I have been asked to address the contention that a separation of school and state will result in the strengthening of families and the improvement of parenthood. My training as an historian leads me to open with an investigation of the historic tie between public schooling and the family.
Unfortunately, the word “family” has been badly abused in recent decades, and twisted to justify all kinds of mischief. In deference to grammarians, it is important as well to give at the outset a clear statement to what I mean by the word. I firmly reject the standard contemporary view that the family is “changing” or “evolving” into new forms better suited to modern life. Rather, I hold that family structure of a certain kind is rooted in human nature: in our genetic inheritance; in our instincts; in our hormones. The human family is no more subject to rapid change than is the instinctual blink of the eye, or the shiver down the spine. The so-called “changes” we observe in family living are either deterioration from a natural order, or restoration toward that order.
So in all corners of the globe, and in every historical age, the human family can be defined as a man and a woman in a socially-approved covenant called marriage, for the purposes of mutual care and protection, sexual intimacy, the begetting and rearing of children, the construction of a small home economy of shared production and consumption, and the continuity of the generations.[i]
Over the last 150 years, it is true that the human family system has faced extraordinary pressures from two sources: first, from the so-called “permanent revolution” of modern industrial capitalism; and second, from the exponential growth of the modern state, particularly in the realm of education.
From the very beginning, public school advocates aimed—as they had to—at undermining and displacing the family as the center of children’s lives. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence and philosophical zealot and dreamer, adopted this politically-charged vision of learning, and began by demoting the family:
Our country includes family, friends, and property, and [the state] should be preferred to them all. Let our pupil be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it.[ii]
Horace Mann of Massachusetts, held similar attitudes toward the family. Citing the “neglect,” ignorance, and inefficiencies of families in his state, he emphasized the brutality of what he labeled “monster families,” deemed totally unworthy of their children. Indeed, Mann linked the “common school” system to a vision of the total welfare state, where government simply assumed the role of parent. As he wrote in his school report for 1846: “Massachusetts is parental in her government. More and more, as year after year rolls by, she seeks to substitute prevention for remedy, and rewards for penalties.”[iii]
The Common School Journal, founded by Mann and his colleagues in 1838, featured the denigration of family life as one of its regular themes. Here are passages, chosen at random:
— “the little interests or conveniences of the family” must be subordinate to “the paramount subject” of the school;[iv]
— the public schools succeed because “parents, although the most sunken in depravity themselves, welcome the proposals and receive with gratitude the services of …moral philanthropy in behalf of their families”;[v]
— “there are many worthless parents”;[vi]
— “[T]hese are…illustrations of the folly of a parent, who interferes with and perplexes a teacher while instructing or training his child”;[vii]
— And finally, “Parents must cease to regard wealth as the best inheritance they can leave to their children”; better that this family wealth be used to expand the common schools.[viii]
These sentiments spread with public education across the country, over the middle decades of the 19th Century. John Swett, superintendent of the California state schools from 1863 to 1869, was blunt in his opinion that the state must replace the family. As he wrote: “children arrived at the age of maturity belong, not to the parents, but to the State, to society, to the country.”[ix] Swett maintained that this gave the state the right to reach back into the children’s early years, as well. In his 1864 Report to the California state legislature, Swett explained that “the child should be taught to consider his instructor… superior to the parent in point of authority….The vulgar impression that parents have a legal right to dictate to teachers is entirely erroneous….Parents have no remedy as against the teacher.”[x]
F.W. Parker, the so-called “father of progressive education” and inspiration for John Dewey, told the 1895 convention of the National Education Association (NEA) that “The child is not in school for knowledge. He is there to live, and to put his life, nurtured in the school, into the community.”[xi] As Parker concluded elsewhere: “Every school in the land should be a home and heaven for children.”
