Getting Serious About Better Subcultures Part 1: Creating a Cultural Renaissance

Emerson said, “You send your child to the schoolmaster, but ’tis the schoolboys who educate him.”

The most promising means of improving social mobility and well-being for all children is to allow for the creation of a parent-driven market in positive social norms. Minimally restricted education choice, in which parent satisfaction is the only accountability mechanism (beyond basic health and safety standards), is the surest way to create a positive market in social norms and distinctive subcultures. Indeed, there are reasons to believe that cultural norms are more powerful than formal education in determining life outcomes. We need to allow parents to identify those they trust to develop such subcultures, and we need academic departments which openly research positive subcultures and how to grow them.

The Neglected Option: Getting Serious About Better Subcultures

Joseph Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success explains how the global dominance of Homo sapiens is not due to individual cognitive powers but rather due to social learning. We are distinctive among all animals in the extent of our ability to learn through culture—the practices and behaviors of other human beings.

Young learners all the way up to adults …  automatically and unconsciously attend to and preferentially learn from others based on cues of prestige, success, skill, sex, and ethnicity. From other people we readily acquire tastes, motivations, beliefs, strategies, and our standards for reward and punishment.

Given such an automatic system for learning, one might have thought that we would have developed an education system that is aligned with these genetically programmed mechanisms. But instead of designing an education system in which young people “preferentially learn from others based on cues of prestige, success, skill, sex, and ethnicity,” we have an education system where, from the perspective of our biology, socially irrelevant adults “teach” us. A middle-aged woman teaching English does not stimulate the spontaneous biological desire of a young man to emulate her. That is not how human beings have been genetically programmed to learn. No magnitude of school spending, no amount of research on learning can transcend that fact. Instead, all of their biologically-implanted capacity for learning is focused on emulating the cool and popular kids in their communities—occasionally for the better, but often for the worse.

Judith Rich Harris’s book No Two Alike provides an explanatory framework for why identical twins can have dramatically different personalities. She estimates the genetic contribution to personality is somewhere between 30 to 60 percent.; We need an explanation for why there remains such a substantial difference in personalities even between genetically identical human beings. Harris is acknowledging the fact that even with genetic influences held constant (i.e. identical twins), there is significant variation remaining.

Damien Morris, in summarizing the power of genetic influence on outcomes, goes on to claim:

… much of the remaining variation for these traits and outcomes is not explained by the family environment (‘nurture’ as we normally understand it) but from idiosyncratic environmental influences….

But Morris’s claim that the remaining differences are “idiosyncratic” makes them sound as if they are random and unknowable. This obscures the mechanisms for explaining the differences, which are articulated by Harris:

  • A “Socialization System: ”acquiring the social behaviors, customs, language, accent, attitudes, and morals deemed appropriate in a particular society.”
  • A “Status System”: the working out of a long-term strategy of behavior to optimize status given the particular constraints, opportunities, and social status niches available to that particular individual.

The “Socialization System” amounts to enculturation. In addition, while the “Status System” is highly idiosyncratic, it is not random: each of us seeks status within a particular culture. Thus, at least with respect to personality differences, even when genetics are identical there is significant variance that includes a cultural component.

Because peer cohorts, rather than adults a generation or more away, are typically the competitors for mating and status for any given individual, peer learning is especially powerful. Harris’s The Nurture Assumption, while emphasizing how little impact parents have on a child’s outcome, emphasizes the power of peer culture. Whether it is a matter of smoking, choice of language, or a wide range of other outcomes, children are more heavily influenced by peers than parents or educators.

Beyond Systemic Racism and Genetic Determinism

Even as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives across our society are promoting Ibram X. Kendi’s perspective that racial disparities are necessarily the result of systemic racism, genetic explanations of disparate outcomes are gaining ground. Because the most vocal discourse communities, on the left and the right, respectively, are almost entirely focused on these two explanations as the source of disparate outcomes, the role of culture is obscured.

In the past year, two prominent leftist authors have acknowledged the reality and power of genetic explanations of behavioral outcomes. Though they are careful to note that they do not believe differential racial outcomes are the result of genetics, both Marxist Freddie deBoer’s The Cult of Smart and Katheryn Paige Harden’s The Genetic Lottery attempt to bring the science of genetics to their fellow travelers on the left (who have previously denied the impact of genetics on behavioral outcomes).

In Quillette, Damien Morris, while reviewing The Genetic Lottery, summarizes Harden’s view regarding the state of genetic research:

Genetic differences between people account for around 40 percent of the variation we observe in the years of education they obtain and in their lifetime earnings. Differences in our DNA also account for around 50 percent of the variation in violent criminal behaviour.

From here it is a short leap for many on the right to Steve Sailer’s perspective, taken from a review of Charles Murray’s recent book, Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America:

Today, after 55 years of vast spending to eliminate the race gap on tests, the optimistic centrist education reformers of the “All We Have To Do Is Implement My Favorite Panacea” school are finally out of fashion, leaving Ibram X. Kendi and Charles Murray as the last men standing. One or the other must be right: either Murray (blacks, unfortunately, have problems because they tend to be less smart and more violent) or Kendi (any disparities demonstrate that whites are evil and therefore must pay).

Sailer’s perspective is frequently encountered in comments on right-leaning blogs.

The fact that Harden and Freddie De Boer now largely concede genetic determinism from the left leaves the woke movement defending an untenable Kendi position that disparate outcomes are always due to racism. Economist Glenn Loury’s summary of Kendi is appropriately scathing:

I don’t know why anybody takes Ibram X. Kendi seriously….  Kendi’s formulations are sophomoric. They don’t bear up under the least bit of serious, rigorous social scientific scrutiny. He’s not standing on any literature. He’s not citing any intellectual development that has any deep roots in anything. It’s pablum. It’s froth on the intellectual surface of our life.

