The Sum of Ostrom, Common Pots, and Persistence

I’ve deeply been deeply influenced by Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012). This is my brief introduction to her work, with links to two lectures that I’ve recorded about her, drawing on chapter 4 of my book What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life.

Lin Ostrom had many fans, including several of my colleagues at Tufts. Nevertheless, I see myself as her most enthusiastic champion here. Therefore, imagine my delight when a student told me about “The Sum of Ostrom, Common Pots, and Persistence,” a two-story mural by Jamal Thorne in Tufts’ new Joyce Cummings Center. At the time, I was co-teaching a course in the same building in which we discussed how Ostrom’s model applies to religious organizations.

According to the catalogue, “Thorne evokes a seeming past made present through the reclamation of iconic symbols, such as a walnut tree, native flora, a standing clock, lanterns, and a quilt. These variously denote the setting’s connections with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, the Underground Railroad, and George L. Stearns, a Boston merchant and abolitionist whose estate was acquired by Tufts in 1920. Furthermore, the inclusion of an abstracted road sign alludes to Thorne’s collaboration with the Math and Economics departments, the varied fields and perspectives represented among faculty, and an appreciation for how the wonders and theorems of abstract thought connect with human behavior.”

One of the murals shows a mathematical representation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (which, Ostrom argued, people can solve), plus directional signs that point to Aristotle, Da Wei Cheng (1533–1606), who wrote Suanfa Tongzong (General Source of Computational Methods), Hypatia and Euclid (Greek mathematicians), Dorothy Vaughn (one of the Black women mathematicians and computer pioneers who contributed to the Pentagon and NASA), and the Argentine-US mathematician Alberto Pedro Calderon (1920-1998).

Ostrom is all about emergent systems in which people voluntarily contribute and create common goods. Some of these systems are natural: environments in which human beings play positive roles. Some of them are intellectual: Ostrom understood knowledge as a commons that is generated by people in institutions like Tufts. Often commons have cultural dimensions, incorporating the cultural products of the past. Some are indigenous and threatened by modernist schemes. Some, however, are global. Thorne eloquently combines these aspects in an installation for our newest major building.

See also: 142 previous posts on this blog about Ostrom.

Montaigne the bodhisattva?

Several influential philosophical traditions assert that everyone is equally important. Since other people outnumber each of us–by billions–we should count ourselves and our interests for almost nothing.

That is a direct implication of classical utilitarianism. Sam Bankman-Fried endorsed it in an interview with Adam Fisher, conducted while he was actually stealing money for himself. (But hypocrisy does not invalidate a moral principle.) Another crisp statement comes in Shantideva’s classical summary of Buddhist ethics, probably written in the 700s CE. Shantideva recommends that we

meditate intently on the equality of oneself and others as follows: ‘All equally experience suffering and happiness. I should look after them as I do myself. … When happiness is liked by me and others equally, what is so special about me that I strive after happiness only for myself … Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone. They must be warded off simply because they are suffering. Why is any limitation placed on this? If one asks why suffering should be prevented, no one disputes that! If it must be prevented, then all of it must be. If not, this goes for oneself as for anyone … This is why Supushpacandra, although undergoing torture at the hands of the king, did nothing to prevent his own suffering out of sacrifice for many sufferers. … Those who have developed the continuum of their mind in this way, to whom the suffering of others is as important as the things they themselves hold dear, plunge down into the Avici hell as geese into a cluster of lotus blossoms [to save the souls condemned there.]

Shantideva, 8.90, 8.95, 8.102-3, 8.106-7.

Michel de Montaigne acknowledges that “most of the world’s rules and precepts do adopt such an attitude, driving us outside ourselves and hounding us into the forum in the interests of the public weal.” These philosophies advise “that one should forget oneself on behalf of one’s neighbour and that, compared to the general, the individual is of no importance” (Montaigne, “On Restraining Your Will,” 1580, III, 10, p. 1137). Montaigne even says that his father held this view, and it motivated the elder Montaigne to be a devoted public servant.

Nevertheless, Montaigne dissents. He acknowledges one good thing about trying to treat every other person as just as important as ourselves. It teaches us not to be overly attached to our private interests, just as a “bowman, … to hit his target, raises his sights way above it”–or just as “to straighten a piece of bent wood we bend it right over backwards” (p. 1138).

