Judith Shulevitz’ Scary Ideas

Long time, no blog.  But I want to make a quick return to the fray here because I find Judith Shulevitz’ column in the New York Times yesterday, “Hiding from Scary Ideas,” and the many favorable reactions to it on social media, so terribly disturbing.  140 characters will not do the trick today.

Shulevitz’ reductive analysis of emergent “safe” practices on college campuses,  which are intended to minimize the trauma of student exposure to confrontational or otherwise upsetting speech, is profoundly mistaken.  She pillories a wide range of provisions now being made (from support groups to quiet, recuperative spaces) for college students who may feel unsettled by encounters with campus conversations about rape; instances of racial bias; or discriminatory talk about disability, LGBTQI and other identities.  She equates such concern for students’ unease or trauma with censorship and intellectual timidity, a patently ridiculous connection and one that is, to my mind, part of a truly scary discourse in higher-ed today.

Institutional attention to the difficulties of students encountering discriminatory ideas is seen by Shulevitz to be “infantilizing.” Worse, today’s students are in her view “hyper-sensitive,” “fragile” or “puerile,” in contrast to the “hardier souls” of earlier generations. In short, she would have it that our recent, growing sense that all identities and life experiences need to be respected, and that such experiences are not easily predicted or delineated, adds up to a weakening of our moral fiber. This sounds a note of the most socially conservative kind: an effort to treat the cultivation of mutual concern as a symptom of cultural infirmity.

What is lost with such a sweeping indictment of the nascent ethic of care in higher ed? I’d answer, for one thing, the remarkable, generative challenges posed to the status quo when the issue of “safety” is introduced into academic venues…when psychological and emotional well-being are allowed to enter into the intellectual sphere, welcomed as empowering, not diluting, influences on cognition and discovery. I am a huge advocate of unpredictability in the classroom: It is only through risk that new ideas emerge. This is why I worry so deeply about “competency based education” and similarly risk-removing pedagogies. BUT there is no possibility of intellectual risk-taking for students without a powerful sense of personal security also being present; indeed, without a frank address of the power relations that structure our conduct in classrooms or public fora. This is where Shulevitz conveniently fails to reflect on the privilege of being the teacher, the white person, the man, the cis-gendered, the heterosexual, the affluent or the abled person in the room.

The equation of a sturdy, uncomplaining mien with intellectual rigor is one that has protected such privilege throughout the history of STEM education in America, and as “grit” now makes (yet another) return to educational theory, thinkers like Shulevitz are not surprisingly ever more popular. Toughness and tolerance for abuse have been requirements for those hoping to complete engineering degrees, for well over a century. But let me offer a very different picture of what an empowered and empowering college experience might look like.

Last year, I attended “safe zone” training sessions at the annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education, the first ever offered at this huge gathering of STEM educators, publishers and policy makers. Supported by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, these sessions, offered continuously so that as many ASEE attendees as possible might participate, altered the climate of the meeting. As NOGLSTP describes this programming:

 Safe Zone training introduces prospective allies on college campuses to information and best practices in supporting LGBTQI students at their institutions. A Safe Zone could range from the office of an individual faculty member to an academic department to an entire campus, depending on the degree of influence of the ally.

Note the rarely articulated idea here that the people in our institutions who have influence can consciously deploy that in more democratic and inclusive ways…or not.

But for all its nuanced address of how we might improve our day-to-day social support of all students, and its frank acknowledgment of power in the classroom and laboratory and university board room, I now realize that the Safe Zone training at ASEE really accomplished something even more fundamental.  It showed how many false presumptions about identity and well-being normally pervade our lives in the academy. It made clear how little we really know about one another (students and colleagues, alike) as we move through the university day, and how challenging, and thereby valuable to our own development, such knowledge can be.  I’d say to Judith Shulevitz: Isn’t such challenge, rooted in generosity and openness,  as far from “insularity” as it is possible to be?



