on intellectual humility; also, on how being woke is not like being saved

A few weeks ago, I wrote a series of tweets about an essay I was working on about the similarities of being woke and being saved. I got more of a response via social media than I expected, and so I’ve been thinking about the comparison a lot.  The essay I wound up writing for the Immanent Frame’s series on American religion, humility, and democracy is not really about that: it’s more about the performativity of speech and the ways in which we can sometimes recognize others’ words as coercive even as we see our own as simply corrective, or even descriptive. There’s a lot more to say than what wound up in the essay, of course, including about how many activists are especially aware of the power of language to create worlds, which is precisely why they fight so much about the use of language. Yet even then, sometimes there’s a sense in which X description is just true and Y description is just wrong, in some final sense, rather than simply a different attempt at a way of getting at the world, a more just attempt perhaps, or a better one for any host of reasons, but nonetheless still an attempt that is ultimately contingent. The answer to that might be that we need a kind of “strategic essentialism” to get anything done politically, and that our worlds as activists are different than our worlds as politicians or as writers. And I take the point. Yet even if these are helpful analytic distinctions, they obviously bleed into each other in practice.

This is pretty straightforward poststructuralism of course. The longer version of that essay (I cut half of it, killing my darlings one by one) was more clear on the references to Foucault, Butler, and Austin, but it’s still pretty obvious who I’m drawing from. I had an interesting conversation with a friend about an earlier version of the essay, in which I realized these claims out me as a pretty big moral relativist. As such, I’m not sure any moral claim is *ultimately* descriptive, though I think Gabi Abend and other sociologists of morality do a good job of pulling from Charles Taylor (and others), to show how moral claims can be descriptive (taken for granted, obvious, like calling the sky blue) within certain “moral backgrounds.”  Anyway, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

But that brings me to two other things I wanted to say. First, I’d very much recommend the other essays in the series, which will still have a few more after mine. So far there are really interesting pieces by Anthony Petro, Grace Yukich, Amy Lawton, Ruth Braunstein, Sarah Silva, Richard Wood and Wes Markofski, with a great opening essay on “a crisis of political arrogance” by Ruth Braunstein, Korie Edwards, and Richard Wood:

The lessons these essays offer also matter beyond religious groups, as they shed light more generally on how people overcome political, moral, interpretive, and epistemic disagreements. Although the essays vary significantly in their level of optimism about Americans’ capacity to resolve the issues that currently divide them, they nonetheless offer grounded examples of how a range of groups are trying—sometimes with success—to do so.

I’m excited about the essays, and I think you will be too.

But this leaves my earlier promise to write an essay about how being woke is a lot like being saved. I changed my mind about writing the piece, and it wasn’t just because various religious conservatives have written similar essays already. First, I just don’t think the parallel works: being woke is really just about awareness, and being saved is about the assurance of salvation.

But what if awareness is the key to salvation? People mention gnosticism a lot in reference to certain kinds of contemporary activism, and it’s an interesting comparison. However, I’m still not sure I buy it. Still, some of  those conservative essays do point out interesting parallels, not really between woke and being saved (again: I’m not sure that works) but rather between certain contemporary leftist political practices and certain traditional religious practices. Here’s Joseph Bottum:

But all such old American Christian might-have-beens are unreal in the present world, for someone like Kim Radersma. Mockable, for that matter, and many of her fellow activists today identify Christianity with the history of all that they oppose. She wouldn’t know a theological doctrine or a biblical quotation if she ran into it headlong. And so Radersma now fights racism: the deep racism that lurks unnoticed in our thoughts and in our words and in our hearts.

The better to gird herself for the struggle, she gave up teaching high-school students to attend the Ph.D. program in Critical Whiteness Studies at Ontario’s Brock University. But even such total immersion is not enough to wash away the stain of inherited sin. “I have to every day wake up and acknowledge that I am so deeply embedded with racist thoughts and notions and actions in my body,” she testified to a teachers’ conference on white privilege this spring. “I have to choose every day to do antiracist work and think in an antiracist way.”

That’s an interesting parallel, and, frankly, possibly a genealogical one. It would not be surprising to me if a country with strong Calvinist roots winds up having secular practices with Calvinist sensibilities. Yet my problem with these sorts of stories is the way in which religion (especially Christian religion) functions as a master category.  To say that X behavior is “really” like religion strike me as just not as analytically useful as using Durkheim or other cultural sociologists to look at the practices that help to maintain group boundaries and group identity. Those can parallel religious behavior, but that doesn’t mean they’re *ultimately* religious behavior.

One of my problems with a certain line of argument in both sociology of religion and theology is an insistence that X or Y is a pseudo-religion (see Tillich on ultimate concern or Rahner on anonymous Christianity).  I’m just not sure what that does for us, analytically, and I’m troubled by what it does for us normatively, as it seems to imply that meaningfulness is religion, which is a political move to preserve the role of religion in the modern world without, I think, much analytic payoff. (Talal Asad is obviously excellent on this, especially what liberal religion does for both liberals and religion).

