Be the Leaders You Want to See: A Civic Learning Week Webinar with Congressman Dennis Ross

Good afternoon, friends! For Civic Learning Week, we were grateful to be joined by former Florida Congressman, Dennis Ross. Congressman Ross talked with us about civil discourse and student civic engagement. It’s one of my favorite webinars that we have done, and we hope that you enjoy it as well. And thank you Congressman Ross for joining us!

It’s The End of Civic Learning Week!

But civic learning never ends, does it? We all know and recognize that civic learning is a key part of life and the work that we do, and we have shared posts on our twitter accounts (@Loufreyinst and @FL_Citizen) that highlight some interesting research, events, and resources that we saw during the week. We want to make sure too though that we share some excellent support materials from our coalition partners in the CivXNow network!

The CivXNow Coalition, a project of iCivics, is a nonpartisan, ideologically diverse coalition of over 325 organizations who believe in you and this important work you do. In the spirit of Civic Learning Week, the coalition came together to share their  classroom resources (lessons, curricula, and professional development) that embody the best of their work. 

As a proud member of the CivXNow coalition, the Lou Frey Institute/Florida Joint Center for Citizenship is happy to collaborate across the coalition to share these resources with you! We’ve partnered with organizations who, like us, want to champion civic education. Here you’ll find lessons and activities from Earth Force, Inquiring Minds, Emerging America – Reform to Equal Rights,  KQED, the Lincoln Presidential Foundation, the Lou Frey institute, New American History, and Periodic Presidents. 

Save these links, and use them! We are proud of the work our fellow members of the coalition have done, and we look forward to continue collaboration on civic learning throughout the year!

reading for personal interest: trends since 2003

I’m concerned about the state of reading, because I believe (and have seen evidence) that reading takes us out of our own minds into other people’s and enables us to make deep and creative connections. I feel myself growing less able to concentrate–although I did finally read Romola last week!–and I observe that my talented undergraduates are reading less than their predecessors did. I blame the distracting media environment rather than any generational fault.

Here are some data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

The line for ages 15 and older shows that adults are spending less time reading “for personal interest” than they were in 2003, down by about 28 percent. The BLS does not provide data on children. However, people between the ages of 20 and 24 (the classic college years) have seen a small increase in time spent reading for personal interest, albeit from a low baseline. The biggest decline is among those between 45 and 54, who read for half as long as they did in 2003, or about 10 minutes/day.

More education correlates with more reading, but all educational groups read less. Still, the decline for the most educated (those with graduate educations) is 28%, whereas the decline for people without high school diplomas is 87%. That group now reads for an average of 2.4 minutes a day, down from a substantial 18 minutes a day in 2003.

See also are we forgetting how to read?; a way forward for high culture; “The world wants the humanities”


I am so lucky: near the finish line
With no tragedies. My three sons are fine.
I may never have to open the door
To wrenching news or the grim stench of war.

I sleep all right these days, now that lust is less
A master, and guilt, that dogged hunter,
Lets me burrow in a secret shelter
Where I tell myself I deserve success.

When I heard Socrates had come down here,
I sent a boy to stop him. My knees are such
I cannot walk uphill to Athens much.
I hate to miss the clever talk, and I fear
The wise and famous will forget Cephalus.

It was like old times; we quoted lovely lines.
But I knew he'd start to press: “What do you mean,
Cephalus? Doesn't that come in different kinds?”
The more we examine hope, the more hope declines.
I left Socrates to my son, exited the scene,
And, wearing my silly wreath, resumed my place,
Performing prayers in the marketplace.

Cf. Plato, Republic 331d: “‘Very well,’ said Cephalus, ‘I will turn the whole argument over to you. For now is the time when I must take charge of the sacrifices.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Aren’t I, Polemarchus, the heir to everything you have?’ ‘Certainly,’ he laughed, and he went at once to the sacrifices.” See also: Pindar on hope; philosophy and self-help; shelter

a woman of lustie courage (note #5 from the Levine library)

I occasionally post about books from my late father’s library, which line my office walls. Today I took down a book that’s in poor condition, missing its front matter and with an illegible spine. It appears to be An epitome of chronicles, Conteyninge the whole discourse of the histories as well of this realme of England, as al other cou[n]treys, with the succession of their kinges, the time of their reigne, and what notable actes they did … gathered out of most probable auctours. The authors are Thomas Lanquet, Thomas Cooper, and Robert Crowley, and it was printed in London by William Seres in 1559.

By the way, chronicles of this type are an evident influence on George R.R. Martin’s books and the Game of Thrones series that he inspired. They are all about the deeds of the great.

