Talking Leadership with Grad Students

Logo for the Graduate Student Congress at the University of Kentucky.Today I had the honor of having been invited to speak at the University of Kentucky’s Graduate Student Leadership Conference. My talk was called “Democracy and Leadership in Higher Education: A Talk for Graduate Students.” I seconded some of the prior speaker’s remarks, which concerned the value of networking, including online and via social media. One student had expressed her aversion to social media. I explained that at least one wants to have a good Web site, as people do want to look you up some when getting to know you. One avenue that can help are social media profiles, but a good Web site can do wonders too. I would encourage some of the same things. He had said that Facebook isn’t a great medium, but that’s because he was thinking of one’s personal Facebook profile. And obviously he hasn’t read my post about why scholars need Facebook author pages (and since I wrote that piece, my author page following has grown from ~2k to ~141k).

Eric Weber delivering a different talk years earlier, not the one mentioned in this post.

Photo of the paperback and hardback editions of 'Democracy and Leadership.'I wasn’t there today to talk about social media, though. Instead, I spoke mainly about my 2013 book, Democracy and Leadership, and showed what I think we still have to learn from Plato, even if it needs updating for the modern and democratic era. I find a lot of value in reminding myself of what Plato’s Socrates says in the first book of the Republic. There, Socrates says that good people won’t be willing to lead. They’d rather others do it. But, some compulsion weighs on good people, inspiring them to be leaders against their inclinations. That compulsion is the fact, in his way of thinking, that worse people will lead. In the democratic era, the language of good people and bad people generally rings as unpleasant at best. My translation for democracy is to say that the compulsion could be instead that good people care about problems, injustices, that could be ameliorated with effort. Good people don’t want to be at the top for its own sake, but accept positions of responsibility because of what would happen if other people would not stand up to address key problems.

Bust of Socrates.

Socrates.

After that, I explained how and why I think it’s important that we continue to learn about leadership from Plato, even while we disagree with and let go of his authoritarian outlook. In other words, how he characterizes the virtues of leadership is problematic, but there’s no doubt that wisdom is important for leadership, for example, including in the democratic era. It just needs to be understood, pursued, and embodied democratically. So, I talked about what I take that to mean in many contexts of leadership today, but focusing on prime challenges for grad students. After all, good people will need compulsion in grad school too. Leadership is generally thankless, or worse. Plus, it takes a great deal of time and effort, which generally means a distraction from one’s other work. As such, engaging in leadership efforts as a grad student may well mean taking longer to finish one’s program. That’s something serious to accept. To want to lead despite that may well take some compulsion. Even if it does, however, grad student leaders would be wisest if they engage in democratic practices, acknowledging the dangers, challenges, and harms that can come from leading. They should also beware not to carry the world on their shoulders, as time is short, even at its longest, in graduate school (or we generally want it to be), and colleges and universities are slow-moving, relatively conservative institutions. So, at best one can make incremental change and pass on to the next group of leaders their chance to make a further difference.

As such, leadership in the grad school context should stay humble and stoic about what’s possible, want to lead for the right reasons, and be award of the costs, challenges, and reasons not to lead, all while going after it anyway in those cases that truly call for such a sacrifice.

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P.S. Of course there was more detail in the talk, but this is the gist of what I had to say this morning, and the people in attendance seemed to appreciate thinking through these matters with me, raising some very thoughtful and valuable questions. My thanks go out to James William Lincoln and the Graduate Student Congress for the invitation.

Great Review of ‘Democracy and Leadership’

Dr. Tadd Ruetenik.Dr. Tadd Ruetenik of St. Ambrose University published a review of my 2013 book, Democracy and Leadership, in the second 2016 issue of The Pluralist. I subscribe to the journal, but since I moved last June, I have not yet received the issue. I still have some address information to update for a number of subscriptions and such, it seems. I was delighted to get my hands on the review through other means, therefore, when Tadd was kind enough to share a digital copy of it with me.

Image of Ruetenik's review of 'Democracy and Leadership.' The link opens a PDF version of the review.

Click on the image for a text-searchable Adobe PDF version of the review.

