(This post is dedicated to my friends Marian and Jan-Willem, who last week welcomed a lovely baby girl into the world. They will most certainly talk to her an awful lot.)
Why is it that
children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds tend to have lower
school performance than children from wealthier environments? This may seem
like a naïve question at first, but understanding the exact mechanisms in place proves to be much more challenging than one might think. Most likely, the
phenomenon is due to a conjunction of factors involving level of education of
primary caregiver, parental involvement, a stable environment, adequate
nutrition, among others. (Some would like to see ‘genetic predisposition’ on
the list. Now, while this cannot be ruled out, I take it that the currently
available data are too tangled up with the above-mentioned social factors to allow
for an analysis of the genetic component in isolation.)
A recent post at
the Fixes blog of the New York Times
(Fixes and The Stone are both members of the larger Opinionator family) highlights
one specific element: how much people from different socioeconomic backgrounds actually
talk to their infants. As reported in the 1995 book Meaningful Differences in the
Everyday Experience of Young American Children
(by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley), it turns out that poorer parents talk
considerably less to and around their babies than more affluent parents:
Being in Brazil this week (but flying back home tonight) allowed me to follow some of the local current debates more closely than I would have otherwise. One of the ‘hot topics' at the moment is the new legislation regulating the working conditions of domestic workers. It is still very common in Brazil for a middle-class family to rely on a wealth of domestic workers, including cleaners, drivers, gardeners and perhaps most importantly, the (almost always female) live-in domestic workers who are responsible for the big chunk of domestic chores (cooking, cleaning, laundry, caring for children), known as ‘empregadas’. (Here is the trailer of a very interesting film/documentary on the phenomenon of a few years ago.)
Up to now, these live-in maids were basically expected to be ‘on call’ 24 hours a day, starting with breakfast early in the morning all the way until washing the dishes after dinner. Needless to say, salaries are usually pretty low, and there was until now no control over the amount of hours they were expected to work; thus the concept of ‘doing extra hours’ did not apply to them. To most foreign eyes, it is a very strange arrangement, which can only be understood as a painful reminiscence of Brazil’s recent slavery past (where slavery was only officially abolished in 1888).
We certainly devote enough time at this blog to criticizing universities and aspects of university culture. So just for a change of pace, here's a local feel-good story.
Georgetown, like most universities, has some budgetary worries. We've been through an economic crash, are in the midst of governmental cutbacks, etc. In response to moderate short-term deficits, the administration developed a 5 year plan that called for various savings. Among these were limits on salary: specifically no cuts to the faculty raise pool, but an elimination of all raises for staff this year. This was presented to us as a done deal. When announced in the college Exco - a committee of reps from each program and department that advise the dean - I suggested that this sucked, more specifically that placing the burden of lower salary on those already lowest paid in our community did not represent the values we purported to live by as an institution. Not one person in the group of about 30 disagreed. After some crafting of word choice, a motion was passed unanimously expressing the sense of the exco that this was not the way GU should deal with budget cuts. Shortly after this, someone introduced the same motion at the faculty senate. I'm not sure if it was unanimous, but it passed with an overwhelming majority there as well.
And the administration listened. Staff increases are reinstated. In the new proposal announced today, there will be no raises for senior administration, and faculty will have raises delayed for 6 months. This will generate the same savings, but with a very different distribution according to need.
I relay this not (just) to brag on the GU community, but to remind people that even in these uber-corporatist times, and even in the context of the increasingly corporate university, people sometimes manage to think in collective, communitarian, social, or just moral terms. We manage to make collective decisions on the basis of fairness and concern for each other, rather than our own narrow economic interest. In a time in which one dimension of the uber-corporatism is a constant drum-beat of propaganda suggesting that economic self-interest is inevitable, it is important to keep reminding oneself of examples to the contrary.
Imagine what might be possible if we organized our work differently.
