Parental Duty and the Shape of the Future

Charles Howell, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations

Minnesota State University Moorhead, Moorhead MN  56563

Keywords: Homeschooling, home schooling, home education, parents, future.

Education is the key to social survival. Only by passing on skills, knowledge, and values from one generation to the next can a society sustain itself beyond the lifetime of current adult members. In effect, the institutions and activities of one generation must be reproduced in the next. “Social reproduction” is thus the central function of education and a key task of schools and families.

In functionalist accounts, social reproduction typically does not involve any judgment of value. Institutions, social patterns, and activities are reproduced indiscriminately. Hence we are ambivalent about schools’ fulfillment of this function, for they tend to reproduce errors and limitations of the existing society as well as its achievements. Since the early work of Coleman et al. (1966), schools have been criticized on precisely these grounds, for the patterns of achievement among parents tend to be reproduced in the educational outcomes of their children, thus enabling rich parents to transmit advantages to their offspring and ensuring that poor families remain poor across generations.

How schools do this is the subject of considerable debate: Some argue that parents’ access or lack of access to the resources of the dominant culture influences school achievement (Bordieu, 1979), while others seek the cause in class-based differences in parental ability to manage their children’s education (Lareau, 1989). Still others claim that children are socialized to their future status and occupation through peer influence (Henderson, Mieszkowski, & Sauvageau, 1978; McEwan, 2003; Summers & Wolfe, 1977; Willis, 1977) or through teaching strategies (Anyon, 1981), and others identify school finance as a crucial influence (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Kozol, 1991).

Both the magnitude and the mechanism of these effects are widely debated. However, the very possibility of such effects demonstrates the problematic character of indiscriminate social reproduction, no matter what one’s political viewpoint. If schools merely reproduce current social conditions, amelioration is impossible. We cannot hope for better lives for our children, whether we define “better” in terms of piety, economic prosperity, or social activism. Clearly a different educational model is needed. Amy Gutmann (1987, p. 14) has proposed “conscious social reproduction” as the proper aim of education. The underlying idea is that each item passed on to the next generation would be the result of a conscious choice. Only the features of our current society that people value would be preserved for the future.

As far as it goes, this suggestion is utterly innocuous. No one could reasonably object to conscious social reproduction, because no one desires to pass on those aspects of our society that they believe are not worth preserving. The tricky question, though, is who decides what is to be preserved? Gutmann recognizes that members of a society inevitably disagree about which aspects of it are worth preserving (pp. 19-21). Every aspect of a society is valued by someone.  If we all get our way, everything that exists now is preserved in perpetuity. Unless some mechanism is found to handle the disagreement, there is no meaningful difference between conscious social reproduction and the indiscriminate social reproduction we had hoped to avoid.

Gutmann addresses this issue by reframing the question in specifically political terms: “Who should have the authority to influence the education of future citizens?” (p. 16) Predictably, in a democracy citizens claim this authority and exercise it through the state. Gutmann maintains that it is “the distinctive virtue of a democratic society, that it authorizes citizens to influence how their society reproduces itself” (p. 15).

They do not do so directly, however. The agencies of the state, most importantly public schools, do not directly inculcate the beliefs and values of the majority. That would violate the liberal principle of state neutrality. Instead, public schools cultivate students’ deliberative capacity, the skills and attitudes needed to evaluate and make an informed choice among different ways of life and, eventually, “collectively to shape their society” (p. 39).

This program, while represented as an unavoidable condition of democratic life, is actually a conscious choice to reproduce one aspect of a society but not others. Deliberative training ensures that the mechanisms for collective choice in one generation will be reproduced in the next, and removes parents’ ability “to predispose their children, through education, to choose a way of life consistent with their family heritage” (p. 28)—in effect, to preempt choice in the next generation. Limiting parents’ influence in this way, according to Gutmann, is a basic requirement of “inclusive” conscious social reproduction, the “core value of democracy,” which guarantees to every citizen an equal say in the shape of the future (p. 42). The claim that democracy requires the limitation of parental influence is echoed in Rob Reich’s recent critique of homeschooling: “Democratic freedom,” he contends, “requires the free construction and possible revisions of beliefs and preferences.” Students are only free if “they possess the liberty to live a life of their own design,” and this is impossible in an education designed by their parents (2002, p. 59).

The state-based approach resolves the difficulty of indiscriminate social reproduction. Some values are reproduced and not others. But it is not self-evident that this is the right way to resolve the difficulty, or that, as Gutmann and Reich both claim, democratic society requires it. In this essay, I explore an alternative approach: a dispersed model in which individuals and groups work independently to preserve what they most value in the society and to pass beliefs and moral commitments on to the next generation. This approach, I argue, better fits the actual moral beliefs of parents and citizens; it is more likely to produce the outcomes parents want (or should want) for their own children and what adult citizens should want for all children.

The model is developed through an examination of issues raised by Gutmann’s discussion. Section II questions the implied premise of the “democratic state of education” Gutmann describes (1987, pp. 41-46): that citizens have a common interest in conscious social reproduction. In this section, four possible sources of concern about the shape of the future are examined: self-interest, altruism, concern for children’s future well-being, and the desire to achieve and maintain political equality. The strength of these motives varies so greatly from person to person that it seems highly unlikely that citizens would be willing to confine their efforts to collective action sanctioned by the state, or that citizens whose concern for the future is weaker would demand an equal say in the outcome. Given citizens’ diverse inclinations, many will not be well served by the centralized agency Gutmann recommends. Political equality requires equal participation in decisions in which all have a similar stake, but not in decisions in which some have an enormous stake and many others only a tenuous interest or none at all.

