Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Life in the Pissant Swamp: Dazed and Confused.

Today's students are quite fascinating in a number of ways. In the classes I teach I preface my courses with an introduction on theory and method, something I suspect is largely absent from the high school curricula except in college track courses, during the first week of class for several reasons, one of them that both are essential to understanding not only how social science "works", but human life itself. The social sciences after all, whether History, Sociology, Cultural Anthropology, and so on, are fundamentally about understanding human life. And they are not only about "facts" but about interpretation of those facts.

Many students, however, seem to have difficulties for whatever reason in grasping the essence of critical thinking, of grasping that analysts, including historians, must use interpretive schemas to understand the whys of human life. At the heart of critical thinking in my classes is the proposition that human and what humans have made of the world can be grasped fully in five little words and the concepts behind them: economics, politics, culture, demography, and geography. Humans are economic animals. In todays world most of us have to work to survive and economic factors, such as work, impact us on a daily basis. We humans are also political animals. The politics of the SUNY system, for instance, impacts the work that I do in the SUNY system. We are meaning giving animals. I don't particularly enjoy the work and the routine of work that I do anymore if I ever did. It is hard to know in retrospect. We are demographic animals. At age 60 running around trying to do three jobs takes its physical and mental toll on this 60 year old. We are geographic animals. I work in three different geographical locations at this time.

I introduce these concepts in a way that is typical in intellectual culture and in academe. I state that humans are economic, political, cultural, demographic, and geographic animals and then give examples. This semester I have used three examples to make my case. First, I used the example of Mormon origins explaining how scholars, over the years have seen Mormonism as the product of economic--Mormons as products of economic change brought about by the Erie Canal--political--Mormonism as a reaction to Jacksonian democracy--cultural--Mormonism as a product of a seeker culture--demographic--Mormonism as a product of being poor--and geography--Mormonism as a product of New England--forces. Second, I have used the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer to explore how all of these factors affect television production and consumption. Finally, I use the example of college towns--college towns as towns in which a university dominates its economic, political, cultural, demographic, and geographic environment--to show that by looking systematically at the economic, political, cultural, demographic, and geographic aspects of a college town it allows to be another thing that is essential in critical thinking, analytical.

All of this, of course, is standard operating practise in intellectual life and in academe so the difficulty some have in grasping all of this raises a host of questions in my mind. Are students not being taught about social science theory and methods in junior high and high school? Are they being taught critical thinking in junior high and high school? Are students capable of applying generalisations--humans are economic, political, cultural, demographic, and geographic animals--to a variety of particular cases? Are students able to comprehend that critical thinking can be applied to everything? Are students able to grasp that what is significant is a product not only of the application of these five ways of looking about human life but also, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder? Do students really care about any of this? Are students here less for a liberal arts education than something else? What is the impact of student laziness on all this? Do students have difficulty comprehending in the age of omnipresent social media and text messaging?

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