Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas - See You Next Year

The Gruntled Center will take a break for Christmas week.

I am grateful for the early Christmas present of Senate passage of the health care bill.

See you in the new year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pitching In is Another Centre Virtue

Each year I join other members of the Centre College faculty and staff, as well as the student Orientation Committee, in helping first-year students move in. We get to meet the new students, and their parents are wonderfully grateful.

When I took my eldest to Swarthmore, my alma mater, there was also an Orientation Committee. They saw us pull up with a van full of stuff. They did not move to help. We later learned that the tee shirts they were wearing said "I am not your mother or your father."

Moving daughter in to her dorm sophomore year, I saw a young man sitting in the dorm lobby, reading. I pointed out to him, in a friendly spirit, that there were young ladies who could use his assistance moving their heavy things in. He gave me an odd look, picked up his book, and left the building.

This reaction would be unthinkable at Centre. The Centre ethos is to pitch in, especially if someone asks for help. Centre students are overwhelmingly involved in service. The Greek organizations, to which most students belong, sell themselves to the world not on their academics, or parties, or friendliness, though they do all those things well, but on their distinctive service projects.

In the big world, Centre alumni are famous, sometimes national leaders, in how many of them pitch in to help Centre itself. In projects great and small, you can count on old Colonels the help.

Service is a Centre virtue.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Centre's Institutional Builders

The Auditor of Public Accounts of the Commonwealth of Kentucky is Crit Luallen, a Centre graduate. She has been an excellent auditor, an exemplar of clean government. Prior to this elected office she held a number of high-level appointed positions in state government. All of her work has been involved in building up institutions and making sure they run well.

Ed Hatchett was Crit Luallen's predecessor as Auditor. He is also a Centre gradute and a fine exemplar of clean government. His work has also been devoted to making institutions run well.

One of the important audits that Crit Luallen has performed lately has been of the Kentucky Association of Counties. Their officers spent association money wildly and inappropriately. The old officers were forced out. Today it was announced that a new head has been appointed to clean up the Kentucky Association of Counties: Ed Hatchett.

Centre College does well at training young people to build up institutions and make them run well. This is not what every college does. It is good that we have a great ecology of educational paths and higher education institutions to train all kinds of people for our great and varied nation. But this skill - building up institutions and making sure they run well - is a clearly a valuable contribution to the whole. Go Colonels at your real work.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Explaining How to Be Original

"How to be original in our quizzes in order to make a higher grade would have been helpful."

This comment stood out on my course evaluations for this term.

My standard for a good grade - a B - is that students tell me back what I told them. I think this is often the high-school standard for an A.

My standard for an excellent grade - an A - is that students tell me back what I (and the course readings) told them, in detail, and that they add something original.

Some students find adding something original to be the easy part. They think about what we are studying and make connections with other things they have studied all the time. The hard part for them is demonstrating mastery of the official curriculum.

Other students, though, like the one above, have a different reaction, that is somewhat surprising to me. Most Centre students are very good at rising to expectations. This kind of student poses a kind of paradoxical problem: how to explain that I expect the unexpected?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

"Away We Go" is Lovely

The Gruntled family watched "Away We Go" last night, and enjoyed the whole thing. We saw it as a moral tale of two people who are deeply in love realizing that they need to get their lives in grownup order before their baby comes. He makes ridiculous jokes, she is indulgent and moves the family forward. He is delighted about the coming baby, and is sure they can work everything out. She worries in a perfectly plausible expectant-mother way. The core story seemed, to us, very familiar.

The shape of the movie is a road trip to see where they might want to live and to bring up their child. With both sets of parents out of the picture, and with flexible jobs, they can move anywhere. All the friends and relatives they spend time with are, of course, quirky (this is an indie movie). Each family has a different frailty of family life that is instructive to the central couple. The Gruntleds found the send-up of the New Age faculty family especially hilarious.

In the end, they come round right.

I then read the extensive comments on the IMDB message boards. I was surprised at the strong negative reactions of a whole strand of commentators. There are threads of sociology, too, as some people try to figure out what kind of people liked the movie, and what kind hated it. The main theory seemed to be that young hipsters would like it and others would not. I don't qualify as young or hip.

I think "Away We Go" appeals to people who like the moral quest to transform themselves to do right by a baby. The real appeal to me is that the central couple have a just sense of proportion about how big a challenge raising a baby is, and how wonderful.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Teens Choose Marriage, Tolerate Unmarried Childbearing

One of my central contentions as a centrist is that we can and should make a distinction between the good and the tolerable. Many people want to follow the common, traditional, normal path for themselves, but tolerate other paths for other people.

One encouraging piece of evidence for this contention comes from the views of teenagers reported in The State of Our Unions 2009. When asked if they thought that most people will have fuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage rather than staying single or just living with someone, almost forty percent of girls and a third of boys said yes. This proportion has been rising.

At the same time, when these teens were asked whether having a child out of wedlock is "experimenting with a worthwhile lifestyle or not affecting anyone else," just over half of girls and boys said yes. These proportions have also been rising.

Now, I think the majority of teens are wrong in thinking that having a child out of wedlock doesn't affect anyone else. And I would strongly counsel anyone not to experiment with that lifestyle.

My point is that most teens are willing to accept experiments with unusual family practices, even as they themselves increasingly think that most people would be happier making families the traditional way. We do not have to make all ethical decisions based on what we ourselves do or want. We can choose for ourselves the way that we thinks works best for most people, while tolerating other practices in society.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Race Gap is a Marriage Gap: Child Poverty

I believe that most of the gap between African Americans and other Americans is due to the very low black married parent rate. Support for this view comes from a study by Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill, cited in The State of Our Unions 2009:

If family structure had not changed between 1960 and 1998, the Black child poverty rate in 1998 would have been 28.4 percent rather than 45.6 percent.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Reducing Your Divorce Risk (a Lot)

The State of Our Unions 2009 has a wonderfully encouraging chart about how good your chances are of lifelong marriage if you are reading this blog. We all know that about half of marriages are projected to end in divorce. If you regularly read The Gruntled Center, you know that this is not quite true - the overall divorce rate is probably under 50%, most first marriages last, and, most importantly, this rate does not mean that each marriage - your marriage has only a 50/50 chance.

Wilcox and Marquardt quantify some factors that reduce the risk of divorce dramatically.

Factors That Decrease the Risk of Divorce: percent

Annual income over $50,000 (vs. under $25,000): -30

Having a baby seven months or more after marriage (vs. before marriage): -24

Marrying over 25 years of age (vs. under 18): -24

Own family of origin intact (vs. divorced parents): -14

Religious affiliation (vs. none): -14

Some college (vs. high-school dropout): -13

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Good News on the Marriage Gap

The main overall finding of The State of Our Unions 2009 is, I think, this:

In large numbers, therefore, the college-educated part of America is living the American dream—with happy, stable, two-parent families.
The marriage rate for college-educated people is rising, against the trend for the rest of the population. Couples in the college class are better matched than before. They are happier than other marrieds, and much happier than cohabitors.

The one long-term weakness of college marrieds is that they don't have enough kids to replace themselves. Even here, though, college-educated women seem to be the quickest to pick up the message of the birth dearth. Young college women want more children (and I can vouch for this in my own classes) and are starting to have more kids, too.

I think the college-educated class leads the nation in most social trends. I do not think that we are heading toward a marriage-based caste division. Rather, the college class is turning around some long-term bad trends in family life. The rest of the nation will eventually start to follow.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Rising Breadwinning Wives May Be Assisted by the Recession

Christine Whelan's contribution to The State of Our Unions 2009 suggests that the recession's silver lining may be that more couples will accept breadwinner moms and child-rearing dads.

She reports a statistic I had not seen before (from the Bureau of Labor Statistics): 1/3 of wives make more than their husbands, and among women making more than $55,000, 1/2 of wives make more than their husbands.

