Support of ‘Bourgeois Habits’ Embroils Professors in Dispute

Published September 28, 2017

In an op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 9, law professors Amy Wax from Penn and Lawrence Alexander from the University of San Diego said the United States has lost touch with the “bourgeois habits” which once benefited all classes of American society. The professors described those habits this way:

“Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”

Wax and Alexander went on to say “these basic cultural precepts” were standards for behavior between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s but lost force after that. The result, they wrote, has been havoc in American society.

“Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available,” the authors wrote. “Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.”

Playing the Race Card

This critique and recipe for reform aroused a firestorm of protest, first by University of Pennsylvania law professors and then by Penn students and alumni.

On August 20, five law professors issued a response in the Daily Pennsylvanian, the school newspaper. They accused Wax and Alexander of “nostalgia for the 1950s,” which they said “breezes over the truth of inequality and exclusion.” They acknowledged Wax and Alexander had mentioned the 1950s weren’t perfect, but in their view that was not enough.

“Exclusion and discrimination against people of color was the norm, North and South,” the authors wrote. “During this period, home ownership, high-quality education, jobs with fair pay and decent working conditions and the social insurance benefits of the New Deal welfare state remained unavailable—by design—to most nonwhite Americans.”

‘Simplistic, Bigoted and Archaic’

The next day, a column signed by 54 Penn students and alumni took up the cudgel, claiming Wax and Alexander were “extolling the white cultural practices of the ’50s.”

“Wax’s and Alexander’s claims rely on a simplistic, bigoted and archaic notion of culture; a concept purported to be bounded and discrete, a postulate which anthropologists ‘dismantled’ decades ago by showing how such formulations of culture are embedded in systems of political, economic and social oppression,” the column said. “We know that these claims are based on culturally-situated values of purity that safely legitimate one group’s superiority over Others: values which, in this case, are easily discernible as those associated with Anglo-whiteness.”

Jay Schalin, director of policy analysis at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, says the responses to the column falsely characterize well-established truths as racism.

“Once again, the academic left has proven itself to be either delusional or deceitful by finding nefarious intent behind Wax’s and Alexander’s support for practical, commonsense advice,” Schalin said. “Hard work, fidelity, patriotism, civic-mindedness, sobriety, and respect do not just date back to the mid-twentieth century. They have been lauded as proper behavior as long as history has been recorded. And for good reason, since such behaviors and attitudes have been proven over and over to contribute to human flourishing.”

‘Blame Bias First’

Ashley Thorne, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, says the protestors are doing a disservice to the young people they claim to represent.

“If campus communities would stop to consider what Wax and Alexander are saying, they might see that courtesy, commitment to family, and hard work can go a long way toward mitigating life’s difficulties,” Thorne said. “Sadly, colleges teach students to blame bias first.

“The only way to open minds in this generation to the blessings of right choices is for young people to decide to take responsibility for their own actions rather than look for ways to be victims,” Thorne said. “Teachers should help them learn how to do this.” 

Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) is School Reform News’ higher education editor.