25 September, 2019

The Title IX-ifcation of American Childhood

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Citizens are not born. They are raised.
—Frank Bryan

Wesley Yang has a new series out over at Tablet Magazine on the history of the Title IX bureaucracy. Like Yang, I see Title IX as one of the crucial stepping stones on the journey to our present moment. He is a tad more apocalyptic than I am:
The story, I will argue in this and subsequent columns, is about the rise and bid for hegemony of a new ideology. This ideology is a successor to liberalism. It brandishes terms that superficially resemble normative liberalism—terms like diversity and inclusion—but in fact seeks to supplant it. This new regime, in which administrative power has been fashioned into a blunt instrument of deterrence, marks off a crucial distinction—between the liberal rule of law, and the punitive system of surveillance rooted in identity politics known as “social justice.[1]
If you are a long term reader of this blog, you can guess where I differ from Yang. Yang sees the administrative power of Title IX as the end product of social justice ideology; I see social justice as an ideological political project adapted specifically (though not always consciously) to administrative power.

I have laid out this case at some length before. The thirty second version is that over the second half of the 20th century American society began to fray. Problems once handled at lower levels of society by self-governing citizens were passed upwards to impersonal bureaucracies. The largest of these bureaucracies is the federal government. But the problem is not limited to the federal government—these bureaucracies dominate large swaths of American life, from the global conglomerates that dominate our economy to the universities that crown our education system. One of my favorite ways of tracking this has been to look at the ratio of students:school boards. School boards used to be as close and as responsive to the interested citizen as politics could get, but many school boards now manage the education of hundreds of thousands of students.[2] At this scale, citizen voice is diminished.

While this was happening, the civic and religious institutions that Americans traditionally relied on to manage their own affairs were quietly disappearing. Some organizations, like religious boards, unions, and bowling clubs, declined in number; others, like charities and NGOs, switched from a model of mass participation to a model of mass donations. Add it all together and you find that the percentage of Americans expected to be familiar with Robert's Rules of Order shrunk precipitously. Making the situation worse was the collapse in settled family life at the bottom of American society, and the growing social isolation and friendlessness of the people living at its top. [3]

By the dawn of the 21st century then, America had been reduced to Tocqueville's nightmare. American culture had once been possessed with a can-do ethic of self resilience and civic respect. When a problem emerged, they quickly gathered together the people needed to solve it. That America is gone. Atomized and isolated, Americans do not have the knowledge, personal experience, or institutional means to solve their own problems. Problems are solved by impersonal bureaucracies. Politics—and so much else in American life—has shrunk to petitioning the powers that be.

The emotional tenor of the last three decades is best understood through this lens. The existential listlessness of the '90s and the terror that gripped America in the early aughts are natural by-products of Americans' belief that they do not control their own destinies. Victimhood culture is another by-product of this world. It is a cultural movement tailor-made for this new social milieu. In the 21st century, the main question in American social life is not "how do we make that happen?" but "how do we get management to take our side?" This is the difference between the tactics of the civil rights movement and today's social justice warriors, the secret behind the success of call-out culture, and the reason why the social justice movement's first impulse on campus was to build the Title IX bureaucracy (and why their current impulse is to create a national version of the same thing).

There is a positive feed-back loop here.  But I have trouble chalking the habits of mind campus activists take advantage of entirely to new progressive ideology. The truth is that these habits are taught to Americans much earlier and in a much more intimate setting than the activists ever had access to. This thought was impressed upon as I listened to a recent episode of the Art of Manliness podcast. [4] The podcast host interviewed Mark Lanza, whose book Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play, describes Lanza's successful attempt to change the culture of his suburban neighborhood and transform it into a place where children play with each other outside and in the street. If you are a parent of a child below the age of 12, I strongly recommend you listen to this podcast episode. There is a lot of wailing about the decline of American community among the commentariat, but precious little time is spent figuring out how to go about building new communities with healthier norms. Lanza did just that; his advice and stories are a remarkable set of tools for every community builder—every parent—in the nation.

