Civic Studies as a response to crises in American higher education

This is a panel at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday, part of a daylong conference on “The Future of the American University: Civic Education, Past and Present.” I am on the panel with Justin Dyer, the dean of the new School of Civic Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin, and our moderator, AEI’s Yuval Levin. I made a case for Civic Studies as a new field and then enjoyed the discussion with my two colleagues and the interesting questions from the audience.

The rest of the day was interesting and valuable and can be explored here.

The post Civic Studies as a response to crises in American higher education appeared first on Peter Levine.

Florida Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference

Good afternoon, friends! This is a public service announcement of sorts to encourage you to submit a proposal for the Florida Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference, held at the Florida Hotel and Conference Center in Orlandon this October!

We are expecting a great many excellent sessions, and of course the Lou Frey Institute/Florida Joint Center for Citizenship will be exhibiting there as well. So be sure to submit your proposal in any area of the social studies, and be sure to register to attend!

Verdant mountains usually walk

In a museum not far from our house, there is a painting entitled “Zen Saying” by the great teacher Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768). Author of the koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, Hakuin “was the most influential Rinzai Master in Japanese history” (Kasulis 1981, p. 105), and Rinzai is one of the three traditions of Japanese Zen.

The label translates the calligraphed words as: “Verdant mountains usually walk, barren women give birth at night.” The label also explains that the character for “usual” or “normal” (tsune) is here elongated in an unusual way–indeed, to the very “limits of legibility.”*

When I try to think about verdant mountains walking, I can form inferences. For example: if verdant mountains walk, we’d better stay out of their way! I cannot picture them walking without resorting to a cartoonish image. This is a limitation of my imagination, of language, or of the possible.

I can imagine that Hakuin–after decades of practice–had a different experience from mine when he thought of walking mountains and barren women giving birth. I can picture him having that experience without sharing it.

(By the way, he might equally have seen statements such as “The self exists” and “There is no self” as senseless paradoxes.)

I cannot read Hakuin’s brushstrokes. I could, however, learn to read Japanese calligraphy, and I already know (roughly) what this text means. The characters are across a border of understanding from me, yet I can know what lies over there and can even shift the border by learning more from scholars and intermediaries.

I cannot feel what it was like to be the artist who painted this image, but I can learn many facts about his life, his genre, the koan he represents here, the tradition of koans, and his context. Again, Hakuin stands across a border, but I can indefinitely continue learning about what is on his side.

Right now, I am looking at a photograph of the painting, having recently seen the original. My mental state is reasonably calm but perhaps a bit distracted, since I am also typing. I know that I could see the same image while anxious or bored, and the whole experience would be different. I could even deliberately induce a state of anxiety. Then I would know that I had experienced the image while I was calm, but I would no longer be able to feel it the same way.

In short, there is a border around my current state of mind. I know what lies beyond it and can say (roughly) how it feels over there, but I cannot feel it now. I do know that the world for me always has a certain mood, which can change. In that sense, I know that my condition is temporal.

Expanding the scale of time, I can recall (sometimes vividly) what it felt like to be a child or a young parent with a child in arms. But those are memories rather than experiences. There is a border around my identity as a middle-aged person. I can see over it but cannot cross it.

I can imagine the permanent end of my own consciousness. But experiences turn instantly into memories, and not so with death. There is a border around the whole of a life. We can know what the world will be like without ourselves in it but cannot feel that absence. Hakuin experienced the end of his consciousness and left something for us that he can no longer know.

I am sitting and typing next to my dog. We each know and care a lot about the other. But Luca has no idea about Japanese Buddhist calligraphy, not even enough to form questions that are beyond his ken. He doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. I understand barely enough about Zen that I do know some of what I don’t know, but my dog’s example shows that there can easily be things entirely beyond any being’s capacity to grasp.

The Japanese word kyogai is important in Zen practice. It is often translated as “consciousness.” It turns out that it literally means “boundary” or “bounded place,” and it derives originally from the Sanskrit word visayah, in the sense of a pasture that has a boundary.

Think of an animal grazing in a space surrounded by hedges. Or think of Hakuin, with his specific language and mood, writing about verdant mountains that walk. The mountains are outside his pasture, and he is outside mine.

