Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle over Early Education

Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle over Early Education

Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle over Early Education

Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle over Early Education


A array of childcare and preschool options blossomed in the 1970s as the feminist movement spurred mothers into careers and community organizations nurtured new programs. Now a small circle of activists aims to bring more order to childhood, seeking to create a more standard, state-run preschool system. For young children already facing the rigors of play dates and harried parents juggling the strains of work and family, government is moving in to standardize childhood.

Sociologist Bruce Fuller traveled the country to understand the ideologies of childhood and the raw political forces at play. He details how progressives earnestly seek to extend the rigors of public schooling down into the lives of very young children. Fuller then illuminates the stiff resistance from those who hold less trust in government solutions and more faith in nonprofits and local groups in contributing to the upbringing of young children.

The call for universal preschool is a new front in the culture wars, raising sharp questions about American families, cultural diversity, and the appropriate role of the state in the lives of our young children. Standardized Childhood shows why the universal preschool movement is attracting such robust support- and strident opposition- nationwide.


Few human activities are more essential, more joyful, than the act of raising a child. Until quite recently, bringing up our offspring took place solely within the family's private sphere, aided by kin or paid caregivers. The art of rearing a child—often with the coaching of self-assured male psychologists and their glossy guidebooks—remains primarily in parents' hands.

Early in life children do brush up against formal institutions. Church leaders still baptize babies. Parents dutifully drag their three-year-olds to the neighborhood library. For excitement we may visit the corner fire station or peer through the outgoing-mail slot down at the post office. Yet beyond such glancing exposures to civic organizations young children, historically speaking, have spent little time inside rationalized organizations before entering school.

A dramatic shift in the daily lives of America's youngest children arrived in the 1970s, in the wake of radical changes in their mothers' lives. Rising numbers of young women had been graduating from college since the postwar spread of higher education. The onset of the feminist movement then jolted women's aspirations and notions of how to construct a fulfilling identity amidst competing social expectations.

These breaks from the past recast how mothers, and even their partners, weighed the benefits and costs of raising children and advancing a career. As millions of women decided to juggle both children and work, young children began to spend more and more hours in the care of other adults. The term preschooler even seeped into everyday language, signifying that once those diapers (miraculously) remained dry, a toddler could promptly enter a child care center. The nation's short-lived war on poverty spawned thousands of Head Start preschools, establishing a firm public interest in young children.

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