Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Johnny Doesn't Have a College Degree

A few days ago, I had the privilege of visiting with a 98-year-old man, whom I had never met before. He was anxious to share some of his life experiences, such as his decision to go to college during the Great Depression, and the $60 per semester tuition he had to pay (which included books, though he had to return them when the class was done). At some points, the conversation knew no generational lines; we alternated discussions of the past with the present--we discussed the NCAA Tournament and the poor showing of the Wisconsin basketball team the previous night. It was rather remarkable to think that this man is only 22 years younger than the sport of basketball itself. At one point, he was asked to what he attributed his sharpness and alertness of mind. Did he read a lot? "I read the newspaper some," he replied, "but I watch TV, too," he was quick to add.

Television, of course, has been vilified and demonized, charged with hastening the decline of civilization. Newton Minnow famously called it a "vast wasteland," while Jerry Mander famously wrote four arguments for its elimination. One of Mander's most cogent points for me is that "you really can't summarize complex information. And...television is a medium of summary or reductionism - it reduces everything to slogans. And that's one criticism of it, that it requires everything to be packaged and reduced and announced in a slogan-type form." I do think he has a point, and that a case can be made that the pervasiveness and the dominance of the medium has also affected a transformation of other mediums. In placing side-by-side written texts from before and after the era of television, one can easily see a trend toward simplicity. Sentences used to be longer and more complex, and in nonfiction, ideas were developed in lengthier and more thorough discourses. And I think few would argue that attention spans are shorter than they were before the invention of television.

But for all that, it's hard to argue that society has gotten dumber over the last 75 years. Granted, some might argue that the recent financial meltdown can be attributed to the intellectual shortcomings of those wielding power, but there is also a lot of evidence that we've gotten smarter. The average IQ score in the U.S. has gone up 22 points from 1932 to 2002. Technology and innovation have continued to move forward. Groups that were underprivileged because of cultural biases have been afforded more opportunities, and in general, the greatest leaps forward in civil rights and moral acceptance of others has occurred during the TV era. And in a particularly fascinating study, television has been lauded as the cause for female empowerment in rural India.

But even as TV is credited for helping females achieve in India, in another part of the word, males are taking a step back. Two weeks ago, an op-ed in the Philadelphia Daily News explored the gender gap in U.S. higher education: "Men make up 42 percent of enrollment in American college-degree programs. At smaller schools, that share can drop to as little as 30 percent. Adult degree-completion programs have seen women outnumbering men for years, accounting for as much as 80 percent of enrollment. Except for in medicine and law, where the sexes are almost equal, women are well outpacing men at all levels and kinds of degrees awarded."

A more extensive analysis was published last year in The Atlantic. Entitled "The End of Men," the article also examined the gender gap in higher education. The author, Hanna Rosin, writes:

Throughout the ’90s, various authors and researchers agonized over why boys seemed to be failing at every level of education, from elementary school on up, and identified various culprits: a misguided feminism that treated normal boys as incipient harassers (Christina Hoff Sommers); different brain chemistry (Michael Gurian); a demanding, verbally focused curriculum that ignored boys’ interests (Richard Whitmire). But again, it’s not all that clear that boys have become more dysfunctional—or have changed in any way. What’s clear is that schools, like the economy, now value the self-control, focus, and verbal aptitude that seem to come more easily to young girls.

Of the three factors listed above, I would put "verbal aptitude" at the top. Language skills, or the ability to listen, talk, and write, are the basis for success in academics, in part because the desire to listen, talk, and write will naturally help one's ability to maintain self-control and focus. So what would give females an advantage in "verbal aptitude"? Jerry Mander wouldn't want me to oversimplify, but I have a theory: I don't think boys are watching enough television.

Being an English teacher, predictably I still think that sitting and reading is the best way to develop an aptitude for language. But I also think that listening to language is also a key in development. Being in different social situations will allow one to build aptitude (something that is probably on the decline as more people seek out virtual spaces to interact). But short of that, I do think that there are advantages to hearing the verbal repartee of fictional characters, the monologues of late night hosts, the interviews on talk shows, or the descriptions of live events offered by sports broadcasters.