An important point to remember in interpreting these figures is that more educated and more securely employed people are also more likely to be married. People who live together without marriage, and especially who have children without marriage, are much less likely to have higher education, secure jobs, or marriages.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Obama's Fine Peace Speech

President Obama gave a fine speech in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. He made the crucial and sensible point that in this actual, fallen world, keeping peace requires strength, and restoring peace sometimes requires war. He said, rightly, that "The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. ... We have done so out of enlightened self-interest."

I was particularly glad to hear his forthright declaration that we must fight war within the civilized code of treaties and conventions that make war less horrible. One of the things that grieved me most about the previous administration was how casually and ruthlessly it threw away America's moral rules and moral standing to get what it wanted. President Obama proclaims the crucial ethical insight of the whole Niebuhrian tradition: "And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war."

Especially when we confront a vicious, ruthless adversary, it is most important that we not become vicious and ruthless ourselves.

Some commentators to the left of me have thought there was some irony or inherent conflict in giving a peace prize to a president waging war. I think this is a soft-headed notion.

What really bothers me about the "irony of a peace prize for a war president" line is that I believe they don't really believe it themselves. The reporters asking this question know better. They are reaching for an easy dig, a sophomoric "paradox." This kind of deception has real costs. It is why people find smart liberals in general, and the press in particular, arrogant and not worthy of trust.

I believe it is a settled centrist point: peace requires a strong, forceful, and sometimes violent defense, or there will be no peace.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"L'Oreal Professor" - The Density of Globalization

I am reading Bryant Simon's Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks. He is talking here about the fight between Starbucks and the Ethiopian government (aided by Oxfam) over trademarking the names of famous types of Ethiopian coffee.

I was struck by the density of the intertwined global world, going way beyond this Starbucks question, in this sentence:

Douglas Holt, the L'Oréal Professor of Marketing at Oxford University's Saïd Business School and an Oxfam ally, warned that Starbucks was playing "Russian roulette" with its brand, putting the company in "significant peril."

Friday, December 11, 2009

He Invests Aggressively, She Shops Aggressively, They Lose Money

Ronald Wilcox has a fine little piece in the State of our Unions report that I have been blogging on this week. In many couples, he controls the long-term investments, while she controls the daily finances. This division of labor, Wilcox says, has some costs.

Men are overconfident investors, and are more aggressive in trading the household's stocks and bonds. They do worse than the average woman would, because women generally are more cautious and better informed about investment.

Women are confident shoppers. They are generally better informed than men about what products are and where to get them. Partly as a result, they tend to be more aggressive in shopping, spending more time seeking bargains and buying things.

Wilcox suggests that most couples would be better off combining these tasks, if not swapping them altogether.

I personally am a cautious investor and a reluctant shopper. The message I take from Wilcox's report is that all couples would be better off if they did less buying.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Marital Status Still Follows the Business Cycle, But Not as Much as It Used To.

Alex Roberts has a fine article in the new State of Our Unions on the declining relationship between the business cycle and the divorce and marriage rates.

The divorce rate goes down in recessions. It appears to be going down now. So does the marriage rate. Divorce and marriage are expensive. Most of the reduced demand for these expensive changes is just being put off - when economic times get better, the marriage rate will go up (yeah!) and so will the divorce rate (boo!).

The interesting new development is that these family rates are less tied to the business cycle than they used to be. Roberts' reading of this change: marriage is less of an economic decision. For men and women with careers, marriage is more of an emotional union. They can afford to both marry and divorce when they feel like it. For people without steady work, both marriage and divorce as seen as so risky that they just skip the whole thing - shacking up and splitting up whenever.

The irony, Roberts points out, is that marriage is still the great wealth producing institution for most people. The folks who benefit most from marriage financially are the poorest - the very people least likely to marry.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Financial Fights Are the Best Predictor of Divorce

The 2009 edition of The State of Our Unions has just been released by the National Marriage Project under new editors Brad Wilcox and Elizabeth Marquardt. The focus of the report this year is financial issues that affect marriage, especially during this recession.

The lead report is Jeffrey Dew's "Bank on It: Thrifty Couples Are The Happiest." I want to lift up three particularly interesting points from his study.

Paul Amato and Stacey Rogers showed a decade ago that the top three predictors of divorce, in declining order, are extramarital affairs, drug or alcohol abuse, and "feeling that one's spouse spent money foolishly."

The trend of a couple's relation to debt was a significant factor in their happiness. If they started in debt but reduced it, they became happier; if they started with no debt but added to it, they became unhappier.

Third, Dew's own study found that the amount of conflict over money matters predicts divorce better than any other factor.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Women Surpassing Men in Schooling Creates a Marriage Problem

Women outnumber men as college graduates and among masters degree holders. For every hundred women with a B.A., there are only 74 men; for every hundred women with an M.A., there are only 62 men. As F. Carolyn Graglia points out, this creates a marriage problem.

Women prefer to marry men who are more educated than they are.

We rightly hail women's educational achievements. The fact that women caught up to men in their amount of schooling shows that the old discrimination is dead.

We may not have noticed, though, that something new has happened with women surpassing men in school. It becomes harder for women to make the kind of marriages they prefer. The good news is that college-educated women are now marrying and having children at a higher rate than they did when we first passed this tipping point. The bad news is that the most educated women are much less likely to marry and have children.

I think the great mass of women will still want to marry men more educated than they are. And I think nearly all wives want to be able to respect their husband's minds. But for the most educated women and men, a small new social movement may be necessary to work out solid marriages in which she is more educated (and probably makes more) than he. Fortunately, if there is any group in society that should be capable of figuring out the advantages of this new balance of marriage, it would be the most educated.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

One More Funny Thing About Atlas Shrugged

I think it is hilarious that the industry that Ayn Rand picked to represent the rugged individualism of the ruthless entrepreneur is a transcontinental railroad. It would be hard to find an industry in America that is more beholden to government. Perhaps an updated version of the story would feature a heroic, anti-government space explorer who built the Mars colony all by herself, with no help from the "looters" of the government.

Friday, December 04, 2009

One Cheer for Atlas Shrugged

Let's start with what I like about Atlas Shrugged. I liked Rand's clear focus on doing excellent work, of using your brain and persisting. I do agree with her main point that the need of the less competent does not entail a legal obligation to subsidize them on the more competent. I agree that society is best served by greater freedom, personal reward for work, private property, and a free market. I thought her description of the factory destroyed by egalitarianism was the best section of the book. I liked the railroad bits, too.

My fundamental disagreement with Ayn Rand, though, is in her notion that some people are naturally smart, rational, creative, and hardworking, and the rest of us are dependent parasites. Of course I accept that some people are smarter, more rational, more creative, and harder working than others. I think there is an element of nature in each of these qualities of a person, in descending order. But the role of nature is limited - let's say nature is only half of the story. In particular, I think how hard working people are depends more on social structure than on innate qualities. More importantly, I think smart, creative ideas come from unexpected people and unexpected places all the time. Rand is as much of a determinist as the harshest Marxist, and is equally wrong.

Second, while I agree that the need of the less competent does not entail a legal obligation to subsidize them on the more competent, it is still virtuous to help those in need. It is a personal virtue to be charitable. It is socially prudent to build up the basic competence of everyone and to build a social safety net to keep the most dependent from death and true misery. And this social safety net is prudent even for people who brought most of their problems on themselves. It is a virtue to care for the dependent because they need it; it is prudent to care for the dependent because "there, but for the grace of God, go I." Taking care of yourself as much as possible is a social virtue. Selfishness is not. Rand's philosophy owes the most, I think, to this part of Nietzsche's attack on Christianity, and is the ugliest part of her thought.

