what would happen to race in a just world?

What is Race? Four Philosophical Views (2019)* presents a debate among four sophisticated, current philosophers of race. All the authors are committed anti-racists who are eloquent about the evil histories of the use of race. They would take similar views on most political controversies involving race. All would reject what Kwame Anthony Appiah (quoted in Quayshawn Spencer’s chapter) called “racialism”: “the view that humans naturally divide into a small number of groups called ‘races’ in such a way that the members of each race share certain fundamental, inheritable, physical, moral, intellectual, and cultural characteristics with one another that they do not share with members of any other race.” They would all say that “racialism” is false and evil. Yet they disagree about metaphysical and methodological issues that arise when we ask what kind of a thing a race is, if it’s anything at all.

Their arguments are subtle and hard to summarize, but an example offers a way into the debate. Imagine a future state in which racial injustice is over. All implicit and explicit biases are gone. All structural inequities linked to race have been solved. All appropriate reparations have been fully paid. You can imagine this happening after many decades or centuries of political action in our real world, or as a result of a thought-experiment: aliens from another planet or divine forces have repaired things on earth. What then should happen to the word and the idea of race?

I think Sally Haslanger would say that race would then cease to exist, because it means subordination. To be a little more precise: the meaning of a social construct is the historical tradition of how it has been used in a society. Race has been used in several ways; it has multiple meanings. But one major way is as the basis for privilege and subordination in the USA. Emphasizing that aspect of the word is the right thing to do now because it “highlight[s]—in the relevant cases—how our racializing practices and identities contribute to injustice.” Once racial subordination is solved, there is no good reason to try to change the meaning of the word “race” and continue to use it. People will have races until justice prevails; after that, they will no longer have races. It can be valuable to preserve cultures, religions, and other groupings, but they should be voluntary and specific. Races don’t work like that and would no longer have any justification after the world is just. “I find problematic the idea that a just world is one in which cultural groups can restrict their membership on racial grounds. I embrace, instead, a model of multiple coexisting cultures that are mutable, flexible, and creatively tolerant around issues of ancestry and appearance.”

Chike Jeffers argues that although racial categories originated as a result of white supremacy, racial identities have developed valuable cultural significance for people of color—notably, people who identify as Black (as he does).  “Everyday talk about black people, for example, is best understood as referring to a real group to which one can belong, even if such talk often involves false assumptions.” He envisions a world in which Blackness is preserved and developed even though white supremacy has been defeated. He argues that this is logically possible and also desirable. “Race as a social construction could live on past the death of racism, in my view, given that racial groups could continue to exist as cultural groups. … The continued existence of racial diversity as cultural diversity after the end of racism is therefore, in my view, something good. … [A]s someone of sub-Saharan African descent, I personally desire the indefinite persistence of black people as a cultural group.” (He argues, too, that pan-African solidarity reflects real cultural similarities across the continent before European imperialism and racism; it is not completely reactive.)

Quayshawn Spencer argues that the races currently counted by the US government refer to “human continental populations”:  Africans, Eurasians, East Asians, Oceanians, and Native Americans. Races define distinctions that are useful empirically (mainly for medicine) although they could not possibly justify inequality. A “biologically real entity is an epistemically useful and justified entity in a well-ordered research program in biology.” Race meets this criterion. Thus “a Black person is a person with genomic ancestry from the African population. That’s it. … Furthermore, the degree to which a person is Black is equal to the proportion of her alleles that originated from the African population.” This would continue to be true under just conditions, although then all the associations between racial categories and health issues that result today from injustice would be gone.

Joshua Glasgow says that this situation would prove that race had always been false, and people had simply been racialized in a way that would no longer happen if the world became just. “Even if tomorrow all groups currently recognized as racial had equal power and participated equally in eating the world’s foods, dancing its forms of dance, playing its kinds of music, and so on—even in such a world, I do not think we’d say that on the ordinary concept of race Hillary Clinton somehow loses her whiteness or that Jeremy Lin stops being Asian because of those points of equality.” Therefore, the ordinary concept of race points to something independent of oppression and of culture, and as such, it is a wrong and false idea that should be rejected now. We should recognize and even emphasize racialized oppression but not concede the reality of race.

*Glasgow, Joshua; Haslanger, Sally; Jeffers, Chike; and Spencer, Quayshawn, What Is Race? Four Philosophical Views (Oxford University Press, 2019). See also: why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics; how philosophy is supposed to work; is social science too anthropocentric?; social criticism as reading social forms;

Why Ivan Illich Still Matters Today

Ivan Illich is one of those rare, seminal thinkers to whom I keep returning, again and again, because he fearlessly grapples with core themes that otherwise go ignored.  He addressed, for example, the totalizing power of modern institutions, the corrupting influences of capitalism on spiritual life, and the power of vernacular practice to build more wholesome, insurgent cultures.    

In my latest podcast (Episode #21), I had the pleasure of interviewing David Cayley, a close friend and colleague of Illich’s who recently published a magisterial synthesis and interpretation of his thought, Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey. Cayley is a former broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and independent scholar and author who has written numerous books on topics literary, political, and ecological.

Ivan Illich.  Photo by 'Adrift Animal,' CC BY-SA 4.0

Illich was an iconoclastic social critic, radical Christian, and cultural historian who soared to international fame in the 1970s with searing critiques of Western modernity, Christianity, and the professionalization of care in healthcare, education, and social services. An Austrian-born Catholic priest who often clashed with the Vatican, Illich eventually left the priesthood to become an itinerant speaker, public intellectual, and best-selling author. His thinking was sprawling and eclectic, but much of it focused on how we might pursue deeper, more meaningful spiritual lives in a modern world that seems designed to deny our elemental humanity.

While some of Illich’s perspectives now seem rooted in their time, mostly the 1960s and 1970s, his thinking remains highly relevant to contemporary life in developing a rich, detailed perspective that dissents from modern economics and politics. His work is perhaps even more relevant now that neoliberal capitalism, over the past forty years, has intensified its disempowerment of ordinary people.  

In a series of books, Illich argued that formal education, healthcare, transportation, law, and other systems have come to dispossess us, creating more harm than benefit. In his book Medical Nemesis, Illich showed how the medical profession overmedicates people and pathologizes normal life. Deschooling Society showed how formal education is more focused on credentialing people for the capitalist order than in stimulating genuine curiosity and learning. Tools for Conviviality called for a culture that empowers humans with creative, open-ended tools for sociability.

A common thread in Illich’s thinking was Who gets to define our sense of reality?  He cast his lot with the “vernacular domains” in which we self-organize ourselves – the informal spaces where we perform the “shadow work” of commoning and caring – activities the mainstream economy ignores. Illich also ventured into all sorts of unusual historical excavations, such as a history of the senses in reporting medical problems, silence as a commons, and the role of hair (as a vector for lice) in the history of urban life. (See some of my previous blog posts on Illich here and here, and a 2013 talk that I gave on Illich's contemporary influence.)

