Ep. 149: Big Ideas – “Who Killed Civil Society” with Howard Husock

November 19, 2019

Howard Husock discusses his book, Who Killed Civil Society: The Rise of Big Government and the Decline of Bourgeois Norms. In it, he talks about the role and importance of formative efforts, as opposed to reformative efforts. He dedicates a chapter to the Harlem Children’s Zone, which he uses as an example of how civil society can play a vital formative role through schooling.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today’s guest is Howard Husock, VP for research and publications at the Manhattan Institute and author of Who Killed Civil Society: The Rise of Big Government and the Decline of Bourgeois Norms, which is the subject of today’s podcast. Howard, welcome to EdChoice Chats.

Howard Husock: Thanks for having me, Jason.

Jason Bedrick: Our pleasure. So, spoil the book for us. What does it mean that civil society is dead and who killed it?

Howard Husock: Well, civil society is not dead. It’s a bit of hyperbole to make a point. Civil society, however, has been distorted. American civil society, the thesis of the book, has been distorted by it falling into an embrace, especially a financial embrace, of government, which has pushed it, the thesis of the book, away from a force shaping values, formative values, in favor of programs or clients to reform their bad ways.

And so, the difference between the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts and federally-funded programs to help drunk drivers and teen pregnancy, government approaches problems. Civil society historically in America approached formative values and taught the promotion of them.

Jason Bedrick: Now, you talk a great length in your book about these differences between the formative and reformative approaches to improve society. But you start with, and we’ll get into that in a minute, but you start talking about your father’s rough childhood and how he nevertheless grew up to, as you put it, thrive as a productive, responsible adult. So, what was the secret to his success and tell us a little bit about some of the obstacles that he faced as a child?

Howard Husock: My father was orphaned in the depth of the Depression. His mother died when he was five. His father died when he was 10. And he was then looked after by… His wellbeing was… not of the government, which at that point was not involved in foster care, but with something called the Juvenile Aid Society, indeed a civil society organization in Philadelphia, which not only placed him in foster care and paid his foster family, but sent a volunteer—a volunteer, I’m just emphasizing that—to visit him in the foster home and to discuss with him a long set of values that the Juvenile Aid Society thought it was important to expose him to.

So, even though he himself was the subject of charity, he was told when you become an adult, don’t forget you also must be charitable. Think about the implicit assumption there. First of all, he’s going to do well. He’s going to be able to give money to charity. And of course, that that’s the right thing to do. And then that long list of values that his volunteer “social worker” who came in a big black Cadillac to a row house in Philadelphia brought to him included self-respect, self-governance. When you think about that in terms of government, but self-governance means you can control your impulses. So, these were very subtle kinds of values that have fallen out of our discussion, even though arguably many young people are in great need of them.

Jason Bedrick: So again, you talk at length about the role and importance of formative efforts like you just described, as opposed to reformative efforts where there’s a problem that already exists, and you’re then trying to fix it. Now, schools clearly play a very large, maybe even central role, in the formative efforts that you describe. But you argue that the government does not do formative efforts very well, and that form of work is best done by civil society. So, most schools are run by the government. Why do you see that as so problematic?

Howard Husock: Well, first of all, it’s difficult for government-funded entities to agree on what the right values are. And we’ve seen tremendous controversy about what the right values are in school. Is the most important value to expose young people to the problems of bullying? That might be the most prominent value statement that our schools are making today in contrast to self-discipline, rift, and other ideas. So, it becomes difficult to rely… Schools certainly can promote healthy values.

When I was in the fifth grade, we opened savings accounts at the Cleveland Society for Saving. There was a lesson in that. There’s no doubt about it. But it’s hard to rely on government to promote what I would call our timeless bourgeois values: self-abnegation deferred gratification, God-knows marriage. It’s hard to rely on government to promote these things because it’s subject to, we’ve seen recently, fads, passions and controversy.

Jason Bedrick: And what makes the government so particularly susceptible to these fads, fashions, and controversies that civil society institutions, like private schools, are less susceptible to?

Howard Husock: Well, government is in a way, properly so, a creature of politics. So, as constituencies, both electoral and intellectual will, come forward, they can begin to hold sway and once they do, they hold sway over whole school systems and groups of school systems and states. Whereas private schools, and I think charter schools, less directed in their efforts by government and certainly not solely supported by government, retain that discretion that civil society permits.