A good review explains a book’s main point and approach, showcases some strengths, and offers some points of potential disagreement. In many reviews, that formula is often undertaken in all too formulaic a way. Ruetenik’s review has a depth of thoughtfulness and a sharp discernment about differences in our points of view that is deeply refreshing. Plus, where he inclines in different directions, he nevertheless exhibits the philosopher’s humility in understanding why others incline in other ways. In the popular press in Mississippi, my more recent book was dismissed as excessive optimism by one older, jaded progressive and rejected as far too moderate and modest by a young, not yet jaded man on a mission. It was like the old economist’s joke. With your hair on fire and your feet in ice, on average, you’re quite comfortable.

Photo of MLK, Jr. I’m definitely an advocate for moderation and believe that, like MLK, one can be militant yet moderate. Ruetenik appears to disagree, but naturally, I think. The concepts certainly seem to be in conflict, on the surface anyway. A moderate person in an immoderate, unjust society, may be called radical, as King was. But when Aristotle referred to the mean between extremes, he did not mean a simple matter of the average of others’ extremes. The moderate is what is right, and one’s society can be far from the mean. Calling for justice courageously can seem immoderate, but, I believe, that one’s means for calling for change can demonstrate moderation while pushing heroically for change.

These remarks are initial thoughts I have about the great feedback I have received from Tadd. The best thing about Tadd’s review is that, unlike so much other feedback one can receive, his makes me want to return to the project. In fact, I’ve been meaning for years to write a paper about how I believe my theory of democratic leadership can help us to explain and theorize elements of King’s democratic leadership efforts, which I see as a confirmation of the value of my theory. Of course, there are important contributions at work in the Malcolm X’s out there, yet even he, when you look at what he said, often was far more reasonable and democratically respectful of people and inquiry than he was painted in his day. He accepted the label of extremism, but in his own way showed how moderate the values he represented were, such as in the values of liberty, self-respect, self-defense, and more.

I don’t want to get too far afield here today, but my excitement over thinking about this topic again is not something I commonly experience when I encounter a review of my work. It is a testament to Ruetenik’s probity, his sincere and interesting engagement with the ideas of the book, and his reasonable differences of opinion that inspire me to think and write more on the subject.

Benjamin Franklin.

Beloved deist, Benjamin Franklin.

To his speculation about public office, I’m with Plato in thinking that in general, one probably ought to feel called to leadership. You need the right environment and to believe genuinely that you are the person who might really have what the public needs. That takes a balance of circumstances related to the mandate-independence matter. Thus, you’ve got to be a part of a community in which you will represent people, not merely in terms of what the public calls for, but as someone whom you believe the relevant public would choose for his or her own values. That takes the alignment of quite a few stars. If one day the stars do align in such a way, then I might pursue service to my community outside the academy, beyond public writing and speaking. I don’t think it would be such a problem to learn from Kurtz, whom Tadd mentions. The many deists who contributed to the U.S. Constitution are lauded despite their divergences from some Americans’ beliefs. The important thing is whether or not a person seriously embraces the right values and has the wisdom, courage, and humility to listen and serve others in the deepest, most democratically respectful manner that he or she can.

All these are initial thoughts, hence posted here on my site only. Still, I can feel renewed energy for thinking about democratic leadership and am thus profoundly grateful to Tadd for his review and challenges in The Pluralist. If you all are interested in reading what he had to say, check it out here.

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.

Video: “Poverty, Culture, and Justice,” @ Purdue U

This is a screen capture from my talk at Purdue University in February of 2016.

I’ve posted a number of recordings of interviews and talks I’ve given on Uniting Mississippi. This talk is on my next project, which is still in progress. The book is titled A Culture of Justice. One of the chapters that is in progress is the subject of the talk I gave at Purdue University. Here’s the video, about 1hr 28 mins:

If you can’t see this video in your RSS reader or email, then click here.

If you’re looking for a speaker, visit my Speaking and Contact pages.

“Justice as an Evolving Regulative Ideal”

Journal article published in Pragmatism Today, Volume 6, Issue 2 (2015): 105-116.

Photo of the top of my paper, which links to the PDF file on the journal's Web site.

Logo for Pragmatism Today.I’m happy to announced that my latest paper, as of December 2015, has been published in Pragmatism Today, the peer-reviewed journal of the Central-European Pragmatist Forum. This paper is a step in the larger project of my book in progress, A Culture of Justice.

 

Title: “Justice as an Evolving Regulative Ideal.”