Which brings us to the wild unreality of the world she depicts. The main problem with her utopia, like all libertarian fantasies, is that it only works for self-sufficient individuals. That means no sick people, no disabled people, no very old people, and no children. A utopia without a place for children is absurd. The only positively depicted children in the whole story are the small sons of a woman in Rand's Atlantis who has made a vocation of motherhood ("not like the lies they teach children in schools."). In theory, everyone in this Atlantis has taken a personal oath to live only for him- or herself and no one else. Yet a vocation of motherhood makes no sense on those terms, and it is impossible for little kids to be part of a community requiring such an individual oath.

So we get to the unrealistic elements of Rand's telling of the story. Her characters have sex with each other because the Other represents their own highest ideal. This is certainly a better ideal of what sex is for than merely for sensual pleasure. Yet this ideal seems to have no place for marriage, and no place for children. A sex ideal with no place for children is retarded.

I am OK with an author making the hero in his or her own idealized image, but did Ayn Rand have to make Dagny Taggert not just beautiful and smart and eternally slender, but the only woman in the world worthy of the love (and sex) of not one, but the three greatest men in the world, in succession, each yielding graciously to the greater man?

Moreover, this novel is set in America, but this is an America with no religions, no ethnicities, no regions. The government has no political parties, no president, no real legislature, no politics; they are all just "looters." This is not really an American novel at all, but a vast Russian novel, with a (secular) Russian's sense of how a nation works.

I have met several people who read Atlas Shrugged as teenagers, especially those a decade or two older than me. Some were exhilarated by the sense that many bookish adolescents get when intelligence is defended against stupidity. Rationalism, and libertarianism generally, are the special province of independent young people who have no dependents and can't imagine that they themselves will ever need to depend on others. Most of them moderate their views when they marry and have kids, or when they or someone they love gets sick or old. Still, the old sense that the world would be better if the smart people like me were free of the stupid can be revived at a touch. It makes one feel like Atlas, carrying the world of the stupid. Which one might be tempted to shrug off.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Popenoe Says That Scholars Now Agree That Family Life Is Declining

David Popenoe, one of the early leaders of the pro-marriage movement among sociologists, has a fine interview with Carol Iannone in Academic Questions. In the '80s and '90s Popenoe was criticized for pointing out that marriage decline was leading to family decline. This was against the prevailing wisdom of the day that all family forms were equally good and nothing was declining.

The most interesting point in the interview, I think, is his contention that since about 2000 there has been a climate change in the field, and in educated culture generally. Now it is accepted that families are, indeed, declining. Popenoe says that even liberals who disagree with him about the solution now admit that there is a problem.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

California to Ban Divorce - Maybe

The 2010 California Marriage Protection Act would ban divorce. The petition drive to put this constitutional amendment on the ballot has 11,000 signatures so far, though a long way from the almost 700,000 they need by March.

OK, they are not really serious about this. They are tweaking the ballot measure from last year that banned gay marriage in order to protect traditional families.

Still, most of the points made against divorce in the Marriage Protection Act campaign are true. A constitutional amendment is not an effective way to fight divorce, but every other method is worth promoting.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

All Your Base Are Belong to Books

The above knowledge class aphorism was derived thus:

My Facebook status read:

Beau Weston is grading class analyses of family Thanksgivings.

Diane M.
Oh boy, I'm not sure I'd want my kid writing that paper...

[Diane and her husband were college friends of the Gruntleds. He is a professor]

Susan Weston [Mrs. G.]
@ Diane,

I'll try a few guesses of what might show up: Tablecloth brought back from another continent? Hand made candlesticks and/or serving dishes? Every seat at the table has a clear view of at least one bookcase? Most furniture built from low cost kits and/or second hand? Every art work in the room has a story, and at least one of them got told during the meal? The neighbors would be happier if the dining room had curtains?

Diane M.
@Susan - LOL, very accurate! No bookcases in the living/dining room as we have a library with built-in shelves (and some books in storage) and some furniture/dishes from family, but otherwise accurate.

Susan Weston
@ Diane - LOL back, every word I wrote was about OUR thanksgiving.

Mrs. G. then observed to me that their living or dining rooms must have some books. Which led to a knowledge-class aphorism from me:

All your base are belong to books.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sociologists Have One of the Best Jobs

Says a new study conducted by sociologists.

No disagreement from me. I just try not to rub it in to people who have to be investment bankers and the like.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Strange Religionless America of Atlas Shrugged

I am reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. I will say more about it later this week. This Sunday I just want to note that this huge novel that is set in the United States has almost no religion in it. There are a few mentions of fiery preachers, who are treated as symptoms of irrationality. One rich, old woman mentions her church group. That is it.

Ayn Rand was an anti-religious rationalist, so it makes sense that her heroes denounce "mysticism" and promote reason as if they were alternatives.

What is surprising, though, is how little her America resembles the real America. Nowhere is this clearer than in her utter neglect of religion - even to attempt to have her characters refute it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

IMMD: A Gruntled Website

"It Made My Day: Little Moments of WIN" is an excellent website of small moments that made people smile. Which they write up and send in. Some of the moments are mean, but many are very gruntled.

For example:

At work we have a dry erase board that we write a fun fact on each week. This week it said that the longest recorded flight of a chicken is 13 seconds. A little boy read it then looked at me and said, “What if they shot one out of a canon?” IMMD

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving, One and All

I am going to spend the day reading a novel.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Little More Marriage in Sociology of Family Textbooks.

A dozen years ago Norval Glenn, a sociologist at the University of Texas, wrote an important review of the leading sociology textbooks covering family life. He found that they tended to downplay children and marriage, and play up the more unusual kinds of family life. Many were openly ideological.

Glenn has just written a follow-up essay in Academic Questions. The good news is that marriage gets more play. He thinks this is due to the influence of Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher's The Case for Marriage, which I have written about often. The bad news is that marriage and children still do not have the central place in family sociology textbooks that they have in actual societies.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Re-reading Fussell's X Category

I have been teaching Paul Fussell's Class: A Painfully Accurate Guide to the American Status System for twenty years. It is usually the last book in "Introduction to Sociology." Students find it disturbing and very helpful. Fussell spends almost the entire book making fun of every social class. At the end, he offers "The X Way Out." X is not a class, but a category of personhood that one can earn by pursuing your own interests in freedom. He calls the X category a "parody aristocracy" or an "unmonied aristocracy" because of this freedom.

For years I have thought that Fussell hoist himself on his own petard. He condemned all others for their status-seeking, while reserving for himself a category free from status-seeking. Yet clearly it is better to be X than any class. Better means higher status.

His summary of what is good about the X category is this:
They occupy the one social place in the U.S.A. where the ethic of buying and selling is not all-powerful. Impelled by insolence, intelligence, irony, and spirit, X people have escaped out the back doors of those theaters of class which enclose others.

This year, though, I read this very familiar passage in a new way. X offers an escape from the ethic of buying and selling. X is an escape from class. It is not, and is not meant to be, an escape from status. Fussell is not being a hypocrite in exchanging the status system of curiosity and freedom for the status system of material goods and the control of the means of production.

X offers a different standard of status, not an escape from status.

Monday, November 23, 2009

DNA Paternity Doesn't Need to Define All the Financial Responsibilty

The New York Times Magazine has a gripping story about fathers who discover they are not biologically related to their children, want to stay connected with them socially, but also think the biological father should foot some of the bill. The core story centers on a man who divorced his wife when he discovered that their daughter was really the child of affair she had with another guy. Since the man had been acting as her father for years and still loved her and wanted to be connected with her, he paid full child support. However, when his ex-wife married the man who was actually the biological father of the child, the court concluded that this new man - legal step-father, actual bio-father - had no financial responsibility for the little girl, though she lived in his house. The man she still called "daddy" was left subsidizing the household of the man who had displaced him.

I don't think there is any good solution to a complex disaster like this. I do think the courts should divide up the money in some proportional way. This division would not need to be based wholly on biological paternity or wholly on social relationship. Money, unlike any other good, has the great advantage of being something you can divide up minutely. Unlike people's affections, and their time, money doesn't care how it is divided.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What Can You Tolerate in the Church?

