Civics in Florida: The Legacy of the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act

The Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act

Any discussion of civics in Florida, and its success, begins with the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act. Passed in 2010, this Act required the creation and implementation of a civics course in middle school. This course includes an end-of-course exam that counts as 30% of a student’s final grade, as well as for school grade and teacher evaluation. In addition, in order to go on to high school, students MUST pass civics. So since at least 2013, as civics was implemented, Florida has had a strong civic education initiative. Every middle school student in the state of Florida MUST pass civics.

What Is Required? 

The middle school civics course in Florida contains 40 benchmarks, 35 of which are directly assessed on the End of Course Assessment. The standards are traditionally organized into 4 reporting categories:

  • Origins and Purposes of Law and Government
  • Roles, Rights, and Responsibilities of Citizens
  • Government Policies and Political Processes
  • Organization and Function of Government

You can further break these down into 9 topic areas that cover a wide variety of civics content and benchmarks:
360 areas

So, what is covered in these benchmarks? Essentially, the benchmarks address the comprehensive knowledge that students need to be engaged with civic life in the United States, from the workings of the US Constitution to the role of political parties in the United States and everything in between! You can review each of the benchmarks below, organized by reporting category. Click on the link to go to Florida Joint Center for Citizenship resources for each one! It should be noted that the state has adopted new benchmarks as of July 14th, effective for 2023-2024. But this is what they are right now.

Origins and Purposes of Law and Government

Reporting Category One

Benchmark ResourcesDescription
SS.7.C.1.1Recognize how Enlightenment ideas including Montesquieu’s view of separation of power and John Locke’s theories related to natural law and how Locke’s social contract influenced the Founding Fathers.
SS.7.C.1.2Trace the impact that the Magna Carta, English Bill of Rights, Mayflower Compact, and Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” had on colonists’ views of government.
SS.7.C.1.3Describe how English policies and responses to colonial concerns led to the writing of the Declaration of Independence.
SS.7.C.1.4Analyze the ideas (natural rights, role of the government) and complaints set forth in the Declaration of Independence.
SS.7.C.1.5Identify how the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation led to the writing of the Constitution.
SS.7.C.1.6Interpret the intentions of the Preamble of the Constitution.
SS.7.C.1.7Describe how the Constitution limits the powers of government through separation of powers and checks and balances.
SS.7.C.1.8Explain the viewpoints of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists regarding the ratification of the Constitution and inclusion of a bill of rights.
SS.7.C.1.9Define the rule of law and recognize its influence on the development of the American legal, political, and governmental systems.
SS.7.C.3.10Identify sources and types (civil, criminal, constitutional, military) of law.

Roles, Rights, and Responsibilities of Citizens

Reporting Category Two

Benchmark ResourcesDescription
SS.7.C.2.1Define the term “citizen,” and identify legal means of becoming a United States citizen.
SS.7.C.2.2Evaluate the obligations citizens have to obey laws, pay taxes, defend the nation, and serve on juries.
Also Assesses: SS.7.C.2.3—Experience the responsibilities of citizens at the local, state, or federal levels.
Also Assesses: SS.7.C.2.14—Conduct a service project to further the public good.
SS.7.C.2.4Evaluate rights contained in the Bill of Rights and other amendments to the Constitution.
SS.7.C.2.5Distinguish how the Constitution safeguards and limits individual rights.
SS.7.C.3.6Evaluate Constitutional rights and their impact on individuals and society.
SS.7.C.3.7Analyze the impact of the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th amendments on participation of minority groups in the American political process.
SS.7.C.3.12Analyze the significance and outcomes of landmark Supreme Court cases including, but not limited to, Marbury v. Madison, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Gideon v. Wainwright, Miranda v. Arizona, in re Gault, Tinker v. Des Moines, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmier, United States v. Nixon, and Bush v. Gore.

Government Policies and Political Processes

Reporting Category Three

Benchmark ResourcesDescription
SS.7.C.2.8Identify America’s current political parties, and illustrate their ideas about government.
SS.7.C.2.9Evaluate candidates for political office by analyzing their qualifications, experience, issue-based platforms, debates, and political ads.
Also Assesses: SS.7.C.2.7—Conduct a mock election to demonstrate the voting process and its impact on a school, community, or local level.
SS.7.C.2.10Examine the impact of media, individuals, and interest groups on monitoring and influencing government.
SS.7.C.2.11Analyze media and political communications (bias, symbolism, propaganda).
SS.7.C.2.12Develop a plan to resolve a state or local problem by researching public policy alternatives, identifying appropriate government agencies to address the issue, and determining a course of action.
SS.7.C.2.13Examine multiple perspectives on public and current issues.
SS.7.C.4.1Differentiate concepts related to United States domestic and foreign policy.
SS.7.C.4.2Recognize government and citizen participation in international organizations.
SS.7.C.4.3Describe examples of how the United States has dealt with international conflicts.

