read slowly, read aloud

It feels hard to read deeply these days. Our devices distract us constantly, the world is frenetic, and we have developed habits–as well as tools–for scanning and searching instead of following someone else’s thought across many pages. I find that some students are concerned about these trends and are striving to focus more on their own reading. Yet I also perceive a decline in many students’ attention (as well as my own) during the short period since the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Alexandra Moe recently wrote a piece in The Atlantic that reports extensive research on the benefits of reading aloud–even privately. Compared to silent reading, giving voice to written words involves different regions of the brain and has documented benefits, including helping people to manage chronic pain. It sounds like a form of meditation. Indeed, in his book about Tibetan Buddhist monks, Georges Dreyfus writes:

Reading or reciting aloud is considered virtuous for several reasons. Vocalizing a text in a rhythmic pattern helps it penetrate one’s mind, where it starts to take on a life of its own. One finds oneself spontaneously repeating the words. Such absorption of religious texts is thought to have soteriological value. The virtuous nature of recitation is also tied to a view of the world as alive with a number of invisible entities [who can hear the spoken words and benefit from them].

Dreyfus, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk (Kindle Locations 1212-1215).

However, in the Tibetan monasteries where Dreyfus studied,

Reading aloud was used for liturgy or by beginners, not by seasoned scholars. As scholastics, Tibetan intellectuals had to consult a vast literature, and they thus read intensively and swiftly… . Tibetan scholars often practice comparative reading, matching the opinions of several texts point by point; this practice, too, requires speed and is incompatible with vocalization. [Scholars] read silently even in their daily recitations.

Ibid., Kindle Locations 2125-2129)

It is a familiar pattern that professionals read silently to find things, thus perhaps missing the spiritual benefits of reading aloud. Declaiming written words slows us down and forces us to think about how each syllable and sentence should sound. It’s an activity for amateurs, in the best sense of that word.

With those points in mind, you might try reading Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” aloud. I’ll paste the text below.

This work has generated a large and learned literature with unresolved questions. For instance, is it about endings alone or also about rebirth? Is it apolitical or a subtle response to the dramatic political events of 1819? Is it patriotic–about a specifically English fall? Why is the narrative “I” missing?

These questions are good, but for the moment, I’d recommend simply hearing the sounds of Keats’ words in your own mouth; asking yourself where the stresses and pauses belong; visualizing, as concretely as you can, his sequence of images; and following the trajectories–as I read the poem–from September to November and from feeling through sight to sound.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

I also found my way to images of John Constable’s “The Hay Wain,” painted just two years after Keats wrote this Ode and a frequent object of comparison.

See also: reading for personal interest: trends since 2003; are we forgetting how to read?; when you know, but cannot feel, beauty;

on the current crisis

Almost every day, I am in conversations about protests on US college campuses. Some of these encounters take place at Tufts (in committees or one-on-one with students and colleagues), but I have also been part of discussions at Stanford, Harvard, and Providence College, and in DC–just to mention events during April.

In decades past, I would have posted frequent reflections here. These days, I am relatively quiet. I hear the argument that people in positions like mine should speak out more. I think I disagree, for four reasons.

First, although taking positions can be appropriate, or even obligatory, it can create challenges if one wants to facilitate open discussions in settings like classrooms or if one wants to advise and help people who have divergent views. I am privileged to receive requests for advice from people with almost the full range of positions on Israel/Palestine, and my interpretation of my own professional role is that I ought to try to help them all.

Second, I often find myself wrestling with what individuals have said in various settings. Sometimes I am moved, challenged, and educated, and sometimes I am somewhat appalled. However, these tend to be confidential statements that are not suitable for public assessment.

Third, although I believe that everyone has a right to form and express opinions, there is also value in talking when you have a solid basis for your views and listening when you don’t. Restraint is especially important for people in my kind of position (as a full professor and associate dean)–people whose opinions may have more weight than they deserve. Just because I teach Civic Studies does not mean that anyone needs to listen to me about Israel/Palestine.

Fourth, there are other people who should be heard: those whose views are well-informed, complex, and challenging in various ways. I feel an obligation to find and share those voices but not to compete with them. (Just as one example: “Najwan Darwish on living in doubt.”)

For whatever it may be worth, my views on Israel/Palestine would probably align best with “What being pro-Palestine means to me / my platform” by Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib. He is sharply critical of both Hamas and the Israeli government. My views on campus speech and civil disobedience are libertarian, with a strong tilt toward countering speech with speech instead of banning or punishing it. (And yes, that does also apply to really nasty speech.) In thinking about movement tactics and strategy, I’d go back to Bayard Rustin’s “From Protest to Politics” (1965). I’d interpret nonviolence not as a set of restrictions (i.e., don’t cause physical harm) but as a powerful repertoire of strategies that can accomplish political goals while increasing the odds that the activists themselves will be wise. (Please join this summer’s Frontiers of Democracy conference for more discussion of that topic.) Finally, I would support efforts to promote dialogue and listening across differences, but not to the exclusion of adversarial rhetoric, which is also essential in a democracy.

The previous paragraph was something of a disclosure, and I will regret making it if it discourages people who disagree with any of it from engaging with me.