Yesterday I had the honor of speaking to Northumberland Presbytery on the subject of conflict and competition in the Presbyterian Church (USA). My main theme was that the church has always been diverse and always will be. This means that there are some beliefs and practices that some people in the church engage in that other people have to tolerate.

There are limits to what the church will tolerate on the left and the right. There are beliefs and practices so standard and orthodox that nearly everyone accepts them. And then there is a gray area in each tail of the bell curve between those poles. Here lie things that someone is merely tolerating.

The danger that conservatives pose to the church is the belief that if we just expel this group of intolerables, the church will be pure. And if they don't get that expulsion, they are inclined to leave. But the legacy of schism is more schism. And a church of millions will never be pure. Some things will have to be tolerated by the right.

The danger that liberals pose to the church is the belief that merely tolerating some things is unjust because it creates a "second class" status. They believe that it we just all embrace every practice and belief that is allowed in the church as equally good, the church will be just. And if they get something tolerated today, they will come back tomorrow to argue that it is just as good, right, and orthodox as anything else in the church. But it is possible to be so open-minded that your brains fall out. Some things will have to be tolerated by the left.

We did an exercise in the presbytery meeting. I asked everyone to write down one belief or practice that anyone would need to accept to be an officer of the Presbyterian Church. We then talked about them. The items that different people came up with were a little different. But everyone came up with something. Everyone agreed that the church must have some standards. We then began the discussion of which things they would find tolerable, even though they are not ideal. We did not come to a conclusion on this discussion. But I think everyone accepted that there are some items in the "tolerated" category.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I Am an Etsy

Diane Koss makes plush monsters and sells them from Cutesy but not Cutesy on She asked our mutual friend Rob to tell her about some people he knew with a few facts about them.

I am humbled and honored to be an etsy. I will try to live up to the role.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Slave to Parental Love

Regular reader Black Sea sent this wonderful response to one of my earlier posts. I thought it too good to leave in the Comments tail.

This bit of pop trivia may interest you. I was this morning watching on Youtube the video of Bryan Ferry's 1985 song "Slave to Love," when I noticed something rather remarkable. (Actually, it was pointed out by one of the Youtube commenters.)

"Slave to Love" is -- or maybe seems -- one of Ferry's classy paeans to erotic enchantment. Certainly much of the song is, but note that at the end of the video, as he's singing "The tide is turning, and so it seems, we're too young to reason, too grown up to dream" he's also sitting in a darkened bedoom, on the edge of the bed. Of course, one expects him to be crooning to his lover. As the camera pans down the bed, we see that he's looking at his sleeping child. In other words, it's a song about the maturation of erotic obsession into familial love.

I'm sure some people will find this trite or sentimetal, but as the father of two young daughters, I have to say that it struck me differently. Of course, it probably helps that I think Bryan Ferry more or less defines the word "suave."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The System Works: Abstinence-Only Sex Education Doesn't Survive the Test of Reality

When welfare reform was passed in 1996, Pres. Clinton compromised to get conservative votes by including funding for abstinence-only sex education programs in schools. As Sarah Kliff shows in the October 27th Newsweek, abstinence-only programs have now fallen on hard times.

This strikes me as an illustration that our government is not broken, but actually works pretty well. Both welfare reform and abstinence-only education became law by the normal kind of political compromise. More than a decade later, we are continuing welfare reform because it works. And we are discontinuing abstinence-only sex education because it doesn't work.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Marriage is Not a Luxury Good, But a Transformative Practice

Two of my fellow sociologists, Laurie Essig and Lynn Owens, offer an attack on marriage that is fairly typical of what they call "critical" sociology. They view marriage as a kind of magic that the privileged add to themselves. They conclude that

When there is broad, seemingly unanimous support for an institution, and when the institution is propped up by such disparate ideas as love, civil rights and wealth creation, we should wonder why so many different players seem to agree so strongly. Perhaps it’s because they are supporting not just marriage but also the status quo.
This is almost completely backward. Marriage is a formative institution. We make ourselves and our society more loving, equal, and richer through marriage because marriage leads people to act differently - especially men. The worst off groups are the least married. This is not because marriage is a luxury of the best off. It is because people who don't make the transformative commitments of marriage tend to end up badly off. And what is likely to individuals is nearly certain for groups.

When there is broad, seemingly unanimous support for an institution, and when the institution is propped up by such disparate ideas as love, civil rights and wealth creation, we should wonder why so many different players seem to agree so strongly. Perhaps it’s because they are trying to build up civilization and benefit everyone.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Married Parents are Happier

There has been some back and forth about whether kids make parents happy or unhappy. A new study in the Journal of Happiness Studies says that kids make married parents happier. This makes sense to me. Marrying and raising a family together as a deliberate and permanent status is a coherent, whole project. It is not each piece that may or not make a couple happy, it is the package.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Calvin at 500

This year is the semi-millennium of John Calvin's birth. My congregation has been celebrating with a three-week Sunday school session on Calvin and his legacy. Naturally, Presbyterians turn a birthday party into an opportunity for school.

I got to teach the third and final session this morning, on Calvinism and modern culture. I taught a whole course on this subject a few years ago, so I was brutally compressing a hurried term into a lightning-quick class.

We talked about the crucial role the Reformed tradition in creating democracy, the Protestant work ethic, science, and in general the "affirmation of ordinary life." This is exciting story, energizing to teach. The class was a rich one, and may lead to a longer course of study in the future.

The best part for me was articulating that the Reformed tradition has made a distinctive way of life out of an idea that is found in all Biblical faith - God made the universe as a great story and great task, in which we all have a part. God made a meaningful universe, as only God can. And God gave each and every one of us a life of work within that meaningful universe, work that is itself meaningful.

Thank you John Calvin for articulating that idea, decently and in order.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Chef's Animals

My mother sent me an email of "What chefs do when they are bored." They are really great. Here are just a couple.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Darwin's Evolutionary Context

Last night David Quammen, author of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin gave a lecture at Centre. His book was read by all the first-year students. This is Darwin year for two reasons - the bicentennial of Darwin's birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

I had known that Darwin had the basic idea of evolution through natural selection long before he published it. I had not really processed, though, just when he had his big idea. Darwin's notebooks show that it was 1838 that he had his big intellectual breakthrough. This is right in the middle of founding era of sociology.

1827 August Comte coins the term "sociology" and articulates the Law of the Three Stages of scientific evolution.

1838 Darwin conceives biological evolution by natural selection.

1848 Marx and Engels publish "The Communist Manifesto" articulating the theory of social evolution through struggle over the means of production.

It was only in 1859 that Darwin finally published the book that made "evolution" a term we think of primarily in biological terms. We are still living with the legacy, though, of the several kinds of evolutionary ideas, biological and social, in sociology. In general, the social sciences turned away from evolutionary theories just as biology was turning toward them. Now that biology is being re-incorporated into social science (especially in family studies), we may see a new turn in sociological thinking on evolution. Or a new reaction.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"Fireproof" is a Decent Marriage Movie

"Fireproof" is about a couple on the brink of divorce working back to real love and respect for one another. It is explicitly evangelical and a little clunky. But its heart is in the right place. It gets Southern evangelical culture right (it is set in Albany, GA). I particularly liked the parallel complaints that husband and wife made to their friends about how the spouse was the real problem because he/she did not give the complainant enough respect.

"Fireproof" has been the talk of the pro-marriage circuit this year because it shows in some detail what steps and what changes a couple who want to save their marriage can take to get on the right track. And the happy ending teared me up, even if it was a little cheesy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On "Cellphones, Texts, and Lovers"

David Brooks has an interesting column on the way some people use cellphones and texting to create a fluid market in sexual hookups. The data come from New York magazine's sex diaries, submitted by readers.

