Cui bono, ad quod damnum

Amy Wax is a U. Penn law professor who wrote one of my favorite recent essays,Educating the Disadvantaged,” in National Affairs. In it, she contrasts two prominent strands in US education reform, No-excuses charter schools and deliberate socioeconomic integration (what used to be called “busing.”)

Here is how Wax describes the No-excuses project:

The hallmark of no-excuses schools is a frankly paternalistic and unapologetic commitment to acculturating low-income students to the achievement-oriented habits and norms typical of their middle-class and affluent counterparts. That project is motivated by the belief that low-income children will benefit from a stable, highly structured environment in which conventional, bourgeois behaviors are actively endorsed, expected, and demanded.

Wax points out that in the end, both of these approaches rely on a belief that low-income students need to be taught middle-class norms of behavior and culture and attitude towards education as much or more than academic content. But while No-Excuses charter schools make this instruction in bourgeois norms explicit, socioeconomic integration ultimately depends on similar assumptions about what kids need. Manipulating district or school assignment to generate socioeconomically or racially balanced groups simply relies on implicit assimilation to norms and “learning by osmosis” instead of open didacticism like KIPP’s mantra of “Work Hard, Be Nice.” Wax  argues that such programs of socioeconomic integration as Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation and others have argued for, rely not only on a limited supply of well-off children to balance low-income students (the majority of public school students are now poor enough to qualify for free lunch), but on a limited supply of political will from well-off parents, who can flee and often have fled the public school system when similar interventions are perceived to go astray. Moreover, Wax notes, the larger the percentage of low-income students integrated into a school system, the less successful the school will be in general at inculcating the middle class values that are the argument for the program in the first place, and the greater the pressure for income or racial stratification within the school rather than between. In this way, No-Excuses charter schools are at least theoretically more scalable; while they rely on a limited supply of teachers willing to work the punishing hours required by these schools and on the subset of students and parents willing to volunteer for them, they don’t burn through political capital in the same way, since middle class parents are not directly affected and lower-income parents can choose whether to participate. 

In a recent and controversial op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Wax, along with Larry Alexander of the University of San Diego moves from looking at schools for low-income students to making a similar argument about society in general. The society as a whole is paying the price for the breakdown of bourgeois culture and a failure by elites to endorse or uphold it:

Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.


The causes of these phenomena are multiple and complex, but implicated in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.

That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.


While many of these are fairly anodyne conservative enjoinments, Wax and Alexander decided to make a more provocative statement later in the essay, which probably accounts for most of the heat they’ve gotten for the essay since:

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment.


 They (or the Inquirer editor, more likely), trollishly echoed this statement by placing a picture of John Wayne’s racist hunter of Plains Indians from John Ford’s The Searchers  as a representative of an earlier bourgeois culture, above the essay. In a further statement to the Daily Pennsylvanian (U. Penn’s student paper), Wax added fuel to the fire:

In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian on Thursday, Wax said Anglo-Protestant cultural norms are superior.

“I don’t shrink from the word, ‘superior,'” she said, adding, “Everyone wants to come to the countries that exemplify” these values. “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.”

If I were a lawyer, I might have told Wax to avoid the word “white” in this statement. She is a lawyer, and can be very diplomatic on related issues when she chooses, so I assume the choice was deliberate. “Everyone wants to move to Anglo-Protestant” countries is a bit more unambiguously true, at least as a portion of people who want to move from their countries at all:


The argument that Protestant values combined with an empowered bourgeois culture are precisely what led to the explosion of individual wealth in modern capitalism is a familiar one- Deirdre McCloskey among others has been making it for a while, not to mention Max Weber a hundred years ago. It doesn’t have to be an explicitly racial argument- in some ways, during parts of the 20th century black Americans could claim to be conforming to the ideals of the bourgeois society as much as whites did.  In any case, if Wax had limited her claims to Protestantism rather than mentioning race, it probably wouldn’t have stopped 33 of her colleagues (that’s a lot for a single law school!) from condemning her op-ed and subsequent remarks as racist and classist. 

The irony that the vast majority of these 33 law professors have almost certainly benefited from growing up around bourgeois values and have at least in large part lived by these values themselves- you don’t get to be an Ivy League law professor otherwise- is actually exactly the point. The collapse of bourgeois values throughout the society has many costs, for rich as well as poor, but inequality always has winners as well as losers, and the Ivy League is precisely where those winners congregate.  The end of the Bourgeois Era  may be bad for individual wealth and for the society at large, but whether it’s bad for people who can hold onto old-style family structure in the face of a culture that no longer values it is unclear; many of the rewards of a post-industrial society are, unfortunately, zero-sum. The point that Wax makes in regards to educating lower-income kids, that the political will for various approaches to schooling depends on realism about political consequences of inconveniencing the advantaged, holds here in reverse: the tolerance and endorsement that certain sectors of society bestow on certain forms of societal decline depends on not being inconvenienced by them.

This doesn’t mean that anyone who mouths pieties about the need for permissive family values while living by quite conventional values themselves (norms for me but not for thee) is being deliberately hypocritical. Nor do I think journalists and academics sitting around talking about how groovy it is to get married before having kids is really going to change people’s behavior or minds.  To a very large degree, the societal changes that Wax decries as a collapse of bourgeois norms are indeed the result of economic and technological shifts that are outside any direct control. But certain forms of policy for the disadvantaged, quite outside schooling, are at least based around expectations that society should encourage and promote bourgeois behavior; the transformation of AFDC into TANF and an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit during the late 90s is one example, and for the groups most directly affected this produced largely the desired results, with increased labor force participation and educational attainment, and reduced mortality, teen pregnancy and incarceration for lower-income black women in particular. 

Number of incarcerated black women


So it’s not right to say that policymakers are entirely powerless in the face of the decline of bourgeois values; they can and have done quite a lot when they choose. But this requires that those with the power to do something have reason to do it, that the harm of societal dislocation affects them as well, and that they do not benefit from things getting worse.


3 thoughts on “Cui bono, ad quod damnum

  1. Spotted,

    I’ve been reading your blog since the Eisgruber incident, and I think we’ve sort of traveled down the same path intellectually. So, I’d be curious to know how you identify politically these days.


    1. Wow, that was a long time ago! I’m amazed anyone has stuck with it so long. I think of myself as a moderate conservative, but I a also think we ask too much of politics that we should be asking from religion, art, family and community. Those things are harder now that we have so many distractions but they’re still there.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. FYI, France is not a Protestant nation. It is Catholic. In Germany the split is about 50% Protestant, 50% Catholic, mostly running along the north south divide. At least that is the way it was historically. Not sure what the religious situation is now in former East Germany. But, it would be incorrect to characterize either France or Germany as Protestant Counties.


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