With Friends Like These…: Why “The Triple Package” is So Disturbing

Like many folks who read Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s lengthy piece in the NYTimes today, I’m aghast. The piece purports to be a probing and innovative exploration of “success” in America, following the differing fortunes of persons of various ethnic heritages.  But it seems to me to be one of the most concerted and insidious defenses of ethnic and racial stereotypes we have been offered since the Bell Curve.

In the essay the authors summarize their new book, and if you have ever reflected for even a moment on the self-reproducing logics of ethnic and racial discrimination in America, the book’s title alone will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up: “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.”  Traits? Rise and fall? Cultural Groups??? Each of those terms demarcates an entity, standard of attainment, or category that is utterly arbitrary and which conveniently, seamlessly, reproduces their argument.

I have to ask: How do these people have ANY credibility IN A DEMOCRACY?

Chua (aka, Tiger Mom) and Rubenfeld posit a cocktail of personal attributes that carry individual citizens out of penury and into affluence.  The three “traits” are a “superiority complex” that lends one a sense of one’s own exceptional merit or valor, a sense of innate “inferiority” that drives one forward to achieve, and (la plus ca change!), sufficient “impulse control.”   Certain people, whom they identify by what they believe to be meaningful group affiliations  (for example, as Jewish, Cuban-American, or Nigerian), “succeed” by dint of these attributes and affiliations.

So we are back to Horatio Alger. We are back to the neoliberal belief that individual fortitude is and should be central to individual economic security. We are also back uncritically to delineating group memberships (Jewish, Asian, Black, Mormon…) and attaching functionalist labels (students of Ivy League caliber, people who are insecure…) that confirm our own logic. This last is an idea of “cultural groups” and their experiences that even the NY POST understands is retro!

I could write a book (oh wait, I already did) on the self-referential nature of American definitions of intellectual attainment and how those definitions systematically deny structural racism.  But let me stress here the way that each of the three traits points to individual volition…potentially cultivated, say Chua and Rubenfeld, through family and community influences, but to no avail without the final ingredient: the magic of personal grit.

Yep, that’s right: Grit. Heck, why not “Gumption?” Or how about, “Moxie”? Because frankly, this argument would have been cutting edge in 1943. In that year, a noted expert on African-American education in the U.S. Office of Education, Dr. Ambrose Caliver, described the importance of increased self-discipline for black Americans who aspired to be doctors or scientists. More precisely, he fretted that blacks lacked a “zest for discovery” and were easily distracted by “entertainments.”  A shortfall in self-control was diagnosed asthe problem. During his career Caliver tirelessly fought immense obstacles to black educational opportunity, but he operated with ideas that were nonetheless highly essentialist. This kind of characterization appears to find evidence (lack of fortitude) in a field of data (people who are black) while in actuality, selecting both what counts as evidence and what belongs in the field in order to fit a pre-conceived pattern (a preponderance of blacks who lack fortitude).

I shudder to think of such false empiricism gaining new credence through the imprimatur of Yale Law School (Chua and Rubenfeld’s employer) and the New York Times. But I’m not surprised.  Circular arguments, narrowed ideas of human welfare, deep distrust of collective aims that might transcend self- or other-identity…these are reliably the instruments of privilege in a profoundly hierarchical society.  The concerned tone of Chua and Rubenfeld’s piece is disingenuous and their brief nod to “discrimination, prejudice and shrinking opportunity” disguises a systematic denial of structural inequities in American education and economic institutions.  Packaged, indeed.





Rank, and then, File

A compelling piece appeared on the American Physical Society News website a while ago that  just came to my attention.  (Thank you, Michael Fisher!)   Author Casey W. Miller, an associate professor of physics at the University of South Florida, asks the physics community to consider the poor record their discipline holds around gender, racial,  and ethnic inclusion.  That pattern has been documented for years and is the subject of plenty of conversation, but as Miller makes clear, it is not a problem that exerts any broad or consistent practical purchase on the field.

Miller’s column is a model of careful argumentation that is worth keeping on hand for its clarity  around an intractable social problem. But I think there’s one particularly transferable lesson in the  piece:  Miller makes a direct and powerful connection between university ranking systems (such as that propagated by US News)  and a lack of diversity in physics graduate programs.