By approaching the world from the bottom up, via actual social practices and spiritual needs, Illich’s books and talks were prophetic in laying the intellectual foundations for the world of commoning that has emerged over the past twenty years. By exploring social and spiritual life that exists outside of the market/state imperium — a space beyond the secular, materialistic, economic realm of modern consciousness — Illich affirmed and articulated a rich space for imagining modern-day commons. Cayley has called Illich “a Marx for the age after development.”

Illich was a thinker, like E.F. Schumacher, who insisted “the scale issue is not some frill,” said Cayley. “It is absolutely central, an absolutely crucial issue. When things get too big, they become unmanageable, absolutely and without qualification. There are tools that by definition, by their very nature, cannot be controlled.  They will control us, inevitably.”  

David Cayley

Illich therefore proposed the concept of “convivial tools” that honor human agency and creativity. Convivial tools are not closed and proprietary, in the style of Microsoft Windows, but open-ended, flexible instruments that serve the needs and interests of ordinary individuals and communities.

Illich was among the early critics of standard economics and modern capitalist notions of “development.” He challenged the premise of “scarcity” built into this framework of thought and highlighted the dangers of unlimited growth. Standard economics, he noted, has no sense of “enoughness”; this is not only the source of our ecological problems, but our emotional and spiritual turmoil. This can be traced to capitalist markets, as supported by the state, that steer us toward dependencies on commodities and market transactions, marginalizing our basic human needs and disrupting our relationships with each other.  

In this sense, he argued, modern life represents a 500-year war against subsistence – the idea that we should produce for exchange value and money, rather than for use value and needs. “The economy is not going to save most of the people who are alive in the world today,” wrote Illich. “But it can make their pursuit of livelihood obscure and undignified.” The root error of “development,” said Illich is “an ecologically unfeasible conception of human control of nature.”

While David Cayley’s book is long — more than 450 pages — it vividly synthesizes Illich’s life and work in a text that combines personal memoir, biography, intellectual history, and cultural commentary. The book helps contemporary readers appreciate Illich as a powerful original thinker, a creative and dogged scholar, and a magnetic personality. Though classically educated, Illich wrote and spoke for a popular audience. He was a teacher as well as a theologian of sorts who tried to teach people through his actions and provocations. He was so compelling because he brought his fullest, most vulnerable self to the challenge. Cayley once compared him to an alert bird cocking his head,  trying to take everything in.  

You can listen to my interview with David Cayley here. 

 

Why Ivan Illich Still Matters Today

Ivan Illich is one of those rare, seminal thinkers to whom I keep returning, again and again, because he fearlessly grapples with core themes that otherwise go ignored.  He addressed, for example, the totalizing power of modern institutions, the corrupting influences of capitalism on spiritual life, and the power of vernacular practice to build more wholesome, insurgent cultures.    

In my latest podcast (Episode #21), I had the pleasure of interviewing David Cayley, a close friend and colleague of Illich’s who recently published a magisterial synthesis and interpretation of his thought, Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey. Cayley is a former broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and independent scholar and author who has written numerous books on topics literary, political, and ecological.

Ivan Illich.  Photo by 'Adrift Animal,' CC BY-SA 4.0

Illich was an iconoclastic social critic, radical Christian, and cultural historian who soared to international fame in the 1970s with searing critiques of Western modernity, Christianity, and the professionalization of care in healthcare, education, and social services. An Austrian-born Catholic priest who often clashed with the Vatican, Illich eventually left the priesthood to become an itinerant speaker, public intellectual, and best-selling author. His thinking was sprawling and eclectic, but much of it focused on how we might pursue deeper, more meaningful spiritual lives in a modern world that seems designed to deny our elemental humanity.

While some of Illich’s perspectives now seem rooted in their time, mostly the 1960s and 1970s, his thinking remains highly relevant to contemporary life in developing a rich, detailed perspective that dissents from modern economics and politics. His work is perhaps even more relevant now that neoliberal capitalism, over the past forty years, has intensified its disempowerment of ordinary people.  

In a series of books, Illich argued that formal education, healthcare, transportation, law, and other systems have come to dispossess us, creating more harm than benefit. In his book Medical Nemesis, Illich showed how the medical profession overmedicates people and pathologizes normal life. Deschooling Society showed how formal education is more focused on credentialing people for the capitalist order than in stimulating genuine curiosity and learning. Tools for Conviviality called for a culture that empowers humans with creative, open-ended tools for sociability.

A common thread in Illich’s thinking was Who gets to define our sense of reality?  He cast his lot with the “vernacular domains” in which we self-organize ourselves – the informal spaces where we perform the “shadow work” of commoning and caring – activities the mainstream economy ignores. Illich also ventured into all sorts of unusual historical excavations, such as a history of the senses in reporting medical problems, silence as a commons, and the role of hair (as a vector for lice) in the history of urban life. (See some of my previous blog posts on Illich here and here, and a 2013 talk that I gave on Illich's contemporary influence.)

By approaching the world from the bottom up, via actual social practices and spiritual needs, Illich’s books and talks were prophetic in laying the intellectual foundations for the world of commoning that has emerged over the past twenty years. By exploring social and spiritual life that exists outside of the market/state imperium — a space beyond the secular, materialistic, economic realm of modern consciousness — Illich affirmed and articulated a rich space for imagining modern-day commons. Cayley has called Illich “a Marx for the age after development.”

Illich was a thinker, like E.F. Schumacher, who insisted “the scale issue is not some frill,” said Cayley. “It is absolutely central, an absolutely crucial issue. When things get too big, they become unmanageable, absolutely and without qualification. There are tools that by definition, by their very nature, cannot be controlled.  They will control us, inevitably.”  

David Cayley

Illich therefore proposed the concept of “convivial tools” that honor human agency and creativity. Convivial tools are not closed and proprietary, in the style of Microsoft Windows, but open-ended, flexible instruments that serve the needs and interests of ordinary individuals and communities.

Illich was among the early critics of standard economics and modern capitalist notions of “development.” He challenged the premise of “scarcity” built into this framework of thought and highlighted the dangers of unlimited growth. Standard economics, he noted, has no sense of “enoughness”; this is not only the source of our ecological problems, but our emotional and spiritual turmoil. This can be traced to capitalist markets, as supported by the state, that steer us toward dependencies on commodities and market transactions, marginalizing our basic human needs and disrupting our relationships with each other.  

In this sense, he argued, modern life represents a 500-year war against subsistence – the idea that we should produce for exchange value and money, rather than for use value and needs. “The economy is not going to save most of the people who are alive in the world today,” wrote Illich. “But it can make their pursuit of livelihood obscure and undignified.” The root error of “development,” said Illich is “an ecologically unfeasible conception of human control of nature.”

