Monthly Archives: June 2019

the First Ibero-American Meeting of Civic Studies

This week is the 11th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts’ Tisch College, and we are discussing such topics as identities versus interests and opinions and Gandhi versus Jinnah on means and ends. (The links are to my personal ruminations, but in the seminar, we discuss original texts.)

Coming up soon is the First Ibero-American Meeting of Civic Studies, which two of my friends explain in the video:

According to my translation from the website:

Improving a society requires the commitment of its citizens. Based on this conviction, the Camilo José Cela University Foundation presents the First Ibero-American Conference on Civic Studies, following the trail of the pioneering institution of this academic discipline, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life of Tufts University (USA).

The objective is to create a theoretical and methodological framework to promote active citizenship. Civic Studies tries to answer the question “what should we do?” Combining ethical reflection (what is good and right?), analysis of the facts (“what is happening”?) and strategies (” What could work? “). Based on this eminently practical call, Civic Studies tries to make civic education in colleges and universities have a transformational purpose.

The First Ibero-American Meeting of Civic Studies is an initiative of the Camilo José Cela University Foundation. It aims to promote this understanding of civic education in the Ibero-American context. Despite the social and cultural diversity of the countries convened [Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Spain], the UCJC Foundation believes that the development of this academic discipline can serve to cultivate active citizenship that contributes to the creation of more stable and just societies.

In this first edition, the theme of the meeting will be “The university as generator of citizenship.” We believe in a conception of the university in which both learning and research in any discipline is marked by the civic commitment of its environment. The meeting will involve a week of work between academics and experts with experience in citizenship training: through discussion and deliberation formats, attendees will work from a daily challenge posed by a guest expert, and exchange their own experiences when implementing civic education.”

what the student debt proposals convey

Elizabeth Warren proposes to pay off $50,000 of college debt for everyone with household income under $100,000. Bernie Sanders proposes to pay off all $1.5 trillion of today’s student debt. They also offer proposals for making college more affordable later.

I am worried that both of these proposals–especially Sanders’–convey the message that Democrats and liberals represent high-status people who hold and value formal education. The reality is close to that: Democratic voters in 2018 were a coalition of whites with lots of education plus people of color from across the educational spectrum.

2018 national exit poll results

Directing financial support to higher education–and specifically retiring the debt of people who have already accumulated college debt–is an indication of the candidates’ priorities. I fear they will alienate people who don’t have or necessarily want advanced formal education. One of the major political cleavages of our age (also seen in Europe) divides knowledge-workers from people who work with their hands. The risk here is placing liberals and Democrats firmly on the knowledge-workers’ side. Or, as Antonio Gramsci would say, the “organic ideology” of a governing class dominated by the intelligentsia will favor spending money on education above almost anything else.

I do understand the following arguments. Education should be understood as a public good, not just an investment in the income prospects of the individual student. We already treat k-12 education as a public good and an entitlement. Since college now confers the same advantage that high school did half a century ago, it should be treated the same.

Furthermore, programs without means tests tend to be protected and reasonably well funded, whereas programs for the poor tend to be poor programs. Examples of successful universal programs include Social Security and Medicare here and most of the European welfare state.

Finally, even when a program covers wealthy people, federal income taxes (as opposed to other taxes) are collected in a pretty progressive way, so most of the cost falls on the wealthy.

On the other hand, as Jordan Weissman notes, one-time debt cancellation is not an entitlement or a program built for sustainability. Moreover, Sanders’ plan involves truly regressive spending. Families earning $173k or more hold an average debt of nearly $50k, which the federal government would hand them as tax-free income under his plan.

You could counter that families in the bottom quartile–who have real need–hold an average of $26k in college debt, usually more than their whole annual household income, and forgiveness would make the most difference to them. But it would also cost $1.5 trillion that could be spent on other things. And yes, even if the President of the United States calls himself a socialist, he’ll have limited resources and will have to choose. For instance, that’s $1.5 trillion that could have been added to a Green New Deal.

These proposals have a communicative goal. They convey that education is a public good and that we should all benefit from government support. The proposals are very unlikely to pass as written, and if they fail, they will prove to be mainly symbolic. Even if they pass, they will still have symbolic elements. For instance, the message that they cover everyone is meant to change opinions about government.

So I worry about what these ideas–especially Sanders’–actually convey. Democrats, especially White Democrats, have typically benefited from formal education and value it in everything they say and do. They admire science, professionals, credentials. If a Democratic president and Congress spend $1.5 trillion to subsidize higher education for people like themselves, that will cement the party’s class position.

