Saturday, July 08, 2006

Teasing Boys

A heroic colleague has been Resident Assistant for the soccer camp on campus this week. Wrangling a pack of young teen boys puts him on the front lines of civilization. Each morning has brought new first-hand accounts of primatology. I thought his hilarious account of finding them stripped to their boxers, which they had rolled into thongs, sumo wrestling, would be the best story. I was wrong.

On the last night of camp, the two boys who had been waiting at the curb for the pizza came thundering into the dorm to call all the other guys. Girls! In a car! And one of them FLASHED HER BOOBS!

Instantly, pizza forgotten, the whole horde raced to the street. The girls were gone, but the boys lined the curb, standing on tiptoe, peering up the street, in case the sirens returned. And they did.

The car drifted along the curb. On girl held her hand out, calling to the boys to come and touch her. The line of boys turned into a swarm, each eager for the proffered hand. Each time the boy-mass approached, the driver would scoot the car a little further down the street, teasingly. The swarm followed. This went on for half a block, then the car drove away. A couple of the boys ran after it, until reigned in by the RA.

Did they go inside and laugh about it? Did they turn to the pizza? Did they settle down to discuss Shakespeare? All equally unlikely scenarios.

No, they waited at the curb in case the girls came back. One of those who had been closest to the car noted that it reeked of alcohol. Excitement rose. The RA realized that he had no control over the primal horde. In fact, their brains seemed to be secreting a hormone that blocked out the sound of his voice.

The girls came back a third time. This time they stopped, and one of them started to get out of the car. My colleague realized that the time for intervention had come, before he had a hormone riot on his hands. He firmly suggested to the young ladies that they should move on; the police would be happy to assist them in that resolve, should that be necessary. In one fluid motion, the lead temptress eased back into the car while it sped off.

He sent the boys back to wrestling. And cold showers.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Barak Obama vs. Paris Hilton

Sen. Barak Obama has made another superb speech on the critical role of faith in public life. He rebuked the secular wing of the Democratic Party – his party and mine – for it self-defeating paranoia about faith. He put it more nicely than I did.

Just to give a sample of the speech, he said
But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Obama then went on to take a couple of examples of how faithful people, not just Christians, make better public policy when the act on their faith -- fighting AIDS, lifting Third World debt, stopping genocide.

One example surprised me as not usually on the faith-based list. Sen. Obama contends that
And by the way, we need Christians on Capitol Hill, Jews on Capitol Hill and Muslims on Capitol Hill talking about the estate tax. When you've got an estate tax debate that proposes a trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don't need and weren't even asking for it, you know that we need an injection of morality in our political debate.
I have long thought that the estate tax is a serious moral issue, and a political issue that Democrats can and should win. Yet Republican opponents of the estate tax have been winning the argument – no, not the argument, just the rhetorical competition – through the brilliant trick of always referring to the estate tax as the "death tax." George Lakoff cites this as one of the best examples of how Republicans have been winning the political competition by reframing the terms of the debate, without changing the substance of the debate.

I believe that whenever someone says "end the death tax," Democrats should say "strengthen the Paris Hilton tax." If we really had an estate tax in this country, Paris Hilton would have to look for honest work (and no, porn star doesn't count).

Obama has raised my sights in this debate. The estate tax is not only good for the character of rich kids. It is a just way to fund some social programs for the poor. Starting with Paris.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

"Taste is a matchmaker"

So says Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction. The most fruitful idea to come to me so far from our sojourn in Bourdieu's great study is the notion of taste endogamy.

It is well known that people with similar backgrounds are more likely to marry one another. The normal sociological standards for measuring background are rather blunt instruments, though. We run across thousands of people with similar backgrounds who we would not think of marrying. The subtler connector is shared taste. Taste is, certainly, connected with background – that is one of the main points of the book. But taste is also more individual than just a shared class measure. Taste is individual enough to bring two people together.

And then, as Bourdieu notes, we often see "the astonishing harmony of ordinary couples who … progressively match each other by a sort of mutual acculturation." This is, I think, what Max Weber means by "elective affinity." I can testify to this in my own marriage in many ways. My favorite, which is delightful for its sheer mystery, is that my wife and I, having started out with different favorite colors, now have grown to share a passion for yellow. Neither of us could say why this is so, but it does make decorating together easier.

Sociologists are accustomed to measuring similarities of education and occupation between parents and children. What the idea of taste endogamy suggests is that we should be just as interested in comparing parents-in-law and children-in-law. At the least, we should measure similarities in education and occupation between a man and his father-in-law and a woman and her mother-in-law. Deeper than that, though, we should look for similarities of taste within those pairs. If is woman sees a similarity in taste between her father and her potential husband, it would go a long way toward explaining their attraction and marital success.

As Bourdieu observes,

"Two people can give each other no better proof of the affinity of their tastes than the taste they have for each other."

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Marriage Education Works

Someday I want to study to alumni of my family life class to see how their marriages turn out. My guess is that they will turn out to have a divorce rate less than half that of the rest of the college. More than a guess, that is an objective. I know that students who take such a class might be more marriage-minded than the average, so they might have a lower divorce rate even if the class itself had no effect. Students tell me, though, that one of the biggest eye-openers for them is to study the many benefits that marriage brings to married people and to society as a whole. In all their prior education, no one had made that case, or even talked about marriage as other than a loss of freedom.

