I have been running the Harvard Law Forum, Harvard Law’s speaker series, for a year now. Here’s a round-up of talks from the past year:
Beyond Resistance with Heather McGhee – April 10, 2017
Demos President Heather McGhee is a national leader in the fight for working families. Demos is a public policy organization working for an America where “we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy.” McGhee’s opinions, writing and research have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Hill, Meet the Press, among other publications. She is one of The Root’s 23 Black Political Pundits You Should Know and one of Grist’s 50 People You’ll Be Talking about in 2016.
On April 10, 2017, she came to the Harvard Law Forum to show how students can help progressive organizations earn and deserve the trust of the majority of Americans who reject Trumpism by moving beyond resistance and towards helping restore working families to power.
Building a Moral Economy with Elizabeth & Matt Bruenig – April 5, 2017
Elizabeth Bruenig and Matt Bruenig are considered by some to be the moral politics dream team of the Millennial generation. Elizabeth is an assistant editor at the Washington Post, whose writing focuses on ethics, politics, and culture from a Catholic social justice perspective. Matt is an incisive poverty analyst and Twitter sage who has written for Jacobin, Demos, The Atlantic, Dissent and The Washington Post.
They came to the Harvard Law Forum on April 5 to give a one-two punch of moral vision and economic analysis to wake up Harvard Law students to the imperative of working towards a moral economy.
The Fight for Prison Education with Vince Greco – March 30, 2017
Vince Greco is one of the leading formerly incarcerated prison reform advocates in Maryland. He is member of the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform and Out for Justice. He is a beneficiary of prison education and during his three decade incarceration was a leader on the inside in expanding college programs to Maryland prisons.
On March 30, 2017, he spoke at the Harvard Law Forum on the importance of prison education.
Hope, Change and Community with Sr. Simone Campbell – March 22, 2017
Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, has served as Executive Director of the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice since 2004. She is a religious leader, attorney and poet with extensive experience in public policy and advocacy for systemic change. In Washington, she lobbies on issues of economic justice, immigration reform, and healthcare.
On March 22, 2017, Sr. Campbell came to Harvard Law School to speak about moral vocation building and advancing Catholic social justice values in the Trump era.
Why Trump? What Now? with Michael Sandel – March 22, 2017
Two decades ago, in his book Democracy’s Discontent, Michael Sandel warned that, absent a stronger civic republican spirit, liberalism would collapse, giving way to “those who would shore up borders, harden the distinction between insiders and outsiders, and promise a politics to ‘take back our culture and take back our county.’”
On February 22, 2017, the Harvard Law School Forum hosted Sandel to give his take on politics in the age of Trump.
I recently gave a talk to the Falls Church League of Women Voters entitled “Civic Creativity: Beyond Civic Engagement Finger Wagging.” Here’s the original News-Pressfeature plugging it:
The League of Women Voters is hosting a forum called “Civic Creativity: Beyond Civic Engagement Finger-Wagging,” next Sunday, April 19, from 3 – 4:30 p.m. at the Falls Church Community Center. Pete Davis, co-founder of Our Common Place of Falls Church, will start the program with a presentation, which will be followed by a discussion about how civic engagement can be improved in response to the realities of contemporary life.
Davis’ organization, Our Common Place of Falls Church, is “a community web platform that is designed to make it easier for Falls Church residents to share and connect with each other,” according to a press release from the League of Women Voters about the forum. “American civic life is in crisis,” the press release said.
“Our civic infrastructure—from civic education in schools to our organizational structures, from our way of talking about politics to our local government’s methods of engaging citizens—is due for an upgrade. This event is designed to move beyond complaining about the decline in civic life to laying the groundwork for its revitalization.” For more information, visit lwvfallschurch.org.
Peter Davis, a 2008 George Mason High School graduate who will be entering Harvard Law School this fall, made a stimulating presentation to a gathering hosted by the Falls Church League of Women Voters at the Community Center Sunday that argued for a new “Progressive Era” like the one the U.S. experienced in reaction to its first “Gilded Age” in the late 19th century.