It is tempting simply to dismiss such conclusions and words as the over-heated rhetoric of professors, and bureaucrats. But there is direct evidence of a strong linkage between the spread of mass state education and the decline of the family. This evidence derives from the field of demography. It focuses on changes in fertility, for the readiness of married couples to bring children into the world is perhaps the most sensitive numerical measure that we have of family integrity. Humans have always known and practiced ways of regulating their fertility, and the effects of economic, political, or cultural shifts on the family can be measured by trends in birth rates and average completed family size. High fertility does not automatically mean better parenting. But in an age when rival institutions such as corporations also lay claim to the time of parents, higher fertility is a measurable sign of a deeper temporal commitment by parents to their children and to home.[xii] In terms of state education and fertility, the critical work comes from demographers John Caldwell and Norman Ryder.
Caldwell’s Theory of Fertility Decline appeared in 1982,[xiii] and represents a provocative attempt to apply anthropological research, primarily in Africa and Australia, across the board. Caldwell notes, as others have before, that fertility declines only when there is a change in economic relations within the family. In traditional societies, the flow of wealth is from children to parents. Children are thus perceived as economic assets, and fertility is high. However, as the modern “labor market mode of production” breaks through in a society, the flow of wealth reverses, now going from parents to children. Educated children, Caldwell explains, expect to be given more and to be demanded of less by their parents, and their economic importance for parents evaporates.
But in an important turn of his argument, Caldwell emphasizes that it is not urbanization or the rise of industry, per se, that causes this change in family relations. Rather, he shows that it is the prior importation, or promulgation of new ideas through mass education that causes the critical shift in the parent-child relation. State-mandated education, he argues, serves as the driving force behind the shift in preference from a large to a small family and the construction of the modern family as limited in its claims.
Evidence from the United States gives strong support to Caldwell’s emphasis on public schooling as the primary explanation of family deterioration. The steady fall in American fertility between 1850 and 1900 has long puzzled demographers, for throughout that period the U.S. remained predominantly rural and absorbed masses of young immigrants, situations normally associated with many babies. Caldwell’s interpreters[xiv] speculated, though, that the leadership role of the United States in introducing a mass state education system might explain the change. And indeed, U.S. data from 1871 to 1900 show a remarkably strong negative relationship between the fertility of women and an index of public school growth developed by L.P. Ayres in 1920. Fertility decline was particularly related to the average number of days that children attended school in a given year. Even among rural farming families, where children still held economic value, the negative influence of public schooling on fertility was strong. Each additional month that children spent in school decreased family size in that district by .23 children. Indeed, we see here how state education has quite literally “consumed” children, and weakened families.
With his usual bluntness, Norman Ryder, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, has offered a variation of the Caldwell theory, one giving greater emphasis to “mortality decline,” yet one which continues to stress the role of state education as the destroyer of family integrity.[xv]
The state school, he writes, serves as modern society’s agent in the release of the individual from obligations to kin. “Education of the junior generation is a subversive influence. Boys who go to school distinguish between what they learn there and what their father can teach them….The reinforcement of the [family] control structure is undermined when the young are trained outside the family for specialized roles in which the father has no competence.”[xvi]
A related struggle goes on between the family and the state for the allegiance of the child. As Ryder puts it: “Political organizations, like economic organizations, demand loyalty and attempt to neutralize family particularism. There is a struggle between the family and the State for the minds of the young.” In this struggle, the state school serves as “the chief instrument for teaching citizenship, in a direct appeal to the children over the heads of their parents.” The school also serves as the medium for communicating “state morality” and a state mythology designed to displace those of families.[xvii]
Ryder’s work underlines here the vital importance of specific functions to family institutional strength. When families educate their own children, serve as the focus of religious life, and/or raise the largest share of their own food, the persons in these families are more likely to fix on them their first loyalties on the home. When these functions pass over to rival institutions, families lose these claims and so diminish as institutions when compared to their rivals. So we can indict, with justice, state education as a direct cause of family decline. The critical question becomes: if we reversed the process, and disestablished state education, would families currently in trouble grow stronger?
