Why was it more important when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, rather than the farmer Julius Agricolus? The Tattooed Professor rants about dependent variables

Kevin Gannon the Tattooed Professor went on a rant recently about the nature of historical knowledge and explanatory independent variables. Here is one of his pithier observations about how facts become historical facts:

In other words, the stuff that happened in the past isn’t by itself history. History is when that stuff–which is promoted to the level of “historical facts” by the historian–gets processed and interpreted. The stuff that happened, yet didn’t make this cut, remains in the ephemeral realm of just plain old “facts.” A pithy example used by Carr nicely illustrates this distinction. Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon: THIS IS IMPORTANT. Julius Agricolus the small-time farmer crosses the Rubicon: who gives a shit? (I took some liberties with Carr’s phrasing.)

Because he is on a rant, he can’t resist a temptation to take a potshot at us social scientists by observing:

Each of us as individuals are still fundamentally interconnected to one another through the structures and systems that we’ve inherited. There are no independent variables.***

Which is followed by footnote:

***Sorry, social scientists. But it’s true.

It looks like the professor with a custom paint job has been reading his classical sociology/anthropology quite carefully! Marx, Weber, and maybe even Durkheim would agree with Gannon. I just wish that the quantitative sorts with their obsessive search for the ever more statistically significant independent variable would also return to such basics.

It was “Thank Your Local Criminal Day” in My Class Today!

Today was Emile Durkheim in my Classical Social Theory class, and I was again reminded of the beauty of Durkheim’s “Crime is Necessary” thesis. Basically his thesis points out that for there to be something “normal,” there must be something deviant. Or in the context of a state, this means that for something to be legal and creditable, there must be something illegal and punishable. This happens so that the normal nice people to be a group, there needs to be someone who is hung out to dry. Here is how Durkheim himself explained why society needs criminals:

        Crime brings together upright consciences and concentrates them. We have only to notice what happens, particularly in a small town, when some moral scandal has been committed. They stop each other on the street, they visit each other, they seek to come together to talk of the event and to wax indignant in common. From all the similar impressions which are exchanged, for all the temper that gets itself expressed, there emerges a unique temper…which is everybody’s without being anybody’s in particular. That is the public temper. From The Division of Labor in Society

In speculating about the implications of this principle, Durkheim did a thought experiment, and imagined what a “perfect cloister of exemplary individuals might look like. The idea being that if you got rid of all the weirdos and whackos, then you would be a perfect society. Or so the society might be think. But Durkheim was ever the curmudgeon, and pointed out that even in such a society, something described as scandalous might occur—and it didn’t even have to be something defined as “bad” previously.

Imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes, properly so called, will there be unknown; but faults which appear venial to the layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousness. If, then, this society has the power to judge and punish, it will define these acts as criminal and will treat them as such. The Rules of Sociological Method.

This is what Abi Yoyo by Pete Seeger was about. Ostracising the boy and his father brought together the “upright consciences.” There were new crimes in the village and they were bad ukulele playing and magic. Such crimes brought together the upright consciences and concentrated them. The offenders were accordingly ostracized! Watch the clip from Reading Rainbow, and see how this happened, and how it was resolved….

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPZtuPyXRfw

If you can’t take seriously the role the crimes of bad ukulele playing and magic played in a fictional South African village, listen to how Kris Kristofferson describes how other societies dealt with major moral crises. Things like drunks on the sidewalk, long-haired hippies, and riddle speaking prophets. Them folks is a real problem!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfxppjMA_JE

As the headline says. Thank your local criminal next time you see him. Your local criminal is the one who is deviant so that you can be normal and righteous!

“Teach Like You Do in America,” While Still Doing it the Tanzanian Way!

The first time I was told to “teach like you do in America” was in 2003-2004 in Tanzania where I was a Fulbright Scholar at the Sociology Department at the University of Dar Es Salaam (see Waters 2007). UDSM is a large sprawling African university, spread across “The Hill” near the Indian Ocean coast. UDSM prides itself for schooling presidents from Tanzania, Uganda, Congo, and South Sudan and its many graduates who played critical roles in first the decolonization of Africa, and now the political leadership of many countries.

When I was at UDSM, the university suffered from the common short-comings of Africa higher education, including old facilities, limited computer capacity, a dated library collection, inadequate faculty staffing, low salaries, and the occasional strike by students. And despite UDSM’s record of creating much of eastern Africa’s elite, it made little dent in the ranking systems highlighted by The Economist. After all creating a future for an area of the world that is growing rapidly is not a metric in such ranking systems.

The pedigree of UDSM in 2003 was inherited from both the British colonial rulers, and more importantly the rapidly expanding Tanzania of the 1990s and 2000s when ambitious students were swept into the university far faster than faculty were hired. In this context I was told to “teach like you do in America!” But I was told it would also be nice if I included the revolutionary Frantz Fanon who wrote Wretched of the Earth on the reading list for my Race and Ethnicity class (I was also asked to include, Marx, who some of the better-read Tanzanian graduate students insisted was not an atheist!). Fanon fortunately gave me an African example which was far better than “teaching like I did in America,” which would have meant illustrations rooted in studies of U.S. American minority groups, which lacked resonance for my east African students.