But there is one medium that I think would have a negligible effect at best in building verbal aptitude, and it happens to be a medium that is becoming dominant with young males of this generation: video games. Video games are being blamed for social maladies such as obesity and desensitization to violence, but I wonder if the most pernicious effect is one that is under the radar. Maybe we won't know for another 75 years. If a 98-year-old in the year 2086 attributes his sharpness and mental clarity to video games, I'll admit that I was wrong.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tsunamis, Dead Bodies, Jokes, and Reality

Last week I wrote about insensitivity in the wake of tragedy, of both the intentional and the unintentional variety. A few days later, posted a column dealing with the same subject. Jack Shafer took a sympathetic view of the situation, claiming that "where I come from, the only power strong enough to defeat radiation is a sick, hurtful joke." But as I wrote previously, I'm skeptical that such jokes actually serve a psychological need. I'm not totally disinclined to buy the Freudian theory that jokes can be a way to talk about that which would otherwise be repressed, but I have a hard time believing that people halfway across the world are suffering repressed trauma as the result of natural disasters that affect strangers.

But there is one remark that I made in last week's post that I am now reconsidering. I suggested that it was likely that in the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, jokes were likely circulated. Now, I'm not so sure. Shafer also looks to the past, in order that he might find a precedent that would perhaps justify today's practice, and he finds it in the Jewish custom of the Badkhn. Apparently, the Badkhn was a kind of jester specializing in offensive jokes who would turn social events into what we might call roasts. Centuries ago, when rabbis outlawed levity from public events, the Badkhns were allowed to persist because they weren't actually considered funny. So, the story goes, they popularized a tradition that the likes of Gilbert Gottfried and Sarah Silverman follow today.

But there is a difference between someone speaking at a roast and Gilbert Gottfried joking through Twitter about bodies washing up onshore. Proximity to the subject of the joke is crucial to consider. When you are making a joke about someone you can see, you are taking a real situation and making it absurd. When you are joking about a news story, you are taking an abstraction and making it more abstract.

Our first reactions when public figures transgress against sensitivity in times of tragedy are shock and censure. Some might argue that this is exactly what somebody like Gottfried is after, that he is fulfilling a needed social function, that we need to be constantly provoked in order to establish boundaries. And Shafer seems to think that Gottfried is being disingenuous when he apologized and said he meant no disrespect.

But I think it is entirely possible that many who tell such jokes are legitimately surprised when there is a backlash. Because the vast majority of people alive today have grown up with television, we take for granted that our realities have been mediated. A typical adult has seen multiple natural disasters, tragedies, and horrors of unspeakable dimensions played out in their lifetime. A majority of these incidents have been scripted and staged, others have been filmed and relayed from distant parts of the world--and very few have directly impacted them. Is it any surprise then, that when a tragedy occurs, many of us will view it as an abstraction, at least partially? And the less real that something is, the more likely we will view it as the typical fodder we are offered up through the media everyday--including narratives that we can initially immerse ourselves in but then disregard without a second thought, or gossip that we can laugh and joke about.

So I'm not sure that people in the 1940s would have joked about Hiroshima. Even though it happened halfway around the world, it wasn't an abstraction. The terror of a nuclear bomb made itself known first in reality without having been portrayed in fiction. But the threat of a nuclear meltdown today? It's just as likely to inspire a joke about Godzilla as it is to inspire fear.

But in the final analysis, even as the line between reality and abstraction is blurred by technology, at least there is a picture there to begin with. Had this tragedy befallen Japan 300 years ago, I can't imagine there would have been much support from the international community. Having some off-color jokes in circulation seems to be a fair trade-off for the sympathies, concerns, prayers, and relief efforts that flow from the hearts of those who, if not for media, would have a smaller, if more precise, view of reality.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The One About Insensitivity

If you were in southern Wisconsin in the early 1990s, chances are if you stopped a random man, woman, or child and asked them if they had heard a "Dahmer joke," they would have to answer in the affirmative. Nobody was tweeting them and they were certainly not being broadcast by the mainstream media (which was pretty much the only media that existed in those days), but they spread virally the old-fashioned way. For some reason, there was a huge demand for one-liners about a cannibalistic serial killer who used to work in a chocolate factory. Of course, the phenomenon of the inappropriate or insensitive joke was/is not limited to Wisconsin. Challenger jokes somehow became a national meme before people talked about memes. O.J. jokes were big in the mid-90s. And I would guess that there might have been a few Hiroshima jokes uttered more than 60 years ago.

The Freudian explanation for this phenomenon (that we work out repressed feelings in humor) seems almost too easy to assign as a cause. I don't think that all that many Wisconsinites were truly affected by Dahmer's deviance, to the point where they had unconscious fears that they had bubble up as jokes. More likely people were transgressing just for the sake of transgressing, violating a taboo just for the illicit thrill that is derived from flaunting the folkways of society.

