What Children Know About Politics

In her long essay “The Great Beast,” written in 1939, Simone Weil tried to understand what she called “the permanence and variability of national characteristics.” She was intent on showing that Hitlerism was indeed different from many other kinds of nationalist imperialism, but was by no means something new in the world’s history. She insisted that Rome, a long-standing bête noire of hers, had anticipated the Nazis, and in fact was far more successful as a conqueror: a relatively larger number of people were subdued absolutely for a much longer time. Yet she was quick to point out that nations change, often unaccountably. She judged medieval Romans “completely unlike” the ancient Romans. The latter had, in her eyes, perfected a ruthless military machine, harnessed to a “centralized state.” The former were “incapable of unity, order, or administration”; the various city-states to which they owed allegiance squabbled, but not in a vengeful or even, it seems, murderous way. Machiavelli mentions that in one of Florence’s campaigns not a single soldier was killed.

As for Mlle Weil’s native land, she scoffs at the expression “eternal France”; sometimes it has had more than a touch of Roman hauteur (“the state as sole fount of authority and object of devotion”) and sometimes it has been ruled quite differently. She considered Napoleon another of history’s Roman consuls; whereas upon occasion France has been among the more peaceful nations.

How does a nation maintain a certain notion of itself over a given span of time—so that policies pursued by one government with or without the consent of a particular citizenry become policies believed in, accepted quite eagerly or casually by succeeding generations of men and women? With respect to Rome’s lengthy tenure of military and political supremacy, Simone Weil observes, in partial explanation: “It is only from the conviction that she is chosen from all eternity for sovereign mastery over others that a nation can draw the force to behave in this way.” She knows that a sustained “conviction” has to be passed down from parents to children. Myths are developed, and in one way or another they are transmitted; in the remote past by word of mouth, more recently through books, and in our time over radio and television as well.

The Nazis had their explicit propaganda, aimed at “public enlightenment”; for Mlle Weil the renowned Virgil was not much more than a Goebbels who could write narrative poetry. She declares his “Thou, Roman, bethink thee to rule the people imperially” to be “the best formulation” of an empire’s need for a myth of “universal dominion.” Successive generations of Romans heard those words, and others like them; and soon enough were willing to participate in the vicious, senseless, arbitrary practices Weil documents at considerable length in her essay—which is meant to show that Hitler was not a barbarian: “Would to heaven he were!” she exclaims. The distinction she draws between the assaults of barbarians and those of Hitler is an interesting one, and deserves quotation:

There was always a limit to the harm done by the ravages of barbarians. Their destructiveness was like a natural disaster, which stimulated the spirit by its reminder of the uncertainty of human fate; their cruelty and prefidy, mixed with acts of loyalty and generosity and mitigated by inconstancy and caprice, represented no danger to any real values in those who survived their onslaught. It requires an extremely civilized state, but a basely civilized one, so to speak, such as Rome, to infect all those it threatens and all those it conquers with moral corruption, and thus not only to destroy in advance all hope of effective resistance but also to disrupt, brutally and finally, the continuity of spiritual life, which is then replaced by a bad imitation of undistinguished conquerors. For only a highly organized state is able to paralyze its adversaries’ reactions by overpowering their imagination with its pitiless mechanism, a mechanism for seizing every advantage undeterred by human weakness or human virtue and equally able to pursue this aim by lies or the truth, by simulated respect for convention or open contempt for it. Our situation in Europe is not that of civilized men fighting a barbarian, but the much more difficult and dangerous one of independent countries threatened with colonization.

The “mechanism” she mentions is something more than a mix of propaganda and sustained, ruthless military action. Rome’s leading families, and those associated with them, had to believe quite strongly in their mission, and continue to do so not only in the midst of war, when passions on behalf of the motherland or fatherland are readily ignited, but in the years of apparent triumph. And though Rome ultimately did crumble, it took a long time to happen. Weil acknowledges the devilish genius of a certain kind of imperial rule: the slightest evidence of unrest was regarded as a life-and-death threat; indeed, turmoil was imagined, was conjured up—hence the arbitrary, agitated, senseless punitiveness of the pax Romana, best described by Tacitus himself, no enemy of Rome’s, when he has a British chieftain, an “uncivilized native” of his time, observe in connection with the Roman empire’s generals and soldiers that “you cannot escape their insolence by submission and self-restraint.”

