Society's Institutions and the Human Condition

Intelligence in the Service of Love and Kindness

Kenneth B. Clark, 1984

Kenneth B. Clark Distinguished Professor of Psychology Emeritus of the City College of the City University of New York is one of America's leading social scientists. His pioneering research on the effects of segregation on children was cited by the United States Supreme Court in its historic decision of Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. For a career notable for an active, courageous championing of freedom, reason, and decency, he has been the recipient of numerous awards including the American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest.

Whiteley: You've written of a real belief you have in the power of a disciplined intelligence to overcome many of the problems that are facing our society. You've also written about the restrictions on the use of that intelligence: race, nationality, language, creed, religion. What is it about the human condition that allows these to interfere so much with effective problem-solving?

Clark: Well, let me go back and say something about my writing about disciplined intelligence. I suppose if I were going to be writing about that problem now, one of the things that I would emphasize, that I don't think I emphasized sufficiently in the past, is a definition of intelligence beyond our present approach to the problem of testing intelligence in terms of cognitive abilities, etc. And including, as a very important component of intelligence - sensitivity, empathy, to me an extremely important moral quality which oddly enough our intelligence tests do not test, our selection of young people for our prestigious schools seem to ignore. We do define intelligence in a competitive way. And if I were writing still about this problem I would say that this is probably one of the most dangerous things facing mankind today, a use and training of intelligence excluding moral sensitivity.

Whiteley: You've also written that a powerful role for education can be training for kindness.

Clark: Training for kindness without apology.

Whiteley: What do you mean?

Clark: What do I mean without apology? Even among our academics you have such philosophical notions as moral relativism that actually kindness is not something that is clear and consistent. Moral and ethical value are ambiguous, and we do apologize, particularly in (interestingly enough and ironically enough) our academic institutions for communicating to students the importance of social sensitivity, the importance of moral and ethical concerns which we tend to communicate to the young people as being in conflict with the competitiveness which seems to be an integral part of the educational process.

Whiteley: So for nearly 40 years you've stood for the application of insights from the social sciences to the resolution of social problems. Writing in its historic 1954 opinion, the Supreme Court cited your research on the effects of segregation on children, on their self-esteem...

Clark: My wife and I collaborated on that research.

Whiteley: There were two points left out in that historic opinion. One was your observation that racism is as an American a phenomena as the Declaration of Independence. What were you trying to share with us?

Clark: Well, what I was trying to share was the reality that Americans understandably really don't want to face, is that America from its founding has suffered from what I call moral schizophrenia. On the one hand, it has a very powerful moral concept. The Declaration of Independence, almost a literalistic egalitarianism -- it's the basis for our founding this new nation. And at the same time, and the same authors, of that powerful moral justification, were slave holders.

Whiteley: Perhaps this touches on your other point that was left out of the Supreme Court decision, and that is the twisting effects on both whites and blacks of segregation, and this in the context 30 years later, that you've observed that there's more segregation in northern schools than there was at the time of Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. What effect is that having on our society?

Clark: Reinforcement of a selective view of what our society and what our civilization considers important. It is clear that our society does not consider particularly important that white children are being socialized in a kind of moral dilemma. On the one hand, being told about how important democracy is, and what the values of our democratic system are -- and by the way, I don't want to downgrade those values; I think they're extremely important. On the other hand, the very individuals, churches, educational institutions, family members, who communicate social and democratic values, also communicate racism. Now, to me this can only lead to either conscious or repressed forms of schizophrenic - moral schizophrenic - type. But we don't want to face that. The Supreme Court did not face it. In our social science brief which we presented to the Court, the Court very eloquently stated the detrimental effects of segregation upon minority children, but did not point out the detrimental effects of segregation or racism on white children, which probably means that we don't accept as wrong, moral schizophrenia for whites as part of a realistic, competitive society.

Whiteley: And in your view that simply is not going to develop sufficient people willing to stand up, be counted on behalf of the fundamental values we need to stress.

Clark: It certainly hasn't. And I don't know that it's likely to unless faced head on, and the barriers to facing something like that head on are pretty obvious.

Whiteley: One of things you said about our society was that the development of social morality had been assigned to religion as an institution, and that religion had by and large failed in that quest.

Clark: And I think one of the reasons that religion has failed in that quest is because religion has become realistic and practical too, and realized, or certainly the people in charge of religious institutions are realistic enough to see that power is the more important factor, vehicle for them and their institutions.

