Elementary and Secondary Education Act Renewal: Help Needed!

Putting aside how one feels about the role of the federal government in public education, I think that we can agree that social studies must remain a priority in our schools. It is the first step students take down the path towards good citizenship, and it is vital to our health as a nation.
As you may be aware, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is up for renewal soon, and the House version of the bill is significantly lacking in support for our beloved and important field. To address this, Congressman Ross of Florida and Congressman Cicilline of Rhode Island have drafted and distributed a bipartisan letter urging their colleagues to adopt the social studies provisions in the Senate’s version of the bill, which include the following:

  • Section 2302 provides competitive funding to LEAs to improve the teaching of history and civics.
  • Section 2303 establishes intensive academies for teachers and students to learn more about history and civics
  • Section 2304 authorizes grants to non-profit organizations to make a range of innovative, engaging approaches to engaging underserved students in history, civics, and geography available to local schools and school districts
  • Section 1005 allows parent engagement funds to be used to support financial literacy activities.

I encourage you, as a supporter of civics and social studies in the schools, to send your representatives a note or call or email encouraging them to ensure that these provisions are in the House version of the renewal. The National Council for the Social Studies has provided an excellent template and suggestions for communicating with your representatives on this issue. Be an advocate, and live the civics that we teach our students!

One Amazing Benefit Social Media Brought this Scholar

This past week, I finally hung a light that I got as a gift last year over my favorite painting. The story is worth sharing, I believe, because it has to do with my most rewarding benefit I’ve received from social media activity as a scholar. Another reason it is personally meaningful is that it marks the conclusion of a promise I made.

Painting, 'Politician at a Podium,' by Ashley Cecil, http://AshleyCecil.com.

In late 2013, my book, Democracy and Leadership, was published. I had looked far and wide for the right image for the cover. My first publisher put out my first two books without giving me a choice about the cover. So, while I appreciate that one shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, I’ve heard enough people do it to be eager for a say in its design. I wanted to find just the right image to capture what I’m up to in the book. I’d hoped it could be a pretty painting somehow, featuring a context for leadership, but somehow highlighting the people more than the politician.

Cover for Democracy and Leadership.I did a ton of searching online and came across Ashley Cecil’s work. Check it out. When I found the painting above online, I loved it instantly. My publisher for the work, Lexington Books, had a cover template that would maximize space for a cover image, which is the one I picked. With that template, furthermore, I was able to frame the image such that you know there’s a “Politician at a Podium” (the title of the piece) — at least you see the podium — yet he isn’t the focus of the image on the cover.

I was delighted when Ashley permitted me to use the image on the cover of the book. Of course, I had only seen a high quality photo of the painting online. She had sold the painting a few years back. That said, I spread the word about the book a bit online, and per our agreement, I sent Ashley a copy of it. When she got it, Ashley put a post on her Web site about the book, as not every artist has his or her work on a book cover.

Social media offers us powerful tools. People who love Ashley’s work, as I do, follow her blog, and one collector saw the post where she announced that her painting was now cover art. The collector who bought that painting years ago saw her post. Kentucky attorney John Rogers contacted me, I believe via Twitter. He showed me a photo of the painting and said that he thought I should have it. I told him I’d obviously send him a copy of the book. All he asked was that I share with him a picture of the painting once I’d gotten it up on the wall. True story. It continues to mean a lot to me, every time I see it, in fact.

A puff pastry, to symbolize a "puff" piece.

A pastry-style puff piece. lol.

People can be very cynical about humanity sometimes, what with the news we hear about politics & violence. We sometimes call happy stories “puff” pieces, with little substance and thus little meaning. I think that this story resists that label for two reasons. The first is that while there are costs and reasons to worry about some elements of social media, it is easy to overlook how they can connect people with kindness and goodwill across distance. It helps to know that not everyone is a “troll” or a credit card predator. The second reason is that as a scholar who’s trying in modest ways to put work out there, to let people know what I’m doing, I’m so glad to know that some people see it and are encouraging.

Once again, I can’t thank you enough, John. The painting means a lot, and so does your kindness and encouragement.


On my old blog, which I’m putting out to pasture now that I have my new designed, I had written about this story, calling it “‘My Coolest Internet Experience,’ or ‘People Can Be Remarkably Kind’.” Here’s the content of that post:


‘My Coolest Internet Experience,’ or ‘People Can Be Remarkably Kind’

 Saturday, February 15, 2014

I’ve always been somewhat optimistic. There are limits to what we can control, which we need to be stoic about, but positive thinking makes a difference within those limits. When we see daily reports about crimes or read books and watch television shows about crooks and drug dealers, it’s no surprise that some folks come to feel cynical about people. I’m happy to report that this week I’ve had my coolest Internet experience ever, which confirmed my feeling that people can be profoundly kind.

