Learning Life’s credocalls for a different understanding of education – as an ongoing practice rather than a passing period in one’s life, an incidental phenomenon as much if not more than a deliberate one, and most importantly for our purposes in this article, a process that should never be bound strictly inside school walls. This understanding directs our attention to a new frontier of public education, beyond schools, into everyday life.
In charting this new educational frontier, the challenge is both theoretical and practical. Theoretically, the challenge is in part to define what distinguishes this new frontier from previous ones. Accordingly, in the first article in this series on local learning infrastructure (LLI), I distinguished between what a citizen and a consumer learns about their community, and briefly defined LLIs as tools for developing more citizen knowledge and engagement. Practically, the task at hand is in part to figure out just what LLIs look like and how they do and could work. This article starts us on this path.
As noted in the first article, a LLI consists of the local means for informing and engaging people about all that matters to their lives, from emergencies to school programs to regional economics on a local level all the way to information about climate change, demographic trends, technological innovations and alternative ways to think and live across the world. This significant information or signiacontrasts with trivia – less important information about, say, who is dating who in Hollywood, who is beating who in sports, etc. – that can be very entertaining, but that does not typically help ensure people’s safety, feed or clothe them, or otherwise assist them to better understand and shape their world.
In well functioning modern societies, LLIs commonly consist of brick-and-mortar structures like schools, libraries, town halls and community centers as well as printed or electronic means of communication, like newspapers, newsletters, leaflets, posters, email lists and websites. Some of these structures are government-run since democratic governments are charged with educating and engaging local residents. But businesses, nonprofits and voluntary associations (e.g., professional associations, universities, community foundations, political parties, advocacy groups) often also have an interest in creating, sustaining, expanding or innovating LLIs. Sometimes the information these organizations disseminate is more partial or partisan, but so long as it is signia rather than trivia, as defined above, it forms part of LLIs.
Importantly, considerable local learning infrastructure – like schools, universities, libraries, after-school educational programs and adult education classes – is largely devoted to deliberate learning, that is, signial education (learning signia rather than trivia) the learner more or less intended. But there is ample need for incidental learning, or signial education the learner does not intend, since many people learn only that signia which they are required to learn in school or at work.
Infrastructure for incidental learning already exists in many cities and towns in the form of free outdoor installations devoted to telling the community’s story, like Philadelphia’s outdoor history museums and memorials, or Boston’s pedestrian “Freedom Trail.” But many surfaces of everyday life – like napkins, placemats and cup sleeves as well as exterior building walls (for projecting important information), neighborhood bulletin boards and book exchanges, and electronic tickers and screens in public places – are less often used to engage people in incidental learning.
What if these everyday surfaces were used not just periodically but systematically to inform and engage people on local to global levels? Governments could install tax, sponsor or advertiser-funded e-tickers, radios or screens at popular marketplaces, parks, walkways, bus and train stops to run text, audio or video about development plans, budget debates, school issues, and upcoming events. Nonprofits and businesses could partner to create a steady stream of sponsor or advertiser-funded napkins, placemats, coasters and cup sleeves that invite people to learn about everything from local volunteer opportunities to global economic and environmental trends, and connect them to further information online as they eat or drink in restaurants, bars and cafes.
Democratic societies work better when they have more everyday citizens than periodic citizens. Periodic citizens restrict themselves more or less to voting in periodic elections. More informed citizens are more likely to become everyday citizens, and everyday citizens are more likely to report local problems as they arise (e.g., car break-ins, broken street lights, corruption and incompetence) in part because they know who to speak to and what to say. They are more likely to voice their issues and values, and do so in a tolerant and sophisticated ways. They are more likely to become involved locally to globally because they know more about local to global needs and problems, and how to address them.
Everyday surfaces can help nurture everyday citizens by spreading learning beyond the walls of traditional LLI structures like schools and libraries, to the restaurants, markets, parks and bus stops where people more often congregate. Better LLIs use everyday surfaces to nurture better citizens and stronger communities local to global.