About 15 minutes into his interview, Lanza noted an interesting change between the way he was parented and the way most children being raised today are. Children of days past, he observed, spent most of their free time out of eye sight and ear-shot of parents. When they got into fights, they had no choice but to resolve these fights by themselves. Thus all of the inventive rules and games child would make up to govern themselves. Childhood was a hands-on education in dispute resolution. Today's children do not receive this education. They rarely are out of the parental view. When they have a dispute, their first impulse is to bring it to nearby authority figures and have them declare the right and the wrong of things.

Lanza noted this in an off-hand sort of way. It was an observation incidental to his larger program. But his observation has stayed with me. Our children are barely out of the cradle and here we are, teaching them petition politics!

The old way had its disadvantages. Children left to their own devices often act cruelly. They have the freedom to bully. They are almost never "fair." But they also learn how to survive in a social world of equals who must face each other as equals. They learn what it means to embark on new endeavors without outside guidance. They learn how to resolve vicious disputes without a higher authority playing referee.

Which is to say, they learned how to act like the adults who raised them. That has not changed. Today's children also learn to act like the adults who raise them. From their schoolyard days, we teach our children the way our world works. In light of this, one must forgive the excesses of the helicopter parent: he is only preparing his child to thrive in the America of Title IX.


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If you found these thoughts on American community and politics worth reading, you might also find the posts "Pining For Democracy" and "Honor, Dignity, Victimhood: Three Centuries of American Political Culture" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] Wesley Yang, "America's New Sex Bureaucracy," Tablet Magazine (24 September 2019)

[2] For the record, we have gone from 120,000 school districts in 1940 to 20,000 today. The City School District of the City of New York is the largest in the nation; it manages the education of some 1 million children. 

Tanner Greer, "The Decline of American Democracy (in one Infographic!)," Scholar's Stage (10 October 2017).

[3] The key texts here are Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1999); Robert Putnam, Carl Frederick, and Kaisa Suelman."Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness Among American Youth", Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America (8 August 2012); Theda Skopal, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013); Charles Murray,  Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010); Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, "Micro-Agression and Moral Cultures," Comparative Sociology 13, iss 6 (2014).

[4] Mike Lanza and Brett McKay. "Podcast #532: How to Create a Neighborhood Where Kids Play Outside," Art of Manliness, podcast episode (7 August 2019).

9 comments:

Omar W said...

“Aristocratic societies always include within them, in the midst of a multitude of individuals who can do nothing by themselves, a few very powerful and very wealthy citizens; each of these can execute great undertakings by himself.

In aristocratic societies men have no need to unite to act because they are kept very much together. Each wealthy and powerful citizen in them forms as it were the head of a permanent and obligatory association that is composed of all those he holds in dependence to him, whom he makes cooperate in the execution of his designs.

In democratic peoples, on the contrary, all citizens are independent and weak; they can do almost nothing by themselves, and none of them can oblige those like themselves to lend them their cooperation. They therefore all fall into impotence if they do not learn to aid each other freely.”

De Tocqueville is, I think, describing above the aristocratic south as typified by the plantation and the democratic north typified by the town meeting. Both of these traditions are equally American, as much as we would like to think that the town meeting is the real America. America never was all one or the other, but always a combination of the two.

As America has bureaucratized and corporatized it has been able to achieve a melding of democracy and aristocracy that De Tocqueville thought impossible. He says:

“ A government could take the place of some of the greatest American associations, and within the Union several particular states already have attempted it. But what political power would ever be in a state to suffice for the innumerable multitude of small undertakings that American citizens execute every day with the aid of an association?“

The answer is a combo of Elizabeth Anderson’s private government and state&federal bureaucracy. This position is certainly preferable to the south’s tyranny but clearly inferior to New England’s beautiful town meetings.

Anonymous said...

As a member of the younger generation, I don't think it's *entirely* hopeless. Depending on how much time you spent on the internet you got a partial education in face-to-face dispute resolution, but I don't think it's anywhere near an adequate one. The typical way a large-scale dispute in internet communities gets resolved is that the mods step in and ban a bunch of people, and the losers (if they are committed enough) either go off and start a splinter community or keep trying to come back under fake identities. However, without moderator intervention things can easily burn on in the background.

The other thing is that because the internet turns on text and sometimes voice, with very little body language if any, it's not exactly the best education in the kind of self-control necessary to resolve disputes IRL. You usually have time to think things through as opposed to needing to make a decision *now*, and it's easy to read everything as bad-faith which totally undercuts any sort of negotiation.