With all of the silly and crazy Internet tools we have available (see the absurd variety hereabove), we can spend a lot of time spreading the word about issues we care about or projects we’re working on, while none of our individual tweets or posts seem to be particularly effectual. I’ll write about the several interesting opportunities and connections I’ve made through these channels in some other post, but I have to say something here about an amazing experience I’ve had this week.

Thumbnail photo of the cover of 'Democracy and Leadership,' bearing Ashley Cecil's painting, "Politician at a Podium."

My 2013 book, Democracy and Leadership: On Pragmatism and Virtue, came out with a publisher that permitted me to pick and design the cover, from a few possible form templates. The talented Ashley Cecil‘s beautiful painting is on the cover, as you may already know (it’s on right here). To spread the word about the book, I posted on these various Internet channels, including on a new Facebook Author page — why not?

I have friends with nearly 1,000 “likes” on their author pages, which is great. It’s a way of reaching lots of friends and interested audiences when you’ve got something you feel needs to be said. My own page today has a modest 247 “likes,” but I’m just getting started.

As I was spreading the word about the release of the book and creating the Facebook page, Ashley Cecil posted an announcement about the release of the book on her Web site. Some of Ashley’s fans and art collectors connected with my Facebook page. That’s how I came into contact with John Rogers, an attorney and art collector from Glasgow, Kentucky. It turns out that John was the art collector who had bought Ashley’s painting.

Obviously John and I have sympathetic taste, because when I was looking for cover art — and I searched quite a bit — I knew instantly that this was the painting I wanted for the cover, if I could make it work out. John asked me how I had come across the painting. Though I had looked through various databases of art (paintings and photographs), starting with works in the public domain, I eventually stumbled across Ashley’s painting by wading deep through search term results that I found on Images.Google.com.

While it’s fun to connect with an art collector with sympathetic taste, the story gets better. John wrote me (via Facebook message) to say that he thought that I should have the painting.

I couldn’t believe it.

Art collectors sometimes invest in works that they hope to sell later for a profit. For me, the painting has great sentimental value, because it’s the beautiful first artwork that I’ve been able to select for a book cover. In addition, the book was 4 years in the making and was a lot of hard work, so the artwork is seriously meaningful to me.

At the same time, my university has granted me a sabbatical to write my next book. You can either accept full-pay for one semester, or you can take the same funds divided over the course of a full year. More than a year ago, I discussed this with my wonderful wife Annie (yesterday was Valentine’s Day, I should note), and she agreed that time is the hardest thing to come by. So, we trimmed expenses, saved up for about a year, and now we’ve made it so that I can take this full year to write. It also means that I can’t get into art collection… Certainly not for a while, anyway.

I didn’t see John’s generosity coming. And remember, I’m one of the optimists out there.

Three days after John’s message, the painting arrived — on Valentine’s Day, no less. Here it is on our kitchen table:

This is a large photo of Ashley Cecil's original painting, "Politician at a Podium."

The painting is 8″ by 10″ and is going to go up in my office at work. It is not only the artwork that an artist first gave me permission to use on a book cover. It is also the first such work that I also now own. I’m still somewhat in disbelief about John’s magnanimity. I believe that people are largely very good and sympathetic with others when not conditioned otherwise in some way. That doesn’t capture just how friendly and giving people can be, though.

Therefore, this blogpost — and a copy of Democracy and Leadership soon to be in the mail — is dedicated to John Rogers of Glasgow, Kentucky, for showing me just how remarkably kind people can be, especially to a stranger several states away. Thank you so much, John, for your generous gift, and thanks to Ashley for creating this piece and allowing me to use it for the book.

I can’t thank you enough, John.

is social science too anthropocentric?

Consider these statements: “A group just is the people who make it up.” “If a group can be said to have intentions at all, its intentions must somehow be the intentions of its members.” Or: “When a convention arises, such as the convention that a dollar has value, it must exist because the people who use dollars have imposed some meaning on material reality.”

In The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences, Brian Epstein criticizes an assumption that is implicit in these statements (which are mine, not his): that social phenomena can be fully explained by talking about people. It’s obvious that non-human phenomena–from evolution to climate change–influence or shape human beings. But the thesis that people fully determine social phenomena is worth critical scrutiny.

Epstein’s book is methodical and not subject to a short paraphrase, but some examples may give a flavor of the argument. For instance, is Starbucks composed of the people who work for it? Clearly not, because the coffee beans and water, the physical buildings, the company’s stock value, the customers and vendors, the rival coffee shops in the same markets, and many other factors make it the company that we know, just as much as its own people do. Indeed, its personnel could all turn over through an orderly process and it would still be Starbucks.