Small businesses and volunteer associations have long been engines of the local community dynamism for which the United States is known. In recent years though, an inchoate movement has emerged nationwide to act locally driven in no small part by growing consumer desire to eat locally. In an age of globalization and social mobility though, this movement raises three important questions worth addressing:
1) How much do people actually know about their local communities?
2) What should they know?
3) How might local learning be nurtured?
I don’t profess to know all the answers to these questions, but as a sociologist, a long-time community organizer and the founder of Learning Life, I have some ideas.
To the first question, I suspect that most people know more about their communities as consumers than as citizens. Consumers need and want products and services of all kinds, and businesses have a vital interest in attracting consumers. Community non-profits and volunteer groups likewise desire to engage residents, but they don’t typically have the resources businesses have, nor do they usually so directly aim to meet people’s material needs and wants. Thus, we are likelier to know where to find good food, clean our clothes and fix our vehicles than where to mentor and tutor children, care for the elderly, or just learn local history. Similarly, when it comes to engaging with local government we are likelier to know where the public parks and playgrounds are, how to call the police, or get a license renewed or replaced than who our local government representatives let alone how to participate in government.
This matters because there is ample evidence linking knowledge and engagement. That is, people who know more about a given topic are more likely to be interested and involved in that topic, be it astronomy, politics, or their local community (e.g., on the connection between political knowledge and political engagement, see, for instance, Delli Carpini & Keeter 1997, Galston 2001 and Torney-Purta et al. 2001). Also, as I noted in a previous post, cognitive research shows that the more one knows about a given topic, the better one remembers, comprehends and problem solves on that topic. Thus, people who know more about their local communities are more likely to be better local citizens: more active, interested, intelligent and better problem-solvers.
To the second question, accordingly, local citizens should know more about local history, avenues for government participation, and the local individuals and groups that make their communities better places to live. Local citizens should also know more about the economy (e.g., what are the major local industries, who are the largest employers, how does local government constrain and enable the local economy?), environment (e.g., where does our water come from, what is the quality of the air we breathe, and how do business and government affect these?) and demographics of their community (e.g., what is the ethnic, racial and religious make-up of the community, what are the most common languages spoken at home, what are residents’ income and education levels?). Such local knowledge strengthens residents’ capacities to understand, appreciate and help their communities.
To the third question, I propose that community advocates and stakeholders need to think in terms of building a local learning infrastructure (LLI). Such infrastructure consists of a community’s means for informing and engaging its residents about things that matter locally, from emergencies to public meetings to local history. Currently, municipal and county governments provide much of that infrastructure with varying degrees of quality and quantity. In many if not most localities there is plenty of room for improvement, and partnerships with local businesses and non-profits can help.
Twenty years ago, Carol A. Twigg, current President of the National Center for Academic Transformation and former Vice-President of Educom (now EDUCAUSE), declared “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure” in an essay by that name. Responding in part to the Clinton Administration’s call for an “information superhighway,” Twigg’s essay correctly identified a then nascent movement toward more online, networked and independent learning that is now revolutionizing higher education. She concluded her essay with the following statement: “It is time to move beyond the walls of our individual colleges and universities to join forces with other institutions, with corporations, and with public policy makers to revitalize American higher education.”
A similar call can and should be raised in communities across the United States and the world: given the dominance of consumerism over citizenship, and the ways globalization and mobility can distance people from their local communities, it is time for governments, non-profits and businesses to work together to systematically develop local learning infrastructures. LLIs can help inform and mobilize more residents to address community issues, whether these be environmental, economic, political, and/or social.
To this end, Learning Life partners with government agencies, businesses and nonprofits to spread signia or significant information on napkins and coasters in restaurants, bars, cafes and other eateries in metro D.C. This work follows on my belief in the strength of “big bits,” that is, bits of information that can effectively inform and engage people. It also advances our mission to inform and engage more people by spreading knowledge on everyday surfaces, whether these be phones, tablets and PCs, or napkins, posters and placemats. Such work is not a panacea, but we hope it becomes part of a wider creative effort to develop local learning infrastructures in communities in the United States and abroad.