Now Scott Stanley, one of the national leaders in marriage education, and his colleagues have shown that marriage education is likely to reduce the risk of divorce by up to a third. Their article, "Premarital Education, Marital Quality, and Marital Stability: Findings From a Large, Random Household Survey," by Stanley, Paul Amato, Christine Johnson, and Howard Markman, is in the current Journal of Family Psychology. Marriage education means group courses, not premarital counseling for a couple. The marriage education reported in the survey ranges from full courses to two-hour workshops. Many churches offer marriage education, and some require it. Marriage education is a popular topic of adult education, as well. Few of those in the survey were thinking of their college family sociology courses.

Which is a shame. Colleges are full of people who want to be married, and will be married, someday. They are the very people who are most prone to learn from their studies. If every college made marriage education a regular part of the curriculum, and offered it enough to reach all who wanted it, I am sure we would see a significant reduction in the divorce rate – and a rise in the marriage rate, instead of cohabitation – in a decade.

Because marriage education works.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Have a Gruntled Fourth

A thought for Independence Day: married people and their children have the greatest freedom to do what they want, because what they normally want to do is support one another.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Knowledge Class Marriage

I am starting a new project that will occupy me for the next few years, if not decades. I want to compare marriage and family life in the knowledge class versus the corporate class. I will explain what I mean by this over the next series of posts.

We are starting with some of the foundational theory of the knowledge class. This week we are working through Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. For my money Bourdieu was the best French sociologist until his death a few years ago.

Bourdieu says that in looking at the class structure of society we need to examine three components of class for any given group:
1) the volume of capital;
2) the composition of capital; and
3) the trajectory of the class over time.

Volume is what we usually think of as "class" – how much stuff your group has. Composition, though, introduces an important nuance of the different kinds of capital. In addition to economic capital – which is basically how much wealth you have – Bourdieu also looks at cultural capital, made up of the kinds of knowledge and understanding that make for social status. Cultural capital comes from two main sources – what you learn in school, and what you learn at home.

The great advantage that people from higher classes have is not only that they start with money. Just as important, they learn the kinds of high culture most esteemed in society by growing up with it. Smart poor kids can learn school culture in school, but it is harder to pick up these more subtle kinds of family-based culture, of taste, of distinction, on your own. It can be done, but it is harder. It is particularly difficult to learn extra-curricular culture because people from low-status families don't even know it exists, and people from high-status families don't know that they are passing on to their kids a kind of capital just by their lifestyle.

Bourdieu was, therefore, concerned with the effects of families in transmitting capital. He did not, though, give much attention to exactly how families produced these effects, nor to what difference different approaches to marriage and children would make for transmitting cultural capital.

It has become more obvious in the generation since Distinction was written that the knowledge class is the class most likely to never marry, or to never have children. The cultural capital that knowledge class individuals accumulate is more likely to die with them than is other kinds of capital, or in other classes.

A class will only pass on its capital to the next generation if it has a next generation. One hypothesis that we are exploring is that knowledge class life makes it less likely that you will produce a next generation.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

More Candor on PUP, Please

The Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) released an FAQ on what it means now that the church has adopted the Peace, Unity, and Purity task force's report. On most questions, and in the other FAQs that they released after the General Assembly, the OGA has been candid and straightforward. On the controversial question of ordaining unrepentant homosexuals, however, my friends at the OGA tried to soften their answer with slipperiness. I think this will backfire.

Here is the Q and A:
Will gays and lesbians now be ordained?

Presbyteries and sessions have been reminded of their historical responsibility to examine candidates for ordination and decide, on a case-by-case basis, about a person’s qualifications for ministry. The constitutional standard in the Book of Order (G-6.0106b) requiring “fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman” or “chastity in singleness” remains in place.

Each governing body will be required to decide if a departure from a standard of faith or practice represents a violation of an “essential” of the faith. Governing bodies have been encouraged to strive to honor one another’s ordination decisions. Still, these decisions continue to be subject to review by higher governing bodies.

What the OGA says here is absolutely true. It is important. But it is clearly an inadequate answer to the question they themselves posed.

So as a public service, let me insert a couple of new paragraphs to this answer, keeping the rest of the answer the OGA gave after that.
Will gays and lesbians now be ordained?

YES. Gays and lesbians – men and women with a homosexual orientation – have always been ordained in the Presbyterian Church. That will not change under the new Authoritative Interpretation. Some ministers do engage in sexual practices, both heterosexual and homosexual, which the confessions call sin and which the Book of Order forbids as unchaste. That has always been true in the Presbyterian Church, and will likely continue. These sins are cause for repentance and seeking God's grace.

Some would-be officers of the church have declared a scruple about the constitutional requirement that all officers live in “fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman” or “chastity in singleness.” This scruple has been declared by people of all sexual orientations. It is the duty and responsibility of the ordaining and examining body to decide whether such a scruple touches an essential tenet of Reformed faith and practice. If the ordaining and examining body's decision were challenged, it would be the duty and responsibility of the higher governing bodies to review that decision to see if the lower body acted correctly. That review includes both the substance and the procedure of the lower body's decision. Whether a scruple is acceptable or not has nothing do to with the sexual orientation or practice of the would-be officer.
I would be inclined to add a further sentence, though this might seem to the OGA to be overstepping its bounds:
The words of the Book of Order in G 6.0106b are clear. It is difficult to see how an ordaining and examining body, or any higher body reviewing the decision of a lower one, could decide that rejecting G 6.0106b was a legitimate scruple.