Not that Rome’s well-to-do, influential people had Tacitus’ or Weil’s image of themselves. Nor is the “conviction” Weil refers to a matter of mere rationalization and self-deception—the clever use of slogans or excuses to justify greed. In any empire there is always plenty of cynical exploitativeness—whether of the old territorial kind, or the more recent, thinly disguised version, in which a leading nation settles gladly for control of raw materials, leaving the day-to-day problems of the so-called “underdeveloped” nations to themselves, so long as they understand where the line of ne plus ultra is drawn. But for staying power political authority needs to become an object of belief, if not faith—especially among those who live closest to the center of things. In the outlying provinces or territories, in the remote corners of an empire, the legatus and his cohorts took care of any eruptions, threatened or actual. These days, a show of force through jets and, maybe, a number of vessels called a “fleet” accomplish the same purpose. In the event of out-and-out war there is usually little need anywhere for elaborate persuasion of a population, only the waving of the flag.

If, however, those who over the years live, so to speak, near the heart of an empire, and are nourished by it constantly and enormously, begin to have doubts or suspicions about its authority, its legitimacy, then all may well soon be lost, no matter how many legions, or atomic bombs, are available to those called dux, chairman, prime minister, or president. Simone Weil put her finger on the problem this way: “Since the sons of the great Roman families were trained for government by the spectacle of gladiatorial games and by commanding thousands or tens of thousands of slaves, it would have needed a miracle for the provinces to be governed with any humanity.” She is referring to a process others would call “political socialization”:

Only since the 1950’s has a generic label—“political socialization”—become attached to the process of initiation into politics and have scholars started with some frequency to bemoan that “we know next to nothing about ‘political socialization.”’ The recency of systematic attention to political socialization can be traced to the slow process by which political science established itself as an academic discipline and liberated itself from its origins in departments of law, philosophy, and history, and to disciplinary compartmentalizations which assigned the study of children to psychologists and sociologists.

As the man who wrote those words, Fred Greenstein, acknowledges in his suggestive and thoughtful book Children and Politics, there is nothing new about the notion that children ought to be systematically educated politically. Plato was well aware of the need each society has for the transmission of values and assumptions—and of political loyalty. Rousseau’s Émile, and, later on, his Thoughts About the Polish Government, published post-humously, take up the matter of political education at great length—as if he knew that at some point a “social contract” lives or dies in the homes and schools where children learn what (and whom) to believe in. Napoleon observed that “as long as children are not taught whether they ought to be Republican or Monarchist, Catholic or irreligious, the State will not form a Nation.”

For all the comments one can glean from philosophers and social observers, or anonymous bureaucrats who, in this country as well as in the Soviet Union, make quite clear their interest in both explicit and indirect political instruction (or indoctrination), there is, as Professor Greenstein indicates, no enormous literature that would, presumably, tell us when, where, and how certain children acquire whatever obedience to a given political authority they possess. Greenstein’s work, done in New Haven during the last years of the Eisenhower administration with children between the ages of nine and thirteen of various backgrounds, indicates how well disposed elementary school boys and girls are (or more precisely, were then) toward the president, the flag, the government as a whole.

These children began to learn which party their parents belong to when they were in the third or fourth grade, and well before they knew what the respective parties actually stand for. They tended to be more aware of national politics than state or local politics; the president was apt to be better known than the governor or mayor. If they came from upper-class homes they were likely to be more critical of the political status quo, and at an earlier age, then if they came from poor or working-class families—though it has to be stressed that the children studied, no matter the neighborhood to which they belonged, by and large were less cynical politically than their parents, however cynical they happened to be. That is, the child starts out with the inclination to idealize important national figures and, more broadly, the country as a whole, its history and its institutions. (Questionnaires and conversations with girls showed that they tended to be less interested in political matters and less opinionated than the boys.)