Information, Knowledge & Inequality in Modern Societies
On some basic level, all human societies no matter how old, simple or small, depend on information and knowledge. But information and knowledge are far more developed and central to life in modern societies, even as they become more unequally distributed.
The line between “information” and “knowledge” is frequently blurred in ordinary conversation, but it is worth delineating the two terms. Information may be simply defined as data, and data includes facts, concepts and theory, with theory used to connect and lend coherence to what can otherwise be a disconnected jumble of facts and concepts. Knowledge, in turn, can be understood as the varying levels of personal or collective mastery of information. While information is stored on paper or computers, knowledge is stored in people’s minds. One may certainly argue with the way I differentiate knowledge and information here, but the distinction has the benefit of highlighting that (a) individuals and societies vary in their knowledge, and (b) data is in people’s heads and/or out there in the world.
Individuals and societies’ knowledge depends in no small part on how freely available information is. Early human hunter-gatherer groups had relatively small stocks of knowledge that were transmitted mostly orally from generation to generation. Knowledge in such societies was not very unequally distributed because there was not much of it, and that which existed – on how to hunt or gather and prepare food, create clothes, weapons and shelter, make sense of their environment – was often widely shared to help ensure material and cultural survival.
However, as humans settled, developed agriculture, print and industry, the stock of information and knowledge grew substantially, as did the division of labor. As Adam Smith, widely considered the founder of modern economics, long ago noted in his classic study, The Wealth of Nations (1776), division of labor is vital to increasing the efficiency and wealth that mark modern societies. As labor and tools became more sophisticated, it made sense to make people specialize their labor, so they could each get better by focusing, and together, they could produce so much more.
Yet Smith also recognized that the division of labor increases inequality. As people specialize their work, some get menial labor that limits their capacities, including their knowledge, while others get substantive work that expands their capacities. Of course, people can and sometimes do pursue knowledge off the job, but the very unequal status, work and resources different jobs afford make for enormous differences not just in income, but in knowledge accumulation over years. Worse, people tend to pass on their unequal capacities and resources to their children, as numerous social scientists have documented (e.g., Bourdieu 1984, Lareau 2003, Murray 2012, Putnam 2015).
Just as there are sharp (and growing) income and wealth inequalities in the contemporary world (see Piketty 2014), so too are there sharp inequalities in education and knowledge. Inequality has existed in all human societies, but its extent varies widely depending in part on the extent of division of labor and the distribution of power, that is, who does what work and who controls what resources.
What economists call “information asymmetry” – situations in which one or more individuals have more or better information than others – is especially common in modern societies, where specialized information is essential to everything we own and do, from smart phones and laptops to cars and homes to stocks and bonds, and from eating and exercising to commuting, working, even playing.
It’s not difficult to think of many common situations in modern societies in which people rely on those with more or better knowledge – teachers, coaches, doctors, tour guides, salespeople, repair-people, financial advisors – some if not all of whom have interests that do not align with those they are advising or guiding. Those who know more have an interest in withholding what they know, especially when that knowledge is power. Information asymmetry and knowledge inequality are inescapable problems in part because of such withholding, and because division of labor is necessary to the complex operation and productivity of modern societies.
Furthermore, the modern world has become flooded with information, and not all that information is equal in value. As I have argued elsewhere, it is well worth distinguishing between trivial information – like who’s dating who in Hollywood, who’s winning at what sport, what are the latest fashions – and significant information (the latter I call signia – how to cook safely, administer first aid, operate a smart phone, get a job, or how governments, economies and ecologies work. Just as there is junk food and healthy food, in the world of information, there is trivia and there is signia. As easy, exciting and profitable as trivial information can be, often the most boring or complicated information is the most important (e.g., think economics).