See also college and mobility; what does the European Green surge mean?; working-class people versus elites on education; and why the white working class must organize

Gandhi versus Jinnah on means and ends

(Posted while leading the 11th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies, on questions like this one.)

A major theme in Gandhi’s thought it the primacy of means over ends.

In 1924, some Indian political leaders proposed the immediate creation of a new, independent “Federated Republic of the United States of India.” They argued that this end justified a wide range of strategies. They wanted to “delete the words ‘by peaceful and legitimate means’ from the Congress creed, so that men holding every shade of opinion may have no difficulty in joining” the independence struggle. That would have expanded the range of means employed to achieve the goal of home-rule.

Gandhi replied, “They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything’. As the means so the end.” The “only universal definition to give it is ‘that status of India which her people desire at a given moment.’ If I were asked what India desires at the present moment, I should say I do not know.” For Gandhi, the means used to pursue swaraj (independence in its deepest sense) had to be good ones. “As the means so the end. Violent means will give violent swaraj. That would be a menace to the world and to India herself.”  

Drawing on Karuna Mantena, I would suggest the following Gandhian reasons to focus on means rather than ends. Human beings are cognitively limited and cannot see justice far beyond our own present circumstances. Human beings are motivationally flawed and highly susceptible to various distorting and destructive impulses. Therefore, we must choose modes of politics that channel our impulses in beneficial rather than harmful directions. Forming too sharp a definition of justice (or any of its components, such as national sovereignty) can simply excuse bad behavior. Consequences are always difficult to predict and control, and trying to pursue elaborate ends is foolish. We disagree, and what we decide about justice right now is contingent on how we are organized, so it is crucial to get the organization right. Finally, how we participate in politics helps to constitute the world. By acting, we don’t merely bring about a result (usually an unpredictable one); we immediately create a new reality just in virtue of our action.

A focus on means and a reluctance to specify ends does, however, pose a risk. A person might (whether intentionally or inadvertently) select and defend means that generate a foreseeable outcome or that foreclose the outcome that others prefer. That could be a back-door strategy for getting the ends that the person wanted in the first place. To claim that you are too humble and aware of your own limits to know the best goals is disingenuous if it’s clear what ends your favored means will lead to.

This was essentially Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s quarrel with Gandhi. Gandhi insisted that the social movement for Indian independence must involve close collaborations among Hindus, Muslims and adherents of other faiths. Immediately after saying that he did not know what India wanted, he added that he only endorsed a few values, including “truthful relations between Hindus and Mussalmans.” (“Truthful,” for him, would imply a close, sincere, and interactive relationship.) For Gandhi, the means of political action in India must incorporate interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

Although Gandhi insisted that “Congress leaves swaraj undefined,” Jinnah could see that if Hindus and Muslims won independence together, they would found a democracy with a large Hindu majority. This new country might be secular, or it might be Hindu-dominated, but it couldn’t be an Islamic republic–simply because of demographics. Jinnah identified the Congress as a Hindu organization and created the Muslim League as an alternative. He objected when Congress tried to place its Muslim President, Maulana Azad, in the provisional cabinet for British India, arguing that the Muslim League should name all Muslim members. After Gandhi’s assassination, Jinnah eulogized him as “one of the greatest men produced by the Hindu community and a leader who commanded their [sic] universal confidence and respect.” Jinnah regretted Gandhi’s death “so soon after the birth of freedom for Hindustan [his term for India] and Pakistan.” Thus, although Gandhi claimed that “means are after all everything,” Jinnah saw that Gandhi’s means would prevent Jinnah’s goal, a sovereign Pakistan. And he charged Gandhi with having an implicit goal of his own: the creation of a “Hindustan.”

The broader, theoretical question is how to think about means and ends when sometimes the means that we choose for good intrinsic reasons have foreseeable ends that are subject to debate. Yet, if we propose a clear vision of our goal, how can we know that it is right, and who gets to evaluate it? Surely, that requires a process that is not simply designed to yield a given outcome.

For what it’s worth, this is my verdict on the case at hand. Gandhi joined and then led an interfaith party for swaraj that encouraged debates about both means and goals. Jinnah was a member of that party, albeit mostly before Gandhi’s arrival from South Africa. Jinnah and others had the right to quit the party and movement. Exit is a legitimate choice in movements and party politics. As a result of Jinnah’s exit, Gandhi’s means failed: Congress ceased to be a forum for dialogue and cooperation that included the kinds of people who preferred the Muslim League. But Gandhi’s failure doesn’t invalidate his general advice to focus on means rather than specific ends.

