Saturday, April 29, 2006

Jane Jacobs Was an Urban Giant, Like King Kong

Ok, I just made that up.

Jane Jacobs, whose Death and Life of the Great American Cities is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read, died this week.

I was raised in the suburbs. For me, the city was a place for field trips and occasional cultural adventures. I never thought of it as a place people could actually live. Death and Life opened for me, as for the generation of new urbanists my age and older, the vision of cities as the most vibrant form of human existence. I have since lived in and enjoyed cities, as well as lamenting their defects (I did live in D.C. for three years, after all). And I am the first to say that small towns, like the one in which I am now blessed to live, is a great place to raise kids.

But cities really do drive civilization. I thank Jane Jacobs for convincing a generation of suburban kids like me that urbanity is vital for everyone.

Friday, April 28, 2006

College Drinking, Part 2: Same-Sex Intimacy

Yesterday's blog argued that college drinking lets people from families with intimacy-preventing rules to temporarily suspend those rules. With the "social lubricant," men and women are freer to get close to members of the opposite sex, without permanently undermining the rules. This brought some very interesting comments, especially from Ken Lammers, that another function of college drinking is to allow members of the same sex to bond with one another. I agree entirely with this point.

Peggy Sanday, in Fraternity Gang Rape, posits that fraternity members have a strong homosexual attraction for one another, which they ruthlessly suppress through shared lust for women. Thus, frat boys talk dirty, watch porn, brag about hook ups, and, in the extreme case she studied, gang rape women in the frat house. I think Sanday is wrong in her basic thesis. But she does point to a problem for fraternities and other men's groups.

Fraternity men do bond strongly with one another as brothers. Their brotherhood would be ruined by a hint of homosexual attraction (as literal brotherhood would). Fraternities need a way to temporarily suspend the strong rule against intimacy with other men without confusing that intimacy with sexual attraction. Drinking games and drunken revelry suit that need.

I still think my main point is right: people from the Level 3 Rule-Bound families most need a social lubricant to get close to others. Men, and to a lesser extent, women, from such families would find that alcohol would make other solidarity-building activities easier. Even for men from more flexible and intimate families, though, I suspect that the rules against intimacy with other men are pretty strong. This would explain why fraternities have such a strong drinking culture, even when women are not present. Sororities also drink quite a bit, but in my experience they do not do so when men are not going to be involved to nearly the same degree.

I thank Ginny Anderson and Ken Lammers, two fine examples of different eras of Centre students, for advancing this interesting discussion.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

College Drinking: from Academic Pressure, or Family Functioning?

In my family life class we study the Beavers Scale of family functioning. In the middle of the Beavers Scale is the Level 3 family, which he describes as "rule bound." In such families, order is maintained by a set of rules, yet these same rules often prevent intimacy. I (not Robert Beavers) speculated that this kind of family is the most common kind, the kind that most Centre College students come from. This would explain to me why most, but by no means all, students drink so much alcohol: the "social lubricant" lets them suspend the rules and allow intimacy temporarily. In the morning, though, the rules, and their authority to create order, snap back into place.

Ginny Anderson, a fine student in that class, offered this further insight in her class journal:

You suggested in class today that your average “fraternity party-goer” comes from a Level Three family, using alcohol to suspend the inhibiting family rules and foster a sense of intimacy with others. Although this would never have occurred to me, I’m inclined to agree, because it fits so well into the pattern of alcohol use at this college.

In general, when Centre students drink, it isn’t a glass of wine at dinner, or a beer while the game is on. It is “split a pitcher” margaritas at dinner, rum and coke at the pre-party, and an extra helping in the solo cup as you head out the door. This isn’t about enjoying a refreshing beverage – it is absolutely about being at least moderately blitzed before you have to interact with people of the opposite gender. Groups like SMART (alcohol peer educators) and the Panhellenic Council [the sorority coordination board] sometimes postulate that this behavior is academic-related escapism – the “work hard, play harder” mentality. But I don’t think that really gets to the root of the problem. Alcohol (ab)use is fairly standard across the spectrum of colleges and universities (with notable exceptions, of course), even at schools where the workload is lighter than Centre students experience. The great equalizer in this case could be the number of the students that were born and raised in rule-bound families.