But there would be no thrill if there were no taboo, so it is important to the joke teller or the "joke hearer" that there remains some cultural standard for them to rebel against. So in order for there to be insensitive jokes, there needs to be a standard for sensitivity, and we need to be reminded that the standard exists. And the Internet has enabled that negotiation to be openly displayed time and time again. It is fascinating to see this pageant play out repeatedly on social media, on message boards, and on comments sections. The sports gossip website Deadspin (part of a larger network of gossip blogs called "Gawker Media") is a particularly interesting nexus. The site, famous for breaking the story of Rex Ryan's foot fetish and Brett Favre's text messaging scandal, has a cadre of designated-elite commentators who duel with each other to post the most clever and biting reactions to news stories, and they often resort to humor which many would find offensive. At the same time, the site often promotes their own kind of morality, taking a kind of Holden Caufield aggressiveness toward "phonies," railing against meathead fratboy humor, defending historically underprivileged populations, and targeting for criticism other media outlets that exhibit insensitivity.

Recent examples among the latter: An article highlighting (and condemning) a Philadelphia newspaper column which joked about the potential to throw batteries at a baseball player and an article mocking another sports website for using the Japan earthquake as a basis to discuss natural disasters that had impacted sports events in the past. Deadspin also once declared a newspaper column "the single worst piece of sports journalism ever committed to the page." And as histrionic as this statement is, it is also quite possibly true: the column in question uses a news story about a woman who was kidnapped at age eleven and forced to spend 18 years in captivity as a basis to discuss how the sports world had changed in those years.

Of course, the difference between the insensitivity demonstrated in those instances and the insensitivity demonstrated by Dahmer or Challenger joke tellers is that the latter are aware of their transgression, while the former are oblivious. And for reasons delineated above, this is why the second group is a threat to the first. Those who knowingly violate standards don't want to see them lowered.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Talks Are Ongoing

We live in an era of "behind the scenes" access. Embedded journalists report from war zones. Surgeons are tweeting from operating rooms. Cameras and microphones are everywhere. We can go inside huddles or locker rooms to hear what coaches are saying. Celebrities agree to do reality shows that, however filtered, give us glimpses of their environment beyond the spotlight. DVD commentaries reveal the thought processes of those involved in film production. Even if the access isn't instant, we usually don't have to wait long. Anyone wanting to know more about the inner workings of the Bush administration now has numerous memoirs and investigative books to pick through (or even more recently, there is a book that offers inside dope on the 2008 Obama campaign). Private phone conversations, diatribes, and messages are routinely leaked. And now even classified government documents can be downloaded by anyone who cares to see them.

But for all that, there is one category of discourse which is as off-limits now as it has always been. Labor negotiations are a mystery to me. I've had one job where my salary was negotiable, and I think negotiations lasted for less than sixty seconds. So when I read about either individual or collective bargaining happening (and it is usually in the sports pages that I encounter these stories), I have no frame of reference to conceive of what actually goes on in such sessions. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell keeps on talking about how his league's collective bargaining agreement will be settled through "negotiation, not through the media, and not through litigation." That sounds great, but I find myself curious about how agreements are settled through negotiation. What I do know is that several hours have already been devoted to the negotiations and that a federal mediator has been a part of it. What I would like to know is whether this kind of approach is the most efficient way to reach an agreement.

I realize that a league collective bargaining agreement involves many facets and will end up being a multi-page document that will be scrutinized by several lawyers. But I've got to think that the issues that are currently preventing a settlement aren't the ones that will ultimately end up in the fine print. From all reports, the length of the season and the percentage of revenue allocated for player salaries are the two issues that are dividing the sides. And so one would think that these are the issues that are being discussed for hours on end. Again, I'd like to know how this works.

Of special interest to me is that in news articles about these sessions, the word "negotiations" is often supplanted by the word "talks." This word is also used to describe an individual's negotiations with a team (e.g. "Talks between the Cardinals and Albert Pujols have broken off"). There is an implicit suggestion that to negotiate means to talk, and an implicit value judgment is also given that to talk is productive (sometimes this becomes explicit, such as when we hear "at least the two sides are talking").

If you've read my last two posts prior to this one, you might know where I'm going with this. A couple weeks ago I questioned the utilitarian value of legislative debate. Last week I considered the possibility of reducing the length of classroom sessions, while also increasing their frequency. I wonder if negotiating sessions might be improved by considering such practices. Perhaps if we changed the fundamental structure of negotiating sessions so that they take place through written communications, consensus will be more easily attained. Perhaps we need to split negotiations into several different pockets of interaction instead of having one large bargaining session. Perhaps we need to limit sessions to shorter but more frequent interactions.

Or perhaps the status quo is the best way to conduct business. It's hard to know, though, since we don't have any access.