Multiculturalism Reading #5: The Real Cultural Divide


 

Ben Sasse

The Vanishing American Adult (2017)

Chapter Eight: Build a Bookshelf  [excerpts]

 

Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.

—Margaret Thatcher

 

[1] America is a different kind of place. it was founded deliberately, by people with strong ideas about heaven and hell, about rights and responsibilities, about public and private— and about the kind of society that would promote virtuous living and serious thinking. And it has therefore always been a magnet for the intense.

 

[2] Our settlers and founders were an opinionated lot— people of con­troversial ideas, life-and-death ideas. They wanted the liberty to worship and to argue freely, and to not be subject to a Church of England they considered decadent. The Puritans who left the Old World for the New brought with them a particular piety and a strain of democratic civic-mindedness that would eventually give birth to modern constitutional self-government.

 

[3] We cannot understand them, or this nation of theirs we've inherited, without grasping that one crucial— and at the time radically new—element that made possible the widespread dissemination of the religious and political ideas they carried with them: the printed word. The men and women who founded our nation did so by riding the wave of the print revolution. Their moment was historically unprecedented, and our failure to remember this neglects the related truth that what we read, or don't read, still drives not only what we believe but also how we engage with each other and how we make decisions about our future. As has been noted often in this book, living in a republic demands a great deal of us.

 

[4] Among the responsibilities of each citizen in a participatory democracy is keeping ourselves sufficiently informed so that we can participate effectively, argue our positions honorably, and, hopefully, forge sufficient consensus to understand each other and then to govern. To this end, our critical faculties must be in top condition— the ability not just to evaluate sources, weigh evidence, and check facts, but also to understand motivations, resolve apparent contradictions, cut through ambiguities, and maybe even discover truths. These skills and habits are in ill repair, and the informed contentiousness that a free re­public demands is beleaguered and fraying.

 

[5] On the way to adulthood, young Americans must develop these skills, for themselves and for us. If they don't, we're all in big trouble. The proliferation of distractions and misdirections is growing worse by the day. As "fake news" stories spreading on social media demonstrate, we all have to be skeptical of things passed along as news. The digital communications revolution will continue to democratize people's access to information in ways that are both healthy and unhealthy. Critical, engaged reading skills are not a luxury, but rather a necessity for responsible adults and responsible citizens.

 

[6] America's future depends on the kind of thinking that reading presupposes and nourishes— and such thinking demands a rebirth of reading.

 

DIGITAL DISTRACTIONS AND THE HABIT OF READING

[7] You met my buddy Scott briefly in the last chapter, as the guy with whom I spent the winter of 1992-93 traveling abroad. In the two decades since, he's spent most of his time back home in Pittsburgh prosecuting criminals and coaching his five rowdy sons in Little League. As fathers, we compare notes about parenting— our joy in our kids' development, our worries about cultural gales threatening to blow them off course, and our uncertainty about whether we're doing a good enough job toughening them up for the future. Scott is endearingly quirky: When we graduated from Harvard, he had bills to pay and was worried about his own work ethic; so— without really telling anyone— he went and worked in an iron foundry for the better part of a year before starting his first permanent job.

 

[8] Last year, Scott took a similar lean-in approach to his parenting when he posed what at first seemed like a simple question, but one that ended up consuming weeks of my life: "Carrie and I worry that our kids don't understand the glories of books enough— they don't love them enough. What books do you want your kids to have read by the time they leave home?"

 

[9] Melissa and I work hard to shape our kids toward reading well, and loving reading, and embracing and really knowing a bunch of good books, but we'd never put it quite like this. That end date on Scott's query— "by the time they leave home"— nudged us to a new urgency about our calling to have them be not just functionally literate but fully habituated to reading important things by the time they depart from under our roof. We realized that for them to claim their full inheritance as Americans, they need to read and to understand the role of reading in our republic. They need to feel a desire in their chests to become people of the book, even amid the seductive lure of the screen. And this won't happen without a program for what to read. We aim for our kids to leave home for college or work, not necessarily having finished a great reading list but definitely having built and begun to get to know their own great starter reading lists.

 

[10] And so we direct and encourage them: to build their own long-term reading list, to persuade others to read their favorites, to be humble and curious in accepting the recommendations of others, and to actively adjust their list as they wrestle with and learn from others. This process we've created is not the same as claiming that they can develop one fixed canon of what to read that is right for everyone, but rather that they should have an evolving list of their own that they will use in prioritizing their reading of fifty or sixty key books. The primary goal is premised on the idea that there are only so many hours in a day. This makes it essential that they become stewards of their limited time as they fall in love with reading particular books. The second goal is to encourage them to engage with friends and neighbors and in the process develop a kind of list of "water cooler books" instead of just TV shows. It's fun that my kids can quote some old Seinfeld episodes with their cousins, but it's far more meaningful for them to be able to quote some Shakespeare together.