The GRE scores of admitted students factor into these numeric comparisons among programs in many disciplines, and with the ACT and SAT test scores deployed by undergraduate programs impel admissions decisions for virtually all U.S. schools. Not surprising to the readers of this blog, most likely, is Miller’s case that the heavy reliance by physics graduate programs on GRE scores impedes gender and racial diversity in that field.  We learn that women and students of minority background intending to pursue the physical sciences tend to score lower on the GREs, often falling below cut-offs for admission.  But more surprising perhaps, Miller then summarizes previous studies that have shown GRE scores to be poor predictors of research success among physics students, undeniably ” the aim of the PhD.”

What’s going on here? How does a field like physics, that many of us would generally think of as profoundly reflective about its own knowledge-making, about its own ways of seeking and handling data, end up with such a deeply skewed and selective relationship to data?  By defaulting to conventional (and discriminatory) ideas about how easily people can be converted to data.

That many factors determine an individual’s performance on a standardized test has long been understood by researchers, and the list of those factors keeps growing.  Physics professor Suzanne Amador Kane reminded me about the article in the NYTimes by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman a few months ago. That piece summarized new research on biological contributors to students’ stress-while-testing and the variable psychological reactions that different students have to that physiological experience.  We should of course approach all such genomic and bodily explanations with great care because, given the strength of discriminatory social structures in the U.S., those explanations tend to displace social factors in our analyses.  But that’s all the more reason to question the very term “standardized testing.”  And, to remember that the link customarily projected between STEM fields’ selectivity and practitioners’ promise or rigor, as I keep saying, needs to be seen as an arbitrary one.

What I’d highlight from Miller’s version of things is this: The use of scores certainly restricts participation in higher education and relies upon discriminatory social categories. But it also serves as a perfect disguise for our exclusionary educational habits; the symbolic values of testing and ranking are immense in STEM disciplines. Score-based admissions and the resultant rankings of universities on their basis suggest the pursuit of both quality and impartiality by higher ed. Those commitments are assuredly claimed by all disciplines, but the world of STEM expertise has a special investment in the objectivity of quantification.  Throughout the world of science, comparisons among bits of data (as rankings by their nature perform), reassert the value of both individual measurements and of the metric itself…that is, they help validate the very act of measurement.  But the understanding of test scores as a reflection of students’ promise and the veneration of those scores through school rankings are far from fair, and Miller helps us step back from that habitual, uncritical, numerical embrace.

Beware the Algorithm: STEM Recruitment Meets Big Data

Big Data, it seems, is suddenly very big. Among the social scientists with whom I spend time, newly massive, deep-tissue-massaged bodies of data have found currency.  As a research tool, the emergent technique seems to promise a rehabilitation of conventional, sometimes dismayingly narrow, quantitative analysis because it involves the use not just of MORE raw material but also of unprecedentedly nuanced software. So, unlike old “Small Data” projects, the empiricism of Big Data research feels like it is rooted in an especially flexible and expansive kind of inquiry.  As more and more media, public and private institutions, and cultural enterprises of all kinds operate on-line, the idea that our research subject (manipulated data) and method (manipulating data) shall coincide seduces. But perhaps caution is advised.

I recently attended a social science workshop in which the taxonomic, counting, and graphing choices being made with Big Data seemed to be tripping along with a minimum of criticality and reflexivity.  Not one among the sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural historians attending suggested that the new scale of data-collection and warp speed of data-crunching might hold totalizing risks for the analyst.  In the bigger-data-sets-are-better atmosphere, Foucault’s point that in rendering a subject knowable we reproduce power seemed lost amidst the intoxicating possibility of…the comprehensive.  That this feature of Big Data holds profoundly political implications became clear to me when I read a piece in yesterday’s New York Times by Matt Richtel on the role of Big Data in enhancing inclusion in STEM.

