Saturday, July 22, 2006

Walking the High Log

A week ago I was in the woods with the Posse group doing a ropes course. (I was going to write about it last week, but then there was a Huge Goat in Danville!) The ropes course was an excellent team-building activity. We worked together to get everyone through at least part of the course. Indeed, they were such a good team already that the staff of the University of New Hampshire's Browne Center, who ran the course, had to make up ways for them to make it harder ("with your eyes closed" or "with one hand" or "backwards" or all of the above).

Each of the high courses was about 25 or 30 feet in the air, crossing a space of about twenty feet. The four sites were: walking a wire with two guidewires; walking a wire with one guidewire; walking a telephone pole bolted horizontally between two trees; and the "leap of faith" – a leap from a platform to touch a ball suspended above the ground. In each case, the team part lay in the belaying rope attached to your harness. This is your safety line. It is also the only way down. You are trusting your teammates on the other end of the rope to keep you safe.

We all knew in our minds that we could do it, and that we could trust the team. Still, it is a big adrenaline rush to walk that high holding on to not much. The posse are healthy teens. All of them climbed the ladders, and then the staples, up the trees. Some told jokes and struck poses. But everyone was affected physically.

So why am I telling this as a Saturday story? Imagine a forty-something fat guy, in a harness with a rope attached, climbing a ladder, then climbing up steel staples about as big as the heel of your shoe, then coming to a telephone pole which hangs out over the staples. This was a poser. Nonetheless, with some thinking, and much grunting, I threw my leg over the log and hauled my way up on to the log. Did I mention that this one has no hand-holds at all? You just walk across a log? Up in the trees? Oh, and it was raining?

Walking the log was great. The adrenaline made my knees a little wobbly, but the thrill was fine. And the posse came through, lowering me gently to the ground.

If you ever get the chance to do a ropes course with friends, take it.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The College/Not-College Class Gap Is Growing

The narrowing social distance between high school graduates and those with "some college" is offset by the widening social distance between those with "some college" and college graduates.
So write Christine Schwartz and Robert Mare. Mare is a long-time researcher in "educational assortive marriage" or how much educational birds of a feather flock together.

Two generations ago, couples made up of a college graduate and a spouse with "some college" were common. Barbara Bush, for example, dropped out of Smith to marry George H. W. Bush. Now, though, couples with one college graduate are increasingly likely to include another. One generation ago, for example, George H. W. Bush and Laura Bush married when both were not only college graduates, but had completed graduate degrees, as well.

This is the trend in the United States of the percent of married couples in which husband and wife are both college graduates:

1940 1.75%
1960 3.95
1970 6.95
1980 11.35
1990 14.51
2000 18.02

One of the reasons for the increase in double-college couples is that men and women are waiting longer to marry, by which time they have usually had time to complete college degrees. Even if a couple meets in college, they are likely to graduate before marriage – both husband and wife.

Just as interesting as the consolidation in "educational homogamy" above the college-graduate line, is the increasing mixing of high school graduates and those with some college. The college/not-college line has been the main class divider in America for some time. In the past generation, though, the bar has been raised: the great class divide begins at Commencement.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

How to Raise Critical Thinkers

Many of the biggest proponents of critical thinking are themselves converts from authoritarianism. Raised in families in which authority was simply asserted, they went off to school where they were taught to think critically about all authorities, whether texts or people. Thereafter they regarded themselves as liberated from authoritarianism.

And then they had children. They were put into the position of authority. What to do? Many first-generation critical thinkers went overboard the other way. On principle, they never told their children what to do, never said no. They didn't teach their children any religious faith, in hopes that the kids would make up their own minds. They didn't make their kids read any good books, for fear of imposing a standard of goodness by authority. Likewise, they didn't forbid their children any books, movies, games, etc., for fear of stifling their creativity.

But the basic fact is that children need authority. They need limits, crave structure, beg for authoritative teaching. You can't raise kids to be critical thinkers permissively.

How do you raise critical thinkers? Use your parental authority to teach your children to question authority.

I use the simple expedient of telling my children outrageous falsehoods every day. From "good morning, chicken head, what lovely feathers you have today," to "lights outs, beloved; research has shown that sleep-deprived children develop tails," my kids are subject to a constant stream of, shall we say, critical thinking opportunities. They usually respond with reasoned arguments demonstrating that dad is obviously mistaken, again. Gradually, they are also developing wittier parries to these paternal fibs. This makes for a happy home, though it is sometimes disconcerting to visitors.

So, if you love you kids, lie to them. They will think you for it later.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Are Academics and Engineers Both "Knowledge Class?"

I turn today to a wonderful little book, Alvin Gouldner's The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. Writing in the 1970s, before the term "knowledge class" came into regular sociological use, Gouldner talked about the "new class" which was contending with the old corporate bourgeoisie (Gouldner remained a kind of Marxist) for world domination.

Gouldner argued that the new class was made up of both intellectuals and the technical intelligentsia. He uses "intellectuals" in a familiar way – academics, writers, thinkers not in directly applied or corporate settings, especially in the humanities. For the other half of his new class, though, he needed to stretch ordinary language a bit; hence, technical intelligentsia. In this category Gouldner encompasses scientists, engineers, and the kind of corporate managers who control complex systems through their technical knowledge. Gouldner is joining together what C.P. Snow famously separated in his image of the "two cultures" – humanities and science – that divide (British) universities.

Most of the time, the concerns of humanistic intellectuals and scientific engineers are poles apart. If anything, when Gouldner was writing, in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s, the two groups and cultures seemed more in opposition to one another than they do now. But Gouldner saw a deeper structural commonality and an underlying common interest. When knowledge itself is under attack, the intellectuals and the intelligentsia make common cause. When rationality is criticized, academics and engineers are on the same side. When the book burnings begin, the brave philosophers and brave scientists will man the barricades together.