Civil society I like to say is everything that China doesn’t allow, and that includes the discretion to form a charter school or a private school, and to say, “We are going to have this approach, and maybe if that approach doesn’t work, the trustees will rethink it,” but that is their right in American civil society. And so we have the possibility of a range of approaches being taken that way.

Jason Bedrick: Now, speaking of charter schools, you have an entire chapter in your book that’s dedicated to the Harlem Children’s Zone, which was founded by Geoffrey Canada. And this is your example of how civil society can play a vital formative role through schooling and related services. So, who is Canada, and what was he trying to achieve with the Harlem Children’s Zone?

Howard Husock: Geoff Canada is a really important figure who was prominent a decade ago, cover of the New York Times Magazine, became a favorite of President Obama, and has somewhat faded unjustifiably, I think, because he’s built something quite enduring. The Harlem Children’s Zone is what he calls a cradle to college group of programs and services in a 140-block area of central Harlem.

And what fascinates me about what he’s done, it’s not just the charter school, he’s got a couple of charters schools. He also has tutoring programs in traditional public schools, afterschool. He also has a college, what he calls a baby college for new parents to help them with child rearing. So, he really is thinking about the whole continuum of age groups.

But what really fascinated me about him is under the umbrella of the Harlem Children’s Zone, he as an African-American, is unapologetic and uses the phrase bourgeois norms. The charter school and the philanthropy that supported him even before he got the charter gave him the license and the latitude to promote ways of thinking that had really fallen out of fashion.

He talks about speaking proper English and he doesn’t apologize for that. He talks about we need a pure group of aspiration going to college, going on to higher education, and that that’s actually a better way to prevent teen pregnancy than programs that are meant to prevent teen pregnancy. So, he says some things that are very socially conservative, very much in line with the history of formative civil society organizations in the United States.

And he’s on the scene right now, and it’s because we still have philanthropy. A man named Stanley Druckenmiller has been incredibly generous, hundreds of millions of dollars supporting Geoffrey Canada, a hedge fund financier here in New York. And without that partnership, forged because they both once students at Bowdoin College, a private school, there would be no Harlem Children’s Zone. So, American philanthropy and the latitude it provides to a civil society organization, that’s what happened there. And it just so happens, I suppose he could have been promoting anything, but he is embracing, the renewal, renewal is such a good word, of bourgeois norms. And does apologize.

Jason Bedrick: So, is that what you would say is the primary difference? I mean, because between what the Children’s Zone is attempting to accomplish and what the government does? Because you could point to a whole bunch of different government programs that are also from cradle-to-career, maybe even cradle-to-grave, trying to provide a bunch of services, whether it’s Head Start for very young children all the way through Pell Grants to go to college. Aren’t they doing the same thing, or are they doing something very differently?

Howard Husock: Well, I’ll distinguish it from Pell grants and the kind of thing I’m talking about. In my book, I am not particularly critical of the social welfare state. Conservatives have raised questions about the disincentives that public assistance programs and various kinds make more… I don’t see that as going away anytime soon. I’m critical of what I call the social service state. The Administration for Children and Families, which most people have never heard of, is the beating heart of the Department of Health and Human Services, and it distributes, get this, every year, $53 billion, mostly from contracts with what some people call the independent sector. Maybe it used to be independent, but it isn’t anymore. And so that’s what I take an issue with is the social service state.

And to your question about aren’t those programs similar? Typically, they’re reactive, and so teen pregnancy programs are for teen mothers and how to help them cope. Substance abuse programs are for those who have fallen victim to substance abuse. And so the difference is, I suppose you could call it preventive, and I’m calling it formative. And even preventive would say, “Don’t get pregnant.” Geoff Canada and others are not saying that. They’re saying, “Do your homework. Speak proper English. Aspire.” Kind of in a Zen way, where you hit the target without aiming for it. That’s the way to, in his view and mine, prevent bad outcomes.

