Culture Changing

I'm only forty-four, but then maybe that isn't so young actually. And given that culture changes with increasing speed, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I can see big changes in the time I've been alive. But I've been pondering three kinds of cultural changes that may all result in a substantial shifts in the way people think about problems.
  1. People don't expect to have the same job for life, so don't identify with their jobs, so don't invest the same amount of themselves in doing their job. I've been pondering this in the context of the way PhD students now don't seem to spend as much time actually on their PhD as we did just a decade ago. That's not just my own observation, every time I get into a discussion about it in a room of academics everyone else hushes and attends -- they've all been trying to figure it out. I got the insight about the possible cause though from a taxi driver. He was talking about a friend who went from being a heavy drinker to entirely tea-total when he got a job as a professional driver shortly after getting married. The former drinker said "I'm a driver now, this is my life." This had been a couple decades back, and the taxi driver & I discussed that such things seemed to happen more then.
  2. Way fewer kids sit through sermons every week & then hear the adults around them discussing them afterwards. I started thinking about this just yesterday, when I was at a wedding with a large number of kids who clearly saw nothing to indicate that the procedure was any different from a ride in a train or a boat. Until nearly the end, when the adults all recited the Lord's Prayer in unison. That was clearly weird & the kids all suddenly hushed & looked forward & tried to figure out what was going on. The first thing I thought was that the Church of England had it right to use more responsive readings in throughout their wedding services, since that clearly helps get people focused on being part of the process. But then I started thinking about the fact that even when I was a child, churches stopped expecting kids to sit all the way through the sermon & let them leave early to go to sunday school. I've been aware for a long time I was exceedingly lucky to get a good religious education living in the US, since you legally can't be taught about religion in school, and our church happened to have the liberal professors from a nearby religious university in it. But it hadn't occurred to me before how unusual it was to experience the very process of sitting in a mixed-age collective learning something debatable with people who cared about the content & would debate it openly for the next hour. I'm sure that both gave me intellectual skills and an attitude about learning and debate -- for example, it's probably why I still care more about what people do & say than what their current academic rank is. But just as importantly, maintaining the skill & discipline to listen to an argument that may be poorly or weirdly phrased with no power point or video animations, and still find the most interesting points (& moves) buried somewhere in the content, and getting reinforced for doing that by having interesting conversations afterwords.
  3. And finally, this I know the least about, but the military draft. I keep getting in conversations with people about what an equalizer this is, at least for males in a society -- that they all wind up together with a common experience, and then get to go to higher education with a more mature perspective. This still exists in some countries in Europe, but not others.
I don't know what to think about any of the above, but when you see the way people are so easily taken apart from each other and radicalized around really stupid ideas, convinced to support things that hurt their own interests (like the working poor opposing a public option to US health care) by a few flashy, gimicky advertisements & arguments, you really wonder. I guess one thing I didn't list above is isolation & television, but I think I already blogged a couple years ago about meeting the widow of a famous UK politician, who said about how before there was television, the whole community would turn out to a local debate because it was the only thing happening in town, and there was much more coherent & community-wide discourse on politics. Now so many things are more engaging.

If you break down the USA by counties rather than states, the people who voted against Gore in 2000 largely lived in sparsely-populated areas, while the ones who voted for him were living near each other. I wondered at the time whether if you actually run into your neighbours and can see how public policies affect them, if you are less likely to be fooled by lies on television.



We have to pack now & go back to Vienna. In the month since my last posting we've been in Vienna, Oxford (talking about a grant), Nottingham (packing), Shrewsbury (for David's wedding), Maastricht (finding a home & Will signed his contract), Amsterdam (I gave a talk at Cognitive Science), then Will went to Washington DC but I went to Vienna, then we both went to Ljubljana (Will was teaching a course), then I went to Zurich (I gave a talk at the European Federation of Primatology), then we both went to Adelboden (1350 meters above sea level! I was dizzy the first day, but gave a talk at The Use of Vertebrate Model Systems to Study Social Evolution) then Oxford again (Will & I both gave talks & I helped lead a discussion at EXREL) then Zurich again (had dinner with Phil Kime & his new wife Nancy -- you remember him from our wedding?) and now Ansbach where one of Will's colleague from Nottingham just got married (the people we visited in Ankara). On Wednesday the movers will take our stuff from Vienna to Maastricht, we will follow them Thursday, then I am back in Bath on 1 September, though I am meeting some collaborators in London on the way there.
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