Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Ranking of the Social Sciences

I have often found myself feeling frustrated and confused over the way general society and academia seem to have come together and agreed upon a hierarchy of the social sciences.  Being completely honest, I should admit that my frustration most likely stems from the fact that I do not personally have much respect for the field which has come out on top! Americans, obsessed with being "practical" and studying "useful" fields of inquiry somehow decided that Economics is the most scientific and therefore the most substantial of the social sciences.  That's right....Economics....oooo it makes me shudder!

I guess it could be worse.

While I do not have much use for a system that ranks fields of intellectual inquiry, if I were being forced to choose one social science to place above the others, it would obviously be Anthropology. Shocking, I know, but wait!  This is not merely yet another case of an overly sensitive, ego-maniacal Anthropologist (which admittedly, there are plenty of) angrily protesting that "my field is the best one".  Well, at least I hope not.

I considered myself a student of the social sciences generally prior to selecting a specific discipline to focus on.  I took courses in History, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, and yes, Economics, prior to landing on Anthropology.  Given my experiences, the choice seemed clear. Anthropology you see encompasses ALL of the other social sciences.  Any well rounded Anthropologist will tell you that in order to draw serious inferences about human beings and cultures you need to have some sort of understanding of their historical narratives, societal norms, political structure, exchange systems, religious practices, and on and on and on.  This is why Anthropology is referred to as "holistic" in approach.

So why then, would Economics be considered a more practical or sound field of study?  From an Anthropological perspective, studying economic principles outside of the context of the wider systems of belief and practice of groups would be absolutely meaningless!  Yet, of course, that is what some economists attempt to do.  And there it is.  Economics attempts to create models and specific theories which can be applied to all human beings and societies, and to make predictions based upon those models.  In that sense, I suppose it is similar to basic forms of mathematics and some of the "hard" sciences.  And somehow, our society has come to believe that knowledge and information is only worthwhile if it can be simplified and applied everywhere.  If it involves a lot of interpretation or is soft, well then obviously it is of no use!  How will politicians grab onto it and turn it into campaign slogans?!

Source: xkcd

We're not even on the chart!  

Of course, I have been dealing with this for years and, though it can be annoying, it has always seemed whiny to even talk about it.  Oh poor little Anthropologist!  Society thinks you are less important, boo hoo!  It is a little pathetic sounding.  So why now?

This summer I am going to be teaching Economics to high school students.  That's right...I have crossed over to the dark side.  And in my adventures prepping this Economics class I have found some troubling things hiding within the curriculum.  Economics, at least in New York State public schools, is a course that presents certain things as simple facts or as "the way things are."  One of these things is the idea that human beings are rational actors, who will always weigh the costs and benefits to themselves prior to making decisions.  Good old Homo Economicus - which Anthropologists have been battling for years!  Another is that the laws of supply and demand are sacrosanct - they always apply of course!  I could go on but, I do not want to.

Happily, given my broad array of social science knowledge, I feel comfortable teaching these ideas as ideas, ones that have been disputed and that do not comfortably apply to all human societies.  But, even looking at the curriculum troubled me.  What if I did not have this background knowledge?  What if I, like most people teaching Economics in a high school Social Studies Department, was a history major who became dizzy at the mere sight of a supply curve?

Instead of just annoyed...

Most likely those teachers would stick to the curriculum and materials supplied to them.  Their students would graduate high school with a firm belief in the validity of foundational theoretical models of Economics (or more likely, no memory of it at boring), and we would have yet another generation of Americans with a simplistic understanding of systems of exchange and their relation to wider cultural practices and beliefs!  All because somewhere along the way (let me guess...Cold War Era?) the US decided that it was essential for our youngest citizens to learn to be good little capitalists instead of students of humanity as a whole.

In short, yes students need to learn about capitalist market operations - that is part of their experience.  Does that mean they should all be taking a class in Economics, but NOT one in Anthropology (or even Sociology)?  Absolutely not.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Power and Perspective on Broadway

I still remember my first encounter with Tennessee Williams'  heartbreaking yet beautiful play, A Streetcar Named Desire.  I was young, about ten or eleven.  I was flipping through the channels in my room one day, trying to find something interesting to watch, when suddenly something (or more specifically, someone) caught my eye.  It was Scarlett O'Hara!  Or, in reality, it was Vivien Leigh, playing Blanche DuBois in Kazan's 1951 film version of Streetcar.  

I suppose I was still trying to get used to the idea that the people on TV were actors, not real people (not to insult anyone or say that actors are not real people know what I mean!), and that actors and actresses could play more than one character.  I was not entirely sure what I was watching, but I was intrigued by how different than Scarlett she sounded.  And she looked blonde!  Wasn't that strange?  

