The Magazine

Pater Knows Best

The quest for success in inner-city schools.

Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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As Whitman rightly notes, paternalistic policies have been and remain controversial; such policies contain "an element of moral arrogance, an assertion of superior competence. Paternalistic policies interfere with the freedom of individuals, and this interference is justified by the argument that the individuals will be better off as a result."

In addition, they are controversial because "they seek to change the lifestyles of the poor, immigrants, and minorities, rather than the lifestyles of middle-class and upper-class families." Nevertheless, with respect to welfare reform, education, or any other area of policy, Whitman rightly observes that the question should not be whether a policy is paternalistic; instead, we should ask whether "the paternalism in view [is] permissible or impermissible, good or bad."

In this context it is noteworthy that "most of the principals of the schools chronicled [by Whitman are] uneasy with having their schools described as paternalistic." One can surely understand their discomfort with the word, which could seem to imply that, in effect, the schools are bringing civilization to the heathen, substituting good "white" values for the bad "minority" ones with which the students came in.

For the record, as Whitman points out, the premise of today's paternalistic social policies is that, by and large, the poor themselves espouse "middle-class values." The problem, which the policies seek to remedy, is that by and large the poor also "lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to live according to" these values. The problematic paternalism of the past was exemplified by late 19th-century boarding schools for Indians in which "teachers and principals constantly informed students that their ancestors were savages." The idea was that "we know what's best for you, and we'll make you do it." By contrast, the new paternalism--defended by Whitman--holds that "you know what's best for you, and we'll make you do it."

Yet at least in the context of paternalistic schools, as opposed, say, to paternalistic welfare programs, the discomfort with the word "paternalism" seems odd. We are, after all, talking about children (at any rate, adolescents) rather than adults. In the words of education blogger Matthew Tabor, "Some of us--yes, even some younger than 100--think of education as teaching kids how to live. It's really that simple." It may be wrong to be parental--a preferable term to "paternal," since it avoids the implication that it is only father rather than mother who knows best--to adults, but it is hard to see how, as a matter of principle, it can be wrong to be parental to kids.

Whitman notes that these schools are "highly prescriptive institutions that often serve in loco parentis." Thus the paternalistic schools neither demand nor expect much involvement from the actual parents of their students. Their leaders "anticipate that inner-city parents will not be involved to the same degree as they would at, say, a high-performing suburban school." Instead, the schools assume that "minority parents want to do the right thing but often don't have the time or resources to keep their children from being dragged down by an unhealthy street culture." The schools therefore take "on a piece of the parent's role, .  .  . reinforc[ing] middle-class mores by nurturing a work ethic and culture of achievement." The major expectation is that parents will "steer their children through the door .  .  . and then ensur[e] that their children get to school on time and do their homework."

The schools' apparent success in acting in loco parentis raises an important point, which perhaps Whitman could have discussed more extensively. The schools could seem to refute, or at least to question a major premise of, a work that has influenced conservative (and not only conservative) educational thought for generations: the 1966 Coleman Report, one of whose major findings was that schools are generally unable to overcome discrepancies between the family backgrounds of different students. Students who--thanks to their families--come to school well prepared to learn do better than students who come to school poorly prepared, and schools can do little about this.

(To be sure, Coleman also found that a second important determinant of a student's academic success is his sense of being able to control his destiny. Arguably, it is precisely this belief--that a student's actions can significantly control his fate--that is conveyed by the moral instruction of the paternalistic schools.)