While David Cayley’s book is long — more than 450 pages — it vividly synthesizes Illich’s life and work in a text that combines personal memoir, biography, intellectual history, and cultural commentary. The book helps contemporary readers appreciate Illich as a powerful original thinker, a creative and dogged scholar, and a magnetic personality. Though classically educated, Illich wrote and spoke for a popular audience. He was a teacher as well as a theologian of sorts who tried to teach people through his actions and provocations. He was so compelling because he brought his fullest, most vulnerable self to the challenge. Cayley once compared him to an alert bird cocking his head,  trying to take everything in.  

You can listen to my interview with David Cayley here. 

 

civility as equality

Nowadays, the word “civility” is often used to mean politeness or adherence to locally recognized norms that divide appropriate speech from inappropriate speech. You might, for example, be “uncivil” if you are too loud or too angry. Such norms can be helpful, but they risk suppressing authentic and justifiable emotions.

The word has a different origin, closely related to “citizen.” In republican political thought, it it can mean equal standing to participate in politics, rather like the classical Greek word isonomia (roughly: the right to look any fellow citizen in the eye and say what you think). Almost the opposite of etiquette, it connotes a kind of plain, direct, and honest speech.

As Renaissance Florence developed a full-blown ideology of republicanism, the city embraced norms, rules, and customs that were meant to convey the equal standing of all citizen men and to discourage distinctions of caste or power based on military might. Just as one example, no man raised his hat to another Florentine. Professional soldiers were led by paid foreigners, never by Florentines, and these mercenaries had to swear loyalty to the republic’s councilors. The plutocrat banker Cosimo de Medici was wise enough to honor republican norms and manipulated the city’s policies quietly through his networks, without seeking offices or titles or any special personal treatment.

The republic finally ended for good when Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, an heir of Cosimo’s vast fortune, got himself installed as a monarchical ruler and brutally suppressed dissent. A Florentine chronicler, Giovanni Cambi, noted that Lorenzo had been raised in monarchical Rome, where he had learned to expect deference. Lorenzo was surrounded by retainers who called him “padrone” and doffed their hats to him. This was evidence that he knew nothing of “civility”:

Guiliano de Medici, blood brother of Pope Leo X, who had ruled the city of Florence, was living in Rome, and deprived of the city government altogether. He awarded that government to his nephew Lorenzo. Because this Lorenzo had been a child when his father was expelled from Florence, when he returned to Florence he did not know a single citizen, and he was not used to civility (civilta), and instead he aspired to arms and to dominate; and he succeeded in that; for although most citizens were displeased, nevertheless in their ambitiousness and avarice, they pretended to rejoice.

Istorie di Giovanni Cambi cittadino fiorentino, p. 67 (my trans.)

We might assume that doffing hats and using titles exemplifies civility–for better or worse. But the opposite was true in Renaissance Italy. Courtly politeness was a symptom of domination, incompatible with civic virtue and “civility.”

[I am drawing on Richard C. Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence, 1991. See also: civility: not too much, not too little; what to do about the guy behind the desk; civic republicanism in medieval Italy: the Lucignano council frescoes; what does the word civic mean?]

Civics and Debate in Florida

In January of 2020, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, backed by a significant grant from the Marcus Foundation and in collaboration with the Florida Education Foundation, announced the Florida Civics and Debate Initiative as part of his civic literacy efforts.

This past weekend, your bloghost had the great pleasure to attend the inaugural National Civics and Debate Tournament in Orlando. This was an interesting and exciting event that featured about 150 middle and high school students from more than 25 schools spanning the breadth of Florida.

The effort itself is an expansion of Florida Debate Initiative, led by Beth Eskin and Tara Tedrow in central Florida. As they say,

So who was at the debate, and what did they have to do? Take a look at the competing schools!

The event featured students competing in four categories: Congressional Debate, Extemporaneous Debate, Impromptu Speaking, and Extemporaneous Sports Analysis. That latter category, Extemporaneous Sports Analysis, is an interesting one. This was the first debate tournament of any significance to feature this sort of activity as a competitive event. Students were given five minutes to do a ‘commentary’ or analysis of a particular sports related topic. For example, ‘will Messi ever win another championship’ or ‘will the influx of European players change the NBA’. Keep in mind that many of these students had very little knowledge of the sports involved, though they had some time to research and develop their arguments. And oh my goodness it was fun to watch! It was as if the students channeled the best of Stephen A. Smith.

Students competed in all of these categories throughout the weekend, and were able to relax and let off some of the stress and pressure with an ice cream social on Friday evening and civics trivia (which was quite fun!) on Saturday. And as you can see below, they did a great deal of work in this competition!




The top 15 middle school students and the top 5 high school students in each event were recognized (with the exception of Extemporaneous Sports Analysis, which was only open to high school students and the top 3 winners were recognized).

Ultimately, however, there can only be one overall winner at each grade span, and look at the size of the trophies featured below! Congrats to Simon Denahan of Kanapaha Middle School and Alex Vilhan of Lake Mary Prep for their wins.

Middle School Champion
Simon Denahan, Kanapaha Middle School, Alachua County
High School Champion
Alex Vihlan, Lake Mary Preparatory School, Seminole County

The opportunity for students to engage in civics and debate is an important one. We here at the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship at the Lou Frey Institute are so glad for the opportunity to support the entire civic literacy effort, including the debates.

Are you a Florida teacher or district leader interested in getting civics and debate into your school? This is a supported effort; the state will help you get it going! We encourage you to reach out to the wonderful Elizabeth Eskin, Director of the Florida Civics and Debate Initiative.

what to do about the guy behind the desk

A guy sits at a desk, resolving people’s requests and issuing orders. Most people who encounter him think he’s making their lives worse. What do you assume is going on?

  • Maybe it’s capitalism and the profit-motive. The guy is probably corporate, and if he works for the government, that shows that it’s a “neoliberal state” (captured by capital.)
  • Maybe it’s state-backed coercion: a denial of free choice. The guy is probably a state bureaucrat. If he works in the private sector, he still reflects the power of the government, which flows from the mouth of the gun. If free individuals were left alone, they wouldn’t come into a room like this.
  • Maybe it’s colonialism. Rooms with desks arrived with Europeans and replaced other (presumably better) ways of relating that were indigenous and traditional. Even if the guy behind the desk descends from indigenous people, his behavior is colonial.
  • Maybe it’s patriarchy. I intentionally called him a “guy” to suggest that his behavior might be gendered.
  • Maybe it’s a bureaucracy in Weber’s sense, a technology for coordinating specialized labor, which is much more productive than unspecialized labor. It is an unavoidable price of progress.

There can surely be truth to each of these theories, but it interests me how many different kinds of people sit behind desks giving out orders: corporate executives, civil servants, military officers, monsignors, mullahs, associate deans, chiefs of pediatrics, union shop stewards, Soviet commissars, Confucian officials ….

