Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Reaganland by Rick Perlstein.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Politically incorrect

America doesn't have a problem with political correctness.  America's tribes have a problem with political correctness.

You can say anything you want in America.  You can't say anything that you want and still remain respectable in the eyes of various cultural groupings.

In America you can say that institutionalized racism and police brutality are so ingrained in our law enforcement services that it's impossible for the community to maintain confidence in the police.  If you say that in my academic circles you'll be regarded as speaking a common-sense truth that too many people deny.  If you say that in front of some of my non-academic Facebook friends they'll see you as Part Of The Problem.

In America you can dispute the claim that 1 in 4 female college students will be raped, and suggest that it's an exaggeration proffered to score political points.  You can't say that and retain credibility in certain academic circles.  You can say that and gain credibility in certain conservative circles.

In America you can say that abortion kills children.  You can say that and retain credibility in many religious communities.  You can't say that and remain respectable in a lot of liberal circles.

In America you can say that signing up for military service is morally questionable when America's wars for the past generation (or longer) have been so morally questionable and so remote from the stated purpose of defending freedom.  You can't say that and be electable, or be respectable in the eyes of a lot of my Facebook friends.  You can say that and be credible in certain left-wing circles (not to be confused with centrist liberalism).

In America you can say that America's gun obsession is irrational and primitive.  You can say that and be credible in many cultural and political contexts.  You cannot say that and be seen as credible in many other situations.

Finally, in America you can say that there is no God and religion is a lie.  You can say that and be credible in many cultural groupings.  You cannot say that and be elected to statewide office, let alone US Congress or the Presidency.  And depending on which (if any) Abrahamic faith you do or don't single out, you might get people to change their reaction from sympathetic to wary or vice versa.

Now, I happen to agree (at least to some extent) with some of the things that I wrote above.  I dissent from some of them.  Others I view as dramatic over-simplifications to the point where agreement and disagreement are equally meaningless. There's no need for me to demarcate for the reader which ones I agree or disagree with. But all of these are examples of protected speech that simultaneously get a lot of heads nodding while getting other people to reach for the torches and pitchforks.  Switch some of the statements and some people will switch sides.  Consequently, whether or not political correctness is a problem, whether or not orthodoxy is enforced, and whether or not a topic is radioactive, is a highly contextual matter.  Complaints about political correctness are almost as dubious as dismissals of those complaints.

I was thinking of this in the context of the Timothy Burke essay that I blogged a couple months ago.  If claims to truth are strengthened by being on the margin, then academics have a two-fold reason to contest complaints about political correctness and deny that it exist.  There's the obvious one: We academics have a genuine interest in ideas and debate, so we certainly don't want to admit it to ourselves if there are times when we stifle the exchange of ideas.  People can simultaneously hold a value in their hearts but also fall short of the ideal embodied in that value, but who wants to admit it?

Then there's the less obvious one:  If the marginality of the speaker is relevant to the truth value of their statements then enforcement of orthodoxy is self-defeating, and if somebody were to prove to us that we are enforcing an orthodoxy they would have taken a step to refuting the truth value of our claims.  We thus have to push back and deny that this is what we're doing, because otherwise we lose intellectual credibility both on our own terms (we've just loss our claim to the high ground of the margins!) and the terms of more rational people.

People are strange.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The other thing that the factories did

I think the nostalgia for the Good Factory Jobs is as much about the anxieties of A Certain Professional Class as it is about the anxieties of those in genuinely precarious positions.  You see, nobody in my professional class knows "what to do about" people who don't go to college.  We know that America can only be a stable, prosperous country if opportunities to contribute to and benefit from that prosperity are broadly-distributed, but none among us actually know what a person can do for a decent living without a college degree.  OK, we know that there are plumbers who make good money, and a number of other highly specific occupations that can lead to a comfortable middle-class life without a college degree.  But beyond that, most of us (me included) aren't entirely sure what else can be done.

I think we have the vague sense that success in a lot of the better manual/mechanical jobs requires the right combo of mechanical aptitude, general people skills, and business sense.  We aren't entirely sure how people develop these skills; we assume it's in a vocational track at the right high school or community college.  We also have the vague sense that some kids get that from their upbringing, from parents who had those things and imparted them.  However, the continued existence of an underclass tells us that there are plenty of kids who aren't being raised by/for that kind of middle class.  So we aren't entirely sure what should be done by/for/with/about the kids who aren't college material.

Well, we tell ourselves that we'll just send more people to college and adopt some sort of Best Practice to promote their success, but we aren't entirely sure what that means (and privately we sort of realize that it's a foolhardy idea, even though we'll never say it in front of policymakers).

