The Power and Limits of Indoctrination

Cass Sunstein, Obama’s former regulatory “czar” and one of the smartest and most devious thinkers on the left, has a highly revealing Bloomberg column out this week reporting on the results of a study of the way China has attempted indoctrination in its school system.  This column and the underlying study (it’s an NBER paper, behind a paywall unless you have academic access) are useful as background reading for everyone who is rightly concerned about how Common Core standards will likely become the means of nationalizing a liberal school curriculum.  (What?  You mean you aren’t reassured by the promises from Washington that if you like your local curriculum, you can keep your local curriculum?  Why ever not?)

Sunstein reports that

recent curricular reforms in China, explicitly designed to transform students’ political views, have mostly worked. The findings offer remarkable evidence about the potential influence of the high school curriculum on what students end up thinking. . .

The crucial finding from the study is that the new curriculum greatly affected students’ thinking. They became more likely to count the Chinese political system as democratic. They displayed a higher level of trust in public officials. They were more skeptical of free markets, and more likely to reject the view that a market economy is preferable to any other economic system. . .

Sunstein, a leading advocate for increased government power across the board, is likely envious of China’s prowess at indoctrination.  There was, however, an interesting area where China’s indoctrination failed to work, and it is a highly curious exception:

Students didn’t become more favorably disposed toward environmental protection. They were not more likely to give the environment priority over economic growth, and they were not more willing to give up some of their income to protect the environment. . .

It is reasonable to speculate that in recent years, Chinese students have been concerned above all about economic growth and therefore were less willing to want to focus their attention on environmental protection.

“Reasonable to speculate”?  This tracks closely with a large body of literature on the “Environmental Kuznets Curve” that you won’t have social and political support for expensive environmental protection until you achieve a middle class standard of living for a nation.  And China is still a long way away from that point, with several hundred million people still living in deep poverty, with many millions more insecure about their rising but still fragile prosperity.  This is why China and India are unlikely ever to agree to the U.S.-Euro climate agenda.  Interesting that the Chinese can’t manage what seems to be easy to accomplish in American schools.

But you really don’t need to consult the economists on this one.  Just take in Aldo Leopold, who put it this way in A Sand County Almanac, “These wild things had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast.”

It’s tempting to give Sunstein a Green Weenie Award for this.