Tanzania, certainly, has ethnic divisions, based in religion, merchant minorities, and most salient of all, “tribal” identification. But tribal identification was tricky for a foreigner to navigate in 2003, because during the pre-1961 days of British colonialism, such identities were a basis for political, legal, and professional discrimination. And so tribal identification was “banned” in independent Tanzania at independence, although of course such identities persisted, and do persist. But how to talk about this in a 90+ student race and ethnicity class? Indeed, when I first raised the issues of tribes, I received another visit from assertive students pointing out that that tribes were a subject inappropriate in Tanzania, since the categories no longer existed and “we are all Tanzanian.” It was nevertheless pointed out that I was free to use east Africa’s merchant minorities (Arabs and Indians) as examples. This was particularly the case I learned, if I reinforced the stereotypes of a student body steeped in family lore about how the greedy Arab and Indian merchant minorities took advantage of black Africans. And they still insisted on carrying my briefcase and books!

But for me, the most difficult task in the Tanzanian system was managing the large classes in a hot humid climate using blackboards with dusty chalk.  There were no computers in the classroom, nor could I distribute course materials by email. Everything was done with a blackboard and piece of chalk, the dust turning to chalk-mud on my skin and clothing in Dar Es Salaam’s muggy climate. Projecting an Excel spread sheet, much less requiring students to access computers, was out of the question. The culturally appropriate t-test (How many spoonfuls of sugar do males and females like in their tea?) I did on a dusty blackboard, and students copied, copied, and copied with pen and paper.

My classes were in large lecture halls—remnants of an impressive 1970s era building boom—which included an architectural masterpiece, Nkrumah Hall, which is featured on the back of Tanzania’s 500 shilling note. I gave just two tests, far fewer assignments than I do in the United States, where demands for student work in the form of homework sets and quizzes are considered to be pedagogic best practice. Following UDSM regulations these tests comprised 40% of the overall grade, with a final exam worth 60% (in comparison in California, my final assignment is worth 25% or less). All assignments were written in long-hand and needed to be hand-graded—no machine grading. I read every exam in my 400+ student social statistics class.

Student academic culture at UDSM was different as well—students were from diverse areas of Tanzania, and supported financially by extensive family networks and a government loan system for the majority of students who did not have enough money to attend. Students were older than my American students, and certainly had less money—no cars in the student parking lot! The rich Tanzanian student might have a scooter. Tanzanian students also had their own study rhythms, with a strong emphasis on collaboration which some of my expatriate colleagues defined as cheating. But collaboration also meant that in the muggy evening when the weather cooled off just a little bit, students gathered under the electric street lamps, where one student read out loud one of the few textbooks available, while the others listened. The culture of the university—and the future of Africa—emerge from such gatherings, more so than from my “American-style” teaching.

Student finance is what led to a student strike—a phenomenon unheard of in the United States in recent decades. The students receiving the “monthly” loan payments used them to purchase food, and pay for on-campus accommodation. Payments were frequently late—which meant that students might start eating less food later in the month. How did I know this? The unspoken cultural cue was that the males started wearing neckties in the sweltering heat as meals became fewer—the ties it was said, distracted attention from sallow cheekbones.

One morning in May 2004, I went to class as usual. But very few students showed up because a student strike to object to policies regarding repayment of student loans was scheduled that morning. At 9:01 a.m., we heard the sound of the rushing strike coming, and my students politely asked to accompany me to my office—they told me staying risked a beating from the striking students (for a description of a similar strike see Ernest 2011). A strike meant no classes, period, and striking students cleared the classrooms by waving tree branches. The university administration responded by summarily closing the university that afternoon, an order that was enforced by police on campus, with help from the army. Marching strikers were blocked from going into town on that hot day by tear gas wielding troops from the army’s “Field Force.” A whiff of tear gas later, I simply settled down…to mark stacks of papers. The shut-down lasted about two weeks, as I slowly made my way through the stacks of sweat-stained papers on our dining room table.

The final surprise in UDSM culture came as I prepared and administered my finals in late June. The course that I remember most clearly is that social statistics class. 400+ students showed up to take the final, a grading task I was dreading. And then, surprisingly, the finals were whisked away from me—one of my Tanzanian colleagues did the first pass, which was then reviewed by an independent outside reviewer from South Africa. Unlike the United States, professors do not have the final word on grades in Tanzania. Rather grades there are a product of a consensus. In this way Tanzanian faculty hold themselves to internationally validated academic norms, in ways that professors in the United States are not.

The above is from my recent article published at Palgrave Communications: (2015) “‘Teach Like You Do in America”‘Personal Reflections from Teaching Across Borders in Tanzania and Germany.”

Clifford the Red Dog Defends Reading and Patriotism—At the Same Time!

Bill Rich not only spanked children, and evaluated reading curriculum when he was a school principal.  He also supervised patriotic flag raising, dressed up as Clifford the Big Red Dog for first graders, and even tried to encourage reading.  Sometimes he did all three things at once!  TW

by Bill Rich

Raising the flag each day at the school where I served as principal was a student responsibility. The 4th and 5th graders took turns in teams of 3 during the first 15 minutes of class to gather the flags from the cubby in the office where they were stored overnight and then take them to the flag pole that stood at the school entrance. The job wasn’t easy. You had to untie the semi-nautical knot the former team had left on the cleat on the side of the pole first. And at the end of the entire process you would re-cleat the rope. After the cleat was un-knotted, you sorted out which of the clips would be attached to which of the corners of the 3 flags. Inevitably, flags went up the pole in the wrong order or upside down and had to be re-raised to conform with flag protocol. As everyone knows, and the students learned, the American flag is at the top of the pole, next comes the California flag and below that, the school flag. We had a school flag as a result of parent club desires to build school spirit and to carry it in community parades. Additionally, the flags were carried appropriately. The American flag was not permitted to touch the ground and the same rule applied to the California flag. There was no official rule about the school flag but it gained status by proximity and so also benefitted in cleanliness from never touching the ground.

