College Quarterly
Fall 2004 - Volume 7 Number 4
Reviews The New Canada: A Globe & Mail Report on the Next Generation
Erin Anderssen, Michael Valpy, et al.
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2004

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

I believe firmly in John Maynard Keynes' observation that people who consider themselves to be practical, hard-nosed and unaffected by the musings of academics and philosophers are delusional. Most of what they think and believe consists of half-baked and warmed-over versions of the scribbling of some antique scribbler whom they may not be able to identify but whose thought has managed to infiltrate their proudly unlettered brains.

Still, it is not easy to compose a list of intellectuals whose books have had an immediate and profound effect on their societies. Usually, the process is slower and more subtle—especially if the influence is to be enduring. In the relatively new field of sociology, we might point to such celebrated writings as Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, C.Wright Mills' The Power Elite and David Reisman's The Lonely Crowd, all at least a half a century old. In Europe, Emile Durkheim's Suicide, Robert Michels' Political Parties and Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism still shape public discourse after roughly a century. In Canada, John Porter's analysis in The Vertical Mosaic helped set the social agenda for decades to come. What these volumes had in common was the fact that they took some commonly understood phenomenon and produced a distinctive narrative that did not necessarily shock people into an entirely new assessment of their social arrangements, but did shift the ground to provide a more compelling perspective. It was not news that the rich enjoyed luxury, or that racism was a problem in the American South, or that social class and ethnicity were a telling pair of factors in determining individual success in Canada; however, Veblen, Myrdal and Porter and the others brought a new clarity and a fresh approach to the issues they addressed. After their work had been studied in universities, it spread to the professions, and filtered down to the attentive public where attitudes noticeably changed.

That was then, and this is more or less now. The books mentioned above were not written to become bestsellers. Emerging from elite centres of learning, their importance was not immediately apparent (though the later the publication date, the greater the proximate public impact.)

Today, we have become used to three things that were unknown in the decades (mainly 1900-1960) when most of the above mentioned classics were composed.

First, the universities were small and privileged. Their denizens did not seek nor did they receive much popularity among the majority of citizens. Now, telegenic professors can become media stars.

Second, sociology was still at a stage of development where sophisticated statistical methods were not the rule but the exception. Now, multiple regression and factor analysis are only two weapons in a statistical arsenal available to all social scientists.

Third, the interaction of research and public opinion was not immediate (if it existed at all). Now polling is a staple of news broadcasts and is taken into account by politicians running for election or attempting to devise policies that will help them get elected. So, once arcane sociological methodology has become familiar to all, and the line between disinterested scholarly studies and product marketing has blurred.

What is more, the sort of applied sociology that we have long associated with the higher social sciences is now being applied in business and industry. Kraft Foods, for example, has employed anthropologists to study why people eat Kraft Dinner. Focus groups sway advertising strategies and political campaigns are increasingly in thrall to similar marketing techniques. And, when the interests of commerce and civil society converge, non-academic sociology finds a place in the market to ply its trade, sometimes to no good effect.

The Globe & Mail newspaper, for example, has become adept at tapping into the public interest in faux sociology. Picking up on Maclean's magazine's highly successful review of Canadian Universities, the Globe issued a magazine-style "University Report Card" in 2003. Pollster and television personality Allan Gregg opened the publication with the headline: "Why 26,000 students can't be wrong." Observant readers learned quickly enough. The Law School at the University of Waterloo was rated ninth in Canada and the Medical School at York University was also rated ninth in the country; unfortunately for the credibility of the student subjects (and the Globe), the University of Waterloo does not have a Law School and York does not have a Faculty of Medicine.

Undeterred, the Globe & Mail carried on to produce a book-length study that brought together a series of articles on the next generation. "The kids are all right," proclaimed the newspaper. Canadians under thirty-years-old are "the most tolerant and open-minded generation … in the most tolerant and open-minded society in the world."