Jason Bedrick: So, some will argue that, sure, civil society organizations like the Harlem Children’s Zone are great, but they’re not enough. Only government can bring what they do to scale so that nobody slips through the cracks. And in fact the Children’s Zone, the charter school aspect of it is government funded. Why can’t government just scale this up? Take what Canada has done and let’s just, the government can fund it at scale and run it at scale?

Howard Husock: This is a key point, and I think it’s a key fallacy. There’s a social scientist at Johns Hopkins, Buster Salomon, and he talks about what he calls voluntary failure. That’s the nonprofit equivalent of market failure. Market failure of course is we can’t provide for the national defense unless government provides for it because each of doesn’t have incentive to mount our national defense. Voluntary failures for Salomon is, well, there can’t possibly be enough drug clinics run by volunteers, therefore the government has to fund community mental health centers and drug clinics.

The fallacy, in my opinion, is a serious one, and it’s this. Only norms really bring us to scale. If the IRS had to depend on law enforcement to get Americans to pay their taxes, they’d always be behind. But most Americans voluntarily pay their taxes because it’s the norm, and we accept it. If norms are the way to go to scale, well then, social programs as you mount them and get them to a greater and greater extent, first of all, they risk quality decay.

And Head Start’s a great example. The original Head Start program was a small nonprofit pilot program in Michigan. By all accounts, it did rather well. But when we mounted thousands of them across the country without the local champions and the dedication of the original founders, the results have been not even mediocre. They’ve been none. The results fade away by the third grade. And so we took something to scale in the classic matter and the diminution of quality in what occurred.

Norms can spread. Not everybody has to be in Geoff Canada’s Harlem Children’s program who lives in that area to be affected by it. Norms can spread. But I believe that the only way we repair and renew our social fabric is by renewing our norms. And I think that happens community by community by community. We have to stop looking to the next big federal program. That’s been the trap that we’ve fallen into.

My favorite historical example, and I have a whole chapter on this in the book, is on the Settlement House Movement. About 120 years ago, we had even more immigrants as a percentage of the population than we have today. And there were about 400, in fact 418 to be exact, locally developed and overseen privately supported these settlement houses in which volunteers taught English to the new immigrants and prepared them for citizenship, as well as teaching them a whole range of skills. My favorite example is Hull House in Chicago, the original settlement house, gave Benny Goodman his first clarinet. For people who don’t know who Benny Goodman is today, he was probably the greatest jazz clarinetist and the King of Swing in the Big Band Era.

And so, these volunteer organizations, they weren’t linked by a federal network. They weren’t grantees to a Department of Health and Human Services. They were organizations that learned about what they do from each other. They had national conferences. They copied each other, and they spread, and with them the norms that they promoted spread. They promoted healthy eating. They promoted preparation for marriage, and how to run a safe and healthy household. These were profound things that helped the social fabric one community at a time.

And just returning to Geoffrey Canada briefly, the Obama administration tried to replicate what Geoff Canada did in Harlem across the country in 30-some cities, they called them Promise Neighborhoods. And eventually Geoff Canada himself stepped away from this. He said, “This is not what we need.” We need 30 or 50 or 100 Geoff Canadas. You don’t need 30 or 50 or 100 grant holders.

Jason Bedrick: And what were the results of the Promise Neighborhoods? I mean, they put a more than a hundred million dollars in federal grants into these Promise Neighborhoods around the country. This was based on Geoffrey Canada’s idea. This was meant to take Harlem Children’s Zone and bring it to scale nationally. So, what happened?

Howard Husock: The evaluations are quite amazing. The evaluations focused on process trial. The main evaluation found that different social service organizations communicated better with each other. And so the idea was to link existing social service organizations in some kind of continuum that would… what Canada had done. As soon as you say it, you realize this is not it. He didn’t have to link separate organizations. He had an organization. He led it. He had a vision for it. And so the whole idea was distorted, and I don’t think anybody can tell you that anything much came of it.

Jason Bedrick: The Mathematica research, which you mentioned on the promise neighborhoods, it found some positive effects, some negative effects. But I think overall it was pretty tepid in terms of its assessments. And you don’t hear a lot of talk anymore about the Promise Neighborhoods like you used to.

So, you talk a lot about this idea of middle-class or bourgeois values. But some people when they hear those words, they worry that there’s some sort of a racial component. And yet here you have Geoffrey Canada who grew up in the South Bronx in a low-income, black neighborhood embracing this. How did he come to embrace these values?

