More "Food For Thought" From Sociology (If Youre On A Starvation Diet)

John Rosenberg

Crossposted from Discriminations:

Yesterday, in Leave It To The Sociologists…, I discussed a paper from the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association whose findings were, well, less than surprising. Since that gathering is apparently a bubbling cauldron of such findings, today I’d like to discuss two more.

In “Food For Thought,” Inside Higher Ed reported, Maria Lowe and Reginald Byron, sociologists at Southwestern University, and two undergraduates found that

students who regularly share a meal with those of different backgrounds are much more likely to view the campus as having a good environment on race relations than do those who don’t. And the impact of talking with those of different races in the cafeteria is much greater than the impact of cross-racial or cross-ethnic interaction in the classroom or in dormitories….

While students may spend more time each day in their living quarters, and may grow intellectually in the classroom, the role of dining hall experiences is paramount when it comes to defining the state of race relations.

Perhaps these findings are more noteworthy than the notion that students who regularly engage in extra-curricular activities with students from other races report having more interracial friendships than students who do not, but if so the reason was not clear from the IHE report.

One thing that was clear, and quite interesting, is the virtual irrelevance of the vaunted “diversity” in the classroom.

Byron explained that the classroom and dormitory experience produced “null effects” on students’ perceptions of race relations. Many courses don’t discuss race at all [Imagine that!]. In those that do, much discussion is on a “surface level,” and many students reported watching what they say….

In follow-up interviews with students, the researchers heard numerous comments about greater honesty of students when they are away from the classroom.

One minority student said: “I feel like a lot of students, when they’re outside of the classroom they can express their feelings more freely because they feel like some things aren’t necessarily politically correct they don’t want to say in the classroom….

Lowe noted some key qualities to cafeteria interaction. Where one sits is voluntary, and the environment lacks the intensity and competition of the classroom.

There was also at least one interesting inconsistency regarding the importance of the voluntary nature of dining hall interaction. Both “Byron and Lowe said that colleges need to resist the temptation to require mixed eating groups or anything like that,” but Byron also said

he tries to apply the ideas from the study to the classroom, and in particular to brief, informal interactions in the classroom. When an exercise calls for groups, he doesn’t let students divide themselves, but assigns pairs or groups, trying where possible to mix different kinds of people (and he noted he defines “difference” there broadly, not just focusing on race and ethnicity).

Byron concluded that “[c]olleges and universities will just throw students into the school and expect that everything just works out, and it doesn’t.”

Actually, that’s a pretty good description of “diversity” in practice.

Moving now from blacks to women, Peter Schmidt reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education on another study presented at the sociology meeting by two University of Toronto sociologists who found that

[c]ertain colleges may have cultures that nudge female students into stereotypically female fields and men into stereotypically male ones.

Colleges that have relatively few women among their tenured faculty members and exceptionally small numbers of men among their undergraduates generally have higher levels of gender segregation by major than do other institutions, the study found. So do colleges with football teams in Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, suggesting that those with athletic programs that emphasize male-dominated sports are less likely to encourage the gender integration of various academic fields.

Colleges that promote study in the liberal arts, by contrast, tend to have more students go into fields traditionally associated with members of the opposite sex, the paper says.

“Institutions that can be considered more highly gendered, such as those with a strong commitment to male-dominated athletic teams, a weak commitment to including women in the power structure, and a weak commitment to training students in critical thinking and independent thought, are considerably more segregated than would be predicted based on the degrees they award,” the paper says.

“It is conceivable,” the paper adds, “that institutions such as these create and promote an institutional culture based on strong distinctions of masculinity and feminity,” and that culture “then influences the options that become more thinkable and unthinkable for students as they choose their field of study.”

“Conceivable”? Perhaps, but there are some obvious problems with this analysis. “The presence of a Division III football team at a college, for example,” Schmidt points out, “is a fairly narrow basis for concluding that the college is strongly committed to male-dominated intercollegiate sports.” And a commenter who identifies himself as “olddean” points out that

One of the most stereotypically male majors is engineering and that is virtually non-existent in Division III schools.

If the authors wanted to look at the culture of schools with male-dominated athletics, they should be looking at Division I. That’s where the big football schools are. It is also where you are more likely to find such gender stereotypical majors as nursing and engineering.

In short, I think the distinction the authors draw between institutions that are “more highly gendered” because they have “a strong commitment to male-dominated athletic teams, a weak commitment to including women in the power structure, and a weak commitment to training students in critical thinking and independent thought” and institutions that “promote study in the liberal arts” is both tenuous and tendentious.

Does the fact, for example, that institutions of which the authors disapprove may attract men and women “who are more traditonalist in their thinking about their fields of study” and hence who tend to choose different majors necessarily mean those institutions suffer from “patterns of gender inequality,” as one enthusiastic reviewer of the study asserted?

Some of the paper’s observations are merely banal (this is a sociology paper, after all), as when it discovers that “a college with fewer women among tenured faculty members than might be expected is probably more male-dominated than is the norm.” Probably true, but then how surprising is it that colleges with fewer women “than might be expected” tend to be dominated by men?

Equally banal is the observation that “[c]olleges that offer primarily liberal-arts degrees are likely to be more committed to the liberal-arts ideal of education….” Well, yes. Liberal arts colleges do tend to be more committed to liberal arts than other sorts of institutions, but when the authors go on to assert that liberal arts colleges are also more likely “to encourage independent thinking, critical thought, and other habits of mind that encourage students to challenge traditional gender paths” they veer off into ideologically-based and -biased wishful thinking.

Toronto sociologists, meet the Southwestern students discussed above. “Southwestern is a private, highly selective liberal arts institution” of about 1300 students, but, in the interviews they conducted Lowe and Byron “heard numerous comments about greater honesty of students when they are away from the classroom” because, as one student put it, “they feel like some things aren’t necessarily politically correct they don’t want to say in the classroom.”

Political correctness does not afflict the idealized liberal arts colleges postulated by Jayne Baker and Ann Mullen, the Toronto sociologists, dedicated as those liberating institutions are “to training students in critical thinking and independent thought,” encouraging “gender integration,” and developing “habits of mind that encourage students to challenge traditional gender paths.”

It never seems to occur to these authors that colleges assigning themselves the task of shaping and directing young minds to the task of challenging traditional gender paths will strike some not as “critical thinking and independent thought” but the very sort of groupthink that is at the core of political correctness and that makes some students reluctant to speak up in class.

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