Recently we have seen a fierce backlash against those who dare to speak positively about bourgeois norms and culture. From the furor caused by a 2017 op-ed (“Paying the Price for Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture”) by Amy Wax and Larry Alexander in the Philadelphia Inquirer, to the negative reaction against Robert L. Woodson’s follow-on piece (“Black Americans Need Bourgeois Norms”) in the Wall Street Journal, liberals and progressives have rejected what were once widely agreed-upon cultural precepts: that you should, for example, finish high school, get married before having children, and respect the laws.
What accounts for the Left’s negative reaction against those who extol bourgeois norms is the recognition that conservatives confidently embrace this particular set of values as better than a progressive set of values, at least when it comes to promoting personal fulfillment and societal cohesion. And because the Left is often uncomfortable making value judgments, the perceived judgmentalism on the part of conservatives infuriates the Left.
In his new book, Howard A. Husock looks to founders of 19th- and early-20th-century voluntary associations — Charles Loring Brace, Jane Addams, and Mary Richmond — who took it for granted that bourgeois norms should be promoted through mediating institutions of civil society. Husock makes the case that such norms still matter — and that in a market economy the institutions of civil society, not government, are still in the best position to assist individuals and families who are struggling, especially those who may benefit the most from exposure to bourgeois values.
The introductory chapter, “How Civil Society Saved My Father,” frames the book’s argument. It is both personal and instructive. Husock’s father, Bernard, was orphaned at the age of ten, and he and his sister entered foster care in Philadelphia. Despite Bernard’s rough beginnings, he eventually enrolled in engineering school, joined the Navy, became a business executive, and acquired several patents to boot. The explanation given by Bernard for his success was what he called “the Agency.” The Agency’s official name was the Juvenile Aid Society, and it provided the young Bernard with the material, moral, and social goods that would eventually lead him to middle-class success.
If it is true that the beginning is half of the whole, the Juvenile Aid Society laid a solid foundation for Husock’s father’s life. The most inspiring and encouraging part of Bernard’s story is that the Juvenile Aid Society was supported by affluent volunteers, not by public funds. Volunteers were armed with a list of specific values the society aimed to promote, which included: “self-respect, living according to fine and high principles, the meaning of honor, self-control and self-government, the meaning of truth and honesty, and other cardinal virtues, good manners everywhere, [and] the reality of the moral law, which cannot be violated without severe penalties.”
Husock recounts the role played by wealthy individuals in sharing these values with young, poor boys such as his father.
As my father recalled, those general values translated into very specific guidance from Matilda Kohn Sternberger, the wealthy widow who traveled by chauffeur-driven Cadillac from fashionable Rittenhouse Square to his foster home for regular visits. There is no doubt that Mrs. Sternberger herself subscribed to the values she was called upon to transmit, and she had high expectations for their benefits.
The attitudes Bernard and Mrs. Sternberger expressed seem alien when compared with the attitudes expressed by today’s upper class and the often-aggrieved lower class. Both Bernard and Mrs. Sternberger took it for granted that bourgeois values were conducive to personal fulfillment and social cohesion. The wealthy and well connected today fail to acknowledge publicly that their values, in part, have contributed to their success; and the members of the lower class fail to acknowledge that their values, in part, have contributed to their lack of success.
The specific values and norms advocated by the Juvenile Aid Society were foundational for similar organizations and continue to be an animating force, albeit in an attenuated form, in the 21st century. Eventually, however, civil society and its mediating institutions were captured, says Husock, by “government-funded social services.”
Charles Loring Brace was an early advocate of assisting the poor and immigrants in getting an education and developing a good character. The goal, according to Brace, was not to train the poor to become rich; rather it was to equip them to seize economic opportunity. And those who were best at providing guidance to the poor were the wealthy and well-connected. It was these beliefs that led Brace to found the Children’s Aid Society in New York in 1853. The aim of the mostly privately funded organization was to “prevent,” not “cure,” the social ills among newsboys, bootblacks, and other young vagrants in the streets of New York. Prevention would mainly come in the form of inculcating norms of respectability, such as education, thrift, marriage, and honesty. In other words, instead of indicting the economic system for the situation of the poor, Brace focused on teaching the poor how to succeed within the system.
Another 19th-century advocate of bourgeois norms was Jane Addams. Like Brace, Addams believed in having the upper middle class make contact with the poor. This contact was premised on the idea that the character and behavior of the lower classes should be formed through bourgeois norms in order to prevent the need for penal reform. Through so-called settlement houses — a way of helping the poor that Addams had witnessed during her travels in London — people from well-to-do backgrounds “settled” among poor and immigrant communities to help them adjust to city life in an industrial economy. Addams also believed that the mere proximity of the two groups would bring about mutual benefits.
