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Breaking Silos Makes Society— and Our School— Stronger

The overarching essential question for my eighth grade history class is this:  “is America the greatest country in the world?” It annoys some people that I even ask this question, but it very much gets to the essence of education at Westminster School. It asks kids to work hard to learn about something important, to work with each other to process what they’ve learned, and then to think deeply about the question, decide what they think for themselves, and be willing to stand up for what they believe. 

As an American history teacher, I read a lot about our country. One recent book I read was by Robert Reich who was President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor and whose book, Aftershock, was the basis for the motion picture, Inequality for All. Another was by Charles Murray who is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of numerous books about American life and culture, most recently Coming Apart. Reich is a big government liberal while Murray is a conservative libertarian. They approach the issue of what’s wrong with America from completely different perspectives, and yet they agree that the American Dream is in trouble.

Reich idealizes what he calls the Great Prosperity which lasted from 1945-1975. It delivered on the promise of the American Dream—if you work hard, the life you and your family live will constantly improve. What fueled the Great Prosperity was big government—progressive income taxes, support for unions, unemployment benefits, minimum wage, and overtime pay which not only boosted earnings but created jobs.  Government waged a war on poverty, provided low-cost mortgages for home buyers, constructed the interstate highway system, and provided new opportunities to go to college. It also found time to rebuild Western Europe and Japan and to put a man on the moon.  

The American Dream began to unravel, however, after 1975. For the first time, productivity gains did not translate into higher wages for most Americans. Globalization and automation cost jobs and depressed salaries, and government’s response was to deregulate business and privatize government functions. Taxes on income, capital gains, and inheritances were cut while CEO salaries went from 30 times greater than the typical worker during the Great Prosperity to more than 300 times greater. The American Dream had come to an end. Inequality was on the rise.

During the 1970’s the percentage of wealth held by the top 1% of Americans began to increase, and by 2007 it was about the same level it had been in 1928—23.5%. As the bulk of Americans felt financially squeezed, they turned to new strategies to maintain their buying power. Women flooded into the labor force, and when a second income wasn’t enough to maintain a family’s buying power, Americans began working more overtime and second jobs. Finally, in the 2000’s the struggles of middle class consumers led them to borrow—from their savings, home equities, and credit cards.  Eventually, most Americans were tapped out. They had no one else to send to work, no more hours to put in, and no more credit to tap. Consumption declined, America spun into the Great Recession in late 2007, and many American families have yet to recover today.

If you’re picking fights with these first paragraphs, I suspect you’ll find Charles Murray more to your liking. Murray agrees that the viability of the American Dream is in doubt but blames it on a decline in social capital, civic engagement, and community trust. Where Reich looks at our problems through economics, Murray uses the lens of virtue. He argues that liberty and prosperity only survive in a country to the extent its citizens lead virtuous lives. While Murray admits that there are many important virtues, he concludes that for nearly 200 years the American Dream has rested on religion, traditional marriage, honesty, and hard work. Unfortunately over the last fifty years, these four virtues have eroded among most Americans.

Whereas Reich argues the American Dream began to disintegrate with the end of the Great Prosperity in the 1970’s, Murray uses November 23, 1963, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as the start of its decline. He provides ample statistics to support it.  In the early 1960’s only 1% of Americans professed to have no religious preference.  Today it’s over 17%. Before JFK’s assassination, half of all Americans had been to church in the prior week. Today, that number has fallen to less than 20%. When the American Dream was strong and viable, only 3% of American births were illegitimate.  Today that number is over 50%. The marriage rate then was 148 per 1,000 women; today it is less than half of that. In 1960 it would have been embarrassing to be adult, male, and idle, and 98% of 30-50 year old men were in the labor force; today that has fallen to 91%. And while crime has fallen over the last 20 years, the rate of crime in America is still more than twice as high today as it was on November 22, 1963. 

From Murray’s point of view, no matter how one looks at it, our belief in religion, marriage, honesty, and industriousness has fallen dramatically and disastrously since JFK’s assassination.

These numbers, however, do not hit all American groups equally. In Murray’s more idyllic time prior to 1963, almost all Americans shared the same values and the same virtues of religion, marriage, honesty, and hard work. What changed? 

America became a meritocracy.

