“Expanding College Opportunity in Our Nation’s Prisons”

For more than five years now, “expanding college opportunity in [one of] our nation’s prisons” has been my part time job, and it’s been my full-time job for the past year, since the JCI Scholars Program partnered with the University of Baltimore to offer courses towards a Bachelor’s degree in Community Studies and Civic Engagement as a part of the US Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative.

I visited the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor last week to participate on a panel with this title. I learned a lot from my co-panelists Erin Castro and Fred Patrick, but each of us were asked to prepare answers to the questions below so I thought I’d share those answers here.

If you had to describe the current relationship between higher education and prisons in one phrase, what would it be?

“Low hanging fruit:” College in prisons is the easiest and most obvious of a host of criminal justice reforms that we absolutely must be making and for which there is bipartisan support. We incarcerate 2.3 million people in the US, at a rate more than seven times higher than the global average. We’re not seven times more violent or larcenous than the rest of the world–perhaps we are seven times more racist, but even that isn’t clear any longer–so we need to fix this over-incarceration crisis. But for the time being, educating the people we incarcerate is almost literally the least we can do.

There is an eternal tension in higher education between the liberal arts and practical arts. Prison education programs often face this same tension. Based on your experiences, how has this divide manifested in prison education programs? Are there certain curricula that tend to receive broader support? How has this influenced your own work?

In the background here is that we don’t stop punishing people when they are released from prison. We continue to subject returning citizens to legal discrimination in employment, merely because of their status as previously-incarcerated.

There’s certainly good evidence that starting one’s own business is a good way to avoid employment discrimination. But most small businesses fail, and returning citizens face problems with raising startup capital that are just as onerous as their problems finding a job. 

In general, you can think of entrepreneurship as evidence that the ordinary labor market is absorbing workers too slowly: there is not sufficient labor market absorption for those currently unemployed, so they must instead go out and start small businesses of their own, taking considerably more risk with high rates of failure. We have not found meaningful work for many men and women, and we’re not willing to suspend our biases, and so we ask them instead to make their own.

Still, even in that context I see the liberal arts degree as superior. I think the data suggest that even for people who want a vocation, a liberal arts degree is the best investment. I’m partial to the philosophy major, myself: employment prospects and pay are better for the modal philosophy major than for the modal business administration major, because the liberal arts are techniques for problem solving, clear communication, and understanding difficult texts and situations. To achieve that, students need to learn to read hard books and write long papers for demanding professors.

Of course, the liberal arts are also–literally–techniques for freedom and for free people. So they’ve got that going for them, too, which is nice.

What are some of the ways in which prisoner education programs help prisoners identify and pursue educational opportunities upon reentry?

In some sense I think colleges have mastered a lot of the fundamentals of reentry because they are already basically institutions of ENTRY: colleges are pretty good at taking high school students and turning them into workers, and they’re also pretty good at preparing people who are accustomed to being dependents to live more independent lives. 

Our program at the University of Baltimore was built from the ground up with the ideal of having students transition from inside to outside while finishing their degree. Thus they’ll be able to use what is already a good transitional space, the university, to help accomplish that other kind of transition: reentry and return.

The audience today is full of current and future educators that may be considering how they can get involved with a prison education program. As you reflect on your own experiences, are there moments that stand out to you as particularly informative for those in the audience?

I started teaching a philosophy class and ended up running a program. There’s tremendous unmet demand among those 2.3 million incarcerated men and women for a college education. Be patient and persistent, recognizing the work comes before your ego, and find and cultivate collaborators.

We also have a lot of people here interested in research and policies that can shape prison education programs. What are the types of research questions the next generation of researchers should consider?

The GED test was once an important distinction, but it was basically devalued because it came to be associated with returning citizens, which is why they decided to raise the standards (to make it much more difficult and specifically to lower the pass rate) in 2014. Will something similar happen with our programs? Can we prevent that? 

Another important question has to do with selection effects. How much are we just finding the men and women who would have gone to university, if we didn’t live in a mass incarceration society? How much are we actually changing lives, adding value,” or changing the course of these men’s lives?

There’s very good reason–as Erin Castro reminded us during the panel–to look past the recidivism question: “We don’t evaluate a University of Michigan degree based on how likely its graduates are to later become incarcerated.” And while I do think that the recidivism statistics are awesome trump cards for the public policy debate, I would like to see my own program evaluated on other metrics, like student satisfaction, just as programs on the outside are evaluated.

Given the change in administration, should we be concerned about the future of the Second Chance Pell pilot program?

Of course we should be concerned! Yet Betsy DeVos has not, to my knowledge, commented on the Second Chance Pell experiment. It’s notable that she is also primarily devoted to school choice in K-12, which is literally modeled on Pell, a grant program that supplies school choice for higher education.

If this becomes a partisan issue, I don’t expect it to survive. But I’d like to think it won’t become partisan, that there’s still enough bipartisan support for this because it’s such low-hanging fruit, because the evidence makes it common-sense. If you’re committed to small government, you like prison education. If you’re committed to social justice, you like prison education. What else can you think of that the Koch brothers agree with George Soros about?