Poor Scarlett!  Rhett would never allow you to be abused this way!

I am not sure if I even understood what I was watching that first time around.  Still, something about the film and the story stuck with me.  I found myself going back to Streetcar time and again over the course of my life.  Once I even went so far as to say it was my "favorite play."  Do people usually have favorite plays, or is that just me?  Needless to say, when Jerry offered to take me to see the revival of Streetcar on Broadway for our anniversary, I jumped at the chance.  I was also intrigued by the idea of a Broadway showing of Streetcar that featured a multi-racial cast.  I imagined that the dynamics of the play would only be enhanced by adding the element of racial tension into a story that was already driven by issues of power and class.  

Having seen the show, I do feel that by adding the issue of race into the mix, they were able to add even greater depth to the complicated relationships and power struggles between Blanche, Stella, and Stanley.  In this interpretation of Streetcar, Blanche and Stella have become "Creoles," whose family attempted to "move up" in the world by associating more with the white planter class around New Orleans.  This seemingly minor change, in reality, forces us to entirely re-think the section of the play where Blanche begs Stella not to let Stanley, a poor black man, pull her down out of the "light" of "progress" and into the "brutal" "dark."  It makes Stanley's fury and frustration at being called "common" and an "ape" all the more poignant.  It, lets be honest, makes certain sections of the play extremely uncomfortable to watch.  Still, I believe that discomfort adds to the power of the experience, as it echoes the reality of what life was like in New Orleans during the 1950s.  

It also forces the audience to deal, first hand, with complex social issues that continue to play a role in our lives today.  For instance, while I was extremely excited to see this version of Streetcar, it appears that there has been a backlash among certain members of the so-called (and self-labeled) Broadway "elite," who feel that having a multi-racial cast tackle Williams' material (both Streetcar and the recent revision of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) is "gimmicky"  and detracts from the story in some way.  The implication being that the audience will not be able to see past the actors' skin color long enough to appreciate the material.  Or, even more shockingly, that the actors and actresses cast in this adaptation of Streetcar are less talented than their white counterparts, and therefore, will not do justice to Williams' iconic characters.  I assure you, all of this is hogwash.  In fact, I would almost go so far as to say that Nicole Ari Parker's Blanche was more intriguing, more sympathetic, and more visibly broken than Leigh's.  And Blair Underwood's interpretation of Stanley was simply stunning.  He really forced me to re-think my views on Stanley and his relationship with Stella.  

No one's better than Brando?  Well maybe...but go see it...decide for yourself.

Still, despite my disgust at the reaction of certain individuals to this wonderful show, I cannot help but recognize that there is a common thread tying our interpretations of this version of Streetcar together.  While they were horrified by the idea of a multi-racial cast and I was intrigued by it, no one can deny that we all thought that there was something different and/or strange about the concept.  

No one would be surprised to hear about a new interpretation of Streetcar featuring an all white cast.  No one would think there was anything strange or gimmicky about it.  No one would comment on how the choice of actors to play Stanley and Blanche dramatically changes the way we think of the character's relationships.  No.  On the contrary, everyone would automatically assume that the lead characters would be portrayed by white actors.  We would not even think twice about it.  And therein lies the problem.  While we have, of course, made tremendous strides in race relations in the United States, we continue to live in a society where white privilege is not only pervasive, it is almost invisible.  Those of us who live under the shelter of that privilege have a duty to recognize it and call out inequity when we see it.  Otherwise we are only contributing to the matter how excited we are to see plays with a multi-racial cast.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Governor's Family - Colden Mansion Ruins

Quick!  What is the most fantastical, downright absurd, yet somehow altogether perfect name that you have ever heard?  Many of you may have been tempted to say "Benedict Cumberbatch," and truly I cannot blame you.

No one can say this man's name without smiling.  Just try it.   I dare you.

Still, despite the glorious way B.C.'s name just rolls off of the tongue, I cannot help but feel that the title of Man With the Greatest Name of All Time must go to Cadwallader Colden. As my friends from the Binghamton University Social Studies MAT program all surely remember, Colden was the man who had the misfortune of serving as the acting colonial governor of New York during the period that The Sons of Liberty (and various other colonial groups) were protesting the passage of The Stamp Act of 1765.

Gently protesting.  Burning in effigy is a form of flattery right???

Colden also served as the first colonial representative to the Iroquois Conference. His encounters with the Iroquois inspired him to write The History of the Five Indian Nations which was the first text written on this particular subject by an Englishman.