Brooks' main point is that in courtship in days gone by social institutions provided a set of "guardrails" to help people sensibly get from short-term attraction to long-term commitment. He concludes that it is a loss that young people today do not have such guardrails.

I mostly agree with Brooks. I disagree on two points of emphasis.

First, most young people who court in school, with friends around and families in consulting distance, do in fact have help and guardrails. Some (not most) engage in hookups, especially in the first flush of freedom from home. But most leave that behind when looking for a serious mate.

Second, I don't think the sex diarists submitting their sad erotic adventures to New York magazine readers are young people courting. I think they are likely to be the people who are left over after the rest of their cohort finished their serious courtships, guardrails and all. They are left over, in part, because they did not court when they had the social structure to support them, but instead approached sex as just another way to spend the evening, disconnected from love, marriage, and parenthood.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Soldiers Understand Commitment, Marry Younger

Rev. Charles Rush has a wonderful story of the brief visit of his son and daughter-in-law, both soldiers, home from Afghanistan just long enough to get married.

Young Rush was the first of his siblings and friends, all elite college students and graduates, to get married. Rev. Rush made this striking observation:

And in the college world his friends inhabit, especially the fraternity world, marriage is not exactly at the top of everyone’s list.

In the world of the enlisted men and women, however, a premium is placed on loyalty and steadfast support, and this translates into a high rate of marriage, even among young people who are only in their late teens and early 20s.

Our birthrate is so low, especially among the educated classes, in part because we are delaying marriage longer and longer. One unexpected effect of this war may be to reduce the marriage age in at least one sector of the younger generation.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Alice Rossi, R.I.P.

Alice Rossi, a leading family sociologist, died this week at 87. She was criticized from the right in the '60s for proposing sexual equality. She was one of the founders of the National Organization for Women. In later years she was criticized from the left for allowing that there are some important biological differences between men and women. While not a centrist, she came closer toward the middle on the sex and gender question than most feminist sociologists of her generation.

This picture is from her term as president of the American Sociological Association in 1983.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Best Sunday News: The House Passes Health Care

Our sermon this morning was on approaching life with generosity because God is in charge, versus approaching life with fear because there's not enough. The immediate context of this sermon is stewardship season, when church members make their pledges for the coming year. Most church people are probably hearing similar sermons now.

I heard this sermon in the larger context of the vote yesterday in the House of Representatives that the richest nation in the history of the world can afford to make sure every citizen has basic health care.

God is good.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

"Synagogue" is Gentile for Shul

The Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity by Sarah Bunin Benor and Steven M. Cohen has some wonderful findings. The main trend is that religiously involved younger Jews are using more distinctively Jewish terms, and are shifting from Yiddish to Hebrew terms.

One development that surprised me is that "synagogue" is not the favored term for Jewish house of worship by any group of American Jews. Reform Jews favor "temple" (50%), while all other denominations favor "shul": Reconstructionist (59%), Conservative (68%), Modern Orthodox (94%), Orthodox (94%), Black Hat (92%).

So what does "synagogue" mean now? For Jews of all denominations, it is the word used when talking to gentiles (80%) or non-observant Jews (62%).

The survey, which was spread virally through the internet, included many non-Jews and non-New Yorkers (including me and my students). They found that the gentiles who use distinctive Jewish words or constructions - "kvetch" or "I don't know from that" - were more likely to have Jewish friends, live in New York, or both.

One fascinating minor puzzle is that gay and lesbian gentiles are more likely to use distinctive Jewish words than heterosexual gentiles are. For example, 64% of gay men say "schmutz" (dirt), vs. only 50% of heterosexual gentile men. This pattern is not found among Jews.

There is much more in this rich study.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Involved Fathers are Good; Fathers and Mothers Working Together Are Better

Laurie Tarkan has a fine article in the New York Times on a nifty new study by the Cowans and the Pruetts (long-time family researchers) comparing a control group, a father-training group, and a couple-training group. The kids of the trained fathers came out better than the controls, but the kids of the trained couples came out better still.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Levi-Strauss, R.I.P.

Eminent anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss died at 100.

My favorite Levi-Strauss story is what happened when he gave a speech at a dinner honoring anthropological pioneer Franz Boas.

Boas died.

This has always struck me as a symbolic handoff.

I don't know who was speaking when Levi-Strauss died.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Go Green, Go Sterile?

British commentator Alex Renton is promoting the idea that the British should have fewer children to reduce the nation's carbon footprint.

This way of looking at children is so backwards that I find it viscerally distressing. Children are not a burden on the economy and the environment. Children are what the economy and the human part of the environment are for.

I am in favor of taking what steps we can and should to improve the environment for future generations. But those changes would lose much of their point if we sacrificed the future generations, too.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

Deskilling and Feminizing an Occupation

In our Social Structure class we are considering Barbara Reskin's "Labor Markets as Queues" and Warren Farrell's Why Men Earn More.

Reskin notes that an occupation draws more women when it is "deskilled." This also leads to pay going down. She treats this as evidence of discrimination against women.

Farrell notes that an occupation draws more women when the task is made easier and working conditions get better. This also leads to pay going down. He treats this as evidence of what happens when the supply exceeds the demand for a job.

In general, Reskin treats lower women's wages as discrimination against women, even though it costs employers more to hire men at higher wages.

Farrell points out that if employers could really get the same work from women, or any kind of workers, for lower wages, the employers would hire them. If it is not illegal to hire from the less-likely group, then some employers will break ranks with custom to save money and reap a competitive advantage.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Of Course Monogamy is Realistic - It is What Most Married People Have Done Through Human History

The perennial hope of the self-indulgent, especially, rich, self-indulgent men, that some moral authority will let them have all the benefits of marriage while fooling around is being fed by "science" again. But monogamy, the human norm through all times and places, is not about to fade away. Monogamy is not "unrealistic"; it is just a challenge.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


The excellent Taylor Swift has a good new song that will do more good than an abstinence-only sex ed class:

You take a deep breath and you walk through the doors
It's the morning of your very first day
And you say hi to your friends you ain't seen in a while
Try and stay out of everybody's way

It's your freshman year and you're gonna be here
For the next four years in this town
Hoping one of those senior boys will wink at you and say
"You know, I haven't seen you around before"

'Cause when you're fifteen and somebody tells you they love you
You're gonna believe them
And when you're fifteen feeling like there's nothing to figure out
Well, count to ten, take it in
This is life before you know who you're gonna be

You sit in class next to a redhead named Abigail
And soon enough you're best friends
Laughing at the other girls who think they're so cool
We'll be outta here as soon as we can

And then you're on your very first date and he's got a car
And you're feeling like flying
And you're momma's waiting up and you're thinking he's the one
And you're dancing 'round your room when the night ends
When the night ends

'Cause when you're fifteen and somebody tells you they love you
You're gonna believe them
When you're fifteen and your first kiss
Makes your head spin 'round
But in your life you'll do things greater than
Dating the boy on the football team
But I didn't know it at fifteen

When all you wanted was to be wanted
Wish you could go back and tell yourself what you know now

Back then I swore I was gonna marry him someday
But I realized some bigger dreams of mine
And Abigail gave everything she had to a boy
Who changed his mind and we both cried

'Cause when you're fifteen and somebody tells you they love you
You're gonna believe them
And when you're fifteen, don't forget to look before you fall
I've found time can heal most anything
And you just might find who you're supposed to be
I didn't know who I was supposed to be at fifteen

Your very first day
Take a deep breath girl
Take a deep breath as you walk through the doors

Thanks to Smartmarriage for the alert

Monday, October 26, 2009

Serial Divorceniks Ruin the Divorce Rate for Us All.

Ten percent of Arkansans have been married 3 times or more. Five percent of all Americans have been married that much.

