Saturday, July 29, 2006

Does Cafe Noise Strengthen the Brain?

I wrote about Boing Boing the other day, and they send us another good one today. They report on Bart Kosko's new book, Noise, in which he argues that working against background noise can strengthen your mind by making you concentrate more. I am writing this from a café with classical music in the background, and conversation going on around me.

On the other hand, I heard on NPR the other day that kids who try to do homework with the television on do much worse at remembering what they have read. I listened to the NPR story as background to reading the newspaper and eating breakfast. I remember the NPR story. But I couldn't tell you what I read in the paper.

I find that I like café noise for reading and writing. I do not like television or music with words, though – it is too hard for me not to pay attention to the meaning of the words.

Of course, I am often surprised at how often people tell me about songs they really like, but they can't tell me what the words are. Sometimes they have even memorized the words enough to sing them, but have never really thought about what they mean.

So maybe I am weird. Or maybe this is another knowledge class culture detail. Cafés yes; t.v. no.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Happy Sysadmin Appreciation Day – the Perfect New Class Holiday

Thanks to Russell Smith's suggestion in an earlier discussion of New Class culture, I have been visiting the Boing Boing site, which I commend to you. Last night they posted this wonderful notice:
In a few minutes, it will be July 28th on the West Coast, marking the start of national Sysadmin Appreciation Day. This is a fine idea. Sysadmins are the secret masters of the world, the tireless workers in the data-centers who quietly keep the Internet and its constituent PCs up and running. Sysadmins get more off-hour phone-calls than surgeons; for that matter, a good sysadmin is better to have around than a surgeon.
Here is the sensibility of what Avrom Fleishman thinks is the core of the New Class in a perfect gem of an example. Consider these markers:

• Being precisely conscious of time zones, and expecting that readers may come from any place and time zone.

• Comparing sysadmins with the high status job of the old technology, surgeon.

• Measuring how essential a job is by the number of off-hour phone calls it gets.

• No snark or ambivalence – unlike, say, President of the United States, this job really matters.

• And, of course, assuming that all readers will know what a sysadmin is.

A new class culture is being assembled all around us. It is fun, as well as rich sociology, to chart it as it rises.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

"Class Culture" vs. "Privilege and Oppression"

Recently I was asked if the students in my senior seminar, "Class Culture," could be surveyed as part of an educational psychology study. I want to be hospitable, but I think the questions asked are so far from the aim of the course that we should not participate. But I am torn. So I put the question to you.

The course is designed as a research seminar for senior anthropology and sociology majors. We read some good books about the culture of the social classes to spur and shape their own study of a class culture question of their choosing. A representative recent syllabus is here. As that syllabus says, " The aim of this particular advanced seminar, on class culture, is to understand how and why society is stratified into classes and status groups. We will explore how different classes have distinctive cultures, and consider the larger question of the social function and meaning of a class system." I do not presume at the outset that social stratification is bad or good. Indeed, considering the vices and virtues of particular classes, and particular stratification systems, is one of the main things we talk about. We discuss the full range of classes, but recently we have spent more time on the knowledge class, in keeping with the research that I have been presenting to you lately.

I have been asked by a local graduate student, not someone I know personally, to study this class. This is how she describes her purpose:
My research is focusing on the effects diversity related courses have on students awareness of privilege and oppression, openness to diversity, and ethnocultural empathy. Further, I am investigating what role the classroom environment plays in changing attitudes and awareness of students related to diversity topics.
So, the Class Culture seminar is a diversity-related course, I suppose, and privilege is, in a way, one of our topics. Still, I sense a disjuncture between her understanding of the aim of a "diversity course" and mine. This is an instance of how the classification scheme classifies the classifier: the very structure of her question, and my syllabus, assumes a different understanding of what "diversity" and, perhaps, education about diversity, means.

So what should be done with this disjuncture?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Taste for All of It

We discovered a fascinating book in our search for knowledge class, or "new class" culture, helpfully entitled New Class Culture, by Avrom Fleishman. His definition of the knowledge class is a little narrower than ours, focusing on those who control knowledge – and, indeed, live their whole lives – through computers. This version of the knowledge class is notably young and drawn from all classes of origin, as well as the most diverse ethnic backgrounds. They have the great virtue of being curious and open, as well as devoted to education and rationality.

Fleishman has an interesting take on what lies at the heart of new class culture:

The New Class’s taste, so varied as perhaps to be incomprehensible as a distinct approach to experience, is a taste nonetheless, the taste for all of it. It is well on the way toward becoming the dominant standard of cultural distinction in turn-of-the-millennium America. As this rising class gains power and prestige, the catholicity of its taste becomes acknowledged as the favored cultural stance. (49)
This is a challenging basis for culture. But I see what he means in my students all the time, especially those who experience the world through computers. They are wonderfully curious, open, and global in their interests.

The downside of that openness, though, is that they find it hugely difficult to select what is truly good from the welter of information and experiences that come as a torrent upon them.

Fleishman says that one of the most glaring problems with new class culture is "the lack of any central or ordering principle by which its cultural choices might be made, its experiences and acquisitions graded" (104). They are trying the nearly impossible task of constructing an ethic and an aesthetic within the limits of an easy relativism.

From Fleishman's account of new class culture, I notice another difficulty: trying to experience all the knowledge and culture of the world through the computer distorts and distances what you experience. Fleishman cites Marshall McLuhan in another context, which put me in mind of McLuhan's contention that television is an inherently "cool" medium, which puts a passion-dampening distance between viewer and subject. McLuhan died before the internet came to be, but it seems to me that his insight would lead one to think of internet experience as, at best, "warm," but not "hot." The web is more interactive, especially through the many ways in which young people write to one another all over the world. Still, experiencing the world through the web is to experience it in a limited way.

