Saturday, January 28, 2006


My wife sometimes talks about helpful people or situations as giving her oxygen. This is not a metaphor that resonates with me at all. I get hung up on the literal image of an EMT strapping a mask to my face – not a scenario that I find stress-reducing.

When I step back and try to accept it as a metaphor, I still don't get it. I don't get stressed very often (though I may be a carrier :-)), so I don't often feel that things are closing in, getting uncomfortably hot, or in other ways getting airless. So it may just be a peculiarity of me.

However, as I have started to listen for people talking about "getting oxygen from" something or other, it strikes me that the expression is used primarily by women.

This idea led immediately to the Oxygen cable network, which is aimed at women.

Geraldine Laybourne, founder of Oxygen,

christened the network "Oxygen" because she believes that in today's frenetic society every woman needs to take a deep breath. To drive home the point, Oxygen's daily programming cycle begins with Inhale, a yoga class, and ends with Exhale, a talk show hosted by Candice Bergen.

Oxygen debuted on the symbolic date of February 2, 2000 – 02/02.

So, what do you think? Is "getting oxygen" a distinctively female metaphor for help in reducing stress? Do people also talk about "giving oxygen" to others? If it is distinctively female, why?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Marriage and Caste 3: Do Spouses Make Marriage, or Does Marriage Make Spouses?

Let's visit Kay Hymowitz' "Marriage and Caste" one more time. She reviews the two standard explanations of why marriage has such a big effect on people's chances in life. Some argue that marriage creates material advantages, of more money, more hands on deck, and the sheer advantage that a committed team has over a lone anyone. Others, though,

take an alternative approach to the question of why children growing up with their own two married parents do better than children growing up without their fathers. It’s not marriage that makes the difference for kids, they argue; it’s the kind of people who marry. Mothers who marry and stay married already have the psychological endowment that makes them both more effective partners and more competent parents.

Hymowitz goes on to make the most important point, I think, about the psychological, or really, the cultural advantage that women (and men) who stay married have:

key part of that difference is that educated women still believe in marriage as an institution for raising children. What is missing in all the ocean of research related to the Marriage Gap is any recognition that this assumption is itself an invaluable piece of cultural and psychological capital—and not just because it makes it more likely that children will grow up with a dad in the house.

This question of which matters more, material resources or the cultural inclination to use them, is one of the deepest and most enduring puzzles in sociology and in social life. Max Weber, following Goethe, uses the phrase "elective affinity" to explain how both of these factors work together and work at the same time. People who are inclined to act a certain way are drawn to social institutions in which other people also act that same way. And being in an institution which rewards a certain kind of action molds the people in it to value that kind of action even more. Elective affinity is, to my mind, one of the deepest, richest, and most mysterious features of social life. We both shape and are shaped by social institutions. Birds of a feather flock together – which makes them more of a feather.

So how does this play out in marriage? Marriage confers huge material advantages. People who stay married normally reap rich benefits, for themselves and their children. And the experience of marriage teaches people how to live with others, to accommodate and compromise and take pleasure in serving one another. But marriage is also a risk and a leap. People who already know how to accommodate and serve, and who trust in the whole institution of marriage in the first place, are more likely to take the risk. SO, people with both the cultural and psychological predisposition and a good material and psychological experience are likely to reap the greatest advantage from their marriages. But whatever you bring to marriage, you are likely – not guaranteed, but likely – to reap a proportionate benefit. Elective affinity multiplies the effect of social institutions, perhaps in marriage most of all.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Marriage and Caste 2: Education Prevents Divorce

Kay Hymowitz, in the City Journal article "Marriage and Caste" that I wrote about yesterday, reports this very important finding:

Around 1980, the family-forming habits of college grads and uneducated women went their separate ways. For the next decade the proportion of college-educated moms filing for divorce stopped increasing, and by 1990 it actually starting going down. This was not the case for the least educated mothers, who continued on a divorce spree for another ten years. It was only in 1990 that their increase in divorce also started to slow and by 2000 to decline, though it was too late to close the considerable gap between them and their more privileged sisters.

Hymowitz focuses, quite reasonably, on the bad news: the marriage gap is creating a class gap.

I see in this finding, though, a silver lining: education helps prevent divorce.

