Monthly Archives: January 2015

Tisch talks on the humanities and civic engagement

The Initiatives in the Public Humanities at Tisch College sponsor this series of monthly brown bag lunches during the spring semester of 2015. The Tisch Talks in the Humanities seek to identify areas of mutual interest and concern through conversations informed by contemporary civic and cultural practices.

All sessions take place at 12pm at Tisch College, Rabb Room, Lincoln Filene Hall
Moderated by Diane O’Donoghue, Senior Fellow for the Humanities, Tisch College

Feb 2: Source @Sourcing
Marie-Claire Beaulieu, Assistant Professor, Department of Classics
Jennifer Eyl, Assistant Professor, Department of Religion

Professors Beaulieu and Eyl will discuss the impact of contemporary practices of knowledge production, such as found in the digital humanities and open-source scholarship, on the audiences and reception of classical and biblical texts.

March 30: Generative Empathies
Amahl Bishara, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology
Doris Sommer, Ira Jewell Williams, Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and
Literature and Director, Cultural Agents Initiative, Harvard University
Peter Levine, Associate Dean for Research, Tisch College

Professors Bishara, Sommer, and Levine will explore current discourses around the meanings and uses of “empathy,” a topic with implications that are both compelling and complex.

April 27: Neighboring
Penn Loh, Director, Master in Public Policy Program and Community
Practice, Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning
Peter Probst, Professor and Chair, Department of Art and Art History

Professor Probst and Mr. Loh will discuss the implications of proximity as the provocation to objects and acts of “neighboring.”

Greece and Germany and getting to yes

The situation involving Greece and the European Union is a complex game, with numerous players and potentially many phases. Just as an example, voters in Spain are players who will have a chance to choose the new government in December; they may opt to support Podemos, the relatively left-wing Spanish party, if they think that the Greeks did well by choosing Syriza last week.

Nevertheless, we can dramatically simplify the game to have two key players: Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Tsipras can accept some level of debt relief, from zero to 100%, or walk out of the Euro. Merkel can support some level of debt relief, or let Greece walk.

There are principles on both sides. My sympathies lie much closer to Syriza, on the grounds that: austerity is generally bad economics; Greek residents count for as much (morally) as Northern Europeans; and the Greek meltdown, although abetted by poor national governance, was mainly a consequence of neoliberal economic policies driven by Germany and other Northern economies in their interests. However, a German Christian Democrat or a British Tory could make a sincere case against leniency, based on moral hazard, the virtues of fiscal responsibility, Greeks’ responsibility for Greek debt, and other such arguments.

My suggestion of the day is based on Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, the 1981 best-seller by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury. It is a popular and breezy book but based on some serious analysis. Fisher and Ury present two forms of positional bargaining in this table:


In this case, Mr. Tsipras could opt to be hard or soft in his approach to the European Central Bank and other key European players. Fisher and Ury would predict that either approach will yield a bad outcome for Greece and for Europe as a whole, because people have systematic weaknesses that make positional bargaining go badly, whether the players opt to be nice or tough. By the way, that prediction holds even if Mr. Tsipras is completely correct on all matters of principle: this is a game, not a seminar.

Instead, Fisher and Ury propose “negotiation on the merits,” which has four key features:

  1. “Separate the people from the problem.” Create settings in which negotiators who have not publicly defined one another as adversaries are asked to address the problem and propose solutions.
  2. Interests: Drop the debate about principles (ban words like “neoliberalism” and “fiscal responsibility”) and just try to maximize the outcomes for the various parties.
  3. Multiply options: Don’t be satisfied with the choices that seem to confront the players right now, e.g., Greece either leaves or stays in the Eurozone. Instead, deliberately brainstorm a whole range of options. Could a massive new EU investment in some public good, such as climate mitigation, be designed especially to benefit Greece? Could a new loan package be offered simultaneously to Portugal, Spain, and Greece? (etc.)
  4. Criteria: bring in a neutral party to establish concretely measurable objectives.  Don’t ask how much each player must (or should) give up, but rather whether the agreement maximizes these objectives.

There is much more in the book, but this offers a flavor.

why not require high school students to pass the citizenship exam?


Arizona recently passed legislation requiring all high school students to pass the test required for naturalization as a US citizen. About a dozen other states are considering similar bills. Some of my friends are supporters, and the idea seems attractive for several reasons. It sounds like a way to strengthen civic education, and it subjects native-born Americans to the same test we require of immigrants, which may seem just.

