Uniting the States? Brainstorming a Trajectory

When I was in graduate school, looking at the job market, I remember feeling perplexed at certain questions about the future of my career. Some colleges and universities ask you about your “research trajectory.” Finishing a dissertation prepares you with a stack of paper, but now it’s supposed to be nimble and fly like an arrow. I can just picture throwing an unbound dissertation from the top of some stairs, watching the pages fall in all directions. That’s one kind of a trajectory.

A photo of me reading at my desk in 2010, before I came to need glasses.

It wasn’t too hard to imagine things that I wanted to study next, but it’s a huge step in one’s academic career just to finish a major, final project. To be asked at that moment what your next one will be takes one aback. I’ve come to like that question, but somehow I hadn’t been expecting it at the time. It was exciting to think about what I might pursue over the course of my career, though. I had ideas about wanting to work on this or that topic, and some of them did come together.

I thought that I, like so many scholars you meet, would want to depart from the focus of my dissertation. While some steps have been diagonal or roundabout to this point, I have found myself actually returning to some of the issues and sources from that first project. I won’t get into that now, but the fascinating thing for me in writing has had to do with how each work builds on elements of the one before, even if in surprising ways.

Photo of the paperback and hardback editions of 'Democracy and Leadership.'My dissertation on John Rawls and John Dewey’s work focused on basic questions, after which my next project was much more centered on application. Then, Democracy and Leadership was a return to theory, especially to Plato, but with adaptations drawn from Dewey and some from Rawls. The last chapter of that prompted further focus on application, which resulted in Uniting Mississippi. While working on each of these earlier projects, I have had cause to return to Rawls and Dewey’s work, and noticed a concern that I believe is crucial, yet insufficiently explored in studying justice: especially the role of culture in enabling or impeding it.

So, I’ve been working in slow steps on A Culture of Justice for a few years now, longer than I expected. It is coming together, still needing work. That said, it is definitely a more theoretical project, even if I see and will note many possible applications. With my more applied writings, I’ve been striving to make them more and more accessible and publicly engaged. In addition, I’ve focused quite a bit on Mississippi, given that issues for democracy, education, and leadership are so striking here. At the same time, many of the issues I’ve studied are relevant beyond the South. Dean Skip Rutherford of the Clinton School highlighted that point for me. I thought it to be true, but he encouraged me to speak to a broader audience, beyond both Mississippi and the South.

Bust of Socrates.Given that, I’ve started rethinking some of the next projects that I want to pursue. In particular, I’m seeing a number of ideas come together for a next step after A Culture of Justice. The big picture challenge for democracy at the national level can be drawn from what I argued about Mississippi. That lesson was itself learned from Plato. Plato’s Socrates asked what could be a greater evil than that which makes the city many, instead of one? And, he continued, is there any greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one? Nothing and no. Unity is indeed vital for a good city.

For Plato, unity was important enough to trample on liberty. He thought leaders were justified even to lie to their own people for the sake of fostering unity. He was not democratic. In a democratic society, liberty is central. So how could a democracy be united, he wondered? Plato doubted that democratic societies could be wise enough to unite, to care about virtue, and to limit the will of the majority, when it wants vice and injustice.

John Rawls once noted that in many ways American democracy has been remarkably stable. I would suggest that he could only say that in a part of the country that did not fight for secession. We still have the scars of division from the Civil War showing in Mississippi. That said, I believe that Rawls was right when he explained that there are so many more things that unite Americans than that divide us.

A stack of newspapers.We focus so much on the latter, as that’s disagreement. It’s drama. It sells newspapers, or at least ads on their Web sites. The countless things I could mention that people accept as uncontroversial and obvious are so numerous that they would take entirely too long to list. Given that, we can say that in many ways, our hyper-polarized, divided society does live up to one key aspect of our nation’s billing. Indeed, it’s so easy to forget: the key virtue noted in Plato’s Republic is the one virtue mentioned in the name of our country: unity. Ours are the United States of America. Unity is primary. It is vital. But it is also not guaranteed.

