Critical Issues For The United States

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Deliberation suggests careful thought or reflection, consideration of alternatives, but may also imply public discussion, processes working toward collective judgments. For different reasons, liberals and their critics would agree that deliberation is central to citizenship. For liberals, deliberation in the public sphere is instrumental to the purposes and interests of free individuals, combining with other private citizens to articulate and pursue common interests.

For those with a more communitarian perspective, public deliberation is part of the process through which citizens are socially constituted and democratic participation is thus intrinsically rather than instrumentally valuable. At Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, we have developed a team-taught, cross-disciplinary social science course which emphasizes public deliberation not only on policy issues, but on the meaning of citizenship itself.

Our course entitled Critical Issues for The United States – along with its sister-course, The Global Community – originated with a year-long process of intensive discussion and planning among a group of faculty drawn from the various academic departments and programs of the Maxwell School… The courses we developed were first offered during the 1993-94 academic year, and have undergone annual revisions – some modest, some more substantial – ever since. The fundamental ideas underlying the courses have not changed, however: they remain focused upon citizenship, understood in terms of practices of public deliberation.

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Our courses were designed as multidisciplinary survey courses which would, in the process of discussing issues important to the lives of our students, introduce them to some of the major concepts and modes of analysis employed in the various social science disciplines represented at the Maxwell School. There was from the outset, then, a sense of multiplicity of perspective built into the core concept of these courses. They would not present a single seamless vision of social life or seek to find the one right answer. Rather, they would present multiple interpretations of each issue we dealt with, some convergent, some in direct conflict.

We would try to link these interpretations to fundamental assumptions about the nature of social life, and to show how these basic conceptual frameworks were related to different normative orientations and political positions — that is, to different practices of citizenship. We would invite students to ponder the implications of the various perspectives we discussed, to consider the consequences for their lives as citizens, but we would not push for closure or consensus. We would emphasize the process of deliberation, rather than any particular result.

We expose students to different ways of knowing social reality: the hypothesis-testing approach of orthodox social science, rudimentary rational choice theory, more interpretive understandings of social action, and critical theory models which seek organic links between knowing the world and recreating the world. We try to underscore the idea that different ways of knowing are associated with different modes of action and, ultimately, with alternative possible worlds. How knowledge is socially constructed is thus a crucial dimension of citizenship, and an important aspect of this course.

FormatAs part of our emphasis on processes of deliberation, we wanted to move away from the passive, lecture-based format typical of introductory survey courses at larger universities. In many such courses, if students are involved in smaller discussion sections at all, they are typically led by graduate teaching assistants and are at best an adjunct to the primary, lecture-driven substance of the course. In contrast, the Maxwell courses were designed so that two-thirds of students’ class time would be spent in discussion sections of no more than fifteen, led by members of a team representing a cross-section of the Maxwell School faculty.

To underscore for students that these discussion sections were not merely the caboose on a lecture-driven train, but were rather the motor of this course, a substantial part of their final course grade (currently 25 percent) is directly linked to their level of participation in these discussions. Particular faculty members meet twice each week with the same discussion groups so that a sense of mutual familiarity and group identity could develop, fostering candor in discussion and a willingness to think out loud.

Once a week, rotating pairs of faculty share the responsibility of lecturing to a “plenary” in which all the discussion sections meet together. These lectures typically present alternative perspectives or ways of thinking about some general question or issue area. Faculty attempt to “model” intellectual activity for students, thinking through the strengths and weaknesses of various perspectives, underscoring their implications for politics and social life. Often, faculty will present perspectives with which they do not agree, and will state so at the outset.

In this way, they may illustrate for students that there is an intelligible train of reasoning behind each position, and that our fist task as critical thinkers and citizens is to try to understand that reasoning. Implicitly we pose the question: why would reasonable people hold such a view? In the first instance, then, our objective is to help students to feel the attraction which draws scholars and citizens to a particular perspective, its intellectual power, its political promise, its vitality. We then try to explore the tensions or limits of each perspective.