Now, it is an empirical fact that while we do indeed have an underclass, we also have a working class that sits above the desperate underclass but below the guy who owns a highly successful plumbing business.  They are doing something, but people in my professional class don't really know what it is.  The truth is that it's thousands of different things, with varying levels of compensation, varying prospects for advancement, varying degrees of steadiness or precariousness, varying amounts of physical strain on the body, etc.  From the dentist's assistant to the guy who fixes your tire to any number of other people, these jobs are out there.  They aren't a perfect solution to anyone's problems in life, they don't always spread around prosperity and opportunity as broadly as one might hope, but they're out there and people do these jobs.  Some of these jobs are better than others, but people like me don't necessarily know which ones are better.

Also, we don't know how people get these jobs, how they prepare.  And, of course, there isn't one single answer.

But people in my professional class need A Single Answer.  We write Strategic Plans.  We draft Mission Statements.  We work in institutions charged with Training The Workforce and Providing Opportunity.  How can we do that if the world doesn't have An Answer?

Now we get to The Good Factory Jobs.

The Good Factory Jobs told older versions of me exactly where working-class kids went after high school.  The factory was there.  It was very visible.  You could see it from the road on your morning commute to the corporate office or government bureau or academic institution where people like me work.  We might not have ever set foot in those places, but they were right there, so we assumed that that was What Was Being Done About It.

But then The Good Factory Jobs left.  That was a genuine setback for a lot of people. At the same time, they didn't all go on welfare; many of them found jobs of numerous sorts. But we don't see those jobs.  Mind you, I'm not trying to minimize that by making this all about me and my colleagues.  I'm just trying to explain how little my colleagues and I understand this.

So even though people in my professional class would never (openly) vote for Trump, we all secretly hope that he brings those factories back.  Partly because, hey, however unrealistic it might be, wouldn't it be nice if it worked?  (Yeah, I'm not holding my breath either.  I'm just saying.)  And partly because then the factory would be The Answer.  We would know where the working class kids go.

But we don't know.  So we flounder on about how Higher Education Will Fix All.  Even though it won't.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The hand-wringer test

I have a casual interest in linguistics--I enjoy browsing an Indo-European dictionary and occasionally tweet about what I learn.  I thus came across this discussion of whether linguistics qualifies as a STEM field.  If the question is whether linguists approach questions in their field with a scientific mindset, or draw upon approaches akin to those in the natural sciences, the answer is an unambiguous yes.  Moreover, if that is enough to qualify a field as STEM then most/all social science fields are either STEM fields or at least have sub-fields that count as STEM.  Linguistics may have elements that are more akin to humanities (qualitative and descriptive analysis of texts and behavior), but it also has social science and even natural science (e.g. neuroscience) components.  It is, a minimum, a good fit for the stated description of STEAM, if not STEM.

However, I mostly approach the definitions of words from a descriptivist perspective, not a prescriptivist perspective.  STEM sits on a pedestal, and the descriptivist's question is not whether linguistics belongs on the pedestal but whether the gatekeepers will recognize its right to stand on the pedestal.  Linguistics may fit the gatekeepers' stated criteria for inclusion in STEM, but people are rarely honest about the criteria that they actually employ to determine admission to a pedestal.  You have to watch their actions, not just listen to their words.  And from my experience in a university where the local culture perceives its moral legitimacy as deriving from our work on bringing students into STEM, social science is only STEM when we're trying to be collegial with social science faculty, or when a social scientist is studying issues of STEM equity and the STEM workforce.

As I said in my post about STEAM, the way to figure out if a field is STEM is to do a thought experiment involving students changing majors.  Suppose that two twins, Alice and Bob, start off as electrical engineering majors.  Alice then changes majors to physics, while Bob changes to a social science field.  Which decision would elicit more hand-wringing among the people who worry about the STEM Pipeline?

A tempting rejoinder is that we shouldn't care about the hand-wringers, we should just look at the intellectual rigor of the field, and we'd have to agree that there are plenty of things in linguistics that qualify as science.  I don't deny that, but I would note that (1) there are plenty of people whose work is definitely not science but is nonetheless intellectually rigorous (e.g. good scholars in the humanities) so why is intellectual rigor a sufficient criterion for inclusion in STEM? and (2) if we go down that road then most departments on a university campus would have STEM components (e.g. there's plenty of chemistry in art, plenty of acoustic science and technology in music, plenty of behavioral science in marketing, etc.) and STEM becomes so broad that it papers over the distinctions that make for intellectual diversity.  If STEM is the arbiter of good then everything is STEM and everything is good and everything belongs on campus, but we already agreed that the art and literature and business faculty should work on the same campus as the physicists and biologists and mathematicians, so what was the point of this label again?  Oh, right, STEM is on the pedestal.  Well, maybe instead of putting everything onto the pedestal we should point out how silly the pedestal is, and how ultimately destructive it is to the notion of intellectual diversity.

Anyway, I have a casual hobbyist interest in linguistics, and I certainly respect the rigor and value of the field, but I think that instead of including everything in STEM we should question why inclusion in STEM is considered so valuable.