 

[11] Becoming truly literate is a choice. Reading done well is not a passive activity like sitting in front of a screen. It requires a degree of attention, engagement, and active questioning of which most of our children currently have a deficit. The core question is not whether you hold in your hand an old-fashioned paper book or a new electronic book, but rather that even when you read from a screen, you develop the self-discipline to ignore the temptation to check email or scores or social media every few minutes. Reading done well requires a forward-leaning brain. Our culture's ever-present distractions— the obsessive appeals to immediacy ("What 'news' might I be missing?")— conspire to blunt our curiosity and distract us from sustained thought. The relentless pull of the digital world, with its demands that our kids submit to the shiny and the immediate, threatens to make them not just less literate but also more like subjects than citizens. At our house we challenge ourselves to read for sixty minutes without looking at smartphones, televisions, or computers.

 

[12] Tragically, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American now reads only nineteen minutes per day. And younger Americans are reading far less than the national average. That our emerging adults take so little interest in reading today is not just sad for them, it's also a threat to the idea of democracy, which has long assumed the ability to read— and a desire to read. It is not only the content of a book that changes you but the shared community with those who have read it, discussed it, argued about it. Books create communities here and now, as well as across space and time.

 

[13] Obviously movies and television shows can also create a shared ex­perience of a story, but a culture ruled by print is very different from one ruled by images. Print shapes the way we write, speak, think, and remember. Every presidential election year, people lament the shallow, soundbite-driven spectacles that pass for debates and pine nostalgically for the depth and honest substance that Lincoln and Douglas brought to their encounters. But few Americans would have the patience or the endurance for a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate today. When the two men met on stage in Ottawa, Illinois, on August 21, 1858, they agreed to a format that would have multiple hour-long speeches and rebuttals. At one debate, Douglas spoke three hours uninterrupted. In another forum, Lincoln suggested a break so the audience could "go home, eat dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk."

 

[14] We aren't wired that way anymore. Or, more accurately, we no lon­ger have the habits— the attention span that comes with concentrated and uninterrupted reading— that would make debates like that conceivable, let alone pleasurable. But a republic's survival still depends on an informed and engaged citizenry. Conscientious reading— and therefore dispassionate deliberation— remains the key to grappling honestly with the pressing issues of time.

 

[15] The good news is that these skills can be self-taught. And our unique history has much to offer in our quest to revive a love of reading among the rising generation.

 

THE BLOODLESS REVOLUTION

[16] For our emerging adults to understand America's place in world history— and to participate fully as inheritors in this project of self-government and resilient citizenship— they must first comprehend what an outlier it is, across the sweep of human experience, for every single one of us to have cheap and easy access to books. The origins and per­petuation of this experiment in self-rule are simply not understandable without grasping how unprecedented it was for our Founders to be able to make the argument for the universal engagement of a people in delib­eration about their own self-governance . . .

 

[17] It's hard to exaggerate how transformative the move was from a pre­literate to a mass-literate culture— and that shift was enabled by one man's invention. For that we owe our thanks to Johannes Gutenberg, my "man of the millennium." The debut of this historically unique tool in 1454, in the words of one scholar, "heralded nothing less than a bloodless revolution. New dimensions of knowledge, its dissemination and networking were opened up by the media revolution that was set in motion," first in Germany, and eventually everywhere. The printing press took the production of books out of the hands of scribes meticulously copying manuscripts for years and gave it instead to typesetters who could produce hundreds of copies of a book in a matter of days. Gutenberg's invention quickly sup­planted the old, inefficient way of preserving and transmitting knowl­edge. "Learning became book-learning," as Lewis Mumford observed, and anybody could acquire it.

 

[18] In arguably the most radical leveling event in history, the poor sud­denly became near equals of the rich in terms of access to information. Almost every other step of inclusion of the previously economically marginalized over the coming centuries depends on this first step of inclusion into the community of those with access to knowledge. Printing democratized reading and fertilized the cultural soil that produced the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, along with the political, scientific, and industrial revolutions that sprouted in the seventeenth century and reached full flower two centuries later. "More than a triumph of technical ingenuity," the printing press was "one of the most potent agents at the disposal of western civilization" in bringing together scattered ideas of thinkers across time and geography and then spread­ing those ideas far and wide. And its number-one product— the book— was "one of the most effective means of mastery over the whole world."

