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Posts Tagged ‘vocabulary’

In a recent web essay, the eminent historian (and my Berkeley colleague) Martin Jay raised this question: Why has the term “alienation,” which was the all-purpose diagnosis of social and personal ills a generation or so ago, seemed to wane in public discourse? “Why aren’t we ‘alienated’ anymore?,” Jay asks. So does historian David Steigerwald in a 2011 piece cited by Jay.

The question immediately resonated. Circa 1975, inspired in part by my teacher, Melvin Seeman, I had written articles with “alienation” in the titles, taught a seminar on the topic, passed around an alienation reading list, and generally joined that conversation. Now, forty years later, hardly at all. Yes, what did happen to “alienation”?

Alien_Hopper_The Automat_1927

Hopper, The Automat, 1927

Before trying to answer that question, however, we need to make sure that diagnosing “alienation” has in fact ended. If it has, we then need to figure out whether the conditions labeled “alienation” have diminished or just uses of the particular word have.

It turns out that academics have largely dropped  “alienation” as a topic, but high-brow writers are still deploying it, although much less often. That these fluctuations say something about changing life in America is less likely than that they are saying something about changing fashions among the intelligentsia.

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As is now well-known, scores on “intelligence” tests rose strongly over the last few generations, world-wide – this is the “Flynn Effect.” One striking anomaly, however, appears in American data: slumping students’ scores on academic achievement tests like the SAT. Notes of the decline starting in the 1960s sparked a lot of concern and hand-wringing. A similar decline is evident among adult respondents to the General Social Survey. The GSS gives interviewees a 10-item, multiple choice vocabulary test. (Practically speaking, vocabulary tests yield pretty much the same results as intelligence tests.) In over 40 years of the survey, a pattern emerged: Correct scores rose from the generations born around 1900 to the generations born around 1950 and then dropped afterwards. Are recently-born cohorts dumber – or, at least, less literate – than their parents and grandparents?

A new study presented to the American Sociological Association in August [published version, 2016, here] by Shawn Dorius (Iowa State), Duane Alwin (Penn. State), and Juliana Pacheco (U. of Iowa) tested a hunch several researchers have had about the generational pattern in the GSS vocabulary test – that words have histories.

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