Monthly Archives: January 2012

Middle-Class Poverty

found at http://www.impactlab.net/2011/09/08/many-americans-falling-out-of-the-middle-class/

“Somebody who’s fallen from the middle class to poverty, in my opinion is still middle class.”  Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate, made this statement on a talk show a few weeks ago.   Bloggers ridiculed the comment as nonsensical.  I admit I too was tempted to just call Romney an idiot (again) and move on.  But, as I’ve been watching politicians in a society of growing inequality and high unemployment struggle with the concept of class while desperately trying not to alienate any potential voters, I’ve begun to see these comments as teachable moments regarding class.  Here I will offer some possibilities of Romney’s meaning and more importantly employ this statement to discuss the concept of class. (more…)

Why College Educators Who Care about Critical Thinking Need to Pay Attention to White Privilege and the Tucson Unified School District

“I don’t know if I should be saying this right now,” sophomore Allie stated, her eyes making a cautionary sweep of the room, even though except for us it was empty, and the door had long been shut. White and well-off, she held a prestigious academic scholarship and took many of her courses through a selective honors program. But not this course: “[The professor] was a nice lady, but she felt like she had to tie every single thing she said into like, diversity. And it felt extremely forced. And the class was largely, it was a diverse class, more so than any other class that I had taken … Don’t get me wrong I love the diversity at this school, but it just felt so forced…Like it wasn’t even related to our topic, and it just felt almost like someone was forcing it in there… [It] wasn’t in the course description at all. It didn’t count as a diversity requirement or anything.”

The course was an introduction to Public Health. Public Health is the work of protecting and improving the health of communities through education, research, and communication. Sociologists, demographers, and legal scholars, as well as public health scholars and clinical care providers, have documented myriad ways in which race and ethnicity shape communities and their health – influencing at the very least where people live and thus the schools and jobs they have access to, the distances they have to travel to get to their jobs and schools, and the means by which they travel there. Race and ethnicity are fundamental to the study of the health of communities. But somehow Allie didn’t see the connection.

Allie had the transcript of a superstar. She’d aced every course she’d taken in college and most every course prior to it. And many of those courses explicitly stated as a primary course objective that students would improve their critical thinking capacities. Allie’s grades would suggest that she’d unequivocally excelled at this; her comments indicate something more ambiguous about her success. They indicate to me that the “critical thinking” valued by the institutions in which a White, privileged student like Allie had excelled might be leaving students to flounder when it comes to thinking critically about race, ethnicity, and the ways in which privileges and oppressions have been – and continue to be – systematically linked to race and ethnicity. For Allie, this lack of support led to a vicious loop: she saw race and ethnicity as having nothing to do with her (Whiteness apparently did not count as race or ethnicity); as mattering only when fulfilling some institutional requirement; and as unworthy of her learning energies unless she was fulfilling such requirements, upon completion of which, she could return to not thinking of race and ethnicity at all.

Sociologists like Eduardo Bonilla Silva see students like Allie the norm among college students who are White and economically well-off: they’ve learned, even been encouraged, to minimize – and deny – the ways in which race shapes social relationships, and the ways in which the blatant racism of the past relates to deeply embedded and ongoing injustices in the present. Such dangerous misunderstandings are evident now in Tucson, Arizona, where the Tucson Unified School District has moved to eliminate its Mexican American studies curriculum and to ban books the discuss the history of the Americas from the perspective of the peoples who have lived on the land prior to European and European-American conquests. Arizona School Superintendent John Huppenthal argues that this ban was a necessary move because the program “promotes resentment.” But what about the resentment of White, privileged students like Allie – the resentment of having to think about, talk about, reflect on systemic inequities by which they have benefited? Allie’s “mainstream” course of study promoted her resentment of her public health course. So do we ban Allie’s honors program, then? Do we ban the high-level honors curricula she followed in high school?

Education scholar and educator Ernest Morrell has described critical thinking as thought and/or inquiry that fosters individual or social transformation (2009:29). A ban transforms nothing, relying instead on binary oppositional terms and explanations. Dangerous and unjust as a ban may be, however, it makes the binary oppositional logic on which it operates apparent. In Allie’s case, her mainstream curriculum allowed that thinking to operate silently. So if institutions like Allie’s really want to “honor” students, shouldn’t they support – actively and explicitly and thoroughly – the voices and perspectives that students need to engage them in the conversations that foster critical thinking?

Contradictory Trends Influencing School Operations: A Case of Cell Phones

In 2010, MSNBC published an article written by Alex Johnson entitled “Some schools rethink bans on cell phones: Bans don’t work, so administrators explore using mobile devices”. In the report, Johnson notes that 100 plus students were suspended – not for cheating, smoking, or bullying – but for having cell phones. While presented here as merely an anecdote, there can little doubt that the use of cell phones, and mobile technology more generally, is an issue that has caught the attention of school administrators across the nation. Within the article, Brian Begley, principal of Millard North High School, illustratively notes: “Cell phones aren’t going away.” As mobile devices become increasingly marketed to today’s youth and as their functionality blurs with that of computers, the issue of wireless, new media technology within high schools will reshape school operations.

The article cites that although 69 percent of American high schools have placed a ban on cell phones, 63% of student respondents nonetheless reported using them on campus. Recognizing that simply banning the devices does little to discourage their usage, Johnson notes that “a growing number of school districts are exploring other ways to shut them down.” Rather than employing suspension as a punishment, certain schools have resulted to more invasive forms of social control,  including “confiscating phones…keeping them for 30 days and searching them for evidence of cheating, pornography or other ‘illicit activities.’ If such evidence is found, it’s turned over to the sheriff’s office”.

Whilst illustrating both the complications for banning cell phones and their potential applicability within schools, the issue of cell phones points to a larger development.  Scholars have recently begun to document how two large-scale trends are transforming the socialization of youth within school settings. The first stems from a late-modern preoccupation with safety and security (see Garland, 1996, 2000; Simon, 2007; Foucault, 1977). Whether accelerated by internal events such as school shootings, or external factors like reported rates of youth violence, it is clear that crime has now become a chief organizing principle shaping school discipline. Consequently, issues such as cell phone use are caught in the proverbial cross-hairs and mobilized against in the name of promoting school safety. (more…)

Social Thought and Order, Anarchist Style

In Guy Ritchie’s newest Sherlock Holmes movie, European political intrigue abounds as the 19th century wanes. Politically consequential bombings are regularly blamed on anarchists who seem intent on spreading terror and chaos, and anarchists are used as a cover for an attempt at an even more effective disruption of European politics.

In my last post I reviewed some of these types of images of anarchism, and suggested that anarchism actually provides an interesting opportunity for analysis in terms of its history as a social movement, its trajectory as a political philosophy, and its alternative approach to social order. I use social order to mean the system that governs relations between people and their actions in groups, including how economic exchange takes place, how norms develop, and how conflicts are resolved. The elements of the system may be formal—for example, specific organizations or law— or informal—like patterns of interaction and expectation for interaction. For many anarchists (though again, there is enormous diversity in the philosophy and tactics behind protests labeled as anarchist), anarchism is not about the absence of social order, but about establishing social order that is not founded on coercion and hierarchy; anarchists’ opposition to an authoritative state derives from this principle. An alternative is a social order based on “customs, habits and usages” among all members.

Anarchist protesters have been a part of many of the major social movements in modern European history, from the 1848 French Revolution to the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War. Organizations based on anarcho-syndicalism, which proposes an economic and social system democratically governed by workers, proved influential in Central and South America in the early 20th century. The history of anarchist thought, as distinguished from social movements based on anarchist principles and tactics, is also rich and varied. For example, some have argued that the ancient Chinese school of thought of Taoism is anarchist in nature, in that it argues that there should be no lords or subjects; others saw Greek philosopher Zeno’s work to be anarchist, as he argued that there was no need for states.

In The Sociology of Philosophies (a shorter version of the tome is here), which surveys the social conditions around many of the worlds’ great philosophical traditions, Randall Collins makes a number of points about the when and where schools of philosophy emerge, and the form in which philosophical thought takes. Far from being the product of brilliant, isolated, individual efforts, major philosophical works were clustered in the same time period, within a small number of physical spaces, and around social ties, often arranged as chains of teachers and students. Indeed, Collins argues, the social relations between schools of thought—how contentious or harmonious relations were—influenced the degree to which the philosophy produced was abstract or concrete. Schools of thought relied on the organizational structure—for example, the strength of patronage ties—supporting the people carrying out philosophical work. The history of anarchist thought might be read in light of Collins’ observations as well; a cursory review suggests a great degree of temporal and spatial clustering; from the emergence of Christian anarchism through Europe during the Middle Ages to Enlightenment versions of anarchism as proposed by William Godwin to French anarchist thinkers such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, and others who were involved in the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune. (Of course, actually examining whether the schools and strands of anarchist thought developed as Collins’ describes philosophies in general would require a much more in-depth knowledge of the history of anarchism than I have, but Collins’ provides an entry point for thinking about anarchist thought.)