Deep down, Gouldner argued, a common culture and a parallel structure unite the new class, what I am calling the knowledge class. The common culture is what Gouldner terms the Culture of Critical Discourse, or CCD (which is think is a sly Catholic joke). The highest value, and most honored practice, of the culture of critical discourse is to examine the principles underlying any practice, to dissect the reasons and causes that lead people to act a certain way. The aim is to see if those practices still seem justified after such scrutiny. And this criticism is also self-criticism; CCD requires that its practitioners constantly examine their own practice, including, paradoxically, the practice of critical discourse itself, to see if it can be justified. A measure of the success of the knowledge class is that almost any college catalogue today will list "critical thinking" as one of the most important aims of education.

The structural position that unites intellectuals and intelligentsia is their control of the knowledge necessary to make the social system run. In Marx's day, a "factory" was simple enough that the owner/entrepreneur could master the whole production process. Today, just about any kind of manufacturing is too complex to for the nominal owners to follow. The social system as a whole is of gargantuan complexity. No one could master it, and it is the life's work of millions of smart people to understand parts of it. Moreover, the whole social system now depends on countless feedback loops, reflexive channels that bring ongoing information back to the system, allowing continuous adjustment. The people bringing and interpreting that feedback are essential to the working of the system. They are integral members of the knowledge class.

The knowledge class does not rule the modern world, but the modern world could not function without the knowledge class.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Classification Schemes Classify the Classifier

Pierre Bourdieu enjoys clever turns of phrase that make your head hurt, like the above. The idea, though, when you wrestle with it, is a rich one. We classify others. We fit everyone into some kind of classification scheme. Social stratification amounts to a shared system for classifying others.

At a higher level of abstraction, though, the system that we use to classify others also classifies us. This is true in two senses. The more obvious sense is that if we classify all of society, and we are members of society, too, then we have to be able to fit into our own classification scheme.

The less obvious sense comes from the fact that we tend to use classification schemes that make our class, our kind, look good compared to the other classes. Moreover, other people who are like us tend to do the same thing. When we add up all the classification schemes, similar people will tend to classify similarly. Thus, the classification scheme that we choose among all possible classification schemes tells a great deal about what class we are in ourselves.

One of the things that people in successful marriages tend to share is a classification scheme for classifying all of society.

Classification schemes classify the marriage.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Corporate Gentleman in an Age of Enron

Last week I stepped into one of the stickiest patches of the jungle of social classification: who is a "gentleman?" This is a rich question; indeed, I think it is an endless question, one impossible to answer definitively. Gentleman, and lady, are ethical ideals as much as they are social class types. People with identical backgrounds of family status, education, income, occupation, looks, self-assurance, etc., etc., will still have characters which put them, in the end, on opposite sides of the gentleman/not-gentleman divide.

The gentleman is heir to the ethic of the warrior. In some places, where family honor and shame are still measured by how other people see you, this bloody ethic (in the literal sense) results in honor killings and endless vendettas. In the Christian world, especially the Protestant portion of it, the warrior ethic was significantly modified by Christianity to produce the kind of gentility more familiar to Jane Austen readers. The standard of honor is measured more by an inward compass and conscience. Dealing generously with others, especially the weaker, is a crucial part of the ethic of gentility. Strictly speaking, people of any social class could be gentlemen or ladies. In democratic societies, were often presume as much in addressing crowds. Gentility is an ideal.

The ideal of the gentleman requires common sense about how the world works, especially about the use of power. Gentility does not, though, require book learning, formal schooling, erudition. The warrior ethic remains alive, of course, in the military. The gentlemanly ideal, though, has migrated mostly to the form of competition most favored in a bourgeois society, the marketplace. And today our warriors and business leaders often spend a long time in school. Still, those with a vocation for learning are regarded as, well, weak compared to the military and corporate leaders. "An officer and a gentleman" is a natural progression. "A gentleman and a scholar," on the other hand, is an unusual composite.

As some readers pointed out, the American corporate class seems poles apart from the ethical ideal of the gentleman just now. It is certainly true that the Enron-type business crooks fall on the not-gentleman side of the line. But the ideal remains. At the same time that we don't lament the passing of Ken Lay, we honor the gifts of Warren Buffet and the Gateses. There have always been business crooks, and there always will be. That is why we need a strong ideal of what kind of citizens and human beings corporate leaders should be. Adapting the ancient ideal of the gentlemen is the best and highest notion that our culture has developed for our richest and most powerful to aspire to. I think the ideal of the corporate gentleman is a good one for society.

The knowledge class ideal, though, is different. We will explore the difference as we go along with this research.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A Church That Is Not Clear About What It Believes Is Not Worth Belonging To

The Presbyterian Panel, the church's ongoing survey, found that most members, elders, and pastors agree with this statement. They want real standards, and they want the church to mean them. I think the vagueness about what any mainline church believes is one of the key factors preventing most mainliners from evangelizing. If asked the reasonable question, "Well, what do Presbyterians [or other mainline church members] believe?" many mainliners are stuck for an answer.

The silver lining of the Peace, Unity, and Purity report controversy may be that the church will establish some clear signposts of what it believes. This will help those being evangelized, skeptics, and committed members alike.

Most Presbyterians support the main points of the PUP report. What we need to do now is clarify the standards the church really does believe in. This includes clearly supporting our current constitution, as well as the new emphasis on letting the locals decide essentials whenever practical.

For more of my analysis of what the Panel says about PUP, go to the Presbyterian Outlook article here.