Steven Williams, Associate Professor of Sociology, has a handful of passions, but none are more driving than his dedication to educating USI’s students. Born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and educated at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, he considered several career choices—including, hopeful rock star—before finding his niche as a sociologist and educator.
What began as a one-year contract with USI, within hours of handing in his dissertation, turned into a 19-year relationship that Williams is still jazzed about. The University’s thrumming energy, physical expansions and surging stream of curious young minds form the rhythm of his love for higher education.
Williams’ early research investigated how mass media responded, particularly Hollywood, to the need for new villains after the Cold War ended. Today, he seeks to understand the odd relationship between the destructive and the aesthetic, how those things which are most harmful are so often beautiful, from the snappiness of a military uniform to the gloss of consumer packaging. (Read a longer version of this piece online at USI.edu/Williams.)
I love delving into the social construction of reality. I respect and appreciate all disciplines of knowledge, but I think of sociology as the ultimate meta-science. Biology can demonstrate we’re all one species and share a common African origin, but sociology traces the social construction of the concept of “race” and shows how a biologically trivial thing can be socially, politically, economically and historically overwhelming.
Until about 200 years ago there was no sociology, though we’ve always lived in societies. The world has changed so much we now need a whole new science to explain ourselves to ourselves. Everyone’s an amateur sociologist and can tell you all about what’s wrong with America or the world, but these stories aren’t usually grounded in actual theory and methodology. We’ve finally gotten to the place where we know no more about society by simply living in it than we know about biology by simply possessing bodies.
I’m not sure anything’s more important. An educated, informed, aware citizenry is profoundly dangerous to any absolute system of power, whether a feudal monarchy or modern totalitarian regime. And it is just as profoundly necessary for a functioning democracy. I am especially fond of universities, those beautiful bastions of research and debate and passionate free speech. There is nothing else in our society quite like a university.
How long have we got? I have no patience for people who want to tell me “kids these days” have it so much easier than they did. The price of higher education is escalating far too quickly with no guarantee of anything other than a big chunk of debt when it’s completed. More students are being pushed into a transactional, mercenary kind of relationship with education—credentialism—where the degree becomes more important than the knowledge it supposedly represents.
We have so much more information at our fingertips now but I’m not sure we have any more truth. It requires a serious and uncomfortable degree of self-reflection to avoid falling into the “bubble” of media messaging that simply reinforces our preexisting view of politics or the world. This process is insidiously and relentlessly operating on us every day and we can expect our social and political arguments to get more polarized in the foreseeable future. It’s pretty scary, actually.
Believe it or not: optimistic.