Civics Learning Week Webinar with Congressman Dennis Ross

Good afternoon, friends! We are excited to invite you to join us on March 11th at 5pm for a Civic Learning Week conversation with former Florida Congressman Dennis Ross. Congressman Ross will talk with us about moving from critic to collaborator, the importance of civil discourse, and why we must ensure that the next generation engages in civic life.

You can download the flyer below to learn more information and to share, and you can register here!

The Vuslat Foundation and Generous Listening

The Vuslat Foundation has opened a public website as generouslistening.org. At the Tisch College of Civic Life, we are one of their partners, as you can tell from the description of a conference that we co-organized and held at Tufts last year (a symposium on “Generous Listening in Organizations“); a blog post by my colleague James Fisher about Quaker dialogues in West Africa; and other references on their site.

The Foundation also does much work on their own or with other partners, including remarkable support-groups for women displaced by the earthquakes in Southeast Turkey in 2023.

I come to this partnership as someone who has studied political deliberation–for instance, as a co-editor (with John Gastil) of the Deliberative Democracy Handbook. SInce the late 1900s, public deliberation has been a movement of theorists and practitioners, but it is rooted in much older ideas about politics that have typically emphasized speech, communication, persuasion, and rhetoric–as both virtues and threats.

The Vuslat Foundation has helped me to shift my focus from one side of the exchange to the other–from speaking to listening. Of course, these acts always go together (even when they are metaphors for written speech, signs, or gestures). It is hardly a novel insight that communication requires at least two people. But I have benefitted from thinking more about the listening side.

First, there’s an ethical imperative. Listening well (“generously,” in the language that the Vuslat Foundation has developed) is an important virtue. Using one’s voice well is also virtuous, and sometimes even obligatory, but the need to be a good listener seems especially compelling.

Second, we can think about listening holistically. One aspect is listening to other people in deliberations, but we also listen to ourselves, to animals, waves, or the wind, to human soundscapes, to near-silence, perhaps to the divine, and to those who are long dead. I have found it useful to think of civic listening as just one kind of listening.

Third, I am taken by the “interactionist” theory of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, which has helped me make sense of some of my own data–in forthcoming articles. To summarize their model crudely, imagine two or more people discussing what to do. When individuals speak, they tend to use motivated reasoning: inventing justifications for what they already want to believe, sometimes for bad reasons, such as self-interested bias. But when they listen to other people offer reasons, they are relatively good at assessing whether these points are valid, and they may change their minds. Mercier and Sperber offer an evolutionary explanation that suggests that highly social and verbal primates would develop the ability to make arguments to advance their own interests, but also the ability to assess others’ arguments in order to make good collective judgments.

Mercier and Sperber never suggest that listening always goes well. We can certainly listen selectively and exhibit bad motives when we select whom and what to listen to. But their theory suggests that we can improve individual skills and conditions for listening–perhaps more easily than we can improve speaking.

Finally, listening has spiritual (or at least psychotherapeutic) benefits that have been recognized and developed in many traditions. Although we can also gain spiritually from communicating well, the listening side is especially relevant to meditative practices of all kinds.

See also: how intuitions relate to reasons: a social approach; an agenda for R&D for democracy; “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”; ‘every thing that lives is holy’: Blake’s radical relativism; “The Listeners“; “Midlife“.

Civics in Real Life: Women’s History Month


Good afternoon friends! As we approach Women’s History Month, be sure to check out the many different Civics in Real Life resources and grade level lesson plans we have that cover the impact that many different women have had on our civic life and history! Download the flier below to learn more, or visit Florida Citizen to explore the resources!

philosophy and self-help

I recommend Kieran Setiya’s article “Is Philosophy Self-Help?” in The Point. Setiya has written serious philosophy that I have found helpful psychologically, and he has looked at the self-help business, starting with Samuel Smiles’ 1859 bestseller, Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct.