“I Was Discovered by An Algorithm” is not about the social sciences per se, but it is about the use of extraordinarily large data sets for ostensibly value-laden purposes. The article introduces readers to “work-force science,” a new-ish field in which human resources personnel mine massive amounts of data to determine both which sorts of qualification and which individuals may best suit a particular job category or position. In the case of computing professions, the growth of on-line code sharing and programming provides a ready-made body of data that can reveal, proponents say, unrecognized talent. This system supposedly corrects for social biases triggered by our faces or resumes to expand hiring pools and individuals’ opportunities, alike.

But the notion of hidden STEM talent is one I’ve long been concerned about and its mention here alerted me to a conservative deployment of Big Data. Defining the problem as one of unrecognized talent is a way of seeing under-representation in STEM without asking questions about opportunities…about discrimination in education that might preclude an individual’s development of technical interests. Nor does it let us ask about the inherent oppressions of segmented industrial labor , a system that minimizes workers’  chances to learn and grow through work. To me, such searches for promising but as-yet-unrecognized STEM workers have presented a seemingly inclusive agenda that manages systematically to ignore such structural inequities.

Consider the framing of data-driven STEM hiring described in Richtel’s piece. Vivienne Ming, chief scientist at the start-up firm, Gild, approaches the mining of Big Data as a way to evade the biases traditionally found in hiring, including gender, race, and the presumptions we make about one another based on university attended or jobs previously held.  The main case covered in the article is that of a young programmer who never attended college but who, once in range of Gild’s “automated vacuum and filter for talent” (as Ming calls it),  was revealed to possess exceptional capacities.  He got the job. To Ming, this approach to recruitment lets the firm “put everything in,” and then lets the “data speak for itself.”

But of course, data can’t speak for itself; only for those who have given it meaning. Despite Ming’s articulated concern with inclusion,  per Gild’s algorithm (and their Nike-esque catchphrase, “Know Who’s Good”), it is only success along existing standards of technical efficacy and productivity that identifies the outstanding programmer. Automating this determination may be great for the firm, but it hardly constitutes a significant push-back at discriminatory conditions. There are doubts expressed in the article about this HR approach, but these are themselves telling about the obfuscatory power of meritocratic logic in industry. Some observers worry that subjective features such as a candidate’s “people skills” are occluded with this kind of data-based hiring. Others want more finely grained objective tools, such as those at Gild who are eager to hone in on prospective employees’ most specialized technical skills. But the superficial differences between these complaints are deceiving. Both thoroughly detach hiring criteria from the social and political conditions in which those criteria arise and which those criteria faithfully reproduce.

I have lately been reading a remarkable book on industrial personnel practices by professor of management Barbara Townley , which considers “power, ethics and the subject at work” from a Foucauldian vantage point.  She reminds us that the field of human resources has always been about constructing the individual as an object of knowledge, not about “uncovering” some essential self in the prospective employee.  Work-force science, predicated on letting data “speak for itself,”  seems exquisitely suited to (in Townley’s phrase) “render organizations and their participants calculable arenas,” and to do so  unceasingly “in service to the profitability and productivity of the organization.”  To claim, as Ming does, that the largest bodies of data ever deployed for HR purposes will somehow transcend the foundational values of corporate HR seems like selective logic. Personally, I will now be mining Townley’s work for ways to understand the social instrumentalities of Big Data.

Mind The Skills Gap


Edie Fraser, meet Adam Davidson.

Fraser, an expert on human resource issues in STEM-dependent industries, is the author of “The Root of Real Jobs: Filling the STEM Talent Gap.” This piece appeared in the Huffington Post the other day and can best be described as skills-gap boilerplate. The widely circulating trope that she makes central to her column depicts thousands if not millions of technical jobs in America going unfilled due to an underprepared national workforce, and as a result, citizens going jobless and the US slipping ever lower on the global economic pyramid.

Davidson, who co-founded the Planet Money blog for NPR, for his part offers a badly needed corrective to that mistaken picture.  In  an NYTimes piece this week, he emphasizes that the notion that we are suffering from a simple unmet labor demand is misleading.  That view implies that the challenge we face is the insertion of workers into waiting manufacturing jobs, no questions asked about those jobs. Instead, Davidson points out, wages in the vaunted high-tech manufacturing sector barely exceed those of fast food jobs, and these positions are notoriously insecure in light of employers’ commitments to the outsourcing and automation that lower their wage costs.  Given those conditions it isn’t unreasonable for un- and underemployed Americans to balk at undertaking specialized training for jobs that seem little better than those near the  bottom of the service sector.