Section III focuses on one key element people seek to reproduce—moral commitment—and evaluates institutions available for this task. Three candidates are examined: public schools, private schools, and families. Given current social conditions—a heterogeneous and highly mobile society—the family is shown to be best suited to this undertaking. Democratically controlled institutions—public schools—are not well situated to reproduce moral commitments. Nor are they in a position to allow or encourage intellectual honesty in the evaluation of contrasting moral alternatives, as argued by Okin and Reich (1999). Thus even if citizens generally did demand an equal say in shaping students’ future moral commitments, democratically controlled schools would not be a very promising instrument for achieving this end. This conclusion supports the dispersed model, with families assuming primary responsibility and other institutions (churches, libraries, community soccer leagues, and the like) playing a support role.

The role of the family is controversial: As an institution, it generates social inequality and sustains unpopular moral commitments. Gutmann (1987) contends that parents’ and children’s interests diverge. Parents’ exercise of freedom, she argues, may threaten children’s welfare in two ways: First, parents may seek to reproduce their own intolerance in their children, thereby contributing to a society that encroaches on family prerogatives in the next generation. Second, parents may shield children from contact with ways of life different from their own, so that children are deprived of any real choice about how they will live and thus fail to reap the benefits of social diversity (pp. 30-33). Gutmann argues that the democratic state may and should intervene to protect children’s interest in living in a tolerant and respectful society. If so, the centralized model is validated.

If the exercise of parental authority merely furthers an interest, this argument is difficult to resist. Political life abounds in cases where the state legitimately restricts pursuit of private interest in order to protect fundamental public goods. Gutmann’s argument is significantly weakened, however, if parents have a duty to children and if their exercise of authority contributes to the fulfillment of that duty. Freedom of conscience is a cornerstone of the liberal state, and even the most committed liberal defenders of state authority recognize the need to defer to citizens’ moral commitments.

But does the exercise of parental authority reflect such a moral commitment? Do parents have a moral duty to educate children? Some negative answers to these questions are examined in Section IV and shown to be inconclusive. No plausible argument has yet been advanced to show that parents do not have such a duty. Absent a persuasive argument against parental obligation, advocates of the centralized model face an extremely high ethical hurdle. They must show that in particular circumstances (living as a member of a political minority in a democratic society), it is wrong for parents to do what most people think it is wrong for them not to do, namely raise children to internalize their own moral commitments. Defenders of state-sponsored education typically avoid these arguments by focusing on cases that apparently do not involve genuine moral commitments. Gutmann, for example, refers repeatedly to parents who would teach bigotry and racism if left to their own devices (1987, p. 32), while Lubienski (2000) asks if we “are prepared to forego public influence on the education of children instructed at home by Nazis, Shining Path guerrillas, advocates of race war, pedophiles, Satanists, or some other cultists” (p. 213). Arguments for the moral incompetence of the few do not refute claims for the competence and responsibility of the many.

If the dispersed model outlined in this essay is correct, the consequences for social thought in pluralist democratic societies are profound. Families rather than society as a whole bear primary responsibility for conscious social reproduction. It is primarily they, and not citizens generally or their legislative representatives, who ensure that a society and a civilization sustain themselves over time. True, states and political leaders can try to remake society, and families may support them in attempting to do so, either actively by exercising political power or passively by acquiescing to its exercise by others. But this enterprise always occurs against a backdrop of traditions and moral commitments established and maintained by families. Political activism notwithstanding, families retain underlying responsibility for determining the shape of the future.

In the concluding section, I point out that not all parents recognize or welcome this responsibility. Those who consciously cultivate their own values in their children consequently wield disproportionate influence. Within this group, parents who educate their children at home play an even more prominent role because of their well-publicized moral stance and the time and attention spent on their children.
Does this role justify the decisions of increasing numbers of families to withdraw children from school? If one believes parents are responsible for the education and future well-being of their offspring, it does. Home-schooling parents demonstrate by their actions that they accept this belief. True, many begin homeschooling for pragmatic reasons and may not intend to influence the shape of the future. But if they persevere, they can scarcely avoid exercising this influence whether they want to or not. To take on this task is to assert that child-rearing duties are not just a matter of social convention; to persist in it is therefore to project a moral sensibility that will resound in the lives of their children and their children’s children.

II. Why Care About the Future?

Gutmann assumes rather than argues that members of a society share a common concern about its future. If so, then everyone has a stake in conscious social reproduction, and citizens’ interest in education is shared as broadly as, for example, their interest in clean air, a strong economy, or a good system of roads. Since the plausibility of Gutmann’s argument depends heavily on whether or not one accepts this assumption, close examination is in order. If education is conscious social reproduction, who wants to reproduce what and why?

