Monthly Archives: February 2018

my exchange with Beth Rubin about policy for civics

Paul G. Fitchett and Kevin W. Meuwissen have published Social Studies in the New Education Policy Era: Conversations on Purposes, Perspectives, and Practices. This edited volume is devoted to exchanges between pairs of scholars. My assigned debating partner is Prof. Beth Rubin from Rutgers, whose work I admire and who has influenced me a lot. There isn’t a whole lot of room between Beth and me, but we manage to disagree mildly in ways that might be illuminating.

I begin by arguing that the policies adopted so far by states and districts for civic education matter, but not as much as how such policies are implemented. Support for things like professional development makes policies either work or fail. I also note that the policy debate reflects disagreements about what should be taught. Given such disagreements, no one can expect to get the curriculum that she or he prefers enacted into law in all 50 states. I propose a division of labor: public schools should teach relatively uncontroversial, relatively basic civics, and community-based groups should add more politically charged content that reflects their diverse perspectives.

Beth understandably worries that the mainstream curriculum mandated by governments will, in fact, be biased. She argues that governments should make schools good places for learning, leaving civics curricula mostly unconstrained by policy. That would imply skepticism about policies like standards and tests, because they centralize decisions about the curriculum. I counter by offering a state policy agenda that includes standards, professional development, reforms of school discipline, and tests–if they are well done. This package is fairly minimalist, intended to create a baseline for all kids while leaving space for diversity. Beth ends the exchange with some concerns about whether the “baseline of knowledge” that I want to see in state standards can really be good for all of our kids.

The rest of the book is entirely devoted to similar debates, and it looks good throughout.

the Kenya Youth Manifesto

The Kenya Youth Manifesto is great. It’s the product of an elaborate deliberative process involving Kenyans between the ages of 18 and 35 (a cohort that represents 57 percent of the electorate). The Manifesto offers 52 pages of detailed recommendations. I’m sure it has specifically Kenyan underpinnings that I have missed, but from my perspective, it looks pragmatic rather than revolutionary, concerned with participation and voice as well as economic outcomes, attuned to issues like gender and disability, and consistent with Amartya Sen’s “capabilities approach.”

In his foreword, Willice Okoth Onyango depicts “youth as a distinct but heterogeneous population group.” He sounds like Sen when he calls for “build[ing] the capabilities and expand[ing] the choices of young people by enhancing their access to and participation in all dimensions of society.” And he calls for “young people and their representative associations” to be included “at all stages of the policy development and implementation process.”

Any group that writes a manifesto must avoid recommending policies that are simply unaffordable, settling for minor tweaks, demanding blatantly obvious reforms, neglecting the most obvious reforms in the interest of being original, setting vague targets, setting overly narrow or short-term targets, advocating elaborate processes (such as new commissions or research studies), ignoring process altogether, placing all the demands on target authorities, promising to solve all problems themselves, simplifying complex issues, or offering too much wonky detail. This sea is full of shoals. I think the Kenyan youth navigate just about as well as can be done.

Their product is more like a party manifesto (what Americans call a “platform”) than, say, the Communist Manifesto, which offered a compelling new social vision. The Kenya Youth Manifesto couldn’t simply be implemented, because it would need various kinds of scarce resources–not only money but also political capital. I know far too little about Kenyan social issues to be able to assess the recommendations. But it’s an impressive product that’s worth imitating elsewhere.

what I like in historical writing

Simi Valley, in Ventura County, CA: Not that anyone has asked, but these are the history books that I remember reading over the past couple of years, ranked from my favorite down:

  1. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 (Making of Europe) by Peter Brown
  2. A Concise History of Russia (Cambridge Concise Histories) by Paul Bushkovitch
  3. October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville
  4. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
  5. Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash
  6. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld
  7. China: A History by John Keay
  8. Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, by Stuart Jeffries
  9. A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich

I appreciate history that makes arguments, but I like arguments that have limited scope. History isn’t just one event after another. It is definitely not a series of quirky decisions made by colorful characters on account of their personalities. On the other hand, when an author hammers away on a few big explanatory themes, I not only get bored as a reader, but I become skeptical. The past is always too complex for grand explanations.

A good example of an explanatory argument is Paul Bushkovitch’s observation–perhaps it’s been others’, too–that the Orthodox translate scripture into local vernaculars. Thus the Greek Bible could be translated into Old Slavic for Kievan Rus, and the Rus didn’t have to learn Greek. Nor was it necessary to translate other Greek texts into Slavic to complete their conversion. The early Orthodox Slavs thus missed the secular legacy of the classical world that had been so influential in Byzantium, until it started filtering in from the West in the 1600s. This argument helps to define and explain a significant phenomenon without resort to iron laws, inflexible patterns, or inevitabilities.

Because I am a lay reader, I don’t need a large scholarly apparatus or much explicit historiography. But I think I can tell the difference between a book that rests on extensive review of previous research (e.g., Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom) and one that basically just retells stories from chronicles (e.g., John Julius Norwich).

Finally, I like my history to have an ethical sensibility. It should demonstrate concern for the human beings it describes, who should be as diverse as possible. It is an ethical act to recover or reimagine the perspectives of people who would otherwise be forgotten or misunderstood. But I balk at moralizing history: at narrative with a layer of explicit value-judgments rendered by the author.

talking about teens and the 2018 election

While traveling to Orlando to talk about civic education, I’ll post two recent links.

First is today’s episode of “On Point” from NPR. The guests are three teenagers who are running for governor in Kansas (which imposes no age limit on candidates)–and me. I celebrate the young politicians but try to broaden the conversation to other forms of civic engagement that can involve a lot more kids.

And here is a piece by me on civic education in America and specifically in Connecticut “PERSPECTIVE: Republic Still at Risk; Connecticut Edges Forward.”