Likewise, if the Supreme Court intended to overturn the ban on corporate campaign contributions, was its intention a function of the preferences of the nine individual justices? No, because in order for them to intend to overturn the ban, they had to be legitimate Supreme Court justices within a legal system that presented them with this decision at a given moment. I could form an opinion of the Citizens United case, but I could not “intend” to rule for the government in that case, because I am not a justice. And what makes someone a justice at the moment when the Citizens United case comes before the court is a whole series of decisions by people not on the court, going back to founding era.

In general, Epstein writes, “facts about a group are not determined just by facts about its members.” And it’s not just other people who get involved. Non-human phenomena can be implicated in complicated ways. For instance, the Supreme Court is in session on certain days, and on all other days, a “vote” by a justice would not really be a vote. What makes us say that a certain day has arrived is the movement of the earth around the sun. So the motion of a heavenly body is implicated in the existence and the intentions of the Supreme Court. That is an apt example, because Epstein calls for a Copernican Revolution in which we stop seeing the social world as “anthropocentric.”

Note that we are talking here about grounding relations, not causation. Public opinion may influence the composition of the Supreme Court and its decisions. The movement of the earth does not influence or affect the Court, and you wouldn’t model it that way (with the earth as an independent variable). Rather, the court is in session on certain dates, and the calendar is grounded in facts about the solar system. Likewise, a president can influence the court, and you could model the president’s ideology as an independent variable. But the composition of the court is grounded in decisions by presidents and senates in a more fundamental way than causation. To be a justice is (in part) to have been nominated and confirmed.

When people criticize anthropocentrism, usually they mean to take human beings down a peg. But in this case, the critique is a testament to our creativity and agency. Human beings can create groups in limitless ways. We can intentionally ground facts about groups in circumstances beyond the control of their members, or indeed in facts that are under no human’s control (like the motion of the earth). It can be wise to limit the power of group members in just these ways. Epstein writes, “Our ability to anchor social facts to have nearly arbitrary grounds is the very thing that makes the social world so flexible and powerful. Why would we deprive ourselves of that flexibility?” But the same flexibility that empowers the human beings who design and operate groups also creates headaches for the analysts who try to model their work. “Compared to the social sciences, the ontology of natural science is a walk in the park.”

The Ant Trap does not offer one model as an alternative to the standard anthropocentric ones, because social phenomena are diverse as well as complex. But if we narrow the focus a bit from the whole social world and look at groups, they tend to require (in Epstein’s analysis), a two-level model. Various facts about each group are grounded in other facts. For instance, the fact that the Supreme Court is in session is grounded in facts about the calendar (as well as many other kinds of facts). In turn, these grounding relationships are anchored in different facts–for instance, facts about how US Constitution organized the judiciary system.

My day job involves very conventional social science. We study various groups, from Millennials and voters to Members of Congress. After reading The Ant Trap, I won’t think of groups in the same way again. I am not yet sure what specific methodological implications follow, but that seems an important question to pursue.

See also Brian Epstein’s TedX Standford talk, which captures some of the book.


Building on the “Hope Spots” in Our Democracy

Our friends at NCDD member organization The Harwood Institute recently shared an article that Rich Harwood wrote on the state of our democracy for the Kettering Foundation‘s “Connections” newsletter that we want to share. It features relevant insights from Rich, prominent D&D leaders, and a few NCDD members on the question of how to scale up the nation’s democratic and collaborative efforts, and we encourage you to check it out.
An article excerpt from the Harwood blog is below, and you can find the rest in the full newsletter here.

Yes, Our Democracy Is a Mess, and Yes, Our Opportunities Are Real

HarwoodLogoAs part of the Kettering Founda­tion’s efforts to take stock of trends affecting citizens and communities, I have recently held 10 in-depth conversations with leading thinkers and practitioners in the areas of democracy and American life.

In these discussions, we talked about the current condition of the country and the forces that are shaping it today. I asked those I interviewed about the positive trends they see among people engaging and working together in communities. I also asked how widespread these positive developments are, what is driving them, and how we can acceler­ate and deepen them. And I explored with these individuals what they believe resulted from the so-called civic renewal movement of the 1990s (the attempt to build new civic capacities and practices among organizations, leaders, networks, and citizens) and the implications of that movement for us today.

