The Cultural Contradictions of American Education

Kay S. Hymowitz

Winter 2021

For several decades now, educators in the United States have focused much of their attention on the disappointing levels of academic achievement among low-income children. This concern is hardly unwarranted: Even as it became clear to policymakers that education would be critical in preserving economic mobility into the 21st century, America's low-income children were falling further and further behind their wealthier peers. Growing inequality, intractable racial disparities, moribund test scores, and low college-graduation rates signaled that America was not fulfilling its promise of opportunity for all.

Against the backdrop of such inequity, it may seem inept, or perhaps overly "privileged," to divert attention away from low-income communities and toward the middle class. After all, statistically speaking, middle-class students are not the ones struggling to read or pass their algebra exams. They're not the ones flailing in our globalized, knowledge-based, volatile labor market. Yet understanding some fundamental facts about the middle-class mindset is crucial to diagnosing what ails an education system designed and administered by middle-class professionals, who inevitably bring their own cultural psychology to the task.

 At bottom, something in the psychology of the American middle class makes running a classroom and designing its curriculum a paradoxical undertaking. On the one hand, America's middle class demands an education system grounded in the cultivation and celebration of each child's individuality — in an appreciation of the habits, tastes, and dispositions that make every child unique. At the same time, the middle class expects the nation's schools to instill in every student a set of distinctly middle-class values — accountability, diligence, civility, and self-control — that are often in direct tension with students' autonomy and individuality.

The conflict between these two areas of middle-class emphasis can be understood as the "cultural contradiction" of American education, and an understanding of its causes and manifestations is critical in explaining our education system's shortcomings.


To understand the cultural contradiction at the heart of America's education system, it's helpful to begin in the nursery. Cultural psychologists — scientists who study the way culture shapes cognition and emotion — have done some fascinating work comparing the thinking and behavior of American mothers to that of mothers in other countries, including Western countries that share our commitment to individual liberty and rights. Their research illuminates a little-understood realm of American exceptionalism.

Consider one modest but revealing study of parental attitudes toward sleep by Sara Harkness and Charles Super. Comparing similar groups of Dutch and American mothers of newborns, the authors discovered that the two nationalities had very different theories about what was going on inside their infants' tiny brains. The American mothers saw the yawning or fussy infant as expressing his own internal drives; in their view, their babies "know" when they are tired and how much sleep they need. Dutch mothers, on the other hand, believe that parents must provide children "regularity and rest" from a very young age. "Whereas the American parents described their child's sleep patterns as innate and developmentally driven," the authors wrote, "the Dutch parents hardly mentioned these ideas and instead spoke frequently about the importance of a regular sleep schedule, which they saw as fundamental to healthy growth and development." One consequence of this divergence is that Dutch infants, at six months of age, get an average of two hours more sleep per day than do their self-regulating American counterparts.

As the sleep study hints, from the time a child is born, American parents — more specifically, middle-class American parents — act on the cultural belief that each child is an individual with a distinct inner nature and unique needs, abilities, and predilections. That this inner nature of children demands the obsessive attention and deference of the adults who raise them is a concept wholly alien to other cultures, past and present. For most of human history, the job of parents and the broader community has been to turn the uncivilized child into a capable citizen of an existing community with its own rules, conventions, and history. This attitude is still present in modern France, writes Kim Willsher, a British mother raising her children in Paris, where a child is believed to be "a small human being ready to be formatted, partly by its parents....It has to be encadré, kept within a clearly and often rigidly defined framework that places disciplines such as manners and mathematics above creativity and expression."

American parents, by contrast, put their emphasis on unleashing and supporting their little ones' individuality; customs, rules, and routines are thought of as an unfortunate, though admittedly sometimes necessary, burden. I'd wager it's no coincidence that, like their Dutch comrades in diapers, French babies sleep through the night at earlier ages than American babies do.

To arouse and stimulate their children's intrinsic selves, American parents talk to them more frequently and energetically than do parents in other cultures. They cheer their infant's babbling, smiles, and giggles. They celebrate as significant individual achievements the first time their child rolls over, crawls, and walks. As time goes on, they decorate their kitchens with their children's earliest finger paintings.