I think that explains the famous "50% divorce rate," which is puzzling since most marrieds never divorce. The small numbers of serial divorceniks do it so often that they bring everyone's average down to what seems like a crap shoot.

This reminds me of the solution to the statistical puzzle of the higher intercourse rate of men than women. Gay men account for a small portion of the gap. A bigger part of the gap is closed by a small number of women who have sex with many men - that is, prostitutes.

I think it would be helpful to calculate two divorce rates, one for all marrieds, and one for all marrieds except those who have divorced multiple times.

D.C. Marriage Rate Is Low Because People Leave the City When They Marry

The marriage rate in the District of Columbia is half that of the average of states - a bit over a quarter, vs. a bit over half, of all people. Newsweek blogger Katie Connolly got the explanation mostly right, but her analysis was overshadowed by her comment that D.C. is segregated by apartheid.

Connolly cited three factors that reduce the marriage rate in Washington, D.C. Most of the city residents are African American, and a high proportion of them are poor, the two groups with the lowest marriage rates in America. Second, whites who live in the city are disproportionately highly educated young, Democratic, and women - three groups who do marry, but marry late. Third, the homosexual population of D.C., at about 8%, is double the proportion you would find in a state.

The main reason the D.C. marriage rate is low, which Connolly cites but does not lean on as the main reason, is that it is a city, and a poor one at that. When black D.C. residents marry, have children, and start to move up in class, they leave the city for the suburbs, especially Prince Georges County, MD, which probably has the largest black middle class of any county in America. When white yuppies from all over come to Washington to work on public policy they find a fine city to live and work in - until you have children. Then they move to the suburbs.

Or, if you are really fortunate, and Mrs. G. and I were, you move to Danville, KY to raise your kids.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Happy Quasquibicentennial, Presbyterian Church of Danville

Today was our 225th birthday celebration. I got to teach the Sunday School version of all of that history in 50 minutes. That kind of class requires a great deal of compression.

Danville is in the center of Kentucky (that is why Centre College is so called). Kentucky is a border state. Churches in the border states have a strong reason to pursue a moderate course on divisive issues. And no issue was more divisive for the first two hundred years of the congregation's history than racial division. Kentucky was a slave state, and some members of the church were slaveholders. The leaders of the church, and the college they created, were abolitionists, even in the 18th century. They were moderate abolitionists, for gradualism and colonization. The church split in the 1850s, partly over abolition. It stayed split through the long years of Jim Crow segregation. After the Second World War, though, the old division was largely healed among the Presbyterians of Danville. After several false starts, the two congregations reunited in the 1960s, well before the national denominations did.

The Presbyterian Church of Danville began in 1784. The northern and southern Presbyterians finally caught up with our congregation and reunited in 1983. Racism is far from over in America, and there are no doubt pockets of it still in the Presbtyerian Church (U.S.A.). But the spirit of racism is gone. The reunion of the northern and southern branches sealed that change.

I date the new era of the Presbyterian Church of Danville, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), from that date. Happy 25th, Presbyterians!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fun for Word Nerds: The Fake AP Stylebook

'Hafta' should be avoided, as it might offend the anti-globalization contingent.

If accuracy / Is what you crave / Then you should call it / Myanmar Shave

Actually, "bloviate" has no meaning at all. The word was just a prank on Aristotle that took on a life of its own.

And so forth, and so forth. Enjoy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bourdieu and Passeron 5: The Pedagogocratic Ambition

This week I will be blogging on Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron's Reproduction in Education, Culture, and Society, which we are studying in my macrosociological theory class.

The learned classes have “the pedagogocratic ambition of subjecting all acts of civil and political life to the moral magisterium of the University.”

They made up the word pedagogocratic. It is a lovely word.

It is not wrong to wish that smart people run society. What is wrong is being arrogant about being smart or educated. The moral magisterium of the University is properly one voice in the argument about how things should be run. I think it proper that it be one of the most influential voices. But pedagogocracy would not be superior to democracy, or more precisely, republicanism.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bourdieu and Passeron 4: To Succeed in School You Need a Skill Not Taught in School

This week I will be blogging on Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron's Reproduction in Education, Culture, and Society, which we are studying in my macrosociological theory class.

The higher classes also are likely to learn the language of school - the extended code, the ability to think and speak abstractly, the ability to think beyond your own circumstances, the ability to put yourself in the position of a quite different Other. It is the language in which this blog is written. They come to school with a hidden advantage. Their primary habitus matches the school habitus.

Bourdieu's signal contribution to sociology is the idea that cultural capital is the way that the richer classes can turn their economic capital into a productive social advantage. And when they teach that cultural capital to their children, the children reap that advantage. Part of the advantage comes in their greater ease in school. Their primary habitus matches the school's habitus, which is normally the authorized habitus of the dominant culture.

Beyond their greater ease with what the school does teach, advantaged kids come to their school years at ease with important cultural knowledge that the school does not teach. Their primary habitus is full of all the cultural knowledge that involved, informed parents drag their kids too. Beyond that, the primary habitus of the most advantaged children has an attitude toward learning culture that makes school success and social success much easier.

To really succeed in school, you need a code that the school does not teach.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bourdieu and Passeron 3: Critically Thinking About Culture is Already Cultured

This week I will be blogging on Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron's Reproduction in Education, Culture, and Society, which we are studying in my macrosociological theory class.

"The man who deliberates on his culture is already a cultivated individual."

Bourdieu and Passeron argue that schools pick some aspects of the culture to teach, which establishes the core of cultivated taste. The content of what schools teach tends to reinforce the dominance of the dominant class. The schools create a "habitus" of seeking to be cultivated, of seeking to better know and understand the official culture.

Part of the official culture, though, is critical thinking about the official culture. This is more true of higher education than lower, and more true of elite education than mass education.

A good education embeds one more fully in the dominant culture. A good education includes the ability to reflect on that dominant culture. More importantly, a good education inculcates the desire to reflect on that dominant culture. When we reflect critically on the pedagogic work of education itself, we see, say Bourdieu and Passeron, that its content bolsters the domination of the dominant class.

Reflecting on your culture makes you cultivated. Critical thinking about cultivation is itself a cultivated taste, and doing it makes you more cultivated still. Reading Reproduction in Education, Culture, and Society as part of a school class is both an act of subversion of the dominant culture, and a deeper participation in the kind of cultivation that the dominant class cherishes the most and has the most opportunity to engage in.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bourdieu and Passeron 2: The Competition for Taste

This week I will be blogging on Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron's Reproduction in Education, Culture, and Society, which we are studying in my macrosociological theory class.

Bourdieu and Passeron argue that the school imposes uses its cultural authority to impose an orthodoxy of taste.

Other, competing, institutions often have a somewhat different taste. They can try to promote their specific taste as a counter-orthodoxy. They are at a great disadvantage, though, because the school, being the school, has a superior cultural authority to establish the standard body of authorized knowledge, including authorized taste. Every art class picks some art to teach, whether they intend to promote an orthodox style or not.

So, instead, competing cultural institutions often adopt a different strategy. They promote an alternative approach to taste. They promote eclecticism and syncretism, instead of any orthodoxy.

This seems to me a useful idea. I can think of uses beyond the realm of taste as such. I have often noticed that people who promote diversity or multiculturalism often drop that emphasis as soon as they are in power. Instead, they try to make their ideological position obligatory and orthodox for all.

There should be a way to differentiate institutions and people who are genuinely committed to eclecticism, syncretism, diversity, multiculturalism, from those who only strategically adopt those positions when they are out of power.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bourdieu and Passeron 1: All Teaching Is Symbolic Violence

This week I will be blogging on Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron's Reproduction in Education, Culture, and Society, which we are studying in my macrosociological theory class.

Proposition Zero:

“Every power to exert symbolic violence, i.e. every power which manages to impose meanings and to impose them as legitimate by concealing the power relations which are the basis of its force, adds its own specifically symbolic force to the power relations.”

