We are heading overseas; back to the US and online on January 2.
Here are three distinct goals that you might pursue if you see education as a means to improve a society. All three are plausible, but they can conflict, and I think we should sort out where we stand on them.
- Improving lives. What constitutes a better life is contested, as is the question of how a population’s welfare should be aggregated to produce a score for a whole society. The Human Development Index includes such components as mean life expectancy at birth and “mean of years of schooling for adults.” You might think that what counts is not these averages but the minima: how much life, education, safety, health (etc.) does the worst-off stratum get? Their circumstances can improve with balanced and humane economic development. Arguably, the worst-off 20 percent of Americans are better off than Queen Elizabeth I was in 1600, because you’d rather have clean running water in your house than any number of smelly and disease-carrying servants. But our minimum is still not very good, since some Americans sleep on grates or are warehoused in pretrial detention facilities because they can’t afford bail.
- Equity. By this I just mean the difference between the top and the bottom, e.g., the GINI coefficient, although one might consider more factors besides income. Algeria and Sweden have almost identical levels of equity (GINI coefficients of 27.2 and 27.6, respectively), but Sweden is much wealthier, with 3.3 times as much GNP per capita as Algeria has.
- Mobility. This means the chance that someone born at a relatively low level in the socioeconomic distribution will rise to a relatively high level. By definition, that means that someone else must fall. (Or one person could fall halfway as far, and a second person could fall the other half way, to make room for the person who rises all the way up.) By definition, mobility is zero-sum, being measured as the odds of moving up or down percentile ranks. If everyone moves up, that’s #1 (an increase in aggregate welfare), not a sign of mobility.
These three goals can come apart. For example, equity coincides with very poor human development when everyone is starving together. Sweden has high human development and high equity but not much mobility: Swedish families who had noble surnames in the 17th century still predominate among the top income percentiles. It’s just that it doesn’t matter as much that you’re at the bottom in Sweden, because the least off do OK there.
To be sure, the best-off countries in the world tend to be more equitable and prosperous, and there’s a long list of very poor countries that are also highly unequal and (I guess) have little mobility. That pattern could suggest that the path to higher development requires equity. But that’s a contingent, empirical hypothesis, unlikely to be true across the board, and the goals are not the same.
For proponents and analysts of education, the difference matters. Presume that you are concerned with improving human lives. One way to do that is to expand the availability of education. More people reach higher levels of education today than did in 1930–and more people lead safer, longer, lives. This strategy won’t produce equity, however. As educational attainment has risen in the United States, the most educated people have increased the wage gap.
Another way to enhance human welfare is to yield outputs that benefit everyone: skillful doctors and engineers who have great new technologies, medicines, training, etc. To get the best results, it might be smart to concentrate resources at very high-status institutions. The universities that produce the most scientific advances tend to be highly competitive institutions in inequitable systems like the US.
Presume that you want to promote mobility. Then you must reduce the correlation between parents’ and children’s educational attainment. That means admitting and advancing more students whose parents were disadvantaged. It also means, by definition, admitting fewer students from advantaged homes. Increasing the number of total slots is an inefficient way to enhance mobility. Mobility requires competitiveness: when people can compete better, newcomers can more easily knock off incumbents. When individuals are protected against failure, mobility is hampered.
Mobility also operates at the level of communities. In a system of Schumpeterian “creative destruction,” Detroit can fall while Phoenix rises. European countries intervene much more effectively than we do to protect their deindustrializing cities. That is better for human flourishing, but it may also hamper mobility.
Finally, presume that you really want to improve equity. One way to do that would be to improve the education of the least advantaged while holding the top constant. Another way would be to lower the quality and value of the education received by the top tier. Very few people would support doing that, even if it improved equity. That’s because most people think that welfare and mobility are at least as important as equity. (I leave aside liberty, although that is also a valid and important principle.)
Hybrid goals are possible. Perhaps what we want is to maximize the welfare of the least advantaged while not allowing inequality to get out of hand or mobility to vanish. That’s arguably the outcome in Denmark and Sweden. The US may under-perform regardless of how you weigh the three goals. We have vast inequality, limited mobility, and not much safety or health for a large swath of our people. But even if we can make progress on all three fronts at once, they are still different directions.