Sociologists talk about "reflexivity" as a growing feature of the post-modern information society. This refers to the way in which we gather more and more information about how society is working, then use that information to change our own actions – thus changing the way society is working. Gathering and analyzing information is not an activity apart from living, but is part of the normal functioning of our society. We all take part in, even depend on, these feedback loops to guide our normal behavior.

Sometimes talk of reflexivity seems mechanical, removed from the emotional, even blood-and-guts choices of real life. Divorce, though, is about as bloody an emotional choice as any of us are likely to face outside of combat.

So here is the good news that I glean from this cold statistic: educated people, especially educated women, learned early from the new research and society's experience that divorce really did hurt their kids. Some people, of course, weren't going to divorce anyway, no matter what the new knowledge showed. Likewise, some were going to divorce anyway, researchers – and children – be damned. But in between are a group of people who reflexively changed their actions based on feedback from the information they learned in their education or were prepared to take in because of their education.

College-educated marrieds and their less-educated counterparts would both hurt their kids by divorce. In fact, the kids of less educated parents were probably hurt more. Yet the more educated parents learned the truth first, took it in faster, and, as a group, began to take corrective action sooner. Education works; reflexivity works. The kids of might-have-divorced-but-chose-not-to parents benefit, and therefore so do we all.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Marriage and Caste 1: Are Things Worse Now?

Kay Hymowitz has written a fine article in City Journal, "Marriage and Caste." Facing the question, "what is America’s chief source of inequality?," she answers, "The Marriage Gap." The top classes not only get educated and keep working, they marry before they have kids and stay married. The bottom classes have kids without any of these structural supports – which is why they stay poorer.

Hymowitz sums up the social consequences of this pattern this way:

Why do educated women marry before they have children? Because, like high-status women since status began, they are preparing their offspring to carry on their way of life. Marriage radically increases their chances of doing that.

Hymowitz then worries that this pattern of passing on status at the top has a worrying corollary at the bottom:

The Marriage Gap—and the inequality to which it is tied—is self-perpetuating. A low-income single mother … is more likely to raise children who will become low-income single parents, who will pass that legacy on to their children, and so on down the line. … Instead of an opportunity-rich country for all, the Marriage Gap threatens us with a rigid caste society.

I agree with Kay Hymowitz that we have a marriage gap. I think we always have – there are a dozen reasons why kids with married parents usually do better than kids without. Nowadays, though, there are many more kids from single-parent homes, or worse. And there are many more kids with two educated professional or corporate parents who get boosted higher. So the gap is bigger, and there are more kids at the bottom.

Where I disagree with Hymowitz is whether this gap is creating a new, rigid caste system. As I see it, the social structure today is the most fluid that it has ever been. Today, more than any previous era in American history, the class, power, and status that you end up with has more to do with how you have chosen to live your life, and less to do with inherited qualities that you can't do anything about. Sure, being raised in a two-parent family is an advantage, and a single-parent background is a disadvantage. It always has been. And, statistically, people are more likely to repeat the pattern of their parents. But any given couple can choose to break a bad marital cycle – or throw away their advantage and disadvantage their own children.

SO: marriage gap, yes; marriage caste, no.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Have Canadians Had Enough of Deconstructing Marriage?

Yesterday Canadian voters turned out the Liberal Party, which has ruled for more than a decade, and elected a Conservative government.

Last year, the Canadian Supreme Court threw out the marriage laws of all the provinces at a stroke and legislated same-sex marriage for the whole country.

Last Thursday the Canadian Justice Department recommended abolishing the ban on polygamy across the country.

The chief author of the study, Queens University professor Martha Bailey, said ``in light of the fact that we have a fairly permissive society, why are we singling out that particular form of behaviour for criminalization?''

The election was close, and the Conservative Party will not have a majority in Parliament. There are not likely to be huge changes in Canadian law. But the drift toward imposing an “anything goes” marriage standard from Ottawa may have been stopped.

At a time when South American electorates are taking a significant step to the left, it is striking that all three North American countries have elected conservative governments. Germany, which has been in the forefront of privatizing marriage, also elected a conservative government recently in a squeaker.

The main reason governments get elected, year in and year out, is “the economy, stupid.” Still, when governments deconstruct family, that most basic of institutions, even the most permissive of societies react.

