The Evil of Cultural Engineering

The totalitarian urge is ubiquitous in human history, though in the United States, this has been expressed more as Nanny State, less Bolshevik Revolution. Familiar examples include dictating our food choices, demonizing smokers, and, most forcefully, micromanaging personal energy consumption. These policies all begin with seductive claims that government intrusion will benefit everybody, and cooperation will be largely voluntary; but as benign admonitions fall short, pressures via fines and taxes and even criminal sanctions grow more draconian.

The mentality's latest pernicious installment focuses on the longstanding black/white gap in school performance and the poverty that, allegedly, undergirds these outcomes. In a nutshell, the current repertory of multi-billion-dollar nostrums, from free breakfasts to after-school enrichment programs to No Child Left Behind, plus the other billions to fight poverty, has totally failed. Facing repeated disappointments, exasperated egalitarians are now gravitating, however gingerly, to cultural engineering to alter those deeply rooted inclinations that, supposedly, account for inequality.

Cultural explanations of race-related inequality (including education) are hardly new, but they disappeared into deep storage in the 1960s while government spent billions and billions in simpler quick-fix programs (cultural explanations were called "blaming the victim"). They have, however, recently crept back onto the political agenda. One recent academic journal devoted an entire issue to the link between culture and poverty, long a taboo subject among politically attuned scholars.

The New York Times, that liberal canary in the cultural mineshaft, recently ran a story called "'Culture of Poverty' makes a Comeback." In a different Times article about the dismal test scores of African-Americans, Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard said, "There's accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten," and " ... we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have. Those include conversations about early childhood parenting practices." This new agenda, according to Ferguson, would now include how parents interact with their 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds, how they talk to them, how discipline is enforced, and how parents encourage their children to think and develop a sense of autonomy.

Marching down this path entails dangers that far exceed squandering billions. Free societies do not meddle in family life to reconfigure cultures; cultures evolve, and people autonomously alter values and habits, but only totalitarian governments try to dictate cultures. Indeed, this intrusion almost defines totalitarianism.

Basically, a policy of cultural transformation entails pushing lower-class black families to be like education-hungry, economically ambitious Asian, Indian, and Jewish families. Now, for example, rather than black youngsters growing up in TV-dominated households disdaining book learning, Mom and Pop will prod junior to read more, dutifully attend school, complete homework assignments, obey teachers, and socialize only with bookish friends. Parents will meanwhile upgrade their vocabulary and explain unfamiliar words while scheduling trips to museums and the Philharmonic.

And this only begins the quest. Junior must also learn to delay gratification, build a dogged work ethic, be punctual, strengthen his impulse control (especially resisting drugs, alcohol, crime, and casual sex), and bear the frustrations that come with this new Calvinism. To put it mildly, this will be an extraordinary human transformation, far beyond what Marxists attempted when remaking peasants into collective farmers -- and don't forget, Marxists could liquidate those who resisted, and they still failed.

This putative cure is clearly doomed. This was Head Start's aim with its stress on brain-expanding novelty, and for all its other benefits, academic achievement gaps have not closed (see here). The hugely expensive logistics alone are daunting. Intervention would have to begin in infancy and continue until adolescence. Hoards of early learning specialists must be trained and hired. Just imagine sending these experts into millions of homes daily, often in crime-ridden neighborhoods, with their detailed checklists to ensure that junior is cracking the books and Mom or Pop is there cheering him on, all the while speaking complete sentences incorporating a fancy vocabulary. And what if parents resist and stick with the traditional child-rearing practices that brought academic failure? Will they be fined for excessive TV-watching or relapsing into cuss words? After all, without sanctions, the government's busybodies are powerless.

That understood, why raise the specter of another extravagant guaranteed-to-fail boondoggle? Saving money is not our purpose. Rather, cultural engineering is deeply antithetical to limited government and needs to be clearly identified as such. Refurbishing a supposedly dysfunctional culture is not just yet one more help-the-poor program providing additional educational opportunities. This is government, at least potentially, inappropriately dictating child-rearing practices to achieve a grand policy goal. It is fundamentally different from the state's legitimate obligation to protect defenseless children.

It's bad enough that San Francisco parents might yet be forbidden to buy cheeseburger and fries Happy Meals should the mayor's veto be overridden; do we really want government prodding black parents to use complex sentences when ordering veggie burgers so their youngsters arriving at kindergarten will speak middle-class English? Will refusing to inculcate "good values" become the new child abuse?

