Income Inequality and the Rise of Helicopter Parenting

Children at play-- under the supervision of the playground monitor-- in New York's Seward Park, the city's first municipal playground. Photo courtesy New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

Children at play– under the supervision of the playground monitor– in New York’s Seward Park, the city’s first municipal playground. Photo courtesy New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

A friend posted Megan McArdle’s Bloomberg article “Seven Reasons We Hate Free-Range Parenting” on my Facebook feed today, and as I wrote my comments, it quickly became apparent that my response was just far too long for a Facebook comment. So I’m putting it here. This isn’t meant to be especially thought out or carefully researched, but since the topic overlaps somewhat with some areas of my research, I felt it might be worthwhile to share my scattered thoughts.

I think that “reasons” 3 and 7– about women’s move to the workplace and increasing national wealth– are especially compelling. Along with number 7’s unspoken converse of sorts– “many of us are wealthier, but the haves and have-nots are getting farther apart.”

The free-range parenting being so idyllically recalled, we must remember, is the result of a specific historical moment– the mid-twentieth century, when income disparity was at a historic low.

If we look to the Gilded Age, it’s a different story, as urban children were heavily supervised either by parents or domestics– or they were working themselves. Rural children often enjoyed a greater degree of freedom, but they were often bound to the farm, part of the production model of their family.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, as the middle class and merchants were beginning to move to streetcar suburbs and immigration was at an historic high, the playground movement began in cities like NYC as a response to the number of tenement children unsupervised in the streets, raising themselves. Middle class reformers began calling for playgrounds– which at the time included indoor spaces as well as outdoor and were strictly monitored and supervised by Playground Attendants. The idea was that too many working class kids were out on the streets, and we need to pin them in and supervise them… For their own good, of course.

As America cut off immigration after WWI and began to homogenize economically, the idea of supervising playground play began to lose favor. It is the children of the Depression through the early 1980s who remember fondly a sprawling world of urban and suburban play and childhood that often included interacting with children of different backgrounds, class, etc.

The new age of helicopter parenting coincides with a growth in economic disparity, which creates more clashes over what McArdle describes as “generally accepted child-rearing practices.” Class disparity usually leads to schisms in “generally accepted behavior.” People facing different concerns, different worries, and different economic realities usually don’t agree on everything. Disparity in income brings about conflicts about acceptable behavior.

Wealthier parents supervise more closely, because they can afford to, and because of the pressures McArdle discusses to build a good college application. Poorer parents are forced to cut corners, perhaps give less supervision. For middle-class and wealthy parents, the world is more and more filled with danger, in the form of creeping poverty— something that is very real as the middle class shrinks.

With our cultural gospel of a college degree as the path to the middle class, more privileged parents look more and more carefully at other parents’ choices in child rearing, as they don’t want their children’s friends to hold them back. The parenting practices of the working class and poor are held under ever-higher scrutiny, and when their choices are not like those of parents of more means, those parents are less likely to be sympathetic, because they fundamentally don’t understand the economic reality poorer families face.

Parenting practices are often cyclical, like so many other things, and the pendulum continues to swing. But if the last thirty years seems like the world getting more and more out of whack, that might be because the pendulum has been thrown wildly out of its regular back and forth motion by a rise in income disparity unlike any since the Progressive Era.

“Sometimes we can coax these immigrants who come to us to dance and sing; but very rarely. They soon get shamed out of their cunning, and join our hosts of patrons who seek relief from monotonous toil in the dime show and the saloon, the “yellow” newspaper and magazine. Yes, it is we, with our over-commercialized life—commercialized drama and opera, commercialized book production and story-making—who have carried farthest this strangling of the arts of the folk. It is we through whom these participants in a living folk-culture sink to the lowest estate as passive patrons of our tawdry and tainted shows.

“No doubt the causes are complex. I shall not attempt an enumeration, but will limit myself to the consequences of the increasing vogue of the book, the mortal tyranny of print. I return, then, to my text that the book is killing the sensuous beauty and emotional appeal of literature. The book lies between us and the essentials of literary beauty. It lies between us and vital literary education. We read our lyrics and our stories, but we don’t sing them and recite them. We cannot even imagine tunes for them as we read—for those lovely lyrical overflows which flood Shakespeare’s plays with melody, for those songs of Burns, for those remaining folk-songs and ballads which are finding cold storage in our anthologies. They are gone with the crooning and lilting of our forefathers, with the singing games of childhood, with the great festivals of the folk.”

