In Prospect

Spring 2003

In our Summer 2002 issue, Victor Davis Hanson called eloquently for a restoration of civic education in our schools. Not so long ago, he observed, public schools saw as key to their mission the molding of citizens. Report cards graded pupils on “Citizenship”: on self-control, politeness, and other virtues that free individuals need to live harmoniously under laws that they themselves have made. Schools also taught the uniqueness of American civilization—unexampled, despite avowed flaws, in its democracy, liberty, and tolerance for religious differences and dissent. But today, thanks to changes in our elite culture that have trickled down into schools, Hanson argued, confidence in our national greatness and our melting pot of shared Western values has weakened, supplanted often by a belief in America the oppressor of victimized minorities and by querulous mantras about “diversity,” “tolerance,” and let-it-all-hang-out expressive individualism. September 11, Hanson concluded, should have reminded us that we have something precious to defend—and to transmit to our children.

How far we are from the civic vision Hanson invoked is clear from Marjorie King’s chilling “Queering the Schools,” which describes in the most matter-of-fact way just what the “diversity,” “tolerance,” victimology, and expressive individualism that Hanson described as the remnant of our school civic culture really amount to in parts of our public education system. Under the leadership of gay activist groups, and with the gung-ho support of the nation’s teachers’ unions, schools have begun to alter their curricula to inculcate a belief that sexual identity is fluid, that experimentation with all kinds of sexual acts is not only good but almost a duty of self-development, that our society is so intolerant toward such minorites as the transgendered that it constantly victimizes them by hatred and violence, and that morality requires students to cultivate not just tolerance but affirmation of such individuals as heroes of the “diversity” that is the bedrock of our national greatness. This is, with a vengeance, the debasement of civic culture that Hanson described; and as we fight a war to protect the values that make our nation exceptional, clearly taxpayer-supported schools must do better than this to explain what those values are.

A few well-organized activist groups have catalyzed this change, which, school district by school district, is adding up to a real cultural transformation; similarly, another activist group with beliefs way on the fringe is working a national transformation in urban political life, one city at a time, as Sol Stern describes in “ACORN’s Nutty Regime for Cities.” The nation’s largest left-wing group, ACORN pushes a radically redistributionist agenda bound to drive employers out of town and hurt the poor by isolating them in dependency. The group’s policies on banking and education likewise bode harm to the poor—and to urban America. Because some of ACORN’s efforts have succeeded widely, though beneath the national press’s radar screen, friends of cities must take the group seriously, however antique its nostrums.

No more seriously than in New York, where a city council enthusiastic about ACORN’s agenda has enacted several of its destructive measures into law. Moved far to the left as the unintended consequence of a term-limits law, the new council, as Steven Malanga shows in “The Council’s Confederacy of Dunces,” is churning out legislation that serves the short-term interests of the unions and social services providers that are the real power base of the councilmen, even though it neglects the interests of most of their constituents. Though the council’s recent resolution condemning the war in Iraq—a war sparked by an attack that killed 3,000 innocent civilians in the council’s own backyard—is mere posturing (however unseemly in its failure to grasp the civic truths our nation needs to reaffirm), the veto-proof body’s legislative agenda puts Gotham’s economic future in jeopardy.

Finally, as the nation ponders the changes it hopes to bring to a liberated Iraq, it is worth considering Theodore Dalrymple’s reflections on his years in postcolonial Africa in “After Empire.” Underlying Western democracy and liberty are values that really are uniquely Western: and so, whatever good things we bring to Iraq, Middle Eastern culture will reshape them, in unforeseen ways.