Mumon Yamada (1900-1988) taught:

This thing called kyogai is an individual thing. Only a sparrow can understand the kyogai of a sparrow. Only a hen can understand the kyogai of a hen and only another fish can understand the kyogai of a fish. In this cold weather, perhaps you are feeling sorry for the fish, poor thing, for it has to live in the freezing water. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it would be better off if you put it in warm water; that would kill it. You are a human and there is no way you can understand the kyogai of a fish (in Hori 2000)

This is not precisely true. We can understand a vast amount about the fish, including its ideal water temperature and details about its sensory organs and neurology. There is a sense in which we can understand the kyogai of the fish and the fish cannot. It presumably has no grasp of the category of kyogai (or to draw from a different tradition, Umwelt). However, it is correct that we can never know how it feels to be a fish. We can’t even feel as we ourselves do in a different mood. And who knows what kyogai we cannot even imagine?

Victor Sogen Hori adds:

Kyogai can be said to change and develop, for it is a product of human effort. Thus one can say “His kyogai is still unripe” (Mada kyogai ga mijuku) or “His kyogai is still shallow” (Mada kyogai ga asai), implying that even though the monk has been working at overcoming his indecision, or fear, or pride, he still shows traces of self-consciousness. Finally, kyogai bears the quite personal imprint of the particular individual. One person’s way of acting in a fire drill, cooking in the kitchen, carrying on the tasks of daily life may be energetic and impassioned; another may do the same tasks coolly and methodically. Yet each may in his own fashion be narikitta in the way he acts. Thus one can say of monk Daijo’s way of performing some task, “That is typically Daijo kyogai.” (Hori 2000, p. 293).

If we can change our kyogai, how should we go about that?

We can ignore the boundaries (including the boundary of death) and graze in our respective pastures. This may be wise.

We can explore our own pasture and its boundaries to come to understand it fully. That is what Kant meant by a “critique” of reason–not a criticism of it, but an analysis of its structure and limits.

We can interact with people who have crossed our own boundaries. I am fortunate that a painting from the hand of one of the most famous Zen masters is in my neighborhood. To study that painting is to observe someone from a different time and context–and specifically someone who wrote about things “whereof one cannot speak.” Hakuin wrote koans not for himself but to benefit others, living and not yet born.

And we can try to cross the boundaries. A koan is a tool for doing that. The painting by Hakuin represents a verbal koan in Japanese characters. It is also a physical object that can work as a koan.

Dogen (1200-1253) comments on the koan, “Who can hear insentient beings speak dharma?” He says:

Only the insentient know the dharma they speak of,
just as walls, grass, and trees know the spring.
Ordinary and sacred are not hemmed in by boundaries,
nor are mountains and rivers; sun, moon, or stars.

“Zen Saying” is an insentient object that hangs on the wall of the museum. During a few seconds more than 250 years ago, Hakuin took a stick of hardened soot and glue, ground it with water, dipped a brush into the mix, and spread some of the blackness downward across the paper to make a long, imperfectly straight, sometimes translucent line that is unmistakably a brushstroke. That line is a bit of earth, a thing. It depicts nothing, but it means “usual,” contributing to a sentence about something so unusual that we cannot envision it.*

The line is a trace of the act of a specific man who long ago became insentient soot himself. The other insentient things around this work look different in its presence, as–according to Heidegger–a Greek temple that stands on the earth and presents itself as the home of a god makes a world appear:

The luster and gleam of stone, glowing by grace of the sun, first makes manifest the light of the day, the breadth of the sky, the darkness of the night. The temple’s firm towering makes visible the space of air. The steadfastness of the work contrasts with the weaving of the flowing sea, and in its own repose brings out the latter’s turmoil. Trees and grass, eagle and bull, snake and cricket first enter into their contrasting shape and thus come to appear as that which they are (Heidegger 1964, pp. 669-70).

Standing in the presence of the “Zen Saying,” I sense my contrast with it and feel myself appearing as that which I am.

References: T.P. Kasulis, Zen Action, Zen Person (University Press of Hawaii, 1981); Victor Sogen Hori, “Koan and Kensho in the Rinzai Zen Curriculum,” in The Koan. Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism (2000); The Essential Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Lovitt (2013), p. 170; and Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” trans. Albert Hofstadter, in Philosophies of Art and Beauty, ed. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (New York: The Modem Library, 1964). See also: thinking both sides of the limits of human cognition; ‘every thing that lives is holy’: Blake’s radical relativism; a Heideggerian meditation; nostalgia for now; Ito Jakuchu at the National Gallery; and on inhabiting earth with inaccessibly beautiful things

*I got that information from the label, but a friend tells me that the character that is so boldly elongated stands for “walk.”

The post Verdant mountains usually walk appeared first on Peter Levine.

Frontiers of Democracy 2024: Violence, Nonviolence, and Robust Democracy

Frontiers of Democracy is an annual conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University since 2019. This year’s special theme is “Violence, Nonviolence, and Robust Democracy.”

The dates for this summer’s conference are June 13 (5:30 pm) until June 15 (12:30 pm). Please register and purchase tickets.