With that in mind, perhaps it is not necessary for me to explain why I was so excited when I learned that the ruins of the Colden Family Mansion are located in Montgomery, NY, a few short miles from my townhouse! The mansion was originally built in 1767 by Colden's son and stayed in the family until the mid-19th century. For a time it was home to Colden's famous daughter, Jane Colden, the first female botanist in America.

Today the mansion is, how shall I put this, a little less grand than it used to be. The ruins are hidden behind a ridiculous amount of pricker bushes (I know, I know, I should say "bull thistle" but that just doesn't adequately describe the horror one experiences when one happens to walk into a wall of them) just off of Route 17K. While the town of Montgomery hopes to one day restore the ruins and create a park at the site of the former mansion, as of today there is almost nothing to indicate that a family of historical significance once lived at this particular location.

Yeah, I'm sure people can read that sign while driving.  No problem.

Jerry and I decided to pull over on the side of the road in the hopes of getting a closer look at the ruins themselves. Unfortunately there were "no trespassing" signs surrounding the entire site, along with the aforementioned pricker bushes. So, getting a closer look was much easier said than done. In the end, our archaeological impulses won out over our fear of local property laws and malicious plants, and we bushwhacked our way up to the mansion.

Feeling extremely happy with our success (and a little naughty as well) we decided to continue our adventure by taking a trip out to the old Colden family cemetery located a mile down the road from the ruins themselves. Reaching the cemetery was, surprisingly, even more difficult than reaching the ruins!

We couldn't help but wonder whether we were going a little crazy, as we found ourselves trudging out through an overgrown, swampy field towards the small stone wall of the cemetery.

Despite the hassle, the weeds, and the tick that Jerry rescued me from, we both agreed that the effort had been worth it when we finally pulled back the old rusted gate and made our way into the cemetery itself. While Cadwallader Colden himself is buried in Queens, the graves of his last wife, Elizabeth, along with many of his descendants, and even a few of the family's slaves are located in the cemetery.

I felt a bit sad looking at the neglected cemetery, despite how ridiculously (and ludicrously) cool I thought it was that Jerry and I were standing in this old, isolated place. Still, I suppose it does not really matter if anyone is continuing to look after the headstones as long as the family's name and deeds are remembered. And no one is going to forget a name like Cadwallader Colden!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

All In the Family - History at Sam's Point

On Monday evening Jerry and I decided to take advantage of the lovely weather and go for a hike up to Sam's Point Preserve in Walker Valley, NY.  For years Jerry's family owned part of the mountain and offered tours to the ice caves that are found along the hiking trails.  With that in mind, it probably goes without saying that the two of us have visited Sam's Point a few times in the past.  However, we had never ventured along the path that led to Indian Rock (eek...can we change this to Indigenous Peoples Rock?  Native American Rock?  Something and we were in the mood for a bit of an adventure.

We took the longer (and steeper) route in the hopes of heading up to Indian Rock first and then ending our hike up at Sam's Point itself.  This gave us an excellent opportunity to check out some of the little shacks which blueberry pickers used to operate out of, back when the mountain was covered in blueberry bushes.  

My inner Anthropologist really wants to know more about this.

Jerry started providing me with a little background on the blueberry pickers, as well as the former (now overgrown) shale quarry that we passed on our way up the mountain.  Unfortunately he could not remember a lot of the stories he had heard about the history of the mountain over the years, and we lamented the fact that his grandfather was not there with us to provide a more detailed history.  I suggested that we get some of those spy camera eyeglasses and hook them up to the television in his grandfather's house.  That way the next time we went hiking he could narrate what we were looking at in real time!  Alas, Jerry reminded me that we do not have access to a satellite, so my idea probably was not practical.  

When we reached the trail leading out to Indian Rock I suddenly remembered one thing about the mountain that I had repeatedly been told of over the years...there are rattlesnakes off the main trails!  

Yeah...rattlesnakes...overgrown brush...this doesn't scare me at all.

With that in mind, I made Jerry walk in front.  He claimed to be unconcerned about snakes anyway, despite my protestations that this was exactly the sort of area that snakes would hang out in, and my insistence that at one point I heard something that sounded suspiciously like a rattle.  He was however, deeply disturbed when a spider, and I quote, "fell out of the air onto his back."  All in all, this part of the hike was much more harrowing than I had anticipated!

Indian Rock was lovely but I think that I still prefer the views from Sam's Point.  The story behind the "point" is that a man named Sam was being pursued by Native Americans and out of desperation he jumped off of the point only to miraculously survive the fall. 