After the flag was raised, during the first hour of school, either the janitor, the secretary or I would check to see that the flags were raised correctly. If they weren’t then the team spent the morning recess fixing the situation.

Flag-raising-682x1024

During my career in various school districts, several school board members seeking election to the board made the patriotic education of flag respect a campaign issue. One asserted he was fixing the schools by guaranteeing there was a flag in every classroom. There was really no classroom flag shortage, but in no time after he was elected, the superintendent provided every classroom with a brand new little “Made in China” flag on a stick about two feet long to replace the older little flags that adorned classroom walls in all the classrooms. These symbols were somehow to make up the foundation of this elected official’s efforts to reform and improve the schools in that town. As teachers and administrators, we heard nothing more about it following receipt and installation of the new flags. It became clear later that other constituencies must have seen this move as a shake up of significant proportions.

So in my next school, knew I was taking a risk by assuming that students could be responsible and learn by making mistakes with such a volatile issue as flag care. But memorization of a rigid set of ritualistic rules was not the best way to teach or learn, which was our main purpose. Indeed, we were breaking free from this memorization approach with arithmetic as well as writing with a great deal of success. Much involvement and enthusiasm seemed to be the basis for a formula of highly engaged learning.

Anyway, one typical morning I was deeply involved in “highly engaged learning” with a first grade class and the librarian who continuously promoted the fun of reading. She convinced me a year earlier to forgo whatever semblance of ‘dignitas’ I felt I carried and dress up in a red, furry, Clifford the Dog costume to read to the youngest students. Clifford was a character in a popular primary picture book series and students loved him. The costume was hot to wear so I always conducted these sessions in the first hour of school when it would be a cooler part of the day. My face actually looked out through a screen that was the dog’s partially open mouth. The dog’s eyes were simply pasted googly eyes farther up the dog’s head so I couldn’t see through them.

Clifford2

I was in the middle of reading a story to a first grade class when the phone in the classroom rang. The teacher answered it and came over to me. She whispered there was an upset person in the office who needed to see me, ‘the principal.’ I asked what was up? The teacher continued to whisper it was about the flags. I asked the teachers to let the secretary know to send him down to the class and I would talk with him momentarily.

I opened the classroom door with the librarian trailing behind me since the reading session was over. The man was striding down the hall and saw me with the librarian. I intended to remove my dog head but the man came up to me so quickly that I wasn’t able to do it. He shouted, “Where is the principal?”

“I’m the principal,” I replied through the mouth of the red furry dog head.

The man looked up at the eyes of the dog head and angrily shouted, “Whose in charge of raising the American flag here?”

“I am, Sir,” I replied through the dog mouth in a feeble attempt at respect of a possibly military person.

“Well, he said, are you aware that the flags are sacred symbols of our country?”

“Yes sir!” The dog replied nodding enthusiastically? It felt like the man was talking to a hat I might have been wearing because he continued to look into the eyes of the dog that were not in the line of sight of my eyes.

“Well then, why do you have the American flag flying upside down and under the California flag? Is there a problem with our country? Are you some kind of Communist?”

“No sir, not a communist,” I said through the red dog mouth while the man glared at the dog’s googly eyes and the librarian started to titter. “There must have been a mistake in raising the flags this morning, sir.”

Still staring into the dog eyes above my face, the man shouted, “Then fix it immediately, God damn it!”

“Yes, sir!” I said through the dog mouth.

The door had been left open to the first grade class, and about this time one of the students peeked her head out of the room and whispered back to the class. “A mean man is cussing at Clifford!”

I saluted involuntarily but crisply in the red furry dog costume and the man saluted back. I turned to the little girl and calmly said, “Don’t worry, we are practicing reading out loud.”

This seemed to calm her and she went back into the classroom. After completing his crisp salute, the man turned and strode off towards the direction of the parking lot. He got into his car and drove off. The librarian broke out in uncontrolled laughter outside the room. I removed the dog head, wiped the sweat dripping from my head and walked back to the office.

My superintendent at the time spoke with me shortly thereafter about the incident. He heard about it through one of the board members who served the patriotic flag constituency of voters. Luckily for me, he convinced the board member who must have convinced the patriotic flag constituency that my method of flag-raising created better more involved and ultimately more patriotic students.

Clifford1

Devils and Angels in the Language Arts Books! The Principal Strikes Back

Last week, Ethnography.com posted Bill Rich’s first post in what might be called “Memories of a Retired School Principal (including some stuff I haven’t been able to talk about before).” The first volume of this series was about how to use “the paddle” on the buttocks of a fourth grader at the behest of mother and teacher alike. Poor Billy-the-fourth-grader.  It seems Bill-the-principal-trainee had quite an arm.  Anyway, Bill-the-principal writes all about it here. Be sure to read to the end—it is truly a guffaw-worthy post.

