Family Quarrels

This issue of Academic Questions focuses on liberal education and the family. The conjunction is deep, long-standing, complicated, and in recent years, fraught.

Families, of course, are fundamental units of society. But it is in-apt to call them “building blocks,” since unlike hewn boulders or pre-cast concrete, families perform their work by constantly shifting. A family with its first newborn is one thing; a family of middle-aged parents with teenagers quite another; and a family of aging parents and adult children something else. The stages in the life of a family invite comparison with a living organism that is born, lives, and dies—but this isn’t quite apt either, since families entail many distinct lives, however intertwined they may be. And families don’t die like a living organism; rather they weave across the generations.

Families are rooted in the basic facts of reproduction, aging, generational succession, and death, but families are also made of the indefinable stuff of dreams. One such widely shared dream for many parents these days is that their children will go to college and get a worthwhile education. And indeed, for a great number of American families, having children in college represents the culmination of childrearing: a capstone that speaks both of perils avoided and hopes for a prosperous career to come. This has become such a key feature in the lives of American families, it is slightly surprising that we don’t have a single word for families-with-children-in-college. The parental generation of these families typically faces, all at once, financial stress, relief from the turmoil of adolescents, and adjustment to a new stage of marriage. Meanwhile, children transformed into college students are faced with the necessity of considering how much of their own lives will be defined by families they grew up in. Around the corner from this question lurks another: what role will marriage and family play in their futures?

The family has also long been a subject of scholarly consideration—long, in the sense of “as far back as we care to go.” Plato’s Republic, of course, is a tale told in the family setting of old Cephalus’ house with his son Polemarchus on hand. But the Socrates of The Republic soon turns out not to be very friendly to the family, which he depicts as an impediment to justice. Family values, as we would now say, don’t necessarily dovetail with the public good. Other philosophers over the ages have been more willing to give the family a break. But the moment when the family at last became a scholarly subject in its own right can be pinpointed to 1851, when an upstate New York lawyer, Lewis Henry Morgan, published an odd book titled The League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee or Iroquois. Morgan had stumbled on a Native American form of the family quite unlike that of his Protestant neighbors in Rochester. Others had remarked on Iroquois customs before him, but Morgan looked at the facts with legal imagination and understood the profound congruity between the organization of the Iroquois family and the encompassing social order of the Iroquois Confederacy covering six distinct tribes and tens of thousands of square miles.

Morgan’s subsequent efforts to pursue this idea as it might apply to other societies around the world culminated in one of the great monuments of nineteenth century scholarship, his Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity in the Human Family (1871.) His work prompted several different lines of development. Lamentably, Marx and Engels saw in Morgan’s work an independent proof of sorts for their speculations about the rise of private property, and Engel’s Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) pillages Morgan’s writings for evidence. But Morgan also sparked the inquiry that became the discipline of social anthropology, in which the family—or more broadly kinship—was the central topic of inquiry.

Meanwhile, other academic disciplines were stirring with new interest in the family. Darwin’s second great book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), put the theory of sexual selection alongside the theory of natural selection, and thus made the social ordering of human reproduction a topic central to biology. And in Vienna, by the end of the 1890s Sigmund Freud was beginning to formulate his idea that the central unconscious drama of human life is the child’s fantasies about its parents. Freud’s fully-formed concept of the Oedipus Complex didn’t arrive until 1910, but he had set the stage for the dominant tone of twentieth-century scholarship on the family—a tone of skepticism about the bonds of love and affection and doubt about the underlying wholesomeness of the institution.

Freud’s particular theories have been savaged by feminists but no one has more avidly carried forward his idea that the family imposes itself on the will of its youngest members and leaves them traumatized for life. Only Freud usually spoke of this as repression, and feminists, combining the iron judgments of Engels and Freud, rechristened it oppression. It would be hard for students to attend college in the United States today without being at least a little singed by the tormented anger that the feminist Left directs toward the family.

Or perhaps that should be “traditional family”—a retronym like “snail mail”—since we now have to reckon with conceptions of family that have veered far off from husband, wife, and children. “Families of choice”—one of the terms for the new arrangements—aren’t our subject in this issue of AQ, but they are part of the context. In examining the relations between liberal education and the family, we are aware that the family is an institution under pressure and, according to some measures, in decline.

Engels and Freud have their legacies, amplified in many fields—most prominently law, education, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and social work—by armies of grim-faced relativists eager to approve almost any psycho-sexual combination other than the traditional family, but this is far from the whole picture. Family studies is a robust specialization with its own journals and traditions of rigorous scholarship. Within that specialization one of the most heroic figures is the recently retired Rutgers sociologist, David Popenoe. Professor Popenoe came to international attention in 1988 with the publication of Disturbing the Nest: Family Change and Decline in Modern Societies. The word to pay attention to in that title is “decline.” Before Popenoe, no major scholar dared to suggest that modern welfare state policies and cultural trends were actually undermining the family. The PC consensus was that the family was fluidly transforming itself into new shapes. Popenoe showed—with substantial empirical evidence—that, no, the family was actually being displaced by new social patterns, falling marriage rates, and declining fertility.

