TCS Daily

A Proposal to Fight Cultural Segregation

By Arnold Kling - May 17, 2004 12:00 AM

"The growing insularity of the elites means, among other things, that political ideologies lose touch with the concerns of ordinary citizens...

Both left- and right-wing ideologies, in any case, are now so rigid that new ideas make little impression on their adherents. The faithful, having sealed themselves off from arguments and events that might call their own convictions into question, no longer attempt to engage their adversaries in debate."

-- Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites, p. 80-81

Fifty years ago this month, the Supreme Court struck a blow against segregated schools by handing down its decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. In spite of this and other achievements of the civil rights movement, there remains a disturbing tendency for Americans to segregate, particularly along cultural lines.

Pundits have coined many names for this cultural segregation. Coverage of the 2000 election gave us Red America vs. Blue America. George Lakoff would describe it as Strict-father America vs. Nurturant-parent America. Michael Barone writes of Hard America vs. Soft America, a divide that Walter Russell Mead would probably label as Jacksonian America vs. Jeffersonian America. In a political context, Democrats and Republicans are more gridlocked and mutually antagonistic than at any time in memory.

The two sides talk past one another. Each side wishes the other would just get out of the way. But somehow, we need to find a way to live with one another.

A decade ago, the late Christopher Lasch published The Revolt of the Elites, a brilliant book which I read only recently after seeing it touted by Professor Stephen Bainbridge. Lasch was one of the first to see the dangers of cultural segregation. He worried that economic and political elites were isolating themselves, undermining America's democratic values.

Lasch argues that in post-Revolutionary America, democratic equality meant the abolition of aristocratic superiority. We have lost sight of this notion that all occupations were inherently worthy, and instead we have become accustomed to an aristocracy of talent and education. Rather than "a community of intelligent, resourceful, responsible, and self-governing citizens," modern America promises "merely to ensure the circulation of elites." (p. 76) While it may satisfy some technical definition of equality to say that everyone has the opportunity to "rise up," Lasch points out that it contradicts the ideal of a classless society.

Lasch deplores the inequality produced by the market, but he also believes that individuals are demeaned by the paternalism of government. Government aid contributes to "the subversion of civic life, which depends not so much on compassion as mutual respect." (p. 105) He argues that we have lost the sense of neighborliness, in which we trust and care for people that we know only casually.

On page 77, Lasch cites a writer who found that in 1991 over 40 percent of children attending UCLA came from families with incomes of over $100,000. Reading Lasch, it occurred to me that the mysterious high cost of college education may be the result of a "segregation equilibrium." That is, if wealthy parents want their children to be segregated from middle-class children, then wealthy parents will prefer schools with higher tuition. If professors also prefer to teach children of wealthy parents, then the equilibrium is likely to be one in which costs and tuitions at the top institutions are high.

Lasch's book stops short of recommending solutions. However, given that the absence of mutual respect, social cohesiveness, and sense of shared destiny has become so severe, I think it is time to start thinking of ways to bridge the cultural gap. We should try to come up with ideas to help citizens become more familiar with other Americans who differ in their outlook.

Back to the Draft?

During World War II and its Cold War aftermath, the military draft served to bring males of all social classes together. Truman's decision to integrate the armed forces was one of the most important steps toward ending racism in America. One way to force Americans to meet one another on an equal footing would be to re-institute the draft.

One objection to the draft is that it would weaken our military. To avoid this outcome, we probably would have to be careful about limiting the ways in which draftees can serve. It might be relatively safe to allow draftees to serve with regular military units in non-combat situations (such as Korea) or on peacekeeping missions. Even in a situation like Iraq, it is conceivable that draftees could help with logistical support, humanitarian operations, and -- dare I say it -- guarding prisoners. It is not necessary to put draftees into combat units where their inexperience could endanger the lives of professional soldiers.

However, even if a draft could be implemented without weakening our combat capability, the libertarian and economic arguments against a draft remain compelling. A draft is a confiscatory tax on labor, bordering on slavery. The economic losses associated with that tax are staggering. And a draft loses its effectiveness at bridging the cultural gap as elites develop exceptions, whether they are college deferments or fleeing to Canada and later being granted immunity.

A Cultural Exchange Program

Instead of a military draft, what I propose is a cultural exchange program for students. In middle school, or early in high school, a child would be required to spend a semester living with a different American family and going to school in that setting. Some fancy private schools now allow children to spend a semester or a year in Europe. This is broadening, but I would argue that they could get even more diversity of experience within the United States.

With a cultural exchange program of this sort, the children of the liberal elites could experience first-hand the urban public schools which their parents believe must be protected from competition at all costs. Children raised by nannies could see how the child-care workers themselves live.

A cultural exchange program could produce awkward situations: an observant Jew living in a non-Kosher home; a Mayflower descendant living in a home where the dinner-table conversation is in Spanish; a fundamentalist Christian living with a gay couple. Such situations would present challenges, but they also would provide opportunities for learning and growth.

In a way, it seems sad to suggest that to reduce cultural isolation, particularly among the elites, we need something like a student exchange program. What it shows is that fifty years after Brown, segregation remains a serious problem.


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