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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:

  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).

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