Again, the emphasis is on deliberation rather than mastery of a given fund of “knowledge”, but we do expect students to understand key concepts, arguments and supporting evidence for each of the major positions we deal with, and ultimately to be able to incorporate these into their own critical judgments and deliberations. To deemphasize rote learning, we abandoned conventional exams altogether. Instead, frequent writing assignments are integrated into the course as one more mode of deliberation and discussion.

Students contribute regularly to a computerized “citizenship log” in which they are asked to exchange comments on a particular issue or idea in the course material. To encourage students to come to class prepared to actively discuss the material at hand, we may ask them to write a brief paragraph responding to each day’s readings and perhaps to post this response on the electronic log for other members of the class to see. In addition to addressing regular prompts from the faculty, students may also engage each other on the electronic log, continuing or anticipating classroom discussions.

Often, faculty will review students’ e-log entries prior to class and use them to construct an agenda for more focused group discussion. We also employ more traditional forms of writing. From time to time, we ask students to write very brief (1-2 page) response papers which focus their attention directly upon substantive points judged by the faculty team to be especially significant. Frequently these will be concepts or issues which will be important for future deliberative essays. This helps students early on to begin come to grips with key claims or ideas, and enables the faculty to gauge their success in doing so.

This may be a useful diagnostic tool: disappointing performance on response papers may then signal to us that particular students need additional help with key concepts, or they may reveal that the entire class needs to spend more time collectively working through some especially difficult points. Finally, each major unit of the course culminates in a somewhat longer “deliberative essay” in which students are asked to critically assess various perspectives and formulate a position relative to the major theme or issue of that unit.

These essays are kept short (typically around five pages) in order to encourage students to be as concise as possible, to make deliberate decisions about what material is most significant, to develop summarization skills and to preclude the “kitchen sink” approach to paper writing. To aid students in the development of essay writing skills, the faculty have prepared extensive writing guidelines which include such fundamentals as how to construct and support a reasoned argument, how such arguments differ from assertions of opinion, how to use sources and avoid plagiarism.

To reinforce our seriousness about the development of analytical writing skills, our grading criteria are keyed to these guidelines and we provide extensive written feedback on essays pointing out where there is significant room for improvement. We also make available to students annotated examples of especially strong essays so that students can see for themselves the kinds of work they are capable of producing and what faculty graders are looking for in student writing.

Altogether, students would write 5-8 papers of various lengths, and anywhere from a dozen to several dozen computer log entries. To aid faculty in designing these writing assignments, and to advise students on how to construct them, our faculty team includes an instructor from the university’s writing program who has been involved in course planning from the outset, is familiar with the readings, attends all our lectures, and participates actively in faculty meetings.

We have found the writing instructor to be especially valuable in helping us to design writing assignments which balance the open-endedness necessary for real deliberation with the concreteness required to hold student interest. In keeping with this relatively open-ended format, we avoided adopting any standard textbooks, and instead assembled a custom reader which presents students with the challenge of interpreting multiple voices and engaging a variety of perspectives.

In addition to our reader, we assign three books representing particular positions on each of the major issues under discussion. To maintain creative tension and space for deliberation, we are careful to include in our reader several counterpoints to each of the books we assign. Our goal is to provide students with enough material to construct a critical and also a supportive position with regard to each major reading.

We have also developed a home page on the World Wide Web in order to give students the opportunity to explore the vast array of resources available in cyber-space. Our home page contains all the materials which would be found in a syllabus, together with guidelines for the different kinds of writing assignments students will encounter, annotated examples of strong student essays, information about members of the faculty team, links to computerized discussion forums for each class section, and links to a variety of resources external to the university.

Newspapers and magazines, government agencies, political parties, advocacy groups, think tanks, data bases and archives are made accessible through our web page. Our hope is that this array of electronic resources will not just facilitate learning through the classroom experience, but will also prompt students to consider the links between issues and perspectives discussed in class and those they encounter in the media and on the web.

To further encourage this, we directly incorporate web materials into some of our class sessions: for example, we used material from the web sites of industry, environmental, and citizens’ groups to facilitate a role-playing exercise in which groups of students were asked to interpret the position of a particular group and to come to class prepared to assume their identity and negotiate with others based upon what they had learned from the web sites we assigned.