Whiteley: What would you have religion do differently?

Clark: Go back to basics.

Whiteley: What are those for you?

Clark: Well, moral basics to me - and I am perfectly willing to accept my critics' criticism of me as being unrealistic - moral basics would seem to me to require understanding power, but rejecting the usual form that power takes in our society, and redefining power in terms of moral and social sensitivity. As one of my heroes, Bertram Russell said, "garden variety kindness, garden variety empathy." Now religion, and I'm not going to restrict it to just religion, because I would also include academics, are perfectly willing to deal with those concepts verbally, and the abstraction. They are not likely to be too much involved in translating them operationally.

Whiteley: One of the themes that runs through your writing is the role of power. You talk about the Machiavellian form that it takes in our government.

Clark: Realism.

Whiteley: How should government be different if it's going to be responsive to the threat to mankind posed by nuclear weapons at this point?

Clark: Well, government can be no more different than the people whom we elect to control government, and in a democracy, as well as in other forms of government, we do tend to have as our leaders practical men of power. We do not permit the instruments of government to be in the hands of impractical people, unrealistic people, such as myself. I know a number of philosophers and what not who would have no chance of being elected to decision-making positions in government because they talk about such impractical things as peace, disarmament, and without compromising these concerns in order to have mass appeal.

Whiteley: So for you the answer is in the electorate being clear about what it wants from its officials?

Clark: Well, I think the electorate is clear about what it wants from its officials. It wants practical, realistic, tough-minded, hard-headed approaches to dealing with the opposition - the enemy. The electorate wants to be sure that it is as powerful, if not more powerful, than any allies or potential opponents.

Whiteley: Well, it is a dangerous world out there, so at some point your idealism comes to grips with the realities of the situation we face. But how do you move from where we are to where we need to be? In your writing in the 60s and 70s you spoke about the issue of peace as one of the dominant issues of the time, and your writings are very eloquent about the inhumanity at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The cycle has gotten worse, and as an optimist who believes in the potential of disciplined intelligence, what do you want to see differently?

Clark: I want to go back to something you said. There is a dangerous world out there, and I presume implied in your recognition of the dangerous world is that we should be prepared to cope with that danger. I certainly agree that there's a dangerous world out there, but I think that we're part of that dangerous world. And to me a very important part of the danger is that each group, or tribe, or nation of human beings, believe that the dangers are always outside and we have to protect.

Whiteley: It's the other guy.

Clark: It's the other guy who we must protect ourselves from and just as we feel very strongly that we must stockpile nuclear weapons to protect ourselves, and to be realistic in protecting ourselves from the Russians. I'm sure the Russians feel that they must be realistic to protect themselves from war like Americans felt. Yes. To me those are the ingredients of the danger; that we all see danger somewhere else. We very rarely see the danger within.

Whiteley: So part of the problem for you is very fundamentally one of human nature.

Clark: Human nature is a very complicated and complex thing, not easily definable phenomenon. Part of human nature is this constant quest of some human beings for peace and decency and kindness. Another part of human nature are people who believe that, as Nietzsche, who thought that those are qualities that people without power resort to. I don't know that there's a single approach to human nature except conflict and inconsistencies, the kinds of human nature you saw in Christ and Ghandi and Einstein.

Whiteley: How would you want families to be different in order to develop the next generation with a higher value for the directions you see very hopeful for mankind?

Clark: Our families are very valuable in terms of protecting young people, defenseless. Families also are important instruments in inoculating or inculcating competitiveness. Certainly in our society we do have as a very important factor in the cohesiveness of families - competitiveness. I want my child to have better grades than I made. I want my child to go to more prestigious schools, and eventually my child wants to know why do I not, or why does not our family have the conspicuous consumption indicators that the neighbors have.

Whiteley: So there are at least two family values right now - what Alexis de Tocqueville identified about Americans is that quest for materialism, and when they have some they're not quite happy, and they think they need some more.

Clark: They think what really matters is what does the society reward. What does the society consider important things in the socialization of young people? And certainly I don't see much evidence that our society really rewards helping, unless it can be tied into some status component. I mean, if my family is wealthy enough and has demonstrated its ability to be successful in the competition for conspicuous consumption, then we can afford to be helpful. I think, then we can afford to be philanthropic. And ideas to the contrary will not be particularly relevant or important.

