The Failed Century of the Child: Governing America's Young in the Twentieth Century

The Failed Century of the Child: Governing America's Young in the Twentieth Century

The Failed Century of the Child: Governing America's Young in the Twentieth Century

The Failed Century of the Child: Governing America's Young in the Twentieth Century

Excerpt

Why the Failed “Century of the Child”?

Between 1900 and 2000, an unprecedented American effort to use state regulation to guarantee health, opportunity, and security to the country's children did not meet its own goals. The achievements envisioned were enormously ambitious. They also reflected entrenched but self-contradictory values and Americans'inconsistent expectations of government. As such, a “failed” century deserves a mixture of rebuke and cautious admiration.

In the same breath, Americans celebrated individuals, family, and community but rarely acknowledged the inherent conflicts that accompanied such catholicity. Governments rarely established clear hierarchical priorities when the interests of the young, their elders, and the general public did indeed clash. Failure to do so produced unexpected, even nonsensical, consequences that these pages dissect. At best, it nourished ambivalence about responsibilities for children, reflected in public policy's frequent inability effectively to draw the lines – between proper parental discipline and child abuse – between medical privacy and mandatory immunization of all children – between a disabled child's right to education and a school system's need to balance a budget. That contributed to the country's failure to achieve the goals symbolized by the phrase, “century of the child.” In 1900, well-read Americans discussed a just-published book, The Century of the Child. Its Swedish author, Ellen Key, predicted that children's welfare would be central to any definition of twentieth-century progress. Nowhere did this really happen, certainly not in the United States.

Reiterated in these pages is another reason for, again, a mirror of powerful contradictions in American cultural and political beliefs. Americans lauded democracy and tried hard to implement it. They also embraced

One wonders if very many of the American Progressives who copied the title actually read
the book itself, as the socialist Key opposed most forms of public schooling and included dia
tribes against capitalism as harmful to children. Ellen Key, The Century of the Child (London,
1900).

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