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SPOTLIGHT
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The Underclass in the world today

Published on -7/6/2012, 10:00 AM

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Anthony Daniels, who writes under the pen name Theodore Dalrymple, is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist who tells of his experiences with his patients in "Life at the Bottom." It's an insightful book of essays about the self-destructive behavior and attitudes of the underclass.

In one essay, "We Don't Want No Education," reprinted by City Journal (www.city-journal.org/html/5_1_oh_to_be.html), Dalrymple says he cannot recall meeting a 16-year-old from the public housing project near his hospital who could perform simple multiplication operations, such as nine times seven. One 17-year-old told him, "We didn't get that far." This was after 12 years of attending school. One of Dalrymple's patients took a drug overdose because of constant bullying from classmates. "She was stupid because she was clever." What her peers meant by that was anyone who worked hard and performed well at school was wasting his time when truancy and wandering downtown were deemed preferable. The underlying threat was: If you don't mend your ways and join us, we'll beat you up.

These weren't simply idle threats. Dalrymple said he's often met people in their 20s or 30s in his practice who gave up at school under such duress. Those who attend a school that has very high academic standards risk a beating if they venture into neighborhoods where the underclass live. He recalls treating two boys in the emergency room after they'd been beaten and two others who had taken overdoses for fear of being beaten at the hands of their neighbors.

Dalrymple said most of the young people whom he's met in his practice cannot name a single writer and cannot recite a line of poetry. None of his young patients can give the dates of World War I, much less the second world war. Some patients never have heard of those wars, though one of his young patients who had heard of World War II thought it took place in the 18th century. In this atmosphere of total ignorance, Dalrymple said he was impressed the young man had heard of the 18th century.

The education establishment aids and abets this state of gross ignorance. Dalrymple tells of one case in which the headmaster allows teachers to make only five corrections per piece of work, irrespective of the actual number of errors present. This is done so as not to damage student self-esteem. There are many other examples, but Dalrymple concludes "it is extremely difficult to overturn these educational (or anti-educational) developments" because "teachers and the teachers of the teachers in the training colleges are deeply imbued with the kinds of educational ideas that have brought us to this pass."

The reader might have been misled, with my help, into thinking "We Don't Want No Education" is about the black underclass, but it's about the white underclass in Britain. We can't use white racism and the legacy of slavery so frequently used to explain the black underclass to explain Britain's underclass. The welfare state and the harebrained ideas of the public education establishment are a far better explanation for the counterproductive and self-destructive attitudes and lifestyles of both underclasses.

A "legacy of slavery" surely cannot explain problems among blacks, unless we assume it skips whole generations. In my book "Race and Economics" (Hoover Press, 2011), I cite studies showing in New York City in 1925, 85 percent of black households were two-parent households. In 1880 in Philadelphia, three-quarters of black families were composed of two parents and children. Nationally, in the late 1800s, percentages of two-parent families were 75.2 percent for blacks, 82.2 percent for Irish-Americans, 84.5 percent for German-Americans and 73.1 percent for native whites. Today, just more than 30 percent of black children enjoy two-parent families. Both during slavery and as late as 1920, a black teenage girl's raising a child without a man present was rare.

Dalrymple's evidence from Britain shows the welfare state is an equal opportunity destroyer.

Walter E. Williams is the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.

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