I feel like a lot of pieces of information start coming together when you consider college social scenes in this light. Alcohol use as a method of shedding inhibitions. The way that college women say it’s easier to sleep with a guy than have a genuine conversation with him. And a study that I read in intro psychology, which observed the “placebo effect” of alcohol. Women who thought they were drinking beer but were actually receiving a non-alcoholic substitute still act as if the rules are suspended (which is often manifested in provocative and forward behavior). All of these become “intimacy crutches” for people (especially women) who never learned how to find real intimacy. But with this behavior, all they ever get is the substitute, never the real thing.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Defending Opal Mehta

Kaavya Viswanathan, teen author of the best-selling How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, has been accused of plagiarism. She borrowed phrases and structure from other novels about young adult life, especially from Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts. Viswanathan, who is very apologetic and calls herself a big fan of McCafferty's work, said the plagiarism was inadvertent. Some commentators and legal scholars have been skeptical of this defense.

I believe her.

I live with teenagers, who borrow and sample phrases from so many sources that they have no idea where they came from. They will take a line – from conversation, from reading, from the radio, from a movie – and use it as their instant message screen name for a couple of weeks, and move on. In the mean time, everyone they communicate with reads the phrase, perhaps dozens of times, without knowing where it originally came from.

My daughters introduced me to the wonderfully silly novels of Louise Rennison featuring English teenager Georgia Nicholson. Georgia has a distinctive way of speaking, and I find myself using her constructions – "My heart leapt like a leaping thing on leaping pills" -- without thinking of sources or attribution. Therefore I fully sympathize with an actual teenage author who has fully absorbed phrases from teen fiction in her own writing without knowing it.

I bought Opal Mehta, and await the end of our busy school term to enjoy it.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Students Show More Sense Than Grownups In T-Shirt Case

Tyler Harper, a student at Poway High School in Poway, CA, wore a shirt to school which read "Be Ashamed, Our School Embraced What God Has Condemned'' on the front and "Homosexuality Is Shameful'' on the back. Not surprisingly, this provoked a response from some other students. They discussed the issue, stated their disagreement, and left it at that. No violence, no disruption, no breakdowns. "While words were exchanged, the students managed the situation well and without intervention from the school authorities. No doubt, everyone learned an important civics lesson about dealing with others who hold sharply divergent views.''

That is the assessment of Judge Alex Kozinski. Yes, the grownups turned this t-shirt into a federal case. Literally. The school banned the shirt on the grounds that it might injure homosexual students and might interfere with learning. When the case got to the notorious Ninth Circuit of the federal appeals court, the court sided 2 – 1 with the school's ban. Judge Kozinski issued a sharp dissent, partly quoted above.

Judge Kozinski is right. Tyler Harper expressed his views civilly. The other students, according to the record, responded the same way. Free speech wins. The marketplace of ideas is served. Students actually learn something in school.

The attempt to enforce anyone's political correctness in schools backfires. It teaches students that school officials are hypocrites when they talk about critical thinking, and cowards when they don't support actual critical thought. When the common schools are captured by one ideological faction, it fuels the movement to create separate schools and undermines support for the very idea of common schools and a common culture.

The remedy for speech you don't like is more speech.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Bank of Mom and Dad is the Right Way to Transfer Wealth

The New York Times has a popular story now about parents continuing to subsidize their twenty-something and even thirty-something children. They cite a University of Michigan study by Bob Schoeni that found that 25 and 26 year olds get from their parents an average annual gift of $2,300. This is often in the form of payment for particular things, like cell phone bills, or childcare, or insurance, rather than a general cash subsidy.

Some lament this trend as exacerbating young peoples' "failure to launch." I think it is a good thing. Economists have been wondering for years how the Baby Boom's massive accumulation of wealth will get transferred to the next generation – or taxed, or just spent. Investing in your children so that they can begin adult life seems to me an excellent, nuanced way for this transfer to begin. People are at their most thoughtful in investing in, and for, their own families. I would trust parents to calibrate their support correctly much more than I would count on the government or the market to do so.

I now sit in a house made possible with a down payment loan from my parents, to whom we are all daily grateful. I have already begun to calculate how we can save for the junior Gruntleds once their massive tuition payments end. I see down payments on my hypothetical grandchildren's childhood homes in the dim distance. And that is a good next thing to save for.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Church Organists, Tremble

Sociologist Mark Chaves, in Congregations in America, reports that the largest 10 percent of congregations contain about half of all churchgoers on an average Sunday.

Scott Thumma, the leading expert on megachurches, found that about 80% of them use electric guitar or bass and drums “always” in their services, and over 93% do so “often” or "always." Megachurch attenders are notably younger and have more kids than the mainline denominations do, so this preference is likely to multiply in coming generations.

Add to this that Roman Catholics, the nation's largest denomination, do not rely on organs.

The era of the church organ, which we think of as ancient, but is really less than two centuries old, may draw to a close in a generation or two.