The Chronicle Review

Private Troubles and Public Issues in the Classroom

April 10, 2009

I teach sociology at a small college in Suffolk County, on Long Island. Most of my students were born and raised here, and many of them are the first in their families to attend college. They live at home and commute to the campus each day by car. Products of the standardized test-taking ushered in by the No Child Left Behind mandate, they have learned to compartmentalize the knowledge they learn in class, memorizing definitions long enough to pass exams and discarding information not directly related to their intended careers. In other words, they are a tough crowd for a social-science professor.

To introduce them to the field of sociology and the concept of collective human interests, I always begin the course with a reading of C. Wright Mills's essay "The Promise," the introductory chapter of his 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination. He addresses a discipline he feels has become dominated by an "abstracted empiricism" that fetishizes facts and calculations and preaches value-neutrality and political disengagement in its attempt to secure scientific legitimacy. He urges readers to develop "the sociological imagination," which, he explains, allows them to recognize the relationship between private troubles and public issues — between biography and history — and to understand that the problems of individuals cannot be accounted for solely on the level of the personal. Without the sociological imagination, Mills says, people became trapped in their familiar worlds, incapable of understanding the social and structural dimensions of their own predicaments.

Recently I had the opportunity to bring the sociological imagination to life for my students in a way that I hope will bear fruit for them in the real world. Last November seven Suffolk County high-school students attacked and killed 37-year-old Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant, in Patchogue, N.Y., about a mile from my college. Jeffrey Conroy, leader of the pack and the teenager who inflicted the fatal knife wound, was a popular student and star athlete at the local high school.

According to newspaper articles, Conroy and his friends had planned to go out drinking and find a Mexican to beat up that evening. Apparently that is not an unusual form of recreation for male high-school students in this county, where anti-immigrant sentiments run deep. By the late 1990s, about 1,500 Mexican workers had moved to the mostly white, middle-class town of Farmingville, pulled there by employment opportunities in the landscaping, restaurant, and construction industries that served the wealthier Long Island communities to the east.

A particularly vocal group of residents had organized Sachem Quality of Life — part vigilante group, part neighborhood association. SQL took a hard line on illegal immigrants and blamed the state and federal governments for failing to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into their community. They picketed and harassed laborers who gathered outside a local 7-Eleven waiting for potential employers. Group members complained of immigrants' living in crowded quarters, noise, stalled traffic, and feelings of discomfort when walking past large groups of Mexican men outside the 7-Eleven. They also feared that undocumented workers might commit crimes and then flee the community. The group rejected accusations of racism, but in 2001 it organized a Day of Truth, to which several speakers with strong ties to white-supremacist organizations were invited.

It is not surprising that Conroy and his friends, born and raised in this atmosphere of tension, developed anti-immigrant sentiments. But despite the community's history of hostility toward Latinos, and despite Conroy's status at his high school, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy explained that the attack on Mr. Lucero "wasn't a question of any county policy or legislation; it was a question of bad people doing horrific things" (emphasis mine).

As this horrible story unfolded, I invited my students, many of whom had personal ties to the perpetrators and their families, to practice the sociological imagination. Was this crime, I asked them, a public issue or a personal problem of the perpetrators? Could it be explained by the twisted psyche of a sociopath, or were history, community, and social structure at play?

To be sure, the students condemned the crime and agreed that Conroy's hostility toward immigrants must have been learned at home. But the sociological imagination required that we probe further, and so I pushed them. School authorities and families knew that high-school students occasionally harassed immigrants for entertainment, didn't they? Didn't the fact that those behaviors and attitudes were tolerated, if not condoned, by local adults undermine Levy's contention that the boys responsible for the murder were just bad seeds?

Teaching the sociological imagination is difficult. Many students have trouble understanding the connection between things like social mobility, crime, divorce, and unemployment and the larger social structure. That conceptual block is not surprising. The myth that individual motivation, talent, hard work, and a little bit of luck conquer all odds is central to American values and culture. Virtually all of what sociologists call the "agencies of socialization" tell us that wealth, fame, and power are within one's grasp if only one plays the game right (cheating is allowed). Part of playing the game right is to renounce the social impulse in favor of individual interests. Indeed, to many of my students, descended from Irish and Italian immigrants who achieved the American dream through the sweat of their brows, the myth looks real. The circumstances that gave white, working-class people upward mobility through low-cost suburban housing and jobs in manufacturing are occluded by the narrative of heroic individualism that frames their success as a personal rather than historical achievement.

The students were eager to talk. The sociological imagination seemed to function for them as a kind of social therapy. One woman said she felt uncomfortable walking past groups of Mexican men. Another student challenged her, asking if she would feel nervous if the men were white. Upon reflection, she admitted that she would not. Others insisted that they objected to the immigrant workers on the grounds that they were "illegal." When I pointed out that many of these "illegal" workers had fled north because of dismal conditions in their own countries resulting from trade policies that benefited U.S. businesses at the expense of workers in Mexico, we discussed the difference between "legal" and "ethical."

We also explored immigration from the perspective of culture and loss. What must it be like, some students wondered, to leave your country, family, language, and culture for a community in which you are treated as less than human? "Things must have been pretty bad at home to do that," one student observed.

From our class discussion of Lucero's death, I moved on to a more conventional lecture on issues such as institutional racism, theories of prejudice and scapegoating, and the centrality of immigrant labor in the global economy. The students seemed more attentive, probably because they could now see how abstract sociological concepts related to their everyday world. As a class, we were able to bring private trouble into the light of public analysis.

C. Wright Mills believed that the promise of sociology could not be fulfilled through academic exercise. The sense of anger and powerlessness that our failing economy will continue to bring to large swaths of our population may result in a rise in hate crimes, scapegoating, and other forms of social chaos. Teaching the next generation how to practice the sociological imagination is more crucial now than ever.

Julia Rothenberg is an assistant professor of sociology at St. Joseph's College, in Patchogue, N.Y. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 55, Issue 31, Page B20