One obvious source of concern about the future is self-interest. We depend on arrangements that benefit us now to last at least the span of our own lives. We need accountants, lawyers, cooks, and bus drivers. We need fellow-citizens who treat us with respect and willingly share the duties of citizenship. This concern, however, does not in itself imply a strong and persistent interest in conscious social reproduction: Educational arrangements concern us only insofar as we depend on a supply of new citizens, accountants, cooks, and the like. As we grow older and have less of our lives before us, we are less dependent on that supply, and yet often our sense of the importance of education does not diminish commensurately. Self-interest appears to play at most a modest role in our concern about social reproduction, a role that decreases over the course of our lives.

The interests of children provide a more plausible reason to care about conscious social reproduction. The skills, knowledge, and social arrangements that help us live well now will help children live well in the future. For those who have children, concern for their well-being provides strong motivation. As Gilles (1996) suggests, it is sons and daughters “whose good we most identify with our own” (p. 962). Furthermore, if the child’s good is essential to the good of parents, our concern extends not only to our own children but also to our children’s children and to their children and so on into the distant future (Hubin, 1976, p. 78).

For those without children, the motivation is obviously weaker. Altruism could still motivate conscious social reproduction, but not more strongly than it does other forms of beneficence. This asymmetry, however, is not altogether surprising. One would expect those who bear and raise children to have a particularly intense concern about the shape of the future.
Besides people, one can also care about an activity or tradition or physical object. Harry Frankfurt (1988) proposes that caring about something means having a stake its continuation (p. 83). This sort of caring, as Annette Baier (1982, p. 283) emphasizes, is “prospective and future-envisioning” and implies a “will to continuation,” which could extend beyond one’s own lifetime. But caring in this way is really a form of altruism — activities are valued insofar as they contribute to human well-being, and it is typically that aspect that makes them worth caring about. The music-lover cares for Bach’s Magnificat as human experience, not merely as a collection of symbols or sequence of vibrations. Like altruism, the strength and object of this concern vary enormously from person to person, and hence is not easily accommodated by a centralized agency.

A special case of caring about activities and traditions is Gutmann’s account of democratic commitment. Gutmann (1987) contends that “as citizens, we are committed to collectively re-creating the society that we share” (p. 39). As citizens, Gutmann claims, “we aspire to a set of educational practices and authorities of which the following can be said: these are the practices and authorities to which we, acting collectively as a society, have consciously agreed “(p. 39).
To those who find that the form of education preferred by the majority “indirectly subverts or directly conflicts with their own moral values,” the advocate of state control replies, “The virtues and moral character we are cultivating . . . are necessary to give children the chance collectively to shape their society”—that is, to participate in and submit to the results of a political choice of moral commitments (p. 39).

This line of argument can be construed in two ways: (a) those that care about the preferred interpretation of democratic practice necessarily care about its continuation, and (b) those that care about democracy necessarily care about the preferred interpretation of democratic practice.
Construal (a) coincides with Frankfurt’s account of caring and fits the passage about moral character being needed collectively to shape one’s society. But it does not produce the conclusion Gutmann desires. If you seek an equal say in how my child is educated, it is reasonable for you to want your child to have an equal say in how my grandchild is educated. But if I prefer to leave the education of your child to your discretion, within broad limits, it is equally reasonable for me to prefer that my child retain discretion over the education of my grandchild, rather than to submit to a collective agreement.
Construal (b), by contrast, gives Gutmann the conclusion she wants: If we are committed to democracy, we are committed to public control of education. This fits the passages about being committed and about educational authorities and practices. The problem is, the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise of democratic citizenship. A general commitment to democratic self-government does not self-evidently commit us to public control of any particular function or activity. Some sort of argument is required to establish the connection between one and the other, and Gutmann supplies no such argument.

The argument in support of (b), in short, is a non-sequitur. The argument in support of (a) shows that concern about the shape of the future is like passion for music– everyone has it to some extent, but both the intensity and the preferred content varies enormously from person to person, and a collective choice would be utterly irrelevant to what people actually want.
What do the various sources of motivation tell us about the nature of conscious social reproduction? We know that the intensity of concern for the future varies a great deal from person to person. So do the reasons for concern and what people desire to see reproduced. This variability suggests that effective conscious social reproduction will not be a uniform or centralized process, but rather one that is widely dispersed, with different groups playing different roles. That fact alone, however, does not tell us much about which social institutions play key roles in the process, and that is the question addressed in the next section.

III. Educational Institutions and the Content of Conscious Social Reproduction

Conscious social reproduction is necessarily selective, implying choice between incompatible alternatives. Our values dictate that we not reproduce some feature of our current society that others endorse based on values inconsistent with ours. It is the existence of incompatible values that leads to rejection of unconscious or indiscriminate social reproduction.

Prominent among disputed incompatible pairs are the beliefs and habits that ground moral action. How these are integrated and how they develop in children is widely disputed (Coles, 1997; Crittenden, 1990; Damon, 1988). Avoiding these debates, I shall refer to the belief-habit complex as a moral commitment, which consists of three elements: (a) having a belief about the value or disvalue of a certain type of action, (b) being able to give reasons for the belief, and (c) acting on the belief.
A moral commitment is sound if the belief is true—that is, if the activity really is valuable or harmful as the person believes. The commitment is strong if the agent maintains the belief and acts on it despite pressure or temptation to not do so. Following Crittenden (1990), and more broadly the pre-modern moral tradition, I conceive of morality in an extended sense, covering interpersonal issues traditionally regarded as moral (e.g., committed monogamous relationships vs. sex “without strings”) and also actions that affect the quality of an agent’s life even though they may not directly affect others (e.g., contemplation vs. thrill-seeking).