A desk sounds somewhat culturally specific, but with a change of furniture, one might imagine the same behavior from a Sumerian temple scribe, an Aztec huecalpixque (regional tribute manager), an iyase from the Kingdom of Benin, or a Tibetan abbot. Considering the globe as whole, the person behind the desk is probably not white, and quite often, not a man.

I would avoid the kind of root-cause analysis that asks which underlying bad phenomenon explains all such cases. For one thing, that style often implies the possibility of an innocent condition, one without profits, rulers, settlers, or guns. But revolutionary and post-colonial systems often put new people behind the same desks. The myth of innocence can be a cover for new forms of tyranny. Besides–and I realize this is almost unprovable–I think that problems such as limited resources, conflicting interests, and cognitive biases are built into human interaction and cannot be wished away.

I would also avoid a blanket denunciation of everyone who sits at a desk making unpopular decisions. Maybe this is a hard-working, underpaid, front-line public servant, just doing her best.

Here’s a way of thinking about the problem without root-cause analysis. Human beings have a wide range of techniques for organizing complex interactions in the face of endemic problems like scarcity, conflict, and cognitive limitations. These techniques are the ingredients from which we make our social recipes. Examples include officials making discretionary decisions–that person behind the desk–but also secret-ballot votes, lotteries, auctions, exchanges, gifts, public deliberative assemblies, randomly-selected panels, turn-taking, adherence to precedent or original documents, obedience to unseen powers, inheritance, chance (e.g,., flipping a coin), blind peer review, randomized experiments, popularity scores, endurance challenges, romantic partnerships, kinship relations, teacher/pupil pairings, and many more. I have omitted the really awful forms and, of course, failed to list the many tools that have yet to be invented.

We can combine these forms in many ways. Before we assess the guy behind the desk, we should understand which other ingredients are involved in the whole recipe. Maybe he was randomly selected for a short term of service. Maybe he was appointed enthusiastically by a popular assembly. These facts would change our assessment.

The situation might involve domination: arbitrary control over another. That is the case if the guy behind the desk can choose at will and doesn’t have to give reasons or face an appeal. The situation might involve oppression, if the guy belongs to a social group that regularly treats a different group in ways that reduce their human flourishing. But it might involve only one of those things, or neither. The person behind the desk might belong to the same social group as those in front of it and might have no scope for arbitrary decisions.

Yet we shouldn’t be quick to accept a situation that–per the original story–makes most people unhappy. Many actual systems are very bad, and for very bad reasons. They emerged from conquest, subjugation, and cruelty. They manifest both domination and oppression. These systems now enjoy enormous status quo advantages. Organizing to replace them is very hard, especially in the face of powerful incumbents and elaborate justifications. They may inspire fear and awe. For an individual, compliance may be completely rational.

We must challenge domination and oppression and cook up better social recipes. The reason is not to combat capitalism, statism or colonialism, but to free people from oppression and from domination. That requires building better structures, which is as important as disrupting the bad ones. And it means addressing the endemic challenges of flawed creatures who are in (partial) conflict under conditions of scarcity.

See also: both detailed institutional analysis and holistic critique; Complexities of Civic Life; citizens against dominationavoiding arbitrary command; civic education and the science of association;  a template for analyzing an institutionthe legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School; avoiding a sharp distinction between the state and the private sphere; etc.

In Remembrance of My Dear Friend Silke Helfrich, 1967-2021

It’s hard to recall exactly when my friendship and countless collaborations with Silke Helfrich began. In a strict sense, they began at the first-ever activists’ conference on the commons –  one that she organized in Mexico City in 2006 as head of the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s Mexico and Caribbean office. Silke had invited me to speak because -- even though we came from very different worlds -- we both recognized commons as effective systems for defending our shared wealth – from software to seeds to land and beyond – against capitalist enclosures.  

But our loose partnership did not really take shape until two years later, in 2008, when we both attended another early, rare gathering of activist commoners – the Elevate Festival, a four-day gathering in Graz, Austria, for indie music and political culture. In a venue literally carved out of solid rock in the 170-meter Schlossberg Hill, I heard bracing presentations about the fledgling Creative Commons project, the Science Commons and History Commons initiatives, and a mind-altering performance by remix artist D.J. Spooky interpreting Walter Benjamin’s “The Spectacle of Modernity.”

It became clear to me that this budding international subculture of commoners was a rich zone of underexplored promise – a mystery well-worth plunging head-first into. I did. Over lunch the next day at Ginko, a vegetarian restaurant, Silke and I were bubbling over with enthusiasm about “what next?” And so we began.

Over the next thirteen years, to my astonishment, we ended up working together on dozens of major and minor projects. We had no formal jobs or institutional overseers, a situation that sometimes proved precarious. But we had the freedom to do what we wanted, in the ways we wanted. And we knew we had to do this work. We somehow learned to become participant-anthropologists-activists-strategists-allies-networkers-popularizers for all things related to the commons.

Silke and I didn’t want merely to study commons as economic resources or property, in the style of traditional academics. We wanted to understand the commons as a new/old worldview that could transform the capitalist market/state system. We wanted to learn how commoning could remake the very character of politics, culture, law, ethics, and modern understandings of life itself. After experiencing decades of tepid, ineffectual results from mainstream politics, we figured, why not go for it?

And so, with an open agenda and raw curiosity (an optimistic naivete is essential to real creativity), we set out on a journey to reinvent the commons, and never looked back. A famous observation by Goethe described our rough working faith: 

Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans – that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man [sic] could have dreams would have come his way. 

Goethe memorably advised: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”

We didn't know that quotation at the time, but that was essentially how we worked. It was liberating. It opened open up new fields of action. I frankly wonder how my life might have evolved had I not encountered Silke as my working partner and foil, my co-investigator and reality-check. We somehow co-created each other in significant ways, or at least gave each other courage.

Raised on a farm in the German Democratic Republic (the former East Germany) and educated in the social sciences and Romance languages in Leipzig, Silke’s perspectives were quite a distance from my own upbringing as a middle-class, suburban American in the 1960s. She had lived through the the GDR, the reunification of Germany, and the cruel ascent of neoliberal capitalism in Europe.

However, I had acquired a first-rate political education by working with consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Hollywood producer/activist Norman Lear, and immersing myself in Washington politics and public-interest activism. Culturally, intellectually, and politically, we came from very different worlds, but we shared an elemental passion for the commons and a preternatural sense of its potential. Our differences paradoxically contributed to what I experienced as explosive creativity. 

To my absolute shock, our long, strange journey came to a disturbing end last week when I received heartbreaking news from Jacques, Silke’s partner. While attending a conference in Liechtenstein, Silke had left for a day hike in the Alps on the morning of November 10, and never returned. A search team later stated that she had had a fatal accident in “impassible terrain.”

