Bertie in particular sustained simultaneously a pair of opinions ludicrously incompatible. He held that in fact human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was to carry them on rationally.
—J. M. Keynes on Bertrand Russell

Utopians have always been impatient with human nature. How could they not be? Utopians come full of dreams of a better tomorrow; human nature—shot through with imperfections, seemingly addicted to irrationality—is the biggest impediment to the fulfillment of those dreams. The obvious solution is to change (alter, transform, transcend: the list of verbs is long) human nature. It should be such a simple matter. Social pathologies (say the utopians) occur because people act in a bad way. Beginning tomorrow, then, let them act in a good way and all will be well. So many families are dysfunctional. Very well, let us do away with, or at the very least soften, the influence of the bad old nuclear family, and have the enlightened state step in and help raise children in a rational manner. Everyone will then be happy and well adjusted. Private property perpetuates invidious distinctions among people. Very well, let us abolish or at least attenuate private property: tax it, tax it, tax it, if there is for the moment too much resistance to abolishing it outright, and then at last inequality will be a thing of the past.

Alas, to their own and especially to the world’s sorrow, utopians, malign and benign alike, have discovered time and again that things are not as simple as they might seem. Human nature, so malleable in certain respects, turns out to be extraordinarily recalcitrant on just those points where it most wants improvement. And when it comes to immensely complex institutions like the family and private property, history has taught us that efforts to improve or replace them nearly always cause more misery than they relieve.

We misspoke. For history has obviously taught us no such thing. Experience should have taught us the folly of utopian scheming. But has that lesson ever really been assimilated? Perhaps, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, the family and private property are the worst possible social arrangements—except for all of the others. But that is not something utopians, in their heart of hearts, can ever bring themselves to acknowledge. It didn’t work last time, they say, because people weren’t sufficiently in earnest. The state wasn’t quite activist enough; irrational attachments like family and private property were not adequately “rationalized”; the program was not sufficiently encompassing; it was not sufficiently funded. Next time the program will be larger, better funded, more strictly enforced, mandatory for everyone …

We were prompted to these melancholy reflections by “Schools Are Not the Answer,” an extraordinary utopian effusion by James Traub in the January 16 issue of The New York Times Magazine. Education, of course, has long been a liberal and a utopian nostrum. Is crime a problem? Education is the answer. Is poverty a problem? Education is the answer. Is teen pregnancy a problem? Education is the answer. Are belligerence, war, smoking, general nastiness, and impolite behavior problems? Education is the answer. Or so we have been told.

Mr. Traub presents himself as a semi-chastened utopian. He knows that education heretofore hasn’t done the job, despite the billions upon billions that have been spent, the myriad programs, initiatives, social experiments, remedial efforts, government interventions, equalizing mandates, armies of experts, educationists, reformers, and reporters from The New York Times. Still, even now, there are great gaps between rich and poor, white and black, the haves and the have-nots. Reluctantly, Mr. Traub admits that—notwithstanding Head Start, Title I, and the whole menu of Great Society efforts—the evidence shows that “money does not buy educational equality.” Well, he half admits it. For he hastens to add that “we are talking about an enormous social experiment that is quite new; it is scarcely surprising that the first round of educational reforms didn’t work very well.” So what is to be done? The issue, Mr. Traub thinks, is that although “there is reason to believe that schools can make some kind of difference, … right now they are not making nearly enough.”

Most children do not encounter school until age 5, unless they happen to be in an unusually rigorous preschool program. Anyone who has ever reared a child knows how immense, and lasting, are the effects of those first five years. Nor is school quite as all-encompassing as it seems: academic work typically takes up only about half the time that children spend in school. And whom you hang out with, both during and after school, can matter more than what happens in the classroom.

Mr. Traub then goes on to describe various programs in the U.S. and Europe that attempt (in the words of one expert Mr. Traub cites) to change “the ecology of the lower-class child” in order to equalize educational and behavioral outcomes. “Ecology” is a nice word, calculated to appeal to the environmental instincts of Mr. Traub’s audience. But what, exactly, does he have in mind? Part of what he has in mind are programs like Impact, “a multipurpose social-service agency, offering year-round, all-day child care from birth, adult literacy programs, episodic health care, including mental health, and education and counseling for pregnant teenagers.” Such programs, Mr. Traub admits, “are very expensive”; making something like Impact available universally would cost “hundreds of billions.” But the French already have universal public education that starts when a child is 3. “Can we,” Mr. Traub asks, “think of a good reason it shouldn’t here?” We can think of many such reasons, beginning with the “hundreds of billions” of dollars that Mr. Traub casually conjures out of the air (i.e., out of the taxpayer’s pocket) and ending with the fact that such utopian schemes have never achieved what they set out to achieve.

Mr. Traub notes in passing that “the language of personal responsibility makes many liberals flinch.” This is quite true. But what are we to make of his proposal that conservatives and liberals strike a bargain according to which “conservatives agree to pay for comprehensive institutions like Impact or for after-school activities and liberals agree to embrace the language of personal responsibility”? In other words, conservatives pay and pay and pay while liberals get to employ virtuous-sounding rhetoric. Any takers?

In a revealing aside early on in his essay, Mr. Traub says that the idea that “schools by themselves can’t cure poverty not only sounds like an un-American vote of no confidence in our capacity for self-transformation but also seems to flirt with the racialist theories expressed by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, who argued in The Bell Curve that educational inequality is rooted in biological inequality.” The Bell Curve is a book that liberals love to hate, but it is no more “racialist” than is human nature itself. It is a sober-minded, statistically sophisticated study whose conclusions run counter to the prevailing liberal ideology. Hence its arguments must be ruled unworthy of discussion, and the easiest way to accomplish that is by declaring them to be “racialist,” i.e., racist.

Mr. Traub, like many liberals, is deeply troubled by the spectacle of ineradicable human inequality. He wants education to come to the rescue, and if traditional schooling doesn’t do the trick he is willing to call in the state to take over “from birth” or at least from the age of three. Then at last the cognitive and behavioral gap between poor inner-city children and middle-class ones would be abolished and equality would reign. To which we respond with Dostoevsky’s words:

Oh, tell me, who first declared, who first proclaimed that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own real interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else… . Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child!

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 6, on page 1
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