Moral commitments obviously affect the quality of our lives. Having the wrong moral commitment (e.g., egoism or day-to-day hedonism) or not having sufficient moral commitment (giving in to appetite or social pressure) can lead to degradation and misery. Though we need other things to live well—skills, knowledge, opportunities, and social institutions—moral commitment plays a special role, shaping our will and determining whether we use resources for good or for ill. Reproducing sound and strong moral commitments is obviously a priority if we care about human well-being. Though Gutmann (1987) does not use this terminology, the elements of moral commitments figure in her account in two distinct ways: (a) through the political principles of non-repression and non-discrimination, to which democratic citizens are committed (pp. 44-46); and (b) through “competing conceptions of the good life and the good society,” to which schools are supposed to expose children, and among which they are supposed to deliberate and make reasoned choices (p. 45).

To reproduce moral commitment, we need to know someone acquires and develops it. This question, like the nature of moral motivation itself, is widely debated. I shall avoid this debate by pointing out some aspects of the process that must play a role in any account. Clearly the three elements of moral commitment—having a belief, knowing the reasons for it, and acting on it—are closely interrelated. We can come to believe in a certain valuation of x by learning the reasons for x’s value or disvalue. We can test the belief by acting on it – that is, by doing x or observing someone else do it, observing the results, and thereby confirming or disconfirming the original reasons. The concatenation of these elements creates a cycle: exposition of reasons – tentative belief – action – observation of results – more reasons – stronger belief. When the cycle is set in motion, the results of action tend to reinforce true beliefs and weaken false ones, thus weeding out unsound moral commitments and strengthening sound ones.

In cultivating a child’s moral belief, we are concerned with all parts of the cycle. Parents, teachers, ministers, or scoutmasters can’t tell children what to believe and explain the reasons. They also need to encourage children to act on them. Having acted on them, children will then need additional help recognizing effects of their actions and understanding the causal mechanism involved. Obviously this is a process that requires children’s active participation; hence the choice of the term “cultivate” rather than “imprint” or “inculcate,” implying the subject’s active engagement rather than submission or deference.
Can moral commitment be cultivated more easily in some institutions than in others? Are some institutions better suited to promote one alternative of a disputed incompatible pair? Three candidates are considered below: conventional public schools, homogeneous schools (private schools, public schools of choice, and schools in small, homogeneous communities), and families.

Conventional Public Schools

In a pluralistic society, members disagree about right and wrong and the characteristics of good lives. All want to pass on some moral beliefs and not others, but each has her own view about which to sustain and which to eliminate. Because people differ in this way, no inclusive institution can cultivate moral commitment based on one belief of a disputed incompatible pair. To do so would violate the conscience of at least some of its members. This restriction appears to rule out public schools as agent of conscious social reproduction. Indeed, it is widely recognized (Arons, 1983; Gilles, 1997; Myers, 1996) that public schools discourage and even stigmatize unpopular religious and moral commitments.
Could pluralistic public schools tacitly support students’ developing moral commitments while remaining overtly non-judgmental and respectful toward differing values? This might be possible for cultural values that are not incompatible. One can enjoy jazz, impressionism, or Latin-American neo-realism without deprecating the others. Conscious social reproduction, however, is concerned with incompatible pairs of beliefs. The value attributed to an activity implies disvalue attributed to an antithetical alternative. Indeed, many of people’s deepest and most abiding moral commitments appear to be negative — not having sex before marriage, not having a child out of wedlock in the expectation of public assistance, not condemning other people’s lifestyle choices, not begrudging the needy even when their condition is the result of their own choices. In open settings like the public school classroom, one expects to be confronted with people embracing, promoting, and justifying the contrary commitment.

Of course, it can be argued that this kind of confrontation could stimulate critical thinking and consequently strengthen sound moral commitments. Callan (1997), Gutmann and Thompson (1996), Smith (1997), and Reich (2002), among others, view public schools as sites where students can argue in a principled way over the views that divide them and thereby learn from one another and develop the mutual respect needed for citizenship. Granted, persuasive rebuttals might lead weaken some beliefs, but in principle reason should threaten only unsound commitments, which should not be preserved. Indeed, Dworkin (1988a), Arneson (1994), and others believe that critical scrutiny of one’s values is essential to autonomy and full moral agency, because only by that means can one weed out false beliefs. If we lack the intellectual tools to eliminate false beliefs, how can we confidently assert the truth of those that remain?

Unfortunately, the view of public schools as nurseries for critical moral inquiry is too sanguine. For many important topics, large heterogeneous groups like the typical public school class are not well suited to careful and honest discussion of the kind that generates moral commitment. The most relevant moral choices are those students and their parents make, and the consequences of those choices are the students’ own lives, their virtues and defects. We should not expect students to speak freely about the consequences of early sexual activity or abstinence, of parents’ fidelity or infidelity, or of other moral choices they themselves or people close to them make. On the contrary, decency forbids public inquiry into such matters. To expect honest moral inquiry in a public school classroom would be unrealistic.
If heterogeneous public schools do not build commitment to disputed moral beliefs, do they undermine them? Do they break the cycle? Do they prevent students from acting on their beliefs or from recognizing consequences of their own or others’ actions?

