Saturday, April 28, 2007

Institutionalism -- notes from high school civics

I dragged out my Blue and Gray Washington-Lee High School yearbook from 1961, when I graduated, and looked over a number of the comments from students. One comment was even “Bill: Your first lesson in calculus” and it gives a formal derivation of the derivative (pun) of y = x**2 as y = 2x. All about limits and such. The comments are all positive except for one, a girl who was in my senior VA and U.S. Government class, where she writes, with some sarcasm, “I hope you feel that all your memorizing has paid off. If high marks is your goal in life, I wish you all success possible in attaining that goal. Best wishes at W&M.”

Picture: The new Washington-Lee High School, Arlington VA, under construction.
I was a kid of the Sputnik and Cold War age, and there were indeed some unusual pressures. In Enriched Chemistry class I once had made the wisecrack, “All learning is memorizing.” The class gasped. I had a certain context, and I rather regret that. Learning math and computer programming requires the development of mental agility and skill, not just factual retention. It requires application. The same is always true in science. In college, pre-med students (even Ashton Kutcher, lore goes, almost became pre-med) bemoan organic chemistry, and the “memorization” of reactions and nomenclature, which, however, fits predictable patterns. (Carbon is amazingly consistent in how it behaves.) Medicine itself requires enormous amount of “memory.” (Start with comparative anatomy.) Foreign language learning starts with memorization and becomes a skill (it’s harder with non Romance, non Germanic languages for most Americans – and that is becoming an issue today with the need to learn Arabic and Chinese.) (I made another famous aspie-like wisecrack in that chemistry class, "Don't kiss her on the lips!")

Her swipe at me was more a reaction to an incident in study hall before a government test. I asked her if she had notes on the definition of “institutionalism.” She did not. But “institutionalism” was on the test sixth period. She thought I had cheated and found out what was on the test. I did not. I’ve never cheated on a test. I had just found it mentioned in the classroom notes and did not understand what it meant. Somehow I wrote a paragraph about it and got credit for it on the test, but I really didn’t get what it meant even in twelfth grade.

I think today, however, we all have a pretty good concept of what it means in practice. Think about the debate over gay marriage. Most of the arguments for it are “rational” and seem to relate to individual rights, and balancing these rights with responsibilities, even to provide for others. Now you have the social conservatives whining that, as long as we are focused too much on equality and rights and responsibilities as a construct of individualism, marriage as an institution (for raising children and caring for people in a family structure) will deteriorate. I don’t agree with that, but I see what they are doing. They are trying to take some things off the table and put them back into the rubric of emotion and tradition. Authors like Maggie Gallagher and David Blankenhorn claim that same-sex marriage aims to “de-institutionalize” marriage, or literally letting gays redefine it out of existence. They are concerned particularly about preserving social hierarchies and institutions, as a anchor for the ability for most people to function..

Pictures: New Washington-Lee High School in Arlington VA under construction in 2007; Blue and Gray yearbooks from 1959 to 1961 (I graduated in 1961).

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