Howard Husock: Well, first of all, the history of civil society and its promotion of bourgeois, middle-class values, whatever you want to call them, has been an inclusive problem. In effect, old American elite, like Charles Loring Brace of the Children’s Aid Society, Jane Adams of Hull House, Mary Richmond of the Charity Organization Society, who was the founder of modern social work, they were cluing in the new core into the secrets of their own success. They were saying, “Join us with these values. They served us well. They’ll serve you well. And that’s what makes America tick.” So, the idea that they were looking down on people or dismissing their potential, this was just the opposite. That there was an exclusivity, no, there was an inclusivity, inclusive.

And by the way, there were African-American settlement houses. Famous one in Atlanta, Lugenia Hope Burns, an African-American Victorian according to her biography. And in the depths of Jim Crow, she was still urging people to adopt these bourgeois norms because self-reliant, self-sufficient black communities could function based on them. And she thought people would be better off despite terrible legal obstacles to their success.

And so the idea that there’s some kind of a patronization, so I see it as just the opposite. As to how did Canada get into this? Well, he tells a great story. He had an amazing, amazing childhood. He has a great and very little appreciated biography… about the violence with which he was raised in the South Bronx. And then his mother, really a heroic person, sent him to live with her parents in a suburb of Long Island. His life changed dramatically. And just at that time when some of the elite colleges were saying we need to look to promising African-Americans, and a black fraternal organization, civil society… they’re all over the country, black fraternal organization, gave him a scholarship to go to Bowdoin College.

And as he tells the story, he got up to Bowdoin, which was a very leafy place in Brunswick, Maine, and said, “But there’s never any problems. Why is that?” And that led him to this idea of norms. And it also led him to his major donor. So, it was a very happy bit of circumstances. But his insight that the norms are what makes a place great, and that norms can make Central Harlem a thriving, safe place, too, that’s what makes him special.

Jason Bedrick: And you mention in the book as well that he saw the flip side. When he moved to be a counselor in, I believe it was southern Boston, he saw poor white Irish and Italian kids from South Boston and Charlestown having similar problems to what he witnessed growing up in the South Bronx. And so he recognized that these norms or their absence have certain effects regardless of the race or ethnicity of the society that has or doesn’t have them.

Howard Husock: Yeah, it’s an important point, in fact it’s a response to your earlier question about race. What Canada saw when he went to Boston and Charleston was a white underclass, and it blew his mind. Social fabric can unraveling in these places. Even though they’re white people here, they were living in housing projects. They were committing crimes. And they had the same short-term expectation and honor code that he was familiar with from the streets of the South Bronx. So, in a way that’s a response to the idea that bourgeois norms are racial. No, bourgeois norms are supra-racial. They can include everyone, and those who subscribe to them will be better off.

Jason Bedrick: So, what would you recommend for those who want to see a return to such norms, or who think that they’re important for civil society? We have a system right now where somewhere between 80 and 90% of students are attending a school that’s actually run by the government. So, how do we move from that kind of a system to a system where it’s civil society that’s taking the primary role in the formative aspects of our child’s development?

Howard Husock: Well, I don’t think that we should rely on tools to be the values progenitors in society. We need to talk about, let’s incorporate character education, let’s incorporate anti-bullying. There’s effort after effort to layer on additional responsibilities under the schools. Let’s just have them teach their subject well, so that students learn about reading, writing and arithmetic. And I think the civil society organizations that complement schooling can be our best vehicle.

I didn’t mention this one in the book, but one of my favorites that has won an award program over here… called Civil Society Award, which have been around 20 years are the New Jersey Orators. The New Jersey Orators are a group of middle class African-American professionals who were disappointed to see the way young men and women they knew were interviewing on job sites. They said, “We have to teach them to present themselves better,” so they began an afterschool program. Afterschool, completely private, volunteer driven. They have about 400 volunteers, and they have what used to be called declamation, you get up and you speak. You might give the Gettysburg Address, you might give something from Shakespeare, you might give something from Alice Walker, but you get up there and you speak on your own to quite a large crowd. And you get rated and they have competitions and the kids really prosper.