A team of writers under leadership of senior writers Erin Anderssen and Michael Valpy, examined in detail the lives of Canadians between twenty and twenty-nine. The results were certainly reassuring.

Advertised as a "social map" of young adults that blended personal stories and photographs with "hard statistics," the resulting volume, The New Canada, reveals that their subjects report high levels of personal happiness (with 67% bordering on the giddy) and impossibly optimistic attitudes (with 77% saying they are destined to stand in the top three rungs of an hypothesized ten-rung ladder of success). Gender issues are fading as about three-quarters of young men over half the young women think that women have an equal or a better than equal chance of getting promoted compared to men. Even the environment seems in relatively good shape with more than half anticipating improvement. Racism is plainly on the way out, according to the young folk. Prejudice still exists, according to about 80% of young women and 70% of young men, but less than one-third believe that people are judged in school or at work based on their cultural background.

In terms of other social values, the Globe & Mail reports that even young Canadians value security over salary and—no surprise here—it seems that beliefs about traditional marriage, gay rights and other so-called "lifestyle" issues are becoming more flexible. In general, the future is said to be in good hands, with a generation of bright and cheerful people celebrating diversity and mindful of the importance of our national heritage, while not caught in an historical rut.

We are a kinder and nicer people, concludes Mr. Valpy, and "the world's first twenty-first century nation."

As journalism that is upbeat and bordering on bathetic boosterism, this is pretty reader-friendly stuff. There are plenty of "human interest" stories, engaging photos and even some cautionary tales that hint at the possibility of failure (but only for those who don't finish high school). For those who complete their diplomas, however, there is ample opportunity since, "compared to poor people in the United States and Britain, those born at the bottom of Canada's socioeconomic ladder have a much better chance of climbing up, at least to the middle rungs."

Much as I have some difficulty accepting the veracity of the "hard data" that purport to show that Canadians enjoy an excellent chance to maximize socioeconomic mobility, it is more troubling that the metaphor of the ladder of success is so easily and uncritically accepted. The message is clear: go to school, work hard and, most important, learn to invest even if it is only "interest from a savings account." That alone, "signals that you're thinking ahead." This tale of innocence can be explained, of course, for the study was done by Canada's most respected "conservative" newspaper. It is no surprise that the values of the moderate business community should be so transparently represented.

As somewhat older adults (for the most part) and as professional educators, we also have an inherent interest in the state of the young. It is therefore incumbent upon us to examine critically the reassuring themes that are presented in books like this. The advertising people whose job it is to sell this book call it a "major study." Such posturing betrays their purpose as persuasion and not information. It is unsettling that, with dozens of universities and colleges employing thousands of social scientists, the insights of academics are so rarely translated into direct contributions to public knowledge, while sloppy sociology is used to sustain subjective assessments and "feel good" soporifics for a society with serious problems and a need for sober reflection upon them.

Not all the blame need fall upon ideologically slanted and empirically inept journalists, mimicking as well as they can the efforts of academic work. Canadian scholarship must also assume some of the culpability. The absence of social studies that carry on into the twenty-first century what sociology's founders contributed a century ago bears consideration. Instead of powerful books containing sweeping narratives of deep meaning and great import, there seem to be four main themes in visible social scientific production: narrow professional analyses intended mainly for other professionals and mainly unread by the uninitiated lay public; relatively sterile policy studies for large (mainly public) bureaucracies; self-consciously radical briefs in support of oppressed minorities, often written in opaque code obviously derived from self-defined culture critics; and breathless paperbacks in the tradition of Alvin Toffler, which do for social analysis what self-help books did for (or to) clinical psychology.

It is important to acknowledge the success of popular texts of this latter sort, for we should recognize that they are indications of public interest; we should try, however, to seek out more substantial volumes if we wish to develop a deeper understanding of our society and not be content with a demographic gloss and a few exhortations to enthuse about a future social and material future that is by no means guaranteed.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.

Reviews

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2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology