Singing in Sociology Class

Occasionally I break into song, particularly when teaching my Classical Sociology class. Classical sociologists Max Weber, and W. E. B. DuBois wrote about the importance of music in defining group boundaries. In the case of Max Weber, he noted that dominant groups typically have myths and stories which glorify a past of some sort. A great way to illustrate the importance of these songs is to break into song in a fashion that illustrates the the stories that separate the dominant from the subordinate. Thus, the South in the US Civil War marched to the tune of “Dixie” a song which glorified old times of cotton plantations, and southern industry of the early 19th century.

But, as Weber also wrote, subordinated groups also have ways of expressing their views about the hidden honor of their own group. The South was built on the backs of millions of subordinated African-American slaves, who dreamt of future redemption, a desire that they too expressed in music. In the case of the slaves, these are what W. E. B. DuBois called the “Sorrow Songs” because they expressed both joy and sorrow at the same time. Today, such songs are better known today as spirituals. Two such well-known songs are about crossing over the River Jordan, and passing into the Promised Land are “Swing Low Sweet Chariot and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” Julia Ward Howe’s song “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to which the northern armies marched in the Civil War is also a song of expressing a desire for future redemption. The Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” is another obvious song of this genre.

For years, I have been able to go to class and sing (badly) a few bars of any of these songs. And suddenly half the class would be filling in the rest of the lyrics. More recently, this has become more difficult. Last semester while teaching about W. E. B. DuBois, I began singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” a song that I sang as a child both in school, and in camp. Few of my 1980s born students had heard of it. Earlier in the semester, I had tried “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” with only slightly better results. Why would my students not share such classic songs?

Answers to interesting questions often come in unusual places. On New Year’s Eve, I went to the home of an elementary music teacher. She complained about the declining role of music, or what she called “cultural literacy” in the public schools. She pointed out that in recent years music, art, drama and other subjects have given way to new emphases on basic literacy, and math, to the exclusion of all else. But, she said the creeping cultural illiteracy actually goes back earlier than this. To understand how music has been slowly disappearing from the schools, she explained, you need to go back further, to the 1960s when cultural and policy changes began to effect what is taught in the school.

For example, she pointed out that basic piano skills were until thirty or forty years ago part of teacher education, at least for primary school teachers. Music was a daily occurrence in each of my primary school classrooms (many of which had a piano), and my teachers who were presumably trained under the older policies, continued teaching until at least the 1980s or so. With the demise of the piano requirement for all teachers, my students were slowly pushed for their musical education towards Barney the Purple Dinosaur, Sesame Street and, since they were children of the 1990s, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. For whatever reason, the creators of these new cultural resources did not include the songs that emerged from the Civil War and were so important in my own elementary school career in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Which of course raises another question for me as I prepare for a new semester. What songs can I sing in class to illustrate great sociological points about the nature of sorrow and joy in subordinated groups, or the glorification of the past by dominant groups? If “Dixie” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” won’t work, what would? What is the common musical heritage that a child of the 1960s can share with children of the 1990s?

I will again teach Max Weber on the nature of subordination, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in a couple of weeks, and would appreciate any ideas you may have. If anyone reading this has any ideas, please let me know.

And no, I will not sing “Oops I Did it Again” by Britney Spears!

The Funny Worlds of Our Meritocrats

The meritocracy is a ideology that is too often known for its failures, rather than its strengths. Cindy Van Gilder noted this on this blog. And if that’s not enough, I am reading The Price of Admission by Wall Street Journal Reporter Daniel Golden which demonstrates that the most meritocratic of America’s universities—those at the top of the US News and World Report list—maintain admissions offices that are carefully structured to favor the already privilege, including well-heeled donors, the powerful, alumni, the wealthy, and celebrity. As with the archaeological dig Cindy described, the privileged at America’s “best” universities move to the front of the line, ahead of all those over-achieving national merit scholars who already at age 17 already have stellar resumes.

The lesson is: look too carefully, and you find that the meritocracy is often dead or perhaps dying. Cindy did this when she found that someone with a Y chromosome was awarded the privilege of going on an archaeological dig rather than someone who had accumulated archaeological merit. Privilege, wealth, gender, race, etc. are triumphant not only in Ivy League admissions offices, but across much of academia.

But manipulating the system actually goes far beyond gender discrimination. To keep his story up close and personal, Daniel Golden starts off his story of Ivy League privilege by describing how two Tennesseans got their sons into Harvard and Princeton respectively. Former Vice President Al Gore and former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, both had sons who, despite problematic academic records from elite academic prep schools where they had been coached in the mechanics of the SAT test since childhood, were nevertheless below the institutional averages to which the rest of us are held. Nevertheless, the two sons were admitted to the Ivy League, when (presumably) their test scores meant that they should have done no better than being sent to me at Chico State. Golden’s point goes further though, when he notes that such admissions are in fact a zero sum game, since by providing the Gore and Frist offspring admission, two over-achieving National Merit Scholars were denied. The implication is that if the preferences for the privileged were removed, we would have a more productive and just meritocracy.

The odd thing though is that the very term “meritocrat” was created as a 1958 satire in The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033 by Michael Young. Surprisingly, Young’s satirical point is not the same that Cindy (and Golden) make, though. Both Cindy and Golden imply that a well-oiled meritocracy is desirable. Young’s point is that isolating the best and the brightest from the rest of society is a recipe for short-term success, but long-term social tension. The problem he writes, is that the resume gods with the perfect SAT scores come to believe that their status is due to the merit represented by SAT scores, rather than the privilege of having been raised in the environment that such tests reflect. The result is that they begin to isolation into little mutual admiration societies where they believe excellence is equivalent to well, themselves: People who can precisely fill out Scantron bubbles in the same way that the test designers seek. They become as Max Weber wrote 100 years ago:

Narrow specialists without minds, pleasure seekers without heart, ; in its conceit this nothingness imagines it has climbed to a level of humanity never before attained…”(p. 158)

So when the meritocracy breaks down, as Cindy described, I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or just roll my eyes cynically. I laugh when the admissions offices try so assiduously pretend that SAT scores and G.P.A. reflect an intrinsic worth, rather than simply a tool of the existing elite uses to justify its own privileges. But on the other hand, the SAT and G.P.A., imperfect though they may be, are better than older systems in which academic privilege was assumed to be identifiable through bloodlines and Y chromosomes.

So we live with this new meritocratic system, even if it does reward the narrow specialists without mind, and pleasure seekers without heart emerging from the habitats of the privileged. If nothing else, it beats the arbitrariness of older forms of discrimination based on hereditary privilege, chromosomes, skin color, and the networks emerging from gentlemen’s clubs.

But I become cynical when realizing that despite the pompous claims to a regime of vaguely defined excellence; that the children of the Tennesseans, despite having all the advantages of a prep school education and tutors, still cannot best the SAT scores of many of my students at Chico State. The reality of the presumably meritocratic system is that it preserves power in the existing elite first, and foremost.

Further Reading

Brooks, David (2000). Bobos in Paradise.

Golden, Daniel (2006) The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys its Way into Elite Colleges and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.

Karabel, Jerome (2005). The Chosen: the Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Weber, Max (1904-1905/2009) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Translated and Introduced by Stephen Kalberg, 4th edition

Young, Michael (1958) The Rise of the Meritocracy.