I am nevertheless against the idea. First, I am worried that the time allocated to civics will shrink as a result. After all, this is an easy test. You can see all the questions and answers in advance. It takes a matter of hours to study for it. People who do not read English still memorize the answers and pass it, without comprehension. If passing this test comes to be seen as adequate preparation for citizenship, there will be no reason to spend a semester on civics, for the demands on math and science are much higher.

Importantly, more than 90% of US high school seniors have spent a semester in a civics course. They have also spent a year on US history, which is actually the topic of most questions on the naturalization test.

That brings me to a bigger objection. Requiring a single, short test of concrete factual knowledge in civics would be a step forward if most kids never faced such a test. But at least 90% of students do face regular testing that is quite a bit more demanding than the naturalization exam. If you take a US history sequence and an American government course–as most students must–then you are tested, at least by your teacher and, in many cases, also by the state.

If our problem were a total neglect of civics, then we might begin by requiring a simple test. But that is not the situation.

Instead, one major problem is that we do not take the time to teach (nor assess) the deeper and more demanding civic skills that we really need–such skills as following and interpreting a complex current issue, or advocating in a court or legislature, or developing an argument for a public policy. These are the kinds of outcomes that tend to be missing from state assessments. I don’t see how a new test like Arizona’s will increase the time or effort spent on learning these skills. I can see us spending less time if adequate performance on civics comes to be equated with passing the naturalization test.

The other problem is that adult Americans don’t know basic facts about the political system. According to today’s New York Times story about civics, “A survey last year by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that more than a third of respondents could not name a single branch of the United States government, while fewer than a quarter knew that a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate is required to override a presidential veto.”

But most of these adults had to study precisely these topics in school and faced tests on them. So the problem is that they don’t remember the concrete factual information (much as I have forgotten my high school chemistry). Now, why would they forget these facts? I would posit: because they have not formed habits of actively engaging with news and current events. You will remember the branches of the government if you are interested in President Obama’s current tensions with the Republican Congress. If you don’t follow such news, you can easily forget what you crammed for in 11th grade civics.

Thus the second problem is really that civics is often boring. It doesn’t inspire interest that will continue after the test. And again, I don’t see how the Arizona legislation will address that problem, but I can see it making it worse.

diagramming Sarah Palin’s Iowa speech

Northeastern political scientist Nick Beauchamp has developed a remarkable, free tool (Plot Mapper) that identifies keywords in a stream of text and plots them on a two-dimensional plane. The words are placed automatically but meaningfully (using a form of principal components analysis), and a line traces the order in which the ideas unfolded over time.

Beauchamp’s analysis of the 2015 State of the Union was covered in the Washington Post. He demonstrated the neat arc of the president’s rhetoric:

I wanted to try the tool, so I looked around for another recent speech that might contrast with the SOTU. Sarah Palin’s Iowa speech has been widely panned on the right as well as the left, being called a “tragedy”–or at least “an interminable ramble.” I pasted the text into Plot Mapper and this is what I got:

Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 11.37.14 AM

I actually think the quality gap between these two texts is a little obscured by this form of analysis. “America,” “country,” and “people” seem to play similar roles in both speeches. We also see an actual organizing structure to Palin’s words: she moves from nationalism through right-populism (real people are conservative) to conclude with the local (veterans in Iowa). Finding such an arc may be giving the speaker a bit too much credit. Nevertheless, the tool has enormous potential for comparing discourse. I’d be especially interested in using it to analyze how people affect each others’ ideas when they deliberate.

Frontiers of Democracy 2015

Frontiers of Democracy 2015 will take place in Boston, MA on June 25-27.

While powerful forces work against justice and civil society around the world, committed and innovative people strive to understand and improve citizens’ engagement with government, with community, and with each other. Every year, Frontiers of Democracy convenes some of these practitioners and scholars for organized discussions and informal interactions. Topics include deliberative democracy, civil and human rights, social justice, community organizing and development, civic learning and political engagement, the role of higher education in democracy, Civic Studies, media reform and citizen media production, civic technology, civic environmentalism, and common pool resource management. Devoted to new issues and innovative solutions, this conference is truly at the frontiers of democracy.

More information, including a link to a registration page, can be found here.

Frontiers of Democracy is a public conference, open to anyone who registers. It follows the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a seminar that is accepting applicants for 2015.