DAVID WEBBER: How to frame the question 'How is America doing?'

Tuesday, March 5, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Naming something, or selecting a college course title, shapes its perception. In the case of a course title, it frames the topics discussed, the questions asked, the readings assigned, and the papers that will be written. I selected the course title “Is America in Decline?” because it is the question posed by prominent observers, including James Fallows’ “How America Can Rise Again” in the Atlantic Monthly and Fareed Zakaria in The Post-American World.

Frames, perceptions and titles are seldom neutral. Often, they serve as a Rorschach test reflecting how one thinks about a situation, in this case America, incorporating his/her comfort in evaluating our Nation’s promise and current performance. A recent example is the December 2012 Gallup national survey finding that about 49 percent of Americans think that “today’s youth will have it as good as their parents.” This is down from 66 percent in 2008 and the high of 71 percent in 2002. Political partisanship filters perceptions as indicated by the 66 percent of Democrats who are optimistic compared with 29 percent of Republicans.

Over the past several months I accumulated a list of more than 50 alternative course titles for “Is America in Decline?” I considered briefly, but dismissed, “American Exceptionalism” because it tends to be ideologically polarizing. A 2011 Pew poll found that when given the choice 38 percent of Americans respond that “America stands above all other countries” but this varies greatly from the 67 percent of “staunch conservatives” and 19 percent among “solid liberals.” Seldom does polarization result in effective teaching.

Similarly, I decided against a title that included “American Dream” because while sounding precise and traditional, it is rather ambiguous and more recent (it was coined in 1931) than many people expect.

“Has America Changed?” and “The Changing Dynamics of America” are bland and too simple, as if change is inevitable. Then there are the variants of “Is America still Great?”, “Is America Still the Greatest?”, “Can America Stay #1?” and “America: Still Exceptional” suggesting a clear superiority that pushes the limits of academic detachment.

“The Inevitable Decline of Great Powers including the U.S.” would be a classic book title should Adam Smith be reincarnated but more modern titles are the briefer “The Decline of the American Empire” and “The Rise and Fall of the U.S.” “Is America Falling Behind?” invites comparisons with other nations or, perhaps, other times. “The Great Slip” sounds more like a movie than a course title.

Several possibilities focus squarely on the place of the United States in the international system. These include “America Confronts the Rise of the Rest,” “Is America Indispensable?” and “America in a Post American World.” “Is America Over-extended?” and “Is America Vulnerable?” reflect ill-ease about national security.

Alternatively, some titles suggest an inward focus. These include “Is America in Turmoil?, ” “Is America in Trouble?,” “Is America Trapped?,” “Is America Screwed up?,” and “Is America Coming Apart?” These are seem rather harsh so I doubt I would be attracted to such a course.

“American Decadence,” “American Decay,” “American Deterioration, ” and “ America: Debt and Decline, ” “Slumping America” seem overly negative and a little too literary and fatalistic. “America: Hitting Bottom or Coming Back?” seems like a debate topic or an essay question on the final exam. “Has America Apexed?” is eye-catching but potentially a turn-off to students wanting to select a familiar topic.

Some titles are particularly economic in nature: “Is America Stagnant?,” “Can America Rebound?,” “Is America Leveling off?” and the more immediate “Is America Going over a Cliff?" One student suggested “The Great Regression.” “Has America Slipped?” and “Is America Back Sliding?” seem to focus on the economy, too.

Several more philosophic titles such as “Is America Falling Short? ,” “Has America Failed?” or “Has America Been Successful?” seem rather unanswerable.

Because I am particularly interested in policy-making and governance several proposed titles are promising. Titles like “Is America Governable?” or “Is America Broken?” "Is America Myopic?,” “Has America Ossified?” or “ Is America in Crisis?” all seem to focus on political institutions. “America muddles along” is a catchy title for a book chapter, but not for a course title. “Is America Sleeping?” is too dramatic.

While we often think about the future, we do not seem to keep it in focus, allowing today’s crisis too much influence on our thinking and policy-making. Perhaps course titles such as “America’s Place in the Future," “ America: The Next Generation," “Preparing America for the Future,” or “Is America Sustainable?” would serve that goal.

In hindsight, “Is America in Decline?” alright? It is inquisitive, easily comprehended, and open to reflection and discussion. That’s a lot of weight for a title to carry. Maybe the title should have simply been “The State of America.”

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU where he is currently teaching a course on "Is America in Decline?" He can be reached at Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Ellis Smith March 5, 2013 | 4:42 p.m.

A physical (physics) approach might be used. Newtonian physics, you must admit, is about as neutral as you can hope to get.

If something is in free fall it is necesary to arrest that fall before there's any possibility of it ever again rising.

How that can be worked into a short, clever title is far beyond my pay grade.

(Report Comment)
frank christian March 5, 2013 | 8:02 p.m.

Ellis - How can a few words in black and white be formed to appear so refreshing and pretty? You have done it again!

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 6, 2013 | 7:28 a.m.

Shucks, Frank, it wasn't anything.

Momma always said you shouldn't kill flies using a shotgun. It makes an awful mess, is a terrible waste of shotgun shells, and - most of all - the flies aren't worth it.

Congratulations! Your letter to the editor has received more posts than the average for columns by Nolen, Rosman and Kennedy. I am positively green with envy.

(Report Comment)

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