I’ve lately been interested in Zenobia, Queen of Palymra, having read Nathanael Andrade’s 2018 biography. So I looked her up in the Epitome of Chronicles, which simply list of the events known to the authors in each year since the Creation. In the year 4228 (also identified as the Year of Christ 267, we are told:

Zebenna, Wife of Odeantus, a woman of lustie courage, and of great policie in warre, with her young sonnes, Herennianus and Timolaus, in despite of [the Emperor] Galienus (who consumed his life in lyfe in lechery and bankettynge) took on her the governaunce of the easte, and was called Empresse.

Then, under the year 272 CE, we are told that Aurelianius, who had been “made emperorour” on account of his “valyuaunt prowes and expertnes in marshall policie … overcame Zebennia, or Zenobia, which [named?] her selfe empresse of the easte, and besieging the citie Palmirena, toke and brought her prisoner in triumphe to Rome.”

Modern historians would concur, except as to her sons’ names.

See also Zenobia of Palmyra; Coryat’s Crudities (note #1 from the Levine library); Reformation propaganda (note #2 from the Levine library); A 1582 Catholic translation of the Bible into English (note #3 from the Levine library) and the progress of the king (note #4 from the Levine library)

building new research-practice fields

One of the great pleasures and consistent themes of my career has been participation in movements that involve both research and practice. These have included efforts for campaign reform, civic journalism, youth voting, civic education, service-learning, university-community partnerships, and public dialogue and deliberation.

I think of these as movements that launched at specific moments, grew, accomplished change, and then lost some momentum. My perception is subjective, since in every case, they emerged from previous efforts and have spawned new ones. One could start and end the stories at different moments and contest my implication that these movements have faded, since perhaps they have just changed forms. Still, I have observed particular configurations of people and organizations forming, issuing manifestos of various kinds, expanding, making change, and then tapering off or even fading away.

I first became involved in these movements when I was quite young and had no applicable training (my PhD is in philosophy), so I was naive about what is required to build an effective new field that combines research and practice. Now, I mostly try to stay out of the way of the burgeoning current efforts, because I think it’s crucial to develop new leaders with new ideas. But sometimes, I am directly asked for experience-based advice, and I’m happy to offer it if it really seems helpful. Here are some highlights …

Interventions (such as service projects, public meetings, or voter outreach efforts) do not work–or fail to work–like pharmaceuticals that can prove their efficacy in clinical trials. They always demonstrate a wide range of success, depending on the context and the skills, motivations, and working relationships of the human beings involved.

One important study of service-learning found that it worked, but only when “fully implemented,” meaning that it met various demanding criteria for quality. 193 out of 210 examples of service-learning were excluded from this study because they did not meet those criteria. Frankly, I think that almost any intervention will succeed if it’s done very well. Implementation is always the key.

We should nevertheless develop, study, and promote specific kinds of interventions. We are not discovering whether the intervention works, but making it work by improving people’s detailed understanding and support for it. To that end, several kinds of research are useful, including:

  • Research that rigorously demonstrates excellent outcomes in specific cases, to prove that the approach can work and to set standards. Rigor may require methods like randomized experiments with longitudinal follow-up. The results do not generalize, since other situations will differ. These are proofs-of-concept or existence-proofs.
  • Research done by the practitioners or in partnerships that involve practitioners. People who work in programs can contribute ideas and practical know-how. Also, being able to participate in the research can be a path to professional advancement for them. This is important because any field needs human capital.
  • Research that addresses the choices that practitioners are currently struggling with. Is it better to mobilize voters in-person or on social media? Should students choose their service projects or be assigned their topics? Results will not generalize completely, but empirical research can offer insights.
  • Research into the kinds of strategies that may promote quality at large scales, such as professional development, licensing and certification, or government mandates. Like the interventions themselves, these are not things that either work or fail to work; we have to make them work. But we can learn more about effective methods.
  • Research that addresses values. Why should we try to make a given approach work? Usually, because we hold beliefs about what is bad about the present and what would be better. Such beliefs are not biases; they are appropriate motivations for building a movement. However, they are contestable, and we should not simply assume their validity. The solution is to articulate and defend value-commitments, and not just once for the movement as a whole. Participants should be able to debate alternative versions of basic values.

Another way to put the last point is that movements need theory. Theory is always partly normative (related to values), not just empirical. And theoretical reasoning is comparative: it’s about choosing a working theory after considering alternatives. Therefore, movements need people who articulate and defend alternative normative views.