–From “The Blight of Literary Bookishness,” (1914) by Percival Chubb, Anti-Comics Crusader

Trigger Warning: History Ahead

This New Republic article on universities adopting policies that professors adopt “trigger warning” policies before material that may be potentially upsetting started a really interesting discussion among some of my friends on Facebook, and as I struggled with exactly what makes me so uncomfortable with this sort of policy, I realized that this might deserve a little more long-form discussion than Facebook really allows for.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with a professor warning before students encounter material that may be upsetting. I’d certainly argue that it could well be considered common courtesy, and could easily be included in a list of best practices. Giving people an opportunity to brace themselves before encountering distressing material can be helpful. But there is a wide gap between a recommended practice and an institutional policy.  By endorsing “trigger warned syllabi” as a matter of policy, universities open themselves up to attacks for making people uncomfortable– which I would argue is inherently part of what higher education is supposed to do.

Tressie McMillan Cottom has written an (unsurprisingly) brilliant piece about this problematic situation: as she puts it,

…the ‘student-customer’ movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

I think this is a very astute observation, and accurate. I think that “trigger warnings” on syllabi are likely to suppress resistance to dominant/oppressive discourses. But I’d like to push into the issue a bit more, specifically from the point of view of a historian.

I would argue that the things that are deemed worthy of trigger warnings are the very stuff of history. Rape, genocide, racism, oppression, enslavement, violence, terrorism, death, destruction… Without the ability to discuss these issues, and to do so openly and honestly, the work of history, and especially of a history professor, is essentially pointless. And adopting a policy that opens one up to reprimand or worse if one should forget to give a “trigger warning” each time you touch on these issues will do nothing but stifle and suppress professors from the important work of teaching their students about history.

When I, as a graduate student, consider a list of dream courses that I would love to teach: a historical survey through the lens of whiteness studies, a course on racial images in early 20th century American media, a class dealing with the lives of Black Americans in the North between 1880 and 1930… any of these classes would need a trigger warning over pretty much the entire syllabus. You might as well just write “Trigger Warning: History Ahead” at the top of the syllabus and be done with it. I literally cannot imagine a single session of these classes going on without a trigger warning proceeding the class, as the very material being discussed throughout is by nature inherently upsetting and problematic.

This goes beyond simple concerns about teaching controversial topics, however. Part of what I find most problematic about such policies is that they would make instructors nervous about using some of the most powerful teaching tools they have.

A lot of the language around what needs a trigger warning deal with issues of verisimilitude. The Geek Girl Wiki advises to give trigger warnings especially when descriptions are “graphic” or “extensive,” as well as “depictions, especially lengthy or psychologically realistic ones” of upsetting events or the psychological effects thereof. Likewise, a student statement opposing a piece of public sculpture at Wellesley made a point of singling out verisimilitude as part of what makes the sculpture objectionable: “The highly lifelike sculpture has become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of our campus community.” (Emphasis mine.)

It is precisely this correlation between what is most similar to reality and what is most triggering that makes me supremely leery of institutional trigger warning requirements. Because if you talk to people who are not historians but have really been affected by a history class or a history teacher, it is often that class or instructor exposed them to primary sources and accounts that are among the most triggering things possible: lynching photos, accounts of holocaust survivors, slave narratives, etc…

Alison Landsberg, in Prosthetic Memory, discusses how in public history, exhibits can be designed in such a way to help create “prosthetic memories,”  to “produce empathy and social responsibility as well as political alliances that transcend race, class, and gender.” These primary sources, properly contextualized in a classroom environment, can have the same effect: exposure to others’ traumas can encourage empathy and social responsibility, can make us see things beyond the limitations of our own identities, ideologies, and subject positions.

I would like to reiterate, again, that there is never anything wrong with warning people that class material might get a little difficult, that you might be exposed to problematic, upsetting, or triggering materials. But a policy that requires such disclosure in advance of every potentially triggering situation could have a chilling effect on the History classroom, and  in such an environment, the materials that would be most likely to be avoided would be precisely the stuff that serves to create these empathetic connections.