Hmmm...not sure I'm buying this story.
Whether or not the legendary Sam survived the fabled jump, Jerry and I enjoyed our trip to the point. 

Of course, it didn't take me very long to begin brainstorming about other historical "adventures" that we could take now that we are back in the Middletown area.  As I was going on and on about ideas I had, Jerry interrupted me to say, "So, are we going to be those people that just go exploring in weird places during our free time?"  To which I replied, "Well, yes!"  He responded, "Sounds good."  Clearly, I married the right guy.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mount Moor Cemetery - History Hidden in Plain Sight!

A few weeks ago, Jerry and I successfully moved all of our belongings (and our two kitties) from Vestal to Middletown in preparation for my adventures in student teaching this fall.  I must admit that I have been feeling a little restless ever since we arrived.  I have been racking my brain, trying to think of interesting - and inexpensive - ways to pass the time in-between working on my future lesson plans.  Thankfully, I remembered that my brother-in-law gave me a rather awesome gift for Christmas a couple of years ago...Chris Gethard's Weird NY

I decided to flip through the book in the hopes of finding someplace relatively close by where I could visit.  I was rather excited to find, under the section on "cemeteries," that there was a small, hidden cemetery located in the middle of the parking lot for the Palisades Shopping Center in West Nyack, NY.  Now, Jerry and I have been to the Palisades Center a few times and not only had I never seen this mysterious cemetery, but I had never even heard of it before, which surprised me because this is the sort of thing I find fascinating (don't judge me, you know it's cool).  

I convinced Jerry to go seek out the cemetery with me this afternoon.  Thankfully, we share many of the same weird interests, so he jumped on the bandwagon pretty quickly.  Besides, it also gave us the opportunity to go see Wes Anderson's fabulous new movie, Moonrise Kingdom, which I highly recommend, but that is another story for another day!

We arrived at the Palisades with nothing more to go on other than that the cemetery was located near the back end of the mall.  We drove around to the back and decided to park and continue the search on foot.  Jerry's detective skills must be more honed then mine because he almost instantly located a service road that led to a wooded area which was conspicuously fenced off (I on the other hand was still trying to orient myself in relation to the Barnes and Noble).  Peeking over the fence, we saw...gravestones!  American flags!  Yay, success!

We looked around for an "official" entrance we could go through, with no success.  There appeared to be a chained gate on the far side of the cemetery, but there was also a security guard down there...and neither of us felt like outrunning mall cops on such a nice day.  So we did the only logical thing we could think of and snuck through a hole on our side of the fence into the back of the cemetery.  

My first thought was...well my first thought was that I should not have worn heels.  But my second thought was that there were quite a few American flags and veterans' plaques positioned around the graves.  I had assumed that the cemetery was of some historical importance (or else I sincerely doubt that our benevolent corporate overlords would have agreed to build their supermall around it), and this new evidence seemed to confirm my assumption!  

Jerry and I made our way around the back half of the cemetery.  Most of the graves were extremely worn away and it was difficult to make out the inscriptions.

However we did see a few dates of death ranging from the late 1850s to the early 1900s.  I also noticed one gravestone was marked with a weeping willow tree.  Thanks to my archaeological background (yes, knew this would come in handy one day) I was able to recognize that this was a common pattern from the mid-1800s in this area.

So, to re-cap the evidence (some of which was more concrete than others): 1) the cemetery was allowed to remain standing, despite the fact that one of the largest shopping malls in the US was about to be built on the site, 2) American flags and veterans plaques surrounded the place, 3) some of the gravestones suggested that  individuals buried in the cemetery died between the middle of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century...we concluded that this was a historic landmark, probably being preserved by NYS, most likely holding the remains of soldiers from the Civil War or the Spanish-American War.  How exciting!

There appeared to be some sort of sign near the aforementioned chained gate which most likely explained in detail who was buried in the cemetery but the dreaded mall cops were still circling in that area, so Jerry and I were forced to sneak out the back way without getting a chance to read it.  However, I of course wanted to learn a bit more about our lovely find so after returning home I immediately turned to the all knowing google for answers.

It turns out that the cemetery is even more fascinating than I had supposed!  The Mount Moor Cemetery, established in 1849 to provide a final resting place for people of color, particularly African-Americans, who served in the United States Armed Forces during the years of the Civil War and Spanish-American War (got that part right at least...whew).  In later years, veterans of other wars, including WWI & II and even the Korean War were buried there as well.  I suppose these later grave sites were located near the front gate.

So now, I feel slightly less restless, having had a little adventure uncovering history hidden in plain sight.