So, I’m thinking about expanding from my project on Mississippi. I’ve adapted Faulkner’s line, and want to follow that next step. Faulkner said that to understand the world, you’ve got to understand a place like Mississippi. Ok, so I’ve given Mississippi a try. Next, I want to study the needs, forces, and factors Uniting the States of America. That may not be my title, but I’m working on it. Hell, I may go in a very different direction, but at present, this feels right.

The cover of 'Uniting Mississippi,' featuring University of Mississippi students participating in a 2012 candlelight vigil in Oxford, MS.While I’m an unabashed optimist — nothing ventured, nothing gained — I recognize that the “stability” that Rawls saw in the United States comes at a price of the massive incarceration of poor and otherwise disadvantaged people, the use of labor under the table, paid to people who do not have the protection of the police, and many other troubles that people face in the U.S. That said, a vision of progress takes recognition of our challenges, of what divides us. When we see the need for unity, for fighting problems like hyper-incarceration, we can fight for change. In that particular example, there is cause for hope, as Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the Koch brothers, powerful voices on the Left and Right, all believe that we desperately need to combat hyper-incarceration.

These are just some sketched thoughts about the big picture next steps for my writing trajectory. If you have thoughts or questions for me, send me a tweet @EricTWeber or post on my Facebook Author page.


I’ve been noticing a troubling trend in the wake of our ongoing cycle of tragic news stories: othering.

Othering is by no means new, but I’ve been struck lately by the ease with which it slips out into the open, from people of all political backgrounds. One person might other Muslims while another might other Christians, but neither form of othering should be welcome in the good society.

Sociologist Steven Sideman has a great paper exploring the theory of othering, in which he explains the term:

An elaborated account of otherness assumes a social world that is symbolically divided into two antagonistic orders: a symbolic-moral order conferring full personhood and a respected civil status and its antithesis, a defiled order. Othering is a process in which certain persons and the spaces they occupy are excluded from what is considered to be the morally sanctified civil life of a community. 

Typically, as sociologist Stephen Sapp writes, othering is a “processes that dominant groups use to define the existence of secondary groups,” but I am inclined to agree with Sideman that “disadvantaged status in one or more social spheres does not necessarily mean subordination across all spheres.”

Our American red state/blue state rivalry is indicative of this: some liberals other conservatives just as some conservatives other liberals. It’s hard to say which group is dominant, but either way, we are unlikely to find a way out of our political gridlock until we stop othering each other.

Othering itself may be endemic to the human condition and may have its roots in less insidious thinking.

Sociologists Keith Maddox and Sam Sommers talk about the related field of implicit bias in terms of heuristics, or mental shortcuts: “Humans often rely on cognitive shortcuts to get things done. We categorize people and place them into preconceived notions.”

We literally could not function without these cognitive shortcuts: these are the same mental processes that allow us to navigate a subway system in a new city or recognize an object as a “table.” Humans categorize things to make sense of the world, and we’re very, very, good at doing so subconsciously.

This logic illustrates for Maddox and Sommers the problem of a “color-blind” approach to racial injustice. We can’t simply wash away our implicit biases: rather we must be made aware of them and we must work to confront them in ourselves.

Othering at times may be similarly implicit – I am certainly guilty of my own biases, and it’s easy to think of people different from oneself as an “other.”

But, just as color-blindness is not a solution, we must call ourselves out for our othering, and we must actively seek to not hold whole groups responsible for the actions of a few.

Following the recent attacks at a Planned Parenthood, it is fair to ask why white shooters seem to be perpetually treated more justly than unarmed black men. It is fair to point to the injustices in our system and to demand that all people be treated justly. But it is not fair to make jokes about registering Evangelicals or shutting down churches: we should never judge the whole by the actions of a few.

In the last few days, I have been heartened to see some of my pro-life friends share messages of support for Planned Parenthood. But, of course, I should hardly be surprised: regardless of how one feels about abortion, any reasonable person would be saddened by the shooting in Colorado. Only an extremists wanted that to happen, and we should never judge the whole by the actions of a few.


New Civics Certificate Program!

