Monthly Archives: February 2007

was Velazquez left-handed?

My post from 2005 on Las Meninas, Velazquez’ masterpiece, has drawn some very interesting and original comments. The latest contribution comes from Barbara Robinson of London Ireland who, like Colin Dixon, believes that the whole painting is a mirror image. Ms. Robinson adds some evidence. These two paintings are both by Velazquez and they show the same girl, the Infanta Margarita, three years apart. The image on the right is a detail from Las Meninas; the one on the left is part of a freestanding portrait.

Barbara Robinson (who sent me these images) emphasizes the parting of the hair and “the decorative hair slide,” which are reversed in these two pictures. Her son adds that if Las Meninas is an image in a mirror, then Velazquez is shown holding his paintbrush in his left hand, which makes him what we Americans call a “southpaw.” (Note that there were very large mirrors in Valazquez’ day.)

protest, now and then

A reporter recently asked me how much protest and other activism is going on among today’s youth, compared to their predecessors during the Vietnam era.

In 1973, the General Social Survey asked about five specific forms of protest (prowar, antiwar, civil rights, labor-related strikes, and school events). About 28 percent of the young people in that survey (ages 18-25) said they had participated in one or more of those types of protest.

In 2006, we found that 11.5% of 15-25-year-olds had attended any protest, march, or demonstration (regardless of topic).

Given the different questions, the comparison is not perfect. Still, these results suggest some decline in the rate of physical protest by young people. That trend has to be set against a lot of volunteering and online activism, which Jennifer Earl described recently in the Washington Post. (Her article was entitled, “Where Have All the Protests Gone? Online.”) In our 2006 survey, 15% of the young respondents said they had signed email petitions–less than the 21% rate among older Americans, but still a large number. And if we added other formats, such as social networking sites, we would see even more online activism.

the “fit” between cultures and the labor market

Poverty and privilege reproduce themselves. If you are an American boy born in the poorest tenth of the population, you have only a 1.3 percent chance of reaching the top ten percent during your lifetime, and just a 3.7 percent chance of becoming at all wealthy (in the top fifth). If you are a male born in the bottom tenth, the odds are more than even that you will never make it out of the bottom fifth.

It’s not only that people from wealthy background have more capital and better contacts and receive more economic investments (for example, more money is spent on their schools). In addition to those factors, their relatives and peers make sure that they are ready to flourish in the white-collar work world. There is, in other words, an excellent “fit” between their background culture and the labor market. That fit is much worse for kids from working-class homes.

At least three reasonable objections can be made when people mention this problem: (A) It seems to let the government off the hook for providing poor schools and public services. (B) It seems to criticize people for not preparing their children well for the workforce. And (C) it can be viewed as a coded way of making a point–probably a hostile point–about racial minorities in America.

Therefore, let me say: (A) Inequitable public policies make matters considerably worse than they would be if our problems were simply cultural. (B) When there is a poor fit between a particular culture’s norms and the demands of the white-collar workplace, I do not automatically assume that the norms ought to change. Often I admire groups that resist the dominant economy. (C) I don’t think race is the issue in this case. Annette Lareau set out to explore differences in parenting by race and class, expecting to find that both factors would matter (as they often do). But what she actually observed were striking similarities in the parenting of African American and White children of similar economic classes. Her work is a vivid depiction of the cultural norms of our two biggest classes and how they reproduce themselves. The differences among smaller cultural groups (e.g., scientists, evangelicals, Chicagoans) may also matter, but they don’t map onto racial categories.

Some specificity is useful here. The question is not which cultures fit well with “capitalism,” because capitalism is an old, varied, and flexible phenomenon. The question is which cultures prepare young people best for a particular life that is characterized by meetings and conference calls, schedules and budgets, offices, suits, emails that read like memos, businesses lunches, handshakes, thank-you notes and holiday cards, business travel, interviews, proposals and bids, job descriptions, mission statements, PowerPoints, and websites. This world envelops people who are not straightforwardly involved in “capitalism.” For example, it is my world, even though I am a philosopher at a public university. But it leaves out the working class and the unemployed, stay-at-home parents and retirees–and any true bohemians we have left.

The “field” of white-collar work is saturated with norms and expectations. Children whose parents belong to it are raised from an early age to succeed in it. They are taught to speak as if at a business meeting, to analyze their own interests, and to negotiate on their own behalf. Modern middle-class childhood has some unattractive features. These kids are often competitive with siblings, unable to handle unstructured time, quick to quit situations that seem unprofitable or uninteresting, and over-conscious of their own entitlements. But those attitudes pay off in the labor market.

Schools try to compensate for the differences in home cultures. In fact, they may overlook the talents of working-class kids–such as their ability to fill free time with self-organized activities–because they are so eager to prepare everyone for the white-collar work world. But schools cannot fully compensate for the cultural advantages of the middle class. They cannot provide enough one-on-one interactions between adults and students to train kids for situations that will involve bilateral communication, negotiation, and self-presentation. Besides, on average, teachers are themselves a little marginal to the “field” of white-collar work. Of all professionals, teachers are some of the least experienced in negotiating contracts, making business trips, or participating in conference calls. Their daily interactions are mostly with groups of children, not with peers behind desks or on the phone.

The most radical response to this problem would not be to reform educational institutions so that they better prepare all children for the white-collar workforce, nor to compensate for inequalities in the labor market by providing better social insurance. The most radical response would be to enlarge the supply of stable and rewarding jobs that embody different values and skills from those of the white-collar world.

putting philosophy back in developmental pyschology

I’m involved right now in several collaborative projects with developmental psychologists. I constantly learn from these empirical colleagues. However, it often strikes me that civic development is rife with “normative” purposes and controversies. We educate people for citizenship because of our conceptions of ethics, character, liberty, and social justice. If I have anything to contribute, it’s by drawing explicit attention to those issues.

Below the fold is the draft of a chapter that I’m writing to alert psychologists to some normative questions that ought to concern them if they are interested in “citizenship.” My strategy is to introduce the various major schools of modern moral/political philosophy (utilitarianism, Kantianism, and the rest) and ask what each school would make of current forms of civic education. I’m not fully satisfied with this approach. It leads me to offer simplistic accounts of the main schools of modern philosophy. Besides, many real philosophers are eclectic, seeing the intuitive merits of more than one school. At the moment, however, I cannot think of a better way to begin. …

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the small screen

I just did a taped interview with CBS News on young people’s activism. I’m glad CBS is doing a segment on this topic, and the producers were well-informed. I don’t know how my own interview went. It was an unnatural format–staring at a dark room with a lot of bright lights while questions came into my ear from New York. I think I would have been more animated, humorous, and responsive if I’d been able to see an embodied human being. But at least I got in some basic points about the rise in volunteering rates and the high level of online activism.

If I find out when the segment airs or get a link to the video, I’ll post it here. Whether or not I make the final cut, the segment should be interesting.