Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of the passing of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, distinguished educator, politician, diplomat and four-term U.S. senator from New York State from 1977 to 2001. It also marked the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of his landmark essay “Defining Deviancy Down” in The American Scholar. The essay soon became famous on the political right, and it’s no surprise why. Even today, its observations are bracingly relevant. Moynihan brilliantly related the then-rising tide of crime in the U.S. to the normalization of behaviors once considered deviant.
Moynihan understood well the social problems he was analyzing, but he underestimated how far and wide the redefinition of deviancy would spread. When his essay was published in 1993, New York City and much of the country were reeling from the drug crisis, and anti-drug laws received broad public support. Today, politicians in the city and elsewhere have either legally or effectively decriminalized drugs, cannabis stores seemingly are on every block, and opioids are widely available, prompting the city council to mandate that public schools must stock Narcan to prevent drug overdoses.
Moynihan is also celebrated for his controversial 1965 report on black poverty, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which linked the rise of single motherhood to social dysfunction and crime. In those days, two-parent families were still considered an ideal to which all should aspire, not a mark of “white privilege,” and mothers were mothers, not “birthing people.” Today, 30 percent of households with children in the U.S. are headed by single parents, 40 percent of all births are to single mothers, and 70 percent of black children are born into single-parent families, with predictable results for social dysfunction and crime.
Our political leaders could have sought to make criminal life less attractive by promoting high ideals for families and communities; instead, they have elected to make it easier to become a criminal by defining deviancy down—again. Criminal justice policies now rest on the magical claim that, if we reduce the ranks of police, make it riskier for those who remain to do their jobs, cease prosecuting or downgrade whole categories of crime, and seek to eliminate incarceration altogether, then communities will become safe. To believe in this program, one must ignore the fact that homicides in cities like Philadelphia and Milwaukee reached record highs in recent years, and in Chicago reached levels not seen in decades—or that unprecedented numbers of taxpayers and retailers are fleeing San Francisco, Baltimore, and New York because of crime. Many public officials proclaim that crime rates are down and point to official statistics showing fewer arrests, charges, convictions, and incarcerations. They abandon their usual veneration of “feelings” and “lived experience” and suggest, when constituents remain skeptical, that the problem is all in their heads. As Chico Marx says, “Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
In criminal justice, it’s “see no crime.” In our schools, it’s “see no poor performance.” In education, deviancy is the failure to learn, and it has been defined down by lowering academic standards and ignoring poor student and teacher performance. Public schools once had teachers, many of whom were trained in “Normal Schools,” named after the French écoles normales, to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as norms like discipline, punctuality, and respect for the written word. Now, equity-driven schools smear such values as white supremacist.
The education establishment greets new data on student performance with plans not to improve learning but to paper over the decline by reducing or eliminating tests for both teachers and students, lowering curriculum standards, and demanding more money. As Moynihan noted, “there is good money to be made out of bad schools.” Teachers’ unions use their clout to amass political power and wealth while opposing merit and accountability. Meantime, half of all American students (and up to 83 percent and 93 percent of students in Chicago and Baltimore, respectively) perform below grade level. To mask these failures and to promote “equity,” grade inflation and outright grade fraud are now common, as are attempts to eliminate or dumb down top U.S. selective public schools, such as Boston’s exam schools, New York City’s specialized high schools, San Francisco’s Lowell High School, and Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
Moynihan criticized dishonesty in public K–12 education; one wonders if he realized that it was also spreading to colleges, where race-based admissions, remedial courses, grade inflation, diluted syllabi, reduced graduation requirements, and non-rigorous pseudo-academic fields are increasingly the norm. Alarmingly, this decline also extends to law schools and medical schools, where standardized testing and even licensing exams are being targeted for elimination.
Since Moynihan’s essay appeared, an elaborate conceptual superstructure has established itself in America to provide cover for defining deviancy down. This superstructure goes by the name of critical race theory (CRT) or by its street name, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Much has been written about the harm and havoc CRT and DEI have wrought in all aspects of American life. With the help of progressives deeply embedded in federal, state, and local government, DEI has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry—a Leviathan rivaling the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program that Moynihan tackled in his time.
CRT and DEI do more than just provide fancy terms (e.g., “equity”) to justify lowering standards. Offering a new and improved version of defining deviancy down, they embrace dishonest double standards and celebrate self-contradictory nonsense like “repressive tolerance,” “democratic proletarian state,” “subjective truths,” “anti-racist racism”—and, most recently, “duplicative language” as a new term for clear-cut plagiarism. Even the three words in “DEI” mean their exact opposites.
The saga of former Harvard president Claudine Gay, which began to escalate with her and two other college presidents’ disgraceful congressional testimonies on December 5, richly encapsulates the decline of American higher education under the reign of CRT and DEI. The three presidents—all steeped in the ideology—saw no contradiction between their “free-speech” defense of pro-Hamas rioters on their campuses, on the one hand, and their ruthless application of “codes of conduct” and “values of the university” on students, campus speakers, and even tenured professors who went against the DEI party line.
It didn’t take long for Penn’s alumni and board to reject such moral rot. Penn’s president Liz Magill resigned on December 9, 2023; Scott Bok, head of Penn’s Board of Trustees and Magill’s backer, then resigned as well. Claudine Gay, supported by the head of the Harvard Corporation, Penny Pritzker of the Pritzker family fortune, held on until January 2, weeks after it was revealed that she had plagiarized portions of her Ph.D. thesis at Harvard as well as language in her scant academic papers. Compromised scholarship should have immediately disqualified her as head of a university, as it did the white-male former president of Stanford, but DEI’s double standard bought her time. An article last June in Inside Higher Ed conveniently suggested that “We can be too punitive in thinking about academic integrity.” Though mounting embarrassment finally brought Gay down, the people responsible for the fiasco of her hiring remain in place. They even praised Gay and smeared her critics in a statement released after her resignation. Moynihan, who was also a Harvard professor and prolific scholar, would have been disgusted.
A New Year calls for new resolutions. We should resolve collectively to raise, not lower, standards and to restore respect for the universal values that support academic and professional achievement. Then we can make progress in addressing the social problems that Moynihan so astutely identified.
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