Thirty-three professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School have lost their minds in response to their colleague Amy Wax, who published a piece stating something apparently atrocious: Culture matters for human flourishing.
In response to this simple claim, the university erupted in petitions, condemnation, and a spluttering of essays that accomplish very little apart from signaling leftward piety (here, here, here, and here). These precious articles represent the academy’s bad-faith efforts to traduce one of few un-silent conservatives on campus, symptomatic of the intellectual dilapidation in the modern academy.
Thoughtful observers find themselves surprised by the histrionic reaction to Wax’s argument, the conclusions of which are clear to everyone, including those feigning aneurisms:
- Cultures promote different behaviors.
- Some behaviors are more likely to engender success.
- Therefore, not all cultures are equally likely to lead to success.
Her critics call this racism, although she makes no mention of race in her article. She pleads with the taste-making institutions—entertainment, news media, and higher education—to cultivate a culture that affirms an empirically tested recipe for human flourishing: “Marriage before childbearing, education oriented toward employment, hard work, neighborliness, civic-mindedness, charity, respect, and avoiding substance abuse and crime.”
Aren’t you outraged? Funny, me neither. Cultures extolling these behaviors have significantly better outcomes, including in wellbeing, family stability, social integration, as well as economic independence. These cultures span the races and are common among Nigerians, West Indians, Ashkenazi Jews, Southeast Asians, and the Lebanese. So remarkable are these cultural practices, their adherents out-earn native-born Americans, despite starting in dire poverty, sparse social networks, and frustrating language barriers.
The Majority of Research Supports Wax
The academy fights, somewhat confusedly, what must be regarded as plain-view conclusions, obvious to any ordinary person upon minimal honest reflection. Had it not been clear from the faculty lounge, they might have consulted the enormous literature on factors influencing poverty, which finds that marriage promotes remarkable upward mobility for children: “For children born into the bottom quintile of the income distribution, if their parents are married, they are just about as likely to end up in the top quintile as to remain in the bottom.”
Childbearing behaviors are particularly deterministic: 86 percent of those who marry before having children escape poverty. In contrast, nearly half of those who do not follow this script live in dire straits. Rather than fringe findings, these constitute the consensus view of a bipartisan poverty report published last year: “Promoting marriage to strengthen American families isn’t primarily an issue of specific policies or programs in any case: it’s in large part a question of culture. Political leaders, educators, and civic leaders—from both the political left and right—need to be clear and direct” (emphasis added).
New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt participated in the bipartisan committee. He summarizes their conclusions: “Again, marriage, and norms promoting marriage-like behavior, are among the most powerful known antidotes to American poverty.” The country engaged in deliberate cultural reforms to influence smoking, teen pregnancy, and racial attitudes through information campaigns. Why not employ the same instrument to reform our free-falling marriage culture?
Thirty-three law school faculty close their ears to good sense and clear data and instead pretend this is racism. A battle for civil rights is noble; addressing the issue requires honest reflection. And, of course, the mirror is hideous to the ugly.
The Oblique Attacks of an Intellectually Depleted Academy
Rather than address Wax’s thesis, the manufactured outrage has focused, instead, on peripheral phrases not found in the article they dispute. Ignoring her argument, the law school faculty elect instead to smear Wax as a racist, apparently depleted of intellectual anything. A handful of the law school faculty wrote, for instance, that Amy was elevating the cultural lattice of an era tainted by racism. (Notice that under this objection we can’t draw anything of use from any era of human history.)
Wax acknowledged the racism of the post-war period explicitly, rendering their reaction unnecessary. What seems especially disingenuous, however, is how brazenly the faculty ignore the obvious: Useful cultural elements are separable from malign institutions, decades ago discarded. In pursuing this attack, the law-school faculty do good work in proving that the Left has become so Puritanical and rigid that any positive reflection on the post-war period is immediately “racist.” This isn’t history—it’s religion.