(Hartford, CT) I’m in Hartford for a board meeting of the Paul J. Aicher Foundation, whose project is Everyday Democracy. This is a good moment to highlight the first Paul and Joyce Aicher Leadership in Democracy Award, which Everyday Democracy awarded to a New Mexico nonprofit, Generation Justice.
Great civic engagement. Building media literacy skills in youth, with a racial equity lens. Applying journalistic integrity to its advocacy and racial equity work. These are all reasons that Generation Justice, a New Mexico non-profit established in 2005, was selected as the winner.
Please check out the powerful media of Generation Justice, here.
I just finished teaching a philosophy course in which the primary question was “How should I live?” We spent some time reading and thinking about personal and internal questions, such as what constitutes happiness and truthfulness and whether those are possible and desirable states. We also talked about political justice, reading a fairly standard canon of Mill, Rawls, Nozick, and Scanlon, plus Bayard Rustin, Kwasi Wiredu, Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Steve Biko, Audre Lorde, and Susan Bickford. The premise of those readings was that it might be important to know what justice is when choosing how to live a good life.
Meanwhile, my students were introspecting about the principles that guide their lives and how those principles are organized into networks of moral ideas.
The students, as they recognize, emphasize attitudes toward concrete other people in their lives plus values related to learning: empathy, openness, and hard work. The kinds of ideals that figure in political theory–liberty, equality, welfare, and democracy–are mostly absent or marginal from their maps of their own animating ideals.
They offered several explanations for this gap between what I’d assigned and what they perceived when they looked inward. Some thought it was evidence of their own privilege: they don’t have to think about freedom because they take it for granted. (For the same reason, they don’t list “having enough to eat” as a guiding principle.) Others thought their introspective maps were developmentally appropriate: their job right now is to learn and revise their views, not to hold onto principles. Some were skeptical about the validity of any abstract principles of justice. And some thought that their own views reflected political discouragement or disenfranchisement at a hard time in our history. They don’t strive directly for democracy because they don’t believe that they can.
The question arises, Why should we study and conduct research on justice? Why should justice be part of any curriculum, and specifically a curriculum whose leading question is about the good life for the individual students?
I think my colleagues in academia (writ large) would divide on that question.
For some academics, justice seems irrelevant to their professional work or is a mere matter of opinion. “Who decides what’s good or bad?” is a frequent question. It suggests that we scholars and students shouldn’t try to define justice and defend our stances in academic contexts, publications and classrooms. The most we should do is to study and explain why various populations define justice in various ways.
For some academics, commitment to justice is measured by the degree of one’s distaste for the prevailing political and economic system. The way to assess whether a colleague is oriented to justice is to see how strongly she or he opposes the status quo. One way to demonstrate such opposition is to study various concrete forms of injustice. Thus justice-oriented scholars are those who investigate and teach situations that should be abhorred.
By this standard, my curriculum would be deficient, since we did not go deeply into the empirical facts about poverty, racism, or tyranny. Moreover, we read authors chosen for their divergent views. By the time you see that Hayek and Nozick would like less government than we have, and Rawls and Scanlon would like more, you could perhaps conclude that we have about the right amount of government. I’m not saying that splitting the difference would be valid logic, but the question is whether ideological diversity might have the psychological effect of making students confused or complacent.
I belong to a third category of academics, for whom being seriously concerned with justice means asking what it is and what we can do to promote it. Both parts of that question are topics for research. One can study what justice is by critically investigating the available theories and their relationship to concrete facts. One can also study strategies and tactics for promoting justice. Those two topics intersect, because a goal without any plausible strategy is not much of a goal; and a strategy without a defensible account of its purpose is not worth undertaking. I criticize what’s called “ideal theory” in political philosophy because its focus on end states–without serious consideration of strategy–yields misleading results.
Speaking of privilege, I am privileged to move across communities with quite different ideological centers. One day recently, I was at a conference where libertarian economists were well represented and may have predominated. A speaker showed a photo of FDR and said something like, “Since we’re all classical liberals, I can count on you to hate this guy.” I suspect the speaker overestimated the ideological uniformity of his audience; I may have had some company in deeply admiring Franklin D. Roosevelt. But it was certainly a different context from the Tufts classroom where, on the very next day, we discussed this fascinating exchange between Hillary Clinton and Black Lives Matter activist Julius Jones about how to diagnose and address racial injustice in America. The center of gravity in that room lay somewhere between Clinton and Jones, with only one student openly asking whether the assumption that those two people share–that America is deeply racist–is a given.
