February 28, 2023
How to Prevent Social Change: A Handy Guide for Educators and Parents
By Alfie Kohn
If you’re the sort of person who prefers to perpetuate rather than challenge the status quo — or maybe just a fan of inequity — I have good news for you. Certain ways of raising and teaching children are actually much more conservative than they may appear. By following these four guidelines, you can increase the odds that the next generation will face exactly the same social structures that we do. And, as a bonus, they, too, will likely grow up to be inertia agents.
1. Teach kids to define success as joining the ranks of the privileged rather than working to end a system of privilege.
Before considering several methods, let’s start with how to frame our goal. A very effective way to preserve an extraordinarily unequal society1 is to encourage children — as well as struggling adults — to place their hopes in becoming wealthy and powerful instead of questioning why wealth and power remain firmly in the hands of the few. It doesn’t so much matter whether they try to improve their position the slow way (by taking on enormous debt to get a degree, working an extra job, and so on) or through any number of seductive shortcuts, such as betting on Bitcoin or becoming a social-media influencer. The message is the same: Work with the script you’ve been given.
That’s how an economic system that predicates wealth on poverty and power on powerlessness stirs so little outrage even among those with the greatest incentive to challenge it. Notice, too, how such a stance affects the way we come to regard one another: Working to end a system of privilege requires collaborative effort, whereas trying to become privileged requires sharp elbows (because all those other poor schmoes are also angling for [artificially] scarce distinctions). Query who benefits when all the have-nots are induced to compete rather than cooperate — and notice, incidentally, that there may be a gendered component to this dynamic.2
In the world of education, it’s understandable that those committed to equity would want disadvantaged students to have access to, say, test-preparation resources or gifted-and-talented programs. But if we think only about access, we contribute to perpetuating the institutions themselves regardless of their value. Standardized testing, like programs that restrict enrichments to a small proportion of students, inevitably widen the gap over time. Testing, especially the high-stakes variety, also lowers the quality of teaching and learning for all students.3
I’m not suggesting that those on the bottom should abandon efforts to succeed at this game just because it’s rigged. To focus exclusively on long-term transformation is to ignore the very real stakes here and now. But I picture those who don’t have to worry about such things smirking as they watch the masses scramble to bring up their grades or test scores a little bit — rather than organizing to create an education system that’s more equitable and excellent than one based on grades and test scores.
2. Concentrate on preparing children for the “real world.” (And make sure to use that phrase even when what you actually have in mind is our society at this point in time, as though the current political and economic arrangements in the U.S. were equivalent to life itself.)
What I’ve elsewhere described as BGUTI4 — for “Better Get Used To It” — is the practice of rationalizing pointless, unpleasant, and even harmful things done to kids on the grounds that this will prepare them for all the pointless, unpleasant, or harmful things they’ll be forced to do later. Of course this makes no sense, logically or developmentally. Adults are not better able to handle distressing experiences because they were deliberately subjected to distressing experiences when they were young. In fact, the exact opposite of this is closer to the truth.
But acclimating kids to things that lack intrinsic value isn’t just stupid; it’s also an example of conservatism masquerading as realism. BGUTI may not help children to deal with unpleasant circumstances they encounter later, but what it does very effectively is make it more likely that unnecessarily unpleasant circumstances will continue to occur and will be regarded as inevitable. When children hear “Well, you’re going to get lots of homework when you’re in high school” or “No boss is going to care what you think,” they learn that the status quo can’t be questioned. Thus, “Better get used to it” is a recipe for docility, a way of making sure that debatable policies are never debated.
3. Emphasize personal responsibility and character.
Social change requires sustained attention to social phenomena — systems and structures. Therefore, an exceptionally effective way to derail social change is to focus attention instead on individual attitudes and proficiencies. It’s hard to miss that this is what’s going on when conservatives lecture children (or the affluent lecture the poor) about the importance of personal responsibility. But the effect is strikingly similar when even people who don’t identify as conservative promote self-discipline and the deferral of gratification, or concepts like “grit” and a “growth mindset“: Students are taught not to question the value of what they’ve been told to do but simply to toil away at it and to regard persistence and improvement as inherently virtuous.
And how much can they improve? That’s where motivational slogans and posters come in. The sky’s the limit! You can if you think you can! Or so we’ll keep telling you even though social mobility is more a myth than a reality in this country. (One study that followed almost eight hundred children in Baltimore for more than two decades discovered that, with remarkably few exceptions, “where you start in life is where you end up.”) As the writer Stephen Marche recently remarked, inspirational tales about the occasional underdog who triumphed against all odds “are about as useful as lottery ads are to retirement planning.”
Nothing maintains the current arrangement of power more effectively than ignoring the current arrangement of power. So by directing the attention of your children or students away from the existence of structural barriers and long-standing disparities in resources and opportunities, they’ll come to believe that if their lives don’t turn out well, they have no one to blame but themselves.