Substantive VehicleCritical Issues for The United States began as a series of debates on issues which faculty planning teams thought to be important ones for students as citizens. Early versions of the course focused upon such issues as: individual rights and the responsibilities of citizenship; the size and scope of federal government as well as the relative merits of governmental centralization and decentralization; unequal access to quality education; race and affirmative action; and the environment.

However, over successive semesters, student evaluations suggested that these issues and the arguments relevant to them were being perceived as separate and disconnected. The course was not providing students with a way to connect these discussions to contested visions of civic life, to see that positions on different issues might be linked by similar understandings of citizenship, to understand that policy debates are also debates about the kind of society we wish to live in and the kinds of citizens we want to be.

To provide a substantive vehicle which would refocus the course on contested meanings of civic life and citizenship, and to help students see more clearly the linkages between these visions and particular political positions, we introduced a new integrative theme for the course as a whole: “the American Dream reconsidered”. We ask students to deliberate on questions such as the following: What has the American Dream meant historically? What meanings does it have for people today?

How do visions of the American Dream help us to think about ourselves as citizens, and what difference does it make if we think about the Dream in one way or another? How have issues of race, class, and gender figured in various interpretations of the Dream? Are there nationalist or nativist undertones in some or all versions of the Dream? Can, or should, the prevailing interpretation of the American Dream survive into the 21st century?

To engage students on issues where they feel they have some stake and where they already know something, we approach these questions not in the abstract but as they have confronted us in three major areas of public controversy. EconomyWe ask whether the American Dream has been associated with the rise of a large and prosperous “middle class”, and if that version of the Dream is threatened by economic changes currently underway. What kinds of economic conditions are needed to support the Dream? Who can, or should, participate in such prosperity?

What is the meaning of participation in an economy, and how is that participation related to different notions of citizenship and community? This unit of the course introduces the basic market model, emphasizing individual choice and the role of prices as transmitters of both information and incentives. We present the case for the proposition that, in the absence of external intervention, individuals acting in pursuit of their own self-interest will realize through market institutions the most efficient allocation of resources.

This implies a limited role for government and a tolerance for the economic and political inequalities which are intrinsic to a system of individualized incentives. We present the classic critique of governmental policies aimed at fostering greater equality: such policies are counterproductive insofar as they distort price signals and undermine incentives for the efficient allocation of resources, and are undesirable since they restrict individual liberty.

On this view, then, the American Dream entails the protection of individual rights and liberties and a system of opportunity in which individuals are rewarded in proportion to their hard work and merit. America became a wealthy and powerful world leader through the pursuit of this vision of the Dream and, to the extent that we have in recent decades experienced diminished opportunity, prosperity and power, it is because we have strayed from the original version of the Dream.

We also present in this unit a view of the American Dream of individual reward and prosperity as embedded in sets of social institutions which unequally allocate power, wealth and knowledge, and which limit opportunities for meaningful self-government. These inequalities are woven through relations of class, race, and gender, and have intensified in recent years as the American economy has become more polarized in terms of power, income and wealth. This view offers its own vision of the American Dream, one which has markedly different political implications from the first view.

The political horizon projected by this vision of the Dream constitutes a community of actively self-governing citizens. To the extent that economic institutions foster inequalities which preclude the realization of this Dream of participatory democracy for all citizens, institutional reforms aimed at equalization and democratization are warranted. We then explore some of the reforms proposed by critics of the contemporary American political economy, as well as the concerns which a more individualistic perspective would raise about those proposed reforms.

EducationWe look at education as a pathway to a better life for individuals, or as a prerequisite of an actively self-governing community. What kind of educational system do we need in order to fulfill different versions of the Dream? How are different visions of citizenship implicated in contemporary debates about educational reform? We explore problems of unequal access to quality education, both in K-12 public schools and at the college level.

