the democratic electorate

The current conventional wisdom, expressed for example in this NYT Upshot piece, as well as by Bret Stephens on MSNBC yesterday (June 5) is that the vocal “left” of the Democratic party has lost touch with the authentic base of the party, and therefore risks re-electing Trump by veering too far left.

I believe this analysis suffers from a theoretical mistake that enables its pundit providers to ignore certain empirical evidence while trumpeting other such evidence. Here’s why.

Continue reading “the democratic electorate”

selective college admissions games

Alongside the well-publicized scandal of super-rich parents covertly buying their kids entry into super-elite colleges (as distinguished from super-rich parents overtly buying entry through donations, and just-pretty-rich parents doing so through opportunity hoarding), I am interested in two more general patterns in selective-college admissions these days:

  • The incredibly low admissions percentages at elite colleges (public and private), publicized and often understood as indicators of college quality; and
  • Many colleges closing for lack of financial resources, and many others below capacity (in these cases generally, though not entirely, less-selective institutions)

Finally, meanwhile, the “oversupply” of Ph.D.s, particularly in the humanities and some social sciences, is well-documented and anxiety-producing.

Continue reading “selective college admissions games”

why the liberal arts? the value of general education

This post comes out of my work chairing UNC’s General Education Curriculum Revision effort. I’m posting it here on Scatterplot instead of on the Curriculum site because it represents my own view, not a formal statement from the committee. 

Unusual among our public-flagship peers, Carolina requires all undergraduate students to enroll first in the College of Arts & Sciences, even if they ultimately major in one of the professional schools. This reflects a core commitment to the liberal arts as the foundation for all undergraduate education at Carolina. Implicit in this organization is the claim that broad, serious education in the liberal arts is the best way to prepare students for future study as well as for leadership, citizenship, and professional life.

Continue reading “why the liberal arts? the value of general education”

does non-falsifiable imply not true?

This post is a longer-form discussion following this Twitter thread. The thread began with Steve Vaisey expressing interest in how gender scholars would respond to this article, which apparently shows that women in more-gender-egalitarian societies have personality profiles more different from men than do women in less-gender-egalitarian societies. It then presents evolutionary psychology as one way that people might interpret that finding, implying that gender-based personality differences might be “natural,” not socially constructed, since they are more different when society “gets in the way” less, i.e., when society is freer.

I have still not read the article, but only the abstract, so my comments are about the discussion that followed, not about the quality or interpretation within the study.

Continue reading “does non-falsifiable imply not true?”

earnestly explaining the right

I heard Ken Stern on Morning Joe this morning, discussing his new book, Republican Like MeThis is not a carefully thought out response, but a quick thought and a question:

First, the title, which is an obvious paean to Griffin’s classic Black Like Me, serves at once to show the author’s earnestness and to imply that Republican-ness is like Black-ness: assumed to be unchanging, inborn, and genuine.

Second, the question. This is but the latest in probably at least a half-dozen books seeking earnestly to explain (often in crudely anthropological terms) the virtues of the right to liberals. Stern, in particular, references social division and “bubbles” as problems the book is intended to ameliorate. Are there any examples of the converse genre (books earnestly explaining the virtues of the left to conservatives)? If not, why not? And if not, doesn’t the apparent demand for this genre actually imply that the social division is uneven, with one side more interested in transcending the division than the other is?

of sandwiches and cultural exclusion

David Brooks, liberals’ favorite conservative, came out with an(other) entirely Brooksian column today, this one riffing on Richard Reeves’s important, if flawed, book, Dream Hoarders. Reeves essentially argues that there are lots of structural barriers to the bottom 80% of the US income ladder moving into the top 20%, and that we should therefore pay less attention to the 99%/1% division than to the 80%/20% division. (A better version of a similar argument is in Chris Hayes’ fantastic book, The Twilight of the Elites.)

Brooks, though, knows better than all those zoning laws, rigged college admissions, and so on. Really:

I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.

Okay, well, not to get too academic about it, but what’s your evidence for rejecting the main thesis of the book in favor of, well, every Brooks column of the past umpteen years?

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

Most of my Twitter sphere has pilloried this (correctly, I think) as mistaking the cause for the expression (or, at most, mechanism) of class-based exclusion. But then there’s a backlash (e.g., here), claiming insensitivity; that cultural capital is “real,” and that those making fun of Brooks are just showing that he’s right.

But here’s the thing. Brooks’ claim isn’t just that cultural capital exists, or that it is one of the ways inequality is expressed. He specifically claims that cultural capital causes the persistent inequality between the 20% and the 80%. That’s utterly implausible, if for no other reason than that learning the names of sandwiches is free (unlike expensive housing and college prep tutors). I believe that people with working-class backgrounds feel uncomfortable in the face of massified sophistication. That doesn’t mean the discomfort causes the inequality.

Other points on the column:

  • It’s not plausible that the sandwich names are “completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class.” Most people, regardless of class background, are able to learn new terms for things (tweet, iPhone, MAGA, e.g.).
  • Because of that, cultural capital is particularly susceptible to “inflation” — today’s highbrow signifier is tomorrow’s Beanie Baby.
  • To wit, those fancy Italian names are kind of passe at this point–at least in my area, it’s stylized working-class food that signifies upper-class hip. Places like Merritt’s Grill and the Saxapahaw General Store.
  • Food is a signifier, yes. It’s also an art form. Like other art forms, its function as signifier can’t be separated from its function as art. That’s the genius of Bourdieu (can’t believe I used those two words in the same sentence). But the way food-as-art is discussed leaves it more open to crudely anti-intellectual/anti-intraceptive positions than other forms of art would be. Could we imagine Brooks claiming that the chief message of Monet is “You are not welcome here?” Of Beethoven, or Hamilton? I’m not saying that whatever second-rate overpriced sandwich shop he went to is the Emperor’s Concerto, but there’s no particular virtue in bad tex-mex any more than in Muzak due to their similar accessibility.

Bottom line: culture matters, and cultural exclusion is real. But structure matters more in reinforcing inequality. If you want a much more serious take on how culture and comparison play in inequality, I’d recommend my colleague Keith Payne’s new book, The Broken Ladder.

blame it on pomo

Postmodernism is the first intellectual movement to acknowledge its own historical partiality. From that spring many of its faults and virtues, not to mention its caricatures. Because for a movement in some ways so arrogant — so insistent on its own epistemic correctness — to insist as well that it was always already partial evokes the kind of unease that many pundits (and social and natural scientists) feel when discussing postmodernism. Unfortunately, it also evokes the caricatures (not to say reaction-formations) that are common among those same pundits and scholars. Continue reading “blame it on pomo”