LOPEZ: “My ultimate bias and fear are that the educational and related problems our nation faces are worse than most people in and out of both education and public life generally acknowledge — at least publicly,” you write. So what do they say privately that they won’t publicly?
PEARLSTEIN: After laying out at least a portion of my argument, I hardly ever hear anyone, regardless of vocation or sphere, privately disagree when I say it will be impossible — not just hard, but impossible — to eliminate achievement gaps except in isolated instances as long as differences in nonmarital birth rates between whites on the one hand and African Americans and Hispanics on the other remain as huge as they are. We nevertheless hear daily suggestions by “reformers” that achievement gaps could, indeed, be closed if only we somehow found the wisdom and will to increase school budgets, excise racism, or otherwise get “serious.”
Note, by the way, the elasticity of the commonly used “close” when talking about achievement gaps. To some it means eliminating them completely, while others define it as simply reducing them. If the word and concept are accepted as having the latter definition, success can be claimed too easily.
LOPEZ: You also write: “The more I’ve learned and pondered about the breakdown of marriage, both in America and elsewhere, the more I’ve come to increasingly appreciate just how deeply embedded and complex its causes are and how unlikely more than marginal progress in turning matters around will be made in any near term. More than a sobering thought, it’s a depressing one.” So why do you bother writing about it? What, honestly, can be done?
PEARLSTEIN: When I first read (about 35 years ago) the 1965 “Moynihan Report” about what were then considered high rates of out-of-wedlock births in African-American families, the problem he described seemed manifestly obvious and severe to me. And when I learned how Moynihan had been pilloried as a racist, largely by the Left, and how questions of family breakdown were essentially removed from public discussion for many years — which, of course, exacerbated the calamity — my anti-P.C. juices took over, and I’ve been occupied by such matters ever since. It needs to be understood that, far from being a racist and a victim-blamer, Moynihan attributed family breakdown in the black community entirely to white racism. There wasn’t a racist punctuation mark in the report, which was written while Moynihan was an official in LBJ’s Department of Labor.
As for what can be done, the quickest and shortest answer is, let’s see where things stand a generation from now. Will we have made any progress? I can conceive of making a fair number of men, for instance, more marriageable by helping them clear their names after arrests and incarcerations, therefore helping them get good jobs and build decent careers. But will we be able to get the toothpaste back in the tube, as some people like to put it? I really don’t know. But it’s not as if our culture hasn’t changed in fundamental ways over the last two generations, often for the better. Think of racial and religious tolerance.
LOPEZ: Does family fragmentation really hurt kids’ academic performance, or is that contention part of a kitchen-sink strategy by social-issue-clinging activists?
PEARLSTEIN: Yes, family fragmentation really does hurt kids academically and in many other ways, as research has made clear for decades. For a 20-year-old popular synopsis, consider historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s brilliant and game-changing article, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” from the April, 1993, issue of The Atlantic.
An important caveat: Millions of American kids growing up in fatherless families are doing great, and millions of American kids growing up in seemingly perfect homes are doing poorly. The problem is that, generally speaking and on average, young people coming of age in fragmented families do less well than other young people by every conceivable measure.