The Case of the Exploding Pinto

A by-product of the industrial age are accidents by companies seeking to create wealth for themselves. Both hiring workers, and selling products creates a question of who is responsible for the safety of working conditions and products. And more important, who is responsible when a product fails, or an accident happens? Is it the person who buys or sells the product? Is it the responsibility of the company who buys or sells labor? Or is it the responsibility of the consumer?

A particularly well-known story of product safety is that of the Ford Pinto. This was made particularly famous when in a seven-page cost-benefit analysis done by Ford Motor Company valued human lives at $200,000 and concluded that it was cheaper to be sued by the predicted 180 burn fatalities, and 180 serious burn victims, than make an $11 design modifications on a predicted 11 million cars. Indeed, the lawsuit estimated that lawsuits would cost $49.5 million which was far less than the $137 million needed to re-design and retrofit the popular low-cost car (Strobel 1980:286).

Local governments wrestled with questions of product liability in the way they administer civil and criminal law. For the Pinto, the best example of this occurred, in August 1978, when three Indiana girls died in an accident in which their Pinto was rear-ended by Robert Duggar. Duggar, who had a poor record of driving, as well as open alcohol containers in the vehicle was not charged in the accident. But then the Elkhart County District Attorney Michael Cosentino took an unusual step. There had already been wide publicity regarding the dangers created by the design of the Pinto’s gas tank. Indeed, investigative reporting by Mother Jones magazine in 1977 had revealed that there was a bolt protruding from the axle which punctured the gas tank in the event of a rear-end collision. This design flaw meant that many low impact accidents resulted in lethal explosions, even when the collision was a low speed. Cossentino, pointed out that since the Ford Motor Company was well-aware of this flaw, they could be tried for manslaughter. And under Indiana law this was possible.

The Exploding Pinto

In August 1978, Judy Ulrich drove the Pinto she had bought with her father as a high school graduation present. She had graduated from high school that year, and was on her way to a volleyball game at a church some 20 miles away. She stopped to fill the gas tank of her Pinto, but in leaving the filling station, apparently drove off with the gas cap still on top of the car. The gas cap fell off as she pulled onto the highway. Judy made a U-turn on the Highway, and slowly drove back, looking for her gas cap. Apparently after spotting it by the side of the highway, she slowed. As she slowed, the van driven by 21 year-old Robert Duggar came up behind on the slowing Pinto at 50 mph, well within the speed limit. The van struck hard at the Pinto. The gas tank was forced onto into a protruding bolt on the rear axle which punched a 2 ½ inch hole in the just-filled 11 gallon gas tank. Gas splashed into the passenger compartment, and before the vehicles had come to a stop it exploded.

The Trials of Ford Motor Company

The death of the three Ulrich girls in the Pinto mystified Cosentino and his staff. Six months earlier, one of the investigative staff had read an article about the dangers inherent to the design of the Pinto gas tank in an article published in the September-October 1977 issue of Mother Jones. The article ”Pinto Madness” detailed how the Ford Motor ignored engineers concerns about the safe design of the rear-mounted fuel tank in order to accommodate a corporate goal of producing a 2,000 pound car for less than $2,000, The article indicated further that a follow-up study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 38 cases of rear-end collisions with Pintos resulted in 27 deaths. Of these deaths 26 died as a result of damaged gas tanks with subsequent fires. Subsequent safety tests conducted by the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration (NHTSA) revealed that an impact of 35 mph or greater was likely to result in a burst gas tank, and the immolation of any occupants in the vehicle compartment. Subsequently in February 1978, a California jury awarded $128 million in civil damages in an accident involving a 1972 Pinto (the verdict was eventually overturned, and Ford paid only $3.5 million). On June 9, 1978, two months before the Ulriches accident Ford finally announced a recall of the 1.5 million Pintos then on the road.