As a handful of others have also pointed out, if the unfilled tech positions were really the result of a supply-demand imbalance, wages would rise until workers felt impelled to fill the “gap.” (See my post of a couple of weeks ago, on Peter Cappalli’s introduction of this point on 60 Minutes.)

Davidson is not unsympathetic to the plight of employers, including one he interviews who is reluctant to hire those coming from “union-type” backgrounds expecting pay levels the employer sees as unsustainable if his business is to survive. And in that sense, Davidson reminds us that this is a system that traps multiple participants (both high and low on the socioeconomic and opportunity ladder) in potentially unjust economic structures.  Important to remember though, is that the business owner has property in hand while the unemployed worker does not. They are not equally vulnerable to (or responsible for!) the system’s injustices.

Obviously, just to recognize as Davidson does that a wage deficit (and thus potentially, a profit excess) is at the heart of the problem is to be far more progressive than the skills-gap explanation would allow one to be. We do hate to see our cutting-edge manufacturing enterprises as anything other than, well, cutting-edge, but the social inequities inherent in the skills-gap rhetoric are as old and robust as American industrial capitalism itself, and Davidson helps us see this.

But I’d push Davidson still further. Both he and Fraser mention that more and better education could help everyone here, workers and employers.  Yet even though Davidson mentions a faltering “social contract” among workers and employers, neither writer points out that the underlying rationale for feebly funded and ill-conceived schooling in America historically derives from the same social priorities that make minimizing wages a reasonable aim for employers.  A legitimation of maximized socioeconomic differences among Americans is at work here, buttressing both the nation’s under-resourced education system and its low pay scales.

I know, I know: That plaint is becoming a bit of boilerplate in this blog.  But the constant reissuing of  uncritical statements about the burgeoning high-tech labor sector, like Fraser’s, even amidst apparently genuine concern about opportunity and diversity, is infuriating to me.  Calls for improved STEM education fit all too tidily with the obfuscatory concept of a STEM skills-gap; each formulation lends meaning and validity to the other.

But STEM education is not a panacea, as incisive writers on the “vocationalism” of US community colleges make abundantly clear (Brint and Karabel’s 1989 book, The Diverted Dream, remains invaluable here).  Education for jobs fails to bring widespread employment partly because of the very real lack of school/industry communication that Fraser cites, but also because the system isn’t designed to maximize knowledge and economic mobility among American citizens; instead it functions to assign different populations to different levels of occupational eligibility, many to a level with little real opportunity.  Without more of that kind of deeply critical thinking about undemocratic social structures, all the talk in the world about skills, jobs, and the gaps between them is not going to help the American worker.

Virtue Rewarded: The World According to Brooks

Give me some credit: For some months now I have successfully resisted the impulse to respond to David Brooks’ conservative writings about economic opportunity in America.  His logic is so extraordinarily selective that any critique of his arguments felt like hitting the side of barn; a target too big to miss…But today’s NYTimes column, in which Brooks tells us what is wrong with the American “meritocracy” of 2012, requires some attention from any social historian with a conscience.

Thinking about the Libor scandal and the many Wall Street troubles that have preceded it over the last couple of years, Brooks indicts the morals of today’s banking and corporate leaders, who unlike Groton and Yale graduates of yore, apparently possess no ethos of leadership.  They know “how to succeed,” but not “how to be virtuous” as did those previous generations, says Brooks.

Basically, Brooks wants us to distinguish between the ethics of “old” elites in U.S. history and “new.” The former, he says, were largely white, male members of the Protestant Establishment, born to privilege, and thus predictably “cruel” in their sexism, racism and anti-semitism. Still and all, these WASP stalwarts were competent and reliable directors of our banks, universities, country clubs and higher realms of government.  By contrast, today’s high achievers are more diverse in background and inherently pluralistic, having arisen not through social privilege but by being “brainy,” and Brooks sees in their success an index of these folks’ ambitiousness and discipline. But here’s the rub: despite their innate talents and vigor, today’s Wall Street financiers and economists are, sadly, nonetheless boobish and untrustworthy.  These new elites “stink,” and are giving merit a bad name.

