Monthly Archives: April 2016

the most educated Americans are liberal but not egalitarian

Pew reports: “Highly educated adults – particularly those who have attended graduate school – are far more likely than those with less education to take predominantly liberal positions across a range of political values. And these differences have increased over the past two decades.” Indeed, “more than half of those with postgraduate experience (54%) have either consistently liberal political values (31%) or mostly liberal values (23%).”

Based on that finding, one might assume that the most educated Americans stand the furthest left on our political spectrum. And, based on that premise, one might conclude that …

  • The people who would benefit most from left-of-center policies don’t support those policies, and the people who do support those policies don’t benefit from them–which is a paradox. OR …
  • Liberal programs are special-interest subsidies for people with advanced educations (like lawyers, physicians, and teachers), and that is why they vote for them.
  • Progressives tend to be smug or condescending because we tend to be highly educated and convinced that we support policies that are better for other people–and this is an unattractive attitude that loses votes.
  • Colleges and graduate schools are moving people left (either because they have ideological agendas or because “reality has a liberal bias”).

I’d actually propose a different view from any of the above. Pew does not find that highly educated people are the furthest left. Rather, people with the most schooling consistently give answers that are labeled liberal on a set of 10 items that range over economic, foreign, and social policies. None of the survey questions offers a radical opinion as an option. So Pew is measuring consistency, not radicalism.

Ideological consistency is correlated with education, but not necessarily for a good reason. More book-learning makes you more aware of the partisan implications of adopting a stance on any particular issue. So, for instance, conservatives are more likely to disbelieve in global warming if they have more education–because their education helps them (as it helps everyone) to see the ideological valence of this issue.

Many of the most educated Americans endorse a certain basket of political ideas that are associated with the mainstream Democratic Party. They have learned to recognize these policies as the best ones, and the policies are designed to appeal to them. All of the positions are labeled “liberal,” so the most educated are deemed liberals. Yet the most educated are not the most committed to equality. Instead, they are quite comfortable with their advantages, even as they endorse positions that Pew calls liberal.

To test that hypothesis, I wanted to look at a survey question about equality that has been asked over a long time period with large samples. The best I found was this American National Election Study question: Do you agree that society should make sure everyone has equal opportunity? This is not an ideal measure, because support for equal opportunity is not the most egalitarian possible position. If you are very committed to equality, you may prefer equal outcomes. Still, the question provides useful comparative data.

In 2012, the more education you had, the less likely you were to favor equality of opportunity. The whole population was less supportive than they’d been in 2008 and less supportive than at any time in the 1980s. But the least educated were the least supportive of equality during the Reagan years, and now they are the most concerned about it.inequality2

As of 2012, the most educated Americans are the least egalitarian, even though they are consistently “liberal.” Less than half of them strongly favored equality of opportunity.

It’s true that Democrats and liberals are (as of 2012) more likely to support equal opportunity than Republicans and conservatives are–and that the highly educated are the most liberal. However, the correlations between egalitarianism and partisanship or ideology are not tight. Forty percent of Republicans strongly agree that society should make sure everyone has equal opportunity, as do 30 percent of extreme conservatives. This is partly because conservatives also have an equal opportunity agenda, and partly because the liberal-to-conservative scale is defined by a whole basket of issues. It’s quite possible to be a strong liberal and yet not believe strongly in equality. And I think that is a common view among the most educated Americans–who are also the most advantaged.


new article: “Join a club! Or a team – both can make good citizens”

This new article explores reasons that k-12 athletics may boost civic engagement, as well as some important differences between sports and civic life. Student associations in general teach civic skills, and sports are best understood as examples of associations. Indeed, high school teams should be more like standard school clubs, in which participation is voluntary and the students are primarily responsible for managing the group.

Citation: Peter Levine, “Join a club! Or a team – both can make good citizens,” Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 97, no. 8 (May 2016), pp 24-27