Organization and Function of Government

Reporting Category Four

Benchmark ResourcesDescription
SS.7.C.3.1Compare different forms of government (direct democracy, representative democracy, socialism, communism, monarchy, oligarchy, autocracy).
SS.7.C.3.2Compare parliamentary, federal, confederal, and unitary systems of government.
SS.7.C.3.3Illustrate the structure and function (three branches of government established in Articles I, II, and III with corresponding powers) of government in the United States as established in the Constitution.
SS.7.C.3.4Identify the relationship and division of powers between the federal government and state governments.
SS.7.C.3.5Explain the Constitutional amendment process.
SS.7.C.3.8Analyze the structure, functions, and processes of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
Also Assesses: SS.7.C.3.9—Illustrate the law making process at the local, state, and federal levels.
SS.7.C.3.11Diagram the levels, functions, and powers of courts at the state and federal levels.
Also Assesses: SS. 7.C.2.6—Simulate the trial process and the role of juries in the administration of justice.
SS.7.C.3.13Compare the constitutions of the United States and Florida.
SS.7.C.3.14Differentiate between local, state, and federal governments’ obligations and services.
EOC TIS

Each benchmark is further broken down into individual benchmark clarifications that tell stakeholders what they are expected to know. You can get a copy of these clarifications here, provided in the Test Item Specifications.

What Does the Data Say? 

Good news on the data front when it comes to civics! As of the 2019 Civics EOCA administration, 71% of all students that took the exam scored a 3, 4, or 5. What this means is that 71% of all students passed the Civics End Of Course Assessment. This is 10 percentage points higher than the initial administration from 2014! As the charts below (from the Florida Department of Education) indicate, we are also seeing some positive growth among minority students as well. This is a trend that we hope to see continue, as FJCC and other organizations continue to work hard to provide resources and support for teachers and students.

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So What Needs to Improve? 

Without a doubt, Florida has seen significant positive results from the implementation of civic education at the middle school level. At this point, as a state, we are doing well with the knowledge aspect. But there is certainly room for improvement. At FJCC, we have been working to build a collection of resources and supports that address the skills and dispositions that can be used in conjunction with the knowledge that students have gained. You know how government works, and the role the Constitution plays in your life. So what can you do with that knowledge? We are working with organizations like the Civics Renewal Network, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Florida, the Constitutional Rights Foundation, and others to improve opportunities for engagement.

We also need to do far more in elementary schools. That, however, is a bit of a sticky wicket, as social studies as a whole has struggled for attention in elementary schools; the pressure of preparing students for math, ELA, and science assessments has often crowded out untested content areas like social studies, both here and Florida and nationally.

Elem Social Studies CCSSO

That beings said, there ARE some good resources out there, like FJCC’s own Civics in a Snap. Civics in a Snap is a collection of K-5 lessons around civics content and questions that can be done in an elementary class in about 15 to 20 minutes. Take a look!

3.c.2.1

We are also thinking about ways in which we can do more at the high school level to engage students in experiential learning around civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

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Moving Forward

We at the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship at the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida applaud the governor’s call for a prioritization of civic education. We hope that it includes an in depth consideration of ways in which we get students to engage in civic life at all levels, and a renewed focus on getting social studies back into the elementary schools. And the continued leadership that Florida has shown in quality civics teaching and learning!

And be sure to check out Civics360 to find videos and readings related to the civics content that kids here in Florida need to learn! It’s all free! And we will update these resources to align with the new benchmarks.

“Just teach the facts”

Apparently, at public meetings about social studies curricula, some people are saying: “Just teach facts.” Insofar as this call is coming from people incensed about Critical Race Theory in our k-12 schools, the irony is hard to ignore. CRT is very rarely, if ever, taught, and some of the ideas being attributed to it are factual. Yet I think there is also something else going on. Across many issues and in many political subcultures, it’s common to demand facts instead of opinions, as if the facts are all on our side and the other side is the opinionated one. I have encountered liberals who make versions of this argument, whether about COVID-19 or about history and politics.

In their 2002 book Stealth Democracy, John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that about 70% of Americans are drawn to the idea that gives their book its title. These people basically see disagreement as a sign of corruption. It should not be necessary to disagree about matters of political or moral importance. People who express contrasting opinions must have bad motives or be sadly misguided. Since disagreement is rife, it would be “better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts.”

In a great 2010 paper, Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, Ryan Kennedy, David Lazer, and Anand Sokhey showed that fewer people probably held the stealth democracy position than Hibbing and Theiss-Morse had found, and Americans were more tolerant of disagreement. However, Neblo and colleagues didn’t find zero support for stealth democracy, and I think it pops up fairly often.

It may reflect frustration about opinions that one strongly dislikes: Why can’t those misguided people just acknowledge the facts? But it may also reflect a deeper problem.

In an era when science (as popularly defined) has enormous prestige and purports to distinguish facts sharply from values, people don’t know what to make of value-laden disagreements. Justin McBrayer found this sign hanging in his son’s second-grade classroom:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

McBrayer attributes this distinction to the Common Core. I think the text of the Common Core is actually a bit subtler, and the sign reflects a widespread view. In any case, the distinction is untenable.

First of all, we must select which facts to investigate. We could teach George Washington’s achievements or slavery in colonial America–or neither, or both–but the facts themselves can’t tell us which of those things to study.