C@rds in Common: Learning about the Commons Through Play

Because the practices of commoning fly in the face of market culture, they are frequently misunderstood.  What is this process of committed collaboration toward shared goals? people may wonder.  How does it work, especially when many industries want to privatize control of the resource or prevent competition via commoning?

Matthieu Rhéaume, a commoner and game designer who lives Montreal, decided that a card game could be a great vehicle for introducing people to the commons.  The result of his efforts is “C@rds in Common:  A Game of Political Collaboration.”  “I see playfulness as a sense-making tool,” Matthieu told me.  “People can play casually and be surprised by the meta-learning [about the commons] that results.”

It all began at the World Social Forum (WSF) conference in Montreal in August 2016. Rhéaume decided to use the opportunity to synthesize viewpoints about the commons from a group of 50 participants and use the results to develop the card game.  He persuaded the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation and Gazibo, both based in France, to support development of the game. Fifty commoners more or less co-created the game with the help of several colleagues.  (The process is described here.)

As a game designer, Rhéaume realized that successful, fun games must embody a certain “procedural rhetoric” and reward storytelling. He had enjoyed playing “Magic: The Gathering,” a popular multiplayer card game, and wondered what that game would feel like if it were collaborative.

At the WSF, Rhéaume asked participants to share their own insights about the commons by submitting suggested cards in six categories. The first four categories consist of “commoners cards” featuring  “resources,” “action cards,” “project cards” and “attitude cards.”  Two other types of cards -- “Oppressive Forces” cards with black backs – give the game its kick by applying  “negative effects” to the “Political Arena” of play.  The two negative effects are “enclosures” and “crises,” to which commoners must collectively organize and respond in time.

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Equity in School Forums: An Interview with John Landesman

The 14-page article, Equity in School Forums: An Interview with John Landesman (2016)was written by Carolyne Abdullah, Christopher Karpowitz, and Chad Raphael, and published in the Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 12: Iss. 2. In the article, the authors interview Landesman of Everyday Democracy to share his experience working to address the barriers within the Montgomery County Study Circles Program, which he helped to coordinate. Landesman clarifies the importance between equality and equity; and how these play out when designing a process to effective address the power dynamics that arise within school spaces between admin, faculty, parents, and students.

Read an excerpt of the article below and find the PDF available for download on the Journal of Public Deliberation site here.

From the article…

For adults and youth, American public schools are a major entryway to public engagement. Not only are public schools charged with preparing students for civic life, but they are the custodians of parents’ educational and economic aspirations for their children, often the largest recipients of taxpayer funding in a community, neighborhood hubs that host public meetings and events, and institutions that are formally accountable to the community through school boards, parent teacher associations, and other public forums. Schools need active support from their communities to approve school bonds, attract donations, enlist mentors and volunteers, approve (or at least accept) curriculum reforms, engage parents in supporting their children’s learning, and address social problems such as academic achievement gaps among students of different racial and income backgrounds, bullying, and gangs. Yet, like other institutions of democracy, public school governance is often dominated by the voices of politicians and policy makers, professionals (administrators and teachers), and privileged citizens (parents of higher socio-economic status) (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015).

In Maryland, the Montgomery County Public School system offers a hopeful example of how public dialogue can improve school governance. John Landesman, a Senior Associate at Everyday Democracy, coordinates the Montgomery County Public Schools Study Circles Program. The program engages parents, students, staff, and administrators in dialogue to address racial and ethnic barriers to parent involvement and student achievement in this multilingual, multi-ethnic school district. These dialogues have helped to build trust and collaboration, and increased involvement by parents of color, as well diminishing differences in achievement among students from more and less advantaged backgrounds (Childress, Doyle, and Thomas, 2009; Orland, 2007; Fagotto & Fung, 2009).

In this interview, Landesman explains how Everyday Democracy thinks about equity and equality, and how the organization integrated equity considerations throughout the process of organizing study-circle dialogues in Montgomery County, including recruiting and retaining diverse participants, forming agendas, facilitation, small group discussions in affinity groups of less-powerful participants as well as mixed groups, evaluation, and implementation of plans. The techniques discussed here can be adopted or adapted to forums on schooling and many other issues.

Equity and Equality
Abdullah, Karpowitz, and Raphael (AKR): Some people working in dialogue and deliberation have argued that instead of practicing equality by treating people 1 Abdullah et al.: Equity in School Forums: An Interview with John Landesman similarly, we should strive for equity by treating participants differently in order to create conditions that achieve fair discussion and decisions. Do you see this distinction between equal and equitable treatment as useful to our field and in your own work?