The taste for "all of it" is a fascinating idea for the foundation of a new culture. So far, though, the all that Fleishman's new class has a taste for comes through the lens of digital experience.

It seems ironic to post these thoughts on a weblog, and ask for the responses of friends and strangers through the flattening power of the comments section. Please do send those responses, though, and I promise to appreciate the irony while thinking about what you say.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Cities Need to Keep Their Middle Class Staff

The New York Times reports that the middle class is being squeezed out of cities by rising housing costs. The rich have returned, and the poor never left, but in many big cities the middle income group – those within 80% to 120% of the median income – now represent less that a fifth of residents. The median household income in New York, to take a representative example, is $40,000.

For the most part, having the middle class live in the suburbs is not a terrible thing. It is good, I think, for any community to have a broad range of social types; on the other hand, people should live where they want to. The suburbs were invented for middle class families to have a safe place with a bit of green to raise their kids in. It is normal for the middle class to move to the suburbs.

The example that the Times used, though, was of police, firefighters, and school teachers being unable to afford living in their own cities. This, I think, raises a different issue than we face with any other part of the middle class. I think it is a very good thing for the people who provide a city's essential services – and I would include education in that list – to live in the city and share its life. Having the police live in every kind of community is an especially good idea.

It would be worth the while of any city to give every incentive for the city's essential staff to live in town. No city could afford to pay its cops enough to live in the high rent district, nor should it expect them all to live in the slums. The city government could work with landlords and banks to make it easier for city workers to live in town. If I were a big city mayor, I would offer housing subsidies as part of the recruiting package. For teachers, these subsidies might be contingent on them sending their own kids to the public schools.

If the private middle class leaves the city, that is their choice, though it is a loss for the town. If the public middle class leaves, though, the city services themselves will decline. Keep the city staff in the city, though, and they can be the nucleus of a revival of the urban middle class.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Who is Television's Knowledge Class Heroine?

As part of our study of how the knowledge class gets married and has kids, we were discussing portrayals of smart women in popular culture. So I put it to two of the smart women in my house: who is the smartest, best educated, most cultured woman on television? A lively discussion ensued.

One important conclusion we reached was that there is no show that centers on such a woman. The examples we could think of were often in strong supporting roles. The closest we could come to a show centering on a smart accomplished woman was "Judging Amy," in which the central character is a family court judge. I believe this one is no longer in production.

There are a number of strong women on "House," especially the chief administrator of the hospital. "Grey's Anatomy," which seems to be the favorite show of college women at the moment, has a number of strong smart women. Likewise "Gilmore Girls," a big favorite in our house, centers on smart women. The scary-smart best friend, Paris, might grow into a cultured and erudite woman if she stops being psycho.

All lacked something, though, that suggested the kind of deep culture that one would want in a knowledge class heroine. Smarts, education, and a strong will would all be necessary components, of course, but beyond that, I would want to see some sense of reserves of cosmopolitan culture which produced wisdom, one of the rarest of television commodities.

My nominee: Shirley Schmidt, the most functional and wisest of the senior partners in "Boston Legal," played by Candice Bergen. In real life Bergen was the daughter of famous Hollywood performers, who sent her to the best schools -- Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles, the Cathedral School in Washington D.C. and then abroad to the Montesano (finishing) School in Switzerland. She briefly attended the University of Pennsylvania, which she wrote about amusingly as "My Bright College Months," before making her film debut at 19 in Sidney Lumet's "The Group," a dark satire of a Vassar-like college for privileged women. As if in answer to the question, "where are the smart, educated, cultured women on television?" she famously said "Hollywood has been vulgarized, mostly by television, which vulgarizes everything."

I especially welcome your comments on this category.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

How Big Will the Schism Be?

These are heady days for the movement to split the Presbyterian Church (USA). The New Wineskins Initiative meeting is underway in Tulsa. They are working their way toward voting on a timetable for a "process of dismissal." They excitedly heard a lawyer tell them they might be able to leave with their property after all. The Layman is egging them on. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which might be the prime beneficiary of a mass pullout, sent their moderator to Tulsa to offer encouragement.

Full Court Presby reported on Friday afternoon that

Based on my discussions with leadership in NWI and voting delegates, I believe that the recommendations discussed earlier will be approved. That approval sets a course and time-table for action. There will be convocation in the winter of 2007 that will be VERY INTERESTING. NWI could be in a position at that time to receive congregations that desire to leave the PCUSA. Would this be the time of a mass pullout from the denomination? No one knows.
On the other hand, the biggest renewal organizations have made clear that they are for renewing, not splitting, the church. The Global Fellowship of Presbyterians, a new mission initiative of tall-steeple churches, is observing the Tulsa meeting with interest and is clearly distressed with the way things are in the denomination – but they won't leave, either.

New Wineskins is proud of having accredited representatives of 121 churches with a combined membership of about 65,000. Many other congregations which are not represented in Tulsa are also disaffected, including most of the 1300 that have signed on with the Confessing Church Movement.

However, I think that, when push comes to shove, very few of these congregations will vote to leave the denomination, much less take part in creating a counter-denomination.

So how big might the schism be? At the Assembly, when I was asked this question, I off-handedly said "40 congregations, tops." I still think that is a good estimate. It is a very difficult business to get a whole congregation to leave a denomination, even if the denomination did not own the church buildings. Unless the denominational brass do something boneheaded – such as acquitting Jane Spahr after she begged so hard for conviction – I think the NWI schism will be mostly angry talk.

Bottom line: a year from now, the PUP schism will amount to 40 congregations and 40,000 members. In other words, about an average year's membership loss anyway.