For over a half century government has spent billions to eliminate the race-related academic achievement gap and all to no avail. Paralleling this educational failure has been a similar frustration to reverse the pathologies plaguing the black underclass, e.g., crime, welfare dependency, drug addiction, chaotic family life, gang violence and chronic unemployment, among others. Yes, some policies such as stop and frisk may help, but nothing appears to be a long-term, politically viable cure for this Hobbesian world. Sad to say, both conditions—education and pathology—appear intractable.
Let me suggest a radically different way of solving both problems: replace the current high test score idée fixe with education as civilizing. That is, transforming under-class black youngsters into dutiful scholars is unreachable but we may be able to civilize them just as millions of Europeans were “domesticated” between the 11th and 20th century (see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Chapter 3). Hardly a snap but certainly more feasible than boosting the test scores of blacks. Of the utmost importance, the formulae exist and can be readily applied; no need to unleash thousands of policy wonks to invent yet more expensive doomed panaceas. And, replacing the test score crusade with a civilizing mission will, in all likelihood, simultaneously improve academic performance.
First, the civil society requires people controlling their emotions, especially violent urges. As Pinker depicts the transformation, reacting to insults with immediate violence (defending one’s honor) slowly gave way to dueling that permitted multiple “honorable” escape routes which, in turn, transitioned to relying on litigation (“see you in court”). Simultaneously, the culture shifted so defending one’s reputation by drawing a sword for some trivial offense vanished thanks to the aggrieved party learning to hold his tongue, count to ten or develop a thick skin. Pinker also tells how ridicule eventually undermined the violence-soaked code that demanded a gentleman risk his life over trifling slights. Today’s civilized people see virtue in what was once spinelessness.
Second, civilization requires across-the-board delayed gratification, self-discipline and moderation. One does not eat a lunch snack at breakfast or crave the latest iPhone. Refined people now wait until all the others are served before eating. Think habits such as finishing school work before heading off to play or forgoing sex until adulthood. Most of all learn to resist crime as an alternative to employment and saving money.
Third, civilized people learn to obey authority regardless of contrary urges. When the teacher tells you to sit still and be quiet, you sit still and stop talking. As an adult one heeds police orders regardless of opinions regarding the police officer or policing more generally. In other words, civilization is impossible if “everybody does their own thing” or people can autonomously decide their own rules. Respect for the rule of law is what separates civilization from savagery.
The good news, as Pinker documents, is that history overflows with recipes to refine the unruly. Surely, even in the absence of stable families, teachers can impart these requirements if permitted to employ the traditional classroom discipline—stigma, humiliation, shame and even corporal punishment. Youngsters can certainly be taught the etiquette facilitating peaceful society—saying “excuse me” if inadvertently bumping into a classmate. Even students with room temperature IQ’s can be socialized though, to be sure, this quest may take years of punishment before avoiding fights over petty insults becomes second nature.
Moreover, it would cost almost nothing to begin teaching even kindergarten students habit such as punctuality, always being prepared and respective language—its “Mr. Smith,” not “hey teach.” Teachers could demand that youngsters tidy up after themselves so no milk and cookies until everything is neatly put away and the proper place. When I attended grade school no student could enter the building until everyone was perfectly lined up outside and absolutely silent. What about assigning books where the kindly hero outsmarts his boorish, brutal rival? Pinker tells of the many etiquette books of the Middle Ages that carefully spelled out behavior for a proper gentleman, and these can be adapted for today’s youngsters. While there might be rough and tumble sports but woe to any kid who turns a friendly dodge ball game into an exercise of taunting rivals that will almost guarantee violence. Punishment would be especially heavy if the miscreant continued this out of place behavior post game—who needs sports insults escalating into vendettas? The Battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but if inner-city civilization is to be restored, the task must begin in thousands of violence prone schools and playgrounds.
Japanese educators have long understood the link between inculcating good behavior and academic achievement (it is called “learning to learn”). One practice requires youngsters to sit still and stare at a dot on the blackboard. Each student keeps a personal record of how long they are able to perform this patience-building task and those who excel are recognized for their accomplishment. In some classrooms the heat is turned down to 55 degrees and students wear shorts so as to learn how to work despite discomfort. Obviously there are countless other tactics, all practical, proven successful and many virtually cost-free but these examples should suffice.
Now, what is the prognosis for this civilizing mission? Alas, our advice is doomed and will surely be denounced. Clearly the basic premise underlying everything here is that young blacks (like all children) require domestication, but all the yammering will not sway critics who insist that imparting self-control, good manners, and obedience to authority is some pernicious scheme to make blacks “white.” I can already hear “are you suggesting that black youngsters are savages?” This opposition might be called Rousseauian educational philosophy with a racial twist—these youngsters naturally thirst for learning but are frustrated by rotten teachers, under-funded schools and all the rest.
But, at the same time, those who see “civilizing” as thinly disguised cultural imperialism do have a valid point, and one that must be addressed. After all, what moral justification exists for trying to turn a violence prone black dominated grade-school into one that resembles a school where classrooms are filled with quiet education-obsessed Asians? Recall the outrange from some black intellectuals when Bill Cosby suggested that young African Americans embrace more middle class “white” values. Our argument is easily reversed: perhaps these passive, dutiful Asians should lighten up a little and be more spontaneous (or, to use the PC euphemism for chaotic schools, be more “vibrant”).
The modern education establishment will also assert that learning should be fun (think Sesame Street, computer games, hands-on projects) and loathes traditional “authoritarian” practices (mastering the multiplication table is condemned as “drill and kill”). Progressive experts might admit that discipline-heavy Catholic schools graduate well-behaved youngsters who also performed well academically (including inner-city black kids), but returning to this pedagogical model is now unthinkable even if the despotic nuns of yesteryear could be lured out of retirement.
And let’s not forget today’s cult of self-esteem that dictates that black youngsters in particular should never be made to feel unworthy so who needs unremitting censure and punishment? Imagine parental reaction when told that their little angel was humiliated by the teacher by being forced to write 100 times on the blackboard, “I will not talk in class unless called upon” and similar old-fashioned commonplace civilizing practices? Why risk a Department of Justice investigation into such cruelty?
Nor will any education-minded foundation let alone the US Department of Education willingly associate itself with something so “old-fashioned” as restoring disciplinary power to teachers or forcing youngster to practice self-restraint. Today’s education reform industry is all about innovation, cutting edge technology and painless gimmicks. Will Bill Gates give millions to school to buy rulers so teachers can whack the knuckles of miscreants?
Now, for the really big obstacles to applying Pinker’s lessons: there is no money in it. Today’s reformers flourish only to the extent that their nostrums attract powerful, well-funded constituencies. It is no accident, for example, that so many doomed-to-fail nostrums call for more teachers, learning specialists or therapists—powerful teachers’ unions love it. Meanwhile, free market conservatives are easy marks for anything that contains the word “choice.” Actually, I cannot think of a single potential constituency for the school’s civilizing mission.
Worse, as contemporary schools compete harder to attract students, efforts to civilize youngsters will decimate enrollments so better to entertain than punish little barbarians. Conceivably, the millennial long progression outlined in The Better Angels has ceased, at least for portions of society (Pinker suggests that this task is more arduous when targeting the bottom). If some folk can tolerate surviving in a Detroit that resembles 14th century Europe in its anarchy, why bother? Provided that the savagery is self-inflicted and peacekeeping handouts are affordable, the Hobbesian existence is now just “an alternative lifestyle.”