But this week, Bill is writing about adoption of new “language arts books,” normally a subject I hit the snooze button for. But not some parents in Bill’s school. What artifice can the principal use to mollify the local fundamentalists who believe Satan may lurk in both the textbooks, and the beanbag chairs certified by education experts to improve reading scores? Read and find out—Tony Waters

by BIll Rich

My fellow school administrators and I were taught to respect everyone’s view, all religious perspectives, especially during a contentious adoption of a new language arts series that included a new set of reading books. The reason we received this counsel was the fact that so much of the Christian fundamentalism that swirled around elementary schools during that period seemed absolutely ridiculous (It feels good to finally say this out loud!). But as principals, the worst thing we could do, according to the experts, was to make fun of deeply held religious views of our constituency i.e. the families in the community. We were, after all, the center of the community for many families, the place where all manner of community events were held and youth groups met. I believed and still believe the school should be “owned” by the community in the most basic sense.

So I held back my laughter as the onslaught began. A national organization had determined that the reading book our district decided to adopt actually contained satanic symbols and contained lessons in which students from Kindergarten through 6th grade were taught to chant and engage in dances inspired by Satan. One of the faculty members took up the cause of writing letters to the editor about the outlandish views being forwarded by this organization. He mocked them and I always got a good laugh reading his sarcastic letters. I couldn’t write this kind of thing as the principal but he could as a teacher, so I enjoyed it.

Things became more serious, however, when the school was visited by a group of parents led by an intense woman. She came to school to protest the beanbag chairs in her daughter’s first grade classroom. I knew that research existed that showed reading scores went up with the addition of beanbag chairs scattered next to the class library shelves but thought immediately the parent was going to complain about head lice. This problem was ubiquitous and more than annoying. My past successful strategy was to agree with parents in mild anger at the lice, and say something like, “I hate those stinking bugs!” Once we were on the same page about who the enemy was (lice, not school) I could let parents know the steps we would take to get rid of them. It always worked, for a month anyway.

But this parent’s concern was not lice. I didn’t know this until I invited her and her two friends along with their toddlers to the first grade room so we could see together how the beanbag chairs looked. If the parents could be unobtrusive, I found this kind of openness was the best policy to diffuse emotional situations, and also to let parents see how responsive we were as a school. Teachers were not concerned too much about this since I earned their confidence early in my principalship by telling a particularly rude parent at a meeting with a teacher that I would have him hand cuffed and arrested unless he refrained from making emotional threats to the teacher.

So I was surprised when we entered the room that the vocal parent dropped on her knees and put her head down on the beanbag chair and started reciting a kind of prayer. I couldn’t hear exactly what she was saying but luckily the recess bell rang and the first grade class filed out to play, carrying balls, jump ropes and other items for play and fun. The teacher joined our group and I started to share that there could be a head lice problem with the beanbag chairs. But the parent on the floor stopped me and said, “ It’s not lice that I’m afraid of. We believe that if our children place their heads sideways on the beanbag chair on the floor, then the devil can climb into their ears.” Furthermore, she told me I had to get rid of every beanbag chair in the school.

The teacher and I exchanged glances and I invited the group back to my office.

Maintaining my composure, I assured the parents that their children did not have to use the beanbag chairs and could remain upright in their seats during any kind of classroom activity. My solution seemed to satisfy this group and they left, still suspicious but mollified for now.

In our conversation I asked and they shared the title of some of the books they had been reading at their church. I went by the bookstore and picked up a copy of one. Reading it I understood much more about the way they were thinking. This author described the world as a constant battle between good and evil. The schools were a chief battleground. Actually, the roof of the school was populated with angels and devils constantly battling with swords and magic in an effort to save or destroy the children. After reading this, my views about pacifying this groups changed. I thought the best I could do was to help my school keep a low profile heck yes!. I shared the book with the teacher who wrote mocking letters to the editor and he was so shocked he agreed to stop writing on this issue for a while, until this brouhaha calmed down.

But there was really no way to avoid the conflict. Other parents started to come in and demanded to see the devil worship books as well as classrooms. I kept a full set of the books in my office and invited parents to take them home and read them at their convenience. None of these parents took the books but wanted to lecture me about various Bible passages. Following this experience I brought a Bible to my office and set it next to the readers. When parents told me the Bible didn’t allow their children to read the books, I asked them to help me by showing me where I could find the book prohibition in the Bible in my office. None could. When they accused me of allowing devil worship lessons in classrooms I took them to any classroom of their choice to see if this were true. We entered Kindergarten rooms and 6th grade rooms but never found any devil worship. These parents seemed happy that I was transparent but not really convinced the school was free of devils seeking to destroy their children.

The situation came to a head when we heard that activists from the region were planning to come to a parent club meeting and try to gain support for banning the reading books. I went to the school cafeteria at meeting time that evening and the room was packed. People I didn’t know shared their fears that the children were required to take part in chants. One of the parents at the school asked me what I thought. I stood up and told the group that the children do participate in chants. The room fell completely silent. Following a strategy I heard was used in another school, I said, “I’ll perform one of the chants for you.

“Hickery dickery dock,

The mouse ran up the clock,

The clock struck one and down he come,

Hickory dickery dock.”

Some began to laugh while the visitors remained silent. When the meeting closed there was a lighter mood in the air, people were talking in groups and eating cookies and drinking punch as they left the school. The following week, another delegation of people from outside the school community came to see me about the reading books. This time I simply let them know that our parent community was ok with the books but they might want to visit Big Valley, a school about 200 miles north where their opinions would be welcomed to the discussion. They never returned and the entire issue died at my school.

