German life under Nazi rule is a vivid example of social engineering. Through education and propaganda, the state sought to instil a sense of militarist-nationalism along with anti-Semitic views. Militarism being the view that military values—discipline, obedience and duty—should pervade in society. Nationalism being the view that furthering the nation—people within a territory—is the highest goal. Simply put, social engineering is the project to form the ideas and values in a population.
While this project fostered violence in Nazi Germany until the conclusion of World War II, other social engineering projects continue. Many seem harmless or helpful, but others may be cause for concern.
Have you been socially engineered?
Most of us, including myself, have been socially engineered to some degree. Schooling is one of the common places for this. Most schools try to promote values of studiousness and sociability and few would be at all concerned by promoting these values. However, even in schools there can be elements of more questionable doctrine.
Many schools, particularly in the western world, teach with reference to older traditions from the 1800s, when militarism was seen as a proper way to form a citizen. During the late 1800s and early 1900s many nations saw militarism as the key to their national formation or survival.
The unifications of Germany and Italy were achieved largely through war and Japan came to be a powerful regional actor by adopting a militaristic nationalism. States which did not conform to the new ideology often found their ability to protect their borders lacking. China was one such example, not having a well-developed, widespread sense of militarism; they were defeated by Japan in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894–1895. This set the stage for a 'Darwinist' view of international relations, in which the strong would devour the weak.
The development of schooling and mass education started to become more widespread during and after this period. School uniforms, parades and even assignments could be seen to relate to militarism. Uniforms help to generate an identity, a sense of belonging to the group. Parades may promote obedience to authority figures. Even assignments might be used to instil a sense of duty. It is more or less an open question as to whether these characteristics should be produced, but education systems are certainly an effective means to influence people.
Obvious social engineering
Military social engineering is generally much more obvious than civilian examples. During China's republican era, a particularly interesting social engineering project was attempted at the Whampoa Military Academy.
The academy had the mission of training officers for a 'Revolutionary Army' and sending them out to raise the standards of other allied military groups which often lacked discipline and were largely viewed as little better than bandits. The scale of the project in terms of depth of social engineering was incredible.
Students learned selected and annotated histories, sung songs and heard lectures promoting selfless sacrifice for the nation. Militaristic slogans filled the academy on walls and banners everywhere, and a set question and answer drill formed an oath to die for the country.
These officers did not influence all of the armies fighting in China at the time, but they do appear to have reduced arbitrary violence against civilians for those armies they did enter.
Is social engineering right or wrong?
For the Christian, we must be alert to social engineering and critically consider if the values and practices being promoted fit with Christianity. We should also consider how the values around us influence our Christian worldview. We have an excellent way to do this by reading the bible and seeing what it actually says. This way we can determine if what we believe is founded on the bible or simply on the values around us.
Christians have been on both sides of extreme social engineering. In Nazi Germany some Christians mistakenly fell into line and took part in harmful events. Others, Dietrich Bonhoeffer being a famous example, stood out as dissidents and actively opposed the Nazi regime.
You may be aware of social engineering in your own situation. I leave it up to you to judge whether it is right or wrong. You may have even felt the indoctrination of officers at Whampoa to reduce violence against civilians was justified, or perhaps crafting people into tools for a national goal is too much.
Consider a modern example:
North Korea is engaging in propaganda to convince their population they are better off than most of the world and the United States seeks to destroy their happy peace. One video portrays their people as butterflies collecting bountiful nectar and the United States as a ravenous rooster hoping to gobble them up. They state this while many people in North Korea are starving and homeless.
Perhaps you will think the rights or wrongs of social engineering should be decided on a case by case basis.
Alexander Gillespie is an Arts Honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Particular fields of interest include Nineteenth-Century migration history, conceptual philosophy, social policy and ecclesiology. He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and enjoys researching and writing.