Second, the information we possess always reflects other people’s interests and concerns. American historians, for example, study marginalized and oppressed people more than they did a half century ago. This shift reflects ethical principles. Historians do not, and cannot, pursue all facts indiscriminately. You might dispute their emphasis, but then you’re arguing for different values, not rejecting their facts.

Third, it is very hard to identify a fact that is free of value-judgments or a value-judgment that does not encompass empirical beliefs about the way the world works.

Fourth, many of the most important facts about history are the opinions people held. Lincoln’s response to secession was his opinion, but attributing a position to him is either correct or incorrect. You cannot teach history without teaching–and spending a lot of your time teaching–opinions.

Perhaps most importantly, not all values are just opinions that people happen to hold. Valuing chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream is subjective, in this sense. Believing that genocide is evil is not. It isn’t a fact “that can be tested or proven,” but it also isn’t just something I happen to feel. It is something we are all obliged to feel.

Education inevitably involves choices about what to teach and how to talk about and interpret information. It inevitably conveys values and causes students to make judgments–whether as intended or in reaction to what the school wants them to think. Education is better when it helps students to develop political and intellectual virtues. But adults disagree about virtues, and our disagreements reflect our freedom, our diversity, and our nature as finite, embodied, fallible creatures. Therefore, disagreement about what and how to teach is inevitable, permanent, and a sign that free people care about the future. “Just teach the facts” is a call to stop this debate, when what we need is more and better.

See also: first year college students and moral relativism;  science, democracy, and civic lifeis science republican (with a little r)?some thoughts on natural lawis all truth scientific truth?; etc.

public opinion on Critical Race Theory

The Economist/YouGov has released a survey of 1,500 U.S. Adult Citizens (fielded from
June 13 – 15, 2021) that asks some questions about Critical Race Theory (CRT). This is their summary.

This issue is deeply partisan and breaks in Republicans’ favor. Eighty-five percent of Republicans are very unfavorable to CRT, whereas 58% of Democrats are very favorable. But the public as a whole breaks against CRT, 58%-38%, due to Independents’ opposition (71% are very unfavorable) and Democrats’ somewhat mixed support.

Party ID appears more significant than demographics. For instance, a slight majority of Blacks (52%) are very favorable to CRT, but 16% are very unfavorable: a less positive balance than we see among Democrats. Women, college graduates, and young people are a bit more favorable than others, but those differences are small. (With access only to the printed report, I can’t run a regression to see how these variables may interact.)

Fifty-four percent of Americans say they have a very good idea what CRT is. The remainder are split between not being sure whether they know and being sure that they do not know what it is: 23% each. Thirty-five percent have heard nothing at all about CRT, 38% a little, and 26% a lot.

I think most of the people who say they know what CRT is are giving themselves too much credit. It names a rather specific academic movement that few of us understand. I would not claim that I have reliable knowledge of CRT (when knowledge = justified true belief) even though I study this general topic. But 54% of Americans are confident that they know what it is.

Although almost half of people are not sure what CRT is, 96% of respondents state a favorable or unfavorable view of it, and a total of 78% hold either a very favorable or a very unfavorable view. In other words, many people have opinions–even strong ones–about CRT even though they do not believe they know what it is and have heard nothing at all about it.

A mainstream position in political science these days is that Americans lack well-justified and autonomous opinions about most political issues. Achen and Bartels argue that even politically conscious citizens usually display “just a rather mechanical reflection of what their favorite group and party leaders have instructed them to think” (Achen and Bartels 2017, p. 12).

I dissent from this general view and have spent the past week on a methodological paper that aims to show that individuals hold more complex and individualized structures of opinions than one can glean from standard survey research. Yet the nature of public opinion depends on the issue, and especially on whether political professionals are exploiting it.

CRT is a great example of an issue on which public opinion reflects partisan heuristics and cues from leaders rather than careful thought. It’s bound to stay near the top of the national agenda, not only because it serves as a proxy for deeper issues related to race, but also because of the partisan politics. Republicans aren’t going to drop an issue that polls so well for them, but Democratic leaders–even if they wanted to–can’t strongly oppose CRT while 58% of their voters strongly favor it.

Between too much and too little: a tentative framework for putting trust in government into context

In a dialogue with his disciple Tsze-kung, Confucius advises that a government needs three things: weapons, food, and trust. And if a ruler cannot maintain the three of them, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. 

Fast forward over two thousand years, and trust in government remains a hot topic. After all, rule of law and democratic institutions clearly require some minimal consent and trust in government. And, to varying degrees, the success of most public policies and programs, from paying taxes to recycling, depends on citizens’ compliance and cooperation.

Trust in government has also generated increased interest during the pandemic. For example, in an article for The Atlantic, Francis Fukuyama described trust in government as the most important predictor of a government’s capacity to respond to the ongoing health crisis. His argument is intuitive: particularly during times of crisis, discretionary authority needs to be delegated to executive branches, as “no set of preexisting laws or rules can ever anticipate all of the novel and rapidly changing situations that countries will face”. In that context, so goes the argument, “citizens have to believe that the executive knows what it is doing.” Fukuyama’s take on the importance of trust during the pandemic resonates with evidence from previous health crises and, not surprisingly, scholarly interest in the subject has soared since the outbreak. Confucius’ argument still resonates.  