Reproduction in Education, Culture, and Society was first published in 1970. In their Afterword to the 1990 edition the authors note that the most misunderstood idea in the book was "symbolic violence." They were misunderstood to be saying that some teaching - the teaching that reproduced the domination of the dominant class - imposed a culturally arbitrary content with a false authority, an authority that ultimately rested on force. Bourdieu and Passeron clarified that they were asserting the more radical proposition that all teaching imposes a culturally arbitrary content with a false authority, whether it be from the dominant class or from any attempt to subvert the dominant class.

The reason they call this "violence" is to draw a parallel between the school and the state (which are, of course, often the same institution). Max Weber said that the state is the institution with a monopoly of legitimate physical violence. The school, Bourdieu and Passeron argue, is the institution with the monopoly of legitimate symbolic violence. Each uses its authority to assert the dominant culture and to suppress threats to that dominant culture.

I quarrel with Bourdieu and Passeron for calling this action of teaching "violence." The term is almost always inappropriate and unnecessarily provocative.

My larger quarrel with them, though, is over the idea that all of the content of teaching is a cultural arbitrary imposed to bolster the social position of the teaching class and those they represent. The authors are making a large metaphysical claim that there are no fundamental truths that transcend class position.

I accept just about every claim of epistemological modesty that it is extraordinarily difficult to know with certainty what it fundamentally true. I contend as a claim of faith that there are some truths, though. I am happy to have my contentions compete with other faiths in the marketplace of ideas. Bourdieu and Passeron also allow what they call the "reality principle" or "law of the market": if the market validates a kind of teaching, it has more authority. But they do not grant that this authority reflects on the truth of the claim - only that it helps people believe it is true. Yet they also think that it is hopeless to try to teach with authority that all truth is relative.

I don't think Bourdieu and Passeron's claim about the truth of their own claims about truth are coherent.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

1/3 of the World is Christian, 1/4 of the World is Muslim

I think there are a few basic numbers about religion that everyone should know. Here are two of my hypothetical top ten.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Let's Panic About Babies!

This is a wonderful, silly website about children and parenthood. The opposite of cutesy. My sister, a tough mom, recommended it.

I particularly like the ads from their "sponsors," such as these:

Friday, October 16, 2009

Jane Doe Now Wants to Know Anonymous Sperm Donor's Name. Too Bad.

A woman who conceived through an anonymous sperm donor is now suing to get his identity. She says "I don’t think it right that any person should be forbidden from knowing their fathers’ identities or family health information."

Hard cheese.

I support the movement to spell out more explicitly what the duties of sperm donors are, and just exactly how secure their anonymity is. But I think it wrong to try to get the court to break a contract or invent a rule. Making rules is what the legislature is for.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Louisiana Justice Denies Interracial Marriage

A justice of the peace in Louisiana will not marry interracial couples because "I don't want to put children in a situation they didn't bring on themselves. In my heart, I feel the children will later suffer."

So, so wrong.

Louisiana has given us more racial weirdness than any other state. Plessy v. Ferguson became a federal issue when Louisiana's counting of racial fractions pitted the "black" railroad car against the "quadroon" Homer Plessy. Louisiana law still recognizes racial fractions down to 1/32nd, though they are mostly dead letter. Mostly, but, as we see, not quite.

I hope this one can be laughed out of practice, and Justice Keith Bardwell can be shamed out of office.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Spirituality Makes Her Clothes Fall Off

I am not sure if this scientific study is really ripe, but it sure does have an interesting hook.

LiveScience, an MSNBC blog, reports on a study from Jessica Burris at the University of Kentucky on what correlates with sex for a sample of 353 undergraduates. Among other questions, Burris gave them a Spiritual Transcendence Scale measure (with which I am not otherwise familiar). This is the eyebrow-raiser:

For women, however, spirituality was the strongest predictor for the number of sexual partners, the frequency of sex, and the tendency to have sex without a condom.

Burris reads both spirituality and sex as ways women seek intimacy.

I am inclined to think that sexually loose college women get detached from the churches they were raised in, but didn't want to go all the way to atheism, so they stopped at "spiritual."

Either way, I hope someone follows up on this with a fuller study.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Death Penalty Sunday School

In Sunday School this morning we were honored with a real pro talking about the death penalty.

Steve Bright, a Danville native and now president of the Southern Center for Human Rights was talking about some truly dreadful death penalty cases. The big picture of the death penalty doesn't look much better. The people on death row and already executed are almost all poor guys with terrible lawyers. They are criminals, and did horrible things. The injustice is not that they are in prison. The injustice is that rich guys who do the same thing can afford competent lawyers who plead them into life sentences rather than execution. The further injustice is that many of the poor guys committed their crimes in the few places where the prosecutor seeks the death penalty - especially if you live in Houston, the death penalty capital of America.

The most striking sociological point that Bright made was that juries that convict in death penalty cases are mostly in white-flight counties around non-white cities. The fear that led to the flight in the first place gets played out in court when the overwhelmingly white juries sentence to death predominantly non-white vicious criminals with bad lawyers.

I asked if there were any practical way to reserve the death penalty for the most dreadful crimes - Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson. Bright said, in effect, probably not. For one thing, the most dreadful criminals have been able to plead to life imprisonment in exchange for revealing further details of their crimes. For another, more important reason, it is up to the local, elected prosecutor to decide whether to seek the death penalty or not.

As a centrist, I think it would be possible to write a very narrow statute specifying when the death penalty could be sought that would distinguish cold-blooded mass murderers from stoned junkies who shoot clerks in the course of robbing liquor stores. That is a question best addressed by the professionals.

What was clear to me, though, is that even if you think that the death penalty is appropriate in a few rare circumstances, as I do, the current way we use the death penalty is grossly unjust.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mind-Boggling Christo-Kitsch

A painter named Jon McNaughton has created "One Nation Under God." It shows Jesus, in glory, delivering the U.S. Constitution. He is backed by a body of dead patriots, some real and some symbolic. In the foreground are good people and bad people. My kind, alas, are presented in the latter group. Look for The Professor. He is the one right in front of Satan.

McNaughton explains all this symbolism in detail. There is a wonderful rollover feature on the picture itself, explaining each one. Even the sky is explained: "Fifty stars represents the fifty states of the union. Some shine brighter than others."

I do, seriously, praise McNaughton for a competent painting with a public meaning. I like this genre - the School of Athens is one of my favorite inspirational paintings. The text, alas, has many errors, both typographical and historical. But I appreciate the effort to make an argument in painting.

Two side notes:

Shame on the heirs of Martin Luther King for forbidding McNaughton to include King's image with the other Founding Fathers. McNaughton was obliged to name his exemplary soldier "King" in honor of MLK - surely a weird symbol-bearer for a notable war critic.

There is a good satire of McNaughton's rollover text at Shortpacked.

This may truly be the most important new painting of the twenty first century. How do I know that? Because McNaughton says so in an "interview with the artist" that he has with himself.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Three Science Moms Win Nobels

Three women won science Nobel Prizes this week - Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Ada Yonath. All three are married mothers. After the dust-up over Lawrence Summers' entirely correct comments about the several factors that limit the proportion of women at the top of math and sciences professions, I have been particularly interested in women who combine biochemistry and family life. I think of all academic specialties, biochemistry may be the most unforgiving of family life - long hours in the lab, on a schedule dictated by the experiment, in an environment too dangerous to take little kids to, and years of it to get a result.

Mrs. G. and I often counsel ambitious young women that they can have it all - but not all at once. To have a marriage, kids, and a successful career is much easier if launched in that order. Careers for moms can get fully started later than for people who are not home with little ones, but life is long. Ada Yonath said that when she got news of winning the prize, she was with her granddaughter. Go Science Moms!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Keys to Longevity: He Should Marry Education, She Should Marry Job Status

Married men and women live longer. Better educated men and women live longer. Higher job status men and women live longer. These facts are all well established.