The death of the Ulrich girls created a legal conundrum for the conservative Republican prosecutor. He could do nothing, and permit the case to go to civil court as it had in the past. Judging from past awards, the girls’ parents would problem win a judgment against Ford Motor Company; he could prosecute Duggar for manslaughter, on the grounds that his reckless behavior had led to the death of the girls. Or, he could try a novel approach, and make a criminal charge against the Ford Motor Company and its executives by making the argument that in ignoring the obvious faults of the Pinto, Ford had committed “reckless homicide.” In other words, without Ford’s recklessness and disregard for consumer’s lives, the accident would not have been fatal..

The Elkhart County Grand Jury gave Cosentino what he had asked for: an indictment of the Ford Motor Company for reckless homicide. The indictment sent a shiver through corporate America. This happened because while the maximum criminal penalty for Ford was a trivial $30,000, executives could in the future be held criminally liable for financial decisions leading to the deaths of consumers.

The Trial of the Ford Motor Company for Manslaughter

At the trial, the expensive legal team for the Ford Motor Company chipped away at the charges. The judge limited the question of recklessness to whether Ford had been too slow in pursuing the recall in the 41 days between the recall and the accident which killed the Ulrich girls. Ford also made the claim that if there was to be criminal liability, it was not the Ford Motor Company which made a product, but the driver of the van who collided with the Pinto, Robert Duggar.

After days of difficult deliberation, the jury returned a unanimous verdict which declared Ford Motor Company to be not guilty of the criminal charges brought by Cosentino. Members of the jury later indicated that although they thought Ford had been negligent, their decision-making did not rise to a level under which a conviction was possible under Indiana’s homicide statute.

How are Decisions Made about Product Safety?

Despite the acquittal in criminal court, a “Pinto Narrative” quickly emerged as being paradigmatic of corporate preference for profits over human life. Like high profile domestic violence cases, the case changed the nature of the running conversation about who is really responsible for death. Despite the courtroom loss, books, articles, and texts continue to hold up the case as the type of conscious decision-making which results in victimization in the pursuit of profit. Provocatively though, sociologists Lee and Erman (1999) called this assumption into question, pointing that “decision makers” working in a corporate environment do not make conscious decisions to market an “unsafe vehicle.” Rather they assert that such amoral calculations emerge not as a result of legal intent, which implies conscious decision-making, but in the context of broader institutional forces which emerge from the institutional cultures (in this case Ford), and the automobile industry in general. What this means of course is court proceedings which probe the minds of individual decision-makers may not be adequate for exploring how decisions leading to a great deal of human suffering occur.

This thesis is important for understanding not only how product safety decisions are made, but how any type of corporate decision-making resulting in death is evaluated. Simply put, correcting the decision making of individuals through the application of criminal law does not by itself result in more moral decisions. Attention has to be paid to the context—that it the ecology—of decision-making.

Further Reading

Lee, Matthew T., and M. David Ermann (1999) “Pinto ‘Madness’ as a Flawed Landmark Narrative: An Organizational and network Analysis.” Social Problems 46 (No 1).

Strobel, Lee Patrick (1980). Reckless Homicide? Ford’s Pinto Trial. South Bend, Indiana: And Books.

Dowie, Mark (1977). “Pinto Madness.” Mother Jones. September/October 1977.

 When Killing is a crime

Excerpt from When Killing is a Crime by Tony Waters, Lynne Ripener Publishers, 2007, pp. 248-250.

The Rochambo of Paradox, Conundrums, Dilemmas, and School Bureaucracies

The below is pp. 185-186 (Chapter 9) of my book Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy: Bureaucratizing the Child. Other extracts can be read here at

here, (Leaky First Graders, etc.)

here, (How the Rich Educate their Children: A Swiss Hogwarts)

and here. (Children as Raw Material on the Bureaucratic Assembly Line)

Or better yet, you can ask your library to get you a copy, hopefully by getting them to buy a hardcover copy from my publisher, or a used copy from If you could also send an email to the publisher urging them to issue a cheap soft cover version, that would be appreciated, too.  In either case, I really hope that more people will buy it—besides the fact that I get a 2% (two percent) cut of net revenues, I really like it when people read my books!