There is indeed systemic racism. There may always be evidence of systemic racism. But there is no evidence that Kendi-inspired initiatives will provide a substantive improvement in the well-being of African-Americans (or anyone else).

Harden and DeBoer imagine a world in which their genetic fatalism leads to more support for redistribution. But even if the U.S. developed a welfare state to rival that of Sweden, children raised in families with less positive cultural norms will be less successful and less happy than those raised in families with more positive cultural norms. Moreover, redistribution will not provide disadvantaged Americans with the dignity that comes from achievement.

As a nation, we have tried public school reform for 55 years and have made little progress. Therefore, the conclusion, increasingly believed on both the right and the left, is that disparate outcomes are largely genetic. We can either redistribute income (deBoer and Harden), or keep out low-IQ immigrants while writing off African-Americans (Sailer), but the faith in education that arose during The Enlightenment has reached a dead end.
What remains?

The Role of Culture in Determining Outcomes

Thomas Sowell writes on how cultural differences lead to disparate outcomes, with particular ethnicities associated with particular crafts:

 … Germans who pioneered building pianos in colonial America, czarist Russia, France, Australia, and England. India’s entrepreneurial Gujaratis have likewise been prominent or predominant in business enterprises from Fiji to virtually the entire eastern coast of the African continent, from Kenya to South Africa. Italian fishermen have plied their trade not only around the Mediterranean from Greece to Spain and North Africa, but also in San Francisco, Argentina, and Australia, just as Italian architects have designed structures ranging from the Kremlin to sewer systems in Argentina….

Cultural differences in professions and expertise, leading to differential social roles and economic outcomes, have been the norm around the world and throughout history.

Sowell is not the only African-American who has focused on the importance of culture. Glenn Loury is scathing in his critique of the pathologies of African-American ghetto culture. John Ogbu, a Nigerian-American sociologist, observed in 1986 that African-American students who focused on academics were accused of “acting white” by some of their black peers. More recently, Roland Fryer estimated that norms against “acting white” are responsible for about one-third of the test score discrepancy between black and white students at high achievement levels. He has also suggested that this issue is greater at more integrated schools than at more racially homogenous schools.

Consider Africa: neither the genetic determinists nor systemic racism advocates can explain the discrepancy in admissions standards for different ethnic groups within Nigeria:

The cut-off mark for a male pupil from Yobe State in the 2018/2019 session is two. It is four points for the male candidate from Zamfara, while the male candidate from Taraba State only needs three points out of 300 to be a proud student of any of the federal government colleges he so chooses. But the minimum score is 139 for any male or female pupil from Anambra State nursing the hope of getting a place in a unity college.

Yes, it may be the case that the Igbo, a Nigerian tribe who are known as the “Jews of Africa” for their disproportionate performance intellectually and economically, might have genetic advantages (Anambra State is predominantly Igbo). But it is unlikely they are sufficient to explain such a score discrepancy.

Yet cultural explanations for disparate outcomes are regarded with almost the same hostility as are genetic explanations for disparate outcomes. Amy Wax and Larry Alexander of the University of Pennsylvania and University of San Diego Law Schools, respectively, wrote in 2017:

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. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks….

Wax was immediately condemned for being a white supremacist engaged in hate speech.

But if scholars are discouraged from a frank and open examination of cultural differences, while theories regarding behavioral genetics proceed apace, Sailer’s position will increasingly be regarded as the only credible option. Indeed, DeBoer, in an essay titled “Education Doesn’t Work” is as dismissive of the potential of education to change lives as is Sailer:

Sometimes I will go looking at Wonk Twitter to see what the white boys there are cooking up in the education space… Maybe they should get in touch with their inner 10 year old and arrive at the right answer: some kids are smarter than others, and that can’t be changed….

DeBoer is acutely aware of the danger of being perceived as Sailerian, thus his disclaimer, “The observed academic differences between individuals are partly because of intrinsic differences (whether genetic or not), while the differences between certain groups (such as genders or races) are purely environmental.” But nonetheless he has clearly given up on education as a path to social mobility—as has Sailer. Moreover, neither he nor Harden has a compelling explanation for group differences because they avoid cultural explanations.

What Are the Salient Factors in Education if Creating Better Subcultures is Our Goal?

Mainstream education departments and policy discourse focus on curriculum, pedagogy, assessments, and so forth, as if the learning process was largely the result of teaching. And, of course, the Greek root word from which “mathematics” originated meant “that which can be taught.”

But virtue cannot be taught—it must be absorbed through the social environment, by the measures of respect that living human beings either provide each other or do not provide each other. There is a growing literature on the lack of effectiveness of character education currricula, but why would anyone have thought that character can be taught as a curriculum? We are shaped by the human exemplars around us, the heroic myths, the constant signals of what humans and what behaviors deserve respect in real time human interactions.

How humans treat other humans in real time is ultimately only available to local knowledge; it cannot be enforced by policy. Moreover, American parents differ widely with respect to what kinds of behaviors should be deserving of respect, what kind of human exemplars should be regarded as role models for their children. The only way forward, to make significant advances, is to allow parents to evaluate particular communities of human beings to determine if those human beings will provide the right immersive environment for their child’s well-being.

Part 2 → Getting Serious About Better Subcultures: Improving Educational Outcomes 

Michael Strong
Michael Strong
Michael Strong is founder of The Socratic Experience, a virtual school, author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice, and Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems, blogged at Let a Thousand Nations Bloom, and promotes Startup Cities in Latin America and Africa with his wife, Magatte Wade.
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