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Should Bourgeois Norms be the New Mantra of Higher Education?

Law Professors Go Out on a Limb and Call for a Return to the 1950s

To the list of forbidden ideas on American college campuses, add “bourgeois norms”—It’s become politically incorrect to suggest that the values of hard work, self-discipline, marriage and respect for authority should be inculcated into university education. Last month, two law professors [Amy Wax at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Larry Alexander at the University of San Diego School of Law] published an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer calling for a revival of the “cultural script” that prevailed in the 1950s and still does among affluent Americans:

"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…Eschew substance abuse and crime.”

According to the professors, the weakening of these traditional norms has contributed to today’s low rates of workforce participation, lagging educational levels and widespread opioid abuse.

The professors argue that bourgeois culture is better than underclass culture—specifically, “the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-acting white rap culture of inner-city blacks.” The authors’ criticism of white underclass behavior has been universally suppressed in the stampede to accuse them of “white supremacy.”

So, what’s wrong with advocating these bourgeois norms? Why has it been met with such derision? The op-ed triggered an immediate, negative response at the University of Pennsylvania where the dean of the law school criticized it as “divisive, even noxious.” One-half of the law faculty signed an open letter denouncing her piece and calling on students to report any “bias or stereotype” they encounter. Students and alumni put together a petition accusing Amy Wax of white supremacy, misogyny and homophobia and demanding that she be banned from teaching first-year law classes.

My view is Professor Wax is partly right and partly wrong. She’s right to advocate long-standing cultural norms of hard work and seeking to contribute to the betterment of society. She’s wrong to make it seem that anyone who goes against the grain of the 1950s is guilty of a lesser standard of behavior. The notion that a single-parent culture is somehow inferior to a two-parent situation is naïve. I know many two-parent families – i.e., one man and one woman – that are dysfunctional and make it harder for their kids to learn and be successful in society. I also know many non-traditional families – i.e., two men, two women – where the warmth and support by both parents enables learning, happiness, and success in life.

Our culture has changed dramatically during the past twenty years. It’s no longer uncommon to have a two-person family of the same sex, from mixed races or cultures. The key is not advocating values of the bourgeois culture. Instead, it’s all about advocating for an ethical dimension to the behavior of young adults and Millennials whether as a work ethic or the moral values they should adhere to. Treating others the way you want to be treated is not unique to one person or group of people. It is essential to building a culture and society that values kindness, empathy, fair treatment of others, respect, personal responsibility and civility. These are the values of any culture and can be expressed in any form of family, assuming their members have a good heart and care about human nature.

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