Networks of practitioners and scholars typically face pragmatic choices. Should we create new journals and conferences or try to place publications in influential venues? Should we converge on common measures or help people and organizations to develop novel measures? Should we emphasize the positive findings about our approach or share the uncertainties? What are the boundaries of our movement and the overlaps with other ones? Should we merge or split?

These questions involve tradeoffs, so they don’t have obvious answers. Nor would anyone be able to enforce one strategy. Therefore, I would anticipate a mix, with some people publishing in old venues and some starting new ones, some advocating common measures and some trying new ones, etc.

In general, I have found that it’s hard to get researchers to collaborate with practitioners (often nonprofit staff) or educators (including teaching-focused faculty). However, the main difficulty is not the people and their divergent values or interests, nor their attitudes toward each other. They often turn out to be rather similar and to get along well. The difficulty lies with their jobs. An assistant professor must publish, which requires originality and challenging methodologies. A nonprofit leader owes an evaluation report by the end of the quarter, and the report must accentuate positive results. Recognizing such differences (and there are many more) is a first step toward finding specific projects that can serve both sides.

See also principles for researcher-practitioner collaboration (an earlier take with similar suggestions); engaged theory and the construction of community

“The world wants the humanities”

In his 2023 MLA Presidential Address (“Criticism After This Crisis: Toward a National Strategy for Literary and Cultural Study”), Christopher Newfield argues that the humanities must stop trying to preserve their meagre support and instead win major new investments to “allow our fields to reach their intellectual potential, to help solve global society’s hardest cultural problems, to reach the least advantaged and the non-college populace more broadly, to create knowledge at the desired intensity and scale, and to give a proper employment future to our early-career scholars” (p. 17).

Part of his diagnosis is that policymakers and academic leaders don’t really see the humanities as research fields. In turn, this is because humanists receive very little funding: one tenth of one percent of federal research dollars in 2019 (p. 6). The humanities hardly figure on balance sheets, which means that they hardly count toward the research enterprise of a university, which is typically dominated by engineering and health.

I would add that positivism remains a strong intellectual force. People who believe that all knowledge is scientific knowledge have trouble recognizing the intellectual rigor of disciplines that involve thick descriptions of particulars, abductive reasoning about cases, and normative argumentation, which are fundamental to the humanities.

Years ago, I heard a University of Maryland biologist recommending that his students try a course in “art appreciation” for the experience (and perhaps for an easy A). Of course, Maryland does not teach “appreciation.” The history and criticism of art are forms of research as demanding as biology. But they are particularistic, interpretive, and (in complex ways) evaluative disciplines, not sciences. To a positivist scientist, they can sound like hobbies. When they receive no federal funding, that cements the impression.

Another part of Newfield’s diagnosis is that the growth of the humanities in the USA after the Second World War relied on ideological rationales that are not justifiable, nor do they motivate today’s humanists, students, or taxpayers. These rationales included “establish[ing] the US as the cultural heir to Britain as the primary global superpower,” producing cultural criticism that was not critical of the economy, supplying cultural capital to bourgeois graduates, supporting the existing two-party democratic system (thus foreclosing radical alternatives), and–after the 1960s–offering “nonthreatening” spaces for students of color, women, and others.

The alternative rationale that Newfield suggests is that the humanities can help the country “develop the subjectivities, the forms of expression, the understandings of its real cultural histories, the interpersonal affects, the pervasive multilingualism, the public self-reflection that will build a postimperial and post-technocratic order” (pp. 13-14). He observes that social movements demand such work, and he thinks that substantial investments in the humanities would yield more prominent and exciting results that would attract even more support. The problem is not demand, but supply, which can be remedied by more funds.

Near the conclusion of his address, Newfield says: “Society wants the abilities and the knowledges that we create. Our many allies in that society want us to help them make a revolution in culture. This society calls on us. …”

I quote and cite Newfield because I find his analysis useful and inspiring. But I am also somewhat skeptical.

Reading his address, you might envision three groups. One group is “society,” or the people, who are mobilized into social movements that make “popular counterdemands” against “anti- Black police violence, anti-Asian racism, border incarceration, transphobia, the jailing of water protectors, the suppression of nonsuburban voters” (14), and so on. A second group consists of professional humanists, who at least want to work “in relation to these unofficial or popular demands coming from social movements and communities historically excluded from official knowledge production.” The third (and rather shadowy) group consists of politicians and college administrators who oppose such efforts.

I do recognize all three types, but what about members of the public who have other values–religious people, patriotic people, people who are concerned about social disorder, or (indeed) conventional liberals who favor the values on which the Postwar humanities rested? These citizens may not see themselves reflected in the agendas of the humanities professoriate. As for the professors, they encompass quite a range, including a large number who are not so much conservative as fundamentally apolitical.