A major criticism of anarchism is that it seems totally unserviceable in light of what we know about how humans create groups and maintain order. Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes one possible result that “Though communes may remove the repressive control of distant, impersonal institutions, they replace it with the control of the intimate, face-to-face group of peers, which is perhaps a more benign kind of coercion, but coercion nonetheless.” However, she argues, though some social order is required, these types of groups attempt to carry out creating and enforcing order in as equitable way as possible.

A number of researchers have pursued studies of social order within anarchists communities—how social order actually occurs. Randall Amster uses examples from utopian experiments, indigenous cultures, and the group, Rainbow Family of the Living Light, and finds evidence that anarchist communities punish members, but are more likely to do so using restorative or restitutive justice. The bottom line seems to be that doing anarchism right is very difficult, and requires a lot of effort and energy from all participants, but there are historical and current examples where it succeeded, including the community in Madagascar that David Graeber, who has been closely involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests, studied for his doctoral dissertation.

For more resources on the history of anarchist social movements and philosophical thought, see Anarchy Archives, which also includes a number of critiques of anarchism, and comparisons between anarchism with socialism.

Photo by Joseph Morris

Book Review – Dean’s List: 11 Habits of Highly Successful College Students

It would be nearly impossible to imagine John Bader, a dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs at Johns Hopkins University and author of Dean’s List: 11 Habits of Highly Successful College Students, ever uttering the lines of Larry Summers (fictional Larry Summers, that is, as represented in The Social Network). The Summers character, on the phone with his wife, glares up at two young men in his office and says: “I have to go, dear. Students are here. Undergraduates.” Those moments in the film represent an all-too-common phenomenon on many a college campus: the distance, both perceived and experienced, of so many administrators from their students (Nathan 2005; Moffatt 1989). Of course, a dean, as Bader is, is not the same thing as a President, as Summers was. And it is to Bader’s great credit that he provides incoming undergraduates with straightforward explanations of the difference – and of universities’ institutional structures, those structures’ corresponding roles, and those roles’ respective relationships to students (Habit Three, p. 52-96). Bader’s enthusiasm for students and his desire to help them “work the system by understanding the system” is evident throughout Dean’s List (p. 52). Yet much of the advice that Bader and his contributing colleagues from what he calls Hopkins’ “peer institutions” (or as the back of the book less diplomatically puts it, “top institutions”) assumes that college students are alike in privilege. Bader begins by affirming ideas of meritocracy and individualism:

Congratulations! You did it. You got into college! Maybe you’re going to Princeton, Michigan, Duke, Berkeley, Stanford, or another of the best research universities in the world. Or perhaps you’re bound for a great liberal arts college like Swarthmore, Davidson, Pomona, or Kenyon Maybe it’s a private college in New England or the flagship campus of your state university system. That is wonderful, and I’m sure, well deserved. You’ve worked hard the past few years, building an amazing record of academic achievements, community service, and activities that have kept you busy and challenged. You sweated through exams like the SAT, filled out countless applications and forms, and waited in agony to get word from your dream schools. And now you’re in. (p. 1)