Bar chart: Black and Latino Youth Are Less Likely to Take High School Civics Courses and to Consider them Impactful Data at

Unequal opportunities for voice in high school civics classes

In CIRCLE’s 2024 national survey of youth, about 40 percent of the 18-24-year-old Americans who were polled recalled having “experiences in class, in student groups, or with school leaders where they felt their voice and opinion mattered” while they were high school students. “White (41%) and Latino youth (40%) were more likely to say they remembered such student voice experiences compared to Black and Asian youth (both 34%).”

White youth were also more likely to recall taking a course labeled “civics,” “American government,” or just “government” in high school (77% of Whites versus 64% of Blacks). After controlling for race/ethnicity, gender, college experience and age, CIRCLE finds strong positive relationships between experiencing voice in high school and planning to vote in the 2024 election. Of those who had positive experiences of voice, 81% say they are “extremely likely to vote,” as compared to 44% of those who did not.

This relationship is probably not entirely causal, with experiences of voice completely explaining the higher intentions to vote. To some extent, people who want to vote now may have sought out high school experiences or may remember those experiences when they are surveyed in the present. Some communities may both support voice in schools and encourage voting later on. Nevertheless, the correlations are stark and apply across demographic groups, which suggests that voice has a substantial impact.

We need two aspects of policy: ensure that every student takes courses on civics, government, and history, and make sure that meaningful discussion of current issues is part of those curricula.

Voting is an indicator here, not necessarily the goal. We teach civics to prepare and enourage young people to engage in many ways, not only at the ballot box. Still, voting is a clear measure of engagement.

See Kelly Siegel-Stechler, Naraya Price, Alberto Medina (with Abby Kiesa, Noorya Hayat, and Sara Suzuki), “Youth Who Develop their Voice in High School Are More Likely to Vote,” March 12, 2024

Frontiers of Democracy Conference: The Emerging Agenda and Logistics

Frontiers of Democracy is an annual conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University since 2019.

Please hold the dates for this summer’s conference (June 13-15), register and purchase tickets, and consider proposing one or more sessions for the conference.

The deadline for session proposals was April 16, and we received many strong proposals, but we can still accept proposals by April 22 at midnight.

On this year’s agenda so far:

  • An interactive plenary session on “Prime Time Propaganda: Using Narrative, Dialogue, and Facilitation Techniques to Confront Violent Forms of Communication” with Jessie Landerman and Keisha E. McKenzie from Everyday Democracy 
  • Many concurrent interactive discussions or trainings, including sessions that introduce Baha’i and Buddhist approaches, efforts to lower the voting age and pass Equal Rights Amendments, community responses to violent incidents, democracy in schools and colleges, media training, and various specific methods for community conversations.

the humanities as civic education

Heads bent over copies of the same text, young people discuss how the author presents matters of high moral import. Their teacher is a facilitator who asks thoughtful questions and demonstrates reading with attention and care.

This is how I was introduced to college, through the Directed Studies “great books” program at Yale in the 1980s. Similar methods persist and are being revived at institutions like Stanford, which has recently enacted a Civic, Liberal, and Global Education requirement.

The approach dates back at least to 14th-century Italy, when Cicero’s phrase studia humanitatis became the name for a curriculum and pedagogy designed mainly for future political leaders. We might render his phrase (from Pro Archia 2:3) as the “studies appropriate for making people humane or urbane.” Gradually, a humanista became the word for a tutor–often a layman–who helped gentlemen read literature, history, and moral philosophy in order to become eloquent and virtuous. This is the origin of the “humanities,” a word that has been closely associated with notions of civic leadership and civic virtue.

I appreciate this humanistic style of civic education and would support using it more widely. By the way, there is no good reason to restrict the assigned texts to a portion of the world labeled “The West” or to label the curriculum “Western Civilization” (using a phrase that’s not very old). Texts can come from anywhere, although it makes sense to choose traditions or dialogues that extend across time. For example: from the Bhagavad Gita and the Gospels to Thoreau, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Or from the Republic to al-Farabi to Utopia to Rousseau to the Communist Manifesto to the Ayatollah Khomeini.

However, this version of humanistic civic education conflicts with several other plausible educational theories.

One rival idea is that the humanities are cumulative research programs that benefit from specialization. On this account, we don’t want a person who wrote a thesis about Plath to teach Plato. Plato should be taught by a scholar who knows Greek, the original context, and the recent literature and its interpretive problems. Reading texts from across time and space is amateurish. It extracts the texts from their contexts and teaches students that they are free to form opinions without doing much homework.

Another rival idea assumes that citizenship is really about addressing current social problems. In that case, the most important intellectual skill is understanding and applying relevant empirical information. Instead of reading Plato or Plath, students should create literature reviews of recent social science and learn how to assess abstracts, methodology sections, and results critically. Quantitative skills become more important; interpreting texts, less so.

A third idea is that people should prepare for responsible civic engagement by learning a set of concepts. We can debate the list, but it might include separation of powers, opportunity costs, social stratification, and habeas corpus, among (many) others. Maybe students won’t remember long lectures or textbook assignments about these topics, in which case a more engaging pedagogy would be more effective. But the point is to transfer such concepts to the learners.

A fourth idea is that civic learning must be deeply experiential because it is primarily about interpersonal relationships, practical knowledge, and an appreciation of one’s specific communities. It cannot come primarily from books. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Dewey are famous proponents of the idea that we should learn the arts of citizenship from civic engagement outside the classroom.

It’s tempting to endorse all five of these ideas, but they trade off, especially given limited time and resources.

See also: core curricula without the concept of the West; “The world wants the humanities”; the public purposes of the humanities (a brief history)–from 2013;