individuals begin to break down.

class map 1.17
I hope that over the course of the semester, the map will become more integrated and denser as the students add ideas and connections among ideas and begin to hold more ideas in common. Their thinking should be influenced, in part, by the readings and by me; therefore, ideas discussed in class should pop onto the map. Agreement is not the goal, but members of a discursive community should share reference points. One student actually predicted increased polarization as new ideas are thrown into the mix, and that is certainly possible.

Why did I ask them to give me networks? I could have asked for lists of ideas (perhaps ordered by importance); for structures (with fundamental ideas implying consequences); or for bodies of text that explained each students’ views.

A list seems problematic because one cannot tell whether each item belongs on it. For instance, if it is true that one should maximize the happiness of the greatest number, then that concept should appear on your list. But if not, it should not be there. How can one tell? In contrast, you can ask questions about your network independent of the content of each node. Is the network dense? Does it cover a wide range of ideas? Are the ideas that turn out to be central worthy of their importance? Is the network connected to other people’s networks?

For elaborate reasons, I am skeptical of ordered structures for moral reasoning. But a network is actually a flexible form that can encompass a hierarchical structure. A utilitarian could give me a network that centered around the utilitarian principle. A network model simply does not presume that a moral worldview must be highly centralized or ordered.

Finally, a body of text would be valuable–but it would have to be very long, and I would be inclined to analyze it by looking for the ideas and connections that it implied. Thus the network is an efficient representation of the text, albeit one that leaves unexplained the individual nodes and the reasons for their connections.

(see also: the place of argument in moral reasoning; epistemic network analysis and morality: applying David Williamson Shaffer’s methods to ethics; Emerson’s mistake; character understood in network terms; and envisioning morality as a network)

racial pluralism in schools reduces discussion of politics, and what to do about that

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and I have published a new article in Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy entitled “Diversity in Classrooms: The Relationship between Deliberative and Associative Opportunities in School and Later Electoral Engagement.”  Using a new survey conducted in 2012, we confirm previous findings that attending racially pluralistic high schools–i.e., schools that enroll substantial numbers of students from several different racial groups–seems to reduce the students’ electoral and civic engagement after they graduate. One explanation appears to be that discussion of current controversial issues boosts students’ interest in politics, but such discussion is less common in pluralistic high schools.  We find that classroom discussion is especially important for students who do not participate in political conversations at home. We also find that joining issue-oriented groups encourages voting.

We say:

Considering that strong arguments can be made in favor of racial diversity in schools, it is important to compensate for the lessened electoral engagement in diverse schools by creating policies and teacher preparation resources that promote high-quality discussion of controversial issues in classrooms, and by encouraging students to participate in extracurricular groups that address political issues.

In my opinion, it’s understandable that teachers and students sometimes shy away from controversial topics when the student body is diverse. For example, they may not want to talk about the Middle East if some of the students are Arab-Americans, some are Jewish-Americans, and some are Christians of other backgrounds. Teachers may simply feel unprepared to deal with an issue that students know from personal experience–whether it is the Israeli occupation or racial profiling by police here in the United States. They may also worry about “micro-aggressions” in the form of comments that fundamentally challenge other students’ worldviews and identities. These concerns can arise with respect to most topics (both domestic and foreign), because racial and ethnic differences and conflicts are ubiquitous.

But it is a highly unfortunate result if we see less political discussion in classrooms that are more diverse. That is a waste of the asset of diversity, and it suppresses the political and civic engagement of students who attend integrated schools.

In the article, we call for “policies and teacher preparation resources” that support the discussion of controversial issues in pluralistic classrooms. I think an important policy is simply to affirm that freedom of speech is a positive good in schools. To be sure, a free discussion of a hot topic can lead to truly offensive remarks that cause psychic harm to participants, and that is something to pay attention to. But not talking about difficult issues is worse. It suppresses political engagement. It sends the message that a public space (of which the school is an example) should be a discussion-free zone. And it leaves any offensive private views unchallenged by other students. Better that a student should say something offensive and get a reply than not be allowed to say it at all.

See also “on religion in public debates and specifically in middle school classrooms,”  “defending free speech in public schools,” and “who is segregated?”