The tip-off to this coercive element is that no black elected official or race-hustler has said, "We blacks are in terrible shape; our culture hinders economic progress and education, so government should fix it." I'd guess that few of the intended "beneficiaries" want the "helpful" change, and if they did seek middle class values, state intervention is not the only option. Stripped of its high-sounding rhetoric, cultural engineering to raise test scores and reduce poverty is but cultural imperialism, the strong imposing their Weltanschauung on the weak. Imagine if black government experts announced that "white culture" is dysfunctional ("makes them too warlike") and, though whites have not requested any help, blacks using the power of the state will now assist whites in overcoming their cultural deficiencies.

Make no mistake: we are not celebrating or denigrating any culture, nor denying the role of cultural factors in education and poverty. Nor do we object if private groups such as churches or charities want to meddle, provided the recipient agrees. Our concern is government intervention into early family life so as to bend people into a "better" existence. 

The government's encroachment on personal liberty is inevitably a slow creep and always sold with benign, glittering verbiage. Success or failure is not the issue: even a disaster will still leave the coercive mechanisms in place while creating precedents for future policy-making. Sustaining liberty requires identifying the totalitarian impulse at its earliest stage, sounding the warning, and stopping it before the apparatchiki have become little czars.

This is not alarmism. Doubters should recall the 1960s, when affirmative action first emerged. Defenders assured everybody that this would be a modest temporary measure, just an exhortation or two, one that would not impose quotas or unduly interfere with the marketplace. Today, of course, its heavy hand is inescapable and extends across multiple ethnic/racial groups. Remember when political correctness was dismissed as too stupid to be taken seriously?

The Leviathan, emboldened by its triumphs, can only grow stronger unless killed at the larval stage. So the next time you hear experts suggesting that an inadequate culture be invigorated to promote health, happiness, and wisdom, just say, "No thank you. I'll keep my rotten culture just as it is, and if you want to change somebody's 'dysfunctional' culture, let's start with yours, since you obviously cannot resist meddling in mine."     

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schoolsbadstudentsnotbadschools.com
The totalitarian urge is ubiquitous in human history, though in the United States, this has been expressed more as Nanny State, less Bolshevik Revolution. Familiar examples include dictating our food choices, demonizing smokers, and, most forcefully, micromanaging personal energy consumption. These policies all begin with seductive claims that government intrusion will benefit everybody, and cooperation will be largely voluntary; but as benign admonitions fall short, pressures via fines and taxes and even criminal sanctions grow more draconian.

The mentality's latest pernicious installment focuses on the longstanding black/white gap in school performance and the poverty that, allegedly, undergirds these outcomes. In a nutshell, the current repertory of multi-billion-dollar nostrums, from free breakfasts to after-school enrichment programs to No Child Left Behind, plus the other billions to fight poverty, has totally failed. Facing repeated disappointments, exasperated egalitarians are now gravitating, however gingerly, to cultural engineering to alter those deeply rooted inclinations that, supposedly, account for inequality.

Cultural explanations of race-related inequality (including education) are hardly new, but they disappeared into deep storage in the 1960s while government spent billions and billions in simpler quick-fix programs (cultural explanations were called "blaming the victim"). They have, however, recently crept back onto the political agenda. One recent academic journal devoted an entire issue to the link between culture and poverty, long a taboo subject among politically attuned scholars.

The New York Times, that liberal canary in the cultural mineshaft, recently ran a story called "'Culture of Poverty' makes a Comeback." In a different Times article about the dismal test scores of African-Americans, Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard said, "There's accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten," and " ... we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have. Those include conversations about early childhood parenting practices." This new agenda, according to Ferguson, would now include how parents interact with their 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds, how they talk to them, how discipline is enforced, and how parents encourage their children to think and develop a sense of autonomy.

Marching down this path entails dangers that far exceed squandering billions. Free societies do not meddle in family life to reconfigure cultures; cultures evolve, and people autonomously alter values and habits, but only totalitarian governments try to dictate cultures. Indeed, this intrusion almost defines totalitarianism.

