December 9, 2004

Cuckoo's Egg

When I was working on my first book, I spent some time reading a series of 1930s-era reports from “Jeanes teachers”, African men and women who were hired by the Rhodesian state and a private American foundation to train other Africans in agriculture and domesticity. I’m paraphrasing something that one of the teachers wrote with evident frustration after many of her child-care lessons were rejected by the women in her assigned area: “They say that none of their grannies did these things and yet here they all are. What am I to say to that?”

We have to be mindful that such assertions about “tradition” were part of fast-moving, highly mobile cultural and social struggles in colonial southern Africa. My own interpretation of the Jeanes teachers’ reports is that their assigned subjects were not so much objecting to the teachings as much as the teachers, that older men and women resented the authority of young, educated men and women who were not locals. But also the locals were in many cases pragmatically noticing that some of the advice being dispensed was of questionable value. Not just Jeanes teachers but all variety of European and European-educated African missionaries and teachers, for example, persistently suggested that living in square houses was better than living in round houses. The square house was a symbol for them of a “civilizing process”, of a transformation of their subjects. Showing skepticism about that project strikes me as simple common sense: most of the rural villagers must have seen how arbitrary and purely symbolic this counsel was.

There is something about the entire global practice of modern social reform and its relationship to both civil society and the nation-state that inspires or ought to inspire similar appropriate skepticism everywhere. I was initially inclined in my work on these questions in African history to identify this skepticism with colonialism, but once I worked on the history of controversies over children’s television, I began to see some larger patterns, and now see better still.

I’ve been minded of this from reading Laura at 11D discuss Mary Eberstadt’s Home-Alone America , a book which I’ve now taken a look at myself, though much less diligently and superficially than Laura. Laura's excellent critique pretty much speaks for my own reaction. What I’d like to observe is that the sins of Eberstadt are common, and moreover, tend to recur on both the right and left ends of the political spectrum. They are most marked when the discussion is about children, childhood, domesticity and the family. The problem isn’t just the very weak kind of social science that Laura accurately nails—the confusion about correlation and causation—but something deeper as well.

The deeper problem is even found in much more respectable, careful kinds of social science. It’s roughly the same problem that Deirdre McCloskey has identified in a number of writings about economics: that the “secret sin” of economics is its sleight-of-hand when it comes to its claims about the significance of a given problem or finding. Significance gets reduced to statistical significance, but making a philosophically or politically vigorous argument about the relative importance of a particular problem gets outsourced as being somebody else’s problem.

This is in some ways what African men and women in 1930s Southern Rhodesia were saying to the Jeanes teacher. Not necessarily, “I don’t believe you when you say that this or that thing that we do is a problem,” but “I don’t believe that the problem, if it exists, is a very important one. I think that what you want us to do instead is more hassle than it is worth”. When you look carefully at a great many studies and books that claim to diagnose pressing social or public problems, you frequently find that the evidence at hand, even when it is much more carefully arranged than Eberstadt’s, suggests that the “effect size” of the problem is very small.

In many ways, this kind of social criticism aims to tackle huge, complex problems that it acknowledges to be huge and complex by acts of incremental subtraction. Take away one small contributing factor, the implicit argument goes, and you reduce the general problem by that much. But huge social problems, even when almost all of us concede that the problem is real and significant, don’t work that way. They’re not giant agglomerations of smaller problems which can be neatly pulled out of the overall mess.

Besides that, however, most general social critics, left and right, neglect to make the really foundational arguments that they need to make about why we should care about the problems they claim to identify. Let’s suppose Eberstadt is right and day care is a major contributing factor to childhood obesity. I think Laura very clearly demonstrates why we shouldn’t take her too seriously on this point, but let’s be generous and assume it’s so. The real job is telling me why I should care about that. So what if kids get fat? So what if people die ten or twenty years earlier than they should? So what if people are more sedentary when they’re alive? And so on.

Yes, you can make some consequentialist arguments about all those “so whats”, and some of them are pretty substantial. But even the substantial ones require some very profound assumptions about the nature and purpose of society and about the moral obligations we owe one another—or the practical needs we have. Eberstadt, coming from the right, is typically inconsistent in her understanding of the application of such public welfare arguments—but then, so too are many intellectuals and public figures on the left. You cannot simply assume that childhood obesity is a bad thing, or rattle off a bunch of secondary effects (say, for example, more car usage, hence more fuel usage, hence more pollution or dependence on foreign oil) as if those are Q.E.D. on the general point. There are deeper foundations to lay down first. They can be done simply by referencing various bodies of social theory, but you have to do it. Most social critics in the public sphere can’t be bothered, or don’t even seem to know what they’re missing.

That’s one thing that economics can sometimes be awfully good at—asking a question like, “Why do we assume it’s a bad thing if people die from smoking cigarettes? Can we prove that it is?”, questions that other viewpoints have a hard time asking with equanimity. Economics may not be very capable of providing the philosophically coherent argument about why that is bad or good, but at least it can observe that things commonly assumed to be good may not be so even in purely evidentiary terms. Sometimes the change between one set of social practices and another set of social practices can’t be reduced to a simple matter of good and bad. So kids used to walk home and their mommies were waiting for them there and they used to play together in the neighborhood and so on. Let’s say that all is true. So now they go to day care and see their mommies at night and their mommies work. How we experience and evaluate that change, which seems a real change, if exaggerated in some respects by Eberstadt, is nothing that can be boiled down to concretized evidence anyway. You can’t find a moral argument about that change by nattering about with things like obesity or attention-deficit disorder. Those are red herrings. If you want to make a moral argument, make it, and leave the statistics for people who know what statistics are and what they can and cannot be made to do.

Oh, yes, many of us experience regret, longing, confusion, angst about that change—or any of the other changes that end up being superficially dissected by well-meaning social critics on the left and right. That’s why there is a market for such social criticism. Many of us are looking for someone to tell us that our longing for our own history is more than just us, that it is right and proper that our childhoods, our past families, our past worlds, are the ones which should be the model forever forward. That the cultural and social worlds that we have known—even when our own personal familial lives as children were not pleasant--is what should be. We are not prepared to hear that the very legitimate feelings of longing and loss and confusion that we personally experience are just that: our feelings, our lives caught in history, and nothing more. That to become strangers to the present is our inevitable destiny. We should not merely accept that no matter what: some things in the worlds we knew are precious, and must be saved or translated into the future. That effort requires extraordinary arguments, because it takes extraordinary resources and will to deliberately change the forward drift of social change.

Most of the time, we should just accept that what we were is not what we are or will be. That humans are resilient, and children most of all. Our children will be ok in day care, or at home, just as we were ok with the range of things done for us and to us when we were children. That this change, though wrenching and complex to us personally, is likely to be value-neutral when you think about the big picture of how humans survive, thrive and are fulfilled. Just as the mothers and fathers in small African villages in 1930s Rhodesia observed, however they themselves were reared, they were there. Whether a child was bathed this way or that way was a thing to consider, but not at the level of incessant urgency that some well-meaning stranger might vest in it.

So much of this angst, from Eberstadt or many other commentators, is about the most confusing and difficult fact of human life: our children will not be us. Modern middle-class Americans are more confused than most about this fact. We hope our children will be better than us. We hope that they will be us. We fear that they will be worse than us. But we are not prepared to relax and deal with the truth: that most of the time they will be nothing more or less than different. That children are both alienation from as well as connection to the present, and that this is neither good nor bad. It simply is.