Monday, March 26, 2007

Obama, memories, and me

Recent dissection of Barack Obama's youth and his memories of that youth in his book "Dreams from My Father" (see the Chicago Tribune,1,605874.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed), prompted me to think about two of my most significant and influential memories of conversations.

The Chicago Tribune article about Barack Obama states:
"He said he does recall long, soulful talks with the young Obama and that his friend confided his longing and loneliness. But those talks, Kakugawa said, were not about race. 'Not even close,' he said, adding that Obama was dealing with 'some inner turmoil' in those days."

"'But it wasn't a race thing,' he said."
The article goes on to say:
"Some of these discrepancies are typical of childhood memories -- fuzzy in specifics, warped by age, shaped by writerly license."

My own experience suggests that a remembered conversation can be "about" something, even if it was not part of the conversation. Two conversations that I had with friends, about two months apart were extraordinarily influential in shaping my career path. The first of those conversations was "about" the impact of racial/ethnic and cultural differences, the second was "about" the impact of social class.

I know for a fact that race/ethnicity and culture were never even mentioned in the first conversation, yet that is precisely what that conversation was "about." August before my sophomore year in college I gave a party to reunite some friends from high school. Much of the conversation revolved around men and romance (pretty typical of a group of 19 year old women). Two of my friends, blond blue-eyed Betty and raven haired, brown-eyed Debbe, started talking about being attracted to young men who were different from themselves. Betty's affections were drawn to a man a few years older, from South America, and Japanese-American Debbe had been interested in a Caucasian man. Betty was still seeing her young man despite disapproval by her parents, but Debbe explained that after a great deal of thought and some anguish, she had decided dating someone of another race was not worth incurring the disapproval of her parents.

Betty and Debbe's discussion became heated, when Betty suggested that Debbe needed to show some spine and independence, and stop letting her parents decide who she would date. As they argued about this for some time, it was obvious to me, as the observer, that they both thought about this argument in terms of personality and individual preference, but that it was really about racial/ethnic and cultural differences in the way they were raised, and how they thought of themselves in relationship to their families.

As a result of this conversation, I spent the next several years researching racial/ethnic and cultural differences in child raising and identity, especially among Chinese- and Japanese-Americans. I'm sure that my memory of this conversation and what is was about, is entirely different from Betty and Debbe's memory of it -- if they even remember it at all.

The second remembered conversation is from just two months later, October in my sophomore year. I was stuck in Cleveland Hopkins Airport trying to stand-by for flights to Washington, D.C., and I ran into a fellow student, Ivory, also having difficulty getting on a flight. [I always traveled stand-by, but Ivory was the victim of flight cancellations due to striking air line employees).

I had something of a crush on Ivory, and knowing what I was like back then, I could be more than a little obnoxious to the objects of my affections. So in retrospect, it was kind of him to take the time to talk with me while we both waited to catch a flight. We conversed for nearly five hours stretched out over much of the day. Most of what we talked about is lost to memory. But two things about the conversation remained with me clearly. The first was that he was desperately unhappy at Oberlin College. The second was that at least some of that unhappiness derived from the mismatch between his family's view of purpose of a college education and the view held by the faculty and most of the students at Oberlin.

Ivory's family, like my own, sent him to college to become a teacher. To his parents, like mine, college was an instrument for obtaining a decent job. But the ethos at Oberlin College, in that day, was quite different. Having an instrumental approach to education was frowned upon -- unless it was as an instrument of social change. College was for intellectual, artistic and personal discovery. God forbid that any Oberlin student should show any concern for the pecuniary benefits of education [unlike the Commonwealth of Kentucky today that has signs saying "education pays" posted on every state vehicle and along the road sides].

Ivory expressed great anguish, and a sense of being rent in two, by the differing expectations of family and college community. Although I did not experience the pain Ivory did over this clash of values, I was very much aware of the disparity between my family's views about education and the views of my professors and friends at Oberlin.

The conversation stayed with me because I felt honored to have been the recipient of such confidences, and because it resonated with my own experiences. By the time I reached graduate school (5 years later) I remembered this as a discussion about social class, and the pain and bewilderment faced by working class students in an upper middle class environment. However, in retrospect, I cannot honestly say that either Ivory or myself spoke about social class at the time we had the conversation. Perhaps we did. Perhaps we did not. That does not make it any less "about" class.

The memory of this conversation, about social class, heavily influenced my work as a sociologist. Almost everything I have done has been in some way or another "about" social class, and the millions of ways that class affects our lives.

So who is really to say, just because Senator Obama's friend "Ray" (Kakugawa) does not remember Barack talking about race, does not mean that the pain he expressed at the time did not have a racial component. Sometimes it takes years to gain perspective on our pasts and know why it really was that we suffered.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Global Warming is History!