Well, we here at the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship got some great news recently. Last year, I told you about our effort to create a civics certificate program for pre-service social studies teachers. Well, it gives me great pleasure to announce that the program here at UCF has been approved! While the program is, for budgetary, personnel, and university reasons, currently limited to University of Central Florida students, we hope in the future to create a graduate version of the program that we can offer to practicing teachers. We also hope to establish this certificate in other academic institutions across the state!
So what will this program involve? Well, the idea behind the certificate is that it will
provide the content, skills, and pedagogies needed to deliver instruction for 7th grade Civics in Florida. This would, we hope, improve the teacher’s ability to prepare their kids for the Civics EOCA at the end of the course (NOT the naturalization test, mind you!). It will also, we believe, support US Government instruction in high school, especially as there is some overlap across the benchmarks. It is open to UCF students who meet the following requirements:

  • 3.0 GPA in major
  • Completion of POS 2041 (American National Government) with at least a C.
  • One page letter of intent: ‘Why does civics teaching matter?’
  • Admission (or pending admission) to Social Science Education BS program

The program sequence is focused on best preparing students for the course that they will hopefully teach, and it includes an internship component that focuses on local government. After all, what better practice can you get to teach civics than to actually see civics in action at the local level! The course sequence is provided below:

12 Credit Hours:

  • POS 4932: Teaching American Politics and Government
  • POS 3272: Civic Engagement
  • POS 4941: Internship in Florida Local Government
  • SSE 4932: Teaching Civics in Florida

We will be hosting an open house here at the Lou Frey Institute on Tuesday, 01 December at 5pm to talk more about this exciting new program! We hope to see you here. :)

open house flyer

how national policies sucked the power out of local government and disempowered citizens

Phillip Longman makes an extraordinarily important argument in an Atlantic article entitled “Why the Economic Fates of America’s Cities Diverged” (although I would be very curious what economic historians and other relevant experts think about it). Here is my restatement:

  1. When businesses are mostly local, local governments can regulate them. Citizens can also influence them directly by applying social pressure.
  2. When citizens have the experience of influencing economic institutions directly or through representative local governments, they feel empowered and want to act at the state and national levels as well.
  3. Between 1788 and about 1970, federal and state governments and courts instituted a remarkable series of policies explicitly designed to favor local firms. An economic outcome of these policies was a strong convergence of income and prices across the US, as each community captured a lot of its own wealth. Firms were also accountable to local governments, and business owners were highly active in local civic affairs.
  4. Since 1970s, all branches of government have removed those policies. Income and prices have diverged dramatically. Wealth has flowed to the big coastal cities.
  5. Local and state governments have become less capable of regulating businesses. Firms also receive less social pressure because they tend to locate in culturally friendly cities and do their business nationally. Big business leaders are uninvolved in local civic life but increasingly focused on Washington.

Carolyn Bouchard, a diabetic with a slowly healing shoulder fracture, hurried to see her doctor after Matt Bevin was elected governor here this month. Ms. Bouchard, 60, said she was sick of politics and had not bothered voting. But she knew enough about Mr. Bevin, a conservative Republican who rails against the Affordable Care Act, to be nervous about the coverage she gained under the law last year.

“I thought, ‘Before my insurance changes, I’d better go in,’ ” she said as she waited at Family Health Centers, a community clinic here.

Longman summarizes policies enacted to increase local control over business until 1970s–and their repeal since then. Consider, for example, the US Postal Service monopoly (which guaranteed equal prices and service for all addresses), heavy regulation of railroad, telegraph, and television companies, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Robinson-Patman Act (against chain retail stores), the Miller-Tydings Act (against retail discounting), the Celler-Kefauver Act (antitrust provisions), Brown Shoe Co., Inc. v. United States (blocking a retail merger), and FCC regulations that mandated airline service to smaller markets and equal ticket prices per mile.

These were all policies that restrained national business competition but allowed geographical communities to compete against the big cities of the coasts. Once these rules were gone, capital became more mobile and consumers probably got the benefits of lower prices–but it became impossible to govern at the local level, and citizens were taught to be “sick of politics” because the politicians who were closest to them could no longer achieve much on their behalf.

See also: the Democrats’ problem is social capital; the European city as site of citizenship; and wealth-building strategies for communities.