They are, we read, “brats,” a condescending word Brooks clearly chose with care, and their immaturity and moral failings explain the dire financial straits into which these modern elites have plunged so much of the planet.  In gratuitiously characterizing themselves as anti-establishment (as they are wont to do, according to Brooks), today’s Harvard, Brown and Stanford grads deny responsibility for the conduct of the big institutions they in truth control. Brooks wants them to grow up and admit they are running the show because to do otherwise is… selfish!

Nobless oblige, anyone?  Putting aside for the moment Brooks’ willful denial that his subjects might be feeble conservatives precisely because they are trying to be effectual liberals (and just how hard they are trying is an important question, of course),  Brooks is hardly original in that accusation of selfishness.  The idea of there being “good” and “bad” elites is as old (and self-confirming) as Western philosophy itself.  Brooks is urging privileged Americans to acknowledge their elite status, to step up to the plate, and his naturalization of a hierarchical society is similarly unsurprising. We would expect him, as a conservative, to indict certain individuals as flawed while singing the praises of the social system from which those individuals derive their influence; a superficially reasoned stance perhaps, but again, not surprising.

What is important, however, is to unmask Brooks’ strategic deployment of “meritocracy” in this effort to depict American society as inherently democratic, despite the patently self-interested, classist aims of its corporate and financial institutions.  Focusing on merit,  a feature of individuals and not institutions or social structures, itself constrains the conversation profoundly.   It is only by denying structural problems like racism, gutted education budgets, and wage stagnation that one can use the term meritocracy unproblematically, as Brooks does.

Brooks’ is above all a deeply disingenuous argument, which pretends to care about the welfare of non-elites and to despise the bigotry of yesteryear, while actually reifying the power of privileged Americans and the closed, unreflexive nature of the institutions which produce and sustain that power.   Selective logic, indeed.




Not just STEM, or, Why the American Economy Needs Humanities Majors



Poster from Federal Art Project/WPA

This blog usually focuses on opening the door to science occupations for groups traditionally under-represented in those fields.  Obviously, one aim here is the creation of more opportunities for rewarding and remunerative STEM-related careers for women, minorities and persons with disabilities.  All good. But I have to turn our attention for a minute to a logical fallacy that such activism might unfortunately support: the idea that higher education in the humanities and social sciences is a bad idea for any young person hoping for a paying career.

This is a trope that goes with the pervasive idea that American is suffering from a STEM talent shortage as “competitor” nations build their technical workforces…Which in some narrow sense might be the case, but the answer to that shortage is to provide more kids with higher quality, more welcoming science programming, NOT to turn young people away from their non-STEM passions and pleasures!

Frank Bruni’s column on “The Imperiled Promised of College” restates that not-very-good idea in today’s New York Times.  He fittingly notes the unaffordable cost of college for too many Americans today, but less helpfully sees a worrisome insistence among many students on dead-end degree programs that lead to less-than-meaningful working lives:

 Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

As is often the case with such plaints, students’ engagement with humanities, arts and social science disciplines comes across in Bruni’s telling as pointless and naïve. But why should we accept that these venerable intellectual pursuits are occupational cul-de-sacs? You would have to accept the existence of an awful lot of social and cultural constraints in the process of doing so.

First:  You would have to accept that the low employment prospects for today’s humanities and social science grads mean that those disciplines are inherently a waste of everyone’s time and money—including the time and money of the anthropology, art history, film studies and philosophy majors who make up some of my brightest and most engaging students.  I will not be the one to tell these kids to suppress their fabulous curiosity, creativity and insight.