Landesman: I do see a distinction. There’s a picture that we often use in our presentations of three boys trying to look over a fence at a baseball game (see Figure 1). In the first panel, which shows equal treatment, each boy is standing on a box that is the same height. The tall boy can see the game over the fence, the middle boy can barely see, and the shortest boy can’t see at all. In the next panel, which shows equity, the tall boy’s box has been given to the little boy, so now all three of them can see the game. The idea is that everyone needs something different to participate in whatever they’re doing. But to me, this feels like the wrong question. The question should be, “What is the goal of the dialogue, and who needs to be in the room to make the dialogue effective?” If the goal is to have a variety of perspectives deliberating together, then organizers need to think about how to recruit for those different perspectives. If there are people who need something different to be part of it, but having their voice will make the deliberation more effective, then organizers have to use different strategies to get them there.

Think of successful companies like Coca-Cola. Their goal is to sell more of their products. They don’t just develop their product and then say, “OK everyone, come get it.” They spend a lot of time and resources thinking about how to get different kinds of people to buy their products. If the goal of deliberation is to have a richer understanding of an issue based on all the different perspectives that are in the community, than we need to spend time thinking about how to ensure that we get all those perspectives in the room.

In my experience, organizing for diverse perspectives is often an afterthought. Organizers plan the way they always have, and then say, “How do we get Latino participants or low-income folks, or people who have different political perspectives?” That never works, because all we’re doing is adding an extra strategy to what’s already been put in place. Successful organizing starts by asking, “What is the goal of the dialogue, and who needs to be in the room to reach that goal?” Then every piece of the organizing—whether it’s the outreach, the facilitation, the setup once you get there, where it’s located—all of those things are driven by who you want in the room and what perspectives you need to hear to make your dialogue effective. That’s a very different way of looking at it than saying, “We’re going to do it the way we’ve always done it, and now we’re going to develop a strategy to get to these so-called marginalized people.”

This is an excerpt of the article, which can be downloaded in full from the Journal of Public Deliberation here.

About the Journal of Public Deliberation
Journal of Public DeliberationSpearheaded by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium in collaboration with the International Association of Public Participation, the principal objective of Journal of Public Deliberation (JPD) is to synthesize the research, opinion, projects, experiments and experiences of academics and practitioners in the emerging multi-disciplinary field and political movement called by some “deliberative democracy.” By doing this, we hope to help improve future research endeavors in this field and aid in the transformation of modern representative democracy into a more citizen friendly form.

Follow the Deliberative Democracy Consortium on Twitter: @delibdem

Follow the International Association of Public Participation [US] on Twitter: @IAP2USA

Resource Link: www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd/vol12/iss2/art12/

Better Late Than Never: Recent Review of my 2010 Book

Warning: This post is about a scholarly review of a pretty technical book.

Cover of 'Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism.'The pace of academic work can sometimes seem tectonic. There’s a reason scholars tend to have a hard time appreciating what news editors mean by “timely.” For a philosopher, an argument about Plato that was published after the year 2000 is downright recent.

Keeping that in mind, I’m pleased to share with you the book review that has just been published of my first book, released in 2010, Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism. It’s the first review of that book to come out in any of the major American philosophy journals, believe it or not. The book wasn’t ignored, I’m happy to say, having been reviewed very positively in 2011 in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. But, the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society is a top notch outlet for one of my deep philosophical interests, namely American philosophy.

Photo of the cover of the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society.

The best news about the review that has just come out is not any glowing language about my book. The tone of the review is very matter of fact and balanced. The fantastic thing is the quality of this review.

A good review has to tell you in some precise detail about the aims, structure, and substance of the book to be reviewed. It also should raise notes about both what were some strengths in the project and what could either be improved or extended in future work. In his review, Torjus Midtgarden of the University of Bergen has seriously inspired me in a highly unusual way. He’s made me want to return to the study of the subject of my dissertation.

View of a sunset through a rear view mirror.Most people finish their dissertations and don’t want to look back. Not only did I look back in the years after defending it, but I did the traditional thing some choose to do and developed elements of it further, ultimately putting the revised project out as a book. When you’ve gone through that step, you’re even less motivated to want to return to it. You’d think so, anyway.

Dr. Midtgarden was even handed, though generous in offering a thorough and precise understanding of the aims of my project. He also invited some thought and response about his comments on it that were pointed, but fair and intellectually provocative.

Thumbnail image of the review.How cool is that? I am grateful to Professor Midtgarden and plan to stew on his interesting comments and suggestions for some time. Here’s his review.

Why Some Progress Is Slow for Accessibility

“What’s with that?” a student asked me. Our classroom this semester was on the third floor of Barker Hall at the University of Kentucky. The flights are tall and there is no elevator. “How is that allowed?”

The young woman was asking about accessibility. It’s 2016. Don’t campus buildings have to be accessible?

This is a photo of a modern staircase designed with ramps running zig zag up the diagonals of the staircase.

New construction can incorporate accessibility features beautifully, as part of the design, and while not making accommodations around back by the trash can. You can walk or roll with your loved ones to the other floor.