The Fallacy of “Workforce Ready” in Public Education

The United States was set back on its heels in the 1930s by the Great Depression. As a result, the United States charged the high schools with making the children “workforce ready.” The hope was that the schools could train children for the workforce of tomorrow—i.e. the 1940s—when the manufacturing base of the United States would be revitalized, and prosperity would return. I this context, children were kept in school longer (and out of the workforce), with the idea that they would be able to recreate the successful societies that the planners knew—the cities of the pre-Depression 1920s. In this context, there was a reform of schools in the 1930s, undertaken with the broad hope that the children would be the factory line workers of the future.

     But things did not work out as planned—the schools of the 1930s and 1940s actually did a rather poor job of creating the 1920s. Instead the children of the 1930s created the world of the 1950s-2000s and beyond. To understand how utterly inappropriate the curriculum reform of the 1930s were for the future workforce it is useful to think of a child born in the 1930s, and what they actually “did” with the primary and secondary education they received from about 1936-1948. You know, things like send humans to the moon, invent computers, and have a PC on their desk by the time they retired.  For that matter, the children trained for the workforce today in 2015 will be part of a workforce in 2060 which we today cannot imagine.  And that’s ok.

The following is from my book “Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child.”

Why Do Modern Societies All Have Systems of Mass Education?

Every society needs a way to reproduce itself, its habits, values, and morals. Education is the “social thing” by which adults through a political process assert a right to control the upbringing of not only their own children but at the same time those of other parents (see Durkheim, 1956: 62). This is of course most developed in modern mass society, which extends across nations, and even continents. In small societies this occurs in the context of unscripted face-to-face relationships emphasizing the family unit. For centuries, as long as the productive unit was small and society limited to face-to-face relationships, this was adequate. The wisdom of elders was assumed and routinely reestablished, as was learning about the seasons, family, clan, housing, and the gods. As importantly, you learn who is trustworthy and what is right and wrong ( i. e. morals, in the context of daily life). Loyalty to the small group is particularly important in such societies.

 

But modern societies go well beyond the needs of small intimate clans and a division of labor based only on gender and age. They need to recreate society and transmit the knowledge too. They need to reproduce what Bourdieu described as the unspoken predispositions, that is a habitus that a society needs to recreate itself. It recreates itself by passing on predispositions for morality, hierarchy, loyalty, trust, respect, and sense of what is right and wrong. This internalized social system, underlies the cultural legitimacy necessary to maintain and reproduce society. The question every modern government faces is how will the habitus of legitimacy be created across a population, most of whom will never meet each other, but nevertheless come to recognize each other as sharing values and playing complementary roles in a vast society. In particular, who will do this when a diversity of roles emerge, which are not only patterned by age and gender but also by social class, caste, occupation, social status, skill levels, and a wide range of taken-for-granted status attributions.

 

Because much of the strength of modern society results from what is learned by the masses, school systems emerged in all countries to reproduce the legitimacy of the existing social and economic order. But as in small traditional societies, it is necessary that the habitus and daily ways of life are internalized in a fashion that protects the status quo and also creates a society that deals effectively with unforeseeable change. But the milieu is not the family, nuclear or extended. More typically it is the nation-state, which is ultimately why every modern society needs a system of mass public education in which a scripted habitus is transmitted in a predictable fashion, which re-creates cultural capital in the context of a vast global marketplace. As with socialization in small clans, such education is about the transmission of older taken-for-granteds to a younger generation.

 

The Transgenerational Transmission of Culture via Modern Society and Bureaucracy

The habits, thoughts, and values of one generation affect the next—no human generation reinvents itself without reference to parents and the past. In modern societies, such habits are ideally written down and are explicitly fixed by powerful bureaucratic institutions in a formal school curriculum. But even in such modern societies, other such habits, which are just as powerful, are not written down, but are acted out in the day-to-day interactions between the members of national societies, which are “six degrees of separation” from each other, even in the large national societies of 300 million people like the United States or the even larger societies like the European Union and the huge societies of China and India.

 

The long-term effect of such natural habitus is perhaps no stronger than in the school system, which begins to make its mark on the brains and habits of children when they are about five years old. The habits and beliefs that are developed at such young ages come to affect the nature of the school system for 70 years or more, as individuals in their role as a citizen, parent, grandparent, teacher, or politician draw on a habitus that provides a template to make decisions about schools until they die. What these people came to take for granted as five-year-old children affects how they see the world for many, many years and makes school into one of the most conservative institutions in society.

 

The Long Echo: How Nineteenth-Century Schooling Influences the Twenty-First Century

But the conservative rigidity of school policy did not simply start some 70 years ago with the first grade of today’s 75-year-old grandparents. Rather it dips back even deeper into the past, since the predispositions of habitus carried in the heads of the grandparents and great-grandparents sitting on school boards and state legislatures today was not created in a vacuum. Today’s policies are the product of the pedagogic, political, and economic interests of the school administrators of their day who in turn had a childhood habitus created for them some 40 or 50 years previously. Given this pattern, it is not surprising that many of the assertions made about schools in 2010 have their pedigrees in the plans, programs and predispositions created by people born in the 1870s and 1880s. A brief review of this cultural history provides a context for the changes that occurred in American education. Some of the earliest and still most useful descriptions of cultural history come from the French traveller, Alexis de Tocqueville who observed the United States in the 1830s. (pp. 30-32)

 

http://www.amazon.com/Schooling-Childhood-Bureaucracy-Bureaucratizing-Child/dp/1137269715

 

Here is Why You Should Not Listen to Popular Music–But Will Anyway!

