Monday, June 21, 2010
Civilization At its Best
Glenn Loury can really bug me at times, especially his more apologetic framing of issues. And he's a smart guy so he gets ahead of himself at times, which can lead to a tendency for nebulous philosophical blundering. But his Bloggingheads here, with Ross Levine (a fellow professor at Brown), on the subject of mass incarceration in the United States and what it says about our current level of moral coherence, is quite good.
Yet what I think it fails to adequately address - and only so much can be expected from any 1 hour conversation - is the degree to which the problem of criminal justice is ultimately a problem of social justice, in that the level of criminality in society is proportional to the level of social development we are promoting through our political, economic and cultural institutions.
Because really, what what Loury is talking about is social determinism. And in case my use of that term be misunderstood, I mean that our lot in life, aside from luck, is determined by our access to human and social capital. With very few exceptions (learning disabled, mentally retarded, etc.), we all have a very similar capacity to become successful at birth (putting aside fetuses affected by high levels of maternal stress, environmental toxins, etc.).
What this means is that you take a kid and stick him in a home with little human and social capital, his chances of developing capital of his own are much lower. The reverse is true for kids from high capital homes. This has been studied at length. Differences in parenting can have profound effects on development. Cognitive skills, emotional development, vocabulary, etc. vary greatly between socio-economic groups - based solely on what the kid is being exposed to.
So this means kids are entering public education with enormous achievement gaps. And as currently structured, schools don't have near enough resources to even begin to make-up for what many children lack in human and social capital. As a constitutional right to education is based on the principle of a human right to some basic level of equality in capital - that a kid should be able to go into adulthood with the proper training to be competitive and successful, we are not guaranteeing that right.
While it is true that the parent should be responsible for raising their children, the fact is that many are not capable. This is either because they don't know how or because of their own lack of priorities, but either way it is a fundamental lack of human and social capital - they lack the emotional or knowledge skills to effectively develop in their children an adequate amount of capital. We can blame the parents all we want - but it isn't going to change the fact that meanwhile their children are being denied basic human rights. In so far as there is an argument that we should "shame" the parents into being better parents - it obviously doesn't work. As a utilitarian argument it is pathetic.
So, what can we as society do? Well, the obvious answer is strengthening public education. Our current attempts at "reform", when thought of as intervening responses to a human & social capital gap, are laughable. Because were they serious, we would be looking at results that would truly be the holy grail of social policy and justice: 100% graduation rate with an equality of cognitive, emotional, social, etc. skills. It's entirely possible. Schools have shown that poor kids can do it. But what it will take is a paradigm shift in thinking.
What needs to happen is, essentially, means-tested education. But the "means" is not a simple racial or economic calculation. Instead it is a multi-level, sophisticated assessment of each students' human and social capital: is their family intact? Is there drug use at home? Did both parents go to college? Is there a history of criminality? What neighborhood do they live in? What are their verbal, emotional and cognitive skills? How much basic knowledge do they have? Have they ever heard of Paris or Mt. Everest? Etc., etc.
This is obviously a monumental task. There's a realistic limit to the assessment regime any district can effectively implement. How does one go about verification? Can parents be tested as well? My guess is that if we seriously take this sort of project on, we could come up with some interesting solutions. In the end, instead of the basic education model - 30 kids, one teacher, library, free lunches, etc. - the emphasis needs to be on what I like to call "Student Capital". This is is basically a kid's human capital + social capital / their age. So for instance, one kid might come into Kindergarten with a score of 900 for her age. Another might only have a 250. Those kids have very different needs. Our social response should therefor be very different. This is targeted, efficient, soulful, community strengthening and revitalizing.
This is civilization at its best - doing its best for equality and brotherhood of man.