The American Family and the Nostalgia Trap

Article excerpt

I was talking recently with some teachers in the state of Washington about how classroom expectations and conventions privilege some families over others, when someone challenged the group to think of teaching techniques that play to the strengths of nontraditional families. A few weeks later, one teacher phoned me and said that she and her colleague had found at least one. They had noticed that their timing of homework assignments was based on the schedules of families with one primary earner. Such families tend to get schoolwork and housework done during the week so that they can engage in recreational activities over the weekend.(70) By contrast, weeknights are the period of maximum stress for single-parent families, with weekends the time when they catch up on chores. So the teachers changed two of their typical homework assignments, taking special care to explain to the single parents Educators often see firsthand the fallout from the rapid economic, social, and demographic changes America has experienced over the past quarter century. More than 20% of American children live in poverty, an increase of more than one-third since 1970. By most measures, the health and well-being of American children have declined in the past 20 years or so, though average statistics often reflect increased polarization, masking the fact that some youths are doing better than ever before. Yet social alienation is widespread, even among more affluent youngsters. Twice as many teens attempted or committed suicide in 1990 as in 1970. While illegal drug use among teens is down from the levels of the late 1970s and while the percentage of Americans completing college has never been higher, youthful homicide rates have been rising sharply since 1985. Beneficial expansions of children's rights have been partly countered by a general disintegration of boundaries that poses painful dilemmas both for youths and for the adults who work with them.(1)

Many commentators believe that poverty, crime, drug use, unemployment, and social alienation among youths stem from a lack of personal character and educational preparation. Why, these observers ask, are so many youngsters not motivated to reject violence, defer gratification, and concentrate on preparing for their future? Someone must be falling down on the job; someone must not be working hard enough.

Listen to the nightly news and the daytime talk shows, and you'll quickly identify the two main suspects: either parents or teachers are messing up somewhere along the line. Since most educators know very well that they're doing their best, there's a natural tendency to conclude that it is parents who aren't trying hard enough. The president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals has been quoted as declaring, "It's not better teachers, texts, or curricula that our children need most" - it's better parents. "We will never see lasting school reform until we see parent reform," he added.(2)

Parents often toss the ball back to the schools, complaining of crowded classes, archaic schedules, and teachers who are insensitive to racial or ethnic differences. Meanwhile, the radical right tries to cover both bases, warning families that the schools are undermining parental values and telling teachers that the problem is neglectful working mothers or absent fathers.

This finger-pointing is part of a growing tendency to abandon any analysis of how institutions, social structures, and economic trends produce patterns of success and failure. In the past 20 years, a new kind of social Darwinism has emerged, suggesting that poverty and inequality result from individual character deficiencies, from lack of will, or from inborn genetic flaws. The most conservative version of this philosophy concludes that social reform is useless: poor people, women, and minorities must be left to sink or swim.(3) But the more liberal version, while rejecting genetic determinism, also stresses personal transformation over institutional change and has produced the extremes of the self-esteem and positive thinking movements. …