Of course, empathy is the very reason we issue a trigger warning in the first place. And that’s why verisimilitude is so problematic. But– I almost hate to say it– I am much more worried about a whole classroom not being exposed to the object, to them not having the opportunity for that moment of empathy, than one student’s legitimate pain at that moment of empathetic self-identification.

Not because that student’s pain is not important, not because we shouldn’t be sensitive to it, but because if we create rules and policies around it, if we start standardizing how we handle these things, instructors will be less comfortable using them as teaching tools. And frankly, I feel that students are helped more at the end of the day by an environment where more people are likely to be empathetic and understanding of their experiences than they are by a school that never unsettles their feelings.

So yes, feel free to give trigger warnings to your classes if the upcoming material might be difficult. It may well mean the world to someone, and it’s not difficult to do. Continue to be empathetic to your students, to encourage them to talk to you one on one or in class, and to work with them if they have issues regarding materials in the course. But please, let’s not make policy out of it. It just doesn’t seem the tactic for building a more empathetic, better tomorrow.

“Of all the festering abominations, away with the Sunday newspaper. It is an imp of Hell and a child of the Devil… because it is a hodge-podge of lie, gossip, twaddle, and caricature. It ruins our Sundays, corrupts our morals, poisons our children and gives us head-aches.”

WEB DuBois, 1907

Herbert Crowley Update…

CrowleyI’m trying to dig in to Herbert Crowley, and find a bit more about him. Please, if anyone has any ideas or suggestions, fire away!

Dan Nadel has of course found a good bit of information. As has John Adcock. What I’ve been able to find so far has not been much, but hopefully it will be of help to somebody.

I’ve been to the Archives of American Art, and have scans of the letters in the Herbert Crowley Papers, but unfortunately, I’m not sure how much use they will be to anyone. They’re undated, and all to his mother, and definitely hard to read. Frankly, they present both a paleographic problem and more than that, a comprehension problem. Crowley’s language reflects other letters that are unseen, and he is often quite cryptic:

My dear mother–

Your card came to me this afternoon. Am glad to hear that you all got down safely. I envy you– but what can I do? My mind is  such a state that even a moment away from that drawing board nigh maddens me & the hours I spend at it maddens me more. There is no let up– when it is done what will it mean to me– nothing! So there we are. I have purchased a Welsbach mantle and I am going to work at night– I must– the whole [int book?] is so absolutely dun-colored that I only get a chance to forget whilst at it…

On a brighter note, I’ve found a couple more news items. This one, from the Sun, is another on the show with Bakst, but unlike the New York Times article that Adcock cites, it has a bit more information. Not much new, but confirming other sources. After all, in the Cartoon Magazine article that Adcock found, the reporter seems to have thought that Crowley was Canadian, rather than English. Getting multiple confirmations of basic facts seems useful. (Although the same article does bring up the enticing possibility that he did work for the Toronto World as late as 1915… I need to ILL that, because I’m excited about the potential that it might even be another comic strip like the Wigglemuch.) I’ve also found a few pertinent facts in “Alice Lewisohn a London Bride,” from the Times, again, this time December 6, 1924:

News has been received here of the marriage of Miss Alice Lewisohn of this city to Herbert E Crowley, the artist, in London yesterday. The ceremony was very quiet and witnessed by only a few friends. Miss Lewisohn, who is the daughter of the late Leonard Lewisohn, was accompanied by her sister, Mis Irene Lewisohn, when she left to visit Europe last Summer. She is also a sister of Lady Howard, Fred Lewisohn and Mrs. Martin Vogel. She told none of her friends of the possibility that she might be married before she returned, but they were not surprised at the news, for she and Mr. Crowely had been close friends for several years.

Mr. Crowley, who is an English artist, has spent much time in this country. The Misses Alice and Irene Lewsiohn were the founders of the Neighborhood Playhouse in Grand Street and have for many years been associated with the Henry Street Settlement. They make their home at 133 West Eleventh Street.

…So I’m posting this for two reasons: one, to help out others who may be interested in researching Crowley, and two, to ask for help. I know there are other researchers interested: if you have any resources I have not mentioned, please, let me know!

“For some hours of the day practically the entire population of the Republic disappears under something in the nature of sixty thousand tons of woodpulp to the accompaniment of a noisy if not positively sanguinary struggle between Susie and Junior as to which has prior right to Mutt and Jeff.”

Stewart Chase, Leisure in a Machine Age, 1931