The news has left me reeling. Speechless and numb. How could this dear friend of mine – a brilliant intellect, savvy activist, and lively, generous woman with relentless energy – no longer be a Zoom call away? How could I possibly make sense of the unfolding Commonsverse without her astute judgment and experience?  Silke’s abrupt departure has made only too clear what a towering presence she was in the world of contemporary commoning – and indeed, in the quest to envision a credible post-capitalist world.

In tribute to my dear colleague, I wish to offer some reflections on her unique personality and mix of talents. Her friendship, counsel and support over the course of fifteen years profoundly shaped how I’ve grown. Let me extend my heartfelt condolences to Clara, Paul, Jacques, Gina, Nick, Kai and family for their, and our, deep loss.

*                      *                      *

The most improbable thing may be that Silke and I lived 4,000 miles apart. She lived in Jena, Germany (and more recently in the village of Neudenau), and I lived (and still live) in Amherst, Massachusetts, a rural college town. For years, neither of us had a normal job or secure institutional support. (Since 2017, I’ve been with the Schumacher Center for a New Economics; Silke remained unaffiliated – “self-employed” – after leaving the Boell Foundation.)

Following our 2008 adventure in Graz, we knew that we had to investigate and advance the commons. Working with Massimo De Angelis and Stefan Meretz, we decided to try to convene our dream team of commons scholars and activists for a three-day retreat. We wanted to learn from Peter Linebaugh, Silvia Federici, George Caffentzis, Michel Bauwens, Wolfgang Sachs, and many others.

But how to make this happen? Once we committed, providence began to smile and nudge things in our direction. We somehow found sustainable forester and German count Hermann Hatzfeldt, who graciously offered to let us use his country residence, Crottorf Castle, built in 1550, to host our motley conclave of international commoners. I loved the conceit: commoners convening in the castle's great hall to deliberate about a different kind of future.

And so began our experiment in improvisational, low-overhead activism and culture-change. We relied on the "invisible means of support" that materializes when, as Joseph Campbell put it, you follow your bliss. At the same time, as independent actors, we were determined to steer clear of untoward ideological and institutional entanglements.

Along the way, Michael Bauwens – the founder of the Peer to Peer Foundation and a Belgian activist based in Chiang Mai, Thailand – joined Silke and me in forming the Commons Strategies Group (CSG). (Michel left CSG in 2018.) CSG was more of a name and brave aspirational statement than a real organization because, in truth, we were just a loose association of three individuals. We had no secure funding or legal standing. 

But each of us, coming from different perspectives, keenly appreciated the potential of the commons paradigm and discourse. We began to co-educate each other, trading insights and intuitions and writings. We tracked the progress of various commons projects around the world. We would meet up in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, or wherever our speaking schedules overlapped so that we could steal time to exchange news and make sense of unfolding developments.

I sketch our unusual collaboration because it highlights Silke’s signal strength: her probing, synthesizing mind, her talent in making friends, her zeal for practical action. She got countless invitations to speak and advise, and spent many months on the road at conferences, workshops, and public talks. Through a vast personal network of commoner-friends and acquaintances, Silke learned firsthand about breaking developments in the Commonsverse before most anyone else, enriching her, and our, big-picture understanding of this seemingly marginal, offbeat world.

She was usually familiar with the hotspots of possibility out there – among Francophone commoners in Paris, Montreal, and Africa; among Syriza-affiliated commoners in Greece; and among activists in Latin American countries. She knew key commoners in Europe and spent time with activists and academics in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the World Social Forum. 

A lot of our later outreach was made possible through two seminal international conferences on the commons that we organized, in 2010 and 2013, both in cooperation with the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Berlin and especially with the support of Heike Loeschmann, Head of the International Politics Department, and President Barbara Unmüßig.

These two conferences brought together several hundred self-identified and would-be commoners around the world, unleashing enormous energies. People were empowered to have their intuitions about the commons validated. New relationships proliferated. The commons as a discourse began to grow and circulate.

In the meantime, separately, CSG hosted more than a dozen small “Deep Dives” gatherings between 2012 and 2021. These events were designed to probe timely, vexing strategic questions for which we had no ready answers. We invited key experts who could address, for example, how commoning might work constructively with state power (2016); how digital platforms might be used to spur cooperativism (2014); how various social movements might coordinate and converge (2014); and how ontological beliefs act as a hidden driver of contemporary politics (2019).

With anthropologist David Graeber, we convened a 2016 Deep Dive to explore what alternative theories of value might challenge standard economic theory, which equates price with value. Just a few months ago, in September 2021, we convened a virtual gathering of European commoner-politicians and political players to explore how mainstream policy can support commoning.

By far, Silke’s and my most challenging collaborations were our three books – the anthologies The Wealth of the Commons (2012) and Patterns of Commoning (2015), and our ambitious reconceptualization of the commons as a social system, Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons (2019). The Boell Foundation and Heike Loeschmann provided critical support for all three books.

The two anthologies were intended to showcase the rich diversity of contemporary commons. We wanted to show that commons are not a relic of medieval life or a backward form that strangely persists in the Global South; commons are an utterly contemporary, robust set of alternatives to the market/state system. Here again, Silke’s keen judgment, excellent education, and global web of personal friendships helped us pull the threads together.

By 2016, Silke and I realized that we had witnessed far more commoning than we could fully explain to ourselves or the public. So, with some trepidation, we set about trying to write a third book as co-authors, building on the insights of the two co-edited anthologies. We wanted to develop a grand theoretical synthesis to more accurately describe the empirical diversity of commons we had witnessed. We wanted to show that commons are not simply unowned resources, as standard economics regards them, but a dynamic, generative social form. (No 'tragedy of the commons' at all!)

Drawing inspiration from Christopher Alexander and his pattern language methodology, we sought to explain commons as a timeless social form that cannot be understood through the ontology of modern market individualism and economics. They can only be apprehended through an “OntoShift” that sees the dense relationality of commoning and dispenses with misleading binaries like individual/collective, rational/irrational, and selfish/altruistic.

This was a major breakthrough in our thinking about commons. Here again, Silke was a relentless force pushing us into unknown territory. The book that resulted, Free, Fair and Alive, was a crazy, exhilarating, and exhausting three-year sprint.

We once spent a week huddled in a friend’s house in the Berlin suburbs, talking, debating, and writing for fifteen hours each day. What are the recurrent “patterns of commoning”? What should they be called? How does this square with what we’ve seen and what Elinor Ostrom wrote? Our deliberations would yield what we eventually called the “Triad of Commoning” framework.

On another occasion, I squeezed in a few extra days following a conference in Arnhem, Netherlands, so that we could think through our fledgling idea of “relationalized property,” which we see as a hallmark of many commons. We came to realize that the realities of commoning could not be expressed through the epistemology of property rights or by the premises of market “rationality” and individualism. We needed to develop a new vocabulary that could express a different logic and ethos than economistic terms allow.