A sidewalk that ends in grass.Before moving to Lexington, I advocated for certain accessibility issues at the University of Mississippi. In the process, I learned a lot about what people say when you push on such issues. There were many disappointing responses at times, the most upsetting of which was being ignored for nearly a year. That’s another story.

The experience in Mississippi revealed to me some interesting challenges to consider even when an organization means to do its best to make a social space maximally accessible.

If you want to advocate for change, critical thinking textbooks will tell you, you have to understand your opposition and address it head on. Finding the weakest arguments that oppose your mission and laughing at them won’t convince people who disagree with you. Identifying the smartest things people say in their defense and responding to those might.

How many buildings are on a university campus? It will vary significantly, but let’s imagine that there are 200 at a major research university. If the campus has been around a long time, many of the buildings will have been built long before the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some will be historic buildings. Others in need of repair. Some will be priorities and others won’t.

Classroom space tends to be at a premium in most institutions. When all of the most commonly used spaces have been taken up, you look for further spots not yet in use. My courses were added far later than is usual this past summer, so they were located in classroom space still available. It so happens that that means Barker Hall.

Barker hall today.Barker Hall is historic, built in 1901. The first photo of it is how it looks now, although it is actually surrounded by construction of the new student center at present. The next photo showcases what we mean when we call it historic.

So why isn’t it accessible?

  1. Making spaces accessible as you build them is cheaper than retroactively. So, it’s more expensive than making other, perhaps more spacious new buildings accessible.
  2. Historic photo of Barker Hall.Making historic buildings accessible generally adds cost, because it is desirable to preserve the beauty of historic buildings, while retrofitting. It’s harder, so it costs more.
  3. It probably is not the only remaining space that needs retrofitting.
  4. Money is always limited and judgments are made all-things-considered about where to spend it.
  5. Without many people calling for Barker to change, it won’t any time soon. Though, there may be plans in the works to update it at some point.

But wait, “Isn’t it the law?!”

  1. No, it’s not technically the law that every space has to be accessible to every person. The law says that institutions like mine have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations for people who need them. That means that if any of us had a broken ankle or if a student who uses a mobility device were to have added the course, the university would have had to find some solution to move the class meetings.

This last point is delicate, though. How would it make you feel if 30 other people had a change to their meeting location for a semester because of you? It’s something that couldn’t help but make someone feel singled out. Maybe the first classroom was conveniently located for certain people. Barker Hall is a hop away from Patterson Office Tower, where my office is. So, in the end, this answer is not terribly satisfying.

My point here is not that I think it’s fine to have inaccessible buildings. Hell, the window unit air conditioners made it hard to hear each other in August, a problem for people with hearing impairments, not to mention anyone trying to engage in a classroom discussion.

Man holding his ear because he can't hear the speaker.

No, this professional baseball team executive has nothing to do with the story here, except that he’s struggling to hear someone, as I often did this semester.

So, at some point I’ll gently start to ask questions about what the structure is here for decisions and initiatives regarding accessibility. It was refreshing, I must say, to hear disdain in the student’s voice. I heard passion and initiative in it. You can’t change much for the better without high expectations. At the same time, the challenges are real even when good people are trying to do many things right with limited resources.

Next semester, I’ll be teaching on the second floor of a building with several elevators. And central air.

Follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

The Risks of Public Engagement, Part I

Dr. Shane RalstonI and others may well be guilty of romanticizing public philosophy. Fellow Dewey scholar and a prolific writer, Shane Ralston, has published a warning for people interested in engaging in public philosophy. In “On the Perils of Public Philosophy,” Ralston rightly recognizes both that there is a resurgence in the movement for publicly engaged philosophy and that too few call attention to its risks.

He explains that “Public philosophers are often criticized, bullied, harassed and even threatened and, unfortunately, some respond in kind when communicating their ideas in the public sphere.” He’s right. In Oxford, MS, while I was working at the University of Mississippi, I was thoroughly harassed by someone who made me feel ill. I won’t go into the details of it, but being publicly engaged has not been easy. People who disagree with you sometimes do so to a degree motivating enough to be threatening.

David - The Death of Socrates

I have reason to believe that this person sent two students to my office with a video camera for a “gotcha” kind of harassing interview. They were surprised when I sat them down to schedule a time to meet up formally. They didn’t show up for that.

Other people have written me with insults. One man, in a single email, called me a eunuch, a gelding, and effeminate. He clearly has strong feelings about gender and opinions. That sort of thing I can laugh off. The person who told me he was meeting with my Chancellor the next day was clearly trying to intimidate me. I was then an untenured assistant professor.

People will be mean. They will be unbelievably uncivil. One said that I should spend more time in the classroom than in the opinion pages.

Ralston is right that we don’t hear enough about the unpleasant side of public engagement.

So, why on Earth do we do it?

First of all, we should remember that it’s no surprise to be criticized or insulted for engaging with people about philosophical issues. Plato noted in his cave metaphor that the philosophers who have seen the light outside the cave have an obligation to go back down in there to help free the others. He did not think that they would welcome this liberation, he explained. If any philosopher “tried to loose another [prisoner in the cave] and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death… No question.”