We are pleased to present in this issue an interview with Professor Popenoe conducted by our editor-at-large, Carol Iannone. Professor Popenoe speaks about his own career, including his success in establishing the National Marriage Project, as well as the current state of marriage scholarship.

David Steiner’s essay, “An Education Lived,” is an autobiographical account of a remarkable childhood. David is the Klara & Larry Silverstein Dean of the School of Education at Hunter College and someone with his own lustrous career in the arts and humanities—but he is also the son of George Steiner, the polymath who has excoriated Western societies for the shallowness of their liberal education. What was it like to grow to intellectual maturity under the tutelage of such a father? David’s answer is deeply evocative of a time and place and it is also a subtle examination of where liberal arts and childhood intersect.

Carolyn Graglia, who is best known for her 1998 book Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism, in which she defended the calling of the homemaker against the disparaging picture of traditional women’s roles promoted by academic feminists. In her essay for this issue she revisits these themes. Can the choice of devoting oneself to motherhood fulfill a liberally educated woman? Graglia re-opens a door that has been psychologically closed to two generations of American women.

Daniel Cere, a political scientist and professor of religious studies at McGill University, is a key figure in Canada’s debate over expanding the definition of marriage and in broader international discussion of marriage law. In his essay for this issue, Cere explores the attempts by academic theorists such as Martha Nussbaum to replace the conception of marriage as a “natural” institution with the idea that marriage is defined by the state, and is therefore open to whatever transformations the state may choose to impose. This claim, launched in law schools and philosophy departments, travelled with stunning alacrity to the courts, as when the Massachusetts Supreme Court in its Goodridge decision (2003) found a “right” to gay marriage.

Cere also takes us back to a crucial earlier stage of the debate on the family: the ratification in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which included what now reads like a stunning vindication of the traditional concept of marriage as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society…entitled to protection by society and the State.” The history lesson here is valuable and leads Cere to the conclusion that a reassertion of human rights might be an effective counter to the politicized attack on the traditional family “in vogue in contemporary western academies and courts.”

Norval Glenn, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, whose work on marriage and the family has been widely influential, scored a scholarly bull’s-eye in 1998 with a study of the twenty leading college-level textbooks on marriage and the family. Closed Hearts, Closed Minds: The Textbook Story of Marriage offered irrefutable proof of the widespread anti-family bias in the academy. We thought it was time for an update and we are pleased that Professor Glenn answered the call.

Wendy Shalit caused consternation among those who can tolerate anything but self-restraint when she published A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue (1999). Her follow-up contribution, Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good (2007) sent similar shivers of revulsion through the plighted-to-promiscuity crowd. She seemed to us exactly the right person to review the recent spate of books on “hooking up,” the current campus term for sex without either romance or commitment. A popular song, “Sidedish Friend,” written by Rachael Yamagata, in which a young man welcomes the attentions of a young woman:

If it’s understood

That I don’t want you hanging out with me

But, I want you when I call

We can stay together separately

And we won’t be lonely at all

And if the young lady isn’t sufficiently enticed by this offer, the singer gallantly adds:

There’s a back door waiting just for you

If this isn’t what you need.

We round out the issue with four reviews on non-family matter. Russ Nieli examines a book much praised for supposedly demonstrating that “diversity,” including the kind produced by racial quotas, “creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies.” The proof, unsurprisingly, comes by way of playing hopscotch with data and definition. Jeff Wallin tests the defense of liberal education offered up last year by Yale dean Anthony Kronman. Wight Martindale peers into some of perplexities of Charles Murray’s recent recipe for replacing large swaths of American higher education with a professional exam system. And Steve Balch reviews Herb London’s new book on the transformation of secularism in the United States into a new national religion.

Our task in Academic Questions is to provoke attention to subjects where attention is needed but not necessarily welcome. But as we gathered material for this issue, we were struck again and again by the fairly positive findings of our contributors. David Popenoe’s once ostracized view that children thrive best when they are raised by their married biological parents is now accepted by all but hard-core proponents of “alternative lifestyles.” Moreover, he succeeded in establishing a major research center on the family in the midst of a modern research university. David Steiner finds a vein of poetry in an austerely formal education. Carolyn Graglia speaks to an intellectually rich life lived within the tranquility of the family, despite the shadows of anti-familial ideology. Daniel Cere re-discovers a defense against the academic deconstruction of the family in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Norval Glenn discovers that family textbooks are, with one exception, a whole lot better. Criticism, grounded in facts, apparently works!

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Correspondence to Peter Wood.

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Wood, P. Family Quarrels. Acad. Quest. 22, 5–10 (2009).

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