In a paper for the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 1899, she explained that her settlements were not simply noblesse oblige on the part of the privileged toward the unprivileged, but also were an attempt to equalize through “social effort” the imbalance between them. The privileged would gain a comprehensive perspective on the circumstances of the poor, and the poor would see that their unfortunate circumstances stemmed from a lack of opportunity. The place of contact between the two groups was in Chicago’s Near West Side, in the former mansion of the Chicagoan Charles Hull, which became known as Hull House. Addams was its head resident. The idea of settlements soon spread across the United States. Typically, it was young women from upper-class families who financially supported Hull House and served as volunteers in promoting certain behaviors — for example, among urban immigrants, the proper disposal of garbage.
African Americans, too, benefited from settlement houses. In cities with growing black populations owing to migration from rural areas, settlement houses and similar organizations, such as the Urban League, promoted habits such as healthy eating among the black migrants. Hull House eventually expanded beyond helping the marginalized adjust to modern city life. It became an institution of learning and cultivation. Benny Goodman learned to play the clarinet there, and David Mamet got his start at Hull House Theatre.
During the Progressive era, the aging Addams gradually drifted away from promoting social norms and toward advocating political reform. She and her acolytes, instead of focusing on private philanthropy and the formation of behavior among the poor, sought ways the government could improve the social and structural conditions that marginalized poor communities. Addams, says Husock, grew to disparage the “‘middle-class moralist’ who maintained that ‘the specialized virtues of thrift, industry, and sobriety’ could ensure upward mobility.”
Up to this point, Husock explains, the emphasis among those who founded or took part in charitable voluntary associations was on the promotion of universal bourgeois norms. Mary Richmond, a contemporary of Jane Addams, helped change this emphasis. She was an important figure in the “scientific charity movement,” which was a network of societies that applied formalized methods of assessing and tracking individual charity cases. The assumption of these organizations was that a specific character flaw or weakness accounted for poverty in a family or individual and that, through friendly visits to the poor, particular practices could be devised to correct the flaw. Richmond coined the term “social diagnosis” to characterize these practices and pioneered the caseworker method of collecting data. In Richmond’s view, a social worker should collect and assess the facts “as to personal or family history, which taken together, indicate the nature of a given client’s social difficulties and the means to their solution.” She did not completely abandon the promotion of bourgeois norms, but her work marked the beginning of a shift in social work toward a focus on therapy, personality, and the social conditions that cause poverty.
The two antagonists of Husock’s book are Grace Abbott, the Progressive-era creator of the Children’s Bureau, a federal agency, and the New Deal bureaucrat and advocate of Social Security Wilbur Cohen. Husock describes Abbott and Cohen as reformers whose efforts facilitated the demise of civil society’s promotion of bourgeois norms. Such promotion was seen from then on as condescending and ineffective. Each, in his or her own way, sought instead to harness the federal government to alleviate the social conditions that caused poverty and to assist those who were poor.
The only contemporary figure discussed in Husock’s book is the African-American educator Geoffrey Canada. He is portrayed as an important and unique link to the legacy of Brace and the others. Born in 1954 to a poor single mother on Union Avenue in the Bronx, Canada seemed doomed to a bleak future until he received a scholarship to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. It was there that he began to understand that the right values could become the new normal in a chaotic and poor African-American ghetto:
At Bowdoin we never saw a police officer, ever in the four years I was on the campus of Bowdoin. There was a sense of [a] sort of order, of focus of purpose, [that] sort of permeated the place, and you could feel it as soon as you hit the campus. And it was so dissimilar from going back to the South Bronx.
As a result of his college experience, Canada started the privately funded Harlem Children’s Zone in the 1990s. The program was designed to expose lower-income children on a single block of Central Harlem to the norms of respect, self-control, order, and purpose. In the spirit of settlement houses, this was accomplished through personal contact: Adults exhibited the values and the orderly procedures that embody them. The program offered reading programs, after-school tutoring, classes for expectant parents on child-rearing methods developed by renowned pediatricians, and many other services that are expected and taken for granted in middle-class environments. The goal was to mold the characters of the children so that they would avoid the devastating path to corrective institutions. Canada’s program has been effective in its mission and has expanded far beyond that Harlem city block.
The takeaway from Husock’s study of these 19th- and early-20th-century founders of voluntary associations is that a rebirth of bourgeois norms will require individual commitment and local action. He does not offer any specific policy proposals to bring about the rebirth, but Geoffrey Canada’s work seems to embody the very localism and commitment that Husock advocates.
Who Killed Civil Society? is an insightful and engrossing read. Although the track record and practices of some of the organizations chronicled in the book are not without controversy, Husock reminds us that civil society and its institutions have the nimbleness and knowledge to address the needs of contemporary American society, and especially the needs of rural communities and urban communities of color.
This article appears as “The Power of Norms” in the November 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.