Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Some Lesser-Known Benefits of Higher Education

I just dropped my son off at his childcare centre, and had a nice conversation with the woman who heads the teaching team in his room. I’m very happy with the centre and the staff – not least because they’ve dealt extremely well my son’s rather… non-institutional personality, allowing him an unusual amount of flexibility to drift around within their schedules and routines. Their tolerance is paired, though, with a fair amount of bemusement, and it’s not unusual for staff to pull me aside to share stories about my son’s strange combination of politeness and intractability (I’ve overheard staff joking with one another, describing the phrase “no thank you” as “classic Lyle”). He seems to be perceived as having a positive temperament, but staff seem genuinely puzzled, given this, by his desire to go off and do his own thing – as though politeness ought to correlate with instant compliance or desire for conformity… Thus is the stuff of parent-teacher conferences made…

This morning, the familiar conversation around these things took an unexpected turn: “So… what’s your son’s sign?”

Thinking I must have misheard: “His… what?”

“His astrological sign?”

“Uh… I have no idea…”

“That’s okay – what’s his birthdate?” I provided this, and then received his sign in return. I tend to respond to this kind of thing with a sort of extreme blankness, which for me signifies that I don’t really want to get into a discussion with someone about what they’ve just said, as I’m concerned that they’d find my reaction offensive, and I don’t think the issue is important enough to justify providing offence. This blank reaction, though, is often interpreted in strange ways by other people. In this case, the interpretation, apparently, was that I was struck speechless by how impressive it should be that they should be able to deduce the sign from the birth date. They blushed, and then tried to reassure, “I know – don’t worry – I can only do this because I studied it at university. Helps me with understanding the kids’ personalities.” I’m not sure I find this reassuring…

(Just a side point, from an immigrant’s perspective: astrology and other forms of new age spirituality or practice (often in instrumentalised form, as practice of manipulation or at least prediction of external events) come up startlingly often, in my experience, in professional settings in Melbourne. Every workplace I’ve been in here – the university is no exception – has quite casual, apparently sincere, discussion around new age themes, often by people who are quite scathing in their opinions of mainstream religion. And I’m not just talking about watercooler discussion or chats over coffee – I’m talking about discussion introduced into staff meetings or other formal contexts. Not that everyone or even the majority of people in a workplace participate – but there is no visible public disapprobation to airing these perspectives in a professional setting. I don’t know that I have a question here – more a sort of expression of… anthropological curiosity: what gives? What’s with the strange combination of reflexive scepticism toward older, established faiths, and the receptivity to demonstrably rather recent new age beliefs? Or have I just had profoundly atypical experiences, leading to a kind of strange new age bias in my selection of workplaces?)

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6 responses to “Some Lesser-Known Benefits of Higher Education

  1. rob October 12, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    It’s simply a matter of grammar.

    In certain contexts the scepticism toward religion is grammatical, in the sense that it amounts to a statement/response that has been appropriately constructed for the context of, say, “critical argument” or “public debate”. In other contexts — especially highly interpersonal contexts where forms of behaviour/expression, etc., tend to be more variable but, at the same time, more visible and more visibly tied to the “content” of the expression (e.g. staff meeting, lunchtime conversation) — appeals to various pop psychologies, astrologies, etc., as a means to account for someone else’s (or, indeed, one’s own) behaviour/belief/expression are similarly grammatical, in the sense that they amount to a calculus that has a significant regularity across such contexts.

    The fact that there might be any kind of contradiction between the two forms of discourse rarely becomes an issue, because it takes a certain capacity for a particular kind of self-reflexivity for one to deploy a different kind of calculus (e.g. one that can assess behaviour/speech, etc, for signs of inconsistency across contexts, or one that can assess the ritualistic/scripted nature of behaviour/speech, etc.) for the two contexts to be assessed alongside each other in the first place. And that capacity for self-reflexivity more often than not leads to visibly ungrammatical statements when deployed in the interpersonal contexts — precisely because it is more “appropriate” to the contexts of critical argument, scholarship, etc.

  2. N Pepperell October 12, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    I suppose what confuses me – and this is why the question seems somewhat anthropological, in a way – is why my experience has varied between Melbourne and other places I’ve worked overseas. In other words, I get that I’m the odd person out, drawing connections or looking for levels of consistency across contexts that clearly are being practically distinguished by other people in my various workspaces. But my curiosity relates more to why, but before moving to Melbourne, I tended to be in contexts in which new age references were more privatised or, perhaps, perceived as more strongly stigmatised, than they seem to be here.

