Monthly Archives: May 2017

civic life and health research

This is an online lecture (video, slides, and discussion questions) entitled “Civic Life and Health Research.” It’s offered by, and thanks to, the Tufts Clinical Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI), where I hold a research professorship. Dr. Thomas Concannon introduces the CTSI and the session. I then offer four frameworks for understanding civic life:

  1. social capital
  2. collective efficacy
  3. common pool resources
  4. the public sphere

For each one, I explain why there are important empirical and conceptual connections with public health that have implications for both research and practice. Public health really serves as an example to illustrate how to apply these concepts, so the talk might be of some use in other fields as well, such as education or economic development.

(You can find and register for other free CTSI courses here.)

college curricula for civic learning and engagement

I’d welcome recommendations of particularly promising undergraduate courses or programs that are intended to boost students’ civic knowledge, skills, and engagement. I’m especially interested in two approaches: 1) requiring a specific course with a civic focus for all students at a given institution, or 2) offering a major, minor, or certificate program for especially interested students.

Civic education at the college level may address contested concepts (justice, citizenship, democracy), skills (from facilitating meetings to reading regression tables), bodies of knowledge (how a bill becomes a law; the texture of the local geographical community; social determinants of health …), self-understandings and identities (“Who am I and what is my role in the community?”), and relationships among students or between students and others. The list of possible outcomes is so long that one reasonable view is: A civic education is a liberal education–it’s the whole curriculum and co-curriculum. But it’s valuable to consider what to offer (or perhaps even require) in the finite span of one course or one major.

Many colleges and universities require first-year seminars. Students can typically choose a course from a menu, but all the seminars create a similar experience, which is supposed to build a community among the students. To the extent that first-year seminars address issues of civic importance, this is also a way of teaching ideas and skills relevant to citizenship. At Cal. State Chico, the guiding principle of the first year seminar program is “Public Sphere Pedagogy.” Chico aims to shift “from a typical classroom setting” to real public dialogues with “diverse campus and community members.”

Other institutions require a particular course or sequence of courses for all students. Columbia’s Core Curriculum is a distinguished example that dates to the early 1900s. Since Columbia’s Core course on “Literature Humanities” has included the Iliad, Oresteia, and Inferno for all of its 75 years, every Columbia College student since WWII has read those books. “The communal learning–with all students encountering the same texts and issues at the same time–and the critical dialogue experienced in small seminars are the distinctive features of the Core.” One could focus mainly on formal, historical, or theological issues while reading texts like the Inferno; but among the topics emphasized in the Core seminars are explicitly civic ones: “What does it mean, and what has it meant to be part of a community?” “By what rules should we be governed?”

At Florida Gulf Coast University, all 13,000 students must take the University Colloquium, an “interdisciplinary environmental education course designed to explore the concept of sustainability as it relates to a variety of considerations and forces in Southwest Florida. In particular, we will consider environmental, social, ethical, historical, scientific, economic, and political influences.” The Colloquium requires 10 hours of service, which can go toward FGCU’s universal requirement of 80 hours for graduation.

Note the interesting difference in content focus: classic texts at Columbia; the local physical and human environment at FGCU.

At least 31 institutions offer majors with titles like “Civic Engagement,” “Service Learning,” “Civic Leadership,” “Community Service,” or “Leadership, Ethics, and Social Action,” and variations on those themes.* I would add majors in “Peace & Justice Studies,” “Advocacy Studies,” “Citizenship & Civic Engagement,” and others to this list.

These programs almost always require community-service experiences or internships. Most also require a foundational course. Butin* finds that the content of these courses varies a great deal. The most frequently assigned material is research about civic engagement in America, e.g., Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone or excerpts from de Tocqueville; but those particular texts are assigned in a minority of all the foundational courses.

Majors are usually more ambitious than minors or certificates, but a program like the University of Maryland’s Civicus is not only a certificate with some required courses; participants also live together in a dedicated dorm and conduct service projects beyond their courses. In that situation, a certificate may be more intensive than a major.

I view public policy programs (whether undergraduate or graduate) as somewhat different from programs in civics. I like to say that the question for Civic Studies is “What should we do?” whereas the question for public policy is “What should be done?” (Or, “What should a policymaker do?”) However, public policy programs can emphasize the citizen’s side of policymaking. Some assign all their students to participate in simulations in which they role-play various official leaders in a fictional crisis. These simulations typically fill a limited number of days before the main coursework begins and serve to build a community while teaching civic skills. I am not aware of any institution that offers or requires a simulation for its whole undergraduate student body, but that’s an interesting prospect.

* Dan Butin, “’Can I major in Service-Learning?’ An Empirical Analysis of Certificates, Minors, and Majors,” Journal of College & Character, vol. 11, No. 2 (2010), pp. 1-18.

psychoanalyzing presidents

There’s lots of conversation right now about Donald Trump’s mental condition. It includes claims that he demonstrates narcissistic personality disorder and that changes in his speech patterns reveal cognitive decline. I [analyzed] his speech pattern from a particular angle here.