One way to act on a belief is to assert it. But schools have many ways of making this difficult (e.g., peer pressure, school and classroom routines, and a curriculum dominated by non-moral concerns). Jackson (1968) and others refer to this indirect effect as the school’s “hidden curriculum,” distinguishing it from the “explicit curriculum” or announced program of study. One can also act on a belief by asserting the reasons for it, but this, too, is difficult, for similar reasons. Finally, one can act on the belief without asserting either the belief or the reasons for it, but then help will not be available in discerning consequences. Furthermore, consequences of others’ actions are often concealed or misrepresented. In the competitive social life of the school, students have a strong incentive not to admit that adverse circumstances are consequences of their own choices or those of their parents. In a variety of ways, then, schools retard the cycle and indirectly obstruct moral commitment.

Schools may also interfere more directly. A number of legal scholars have argued that strongly liberal and secular assumptions of the explicit curriculum effectively undermine religious belief and, by extension, the moral commitments derived from it (Arons, 1983; Dent, 1988; Myers, 1996). Through age segregation and compulsory attendance, schools intensify peer socialization, promoting uncritical acceptance of group norms. Often school officials either do not recognize the impact of peer dependency or don’t intervene when they do recognize it. Nan Stein (1995), commenting on the prevalence of bullying and sexual harassment in schools, maintains that because of the way schools are run, students “don’t learn to think of themselves as moral subjects,” but instead “rehearse being social spectators in their school lives” (p. 159).

Selective Schools

For a variety of reasons, pluralistic public schools are not well suited to reproduce moral commitments. What about schools that serve more homogeneous populations—private schools, public schools based on choice, or schools in less diverse communities? All can assume shared values, often including moral beliefs; promoting these would not violate conscience, as it would for more diverse institutions. But do these schools effectively promote moral commitment?

The best evidence on this question is Coleman and Hoffer’s (1987) study of the differential impact of public and private schools on achievement. Although the study focused on academic indicators, these are an acceptable if imperfect proxy for moral commitment in the extended sense described earlier. Academic growth reflects students’ beliefs about what is important in their lives and their willingness to act on those beliefs.

Coleman and Hoffer found a striking difference in outcomes between Catholic and independent private schools: Catholic schools substantially outperformed public schools with students from similar backgrounds, though they spent substantially less and had larger class sizes. They were particularly successful with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Private independent schools, by contrast, spent more than public or Catholic schools (p. 35), outperformed public schools in verbal skills but not in mathematics, and showed no gain for students from disadvantaged backgrounds (pp. 212-14). Drop-out rates followed a similar pattern. Private school rates matched those for public schools for students at all levels of risk, while Catholic school rates were much lower. In Catholic schools, unlike in the other two categories, drop-out rates for students from broken families or families with low levels of education were elevated hardly at all.

From these results, Coleman and Hoffer concluded that value consistency (i.e., homogeneity) does not play the central role in promoting academic achievement that parents think it does. Though schools without common values can degenerate into chaos (p. 61), shared values in themselves, even when academically oriented, apparently do not contribute much to academic achievement. Only when backed up by a close-knit “functional community,” such as Catholic schools often provide, do shared values strongly affect student outcomes. Such communities enjoy a high level of social capital—that is, productive capacity resulting from close relationships, trust, and willingness to cooperate. The critical element that helps them do this is “intergenerational closure”—close association among adults who deal with children. Adults with whom children associate are “not far removed from the family” (p. 6); they interact daily with parents, as do parents with each other. Thanks to this network of interconnections, schools are able to induce children to act on community values.

How does this account help to answer our question about moral commitment in private schools and homogeneous public schools? Academic achievement reflects compliance with behavioral norms. Although this type of compliance is not what we typically think of as moral commitment, the two share the same structure of belief, evidence, action, and consequences. Coleman and Hoffer don’t describe the mechanism of norm enforcement, but it would likely follow the strategies for promoting moral commitment: advocating belief, explaining reasons, encouraging action on the belief, and pointing to consequences as confirmation of reasons.

The key to effective norm enforcement is intergenerational closure against a background of shared values. Historically, according to Coleman and Hoffer, these features have been characteristic of public schools (pp. 6-7), and can still be found in smaller communities that are self-contained and relatively homogeneous (p. 227). As the mobility of the population increases, however, such communities have become harder to find. Most public schools are neither value communities nor functional communities. Innovations such as magnet and charter schools have recreated value communities but have been unable to reconstitute functional communities. Parents choose such schools, as they do independent private schools, because they agree with their values, not because they are part of a community in which the school is integrated. According to this analysis, Catholic schools and public schools in self-contained, homogeneous communities are suitable vehicles for developing moral commitment. Independent private schools and public schools of choice are not.


Most people in the United States today neither live in small, homogeneous communities nor are members of functional Catholic communities. There is, however, a third institution which might serve as a vehicle for reproducing moral commitment: the family. Unlike heterogeneous public schools, families typically exhibit a reasonably high degree of value consistency. But can they provide social capital, as many Catholic schools do?