Silke’s sheer grit and determination – and faith in creative improvisation – helped us power through many obstacles, intellectually and practically. When we couldn’t raise enough money to hold a deep dive at a retreat center, she decided to host the gathering at her home. We slept in spare rooms, cooked together, and washed the dishes together.

Once, to allow Michel, me and her to reconnect as Commons Strategies Group after a long time without seeing each other, she prevailed on her friends at Oya magazine to host us in their remote German village on the North Sea. On another occasion, she cajoled a friend in Florence, Italy, to help us find a place in the Tuscan countryside where we could meet and catch up after our criss-crossing travels. As always, this led to serendipitous encounters with commoners – in this case, the Nidiaci Garden in central Florence.

And so our adventures kept unfurling. Unexpected developments and new friends somehow always materialized to push our work along.

Silke and I also spent time at each other’s homes to craft our books. At one such visit to her place, a film crew filmed us deep in discussion, which was later turned into a short promotional video for our book. It gives a nice sense of how Silke and I “thought together.”

Or check out this short video from 2010, produced by Remix the Commons, filmed right after the Berlin commons conference, in which Silke explains her feelings at that moment:  

“You get the idea that the commons are touching the hearts of people. Once that happens, it will develop like a virus. Suddenly people discover that they have a lot in common. Once someone in the water movement can sit down and talk with somebody from the free hardware movement – and realize that the commons is about something really intimate that we all share – the idea is planted like a seed and people’s ability to build relationships is only a matter of time. You start to talk about how to take our life into our own hands.”

While we often collaborated, we each steered by our own stars and pursued our own projects. I would report from my circuits of travel and reading, struggling to keep track of her crazy travel schedule and offbeat meetings. I would receive emails from her saying that she had just met with socially minded bankers in Switzerland, or was conferring with a graduate school interested in developing a commons curriculum, or had just met the most interesting Ph.D student, or was working with a team of commoner-translators (Spanish, French, Greek, Portuguese) to translate Free, Fair and Alive.

That’s another thing -- her fluency in multiple languages gave her a passport to communicate with a very broad, eclectic group of commoners worldwide.

With so much passion, talent, idealism, and energy, it is no wonder that Silke was chronically over-committed and often exhausted. She was so generous with her time and so eager to help a promising project. She would fret about her jam-packed schedule, but she never really took steps to deal with it. She couldn’t help herself. She often worked late into the night, calling me when it was midnight her time in Germany (and 6 pm on the east coast of the US). 

I realize that hiking the Alps is a different proposition than exploring modern commons, but let it be said that Silke was rarely fazed by the problem of navigating “impassible terrain.” She always plowed ahead. She would route around a problem, or jump over it, or burrow under it, or work to transform it. The depth of her commitment was amazing. Her audacious, lively mind was utterly thrilling. Her open-hearted friendship was a gift. I can hardly believe she is gone, and I will miss her terribly.

In Remembrance of My Dear Friend Silke Helfrich, 1967-2021

It’s hard to recall exactly when my friendship and countless collaborations with Silke Helfrich began. In a strict sense, they began at the first-ever activists’ conference on the commons –  one that she organized in Mexico City in 2006 as head of the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s Mexico and Caribbean office. Silke had invited me to speak because -- even though we came from very different worlds -- we both recognized commons as effective systems for defending our shared wealth – from software to seeds to land and beyond – against capitalist enclosures.  

But our loose partnership did not really take shape until two years later, in 2008, when we both attended another early, rare gathering of activist commoners – the Elevate Festival, a four-day gathering in Graz, Austria, for indie music and political culture. In a venue literally carved out of solid rock in the 170-meter Schlossberg Hill, I heard bracing presentations about the fledgling Creative Commons project, the Science Commons and History Commons initiatives, and a mind-altering performance by remix artist D.J. Spooky interpreting Walter Benjamin’s “The Spectacle of Modernity.”

It became clear to me that this budding international subculture of commoners was a rich zone of underexplored promise – a mystery well-worth plunging head-first into. I did. Over lunch the next day at Ginko, a vegetarian restaurant, Silke and I were bubbling over with enthusiasm about “what next?” And so we began.

Over the next thirteen years, to my astonishment, we ended up working together on dozens of major and minor projects. We had no formal jobs or institutional overseers, a situation that sometimes proved precarious. But we had the freedom to do what we wanted, in the ways we wanted. And we knew we had to do this work. We somehow learned to become participant-anthropologists-activists-strategists-allies-networkers-popularizers for all things related to the commons.

Silke and I didn’t want merely to study commons as economic resources or property, in the style of traditional academics. We wanted to understand the commons as a new/old worldview that could transform the capitalist market/state system. We wanted to learn how commoning could remake the very character of politics, culture, law, ethics, and modern understandings of life itself. After experiencing decades of tepid, ineffectual results from mainstream politics, we figured, why not go for it?

And so, with an open agenda and raw curiosity (an optimistic naivete is essential to real creativity), we set out on a journey to reinvent the commons, and never looked back. A famous observation by Goethe described our rough working faith: 

Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans – that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man [sic] could have dreams would have come his way. 

Goethe memorably advised: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”

We didn't know that quotation at the time, but that was essentially how we worked. It was liberating. It opened open up new fields of action. I frankly wonder how my life might have evolved had I not encountered Silke as my working partner and foil, my co-investigator and reality-check. We somehow co-created each other in significant ways, or at least gave each other courage.

Raised on a farm in the German Democratic Republic (the former East Germany) and educated in the social sciences and Romance languages in Leipzig, Silke’s perspectives were quite a distance from my own upbringing as a middle-class, suburban American in the 1960s. She had lived through the the GDR, the reunification of Germany, and the cruel ascent of neoliberal capitalism in Europe.

However, I had acquired a first-rate political education by working with consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Hollywood producer/activist Norman Lear, and immersing myself in Washington politics and public-interest activism. Culturally, intellectually, and politically, we came from very different worlds, but we shared an elemental passion for the commons and a preternatural sense of its potential. Our differences paradoxically contributed to what I experienced as explosive creativity. 

To my absolute shock, our long, strange journey came to a disturbing end last week when I received heartbreaking news from Jacques, Silke’s partner. While attending a conference in Liechtenstein, Silke had left for a day hike in the Alps on the morning of November 10, and never returned. A search team later stated that she had had a fatal accident in “impassible terrain.”

The news has left me reeling. Speechless and numb. How could this dear friend of mine – a brilliant intellect, savvy activist, and lively, generous woman with relentless energy – no longer be a Zoom call away? How could I possibly make sense of the unfolding Commonsverse without her astute judgment and experience?  Silke’s abrupt departure has made only too clear what a towering presence she was in the world of contemporary commoning – and indeed, in the quest to envision a credible post-capitalist world.