 

[19] Printing had existed before Gutenberg came along, but the process was so grossly inefficient as to not matter much. The prior measure of productivity was that one monk could reproduce, on average, just over one, nearly error-free, handwritten manuscript page per day. Gutenberg's innovations, which eventually produced presses literally mil­lions of times as efficient as monks copying by hand, remade the world overnight— and there was unimaginable demand for the broadsheets and books he made possible. People wanted knowledge. There was insatiable appetite for old wisdom and new information, from near and far, on every subject under the sun. Within fifty years, more than 1,000 printers had set up shop in 350 cities and towns throughout Europe, publishing 30,000 to 35,000 different titles with a total output between 9 and 20 million books.

 

[20] Unsurprisingly, the first book Gutenberg printed was the Bible. Until about the year 1000, the most literate men in Europe belonged to the clergy, which had a monopoly on this book. Almost everybody else learned through icons and images. Before Gutenberg, churches chained down their Bibles, in part because they were so expensive and difficult to produce, but also to limit their circulation and who was permitted to read them. The cheap and quick production afforded by Gutenberg's press democratized and universalized reading, transforming hierarchies of knowledge and ultimately all of society.

 

[21] The shift from a manuscript culture to a print culture was radical. With manuscripts, the emphasis was on preservation. If you had the only existing copies of Cicero's Let­ters or Euclid's Geometry, you weren't likely to share these rare, fragile artifacts. Instead, you kept them safe from vandalism and decay. The physical book was often more important to its owner than the ideas therein. You would want to ensure the survival of those manuscripts for subsequent generations of elite, full-time scholars.

 

[22] After Gutenberg, print culture made copying simple. If you were a printer, you had different incentives: to see your work spread far and wide. Preservation became less of a concern than propagation. Books were transformed from heirlooms to tools. And ideas were freed to become viruses, for good and for ill.


 

Francis Fukuyama

Social Capital and Civil Society

International Monetary Fund, 2000  [excerpts]

 

[1] Social capital is important to the efficient functioning of modern economies and is the sine qua non of stable liberal democracy. It constitutes the cultural component of modern societies, which in other respects have been organized since the Enlightenment on the basis of formal institutions, the rule of law, and rationality. Building social capital has typically been seen as a task for "second generation" economic reform; but unlike economic policies or even economic institutions, social capital cannot be so easily created or shaped by public policy. This paper will define social capital, explore its economic and political functions, as well as its origins, and make some suggestions for how it can be cultivated.

 

WHAT IS SOCIAL CAPITAL?

[2] While social capital has been given a number of different definitions, most of them refer to manifestations of social capital rather than to social capital itself. The definition I use in this paper is: social capital is an instantiated informal norm that promotes cooperation between two or more individuals. The norms that constitute social capital can range from a norm of reciprocity between two friends, all the way to complex and elaborately articulated doctrines like Christianity or Confucianism.

 

[3] These norms must be instantiated in an actual human relationship: the norm of reciprocity exists in potentia in my dealings with all people, but is actualized only in my dealings with my friends. By this definition, trust, networks, civil society, and the like, which have been associated with social capital, are all epiphenominal, arising because of social capital but not constituting social capital itself. Not just any set of instantiated norms constitutes social capital; they must lead to cooperation in groups and therefore are related to traditional virtues like honesty, the keeping of commitments, reliable performance of duties, reciprocity, and the like. A norm like the one described by Edward Banfield (1958) as characterizing southern Italy, which enjoins individuals to trust members of their immediate nuclear family but to take advantage of everyone else, is clearly not the basis of social capital outside the family.

 

[4] James Coleman (1988), who was responsible for bringing the term social capital into wider use in recent years, once argued that social capital was a public good and therefore would be underproduced by private agents interacting in markets. This is clearly wrong. Since cooperation is necessary to virtually all individuals as a means of achieving their selfish ends, it stands to reason that they will produce it as a private good. According to Dasgupta 2000, social capital is a private good that is nonetheless pervaded by externalities, both positive and negative. An example of a positive externality is Puritanism's injunction, described by Max Weber (1951), to treat all people morally, and not just members of the sib or family. The potential for cooperation thus spreads beyond the immediate group of people sharing Puritan norms. Negative externalities abound, as well. Many groups achieve internal cohesion at the expense of outsiders, who can be treated with suspicion, hostility, or outright hatred. Both the Ku Klux Klan and the Mafia achieve cooperative ends on the basis of shared norms and thus have social capital, but they also produce abundant negative externalities for the larger society in which they are embedded.

 

[5] It is sometimes argued that social capital differs from other forms of capital because it leads to bad results like hate groups or inbred bureaucracies. This does not disqualify it as a form of capital; physical capital can take the form of assault rifles or tasteless entertainment, and human capital can be used to devise new ways of torturing people. Since societies have laws to prevent the production of many social "bads," we can presume that most legal forms of social capital are no less "goods" than the other forms of capital insofar as they help people achieve their aims. Perhaps the reason that social capital seems less obviously a social good than physical or human capital is that it tends to produce more in the way of negative externalities than either of the other two forms. This is because group solidarity in human communities is often purchased at the price of hostility toward out-group members. There appears to be a natural human proclivity for dividing the world into friends and enemies that is the basis of all politics It is thus very important when measuring social capital to consider its true utility net of its externalities.