The disadvantage of posing the question “what is justice?” in a truly open way is that one can discourage action. For instance, I think that the pending tax bill is awful, but I also have questions about some arguments against it. There’s a strong equity-based argument for curtailing the charitable tax deduction, and there’s even a case that the Republicans have generated new federal revenues while passing a deeply unpopular tax cut for the upper stratum, which is likely to be repealed. The net result, as early as 2019, may be a larger stream of revenue than would have had been possible without this bill. But making such critical points (if anyone paid attention) could dampen enthusiasm for the opposition, and there’s a plausible case that the tax bill is on its way to passage because of relatively weak popular opposition. I wouldn’t want to undermine anyone’s motivation to protest by posing awkward questions.
The advantage, of course, is learning. I feel challenged and enriched by the conference at which libertarians were well represented. I think I understand better the relative advantages and disadvantages of three ways of understanding what works in the real world: talking with people, conducting scientific research on impact, and observing price signals. The last category is valuable for reasons that you won’t notice if you hang around all the time with lefties.
In the end, we need both commitment and critical analysis, both true openness to alternative views and effective, coordinated action. We need utopian vistas and hard-nosed tactics. The balance is very hard, but there must be at least a place for abstract and dispassionate inquiry into the nature of justice.
CIRCLE estimates that 23% of young Alabamians voted in yesterday’s special election. Just for a rough turnout comparison, 21.5% of youth in the United States as a whole voted in the 2014 election. We would normally expect turnout to be lower in a special election with only one person on the ballot than in a national Congressional election, and also lower among Alabama youth than youth across the country because just 40% of young Alabamians have any college experience (and college is correlated with voting). Thus I would call the turnout pretty good compared to expectations.
According to the Exit Polls, youth supported Doug Jones over Roy Moore by 60% to 38%. The older vote was dramatically different, with Moore winning people over 45 pretty easily. CIRCLE suggests two interesting contributing factors. First, young Alabamians are more diverse. “More than a third of the state’s young people are Black, and … Black voters of all ages went overwhelmingly for Jones (96%) in yesterday’s race.” Second, Moore may not have “garner[ed] overwhelming support even among youth who identify as conservative or Republican.” CIRCLE has previously found that “some Republican-leaning youth break with older voters on same-sex marriage and other social issues that were central to Moore’s campaign in Alabama. In addition, CIRCLE analysis of the Pew Research Center’s Political Typology dataset finds that only 5% of young people who lean toward or belong to the Republican party are “Steadfast Conservatives” (compared to 25% of Republicans or Republican-leaners aged 30+) while 31% are “Young Outsiders” who may feel less committed to the party and its candidates.”
More detail is on the CIRCLE website.
The Clinton Foundation recently hosted a small roundtable discussion led by Chelsea Clinton and made up of funders and civic education organizations. The purpose was to learn about the 100Kin10 model. Although 100Kin10 is concerned with STEM education, it is also a model for reform in other areas, such as the one that concerns me professionally: civic education.
In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “Over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.”
I’d be open to arguments against the target he set, but I’ll assume for the sake of this post that it was a good one. It wasn’t the President’s own idea but resulted from previous research and discussion. Thus the story really begins before the 2011 State of the Union, with the research and advocacy that influenced President Obama.
With the President ‘s term running out, a group of 28 organizations came together to form 100Kin10. They included unions and districts that bargain with unions, education schools and alternatives to ed. schools (like Teach for America), companies, and foundations. New groups could be added to the network by nomination after a vetting process. Membership does not require ascribing to any particular model of science education, any specific strategy for getting to 100k, or any philosophy of education–groups must simply share the goal of 100,000 new STEM educators and be committed to seriously assessing quality.
The network has a very lean central node. Lots of money circulates in the form of grants or contracts from one network member to another, but the 100Kin10 team doesn’t collect and redistribute that money. Members of the network make commitments to advance the cause, and they do their actual work in a decentralized way.