Based partly on his article, I would emphasize these differences:

  1. Self-help tries to meet the desires of the reader–usually but not invariably for happiness. In contrast, philosophy asks what the reader should desire. Personal happiness is one possible answer, but that is debatable in philosophy.
  2. Self-help tries to serve the reader, addressing that person’s specific needs, values, and tastes. Philosophy asks whether human beings in general should pursue certain values. Some philosophers have given pluralist responses, emphasizing that individuals or cultures may or should hold different values. But such pluralism is, again, controversial in philosophy and would require a defense. As Setiya notes, “For Aristotle, the nature you should perfect is not your individual potential, but an objective human nature whose ideal expression lies in theoretical contemplation of the cosmos.”
  3. Self-help influences individuals’ thoughts and choices. For some philosophers (e.g., Emerson) one’s self is the best topic, but for others, it’s essential to think about society and institutions, and possibly even to sacrifice oneself for them.

I’m in a reading group on Plato’s Republic, and all three differences between self-help and philosophy are already evident in the very first pages. Cephalus is presented as an old man who is happy. He has taken advice from Pindar and Simonides, whom he treats as self-help gurus. He has learned from them that he’s better off now that his appetites for sex and other desires have diminished. He derives serenity from reflecting on his own virtue.

Socrates is a threat to Cephalus’ happiness (and I am open to the possibility that Plato sees him as a menace). Socrates will not take Cephalus’ subjective beliefs for granted; he challenges the definition of justice that Cephalus has found in Simonides. He thereby demonstrates that Cephalus has drawn serenity from an unfounded belief in his own rightness.

Further, we know that Cephalus’ sons Polemarchus and Lysias (who are present in the dialogue) will later be selected to be two of the first ten victims of the Thirty Tyrants– Lysias narrowly escaping; Polemarchus suffering death. They will be singled out because, like Cephalus, they are wealthy resident aliens, not citizens. So we can see that Cephalus’ happiness is contingent on the accident that the city has chosen to treat him well. He should be thinking about how to secure justice for the community.

On the other hand, one might think that Cephalus is lucky not to get a full dose of Socrates. He leaves just before Socrates begins to critically analyze his beliefs, heading off to watch a civic/religious festival instead. I can read the portrait of Cephalus as elegiac: he fortunately lived a happy life to its conclusion before his happiness could be wrecked by either philosophy or politics.

See also: Pindar on hope; Cuttings version 2.0: a book about happiness; analytical moral philosophy as a way of life; Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life; etc.

Pindar on hope

Cephalus says: “For if, looking at his own life, [an old man] identifies many wrong acts, then he often awakens from his sleep, as children do, in fear and bad hopes, but if he observes no injustice in himself, then pleasant hope is always nearby as a good caregiver, as Pindar says–for he puts it gracefully, Socrates, when he says of a person who gets through life justly and piously:

Sweetness in the heart,
Fosterer and elder-carer:
Hope, the best pilot of the thought
Of oft-twisted mortals

Cephalus adds: “Oh, how wonderfully well he says that …”

But then Socrates breaks the mood by asking what justice is, making Cephalus–a contented old man–wonder whether he has ever really known it.

If I read the Pindar verses correctly, the two main words in the second line refer to the care (respectively) of children and the elderly. Indeed, the course of a human life is a prevalent theme at the beginning of The Republic, from which I have taken this passage (331a). At the very outset, Socrates, an older adult, is physically stopped on the road by a “child,”* who has been sent by an old man, Cephalus. One of the attractions that Socrates is promised, if he agrees to stay, is an opportunity for dialogue with “young men” (328a). But Socrates asks Cephalus to report on what it’s like to be old.

Although The Republic is about justice, the entree to that discussion is the question of how to age well. A major question is why one should have to think about justice at all, and an answer suggested here is that knowing justice allows one to have hope in old age. One irony is that Cephalus is happy because he only thinks he knows justice; a second irony is that Cephalus’ sons will later be cruelly treated by the unjust. In both respects, his hope may be misplaced.

*I drafted this post while preparing for a reading group discussion, and a colleague with infinitely better Greek than mine said that this use of the word pais is unspecific about age. Here, it’s a patronizing word for slave. Cf. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 54. (The quoted verse is denoted Pindar Frag. 214, Loeb. Translations are mine.)

choosing models that illuminate issues–on the logic of abduction in the social sciences and policy

It’s very common for people to use different explanatory and evaluative ideas to describe the same concrete situation, whether it’s the Israel/Palestine conflict, or bias in law enforcement, or almost anything else.