Schooling Childhood Cover

The Limits of the Modern American School: Rock, Paper, Scissors

Bureaucracies, while well suited to deal with matters of the rational mind that pragmatic American habitus celebrates, are in fact ill-suited for matters of the heart. Thus, bureaucracies created to undertake the tasks bump up against the three values identified long ago by de Tocqueville and that are at the heart of many continuing American dilemmas. These include first the dialectical tensions over equality, individual rights, and utilitarianism.

They are the rock, paper, scissors of the American educational system. This chapter is about how this game of rochambo is played out in recent decades. In describing the swings, I will move between demands

to eliminate the inequalities of race and poverty, protection of individual rights, and most recently, the appeal to business ethics in the administration of education programs. Three examples will illustrate the dissonance between these three values: The persistence of inequality, the persistence of radical individualism, and the persistent connection between education and business practice.

Paradoxes, conundrums, and dilemmas underlie the cultural habitus of the American school that drives the dreams of parents, teachers, administrators, and ultimately children. But the experimentation that began in the nineteenth century and was designed to lead to an ever more perfect school system, ultimately has practical limits rooted in the nature of its Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy intertwined habitus. And this is where limits to how egalitarian, how individualistic and how efficiently schools can be managed. Because schools ultimately seek to provide equality in a society that is not equal, individuality in an environment that is group focused, and efficiency in an institution in which inputs be controlled, the product defined, nor flawed goods discarded

In the case of the American school, the limits are most identifiable when institutions bump up against the underpinnings that form the habitus of thought and deed of both individual and the society they create. In the United States, these limits are found particularly in how schools continue to wrestle with the most salient features of American society and how it views its children. Prominent is the persistence of inequality rooted in both socioeconomics and race and the preservation these contradictions in the context of American-style business models; oddly enough, this happens in the context of an insistence on the uniqueness and rights of every individual child to seek their own potential. And so like a rochambo game of rock, paper, scissors, one wins and one loses, but the game never really stops. Egalitarianism individualism, and utilitarianism echo through the schools, pushing each other aside, but only temporarily.

Thus when a school becomes more egalitarian, it loses its capacity to recognize individual differences, as indeed happened in the 1980s. When it focuses on pragmatic service to the business community it tends toward inequality, which is what happened as millions of immigrants, African Americans, and others were sorted and tracked into vocational tracks during the twentieth century. And when a school begins to respond to individual needs, it becomes less efficient, and given the inequality in the American social system, it advantages the rich. In other words, over the decades, the American school system has played a game of rochambo as the tensions between the habitus of egalitarianism, utility, and individualism play themselves out.

American Sociological Association Declares Victory and Dissolves. Starts Over Tomorrow.

(GPI Washington)  American Sociological Association (ASA) President Talcott Webber today announced that the ASA was dissolving, effective immediately. In the ASA press release, Webber explained that

We have come to the realization that virtually every other discipline has adopted the sociological approach to not only the social sciences, but also the humanities and some of the natural sciences. All of this is really just sociology under a different name. There is Institutional Economics, Social Psychology, Organizational Theory, Cultural Geography, Ethnography, Literary Theory, Communication, Cultural Theory, Musicology, Socio-cutural Anthropology, Socio-biology, Mirror Neuron stuff, Gender Studies, Ethnic Studies, Evolutionary Psychology, and a host of other disciplines which are nothing but rewarmed Sociology.  Even History has given up their old hagiographic tricks, and come over to do comparative and social history.


As for the applied social sciences like Social Work, Education, Public Administration, Geographical Information Systems, Marketing, and so forth, what are they but Social Problems courses? Zuckerberg even once admitted that Facebook is as much sociology as it is technology.  It is clear that imitation is the best form of flattery—and Sociology has won the game!


