Home » Articles posted by johnhawthorne

Author Archives: johnhawthorne

Why Kimmy Schmidt is Not a True Believer

Kimmy

This weekend I finished the first season of the wonderful Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. If you’ve been completely out of the loop, the series is created by Tina Fey and focuses on the story of a girl from small-town Indiana who was kidnapped and kept in a bunker for 15 years with three other women. They were held by an apocalyptic preacher-type, Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, who had predicted the end of the world on June 6, 2006 (666). He had convinced the girls that the world had, in fact, ended. So part of the shock of their rescue is that they’d been living in the bunker needlessly for years. Kimmy heads for New York upon release and while the show dabbles in “fish out of water” jokes, it mostly shows the resilience that kept Kimmy sane during her captivity.

Many of my friends on social media have raved over Kimmy. There are aspects that align nicely with people who grew up in certain elements of evangelical culture (this piece by Alissa Wilkinson is one of the best).

While watching the show, I found myself thinking of Leon FestinProphecy Failsger’s When Prophecy Fails. Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter had become members of a small UFO cult operating in Evanston, Illinois and Lansing, Michigan in 1954. Given Festinger’s interest in what has become cognitive dissonance theory, it was a wonderful field test. The theory suggests that apocalyptic groups are open to cognitive dissonance because the possibility of disconfirmation is high. When the predicted event doesn’t happen, what does the group do? (Gerardo Marti shared this abstract from a recent article about Harold Camping).

The 1954 UFO group held a press conference on December 17th and predicted that the world would end on December 21st. When I was in college, I got the Chicago Tribune microfilm and read all about the prediction. My favorite thing was the front page on the 22nd: halfway down the page was a small headline that read “World Still Here”.

Festinger and colleagues had predicted that those members most invested in the group would have the highest degree of dissonance. Those on the fringe would simply abandon their beliefs (and try not to talk about them). But those who were true believers would either have to admit they were wrong or find some additional explanation (since the world didn’t end). The true believers argued that God saw their willingness to carry their message and face ridicule. He granted the world a reprieve due to their faithfulness.

Mole WomenWatching Kimmy Schmidt made me wonder how the Mole Women (as the media nicknamed them) responded to their own disconfirmation. The women can be seen in the picture on the right (left to right: Gretchen, Cyndee, Kimmy, and Donna Maria). Here’s what I discovered (there are disclosures coming if you haven’t watched all of it yet).

Gretchen is a true believer. She is always in her blue dress and she believes in Richard Wayne Gary Wayne until nearly the end. She relished her time in the bunker.

Cyndee is a sort-of believer. She was committed while in the bunker, even if somewhat unaware (and protected by Kimmy). Upon rescue, she still identifies as a Mole Woman but milks it for all the benefits she can get.

Donna Maria was never a believer. She was marginalized even while in the bunker, but she got back at people by pretending she didn’t speak English.

Once in New York, Kimmy changes her last name and doesn’t want people to know she was a Mole Woman. In one episode, she explains to another character than she learned that she could put up with anything for ten seconds. She counts to ten and then when she’s done counts again. This act of distancing keeps her on the periphery even though she appears to be the strong one of the group. But we wonder if she really ever believed the world had ended (a stray rat plays a critical role in the story). When Richard Wayne Gary Wayne comes to trial, she finally realizes that she has to go back to Indiana to testify. She doesn’t believe Wayne and sets out to prove that he’s a fraud.

It’s not a perfect test of Festinger’s theory. In part, this is because Richard Wayne Gary Wayne isn’t really believable as a cult leader (at least as told through the flashbacks and his trial performance). Plus, it’s a lighthearted comedy (even if it’s a story of kidnapped women).

Kimmy’s behaviors do align with a lot of what we see in the sociology of religion. People who, on the surface, look like their buying everything being served up. But people who, in their own unique ways, are finding mechanisms to chart their own course and maintain an authentic sense of self.

Who Sinned, the Child or the Parents? Inherited Inequality

This is the second post in my series on structural inequality.

As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9: 1-3)

As I’ve been working through my study of the structures of inequality, this passage from John kept ringing through my head. All of the talk of the 47%, of takers, of those who don’t have proper work ethic, seems to be designed to draw a direct cause-effect relationship between individual choices and the impacts of poverty.