Monday, January 23, 2006

No-Fault Divorce Presumes Two Incomes

There is a horrible and very public divorce case going on now, pitting Bai MacFarlane vs. Bud MacFarlane. [Not the Bud MacFarlane of the Reagan scandals, by the way.] They were, up to now, professional Catholics. He runs the Mary Foundation, and has written Catholic apocalyptic novels. She was the happy Catholic mom who home schooled their four boys.

Then he dumped her.

One of the public issues in this case has been whether the civil courts should take any account of the religious vows, and the decisions of the religious courts, in determining custody.

I was drawn by another issue. He did not want to pay enough child support to allow her to stay home and continue home schooling their children. Instead, he sued to make her get a job. The court sided with him; she refused to comply; he got custody and put the kids in school, including full day care for the two year old.

The court was forced to judge whether an at-home, home-schooling spouse had a right to keep living the life to which she had become accustomed – indeed, to which she was religiously committed – or whether each individual is obliged to get a job and be self-supporting. Thus far, the court has taken the individualist side of this argument, not the marital side.

I asked a family court judge whether no fault has a presumption against home schooling. He replied that “DIVORCE has a bias against home schooling, fault or no-fault.” In theory, a fault standard of divorce would give the innocent spouse some claim for continuing to get enough support to keep home schooling. In practice, though, “the majority of the time most courts (in my opinion) would likely find such a result inequitable in the event that it rendered the ‘at-fault’ spouse unable to maintain some semblance of a residence. And, in most circumstances, it would.”

Most institutions in our culture now presume two incomes for a middle class or better life. This is not simply an economic fact, but is the result of legal and policy decisions to treat everyone as an individual before the law, and not as part of a family, or even a marriage. No-fault divorce laws do presuppose two-income marriages – but so does the rest of social life.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Having an “Honored Guest”: Why Wheaton Should Not Have Fired a Catholic

Wheaton College fired medieval philosophy professor Joshua Hochschild because he converted to Roman Catholicism. Wheaton, an evangelical Protestant college, has a strong faith statement that all professors are required to sign and believe. Hochschild was willing to sign the faith statement; as Wheaton interprets its creed and the Catholic faith, however, the two are simply incompatible.

The Catholic legal blog Mirror of Justice carries the Wall Street Journal piece that spread the story, and a series of sensible responses to it, starting here. All acknowledge that Wheaton has a perfect legal right to fire Catholics, or anyone else who does not fit the college’s theological commitment. The debate has been about whether Wheaton really serves its own mission well with a blanket exclusion of Catholics. Hochschild, raised a secular Jew, became a Christian at Yale through the study of Christian philosophy. Then a high church Episcopalian, he did his graduate work at Notre Dame, before going to Wheaton. That progression continued, though, and took him beyond Canterbury to Rome.

Wheaton acknowledges that they would like to keep Hochschild, and colleagues thought him likely to be tenured. They also acknowledge that it is difficult to find a first-rate scholar of medieval philosophy who is not a Catholic – Thomas Aquinas has that effect on intellectuals (I know he does on me). The Wall Street Journal article contrasts Wheaton’s “evangelicals only” policy with Notre Dame’s decision to hire non-Catholics, as long as the university maintains a Catholic majority on the faculty.

I am a Presbyterian teaching at a nominally Presbyterian college, and I have written about Presbyterian higher education, especially in Called to Teach. Presbyterian colleges traditionally have had a clear mission, and all faculty members were required to support it. However, the institution had room for some “honored guests” – religious believers from other traditions who nonetheless supported the religious mission of the school. Far from suppressing their differences from the institutional faith of the college, these honored guests hone everyone’s understanding of what the college’s mission and tradition are.

Having honored guests on the faculty (including permanent, tenured members) is not at all like the secular pluralism that has overtaken so many church-founded colleges. There, they suppress all religious commitments in hiring faculty, and soon enough the secular academy sets the norm of what professors should believe. When, on the contrary, a college retains a clear religious mission, it can have room for those who do not embrace that mission, if they nonetheless honor it. As a perfect guest does in visiting another’s home, even if the visit lasts a lifetime.

Joshua Hochschild was willing to be an honored guest at Wheaton. I think they would have been better off, and would better have served their evangelical mission, if they had made a place for him.