Sociology, social studies, social sciences, society… Almost everything that starts with “soc” tends to irritate me.
What irritates me about sociology, social sciences, etc., is the idea that what little we know about human societies is worth packaging up in courses and forcing on students desperate to know what makes people tick, and there’s almost nothing in the box.
It’s like those gag presents that the victim of the gag thinks are grand — “Look at the pretty wrapping paper!” but when all the external wrapping and more wrapping inside is removed, there’s either nothing at all, or maybe a half-used pencil with a completely worn down eraser. It’s a letdown.
I was forced to take social studies through 9th and 10th grades and Soc 101 in college to meet a social sciences distribution requirement. The 9th and 10th grade courses were mostly an extended negative learning experience.
The pretext that the courses were about the study of people meant that the teachers could justify pretending to teach things they were completely clueless about because the subjects had some human impact. That included anything mentioned in Newsweek.
So in one span of about three weeks, we victims were all told how politics in the Middle East has led to human conflict, so we were ordered to study said politics and report to the class.
OK, so I began with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and worked my way forward. When I reported out, I had about 40 pages of material to read from. The teacher interrupted me when I was only on page five and said “What are you doing?” I said I was doing what she said to do. Relating the history of politics in the Middle East.
It turned out that she didn’t want to know the entire history of politics in the Middle East. It was too complicated and it hurt her head. She just wanted me to spit up enough of it to show I’d done some research. There was next to nothing to learn from such a feeble exercise.
Later in the same class, the human-angled subject brought up was something in all the papers then: the dangers of radioactive fallout from nuclear tests (this was around 1964). After the first experience, I was sure the teacher wasn’t going to really want to hear about the physics and chemistry of radioactive materials in fallout. But she forced us into groups, and my group said, “Wes likes science; let’s have him report on strontium 90.”
So I hit the downtown library to learn about strontium 90. It’s radioactive. Your body can’t tell it apart from stable strontium. It can’t even really tell it from calcium, which it resembles chemically, especially if it is delivered to you by way of milk from cows subject to the fallout. So it ends up in your bones, where it can irradiate your blood and result in bone cancer or leukemia.
The teacher said, “And? So?” The connection with humans had to be spelled out, because this wasn’t a science class — it was a social studies class. So how is cancer bad for humans, she wanted to know.
“You can die of it,” I said. The whole class laughed. I thought, you know, if I can get laughs with this kind of material, I should be able to get laughs from anything. Looking back on it, it was all in the timing, and I guess the disgusted look on my face.
My sense of comedic potential was reinforced when I took Soc 101 at the University of Washington around 1971. I actually did learn something about sociology in that course. I learned if a young, charismatic, hipster professor teaches gibberish, most students will idolize him and never question the gibberish. In fact, they will turn on anyone who dares to do so.
The book that was required reading took a cultural anthropology approach to sociology, but it didn’t really teach cultural anthropology, it just set sociology into an abstract cultural anthropology framework. So I called B.S.
No, I didn’t. I just politely asked our young, hipster professor to please put the book’s definition of culture in the context of actual human societies. He said I wasn’t entitled to examples. Then our hipster led the rest of the class in laughter.
I killed in that class that day. I brought the house down.
Dr. Wes is the Real Change Circulation Specialist, but, in addition to his skills with a spreadsheet, he writes this weekly column about whatever recent going-ons caught his attention. Dr. Wes has contributed to the paper since 1994. Curious about his process or have a response to one of his columns? Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more of the Oct. 20-26, 2021 issue.