This discussion evokes the episode in 1964, when Fact magazine surveyed psychiatrists about then-candidate Barry Goldwater’s psychological fitness to be president.

Just under half (49.2%) of the 2,417 respondents thought he was unfit, with the rest split evenly between those who didn’t believe they could answer and those who considered him fit for office. Fact also gave respondents a chance to write comments and printed 40 pages of quotes from their answers. Goldwater sued and won over $1 million in damages (which bankrupted Fact magazine), leading to the American Psychiatric Association’s “Goldwater Rule,” which forbids members from making evaluative comments about public figures whom they have not examined as individual patients. A patient/physician relationship triggers ethical responsibilities that are absent when psychiatrists discuss public officials.

For me, the original Fact magazine issue is a fascinating example of professional authority encountering politics. It’s important to note that a considerable minority of the quoted statements either object to psychoanalyzing Goldwater without examining him in person or vouch for his mental health. Some of the surveyed psychiatrists even opine that he is the only sane candidate, surrounded by crazy socialists. But the majority of the quoted MDs make claims that now seem risibly dated and morally problematic. They do so under their professional titles, in a magazine entitled “Fact.” For example:

  • “Descriptions of his early life that I have read indicate to me that his mother assumed the masculine role in his family background. … The picture, therefore, is of a domineering, emasculating mother and a somewhat withdrawn, passive, narcissistic father. … This would provide a fertile background for sado-masochistic temperament, such as is seen in paranoid states.” — M.D., name withheld.
  • “From TV experiences, it is apparent that Goldwater hates and fears his wife. At the convention, she consistently appeared depressed and withdrawn. Certainly she was not like the typical enthusiastic candidate’s wife, e.g., Mary Scranton.” — M.D., name withheld.
  • “Barry Goldwater’s mental instability stems from the fact that his father was a Jew while his mother was a Protestant. This ethnic and cultural split accounts for his feelings of insecurity and spiritual loneliness. … ” — M.D., name withheld.
  • “In trying to analyze Mr. Goldwater’s behavior I am tempted to call him a ‘frustrated Jew.’ … He has never forgiven his father for being a Jew. … What the Senator from Arizona stands for is the antithesis of the traditional Jewish concepts of social justice, of humility, of moderation in speech and action, and of concern for the feelings of others, especially the vanquished. In eschewing these concepts, the Senator subconsciously expresses his hatred for his Jewish father.” — Max Dahl, M.D. Supervising Psychiatrist [etc.]
  • “In allowing you to quote me, which I do, I rely on the protection of Goldwater’s defeat at the polls in November; for if Goldwater wins the Presidency, both you and I will be among the first into the concentration camps.” – G. Templeton, M.D.,  Director, Community Hospital Mental Health [etc.]
  • “Characterologically, Goldwater is like many middle-class Americans. He is ‘formula’ oriented with a belief in the infallibility of his own rhetoric. … In short: Goldwater is an anal character who believes all’s well in his ‘tidy’ world.” — M.D., name withheld.
  • “From his published statements I get the impression that Goldwater is basically a paranoid schizophrenic who decompensates from time to time.” — M.D., name withheld.

I think we should talk about Donald J. Trump’s character and psychological fitness for office. It seems problematic to use the Goldwater Rule to keep the whole psychiatric profession out of this discussion. And yet these quotes from 1964 remind us how historically-relative, value-laden, and agenda-driven people can be, even when they present themselves as scientific specialists dealing only in Facts.

social movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own)

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the glorious chapter in the American Civil Rights Movement that began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the segregated bus. This story is usually misrepresented in ways that hide Parks’ planning, leadership, skill, and feminist radicalism (see the real Rosa Parks). In any case, at least 99 percent of the city’s African Americans quickly started boycotting the bus company. That meant that 17,500 workers needed a different way to get to work.

At first, Black-owned taxi companies carried them for the price of a bus ticket, but then the city threatened to enforce a minimum-fare law. Next, more than 150 people volunteered to drive boycotters to work in their own cars. These volunteers “responded immediately,” Martin Luther King recalls in Stride Toward Freedom, but “they started out simply cruising the streets of Montgomery with no particular system.” That must have meant that many workers missed getting available rides. Ministers responded by calling for new volunteers from their pulpits, and even more drivers came out, but that meant (King writes) that “the real job was just beginning–that of working out some system for these three hundred-odd automobiles, to replace their haphazard movement around the city.”

Committees were formed and roles were assigned. It was easy to identify [morning] pickup locations, because African Americans lived in dense urban neighborhoods. But “we discovered that we were at a loss in selecting [afternoon] pick-up stations,” because domestic workers were employed all over the White neighborhoods. Two Black postal workers helped design regular routes. King recalls all this organizational work with evident pride, and concludes, “Altogether the operation of the motor pool represented organization and coordination at their best. Reporters and visitors from all over the country looked upon the system as a unique accomplishment.”

I’d like to draw two theoretical implications from this story.

First, we tend to think of social movements as examples of contentious politics, along with protests, strikes, and even revolutions. Contentious politics has a substantial literature. A separate literature concerns how communities organize themselves to provide services and manage common resources over the long term. For the most part, these two discussions are rather separate. They draw on different disciplines and have different dominant rhetorical styles. But actual social movements rely heavily on what could be called “common pool resource management.”