The event of Hurricane Sandy is multi-dimensional; its sociological dimension is that people on the ground are "their own first responders," in Russel Honoré's phrase. Honoré's experience leading the militarized rescue effort in New Orleans after Katrina matches what sociologists have long demonstrated (and what Rebecca Solnit narrates in A Paradise Built in Hell): what appears in disasters is prosocial behavior, not atomized predation.
You write about our anger, and yes, we are angry. We are angry at our government, at our police and at you. But none of you are succeeding in conveying what it feels like when you walk down the streets of Montreal right now, which is, for me at least, an overwhelming sense of joy and togetherness....
I come home from these protests euphoric. The first night I returned, I sat down on my couch and I burst into tears, as the act of resisting, loudly, with my neighbours, so joyfully, had released so much tension that I had been carrying around with me, fearing our government, fearing arrest, fearing for the future. I felt lighter....
This is what Quebec looks like right now. Every night is teargas and riot cops, but it is also joy, laughter, kindness, togetherness, and beautiful music. Our hearts are bursting. We are so proud of each other; of the spirit of Quebec and its people; of our ability to resist, and our ability to collaborate.
[UPDATE 27 May, 8:00 am CDT*: philosophical comment below the fold]
I have just finished reading David Graeber's immensely interesting and much commented upon book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. I thought I'd pull out some passages and post them now and again. Here's the first one, from page 382, on what else did you expect?, political affect:
the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures. At its root is a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world--in response to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s--with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, flourish, or propose alternatives; that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win. To do so requires creating a vast apparatus of armies, prisons, police, various forms of private security firms and ... propaganda engines of every conceivable variety, most of which do not attack alternatives directly so much as create a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, and simple despair that rends any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy.
 Graber's note on p 453 reads: "I have observed this first hand on any number of occasions in my work as an activist: police are happy to effectively shut down trade summits, for example, just to ensure that there's no possible chance that protestors can feel they have succeeded in doing so themselves."
Thanks to our "liberal Democrat" president, revocation of the Magna Carta is now permanent. Would it be too much to ask that people wake the hell up and take this seriously? Details here
Sadly, I think the answer to that question is "yes". And so I'm allowing myself a day of wallowing - exemplified by my title, which refers to this bit of brilliant despair - I'll no doubt come around to something more positive in a bit.
(I also know that "Political Music Friday" has begun to function like "Holy Roman Empire" but it is not dead, just resting.)
I'll let John Protevi comment on the philosophical significance of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards singing Beethoven (I'm not being faceitious here; any reader of Protevi's books knows that he has interesting things to say about this kind of thing). In any case, even though the sound quality on the recording is atrocious, it still brings tears to my eyes and fills me with uncharacteristic hope.
Eric has been urging me to start new posts when I have significant comments to other ones, so I'll take that advice here. I'm following up on the post about Parfit, in which he says that his life would have been wasted if his ethical views turn out wrong. I don't really understand this claim. In fact, it seems so obviously wrong that I feel I must be missing something. How could the falsity of a philosophical approach entail either that the process of pursuing it did not help philosophy, or that the life was of no value?
By way of illustrative counter, I thought I'd pass on a story about Peter (Carl) Hempel, who counts as an analytic philosopher if anyone does. I took his last graduate course. It was our proseminar in the philosophy of science at Pitt. (Yes, in philosophy - not HPS - we had a required proseminar in philosophy of science.) The course was essentially structured around the rise and fall of positivism. We went through all the issues and approaches in a roughly historical manner. Hempel was a superb, smart, patient, clear teacher, even at around 80. At the end of the course, the conclusion was that it had all been wrong. He reckoned that they had not just been wrong in the particulars, but in the whole approach, the methodology, even asked the wrong questions often. But there was not the slightest hint of regret in this. His view was that no one could have possibly known that this approach didn't work unless smart people had given it a go, pushed it to the point where it was clear that it couldn't work. Now, he said, he was too old to try new things, but he knew that the young people around him would develop some other new approach - "maybe something building on Kuhn".