A new Swedish study found some interesting cross-sex nuances in this greater longevity.

Her education matters more than his education to his longevity.

His job status matters more than her job status to her longevity.

Men should marry educated women; women should marry high-status men.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Racial Preference in Dating is Bad News for Black Women

The online matching site OKCupid has a fascinating analysis of how likely people are to respond to one another by race. The headline finding is that women of all races are disproportionately likely to send messages to white men, and men of all races are disproportionately unlikely to respond to black women.

I am particularly interested in improving the black marriage rate. I was, therefore, also drawn to two other points in the OKCupid report. When asked "Would you strongly prefer to date someone of your own skin color/racial background?" women in almost all racial groups said yes more than men. The overall yes responses to this question were 46% for women, 34% for men. For African Americans, though, the rates were 22% for women, 11% for men. Black men have the lowest percent preferring to date in their own race of any group.

Putting these facts together we get some pretty grim news for black women's marriage prospects.

I do not read these results as simply showing racism - that is, an absolute rejection of another race. When asked "Is interracial marriage a bad idea?" only 6% say yes. I do read these results as showing the status structure. There is still a racial status structure in America, with whites on the top and blacks on the bottom. Most people, quite reasonably, wish to marry at their same status level or higher. The groups at the bottom of the status ladder are the least likely to marry.

Now, race is not the only aspect of status, and status is not the only consideration in marriage. I am confident that race is declining in significance in all things, marriage chances included. Class increasingly beats race. Nonetheless, every status hierarchy makes some difference in the mating market, and race is still a status hierarchy.

(Thanks to BA for putting me on to OKCupid.)

Monday, October 05, 2009

I Can't Tell "A" Work on a Multiple-Choice Test

I have been involved in an interesting project lately giving advice to an outside agency on how to set A, B, C, D, and failing grades on a multiple-choice sociology test. I have never used a multiple-choice test, and am not likely to. Nonetheless, I am glad I took part in this research project, because it helped me articulate why, exactly, I can't use a multiple-choice test.

My standard for B (good) work is that students show mastery of the assigned material. If they tell me back what I told them or assigned them, that is good. If they can do it in detail, that is very good (B+).

A (excellent) work requires B work plus something original. Their addition does not have to be absolutely original - not even Weber could do that every time. Rather, I want them to make their own connection between what we are studying and something else. I urge them to draw from other courses, their personal experiences, or at least material that we studied earlier in the term.

As a rule of thumb, I tell students that mastering the assigned material is a high school A and a college B.

A multiple-choice test only gives students room to show that they have mastered the assigned material. Even if they were able and ready to add original work, the format of the test gives them no place to show it. Thus, I can't tell A from B work on a multiple-choice test. And so should not use them. Which I don't.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Is Universal Health Care a Religious Issue?

61% of Americans say they favor a government guarantee of health care for all, even if it means raising taxes.

When we get down to cases, the Pew Forum found that the proposals on the table split the population evenly - 42% for and 44% against.

A coalition of liberal religious groups, Faith for Health, backs universal health care. A coalition of conservative religious groups, the Freedom Federation, opposes government health care. Freedom Federation favors more choice and incentives, but holds back from saying the government should guarantee health care coverage for all.

The system we have now, in which the government guarantees health care for sizable hunks of the population - old people, children, poor people, veterans, government workers - is added to a system in which most people get their health insurance through work. That reaches perhaps 85% of the population. Some of the remainder are actually eligible for health insurance, but don't take it.

Still, even with a large government guarantee and a strong system of health insurance for workers, some fraction - say, 10%, or about 30 million Americans - are without health insurance. I don't see any good way to cover them without a government mandate and some kind of government money.

So, is universal health care a religious issue? The Washington office of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), says yes. 56% of mainline Protestants, including the PC (USA), say yes. I say yes.

I think a church that says yes to this question has two options. Either the church supports a state mandate for health insurance for all, or the church offers to provide health care for those who can't afford it.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Lex Luthor Buys Small Montana Town

A mysterious, and mysteriously well-funded "private security" company bought an unused prison in Hardin, MT for a "training facility." They are named "American Police Force" and use a double-headed eagle with a crown as their symbol. This is the same symbol that the sometime royal family of Serbia uses. Yes, nothing says American like a crowned symbol of European nobility.

This story reminded me of Blackwater, the Bush administration's favored mercenaries, who were led by a character right out of "Superman," Erik Prince. After Blackwater got lots of bad publicity for shooting civilians they changed the company name to Xe, heading further into the blackwater of comic book world.

Sure enough, American Police Force seems to be a spinoff of Xe.

Friday, October 02, 2009

"Loss of Consortium" Should Not Apply to the Dead

Kentucky law, like many states' laws, allows you to sue if someone incapacitates your spouse, causing you to suffer "loss of consortium." That means you are deprived of the "emotional and physical comfort" that a spouse can give - emphasis on the physical. If, for example, a hospital makes a mistake that leaves your spouse in a coma, you can sue for loss of consortium. The law does not apply, though, if your spouse dies.

Until now. The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled yesterday that widows and widowers can sue for loss of consortium. Judge Mary Noble, writing for the court, wrote that it "defies common sense" for the law to let you sue if your spouse is incapacitated, but not if your spouse dies.

No, it doesn't. If your spouse is incapacitated, you can't enjoy consoritium, and there is nothing you can do about it. If that condition is due to someone else's error, you can sue them, and rightly so. If your spouse dies, then obviously you can't enjoy consortium with them. But there is something you can do about that condition: get married again.

The loss of consortium law was not created to give people a legal right to sex. It was a recognition that marriage was meant to be exclusive and to last until death.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

African American Marriage Index

Yesterday I posted on the National Marriage Index created by the Institute for American Values. They worked in conjunction with the National Center for African American Marriages and Parenting at Hampton University for produce a parallel index for black families. Each point on the African American index for 2008 is lower than the corresponding national number, and, therefore the overall index is lower - 39.6 vs. 60.3 (out of 100).

The main element dragging the black marriage index down are the rates affecting children. Nationally, 60.3% of children are born to married parents, and 61% of children are living with their own parents. The corresponding numbers for African American children are a dismal 28.4 and 29%, respectively.

The good news, though, is that the percent of intact first marriages among African Americans crept back up over the 50% threshold since 2000 - to 50.1%. This is movement in the right direction.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

National Marriage Index

The Institute for American Values has produced a National Marriage Index. This is a valuable tool for charting the basic strength of marriage as an institution. It is composed of five measures:
  • Percentage of adults married
  • Percentage of married people "very happy" in their marriage
  • Percentage of first marriages intact
  • Percentage of births to married parents
  • Percentage of children living with own married parents.
The bad news is that index is only 60.3, a straight-line decline from 76.2 (out of 100) from 1970. The good news is that the declines in two of the five items - happy marriages and kids living with the parents - have leveled off, and one - intact first marriages - has increase since the turn of the century.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Roma Can't Kidnap Kentucky Girls For Marriage, Even if it is Their Culture

A Kentucky girl whose family is from Bosnia was kidnapped by a South Dakota family, also from Bosnia, to marry their son. She was 14. Both families appear to be Roma (gypsy), though that has not been declared officially. The girl's parents pressed charges, the girl was returned, and the South Dakotans were arrested.

Arranged marriages of young girls are common among European Roma. The girls are not normally kidnapped - this case came to light only because the boy's parents neglected to secure the consent of the girl's parents. But the arrangement is common, even among Roma immigrants to this country. The girls normally drop out of school after they marry.

Sometimes we get ourselves into a tangle trying to be accepting of other people's cultural practices. This is easier when they do those practices Over There. When they bring them to this country, though, American expectations start to kick in. This is how we discover the real limits to our cultural diversity.

Kidnapping children to make them marry your children is beyond the pale.