The two postal workers who designed routes exemplify lessons from the research of Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues: local people tend to have the most detailed relevant information; clear rules enable coordination; and public goods can be rotated geographically to serve many people. I’ve been arguing that we should combine the political-economy of Elinor Ostrom with the insights of Gandhi and King for a more complete civic theory.

The practical implication is that people who want to confront power often benefit from learning how to organize systems and processes that look like nonprofit enterprises.

Second, it’s commonplace to note the dependence of the civil rights movement on “social capital,” especially in the form of churches and unions. Both institutions play explicit roles in Dr. King’s narrative of Montgomery. But this analysis can leave you at a loss if you’re part of a community that doesn’t happen to have much social capital. And social capital can be mysterious, for it is invisible, and its connections to tangible outcomes seem obscure.

Indeed, social capital is a metaphor: Montgomery’s African Americans did not have a literal deposit of social capital in the bank. When social capital is measured by asking individuals about their tendency to join groups and to trust one another, it’s hard to see how we could boost these assets or why they would be important politically.

A different way of looking at social capital is as a concrete capacity to solve collective-action problems, such as providing free rides to 17,500 people every day. That may have been easier in Montgomery because so many people were already organized in other successful, functioning groups, such as the Black churches. “Labor, civic, and social groups were our staunch supporters,” King writes, “and in many communities new organizations were founded just to support the protest.” Like other forms of capital, social capital can be built up in one place and used in another. But what mattered was actually organizing the carpools to sustain the boycott. Skillful citizens can pull off such successes even in the absence of existing high levels of social capital, when they design good structures.

In short, social capital is a metaphor for self-organization, and people can self-organize.

See also what is a social movement?Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need; and Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II).

youth don’t always tilt left

(Washington, DC) In the US since 2004, young voters have tilted moderately leftward. They gave very strong support to Barack Obama, especially in 2008. And in Britain right now, only voters under-25 favor Labour:

But young people are not consistently liberal or progressive. In 1984, US voters under 30 decisively chose Ronald Reagan, and as recently as 2000, they split their votes evenly between Bush and Gore. This is a reason, by the way, for both of our major parties to contest the US youth vote.

In 2012, a plurality of young White voters chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. (Her lead among all youth was due, in large measure, to the racial diversity of the Millennial generation.) Among young Trump voters, many expressed concerns about foreign influence on US culture and political correctness.

Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen did quite well among young French voters. In the second round, she seems to have drawn about one third of youth, the same proportion as in the population as a whole. For the first round, Yascha Mounk provides the chart below. A plurality of French voters under-25 chose the candidate of the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. However, Le Pen’s strongest support came from voters under 35, and particularly those between 25 and 34. Emmanuel Macron, the ultimate winner, performed worse among 18-24s than in any other age range.

These results do not quite match pre-election hype about Le Pen’s youth base. In a poll conducted before the first round, Ipsos had Le Pen leading the youth vote with a plurality of 35%, and reporters for Foreign Policy found many enthusiastic right-wing youth to quote:

At the [FN] conference, smartly dressed, articulate young activists were among those pushing Le Pen’s message most fervently. They hammered home the dangers of multiculturalism and Muslims who “segregate” themselves from secular French society; they pronounced themselves enthusiastically in favor of a “Frexit” from the European Union. Like Dieulafait, who joined the FN at 16, they want a government that puts French citizens’ needs before those of immigrants, and they are not ashamed to say so.

Importantly, this article noted that the National Front is way ahead of other French parties at advancing young candidates for office at all levels.

A much more extreme example: In the 1932 German election that led to Hitler’s dictatorship, the Nazi party received an essential boost from new voters, and specifically from young first-time voters. Christopher Browning writes, “The first groups to be taken over by Nazi majorities were student organizations on university campuses. In their electoral breakthrough in 1930, the Nazis won the vast majority of first-time voters, especially the youth vote.” And Dick Geary writes that Nazi Party “membership was younger than that of other parties; the average age of those joining between 1925 and 1932 was slightly under twenty-nine.”

It is always right to encourage youth engagement in democracy and to support young people to form their own view of issues and values. In a country like the US, it’s also important to boost their turnout levels because they (and their interests) are under-represented. Of course, if they prefer parties to the right of center, that is their prerogative. But progressives, liberals, mainstream conservatives, and libertarians shouldn’t romanticize youth as some kind of natural base for their movements or assume that generational change shifts the world toward democratic and cosmopolitan values. If a society harbors nationalistic, xenophobic, or downright racist views, those values will probably transmit to each new generation.

I love Hannah Arendt’s fundamental insight that only “the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born … can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope.” In other words, because new human beings are always coming into the world, we can hope that things will change for the better. But there’s certainly no reason to assume that this will happen on its own.

See also: Millennials’ political opinions: insights from the new CIRCLE pollthe Millennials and politicsin what ways are Millennials distinctive?; and the Millennials’ political values in context.