Coleman and Hoffer (1987) assert that they do. A well-functioning family exhibits intergenerational closure, with parents communicating freely and intensively both with each other and with their children. In a variety of ways, this model is conducive to reproducing moral commitment. Families that communicate well are able not only to articulate moral beliefs but also explain reasons for them, to model and to encourage acting on them, and to point out the consequences of those actions. Furthermore, vigilant parents know many of the people outside the family that their children know, and can thus alert the children to differences and similarities in moral beliefs and their consequences. In short, as Ray (1989, 1990, 2000) has suggested, the family could be considered the paradigmatic case of the functional community, and that characteristic may help to explain the strongly positive outcomes documented in studies of homeschooled children.

That is not to say, however, that every family actually develops children’s moral commitment. Not all parental values lend themselves to this process. Some lead to divorce or desertion, which Coleman and Hoffer refer to as structural deficiencies because they undermine social capital. Others lead to “functional deficiency,” which can be caused by adult involvement in work or “exclusive attention to self-development” (p. 225). These conditions, too, undermine social capital, making the family less effective as an instrument for conscious social reproduction.

These values obviously reflect less intense involvement with children and thus weaker concern for their future well-being. In such cases parents’ interest in value transmission is at best marginal. Some parents, however, are deeply interested, but find their efforts obstructed either by the school’s demands on a child’s time, attention, and belief or by “the child’s embeddedness in a youth community” (Coleman & Hoffer, 1987, p. 224). These factors, however, can be counteracted by simply removing the child from school, eliminating the school’s demands, and reducing peer dependence. Indeed, many parents educate children at home precisely to avoid excessive peer influence (Marshall, 1996; Mayberry 1989).

Families, in short, are a relatively effective agency for transmitting values, and this gives them a key role in conscious social reproduction. The effectiveness of the families in generating moral commitment is supported by extensive research that shows that strong family life is a protective factor for adolescents, deterring drug use and sexual experimentation, as well as in numerous studies that show that intact families reduce the incidence of a wide range of social pathologies.


The analysis of institutional effectiveness supports our model of conscious social reproduction as a dispersed process. Of the three categories of institutions considered in this section, families alone appear to have the capacity to reproduce moral commitments. Gutmann (1987) herself indirectly concedes family efficacy in her worry that parents will “predispose their children . . . to choose a way of life consistent with their familial heritage” (p. 28).
Given the huge number and variability of families, we should expect a process that is highly decentralized and unpredictable in its outcome. Of course, the fact that families have this capacity doesn’t imply that they should use it or that the state should allow them to do so. Indeed, many political and educational theorists argue that the state should limit the influence of families. In the next section, we briefly survey and evaluate these arguments.

IV. Parental Authority and State Intervention

In contemporary social thought, the major objection to the family is its effect on social inequality. Differences in parents’ resources, knowledge about child rearing, and expectations about social opportunities generate striking disparities in their children’s school achievement and economic prospects. Consequently a number of philosophers have viewed family influence as a major source of injustice and sought to curtail it (Fishkin, 1983; Rawls, 1971, p. 74; Vallentyne, 1989). Feminist scholars have criticized the family for reinforcing unequal gender roles (Okin, 1989).

Gutmann (1987), however, treats the family with caution. In her view, its influence is acceptable if counterbalanced by community interest. To explain this limitation, she reviews three arguments in favor of parents’ prerogative “to predispose their children … to choose a way of life consistent with their familial heritage” (p. 28). Charles Fried (1978) contends that “the right to form one’s child’s values, one’s child’s life plans . . . are extensions of the basic right not to be interfered with in doing those things for oneself” (p. 152). Locke (1698/1993) claims that families are the most effective educational agent because of their intuitive sympathy for their children. Aquinas (1911/1981) defends parental authority based on the good of offspring and nature’s intention that they be brought up into a “state of virtue” (Summa Theological Supplement, q. 41 a. 1; 1981, Vol. V, p. 2699).

Gutmann (1987) does not reject any of the three arguments outright. What she does deny is that they justify absolute family authority over children’s education: the educational authority of either family or state, she maintains, “has to be partial to be justified,” and so must be shared between the two agencies. The principle of adult liberty, she contends, does not give parents the right to form children’s values, but rather requires the state to limit that right, to teach children respect for “opposing points of view and ways of life,” and to teach them to reason so they can evaluate those ways of life and thereby extend their own capacity for effective choice (p. 30).

This sounds like a serious challenge to the family’s leading role in conscious social reproduction, as described in the two preceding sections. If parents can’t form children’s values, then what can they do to influence the shape of the future? Gutmann’s account, however, is not as implacably opposed to parental authority as it appears.

Her basic picture is that state and family share responsibility for children’s well-being, and that the good of children requires accurate evaluation of different life plans so that they can make sound choices in adulthood. About that much, proponents of parental authority would not disagree, though they might have a different view about how much intervention these principles justify. What they would deny, with support from educational scholars, is that actual public schools advance these aims. As we saw in Section II, there is good reason to believe that schools do not help students act on their moral beliefs or understand the consequences of moral choices. If they don’t play the role Gutmann envisions for them, then presumably full responsibility would revert to the family.

A more fundamental question about the role of family is why parents have responsibility for their children in the first place. Explanations of parental duty based on God’s will, natural law, or human nature, once accepted as uncontroversial, are now treated with skepticism. Even the argument that parents should direct their children’s education because they and only they love them is open to question. People other than biological parents come to love children that are constantly in their care. What reason, apart from social convenience, is there to assign child-rearing duties on a biological basis?