One of my favorite sociological essays is Teodor Adorno’s 1941 “On Popular Music.” Adorno didn’t much like the popular music he heard on the radio in Los Angeles, and said so. He found it simplistic, monotonous, limited and manipulative. With an emphasis on manipulative. For besides being a classically trained musician, Adorno was also a leading critic of capitalism, and especially its need for endless consumption so that large corporations could generate profits. He found popular music to be a particularly insidious form of consumption because it generated so much profit, for so little effort. All the successful music producer had to do was produce the same beat, chords, theme, and lyrics and not only would endless profits flow into corporate coffers, but the workers themselves would be conditioned to work to the very beat of the factory by popular songs “stuck in their head.”

How simple? Well, seventy years later the Australian Band “Axis of Awesome” recorded the Four Chord Song. You can judge for yourself from their performance how very prescient Adorno’s point was.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pidokakU4I

As for the lyrics—there is a formula for that too. Here is how the Axis of Awesome writes love songs.  You take those same four chords, and add formulaic sighs, whispers, and falsettos. It is really that easy–listen to them sing about how dead easy a love song is to write

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2cfxv8Pq-Q

See what I mean about Adorno? He wrote in 1941 what the Axis of Awesome sang about in 2011.  And I’m willing to Benny and his Jets from the Axis of Awesome have never heard of Adorno!

There are of course songs which are less polished than the Axis of Awesome—songs that have electrified audiences, created social movements. Remember the music that brought down the US President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War???? Here is one of my favorites, sung by Country Joe MacDonald at Woodstock.  Listen carefully to the lyrics–they are hilarious!  And then go down below Country Joe to click on Adorno himself–and see what he had to say about such protest music.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7Y0ekr-3So

 

Well, actually Adorno had something specifically to say about that. Here is the man himself speaking about the maudlin nature of “protest music.” The first part of this clips are in German, and the English subtitles begin at about 54 seconds).

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xd7Fhaji8ow

Or to repeat Adorno’s words:

“I find, in fact, THIS SONG unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumption-qualities out of it.”

In other words, anti-war music was just another product to be bought, sold, and profited from. At the end of the day, Country Joe and all his friends at Woodstock just went back home.  And the concert-goers simply went back to work, so they could make enough money to buy the album, and go to the next concert.

Anyway, dear reader, if you still like popular music, despite Adorno’s critique, we are in full agreement. I still tap my foot and sing along in the shower with Country Joe and the Axis of Awesome, even if what Adorno writes makes much more sense.

And so for those of you who have listened to the YouTube clips, and read this far, please go back up and click on Adorno’s original article—it is really worth the read, if it is not required reading as it is in my class. But if you’re are not going to do that, here is Rob Pavalonian’s spoof on popular music, Pachabel’s Rant. I can think of worse ways to spend five minutes!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdxkVQy7QLM

Comprehensive Firearms Education

A few years ago, one of my colleagues called to ask me a favor. She was organizing a “Town Hall Debate” about legalizing marijuana, and was having a difficult time finding someone from the university to sit on the panel who would argue in favor of legalizing marijuana. It took me a few seconds, but I responded “sure, why not?” and a few more seconds before I realized, as a non-smoker, I actually don’t have an opinion of whether we should legalize marijuana or not; how would I ever advocate one way or the other? But I had made a commitment to participate, so I did what I do best: I started researching marijuana, including the health effects, the legal ramifications, the financial implications. Anything marijuana related, I read. I learned a few things that I hadn’t known previously, and confirmed a few things that I had suspected, but had no proof for. Newsflash: smoking marijuana does damage to your lungs. But here’s the thing that I found most interesting: children who have a comprehensive education about smoking marijuana are less likely to abuse marijuana compared to children who are taught “abstinence-only” marijuana education.

We learned through alcohol prohibition in the 1920s in America, and through abstinence-only sex education more recently, that not talking about alcohol use, drug use, and sex, and not providing people with the tools to handle alcohol, drugs, and sex when confronted with it, has devastating effects. We also know that with comprehensive sex education, unwanted pregnancies decrease and with comprehensive substance abuse education and role playing, substance abuse decreases.

Prohibition and abstinence only-education fail to decrease undesirable behavior; education is key in changing behavior.

A few months ago, a close acquaintance of mine completed a course to gain a permit to carry a concealed gun. A staunch Republican, my friend believes strongly in gun ownership rights, shoots regularly, and legally owns many guns. But my friend had never taken a gun safety course. Mixed in with learning how to properly carry a handgun, learning the laws of carrying in California, and practicing how to shoot, the most important piece of education my friend reported to me from the class was how to properly store guns to prevent them falling into the wrong hands.

“Well, looks like we’ll be making some changes around here,” my friend said to me after the class ended. “I didn’t realize how much we were doing wrong storing our guns before.” It was a powerful statement.