    Since most of my experience is from the US, this may simply reflect the way in which mainstream religious expression joins with a particular kind of secularism to stigmatise these sorts of expressions – although my (much more limited) experience in Europe also didn’t fall into the patterns I’ve noticed in Melbourne…

    I suppose I’m curious why this grammar – albeit with the realisation that my experiences may be profoundly atypical, so I’m not seriously trying to suggest that there really is some kind of “Melbourne culture” around this issue…

  3. Andrew October 13, 2007 at 6:15 am

    How peculiar. I was just thinking to myself that in many of my conversations with classmates and colleagues (here in metropolitan New York), astrological references were being introduced with a strange predictability, even, as a way of evaluating or making sense of reactions to issues, interpersonal relationships, approaches to difficulties and problems, etc. I wouldn’t say that there’s been a riot of such references in the more work-related contexts, but I find its not unusual now for even the apparently secular-minded to spend a bit of time in serious conversation analyzing people and relationships and attitudes with reference to astrological signs. While I joke around, searching for a hint of recognition that it’s all a kind of parlor game, I now suspect a number take this much more seriously than what I previously allowed.

    For my own part, I’ve become well acquainted with myself through various readings that people have offered up of my sign (Scorpio = apparently, ruthless, mirthless, Machiavellian). I do find it rather interesting that people who might find God, heaven, the afterlife so much metaphysical nonsense nevertheless find clarity and reassurance in reading off certain baseline facts, such as the day one was born, the alignment of the planets. And, the fact that different horoscopes and astrological readings can be produced for the same person on the same day is, I think, for many no cause for theological worry, but rather is taken as a rich resource for working out and through different material contingencies and social possibilities.

    In brief, I’m going to hazard that your experiences aren’t entirely atypical.

  4. N Pepperell October 13, 2007 at 9:33 am

    Hey Andrew! To be honest, there are a few situations I’ve been in that I really, really, really hope are atypical :-) The use of astrology as an interpretive system – whether half-joking, or just as a sort of shared frame of cultural reference that people think is relatively harmless – is one thing. It’s interesting, sociologically or anthropologically, particularly when combined with overt expressions of hostility to other formal belief systems. But there’s still something different between this sort of “Oh, well, you would do that, because you’re a Scorpio” sort of commentary, and the more… instrumental application of this information that got me thinking about this post. I realise the story I mentioned above is probably not much different from, say, the use of pop gender stereotypes that orient action in a number of childcare and teaching contexts: people reaching for some overarching interpretive framework, and being not terribly sensitive to how porous and problematic that framework can be…

    But it’s not unusual for me to hit much more instrumental examples – where we’ve passed beyond the boundaries of sharing an interpretive framework to organise experiences, and are instead trying to manipulate the environment with ritual practices. I’ve been in meetings where there was, for example, a lengthy diversion into why a professional colleague should employ a medium to learn about the history of a particular situation (admittedly, a situation of a personal nature, but something whose discussion took up a considerable period of time in a public professional setting); I’ve had several medical doctors extol the virtues of some scientifically questionable healing techniques; I’ve been passed – again, in professional contexts – what are, effectively, evangelical tracts with suggestions that I would benefit from particular mystical procedures; I’ve listened to a very detailed explanation of how someone uses various gestures to sway the outcomes of staff meetings… Again: my point in discussing it isn’t to say that I’m offended (although I am baffled), but to express that anyone making even much milder claims for a conventional religious practice, in a similar professional setting, would, I suspect, be heavily and publicly stigmatised. There can be a movement, with the same people, within the same conversation, from these sorts of frank expressions of belief in the efficacy of magical practice, to harsh condemnation of mainstream or organised religion…

    It’s probably not worth the level of attention I’m paying to it :-) It’s just become something that I feel like I’m navigating in a sort of everyday way, and so I’ve become curious about it…

  5. rob October 15, 2007 at 10:39 am

    Hey NP

    Just a couple of throwaway, completely unsubstantiated speculations:

    1. Perhaps the inconsistency comes down to the fact precisely that astrology doesn’t seem as institutionalised (in the sense that people use that term when talking about religion). There is no astrology institution lobbying politicians on particular issues relating to personal freedoms, etc. There’s no sense of an astrological dogma against which one might commit heresy, etc. So it’s not really the metaphysics of religion that “critical thinkers” are objecting to, but rather the power of religion (and this goes hand in hand with the various concessions made to distinguishing between faith as a private belief/practice and organised religion). Since astrology isn’t powerful in that sense (even though it’s utterly institutionalised and powerful in other ways), there’s actually no contradiction or inconsistency here.

    2. I wonder whether the recent rise of astrology (if we can say there’s been a rise on the basis of Andrew’s comments and yours) might be related to the prevalence of the practice/imperative of diagnosing “personalities”, which might itself be tied to the rise of a certain kind of pop psychology (e.g. the language of “alpha males”, etc.). The latter finds its expression in all kinds of popular cultural contexts, e.g. Big Brother…

  6. N Pepperell October 15, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    rob – I think both points are excellent, but am particularly drawn to the second – this seems an excellent point. I’m running now – have used up most of my brief intra-conference break. But there’s an interesting discussion, perhaps, to be had about the ways in which the forms of perception you describe in your first point – the sense that this is harmless because it lacks mainstream institutionalisation – might operate (along with many other things) to deflect a kind of critical attention away from the quite powerful individualising discourse around diagnosing personalities and labelling interior essences of selves…


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