Studies by other political scientists1 tend to confirm, for the 1950s and early 1960s at least, a generally conservative quality to the nature of young children’s interest in our political life. True, those observers note that in adolescence cynicism sets in—not only directed against the president. But they offer little evidence that such cynicism runs deep—is part of an over-all skepticism about our social and economic institutions. To the contrary, we are told that by the time youths have become jobholders of parents themselves they have become, by and large, willing if not enthusiastic American citizens—as a result of a relatively informal but persistent series of experiences at home, in the neighborhood, and at school, perhaps best described in summary form by Greenstein:

Socialization processes foster the status quo through the perpetuation of class and sex differences in political participation, continuity between the generations in party preferences, continuation (and perhaps even strengthening) of adult assessments of the relative importance of political institutions.

But the more time one spends with particular children the more complicated and ambiguous the “findings”—because all the inconsistencies and ambiguities of anyone’s life, certainly including a child’s, eventually become apparent to the observer, whereas a series of questions, even those called open-ended ones, are likely to be felt by many (and especially children) as an occasion for quick resolution of those very mixed feelings which, soon after the interviewer is gone, reassert themselves in the given person’s mind. All of which is to say that so-called cross-sectional research (the basis of polling) and research based on long-term and close observation are complementary, rather than substitutes for each other.

Does the basis of children toward idealizing the prevailing political order reflect an only temporary or a merely apparent kind of social and economic stability, with an attendant cultural conformity? Even more significantly (so far as any research goes, be it cross-sectional or that of prolonged interviews coupled with direct observation), do many children consciously mouth pieties while all the while harboring a host of sly, mischievous, and maybe to some minds revolutionary ideas?

A book by the Australian social scientist (and literary essayist) Robert Connell, The Child’s Construction of Politics (issued by the Melbourne University Press, and so not easily available here), contains wonderfully rich accounts of how the political world is regarded by particular children, who were watched and listened to patiently, and given a good deal of leeway and reassurance that what they said would in no way become the property of a given school system. He makes plain the difference between a child’s remarks, spoken over a substantial length of time, and the so-called “standardized responses” of survey research.

Among his observations, perhaps the most interesting and suggestive is the notion of “intuitive political thinking.” Young and not-so-young children from four or five to nine or ten, say, not only show evidence of “socialization” but of surprisingly outspoken, idiosyncratic, blunt, and imaginative political opinions. They can poke fun at the self-important, see through any number of phonies, and wryly take on subjects the rest of us have learned to skirt or get at only indirectly. But gradually something happpens:

After the exuberant half-political fantasy of some of our children at the intuitive stage, the political outlooks become a rehash, sometimes an interesting rehash to be sure, of well-known themes from adult politics. Even the reassertion of personal control over political materials in adolescence is a flattened, rather chastened, control, with little quality of political imagination.

He was interested in going a step beyond the documentation of “attitudes”: the notion that the president is good beyond challenge (which many young school children will say when questioned in a classroom) or that Australia, America, or some other country is the best country in the world (which those same children, among others, will also say). Presumably at some point a child begins to develop assumptions about his or her situation as a particular individual: the country beckons, or it doesn’t; the political order is just or fearful and harmful or crooked to the core; the people who hold office, near and far, can be counted upon, or are, quite definitely, enemies of sorts, or, at the least, indifferent, if not contemptuous.

Race awareness, we know, takes root among preschool children; by three or four, they not only spot others who are black or white, or for that matter (in our American West) Indian or Chicano, but are quick to come up with various pejorative or congratulatory remarks, tied to the person recognized as “other.”2 Professor Connell’s studies show certain young Australian children canny indeed about the motives and purposes of their own and other governments, ours included. Those same children, incidentally, are quick to distinguish themselves, racially, from the Vietnamese or the Japanese, whom they saw on television.

In the South, for years, I heard black children speak of sheriffs and policemen as “devils,” without having sense enough to pick up the hint they were giving me of further attitudes long held. In 1965, in McComb, Mississippi, I asked a six-year-old child who was president. She said she didn’t know, “but they killed President Kennedy and they killed Medgar Evers.” I asked who “they” were. She said, “The people who don’t like us.” There is a limit beyond which a guest begins to feel even ruder and more arrogantly intrusive than he already may have good cause to feel, and I may then have felt myself to have gone too far, because I shut up, rather than pursue, to the point of banality on my part, the obvious chain of psychiatric interrogation: which people don’t like you, and why don’t they, and on and on.