The evidence here is less clear, for the project itself is in its infancy and educational researchers have given the matter scant attention, for obvious reasons. Yet there are “laboratory experiments” of quasi-separation, which offer tantalizing hints regarding the effects on the family:
First, the Roman Catholics
Of all American religious groups, Catholics have maintained most vigorously an educational system separate from the public schools. The Catholic parochial system showed particular strength in the middle decades of the 20th century. Not coincidentally, it turns out, the 1945-67 era produced an extraordinary increase of Catholic marital fertility: a sign of family renewal. While births rose for all American religious groups in this period, it rose far more rapidly and continued longer among Catholics, suggesting that the celebrated “baby boom” was in truth largely a Catholic event. Indeed, the turn to larger completed families was found exclusively among Catholics. Moreover, women’s attendance at Catholic schools–elementary, secondary, and college levels–was positively associated with this higher fertility.[xviii] And while the Catholic birth rate had generally fallen back toward national norms by the 1980’s, researchers could still show at that time a significant positive tie between number of births and a woman’s prior attendance at Catholic schools.[xix]
Second, the Old Order Amish
The Amish people violate every modern rule. Relative to the state, the Amish are, at their request, exempt from Social Security and Medicare. They refuse welfare. They exploit child labor from age three on, and–most important for our purposes–they keep their children out of state schools, operating their own schools through the eighth grade. These schools are closely tied to family living. As sociologist Donald Kraybill explains:
Continuity reigns supreme. In some instances, all the children in a family have the same teacher for all eight grades. Parents relate to one teacher, who over the years develops a keen understanding of the family. A teacher may relate to as few as ten families in a school year, for there are four or five children from some households.[xx]
Upon completion of the eighth grade, Amish children leave the classroom, for practical apprenticeships in farming, gardening, crafts, shop work, and manual trades, all integrated into traditional family living.
Here again, we can link non-state education to high fertility: the mark of successful familism. By age 45, the typical contemporary Amish woman has given birth to 7.1 children (exactly the figure found among all Americans before the advent of “public education”).
If it seems overly-simplistic to attribute these Amish family characteristics to non-state education, one should recall the work of Caldwell and Ryder: they agree that “traditionalist” or “peasant” societies with strong families are most vulnerable to subversion through state education. During the various Amish school wars of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Amish elders appear to have been correct in their defiance of the authorities: state education would have destroyed their family system and their communities. In the freedom they won from state educational coercion, they have shown how a “peasant” people might survive, and even thrive, in the modern, competitive world, if they can only avoid state schools.
Third, Home Educators
From Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the 1890’s, to Talcott Parsons in the 1950’s, to Alvin Toffler in the 1990’s, analysts of the family in America have emphasized the family’s “loss of functions”: they have shown how the “home production” of goods has passed to industry, while the educational, protective, and welfare functions have passed to the state, changes that left the family deinstitutionalized, and weak. But as the perceptive American writer, Wendell Berry, has explained: “the old centers of home and community were made vulnerable to this invasion by corporation and state through their failure as economies. If there is no household or community economy, then family members and neighbors are no longer useful to one another….The local schools no longer serve [families or] the local community; they serve the government’s economy, and the economy’s government.”[xxi]
Home education, viewed in this context, represents the return of a central function to the family. And as any home educator can testify, it also forces a fundamental reorganization of the family: in terms of the behavior of all its members, its relationship to the outside world, and its internal psychology. In short, home schooling families discover what it feels like to be “reinstitutionalized.”
I also would hypothesize that the act or intent of home schooling stimulates marital fertility, the standard measure of family renewal used in this paper. Certainly, home-school families are on average larger than families placing children in public schools. Data from the United States found that the mean number of children in home education families was 3.43 in 1991, compared to less than two for the nation-at-large. The figure for Canada was 3.46.[xxii] Moreover, I suspect that the economic logic of home education encourages still more births, for in some respects the economic gain to the family of maintaining one parent as a teacher in the home increases with each additional child.
Are home-school parents better? In measurable terms of child well-being, certainly yes. As a battery of studies have shown, home-schooled children perform significantly higher on standardized tests than their public-schooled counterparts. Children at home are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, such as the use of mind-altering drugs or promiscuous, non-marital sex. They are healthier, as well.
Home-schooling may be logic
24. Home School Researcher occasionally allows publication styles other than of the American Psychological Association (APA) to be used.