Thursday, September 08, 2011

Why Dropouts Were Not a Problem a Century Ago

A century ago so few people graduated from high school, or even elementary school, that what was measured was how much schooling they had, not how much schooling they did not have.

Today we have the luxury of conceiving of "dropping out" as a problem because most people get so much more schooling - and better schooling - than they used to. This is a huge improvement that we take for granted.

The positive way to see the same facts is that we have a very high high school graduation rate today, compared to the past. And it is getting higher.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Is There an American Trollope?

Anthony Trollope is my favorite novelist. I enjoy his Barsetshire novels very much. I am now working through his Parliamentary novels in sequence.

Which led to this question: Which novelist is the American Trollope?

I put this question to my colleagues in American literature, asking for their gut reaction. Their responses are helpful and fascinating, though not quite the answer I was hoping for. The first wrote:

Gut reaction: We don’t have a Trollope.

I assume you mean writes about family and community life from a generally optimistic perspective. The first name that comes to mind is Howells, but even in him there’s more darkness than there is in the Trollope I’ve read.

Yes, that is exactly what I was looking for, though I did not know that until my friend put it that way.

Well, I was going to give you Updike, but I’m sure you’ve read the Rabbit books. His life deteriorates—his family’s full of dysfunction. You could try Harold Fredericks’ The Damnation of Theron Ware (Updike rewrote it for his In the Beauty of the Lilies), but that’s (not surprisingly) about disintegration too. Do try Howells: if you haven’t read The Rise of Silas Lapham or A Hazard of New Fortunes, you should—you’d appreciate, if not necessarily like, them.

There are more contemporary social realists who love their characters too much to let them come to any real harm.
I have tried William Dean Howells' The Hazard of New Fortunes, which I found rather stuffy (and I like Victorian novels) - I will give it another go.

A second colleague offered this theory of why there is no American Trollope:

Our rather different culture doesn’t have a Trollope—or an Austen, for that matter. Which is exactly why I usually listen to either of these (right now, I’m in the middle of Emma) whenever I’m in the car alone. Both are so wonderfully sane and intelligent and basically comic in outlook, comedy always having to do with community. We’re too goddamned individualistic. No Brit could ever have written “Self-Reliance” or “Huck Finn.”

Our best stuff is darker, more philosophical, and more profound than Trollope or Austen were capable of. America is a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live here.

I do appreciate Trollope for his optimistic comic sanity. As a sociologist I am especially drawn to his portrayal of social types as they interact, which he does with remarkable even-handedness. I think an American novelist could write in all of those ways. Optimism is a famous American trait. Comic and sane writing about family and community should be within any culture's reach.

I am halted, though, by the idea that American individualism really does make it hard to write about social types within the stable social institutions of Trollope's world.

What I am wrestling with now is whether American social structures have always been so fluid that a Trollope could not have set his eternal dramas of marriage and status in them, or if this fluidity is something that afflicts all late-modern or post-modern societies.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A Happy Convergence of William James and G.K. Chesterton

I am reading William James' Pragmatism. I am hoping that it will be a good philosophical text to teach in conjunction with the current empirical work that shows that the practical lives of most populations are, in fact, improving.

In this connection I also recently read G.K. Chesterton's What's Wrong With the World. Chesterton and James were contemporaries, but I had not previously thought of them as conversation partners with one another. Yet James quotes Chesterton approvingly at the opening of this book to the effect that the most important thing to know about someone is his philosophy.

The point of James' pragmatism is that all we can know of truth is what kind of practical action it leads to. He says that pragmatism is a method, and is not wedded to any particular conclusions about what will prove practical. In making this claim, he reviews the argument between materialism and idealism or spiritualism. What impressed me in this argument is how much William James sounds like G.K. Chesterton, both in his tone and in his conclusions, to wit:

A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Most Trusting Kids Are From the Middle

David Sloan Wilson ran a "cooperation" game with public school students in Binghamton, NY, as reported in The Neighborhood Project. This game paired kids, and set up the rules such that they would each benefit the most if they cooperated - if the first kid trustingly gave more, and the second kid proved trustworthy and gave more back.

He found that the richest kids and the poorest kids were the least trusting. The most trusting kids were from middle income neighborhoods that gave their children high levels of social support.