Social Engineering and Facilitating an Enriched Environment

My first reaction to Newt Gingrich’s statement opposing both “left-wing and right-wing social engineering” was that I agree completely, but I need to be careful what I wish for here and think about what is negative “social engineering” versus what is a societal consensus on an “enriched environment” that facilitates moving our larger community forward.

My own awareness of the dark side of social engineering was catalyzed by reading radical educator John Taylor Gatto’s book, The Underground History of American Education, where he at times bluntly challenges the institutions in our society (including our public education system) dedicated to improving our behavior, for our own good whether we like it or not. Says Gatto in the book’s prologue…

The shocking possibility that dumb people don’t exist in sufficient numbers to warrant the millions of careers devoted to tending them will seem incredible to you. Yet that is my central proposition: the mass dumbness which justifies official schooling first had to be dreamed of; it isn’t real.

Yeah… Gatto is a major-league provocateur! But he is also a person who has been “in the trenches”, teaching in urban schools in poor neighborhoods for many years and was named New York City Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991.

There are social engineering efforts on both the conservative and progressive sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives have their abstinence-only campaigns for youth and their efforts to promote Christianity and Christian values in our public schools (Creationism and school prayer) and in the public arena generally (like their push for people to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays”). Progressives have their efforts to promote multiculturalism and acceptance of homosexuality. As a person more closely allied with progressive thinking, I would see the latter two items more in terms of promotion of civil rights rather than trying to manipulate behavior, while more conservative folks might see just the reverse.

This quandary is reflected in the definition of “social engineering” in Wikipedia…

Social engineering is a discipline in political science that refers to efforts to influence popular attitudes and social behaviors on a large scale, whether by governments or private groups… For various reasons, the term has been imbued with negative connotations. However, virtually all law and governance has the effect of changing behavior and can be considered “social engineering” to some extent… Governments also influence behavior more subtly through incentives and disincentives built into economic policy and tax policy, for instance, and have done so for centuries.

Both progressives and conservatives have found at least some common ground around engineering our education system to accomplish societal goals like promoting shared American values, creating good citizens, creating a highly capable workforce, ending poverty, and promoting racial equality and integration. Most of us would agree with these goals in principle, but the devil is in the details of mandates, penalties, bureaucracy and other artifacts of external control that may be attempting to achieve these goals at the expense of an individual’s liberty, and as a result, at the expense of human development. This dark side of educational social engineering is what Gatto (always cleaver to turn a phrase) has called “weapons of mass instruction”.

I grew up in a secular humanist university community (Ann Arbor, Michigan), where there was a strong belief in the progressive improvement of society by applying the wisdom and techniques developed in the social sciences, and perhaps a bias toward that wisdom over other more traditional wisdom. This community celebrated social philosophers like Horace Mann and John Dewey who believed in public education and its ability to instill shared democratic values in American youth towards a better adult society.

I had no reason to doubt these efforts until I read more US history, particularly the details around Horace Mann’s efforts to launch the first mandatory universal public school system (the model for the system that eventually was used in every state) in the state of Massachusetts in the 1830s. I learned that one of the main impetuses for the effort was fear that waves of new Catholic immigrants to America, mainly from southern Europe (and viewed as culturally and intellectually inferior to northern Europeans), would “pollute” American culture. Mann’s public schools were not set up originally to teach the “three R’s”, but to teach kids generic Protestant values (that would presumably separate them from their parents values and traditions). It was only later when a burgeoning US Catholic population organized a resistance to this effort, that public schools were retooled to teach the basic curriculum they still mostly teach today.

More recent efforts to “reform” our public schools, like the coming together of Democrats and Republicans to pass “No Child Left Behind” legislation 2001 have resulted in significant social engineering as well. On the positive side was an increased focus on ensuring that our schools did not have lesser educational expectations for and discriminate against poor and minority kids. But this has led to evaluating educational achievement by very narrowly focused standardized tests and resulting teaching to those tests rather than to a broader and richer curriculum.

So going forward, how do I (as a person who shares the egalitarianism of progressives but also the focus on liberty that many conservatives champion) differentiate appropriate efforts from ones that significantly restrict our “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”?

My thinking is that a social engineering effort is generally good to the extent that it is facilitative rather than directive. That is, that the benefits of the creation of an enriched environment for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and for continuing human development significantly outweighs the direction of individual behavior needed to create that environment.

For example, I would calculate that our national health care reform law (essentially the compromise legislation crafted by Senators Baucus and Grassley and resembling Governor Romney’s plan in Massachusetts) is a good thing. The “cost” of requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance, is largely outweighed by the benefit of liberating all Americans to more freely switch jobs, launch businesses and other entrepreneurial efforts, and really leverage our free enterprise system. Think of how many people “play it safe” and stay in a current job that feels like a “dead end”, for fear of losing their (or their family’s) health insurance! And others who have to risk their health when they take a lower wage job that does not include or pay enough to purchase health insurance.

On the other hand, by the same kind of calculation, I would say that the effort to require all students to study abstract math in high school is not worth the effort. The benefit of having a work force with a couple percentage points more of skilled scientists is not worth directing the majority of other youth to take abstract math classes in a high-stakes scenario where failure to successfully negotiate these classes can negatively affect their ability to graduate from high school or attend college.

The related discipline of civil engineering is all about building roads and bridges that facilitate our moving about, plus levies and breakwaters and other structures that help keep us safe. I think our social engineering should have that same sort of focus… of facilitating a safe and enriched environment, rather than trying to guide the choices we make as free people in a democratic society.

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