Of course, it all depends on how you define religion, which, at least for sociologists, is not necessarily a helpful project either (or so I claim). But the main problem with the woke/saved comparison is that I worry about the way in which it reinforces a narrative that everyone is ultimately religious. That’s just bullshit, I think. Everyone is ultimately social, and Durkheim (among others) does a great job of showing how religion can help us to understand, maintain, and develop that sociality. But a lot of stuff is like religion because a lot of stuff is involved in being social, and religion is social in a lot of different ways (though even this gets into the problem of the term religion being a huge mess with huge normative implications any way you lay it down.)

So does that mean we should never compare the secular and the religious? Of course not! And I would love, at some point, to add to some of the careful genealogical studies of how certain secular practices in the United States have religious roots. For example, I’m continually fascinated by how much a “coming out story” shares structural similarities with Evangelical narratives of being saved.  But this is then a genealogical story, in much the same way Foucault traces sexual understanding back to confession. It is not a claim that one category is the master category through which the other should be understood. To return to the point of my first paragraph above, it’s worth being careful about how those comparisons are never just descriptive.  Our work, no matter how small, helps make a world as much as it helps make sense of it.


Written by jeffguhin

March 2, 2018 at 1:21 am

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , , , ,

student evaluations? sad!

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how I changed my mind about student evaluations of teachers. Early evidence showed that they correlated with student learning, but newer analysis reverses this conclusion. The James G. Martin Center, with my permission, edited and reprinted the post. A teaser:

The fundamental issue is that colleges should probably not be judged using the logic of consumer satisfaction. The metric of customer happiness makes sense for products that are meant to be immediately entertaining, like watching television. But education, especially higher education, is about learning which, by nature, is a stressful and inconvenient thing. And the onus for success should be at least as much on the student as on the teacher.

Check it out!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

March 1, 2018 at 5:53 am

winter book forum 2018, part 3: so what?

In this last installment, I ask – “so what?” Is the argument presented in The Case Against Education important? My response is addressed to two groups – the skeptics and the persuaded.

The skeptics: I think that skeptics, people who believe that education is good because it directly improves people, should take away two main messages. First, very well meaning people will often just assert the benefits of education without a lot of evidence to back it up, especially when it comes to teaching things like “critical thinking.” More sophisticated people may justifiably cite the evidence on the college premium (i.e., college educated make more money than high school grads). But in both cases, there is often direct evidence that the hypothesis is wrong (e.g., no transfer learning), overblown (e.g., educated people are better citizens, but by a modest amount) or there is additional evidence that undermines the basic human capital story (e.g., people don’t retain what they learn or the infamous sheepskin effects). And these conclusions are not from one or two analyses, but from decades of academic work. Thus, skeptics should probably try harder to appreciate this evidence or come up with equally strong counter evidence.

A second lesson for skeptics is that we should really adopt a more humane approach to individuals with limited academic skills. One of the strongest arguments in The Case Against Education is simply that low academic skill people drop out of college at very high rates.  It’s a very simple point that is almost certainly true. This is crucial because it means that low academic skill people may spend years of their lives and thousands upon thousands of dollars for degrees they never get or benefit from. Instead of demanding more and more education for these people, the skeptics should really just admit that formal education isn’t right for these people and sensibly move people into vocational schools or workplace based apprenticeships.

The persuaded: What if you believe the gist of Caplan’s argument – that formal education may benefit individuals through signalling but are a socially wasteful signal? Caplan is a radical in that he thinks all education, not just public education, should be scaled back. Most people probably aren’t ready to “push the button” and massively de-school society. But there are some sensible policies that are worth thinking about.

The first, which Caplan, argues for is vocational training. And I understand what he means. When I was in high school, vocational training was seen as a failure – the “vo-tech kids” were the left overs. But that is a very wrong attitude. There is no dishonor in learning a trade! In today’s world, it can be exciting. Why not have high schools teach programming (not theoretical computer science) and web design? Or the basics of business management and accounting? In large urban centers, many kids could get a start in creative industries like advertising, video production, and hospitality. Once people master the basics of literacy and numeracy, surely, these topics would be much better for many students than an additional year of quickly forgotten algebra.

Second, people in higher education should start seriously re-thinking the overall structure of the American university system. Right now, we have over 8,000 institutions that award post-secondary degrees. This is insane. What should we have? In a world where we focus higher education on those who are academically strong and reduce credentialing, we’d probably still keep the research intensive institutions because there are careers where intensive educations seems to make sense (e.g., medicine or engineering, or training for the elite humanities). Then, we’d probably scale back schools that offer this education to those with weak academic skills. Ironically, there might be a case to be made for junior colleges as low-cost open access places where people could either quickly get vocational skills or get certified for more intensive education.