It is no surprise that Robert Putnam’s book is titled Our Kids. It’s a very interesting rhetorical move. We look at children with less opportunities and we can ask a question similar to what the disciples asked: who sinned? Was it this child’s fault or her parents?

It is a provocative question the disciples asked because of what it implies about next steps.

If, we would assume, the blindness is the result of this man’s actions and choices, then we could be freed from responsibility to act. If, on the other hand, it is the byproduct of choices made in earlier generations, it’s hard to know how to undo those past actions without a Tardis. Again, we are freed from responsibility.

So it is with the children in Putnam’s book or in the Hopkins study of Baltimore (The Long Shadow). I’m still working through both books, but it is clear to me that we can either look at poor choices made by a young tough in New Orleans or we can see how family disruption and parental drug issues hampered a young woman in Oregon.

What do we do now?

In the Baltimore study, they were looking at the situation of students starting public school in Baltimore in 1982. One of the chapters looks specifically at the family background of those six-year-olds. I took this picture of the Table (even if it is a little crooked):

Baltimore FamiliesThe researchers first broke the data by socioeconomic status and then, within lower SES, by race. This data shows the kinds of statistics that people like to toss around when critiquing inequality: single-parenthood, early pregnancy, lack of educational achievement. There are stark differences present in these columns. Note, for example, that in over a third of the families the mother had never married. The breakdown by class and race shows a 42% gap between the higher SES families (which were only high within Baltimore standards), and the lower-SES African American families.

But these demographics mask deeper, family system issues. Sometimes those relate to lack of job opportunities in the city. Incarceration is a factor as well. So are issues of drug and alcohol addiction.

Consider the story of Bess, one of those kids who started first grade in the early 1980s. Here is her situation as an adult as reported by the interviewers:

Bess, who grew up in what she described as a chaotic family environment, had her first baby at age fourteen in the summer of eighth grade, then a second in tenth grade. She tried to finish high school, indeed worked hard at it, but was unable to trust her mother to watch her first baby and eventually gave up. Bess would call home from school, she told us, and her mother would not be there; she would come home to find her baby soiled and unfed. “If I had somebody to watch who I knew, you know, was a good person to watch and I knew she was gonna’ be alright, then, you know, I woulda’ stayed [in school].” Bess was surrounded by an abundance of family — a cousin who supported a drug habit by prostituting herself and her mother, who, according to Bess, was drunk “morning to night.” Bess is one of the Youth Panel’s permanent dropouts, a victim, she says, of a neglectful mother and extended family disruption (2014, 48).

“Who sinned”, they asked, “this girl or her mother?”

Frankly, Jesus’ response is hard to figure out. He seems to suggest that the man is born blind “for such a moment as this”.

I prefer to take Jesus to be saying, “Your question is irrelevant. What is important is how God’s work can be done.”

Both of the books I’m reading share this common sentiment. Somehow, the children are suffering from the situations in which they grow up. Or at least some of them are. Putnam has a regular series of what he calls scissor graphs, which show advantages accruing to upper class families (because they have time for summer enrichment and organized sports) while disadvantages deepen for lower class families (because life circumstances set them farther and farther behind).

We wrestle with an appropriate response to inequality in the same way the disciples did.

We want to celebrate “good families” and don’t want to legitimize family dysfunction. We can argue that having two parents in the household, in their first marriage, who spent time interacting with their children yields the best outcomes for those children. This is demonstrably true.

But we can’t actually say to Bess’ mother, “you should marry the father, clean up your life, read to your children, and take the family to church.” Or more correctly, the only reason to say so is to ease our conscience about our own families.

Maybe we’d be better able to address issues of inequality if we saw Bess’ situation as a way to see God’s work displayed.

We’d worry less about affixing blame and show compassion on the young girl in a remarkably difficult circumstance.

Another March Madness: Inequality in America

15mens_bracket copy

Over the next three weeks, I’m focusing this blog on issues of inequality. In part, this is prompted by Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, which explores the nature of inequality of opportunity across generations. I’m only into the second chapter, but both the changes to Port Clinton, Ohio (Putnam’s hometown and the focus on chapter one) and the changes in Bend, Oregon (chapter two), easily illustrate the connections between structural changes in economics, education, and housing and the cultural dynamics shaping the life choices of families impacted. As I’ve read essays about Putnam’s argument, they seem to serve as a Rorschach test — illumining the favorite theories of the author. It will doubtless be argued that it does the same for me.