When I combine these conversations with what I have seen and heard working in communities over the past few years, it seems that the 1990s movement was simply too shallow and narrow in scope to withstand larger economic, political, and social trends, such as the Great Reces­sion and the September 11 attacks. While the leaders I interviewed differed in their interpretations of what exactly happened, there was general agreement that the ideas behind those civic activities did not penetrate American society widely or deeply enough. The innovations simply failed to be adopted and embedded into the necessary structures, processes, and organizations. Indeed, the civic renewal movement didn’t succeed in permeating our collective sense of how we want to connect with one another, work together, and get things done.

Harry Boyte, codirector of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augs­burg College, told me, “In some ways the civic impulse spread in spaces that were less structured and bureaucratized, where the politics of knowledge was not as hier­archical and rigid. But that was also the weakness because it was quite vulnerable.”

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, highlighted many of the positive elements of that earlier period while suggesting that the efforts did not go far enough. She observed that while the civic renewal work “was incredibly important on shifting professional practices . . . it didn’t get embedded into ongoing medi­ating organizations in the communities it was attempted in.”

What I kept hearing, in other words, is that the civic renewal movement faded away. Without question, it made a differ­ence at the time: it changed how people, organizations, and communities worked and helped establish a foundation for many of the positive actions we see today. But it did not firmly take hold…

Read the Full Article

You can find the original Harwood Institute posting of this excerpt at www.theharwoodinstitute.org/2015/08/yes-our-democracy-is-a-mess-and-yes-our-opportunities-are-real. You can find the full Kettering Foundation Connections 2014 publication where the article first appeared at www.kettering.org/sites/default/files/product-downloads/Connections_2014.pdf.

Monday Links, Accumulated

  1. Fuck Nuance (Abstract: Seriously, fuck it.)
  2. Raising Children Without Religion May Be A Better Alternative, Suggests New Research. (One of the underlying studies suggests that “religious humanitarianism is largely expressed to in-group members” because “a strong religious in-group identity was associated with derogation of racial out-groups.”)
  3. The Green Street Project is a nice interactive thingie that gives you an in-depth tour of the economic history of a single Manhattan block.
  4. Central bankers aren’t sure they understand how inflation works anymore. (Original gated version.)

“A Historical Mandate for Expanding Broadband Internet Infrastructure” (2010)

Photo of the cover of the Review of Policy Research.I wrote and published this piece in 2010 and have meant to come back to it. It looks at the arguments that were given on the issue of government postal roads and offices, when the Founders were drafting the U.S. Constitution. They believed that the immediate and free flow of information is essential to the proper functioning of a democratic government. You cannot get more immediate than internet communication.

The idea that the government would be involved in that, rather than only private industry, at least in setting the basic foundation for free-flowing communications, was thought essential. Otherwise it would be very cheap to communicate within a city, but very expensive for those who lived in rural areas, like where I live, in Mississippi.

Portrait of Senator Trent Lott.Check it out. Guess who makes an appearance in the paper — none other than a young then-Congressman Trent Lott (I work with the Lott Institute), who was the moderate voice in a discussion with American Enterprise Institute representatives. The AEI folks felt quite sure that private industry was all that was needed. Lott was forward thinking, even, suggesting in the 1970s (!) that the post office should be looking into electronic communication. They did not do that, unlike France, and look at where our postal services are compared to the French – or trust me, the latter’s faring far better. They’re even looking into drone delivery services.

The topic of this paper is important to me, as it attends to an area in which we might build up American infrastructure in a way that is enabling of business and democratic communication. Keep in mind that many private businesses — newspapers — wanted the post office mail for free! Yes, read the paper. Mailing letters, catalogs, and payments, enables business, even if it takes some government regulation of part of a market — postal communication — to do so.

When I delivered this paper years ago at the Policy Studies Organization’s Dupont Summit conference in Washington, D.C., a representative from the American Enterprise Institute, whom I won’t name, told me that I had convinced him, which was a nice compliment. “It’s in the Constitution,” he said. Indeed, there’s a Constitutional basis for public investment in improving our infrastructure.

Read the paper on Academia.edu


Weber, Eric Thomas. “A Historical Mandate to Expand Broadband Internet Infrastructure.” Review of Policy Research 27, Issue 5 (2010): 681-689.

the Millennials and politics

The summer 2015 edition of Extensions, a journal from University of Oklahoma that has good reach on Capitol Hill, is devoted to “The Millennials.” The main scholarly pieces are by me (“Talking About this Generation: The Millennials and Politics”), Russell J. Dalton (“The Good News is, The Bad News is Wrong: Another View of the Millennial Generation”), and Molly W. Andolina and Krista Jenkins (“Does Hope Abide? Millennial Activists and the 2008 Obama Campaign”). I emphasize that many supposed differences among generations are not really generational. For instance, everyone has lost trust in government, regardless of their age or birth year. Also, differences among members of the same generation who represent different social classes usually dwarf differences among generations. The whole issue is free online (below), and my own piece can be downloaded from here.