The faculty smear the recognition of successful cultures as a new breed of eugenics—a claim which is hard to take seriously since the facts are precisely the opposite: cultures can change; one’s genes cannot.
Their colleague Jon Klick, once of sound mind, chooses as his leading argument a response to a statement never made in the article to which he objects. He balks at an off-the-cuff remark from an interview in which Wax states “everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.” While Klick pretends not to know the meaning of hyperbole, he also pretends not to know 8 of the 10 most popular receiving nations for immigration are white-majority countries established by Europeans, or that among these top 10 receiving countries 85.4 percent of the migrants choose as their new home countries of the same description.
The most recent response is that of Wax’s swirling colleague Jonah Gelbach, proof that Penn Law School has few inflexible standards. His article is entertaining to read, as the most joyless of a long line of the department’s incoherent diatribes. It will persuade no one—it is rambling, jargon-laden, and disingenuous. Repeatedly, he misrepresents Wax. I’ve not been a fan of those maligning male debaters as purveyors of “mansplaining.” If such a thing should exist, however, here’s a singular and compelling candidate.
Somewhat bizarrely, Gelbach argues as though family structure has no relationship with child outcomes. Since the Coleman report, studies have found that having family structure is nearly as important, for instance, as having educated parents. This powerful predictive relationship is among the most well-documented empirical regularities in the social sciences. This fact would annoy the law school if the bubble in which they reside were not constructed of iron ore.
More recently, a path-breaking study found that the single strongest predictor of intergenerational mobility is family structure. Raj Chetty, the study’s lead author, explains “the single strongest correlation we find in the data is with measures of family structure such as the fraction of single parents living in an area. We find that places with more single parents have significantly lower levels of upward mobility.” The law school can ignore reality, because they neither work in—nor interact with—the real world. However, their pervading ignorance does violence to the prospects of the poor.
Gelbach confesses he swirled around his department to organize his colleagues’ petitions against Wax, a practice that reproduces the intellectual quality and tribal cohesion of a sixteenth-century witch hunt. Decry the witch, or you’re guilty of witchcraft yourself.
Speaking Truthfully Especially Matters to the Poor
It seems a strange disservice to argue that every culture is equally likely to succeed, when that is not the case empirically. In doing so, the academy closes important lanes of inquiry that promote economic mobility. Do we thus condemn people to poverty as the brightest institutions in the country communicate that no one need change any element of his or her culture?
The response of these faculty signifies an enormous regression. Cultural cues function when widely considered, not when in dispute. Here, not only are the cultural cues in dispute, but those promoting them are maligned as “hateful” “bigots.” A cultural handrail only guides behavior if the handrail is a feature of the building, not described as a poison serpent.
I’m left unsure what motivates such a nonsensical reaction to a plainly straightforward observation. I’m only left to depend on T.S. Elliot’s uncommon insight: “Half the harm that is done in the world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t want to do harm…or they do not see it…because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”
Do the faculty feel important by maligning a colleague as a racist for an honest call for cultural reform? I cannot imagine so. But I also cannot imagine any alternative.
What People Can Do About This Injustice
Don’t go to Penn. Go to places that value open debate without baseless charges of racism when someone speaks honestly about academic literature. Instead, go to the University of Chicago, College of William and Mary, George Mason University, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Maryland, Purdue University, Washington University in Saint Louis, or Princeton University. Don’t send your kids to Penn. Roll your eyes when someone says “Penn.”
Speak the truth. The reason the Left runs roughshod is because their fantastic anger is focused on a tiny group of those willing to speak the truth (People’s exhibit A: the Life of Amy Wax). The more who speak the truth, calmly, without apology, the less they can harm any of us for doing so.
Email the administrators at Penn at [email protected]. Their perception is warped because they hear primarily from social justice warriors. Politely share with them why speech, as well as culture, are important. Tell them you value debate, and that the law school has avoided honest debate at every juncture.