We anticipate conversations (and disagreements) about what defines and causes political violence and about the potential and limitations of nonviolent strategies. The nonviolence theme is not exclusive, and there will also be sessions on other topics related to Tisch College’s “North Star”: building robust, inclusive democracy for an increasingly multiracial society. In particular, we will continue last year’s rich conversations about religious pluralism and democracy.

On this year’s agenda so far:

Cost: $240 for a standard ticket with discounts for current students. This includes hors d’oeuvres on June 13, breakfast and lunch on June 14, and breakfast and lunch on June 15. Other meals and lodgings are not provided.

The post Frontiers of Democracy 2024: Violence, Nonviolence, and Robust Democracy appeared first on Peter Levine.

Red Line

The decrepit T lurches into motion,
Its doors having taken--each--a full bite
Of the human mass that pushes through the tubes
Of Downtown Crossing. Damp, tense, tired, late,
The crowd flows under Tremont Street: so many!

I'm sitting on my buttoned wallet pocket,
Clutching the laptop hidden in my bag.
We fix our eyes on our own pairs of feet
Or on screens that, down here, cannot connect.

After Park (without an r), the pace picks up.
I remember to close my eyes. On each side,
An anonymous shoulder presses mine.
The only sound: that familiar patter
Of wheels' steel on track: tha-thump, thumpy-clack.
It’s been in my ears since cigarette smoke
Still billowed in trains and settled on seats.

It brings to mind that turbid ebb and flow
That Arnold heard as human misery.
Maybe, but it's one pulse for all of us.
As we clatter over the rain-lashed river,
The breath of all the invisibles who ride
With me merges and thickens into one.

See also: sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled; Martha’s Vineyard, August 2009; Robert Lowell at the Indian Killer’s Grave

The post Red Line appeared first on Peter Levine.

civics test scores by state

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) periodically measures US students’ knowledge of civics with an instrument that looks like a test, although it has no stakes for the students or teachers. I have served on the design committee for that instrument for many years. I don’t love the framework, which is dominated by the formal structure of the federal government. However, the NAEP is a carefully constructed assessment with a large, representative sample, so the data are certainly worth using.

Because states adopt their own standards, course requirements, and other policies for civics, we would like to understand which state policies are most effective. In a recent paper, Steven Michael Carlo presents mean NAEP civics scores for each state for 2014-18. Importantly, he adjusts these scores for other factors that might affect the results, namely: individual students’ race/ethnicity and gender, whether their school is public or private, the party of the state’s governor and legislature, the state’s adult and student demographics, state per-pupil expenditures on k-12 schools, and the state’s percentage of private school students.*

Of course, one could add more variables of interest, including various state policies. However, Carlo has presented a plausible answer to the question: Which states do better at civics?

I thought it might be useful to display two columns of data from Carlo’s paper in the form of maps, because a visual display can help to suggest hypotheses. At a minimum, states like Louisiana, New Mexico, Mississippi, and Vermont that have low adjusted scores should investigate possible causes. States like Virginia, West Virginia, Washington and Florida that have high scores may provide models.

First, here are the adjusted NAEP civics scores from the most recent year (2018).

And here are changes in those scores from 2014-18.

Another research step would be to add state civics policies (such as course and test requirements) to the model.

*Carlo, Steven Michael. (2024). The State of State Civics Scores: An Application of Multilevel Regression with Post-Stratification using NAEP Test Scores. (EdWorkingPaper: 24-954). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: See also: the new NAEP civics results; some surprising results from the 2010 NAEP Civics assessment; CIRCLE’s release on today’s Civics results etc.

The post civics test scores by state appeared first on Peter Levine.

An Association as a Belief Network and Social Network

This is a paper that I presented at the Midwest Political Science Association on April 6, 2024. I hope to reproduce this study with another organization before publishing the results as a comparison. I am open to investigating groups that you may be involved with–a Rotary Club like the one in this study, a religious congregation, or something else. Please contact me if you are interested in exploring such a study.


A social network is composed of individuals who may have various relationships with one another. Each member of such a network may hold relevant beliefs and may connect each belief to other beliefs. A connection between two beliefs is a reason. Each member’s beliefs and reasons form a more-or-less connected network. As members of a group interact, they share some of their respective beliefs and reasons with peers and form a belief-network that represents their common view. However, either the social network or the belief network can be disconnected if the group is divided.

This study mapped both the social network and the belief-network of a Rotary Club in the US Midwest. The Club’s leadership found the results useful for diagnostic and planning purposes. This study also piloted a methodology that may be useful for social scientists who analyze organizations and associations of various kinds.