In other words, striving to count ourselves for almost nothing counters the fault of caring for ourselves alone. But our real target should lie between the extremes of self-negation and self-love. For …

the true degree of love which each man owes to himself is … not false love which makes us embrace glory, knowledge, riches and such-like with an immoderate primary passion, as though they were members of our being, nor a love which is easy-going and random, acting like ivy which cracks and destroys the wall which it clings to, but a healthy, measured love, as useful as it is pleasant. Whoever knows its duties and practises them is truly in the treasure-house of the Muses: he has reached the pinnacle of human happiness and of man’s joy. Such a man, knowing precisely what is due to himself, finds that his role includes frequenting men and the world; to do this he must contribute to society the offices and duties which concern him. [C] He who does not live a little for others hardly lives at all for himself: ‘Qui sibi amicus est, scito hunc amicum omnibus esse.’ [Know that a man who feels loving-friendship for himself does so for all men – Seneca] The chief charge laid upon each one of us is his own conduct: that is why we are here. For example, any man who forgot to live a good and holy life himself, but who thought that he had fulfilled his duties by guiding and training others to do so, would be stupid: in exactly the same way, any man who gives up a sane and happy life in order to provide one for others makes (in my opinion) a bad and unnatural decision.

Montaigne 1580, p. 1138.

Montaigne’s position requires a defense. After all, every person is equally valuable, in an objective sense, so why shouldn’t we act accordingly?

First, Montaigne argues that to promote everyone else’s welfare requires ambition. It means climbing the ladder of authority in order to influence the social order. Montaigne is highly skeptical of ambition, seeing it as a snare. Most people who attain high office are actually unable to accomplish much, yet they are quick to take themselves far too seriously:

Most of our occupations are farcical: ‘Mundus universus exercet histrionem.’ [Everybody in the entire world is acting a part — Petronius]. We should play our role properly, but as the role of a character which we have adopted. … I know some who transubstantiate and metamorphose themselves into as many new beings and forms as the dignities which they assume: they are prelates down to their guts and livers and uphold their offices on their lavatory-seat.

Montaigne, 1580, pp. 1143-4.

Those who enter the fray to improve the world also become partisans for particular positions. They take views about how things should be and are prone to disparage their opponents. Montaigne, on the other hand, strives for intellectual humility and uncertainty, and he looks for value in all views. “I am firmly attached to the sanest of the parties but I do not desire to be particularly known as an enemy of the others beyond what is generally reasonable” (p. 1145). After all, “A good book does not lose its beauty because it argues against my cause” (p. 1144).

But why do we need authority or ideology to improve the world? Why not humbly give away most of what we possess? Perhaps Montaigne should have done that–and perhaps I should now. Although he doesn’t directly address this issue, he does argue that wealth is unrelated to happiness. “Metrodorus lived on twelve ounces a day, Epicurus on less; Metrocles slept among his sheep in the winter and, in summer, in the temple porticos; ‘Sufficit ad id natura, quod poscit.’ [What nature demands, she supplies –Seneca.] (p. 1141).

Montaigne acknowledges that people want more than the bare minimum of worldly goods, but that is because we have become habituated to surplus and are averse to losing it to other people. “If I lack anything which I have become used to, I [foolishly] hold that I truly lack it” (p. 1142). Better not to obtain it in the first place. That implies that sharing one’s surplus with others would do them little good.

But Montaigne’s main point–throughout his work–is that happiness is hard to accomplish. Fear of death and other human frailties beset us, regardless of our social circumstances. “We are never ‘at home’: we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, impel us towards the future; they rob us of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be – even when we ourselves shall be no more” (Montaigne, I:3, p, 11). We can address such faults, but to do so requires introspection and self-care. If everyone devoted themselves to helping everyone else, no one would accomplish happiness.

Since I began this post with Shantideva, I should present his probable rejoinder. He would agree with Montaigne that suffering is universal, and the only solution is inward. “Since I cannot control external events, I will control my own mind” (5.14). However, this Buddhist monk would recommend a different path from Montaigne’s. The more we fully grasp the suffering of the vast number of other sentient beings, the less space we have left to care about our own private interests. Caring about our interests–experiencing desire or craving–is the source of all unhappiness. Therefore, setting one’s aim, like an archer, at the good of all sentient beings is actually the best way to liberate oneself from suffering. “Whosoever longs to rescue quickly both himself and others should practice the supreme mystery: exchange of self and other” (8:120)

This doesn’t sound exactly like Montaigne. As I have noted, he rejects the advice to “forget oneself on behalf of one’s neighbour.” He famously retreated from the world’s struggle to read and write in his private tower, making himself his only topic. “My business, my art, is to live my life” (p. 425, from “On Practice”). Also, Montaigne claims modestly that he has not achieved “noble Stoic impassibility” (p. 1153), because he hasn’t accomplished his inner peace by exercising any kind of discipline. Instead, he just happens to be easy-going by temperament.