Equally interesting, however, has been the emergence of a public debate that also asks whether, in some cases, trust in government may be unwarranted. For instance, reporting on the health situation in Lebanon, a Washington Post article highlighted that “paradoxically, distrust of the notoriously dysfunctional government may have helped.” In a similar vein, The Economist argued that, during an epidemic, trust can be a “double-edged sword”. The behavior of many political leaders in downplaying the seriousness of the crisis has also illustrated how, in certain cases, distrusting the government is the healthiest option available. 

These insights run counter to the conventional wisdom, which tends to consider trust in government as a good in itself. For instance, a frequent selling point for open government reforms is the (often misleading) claim that transparency will lead to increased trust in government. But it shouldn’t take a pandemic to realize that trust in government can also be overrated. Checks and balances, foundational to the modern state, were built upon the premise of distrust. For Montesquieu, the separation of powers was necessary to avoid exposing citizens to “arbitrary control.” David Hume cautioned that when designing government systems, “every man ought to be supposed a knave.” And, for Madison, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” 

But if there are good reasons to trust in government, as well as good reasons not to, when is trust more or less appropriate? This is certainly a complex question, and the purpose of this post is by no means to provide a definitive answer. Instead, it aims to put forward a very simple (and perhaps simplistic) framework to start thinking about the imponderable problem of trust in government according to its context.

To understand the proposed framework, we can start with the following premise:

All else equal, individuals’ trust in their government should be expected to be proportional to the trustworthiness of that government.

This premise, I believe, is uncontroversial. As put by philosopher Onora O’Neill, trust is valuable only “when placed in trustworthy agents and activities, but damaging or costly when (mis)placed in untrustworthy agents and activities.”

But how do we define trustworthiness? Any attempt is bound to generate contestations, as has been the case for the definition of trust in government. For the purpose of this exercise, I borrow a definition from Margaret Levi, a prominent scholar on the subject, who considers a government to be worthy of citizens’ trust when it 

(…) keeps its promises (or has exceptionally good reasons why it fails to), is relatively fair in its decision-making and enforcement processes, and delivers goods and services.

With this definition in mind, and the premise put forward earlier, the more a government keeps its promises, is fair, and delivers goods and services, the more citizens should trust that government, and vice-versa. If we depict the relationships between levels of trust and trustworthiness in a matrix, an interesting perspective emerges, as shown below:   

Figure 1: Trust Matrix

In the top right and lower left (quadrants 2 and 3), we have scenarios of consistency, where citizens’ level of trust in governments corresponds to the level of government trustworthiness. In quadrant 2 we have scenarios of constructive consistency, characterized by a virtuous cycle where high trust leads to higher trustworthiness and vice-versa. In these scenarios citizens are, for instance, more willing to cooperate with government policies (e.g. taxation, vaccination), thereby enhancing governmental capacity to respond to public needs (e.g. public investments, disease control). Quadrant 3 represents scenarios of disruptive consistency, with disruptive meaning a context that can lead to both negative and positive developments. On the one hand, it may engender a vicious and destructive cycle whereby the government’s poor performance leads to less trust, further reducing the likelihood that governments are able to perform. On the other hand, it may lead to a process of creative destruction. After all, distrust of authorities often sparks democratic progress. In this respect, a context of disruptive consistency may open spaces of contestation and competition (e.g. through elections), generating incentives for political actors to perform better.   

Quadrants 1 and 4 reflect scenarios of inconsistency, where the level of trust in government does not correspond to a government’s trustworthiness. In the cynical quadrant, despite government trustworthiness, citizens still show low levels of trust towards their government. Such a scenario is not free from implications: governmental policies may have disproportionately higher implementation costs, given that the public is less likely to comply and cooperate with these policies. In quadrant 4, (credulous), citizens trust their governments even though they are not deserving of that trust. In this scenario, untrustworthy governments have little incentive to change their behavior (e.g. delivering public goods and services), given that their citizens already trust them and do not present any threat to the status quo. This becomes a low-accountability trap, with citizens unlikely to engage to keep office-holders accountable for their actions in the public realm. 

What does this all look like in practice? Into which quadrants do countries fall? While measuring trustworthiness goes beyond the scope of this post (more on that below), we can map it against existing indicators linked to  trustworthiness, such as the Government Effectiveness Index, which captures, among other things, quality of public services, quality of civil service and  governments’ commitments to their policies. 

Figure 2. All over the map: the relationship between trust and government effectiveness

Source:  author’s own based on Government Effectiveness Index (2020) and World Economic Forum Executive Survey (2018)

As the figure above illustrates, the 135 countries covered by the dataset fall into all four quadrants. Trust in government, as it turns out, is not consistently aligned with dimensions of government trustworthiness. Yet two-thirds of the countries (89) fall into the dark green consistent scenarios, indicating that in most countries, the level of trust in government is commensurate with the level of trustworthiness. This calls into question narratives that typically suggest a widespread crisis of trust in governments. Increased trust in government in this majority of countries would result in shifts towards situations of credulity: arguably the worst-case scenario, and a boon for women and men in power to behave more as knaves than angels. More importantly, the figure shows that increased trust in government emerges as a clearly desirable goal in just one of the four scenarios of the trust matrix (cynical, upper-left), where only 29 of 135 countries currently find themselves, including Argentina, Poland and South Korea. 

