Saturday, July 14, 2007

Sugar Cookies

The wonderful Megblum, daughter #1, and one of her buddies very nicely took it upon themselves to entertain visiting cousins, who are five-year-old twins. Megblum, who is a great Arranger, collected sugar cookie dough and many kinds of icing, sprikles, glitter, candy bones, and other things to turn cookie-baking into an art. Boy cousin made many quickly, and ate them as fast as he made them. Girl cousin made one, which she layered with every kind of topping to a great height -- which she then carefully licked off, leaving the cookie.

A good time was had by all.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Teens Get Smarter About Sex

The teen intercourse rate fell below 50% a decade ago. The teen pregnancy rate has been dropping for twice that long. Of those teens who do have sex, nearly 2/3rds now say they use condoms. The teen birth rate has hit a record low. All of this good news is in a just-released federal report.

The only thing that bothers me about this report is that the reason the government gives for the improvement. Edward Sondik, director of the National Center for Health Statistics, said "The lower figure on teens having sex means the risk of sexually transmitted disease is lower." He is right, of course, and lowering the risk of STDs is a good thing. But think of how else he might have finished that sentence. "The lower figure on teens having sex means ...

- that more teens see the value of saving sex for marriage
- that more teens understand that their children will be healthier and happier if they wait until they are older to have them
- that more teens understand that sex is better if it is part of a mature commitment, one they are not ready to make yet
- that more teen girls understand that they do not have to say yes to hold on to a guy
- that more teen boys understand that they should not press a girl to say yes even when she wants to please him
- that more teens understand that popular culture is saturated with sex because it is an easy way to sell things, not because that is the way real life should be

... and a dozen other positive, mature reasons why some teenagers control their natural desires more sensibly.

Sex is not primarily about disease and death. Smart kids know that.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

3-Year Itch -- Without Kids?

The New York Times is giving prominence to a new report by Larry Bumpass and Kelly Musick that seems to show a decline in marital happiness after three years of marriage. The professors, the reporter, and the experts queried go on about the possible effects of today's instant gratification lifestyle, or the effects of widespread cohabitation before marriage, or perhaps of the later marriage age that is common now.

What none of the voices in the article mention, though, is whether these unhappy marrieds had kids. Measuring marital happiness without asking about kids is like writing restaurant reviews without mentioning the food.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Marriage Forces Social Closure

How do we turn the spectrum of social status into a ladder with rungs? This is a problem for sociology. Objectively, it seems that all the thousands of status distinctions add up to a smooth spectrum of individuals, not a structure of status groups. Yet we know that people make and experience social life as full of groups with boundaries that define who is in, and who is out.

One of the ways that we make these boundaries is by using educational credentials. Randall Collins, as I have noted in the last couple of posts, says that we are in an advanced state of a "credential society," where we use educational credentials, certifications, licenses, and so forth to make social distinctions that go way beyond the knowledge that those credentials can really certify.

Frank Parkin, a Weberian sociologist, wrote a wonderful book, Marxism and Class Structure: A Bourgeois Critique. He develops Weber's idea that social life has an endless process of creating and resisting social closure. The up group finds some marker to insist on that excludes the group below; the group below resists this usurpation of their upward claims -- and in turn exclude groups below them.

Class theorists rarely really grapple with how marriage relates to class and status structure. In the old days, a man's status was simply assumed to define the status of the women in his family. Since the '70s, we have been more careful to treat women's status separately from men's. Still, sociologists remain remarkably individualistic on this point. We do not have a theory of the social status of a married couple and their children.

Closure theory may be the beginning of such a theory. Status groups are not just categories made up by sociologists. They are the real groups in which we tend to find our friends, spend our free time, find out mates, and raise our kids. Marriage forces a couple to consolidate in one status group. This is not an absolute rule, but a tendency. The loose flow among social groups that single people, especially young single people, can enjoy (or suffer) tends to give way to a much more fixed and coherent social life when they marry, and especially when they have kids. A family is a little society which, in normal circumstances, all live in one status group. Families, especially networks of families, may be the basic unit of social closure.