I love the EPA. Somebody there has some real spunk! I was reviewing a three year old handout for one of my classes on Global warming, and it contained a link to
I tried the link expecting it to no longer function. But work it did, and it took me directly to a page that I had used frequently as a reference on Global Warming. The page was unchanged except for a fascinating little box at the top of the page that said:
Please see EPA's Climate Change site for current information on climate change and global warming. EPA no longer updates EPA's Global Warming Site, but is maintaining this archive for historical purposes. Thank you for visiting the archive of EPA's Global Warming Site.

How's that for sticking it to the man?! I love it.

Actually the EPA's Climate Change site is not too bad, although even it has not been updated with the 2007 IPCC data yet (a box suggests that it will be later in 2007). What I do find disturbing is all the "exit disclaimers" after every think to another, scientific site. The "exit disclaimer" includes the following text:
"However, EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of information provided by this link or any other linked site. Providing links to a non-EPA Web site does not constitute an endorsement by EPA or any of its employees of the sponsors of the site or the information or products presented on the site."

I've spent a lot of time looking at government websites and never once in the past 15 years have I ever seen exit disclaimers attached to every link to an outside agency (especially to agencies with such solid credentials as the IPCC). Looks like the folks at EPA are doing their very best to cover their asses and still give us citizens access to the best research and thinking out there on global warming. What a shame they have to waste so much of their energy on the "ass covering"!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

TV -- my drug of choice

I watch too much television. This is a fact. Unfortunately it is now a fact that all my husband's statistics students also know. A few days ago, I met one of his students (a former student of mine) in the grocery store. Her first words to me were -- "I hear that you watch 5 hours of TV a day, and that the first thing you do when you get home from work is turn on the TV."

Okay, my husband exaggerated a little bit. He said he would claim the John Kerry defense -- he was trying to make a joke and it misfired. But there was enough truth in it to make me very uncomfortable. So this week the television has stayed off, except for our one hour addiction to LOST on Wednesday nights [WOW -- didn't expect to find out that John Locke broke his back when his father pushed him out a window. Definitely did not see that one coming -- which is of course why we love LOST].

The result -- I actually managed to read several chapters of Friedman's The World is Flat, that I put down after about a hundred pages more than 6 months ago. And, I realized why it is that I do watch so much TV rather than reading, writing or thinking -- despite the fact that I often find myself craving time to do exactly that.

The reason is because TV blots out thought, real thought. Thoughts that are disturbing, exciting, dangerous; thoughts that could lead to real change and action. It is a drug. Even when you watch something that could potentially stimulate thought, there is no time to process the thought. No time to take it in, roll it around, associate it with other thoughts -- things one can do while reading and talking. The TV just marches relentlessly along and drags you on to the next moment.

I realized that I wasn't really using TV to entertain me. I was using it to put me to sleep, so that I wouldn't have to think; wouldn't have to deal with the sorry mess of things in human societies. This week I remembered what it was like to be really engaged again. So we're going to try to keep this up -- shutting of the "god damned noisy box" (Heinlein) -- except of course for LOST night. Wouldn't want to let go of all our vices!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What kind of American workers does business really want?

I happened across a news story today:
Article entitled $100 laptop project launches 2007. In this article, Negroponte, the leader of this project, had the following to say about schools in AFRICA (not the U.S.):

"In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint," Mr Negroponte said.
"I consider that criminal, because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing, not running office automation tools."
If "running office automation tools" is inappropriate learning for elementary school children in developing nations in Africa, should it not be inappropriate for college students in American community and technical colleges -- if what we really want to do is prepare our students to compete in a "flat world"?

I teach (sociology and statistics) for Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, part of the statewide Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges System (KCTCS). At Southeast, and I suspect at all the KCTCS schools, only a very tiny number of students who take programming courses learn the kinds of skills Negroponte is talking about. Those who learn to use the computer at all learn to use Microsoft Office.

[Since I teach in a severely economically depressed area, the students don't come into college with much more than the ability to use a browser and instant messaging. What they primarily seem to use the browser for is shopping. They also are quite adept at using Google to hunt up websites to plagiarize in place of doing their own rudimentary thinking about reading assignments. I ask students to read a short essay or article, then to summarize its main points and reflect upon them in relationship to some of the sociological terminology they are supposedly learning. Not an especially demanding intellectual exercise. But many of them immediately rush to Google, and turn in mindlessly cut and pasted papers. ]

No one has ever seriously contemplated the idea that the majority of students that pass through our doors should be computer competent enough to be Linux users and able to do some programming of their own. Yet this is exactly what is needed if our students are to have any chance at competing for jobs in Friedman's "flat world."

By the way, I quite agree that the world is getting flatter, but, I highly skeptical of the degree to which that is empowering individuals as Friedman so optimistically claims. I strongly suspect that what the "flat world" has done has made is easier for larger multinational corporations to run-rough shod over more people faster at less cost!

Given the insistent focus that our community colleges have on students learning to use the latest Microsoft product, it makes me wonder whether the business community (and hence the community colleges which bow down to the business community) really wants the kind of creative, innovative, self-directed, wired worker that all the flat world rhetoric extols.