Even if this framework may be reductionist, I believe it could still be useful for several reasons, a few of which I would like to highlight. First, the matrix gives us an indication of where trust in government may need to be increased or decreased. If one knows how to increase trust in government (and that’s a bold assumption), the framework provides some guidance on where it would make sense to start. 

Second, these scenarios may help us better hypothesize which types of policy reforms would be desirable to pursue. For instance, in the scenario of credulous inconsistency (lower-right), the desirable outcome is that citizens become less credulous of their government and replace it through the ballots (in the case of a democracy), or dissent (in the case of an authoritarian regime). In these cases, potential activities could be efforts that i) increase transparency of government’s poor performance (to reduce trust), and ii) facilitate individual and collective action (to sanction poor performance). If these assumptions hold true in practice and at scale, and whether they can be voluntarily induced, remains an empirical question.  

Finally, by adding trustworthiness as a variable, we expand our focus beyond “the eyes of the [governed] beholder” to a relational dimension in which governmental actions play an important role. By doing so, we also become more wary of hasty assumptions such as “transparency leads to trust”, where low trust in government is perceived more as a function of the opacity of a government’s behavior, rather than of its behavior. Which brings me to my next point. 

Pathways towards consistency

If we consider that individuals’ trust in their government should be proportional to the trustworthiness of that government, we should contemplate the factors contributing to such consistency. Two are particularly noteworthy here: education and transparency. 

As highlighted by Armen Hakhverdian and Quinton Mayne, citizens with a higher level of education are more likely to i) identify practices that negatively affect the functioning of government institutions, and ii) be normatively troubled by these practices. For example, the authors show that education is negatively related to institutional trust in corrupt societies and positively related to institutional trust in clean societies. If we consider that integrity is a property of trustworthy governments, education acts as a force creating consistency and moving away from cynical or credulous inconsistency.

But how do citizens identify, in the first place, the government practices that affect the functioning of institutions? One way is through personal experience: for instance, when citizens are either victims or witnesses of abuse by state agents (e.g. bribery requests, police violence). However, the most important way in which citizens identify these practices is through publicly available information on governmental actions. This brings me to the issue of transparency: its instrumental value is not whether it leads to more trust in government, as is often advocated. Rather, its value lies in its capacity to help individuals calibrate their trust vis-à-vis their governments, either towards more, or less, trust. 

Final notes: measurements and definitions 

One practical issue when it comes to trust in government is the availability of data. The most recent World Values Survey (WVS) has data on trust in government institutions for only 50 countries, the Gallup Poll for 43 countries, and the widely publicized Edelman Trust Barometer Survey covers no more than 28 countries. And by any count, there are at least 193 countries in the world. While claims about a global crisis of trust abound, global data about trust in government is less abundant.[1]

And which data one uses also matters, as illustrated below. For instance, when using data from the WVS, the countries falling under each quadrant differ from the results presented earlier (from the World Economic Forum’s Executive Survey). In short, different surveys will offer different results, each of them with their own shortcomings in terms of sample size, accuracy, or both.[2] In short, claims about trust in government, particularly at the global level, should be made carefully. Bearing these considerations in mind, the analytical framework put forward remains useful. Whichever indicator of trust one finds more appropriate to use, the framework still helps highlight in which cases trust in government is consistent or not with measures of government trustworthiness. In a passage of his most recent book, Ethan Zuckerman refers to “a sweet spot between too much trust and too little.” This framework, I believe, provides clues on where that spot may be.

Figure 3: Government Effectiveness vs Trust in Government (WVS survey)

Source:  author’s own based on Government Effectiveness Index (2020) and World Values Survey (Wave 7)

A final note regarding the definition of trustworthiness is important. Levi’s definition certainly covers most of the characteristics that one would attribute to a trustworthy government, such as keeping promises, fairness in decision-making and enforcement, and delivery of goods and services. But as Levi highlights, the relative fairness of processes involves “the norms of place and time,” which makes fairness a concept that is contextual and of an evolving nature. This adds layers of complexity and raises some interesting questions, two of which I would like to highlight here.

The first regards the procedural and substantive dimensions of fairness and trustworthiness. In recent decades, many high-income democracies have performed well in procedural terms, with free and fair elections and laws that are mostly clear, stable, and equally enforced. From a procedural angle, these governments are worthy of trust. Nevertheless, on substantive grounds, one could contend that the opposite is also true. Take, for example, the overwhelming evidence that in these same democracies, government responsiveness has been systematically biased towards the needs of the better-off. Add to that growing inequality and a shrinking provision of public goods and services, and it becomes difficult to advocate for trustworthiness calculations based solely on procedural attributes. 

As a side note, precisely because of the factors described above, one could say that part of the political polarization we see within countries today can be attributed to a growing divide between segments of the population that favor either procedural or substantive aspects of trustworthiness. For instance, some segments may privilege fair elections, while others attach more importance to substantive matters, such as bridging the gap between the rich and poor. Going back to the proposed trust matrix, the question then becomes whether trustworthiness should be assessed on procedural or substantive grounds and, if the answer is “both”, how to conciliate them. While answering this question brings its own normative and methodological challenges, evading it may fail to capture nuances that underpin the relationship between trust in government and government trustworthiness. 