I’ve also been reading The Long Shadow, a sociological study of children growing up in Baltimore schools. They have also been impacted by changes in terms of economy, housing, and culture. The students in the study are those left behind after white flight caused many with resources to flee Baltimore for the surrounding counties. The Long Shadow is interesting because it compares the dynamics of lower class whites, lower class blacks, and moderately upper class whites. While the picture is complicated by factors of culture and racism, there are very different patterns when it comes to opportunity.

In addition to these sources, it seems that every day brings news of the realities of inequality. The Ferguson report from the Department of Justice illustrates the dynamics of differential enforcement. I’ve got recent data on school achievement and college persistence that illustrates the way education at all levels plays a gatekeeping function. We have recently begun to approach a national consensus that our drug policy has been devastating to urban communities and prison overpopulation.

And yet we seem unwilling or unable to recognize inequality in our midst. Perhaps, as Matt Taibbi suggested, it’s as simple as the residential segregation that undergirds our interactions. Because we don’t know people outside our circles, we can cherry pick egregious cases and treat them as if they are indicative of entire groups of people.

Or maybe we can’t see it because the possibility of Horatio Alger success is so ingrained in the American psyche. We don’t know how to talk about differential opportunity because that might somehow suggest that people were trapped by their circumstances.

Better to believe that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules could get ahead — the bootstrap mentality. As MLK said in one of his final sermons at the National Cathedral, it’s one thing to say a man should pull himself up by his bootstraps but it’s a cruel joke to say that to a man with no shoes.

But if there’s one time of the year when we should understand the structural nature of inequality, it’s March. Today, the bracketology came to a head and we know who made it to the dance. Beginning Tuesday, teams begin competing in the NCAA men’s national championship. The whole thing centers on the top seeds of Kentucky, Wisconsin, Villanova, and Duke.

We watch the tournament and root for “Cinderella teams”, small feisty groups of guys who don’t read the brackets and come from small markets. This is their “one shining moment”. But in the vast majority of the cases, the seeding matters. The strong teams seem to prevail. We like the hustle of the Coastal Carolina team, but eventually Wisconsin will wear them down. Remember too that these 68 teams are but a tiny fraction of NCAA Division One schools.

Furthermore, if we look at the top couple of seeds in each bracket we can find teams that are somewhere in that mix every single year. It’s not just that they have a talented team — they have a reputation, a coaching staff, scholarship dollars/boosters, and facilities that help them attract the best players.

It doesn’t mean that the number one seeds will be in the final four. They can have an off night or have a key player injured or in foul trouble. But the odds are that the lower seeds will prevail.

This is a lesson that is far deeper than what we see Thursday to Sunday over the next three weeks. It happens in the same fashion every day across this country. So I’ll be blogging during the tournament to explore how those dynamics play out. I hope you’ll follow along.

Can State Universities Define Community Standards? Questions about Oklahoma

OklahomaAs most everyone knows, last weekend a video showed up in which members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon from the University of Oklahoma recited a racist pledge. With apparent pride, they argued that no black man would ever be a member of SAE. The University responded quickly. By Monday, the SAE chapter had been disbanded. On Tuesday, OU president David Boren expelled two members who were deemed to be instigators.

There were two quick and expected responses. First, there was general outrage at the video (albeit with some arguing “boys will be boys”). Second, there was a flurry of concerned comments about Freedom of Speech. If, they argued, we violated first amendment protections for harmful speech, which speech is the next to be limited? Speech restrictions are characterized as being some kind of liberal political correctness excess. It would lead, the critics argue, to enforced uniformity of thought reflecting the liberal bias of higher education.

I wound up thinking about the U of O case from the vantage point of a career in Christian residential liberal arts colleges. Each of the five schools I served has a defined set of lifestyle expectations. These include both positive elements of being a community member including treatment of others and encouragement to attend chapel (or face fines), and proscribed behaviors (premarital sex, alcohol and drug use, pornography, etc). These lifestyle expectations are seen as expressions of common identity. Students pledge to abide by the statements upon admission and they are binding throughout the students’ years at school. Violation of the expectations is met with sanctions of various levels, ranging from fines or counseling to expulsion.

