Getting Serious About Better Subcultures Part 2: Improving Educational Outcomes

In a previous article, I explained how we have neglected to focus on creating better subcultures as a path to providing superior educational outcomes. As a consequence, genetic determinists, those who believe that genetic predispositions largely determine outcomes, are increasingly shaping how educational outcomes come about. The prominent Kendi approach of claiming that disparate outcomes are primarily due to “systemic racism” is not based on empirical evidence. While this approach is distorting almost all of our institutions at present, it is ultimately not sustainable.

We need to allow parents to select the cultural environments that they believe will provide their children with the greatest immersion in relevant virtues. Academics need to be free to evaluate diverse cultures and cultural norms with respect to their positive or negative impacts on educational and life outcomes. Only then can we gradually discover how to optimize social-cultural learning environments for young people.

Here I’ll provide a few examples of subcultures with positive outcomes and then explore how a system of parent choice in education can allow us to create new and better cultures.

Latter Day Saints (LDS) and Self-Reliance

While Weber’s thesis on the Protestant work ethic has yielded abundant controversy, persistence of cultural traits related to work ethic remains a vibrant theme. Joseph Henrich summarizes evidence that perhaps the “Protestant work ethic” should be regarded as a Cistercian work ethic (the Cistercians were a break away group of the Benedictines):

To assess whether the Cistercian presence influenced people’s work ethic after 1300, we can use contemporary survey data (2008-2010) from over 30,000 people spread around 242 European regions. The survey asked whether ‘hard work’ is an important trait for children to learn… The results show that the higher the density of Cistercian monasteries in a region during the Middle Ages, the more likely a person from that region today is to say that ‘hard work’ is important for children to learn.

It should not be terribly controversial that culture, and in particular religious culture, may be an important influence on behavior and outcomes.

Utah has the highest rate of social mobility in the U.S. while having the lowest per capita spending on education. Latter Day Saints (LDS) males average approximately a year more in educational attainment relative to the average American male. There is an international propensity for LDS membership to be associated with success.

LDS members in the four countries (where data are available [Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and the Philippines]) are more likely to be employed, more likely to be in white-collar occupations, and less likely to be farmers… Measures of income and wealth indicate that Mormons are better off than the average person in Mexico and Brazil, but comparable to the average person in Chile and the Philippines.

Mormonism is a clear case of a cultural causal factor rather than a genetic causal factor. LDS uses various specific “social technologies” that create peer-to-peer relationships focused on self-improvement. This is from an LDS guide for self-reliance groups:

This group will help you follow the counsel the Lord’s servants have given about seeking more education or training to get work that will help you become self-reliant. Specifically, you will create a self-reliance goal, choose a job that provides the income you need to reach that goal, choose the education or training you need to get the job, choose how to pay for your education or training, and prepare to be successful in your education and career. Each group meeting lasts about two hours.

In addition to weekly meetings, there are “action partners” who check in on each other throughout the week to support each other in fulfilling commitments. The entire structure combines laudable goals and practical steps towards achieving self-reliance within a carefully designed set of social interactions. These support the real world actions and changes in habits and attitudes required for success.

Religion and African-American Academic Performance

Might immersion in a religious subculture in the U.S. be a relevant factor in African-American performance? Consider first a sample of 2,637 students randomly awarded a voucher to attend private Catholic schools. A study of the results found:

The impact of the voucher offer we observe for African American students is also much larger than the impact of exposure to a highly effective teacher. Raj Chetty and his colleagues (see “Great Teaching,” research, Summer 2012) report that being assigned to an elementary school teacher who is 1 standard deviation more effective than the average teacher boosted college enrollment for students in a very large city by 0.5 percentage points at age 20, relative to a base of 38 percent, an increment of 1.25 percent. If one extrapolates that finding (as those researchers do not) to three years of highly effective teaching, the impact is 3.75 percent. The 24 percent impact [for attending a private Catholic school] we identify for African American students is many times as large.