This stands in stark contrast to Scandinavian parents, who follow the "Law of Jante" — a list of rules, originally contained in a Danish satirical novel, that discourage attention-seeking behavior and have come to encapsulate Scandinavian culture. Kay Xander Mellish, an American mother living in Denmark, describes an incident that perfectly captures the contrast between American and Scandinavian thinking in this regard. Seeing a little boy at a day-care center take his first steps, she called out excitedly, "[c]ome on, you can do it!" only to be reprimanded by a nearby teacher for giving the child the false impression that he was special.

In other cultures, both East and West, parents prize manners and ritualized courtesies over the child's self-expression. The French teach their two-year-olds to say "bonjour, madame" or "monsieur" in every encounter, Pamela Druckerman informs us in Bringing Up Bébé; not doing so leaves parents ashamed of a child who is "mal élevé," or ill-mannered. Cultural psychologists find that parents all over the world share this interest in manners. Japanese mothers, for instance, expect their children to be courteous (to say "thank you" and "good morning") and compliant (to come when called by four years of age).

These ritualized greetings strike Americans as artificial and a worrying sign of an overly programmed child. As the long-popular What to Expect: The Toddler Years warns, "[c]hildren who are nagged about their manners or are punished for not saying ‘thank you' or for not using a fork...won't feel positive about manners and are likely to ignore them completely whenever they are out from under the eye of the enforcing parent." In recent years, a new trend has developed among American adults to "high-five" young children. The gesture is quintessentially American, as it gives both adult and child an American-style escape from formality; instead of the awkwardly proper "[g]ood morning, Mr. Smith," a greeting becomes a moment of egalitarian playfulness.

This is not to say that manners, not to mention sleep, don't matter to American parents. Nor does it imply that American-style individualism is an altogether noxious strain. But it does set the stage for the aforementioned cultural contradiction of American education. A noticeable tension has developed between the desire to elevate the innateness of American children's interests, talents, and self-expression on the one hand and the need to acknowledge society as a collective enterprise on the other. An American freelance photographer living in Norway was shocked to find just how unique this thoroughly American culture is when it comes to child-care. "[T]here is just one way, more or less," she writes of Norwegian child-rearing norms. "[A]ll kids go to bed at 7, all attend the same style of preschool, all wear boots, all eat the same lunch...that's the Norwegian way."

American education institutions — led by professionals, many of whom are parents themselves — inescapably reflect these same cultural norms. One example is the dogma that classrooms need low teacher-student ratios. For Americans, small classes allowing for individualized teacher-student interaction are a crucial ingredient for a "quality preschool." That this expert-endorsed, seemingly obvious truth is actually an American cultural preference is one takeaway from the deservedly renowned Preschool in Three Cultures — an ethnographic study of early childhood programs in China, Japan, and the United States.

The authors videotaped classes of four-year-olds in all three countries and asked teachers of each nationality to comment on what they noticed in the classrooms of the other two. As it happens, in Japan, it's not unusual to find a class of 30 four-year-olds with only one adult in the room. Unsurprisingly, after seeing the videotapes, American teachers objected to the fact that the Japanese children weren't receiving the amount of individual attention they needed. The Japanese educators watching tapes of American preschools had the opposite reaction. They preferred larger groups in their early childhood classes; American children, they worried, were being confined to a "narrow" world. "I wonder how you teach a child to become a member of a group in a class that small?" one Japanese teacher asked.

The small classroom is crucial for American educators trying to manage the cultural contradiction between each child's individuality and the presence of other equally unique children. It also reinforces American youngsters' understanding of their own individuality. At Japanese preschools, children learn ritualistic traditional greetings, songs, and festivals. They don't celebrate their own birthdays in the classroom on the date of their birth, since all the birthdays of a given month are recognized at the same time. (One can almost hear American parents who have found themselves spreading blue icing on 25 chocolate cupcakes at 1 A.M. for their child's school birthday celebration sighing longingly.) The Japanese do give their children plenty of opportunity for "free play," but while American teachers see that time as a chance for self-expression and choice, the Japanese believe it is a chance to help develop "group feeling." They read books that teach respect for others and cooperation; Americans prefer "I think I can, I think I can" stories that encourage individual achievement and self-esteem.