Let me concede a few things here: we cannot stop all gun violence in the U.S.; that’s a valiant goal, but not a manageable or realistic goal. There is no way to round up the 300 million or so guns in the U.S., although some cities and counties are doing a good job of getting guns off the streets and out of the hands of criminals. And yes, I know, if someone is very determined to harm another person, and a gun isn’t available, they might be determined enough to find alternate means. There will always be people who feel a sense of anomie, disconnectedness, anger, and resentment, who lash out. And no, I’m not naive enough to believe that criminals will heed stricter gun control laws. But there are ways to reduce the number of guns available to people who might use them to harm themselves or others, a concept that gets support from both conservatives and liberals.

Our constitution guarantees the right to bear arms, but even with that, in a 2013 Gallup Poll, the vast majority of Americans supported criminal background checks for all gun purchases in the U.S. In other words, 91% of people agree that not everyone should have the right to bear arms. As responsible gun owners, we need to take every measure we can to keep guns out of the hands of children, particularly, and people who should not legally possess them due to mental illness and criminal history.

As I thought more about gun violence in the days that followed the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last week, and with every new opinion and article that I read, I became more discouraged at the seemingly vast chasm between the talking-heads, until I realized that the one thing that nearly everyone agreed on was this: not everyone has the right to bear arms. Conservatives blamed mental illness for Umpqua, despite no correlation between mental illness and gun violence, and street criminals for the rest of the gun violence in the U.S. (read between the lines: conservatives believe these groups shouldn’t have the right to bear arms) and liberals called for stricter gun control laws.

We cannot stop all gun violence, but we can work to reduce it, just as we’ve done with traffic fatalities. The key is education.

But here’s the thing: to buy a gun in the United States, no education is required. No education about how to carry, no education about the legal aspects of owning a gun, no education of how to properly store a gun in your home, office, or vehicle. Nothing.

Can we require people to take a gun safety course before purchasing a gun where they will learn just how wrong most people are storing their guns? Probably, but that requires more laws, more government involvement, more financial barriers that current gun owners might not be able to afford, and time to get everyone trained. It’s not a quick fix, and it’s one that would be tied up in legislation for years.

The one thing that can change today, now, and on a wide scale, is passive education about how to store guns so they don’t fall into the hands of the wrong people.

Two scenarios exist where guns fall into the wrong hands, and where proper gun storage can reduce that risk immediately: the first is guns falling into the hands of children and adults who don’t know how to use a gun and accidentally discharge the weapon, resulting in 600 or so deaths each year in the U.S. The second scenario is the theft and loss of guns.

Nearly 190,000 guns are lost or stolen in home and property thefts each year in the U.S., and another 25,000 or so are stolen from gun stores and gun shows. When a gun is stolen, it will likely never be recovered by its owner and is more likely to facilitate criminal activity. Some law enforcement agencies argue that stolen guns are the main cause for what seems to be an increase recently in gun violence in the U.S.

Many gun owners believe they will never be the victim of a property crime that would result in the theft of their gun, but often, thieves target homes and vehicles with guns because guns are easy to sell on the street. How do we prevent this? Through education on how to properly store weapons, and to encourage gun owners to protect their weapons at all times. We begin with passive education, such as billboards, television commercials, maybe even  Ted Nugent could educate people on the key points of securing weapons properly in your home and vehicle. Over time, implementing programs that would help people purchase gun locks, safes, and carrying cases, so we know guns are more likely to be secure. In the long run, we encourage people to take a comprehensive gun safety course before they decide to own a gun.

We can’t change all gun violence over night and we’ll never reach a point where we stop all gun violence in the U.S., but we can take steps in our own homes to protect ourselves, our neighborhoods, and our guns, by properly storing them in secure environments.

For more information about safe gun storage, click here.

 

 

True Believers and Personality Tests

I used to be a true believer in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I can’t remember when I first encountered the 93 question test but it was probably during grad school. I was at my height of believing in it though, when I was part of a two-year leadership development program at my old job. I learned a good deal about leadership and made great friends,but there was also an emphasis on personality types that overshadowed much of the programming. Thinking about different personalities and social dynamics is interesting and useful in some settings. But, the complete lack of objectivity (on self-report data that reveals only positive attributes) is not useful to predict behavior, hire employees, and otherwise assess one another and ourselves.

Of course, I thought my results were valid because I was feeling smug about how honest I was with myself and because the results made me look good. But I’ve changed my mind in the last couple of years and as usual, it’s because the facts don’t play out. There is research galore that says, “…it (MBTI) has no more reliability and validity than a good Tarot card reading.”  So, it can sound like science but it isn’t and is no more useful than using astrological signs as part of the hiring process. There is also big money involved for the company that sells the test and certifies “practitioners” (to the tune of nearly 20 million a year).

It’s cool if you disagree with me, I know personality tests and astrology are beloved subjects to many. I’m also guilty of this sort of American essentialism, wanting to think that there is some core essence that is me, the individual and that if I can identify those attributes then I can live a more positive, happy life.

Life is not so simple, though maybe we wish it was.

Read the article over on Vox and watch the video to decide for yourself.

Cowboy Nation

A few nights ago, my husband and I saw the new sci-fi film, The Martian. We arrived early, grabbed our pairs of 3D glasses and set off to find seats, towards the back and on the aisle. I’d felt somewhat nervous as we sat there, paranoid with thoughts about Thursday’s mass shooting in Oregon and because back in August, employees at the theater I was sitting in had called the police to report a suspicious person who was later found to be carrying a loaded .45. It turned out to be “nothing” but I still felt weird and watched as people came in and sat down. I thought my nervousness was a PTSD thing until I mentioned it to my husband when we were munching on wings in a restaurant after the movie. No, he felt strange too and like me, noticed that none of the patrons had sat in the first eight rows of seats nearest the exits. We were all seated in the rows above and behind the first level, and sitting close together at that. There were a few people that sat in the lower rows but they moved before the previews started.