Next consider a study on “Black Male Success” published in 2012, the first study of its kind, in which 219 black male college “achievers” from diverse backgrounds were followed:

The national study included 219 Black male undergraduates who had earned cumulative grade point averages above 3.0, established lengthy records of leadership and active engagement in multiple student organizations, developed meaningful relationships with campus administrators and faculty outside the classroom, participated in enriching educational experiences (for example, study abroad programs, internships, service learning, and summer research programs), and earned numerous merit-based scholarships and honors in recognition of their college achievements.

Given that religiosity was not in any sense a criterion for selection, the religiosity of this sample, relative to American college students as a whole, is striking:

The majority of achievers attended church during their time in college, though doing so was difficult amid their academic and campus leadership commitments… On the one hand, they recognized that certain choices they made (for example, studying instead of partying all weekend) influenced their outcomes. Yet, on the other hand, they attributed their success to God’s favor and plan for their lives… They credited God for their high GPAs, scholarships and honors, leadership positions to which they had been elected, and the unusual opportunities they had been afforded.

Among college students as a whole, religious belief and attendance has been dropping dramatically, with only about a quarter attending religious services regularly by junior year. Meanwhile, out of a sample of 219 black male achievers, most are religious.

Separately, The Journal of Negro Education in a 2010 special issue on the role of spirituality, religion, and the African American church on educational outcomes noted:

Using a national sample of 6,795 eighth and tenth graders…  the study found that Black students who participated in more religious activities and who had stronger religious convictions were more likely to report higher grades in school, had a positive self-concept, positive feelings about school, parents involved with their education, and fewer disciplinary referrals.

With data points such as these, one might have imagined that those who are committed to social mobility for African-Americans might have supported extensive educational choice programs that would allow such students to attend religious schools.

My Personal Socratic Experience

It is much easier to transmit an existing culture than to create a new one. The re-introduction of Hebrew was a much bigger lift than is the spontaneous transmission of language that takes place constantly. Thus, schools focused on existing positive cultures, such as religious schools, are easier; though note that both the Mormons and the Cistercian cultural examples were new cultural initiatives, less than 200 and 900 years ago, respectively. Montessori and Waldorf schools, misleadingly regarded as forms of pedagogy each created roughly 100 years ago, both create distinctive micro-cultures, which is a part of their enduring appeal.

For the past 35 years, my primary work has been the creation of intellectual peer subcultures in environments in which they had been absent. I very much focus on Henrichian mechanisms, “automatically and unconsciously attend to and preferentially learn from others based on cues of prestige, success, skill, sex, and ethnicity.”

As an educator, my focus is almost entirely a matter of shifting adolescent social norms from environments in which it is not cool to discuss ideas to environments in which students love to discuss ideas and support their peers in doing so. Changing the status hierarchies of peer culture is the entire ballgame. My explicit goal as an educator is to increase respect in the peer community of the more thoughtful and intellectually focused peers, while simultaneously working to win the most popular students over to intellectual engagement. I focus on winning over the most popular kids first to think about ideas: Win over the football captain and the head of the cheerleading squad, orchestrate a conversation in which the cool rebel dazzles with his insights.

It is challenging to shift adolescent norms from those indifferent or hostile to intellectuality to peer cultures that are favorable to intellectuality. In order to do so, all faculty must be fluent in and committed to intellectual dialogue, and all families must be supportive as well as we introduce the new “language.”

At one point, I created a charter high school in northern New Mexico, a region with among the lowest academic standards in the U.S. By its third year, it was ranked the 36th best public high school in the U.S. on Newsweek’s Challenge Index (AP tests taken/number of graduating seniors). Our students scored a “3” or higher on AP exams at more than double the national average in a region where a local college admissions director said point blank, “Students in northern New Mexico can’t pass AP exams.”