Basically, a policy of cultural transformation entails pushing lower-class black families to be like education-hungry, economically ambitious Asian, Indian, and Jewish families. Now, for example, rather than black youngsters growing up in TV-dominated households disdaining book learning, Mom and Pop will prod junior to read more, dutifully attend school, complete homework assignments, obey teachers, and socialize only with bookish friends. Parents will meanwhile upgrade their vocabulary and explain unfamiliar words while scheduling trips to museums and the Philharmonic.

And this only begins the quest. Junior must also learn to delay gratification, build a dogged work ethic, be punctual, strengthen his impulse control (especially resisting drugs, alcohol, crime, and casual sex), and bear the frustrations that come with this new Calvinism. To put it mildly, this will be an extraordinary human transformation, far beyond what Marxists attempted when remaking peasants into collective farmers -- and don't forget, Marxists could liquidate those who resisted, and they still failed.

This putative cure is clearly doomed. This was Head Start's aim with its stress on brain-expanding novelty, and for all its other benefits, academic achievement gaps have not closed (see here). The hugely expensive logistics alone are daunting. Intervention would have to begin in infancy and continue until adolescence. Hoards of early learning specialists must be trained and hired. Just imagine sending these experts into millions of homes daily, often in crime-ridden neighborhoods, with their detailed checklists to ensure that junior is cracking the books and Mom or Pop is there cheering him on, all the while speaking complete sentences incorporating a fancy vocabulary. And what if parents resist and stick with the traditional child-rearing practices that brought academic failure? Will they be fined for excessive TV-watching or relapsing into cuss words? After all, without sanctions, the government's busybodies are powerless.

That understood, why raise the specter of another extravagant guaranteed-to-fail boondoggle? Saving money is not our purpose. Rather, cultural engineering is deeply antithetical to limited government and needs to be clearly identified as such. Refurbishing a supposedly dysfunctional culture is not just yet one more help-the-poor program providing additional educational opportunities. This is government, at least potentially, inappropriately dictating child-rearing practices to achieve a grand policy goal. It is fundamentally different from the state's legitimate obligation to protect defenseless children.

It's bad enough that San Francisco parents might yet be forbidden to buy cheeseburger and fries Happy Meals should the mayor's veto be overridden; do we really want government prodding black parents to use complex sentences when ordering veggie burgers so their youngsters arriving at kindergarten will speak middle-class English? Will refusing to inculcate "good values" become the new child abuse?

The tip-off to this coercive element is that no black elected official or race-hustler has said, "We blacks are in terrible shape; our culture hinders economic progress and education, so government should fix it." I'd guess that few of the intended "beneficiaries" want the "helpful" change, and if they did seek middle class values, state intervention is not the only option. Stripped of its high-sounding rhetoric, cultural engineering to raise test scores and reduce poverty is but cultural imperialism, the strong imposing their Weltanschauung on the weak. Imagine if black government experts announced that "white culture" is dysfunctional ("makes them too warlike") and, though whites have not requested any help, blacks using the power of the state will now assist whites in overcoming their cultural deficiencies.

Make no mistake: we are not celebrating or denigrating any culture, nor denying the role of cultural factors in education and poverty. Nor do we object if private groups such as churches or charities want to meddle, provided the recipient agrees. Our concern is government intervention into early family life so as to bend people into a "better" existence. 

The government's encroachment on personal liberty is inevitably a slow creep and always sold with benign, glittering verbiage. Success or failure is not the issue: even a disaster will still leave the coercive mechanisms in place while creating precedents for future policy-making. Sustaining liberty requires identifying the totalitarian impulse at its earliest stage, sounding the warning, and stopping it before the apparatchiki have become little czars.

This is not alarmism. Doubters should recall the 1960s, when affirmative action first emerged. Defenders assured everybody that this would be a modest temporary measure, just an exhortation or two, one that would not impose quotas or unduly interfere with the marketplace. Today, of course, its heavy hand is inescapable and extends across multiple ethnic/racial groups. Remember when political correctness was dismissed as too stupid to be taken seriously?

The Leviathan, emboldened by its triumphs, can only grow stronger unless killed at the larval stage. So the next time you hear experts suggesting that an inadequate culture be invigorated to promote health, happiness, and wisdom, just say, "No thank you. I'll keep my rotten culture just as it is, and if you want to change somebody's 'dysfunctional' culture, let's start with yours, since you obviously cannot resist meddling in mine."     

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schoolsbadstudentsnotbadschools.com

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