We should navigate between two obstacles, I think. One mistake to view rival ideas as simply subjective, because they are often value-laden, and to view politics as a mere clash among people with different subjective views. The other is to imagine that empirical research can settle such disputes by validating one model or (at least) refuting some of them. We can deliberate about competing models, but the discussion requires more than data.

It is often assumed that a model generates hypotheses, and we can test the model by testing its hypotheses. Nancy Cartwright disputes this assumption. She suggests that models are not like vending machines that yield hypotheses, but more like “fables” that present vivid scenarios and “morals”—suggestions for behavior—that we should look for in the world (Cartwright 1999, 185-6; Cartwright 2010).

Similarly, Max Weber understood an “ideal-type,” such as feudalism or the state, not as a hypothesis but as a “conceptual construct” that “offers guidance in the construction of hypotheses” (Weber 1905/1949, 93, 90). This means that disproving a hypothesis suggested by a model does not disprove the model, although repeated failures to suggest valid hypotheses might encourage us look for alternative models.

The fable of the tortoise and the hare does not pose an inference about reptiles and rabbits, or even a ceteris paribus hypothesis that moving slower yields better outcomes. Rather, it defines two personality types that may be worth looking for in the world; it cautions against arrogance; and it may suggest hypotheses, e.g., that making decisions more rapidly reduces the quality of information (Rae, Heathcote, Donkin, Averell & Brown 2014). Similarly, the model of the Prisoner’s Dilemma suggests that we should look for problems and form empirical hypotheses that involve individuals choosing independently. The model also makes a conceptual contribution by sharply defining cooperation and defection (Johnson 2020). Choosing any such model is a matter of judgment or practical wisdom, not a question of deciding which model is true

Forming and selecting an explanation for a specific situation is the logic of abduction. Deduction means drawing inferences from known premises; induction means generalizing from cases; but abduction involves connecting a single case to a relevant general idea. Charles Sanders Pierce coined the word (Douven 2021). Pierce was a pragmatist, and abduction is a pragmatic necessity, even in the natural sciences.

I would add that it is appropriate to apply normative principles when forming and selecting models of a society. First, the point is to improve situations, not only explain them. Second, any given model incorporates normative elements, even if it pretends to be strictly explanatory, and it should be assessed as such.

For Weber, an ideal-type is “an attempt to analyze historically unique configurations or their individual components by means of genetic concepts” (Weber 1905, 93). An ideal-type cannot be the basis of deductive conclusions about reality, because “a description of even the smallest slice off reality can never be exhaustive”; the “number and type of causes which have influenced any given event are always infinite”; and “there is nothing in the things themselves to set some of them apart as alone meriting attention” (Weber 1905, 78). Instead, we rightly choose our concepts to address aspects of specific situations that provide insights about our own problems, as we see them from “particular points of view” (Weber 1905, 81, italics in the original). Ideal-types are “model types which … contain what, from the point of view of the expositor, should be and what to him is ‘essential’ … because it is enduringly valuable” (Weber 1905, 97).

Weber objects to the assumption that we study phenomena to derive general laws that we can then apply deductively, as if a concrete investigation were the means to the end of general knowledge. He claims that the reverse is true; ideal-types are means to understanding the unique constellations of events that rightly concern us (Weber 1905, 79).

In the article that originated the concept (now almost a cliché) of “wicked problems,” Rittel and Webber posit that often solutions to social problems “are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.” They write, “Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions,” and “their judgments are likely to differ widely in accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 162-3).

They mention that “‘Crime on the streets’ can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, phrenological aberrations, etc.” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 166). In fact, evidence has overwhelmed phrenological explanations for crime, while other explanations have become more persuasive since Rittel and Webber wrote. But they are right that reasonable people may choose different explanatory models and frameworks for the same phenomena. Like Weber, they argue that data cannot settle such choices, but “attitudinal criteria guide” rightly us. People choose explanations that are “plausible” and useful for their “intentions” and “action prospects” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 166).