I can stipulate that some people hold values that are bad. I would also acknowledge that public opinion has causes. Americans would believe and desire different things if the society invested much more in the academic humanities and proportionately less in cable news, partisan advertising, Hollywood, social media platforms, gaming, and organized religion. In that sense, Newfield is right that “demand” is not a root cause but is part of a more complex system–both a cause and a consequence.

Nevertheless, I am reluctant to reduce other people’s values to propaganda. And even if we do subject conservative (or non-radical) values to critique, they are prevalent, and they create opposition to a progressive vision for the humanities. They complicate the claim that “the world wants the humanities.”

One solution is for humanists to engage the world–to talk and listen to a wide range of fellow people, including those who do not share their politics. This happens in some public humanities projects based in academia. It happens more often in the State Humanities Councils and the nonprofit organizations that they fund. The main political explanation for the survival of the National Endowment for the Humanities is the state Councils, whose broad and active constituency influences Congress. But the state Councils tend to focus on local history, often in basically celebratory ways, rather than critical literary studies or philosophy. One could imagine a substantial increase in public investment in this kind of public humanities. It would expand the number of people involved with humanistic work, including research. But it would not directly fund academic humanists to do highly critical research about the culture around them.

See also: what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects; what are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists); an empirical study of the humanities; how to keep political science in touch with politics.

Civics Learning Week Webinar with Congressman Dennis Ross

Good afternoon, friends! We are excited to invite you to join us on March 11th at 5pm for a Civic Learning Week conversation with former Florida Congressman Dennis Ross. Congressman Ross will talk with us about moving from critic to collaborator, the importance of civil discourse, and why we must ensure that the next generation engages in civic life.

You can download the flyer below to learn more information and to share, and you can register here!

The Vuslat Foundation and Generous Listening

The Vuslat Foundation has opened a public website as At the Tisch College of Civic Life, we are one of their partners, as you can tell from the description of a conference that we co-organized and held at Tufts last year (a symposium on “Generous Listening in Organizations“); a blog post by my colleague James Fisher about Quaker dialogues in West Africa; and other references on their site.

The Foundation also does much work on their own or with other partners, including remarkable support-groups for women displaced by the earthquakes in Southeast Turkey in 2023.

I come to this partnership as someone who has studied political deliberation–for instance, as a co-editor (with John Gastil) of the Deliberative Democracy Handbook. SInce the late 1900s, public deliberation has been a movement of theorists and practitioners, but it is rooted in much older ideas about politics that have typically emphasized speech, communication, persuasion, and rhetoric–as both virtues and threats.

The Vuslat Foundation has helped me to shift my focus from one side of the exchange to the other–from speaking to listening. Of course, these acts always go together (even when they are metaphors for written speech, signs, or gestures). It is hardly a novel insight that communication requires at least two people. But I have benefitted from thinking more about the listening side.

First, there’s an ethical imperative. Listening well (“generously,” in the language that the Vuslat Foundation has developed) is an important virtue. Using one’s voice well is also virtuous, and sometimes even obligatory, but the need to be a good listener seems especially compelling.

Second, we can think about listening holistically. One aspect is listening to other people in deliberations, but we also listen to ourselves, to animals, waves, or the wind, to human soundscapes, to near-silence, perhaps to the divine, and to those who are long dead. I have found it useful to think of civic listening as just one kind of listening.

Third, I am taken by the “interactionist” theory of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, which has helped me make sense of some of my own data–in forthcoming articles. To summarize their model crudely, imagine two or more people discussing what to do. When individuals speak, they tend to use motivated reasoning: inventing justifications for what they already want to believe, sometimes for bad reasons, such as self-interested bias. But when they listen to other people offer reasons, they are relatively good at assessing whether these points are valid, and they may change their minds. Mercier and Sperber offer an evolutionary explanation that suggests that highly social and verbal primates would develop the ability to make arguments to advance their own interests, but also the ability to assess others’ arguments in order to make good collective judgments.

Mercier and Sperber never suggest that listening always goes well. We can certainly listen selectively and exhibit bad motives when we select whom and what to listen to. But their theory suggests that we can improve individual skills and conditions for listening–perhaps more easily than we can improve speaking.

Finally, listening has spiritual (or at least psychotherapeutic) benefits that have been recognized and developed in many traditions. Although we can also gain spiritually from communicating well, the listening side is especially relevant to meditative practices of all kinds.

See also: how intuitions relate to reasons: a social approach; an agenda for R&D for democracy; “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”; ‘every thing that lives is holy’: Blake’s radical relativism; “The Listeners“; “Midlife“.