The sober­ing ev­i­dence of so­cial sci­ence

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will

— The re­port was so “seis­mic” — Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han’s word — that Lyn­don John­son’s ad­min­is­tra­tion re­leased it on the Fourth of July weekend, 1966, hop­ing it would not be no­ticed. But the Cole­man re­port did dis­turb var­i­ous dog­matic slum­bers and vested in­ter­ests. And 50 years on, it is per­ti­nent to to­day’s po­lit­i­cal de­bates about class and so­cial mo­bil­ity. So, let us now praise an in­suf­fi­ciently fa­mous man, so­ci­ol­o­gist James Cole­man, au­thor of the study “Equal­ity of Ed­u­ca­tional Op­por­tu­nity.”

In 1966, post­war lib­er­al­ism’s con­fi­dence reached its apogee. From 1938, when the elec­torate re­buked Franklin Roo­sevelt for his plan to “pack” the Supreme Court, through 1964, con-

WASHINGTON

gres­sional Repub­li­cans and con­ser­va­tive Democrats pre­vented a lib­eral leg­is­lat­ing ma­jor­ity. But John­son’s 44-state vic­tory that year gave Democrats 68 Se­nate seats and a ma­jor­ity of 155 in the House. Ef­fort­less and un­in­ter­rupted pros­per­ity seemed as­sured as the econ­omy grew in 1965 and 1966 by 10.7 per­cent and 7.99 per­cent, re­spec­tively. So, a gusher of tax rev­enues co­in­cided with lib­er­al­ism’s pent-up de­mand for large projects. It hoped to meld two Amer­i­can traits — egal­i­tar­ian as­pi­ra­tions and faith in ed­u­ca­tion’s trans­for­ma­tive power.

The con­sen­sus then was that the best pre­dic­tor of a school’s per­for­mance was the amount of money spent on it: In­crease fi­nan­cial in­puts and cog­ni­tive out­puts would in­crease pro­por­tion­ately. As the post­war baby boom moved through pub­lic schools like a pig through a python, al­most ev­ery­thing im­proved — school build- ings, teach­ers’ salaries, class sizes, per pupil ex­pen­di­tures — ex­cept out­comes mea­sured by stan­dard­ized tests.

En­ter Cole­man, and the col­leagues he di­rected, to punc­ture com­pla­cency with the dag­ger of ev­i­dence — data from more than 3,000 schools and 600,000 pri­mary and sec­ondary school stu­dents. His re­port vin­di­cated the ax­iom that so­cial sci­ence can­not tell us what to do, it can tell us the re­sults of what we are do­ing. He found that the best pre­dic­tor of a school’s out­comes is the qual­ity of the chil­dren’s fam­i­lies. And stu­dents’ achieve­ments are in­flu­enced by the so­cial cap­i­tal (habits, mores, ed­u­ca­tional am­bi­tions) their class­mates bring to school:

“One im­pli­ca­tion stands out above all: That schools bring lit­tle in­flu­ence to bear on a child’s achieve­ment that is in­de­pen­dent of his back­ground and gen­eral so­cial con­text; and that this very lack of an in­de­pen­dent ef- fect means that the in­equal­i­ties im­posed on chil­dren by their home, neigh­bor­hood, and peer en­vi­ron­ment are car­ried along to be­come the in­equal­i­ties with which they con­front adult life at the end of school.”

Cole­man’s re­port came ex­actly one year af­ter — and as an ex­plo­sive coda to — what is known as the Moyni­han Re­port, which was leaked in July 1965. Moyni­han, then a 37-year-old so­cial sci­en­tist in John­son’s La­bor Depart­ment, pre­sented in “The Ne­gro Fam­ily: The Case for Na­tional Ac­tion” what then counted as shock­ing news: 23.6 per­cent of AfricanAmer­i­can births were to un­mar­ried women.

To­day 71 per­cent are. Al­most 47 per­cent of all first births are to un­mar­ried women, and a ma­jor­ity of all moth­ers un­der 30 are not liv­ing with the fa­thers of their chil­dren.

The causes of fam­ily dis­in­te­gra­tion re­main un­clear, but 51 years ago Moyni­han and then Cole­man fore­saw the con­se­quences. Moyni­han said the “tan­gle” of patholo­gies as­so­ci­ated with the ab­sence of fa­thers pro­duces a con­tin­u­ally re­newed co­hort of in­ad­e­quately so­cial­ized ado­les­cent males. So­cial­iz­ing them is so­ci­ety’s ur­gent busi­ness if it is to avoid chaotic neigh­bor­hoods and schools where main­tain­ing dis­ci­pline dis­places teach­ing. Cole­man doc­u­mented how schools are re­flec­tions of, rather than cures for, the fail­ure of fam­i­lies to func­tion as the pri­mary trans­mit­ters of so­cial cap­i­tal.

The ex­tra­or­di­nary syn­ergy be­tween Moyni­han and Cole­man was serendip­i­tous. To­day, their ba­ton of brave and use­ful so­ci­ol­ogy has passed to Charles Mur­ray of the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute. His “Los­ing Ground” (1984) was an au­topsy of 1960s as­pi­ra­tions. His “Com­ing Apart” (2012) ex­plores the so­cial con­se­quences — we are wal­low- ing in the po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences — of a bi­fur­cated so­ci­ety in which many do very well while many oth­ers are un­able to reach even the low­est rungs on the lad­der of up­ward mo­bil­ity.

Cole­man’s ev­i­dence that cul­tural rather than fi­nan­cial vari­ables mat­ter most was not wel­comed by ed­u­ca­tion bu­reau­cra­cies and unions. Sim­i­larly, we now have more than half a cen­tury of awk­ward, and of­ten ig­nored, ev­i­dence about the mostly small and evanes­cent ef­fects of early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion. To­day’s Demo­cratic Party fan­cies it­self “the party of sci­ence”; Barack Obama pledged, in his first in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, to “re­store sci­ence to its right­ful place.” So­cial sci­ence, how­ever, is re­spected by Democrats only when it val­i­dates poli­cies con­ge­nial to the in­ter­ests of fa­vored fac­tions.

Ge­orge Will is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at georgewill@wash­post.com.

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