Actually, in retrospect, I realize that then and there I made a psychological judgment, maybe a discovery: this child knows a great deal about what social scientists call the subject of “race relations,” and I would be foolish, as well as insulting to her, if I persisted in making her spell out not only the obvious but the exceedingly painful. And too, I probably felt (more than realized) that at a certain point (maybe I had already come to that point with her and with many other black children before her) she would begin to wonder whether there was any point in talking about such matters with a white doctor, however good he claims his intentions to be—and not only out of a sense of futility, based on racially connected suspicion, but out of a firm political assessment: the relatively well-off people don’t themselves want to be reminded too pointedly how things work, and work for them, because the result is a discomforting accusation of sorts.

Eventually, as some of the civil rights workers in rural Alabama and Mississippi turned their attention to the education of children, as opposed to issues like lunch counter desegregation or voting rights, one heard upon occasion, and almost by chance, astonishing exchanges between school-children and politically conscious and sensitive activists in SNCC and CORE or, up the hollows of Kentucky and West Virginia, the Appalachian Volunteers. A young man or woman would be in a home to urge upon parents a certain course of action with respect to school desegregation, or a county official’s attitude toward the school budget, and suddenly a child would speak us:

I don’t like the teachers; they say bad things to us. They’re always calling us names; they make you feel no good. We saw the man on the television, the governor, and he wasn’t any good, either.”

It is all too easy to take for granted such remarks, from a ten-year-old boy whose father is a tenant farmer near Belzoni in the Mississippi Delta: black children, badly treated by white or black schoolteachers (the latter can sometimes be especially mean to poor children of their own race) will inevitably pick up the rejection and scorn others feel toward them. Yet when a child of ten links the governor of his state with the schoolteachers who look down upon him in a rural, still all-black elementary school, he is making a significant judgment—one which ought to be explored if we are to understand how and when various political viewpoints begin to take shape.

In the case of that boy, there was much more to be heard, not then but at a later time, when nothing was being asked of the family. (Many rural blacks in the South knew all along that those who came to fight on their behalf would soon enough leave; so the apathy and lethargy that confronted the political activists who asked for a signature, a declaration of support, a willingness to march, to picket, to stand up and be counted were, in fact, upon occasion at least, also expressions of a political judgment.) During the Johnson years I was able to talk to him again. When asked whether he would one day want to vote, as blacks were then in small numbers beginning to do, the boy had this to say:

Maybe; I don’t know. My daddy says what’s the use, because even if every one of us voted, the whites would still run Mississippi and still own everything, the whole country. The teacher told us the president is a good man, and he’s from the South, and he’s trying to do good by the white, and by the colored. To tell the truth, I don’t believe her. My sister, she laughed when I told her what the teacher said. My sister said that if I believe everything I hear teacher say, and the governor, and the president—then I’m still a baby, and have a lot of growing up to do. Well, I told her I try on something I hear, to see if it fits, but I know when it doesn’t, and I throw it away real fast, because I’ll tell you, if you’re colored, you’d better learn the difference between a piece of real meat and streak o’lean.

My mother cooks them their steaks, up at the bossman’s house, and she knows the difference; and she’s taught us. And I’ll bet its mostly streak o’lean that they hand out to you, a sheriff or a governor or a president. If they’d be handing out good meat, it would be better. But like my daddy says, there’s nothing you can expect to get for the asking from the white people, so it’s good the civil rights people are getting the governor mad and worrying the president, even if the teachers say we should obey the law and salute the flag and America isn’t second to any country. If you’re not white, you’re second, and a lot of whites, they’re second, too; and my sister says that’s the scene, and if you don’t know what scene you’re watching, you’re dumb, dumb, dumb.”

He was not especially precocious, for all the implicit sociological and political shrewdness he could muster in an unselfconscious, disarmingly casual way. He never went to high school—and now, a decade after he spoke like that, he works compliantly on a large Delta plantation. When one asks him now, a grown man, the father of two young children, what he thinks of President Nixon, or the governor, or Watergate, or any of the important issues that face America and the world, he shrugs his shoulders and presents a blank look, or else smiles in a way that can only mystify: does he, deep down, have some views, or is he utterly without them? With a drink or two he will speak his mind fully: “It’s no good for the black man here, no matter who’s up there in Washington as president or down in Jackson as governor. That’s all I know. Watergate? They caught a few crooks and liars, I guess. Where are all the rest of them? Still in charge of us, still up to no good.”