Drawing here on Karuna Mantena, “Another Realism, the Politics of Gandhian Nonviolence,” American Political Science Review, vol. 106, no. 2 (May 2012) and various original passages from Gandhi’s works that Mantena’s article led me to. Also drawing on Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, 1914-1948 (New York: Knopf, 2018)

the metaphor of going into a community

Researchers, students, government officials, organizers, activists–lots of people talk about “going into communities.” Although I resist the rhetorical move of “problematizing” everything, I think this metaphor deserves scrutiny. It assumes that communities are physically located and bounded, which is probably the exception, especially in the 21st century

It also assumes that we are not already “in.” If, for example, a group of Tufts students and faculty decide to go into Somerville to do some research or service, it’s worth noting that they were already in that city when they set out. A community should not be defined in a way that gerrymanders ourselves out of it. If we mean to name a demographic or social group, then we should say that. A demographic category is not a community.

If a community is a web of relationships, then to enter it you must form relationships with at least some of the people who belong to it–face-to-face or remotely. You cannot then simply leave it by moving your body away. You can break off the relationships, but that is also a way of relating to other people, with consequences.

If we decide to move to a different location to do work, that doesn’t mean that we go from a state of not being in a community to being in one. It means that we have a chance to form relationships with new people, and most of them probably move around a lot, too.

The whole spatial metaphor of traveling in and out of communities may be left over from classical field ethnography–traveling to Samoa to collect data–but it easily misleads.

engaged political science

Today we begin the American Political Science Association’s Institute of Civically Engaged Research (ICER) at Tisch College. The participants are about 20 political scientists–PhD candidates and current professors–who are interested in engaged scholarship. I am leading the ICER along with Amy Cabrera Rasmussen (Cal State-Long Beach) and Valeria Sinclair-Chapman (Purdue) and a roster of visitors.

In one of our sessions today, we will discuss four readings that offer varied perspectives on what engagement might mean for political scientists:

  •  Flyvbjerg, Bent. “Social science that matters.” Foresight Europe 2 (2005): 38-42.

Flyvbjerg, a Danish planning professor, stimulated considerable debate in American political science with pronouncements like this: “No predictive theories have been arrived at in social science, despite centuries of trying. This is a wasteful dead end.” Flyvbjerg advocates “phronetic” social science, in which the scholar prompts and joins public discussion of four questions: “(1) Where are we going? (2) Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power? (3) Is this development desirable? (4) What, if anything, should we do about it?” The words “desirable” and “should” indicate a concern with normative questions; Flyvbjerg calls his questions “value-rational.” But the key issue is “praxis”: what should “we” (a group to which the social scientists belongs) do?

Hacker is a distinguished Yale professor and policy entrepreneur. He developed and advocated the “public option” as a complement to the Affordable Care Act. In that case, he engaged the national public in a discussion of what to do and formed a kind of partnership with laypeople who included the President of the United States. Hacker stands at one end of a power/status continuum, the other end of which might be a Youth Participatory Action (YPAR) project in which a social scientist and a few adolescents study their own neighborhood. Hacker concludes that by “speaking the truth to the power [that he] studied,” he learned about the political process (e.g., the nuances of interest groups’ agendas) and so became a “better political scientist.”

Marta Struminska-Kutra describes her struggles to conduct an ethical research project in an unnamed but specific city, with its own power dynamics and hierarchies. In this theoretically demanding paper, she explores the compensating advantages and limits of three approaches. A “critical perspective” uncovers and challenges power but can be paternalistic and impotent if the community doesn’t share the “liberal, egalitarian, environmental, and collective” values of the researcher. The “constructivist perspective” fully honors local values and goals but risks paralysis and satisfaction with the status quo. And the “pragmatist perspective”–aimed at addressing concrete problems–risks benefitting only the people who have defined the problems in the first place. She suggests a practice of deliberately shifting among the three.

  • Tickner, J. Ann. “On the Frontlines or Sidelines of Knowledge and Power? Feminist Practices of Responsible Scholarship.” International Studies Review, vol. 8, no. 3, 2006, pp. 383–395. JSTOR,

This is a presidential address for the International Studies Association in which Tickner questions the role of IR scholars–men like Henry Kissinger–who stand beside policymakers (also usually men) in the capitals of empires. She juxtaposes an ideal of the “intellectual as an exile in his or her own society, … who raises embarrassing questions, is unsettled, unsettles others, and stands on the side of the weak and unrepresented.” She finds support for that stance in feminism. But she concludes with a call for pluralism, wanting to make space for scholars who stand on the frontlines (even “implementing legislation”) as well as those who stand on the sidelines, closer to “those who have not been the subject of history.”

See also Bent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesis; what gives some research methods legitimacy?; principles for researcher-practitioner collaboration; and Participatory Action Research as Civic Studies.