Still, Montaigne’s writing radiates curiosity and empathy for the vast variety of human beings whom he has encountered in books and life. He abhors cruelty. He offers gentle advice aimed at liberating us from attachment. For instance: “There are so many awkward passages that the surest way is to glide rather lightly over the surface of this world. We should slide over it, not get bogged down in it. Pleasure itself is painful in its deeper reaches” (p. 1136).

And perhaps his essays are a gift. “Here you have not my teaching but my study: the lesson is not for others; it is for me. Yet, for all of that, you should not be ungrateful to me for publishing it. What helps me can perhaps help somebody else” (p. 423, from “On Practice”). This is Montaigne’s way of plunging into hell as a cluster of lotus blossoms.

Sources: Michel Montaigne, The Complete Essays (1580), translated by M.A. Screech (Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition); Shantideva, The Bodhiicaryacatara, trans. by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford University Press, 1995). See also: compassion, not sympathy; two criticisms of Effective Altruism; “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”; was Montaigne a relativist?; John Stuart Mill, Stoic; introspect to reenchant the inner life; Emerson’s mistake; the sublime is social; Buddhism as philosophy; etc.

using federal spending to strengthen democracy

The federal government is authorized to spend an additional $2 trillion over the next 10 years through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. I support many of the priorities in these laws.

But government spending should be democratic–at several levels. Operating in a democratic way is consistent with justice and is most likely to be sustainable, because people will feel relatively supportive of government programs that engage them. This is the version of social democracy or Great Society liberalism that I can get behind.

What does spending money democratically mean? First, a fairly elected, deliberative legislature should allocate the funds into large categories. That pretty much happened with these bills (acknowledging many imperfections).

Then the federal agencies and state and local governments that administer the funds should engage relevant communities in deciding how to spend the money in detail and should form partnerships with groups (which may not be federal grantees) to accomplish the intended outcomes of the spending. Finally, the funds should allow many people to be hired and given a voice in the programs–including those who do the blue-collar work.

Spending on public transportation is a good example. The White House says there will be “$89.9 billion in guaranteed funding for public transit over the next five years — the largest Federal investment in public transit in history.” This investment has potential benefits for climate, racial equity, and convenience and quality of life.

States and cities will receive portions of this money. They should give their communities appropriate voice in deciding what and where to build. They should form partnerships with community groups whose goals align (e.g., community development corporations that can build dense housing near the transit). And they should employ workers–often via contracts with businesses–who have a say and who see pathways to influential Green careers.

This approach is inconsistent with libertarian conservatism, which opposes the spending in the first place. It is also inconsistent with technocratic progressivism, which views community engagement with deep skepticism. Doesn’t “engagement” mean NIMBY groups that block valuable projects in their neighborhoods, well-resourced companies that grab government contracts, and process-driven delays that dilute the benefits for both environment and racial equity?

The truth is, public engagement must be done well. A one-time public meeting in which citizens line up at the microphone to yell at public officials–that is a recipe for disaster. A worthwhile process takes planning and money. It requires training and technical support for the federal civil servants, local public employees, and activists who are involved. Since no single training program can accomplish very much, success requires building experienced bodies of employees who have run processes before and have learned to do them better.

We have not tried this approach for many decades in the USA–not since the Great Society, which tried various experiments in community engagement under the heading of “Maximum Feasible Participation” (with mixed success).

Reagan depicted government as the problem, although federal outlays per capita, adjusted for inflation, rose rapidly during Reagan’s term and only stabilized under Clinton. Also, despite a rhetorical commitment to hiring contractors instead of career civil servants, the civil service actually grew in that era. However, I think that federal capacity for public engagement shrank, outside of certain notable programs. More importantly, Congress launched or redesigned very few social programs after the late 1960s. That means that most federal money has flowed into well worn channels, offering limited opportunities for deliberation about what and how to spend.

