It is not often that one gets to meet a personal hero. For several decades — ever since I was in graduate school — I have admired the lucid, forthright insights of this scientific legend. It was therefore a great delight to meet him at a conference in New Orleans and to trade subsequent e-mails messages with him.
Kohn studied something that at first glance does not sound exciting. He wondered if parents from different social class backgrounds shared the same attitudes toward their children. Did everybody, in fact, hope that their offspring would turn out the same way?
Given that we are all supposed to share the identical American Dream, it might be supposed that every parent did. Yet this is not what Kohn’s research turned up. In study after study — including many done abroad — the data showed that there was a significant difference between the aspirations of the upper middle class and the working class.
Upper middle class parents wanted their children to be self-directed. They hoped that they would grow up skilled in making independent decisions. Even when they were not certain what was best, the objective was for them to choose wisely and self-confidently. In short, the plan was for their offspring to become social leaders.
On the other hand, Kohn found that working class parents wanted their children to conform. The number one thing they demanded was obedience. Whatever their young did, they were not to talk back. To the contrary, they were to follow parental instructions to the letter. This, however, was a recipe for social subservience. It was guaranteed to produce not leaders, but followers.
Working class parents did not want their children to be weaklings. They too hoped their children that they would grow to be strong and successful. Nevertheless, what they demanded of their young had the opposite effect. If anything, it made them oppositional. Ordered to be compliant, they did not become leaders, but people who resisted leaders.
Once upon a time, this working class attitude was widespread. The conventional wisdom had it that children should be seen and not heard. Unfortunately, silent children are not thinking children. They do not learn to make good decisions, because they are not allowed to test their ideas in the marketplace of public opinion.
Today, having created an enormous techno-commercial society, we need as many competently self-directed adults as we can get. Nonetheless, the only way to get them is to groom our children to fill these roles. Kohn, having pointed this out, is owed a debt of gratitude.
Yet it is up to us to put his insights into practice. Even if our origins are working class (as were mine), we need to understand how to prepare the next generation for success. If we don’t, it will be us, and our progeny, who reap the harvest of ill-considered choices.