In an 1883 essay titled “The Forgotten Man,” Yale Professor William Graham Sumner asked the reader to imagine four men. Two of them, A and B, observe a third man, X, who is in need. They decide to use the machinery of government bureaucracy to transfer wealth to X. But the man who pays for this wealth transfer is neither A nor B, but a fourth man, C, whom we today might say is among the middle or lower middle class. In Sumner’s original construct, C was the “forgotten man.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt used this same essay in the 1930s to justify his New Deal program. However, FDR revised the concept to exclude C from the conversation and make X the “forgotten man.” This change in the metaphor relieved X of any responsibility for his circumstances. According to historian Amity Shlaes in her book “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression,” this was the beginning of the “modern entitlement challenge” as Roosevelt figuratively re-wrote the definition of the word “liberal,” changing its application from individual liberty and individual rights to that of group identity and rights.
How Education Policy Creates “The Forgotten Student”
A century after the original “Forgotten Man” essay was written, Charles Murray’s book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, explained how modern social policy had expanded the concept beyond income transfers. He writes the following in a section titled Robbing Peter to Pay Paul: Transfers from Poor to Poor: “But in a surprising number of instances the transfers are mandated by the better-off, while the price must be paid by donors who are just as poor as the recipient.”
Murray provides a thought experiment wherein two poor inner-city students are alternatively benefited and harmed by the federal government’s education policies. He posits a teacher in an inner-city school with students facing identical ethno-socioeconomic circumstances, where one behaves in a “mischievous” way, and another does not. Out of a desire to protect the “mischievous” student’s civil rights, the education system prevents the teacher from disciplining him. As a result, Murray writes:
I find that the quality of education obtained by the good student deteriorated badly, both because the teacher had less time and energy for teaching, and because the classroom environment was no longer suitable for studying. One poor and disadvantaged student has been compelled (he had no choice in the matter) to give up part of his education so that the other student could stay in the classroom.
How DOE Regulations Harm the Forgotten Student
Recently, the sort of action Murray warned about has been brought to light by Wall Street Journal columnist Jason L. Riley. In his September 12th article “Another Obama Policy Betsy DeVos Should Throw Out,” Riley describes how the Education Department released a 2012 study showing that black students were three times as likely to be suspended and expelled as their white counterparts. In 2014, the DOE issued a “guidance” letter: warning school districts to address this racial imbalance. The letter said that the district could face a federal civil-rights investigation “if a policy is neutral on its face – meaning that the policy itself does not mention race – and is administered in an evenhanded manner but has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.” Riley states:
Fending off charges of discrimination can be expensive and embarrassing, so spooked school districts chose instead to discipline fewer students in deference to Washington. The Obama guidance didn’t start the trend—suspensions were down nearly 20% between 2011 and 2014—but the letter almost certainly hastened it. The effects are being felt in schools across the country, leaving black and Hispanic students, the policy’s theoretical beneficiaries, worse off.
Reversing The Unraveling
Since the creation of the US Department of Education, the debate over education policy has been fought between those who want some sort of national curriculum and federal control on one side and those who advocate for parental rights and local control over the teaching of subject matter and moral values. In the meantime, America has ignored the Forgotten Student and succumbed to what Alan Bloom called “The Closing of the American Mind” to such ideals as right, wrong, good, and evil. This process has led inexorably to what I will call The Unraveling of We the People.
The Progressive Movement has advocated this “great closing” as a way to deliberately move away from the inculcation of Christian values in the minds of young students, and directly mold the character of our people. Reversing this trend will not be easy. It will take a coalition of tea party activists, conservative Christian academics, and researchers skilled in untangling the web of “educrat” regulations filled with doublespeak to reverse course.
I can think of no better place to start this conversation than with the readers of this blog.