 

[6] Another way of approaching this question is through the concept of the "radius of trust." All groups embodying social capital have a certain radius of trust, that is, the circle of people among whom cooperative norms are operative. If a group's social capital produces positive externalities, the radius of trust can be larger than the group itself. It is also possible for the radius of trust to be smaller than the membership of the group, as in large organizations that foster cooperative norms only among the group's leadership or permanent staff. A modern society may be thought of as a series of concentric and overlapping radii of trust. These can range from friends and cliques to NGOs and religious groups.

 

[7] Virtually all forms of traditional culture— social groups like tribes, clans, village associations, religious sects, and the like— are based on shared norms, which they use to achieve cooperative ends. The literature on development has not, as a general rule, found social capital in this form to be an asset; it is much more typically regarded as a liability. Economic modernization was seen as antithetical to traditional culture and social organizations, and would either wipe them away or else be itself blocked by forces of traditionalism. Why should this be so, if social capital is genuinely a form of capital? . . .

 

WHAT FUNCTION DOES SOCIAL CAPITAL PLAY IN A FREE-MARKET LIBERAL DEMOCRACY?

[8] The economic function of social capital is to reduce the transaction costs associated with formal coordination mechanisms like contracts, hierarchies, and bureaucratic rules. It is of course possible to achieve coordinated action among a group of people possessing no social capital, but this would presumably entail additional transaction costs of monitoring, negotiating, litigating, and enforcing formal agreements. No contract can possibly specify every contingency that may arise between the parties; most presuppose a certain amount of goodwill that prevents the parties from taking advantage of unforeseen loopholes. Contracts that do seek to try to specify all contingencies— like the job-control labor pacts negotiated in the auto industry that were as thick as telephone books— end up being very inflexible and costly to enforce.

 

[9] There was a period when social scientists assumed that modernization necessarily entailed the progressive replacement of informal coordination mechanisms with formal ones. There was presumably a period in human history in which formal law and organizations scarcely existed and in which social capital was the only means of achieving coordinated action; Max Weber argued that, by contrast, rational bureaucracy constituted the essence of modernity.

 

[10] The fact of the matter is that coordination based on informal norms remains an important part of modern economies and arguably becomes more important as the nature of economic activity becomes more complex and technologically sophisticated. Many complex services are very costly to monitor and are better controlled through internalized professional standards than through formal monitoring mechanisms. A highly educated software engineer often knows much more about his or her own productivity than his or her supervisor; procurement is often more efficient when left to the judgment of an experienced procurement officer rather than being done "by the book" as in the case of a good deal of government procurement. A number of empirical studies suggest that high-technology research and development is often dependent on the informal exchange of intellectual property rights, simply because formal exchange would entail excessive transaction costs and slow down the speed of interchange.

 

[11] Even in non-high-technology environments, social capital often leads to greater efficiency than purely formal coordination techniques. Classical Taylorism, which organized workplaces in a highly centralized, bureaucratized manner, created many inefficiencies because decisions were delayed and information became distorted as they moved up and down hierarchical chains of command. In many manufacturing facilities, Taylorism has been replaced by much flatter management structures, which in effect push responsibility down to the factory floor itself. Workers who are much closer to the sources of local knowledge are authorized to make decisions on their own, instead of referring them up a managerial hierarchy. This often leads to great gains in efficiency, but is totally dependent on the social capital of the workforce. If there is distrust between workers and managers, or widespread opportunism, then the delegation of authority required in a typical "lean" manufacturing system will lead to instant paralysis.

 

[12] Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America best elucidated the political function of social capital in a modern democracy. He used the phrase the "art of association" to describe Americans' propensity for civil association. According to Tocqueville, a modern democracy tends to wipe away most forms of social class or inherited status that bind people together in aristocratic societies. Men are left equally free, but weak in their equality since they are born with no conventional attachments. The vice of modern democracy is to promote excessive individualism— that is, a preoccupation with one's private life and family— and an unwillingness to engage in public affairs. Americans combated this tendency toward excessive individualism by their propensity for voluntary association, which led them to form groups, both trivial and important, for all aspects of their lives.


 

Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America, v.2, Chapter VI

"What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear"

 

[1] I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them but he does not see them. . . .

 

[2] Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. . . . It seeks only to keep men fixed irrevocably in childhood. . . . It provides for the citizens' security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

 

[3] Thus after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them. . . . it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.