An interesting David Brooks column in the New York Times continues his (and our) exploration of the US school system. This week he looks at research by Robert Putnam, a political scientist from Harvard, who illuminates a growing inequality in how children are raised. The conclusion: richer parents have substantially privatized their children’s education.

Affluent parents also invest more money in their children. Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extra curriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation.

They’ve invested more time. Over the past decades, college-educated parents have quadrupled the amount of time they spend reading “Goodnight Moon,” talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines. High-school-educated parents have increased child-care time, but only slightly.

Putnam’s data verifies what many of us have seen anecdotally, that the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities. Decades ago, college-graduate parents and high-school-graduate parents invested similarly in their children. Recently, more affluent parents have invested much more in their children’s futures while less affluent parents have not.

First of all, note that absolute spending of both money and time on children is up overall.  And no, I don’t think America is in an aggregate decline in terms of raising and educating ever more smart, caring and capable kids. What generation do we think was better?  But part of our development as a culture is to become more sensitive to pain points in the system, and Brooks is highlighting a very painful point: poorer kids are falling behind in ways that permanently limit them.

Part of the pain is the inequality itself. What we call a “sense of fairness” is exactly that: a felt sense which people (and other primates apparently) experience when one individual is getting an unfair advantage.  It’s especially strong when we see one set of kids getting so much more than another set. This early-onset inequality is also bad socially, and we are now seeing data that shows that social mobility in the US, our signature asset, is falling.

(BTW, We’re going to see how the overall theme of social inequality will play in this year’s election, as Obama appears to be running with it.  Are people sensing it enough yet?  We’ll see.)

The bigger distress, however, is seeing any young person suffering unnecessarily, and enduring limitations in skills and self-management that may stunt their development for the rest of their lives.

As Brooks points out, these differences break out over economic lines. Poor kids have fewer opportunities than rich kids. But my view is that the differentiation is even more clear when considered over developmental lines as well. First, there is a basic correlation between income and cultural development.  We know that the less well off and less educated you are, the more likely you are to have traditional (socially conservative) values. The more educated and wealthy you are, the more likely you are to have modern (secular) and post-modern (liberal) values.

And value systems (developmental worldviews) almost always trump economics (that, by the way, is What’s the Matter with Kansas). People with modern and postmodern values will pour relatively more time and money into educating their kids than parents of equal means who have more traditionalist values.  Modernist parents focus more on achievement-based “exterior” outcomes, such as sports, dance, skills-development, tutoring.  Postmodern parents focus on those, plus the “interior” lives of their kids, such as therapy, travel, community service and personal growth.

And yet the kids raised in traditional and pre-traditional settings feel — and indeed are — left out of all of it. They are stuck in an out-of-date public education system, which 9 out of 10 students say does not challenge them.  As a result their career options and economic potential suffer.

It’s heartbreaking actually. They’re plugged into a vivid mass media glorifying the good life: cars, toys, travel, fun!  But … there’s no way for them to ever achieve it.  At the same time the mass media is undermining the values that hold traditionalism together. Values such as faith, fidelity, patriotism, chastity, obedience and self-denial have been so deconstructed by Boomeritis that my liberal friends and I find them all a little quaint if not downright silly. Watch mainstream TV, especially sitcoms and reality shows, and you’ll see traditional values relentlessly ridiculed show after show after show.  (If you want to know why cultural conservatives hate Hollywood and the cultural elites, look no further).

There is a rough progress to all of this, of course, and I suppose it’s all happening right on schedule.  All value systems become limiting (and boring and even silly) when one is adequately steeped in them. And thank God!  Remember, in addition to the positive values I mentioned above, traditionalism is also the home of militarism, conformity, male domination, religious strife and relative material poverty. So it’s appropriate that traditionalism gives way to modernist values such as individuality, secularism, achievement … and onward to post-modern values such as relativism, sensitivity, egalitarianism.

As Integralists we want to be conscious of this process of development, and work to make it as healthy as possible.  One of the ways we do this is to appreciate the value of all previous worldviews (which are typically at odds with each other). As we do, we call forth a more spacious and flexible worldview, which includes the best parts of all that has come before.  And we don’t just stop with the integration of postmodern, modern and traditional values, but also of pre-traditional (warrior, tribal and survival) values.  Kids need to deeply belong to a group where their presence matters, they are useful, and they are powerful (see my previous post on last week’s Brooks column).

Just stop for a moment and imagine if we had an educational system that did challenge teenagers. Is there anything more heartening than a teenager who is engaged and excited?  A lot of really smart, caring people are thinking and experimenting with just how to do this.  For instance, in another column (Lets Draft Our Kids) in the same issue of the Times, Thomas E. Ricks, no doe-eyed utopian, proposed a mandatory national service for all young Americans.  It’s going to look something like this, folks. More in future posts …

(Note: Yesterday’s NYTimes published a few selected letters of response to Brooks’ column, which provide further perspective.)