Deliberation: A SUNY Broome & Windsor Middle School Collaboration

Deliberation: A SUNY Broome & Windsor Middle School Collaboration (2015), is an eight-minute video documenting the collaborative experience of students engaging in deliberation during the Fall 2014. The video shows the experience between SUNY Broome Civic Engagement Center and Windsor Middle School, where students used deliberation to better understand the American Revolution. Check out the video below or read more about in on NIFI’s blog here.

From NIFI…

Watch this eight-minute video about a collaboration between Windsor Middle School students and teachers; and State University of New York (SUNY), Broome, that introduced 7th and 8th graders to the practice of deliberating events in U.S. history as difficult choices among several possible approaches. The video was published to YouTube on June 24, 2015.

The following is excerpted from the YouTube description of the video:

“SUNY Broome and Windsor Central School District are working together to promote deliberative thinking and active participants in society. In Fall of 2014, with help from Lisa Strahley at SUNY Broome, Stefani Olbrys began deliberations with her 7th and 8th grade US History students using the American Revolution as the historical context.”

For more information about this project please contact:
Lisa Strahley, Chair of Teacher Education and Civic Engagement Coordinator,
SUNY Broome Community College
at strahleyla[at]sunybroome[dot]edu

About NIFI
NIF-Logo2014Based in Dayton, Ohio, the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI), is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that serves to promote public deliberation and coordinate the activities of the National Issues Forums network. Its activities include publishing the issue guides and other materials used by local forum groups, encouraging collaboration among forum sponsors, and sharing information about current activities in the network. Follow on Twitter: @NIForums.

Resource Link: www.nifi.org/en/groups/watch-video-middle-school-students-deliberate-about-historical-choices


Join Tech Tuesday Call on Common Ground for Action, 12/1

As we recently announced, we are inviting you to register to join us this Tuesday, December 1st from 2-3pm Eastern/11am-12pm Pacific for our next Tech Tuesday call. This time, the call will feature a demonstration of Common Ground for Action (CGA), Tech_Tuesday_Badgea new online platform designed to create deliberative public forums online that allow participants to examine options for dealing with the problem, weigh tradeoffs, and find common ground.

CGA was developed in collaboration by the Kettering Foundation and Conteneo, so we’re pleased to be joined by Kettering’s Amy Lee and Conteneo’s Luke Homann – both NCDD members – to tell us more about their tool. Amy and Luke will walk us through the CGA’s features and functions and tell us more about the partnership that developed it. And you won’t want to miss the chance to hear about upcoming chances to use the tool yourself and to learn how you or your organization can utilize this FREE tool!

Don’t let the turkey haze or Black Friday rush make you forget – register today and make sure you don’t miss this great Tech Tuesday call! We can’t wait to have you all join us!

save the date for Frontiers of Democracy 2016

Please save the date for Frontiers of Democracy: June 23-25, 2016 at Tufts University’s downtown Boston campus.

Frontiers is an annual conference that draws scholars and practitioners who strive to understand and improve people’s engagement with government, with communities, and with each other. The format of Frontiers is highly interactive; most of the concurrent sessions are “learning exchanges” rather than presentations or panels. We welcome proposals for learning exchanges for 2016. Please use this form to submit ideas.

We aim to explore the circumstances of democracy today and a breadth of civic practices that include deliberative democracy, civil and human rights, social justice, community organizing and development, civic learning and political engagement, the role of higher education in democracy, Civic Studies, media reform and citizen media production, civic  technology, civic environmentalism, and common pool resource management. See more about past years here.

You can enter your information here to let us know that you are interested in attending and to ensure that you receive additional information about the agenda and registering for Frontiers.

All are welcome at Frontiers, a public conference that follows immediately after the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a 2-week seminar for scholars, practitioners, and advanced graduate students. The Summer Institute requires an application, and admissions decisions are usually made in May. Prospective applicants should sign up here for more information.