The nation is suffering a “new gilded age” now he said, and a form of civic engagement and activism is called for that goes beyond “flipswitch” politics – where a single issue is agitated for and then changed – to a more organic, community-based efforts at reform. Politics are now run by managers as mass spectacles, he said, where the public is alienated from its government that becomes more like an impersonal vending machine. “Wagging fingers doesn’t work” to fix this, he said. But instead “successful alternatives are the best protest,” achieved through the systematic public learning of civic creativity through new institutions dedicated to that purpose.
The goal is to achieve projects, not just back candidates: that was the model operative in the first “Progressive Era,” he said.
I will be posting a version of this speech on this site in the not-so-distant future.
Harvard Thinks Big, the Harvard event we founded that brings together all-star professors for one night to share their big ideas, has reached its sixth year. The Crimson had a good rundown. Open Culture had a piece on Harvard Thinks Big 5 with each video from the event. Here’s the Harvard Thinks Big youtube playlist:
Plus, here’s the link if you’re interested in following Harvard Thinks Big on iTunes.
I just had a new guest commentary in the Falls Church News-Press regarding civic education:
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform, the bombshell Reagan administration report that helped define today’s conventional wisdom about American schools. Thanks to the report – which implied that America’s “preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technology” was “being overtaken by competitors” due to a “rising tide of mediocrity” abetted by public schools – one cannot talk about schools today without hearing that classes are not “rigorous” enough, that American children are “falling behind” Chinese, Indian and Korean children in “competitive skills,” and that the answer is evermore “tougher standards.”
Three decades later, educators are standing up to call “hogwash!” on the report’s themes. When you adjust for poverty, American scores are not ‘falling behind’: non-impoverished school districts lead the world on recent PISA tests. Even more, there is no connection between a nation’s economic productivity and its test scores: Americans have had low-ranking scores for decades and yet still lead the world in economic productivity. Factories have moved to other countries not because they have better-educated citizens, but because they have lower labor standards than Americans find just. In fact, the largest recent economic threat to America – the financial crisis – was caused by the reckless corporate policies of the well-educated. Indeed, we are not A Nation at Risk of falling behind economically and, if we are, don’t blame our public schools.
America’s outlook isn’t exactly rosy, though: We are failing to stem climate change, reign in the corporate crime wave in the financial industry, roll back mass incarceration, and stop the corruption of Congress by monied interests. But these are not failures in economic competitiveness. Rather, they are civic failures: failures by us citizens to address shared problems.
When Ben Franklin was asked what governmental system America was going to end up with, he responded: “a Republic, if you can keep it.” To keep our Republic – the system that places the power to govern in the hands of the People, ourselves – we need civic education: schooling in the democratic values, civic skills, and public-minded determination needed to address today’s civic failures. Perhaps it’s time for a report entitled A Republic at Risk: The Imperative of Civic Education Revitalization.
Falls Church schools should lead the way in revitalizing American civic education. Only providing vague encouragement of ‘service hours’ and a single course on formal Government is a disservice to our high schoolers: Packing kits for the homeless is not the same as pairing such service with responsive political action against the structures that create homelessness; reading about how a bill becomes a law is not the same as developing the hands-on experience that is needed for legislative change.
Fortunately, there are signs of hope for a civic education revival in town: (1) Star teacher Rory Dippold has turned his 7th grade classroom into a home for dynamic, project-based civic engagement, leaving Huskies excited to actively participate in their communities. His Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher nominations illustrate how our community values vigorous civic education. (2) When I proposed a GMHS Public Project Program (www.tinyurl.com/GMHSPPP), dozens of neighbors reached out, excited to discuss how we can get more project-based civics in the schools. To quote one alumni: “As someone who worked on a public project during high school, it too often felt like the work we achieved was accomplished in spite of our obligations as students instead of in conjunction with them. If we had been encouraged by a program which not only formalized civic creativity as an expectation, but also integrated a supportive framework of knowledge, time, and resources into the high school education system, there’s no telling how far we could have gone.” (3) At the FCCPS Community Visioning, the audience issued a clarion call for more adult mentorship, tighter school-community bonds, and project-based learning. When asked explicitly whether FCCPS’ current level of civic education was adequate, a near-unanimous crowd expressed that FCCPS civic education needed work.