I hope you found this discussion of The Case Against Education useful. I’d love to hear what you think.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

February 27, 2018 at 5:01 am

In Memoriam: Mary Ellen Konieczny

The sociology of religion is a relatively small subfield, and one with relatively dense ties, given our various conferences and the solidarity from the dearth of jobs. And so, this past weekend, many of us were stunned to hear that our friend Mary Ellen Konieczny, a professor at Notre Dame, has died.

Here is the notice from Notre Dame.

There’s so much to say about Mary Ellen, but one thing that might not be mentioned is that she was a model for those of us who are religious in the academy, especially Catholics like me. She wrote about polarizations in the Catholic Church, always in an effort to bring people together (her books on this, both her ethnography and her edited volume, are really excellent). I always assumed she was progressive like me, though I’m not sure we ever talked about the specific issues. Yet I was struck how many people from all across the Catholic Church expressed sorrow about her loss. She knew how to speak to everyone so that they felt heard and understood, and she did so in a way that was neither superficial nor unchallenging.  That’s a skill that’s increasingly hard to pull off in today’s Catholic Church, and, for that matter, in today’s America. Because, of course, the work Mary Ellen was doing wasn’t really about Catholicism: she was too good of a sociologist for that. It was about social life, and her next projects were all extensions of her interests in how people can work within and beyond cultural differences, much of it not really about Catholics.

Yet she still wanted to work on Catholics. The Church mattered to her, unapologetically. I asked her once about the fact that she does a kind of “mesearch” and she said it was a challenge to get a kind of critical distance, but it was important to her, and she just found it interesting. I intentionally haven’t studied Catholics because I’m worried I’m too close, yet I hope eventually I have the courage to study my own worlds with the simultaneous compassion and dispassion that Mary Ellen achieved. And while I’ve never really had a problem with sociologists studying their own identities and backgrounds, Mary Ellen’s ability to make a real difference in the Catholic world is proof how much it matters for sociologists to bring our own skills back to our own places.

Yet Mary Ellen was so much more than her work. I was talking to her at a conference a few months ago, and we discussed a really amazing paper she had just published at Sociology of Religion on being gay at a Catholic university. As usual, she was more excited for her coauthors (Robbee Wedow, Landon Schnabel, and Lindsey K D Wedow) than for herself. She was an incredibly passionate mentor to many, as well as a devoted colleague and academic citizen. And she had a husband and two sons, a community in South Bend, a whole world.

Every time someone I know dies, I think of this poem, What the Living Do, by Marie Howe.  Its final stanzas are worth sharing here:

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.



Written by jeffguhin

February 26, 2018 at 10:57 pm

meet me in san diego!!


On Thursday, I will be speaking about public sociology at the Department of Sociology, at UC San Diego. Send me an email for a time and place. Please come by – it will be amazing!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

February 21, 2018 at 5:34 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

winter book forum 2018, part 2: what do people actually get out of college?

This Winter, we are discussing Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education. The main issue: We invest a ton in education and it seems to do good. But is that because schooling acts as a filter or because schooling gives your concrete skills or better ways of thinking? If education is mostly a filter (the signalling model), we should probably cut back on education a lot.

In this post, I’ll discuss the types of evidence that Caplan reviews. His book is empirical in that the strength of the argument relies on what other researchers have found. A short blog post does not do justice to this work. For example, he asks – how much do people learn in college? How much do people use specific skills (like algebra) in the workplace? Is there any evidence that learning is transferable – that people acquire “critical thinking?” Each of these topics commands one’s full attention, but we can only skim through the best here.

As you can expect from the title of the book, the direct benefits of education are pretty sparse. Probably the most damning evidence are studies that show that people don’t learn that much in college to start with. Another important fact is that few people ever use the skills – the few they may remember  – in work. Thus, it is very hard to argue for the simple human capital argument – educations makes you better because you learn valuable things. This can’t be right because people don’t learn or retain much in college.

Two related points: In response to those who argue that education imparts critical thinking, he points to evidence that learning is actually domain specific. Learning one area doesn’t seem to help in most others. This is called “transfer learning” in psychology and it’s been rejected for a long, long time. Another fascinating point – if education improves you via human capital development, we’d expect your income to increase for every year of education you get. Instead, Caplan reports that studies of income show no increase in income until you hit 4 years of college – a classic sign of signalling – which economists call sheepskin effects.

Of course, no single study seals the deal and it may be that Caplan has misread some, or even a lot, of the studies. But is is unlikely he misread it all and it is consistent with the everyday view that formal education is not a particularly good way to impart skills. Thus, we should be very skeptical of claims that education is a great way to train people for the labor market. Next week: So what?

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

February 19, 2018 at 5:01 am

sesame street jam

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

February 18, 2018 at 5:15 am