Sociologist Joel Best on the “Upside” of Today’s News

[Editor's Note: This post by Joel Best is is part of a roundtable hosted by the Patheos Book Club on Upside: Surprising Good News About the State of the World, by Bradley Wright.]

Upside, the new book by sociologist Brad Wright, may – although it should not – surprise many readers.  Our society thrives on a cacophony of alarming news and dire predictions.  We are warned that we have terrible social problems, and that things are likely to get worse.  It is easy to become pessimistic, to assume that our societal glass is not just half empty, but that it is probably leaking.

But compare some of the things we take for granted with the situation in 1911.  One hundred years ago, a newborn infant had a life expectancy of less than 53 years; a baby born today will live, on average, more than 78 years.  In 1911, people under age 21, the vast majority of women, and a large proportion of black males were unable to vote.  Also in 1911, only about 9 percent of young people graduated from high school, and less than 3 percent from college; today, many more people get more education.  And the standard of living was much lower; forget flat-screen TVs, a century ago large majorities  of homes lacked indoor plumbing, electricity, and phone service.  Life expectancy, the right to vote, level of education, and standard of living are all bedrock social indicators, and all improved markedly over the last 100 years.

Or take another example–traffic fatalities.  In 1966, 50,894 American died in traffic accidents; that worked out to 5.5 deaths per 100 million miles driven.  In 2010, when the United States had a much larger population, and many more cars driving many more miles, there were only 32,788 traffic fatalities, which worked out to less than 1.1 deaths per 100 million miles driven.  That’s a huge improvement, but no one heralds this progress; we barely notice it.

Instead, news coverage focuses on bad news, or at least emphasizes glum interpretations.  Every few years, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP, what the Department of Education likes to call “the nation’s report card”) tests the reading and math skills of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders.  Now a glass-half-full interpretation might note that scores have improved over the past 35 years, and that the gaps between whites’ scores and those of blacks and Hispanics have been shrinking (this is true for both reading and math scores, at all three grade levels).  That’s not bad news.  However, the media tend to highlight glass-half-empty findings–the scores haven’t improved as much as we might wish, the improvement from last year to this year may not be statistically significant, the gap between white and nonwhite scores has not vanished, and so on.  Both interpretations are true, but the good news gets lost in all the worried talk about failing schools.

In some well-meaning circles, people treat talk of progress as a kind of third rail–to be avoided at all costs.  They seem to fear that acknowledging that things have gotten better will be heard as a declaration that things are perfect, that there’s no need to continue to work to make things better.  But as Brad Wright notes, that’s exactly the wrong lesson.  Assuming that everything’s lousy and getting worse can make us feel hopeless, that there’s no point in trying to improve things.  In contrast, understanding that the world has improved in many ways, and thinking critically about what remains to be done, are more likely to foster progress.

Joel Best is a Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware.  His most recent books are Everyone’s a Winner: Life in Our Congratulatory Culture and The Stupidity Epidemic: Worrying about Students, Schools, and America’s Future. Visit his website at www.joelbest.net.


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