In tribute to my dear colleague, I wish to offer some reflections on her unique personality and mix of talents. Her friendship, counsel and support over the course of fifteen years profoundly shaped how I’ve grown. Let me extend my heartfelt condolences to Clara, Paul, Jacques, Gina, Nick, Kai and family for their, and our, deep loss.

*                      *                      *

The most improbable thing may be that Silke and I lived 4,000 miles apart. She lived in Jena, Germany (and more recently in the village of Neudenau), and I lived (and still live) in Amherst, Massachusetts, a rural college town. For years, neither of us had a normal job or secure institutional support. (Since 2017, I’ve been with the Schumacher Center for a New Economics; Silke remained unaffiliated – “self-employed” – after leaving the Boell Foundation.)

Following our 2008 adventure in Graz, we knew that we had to investigate and advance the commons. Working with Massimo De Angelis and Stefan Meretz, we decided to try to convene our dream team of commons scholars and activists for a three-day retreat. We wanted to learn from Peter Linebaugh, Silvia Federici, George Caffentzis, Michel Bauwens, Wolfgang Sachs, and many others.

But how to make this happen? Once we committed, providence began to smile and nudge things in our direction. We somehow found sustainable forester and German count Hermann Hatzfeldt, who graciously offered to let us use his country residence, Crottorf Castle, built in 1550, to host our motley conclave of international commoners. I loved the conceit: commoners convening in the castle's great hall to deliberate about a different kind of future.

And so began our experiment in improvisational, low-overhead activism and culture-change. We relied on the "invisible means of support" that materializes when, as Joseph Campbell put it, you follow your bliss. At the same time, as independent actors, we were determined to steer clear of untoward ideological and institutional entanglements.

Along the way, Michael Bauwens – the founder of the Peer to Peer Foundation and a Belgian activist based in Chiang Mai, Thailand – joined Silke and me in forming the Commons Strategies Group (CSG). (Michel left CSG in 2018.) CSG was more of a name and brave aspirational statement than a real organization because, in truth, we were just a loose association of three individuals. We had no secure funding or legal standing. 

But each of us, coming from different perspectives, keenly appreciated the potential of the commons paradigm and discourse. We began to co-educate each other, trading insights and intuitions and writings. We tracked the progress of various commons projects around the world. We would meet up in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, or wherever our speaking schedules overlapped so that we could steal time to exchange news and make sense of unfolding developments.

I sketch our unusual collaboration because it highlights Silke’s signal strength: her probing, synthesizing mind, her talent in making friends, her zeal for practical action. She got countless invitations to speak and advise, and spent many months on the road at conferences, workshops, and public talks. Through a vast personal network of commoner-friends and acquaintances, Silke learned firsthand about breaking developments in the Commonsverse before most anyone else, enriching her, and our, big-picture understanding of this seemingly marginal, offbeat world.

She was usually familiar with the hotspots of possibility out there – among Francophone commoners in Paris, Montreal, and Africa; among Syriza-affiliated commoners in Greece; and among activists in Latin American countries. She knew key commoners in Europe and spent time with activists and academics in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the World Social Forum. 

A lot of our later outreach was made possible through two seminal international conferences on the commons that we organized, in 2010 and 2013, both in cooperation with the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Berlin and especially with the support of Heike Loeschmann, Head of the International Politics Department, and President Barbara Unmüßig.

These two conferences brought together several hundred self-identified and would-be commoners around the world, unleashing enormous energies. People were empowered to have their intuitions about the commons validated. New relationships proliferated. The commons as a discourse began to grow and circulate.

In the meantime, separately, CSG hosted more than a dozen small “Deep Dives” gatherings between 2012 and 2021. These events were designed to probe timely, vexing strategic questions for which we had no ready answers. We invited key experts who could address, for example, how commoning might work constructively with state power (2016); how digital platforms might be used to spur cooperativism (2014); how various social movements might coordinate and converge (2014); and how ontological beliefs act as a hidden driver of contemporary politics (2019).

With anthropologist David Graeber, we convened a 2016 Deep Dive to explore what alternative theories of value might challenge standard economic theory, which equates price with value. Just a few months ago, in September 2021, we convened a virtual gathering of European commoner-politicians and political players to explore how mainstream policy can support commoning.

By far, Silke’s and my most challenging collaborations were our three books – the anthologies The Wealth of the Commons (2012) and Patterns of Commoning (2015), and our ambitious reconceptualization of the commons as a social system, Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons (2019). The Boell Foundation and Heike Loeschmann provided critical support for all three books.

The two anthologies were intended to showcase the rich diversity of contemporary commons. We wanted to show that commons are not a relic of medieval life or a backward form that strangely persists in the Global South; commons are an utterly contemporary, robust set of alternatives to the market/state system. Here again, Silke’s keen judgment, excellent education, and global web of personal friendships helped us pull the threads together.

By 2016, Silke and I realized that we had witnessed far more commoning than we could fully explain to ourselves or the public. So, with some trepidation, we set about trying to write a third book as co-authors, building on the insights of the two co-edited anthologies. We wanted to develop a grand theoretical synthesis to more accurately describe the empirical diversity of commons we had witnessed. We wanted to show that commons are not simply unowned resources, as standard economics regards them, but a dynamic, generative social form. (No 'tragedy of the commons' at all!)

Drawing inspiration from Christopher Alexander and his pattern language methodology, we sought to explain commons as a timeless social form that cannot be understood through the ontology of modern market individualism and economics. They can only be apprehended through an “OntoShift” that sees the dense relationality of commoning and dispenses with misleading binaries like individual/collective, rational/irrational, and selfish/altruistic.

This was a major breakthrough in our thinking about commons. Here again, Silke was a relentless force pushing us into unknown territory. The book that resulted, Free, Fair and Alive, was a crazy, exhilarating, and exhausting three-year sprint.

We once spent a week huddled in a friend’s house in the Berlin suburbs, talking, debating, and writing for fifteen hours each day. What are the recurrent “patterns of commoning”? What should they be called? How does this square with what we’ve seen and what Elinor Ostrom wrote? Our deliberations would yield what we eventually called the “Triad of Commoning” framework.

On another occasion, I squeezed in a few extra days following a conference in Arnhem, Netherlands, so that we could think through our fledgling idea of “relationalized property,” which we see as a hallmark of many commons. We came to realize that the realities of commoning could not be expressed through the epistemology of property rights or by the premises of market “rationality” and individualism. We needed to develop a new vocabulary that could express a different logic and ethos than economistic terms allow.

Silke’s sheer grit and determination – and faith in creative improvisation – helped us power through many obstacles, intellectually and practically. When we couldn’t raise enough money to hold a deep dive at a retreat center, she decided to host the gathering at her home. We slept in spare rooms, cooked together, and washed the dishes together.