Abstract:

In this paper, I argue that justice is best understood as an evolving regulative ideal. This framework avoids cynicism and apathy on the one hand as well as brash extremism on the other. I begin by highlighting the elusive quality of justice as an ideal always on the horizon, yet which is nevertheless meaningful. Next, I explain the ways in which it makes more sense to see justice as evolving, rather than as fixed. Finally, I demonstrate the value of Charles Sanders Peirce’s concept of a regulative ideal for framing a pragmatist outlook on justice. Peirce helps us at the same time to appreciate ideals yet to let go of outmoded understandings of their metaphysical status. Ideals are thus tools for regulating behavior. Each of these qualifications demonstrates that justice is best conceived of as an evolving regulative ideal.

Uniting the States? Brainstorming a Trajectory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Progressive Case Against Public Schools, or, What Bleeding Heart Libertarians Should Say

I’m not a libertarian, but some of my good friends are and I tend to think that there are lots of really promising areas of agreement with libertarians. The blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians was founded with just that goal in mind: to find the points of agreement between libertarian and progressive goals, and indeed (in my view) to argue for the superiority of libertarian perspectives for addressing some matters of mutual concern.

I often associate this libertarian caution at state over-reach to address the demands of social justice with F. A. Hayek but it’s a broad and puissant tradition in the literature. Basically, it’s entailed by the reality of unintended consequences and the perils of public choice: we don’t always fully know how our efforts will bear fruit and we do know that interested parties are often maneuvering to turn those efforts to their own advantage.

by Matt BorsAn example of a potentially promising direction for BHL is this recent Andrew Cohen post on abolishing state administration of schools. Though public schooling is a progressive shibboleth, I happen to think that that makes it a prime target for ideologically-blinkered reasoning by progressives: John Dewey’s vision of the public school is a far cry from what we’ve actually created (and indeed public schooling has long been a space of indoctrination and the active production of inequality) but through the miracle of equivocation we defend it all the same. Yet Cohen proceeds as if the case of public schooling is insufficiently strong according to his somewhat tendentious definition of the justifications for state action as a remedy for harms. But this seems to take up the weaker argument and ignore the stronger one!

Here’s the kind of argument I’d like to see from BHL:

  • Progressives should recognize that the ideals of public school and the realities are widely divergent. For example, many public schools play a role in the school-to-prison pipeline and other direct harms against–especially–African-Americans. (One can spin many other detailed and nuanced stories of this kind that highlight the harms to the least advantaged, the way some educational experiences actively dissuade intellectual curiosity, encourage students to think of themselves as incapable, or extend state coercion into families but only when those families are poor or non-white, etc.)
  • Public schooling produces much of the real inequality we experience in the world through the production of metrics for merit. Despite the fact that some propagandists for public schooling argued that it would act as a democratic leveler, this claim has been completely disproven by subsequent events.
  • Public schooling supplies an opportunity for the state to directly and actively interfere with children in politically motivated ways, as evidenced by the textbook controversies that come from Texas among many other examples.
  • Whites and the upper-middle class benefit disproportionately from subsidies and school boundary plans that directly and actively exclude non-whites and poor students. The evidence in many cities (including mine) is that private schools are better racially integrated than public ones, both demographically and socially. The evidence here is mixed, though, and worth teasing out: many private schooling options were explicitly designed to perpetuate segregation.
  • Yet even whites recognize that the latest efforts to test and measure the efficacy of public schools have further perverted the actual educational efforts to which schools are supposed to be devoted. Increasingly, schooling is designed to make testable pupils rather than democratic citizens.
  • There is a clear alternative: state management can be abolished while preserving (and indeed equalizing) state funding. From a libertarian’s perspective this may be second-best to purely privatized schooling, but let’s remember those public choice problems, eh?

Now, of course it may be that a well-informed libertarian (and progressives!) would have objections to some of these points. But it seems like the difference between “only remedy harms” and “first, do no harm” is one that should always favor the latter, and I can’t understand why a libertarian would choose the narrower path. I take it that we see this kind of approach in Radley Balko’s work and there’s been much more demand for it as Balko’s case comes to look a lot like those of Black activists and organizers: that’s precisely the kind of coalition I imagined BHL would champion. Of course, as an outsider to BHL it may be that I’m simply not understanding the internal motivations for this particular approach, which seems born of the kind of political philosophy that tries to exclude public choice considerations and empirical data and do its work through deliberately abstruse thought experiments. But I’d argue that both libertarians and progressives should move away from such arguments whenever other opportunities are present.