Then, when the Obama Administration got a chance to allocate a substantial amount of new money in the 2009 stimulus, the progressive technocratic approach clearly won out. Efficiency was the by-word. Funds went to “shovel-ready” projects that were seen as offering the quickest return, or to initiatives informed by behavioral economics that were supposed to “nudge” people without them even being aware, or to competitions (like “Race to the Top”) that were meant to leverage non-federal funds. There was no sense that the public would be involved in defining and solving national problems along with the federal government.

Democratic spending is the path not taken, at least not since ca. 1965. We should find out whether it can produce sustainable, popular, and fair social outcomes in ways that we have not seen in my lifetime. That requires:

  • Setting aside tiny but real percentages of the federal funds for democratic and deliberative processes and for the training and technical assistance that they require. I am not sure to what extent those purposes are authorized under current law. If it is impossible to spend federal funds this way, then philanthropy should step up.
  • Considering new rules, such as offering special grants to communities that can demonstrate that they have reached agreement about priorities across traditional lines of difference, such as race, partisanship, or urban/suburban/rural divides. I’d be especially interested in agreements that bridge distant communities, such as coal towns and East Coast cities.
  • Intellectual leadership: influential people should articulate the value of public engagement. In the Obama Administration, the president did that, albeit somewhat vaguely. No members of his cabinet and hardly any liberal public intellectuals backed him up. The stimulus package and Obamacare came across as strictly technocratic and were assessed only for their outcomes (while democratic culture waned). We need more effective voices to defend democracy this time.

When David Meyers of The Fulcrum asked me yesterday to comment on the fact that the public identifies “the government” as the biggest problem facing us today, I replied that the most promising solution is to spend money democratically. My reply was rooted in the best traditions of the New Deal and Great Society (as I see them), but it’s a fairly marginal view today. It’s an alternative to three prevalent assumptions: that democracy is mostly a matter of fair electoral processes, that activated citizens are often a nuisance, and that protecting democracy means uplifting some kind of political center. I think we must exercise power to improve the world, but do so in ways that empower our full diversity of people in their roles as citizens.

See also: the Green New Deal and civic renewal; the new manipulative politics: behavioral economics, microtargeting, and the choice confronting Organizing for Action; Democrats as technocrats; Hillary Clinton on spending for infrastructure; the long march through institutions–for civic renewal; the big lessons of Obamacare; empowering citizens to make sure the stimulus is well spent; etc.

call for papers: Teaching Ethics in Data Science

The 1st Annual Workshop on Methods for Teaching Ethics in Data Science (MTEDS 23) will take place virtually and on the campus of Tufts University on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. 

Submission Guidelines

All papers must be original and not simultaneously submitted to another journal or conference. The following paper categories are welcome:

  • Short papers (1-5 pages) related to the topic of the workshop; accepted short papers will be given a 20 minute presentation slot in the conference. 
  • Undergraduate Ethics Case Studies for the Tripods Undergraduate Ethics Case Studies Project (see more details at 

Program Committee

  • Peter Levine (co-chair), Tufts University
  • Benedetta Giovanola (co-chair), University of Macerata, Italy
  • H. V. Jagadish, University of Michigan
  • Andreia Martinho, Tufts University 
  • Karl Schmitt, Trinity Christian College
  • more PC members TBA 

Organizing committee

  • Peter Levine, Tufts University
  • Lenore Cowen, Tufts University

Here is the call for papers: The deadline is January 10, 2023

the links between capital and education

My employer and primary community, Tufts University, appears (along with virtually all US colleges and universities) in two massive studies by Raj Chetty and colleagues. I will use Tufts’ statistics to offer some general observations about the relationships between capital and education in our economic order. Tufts represents one type of institution that plays a significant economic role in the US and even globally.

According to his study of economic mobility, 62% of Tufts students who arrive from the bottom fifth of the income distribution attain the top fifth, which ranks Tufts #7 among “elite” institutions for upward mobility. However, students from the bottom of the income distribution are relatively scarce at Tufts (due, I believe, to our relatively small endowment), ranking us 40th in accessibility out of 65 elite colleges. Putting those two facts together generates a rank of 30th out of 65 for what Chetty et al. call “overall mobility.”

Basically, Tufts students tend to be economically advantaged, but their median income at age 34 is much higher than their family income was at age 18. This is typical of the institutions Chetty et al. call “elite.” (See the graphic with this post, which shows Tufts right in the midst of the elite schools.)