I never used to think about guns when I went to the movies.

I did think about guns and mass shootings when I was adjuncting at Butte Community College. After a difficult semester, (you can read all about it here) I had a student show up trying to add the class he’d failed the previous semester. He was not the student who’d harassed me but I remembered him, he came to class daily but turned in few assignments and didn’t take exams, the assignment I remembered was the poster project. I’m not easily spooked but in the email I wrote to the college’s V.P. I said:

“I was very uncomfortable because he failed my class last spring and I felt there was something else, something odd taking place. I gave him my business number (good customer service might save my life someday) but I felt a great sense of threat from this student; he spoke often of violence in spring 2010 and did a poster assignment on methods of torture in other countries…”

I couldn’t stop the student from showing up because he was third on the waitlist; he was demanding of my attention before class and asked me to write him a letter of recommendation (I said ‘no’). The previous semester he’d glowered at me from the front row, followed behind me when I walked to my car to leave for the day, and made a point to tell me that he’d noted the make and model of my car and license plate. Now, he was back and this was the response from the V.P.:

“The concerns that you have from your past experience should have been documented and acted on at that time, which may have resulted in him not being able to take your class.  I would suggest that if this student does get into your class you send him to me for a discussion about his behavior and consequences’ for his possible future bad behavior!”

Yes, I’d screwed up during the difficult semester and did not tell admin about this student, I was dealing with too much and didn’t have enough support. I also second guessed myself. Now, there was little I could do and campus police made me feel like an idiot after they’d spoken with him; he seemed to “respect” and “like” me, he was seen as overly attached not as a creepy, giant man who followed me around on campus. I felt stupid for feeling scared but I still felt scared and intimidated. Fortunately, he dropped the course because of a schedule conflict but he continued to follow me on campus until I started carpooling to save money, he drifted away after that.

I think about that student when there’s a school shooting, one that is usually perpetrated by a young man who’d never made much trouble in the past. Often, a young man with a passion for weapons and violence in conjunction with a sense of being wronged or ‘dissed; a young man who feels he is a beta among alpha males, a man who can’t connect with women and is thus, lacking status.

After a school shooting, we argue about gun control on facebook and blame the incident on mental illness and bad parenting. We social justice activists argue with conservatives on twitter that are quick to blame the shooting on “Muslims” and certain that all we need are more guns and protection, including arming teachers. There’s an unsettling feeling as new information comes forward, the young man had a manifesto, his mother was a “gun nut” who stockpiled weapons out of fear of gun control, his father had “no idea,” and survivors describe him as appearing “happy” while he murdered classmates. He was a virgin who didn’t have a girlfriend.

This happens frequently enough that we know the pattern as it unfolds. I’m sure I’m not alone in predicting these factors following Thursday’s murders. Mass shootings are old hat for us here in the United States (“stuff happens”). As of October 1, there were 294 mass shootings in 2015, “more than one a day” according to BBC News. Given this, why can’t we stop them from occurring? Will it be gun control? Will “Good guys with guns” protect us? Australia initiated strict gun control after the worst mass shooting in the country’s history. Perhaps the Australian’s did something we in the United States are unwilling to do:

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Pascoe blasted American society as immature and unable to take basic actions to save lives: In his very fine speech this morning, full of sorrow and frustration, President Obama made a mistake: Australia is not like the United States. We decided not to be. We decided to grow up instead and become a more reasonable, rational society that explicitly values human life and prefers to think the best of people, rather than the worst. The US is too immature a society to be allowed to play with guns. It has never shed its Wild West mythology. Americans still use their courts to kill people, which sends a message in its own way… It’s a country that values property more than life.”

The U.S. is a revenge-loving, Cowboy culture, if someone offends or hurts us we want them to pay. Been disrespected or humiliated? Get a gun and feel confident! Feel powerless and afraid? Get a gun and feel confident! Our society scarcely addresses the issues behind the issue of mass shootings. Complicated things like drug and alcohol treatment, curbing the school to prison pipeline, and ongoing gender inequality/“macho” culture, problems not easily resolved.

This mindset, “‘Dis me and you’ll pay” is at the heart of much of our mass violence. It’s in our movies and TV, books, graphic novels, and video games. Our entertainment reflects who we are, not vice versa. I think that’s what I was thinking sitting in the theater on Saturday night, worried that someone was going to use us patrons as a proxy for their rage. It was similar to the fear I felt with the student who did his lone assignment on torture, feeling paranoid and trying to talk myself out of it. I don’t like fear or fear-mongering but let me say this, three days after the shooting in Oregon, four California students were apprehended by police for plotting a school shooting, they’d clearly outlined the targets for their revenge. The following Monday, October 5, the FBI issued a warning for Philadelphia-area colleges that there was a potential for a campus shooting.

The Umpqua Community College gunman’s mother is being called “paranoid” in the media but if you read her online comments, you’ll see the over-confident cowboy in there. It was true for her son too; witnesses describe him as confident and seeming to enjoy the momentary sense of power while killing.

Cowboy nation.

It’s what psychiatrist James Gilligan wrote about in his book Violence, where he says, “All violence is an attempt to replace shame with self esteem.”