One popular response is that we are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our intentional actions, including procreation. The 19th-century English economist Henry Sidgwick (1907/1962) argued that parents “being the cause of the child’s existing in a helpless condition, would be indirectly the cause of suffering and death that would result to it if neglected” (p. 249).

According to Jeffrey Blustein (1982), however, this argument fails because it assumes that child rearing is the duty of biological parents rather than proving that it is. Who raises the child, Blustein asserts, is determined by law or social convention. Biological parents do indeed bring the child into existence, but the state could assign responsibility for its nurture to some other agency. If it did then that agency, not biological parents, would be responsible if the child went hungry (pp. 143-46). Elsewhere Blustein (1979) points out that in most societies biological parents’ responsibility is not absolute. People assume child-rearing duties through adoption, foster care, collective provision in a kibbutz, and countless other arrangements (p. 117). These arrangements, according to Blustein, show that the state may reassign child-rearing duties in any way that serves the interests of children, care givers, and society as a whole.

Does this argument succeed? If so, could a democratic society legitimately curtail the role of the family, making it difficult for biological parents to reproduce moral commitments and pass on values to children?

Blustein’s reasoning appears straightforward, but there is an important ambiguity. Although it is true that states often reassign child-rearing duties, whose duties are they before a state acts? If God, human nature, or natural law decrees that child rearing and education are the duty of biological parents, then the state could facilitate delegation of those duties but could not extinguish them. Parents may consent to delegate their duties, but as soon as the delegated falters, as many believe state agencies do now, responsibility reverts to the original agent.

Blustein’s argument, then, is inconclusive. It does show that responsibility can be delegated with parents’ consent. But it does not show what, if anything, may be done without their consent. Nor does Gutmann’s (1987) assertion that “Children are no more the property of their parents than they are the property of the state” (p. 33) effectively rebut claims on behalf of the family. Locke, Aquinas, Fried, and Sidgwick – none of these men contended that children are property.

The failure of rebuttals, however, should not lead advocates of parental authority to believe their position is unassailable. Arguments based on natural or God-given duty may survive logical challenge and yet simply afford no purchase on those who do not share basic premises. Indeed, as social thought has diverged from revealed religion and ethics, theorists have increasingly characterized morality as a human creation and duty as convention. These premises, implied or explicit, have allowed state officials to reassign responsibility for child rearing and education without parents’ consent. For two centuries, as E. G. West (1994) and Allan Carlson (1993) have documented, British and American governments have steadily curtailed families’ educational role, often against the vehement opposition of conscientious parents.

What this history shows is the capacity of the majority, in democratic societies, to preempt parents’ influence and thereby try to extirpate moral commitments with which the majority disagrees, including commitment to parental duty. To the extent political leaders and voters intend this result, this is obviously a form of conscious social reproduction very different from what is described in Sections II and III. It is, however, the logical consequence of the view Gutmann (1987) holds. Her willingness to use state power to compel submission of the minority is evident in two responses she outlines to hypothetical dissenters:

A society committed to [centralized, state-controlled] conscious social reproduction has a compelling response to those adults who object to the form or the content of education on grounds that it indirectly subverts or directly conflicts with their moral values. “The virtues and moral character we are cultivating,” the educational authorities can reply in the first instance, “are necessary to give children the chance collectively to shape their society. The kind of character you are asking us to cultivate would deprive children of that chance, the very chance that legitimates your own claim to educational authority.” If the challenge is directed to the teaching of values that directly conflict with those of some citizens, then the response to dissenting adults can take the following form: “The values we are teaching are the product of a collective decision to which you were party. Insofar as that decision deprives no one of the opportunity to participate in future decisions, its outcome is legitimate, even if it is not correct.” (p. 39)

Some may argue that, while theoretically possible in a democratic society, such a repressive response to assertion of parental authority is unlikely in the United States because our constitution protects families against legislative encroachment. In favor of this view, they may cite several American court decisions that have upheld parental rights in cases involving religious belief. Legal scholars, however, point out that these decisions are narrowly worded and apply only in restricted circumstances. Parental rights, they contend, remain ill defined and vulnerable to state encroachment (Burtt, 1993; Dent, 1988; Gilles, 1996). Meanwhile, a long line of cases has upheld state intervention in child rearing under the doctrine of parens patriae (parenthood of the state) (Carlson, 1993, pp. 16-23).

The historical and legal data show that the American constitutional order provides no guarantee against further attempts by the state to limit parental influence and authority, along the lines recommended by Gutmann. A democratic majority need not show the falsity of minority moral beliefs in order to act decisively to try to undermine and extinguish them. Families, however, have resources with which to defend themselves: moral insight, sense of duty, social capital, and the relationship between parents and children. Schools and legislatures can’t compete in these areas. Most important, the identity of interest, whereby the well-being of parents depends on the well-being of children, provides families with a stake in the future that others lack. Political ambition and activist zeal provide no such stake. Parents are hurt by the pain of their children in a way politicians aren’t by their constituents’ pain or activists by that of their clients. They have motivation that others lack, and that is a defense that the state cannot breach.

V. Parental Duties and the
Shape of the Future

To recapitulate: If education is conscious social reproduction, then the cultivation of moral commitment lies at the heart of education. With few exceptions, schools are ineffectual in cultivating moral commitment. Conscious social reproduction depends on families.