Our diverse starting points do not guarantee that we must reach divergent conclusions. We can learn from one another, and to do so, we should collect and share evidence. For instance, imagine that my initial model presumes a root cause, such as structural racism. Someone demonstrates that it is possible to disrupt a cycle of inequality by adopting a policy, such as reforming employment contracts for police, that does not address the root cause. My initial model was not refuted, but the evidence may persuade me that I could achieve more with a cyclical model that has no “root.” I have learned and shifted my view, but I have not refuted the root-cause model, which I might even use again on another day.

This is a pragmatist conception of the relationship between evidence and models (cf. Aligica 2014, 166-199). Note that in this conception, evidence is not merely instrumental to an outcome, because it may also persuade us to change the outcome that we think is best to pursue.

See also: what must we believe?; different kinds of social models; making our models explicit; social education as learning to improve models. Sources: Cartwright, N. (1999). The dappled world: A study of the boundaries of science. Cambridge University Press; Cartwright, N. (2010). Models: Parables v fables. In R. Frigg & M.C. Hunter, Beyond mimesis and convention: Representation in art and science (pp. 19-31). Springer Netherlands; Weber, M. 1905/1949. “Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy. In E.A. Shils, & H.A. Finch (Eds.), Max Weber on The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Glencoe Ill.: The Free Press, 50- 112); Rae, B., Heathcote, A., Donkin, C., Averell, L., & Brown, S. (2014). The hare and the tortoise: Emphasizing speed can change the evidence used to make decisions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(5), 1226–1243; Rittel W.J. & Webber, M.M., (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4, 155-69; Douven, Igor, “Abduction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Aligica, P. (2014) Institutional Diversity and Political Economy: The Ostroms and Beyond. New York: Oxford University Press

Highlighting Some Civics in Real Life Resources for Current Events

So, some folks may be aware that we have been providing mostly weekly resources around civics concepts and current events the past couple of years. This post is an opportunity to highlight some older and some newer CRL’s that you might find useful in thinking about how to touch on current events with your students. Please also keep in mind that you can easily search the database to see if there is a concept or event you are looking for. You can always email us if you want one created and see if it’s on our drawing board!

Presidential Power and Executive Authority

Are executive branches accountable to the rule of law?

What are vetoes and how do they work?

What does the president have the right to keep private?

What is the symbolic and constitutional purpose of the State of the Union address?

What are executive orders and how can they impact us?

Congressional Power and Actions

What is the purpose of impeachment and how does it work?

How do congressional expulsions work and how often do they occur?

What is a “motion to vacate” and what happens after a House speaker is removed?

How does the Speaker election work and who runs it?

What is the role of the committee system in Congress?

Constitutional and Civic Concepts

What is the line between peaceful protest and the threat of sedition?

How does the First Amendment apply during a time of crisis?

What does the U.S. Constitution require in terms of qualifications to hold national office?

What is a caucus and how is it similar to and different from a primary election?

What is actually in the US Constitution?

Let’s take a look at how Florida and other southern states suppressed Black voters even after passage of the 15th Amendment.

Interesting and Important Supreme Court Cases

So we also have something we are calling The Docket Series, which covers both past, pending, and present cases. A couple of examples are below.

What is an application to vacate?

When state legislatures draw congressional districts how do they disentangle race from politics?

What is the ‘shadow docket’, and how does it impact the justice system?

Max Weber on institutional neutrality

In a recent open letter, the Academic Freedom Alliance, Heterodox Academy, and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression say:

In recent years, colleges and universities have increasingly weighed in on social and political issues. This has led our institutions of higher education to become politicized and has created an untenable situation whereby they are expected to weigh in on all social and political issues.

Most critically, these stances risk establishing an orthodox view on campus, threatening the pursuit of knowledge for which higher education exists.

Their recommendation: “if an academic institution is not required to adopt a position in order to fulfill its mission of intellectual freedom or operational capacity, it is required not to adopt a position.” They advise universities to enact versions of the 1967 University of Chicago Kelven report, and many institutions are doing so.