As the baby boomers came of age, cognitive ability was recognized as a much more important ingredient for success than social connections or family background. All of a sudden, it wasn’t who you knew but what you knew that mattered. College admissions became more competitive, and gradually, as the brightest people became the most successful, they also became the wealthiest and a new American elite based on talent was created. These smarter, wealthier Americans sent their children to better, often private, primary and secondary schools where they were given opportunity, encouragement, and a lot of homework. The result was that their talents developed even more rapidly.

Psychologist Annette Lareau in her book Unequal Childhoods called the parenting philosophy of these successful families “concerted cultivation.” As she described it, these parents discussed and negotiated with their children, encouraged them to question and be assertive, and enrolled them in lots of outside organized lessons and activities. Meanwhile the parents of children in the other America enrolled their children in public schools which were overcrowded, unambitious, and expected them to do little at school and nothing at home. Once they got home, their parents did not negotiate with their children; they told them what to do and expected them to do it. They also did not provide any structure to their children's daily activities, but rather let their children play on their own. 

The result was that while the kids in the other America had a more relaxed and often more enjoyable childhood, the kids from these newly elite families had far more success as adults. They went on to more prestigious colleges where they met other smart and wealthy kids, married them, and raised their own talented children. As the cycle continued, the gap—in both income and interaction—between those in the American elite and the other America has continued to increase.

Murray believes that this new American elite has earned its success, but so too did the other America earn its problems. As marriage decreased while illegitimate births rose, as religion declined while crime increased, as the values which had fueled the American Dream for 200 years increasingly fell out of favor, so too did life in the other America deteriorate. 

One result of this decline was the loss of social trust. In 1972, after the America that Reich and Murray both idealize had ended, as Vietnam was winding down to defeat, Watergate was heating up to impeachment, and despair was sweeping the nation, the General Social Survey first asked Americans whether they felt most people could be trusted, and we were shocked when half of us said no. Unfortunately, social trust has continued to go down every single year for over forty years and now only a third of Americans agree that most people can be trusted. And as social trust has disintegrated, Americans, especially those living in the other America, have found themselves more alone and isolated and less neighborly and helpful to each other than ever before.

For twenty years I’ve asked my eighth graders to pick which of these two choices they feel best explains why poor people are poor. 

  • One choice is, “Poverty is inevitable.  Some people are going to make it; some people aren’t. There is nothing anyone can really do to help the poor. They are simply ‘losers.’”
  • The other choice is, “Poverty is a result of a lack of education and opportunity. Give the poor education and opportunity and they will succeed. Poor people are simply unlucky ‘victims.’” 

Though I certainly don’t know, I suspect that Murray would say the poor are losers and Reich would say they are victims. What I do know and what is more important to me is what my students think. For the first sixteen years I asked this question, 59% of the kids said the poor were victims. For the last four years, 55% of the kids have said that the poor were losers. To me this suggests that there is a very real and growing disconnect between the two Americas. 

Reich and Murray both call it the “secession of the successful,” the splintering of American culture into silos of like-minded citizens with very little understanding of or concern for their American brothers and sisters. The most capable and successful Americans began segregating themselves off from other Americans about forty years ago. They now send their kids to private schools, socialize in private clubs, live in private communities, and travel in private jets. 

To illustrate how segregated these elites have become, Murray offers a “bubble quiz” to help us gauge our sense of isolation. Questions are divided into five categories including

  1. life history (“Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day?”);
  2. friends (“Do you have three close friends who regularly smoke cigarettes?”); 
  3. relaxation and consumer preferences (“During the last five years, have you gone fishing?”);
  4. American institutions (“Since leaving school, have you ever worn a uniform?); and
  5. pop culture (“Have you ever watched Oprah, Dr. Phil, or Judge Judy all the way through?”) 

Murray’s concern is that the elites who have segregated themselves into their safe and seductive silos still run this country and yet have no clue how the rest of the country lives.

Bill Bishop wrote a book several years ago in which he explained this phenomenon of the “secession of the successful” and its effects on our culture. To show how tribal we’ve become, Bishop simply looked at landslide counties during presidential elections and showed that in 1960 about one-third of all counties reported landslides. Now over half of all counties report landslides, even though the public has been almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans for years. Bishop calls this movement over the last 40 years “the Big Sort” because it was a social and economic reordering around values, ways of life, and communities of interest.