Plato’s Socrates recognized that people will resist teachers and liberators. The folks in the cave are habituated to that setting. They believe that they have interests there. It’s unpleasant to be turned toward the light. People will be upset. Some might try to kill you.

I see that I have yet to make the case for public engagement. My point so far is that when we do it, we must do so with understanding of dangers. It’s like a battle medic. You head into dangerous territory to save people, not to injure anyone. Nevertheless, you can be targeted and hurt in the process. The part that makes it all the more difficult is that in Plato’s metaphor, it’s those whom you’re trying to save who resist and want you dead. Given that, why think we even have an obligation to them?

Here another line from the Republic is motivating for me. Plato’s Socrates says that the “greatest punishment for those unwilling to rule is to be led by those who are worse.”

Puppet master's hands and strings.If you’re unwilling to fight for the truth and for the liberation of people’s minds, you have chosen to be ruled by ignorance and whatever shadows on the wall the powerful puppet masters choose.

If we are going to mean what we do in love of wisdom, we must do so with our greatest hopes in mind. It isn’t that we should believe that they will be achieved. The point is that if we don’t try, we choose to be doomed to follow ignorance and injustice.

Now we have the greatest need I have witnessed in my lifetime to engage publicly in reasoned, vigorous debate about what is right. There will be risks to doing so. Socrates was killed. It is incredibly unlikely that philosophy professors today could face such risks, but it is not impossible. This is all the more reason why it is important to mean it when we say with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

You can follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

AllSides

From AllSides…

Unlike regular news services, AllSides exposes bias and provides multiple angles on the same story so you can quickly get the full picture, not just one slant.allsides_logo

At AllSides, we believe the way society gets its news and information affects the world around us. And lately it hasn’t been going well. News, social media and even search results have dramatically changed in the last several years, becoming so narrowly filtered, biased and personalized that we are becoming less informed and less tolerant of different people and ideas.

This is how it happens, and what we can do about it.

Blasted with the overwhelming 24-hour news noise of today, which is often loud, extreme, partisan and rude, we tend to do one of the following:
Disengage from trying to understand or solve society’s problems.
Block out different perspectives, becoming more close-minded and less tolerant of other people and ideas.

There’s a better way… AllSides sees a strong connection between our ability to comprehend and tolerate different opinions, and our ability to develop better schools, more jobs, more wellbeing, and less violence. So we decided to address the core problem – the overwhelming and often one-sided information flow.

How? Change the way we get information so it is easy to sort through the noise and see different perspectives. Armed with a broader view, we can resist attempts to manipulate us in one direction or the other. Instead, we can truly decide for ourselves:

Understand and appreciate different perspectives and people. We’re creating a better informed, less polarized world.

AllSides delivers technology and services to provide multiple perspectives on news, issues, and topics – and the people behind the ideas. With it, we get a broader, deeper understanding of the issues and each other so together we can build a more perfect union.

About the AllSides Bias Rating
The AllSides Bias Rating TM reflects the average judgment of the American people. Bias is normal. If you’ve got a pulse, you’ve got a bias. But hidden bias misleads and divides us. That’s why we have the AllSides Bias Rating.

Bias ratings can be a powerful tool. With it, we can easily look at a news story or issue from different perspectives just by looking at articles on the same topic but from sources that have different bias ratings. By understanding bias, we can understand topics and each other better.

Join us in making bias more transparent everywhere. Rate your own bias, learn how you compare to others (options on this page to the right), and help us rate the bias of other news sources.

How AllSides Calculates Bias
The AllSides patented bias detection and display technology drives arguably the world’s most effective and up-to-date bias detection engine. It’s powered by a combination of wisdom-of-the-crowd technology and the best statistical research and methodologies.

You drive the bias ratings. What you do at AllSides affects our bias ratings. That includes how you rate your own bias and how you rate the bias of news sites, especially through our blind bias surveys. All of this is added to our crowd data, which is statistically normalized to represent a balance of the American public.

Multiple methods for calculating bias. Our blind bias surveys, described in the graphic below, is our most complete and robust method for rating the bias of the source. That is not the only method we use, and often we don’t need anything as robust as that. The source itself might openly share its own bias, 3rd party research may have already determined the bias, an independent review might be decisive, or a broad consensus could be sufficient. Take a look at the variety of methods we use to measure bias.

allsides

Our bias detection engine gets smarter as time goes on. We are constantly evolving the bias engine. And, the more you participate, the better our ratings will be and the more sources we can rate. We also ask you to rate your own bias. We’re continuing to improve ways to help you get the most accurate bias self-rating so you can participate on AllSides and in life with transparency and self-awareness. Make the world a better place by understanding and sharing your own bias openly!