Reaching Out Across the Red-Blue Divide, One Person at a Time

The four-page conversation guide, Reaching Out Across the Red-Blue Divide, One Person at a Time (2009), was written by Maggie Herzig from Public Conversations Project. This useful guide provides a framework for navigating highly polarized conversations and includes several starter questions to help keep the dialogue open. Read the intro to the guide below and download the PDF, as well as, find the original guide on PCP’s blog here.

From the guide…PCP_red blue divide flag

What this guide offers
This guide offers a step-by-step approach to inviting one other person—someone whose perspectives differ from your own—into a conversation in which • you both agree to set aside the desire to persuade the other and instead focus on developing a better understanding of each other’s perspectives, and the hopes, fears and values that underlie those perspectives; • you both agree to pursue understanding and to avoid the pattern of attack and defend; • you both choose to address questions designed to open up new possibilities for moving beyond stale stereotypes and limiting assumptions.

Why bother to reach across the divide?
Many people have at least one important relationship that has been frayed by painful conversations about political differences or constrained due to fear of divisiveness. What alternatives are there? You can let media pundits and campaign strategists tell you that polarization is inevitable and hopeless. Or you can consider taking a collaborative journey with someone who is important to you, neither paralyzed with fear of the rough waters, nor unprepared for predictable strong currents. You and your conversational partner will be best prepared if you bring 1) shared hopes for the experience, 2) the intention to work as a team, and 3) a good map that has guided others on similar journeys. We hope this guide will help prepare you to speak about your passions and concerns in ways that can be heard, and to hear others’ concerns and passions with new empathy and understanding—even if you continue to disagree.

Are you ready?
Are you emotionally ready to resist the strong pull toward polarization? What’s at the heart of your desire to reach out to the person you have in mind? Is pursuing mutual understanding enough, or are you likely to feel satisfied only if you can persuade them to concede certain points? What do you know about yourself and the contexts in which you are able—or not so able—to listen without interrupting and to speak with care? Are you open to the possibility—and could you gracefully accept—that the other person might decline your invitation?

Are the conditions right?
Do you have a conversational partner in mind who you believe will make the same kind of effort you are prepared to make? Is there something about your relationship that will motivate both of you to approach the conversation with a positive spirit? Will you have a chance to propose a dialogue in ways that don’t rush or pressure the other person? Will you be able to invite him or her to thoughtfully consider not only the invitation but the specific ideas offered here— ideas that you might together modify? Can you find a time to talk that is private and free from distraction?

If you decide to go forward, take it one step at a time. 

To continue reading the guide, download it below or read it on Public Conversation Project’s site here.

PCP_logoAbout Public Conversations Project
PCP fosters constructive conversation where there is conflict driven by differences in identity, beliefs, and values. We work locally, nationally, and globally to provide dialogue facilitation, training, consultation, and coaching. We help groups reduce stereotyping and polarization while deepening trust and collaboration and strengthening communities. At the core of many of today’s most complex social problems is a breakdown in relationships that leads to mistrust, gridlock, and fractured communities. Public Conversations’ method addresses the heart of this breakdown: we work to shift relationships, building the communication skills and trust needed to make action possible and collaboration sustainable. Since our founding in 1989, Public Conversations’ practitioners have worked on a broad range of issues, including same-sex marriage, immigration, abortion, diversity, guns, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have also contributed to peace-building efforts in several conflict-torn regions overseas. In situations where a breakdown in trust, relationships, and constructive communication is part of the problem, PCP offers a solution.

Follow on Twitter: @pconversations

Resource Link: Reaching Out Across the Red-Blue Divide, One Person at a Time

Social Studies and the Young Learner Interest Survey

Our good friend Dr. Scott Waring, Program Coordinator and Associate Professor for the Social Science Education Program at the University of Central Florida, is the new editor for the National Council for the Social Studies’ journal focusing on the teaching of social studies in the Pre-K-6 classroom, Social Studies and the Young Learner.  The goal of Social Studies and the Young Learner (http://www.socialstudies.org/publications/ssyl) is to capture and enthuse Pre-K-6 teachers across the country by providing relevant and useful information about the teaching of social studies.  The teaching techniques presented are designed to stimulate the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills vital to classroom success.  SSYL is published quarterly: September/October; November/December; January/February; and March/April.
Dr. Waring has asked for help as he assumes editorship of the journal. If you have a few minutes, please complete this short survey that will allow him to plan future issues and give practitioners what they desire in SSYL.  Any guidance you can give on what you would like to see would be much appreciated!
If you wish to share with others, the link is also below!