Meanwhile, according to Chetty and colleagues’ analysis of Facebook data, 94.4% of low-income Tufts students’ Facebook “friends” have high incomes, ranking Tufts in the 100th percentile among all US institutions on that measure. Tufts demonstrates relatively low “clustering,” meaning that Tufts students’ Facebook-friend networks are relatively cliquey. But these cliques do not seem to be economically homogeneous (Chetty et al 2022). In short, because Tufts is somewhat diverse and fairly cohesive but also predominantly affluent, students who are admitted from the lower economic strata obtain economically valuable connections while in college.

Chetty follows James Coleman (1988, cited 61,000 times), Robert Putnam (2001), and other authors, mostly Americans, in finding that social capital boosts educational success and upward economic mobility. The argument is basically that individuals–especially children and youth–are more likely to succeed if other people voluntarily support them and if many people support their schools and colleges, thereby making these institutions work better. If we define “social capital” as such networks of voluntary engagement, then having social capital benefits the individual and has positive externalities for the society. It is win/win.

A different literature is equally influential but has a different audience. Pierre Bourdieu sees education primarily as a way of reproducing economic stratification. His most famous idea is that educational institutions mark their graduates as members a specific social class by teaching them how to talk and act (Bourdieu 1983, cited 61,000 times). Members of the current ruling class dominate the institutions that mark people as upper class, ensuring that their children obtain “cultural capital.” Bourdieu also uses the phrase “social capital,” referring to the network-ties that further stratify a society. For instance, if a rich and powerful person knows and likes you, you have social capital. For Bourdieu, social capital is zero-sum, a means of gaining relative advantage over others.

To make these theories vivid, image two concrete stories.

First, imagine a US teenager who has only decent odds of completing high school, obtaining an associate’s degree, and getting a job that pays as much as her parents did when they started out. She will be more likely to succeed at these goals if her family members and other adults and peers offer emotional support, occasional financial support, and connections, and if many people support the local schools, sports leagues, and other community-based settings where she spends her time.

Second, imagine a teenager (we will call him “Brett”) who attends a selective private school in the Washington suburbs with a future Supreme Court justice, goes on to Yale, where his grandfather had studied before him, and then to Yale Law School, where he rooms with a future federal judge and plays basketball with the Yale professor who leads the Federalist Society chapter. He gets clerkships, jobs, and appointments that culminate in a seat on the Supreme Court along with his former schoolmate, two other Yale Law graduates, and five other former members of the Federalist Society. Brett was more likely to succeed at reaching his goal–the nation’s highest court–because well-placed friends looked out for him and supported the institutions where he studied.

Both of these theories could be true. They might name dynamics that apply for different segments of our population. I am not aware of empirical studies that explicitly juxtapose them in ways that would allow them to be compared and, perhaps, combined. Chetty’s work hints at some combinations. If he and his colleagues only studied institutions like Tufts, the main findings would be consistent with Bourdieu. But Chetty offers data for all colleges, universities, school systems, and neighborhoods, and often it appears that social capital benefits everyone, as in Coleman and Putnam.

I would also cite the tremendously ambitious Chicago study by Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls (1997). As Sampson presents the results, this study finds very little evidence of economic mobility in Chicago. The vast majority of Chicagoans retain their class position as they move through life (Sampson 2012, Kindle loc. 5138). Nevertheless, individuals are much safer and healthier if their neighborhoods are more socially cohesive. In this model, social capital–which Sampson et al. re-conceive as “collective efficacy”–improves one’s quality of life without challenging the class structure. This is a way of synthesizing Bourdieu and Coleman.

I cannot offer additional empirical evidence, but I would like to suggest some conceptual clarifications. Basically, I believe that the categories in this debate are complicated and that neither Bourdieu’s Marxism nor neoliberal economics offers sufficient nuance on its own.

Capital takes many forms. Let’s define capital most abstractly as a stock that produces some kind of flow. This stock can be land (with our without natural endowments that benefit people), raw materials, equipment, organizational structure, know-how, basic knowledge, specific knowledge, network ties, and/or influence or even control over other people. Depending on the type of stock, it may or may not belong to groups, as opposed to individuals. Depending on the laws and economic system, it actually belongs to some entities and not others. Likewise, capital can have many flows, from money to happiness to prestige, and those outputs either benefit or harm different people or groups. Some flows accumulate while others dissipate. It may be possible to purchase one kind of capital with another. A classic example is the lucky nouveau-riche who buys cultural capital in the form of a fancy educations for his kids. But such exchanges face barriers and inefficiencies.