That first judgment in turn rests on the presumption that as a nation we cannot afford to create jobs for our arts and humanities graduates. The WPA famously produced some of the most enduring art, drama, and civil architecture in American history, but if that kind of outcome is too touchy-feely for you, think more practically.  Imagine not just the wealth of student experience and cultural excitement that a nationwide artist-, designer- or writer-in-residence program for American high schools would generate, but how students’ expressive abilities and communications skills would improve!  (…according to many educators, the very same  “soft skills” too many of our engineering students lack!)

And what about the democratic (dare I say, “global”?) potential of a nation with more science writers, equipped with federal grants to support their work for local newspapers? Or , with more social scientists specializing in research on the origins and impacts of science, technology and medicine…with funding to share their findings with both expert and community groups?  Our university humanities and social science programs can produce superb practitioners to fill these and many other positions.

Instead, Bruni and others wring their hands in unimaginative supplication to the conventional economic analysis that privileges industrial profits and  the projects that assure those profits.  The impoverished cultural and civic life that this vision projects for America is truly depressing… And, offers another instance where today’s low level of public resources for American arts and letters is naturalized as necessary for a healthy economy, asserting that we just don’t have the money for activities that don’t make money  (…or, make money for those who already have a way to make money, that is; NB how CEO salaries continued climbing throughout the recession).

Would we need big political and cultural changes to bring about this kind of renewal for the status and scale of humanities in American higher ed, a new and unfamiliar vision of what matters, and why? You bet…and just the job for artists, writers, philosophers and historians!

With Friends Like This…

An opinion column by Caitlin Flanagan in the NYTimes today, entitled “Hysteria and the Teenage Girl,” maps out for us why it is that girls experience “hysterical reactions” to stress more often than do boys, especially in the pressure-filled teenage years.  She lists separate episodes in which groups of girls or young women from various cultures—two batches of female American cheerleaders, 900 Arab girls in the West Bank and some female Israeli soldiers, communities of Tanzanian schoolgirls—apparently fell prey to shared (contagious?) psychological reactions to stress, exhibiting “Tourette’s like” behaviors, compulsive laughter, or fainting with no apparent physical bases. Flanagan sees here a version of the recurring psychological distress and domestic conflict that many parents of teenage girls she encounters routinely report. Thinking about these seemingly related phenomena compels Flanagan to assert to her readers that boys and girls are different and ultimately, to quote a neurologist’s finding that, “These girls will get better, they just need time and space.”

My own teenage daughter read the column and, with evident disgust (which I suppose, could have been induced by hysteria) said of Flanagan: “It’s like she is just saying ‘Who cares what happens to teenage boys!’ She doesn’t bother to find out why these girls reacted this way, or what other factors might have been involved…the only common feature was their craziness!”

“Girls look weak and susceptible,” she added, “Flanagan makes them look like delicate creatures!” Even at 16, provoked by such insults perhaps, she got it. To treat these females’  behaviors as “extreme and bizarre psychological symptoms” you’d have to be (in my daughter’s words), “looking for extreme behaviors only in girls, just refusing to see anything boys did as hysterical or extreme!”

She said it better than I could have and made me realize why a critique of Flanagan’s points belongs in a blog about STEM equity: Because Flanagan so blithely denies that social structures may set girls up to see themselves as less sturdy than boys, promoting such stress reactions.

Moreover, essentialist expectations of female weakness and incapacity like those Flanagan broadcasts might precondition girls to see themselves as innately physically or psychologically vulnerable. Her perhaps sincere sympathy for the suffering girls in fact  perpetuates such disempowering myths, not least by utterly ignoring the social, educational and economic inequities with which so many young women live.

Are some, or even most, teens emotionally vulnerable? Of course. Do conditions of impending adulthood, or poverty, or war, put people (of any age) in a position of psychological unsteadiness? Without question. But the presumption that we should not be surprised when girls or women reveal such vulnerability because it is inherent in their femaleness is to set the cause of women’s rights, and equal participation in social and cultural institutions of all kinds, back by decades.  Read this quote from the column and see if you agree with me that this might have been exactly Flanagan’s intention:

“Hysteria is the most retrograde and non-womyn-empowering condition. It’s not supposed to happen anymore (we have Title IX!), but it won’t seem to go away.”