And so I think complimentary programs supported by philanthropy at the local level are important. It’s certainly true that charters and private schools have always had the discretion to include, and religious schools, to include values in their approach. And for those parents who want them, that choice is important, and to the extent that we have tax-credit scholarships to help them and other things like that, that’s important.

I do think, though, I suppose my heart is in these additional programs, the additional organizations that provide an exposure, not necessarily a kind of a didactic catechism, “These are the things you should do,” but to engage in activities that implicitly encourage self-improvement.

Jason Bedrick: You mentioned the tax-credit scholarship programs. One of the interesting things when I started researching them, and for listeners’ sake, these are the programs where similar to vouchers, families get a scholarship to go to a private school of choice, but the funding mechanism is different. Instead of being publicly funded, private donors, either individuals or corporations, will make a contribution to a scholarship organization, and they will get a tax credit. And then the scholarship organization helps usually low and middle income families.

A lot of criticism is that, well, you’ve got this unnecessary third party, this middleman, that could just be cut out. So, they’re keeping a portion of their donations in order to run the organization, and then they’re giving the rest out in the form of scholarships. Why couldn’t we just, through taxes, just send the money to the families directly?

But I found that these scholarship organizations are very often doing a whole bunch of other things that the government with a voucher program isn’t doing. First of all, going into neighborhoods and churches and community institutions like the YMCA or the Boys and Girls Club, where they can find low income families and letting them know that these programs exist in the first place, which the government often does not do.

But also, for example, the Children’s Scholarship Fund in Philadelphia was also running adult literacy classes at night because a lot of their families, they were encouraging them to read to their children, but often these are low-income families where, and it’s often a single mom, wasn’t able to read herself. So, they were doing that. They were also running financial literacy programs to help these families with their budgeting so that they were better able to consistently provide their children with food and shelter and so on and so forth.

This wasn’t a government program. This wasn’t something that anybody told these scholarship organizations they should go do. These were just voluntary organizations that recognized a need and decided to step in and fill a role. I’m not sure that the government can simply say, “Oh, I like what they’re doing,” and then bring it to scale without it turning into sort of the Promise Neighborhoods situation where it just doesn’t scale up.

Howard Husock: Well, I’m dubious about the whole concept of scale because it’s usually dedicated people at the local level who are touching the front line that are able to make these kind of things work. And as soon as it becomes bureaucratized, I mean, anybody who’s applied for a federal grant knows that it’s deadening how you have to report. Local boards and local donors, tax credit providers, they can be flexible. They have perhaps a longer time horizon, and they’re non-bureaucratic. The bureaucracy, I think, would strangle the kind of flexibility and farsightedness that you’re describing.

To a certain extent, a tax credit program is a workaround so that if the parents want to use the scholarship for a religious school, they can go ahead and do that, and it would be legally complicated for the government to provide support for it. As the side effect of creating these benefits, collateral benefits that you’re talking about, well, that’s a good thing.

Jason Bedrick: Howard, before we close, is there anything else that you would like to tell our listeners?

Howard Husock: Well, I’ve just been, on a related Segway, to let all your listeners know that we’re… charter school. And the thing that I like about charters is the fact that, despite the fact or notwithstanding the fact they receive government support, it’s not directly. They find their way to fulfill academic objections, and if they don’t, well, maybe they’ll close down. But it’s not the kind of directive grant that we have distorted civil society. So, in a way they’re a step back toward a civil society, especially because so many of them rely on philanthropic support to compliment the public support.

And for those who say, as the column in the Wall Street Journal said the other day, that well, their success is all explained by self-selection, motivated families… And I say, well, let’s say that’s true that those students would have done just as well in traditional public schools. If you can’t say that with any assurance, then you have no position to be bent because those kids get only one chance at being educated when they’re young. So, the discretion and the kind of civil society aspects of charters I think are worth rediscovering, are worth appreciating.

Jason Bedrick: Amen. My guest today has been Howard Husock, the vice president for research and publications at the Manhattan Institute and author of Who Killed Civil Society: The Rise of Big Government and the Decline of Bourgeois Norms. Howard, thank you for coming on the podcast.

Howard Husock: Thank you for having me, Jason. It’s a pleasure.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast on platforms such as SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher. Follow us on social media @edchoice and visit our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.