Not everyone has the same stake in conscious social reproduction. Parents necessarily have a greater interest because, in addition to the diffuse altruistic motivation that all share to some extent, they have the much more powerful incentive of an intimate, long-standing connection to particular children. Many believe that they have not only an interest in promoting their children’s future well-being, but also a natural or divinely ordained duty to do so. Arguments claiming to show that this duty is assigned by and can be withdrawn by law or society are inconclusive. Conscious social reproduction, especially the sustaining of moral commitments, is thus primarily an interest and duty of families.

Not all parents feel the force of this duty or make the interest a priority. Some are too self-absorbed or busy to pay much attention to their children’s moral development. Others don’t believe their own values are distinct from those of the rest of the community or important enough to pass on to children, and still others believe that authentic moral commitments must be developed by children independently rather than through a process of adult cultivation. Those who actively promote their children’s moral commitment thus take on a disproportionate share of the task of conscious social reproduction and exercise a commensurately greater influence on the shape of the future. Many in this group of moral activists have found what Coleman and Hoffer’s (1987) research suggests to be true — that their interest is best pursued and their duty discharged by educating children at home. Within the activist group homeschoolers play a distinctive role, not necessarily because they cultivate values different from those of other moral activists, but simply because they have time to devote to the task and do not have to worry about the distraction and obstruction of schools. Morally committed parents thus play a prominent role in determining the shape of the future, and among them home-school parents have willy-nilly thrust themselves into a position of leadership.

This account of how members of a society attempt to reproduce and reform it will elicit a number of objections, some of which have already been anticipated and several more of which should be mentioned here.

First, advocates of a majoritarian approach to conscious social reproduction, Gutmann for example, might argue that the process described here is illegitimate because it denies citizens an equal say in determining the shape of the future. In the dispersed model, families necessarily enjoy greater influence, and home-school families wield more influence than anyone else.
To this objection, one might reply that what gives families more influence—sustained intimate association with children—also gives them a greater stake in the future. Ordinarily people don’t complain if their influence in some matter is roughly proportional to their interest or stake in it. One could also point out that for many people it is a choice not to beget children, and for many who can’t beget them it is a choice not to raise them. All over the world children await adoption. At some point in life, every citizen is a potential parent, and every parent is a potential home-school parent; thus each has an opportunity to select his or her preferred level of influence. As one prominent advocate of equality has argued, unequal political influence is morally acceptable if disparities are aligned with individual preferences (Dworkin, 1988b).

Those sympathetic to the dispersed model might offer a different objection, namely that this account represents parents as acting myopically, thinking only about their own children. Presumably each child’s future well-being depends not only on his or her own values but on the moral development of other children as well. What good does it do to raise a moral child in an immoral society? Consequently, genuine concern for their children’s future well-being should induce parents to give up a share of their influence over their own children in return for a share of influence in the upbringing of other people’s children. This is one of the arguments Gutmann (1987) advances against withdrawal from the public school system (pp. 31-33), and it is the basic premise of Lubienski’s (2000) argument that homeschooling undercuts the public good.

About this argument, two points can be made. First, if parents deem schools in general and heterogeneous public schools in particular ineffective in transmitting values to their own children, why should they be more sanguine about the effects on other people’s children? Second, parents concerned primarily about cultivating their own children patronize a variety of agencies outside the family—churches, neighborhood groups, and service organizations. Through these agencies, they build social capital not only for themselves but for other families as well. Thus, they can and do contribute to the moral development of other people’s children without relinquishing influence over their own.
Finally, even someone who agreed with the entire account might deny that it justifies parents’ educational choices, especially the decision to withdraw children from school. Most make educational decisions on pragmatic grounds, without any far-reaching plan for influencing the future or even awareness that they might be doing so. Noting this pragmatic, day-to-day orientation, the skeptic correctly points out that we cannot justify our actions on the basis of effects that we do not foresee or intend.

This objection is true as far as it goes. Insofar as parents act only with their children’s current well-being in mind, without any thought for the future or the rest of society, they cannot appeal to aggregate and far-distant effects to justify their actions. But the fact that short-term problems loom large in parents’ consciousness does not show that they never think beyond the short term or the well-being of their own children. On the contrary, moral development as described here is an extended process, requiring not only belief but also action and consequences which extend over time and involve other people. Cultivation—encouraging belief, modeling action, pointing out consequences—requires strategic thinking, both about the long-term consequences of individual choices for the agent and about interpersonal consequences and the impact of one person’s choice on the choices of others. Parents who cultivate children’s moral commitments are presumably aware of all this and can therefore claim it as justification for their educational choices.

There is, however, one aspect of the process described here which many parents probably aren’t aware of and which therefore cannot count as justification until they discern it. That is the distinctiveness of their role — how much more they have at stake than the rest of society, how much more strongly they care, how much more influence they exercise, and ultimately how little they can depend on others to sustain the good in society and contribute to a salubrious future. Parents can claim foreseeable effects of their own actions as justification. But they cannot claim aggregate effects of parents who share their moral sensibilities and thus play a pivotal role in shaping the future. But for most thoughtful people this lacuna probably doesn’t last long. Parents who persevere in the moral cultivation of their children, either by educating them at home or by other means, presumably reflect on their experience and come to appreciate the distinctiveness of their social role. Having done so, they are able to claim as justification not only the consequences of their individual actions, but the broader societal impact to which they contribute as well.


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