My own views on this matter are complex and conflicted. I am rarely impressed by universities’ statements on political issues. These pronouncements don’t model good participation in the public sphere, and they might chill dissent. However, I doubt that many people have really thought through what it would mean for an institution to refrain from stating or implying views on contested issues. Also, I am a proponent of institutional diversity and can imagine that we should want universities to adopt diverse missions and relationships to the society.

But I am not writing to adopt a stance. Instead, I want to recommend a close reading of Max Weber’s “The Meaning of ‘Ethical Neutrality’ in Sociology and Economics,” which Weber drafted during the First World War, when German universities were being called to support one side in a total war (Weber 1917/1949). In many ways, it sounds like a commentary on our moment–and Weber is a deep thinker.

His conclusion is rather like that of the Kelven Report. He would endorse the report’s view that the “great and unique role” of the university is “the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge”–not criticism or advocacy.

To get there, Weber explicitly cites philosophical premises that don’t seem sustainable to me, above all a “complete distinction” between facts and values (“the evaluative sphere and the empirical sphere,” p. 32), and an assumption that value conflicts “are entirely a matter of choice or compromise” that cannot be settled by any “scientific procedure of any kind” (19). Weber assumes that ethical maxims are “in eternal conflict” (16). I agree that there will always be debate about values, but Weber dismisses the scholarly consideration of them, e.g., in philosophy.

However, Weber complicates his premises in interesting ways. He notes that in order to understand and interpret culture, one must have the “capacity for evaluating” it (33). People create culture to advance values, and an inability to think evaluatively would make human choices unintelligible. I would ask: what does that mean about the education of scholars? Might there be room for the cultivation of ethical and aesthetic judgment?

Weber acknowledges that the comparative, empirical study of ethical (or religious) views can undermine students’ faith in all such views. In that sense, sociology is not neutral and may be a corrosive force (14). He also suggests that–“ultimately”–individuals must choose their own “meaning,” which sounds to me like a liberal, individualistic, and secular view, not a neutral one (18).

Weber recognizes that the selection of problems and topics in the social sciences depends on values, and “cultural (i.e. evaluative) interests give purely empirical scientific work its direction” (21-22). However, he gives this issue little attention, even though it seems fundamental to me and he does discuss it elsewhere (Weber 1905). A university could decide not to publish statements in response to major news events yet drastically expand its research on business applications of Artificial Intelligence while closing its classics department. That hardly seems neutral to me.

In his 1905 essay, Weber had acknowledged that a given intellectual institution–in that case, a major journal that he edited–might strive for neutrality and expressly invite “all political standpoints,” yet it could manifest a certain “character” due to the group of people who gravitate to it. For instance, his journal had mainly attracted non-revolutionary economic progressives (Weber 1905, 62). One could argue that modern American universities also have “characters” (one or more per institution) that are not the result of intentional policies but that diverge from neutrality, for better or worse.

Weber’s situation differs from ours because all German universities in his time were state institutions. In a footnote, he considers the Dutch model, which allowed anyone to create a university as long as it met basic standards. This sounds rather like our policy today. He objects that “it gives the advantage to those with large sums of money and groups which are already in power” (7).

That sounds familiar, and so do Weber’s other targets in the essay. He devotes several pages (35-40) to economists who smuggle strong normative assumptions into their ostensibly scientific models. He is annoyed by obvious partisans who define their positions as the ethically neutral ones (6) and by those who claim that a moderate position or a “‘statesman-like’ compromise” is neutral, when it is just another view that may even be harder than other positions to analyze critically (10). In the earlier essay (Weber 1905, 57), he had written that a centrist stance “is not truer even by a hair’s breadth, than the most extreme party ideals of the right and left.”

Weber alludes critically to colleagues who feel that asking professors to separate their political roles outside the classroom from their teaching duties injures their personalities (5). A central Weberian idea is that modernity requires increasing segmentation into roles.

Weber criticizes the kind of academic who uses data to demonstrate that certain political ideas are unrealistic, as if this were a scientific finding. “The possible is often reached only by striving to attain the impossible that lies beyond it” (24).