100Kin10 has promoted consistent measurement by helping to develop assessment tools. There’s an agreement not to share the data with funders. That encourages members to use the tools and reflect candidly on what their data tell them.
The network has made strong progress toward the numerical goal set by President Obama. However, members have become increasingly aware that meeting the 100,000 target will not solve the problem. More teachers will still be needed as the years go by. Besides, there is more to improving STEM than hiring more and better STEM teachers.
I am a critic of “root cause analysis” because I believe that complex problems never have one or a few determinative causes. Problems are almost always systems of interlocking causes and consequences. With a similar view in mind, 100Kin10 asked a large number of experts and stakeholders to identify reasons for the chronic shortage of strong STEM teachers. Respondents came up with around 100 causes, each of which could plausibly be seen as the “root.”
If the respondents had been asked to identify the single most important factor, they would have been biased by their own vantage points and organizational missions. Instead, they were asked whether changing one factor would affect another specific one–in other words, whether each given pair of factors was causally related. These data were collected to produce a network map of causation.
As with most networks that develop in nature, this one was skewed. The rule of thumb is that 20% of nodes will have 80% of the links. I don’t know whether the 100Kin10 map follows that 80/20 distribution precisely, but it looks roughly like that to the eye. This means that by changing 20% of the variables measured in this complex system, we can directly move 80% of the whole system. Therefore, 100Kin10 has recently focused on encouraging members to shift their attention and discretionary efforts to the most central nodes. That is a powerful form of social analysis and leadership.
We could do something similar for civics. The goal would not be 100,000 qualified civics teachers, but some other broad and compelling outcome. Many of the steps would be similar. However, we would have take some differences into account:
Incentives: STEM education pays off for the individual who gains skills and credentials, and for firms and communities that gain more qualified workers. Thus the case for STEM is economic. The case for civics has to be different–probably patriotic and democratic (with a little “d”).
Politics: STEM is not without political controversy. (Should evolution be taught? Should resources be distributed to the poorest students, or to schools that demonstrate success?) However, civics is more pervasively political. Political opponents disagree in principle about what should be taught. Civics can also have immediate partisan implications by affecting who votes. To be clear, turnout is not the central goal of civics, but it could be an ancillary effect, and that makes it “political” (in a bad sense). On the other hand, there is more consensus about the core purposes of school-based civics than we sometimes assume.
Outcomes: The debate about what counts as a good outcome for students is more controversial in civics than in STEM. Disagreements go beyond simple left/right debates. People who share other views about politics may still disagree about the importance of civic knowledge versus civic action, or appreciating the constitutional system versus critically assessing it, or local citizenship versus global citizenship. (For my own part, I believe that an absolutely central goal is to increase students’ sheer interest in politics, because without a sense of intrinsic motivation to stay involved and informed, they will forget what they learn in civics class or fail to update it as the world changes.)
The role of the classroom: In education generally, there’s a live debate about how much the school, the classroom, and the teacher matter compared to the economy and social context beyond the school walls. People who believe that we can educate our way to social mobility are rightly challenged by critics who argue that the economy must be reformed to generate real opportunity. That debate is even more fundamental in civics, because it’s fairly clear that the political context beyond the classroom is unsatisfactory. In civics, the context starts with the school as a community (is it a just and loving place or a pipeline to prison?) and extends to the democracy as a whole, because our formal institutions are clearly flawed. I’m one who believes that good civics teaching is beneficial even under conditions of injustice, but we need to consider the critique that civics just accommodates students to an imperfect system and that reform should focus elsewhere.
These are differences between civics and STEM. They are mostly differences of degree, not profound gaps, and they do not suggest that reforming civics is impossible. In fact, civics has a great deal of momentum right now because of a broadly shared sense of civic crisis. (See our recent White Paper, “The Republic is (Still) at Risk and Civics is Part of the Solution.) It’s exciting to contemplate something like 100Kin10 for civic education.
This is a 16-minute talk in which I offer my own summary of “Civic Studies,” the nascent field that emerged with “The New Civic Politics: Civic Theory and Practice for the Future,” a 2007 manifesto, and has since developed during 20 Summer Institutes of Civic Studies at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life and in Eastern Europe, other conferences and meetings, and writing by a range of scholars and activists.