American teachers not only give their charges plenty of choices, they talk about those choices repeatedly throughout the day by asking children, "what would you like to do?" The classroom itself is a teeming warehouse of options — water and sand tables, blocks, books, dress-up clothes, painting corners — sure to elicit the interest of even the most hesitant child. The authors of Preschool in Three Cultures theorized that Americans see giving a child plenty of choices as the best way to appeal to his "intrinsic motivation" — an American concept in itself.


The relevance of this early childhood anthropology for K-12 educators should be easy to discern. American parents and preschool teachers are unknowingly preparing children to thrive in a particular sort of classroom. When an American middle-class youngster arrives at the kindergarten door on the first day of school, he has already been empowered to make decisions for himself, to speak up about his preferences, and to have his talents and interests recognized and prized. He is the perfect customer for a child-centered, constructivist classroom dedicated to intrinsic motivation, one who will work well with "a guide on the side," as up-to-date teachers sometimes imagine themselves to be. Children unversed in the ways of "what's your favorite color?" or "use your words" might as well be entering a foreign country.

In fact, working-class and low-income children — including those from immigrant backgrounds — are less likely to be familiar with the language and expectations of the child-centered teacher. Social scientists, who have been observing the child-rearing practices of working- and middle-class parents since the mid-20th century, describe working-class families as less interested in creativity and self-expression than their middle-class counterparts. Instead, they value obedience in their children and are more authoritarian in their approach to discipline. Annette Lareau, author of the important Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, studied 88 families from a variety of backgrounds for her book and described similar differences between classes. Working-class parents, she concluded, don't tend to ask their children for their opinions or preferences; they are more likely to give simple commands than to explain why they are telling a child to do something, as middle-class parents do. Importantly, these differences persist regardless of race. It's no wonder, then, that working-class and lower-income children generally have less success in school than the children of the middle class.

The combination of middle-class American child-rearing practices and preschool pedagogy helps explain the stubborn hold of many progressive ideas on educators' imaginations, as well as the failure of those ideas to help less-privileged kids. "Whole-language" reading instruction, for example, was predicated on the same ideas about the child's intrinsic self as those embraced by middle-class American mothers and fathers. According to whole-language theory, children learn to read by using their innate capacities, as they do when they start talking; they don't need explicit instruction in phonics or spelling or grammar any more than they need lessons in how to ask for ice cream. Surrounded with a variety of books from which they can freely choose, children, as whole-language proponents insist, will be able to discover sound patterns and whole words on their own by deciphering their context within a given story. "Balanced literacy" is a revised version of the whole-language approach that makes some gestures toward reading instruction — or what supporters carefully describe as "teacher support to develop the literacy growth of each individual student." But the individualistic language it uses — "student-centered learning," children "grow" their literacy — betrays the method's close relationship to its antecedent.

Educators' zeal for "creative classrooms" also reflects a particularly American way of thinking about teaching and learning. Creativity enthusiasts see themselves as rebelling against the mechanical, industrial-era "drill-and-kill" thinking they believe dominates American schools. Ken Robinson's 2006 TED talk titled "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" — the most watched video in TED history — answered the question of his title with a clarion "yes." In his talks and books, Robinson has described our education system as a "death valley," a "system based on standardization and conformity that suppresses individuality, imagination, and creativity." He and his ilk want schools to be full of creative teachers who shun traditional subject matter and assignments like worksheets, tests, and essays in favor of dioramas, videos, acrostic poems, songs, and projects. A "creative" teacher — one of the highest compliments that can be paid to our "guides on the side" — is said to make for "joyful" classrooms and students. And, as future-minded pundits have warned repeatedly, creative thinking is essential for 21st-century jobs.