Pervasive trivia, information asymmetry, and knowledge inequality are all common features of modern societies. And yet, modern democratic societies have an interest in more knowledgeable citizens because knowledge helps people make better decisions, whether as workers, parents, voters, consumers, or else. Accordingly, it behooves governments, nonprofits and others interested in nurturing citizens’ capacities to think of creative ways to spread signia and reduce knowledge inequalities.
Printing signia on everyday surfaces (napkins, placemats, posters, cereal boxes, etc.), as Learning Life does, is not a panacea. Yet it is a still relatively undeveloped path to engaging more people in learning signia, whether that’s how to recognize the signs of stroke, where to find work, what local nonprofits are doing good work in the community, or else. We are excited to be developing that path, and are happy to connect with others developing similar paths to informing and engaging more citizens.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lareau, Annette. 2003. Unequal Childhoods. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Murray, Charles. 2012. Coming Apart. New York: Crown Forum.
Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Putnam, Robert. 2015. Our Kids. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Smith, Adam. 1937 (1776). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. New York: Random House. (more…)
Five Facts on U.S. Presidents’ Executive Orders
Executive orders are directives from the U.S. President to the federal government to help carry out laws passed by Congress. They hold similar power to legislation passed by Congress, but do not have to be ratified by Congressional vote. This has caused controversy as opponents of executive orders often claim Presidents use them to expand their power into law-making, which Congress constitutionally controls. Learning Life offers the following five facts on the history and importance of executive orders to provide some perspective.
Thanks to Learning Life writer Craig Gusmann for helping to draft these five facts.
1) Not in the U.S. Constitution
The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of executive orders. However, Article II of the U.S. Constitution does require the President to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Presidents have used this clause to argue that executive orders help the federal government “faithfully execute” the laws of Congress, though those may not be laws existing majorities of legislators in Congress support.
2) Franklin Delano Roosevelt
America’s longest-serving President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, issued 3,721 executive orders — more than any U.S. President, by far — in his 12 years in office, between 1933 and 1945, during the Great Depression then World War II. Woodrow Wilson issued the second most executive orders — 1,803 — in his eight years in office, from 1913 to 1921.
FDR’s executive orders, among other things, established internment camps during World War II, used mostly to intern Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants, and the Works Progress Administration, which employed millions of Americans during the Great Depression to construct roads, bridges, buildings and other public works.
3) The Golden Age of Executive Orders
The turbulent years between the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) and Harry Truman (1945-1953) could be called the “golden age of executive orders” in U.S. history because that period saw the greatest increase in the use of executive orders:
Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909): 1,081
William H. Taft (1909-1913): 724
Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921): 1,803
Warren Harding (1921-1923): 522
Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929): 1,203
Herbert Hoover (1929-1933): 968
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945): 3,721
Harry Truman (1945-1953): 907
That period included World War I, the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War, among other major events. Before Teddy Roosevelt, the number of executive orders a U.S. President issued never rose above 217 (Ulysses Grant), and since Truman it has never risen above 484 (Dwight Eisenhower).
4) Obama in Perspective
Despite the substantial publicity some of President Obama’s executive orders (e.g., on immigration, relations with Cuba) have received, Obama has exercised this power relatively little, issuing 203 thus far, less than his predecessor, George W. Bush (291), as well as Bill Clinton (364), Ronald Reagan (381), and Jimmy Carter (320), among other post-World War II Presidents. However, if one includes the presidential “memoranda” Obama has issued, which have the same legal power as executive orders, then Obama’s exercise of executive authority has been greater than any U.S. president since Harry Truman.
5) Famous Executive Orders
Arguably the most famous executive order was Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which he issued on January 1, 1863, during the Civil War, to claim the freedom of all slaves in rebel Confederate states. Other famous executive orders include Harry Truman’s order to racially integrate the U.S. armed forces, and Dwight Eisenhower’s order racially desegregating public schools.