We’ve even had a Sociology major elected to the US Presidency, as well as a First Lady.  A Sociology Professor was even one of the key figures in the United States Senate in the twentieth century.  And look at the op-ed page of the New York Times today.  Krugman is not really an economist, he’s a sociologist focused on issues of economic inequality. Brooks is the ‘conservative’ who quotes Marx, and is really just a closeted Marxian, Weberian, or whatever,

In light of this, ASA is declaring victory. Webber in his characteristically blunt approach explained,

Look, we won, they lost. They are us, so now we can go home, which is why ASA is closing shop. At some point you need to quit while you are ahead.  Why should we wait for a bunch of bean-counting Deans to shut us down when we are the most successful shop on campus?

Webber seems to think that it is problematic that despite the obviously widespread acceptance of the Sociological Imagination, hardly any of the daughter disciplines actually ask their students to take actual Sociology classes. “But what’s the point of having our own discipline, when we are everywhere? If our discipline is everywhere, we need to be everywhere, too.”

In light of this announcement, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has announced that it will support the immediate closure of all Sociology Departments in the United States, and the reassignment of tenured, untenured, and adjunct faculty to the appropriate daughter disciplines. The purpose of this policy shift will be to sharpen the sociological skills in the many departments which have been teaching sociology all along.  To assist with this shift, AAUP is recommending that all adjuncts be granted tenure.

“Look,” said an anonymous source from AAUA.

Why should a retired p.e. coach from the Education Department be teaching ‘Education and Society’ when you can have a well-trained sociologist? Or for that matter, why should some molecular biologist who’s never read Max Weber on social stratification be teaching a course in human cultural evolution? Or someone who’s never read Adorno teach a course in Marketing? Sociologists are the ones who get all this. And I’ve never understood what there is about the ‘socio’ in socio-biology that the Dean of Biology does not understand!

The Association of Post-Modern Sociologists was particularly excited about this development. “Whoa, does this mean we can move into the Business School and teach them about simulacra, consumer culture, and McDonaldization? The Business School—that’s really who needs us. I’m glad to shake the dust off my shoes, and put my backside to the quantoids. Give me Marketing, or give me death!”

As for the statisticians in the discipline, they too were relieved. An anonymous source commented,

You mean we can finally join the Department where they design Student Evaluation of Teaching forms? We can definitely show them a thing or two about reliability and validity of social measures. This will be far better than teaching a bunch of sophomores who hate the obligatory social statistics courses.

As for the ASA’s prime office space on K Street in Washington DC, the ASA is looking to sublet it to their Republican lobbyist neighbors.  There was even a rumor that the resident sociologists from Fox News might move down the street so that they can take advantage of the prestige associated with the academy’s most successful discipline.

After concluding his news conference, President Webber pledged that the institution will reconstitute itself tomorrow with a new name and mission.  “After all,” he said, “bureaucracies, even the ASA, are among the most enduring of all social structures.”


The Connection between Crime and Immigration: A Complicated but not Conflicted Issue

Originally published here in February 2010

My first book was based on my Ph.D. dissertation, and called Crime and Immigrant Youth (Sage 1999). I of course really like it when people read it, even though it is becoming dated.  In this context, I read the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) new “Backgrounder” called Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Conflicted Issue by Steven Camarota and Jessica Vaughan in November 2009 with interest.  This paper has since received wide exposure in the popular press.  In it the authors claimed to do a comprehensive review of the literature on immigration and crime, and pronounce that there would be startling new conclusions about the relationship, i.e. that immigrants were likely to be more criminal than the native born.  But then I read deeper.  Despite claiming to be a review of academic and policy literature, they did not refer to that which disagreed with their assumption that crime and immigration are tightly tied together. And indeed, their conclusions were predictable for an advocacy organization that explicitly indicates that it favors a “low-immigrant vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.” So even though their report actually develops new data, it did so with one goal in mind: Demonstrating that immigrants are more criminal than the rest of us.  It is with this conclusion that I take exception.