10 theses about ethics, in network terms

  1. People hold many morally relevant opinions, some concrete and particular, some abstract and general, some tentative and others categorical.
  2. People see connections–usually logical or empirical relationships–between some pairs of their own opinions and can link all of their opinions into one network. (Note: these first two theses are empirical, in that I have now “mapped” several dozen students’ or colleagues’ moral worldviews, and each person has connected all of his or her numerous moral ideas into a single, connected network. However, this is a smallish number of people who hardly reflect the world’s diversity.)
  3. Explicit moral argumentation takes the form of citing relevant moral ideas and explaining the links among them.
  4. The network structure of a person’s moral ideas is important. For instance, some ideas may be particularly central to the network or distant from each other. These properties affect our conclusions and behaviors. (Note: this is an empirical thesis for which I do not yet have adequate data. There are at least two rival theses. If people reason like classical utilitarians or rather simplistic Kantians, then they consistently apply one algorithm in all cases, and network analysis is irrelevant. Network analysis is also irrelevant if people make moral judgments because of unconscious assumptions and then rationalize them post hoc by inventing reasons.)
  5. Not all of our ideas are clearly defined, and many of the connections that we see among our ideas are not logically or empirically rigorous arguments. They are loose empirical generalizations or rough implications.
  6. It is better to have a large, complex map than a simple one that would meet stricter tests of logical and empirical rigor and clarity. It is better to preserve most of a typical person’s network because each idea and connection captures valid experiences and serves as a hedge against self-interest and fanaticism. The emergent social world is so complex that human beings, with our cognitive limits, cannot develop adequate networks of moral ideas that are clear and rigorous.
  7. Our ideas are not individual; they are relational. We hold ideas and make connections because of what others have proposed, asked, made salient, or provoked from us. A person’s moral map at a given moment is a piece of a community’s constantly evolving map.
  8. We begin with the moral ideas and connections that we are taught by our community and culture. We cannot be blamed (or praised) for their content. But we are responsible for interacting responsively with people who have had different experiences. Therefore, discursive virtues are paramount.
  9. Discursive virtues can be defined in network terms. For instance, a person whose network is centralized around one nonnegotiable idea cannot deliberate, and neither can a person whose ideas are disconnected.  If two people interact but their networks remain unchanged, that is a sign of unresponsiveness.
  10. It is a worthwhile exercise to map one’s own current moral ideas as a network, reflect on both its content and its form, and interact with others who do the same.

setback in North Carolina

Federal Judge Judge Thomas D. Schroeder has upheld a whole series of voting laws in North Carolina that, in my view, create barriers to participation. The plaintiffs included the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and the United States Department of Justice. My colleague Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and I submitted expert testimony about the impact of the laws on youth. We were both deposed in the case, and I testified in federal court last summer. I don’t have an informed comment on the judge’s decision, much of which concerns matters of constitutional interpretation on which I do not claim any expertise. It’s a disappointing result, but the struggle for equitable and accessible voting continues.

college application Bingo

We spent last week visiting prospective colleges with my daughter, which is why I was offline. The information sessions and tours are very well done but they do tend to blur because of institutional isomorphism. If you’re getting sleepy on your umpteenth tour, try playing this Bingo game:

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An admissions officer who wanted to command our attention could try saying this instead …

“We have simplified our admissions criteria to two numbers: your combined SAT score and your family’s net worth. If the multiple of those figures exceeds 16 billion, you are in. If it is between 160 million and 16 billion, you’re on the wait list, and we will work our way down until the budget is balanced. Below that, we’ll bank your application fee.

“Because we use these two very different metrics, we admit a diverse student body. Some students are rich but not too bright. Others have awesome standardized test scores but are merely middle class. Once they enroll, these two groups are completely isolated and mutually disdainful. We’d love to find some students who could bridge our two subcultures and promote interaction, but we can’t seem to get any rich geniuses to attend.

“You pay up front for each semester, so it’s in our interest for you to drop out. Most courses are vast lectures with arbitrarily difficult exams meant to weed out the untalented or the merely unfortunate. Since a small number of oppressed junior professors teach huge numbers of students, the rest of the faculty is free to wander around at will.

“Majors are assigned randomly on the first day of freshman year, and all credits must be in the major. Students are encouraged to study abroad, at other US colleges, or indeed anywhere they like, as long as they continue to pay our tuition in full, on time, and in cash. Extensive information about our loan program, interest rates, late fees, and penalties are contained in the prospectus, pp. 1-73.

“You may find that you learn and grow the most by exchanging ideas with your peers in informal settings. Go for it. We don’t really need to hear about it.

“We care about our host community. You can find out the name of it from Google Maps. The townies live on the other side of that barbed wire perimeter.

“Choosing a college is a very personal matter, as each student is utterly unique and unprecedentedly wonderful. For our faculty and administrators, however, you are basically an undifferentiated mass. You pay us and leave us alone; we don’t bother you. It’s all part of our extremely special and deeply considered educational philosophy, which has sustained us for 375 years and made our brand the envy of the world. Thanks so much and please leave your tips in the dish on your way out.”