Academic journal article Family Relations

A Response to Glenn: The Battle of the Textbooks: Bringing in the Culture War

Academic journal article Family Relations

A Response to Glenn: The Battle of the Textbooks: Bringing in the Culture War

Article excerpt

Norval Glenn's review raises provocative issues about the enterprise of writing textbooks, about the purpose of courses in marriage and the family, as well as about how research evidence should be interpreted. These are important questions that are seldom discussed. I agree with Glenn on a number of points--especially on the relative lack of attention to children in family textbooks, and the need to be wary of one's own biases is writing and teaching in this highly contested and emotionally charged field.

Yet I find the review deeply troubling. It is not only that I am an author singled out for criticism. What disturbs me is the blurring of the line between social science and cultural politics. Glenn seems to assume that any author whose coverage of specific topics, or whose interpretations of social research differ from his own, must be acting out of bias. In the name of rooting out ideology from family textbooks, Glenn has created a series of litmus tests of his own making.

Consider, for example, what he has to say about why children receive little coverage in family texts. Glenn acknowledges that this may result from the division of subject matter among disciplines. I agree. I hold a Ph.D. in psychology (Yale, 1962) and have written a textbook in child development (Skolnick, 1988) as well as sociology of the family texts. When I shifted to research on the family, it was clear these were different disciplines--with different theories, research questions, and methodologies. Glenn, however, prefers a more insidious explanation, "A major reason that the books give short shrift to child-related topics is likely to be ideological bias; persons who positively evaluate recent trends in family structure tend to be reluctant to admit that these trends may negatively affect the well-being and socialization of children and adolescents" (p. 202).

Glenn makes many other charges against family textbook writers, publishers, and those who teach from them. The core complaint is that the liberal or radical ideology of these writers leads them to undervalue marriage and to understate the harm done by divorce and single-parenthood to children and society. Before responding to Glenn's specific criticisms, I find it necessary to discuss the ideological framework in which they are embedded.

As Hunter (1991) observed, the family is the central battleground of the culture wars that have raged across the American political and intellectual landscape in recent years. Cutting across the usual class, religious, and political cleavages, the culture war is essentially a conflict between opposing assumptions, world views, and moral visions. And at the heart of the debate, Hunter argues, is the issue of defining the family. What form or forms of the family should be acknowledged by society? Shall the traditional two-parent married couple with children be the only pattern recognized by legal and public policy? Recent debates over divorce, single-parent families, and gay marriage are only the latest eruptions of the definition issue.

These passionate public arguments serve as the crucial backdrop to Glenn's critique, but he does not say nearly enough about the range of views on these matters, or make his own biases clear. He does acknowledge that the review was first written as a report to the Council on Families in America, which he identifies as a group of about 20 professors, journalists, and public figures, himself included, concerned with family issues. But then he minimizes the possibility of bias because he claims, the Council is "centrist," its members ranging from liberal to conservative; he is at "a good vantage point from which to detect bias in the arguments of both the left and the right."

More should be said, however, about The Council on Families in America. Headed by David Popenoe and Jean Bethke Elshtain, it is an offshoot of, and is sponsored by, the Institute for American Values (IAV) headed by David Blankenhorn and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. …

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