So it goes: enlightened self-interest. For him there is no point in going on and on. No one wire-taps his phone; he has none. But if he so much as speaks out of turn, the consequences are obvious. The black children I have known in our South, or in our northern ghettos, sound—at six, eight, nine, or ten—like certain articulate, politically conscious middle-class white college students. As these children grow older, they tend to become much less candid, though they do not change their opinions. While a number of American youths are becoming more critical politically (even disenchanted with the objects of childhood idealizations) many black youths in the South and mountain youths of Appalachia become less outspoken about what they have, it seems, known for a long time—that their, situation in life, the conditions they must continue to face, day in, day out, are in an important way connected to the nation’s political leadership. The black man whom I quoted as a child, and whom I have seen every year at least twice since I left Mississippi a decade ago, puts his feelings in perspective all too tersely: “I knew what’s going on for us a long time, and I haven’t seen a good reason yet to change my mind.”

In fact as a boy he watched not “the spectacle of gladiatorial games,” as Simone Weil put it, but another kind of spectacle, no less persuasive:

You remember, when I was a kid I told you about the whippings they gave my daddy for saying he wanted to register to vote. Well, the sheriff did it; and that’s the law for you. Now I can go vote, but the same sheriff is there, and even if the bigger politicians watch their language a little better these days, it’s no different here. The other day my boy was called “a little nigger” by the sheriff, just because he didn’t say “yes, sir” when told to stay on the sidewalk until the policeman said it’s all right to cross the street. Later he asked me why the governor keeps talking about “the good people” of the state and “the block vote.” Actually, he’s heard me say to my wife that the whites are “the good people” and we’re “the block vote”—block instead of black is the way they do it these days!”

A cussing sheriff will do as well as a gladiator or two. The poor or those who belong to the so-called working class always live closer to the law, closer to the whims and fancies of political authority. A nine-year-old boy from Marion County, West Virginia, described the relationship between poor or financially vulnerable people and those who get elected to office this way: “You make the wrong move, and they’ll be on you, telling you off and ready to lock you up, if need be.” What gladiator had he seen? What spectacle that “trained” (Mlle Weil’s word) in him a specific attitude toward West Virginia’s, America’s government? The spectacle of a father’s funeral; the man was one of seventy-eight miners killed in an “accident” whose causes, immediate and more distant, his children knew quite well. The boy sat in the church, with many other children; he heard various “powers and principalities” being exposed for their negligence and worse, much worse. He saw on television the secretary of labor and the secretary of the interior and the governor and the mayor and a host of county officials and the president of the coal company utter their lamentations, apologies, and excuses; the litany of self-justifying explanations which miners’ wives have a way of hearing as if sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. In the words of the child, again:

My mother says they can do what they want, the company people; and the sheriff, he listens to them, and that’s it, they get their way. Last year there was going to be a strike, and daddy took us and we saw the company people and the sheriff and his people, and they were talking buddy-buddy.”

Another “spectacle”; and they do not go unnoticed by children whose parents live or die (economically speaking, and sometimes quite literally) depending upon how sensitive they are to the implications of such a “spectacle.” In contrast, many upper-middle-class sub-urban children have quite another view of their nation and its various leaders, as we will see in the second part of this article.

(This is the first part of a three-part article.)

  1. 1

    See, especially, the research written up in The Development of Political Attitudes in Children, by Robert Hess and Judith Torney (Aldine, 1967), and Children in the Political System, by David Easton and Jack Dennis (MCGraw-Hill, 1969). Both books give an account of original research completed several years earlier. The term “political socialization” was given prominence, if not coined, by Herbert Hyman, who did not do studies of his own, but wrote a series of theoretical essays on the subject: Political Socialization (Free Press, 1959).

  2. 2

    See Mary Ellen Goodman’s Race Awareness in Young Children (Macmillan, 1964).