Saturday, April 19, 2014

Trapeze Careers

My wife addressed my "Family Life" and "Social Structure" classes, as she does each year, on how women can 'have it all.'

The readings we have studied leading up to this talk address the fact that men are likely to have a definite plan of how they want their careers to develop.  They identify a ladder, and make a plan to climb it.  Since life rarely turns out just the way we expect it to, men are more prone to have a mid-life crisis when they realize that the narrative of their life is going to turn out differently than they imagined it would.

Women, by contrast, are more likely to have a big picture of a life with career, family, and public duties in some kind of balance.  They often have a less specific plan of climbing one ladder.  Instead, they are more likely to pursue one path, then make choices at the time that lead them in a different direction.  When they look back on their lives, they are likely to discern the thread of continuity that ties this zig-zag path together, though it would have been hard to predict ahead of time.

My wife offered the students, especially the women, the advice that they would be able to achieve a balanced life if they were OK with having a 'trapeze career' rather than climbing a ladder.  And sometimes on the trapeze you let go of one bar before you have a clear grasp on the next one.

I think 'trapeze career' is a wonderful metaphor and a fine counterpart to the career 'ladder'.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Critique of Davis and Moore on the 'Functional Necessity' of High Pay for Some Jobs

One of the staples of sociological discussions of social stratification is the Davis-Moore hypothesis.  This idea, advanced in 1945 by two then-famous sociologists, Kingsley David and Wilbert Moore, argued that some jobs were so 'functionally necessary' to society that we needed to pay people more to get them to do them.  This also implied that many jobs were not so functionally necessary, and therefore we could pay people less.

While giving a guest lecture for a colleague, I had occasion to read this hypothesis again for the first time in years.

In the intervening years, I have often had occasion to answer student objections about unfair pay.  Their argument is usually something like 'the work teachers do is more valuable that what professional athletes do - we should pay teachers more.' (And, presumably, pay athletes less).

The answer I have given to students was that, for the most part, wages are a measure of market value, not social value. What we get paid is determined much more by the supply of people who can do what we do, compared to the demand from people willing to pay for what we do.  The super-skill of the very best professional athletes is in great demand for a handful of positions.  There are millions of teachers, but even greater millions who are willing and able to do the job demanded at the pay offered.

Which brings us back to Davis and Moore.  The more I think about it, the less I think pay is offered as an incentive to do socially valuable jobs with rare skills.  That is, the pay is not the motivation.  The job is the motivation, for many mysterious reasons.  The pay is what you have to offer to get enough people with the relevant skills to do that job, given the supply and demand. Change either supply or demand, and the pay changes, without any change in the social value of the job.

One of the reasons we honor some jobs more than others is that social status is something that most people want, apart from and in addition to pay.  And status goes both ways - we honor jobs that are worthwhile, but we also honor people who do worthwhile jobs for low pay because they are willing to work for low pay. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Teach for America, Like the Peace Corps, is a Worthwhile Program of Bourgeois Missionary Work

Teach for America is sometimes criticized because the young people who do it are well-meaning amateurs who do not stick with teaching.  They come from good schools, but were not trained in education.  There is a high rate of leaving teaching after a few years.

I have taken comfort from the fact that the same is true of the Peace Corps.  Indeed, we always expected that Peace Corps volunteers would return to the US after their tour and go into some other field.  The idea was that they would learn more about some other place in the world, which would infuse their future work in any field.

Both Teach for America and the Peace Corps are, in other words, missionary programs.  I think this is a good thing.  I am for bourgeois missionaries to impoverished schools and impoverished countries. I am also for religious missionaries spreading the faith, whether they are there for the long term or not.

Another gripe about Teach for America is that amateur short-time teachers are bad for their students, even if the teachers get a great deal out of the experience. There is something to this. I don't think the amateur issue is that big a deal, but the short time is a problem. However, many education majors also leave the profession quickly, too.  Teaching in poor schools is a hard job, and a hard adjustment.

I have rarely heard people complain that the Peace Corps is bad because sending amateur short-timers hurts the people they were meant to help.  I think one of the reasons we rarely hear this gripe is because if the Peace Corps volunteers didn't go, no one would.  Someone helping for a short time is better than no one helping at all.

In America's poor schools, by contrast, someone would get hired to teach each year.

Still, I think that investing in getting liberally educated young people from the best schools - most of whom have no real experience of poverty - to wrestle seriously with the realities of poor life while trying to help, is worth the investment.  What I would add would be a stronger supportive community to help them weather the first hard years of teaching, so more of them stay.  A model for this kind of support is provided by our Teach Kentucky program.