In Prospect

Winter 1995

When Plato sketched out his ideal republic, he didn’t start with laws or institutions; he began with children and their education. He knew, as modern political scientists often forget, that perfecting the machinery of government won’t build a wellordered community unless what’s in the minds and hearts of citizens is cultivated with equal care. People may obey laws and make important life choices in response to the pressure of policemen or the incentive structure of this or that policy; but the main force that makes them lawabiding and industrious and inventive comes from within—from their beliefs and values, their knowledge and ideals, their sense of citizenship and identification with the purposes of the community. All these take form during childhood, shaped by families, schools, and communities.

That inner reality is an important part of City Journalís subject. Insofar as the nation’s chief urban problem is that posed by the underclassthe burden of both its social pathology and the costs it imposes of welfare, social services, jails, and so onattending to that inner reality will be crucial to the urban future. What imprisons the underclass, above all, is both a worldview that makes it hard to grasp opportunity or adapt to economic change, and an internal "life script," in Kay Hymowitz’s phrase ("The Teen Mommy Track," City Journal, Autumn 1994), that sees as acceptable, even desirable, behavior that will lead to failure. These habitual ways of looking at the outer world and one’s own life come into being in childhood.

Below this worldview lies a deeper inner reality—a framework of cognitive and moral concepts, like cause and effect or good and naughty, that children must learn very early to be able to think, to learn, to know right from wrong. These are things that families teach; and in the disintegrated, chaotic families so usual among the underclass, such teaching gets short shrift.

City Journal has taken the view that welfare’s most destructive effect is helping to proliferate families too disorganized to give children the nurture that accomplishes these tasks ("Putting Children First," Summer 1994). In this issue, James Q. Wilson takes up the argument (page 56). He recommends that, instead of a sweeping national transformation, welfare reform should proceed as a series of state-by-state, even city-by-city, experiments bound only by the requirement that they focus on saving the children.

We often look to the schools to supply what parents don’t—to expand horizons, to build character and citizenship. It’s a commonplace that today’s urban schools are failing children: how dismaying to learn, as Lydia Segal, a former counsel for the school system’s special commissioner of investigations, writes (page 46), that many New York City school districts are patronage machines where education is the least important consideration.

But as Theodore Dalrymple points out (page 116), children can learn even in bad schools—like those in English inner cities—if they bring the right values to the classroom. Sadly, members of the English underclass, like their American counterparts, resist education, which requires giving up the comforting welfare-state idea that you are a helpless victim, unable to succeed in a world stacked against you.

A more chilling conclusion emerges from Heather Mac Donald’s analysis of federal disability programs (page 23). To get the generous benefits offered, many parents try to have their children labeled disabledwhich becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Worse, a survey of the emotionally disturbed, the drugaddicted, and the alcoholic on disability makes one wonder to what extent urban America is producing a population of unemployables, so damaged by whatever happened to their inner lives in childhood that they are shipwrecked for life.