To be sure, Americans have every reason to revere the creative brains in their midst. The nation's legendary ingenuity, innovation, and dynamism have been crucial for improving productivity and standards of living, both in the United States and worldwide. As the birthplace of innumerable world-changing inventions — the airplane, the suspension bridge, the light bulb, GPS, and more — the country remains the world's leader in the number of Nobel Prize winners. Its citizens have created a full quarter of the 10 million patents granted worldwide. This is rightly a source of tremendous pride for Americans, and we should hope we are able to retain our creative edge for years to come.

But the creativity craze pushes us straight into that dead-end cultural contradiction that confounds the work of schools. The truth is that no one knows how to teach creativity per se. Moreover, individual creativity isn't always conducive to social cohesion, self-expression is frequently at odds with civility, and the need for order and safety often demands that children curb their energies and control their impulses.

If the complaints of American educators are to be believed, today's schoolchildren are, at best, C students when it comes to self-discipline, motivation, civility, and other "soft skills." Employer complaints about the Millennial "soft-skills gap" have become a recurrent topic in management reports and at human-resources conferences. Online laments about younger workers who have trouble getting to work on time, collaborating, communicating, and dealing with workplace discipline and authority are ubiquitous. This is one predictable consequence of the hyper-individualism of middle-class American parenting and teaching: The teacher as a "guide on the side" appeals to the child's unique inner nature but fails to challenge his natural egotism and immaturity.

This contradiction also helps explain our interminable curriculum battles. American hyper-individualism conflicts with any notion of education as a structured transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. The traditional disciplines that liberals used to prize — and that many conservatives still do — are reduced from a shared body of knowledge to a rummage sale of resources for enhancing individual meaning, identity, and creativity. In addition to constituting a culturally meaningful body of knowledge as yet unknown to the child, these disciplines — with their chronological history, separate subdisciplines, and step-by-step mastery of increasingly complex material — demonstrate the value of reason, order, and shared reality. They communicate adults' recognition of children's inescapable ignorance. The teacher knows something the child does not know. He is an authority; the child is, well, a child.


Personalized learning is the latest reform to weaken the idea of education as a collective, social activity. Portrayed as the welcome triumph of 21st-century know-how over outdated teacher-centered classrooms, personalized learning is best understood as the supreme pedagogical expression of American individualism. Supporters — including powerful tech-funded charities like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation — want to use data and digital technology to more fully customize education, to train children to rely on their own "self-reflection" and "self-assessment." These terms are sometimes claimed by educators who are more interested in sounding up-to-date than in digitizing their classrooms, but as imagined by enthusiasts, personalized learning bypasses any notion of shared curriculum, shared expectations, shared knowledge, and even the classroom itself. Each student is an island with his own "personalized learning path" and his own academic goals, which "enabl[es] student voice and choice in what, how, when and where" he learns.

It's too early in the personalized-learning revolution to know exactly how it will unfold, but a 2019 article in the New York Times foreshadows trouble ahead for Silicon Valley's education plans. The Times investigation focused on a computerized personalized-learning program developed by Facebook engineers. With financial support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the program has spread to 380 schools, where it is used by 74,000 students. "Students are becoming self-directed learners and are demonstrating greater ownership of their learning activities," one district superintendent assured reporters. But parents and students were deeply dissatisfied, organizing district-wide protests, walkouts, and boycotts. In an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and co-CEO of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, students at one New York City school wrote that they "feel as if they are not learning anything and that the program isn't preparing them for the Regents exams they need to pass to graduate." The letter continues:

Most importantly, the entire program eliminates much of the human interaction, teacher support, and discussion and debate with our peers that we need in order to improve our critical thinking....[T]here is a huge class divide, with the children of the wealthy having small classes and real personalized learning in schools that minimize screen time, while public school students like us are expected to learn by a computer in front of our faces for hours at a time with educators only there to "facilitate."