Resource Link: www.allsides.com/

Race, Income, and Elections: The White (Male?) Working Class

In my last post before the election, I quibbled with Peter Levine’s strategic argument that Trump’s supporters might be momentarily richer than average, but only because they were older, maler, and whiter. I worried that it was a kind of mistake, even if it’s perhaps an analytic effort designed to enhance our ability and willingness to achieve strategic ends. Since the surprising election results last week, many more people are returning to questions about the working class, and specifically the “white working class.” I have been trying to think about this for a while, and I’m still coming up short.

So I’m returning to that argument, especially given his follow-up, “To beat Trump, invest in organizing:”

Meanwhile, we also need organizations in red states and red counties, in rural areas and exurbs. The point of organizing there is not to show empathy to Trump voters or to honor their concerns. The point is to win. Particularly in 2018, anti-Trump votes will be very poorly distributed–far too concentrated in the great cities to win the House and Senate back. Every extra vote in a white non-urban county will matter, and that requires organizations to change minds, to empower the disenfranchised, and to offer real benefits. By the way, although I think the Democratic Party is a necessary component of the opposition, it is not sufficient. Electing or reelecting responsible and caring Republicans in red districts is also essential.

This is very much of a piece with what he wrote before the election, when he tried to distinguish the strategic argument from the analytic one (emphasis mine):

If you have no organizations behind you, you’ll typically feel powerless. If that’s how you feel, you are unlikely to want to participate in a difficult conversation, make sacrifices and tradeoffs, acknowledge any unfair advantages, or negotiate. Again, to use Trump voters as an example: they are overwhelmingly White, and it would be appropriate for them to acknowledge White privilege when issues of racial injustice arise. But I think they are very unlikely to acknowledge their own privilege, let alone agree to concessions, as long as their overwhelming experience is one of powerlessness. And I think they are powerless if they are unorganized and represented only by unaccountable celebrities. This implies, by the way, that one of the most important tasks confronting us today is organizing the White working class.

Just who is the white working class? Levine defines it as white people without college degrees working blue collar jobs and living in counties with increasing white male mortality. This is remarkably precise, and perhaps it does indicate a set of shared interests that must be organized. And yet…

Depending on the way of measuring, as few as 1/5 of workers or as many as 2/3 of workers are in the working class. When economists use the term, it gets precisely defined, but then glossed by others in a confusing way. Are all jobs that don’t require a college degree blue collar? Does the working class include the service sector, or manufacturing only? Are we talking about all non-agricultural low skill manual labor? What about medium- and high-skill manual labor? That variation from 23% of workers to 66% of workers provides a massive opportunity for equivocation, and suggests that the term is well beyond anything that tracks a specific group. It reminds me of the way we talk about the “middle-class,” with precise definitions on offer in such variety that almost anyone can find one that they fit. With that much equivocation, the term lends itself to rhetorical manipulation or propaganda. 

But the most important question is this: why “white?” Why assume that–whatever the working class is–its interests are racialized? I wonder to what extent the “White Working Class” formulation merely reproduces the actual racism of a group of people who share thereby share a sense a pride and solidarity even if their material interests are not always aligned. Something that can be a social identity, a racial identity, and a class identity all at once.

I don’t fully know where I stand as I watch the dizzying play of free association. Just because a concept is ideological doesn’t mean it doesn’t call out a group of people who are interpellated by it and then cathect it themselves. Just the opposite, I think: we imbue arbitrary conceptual constellations with meaning in order to make our world liveable and loveable.

And there’s a triptych of books out recently trying to figure this out: J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, and Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their own Land.

Each picks up a different group, but in the first and last case I don’t know if they would fit the standard Labor Department’s classification of the blue collar worker. The Politics of Resentment does, though: using Wisconsin rural and exurban voters whose work is primarily physical and does not require a college degree, but are well-enough paid that they’d qualify as middle-class, yet have not seen their standards of living increase. This group in particular found Barack Obama’s campaign initially promising yet soured when he made comments about them clinging to God and guns. After years of field work, Kathy Cramer diagnoses three causes of their resentment:

That feeling is primarily composed of three things. First, people felt that they were not getting their fair share of decision-making power. For example, people would say: All the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.

Second, people would complain that they weren’t getting their fair share of stuff, that they weren’t getting their fair share of public resources. That often came up in perceptions of taxation. People had this sense that all the money is sucked in by Madison, but never spent on places like theirs.

And third, people felt that they weren’t getting respect. They would say: The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us. They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.

So it’s all three of these things — the power, the money, the respect. People are feeling like they’re not getting their fair share of any of that.

This makes some sense: everyone wants power, money, and respect! These are the three hands: the invisible hand of the market, the intangible hand of esteem, and the iron hand of state coercion. And yet everyone always feels as if they are getting the back of these hands to some extent.

I still worry that this analysis makes a mistake about the relationship between race and class in support of a strategic point. To what extent is there a group of people called the “white working class” that is particularly injured by the ways that the political economy is organized? Remember that my position is that we ought to be wary about racialized organizations of white people. Indeed, I followed Arendt in worrying that the primary form of organization towards which such a group would be prone would be a racist or imperialistic one. That is, it’s precisely the effort to organize the disorganized that creates a populist nationalism. But this is not a popular view!

