A eulogy for Sara McLanahan
[I was going to say I might do this with some regularity just because I’m teaching the death course this semester, but I have a feeling it might extend beyond that. People who have been important to me in one way or another seem to be dying at an increasing rate, or perhaps I’m just paying more attention to it as I inevitably draw ever closer to my own horizon. Here’s a first installment.]
I tried to invite her to Bucknell once a number of years ago and we couldn’t get the dates to work out on both ends. I have admired her work for decades, since I first saw her appear on a Frontline documentary “The Vanishing Father” on divorce, single parenthood, and the disappearing father back in the 1990s. (Just looked for it online, without much success). I used a VHS tape the Bucknell library once owned of that doc in my intro to sociology class for the first few years of my time here in the early 2000s.
I would explain to students that they should listen closely to the description she gives of how she went about her initial study of single parenthood and what happened when the results came in. Up to the middle of the 20th century, what she said would not have sounded remarkable in the social sciences, but in the wake of the 1960s and 1970s, much social science began to fall deeply into the black hole of ideological dark matter, and many topics began to be ignored and research trashed and never published and published results spun and skewed according to the needs of politics. This is now the norm in my discipline, one must regrettably admit. The vast majority of ‘research’ produced in sociology journals today is scientifically worthless, or worse, because of the advance of that condition that was already developing when McLanahan appeared on that documentary nearly 30 years ago. (And the cancer has spread elsewhere too—try to find a recent Frontline special that is as well-balanced and prepared to acknowledge truths inconvenient to the cultural left as that “Vanishing Father” episode is. Please report back when you find it—I’ll be waiting patiently right here).
In the Frontline doc, McLanahan described how, as a young sociologist and a single parent herself, she distrusted the popular criticism of this emerging ‘new form of family’ (as the left sociologists liked to talk about it). She thought it had to be simply a matter of the loss of a parental income that caused any negative effects on children in single parent homes, and if you controlled for that, those negative effects of single parenthood would disappear. And, she hoped, this would mean a straightforward, simple solution to the problem: government subsidizing of single parent families to correct for the lost income of the non-present father.
She did the study and found that controlling for income didn’t make the negative effect completely go away—some other deficit was accruing in the lives of these kids raised without a biological parent (again, almost always a father) in the house. Unlike many social scientists who have come after her in this field and other highly politicized ones, though, McLanahan said she felt committed to publishing the research despite the fact that she knew it might well provide grist for the polemical mills of people with whom she disagreed politically. The evidence and the truth mattered to her more than her politics.
That commitment to the evidence, regardless of one’s personal druthers, is nearly extinct in my discipline now. I used to have the students listen to her express it just so they’d get a chance to hear a sociologist other than the one teaching their course talk like that. Future generations may never hear such an expression.
Respect and respects to Professor McLanahan for pursuing the truth even when that pursuit gave her answers she didn’t like. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, boys and girls.