Friday, August 1, 2014

You're such a character

David Brooks writes:
One of the main differences between parents and antipoverty programs is that character matters to the former. Thus if you are a parent, you probably think your children's chances of success in life will have a lot to do with their character, but if you're an antipoverty program, not so much.
This is true both for Democratic and Republican programs, naturally. Democratic programs assume that poor people need more money, [jump]
Buster Keaton in The Navigator (1924).
and Republican programs assume that they need more tax incentives and fewer regulatory barriers. Both see the poor as abstractions rather than complex, though unfortunately character-deprived, living beings.
For example in the 2011 riots over a police shooting in Tottenham, according to Richard Reeves, the politicians offered typical knee-jerk reactions: the Labour Party found that the rioters rioted because they were poor, and the Conservatives said, "We know what happened. Bad kids with bad parents did bad things. We don’t need any fucking research." But non-politicians like Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats found that research was required, to conclude that these unhappy young people most needed not money or morality but self-discipline, application, the ability to defer gratification, and resilience in recovering from setbacks, which was not a knee-jerk reaction at all but a sophisticated and nonideological response.
Much more research agrees with this fundamental point. Walter Mischel showed that Trinidadian preschoolers who wait 15 minutes before eating their marshmallow in return for a promised second marshmallow grow up to get higher SAT scores and a better body-mass index score even though you'd think the latter would not have been helped by a grim determination to have two marshmallows when one would have been enough. Carol Dweck has discovered that those who believe they can improve do improve more than people who believe they can't, and Angela Duckworth has evidence that grit and perseverance help people persevere and be gritty. Students who finish their work tend to get better grades than those who don't, though I can't remember where I read that. 
Moreover, studies have found that drive and discipline tend to correlate with social status and income levels across the board, with higher self-control associating with higher class. This is not a coincidence. It could be attributed to higher levels of stress and distraction in poor households affecting children's brains. Thus well-off children perform better on particularly boring tests. Don't know where I read that either, but it must be in that Reeves article somewhere. You don't think I read two articles to assemble this thing, do you?
Anyway, you might suppose it would be a good idea to find ways to decrease the stress and distraction, but that would be too easy. In fact it is exactly the opposite of what's needed, which is to give poor children better characters so that they can cope with stress and distraction at the given levels; chiefly by sending them to charter schools.
Which brings us to listicle time, and a few points not appropriated directly from Reeves.
First, habits. People who develop self-discipline and control in small things will tend to practice it in major things as well. Antipoverty programs need to focus on good manners and acts of restraint; for example, caseworkers could deny them their SNAP cards until they say please, and lower their benefits to teach them better allocation of their resources.
Second, opportunity. You may be able to deny yourself a marshmallow without the promise of a second marshmallow to keep you on the straight and narrow, but not everybody can. Most people require a belief that depriving themselves of a momentary pleasure will lead to some kind of greater happiness in the future, for instance a young woman with hopes of going to college will be less likely to get pregnant. Of course she won't actually get to go to college unless as the beneficiary of one of those knee-jerk liberal programs, but she will develop her character if she thinks she will.
Third, exemplars. Communities of poor people, inhabited entirely by sensation-seeking airheads, have no one to look up to and provide them with a model of how to defer gratification. The Democratic Third Way organization has suggested that retiring Baby Boomers could join a kind of Opus Dei of the state or BoomerCorps, exhibiting themselves to the indigent who will thereby be able to learn habits of courtesy and restraint.
Fourth, standards. People like Martin West, anxious to find new ways of persuading people of the benefits of charter schools, since it turns out that they don't improve educational outcomes or save money, have learned that students often or at least sometimes raise their expectations for themselves, creating their own future marshmallows if you will and saving us the trouble.
In conclusion, character development is a very mysterious subject, and yet it undoubtedly takes place. Thanks to social science research we know at least that family, community, and government can work together to encourage it, enveloping the alienated and mistrustful individual in attachments and institutions, sticking a stamp on them, and mailing them to a town called Success. And done! Intern, my marshmallow?
Via Laura Thain.

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