Monday, September 6, 2010

The only thing we have to fear

Today in ANTH 100, I introduced the idea that the concept of culture is one intended to define a field of study - that is, "culture" is a tool that cultural anthropologists use to define / explain what we study. There are lots of ways to study what people do, say, and think, but "culture" lets us see human practices and ideas as learned (and taught) and shared so that individuals identify themselves (and others) as members of particular groups.

As a parenthropologist, I wonder about what we might be learning and teaching today: I just read this post on free range kids about a new book that I plan to put on my kindle wish list: Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear.

I especially appreciated author Aaron Kupchik's assertion: "We’re teaching kids what it means to be a citizen in our country. And what I fear we’re doing is teaching them that what it means to be an American is that you accept authority without question and that you have absolutely no rights to question punishment."

I like Kupchik's title and the connection it makes to the culture / politics / economics of homeland security. Although I have not read it in full, I have become a fan (literally, on FB...) of The Washington Post's coverage on Top Secret America:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

We invest so much in terms of economic resources, intellectual effort, and emotional energy - for what?

What worries me is not just that homeroom / homeland security is "not working," but that it clearly is accomplishing other kinds of work. These are intended and unintended: As a parenthropologist, I am not interested in conspiracy theories. A lesson that cultural anthropology teaches us, however, is to question "functionalism" - that is, to recall that there might be stated reasons for why certain activities are undertaken (e.g., to keep kids safe and secure at school), and unstated reasons serving to reinforce still other ideas and practices.


Along with what we are teaching kids, implicitly and explicitly, about "security," I have been thinking about what kids are learning or not learning about work. I hear so many grown-ups go on and on about kids need to learn "work ethic" and the value of a dollar earned (or saved).

What I find jarring, however, is that seldom do the same grown-ups talk about the worth of work in terms of what workers ought to have - that is, fair and safe conditions. So that at least some college students see unionized workers as "greedy," and side with corporate interests in "efficiency."

Something you sometimes hear pundits wax eloquently on these days is the issue of "narrative" and controlling "the story" as a significant part of politics. What is the narrative of unionized workers? Why do I feel like I only hear stories that basically train me to adopt the values of stakeholders and stockholders? True that my retirement savings make me an "owner" with a stake (and stock) in the system, but that all still depends on being, in fact, a person who works.

Just some thoughts for Labor Day.

No comments:

Post a Comment