Crisis in American Institutions

Title: Crisis in American Institutions, 14th Ed.
Author: Edited by Jerome H. Skolnick & Elliott Currie
Genre: Nonfiction sociology

Rating: 2 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s

 

This book was assigned for one of my recent classes. I realize that that a 2 star rating for a book in a field that I am passionate about is a pretty low rating, especially when I did learn some new, important, and interesting things. But I can’t really help it; I was disappointed and I think that for what the book is and tries to address, it could have been so much more.

 

This is an edited volume, which means it’s basically a compilation album. Editors Skolnick and Currie authored only a small portion of the book, although they did each include a paper of their own, both in the “Crime & Justice” section of the book, which was incidentally my least favorite section. There is so much to say on the topic of our criminal justice system, but I felt like the section was lacking. For example, they didn’t talk about or include any essays that even mention for-profit prisons, which I think is an essential part of why prison populations are growing in this country the way they are. Instead, Skolnick published a pissing contest he had with John DiIulio, spanning 18 pages, which is more than half the space dedicated to the entire subject of sexism in this book. I think it’s time to let it go, dude. (Currie’s essay, on the other hand, was pretty solid.)

 

The problems I’ve noted in the “crime & justice” section pervade the text. Yes, the volume addresses racism, sexism, corporate power, work & welfare, the healthcare system, sexism, economic inequality, and education, among other topics. But it does it in a lackluster way that feels inadequate and doesn’t really grasp the breadth and depth of any of these issues. I am acutely aware of the sexism in our society, for instance, but this book seemed to tiptoe around it; it pulls no punches, because it doesn’t even throw any. In the “economic crisis” section, the editors chose a selection of Barbara Ehrenreich’s, from a book I gave five stars (though I admit that if I read that book today I would probably have given it four stars or less), though even here the passage they selected was not as insightful or impactful as I thought the section deserved. These editors have limited page space, and they chose to fill it with essays that, for the most part, make only a minor contribution to understanding the institutions (“racism,” “education,” “the family,” etc.) under which they are listed. There are only three or four essays in each section, which have the difficult job of instilling an understanding of really important, often difficult-to-understand problems: each essay really really needs to count. They all need to be exceptional. The only section that I feel did a great job was the “corporate power” section; the section on racism was passable; and the rest, in my opinion, need to be seriously revamped.

 

But there were some outstanding essays:
” ‘They Take Our Jobs!’ ” by Aviva Chomsky
“Hired Education” by Jennifer Washburn
“Blowback” by Chalmers Johnson

And some that were also really good:
“Take the Rich of Welfare” by Mark Zepezauer
“The Commercial” by Neil Postman and Steve Powers
“Water for Profit” by John Luoma
“At Many Colleges, the Rich Kids Get Affirmative Action” by Daniel Golden
“The Roots of White Advantage” by Michael K. Brown
“Learning Silence” by Peggy Orenstein
“Beyond the ‘M’ Word: The Tangled Roots of Politics and Marriage” by Arlene Skolnick
“The Shame of the Nation” by Johnathan Kozol
“Unjust Rewards” by Ken Silverstein

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