In fact much data much more data about the negative correlation between immigrants themselves and crime than the report lets on (the citations below are just a small indication), which consistently indicate that immigrants themselves, except for crimes caused by immigration itself (e.g. violating immigration laws), tend to have lower rates of crime than the native born. The academic literature is also clear on another point: Immigrants are more likely to seek employment mowing our lawns, staffing our restaurants, cleaning our houses, and staff our factories than they are to commit crime. In fact, such populations by themselves tend to have lower arrest rates than native-born US citizens.  But this is indeed an over-simplification of the relationship, too.

Indeed, immigrants have such low rates of crime that one major researcher has proposed that a way to calm cities down would be to introduce new immigrants.  And while admitting more immigrants might work to bring crime in the short-run, I don’t think that this is the whole story either. The reason for this paradox is that immigrant populations are self-selected for behavior, and age, all conditions which mitigate against the impulsive behavior which most commonly lands people in American lock-ups.  In particular, criminal behavior and arrest is strongly related with age   and gender.  Males from about 15-22 years old have the highest frequency of theft, assault, drug use, etc., as anyone who has ever survived an American high school knows.  The average age for arriving immigrants, be they legal or illegal is in the late twenties.  So in many respects, it is not all that surprising that crime rates among them are lower than the general population.

What is more, immigrants are a self-selected lot, in the sense that those who leave home tend to be self-starters, energetic risk takers, better educated and more compliant than their less-energetic cousins who stay home. This is why scholars like Rumbaut (2009), Sampson (2008), Matthew T. Lee et al (2001), and my own book (Waters 1999) typically demonstrate that immigrants themselves are more law-abiding than native populations. This is one reason why immigrants are often a good deal for receiving countries like the United States.  Another country pays the costs of raising and educating them, they show up in the receiving country, and immediately get to work.

But this belies another problem with immigrant populations, which is that they do sometimes have a “second generation” crime problem.  This issue is unfortunately avoided in the Camarota and Vaughan’s report.  The fact though is that immigrant communities in which birth rates are high, and which are impoverished and centered inner cities, often develop gangs of their own.  This happens when the males born in the US (or who arrived as small children) hit the 15-22 year old age group. When this happens a strain emerges between some immigrant boys who do poorly in schools, and immigrant parents who are unable to control them in the context of the United States’ inner cities.  In this context, parents and youth alike are often isolated from America’s mainstream society.  This occurs because the parents are isolated in the impoverished immigrant community, while the youth are isolated as a result of marginalization at school, their own behavior, and ultimately the response of the justice system.  Notably this is not a behavior brought from home countries, but developed in the context of American cities.  Their cousins who remained behind in the rural areas of the third world do not have the same problem.  The really odd thing though is that in these same American-born families, the brothers or sisters or the errant boys are often doing particularly well—many become the paradigmatic immigrant valedictorian whose accomplishments are justifiably celebrated by organizations like CIS.

The problem of course is that immigrant success stories and crime stories are often inseparable, and as a result, are not particularly responsive to pat formulas relying on legal restrictions, and blanket deportation policies that CIS advocates. But, irrespective of what CIS writes about data being “conflicted,” there is indeed some clarity in how crime emerges in immigrant communities: It arises from the conditions of American cities.  And dealing with the conditions of American cities as they affect impoverished immigrant communities is the best way to deal with the waves of crime that do predictably occur, leading to more victims and arrests.  Acknowledging the complexity of such issues is what providing a good welcome to immigrants should involve.


Tony Waters (1999) Crime and Immigrant Youth. Thousand Oaks: Sage

Matthew T. Lee, Ramiro Martinez, and Richard Rosenfeld (2001) Does Immigration Increase Homicide?  Negative Evidence from Three Border Cities.  Sociological Quarterly

Graham C. Ousey, and Charis E. Kubrin (2009) “Exploring the Connection between Immigration and Violent Crime Rates in U. S. Cities, 1980-2000.” Social Problems, August 2009.  56(3):447-473.

