Guests on Volume 78: Mark Bauerlein on the causes of disengagement of college students from concern for intellectual and civic life; Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn on television, children, and acquiring a sense of reality; Sam Van Eman on the view of the good life advanced by advertising; Thomas de Zengotita on Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It, and on postmodern individualism and “reality" TV; Eugene McCarraher on how American management theory became an influential source of religious meaning and practice; and John Witte, Jr. on how law embodies a view of human nature, and why religious viewpoints have often been ignored.
Professor Mark Bauerlein discusses his article about the current state of higher education, titled “A Very Long Disengagement,” published in the January 6, 2006, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Today’s students spend an exceptional amount of time communicating with their peers and paying attention to popular culture; additionally, they have unprecedented access to knowledge via the internet. Even so, states Bauerlein, they are making no great strides towards increasing their knowledge of history, politics, literature, or other matters that comprise the wisdom of culture, nor are they learning to engage the responsibilities concomitant with adulthood. Bauerlein notes that students alone are not responsible for the sustained trek into adolescence. Colleges and universities are partly to blame, as are other cultural and societal structures.
Historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn studies television and how it affects children in her essay “A Stranger’s Dream: The Virtual Self and the Socialization Crisis,” published in the anthology Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Person in the American Past. Lasch-Quinn discusses her essay and states that in the 1970s there were many critiques published about the world television portrays and how exposure to it might affect the development of children’s imagination. She laments the current dearth of similar works and attends to some of the issues raised in the earlier ones. She focuses on the type of messages propagated in television’s content (messages such as old people are unattractive), and on the medium itself. She notes that if children spend their time with television they will have less time to play in nature, which means they will have less time to discover and stand in awe of things larger than themselves.
Author Sam Van Eman discusses what he has learned about advertising as he has worked with college students to help them integrate what they say they believe with how they live. His findings are published in his book, On Earth As It Is in Advertising? Moving from Commercial Hype to Gospel Hope. Van Eman explains that through his work with students he has become increasingly aware of how advertising shapes their worlds. Advertisements offer them an alternative gospel, an alternative account of the well-lived life; they sell products but also identities. Ads can have a powerful effect in people's lives, he states, because they flatter those who see them and because they can make viewers feel recognized in a way that people who work or live with them often do not.
In his book Mediated professor Thomas de Zengotita examines, as the subtitle so deftly puts it, How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. He identifies and explains three key concepts in the work: Representation, Flattery, and Performance. The first of the three shapes the environment in which people live, while the second and third describe how people are treated in that environment and how they respond to it. De Zengotita explains that media manufacture symbols and messages that are self-conscious about what they represent and for whom they are intended (i.e., a representation is designed to convey specific ideas or moods to certain people). The receivers of the messages and symbols feel flattered at being so addressed and respond to the attention, performing the roles they perceive they should fulfill.
Historian Eugene McCarraher discusses the role corporations play in American culture and his essay “Me, Myself, and Inc.: ‘Social Selfhood,’ Corporate Humanism, and Religious Longing in American Management Theory 1908-1956,” published in the anthology Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Person in the American Past. McCarraher explains the term “social selfhood,” noting that in the early twentieth century Progressives were optimistic about how corporate labor would shape people's understanding of their place in society. They thought it would foster interdependence instead of individualism. Those who wrote about corporations in the early days were hopeful that they would come to fill the space religion and art vacated at the moral and cultural center of American life. In many ways, he says, corporations have done just that, donning religious language in their operations, setting the standards for how many contemporary churches look and operate.
Professor of law John Witte, Jr., discusses a two-volume collection he co-edited with Frank S. Alexander, titled The Teachings of Modern Christianity on Law, Politics, and Human Nature, which includes writings from Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic thinkers. He notes the role religion and theology play in the public discussion about how people live together in a society under constitutional law. While the two disciplines have not been welcomed to the discourse for most of the twentieth century, in recent decades such is not the case. Witte says Christianity has a rich variety of voices to contribute; his and Alexander’s works demonstrate that reality. Witte also attends to how contemporary law reflects understandings about human nature.
Professor Thomas de Zengotita discusses the defining characteristics of contemporary culture and why he offers no solutions to the problems of the moment. In his book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It he critiques the self-consciousness of the era: people no longer act without realizing what their actions say about them. Now when people act they do so purposefully, choosing how to perform in order to both present themselves as they wish to be seen, and to communicate what they wish to communicate. De Zengotita notes that this level of “hyper self-consciousness” emerged in the 1960s. Because it is relatively new, society is not yet in a position to know how to counteract it; people must live longer with the problem, he says, before starting to see the consequences and imagining how to respond.