People want a variety of things: not only concrete goods for themselves but also relative status vis-a-vis other people, feelings of belonging, freedom, and various other people’s welfare.

Education has many aspects. It can mean practical knowledge with social or economic value for the individual, the community, or both; intrinsically valuable knowledge that may not be socially valued; an indication of relative talent and/or ambition; an indication of membership in a specific social category (e.g., the social elite, a religious group, the military); a process of accommodating individuals to current authority and prevailing norms; or a liberation from those norms. People may consciously seek various combinations of these outcomes for themselves or their children and may experience outcomes that they did not intend. For instance, think of parents who believe they are purchasing economic advancement and good behavior, yet they watch their children turn into subversive radicals–or the reverse.

The socioeconomic distribution can be characterized in various ways. Chetty and colleagues write a lot about mobility, which means movement from one income or wealth percentile to a different one. It is important to remember that upward mobility must be exactly matched by downward mobility, holding other factors constant. For every first-gen. student who attends college, one college graduate’s child must not go to higher education, unless total enrollments rise (which will cheapen the relative advantage of college). This explains why the upper strata are so fierce about preventing mobility. Studies like Sampson et al. are focused on absolute levels of human welfare, such as victimization by violent crime. It would be possible for everyone to rise above reasonable levels. Bourdieu might be interested in the ratio of the top to the bottom, although his relatively classical Marxism is more about power than income. (And France, which he studied, is unusual in its combination of economic equality with political and cultural elitism).

There are many kind of relevant institutions, from neighborhood public schools that appear open to all but may be deeply exclusive because of residential patterns, to public universities that are genuinely accessible yet internally segregated and stratified, to well-endowed private institutions that heavily subsidize a minority of their students in the interests of “diversity,” which may primarily benefit the best off, and more.

There are many policy options. As I understand it, the elite of Mexico congregate at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, UNAM, which enrolls 356,530 students, admitting just 10% of its applicants, and charges $900 for tuition thanks to federal support and a limited budget. About half of UNAM students graduate. A considerable number of affluent but less ambitious Mexican students opt for private institutions in Mexico or US colleges that offer more individual services at higher cost but with less distinction. In contrast, many EU countries do not allow their universities to differ much in reputation or selectivity, and they typically serve students from their local areas, again, offering limited services. Even relative inexpensive and more accessible US public institutions usually provide many more services, beyond classroom instruction, compared to European universities. One would expect different results in terms of mobility, stratification, minimum welfare, median welfare, and equality–which are different measures.

Here are some possible takeaways for different kinds of people:

  • If you’re prone to admire selective (Akil Bellow calls them “highly rejective”) institutions because many of their less advantaged students move upward on the socioeconomic scale, focus less on those few students and more on the vast numbers who aren’t admitted. Furthermore, if selective institutions offer exclusive social capital, their impact on mobility could not be expanded. Making them bigger would dilute their benefits for their own students.
  • If you view selective institutions as merely exclusive and all about preserving social advantage, you have a valid perspective. However, you might consider the public goods that these institutions produce (from highly trained physicians to translations from Sanskrit) and ask how we else we might generate those goods.
  • If you want to promote mobility by giving money to selective institutions, you should at least Google their per-student endowments. Some US universities (but not including Tufts) could already offer completely free tuition for all their students below a high income threshold. You might ask what they are doing with your fungible contributions.
  • If you think that universities should invest more in services and quality of life to promote their own students’ equitable well-being, you might consider evidence that such investments also make those institutions more selective and less accessible (Bulman 2022). Institutions could instead expand the number and/or diversity of the students they admit, but that means serving a hypothetical constituency instead of an actual one, and it rarely happens.

Citations: Bourdieu, Pierre. Forms of Capital: General Sociology, Volume 3: Lectures at the College de France 1983-84. United Kingdom: Wiley, 2021; G. Bulman, “The Effect of College and University Endowments on Financial Aid, Admissions, and Student Composition,” NBER Working Paper 30404 (2022); Chetty, Raj, Matthew O. Jackson, Theresa Kuchler, Johannes Stroebel, Nathaniel Hendren, Robert B. Fluegge, Sara Gong et al. “Social capital I: measurement and associations with economic mobility.” Nature 608, no. 7921 (2022): 108-121; Coleman, James S. “Social capital in the creation of human capital.” American journal of sociology 94 (1988): S95-S120; Putnam, Robert D. 2001. “Community Based Social Capital and Educational Performance.” In Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society, edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, 58–95. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Sampson, Robert J.. Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press 2012; Sampson, Robert J., Stephen W. Raudenbush, and Felton Earls. “Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy.” Science 277, no. 5328 (1997): 918–24.