Whiteley: You talk about the necessity to face the challenge of today's ghetto because it's breeding, in tomorrow's parents and citizens, defeatism, the toll of drugs and poverty and illiteracy. How would you have government and education and religion and business - the fundamental powerful institutions in our society - act differently to solve that problem?

Clark: The first thing I would ask them to do is to be honest about it, and to stop trying to pretend that it is not a problem, or to be selective in terms of what they consider the problem, such as crime. And one of the things we have done rather successfully is to approach the problems of our ghettos, which are institutionalized forms of racism, in terms of concentrating on the victims and pointing out that these are people who reinforce their problems, if not cause them themselves, by their behavior. As long as those rationalizations persist and seem to be as effective as they are so far, we're not going to do anything about our ghettos. We're going to just see them proliferate.

Whiteley: Writing after the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as you've thought of the moral consequences of those as both actual and symbolic statements of destruction for other human beings, you said our society needs to re-examine our moral framework. What were you talking about?

Clark: I found it extremely difficult to understand how the American people, after the dropping of the atomic bomb in Japan, could continue to talk about war as if that momentous event had not occurred. You know, this was the first time that a target of civilians were used as the basis for the continuation of war. Now I know that they were bombing cities in Europe before the atomic bomb, and that this was horrendous. But to me there was a quantum, qualitative jump when a civilized nation used an ultimate instrument of destruction on vast civilian areas.

Whiteley: Has that moral re-examination that you called for occurred?

Clark: I don't think so. I mean we do have nuclear freeze things; we do have people who are concerned with nuclear disarmament, and I am all in favor of that, but I think the fundamental problem is how do we restructure our thinking in terms of relationships among human beings in the light of the most dangerous threat that mankind has ever faced, namely the capacity of human beings to destroy the human race.

Whiteley: But your writings offer a hope that people do have the capacity to overcome this cycle. Where would you want them to begin?

Clark: What I call survival decency, which may very well be the basis of hope that in order to survive in a nuclear age, human beings, whether they want to or not, they have to become more decent.

Whiteley: One of the legacies of the nuclear age, as you've said so eloquently, is that time has accelerated. What would your prescription be to give more time?

Clark: We ought to find some way in a more systematic technological approach to organismic control of human beings to accelerate the time, and we would not be destroying ourselves because we did not have the collective capacity for decency which is necessary to survive.

Whiteley: You've written that the social sciences have the capacity as a set of disciplines to define and to help work toward a higher level of social morality. What can be learned, in your view, from the social sciences?

Clark: Human beings do have the capacity to control their more basic animalistic impulses. If that were not true we would not have survived up to the present. What we need now is to accelerate that process by which the control of the more primitive and animalistic impulses are more precise, more systematic, and not too late.

Whiteley: You once began a radio address on the question of "how sick is America?" In terms of addressing the issue of peace, how would you answer that question?

Clark: On the issue of peace, to me the symptoms of the problems of America, which are not peculiar to America, are to be found in the fact that we do verbalize our concern for peace even as we are stockpiling nuclear instruments for destruction. Now that to me is a sign of sickness.

Whiteley: Human beings who are in the quest for a better world, and are concerned about insensitivity and violence, will often resort to both insensitivity and violence as part of attempting to achieve a better moral order.

Clark: I'll never forget before I retired from the City College of the City University, I had an advanced course in human motivation, and as you would expect at the time of the Vietnam War my students were talking about the issue of America in Vietnam. And one student, a very intelligent young man, very upset about our role in Vietnam, and he didn't raise his hand, he just started talking to the class and he said, "you know I would like to take a gun and go down to Washington and shoot our leaders who have gotten us into Vietnam." So I stopped him and said, did you hear what you just said? He said "of course!" And he was red in the face. And I said "Why are you against our being in Vietnam?" He said, "Because we are killing people." And I said, "In order to stop killing people, you want to go down and kill people." For some peculiar reason he didn't understand what he was saying. And fortunately, some of my students did understand that I was trying to show him that he could not possibly be against Vietnam because of killing, and believe he could stop Vietnam by killing. However, I suppose that's one of the things that he learned from this society; that we have wars in order to stop wars.

Whiteley: Dr. Clark, thank you for sharing with us today your insights in the ways to a more peaceful world.