More recently, I’ve created small private schools where students averaged annual SAT verbal gains higher than average, but with small cohorts we haven’t had sufficiently large sample sizes to qualify as serious evidence.

An erudite rabbi visited one of the Socratic classes I was leading at one of the schools I had created. He noted, “This is exactly what we did in Talmudic school,” and went on to describe his experience of endless hours of debating the meaning of Talmudic texts with peers as his core educational experience.

As a teen, I attended rural public schools in which geeks would be made fun of or beat up. Going to college, where intellectuality was welcomed, was the first time I felt at home socially. While I never experienced the social opprobrium of “acting white” that young black intellectually-minded students no doubt feel, I was certainly aware that in rural public schools there were some who bully the smart kids.

I was flabbergasted when I read about this girl’s Jewish upbringing:

On Sundays, I spent four hours learning ancient Jewish legal texts at a program for teenagers at a rabbinical school in New York… I read works of Jewish philosophy for fun, tracking medieval and modern arguments about the nature of God.

Genetics aside, such a teen had an immense advantage over me, and this advantage had nothing to do with “the quality of schooling.” It had to do with being raised in a peer culture in which studying Jewish legal texts and philosophy was a normal thing for a teenager to do.

I shamelessly regard such Jewish intellectual teen cultures as educationally superior to the rural hick culture I was raised in—one that required me to pretend to be less serious about learning than I should have been. I would have been significantly more intellectually developed by 18 if I had been raised in such a peer environment.

Voluntary Cultural Change Rather Than Educational Policy

Since the Prussian model inspired Horace Mann and the common school movement in the 1830s, education has been conceptualized as a matter of state-trained and state-certified teachers teaching curriculum to students. Indeed, this model of education-as-schooling has been so firmly ingrained in the minds of most people that education = schooling. Indeed, when economists study human capital formation, they typically use “years of schooling” as a proxy for investment in human capital. When people discuss “education reform,” it invariably means tweaks in schooling policy. When Bryan Caplan writes “The Case Against Education,” all of his arguments pertain to evidence on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of formal schooling. When Freddie de Boer writes “Education Doesn’t Work,” he means schooling doesn’t work. Even “school choice” has primarily been focused on variations in structures that remain “schools.”

But for anyone who takes enculturation seriously, enculturation is obviously a more powerful and effective means of learning than schooling. Children who are immersed in a new language rapidly learn the language of their peers with no formal education. They grow up speaking the language of their peers more fluently than the language of their parents. Conversely, countless students who “study a foreign language” in schools are completely incapable of speaking it and rapidly forget all they’ve “learned.” A cynic might regard schooling as “learning theatre.”

Certainly Prussian-model state schooling, in which state-certified teachers “cover” curriculum, bears no resemblance to how human beings have been programmed through their biology to learn.

Harris, who claims that parents matter very little when it comes to the outcomes of children, acknowledges that parents can matter when they come together to create a common peer culture:

Even though parents may not have much influence as individuals, they can have a great deal of power if they get together. Hebrew used to be a dead language—a language used only for ceremonial purposes. A bunch of grownups got together and decided to make Hebrew the language of their new country, and they taught their kids to speak Hebrew. The kids found that their peers spoke Hebrew too, and Hebrew became their “native language,” even though it wasn’t the native language of their parents. It worked because the parents who decided to do it lived in one place and their children played together and went to school together. It wouldn’t work if only one family in a neighborhood decided to do it.

Note the deliberate effort to create common norms—in this case, the norm of speaking Hebrew. If we want to improve learning outcomes, we need to acknowledge the limitations of the schooling model and consider the largely ignored power of the enculturation model.

An implication of the insight that enculturation may be more important than schooling to education is that such enculturation requires voluntary association in specific communities that share cultural commitments. This may include traditional religious commitments. It may also include communities of parents who wish to develop new sets of norms in their children. It would certainly include educators who support and exemplify the target virtues for such a community.

