Saturday, August 29, 2009

Nerd Injury

Mrs. G. hurt herself. She pulled a muscle inserting a formula into 14,000 cells in an Excel spreadsheet of education data.

Friday, August 28, 2009

How the Theory Syllabus Turned Out

This summer I completely redid the Macrosociological Theory syllabus. It is very hard to make a satisfactory social theory syllabus. Social theory is mostly an informed reflection on history and philosophy. This has usually meant that I have to backfill lots of history and philosophy before we can begin the theory sequence proper. After years of good but not spectacular classes, I am trying a different tactic.

I think half of what a good undergraduate course should do is make students culturally literate about the big ideas and big authors of a field. This does not always add up to a fully integrated exposition. This time with the theory class I am going for maximal cultural literacy, even at the cost of much thematic unity. This is the Greatest Hits version. I wanted books that change people's lives. My rule of thumb was that I wanted books that had their own Wikipedia page. We are reading an author a week. This can, of course, only be an introduction to their complex thought. At the end of the term I want each student to pick one of these works to go back to and write something deeper with it.

Here are the texts, which we will read in chronological order, for Macrosociological Theory:

Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach (1845)

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)

Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society (1893)

W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

Max Weber, “The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1906)

Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation” (1918)

Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” (1919)

Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (1944)

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of the Great American Cities (1961)

Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970)

Pierre Bourdieu & Jean-Claude Passeron, Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (1970)

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (1975)

Jurgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (1975)

Edward Said, Orientalism (1978)

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983)

James Surowieki, The Wisdom of Crowds (2004)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

How Should One Respond to Ignorant Opinions Without Snark?

Snark is the lifeblood of the blogosphere. But at the Gruntled Center we promote gratitude, cheerfulness, contentment - or at least resolute civility. I really do want to find common ground with people I disagree with. And that depends on some common body of facts on which we agree, as well as opinions about them over which we might still disagree.

Other people in the public sphere, though, are met with more than differing opinions. They are met every day with angry people asserting as facts things that are just not so.

When Senator McCain, during the presidential campaign, was confronted by a woman who asserted that Barack Obama was a Muslim, he gently corrected her. She was nonplussed, but did not fight him; she was there as a McCain supporter.

By contrast, Democratic Congressman Barney Frank was confronted at a town hall meeting by a woman who accused him of supporting "this Nazi policy" - by which I think she meant the false belief that the health care proposal before Congress would force old people to accept euthanasia. Congressman Frank asked her "what planet do you normally reside on?" This was fine snark and drew a big laugh, but is clearly an ineffective way to promote civil conversation with people who are determinedly wrong.

Because people do not thank you when you point out that they have their facts all wrong. They just get mad.

Recently, Republican Congressman Bob Inglis reported that at a town-hall meeting in suburban Simpsonville, SC, a man stood up and told Congress to "keep your government hands off my Medicare." The Congressman "had to politely explain that, 'Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government,' " Inglis recalled. "But he wasn't having any of it."

He wasn't having any of it. How should one respond helpfully, without arrogance or condescension, in a way that actually reaches people, when they are just flat wrong?

A recent poll by Public Policy Polling tried to find out just what the "birthers" who doubt President Obama's citizenship actually believe. A quarter of the people polled did not believe that Pres. Obama was a citizen. Of that 25%, 6% - a quarter of all the birthers - knew that Obama was born in Hawaii, but did not think Hawaii was part of the United States.

I have not met a birther, or someone who believes that there will be "death panels," or someone who says "keep your government hands off my Medicare." But it is only a matter of time. (In fact, this post may bring a few out). Truly, I would welcome helpful suggestions.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Centrist Lesson From Ted Kennedy

Senator Edward Kennedy died last night. He was a great liberal leader in the nation. He was also a great legislator. The practice of making legislation tends to make people act like centrists. If they do not reach across the aisle, they can make great speeches, but rarely pass anything important.

Ted Kennedy's great passion was health care for everyone in America. Early in his career he had a chance to work with President Nixon to pass national health insurance legislation. Kennedy held out for his favored plan, and health insurance for all Americans failed. Kennedy long regretted that he sacrificed the goal for ideological purity.

Centrist legislation always requires compromise with the other side. But it actually accomplishes some good things. This is true for liberals and conservatives. It is also true for centrists, who have to accept attacks on centrism from ideologues as the price for actually accomplishing something.

Ted Kennedy learned that to achieve any legislative goal, you have to plan on incremental changes over a long time. This is how we came to have Medicare, Medicaid, veteran's hospitals, Children's Health Insurance Plans in every state, universal vaccinations, smoking restrictions, drinking restrictions, clean food, air, and water regulations, seat belt laws, noise pollution laws - the hundred and one programs to make everyone's health better and their health costs shared more evenly. And we still have the most elaborate variety and highest quality of fancy health care in the world, though one could not call that a system. All of this was achieved in centrist increments. Some on the right denounce this a creeping socialism, and some on the left denounce it as Big Brother, but few of them actually want to give up the benefits of better health and better health care.

Centrists owe a great debt to Ted Kennedy for his long-term commitment to incremental achievements for a larger social goal.