We examine analyses which argue that some Americans receive first-rate education at public expense, while there are entire classes of citizens who are not provided with education adequate to enable effective participation in public deliberations, and thereby become disempowered, second-class citizens. Accordingly, some prescribe a more centralized and uniform administration of public education in order to eliminate the grossest inequalities and insure for all citizens the “equal protection of the laws” promised by the Fourteenth Amendment.

We also explore arguments which locate the problems of public school systems in over-centralized and bureaucratized administrations, and which prescribe institutional reforms which move education closer to a competitive market model based upon consumer sovereignty and choice. Finally, we grapple with the dilemmas of affirmative action in college admissions, and ask how a liberal individualist society can cope with persistent inequalities of race in higher education. EnvironmentWe look at the relationship between the natural environment and the American Dream.

Can the prevailing vision of the Dream coexist with a healthy environment? Can we imagine more environmentally friendly versions of the Dream? What would be the broader social and political implications of enacting a more environmentally sustainable vision of the American Dream? We examine the anthropocentric view of nature as having value only insofar as it serves human purposes, and which further suggests that the market mechanism is the best way to determine to what extent humans should exploit the natural environment. Establishing property rights over natural resources creates a direct incentive for their wise management.

Further, the price signals and incentives of the market will call forth effective substitutes in response to resource shortages and new technologies which may minimize or eliminate our costliest environmental problems. This “free market environmentalism” is entirely consistent with the individualistic vision of the American Dream, promising consumers a world in which self-interested market behavior continues to generate high standards of living into the indefinite future. This view is encapsulated in Jay Lenno’s snack chip advertisement: “Eat all you want; we’ll make more”.

In contrast to this market-based view, we also examine the perspective of environmentalists who suggest that our relationship with nature is best viewed not in terms of the instrumental exploitation of an external object, but rather as a necessary aspect of any sustainable human community. On this view, then, our obligation as citizens of the community extends to future generations, and we must make environmental decisions based upon social norms of long-term sustainability. Such decisions cannot be made through the instrumental calculus of the market, but must instead be made through processes of public deliberation.

This, in turn, requires institutions to support such processes of democratic deliberation and citizens competent to participate in them, and thus also suggests certain linkages to the other units of our course. In addressing each of these critical issues we hope to lead students to ask: What does the American Dream promise? Does it mean individual liberty? Does it mean democracy? Does it mean equality? Does it mean opportunity for material success? A “middle class” standard of living for most, if not all, citizens? The freedom to succeed or to fail? Freedom from oppression or poverty? Is it a promise of a better life for individuals?

A better society in which all of us can live? Is mass consumption a necessary centerpiece of the Dream, or might it involve a more harmonious and balanced relationship with nature? What can, or should, we expect from the American Dream now and in the future? And what do those expectations mean for our own practices of citizenship? In these ways, we try to encourage our students to see this course as being about themselves, their political community and their future. In that sense, the course as a whole represents an invitation to enter into the public deliberations which are at the heart of various understandings of citizenship.

ReflectionsI came to these special courses with some modest experience of teaching discussion-oriented and writing-intensive courses. After an introduction to the teaching profession which involved lecturing three times a week to faceless crowds of 250 or so students, I was fortunate to be able to teach international relations for several years in the Syracuse University Honors Program. These were some of the best students at Syracuse, accustomed to putting serious effort into their education and expecting a more intensive learning experience.

It was exhilarating, a whole new kind of teaching for me: the students were eager to learn and it seemed as though all I had to do was present them with some challenging material and prompt them with a few provocative questions and off they went, teaching each other and, in the process, teaching me about teaching. Eventually, though, I began to feel a nagging sense of guilt, inchoate at first, increasingly clear later on. I was doing my best teaching with those students who least needed my help. In that sense, I began to feel that I wasn’t really doing my job.

Then I was offered the opportunity to join the Maxwell courses. Reflecting back now on five years of continuous teaching with these very special courses, the thing from which I derive the greatest satisfaction is that we have been able to create for a cross-section of first and second year students a learning experience very much like that which was previously the privilege of Honors students. In that sense, our courses have been about the democratization of education, as well as the education of democratization.

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Critical Issues For The United States. (2018, May 17). Retrieved from

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