Ruben Rumbaut (2009) “Undocumented Immigration and Rates of Crime and Imprisonment: Popular Myths and Empirical Studies,” at

Robert J. Sampson (2008) Rethinking Crime and Immigration, Contexts Volume 7.

Traveling Notes–Expect the Unexpected!

March 20, 2015

I am at Kilimanjaro International Airport, returning home after a five day whirlwind trip here. The reason for the trip was “business,” meaning that establishment of a relationship between two American universities, and a university in Moshi, Tanzania.

I am reminded thought the reason is not just business, but to experience the vitality of life. An important part of travelling is welcoming the unexpected.

And this trip has done it—despite being so brief. Just today—in the morning there was a 370 student welcome for us at an elementary school. Friday was sports day, and the students were all dressed in androgynous “sports uniforms.” Then a tour of a hospital where I saw my first orthopedic surgery. The doctor was screws into a thigh bone, a procedure which involved using what appeared to me to be a manual screwdriver inserted through a hole cut in the leg. The patient, we were told was anesthesized with a spinal block. He had a screen up so that he could not see what was being done on his leg–but he could feel the pressure of the screwing, and hear the sounds of what was going on.  Ye gads.

I’m nor sure which caused this surgery–but our guide told us that the most common source was motorcycle accidents.  With a bit of wealth, Tanzania is being introduced to motorcycles, and the broken legs that his leads to.

Then on the way to the airport we drove through an area of Tanzania which has in recent years been cleared to plant maize. The rains are about two weeks late. Every evening the winds kicked up, but no rain. But today was different. As we drove to the airport in our cab, the winds did indeed kick in, creating a dust storm which led suddenly to zero visibility—and a cab driver who had to stop suddenly when a bicyclist appeared out of the dust. What cleared up the duststorm? Rain! Indeed, a torrential downpour arrived just as we left the cab.

All of this was “unplanned;” if you asked me what would happen last night, I would have predicted some boring tours of a school, health facilities, and a taxi ride to the airport. But that is the purpose of travel—the delightfully unexpected!

Travelling Notes—from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport

I’m on a rather strange trip from Chico, California to where I live, via Sacramento, California where I had a meeting on Thursday, and then onto Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania.

The usual hurry up and wait of travel applies, except for the first day in Sacramento, when I went to a meeting of the committee which will advise Chico State’s president on a hire for a senior executive position.

The meeting went well—the usual range of nervous and earnest candidates making a case those of us who for them are a bit of a cipher. I suspect that I would like most of them in other circumstances, but such interview situations are so contrived—for both the interviewees, and interviewers. To be honest, I much prefer to be on the interviewer side of things.

For dinner we went out to an African American Soul Food restaurant. One of the people on our committee recognized Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson when he came in and quietly sat down at a table. Johnson is both a political and sports celebrity. It was interesting to watch him during his low time—it was not quite anonymous, but he was very accessible. A number of times patrons came up to greet him and take a picture with him. Other times, he quietly worked on his mobile electronic device.

My flight to Los Angeles the next day though was delayed by another celebrity who was not so low key. President Barack Obama was apparently in Los Angeles to tape a television program the night before, and departing for Washington (or somewhere else) that morning. Anyway, all the airspace in Los Angeles was cleared for the departure of Air Force One. And we in Sacramento were delayed—and I suspect the whole days schedule was disrupted by the morning shutdown. For me that meant my flight to Amsterdam was delayed, and I missed my flight to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

And so there I sit typing away in the Amsterdam airport, about to finally board my plane for Tanzania. Fifteen or twenty years ago I came here once or twice per year—but not recently. The airport is a bit older now, but still as always under construction. One of the really odd things is that most of the signs are now mono-lingual in English. The written Dutch language is very low key—there are few signs in that language; I recall reading a statistic recently that 95% of Dutch people are conversant in English. I guess that that reflects that statistic.

As for the languages I hear, Schiphol is still ever international, though of course there is still a lot of Dutch.

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!


Originally published here in January 2009.