He acknowledges that students tend to prefer professors who express opinions in the classroom, and that universities need to hire popular teachers to compete for students, but he maintains that the teacher’s proper job is to inspire “a taste for sober empirical analysis” (9).

When he calls for “the professional thinker” to “keep a cool head” and “swim against the stream” of public opinion (47), Weber is targeting German nationalists and revolutionary socialists.

Weber also objects that academics opine on certain contested issues even though other questions–such as the German monarchy–are officially off limits. He says that the dignified response to partial censorship would be silence (8).

He finds a certain kind of (unnamed) colleague “altogether repugnant.”

An unprecedented situation exists when a large number of officially accredited prophets do not do their preaching on the streets, or in churches or other public places or in sectarian conventicles, but rather feel themselves competent to enunciate their evaluations on ultimate questions “in the name of science” in govenmentally privileged lecture halls in which they are neither controlled, checked by discussion nor subject to contradiction (4).

I suppose that many of us today would recognize this description yet would disagree about whom it describes.

Sources: Weber, M. (1917/1949). The Meaning of “Ethical Neutrality” in Sociology and Economics. In E.A. Shils, & H.A. Finch (Eds.), Max Weber on The Methodology of the Social Sciences (pp. 1–49). Glencoe Ill.: The Free Press; and Weber (1905/1949), “Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy, in ibid (pp. 50- 112). See also: Activism and Objectivity in Political Research; The Democratic Mission of Higher Education; when does a narrower range of opinions reflect learning?; right and left on campus today; academic freedom for individuals and for groupsvaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science; values of a university; etc.

youth views of Israel/Palestine

CIRCLE has published detailed data on young people’s views of the current war in the Middle East. I’ll share two graphs, but I recommend their whole document.

First, compared to older generations, young Americans are much more likely to perceive genocide in Palestine (almost 50% agree that it’s happening) and to support an immediate ceasefire.

Second, young Americans are split on whether to sympathize more with Palestinians or Israelis and are divided about US support for Israel. There are differences by race and ethnicity: white youth are least critical of Israel; Asian/Pacific Islander youth are most critical. To my eye, these differences are not very large–particularly between white and African American youth–and the disagreements within each demographic group are more notable.

(By the way, not being sure what to think of this issue seems understandable–for anyone, and especially for someone who is young.)

Whether and how young people will vote in the 2024 election is certainly not the only relevant or important question. That said, political scientists generally doubt that Americans vote on foreign policy issues; and in 2022, according to CIRCLE, just 4% of young Americans named foreign affairs among their top three issues. But in this cycle, as many as 82% of young people are naming foreign policy. I agree with CIRCLE that many young Americans may be “viewing this conflict through a different lens” and, in particular, seeing it as continuous with domestic US issues regarding race.

Maybe the Horse Will Sing: On the Value of Putting Things Off

Nasreddin got himself into some serious legal trouble–the reasons are lost to time. Before the king sentenced him to death, Nasreddin asked for a delay because he was the only person in the world who could teach a horse to sing. The king was skeptical, but gave Nasreddin a horse and a year to teach it. “If that horse isn’t signing a year from today, you’re going to be put to death, and we’re going to get creative about it!”

Nasreddin’s cellmate asked him why he’d done such a foolish thing! “Even you know that a horse can’t sing!”

“True. But a lot of things can happen in a year. The king may die. I may die. And, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing.”

The preceding allegory is often attributed to Herodotus or Aesop in American science fiction stories, and I haven’t been able to track it down. To me it seems that the most plausible source is that this was originally a Sufi tale of Nasreddin Hodja, in part because sourcing is more difficult for Nasreddin stories and our folk tale philology is weaker for Muslim sources.

Regardless of the source, it’s surprising how much of life, work, and politics can respond well to this sort of lesson: keep trying and maybe things will be different later. Another science fiction author, Ray Cummings, captured this well: “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”

I’ve written about the problems with clichés often enough. They can be thought-defying and rule out further inquiry. (There’s surely more to time than Cummings’ joke.) Nonetheless, they often carry a little insight that’s needed often enough to justify the repetition, too.