SOURCES Annual Conference

Good morning, civics friends. This post is just a reminder that the SOURCES Annual Conference, put on by Dr. Scott Waring here at UCF, is coming soon, and it is worth your time and energy to attend. I went last year, and it was simply fantastic. If you are looking for excellent professional development on using primary sources in the classroom, this is what you are looking for. Information on the conference is below, and you can register here! The main conference page is here. Take a look at the overview below, and we hope to see you there!

SOURCES Annual Conference
University of Central Florida
Orlando, Florida
January 16, 2016
The Teaching with Primary Sources Program at the University of Central Florida (TPS-UCF) will be hosting the second annual SOURCES Annual Conference at the University of Central Florida on January 16, 2016.  The SOURCES Annual Conference is a free opportunity available to any educators interested in the utilization and integration of primary sources into K-12 teaching.  Presenters will focus on providing strategies for using primary sources to help K-12 students engage in learning, develop critical thinking skills, and build content knowledge, specifically in one or more of the following ways:
  • Justifying conclusions about whether a source is primary or secondary depending upon the time or topic under study;
  • Describing examples of the benefits of teaching with primary sources;
  • Analyzing a primary source using Library of Congress tools;
  • Accssing teaching tools and primary sources from www.loc.gov/teachers;
  • Identifying key considerations for selecting primary sources for instructional use (for example, student needs and interests, teaching goals, etc.);
  • Accessing primary sources and teaching resources from www.loc.gov for instructional use;
  • Analyzing primary sources in different formats;
  • Analyzing a set of related primary sources in order to identify multiple perspectives;
  • Demonstrating how primary sources can support at least one teaching strategy (for example, literacy, inquiry-based learning, historical thinking, etc.); and
  • Presenting a primary source-based activity that helps students engage in learning, develop critical thinking skills and construct knowledge.
Dr. Joel Breakstone, of Stanford University, will provide the Keynote Presentation, Beyond the Bubble: A New Generation of History Assessments.  In this session, he will discuss about and present ways in which educators can use assessments designed by the Stanford History Education Group to incorporate Library of Congress documents. Participants will examine assessments and sample student responses.  Additional session titles include the following:
  • Designating for Assignment: Using Baseball to Tell the Story of Race in America Socratic Circles and Primary Sources: Students Generate Essential Questions
  • Galaxy of Wonder
  • Education Resources from the Library of Congress focused on the Social Sciences & Literacy
  • How do I know If It’s Primary? Research Questions and Primary Sources
  • ESRI Story Maps and Integrating LOC Resources
  • Mapping the American Revolution
  • Primary Sources: Find Them, Choose Them, and Use Them Well
  • Sites of African-American Memory
  • Who Is Bias: the Media or Us?
  • A Professional Development and Curriculum Model for the Use of Historical Literacy
  • Magnifying How We See, Think, and Wonder: Fostering Critical Literacy Among Young Learners Using Library of Congress Primary Sources
  • Sourcing in a Flash!
  • Primary Sources: A Lens to View History
  • Bringing Fiction to Life Using Primary Sources
  • Playing with Primary Sources: Game-Based Learning with Resources from The Library of Congress
  • Engage English Learners and Other Diverse Learners with Primary Sources
  • Creating a Sound Argument Using Primary Sources
  • Teaching with Primary Sources: African American Sacred Music
  • Veterans History Project: Learning About US Conflicts Through the Eyes of a Veteran
  • Is North Up? : Exploring the Nature of Maps
  • Differentiation Using Primary Sources from the Library
  • Using Primary Sources for Digital DBQs and other Assessments to meet Literacy Standards.
  • Vetting or Developing Text Sets to Teach Rich Content
Registration is free and is now open for the SOURCES Annual Conference.  Please visit the conference web site to register: http://www.sourcesconference.com/registration.html