Even when these personalized-education models are capably implemented, there is reason to worry that they are producing students who are ill-prepared for adult life. As part of recently published research on this topic, Duke University sociologist Jessi Streib interviewed 132 middle-class students up to four times during their transition to adulthood. She discovered that the 51% of the young adults in the group who appeared to be on "downwardly mobile trajectories" had one quality in common: They were loath to adapt to more structured environments. Some saw themselves as too smart and too talented to have to put up with required coursework. Some dropped out of college or avoided graduate school when they found they were unable to "customize" their schooling to fit their preferences. Some quit jobs because they didn't like having bosses tell them what to do. "[T]he very practices that middle-class parents pass down to their children," she writes, "may move them toward class reproduction when they are young and in school and away from it as they become older and enter college and the workforce."

The fact that the other half of Streib's subjects were on their way to what Streib calls "class reproduction" is worth dwelling on. Middle-class parents may endorse educational programming that cultivates children's individuality in the classroom, but at home, they tend to instill their children with countervailing character traits, including self-discipline, accountability, civility, and respect for social conventions. By molding their children through informal behavioral education — ensuring they say "please" and "thank you," use their "inside voices" indoors, and keep their rooms clean — middle-class parents can somewhat insulate their children from the hyper-individualistic values of the education system they've built.

Meanwhile lower-income students — who are less likely to come from homes that straddle America's middle-class cultural contradictions — are faring worse. For these students, the problem with the hyper-individualist classroom is not that it promotes entitlement, as Streib suggests, but that family life hasn't prepared them for the assumptions of today's middle-class educators. Sure, those parents want their children to have good manners and to listen to their teachers. But in all likelihood, those lessons have been delivered bluntly, with a hint of "life-is-tough" severity, and without concern for the child's self-expression. Adults have likely not prodded these children to "use their words" or express their feelings, or asked them questions about what they thought about a story or what they noticed during a walk to the grocery store. They're lacking the "cultural literacy" — to recall E. D. Hirsch, Jr.'s invaluable term — to thrive in the contemporary progressive classroom.

It's likely that this helps explain why charter schools with structured curricula, rigorously defined rules, and high behavioral expectations have sometimes had more success with disadvantaged students than their less-structured counterparts: These schools force students to practice no-nonsense order and routine. At the same time, these environments are less dependent on the vocabulary and ideals surrounding individuality and self-expression that are so familiar to students from the middle class but less familiar to their lower-class peers.


Can formally teaching soft skills compensate for the deficits that Streib and so many employers describe — deficits that are partially attributable to the education system itself? Many American educators are enamored of the possibility, but they should not be so quick to believe it.

In most societies, soft skills are built into routines and shared understandings of "proper" behavior as taught by parents and schools and reinforced through encounters with neighbors, shopkeepers, family, and friends. While offering classes to teach "self-discipline" or "empathy" may be a step in the right direction for American schools, such efforts are a paltry substitute for the sort of character education that children receive in more decorous and cohesive cultures. As one of the French mothers quoted in Bringing Up Bébé explains, she insists her child say "bonjour, madame" not because she longs to punish her child, but because the greeting reminds children that "they're not the only ones with feelings and needs." Through such a seemingly trivial formality, and with no soft-skills curriculum in sight, the French child is required to develop and practice humility, self-control, and respect. If we'd like to better understand how children can learn soft skills like diligence and perseverance, we might look to how Chinese schoolchildren memorize the thousands of complex characters that comprise Mandarin.

As American educators begin to recognize the social and economic importance of soft skills, it is crucial for them to keep in mind these examples of character-education success in foreign cultures. They remind us of the indispensable role convention and culture play in the process of character formation and can help us understand the price we pay when conventionality and formality themselves become casualties of our commitment to hyper-individualism — both inside and outside the classroom.

Beyond its impact on learning, we should also consider what role our excessively individualistic pedagogy is playing in the coming apart of American society. Growing up in a multiracial, multiethnic environment, American students already share fewer commonalities than those from nations that are more homogeneous. Instead of recognizing this danger, educators have all but abandoned the mission implied by E Pluribus Unum — of instilling in the rising generation a sense of our common history and culture. With social fragmentation, disintegrating trust, and an epidemic of loneliness all on the rise, it may be time to re-evaluate the focus on hyper-individualism that lies at the heart of our education system.

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.


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