The second question is much simpler, albeit one with procedural and substantive consequences. Shouldn’t a government’s trustworthiness also be measured by the extent to which it offers participatory avenues for citizens to express themselves, beyond regular elections? After all, considering that trust is a two-way street, if governments expect to be trusted, shouldn’t they also trust citizens to shape decisions that affect their lives? 

*** 

P.S.: I’m thankful for comments on earlier versions of this text from Amy Chamberlain, Jonathan Fox, Quinton Mayne, Jon Mellon, Hollie Russon Gilman, Paolo Spada and Tom Steinberg.  


[1] On claims of a global crisis of trust see, for instance, here, here and here.

[2] On methodological challenges see Carlsson et al. 2018, Robinson and Tannenberg 2018, Shockley et al. 2017.

Civic Studies at Tufts

In this summer’s issue of Jumbo Magazine (which is sent to prospective Tufts students), I say that Tufts offers “the best mix of experiential [opportunities], like internships and service learning, with academic rigor about civic engagement.”

In this public forum, I should apologize for my competitive claim. If other campuses do more or better than we do, that is good news. But I can elaborate on what I meant.

Virtually every US college or university offers experiential civic education, in the form of student-led groups, service placements and internships, and projects assigned in courses.

Meanwhile, all colleges and universities offer courses relevant to being an effective and responsible citizen, from “Intro to American Government” in political science to courses on specific social issues, to courses that help one to understand cultural identities and differences. Indeed, the liberal arts curriculum as a whole is civic education, if it is done well. (It can be civic mis-education, if it is done very badly.)

However, there is typically a gap between students’ civic experiences and the curriculum. When they are engaged in civic activities, students–like all human beings–usually interact with finite numbers of other individuals within voluntary groups and networks, formal organizations, or enterprises. As individuals and collectively in these groups, they make value-judgments: What counts as a problem? What would be a good outcome? They create and enforce (or undermine and revise) norms that influence their collective behavior. They work together in various ways, producing products and outcomes. And they face characteristic challenges. Some people may slack off, some may misinterpret the purpose of the group, some may mistreat others, and so on.

These issues are addressed in the curriculum, but in a scattered way and not as a major focus. One can learn about ethical judgments in philosophy, about free-rider problems in economics, and about voting procedures in political science. But a student would be hard pressed to identify these relevant aspects of many different courses from various disciplines and put them together.

Hence the Civic Studies Major at Tufts. Our introductory and capstone courses and the electives (including internships) are specifically designed to address the problems of acting together in voluntary groups. These problems have practical significance, and one can learn how to manage them from practical experience. But these problems are also intellectually complex, and one can learn from theory, history, and empirical studies. Our aspiration is put those forms of knowledge together.

See also civic education and the science of association.

do wicked problems justify inclusive processes?

The original article that coined the idea of “wicked problems” has been cited nearly 19,000 times. In their 1973 piece,* Rittel and Webber explained why we lacked fully satisfactory social policies and criticized two popular approaches: expert-designed solutions and maximum individual choice.

Rittel and Webber did not offer an alternative to those two flawed approaches, but many people since then (including me) have argued that wicked problem necessitate inclusive processes. Because social problems have the features Rittel and Webber name, everyone must play a role in defining and addressing problems–continuously and together. Our focus shifts to designing good processes.

In this post, I want to raise a dilemma: inclusive processes must include many people who hold strong and plausible reasons to reject the social theory that leads to the idea of wicked problems in the first place. It is hard to envision a process that is hospitable to people who reject the social theory that justifies it.

But first, what social theory are we talking about? Rittel and Webber offer 10 criteria to define wicked problems. I have summarized their list (with some reorganization) here. For the moment, let’s focus on these specific issues:

“Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad” (p. 162). Yet people disagree about what is good. Furthermore, “Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem” (p. 165). Thus we can endlessly disagree about the center or “locus” of the problem. This is one reason that “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem” (p. 161). There is no way to develop an exhaustive list of all the possible solutions (p. 164). And “Every wicked problem is essentially unique” (164)

The underlying model in Rittel and Webber is a network of causes and effects. Each problem affects others. There is no root cause. For instance, the issues of racism, poverty, guns, militarization, violent crime, lack of public safety, disinvestment, segregation, substance-abuse, mental illness, educational deficits, etc. are all tangled up. We can intervene at many different points, and each intervention has limitations and challenges. Also, facts cannot be separated from normative judgments, and judgments are permanently contested. For instance, to say that “crime is up this year” is to imply a whole set of judgments about how people should be able to act, who gets to decide, and what should matter to the community.

The challenges that Rittel and Webber identify do not (by themselves) entail democratic processes. These challenges might instead imply pessimism: maybe there simply are no solutions. Or these challenges might suggest some kind of modus vivendi: people who disagree about problems should leave each other alone. Or perhaps we need more sophisticated technical methods in order to identify satisfactory solutions.