“Won’t seem to go away”?? With folks like Flanagan treating psychological upset as gender-derived, primarily biological, and devoid of social or political cause,  it’s no wonder.

A Critical Media Moment? CNN on Race

We have to be grateful that CNN is drawing attention to issues of race in Silicon Valley. Or do we? The cable network’s documentary “The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley” airs tomorrow, and if it hones in on structural and institutional racism in American computing and electronics industries, great.  The world of high tech R&D is too easily cast as above or outside of social factors; I spend my days teaching engineering undergrads how to question that presumption.  Specifically, with some powerful reporting by CNN we may see how familiar meritocratic claims about “genius” as the source of American high-tech innovation  (lately fueled by retrospectives of Steve Jobs’ career) have long helped support race-based exclusion in U.S. technology spheres.  I blogged about this the other week.

But I’m a little worried. Advance screenings and media commentary on the film have generated a great deal of conversation, among bloggers and mainstream media alike.  Yesterday the New York Times reflected on the buzz itself, in “CNN Documentary Sets Off Debate on Race and Technology” by Brian Stelter and Jenna Wortham.  And much of that buzz has been about the ways in which individuals depicted in the film, such as Michael Arrington, do or don’t recognize structural inequities; that is, about the talking heads themselves. Their views provide interesting evidence but we need to go from thinking about those individuals  to a broader view.  Hank Williams lays out some of these larger issues for CNN as the network builds hype for the documentary; for example, pervasive economic impediments to the scale-up of minority-led projects. If CNN proves willing to keep that conversation going, bucking a mainstream media tradition of downplaying the race, class and gender inequities still going strong in 21st Century America, then we may have something to thank them for.

Charged Up in Michigan

An article in Sunday’s New York Times magazine, focused on lithium-ion battery makers in Michigan, does a nice job of laying out the many factors involved in creating manufacturing jobs for Americans.  In “Make or Break,” author Jon Gertner describes  prevailing business models that discourage the slow-return, incremental investments needed to bring new factories into being. We read, too,  that federal interventions that might support job creation face numerous cultural obstacles: small-government (my word, not his) political trends have long made federal “industrial policy” a distasteful topic for politicians. Well aware of those trends, President Obama (whether savvy or timid, depending on your point of view), turns to “stealth” distributions of federal stimulus money for industrial start-ups like the battery makers’.

Interestingly,  Gertner writes that  Michigan firms hoping to supply an emergent hybrid car market have begun to purchase and copy advanced battery technologies from their Korean counterparts.  “Cutting and pasting” production techniques from abroad is not a new approach for American businesses (Samuel Slater famously brought foundational British textile technologies to America in the 1790s, but unsung thousands of enslaved persons brought technical skills and knowledge to the colonies well before that, fostering the commercial production of furniture, metal and woodworked goods, medicines, and much more), but it is not one we see explored in print very often. …our Yankee Ingenuity-slash-Egos being a bit delicate, perhaps.  A bit more systematic respect for “other” sources of innovation might be in order, as the Michigan firm owners seem to understand.

Gertner mentions, too,  the training courses being offered by some local colleges to folks hoping for employment in Michigan’s new lithium-ion battery plants, but (not surprising to readers of this blog) notes that the future for these factories is still unsure.

Gertner doesn’t go into detail on many of these points. He seems to be aiming instead to convey how messy and complex the situation is, which I appreciate.  But in a sense, that lets him skirt the moral urgency of the debates he describes.  So here’s a thought experiment. What would this article look like if written from the perspective of people who need jobs?  Maybe the off-putting economic and political risks, and the distaste that influential Americans have harbored for  government intervention in recent decades, would look different if we all felt the urgency of job creation that unemployed Americans feel every day. With that felt necessity, the government and we voters might push for more stimulus money for manufacturing, more boldly and openly deployed.  With some centralized oversight and federal backing for these priorities, the aims of  real security, decent pay and safety for workers could help shape the jobs themselves, too. The fledgling ecology of high-tech manufacturing  is  “fragile,”  according to Gertner, and I believe him.  I would add: we can nurture it to sturdy maturity if we really want to.