The contrast between the state school and the Christian College was also on my mind because it’s the example I Durkheim DOLuse in one of my Emile Durkheim lectures in sociological theory class. In his doctoral dissertation, Durkheim reflected on the changing forms of social organization (which he called social solidarity). In short, it’s the glue that binds a group together. In Mechanical Solidarity, based on a principle of sameness, the group’s identity is protected by maintaining tight control on who’s in and who’s out. Violation of norms threatens the group and the violator must be removed. This, I argued, is represented by the Christian college’s focus on community standards.

Durkheim argued that increasing diversity in the society (which follows from growth) eventually yields a different form of social solidarity, Organic Solidarity. In this more modern form, the central feature is Interdependence. It is precisely because we aren’t all doing the same things that requires us to rely on others. The Division of Labor is not just an effective strategy for modern society — it’s what binds us together. Rather than focusing the Repressive Law that removes an offender, it is focused on Restitutive Law. The sanction is attached to improper behavior but the violator is not removed because of the norms of interdependence. In my class illustration, I argue that this is why the University of Michigan has very different standards of lifestyle expectations (regardless of the legal drinking age in Michigan).

When President Boren expelled the two students, he was attempting to say “being a Sooner means something and if you engage in these behaviors, you can’t be a Sooner”. This week I found the U of O “Student Rights and Responsibilities Code“. In the section on student responsibilities, it claims, “Enrollment in the University creates special obligations beyond those attendant upon membership in general society.” The first prohibition is against “Abusive Conduct”. Like most student handbook statements it is overly general with too many clauses and qualifiers. Still, it doesn’t take much reading in to place the SAE bus riders squarely in violation of the statement. Another problem with student handbooks is that both proscriptions and sanctions are itemized but not well connected to one another.

I’ve been haunted all week by my classroom example about Organic Solidarity. Is it possible for a diverse and pluralistic institution to set value statements around which its students, faculty, and staff are expected to operate? Or is it that we’ve so adopted the view of autonomous individualism arising from interdependence that nobody has the ability to dictate appropriate behavior? Is there any set of behaviors, attitudes, or positions that one could espouse that puts you outside the margins of acceptability?

In societies or organizations based on mechanical solidarity, we seem to be able to set agreed upon standards. At least standards that people tolerate within the period of their group membership.

But the absence of moral agreement seems to be a serious issue in twenty-first century America. For every attempt to call out racist comments and actions in Ferguson, MO, someone wants to know why we’re ignoring other infractions elsewhere. What about offensive comments made by those on the left?

I don’t have answers to these questions at this point. I’m just convinced that pluralism requires us to rethink our shared social space. We cannot operate in mechanical solidarity and hope to continually police our borders (which doesn’t work in any context). But we also cannot simply elevate every individual expression to equal footing by some vague appeal to personal expression.

Durkheim is right about the Division of Labor. The glue of modern society is interdependence. This is why continuing racial cleavage is problematic. It’s why residential, educational, and social segregation is so dangerous to human flourishing. We can’t escape those with whom we are interconnected. Somehow, we need to negotiate some agreed-upon norms that allow us to make that interdependence work.

I think that’s what President Boren was attempting. It’s possible that someone will eventually sue the University of Oklahoma and potentially win given the nature of first amendment jurisprudence. But Boren was trying to do something important and I want to celebrate the attempt even if it should wind up to be short-lived.

On “Real” Christians

Last week Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked whether President Obama was a Christian. His response, Walkeraccording to the Washington Post:

I don’t know. I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that. I’ve never asked him that. You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say that either of you is a Christian?

Another well-known politician, Francis Underwood, would have put it like this:

Some have raised questions about the President’s religion; I couldn’t possibly say.

Walker’s people claim that the governor was really trying to push back at media questions designed to trap or distract potential candidates rather than asking substantive questions about policy or experience. There may be some validity in that.

But Walker’s answer is consistent with the kind of boundary maintenance issues we’re all too familiar with. Even if he doesn’t feel comfortable evaluating the president’s faith statements, lots of other people do. Many people within the overlapping circles of conservative evangelicalism and conservative politics make similar judgments as a matter of course.