(New York City) In War & Peace, Tolstoy rejects the “great man theory of history.” Napoleon caused nothing, Tolstoy says; events just swept the emperor along with them. An example is the decisive battle of Borodino. Each foot soldier made a decisive choice whether to stand or run. Simply as a result of their aggregate choices (each of which was made freely), Napoleon ended up the victor. He was actually less free and less influential than they were, because they made him the victor.
And it was not Napoleon who directed the course of the battle, for none of his orders were executed and during the battle he did not know what was going on before him. So the way in which these people killed one another was not decided by Napoleon’s will but occurred independently of him, in accord with the will of hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the common action. It only seemed to Napoleon that it all took place by his will…Napoleon at the battle of Borodino fulfilled his office as representative of authority as well as, and even better than, at other battles. He did nothing harmful to the progress of the battle; he inclined to the most reasonable opinions, he made no confusion, did not contradict himself, did not get frightened or run away from the field of battle, but with his great tact and military experience carried out his role of appearing to command, calmly and with dignity (Book X: Chapter XXVIII).
Ethan Arsht has used the techniques developed to estimate the impact of individual baseball players on their teams’ success (“sabermetrics”) to rank 6,619 generals involved in 3,580 unique battles across the span of history. “Among all generals, Napoleon had the highest [rank] by a large margin.” In Arsht’s model, Napoleon gets .49 of his 16.679 score from his victory at Borodino, the very battle where Tolstoy said Bonaparte had no effect at all.
In all seriousness, if you wanted to measure the relative importance of generals versus other factors, you’d have to be careful to include as many of those factors as possible in your model (terrain, morale, equipment, weather …). Arsht’s model is best designed for weighing one general against the others. That design seems appropriate for baseball teams. The main issue is which players to hire from the market. Equipment is standardized, all teams travel, and factors like fan noise must play modest roles. If you can calculate that one player makes more difference than another, you should pay him more. With generals, it is plausible that none of them make much difference. Napoleon may have been many times more effective than Rommel (who scores -1.9 on Arsht’s scale, meaning he did more good for the British than Hitler), yet maybe neither one mattered much.
Of course, the same question hovers over CEOs, college presidents, newspaper editors, and anyone else at the helm of a large organization. Tolstoy would say they are all swept along by deeper currents.
Thanks to my friend Sterling Speirn, here is a wise poem about the relationship between the private life and the public life (“the grass of civics, the grass of money”). It’s by Billy Collins.
Collins interprets civic and economic life as work, presumably in the dignified, creative sense of that word. It’s the use of tongs, needles, and pens. Meanwhile, the inner life has many aspects and they like to spend a little time by themselves, not working. They are “voices”–the soul even sings–but they can be quiet, too.
The self is free at night and works all day. But the voices that dominate our dreams talk “to each other or themselves / even through the heat of a long afternoon,” and sometimes they interrupt our work to demand attention.
Some online commentators presume that the narrator is female. I’m not sure about that. The body is “its,” and its heart and soul are “she’s.” The mind has no gendered pronouns. The author’s name is “Billy.” I’m inclined to think that the gender is multiple.
Yarbough (2011) notes that Collins uses prominent phrases from very famous 20th-century American poems–such anthologists’ favorites as Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Bishop’s “the Fish,” and Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Yarbough suggests that Collins wants to depict the self as a conversation. I would add that this internal discussion involves strong, possibly overbearing characters. It’s because we have all these famous voices in our heads that sometimes we have to put down our tools “to stare into the distance, / to listen to all its names being called.”
(Scott D. Yarbrough (2011) “Poetic Allusions in Billy Collins’s The Night House,” The Explicator, 69:1, 35-37) See also: introspect to reenchant the inner life; the importance of the inner life to moral philosophy; and a poem should.
In some ways, I came of age in the field of deliberative democracy. I had an internship at the Kettering Foundation when I was a college sophomore (when the foundation defined itself more purely in deliberative terms than it does today). By that time, I had already taken a philosophy seminar on the great deliberative theorist Jürgen Habermas. In the three decades since then, I’ve served on the boards of Kettering, Everyday Democracy, and AmericaSPEAKS. I wrote a book with “deliberative democracy” in its subtitle and co-edited The Deliberative Democracy Handbook with John Gastil. I was one of many co-founders of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and have served on its steering committee since the last century.