I am groping toward an idea here, but I think I am on to something.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Credentialing the Lump

R.H. Delderfield's classic school novel, To Serve Them All My Days, describes "the lump," the block of students who move through a school without being much affected by their "education." They have brains enough to be engaged and transformed by their studies. They just aren't curious about what is being taught. The lump isn't changed by their schooling, and don't really want to be. What they want from school is a good social time and a punched ticket to a better job than they would have otherwise.

A light feature story I read profiled some students who had just finished their first year of college. The opening was something like "They have just been through a year of hard work, intense discussions, and late night study sessions. Yeah, right." The young people had successfully completed freshman year at some big state universities. Now they had found undemanding summer jobs to give their lives structure. They were shown sitting by the pool, playing cards. When asked to describe their first year of college, they said nothing about the books they read, the classes they took, the challenging diversity of people they met, or the life-changing discussions they engaged in. The only part of their college experience they thought worth mentioning were the fraternities and sororities they joined during freshmen orientation. Once they had achieved that, "college" could unfold smoothly. The story was not at all critical of these young people, having been written by an intern who was himself a student at a similar school.

Randall Collins, in The Credential Society, says that the core function of the enormous American higher education system is giving credentials to this lump. What a college degree means for them is that they do not have to compete with the high school graduates for better-paying jobs. Knowing that someone has a B.A. tells us almost nothing about what they learned, if anything, or what kind of people they have become.

As a teacher, I would much rather have an average kid who wants to learn than a smart one with no curiosity. At Centre we do awaken many from their comfortable drift through college. I have to say that small teaching colleges have more success than big research universities in breaking through the shell of intellectual indifference. But even the best college passes some students through undigested and unaffected. But, as Collins notes, at least we kept them off the job market for a few years. And they pay the bills.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Credential Society vs. Babies

Yesterday I started writing about Randall Collins' The Credential Society. Collins offers a strong critique of the way we continuously ratchet up the educational credentials needed to even be considered for a job. Collins argues that we invest so much in educational credentials because we need a way to create arbitrary breaks in the status structure, so that some groups (the ones with the credentials) can monopolize the better jobs. The actual education, he argues, has little relation to doing the job.

Collins makes a strong proposal to abolish compulsory credential requirements ("you must have X degree to be considered for the job"). He fears, though, that what is likely to happen is that credential inflation will continue, which will inspire a further round of ratcheting up.

In one way, credential inflation is just a relative game. If a job that took a high school degree before now takes a college degree, then everyone just competes to move up a step, without changing relative position. The same number of people, drawn from the same classes, end up with the job as before -- it just takes them longer to get there.

There is one calendar, though, that it more imperious than the academic one: the biological clock for babies. Now that all positions are legally open to women, women as a group have been doing very well in competing in school to prepare for the top positions -- doing better, in fact, than men. However, highly credentialed women face a conflict that highly credentialed men do not face nearly as much: how to fit in having and raising babies with the endless credentials chase?

Credential inflation hurts women more than men for irreducible biological reasons. Babies are reason enough to consider fighting the credential society.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Collins on Church Competition

I have given up on working through Habermas. After Legitimation Crisis, which I still think is great, Habermas took a turn toward toward linguistic analysis that I can't follow.

Instead, I have been working through the works of Randall Collins. I have used Collins' theory essays for teaching for years. A few years ago he wrote a massive study of the social networks that make up schools of thought, The Sociology of Philosophies. This book won the top award (Distinguished Scholarly Publication) from the American Sociological Association. This is the book that we are going to read in theory camp in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime I have been working through two of Collins' earlier works, The Credential Society and Weberian Socialogical Theory.

So why am I writing about this on Sunday, religion day in the Gruntled Center?

Collins argues that thought is best developed when groups of thinkers compete with one another. This is true for schools of philosophy -- and for religious denominations.

The American religion market is so vibrant because of the endless competition of our religious communities.