See also why don’t colleges allocate more resources to access?; four perspectives on student debt forgiveness;  the weirdness of the higher ed marketplace; two approaches to social capital: Bourdieu vs. the American literature; Bourdieu in the college admissions office; the ROI for philosophy, etc. 

assigning students to write cases

I think of a “teaching case” as a true story that culminates in a difficult decision that has confronted an individual or group. The decision is typically difficult because of conflicting values, incomplete information, and unpredictable outcomes. A teaching case is useful as a prompt for discussion and to teach the disposition of acting wisely under uncertainty, or phronesis. I especially like cases in which groups must decide collectively, because those stories allow attention to the dynamics of group decision-making. Here is a selection of such “civic” cases:

This semester, I have been co-teaching a course with Jennifer Howe Peace, who has extensive experience not only leading discussions based on teaching cases but also assigning students to write such cases. We did just that this fall. Each of our students selected a real-world situation, conducted research, wrote a 2-3 page case about it, and led a discussion.

I recommend this pedagogy for teaching the following essential civic skills:

  1. Identifying decisions worthy of discussion. Actual groups often overlook or evade decisions that they should discuss and spend time on matters that don’t require deliberation. (See “a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups.”) Writing a case means choosing a topic that should be discussed.
  2. Identifying the tradeoffs and other difficulties, such as incomplete information and unpredictability.
  3. Identifying who is in a position to make which choices. It is a costly distraction to ask what someone should do if they can’t do it. A good written case centers on one or more protagonists who are able to choose.
  4. Deciding when to start and end the story. This side of the Big Bang, every story has emerged from many previous ones. The web of human interaction has no beginning. The choice of when to start a written story frames it for readers; it is an act of judgment. (For instance, does the story of the USA begin in 1492, 1619, 1776, 1789 …?) Writing a case teaches the skill and ethics of picking beginnings and endings well.
  5. Eliciting interest and attention. A well-written case makes its readers interested. Getting people’s attention is a basic civic skill.

See also: A Festival of Cases, June 24; three new cases for learning how to organize and make collective change; practical lessons from classic cases of civil disobedience; Levinson and Fay, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics; Bent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesis;

values of a university

Leszek Kolakowski wrote “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist” in 1978. His short essay is a model of pluralism, in the sense that he intentionally combines values that are necessarily in tension.

Institutions can also be pluralist in that sense. Indeed, the best universities may be conservative liberal socialistic republican democratic anarchistic utilitarian communities. Yet they can also fall short on each or all of these criteria. Here is a framework for assessment:

Values espoused by a universityCharacteristic failures
Conservative: Preserving wisdom and excellence from the past and conveying it to young people.Arbitrary adherence to the past–or faddish novelty.
Liberal: Developing people’s capacity to be free individuals by allowing them to speak and think on their own.Group-think; social pressure to conform. Or irresponsible individualism.
Republican: Preventing individuals from dominating others by using arbitrary power.Domination, especially by senior faculty and administrators.
Democratic: Making decisions collectively and teaching that skill.Bureaucracy and hierarchy–or incoherent decisions by individuals.
Utilitarian: Producing knowledge and applications that increase human (or animal) welfare.Outcomes distorted by money or fame–or useless work.
Socialistic: Adjusting costs by income, pooling resources and distributing them equitably, and belonging–as a corporate body–to the state (in the case of public institutions).Social stratification; competition for admission and employment; specifically bourgeois values.
Communitarian: Serving as a supportive, affective groupLeaving some students and employees out of the community–or becoming an exclusive community that sees itself as superior to outsiders.
Anarchistic: The knowledge created by free people within the university is unowned and belongs to a global commons.Corporate enclosure and/or close affiliation with governments.

The Listeners

Low dropped ceilings, buzzing fluorescent tubes,
Dim, orangish light with sporadic
Flashes, damp patches, dusty tables.