This is a really good essay and it's definitely given me a lot to think about. Thanks!

random observer said...

I might go slightly farther than him. I occasionally in conversation make what seems to me the distinction between liberalism and progressivism, allowing that they overlapped in the 90s as one replaced the other in the dominant role.

Whether this distinction holds across every domain, I can't say. It feels like it fits many.

For an example, I would argue that liberalism did not require multiculturalism, if only because that would make the term liberal inapplicable to the societies that first coined the term and defined it. But multiculturalism is a liberal concept and approach and they are compatible.

Diversity and Inclusion have never been liberal concepts, since they have always carried essentially the weight of compulsion and sectarian approach to and emphasis on 'power' that Yang implies.

Anonymous said...

Unrelated. I'd like to read some of the older pieces on the blog but they're difficult to find and it's inconvenient to continually hit the "older" posts button dozens of times. Could you add an "archive" section to the sidebar? Or is there a way to do what I have in mind already.

Kartturi said...

Is there something wrong with this sentence: While there is certainly a positive feed-back loop to the whole process, I have trouble chalking the habits of mind campus activists take advantage of to the new wave of progressive in thought.
(Hard to parse at least?)

T. Greer said...

@kartutrri-

Def hard to parse. This post really needed two or three more read throughs before I published it, too many copy edit errors. Hopefully it reads better now.

@Anon- At some point I will sit down and create a guide ot everything I have written. But that task is a long and thankless one.

@Younger generation anon - The internet is to a certain extent an education in getting along. But in many ways the internet is exactly the sort of thing unlike real life -- in real life there are no moderators to complain to (though increasingly, as this post suggests, bureaucrats fill that role), and for many of our most important groupings and commitments, there is no way to opt out and set up your own group. Very few people incorporate their own towns or school districts. (Much less countries!)

@Omar- Interesting use of Tocqueville. I will need to think over this.

Nathan Taylor said...

I consider the set of posts on Honor/Dignity/Victimhood and the administrative state to be among your very best. This one, the 2015 one, and the others you've done. First rate.

That said, I suspect most readers will recognize Title IX only in a vague way as prohibiting sex discrimination in education. I had to read around a bit before I realized how much Title IX has become the formal underpinning for much of the social justice movement. I feel a bit dumb for not making that direct connection before, as in my mind they were somewhat distinct. Perhaps just my blind spot.

Anyway. Just some reader feedback that I think the piece would have had more punch for (some) readers if the connection between Title IX and the social justice movement were spelled out directly. If you write on similar topic again, might make a good paragraph or two. Take it for what it's worth.

Nate said...

Administrative power is closely related to social power. Women have vastly more social power than men. These professors speaking out against Title IX tribunals being "so unfair as to be truly shocking" are four women feminist professors. Who is being treated unfairly? Not said, but obvious: almost exclusively men. Why aren't more men professors and non-feminists speaking about these truly shocking injustices? Not said, but obvious: because they have greater reason to be afraid of social punishment.

Men have long jostled for status in arguing about international relations, national policy, and war. Men have been reluctant to talk seriously about what goes on between men and women, what goes on within their own homes. If you're serious about understanding public propaganda and authoritarian states, you shouldn't ignore astonishing developments in the politics of intersexual relations. For a start, see

http://www.acrosswalls.org/section/gender-imprisonment/domestic-violence/criminal-suspicion/

http://www.acrosswalls.org/section/gender-imprisonment/domestic-violence/criminal-justice/

One of those feminist law professors has written a book about the domestic violence authoritarian regime in the U.S. She understates the problem, perhaps in response to the powerful symbolic forces at play. Here's some good analysis:

http://www.acrosswalls.org/notes/suk-domestic-violence/

zednought said...

I had some trouble with a younger male on the job a few years ago, a minor thing that should never have gone anywhere. Instead the young man went to the boss and reported that I had been more or less mean to him. I was flabbergasted that something so minor this young man considered a matter to be brought before the boss. In the old days it was quite frowned upon for men to act in such a way.

I asked my young nephew about this. He said that in the schools they are allowed to resolve nothing on their own. Any dispute that arose had to be taken to a teacher. He said the young fellow was acting as he had been taught. He didn't know any better. They taught him, more or less, not to act like a man.

Quite distressing.