Once, to allow Michel, me and her to reconnect as Commons Strategies Group after a long time without seeing each other, she prevailed on her friends at Oya magazine to host us in their remote German village on the North Sea. On another occasion, she cajoled a friend in Florence, Italy, to help us find a place in the Tuscan countryside where we could meet and catch up after our criss-crossing travels. As always, this led to serendipitous encounters with commoners – in this case, the Nidiaci Garden in central Florence.

And so our adventures kept unfurling. Unexpected developments and new friends somehow always materialized to push our work along.

Silke and I also spent time at each other’s homes to craft our books. At one such visit to her place, a film crew filmed us deep in discussion, which was later turned into a short promotional video for our book. It gives a nice sense of how Silke and I “thought together.”

Or check out this short video from 2010, produced by Remix the Commons, filmed right after the Berlin commons conference, in which Silke explains her feelings at that moment:  

“You get the idea that the commons are touching the hearts of people. Once that happens, it will develop like a virus. Suddenly people discover that they have a lot in common. Once someone in the water movement can sit down and talk with somebody from the free hardware movement – and realize that the commons is about something really intimate that we all share – the idea is planted like a seed and people’s ability to build relationships is only a matter of time. You start to talk about how to take our life into our own hands.”

While we often collaborated, we each steered by our own stars and pursued our own projects. I would report from my circuits of travel and reading, struggling to keep track of her crazy travel schedule and offbeat meetings. I would receive emails from her saying that she had just met with socially minded bankers in Switzerland, or was conferring with a graduate school interested in developing a commons curriculum, or had just met the most interesting Ph.D student, or was working with a team of commoner-translators (Spanish, French, Greek, Portuguese) to translate Free, Fair and Alive.

That’s another thing -- her fluency in multiple languages gave her a passport to communicate with a very broad, eclectic group of commoners worldwide.

With so much passion, talent, idealism, and energy, it is no wonder that Silke was chronically over-committed and often exhausted. She was so generous with her time and so eager to help a promising project. She would fret about her jam-packed schedule, but she never really took steps to deal with it. She couldn’t help herself. She often worked late into the night, calling me when it was midnight her time in Germany (and 6 pm on the east coast of the US). 

I realize that hiking the Alps is a different proposition than exploring modern commons, but let it be said that Silke was rarely fazed by the problem of navigating “impassible terrain.” She always plowed ahead. She would route around a problem, or jump over it, or burrow under it, or work to transform it. The depth of her commitment was amazing. Her audacious, lively mind was utterly thrilling. Her open-hearted friendship was a gift. I can hardly believe she is gone, and I will miss her terribly.

Equity Research Symposium

All are welcome to a webinar symposium presented by the Tufts Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth, and Civic Engagement on Friday, November 19, 2021 from 10:00 am to noon ET. Register here

Agenda

(10-11:15) Presentations of current research, moderated by Shikhar Shrestha:

  • Jennifer Allen, ScD, MPH, Parents’ Willingness to Vaccinate Children for COVID-19: Conspiracy Theories, Information Sources, and Perceived Responsibility.
  • Eden Shaveet, BA, Marissa Gallegos, BS, Catie Urquhart, Web-Based Health Information Seeking Methods and Time Since Provider Engagement: Reflections on Access Equity.
  • Wenhui Feng, PhD, Ideology and health behavior.
  • Megan Mueller, PhD, Equity and the “pet effect”: Complexities in understanding how pets support health outcomes.

(11:15-noon) Panel discussion: Examining our Definition of Equity

What is implicit conception of “equity” is represented on the website, with its data-visualization tool? How should people think about equity?

  • Peter Levine, PhD, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Tufts Johnathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life (moderator)
  • Lionel McPherson, PhD Tufts Department of Philosophy
  • Felipe Dias, PhD, Tufts Department of Sociology
  • Elizabeth Setren, PhD, Tufts Department of Economics 

(The graphic above is a sample result from the tool on the homepage.)

Society is corrupt? Found a new college!

I have all kinds of (unoriginal) doubts about the new venture called University of Austin. The promise to create a novel financial model sounds empty until they actually describe it. (Since more than 3,500 US colleges and universities compete today, I would guess that great ideas for saving money have already been tried.) At least in Bari Weiss’ version, the case for a new university rests on a damning portrait of the existing ones that doesn’t match what I observe. And, as someone who values freedom of expression and robust debate, I don’t see a serious effort to grapple with the challenges to freedom, such as directives by donors and foundations, state regulations, the decline of tenure, and shrinking liberal arts enrollments. (Liberal arts courses are the most natural homes of vibrant debate.)

On the other hand, there is nothing more traditional than a group of Americans issuing a jeremiad against their doomed and corrupt society and founding a new college as a solution. That describes Calvinist pilgrims, Jeffersonian democrats, Catholic immigrants, Midwestern progressives, formerly enslaved people, Mormons in Utah, boosters of new Western states, sixties idealists, fundamentalist revivalists, and more.

If anything, it is disappointing that the rate of founding new colleges and universities has slowed so much. Many of the new ones appear to be conventional branch-campuses of existing state systems–important for meeting demand but not necessarily innovations.

Fig 1, shows that the total number of colleges and universities rose rapidly from 1918 to 1998 but peaked around 2013 and has fallen since.

Data from Thomas D. Snyder, 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1993 (to 1970) and NCES Digest of Education Statistics, 2019 (NCES 2021-009) after that date

That graph does not adjust for population growth. If we value choice and innovation, we might like to see more colleges and universities per capita, which would mean fewer people per existing colleges (shown in my second graph).

The nineteenth century actually exhibited a worsening of this measure, because population growth outpaced even the rapid formation of new institutions. Much of the 20th century saw improvement, although the number of new institutions could not quite keep up with the Baby Boom in the 1960s. Of late, we have seen more people per college.

Same data as fig. 1, with population adjustments by author

The total number of colleges and universities that are open in a given year doesn’t quite indicate the rate of foundings, because older institutions go out of business. Tewksbury (1932) estimated that four out of five antebellum colleges failed. I can’t find continuous data on new foundings for US history as a whole, but the third graph indicates a rapid increase in that measure from 1820-1860.

Data from Snyder, table 27

I would place University of Austin in that tradition. I am not enthusiastic about their diagnosis or plan, but I think it’s appropriate for disaffected people to start new institutions so that we (and they) can find out what their ideas would really mean in practice. That is how we got the array of colleges and universities that we see today, from Oberlin College to Liberty University, from UCF (with 66k students) to Deep Springs College (with fewer than 30), from Notre Dame to Naropa University in Boulder, CO. I’ve mentioned some outliers, but the overall trend is increasing similarity or “institutional isomorphism.” I’m for innovations that mix things up.

See also: the Harper’s letter is fatally vague; the ROI for philosophy; rationales for private research universitiesthe weirdness of the higher ed marketplacewhat kind of a good is education?; a way forward for high culture etc.