Friday Links, Assembled

  1. Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science: “Thirty-six percent of replications had significant results….”
  2. Swing Voter
  3. #BlackLivesMatter protests Mayor Bowser’s new policing policies. See also: Peter Levine on #BlackLivesMatter and Hillary Clinton.
  4. Visualizing Economic Complexity
  5. Interview with Matt Damon on The Martian.

Everyday Democracy Wins CT Humanities Award

In case you missed it, we wanted to share the press release that Everyday Democracy – a long-time NCDD member organization – published last month about an important grant they’ve received that will help them plan for a statewide civic health project. We encourage you to join us in congratulating them! You can read the release below or find the original here.

Connecticut Humanities Awards Planning to Grant to Everyday Democracy in Support of its Projects “Connecticut’s Civic Health: A Humanities Perspective”

EvDem LogoHartford, Connecticut: Connecticut Humanities awarded Everyday Democracy a planning grant in the amount of $9,999 in support of its humanities project “Connecticut’s Civic Health: A Humanities Perspective.”

The grant will support research and data gathering on Connecticut’s civic health conducted by the National Conference on Citizenship that will help Everyday Democracy frame a strong humanities program that connects this topic to various humanities themes. Part of the grant will also cover the cost of a consultant who will develop lesson plans on Connecticut’s civic health utilizing various humanities themes for civics and social studies teachers to use beginning in the fall of 2016. The grant also supports planning of an event to be held next year featuring Mr. Eric Liu, co-author of Gardens of Democracy, as a speaker and panelist. That event will take place at Connecticut’s Old State House on April 7, 2016 and will be produced in partnership with The Connecticut Network (CT-N), Connecticut’s Old State House, and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.  Planning of the event will be done by the Connecticut Civic Health Advisory Group between June and December 2015.

Everyday Democracy partnered with the National Conference on Citizenship and various state partners, including the Secretary of the State of Connecticut Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s Old State House, The Connecticut Network (CT-N), and other members of the Connecticut Civic Health Advisory Group to publish and disseminate the 2011 Connecticut Civic Health Index Report. This report released findings on various indicators of civic health in the state, including voting, volunteering, donating to charities, contacting public officials, working with neighbors on local problems, joining groups and organizations, talking about public issues, attending public events, etc.

The humanities program supported by the grant will highlight similar civic health findings to be published in January of next year in the 2016 Connecticut Civic Health Index Report under the auspices of the National Conference of Citizenship. That report will be published in partnership with Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, DataHaven Inc., and other members of the Connecticut Civic Health Advisory Group. The program will offer various humanities perspectives on the importance of civic health to the economic resiliency of Connecticut communities. It will also examine opportunities and barriers to civic participation and draw strategies and best practices from Mr. Liu’s talk and the panel discussion. Drawing from Mr. Liu’s work and that of local scholars and civic leaders, the humanities program will address such topics as the meaning of “great citizenship,” civic engagement and public participation, and the role of everyday people in finding solutions to local problems. This humanities program draws from the underlying message of William D. Adams, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, that “the common good is central to democratic political theory and expresses both the right and the obligation of citizens to debate and determine the general welfare; it is the aspirational goal, the guiding ambition that anchors citizenship and participation in democratic politics.” The program will create a space for conversation and learning on how the humanities can play a vital role in public life. The “civic health” and “great citizenship” narratives will contribute to this conversation in unique ways.

Funding for “Connecticut’s Civic Health: a Humanities Perspective” is made possible by the State of Connecticut and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both of which provide significant support to Connecticut Humanities.

Everyday Democracy thanks the entire Connecticut Congressional delegation, especially Congressman John B. Larson (1st Congressional District) and Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, for supporting funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thanks also to Governor Dannel P. Malloy, State Representative Angel Arce (State House District 004), and State Senator John Fonfara (S01) for supporting Connecticut Humanities. It also thanks Connecticut Humanities, Connecticut’s Old State House, The Connecticut Network (CT-N), and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill for supporting this program.

Founded in 1989, Everyday Democracy is a project of The Paul J. Aicher Foundation, a private operating foundation dedicated to strengthening deliberative democracy and improving the quality of public life in the United States. Since its inception, Everyday Democracy has worked with over 600 local communities nationally by providing advice, training, tools and resources, so that they can engage their residents in meaningful and inclusive ways to build communities that work for everyone. It has also partnered with national and local organizations to strengthen the field of dialogue and deliberation and promote a stronger, more equitable democracy.