On the radio, words mixed with static.
Martinez thinks she might hear a number
That matches a room on the list she’d stuck

To the beige paint on the wall that's nearer
Her desk than where she stacks food in boxes.
She’d better check it out. She picks neither

The hall with endless cartons piled in blocks
Nor the one lined on both sides with locked doors,
But the passage with booths and swivel-chair backs

Receding down one side, and desks and drawers
Dimly visible through the smudged windows 
Of offices on the other. Plump drips

Soak the carpet, and lint collects in wads.
At an intersection, a woman kneels
By a vacuum-cleaner with wet wipes.

Both know neither knows words the other knows.
They stare silently until the radio
Nudges Martinez on with a burst of noise.

Hand on her nightstick, eyes on the long row
Of interior panes and hollow-core doors.
A long walk now, not one you’d want to redo.

You can go in this direction for days,
But are there vending machines stocked with food?
Lights flicker and the radio’s volume drops.

In the sudden quiet, she is afraid.
Something is off. She is watched. Every hair
On her arms rises, taut. What she'd feared ...

She is running, vision jerky, with her
Hands out as if to ward something away.
At the corner, the vacuum-cleaner's there,

But no woman. Martinez thinks she knows why.
She will call it in. "Incident," she says.
"Unresolved. Urgent." Things are awry.

She hears fizzling and some words. Her SOS
May have drawn their attention, or else not--
Martinez can never tell. Her breath subsides.

In place of panic, anger rises next.
Into the radio, she states: "I quit.
I'm out. Confirm." She strikes a cabinet

To make a bang they'll have to hear, quite
Sure the sound resounds on their end, too.
It does. They hear her and make themselves quiet.

Their strange stillness answers her, an undertow
Beneath the buzzing and the steady drip.
They don't want her to hear them. They wait to
Resume until she lets her radio drop.

(Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners” meets “The Backrooms” of urban legend, in terza rima with slant rhymes.) See also: “Arachne,” “the laughter of the gods,” “what it looks like to live,” and “self help: a short story.”

civic leverage

The illustration with this post illustrates an idea from my book What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life, but it is not included in the book (because I just thought of it.)

The circle labeled “institutional design” refers to a process of establishing rules, norms, membership criteria, etc. for any group. Unless an institution evolves from its predecessors, it is usually designed by a single founder or a small leadership team. An inchoate collection of people cannot design an institution from scratch. Only once the design is reasonably effective will many human beings be able to coordinate their behavior sufficiently to accomplish anything worth discussing. The options for designs include democratic processes, market mechanisms, strong leaders, bureaucratic structures, and many more.

From a civic perspective, a good institution is one that encompasses some variety of perspectives and values and that enables its members to express their contrasting views in ways that inform the whole. The circle labeled “conversation about values” can mean a deliberative democracy, but it can take many other forms as well. For instance, although the Catholic Church does not purport to be a democracy, it is a rich platform for discussion and debate. Conversations about values increase the chances that a group will make wise choices and allow individuals to exercise voice and agency, which is part of a good life.

When people in a functioning group discuss values, they may motivate themselves to make sacrifices (the third circle in the diagram). Even an ordinary voluntary association asks people to spend time attending its meetings. A movement that confronts violent repression may ask its participants to put their lives at extreme risk. The degree of contribution varies, but some level is inevitable. “Organization is sacrifice,” as WEB DuBois once wrote.

Sacrifice can affect the original institutional design. For instance, an ordinary voluntary association will wax or wane depending on who gives time and money, and how much. A social movement may change the fundamental structure of the government itself.

This cycle must occur at a human scale. It’s about discussion, relationships, and individuals’ impact on groups. Participants must know one another. The maximum number of people who can engage together is not clear, but it is much less than the eight billion people who share our earth today. Thus the limitation of this cycle is its size in comparison to the scale of our problems.

The answer must be leverage–smallish groups affecting much larger groups by influencing governments, markets, corporations, or media-producers.

Leverage affords power, but it is problematic because it is unidimensional: some people affect others without knowing them or hearing from them. I think we must accept the moral disadvantage of leverage, but we can mitigate it by expecting the people who exercise power over others to do so as members of groups that are somewhat diverse and porous (or connected to other groups) and that go through the cycle of institutional design, conversation about values, sacrifice, and re-design. That process increases the odds that they will be wise in their treatment of strangers.

See also du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence; a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups; both detailed institutional analysis and holistic critique;  a template for analyzing an institutionComplexities of Civic Life, etc.