Monthly Archives: January 2006

on culture and poverty

“The central conservative truth,” Senator Moynihan famously wrote, “is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

This is the great issue of the present, or so it seems to me. But there are more positions than Mohnihan?s liberalism and conservatism. In fact, we can classify responses along three axes. First, materialists believe that to succeed and to be happy, you need money–or things that money can buy. Their opponents are cultural determinists who believe that what matters is the “fit” between a person’s norms, habits, and beliefs (on one hand) and the dominant culture of modern capitalism (on the other). A second axis runs from love for this dominant corporate culture to hatred of it. The third axis runs from those who think that government is helpful to those who consider it incompetent or corrupt.

When there are three axes, there are eight pure positions available, along with various moderate views. I think the following combinations are particularly serious and influential today:

Materialist left-liberalism: This is the view that poor people mainly need money (or its equivalent) to get ahead. They should get financial help from the state. However, no one should try to manipulate their values or beliefs.

Materialist libertarianism:: Everyone would prosper (to the maximum extent possible) if it weren?t for state institutions and regulations that distort choices, block exchanges, and forcibly educate people in bad habits and beliefs.

Left cultural criticism: What determines success is the fit between a person?s culture and the dominant, white collar, market system, with its demands for discipline and rationality. However, that system is wickedly imperialistic and dehumanizing. Capitalism, not working class and traditional cultures, must be changed.

Moynihan-style neoliberalism: What keeps some poor people poor is a set of habits and values that don’t prepare them well for a competitive market economy. However, the state can and should make them more competitive. For instance, if some parents don’t read to their preschoolers, then four year-olds should be in Head Start. If some households and neighborhoods impart anti-intellectual lessons, then we should lengthen the school day and year and toughen academic curricula.

Cultural conservatism: What keeps some people poor are their habits and values, but the state is bad at changing cultures. In fact, it tends to reinforce the worst cultural traits among the poor. It would be better to reduce state influence on values. For example, more students should attend religious schools.

I have no answers, but I suspect that: (1) Some degree of materialism is still important. For instance, people would be better off if they had affordable or free health insurance. (2) Nevertheless, there is a conflict between many subcultures and the dominant, corporate-capitalist world. That conflict means that no amount of redistribution will end poverty. While the redistributive programs of the twentieth century (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) are valuable, they leave cultural problems unresolved. (3) The record of the state in changing values and habits is neither excellent nor awful, but mixed. There have been successful initiatives, e.g., Quontum Opportunities Program, which cut dropout rates in half. There have also been numerous failures.

love where you are

In Fort Worth last Friday, I spoke about the importance of civic engagement. I was followed by a series of local officials (the superintendent of schools, the public safety commissioner, a county commissioner, a former mayor, and others), who analyzed the main issues on their city?s agenda.

In my speech, I claimed that public engagement has declined for various reasons, including the rise of professional management and the lack of incentives to prepare young people to be capable citizens. A large proportion of the audience was young, so I ended with some arguments in favor of participating. For instance, I mentioned the intrinsic satisfaction of work on public problems. I ended by saying that you should always love where you are.

I explained that I couldn?t give any specific reasons to love Fort Worth or North Texas, because I?d only been there for 12 hours; but every place where human beings live can be loved. Every place has assets, history, and interesting complexity. To miss the place where you live is a great waste. Further, to love it means to explore it, to study it, and to work to improve it. This turned out to be a good way to conclude, because three or four of the subsequent speakers picked up my challenge and explained why one should love their city. (Incidentally, Dallas/Fort Worth–love it or not–is expected to double in size and become the megalopolis of the southern great plains.)

cliches of civic engagement

I’m on my way to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where I’ll be speaking about–what else?–youth civic engagement. I’m happy to support the launch of TCU’s Center for Civic Literacy.

I hope that my speech does not sound like this article by Douglas Brinkley from 1994, entitled “Educating the Generation Called ‘X.'” The links are to Cosma Shazili’s commentary:

But all in all, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a “young person is a young person is a young person.” They are essentially no different from their predecessors; they simply want to be regarded as individuals. By 1988, those born between 1961 and 1981 will comprise the largest voting bloc ever in American history, numbering 80 million strong. They will soon step up to the plate to try to clean up the mess. Their teacher should strive to do what education has traditionally done for the young: Bring out their best, encourage hope and nourish their imaginations.

talking about “social justice” in education

In conversations about civic education, service-learning, and youth civic engagement, people often ask whether the purpose of what we’re doing is “social justice.” Lately I’ve been responding as follows:

1. The phrase social justice (which has roots in Catholic thought) has been claimed by the Left. In politics, phrases are often seized by one side or the other–occasionally, they even switch their valence over time. At the moment, “social justice” has a lefty ring. Therefore, there will be a predictable consequence if you say that your service-learning program or civics class “promotes social justice.” You will attract leftish students, and perhaps alienate conservatives. If you speak on behalf of a public school or state university, I think you should avoid that outcome. Individual adults who work with young people are free to promote ideologies; but state institutions should be leery of doing so.

2. Although the left has claimed the phrase “social justice,” true conservatives seek social justice. They just define it somewhat differently, they endorse alternative strategies for obtaining it, and they tend to call it by other names. It’s important that the students who sign up for service-learning be exposed to serious conservative arguments about justice. One of the risks of using the phrase “social justice” is to narrow the range of debate about justice by keeping conservatives out from the beginning.

I often hear a (probably apocryphal) story about a student who so enjoys volunteering in a soup kitchen that he blurts out, “I hope this place still exists when my kids come along, so that they can serve, too.” The standard rejoinder is that the student should investigate the “root causes” of hunger and advocate solutions.

True, but the root causes may not necessarily be capitalism or discrimination, and the best solutions may not include Food Stamps or a higher minimum wage. I’d like to see students grapple with root causes but be challenged to consider whether government intervention is the basic problem and freer markets could help. That’s not usually my own view, but it’s educational to consider it.

the sincerest form of flattery

So, I’m ego-surfing as usual, and what do I come across? A term paper about an article (pdf) that I wrote–for sale at $31.95. The summary and excerpt of the term paper are poorly written and highly inaccurate. Can I sue? Should I write a better paper about myself and sell it? If a wildly inaccurate summary of my article is worth $31.95 on the open market, can I start selling the actual article for, say, $40? (Right now, it’s free.) Should I be offended that people are willing to pay $31.95 not to have to read and write about my article? Does a plagiarized term paper count as a citation of my work? Why does my own article rank lower on Google than a site that sells a lousy term paper about it?