But it also is inconsistent with the framework of government schooling as controlled by education policy and academic experts. State-mandated curriculum, standards, and teacher certification would bear no relationship to the salient characteristics of education-as-enculturation.

From Civil War to Renaissance

An educational choice movement based on developing more positive cultures will not be restricted to curriculum coverage, nor will it be evaluated by test score performance. Instead, it will be an opportunity for culturally-aligned parents to join together with culturally-aligned educators to create distinctive cultures that successfully instill more positive peer norms. Some of these may be religious. Some might teach creationism rather than evolution. Some may teach a 1619 version of US history and others a 1776 version. Some might not teach science or history at all. Others will be Montessori, Waldorf, Acton, Sudbury, Socratic, IB, classical, and a thousand other possibilities.

The educational choice movement has been mistaken to focus on test scores as the primary benchmark for educational success. Parent satisfaction is a far more relevant metric of success. Parents will care about the peer cultures of the schools in which their children are enrolled—and they are right to do so.

A key element in ensuring that parents are able to make these choices so that new schools can evolve in positive directions is reducing the obstacles to new entrants in education as much as possible. Charter schools were originally designed to allow innovation in education, and they have to a limited degree, but for the most part they are now required to hire the same certified teachers, teach the same curriculum, and use the same assessments as conventional public schools.

More recently, however, Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) legislation has been passed allowing all students in a state to access a significant fraction of the state’s per pupil spending to use as parents see fit. Arizona was the pioneer here, passing legislation in 2023 that allowed all 1.1 million Arizona students access to $7500 each to homeschool, pay tutors, create learning pods, attend microschools, private schools, religious schools, etc.

Insofar as the goals that parents have for inculcating virtues depend more on the human features of those with whom their children interact than the academic credentials, it is important to allow parents to choose freely among educational options. If an African-American mom believes that a man from her church is the best mentor for her son, even if he doesn’t happen to have a teaching credential, she should be allowed to choose such a mentor. I often hire uncredentialed young people with key digital skills such as software, video production, social media marketing, generative AI experience, etc., because they are far more savvy at cutting edge digital skills than the vast majority of credentialed teachers. Plus they have a cool factor that allows them to be relevant role models. I also hire math majors from Africa, pay them in the top 20 percent of their nation’s earnings, and am able to provide personalized math tutoring in a way that would be impossible hiring Americans.

Academic education experts will lose clout as our society gains a renewed respect for the judgment of parents. Teachers unions are aggressively against school choice. These special interests will argue and lobby against respecting the judgment of parents. But consider where the experts have taken us (all pre-COVID data):

  • 300% increase in teen suicide since the 1950s
  • 20% increase in teen suicide during the school year, declining again every summer
  • 75% of high school students are unhappy in school
  • 67% are not engaged in school
  • 39% are seriously depressed
  • 19% are suicidal

Is this a cultural milieu any parent would choose for their child?

Compulsory public high school has been an unrecognized public health catastrophe since it was instituted in the mid-20th century. Meanwhile, academic outcomes are largely flat despite a 3x increase in real spending since the 1970s.

The education experts who have created and reproduced this system have failed. It is time to liberate all children from their control. We need to liberate thousands of entrepreneurs of happiness and well-being to replace this system. Parents will seek out those educational entrepreneurs who are more likely to provide their children with a positive experience which prepares them for a happy and successful life. The potential for greater well-being and higher rates of social mobility for all demographics are more important.

As we begin to have serious conversations about the benefits of specific cultural norms—while also allowing for an innovative ecosystem of schools, churches, support groups, mentors, coaches, and other entities devoted to developing various positive norms—the acrimonious debate between the genetic determinists, on the one hand, and the Kendian froth that is ripping the U.S. apart will gradually fade into the distance. The absurdist woke Cultural Revolution that has nearly destroyed the U.S. will be replaced by thousands of initiatives in cultural innovation that will launch a new renaissance. Let parents lead the way.

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

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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