Tag Archives: Cass Sustein

He Who Forgets History. . .

Paul_Reveres Ride

Paul_Reveres Ride

There is considerable irony in the fact that Tea Party groups have sought to legitimate their cause by choosing a name that evokes the Founding Fathers and the events that culminated in the writing of the Constitution and the birth of the Republic. For it is, in fact, these politicos who have conjured up and propagated a totally slipshod account of early American history. Of course, history is open to interpretation, and reinterpretation, but not to distortion of the facts. As Cass Sustein emphasizes in his book Republic.com 2.0, what’s alarming about today’s historical expediency is that, for many undiscerning people, it fills a gap in their historical knowledge, substituting fiction for fact.

Perhaps no one has gone further to link him or herself to the trappings of American history than Sarah Palin who, while coyly avoiding questions about her potential candidacy for President, undertook a bus tour of historical places as a means of educating Americans about their origins. (Presumably, if people understood American history, they would see the merits in Palin’s political positions) What hubris! The trip backfired, to say the least. Visiting the home of Paul Revere, Palin garbled the story of his ride, contending that Revere road to warn the British rather than the militia. When challenged by Fox News, Palin denied her gaffe, insisting that she “knew her American history.” So ended her tour, if not her presidential ambitions.

Palin is not alone in crafting historical events in accordance with her own political objectives. Speaking to the group Iowans for Tax Relief, Michele Bachmann claimed, for instance, that equality was not something that was contested and fought for, even at the expense of a civil war; rather, as she said, individuals, regardless of their origins, came to the United States and were treated as equals.

Slavery in America

Slavery in America

Acknowledging that slavery existed at the time, she contended that the Founding Fathers — especially John Quincy Adams–vowed to work for its elimination. No matter that a number of Founding Fathers–including Washington and Jefferson–were slave owners; that the Constitution counted slaves as three-quarters of a man; or that John Quincy Adams, a young boy at the time, was not a Founding Father.

Even more alarming than these individual cases is the formal rewriting of history, as in the recent case in Texas. Concerned that American textbooks veered too far to the left, the Texas Board of Education (comprised of ten Republicans and five Democrats) unabashedly voted to alter the American narrative to bolster a conservative perspective. Most outlandish of all, the Board voted to discount Thomas Jefferson’s role in providing the philosophical underpinnings of the new Republic, notwithstanding his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. As Fritz Fischer, national chairman of the National Council for History Education characterized it: This should not be a matter of partisanship, but rather of good history.

As George Santayana said, He who forgets history is doomed to repeat it. Might Santayana’s admonition provide a clue as to why Tea Party members, and others of their ilk, seek to distort it? I believe so. In fact, it would appear to me that today’s Conservatives would like nothing more than to return to a semi-mythical past when, according to their lights, life was much simpler, God prevailed, and Government was more circumspect. It’s time for a rereading, not a rewriting, of history.

The University and Its Future

Today is a good day to blog. Outside the weather is gray, dank, and windy; time to stay close to the Hearth. Even more compelling, I am laying in bed, my dog Sparky at my side, nursing a wicked cold that the man, sitting in front of me on the plane coming back from Hungary, generously bestowed on me. Alternating between conscious and semi-conscious states, I have been day dreaming about the presentation I made in Budapest at the Central European University, entitled Complexity and the University of the Future .

Linda Garcia lecturing on Complexity and the University of the Future

Linda Garcia lecturing on Complexity and the University of the Future

In particular, I have been thinking about how I might extend my analysis by building on the readings that I had assigned for my Wednesday and Thursday classes. These include Michael Storper’s and Andres Rodriguez-Pose‘s paper Better Rules or Stronger Communities? On the Social Foundations of Institutional Change and Its Economic Effects ( Economic Geography 82 (1); 1-25, 2006) as well as Chicago University law professor Cass Sustein’s Infotopia (2006).

Just as other organizations must adapt to their rapidly changing complex environments, so too must universities.

My original presentation drew upon evolutionary and complexity theory (draft paper forthcoming). It argued that, just as other organizations must adapt to their changing complex environments, so too must universities. As Rogers 1995, Uzzi 2006; Burt 2005; and Beinhocker 2007 might argue, one way of facing this challenge is to transcend existing university boundaries, both internal as well as external, so as to internalize complexity and thereby generate new, and hopefully more adaptive, ideas. This strategy might be problematic in a university setting, however. For universities adapted so well to the changing environment of the industrial age–which called for bureaucratic hierarchies as well as specialization and the division of labor–that their ivory tower culture and their disciplinary silos might have become locked-in over time. As Douglass North has emphasized, just like network technologies, organizations and institutions experience positive externalities and increasing returns, so they tend to become path dependent.

Sustein’s and Storper’s works raise questions about how such change might take place. Although these authors stem from very different disciplinary backgrounds, they both focus on governance, leading me to ask whether or not university governance structures will facilitate or retard adaptive behavior.

leading me to ask whether or not university governance structures will facilitate or retard adaptive behavior.

Faculty Meeting (courtesy of Michael Wu)

Faculty Meeting (courtesy of Michael Wu)

Recall that universities are, to a large extent, self-governed through processes of deliberation. But, according to Sustein, deliberation only works in keeping with democratic theorists’ analyses (such as those of Aristotle, Rawls and Habermas) under very particular circumstances. Specifically, for decision making groups to effectively aggregate diverse sources of information and transform them into good ideas, these bodies must be comprised of an accurate representation of people who are relatively equal in terms of status and power, and who adhere to norms that encourage open discussion and information sharing. When such is not the case, lower status individuals are likely to either be reticent or defer to their superiors. As a result, deliberative outcomes will be narrowly conceived, rash, biased, and polarizing.

One must wonder, then, how decisions will unfold in a university context, where benefits and rewards are allocated to a large extent on the basis of rank in a hierarchy of roles

One must wonder, then, how decisions will unfold in a university context, where benefits and rewards are allocated to a large extent on the basis of rank in a hierarchy of roles. Storper and Rodriguez-Pose suggest one possible way of assuring more positive deliberative outcomes, which might well apply in the case of universities. In their article looking at how societal institutions constrain community-based groups and vice versa, the authors argue that communities and societal institutions are complementary rather than antagonistic. In fact, when well conceived, formal institutions and societal norms can serve to inhibit–if not prevent–the type of co-optation of deliberative bodies by influential and powerful members as described by Sustein in Infotopia. In the university realm, the most powerful, influential actors are likely to be deeply embedded in its established culture, and so favor the status quo. Thus, if adaptation is to be successful, and Storper is correct, change will need to be inspired, not only by pressure from the outside, but also–and as importantly–from leadership at the highest level that formally determines the institutional rules of the game–that is to say, the procedures and processes by and through which university deliberative bodies operate.

Our CCT Program is presently undergoing a process of self reflection. We are actually considering the question of ‘What do we want to look like in the future?” With Storper, Rodriguez-Pose, and Sustein in mind, I will not only be participating actively in this process but also–along with my dog Sparky–be thinking about it from an analytical perspective as well.