Yet this is a mainstay of American demographics: we cannot understand our country easily through income or education unless we add the racial coefficient. Once we’ve demographically controlled for race, only class remains:

[This conclusion] requires us to divvy up the working class into whites and non-whites. Having done this, we then find that non-white working class members strongly support Hillary Clinton, and white working class members strongly support Donald Trump. Thus something called “social class” predicts candidate support!

I still think this is right. That is, we can’t fruitfully rebut claims about race by dividing the working class into racial groups. It’s certainly true that these groups live and work in different places and may well have different cultures, although I do think that the Black Jeopardy SNL sketch captured something impressive about their shared outlooks:

Yet that’s quite clearly not enough to justify the overall claim that they belong to the same class. To do that, one has to ignore race. For instance, Levine concludes that:

[I]f class means social status, and status involves occupation and education, then Trump voters tend to be downscale Whites in downscale White areas.

Here’s what best predicted Trump support before the election: occupation, education, mortality level, gender, and age. Trump’s voters tend to be blue collar, to lack a college degree, and to live in those counties driving the white lifespan downward. Yet none of these explains Trump support as well as race. And indeed, after the election we have reason (although we must be careful of exit polls) to believe that whites with college degrees joined less educated whites to support Trump!

It’s clearly true that many of Trump’s voters are “downscale” compared to other whites. But they are equally “upscale” compared to non-whites. So the extent to which we can accept the class analysis of their support is the extent to which we can both assume whiteness (to capture the group that is not African-American and Latino and supports Clinton) and erase that whiteness. That’s the extent to which there is a group of people with a distinct class interest we can call “the white working class,” preserving and erasing whiteness at once. So what worries me is that we seem–for strategic reasons I mostly share–to want to deny that white nationalism is about race.

After all, by analyzing away their whiteness we miss one of their primary concerns: the relative loss of prestige associated with older white males.

I feel like I am being uncharitable to Levine and other class-first analysts of this election cycle, so let me ask some questions that might help me understand the position:

  1.  Are there non-strategic reasons to analyze the white working class separately from the non-white working class? For instance: in presidential elections, poor white voters vote in much higher numbers than poor Black and Latino voters. They seem more like white people than like poor people. Why does cutting the working class at the racial joint seem so smooth to you (and not to me)? Can you help me see my error?
  2. Is there a sense in which the white working class really is worse off than their incomes suggest? We often talk about this group’s recent surprising decline in lifespan, and I would add that they are uniquely threatened by the new college credentialism craze. But the white working class lifespan is still higher than for non-whites of the same class (or even much higher classes!) Perhaps the loss of status is measurably worse the the perpetual lack of it is: certainly non-whites have more optimism than whites in this income group.
  3. Put simply: is the racial division of the working class warranted? Can we cut the pie into racial pieces without eliminating our ability to rebut racial resentment explanations?

One last thing: since I wrote my last post, I have read this very interesting Monkey Cage post on research by Wayne, Valentino, and Oceno supporting the claim that sexism (and anger) is a better explanation of Trump support than racism (and fear.) Here’s a Vox gloss of the study. Though the Monkey Cage post is older, I had already been thinking about this because of the work of the philosopher Kate Manne (here, here, and here, for instance).

I think it’s difficult to see whether sexism causes voters to support Trump or Trump support causes voters to become more sexist. That is: how many of these misogynistic voters would vote for the Democrat if the Republicans had selected a woman candidate? It’s notable that sexist voters strongly preferred Romney to Obama in 2012, though less so than they prefer Trump. So it could be that when a man runs against a woman, sexists support the man, or it could just be that sexists tend to vote Republican. The fact that sexists are more likely to support Trump than Romney suggests the former. But there’s a third possibility: when a woman runs, her opponents become more sexist. They reach for reasons to oppose her, as we all do when we have a position to defend, and in a misogynistic culture the reasons closest to hand will tend to be gendered, misogynistic ones.

For Education, Against Credentialism

Today I’ll be addressing a group of imprisoned students, university administrators, and prison officials to inaugurate the University of Baltimore’s partnership with the US Department of Education and Jessup Correctional Institution to offer Bachelor’s Degrees. We have a few tasks today, including inspiring the students and encouraging the officials that their support for the program is not a betrayal of their other constituents. Here’s what I plan to say:

It’s well-known that receiving a college degree improves life outcomes. The standard claim is that getting a Bachelor’s Degree is worth an extra million dollars in income over a person’s lifetime, but even this is hard to predict as the returns to education are increasing. In 1965, a person with a college degree only made $7,500 more per year than a person without one. This is called the college wage premium: in 2013, that college wage premium had increased to $17,500. Since it’s increasing, it’s likely that a college degree today will be worth even more than a million dollars over a lifetime.

What’s more, college graduates are healthier, have lower unemployment rates and shorter periods of unemployment. They are more likely to have happy marriages and less likely to be divorced; they are less likely to be incarcerated, and even live longer.