The post An Association as a Belief Network and Social Network appeared first on Peter Levine.

simulating the French Revolution

In The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris, Colin Jones offers so much vivid detail about the events that unfolded within a single day that I realized it would be possible to base a simulation on his work. I have not been involved in role-playing games since I was a kid, but I do use light simulations in teaching and believe in their pedagogical value. Therefore, I wrote the rules for an educational simulation/game called Thermidor. It could contribute to a history course or a more abstract course about politics and decision-making. Someone would have to write private objectives for each character, and perhaps my rules should be improved before they are used. In any case, I am making the draft available for anyone who wants to use it.


When the sun rises on July 27, 1794, Maximilien Robespierre is the most powerful man in France. Under the official policy of “Terror,” the revolutionary government has executed at least 16,000 people since June alone, including many politicians. France is at war with implacable foreign enemies and struggles to suppress an insurgency in the countryside. Inflation is severe despite laws limiting prices and wages. Rumors of plots and purges abound. 

By the end of this fateful day, Robespierre is under arrest and on his way to the guillotine, and a period of political reaction is about to begin.

What would have happened if you had been involved?

See also: the role of communications in the French Revolution; why learn game theory? (a lesson plan that includes a game); and a simulation to teach civic theory and practice

The post simulating the French Revolution appeared first on Peter Levine.

tracking the Biden climate investments

The United States began a major experiment in 2022. After decades without an intentional industrial policy and not much action on the climate crisis, the federal government decided to spend something on the order of a trillion dollars over a decade to subsidize green industries.

I interpret this decision not only as a way to purchase lower emissions by (for example) buying solar panels, but also as a strategy for changing the power-base of the economy. As long as the livelihoods of many voters are tied to carbon, it’s very hard to regulate emissions. But once many people are involved with green technologies–as producers and/or consumers–they will demand green policies. This is also a competitive move, challenging other countries to subsidize their green sectors.

I believe this experiment should be on almost everyone’s minds. Conservatives and libertarians should acknowledge that it’s underway–because that’s the truth–and criticize it on its merits. Center-left people should defend it and also think hard about what comes next–whether Trump is elected and tries to undo it all or Biden gets another four years to build on it. Economic and environmentalist radicals are free to criticize the Biden strategy or to vote based on other issues, including the Mideast, but they should at least discuss the opportunities that a green industrial policy creates.

Instead, many conservatives seem locked into the idea that Biden is feckless and has done nothing. At least some on the center-left want to base the 2024 election entirely on Trump and abortion. And most radicals seem uninterested. For every thousand articles about Israel-Palestine debates on elite college campuses, I think I see less than one about the progress of the Inflation Reduction Act–which, by the way, was given a blatantly misleading name on the assumption that voters care about inflation, not climate. I am alarmed at how this whole topic is submerged.

As a very minor and amateurish effort to direct attention to the Biden climate policy, I recommend that people check out the official page for Clean Jobs America. Some points that strike me:

  • About $150 billion has been committed so far to concrete projects. For reference, that’s about the same as the annual budget of the Commonwealth of Virginia. It’s somewhat less than the annual cost of the US Navy (about $200 billion).
  • On a per capita basis, the largest investments are in South Carolina ($2,800 per resident), Arkansas (almost $2,000 per resident), and North Carolina ($1,800 per resident). Eleven states and DC have no specific projects yet.
  • South Carolina got $14 billion in investments. The same state sends $28 billion to the federal government in tax revenues annually. Basically, South Carolina is getting half its federal taxes back to fund green industry. On the other hand, Washington State sends $100 billion to DC each year and has received no clean energy support.
  • If you think of this as a jobs program, it is expensive. I calculate that about one job is created for every $1.2 million spent. On the other hand, the impact is not only on direct employment but also on carbon emissions, and there may be long-term positive effects on employment.
  • The cost of the jobs created varies a lot by sector. Only 200 jobs have been created so far in energy efficiency, but those were cheap at $30,000 per job. (If you want to accomplish something important, and it only costs you $30k to create a new position to do it, that’s a bargain.) On the other hand, the electric vehicle sector has seen more than 60,000 new jobs at $1.3 million per job.

The Biden Administration has also taken regulatory actions regarding hydrofluorocarbons and electric vehicles–see the tracker from the World Resources Institute. But I would regard the industrial policy as much more innovative and significant–for better or worse.

See also: a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon, you’re talking real money; a different way in which the 2024 election is a failure for democracyfederal spending for both climate and democracythe major shift in climate strategy

The post tracking the Biden climate investments appeared first on Peter Levine.

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;

The post read slowly, read aloud appeared first on Peter Levine.