None of these groups is committed to deliberation in a narrow sense (although opinions differ within the field). For me, these are the main limitations of focusing on deliberation as the central topic or unit of analysis:
Deliberative values are worthy ones, but they are not the only worthy ones. My own values would also include personal liberties and nonnegotiable rights, concerns for nature, and virtues of the inner life, such as equanimity and personal development. Stating my values doesn’t substitute for an argument, but it may suffice to make the point that deliberation is not the only good thing, and it’s in tension with other goods. A deliberative democrat will reply that I should discuss my values with other people. And so I should–but that doesn’t mean that the norms intrinsic to deliberation trump all other norms. Nor are fellow citizens the only sources of guidance; introspecting, reading ancient texts, consulting legal precedents, and conducting scientific experiments are helpful, too.
By the same token, deliberative virtues are not the only civic virtues. Deliberation is about discourse–talking and listening–so its virtues are discursive ones: humility and openness, empathy, sincerity, and perhaps eloquence. (The list is contested.) But a good citizen may be hard-working, physically courageous, or aesthetically creative instead of especially good at deliberating. The people who physically built the Athenian agora were as important as the people who exchanged ideas in it.
Deliberation depends on social organization. In order for people to have something that’s worth discussing, they must already make, control, or influence things of value together. That requires social organization, whether in the form of a market, a commons, a voluntary association, a functional network, or a political institution. Discussion rarely precedes these forms, because people can’t and won’t come together in completely amorphous groupings. Discussion is more typically a moment in an ongoing process of governance. Often a small group of founders chooses the rules-in-use that create a group in which deliberation can occur.
Thus we should ask about leadership and rules, not just about deliberation. Another way to put that point is that deliberation is often a good rule for a group to follow, but it is only one of the rules that they need. Indeed, some functional groups wisely choose rules that limit deliberation or that keep excessively divisive topics off the agenda.
A good argument for deliberation is that people gain practical wisdom and make better judgments by exchanging ideas and information. I see enough potential in that process to disagree with Austrian School economists who think that there is no way to make informed decisions without the data provided by prices in an unregulated market. But the ideas that arise in a deliberation (just like the prices that emerge in a market) are highly fallible. We ought to consider as much information as we can, including market signals and scientific findings as well as other people’s ideas and values. This is an argument for deliberation, but only as one source of guidance. In an ideal deliberative democracy, where “the people” governed through discourse alone, there would be no price signals, and so groups would make poor decisions.
The logic of deliberative democracy suggests that every institution should be a mini-public in which equal members exchange reasons. Moreover, there should be no rigid barriers among institutions: One Big Deliberation is the implicit goal. That goal has been challenged by “difference democrats” like Nancy Fraser, who writes, “public life in egalitarian, multicultural societies cannot consist exclusively in a single, comprehensive public sphere.” Fraser favors “a multiplicity of publics” over a “single public”; and she particularly celebrates “subaltern counterpublics,” meaning “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (“Rethinking the Public Sphere,” 1994). I’m for that, but I would go further. We need not only “subaltern counterpublics” in which minority groups hold their own deliberative conversations. We also need non-deliberative institutions: hierarchical churches, efficient markets, massive social networks, and laboratories. That is because a plurality of power-centers–polycentricity—is essential to maintain liberty.
Finally, deliberation by itself has limited power, and especially limited power to challenge dedicated opponents, such as authoritarian states and metastasizing markets. Authoritarian states can be persuaded to organize deliberative fora: see Baogan He & Mark E. Warren, “Authoritarian Deliberation in China,” Deadalus (summer 2017). Deliberative processes help the Party manage complex problems that would undermine its authority if left unaddressed. But deliberative fora don’t challenge illiberal regimes or powerful companies unless they are “free spaces” (Evans and Boyte) within social movements that can deploy power.
Because deliberative values are genuine values, it is absolutely worth giving them attention–in both theory and practice. But because deliberation depends upon so many other values, virtues, institutional forms, and political configurations, it is best not analyzed or pursued on its own.