Thus it seems like a pretty good investment. But there is very little clear connection between studying Civil War history or the anthropology of upland Southeast Asia and doing the sorts of jobs that college graduates end up doing. What’s more, there’s a phenomenon called the “sheepskin effect” which shows that most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than along the way. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course can make a big difference.

College, then, seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

Calling it “signaling” is mostly an economic exercise, but educational researchers can see it at work in different ways, all of which indicate that there is not enough emphasis on learning. Educational sociologists call it the “disengagement compact,” a bargain struck between faculty and students in which both agree: “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” Teachers agree to be entertaining and undemanding, and in exchange students agree to pay their tuition without complaint and give the faculty good teaching evaluations. Both thus have more time for other endeavors.

I believe that imprisoned students do not have the luxury of the disengagement compact. If we accept the signaling theory then a period of incarceration is a severe signal to potential employers: it is a signal that you are more likely than not to go back to prison. At best, a degree serves to distinguish some formerly incarcerated returning citizens from the rest, to deepen the prejudice against some returning citizens in favor of others.

Thankfully, it turns out that people do sometimes learn useful skills in college. Education can be transformative. A rigorous liberal arts education that focuses on reading difficult texts, solving complicated problems, and writing and speaking clearly about matters of little direct concern can help teach the skills that employers want more than any other:

  • critical thinking
  • analytic reasoning
  • problem solving
  • clear written and oral communication

And research on college learning outcomes suggests that a liberal arts education can teach these skills so long as the classes require a lot of reading (forty pages a week), a lot of writing (twenty pages a semester), and the professor has high expectations of the students. Which is encouraging, because it means that we can break out of the merely competitive cycle.

I have a theory as to why this works, that comes from the educational advocate Earl Shorris. His Clemente course in the humanities inspired Bard College’s Prison Initiative, which inspired the US Department of Education, who took a chance on us here. In his book Riches for the Poor, Shorris argues that one major factor in poverty is the stultifying character of one’s problems and environment. Shorris offers the analogy of Native American hunting practices, where hunters would encircle their prey and then move in, creating anxiety and fear that aids the hunter in capturing stunned prey. Poverty and prison both offer similar “surrounds of force” whereby individuals are beset by so many forces (“hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, neighbors, drugs, criminals, and racism”) that they do not know where to turn.

An education in the liberal arts gives us the crucial pause we need to avoid confusion and find an escape route. The “pause” is a performative skill, like learning to fix a car or perform a surgery. Anyone could do it at any time, but learning to pause when we’re stressed is actually extremely difficult. We need to learn to reflect. And it isn’t just enough for a professor to tell you: “reflect!” Just as you can’t just tell an illiterate person, “read!” or a clumsy person who has never learned, “ride that bike! A highly rigorous and engaged liberal arts degree offers its students an opportunity to train in important meta-cognitive habits. Education is not something the teacher does to the student, it’s something the student does to himself, with the professor’s guidance.

To sum up:

Education may just be about signaling. If so, let’s signal loud and clear how amazing you guys are! But there’s a good deal of evidence that education can be transformative, even if your professors can’t transform you, exactly. You have to transform yourself with their help.

We will set out the guidelines. You will meet our (VERY HIGH) expectations. If the educational sociologists are right, this will give you an opportunity to develop the habits and skills that employers want and need. And if Shorris is right, maybe you’ll develop inner peace along the way. If you see a professor giving you too much slack, ask: does she believe in the transformative value of education? Or is he just here to collect a paycheck and hand out sheepskins?

Demand transformation.

End Corporal Punishment in Public Schools

First published in The Herald Leader (Lexington, KY), Sunday, 9/25/16, 4-5C.

Logo of the Lexington Herald-Leader.On September 4th, The Herald Leader of Lexington, KY, published an in-depth news article on the subject of corporal punishment in public schools. It was still early in the school year, which makes such topics timely. I had written a draft to send them on the subject, but the news article offered many specifics to address in considering the kinds of justifications people raise for continuing corporal punishment in public schools.

Here is the news article to which I was responding, titled “The Paddle Is Still Wielded in Kentucky Schools, but in Declining Numbers.” The piece covers quite an array of reasons people give for the continued practice of corporal punishment. I believe philosophers have a lot to offer when it comes to analyzing arguments, clarifying concerns, and cataloguing reasons for or against a matter. So, I updated my initial draft for the Herald Leader and it came out yesterday in the Sunday issue.

Photo of the header of my op-ed on corporal punishment. Clicking on the link in the image takes you to the full scan of the printed article, available on Academia.edu.

My original title was “End Corporal Punishment in Schools,” but the editors found one of the lines from the piece stronger. So in print and online, the op-ed is titled “Prisoners Better Protected from Corporal Punishment than Students.” That link takes you to the HTML version of the piece online. I’ve also scanned in the printed version which you can view on Academia.edu here or by clicking the image here above.