Indeed these lines indicate how Bader envisions his readers: traditional college-aged students who will be residing on campus, and who have the resources to ensure that no matter what happens, “[they] will be fine” (p.137).
Bader breaks down the eleven habits he recommends, devoting a chapter for each. Six of the eleven habits –1, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9—deal with courses of study and careers, generally encouraging students to decouple the former from the latter. Habit One, “Focus on Learning, Not on Grades,” urges students to place their GPA concerns on the backburner and strive instead to become a “learned person.” Bader cautions students that although their colleges have already taken steps to define what it means to be a “learned person” for them through core requirements, students must work to craft their own definitions (p. 26) and that in doing so, grades will become the “byproduct of their passion for learning” (p. 30). Habit Four, “Approach the Curriculum Like a Great Feast,” advises students to “sampl[e] [their] way to success” (p. 79), but pays little attention to dissonance this suggestion may bring to the many students who feel pressure to preserve tuition dollars for courses that will cultivate skills that translate into incomes for themselves and their families. In place of such discussion, Bader offers Habit Five, “Understand that Majors and Careers are not the Same Thing.” College students and their parents are prone to “invent the connection to better justify the expense and effort of going to college at all” (p. 97).
Habit Six proposes a distinction between working hard and working smart. Working smart, Bader suggests, entails understanding how teaching and learning are structured in college: lectures provide efficient delivery of material, and if students are to avoid being “court reporters” then they will need to take an active role in the lecture, putting the lecturer’s content into a conversation with their own thoughts (p. 125). Such private conversations will serve students well when they apply for admission to graduate or professional schools, as laid out in Habit Seven. Honesty and individuality, Bader argues, are the traits that facilitate the subject mastery and sense of self that graduate schools desire in their students (p. 140). Bader sticks to this idea of individualism in Habit Nine, “When You Are Failing, Understand Why.” He examines “four broad reasons for academic struggles”: lack of motivation, poor time management, weak study skills and talent, poor mental and physical health (p. 177). What Bader does not examine is a key commonality among these four reasons – that they are all problems attributable to individuals rather than issues stemming from systemic problems that students might experience as members of social groups (e.g. as first-generation college students, as children of working class parents, as students of color, etc.).
Habit Two, “Build an Adult Relationship with Your Parents,” makes evident many of the assumptions that are just as present, but perhaps not as explicit, through the rest of the book. Bader recounts difficulties students with “helicopter parents” – for instance, the parents who flew in from Hawaii to speak with him about their son’s progress twice in two weeks – but he does not recognize that many parents do not feel entitled to make such demands on faculty and administration, and that consequently their students might be less likely to have close contact with faculty and administrators. Furthermore, Bader does not consider the possibility that many students may already have “adult” relationships with their parents, having contributed to the family income and household management throughout their middle and high school years.
Much of Dean’s List presents college success from the perspective of privilege-as-norm. As few as one in four college students live on campus and study full time (Abramson 2011). When Bader advises students to “learn from diversity at home and abroad” (Habit 8), he does not consider the difficulties of studying abroad for students who have jobs outside of school. Indeed study abroad programs struggle to engage students of color, first generation college students, and students who have to work to pay their own tuition (e.g. Stuber 2011).While Bader and his colleagues offer important and helpful recommendations to students, they put the onus on students to conform to norms of privilege rather than opening up a conversation about success that really recognizes and appreciates where students are coming from.

References
Abramson, Larry. (2011). “In Tenn., A Possible Model for Higher Education.” National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2011/11/27/142759691/in-tenn-a-possible-model-for-higher-education
Moffatt, Michael. (1989). Coming of Age in New Jersey. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Nathan, Rebekah. (2005). My Freshman Year. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Stuber, Jenny. (2011). Inside the College Gates. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

On the Streets: Spaces of Opportunity and Marginalization

On my weekly trip to the grocery store, the traffic seems heavier than usual; perhaps the nice weather has coaxed people from their homes or out of work. It is surprisingly warm today with a high reported to reach the 70s. Taking advantage, my car windows are rolled down, sunglasses are on, and it seems that Bruno Mars has gripped popular radio channels. While stopped at a red light (about a dozen cars back), I notice a group of about eight cars parked on the right side corner of the upcoming intersection.

This intersection is rather bleak and run-down. The building on the lot is abandoned; it seems to have been a major fueling station, but now, all that remains is the building’s structure and gas lines protruding from the ground. It resembles a quilt with different shades of white – some patches are more faded, some soiled from the dirt of the lot, and some brightly white. Having driven by this lot a few times in the past, graffiti artists oftentimes ‘tag’ and ‘piece’ this building for recognition but their artwork is quickly covered by a fresh coat of white paint.

As the light turns green, I find myself looking toward the gathering instead of the road. Three cars have been parked so that their trunk opens toward the road. From a distance I can see NFL jerseys, shoe boxes, clothing accessories, and a set of 22s (rims/wheals). Looking for a Bears jersey for the upcoming season, I pull in. Packed in the trunk of a ‘murdered out’ Dodge Charger, I notice “NFL Authentic” jerseys being sold for $40 instead of the sport store’s $120. Also, there are new air force ones, hand bags, new car parts, and even fresh sea catches being sold for a fraction of what major stores charge. During the roughly five to ten minutes on the lot, the three different ‘retailers’ had cycled through nine ‘customers’ making approximately $340. It seems that the deal was always on the turn; that the street-level sale had garnered attention from both ‘entrepreneurs’ and prospective ‘consumers’. (more…)