Here’s one bit of evidence for the importance of this shift. In the last few years, we’ve noticed that while conservatives bristle at accusations of racism (and even attempt to appropriate the term in order to complain that whites are the real victims), what really sets them off — to the point that they’ll use the power of the state to stamp it out — is talk of structural racism. One Republican state after another has moved to ban books and history lessons that accurately describe the foundational role that the subjugation of African Americans has played in the story of our nation.
If you’re white, male, straight, Christian, and conservative, and you want to maintain a system that benefits people like you, even if that entails imposing it on the majority against their will, you may invoke concepts like “parental rights” to extinguish any systemic critique of the status quo because that’s the kind of critique that’s most threatening to your status. Or, if you recoil from such heavy-handed measures and their association with far-right politics, a similar outcome may result from teaching children that success in life can be achieved by practicing mindfulness, gratitude, and self-care; or that everything happens for a reason; or that what you get out of life just depends on what you put into it.
Thus, one cross-national study found that “American working mothers generally blame themselves for how hard their lives are. They take personal responsibility for problems that European mothers recognize as having external causes.” See? It works!5
4. Let kids alone.
When little kids scamper out to recess, which is typically one of the few opportunities for them to exercise some autonomy, they often play competitive games. Why? Because they have thoughtfully arrived at the conclusion that recreation requires people to try to defeat each other? No, because they’ve probably never been introduced to cooperative games and are unlikely to come up with that alternative on their own when all the games to which they’ve been exposed in our culture pit one team against another. And of course that model also describes our economic system, our political system, and our schools (with awards assemblies, spelling bees, and whatnot).
Similarly, by the time they’re in second or third grade, most kids, if told that the class has a decision to make, will assume they’re going to take a vote. (“Raise your hand if you’d like our field trip to be to the zoo.”) But voting is just adversarial majoritarianism and, as the political theorist Benjamin Barber pointed out, it’s probably the least important act in a real democracy. It excludes the messy, improvisational work of having to forge a consensus or hash out a compromise and consider the needs and perspectives of other people.
Consensus-building, like cooperative games, probably won’t occur to American children if they haven’t been exposed to it. Thus, if your goal were to perpetuate the way things are currently done, you could simply elevate non-interference or self-direction above all other educational virtues. Kids will be less likely to question the practices and norms in which they’ve been marinated — let alone to try to construct alternatives — and will just reproduce what they’re familiar with.
The paradox is quite simply that a stringently hands-off approach of the kind often found in “free schools” and “unschooling” may defeat efforts to create a more just society. Thus do even the grooviest among us become the unwitting allies of the Powers That Be.
So, no, it’s not hard to raise and teach kids in such a way as to discourage change. It’s so easy, in fact, that even if we don’t desire that result we may be contributing to it.
1. One essayist recently rattled off a few indicators of just how inequitable our society is, reminding us that “one American child in five lives below or near the poverty line; that somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of our economy’s productivity gains since 1980 have gone to the top 10 percent of the income distribution; that the top twenty-five hedge-fund managers earn more than all the nation’s kindergarten teachers combined; that 100,000 Americans will die for lack of health care over the next ten years in order to give a large tax cut to Americans with incomes above a half-million dollars.”
2. I don’t think it’s an overgeneralization to observe that men in our culture have traditionally been much more competitive and militaristic than women: more likely to join the Army and to play violent sports, vastly overrepresented among Wall Street money grubbers and generally more inclined to regard other people as potential adversaries to be bested rather than as potential allies. Even if these disparities are partly due to sexist policies and attitudes, does it follow that girls and women should put aside any reservations they may have about an adversarial way of being in the world in order to become as obnoxiously competitive as men? Years ago, Barrie Thorne, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Berkeley, took issue with that odd view of feminism. Sure, she allowed, “Women should be getting equal pay and having access to every occupation and being President and so on. But I wouldn’t want to end with that because I think this society is structured in an ugly, competitive way. I think the challenge is to pursue that strategy as a right that we have but at the same time to critique it and create alternative forms of community and human relations” (personal communication, 1984). I discussed this topic at greater length in No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Houghton Mifflin, 1986/1992), chapter 8.
3. The same is true of programs that guarantee admission to a state university for students whose grade-point average is in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Because American school districts are so egregiously segregated, this policy may increase the diversity of the incoming college class. But its uncritical reliance on grades has the effect of perpetuating their use, which, according to research, exacts a huge cost in the quality of students’ thinking, their interest in learning, and their desire to tackle challenging tasks.
5. Similarly, Matthew Desmond, the author of Poverty, by America, points out, a typical reaction in many countries upon encountering a homeless person is to wonder how the state failed him, whereas a typical reaction in the U.S. is to wonder what poor decisions that individual made.
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