This week, Cathleen Falsani shared an interview she’d done with then-State-Senator Barack Obama when she was religion reporter for the Chicago Sun Times in early 2004. This was before his opponent for the Senate race dropped out (to be replaced by Alan Keyes) and months before the DNC speech that made Obama a national name. It’s a very revealing interview. Obama clearly isn’t evangelical and while he does talk about a personal relationship with Jesus that confirmed his grandparent’s religious views, he stops short of calling it an epiphany. He describes an intellectual view of the faith that makes emotional response harder and asks questions many have asked. {For all who like to claim that he grew up in a Muslim country (Indonesia), a usually overlooked fact is that he went to Catholic school where they “studied the Bible and catechism each day”.]

Also this week, Laura Ortberg Turner wrote a very interesting piece on Katy Perry’s pentecostal faith. In spite of her pop-star celebrity and some past distance from her pastor parents, a centrality of faith remains. God is interested in all of the details of her life; from her cup size to her Super Bowl performance. It’s a jarring image given Katy’s public persona. But Laura captures a key element of Katy’s belief system:

Where other denominations, like the Southern Baptists, are most focused on making sure people aren’t heretics, the charismatic church, to put it crudely, wants to make sure that people believe. That is both a cause and result of their conception of God as unconditionally loving, and unconditional love is a prominent theme in Perry’s music.

Yesterday, progressive media figure Anna Marie Cox “came out” as a Christian on the website The Daily Beast (which isn’t a venue for testimonies in the way Christianity Today might be). Here is a political liberal (I loved it when she appeared on Rachel Maddow) who affirms that she’s following Jesus. She writes:

Here is why I believe I am a Christian: I believe I have a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior. I believe in the grace offered by the Resurrection. I believe that whatever spiritual rewards I may reap come directly from trying to live the example set by Christ. Whether or not I succeed in living up to that example is primarily between Him and me.

I’m sure there are folks who struggle with these confessions of faith. They want to find other markers to confirm the faith that is claimed (Mike Huckabee was very upset at young female Fox News staffers who frequently dropped F-bombs). They want to know if these people “really” believe in Jesus. And if so, how can they be progressives or pop stars?

Of course, I can ask the same questions of others who claim to follow Jesus. Can you follow Jesus and celebrate mistruths at the Conservative Political Action Convention or the Values Voters Forum? Can you ignore calls for institutional repentance in light of the church’s non-action (or actual action) when it comes to issues of race? Can you blindly support military solutions to all problems? Can you seriously demagogue the poor among us?

I’ve been arguing for a long time that we need to ground our faith in identity terms instead of positional terms. We must find ways to telling our real stories, wrestling with the challenges, owning the inconsistencies, and seeking forgiveness where we’ve been wrong.

Another article this week caught my attention. Published on the Leadership Journal webpage, it was a piece by Tony Kriz called “Seven Lies Christians Tell”. The first one is particularly apt:

We lie when we claim we are more confident than we really are. The culture of pretending within Christianity seems almost at an epidemic level. Many of us feel the need to hide our doubts and questions. We feel compelled to act like our faith life is totally satisfying, when in fact it often feels limited, dry, cold or numb. I think we also believe that our “witness” will be less powerful if we reveal a less than “perfect” religious experience. The funny thing is that the opposite is often true. Non-Christians are often drawn to stories of an authentic and even struggling faith.

In a funny way, this week makes me think that maybe Scott Walker was more right than we might have thought (and maybe than he intended). Maybe the only way to evaluate who is a Real Christian is to listen to how they describe their relationship with Jesus. It may not match my story but I need to be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. At the end of the day, it’s what keeps me from being Francis Underwood.

Frederick Buechner has it right. In Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, he tells us about Christians:

A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. A Christian isn’t necessarily any nicer than anyone else. Just better informed.

The Central Role of Imago Dei: My SAU Workshop on Race Relations

This week was the annual Focus series here at Spring Arbor. Our theme was “What is a person?” There were  no classes on Wednesday and there were extra speakers all week. Christian Smith came from Notre Dame and Cherith Fee Nordling came from Northern Seminary. In addition to the keynoters, several of us gave workshops.

Slide01

My talk built on some things I’d been writing last fall trying to make sense of our responses to issues of Ferguson, Staten Island, Dayton, and Cleveland.

Slide02

I was trying to wrestle with the question of why it’s been so hard for us to have meaningful conversations about the challenges of race, inequality, law enforcement, and culture.

