Luxeproblemen in California

Nieuws | de redactie
29 januari 2008 | Wat doe je als je te veel impulsen krijgt voor mooie onderzoeksitems? Jonathan Mijs geeft het eerlijk toe: 'Lately I've been facing some problems. Luxury problems, that is.'

The first one is that I find it problematic to pick for myself a number of courses that I’d like to follow additionally to the ‘core’ that I’ve already chosen – and have been accepted to (Labor Economics, Reich; Social Stratification, Lucas; Quantitative Methods, Goodman).

Secondly, I’ve been coming up with a lot of research questions that I’d like to pursue. Writing a paper on the Left Behind series[i] has fueled my interest for American Christian fundamentalism and, moreover, the question why some religious ideas (e.g. Apocalyptical and dispensationalist beliefs) have such solid grounds in the US while they are practically non-existent in Europe. (Mail me if you want to take a look at the paper or hear more about the subject). All students that I’ve talked about it so far, that knew the books, didn’t believe a word though. Just my luck to be ‘stuck’ in the most liberal town of the US!

Another research idea emerged out of a conversation that I had over dinner with a friend, who is a psychology graduate student here at Berkeley. We came to talk about IQ-tests and she told me about a researcher, James R. Flynn, who showed that IQ-test scores all over the world show a very constant and linear growth. Instead of proclaiming that humans have over the years become smarter, Flynn argues that as society grows more complex, more abstract thinking is required of us – a way of thinking that is rewarded high scores in IQ tests. Accordingly, yearly IQ test results are corrected for this ‘Flynn-effect’.

While this seemed to me as a valid line of reasoning, I did not accept it at face value. Didn’t, for example, our educational system get more and more practically oriented – focused on skills rather than knowledge; on practical use rather than thorough understanding? The example that I have in mind concerns how I was taught mathematics in secondary school. While my father could still give you mathematical proof of most propositions that he had to understand in his school years, when I attended school I just had to take the formulas for granted and ‘learn to apply’ them (actually, for my school exams, I was even given a card with all the formulas to use with my calculator). But even though my view on these things might be biased through my ‘Tweede Fase’ education, are there no simpler explanations for the Flynn-effect?

What comes to mind is the following: isn’t it so that people do better on tests the 2nd time than the 1st? Isn’t that why people practice before making? Add to that the fact that tests have come to play a great role in both educational as in the labor market settings. From assessments as part of the job application procedure and Graduate Record Examinations for grad school entry to Scholastic Aptitude Tests – that determine entrance to college –and CITO-tests administered to 11 year olds[ii], standardized testing has become the mechanism through which entry to important positions is either granted or refused. Let me add to that an example that came to me this afternoon in class. Just before the start of instruction, a guy walked in who, representing the Berkeley Alumni Association, offered GRE-preparatory training, while adding: “It doesn’t matter whether you are a freshman, sophomore or senior. It is never too early to start preparing for Grad school!”.

From a stratification sociology point of view, this process benefits equality of opportunity, as testing removes a lot of subjective (cultural and social) ways of selection [iii] – although one might counter argue that there is a lot of inequality in the resources that people have access to in preparing themselves (or their children) for such tests[iv].

This, however, is not the point I was trying to make. What I want to show is that the simple fact that testing has grown to be more important seems to me as a pretty good explanation for increased efforts in preparing for these tests, both on an individual level as on the meso level of institutions (such as in CITO-preparatory sessions in secondary school, the fast-growing market of outer-school homework classes and private tutors, etc.).  Whether this trend is an expression of society’s addiction to quantitative instruments that grant us the feeling of certainty and controllability or, rather, a morally motivated attempt to increase social mobility, however remains the question.

A completely different matter is that of child rearing. It is considered common knowledge among exchange students that there is a large difference in the ways that American and Europeans (stereo)typically interact and relate to each other – or, rather, enter relationships. Americans tend to be very friendly and open on first encounter but rather shallow and superficial on second sight, while Europeans are cold at first, but open to deeper relationships if one pursues.  Richard Sennett, in his  Corrosion of Character. The Pers onal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (1998) links these traits to new economic reality. According to him, this ‘American’ stance towards relating and relations is a consequence of modern labor market’s requirement of being flexible and mobile – willing to leave things and people behind in the pursuit of a better job and a ‘better life’.

Richard Freeman’s America Works. Critical Thoughts on the Exceptional U.S. Labor Market (2007) adds two findings to Sennett’s analysis. In his sum up of American labor market’s peculiarities, Freeman shows, firstly, that Americans are two to four times as mobile compared to Europeans, both job-wise as when it comes to moving across the country.  Secondly, American women on average spend 10 hours less than European women on housework and child-rearing – per week.

While Freeman’s first point is, in my mind, an affirmation of what Sennett sees as the required way of acting in ‘New Capitalism’, his second points adds to it a strong ingredient for a theoretical relationship: that between the specifically American economic context (‘American Exceptionalism’) and the specifically American ways of interacting and relating that distinguishes them from Europeans. Would it not be logical, for people who – objectively – have a larger chance of losing sight of each other, to protect oneself preemptively from the pain and sorrow that this may cause; to shape one’s life in ways (typically called ‘individualism’) that one needs not to rely on others for satisfaction and comfort? But: how ‘voluntary’ is such a choice? Does one successfully convince oneself that he is complete while he represses the ‘missing’ (of deep relationships, rewarding interaction) he feels inside? Or does one not know (and feel) what one might be missing – compared to Europeans – because American standards (i.e. parental examples) are so much different?

How strong, I’d like to know, is the empirical base for these assumptions? Does this line of reasoning hold only for the, economically competitive, East-and-West-coast major urban areas or for most of the country? Or am I talking gibberish? So many interesting questions to pursue and no time to do it all. That’s what I call a luxury problem.

Jonathan Mijs

[i] See and

[ii] Not to mention former secretary of education Mark Rutte’s proposal for an ‘infant test’.

[iii] See for example Dronkers (2007) Ruggegraat van ongelijkheid. Beperkingen en mogelijkheden om ongelijke onderwijskansen te veranderen.

[iv] See for example De Regt & Weenink (2003) Investeren in je kinderen. Over de keuze voor particulier onderwijs in Nederland and Buchmann& Roscigno (2003) Staying Ahead: SAT preparation, College Enrollment and Class Reproduction in the United States.

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