I happen to endorse Rittel’s and Webber’s social theory. I would add a commitment to collaborative self-governance as a quasi-intrinsic good. Communities should create the social world through their deliberate action. If that is right, then Rittel and Webber provide helpful arguments against expert-led, top-down approaches and make space for democratic processes. However, democratic processes require additional justification. They certainly do not always succeed–no matter how you define success. And if you don’t agree that collective self-government has intrinsic value, you may understandably look for alternatives.

Further, many people have reasons to doubt the underlying social theory. If the root problem is capitalism–which is really bad and not just disliked by some–and if the solution is workers’ control of the means of production, then all this talk of “wicked problems” is just a ham-handed justification of the status quo. The same is true if individual negative liberty is the highest good, the problem is state coercion, and the solution is a free market. Or if the problem is white supremacy and the solution is liberation from that.

These three views are incompatible with mine and (to an extent) with each other. Obviously, I could be wrong, and one or more of these alternatives could be correct. Since I am unsure, and since I respect my fellow human beings, I favor a democratic process to debate our differences and decide together. Yet the kinds of processes I would build or endorse reflect my social theory. They are ameliorative rather than revolutionary. They envision people constantly focusing on a few tangible, immediate problems at a time, taking concrete steps to ameliorate those problems, and reflecting on the effects as they ripple out. The processes I envision are truly inclusive, which means that at some stage, the police, the capitalists, and the state bureaucrats should be part of the discussion, not defined as the problem.

The question is why people who disagree with those premises should want to participate. That dilemma is not merely theoretical; large numbers of people actually do disagree. Perhaps it is wiser not to use the theory of wicked problems to justify inclusive processes.

Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4.2, 1973, 155-169. See also: wicked problems, and excuses; Complexities of Civic Life; and what must we believe?

Wisdom Traditions, Science and the Search for Meaning

Jeremy Lent has taken on an audacious task for himself – synthesizing what he calls the “cognitive history of humanity.” His 2017 book The Patterning Instinct integrates a vast academic and scientific literature to describe humanity’s search for meaning.

This “archaeological exploration of the mind,” ranging from hunter-gatherers to early agricultural civilizations to the cultures of India, China, Islam, and western Christianity, shows how our struggle to create inner meaning for ourselves is connected to our economic and political worldviews. 

Jeremy Lent, author of The Web of Meaning

Now, in a kind of sequel to that book, Lent has just published The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe. This book can be summarized in three short sentences: “Our mainstream worldview has expired. What will replace it? A world of deep interconnectedness.”

I explore these issues with Lent in the latest episode of Frontiers of Commoning, and it’s a fascinating conversation! 

The story that Lent tells in The Web of Meaning is filled with fascinating accounts about ancient wisdom traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and neo-Confucianism…..and how the insights from these traditions actually intersect with recent findings in biological sciences. What seems to bring the two approaches into closer alignment is their mutual commitment to seeing the world as alive and defined by entangled relationships.

Lent is not just an academic synthesizer sifting through the literature of world history and philosophy. He is on a personal quest, and he comes by his insights honestly. After his wife died an untimely death and the Internet startup company that he founded and led went under, Lent embarked on a deep immersion in a sprawling literature of civilizational history, culture, philsophy, economics, politics, psychology, and religion.

His goal was to clarify for himself the meaning(s) of life. His chapter titles reflect this search -- Who Am I? Where Am I [in the universe]? What Am I? How Should I Live? Why Am I? -- but Lent's book is not a personal memoir, but rather a deep history of various civilizations and their own sense of meaning as lived and expressed through their cultures.

By tracing the origins of the modern worldview and how it has taken humanity to the edge of planetary disaster, Lent wants to suggest how we can construct a new ecologically based civilization. This requires that we absorb lessons that biological and evolutionary sciences are now discovering, seeing how they can transform our perspectives on climate and other ecological challenges, and spur us to rethink our sense of personal meaning and value.

Part of Lent’s goal in the book is to break down the many barriers that modern disciplines and “reason” have erected to deconstruct the world, separating it into parts. “We’re accustomed to thinking of science as existing in a different domain from spirituality,” he writes. “We generally view the intellect as distinct from emotion; the mind as separate from the body; humans as separate from nature; and spiritual insight as separate from political engagement. In the integrated worldview laid out here, each one of these domains is intricately connected with the others in an extended web of meaning.”

This points to the task ahead; Developing a worldview that recognizes our deep interconnectedness will be critical to recognizing how we are personally connected to climate change and to task of building a sustainable world. As Lent notes in his interview, the commons has a role to play in all of this because it is a vehicle for enacting our relationality and stepping away from the transactional culture known as capitalism.

You can listen to Jeremy Lent’s interview on Frontiers of Commoning here. 

Wisdom Traditions, Science and the Search for Meaning

Jeremy Lent has taken on an audacious task for himself – synthesizing what he calls the “cognitive history of humanity.” His 2017 book The Patterning Instinct integrates a vast academic and scientific literature to describe humanity’s search for meaning.

This “archaeological exploration of the mind,” ranging from hunter-gatherers to early agricultural civilizations to the cultures of India, China, Islam, and western Christianity, shows how our struggle to create inner meaning for ourselves is connected to our economic and political worldviews. 