The week before I attended a community meeting here in Jackson. The panel (12 participants) included representatives from four law enforcement jurisdictions, lawyers and judges, and community leaders. There were calls for improved relationship and deepened trust. But it’s still a hard conversation.

Slide03

Conrad Hacket from the Pew Research Center shared a graphic he shown earlier in the year. It contrasted Ferguson news coverage on the cable networks with what was happening on social media during that week in August.

Slide04

The top chart shows new coverage in minutes. The bottom shows the number of mentions on twitter. Before the first half hour of news coverage, there had been one million tweets. By the end of the week, the total hit eight million.

I shared two slides on books about Baltimore. The first comes from a trio of sociologists at Johns Hopkins. It followed a group of first graders through their growing up years (think Boyhood if the characters lived in lower class Baltimore). If the reality of this inequality is so stark, why do we not address it?

Slide05

The other Baltimore book was The Other Wes Moore. It tells the life of Wes Moore, Rhodes scholar and intern to Condileeza Rice. It also tells the story of Wes Moore, who grows up a few blocks away in Baltimore and winds up in prison for armed robbery. What makes the stories so remarkable is that there were a few inflection points where their stories could have gone in opposite directions.

Slide06

As I was organizing my thoughts for the workshop, my social media feeds kept providing further examples of the struggles we face in addressing issues of injustice. The week before my talk, the Equal Justice Initiative released their report on lynchings in America between 1874 and 1950. There were nearly 4000 during those 76 years, which comes out to about one per week if you do the math.

Slide07The day before my talk, Baylor announced that they were holding a symposium on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, where 1.5 million Christians were killed or exiled.

Slide08

As I reflected on our anger, our silence, and our inability to move forward, I came to this recognition:

Slide09

That realization took me back to earlier posts (see here and here) on Anthony Giddens and the sociology of “structuration”. His argument is that structures are both experienced and reproduced through interaction. One key mediating variable in this is language.

Slide10

So if we are to move forward, maybe language is the key. Maybe instead of so much talk about culture or values or crime or fatherlessness or thugs, we need to find new ways of talking.

Slide11

A key element of a new and profoundly Christian discourse is to really grasp what it means for others to be created in the image of God. As I’ve written before, I was decidedly impacted by Andy Crouch’s Playing God, which puts Image Bearing front and center.

Slide12 Slide13Crouch argues that our work as image bearers is to recognize and nurture the image of God being borne in those we meet. To fail to do so allows structures and powers to nullify that image. He writes of parents who have sold their children into labor or sex slavery and seems to echo the point that Antony Giddens would make about power and interactions.

Slide14Beginning with a search for the Imago Dei in the other puts us in a very different position from a lot of folks. Where they would rather go along with a crowd, someone has to stand up and refuse. But as Brian Zahnd argues in A Farewell to Mars, that can be risky.

Slide15

To illustrate, I showed a clip from To Kill a Mockingbird (which had been on my mind). The night before Tom Robinson’s trial, the sheriff moves him back to the county jail. Some townsfolk show up to where Atticus Finch is guarding the door. The YouTube clips only start with the childrens’ arrival and what I wanted was when the men first show up. They tell Atticus to “get away from the door” because “you know what we’re here for”. It’s interesting to me that they never say what they want. The scene ends with Scout rehumanizing Mr. Cunningham (by seeing the Imago Dei in him) and the crowd disperses.

Slide16 Andy Crouch makes clear that the soul of justice isn’t simply improved living conditions but the restoration of the Imago Dei in the other.

Slide17

I returned to Mockingbird to illustrate how Atticus Finch’s closing statement is an attempt to re-humanize Tom Robinson, to celebrate the Image of God present in him. But even the great Atticus affirms Tom’s image bearing by demolishing the image bearing of Tom and Mayella Ewell.

Slide19 Slide20

We take Atticus’ intentions and go one step further. We recognize that all others we interact with are bearing the image of God, however effaced or buried. Not just the victims of injustice. Not just those whose hands are clean. But everyone.

As we adopt image-bearing language about others, we may begin to weaken the structures in which we operate. We may find that the paths to new conversations. Real conversations on important topics. Conversations that may reshape the very social structures we seek to address.

Focus Workshop

What Today’s College Freshmen Think

If you follow higher education stories in the media, if you listen to consultants, or if you hear speeches from university administrators, you know that today’s students are different than those in past generations. They are primarily concerned about jobs more than liberal arts. They are narcissistic and materialistic. In short, they’ve made education a means to an end, so we in higher education simply need to adapt to the new realities or face extinction.