Stakeholders may not agree on the method, but they agree on the imperative: Falls Church needs a stronger civic education program to revive our at-risk Republic. But the question remains: will Superintendent Jones and the school board listen? If the FCCPS Community Visioning process was more than just lip service, then FCCPS will appoint a civic education czar to facilitate an open forum to craft a revitalized civics program for Little City schools. If we were able to find hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds to pay the Apple Corporation for controversial computers (money that could have paid for the salary of a full-time civic engagement coordinator), we assuredly can find the resources for the level of civic education for which the community is passionately calling. To join the push, email FCCPSCivicEducation@gmail.com!
There is an under-appreciated gap in our representative democracy: the fact that there is very likely no news source that covers the week-to-week activity of your Congressman. Local newspapers tend to cover the week-to-week activity of local government (at best, hard-hitting investigations of the mayor, but rarely the Congressman) and national newspapers tend to cover the big players, ignoring your run-of-the-mill representative. Occasionally, when there is a big issue — Obamacare, a war vote, etc. — we find out what our Congressman’s position is on something, but this is rare.
This means that there are only two ways we find out about our Congressman: (1) from his or her opponent in the few months before an election, usually in over-dramatic television ads (and this only when he or she has a serious opponent, which is increasingly rare); and (2) from the Congressman himself!
The result: Congressmen are not really accountable to their week-to-week, month-to-month actions, inactions, positions, co-sponsorships, votes, etc. They are not only partially unaccountable in the sense that everybody back home knows but nobody back home cares, but more deeply unaccountable: nobody back home even knows!
I am facing this in my push to raise the federal minimum wage: there are six GOP congressmen who are in deep pro-minimum wage districts and have signed passionate pro-minimum wage pleas in the past, but are now refusing to act. They can keep ignoring our questions, because they know that their constituents will never find out, in the moment, about their inaction. If it’s brought up in the election six months from now by the digging of an opposition researcher, they can fudge the message in a campaign ad.
How do we solve this? I have an idea. We need an entity in each district, independent of the Congressman and his staff, that is responsible for mediating the representation between a district and its Congressman. This can be a creative two-way institution: (1) Congressman-to-District: reporting on the actions of the Congressman to the constituents, putting it into context by explaining bills, policies and initiatives, hosting forums for the Congressman and national policy experts, etc.; (2) District-to-Congressman: commissioning polls of the district, commissioning district forums for constituents to ask questions and share thoughts (currently Congressmen run their own forums!), hosting district debates for the Congressman to sit in on, publicizing insurgent constituent opinions and demands, etc.
Even better would be to not have only one of these “Congressional District Leagues” in each district, but to have many wards per district, which could facilitate this two way conversation: informing ward members of Congressional action and forcing Congressman to hear ward members. It would add a new layer to Congressional politics. You could imagine: aspiring Congresswomen not rising through party establishment or big donors, but rather through ward activity and leadership; campaigns being facilitated not through ads but through forums hosted by wards (With this new layer of democratic institutions, we could achieve something even deeper than campaign finance reform: not just democratizing financial access to running campaign ads, but ending the reign of campaign ads altogether!); causes not starting with random hodge-podge letters and calls and petitions, but rather through “Go to your Congressional ward meetings and get a resolution passed to ask your Congressman about X or Y issue.”
It’s not that hard of an idea to make happen: less than 10 people could get make this happen in their Congressional district and fill this gap in our representative democracy!