Jeremy Lent, author of The Web of Meaning

Now, in a kind of sequel to that book, Lent has just published The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe. This book can be summarized in three short sentences: “Our mainstream worldview has expired. What will replace it? A world of deep interconnectedness.”

I explore these issues with Lent in the latest episode of Frontiers of Commoning, and it’s a fascinating conversation! 

The story that Lent tells in The Web of Meaning is filled with fascinating accounts about ancient wisdom traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and neo-Confucianism…..and how the insights from these traditions actually intersect with recent findings in biological sciences. What seems to bring the two approaches into closer alignment is their mutual commitment to seeing the world as alive and defined by entangled relationships.

Lent is not just an academic synthesizer sifting through the literature of world history and philosophy. He is on a personal quest, and he comes by his insights honestly. After his wife died an untimely death and the Internet startup company that he founded and led went under, Lent embarked on a deep immersion in a sprawling literature of civilizational history, culture, philsophy, economics, politics, psychology, and religion.

His goal was to clarify for himself the meaning(s) of life. His chapter titles reflect this search -- Who Am I? Where Am I [in the universe]? What Am I? How Should I Live? Why Am I? -- but Lent's book is not a personal memoir, but rather a deep history of various civilizations and their own sense of meaning as lived and expressed through their cultures.

By tracing the origins of the modern worldview and how it has taken humanity to the edge of planetary disaster, Lent wants to suggest how we can construct a new ecologically based civilization. This requires that we absorb lessons that biological and evolutionary sciences are now discovering, seeing how they can transform our perspectives on climate and other ecological challenges, and spur us to rethink our sense of personal meaning and value.

Part of Lent’s goal in the book is to break down the many barriers that modern disciplines and “reason” have erected to deconstruct the world, separating it into parts. “We’re accustomed to thinking of science as existing in a different domain from spirituality,” he writes. “We generally view the intellect as distinct from emotion; the mind as separate from the body; humans as separate from nature; and spiritual insight as separate from political engagement. In the integrated worldview laid out here, each one of these domains is intricately connected with the others in an extended web of meaning.”

This points to the task ahead; Developing a worldview that recognizes our deep interconnectedness will be critical to recognizing how we are personally connected to climate change and to task of building a sustainable world. As Lent notes in his interview, the commons has a role to play in all of this because it is a vehicle for enacting our relationality and stepping away from the transactional culture known as capitalism.

You can listen to Jeremy Lent’s interview on Frontiers of Commoning here. 

Join Launch of the Partnership for American Democracy

Did you miss America Talks? This incredible event kicked off the 4th annual National Week of Conversation from June 12-20, 2021. Although the National Week of Conversation 2021 has passed, you can stay connected to their upcoming events here!

Including this announcement from the #ListenFirst Coalition about a special event happening tomorrow July 1 at 12pm Eastern, 9am Pacific – “Thursday marks another milestone as we help launch the Partnership for American Democracy, a new initiative that will serve as the collaborative nerve center to attract and direct greater attention, energy, and resources to efforts to renew and strengthen our democracy. Bridging cultural and political divides, embodied in our #ListenFirst Coalition, is one of five priorities the Partnership will support.” Join the launch here!


The Launch of the Partnership for American Democracy

We’re launching the Partnership for American Democracy, a collective impact initiative bringing greater attention and resources to the renewal of American democracy.

We have five years before the 250th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, over which time we’ll make progress to prove to the world that the American system of self-government can once again solve problems at scale. Join us for the event that will launch it all, and hear from the change-makers driving forward the next chapter of America’s future. Learn more about the Partnership for American Democracy at www.pfad.us.

Register here for the launch event: linked here

More About America Talks and National Week of  Conversation 2021

America Talks (June 12-13) a powerful two-day event that invited Americans to connect one-on-one, face-to-face on video across our divides organized by a coalition of nonpartisan, bridge-building organizations and promoted by USA TODAY and other media partners. America Talks offered the opportunity to pair participants of different political associations who were seeking to find common cause and repair divides to speak directly.

Following America Talks, was the 4th annual National Week of Conversation  (June 14-20), which invited Americans to practice “Courage over Contempt” by having conversations despite differences in bold and energizing ways. NWOC events were hosted by more than 100 partners from the #ListenFirst Coalition and anyone else who wanted to host a conversation.

The National Week of Conversation 2021 presented a packed week of multiple sessions to attend.  Each event was meant to challenge our courage over contempt and make our way step by step in healing the division felt in this country. Both events encourage Americans of all stripes to listen, extend grace, and discover common interests. Take a courageous step on this hopeful mission to defeat toxic polarization and heal America by transforming division and contempt into connection and understanding. #ListenFirst

the student

A Victorian house on a stately street,
Formal, ornate. The bell breaks the silence.
Would a gift have been wise--something to eat? 
When to shift from pleasantries to science?
A ticking clock, long rows of serious books,
China, polished wood, a distant dog barks.
Pay attention, this might have some value.
It's rude to seek help without taking advice.
Now say what you've really come for, shall you?
Then: time to go? Did our talking suffice?
Not for years now have I been the visitor.
This is my parlor and I am the grey one,
The host, the ear, the kindly inquisitor.
How can it be that it's my turn to play one?

See also: Midlife.