This rhetoric is hard to reconcile with those things we call facts.

HERILast Thursday, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA (one of the premier sources on university life in the world) released their annual Freshmen survey. As the Chronicle of Higher Education explains, the survey reports on “153,015 first-time, full-time freshmen at 227 baccalaureate institutions”.

The Chronicle story included some interactive charts and linked to more interactive charts here. Naturally, I spent some time yesterday playing with them. What I found paints a much more complicated picture than we normally hear. At the risk of upsetting the Chronicle’s lawyers, I’ve taken some screenshots of the charts to illustrate my point.

So what about the claim that today’s students think college is all about jobs and money? If you look at the one-year cross-sectional data you learn that 82% of today’s freshmen think college is about jobs and 72% think it’s about making more money. But if you look at the longitudinal data, you find that this isn’t a new phenomenon at all.

Better Job  I know the numbers are hard to figure out, but the interactive chart allows you to hover over a column and find out what the exact percentage was for that year. It is true that the percentage of freshmen focused on jobs is now over 80% and has been since the Great Recession (could it be because we’ve been telling them that? — talking to you Mr. Obama!). But it’s been running just above 70% for the life of the survey. There is only one year when that percentage was below 70% (1976 was 67.8%). So while there has been an increase, it’s a matter of degree and not a stark change in ideology.

MoneyIf anything, the college and money connection is even more stable that the jobs data. The percentage agreeing that “making more money” is why you go to college crossed the 70% line in 1988 and hovered either side of that mark for the next 16 years. The post-Recession surveys show a minimally higher percentage but it’s only an increase of less than 5%. It has long been true that a college education increases lifetime earnings and a student needs to be aware of that.

The stability in these two charts is even more remarkable when you consider the increase in the college bound population (measured as a percentage of high school graduates) and the demise of the job market for those with only high school diplomas. It would be reasonable to see an increase in both measures in light of the reality of higher education’s gatekeeping function.

But students today don’t really care about learning, right? They are mostly concerned with gaining a credential they can trade for future success. That’s what the never-ending drumbeat of “is college worth it” posts seem to suggest. Why would there ever be a need for residential liberal arts colleges?

Gen EdThis chart shows the percentage of students agreeing that the purpose of college was “to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas”. Not only is it relatively stable, but the data for recent years is higher that it has been since the late 1970s.

I’ve been teaching long enough to know that these attitudes reported at registration don’t always play themselves out in daily practice. But it’s clear that students have a much better grasp on what to expect from college than we credit them with.

One more test of the common wisdom. We often hear that today’s students are interested in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and that liberal arts are old hat. The HERI survey asked students their intended major (which is not an accurate measure of their final major as many will change along the way).

MajorsThis is called a “stacked column” graph and can be slightly distorted. Because all the percentages must add to 100%, an increase in one area is matched by a decrease in one or more other fields. But it does paint a picture of how things change over time.

Some areas seem to have a more stable presence among students and change fairly slowly. Others show something of a “wave” motion that allows us to see the growth of a popular area and its subsequent decline.

To see this work, I hovered the cursor over various colors and moved left to right. Arts and Humanities shows a strong sense of stability, although falls off slightly in the last couple of years. Social sciences are fairly stable over time, ranging from 10% to 13% over the last 30 years. On the other hand, we can see a burst of interest in Business majors in the late 1980s before it re-establishes at a level about 10% down from its high point. Education shows some significant growth during the 1990s but faces serious losses over the last 5-6 years (which our campus enrollments reflect). There has been a marked increase in Physical and Life Sciences in the last four years but time will tell whether this is a shift or simply a bulge more like Business and Education showed in the past.

It seems to me that students are deeply aware of issues of vocation and calling and not simply chasing the hot new job area. They may be aware of limitations in certain job sectors (e.g., education) but still place a high value on areas of personal strength and interest.

I’m glad that HERI gathers this data each year.

But my takeaway is that if we want to know what today’s college freshmen think: it’s pretty much what college freshmen have thought over the last 40 years.

Maybe the quality of higher education would be easier to demonstrate if we stopped chasing our tails about supposed new trends and paid more attention the students sitting in front of us each day.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 97 other followers