Changes in technology, migration, and wealth encouraged this big sort, and it was to some degree predictable psychologically as well, for as Maslow theorized, as Americans had fewer concerns about food, security, and other more basic necessities, they began to move up their needs hierarchy to focus on lifestyle and ultimately self-actualization. So what’s the problem with the big sort? The problem is that as America becomes more segregated into tribes and silos, the tribes become more isolated and extreme. 

Think about it like this. Social psychologists know that freshmen who join fraternities are more conservative than freshmen who don’t. Senior fraternity members are even more conservative than their freshmen brothers. Why? Because living in a conservative fraternity house for three years makes individuals even more conservative than they were initially. As Bishop says, “Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes.  Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.” 

I’m a history teacher so I constantly look for the lesson to be learned. So what is the lesson from Reich and Murray and Bishop for any community or organization including Westminster School?  The lesson is that a community of silos won’t ultimately prosper.  Every fall after we study the Civil War, I strive to help my eighth graders understand why the Civil War should have been avoided.

Think about these numbers. The inflation rate for goods since 1865 is about 23X. We know that there were about four million slaves in 1860 and the average value of a slave was $500.  In other words, it would have cost $2 billion for Congress to buy the freedom of the slaves. That’s $46 billion in today’s money. That’s a lot of money until you realize that it’s only 1.3% of the annual federal budget. We could have freed four million slaves and saved 640,000 American lives if people would have been willing to work together and sacrifice just a little for the common good. But we couldn’t do it. If you look at historical graphs of the polarization of Congress, what you find is that we have never been as polarized as we were during the Civil War and Reconstruction.  We’ve never been that polarized, that is, until today.

As I said, I’m a history teacher. In some ways, that’s an oxymoron. While history focuses on the past, teachers focus on the future. I try to focus on both. When my eighth graders decide on the most important lessons from the wars of the last century, whatever lessons they choose have to be historically accurate but also important lessons for fourteen year olds living today. When they decide whether America is the greatest country in the world, they also have to explain why it will continue to be so OR what we need to do to make it so. 

The past is a guide to the future…but my students are the future of this country. 

It is imperative that they grow up to be hard working, deep thinking, confident, connected, and collaborative adults.We do everything we can at Westminster School to help them develop those characteristics, and it starts by preventing them from getting too comfortable in their silos. 

How do we do that?  First, our admission policy is based on a first come, first served approach. We don’t test for admission because our goal has never been to enroll only the smartest kids. Likewise, we don’t only want the wealthiest kids so we make financial aid available to every family in every grade. Children don’t have to demonstrate extraordinary talent to get aid to come to Westminster; they only have to demonstrate realistic need. 

Once kids are in the School, we do everything we can to integrate them inclusively. We don’t have dress codes or a lot of rules because even though we appreciate each child’s individuality, we only celebrate the group. Therefore, we avoid all sorts of prizes and awards. We don’t publicize GPA’s or PPG’s or class rankings. We don’t choose MVP’s or vote for class officers or class favorites. Teachers choose groups and coaches choose teams so they are balanced, competitive, and yet provide every child a chance to participate. All of our kids have a place where they belong at school, a place where they are welcome, a place to call home. In the middle school, that place is their home group, because as Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” 

Everyone needs that place, especially teenagers, and especially at school dances, which is why we always have at least one home group dance. It means that no one ever leaves a middle school dance without dancing at least once. As for Westminster’s adults, we don’t have a faculty bathroom, dining room, or lounge, and we don’t dedicate our yearbook to anyone. We don’t want our teachers in tribes or silos either. And we don’t name buildings for those generous families who helped pay for them, nor do we have gift categories for financial campaigns. We don’t sell privilege or recognition.

We do focus on having kids work together which means they need to sit together, and so we furnish our classrooms with more tables than desks. We do ask them to listen and think about what their classmates say and then to decide what they think for themselves. We do ask them to stand up for what they believe, and we value and remember what they say. We certainly ask our kids to work hard and think well, but we also want them to work well with each other. We want to get them out of their silos. Our school logo represents these beliefs. The solid navy blue box reflects the traditions and unwavering expectations we have for our children and the hard work required to achieve them. The arm of changing colors outside the box reflects the critical, creative, and collaborative thinking we so value. But our logo also reflects something else. It reflects our desire for kids to venture outside the box, to abandon their bunkers, to collaborate out of their comfort zones, to turn away from their cliques and tribes and reach out and engage challenges that are both daunting and rewarding. That’s the only way we are going to reestablish the American Dream for all Americans, and in fact make America the greatest country in the world.