III -- The Family as Educator


Like many two-year-olds in our culture, Amy, Wendy, and Beth played with dolls. Often the mothers joined in the pretense encouraging the child to behave toward the "baby" much as they themselves behaved toward the child. For example, Marlene urged Amy to comfort the baby. "Aw. The baby's cryin. Pat the baby. Pat the baby." Liz and Wendy put a tired baby to sleep, "She's layin in the truck. Look. The baby's asleep." Nora gave Beth a long lesson in burping. "Burp it. Burp the baby. Burp the baby. Like this. Burp her. Put her on your shoulder and burp her. Go on, how you do Kathryn [Beth's infant cousin]. Burp her. She had enough. Burp her ... Okay. You're pokin her eyeballs out. You ain't watchin my kid!" The mothers encouraged their daughters to change the baby, comb her hair, take her for a ride in the stroller, give her a kiss, dance with her, and show her a toy. In short, the mothers gave instruction in mothering.

         (Miller 1982: 105)

Miller, a development psychologist, gives here an example of a mother deliberately teaching her child how to handle babies and, thereby, illustrates what guided the great historian Cremin when he defined education as:

the deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to transmit, evoke, or acquire knowledge, attitudes, values, skills, or sensibilities, as well as any outcomes of that effort . (1976: 27)

This has major implications for the study of educational processes. Above all it shifts attention from institution to activity and thereby tries to recapture what remains at the core of all serious philosophies of education (Dewey [1937] 1971).

                     Some have objected that Cremin's list of sites where education proceeds ("families and churches, schools and colleges, museums and libraries, summer camps and settlement houses (1974: 1)) is altogether too broad. It masks major difference among them. Families, churches, museums, etc., are different kinds of sites from schools or colleges: the latter have curriculum and pedagogies designed by expert educators and certified by the various State agencies. Schools and colleges give degrees with "certain rights and privilege appertaining thereto"--in the quaint language used in graduation ceremonies. Families, churches, etc., do not give degrees. The education they provide is not certified by the State. They have no employees and family members cannot be fired. In other words, wherever an individual may have been educated, it is only the School that can legitimize this education (through exams, degree, aptitude tests, etc.) if it is to be used for anything other than self-enlightenment. It is not surprising that the American landscape should be dominated by school buildings for the school, as an arm of the State, brings the entire population together; parents, children, non-parents, the elderly and the businessmen, all are touched by what happens there. Curriculum and taxation, pedagogy and employment, everything ideological and practical is at stake in the school.

                     Given all this, one might challenge the educational researchers who find Cremin's definition too broad: how much true education, in the philosophical sense, can there be within the State-controlled school? Certainly, most people in the United States do learn most of their specific skills, from reading and writing to calculus and physics, in school buildings from school personnel. But skills taught and learned for credentialing purposes are only an aspect of education. The school does much more than educate, and must less also. Education, by contrast, is a fundamental human activity. This is an empirical generalization that feeds a theoretical understanding and confirms a philosophical intuition. This is nowhere better illustrated than in Cremin's monumental history of American education (1970, 1975, 1980, 1988). As soon as he started developing it, he realized that he could not write it as purely a history of schooling. Everywhere in the documents he consulted he saw that families from all groups had generalized curricula and somewhat systematized pedagogies that were more deliberate than the cultural automatisms that anthropologists and historians routinely assign to human beings.

                     Developments over the past 25 years have more than justified Cremin's view of the family's involvement in education. Social scientists of all types (Lareau 1989; Leichter 1975, 1979; Miller 1976; Ochs 1988; Schieffelin 1989; Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines 1988) have demonstrated, from many different point of view, that even those who receive the least benefits from the school, or those who were never touched at all by it school, routinely act in ways that are specifically educational in the broad sense. This reality has serious consequences for professional educators and philosophers of education and must lead to a rethinking of their activities. At an extreme it must makes them wonder whether education has escaped the control of the school-- whether indeed it was ever as controlled by the school as the apologists for the school, and its detractors, liked to say.

                     I will now review in more detail the extensive work that has now been done pointing at the extent of the presence of the family in education. Two main strands can be noticed. On the one hand, one can look at families as co-partners with the school in the education of their children. On the other hand, one can highlight the many way through which families manipulate the school, sometimes against much that it stands for, and thereby transform what the school can accomplish.

                     The following review is organized along a continuum of educative activities in families from those that are more controlled by the school to those that are more controlled by particular families:

1) Schoolwork in families: homework, parent conferences, and all other efforts by the school to involve parents in its own work;

2) Familial work that recognizes the legitimacy of the school but is not directly controlled by it: reading educational books, watching educational television programs, using a personal computer and otherwise getting one's children to perform school approved activities;

3) Familial work that supplants the authority of the school: home schooling, alternative private schools,

4) Other deliberate curriculum and pedagogical activities that operate fully outside the school: religion, morality and manners, entertainment and the arts, politics and ideology, discipline, ways of speaking.


School Work at Home

                     The school is directly concerned with family education, but its rights of intervention in a family's life are quite limited. Social welfare agencies, for example, may directly enter the home when something goes wrong in certain specified way but schools can only exhort (and, in certain cases, prompt welfare agency action). This may explain the tone of much of the literature on "parental involvement in schools." For example, Swap's recent review cites statistics about attendance at school-sponsored events as proof that this involvement is "surprisingly minimal" (1993: 13). She then proceeds to review various models that are supposed to change this, without quite noticing that all are school-sponsored and school-based. Parents are invited, cajoled, threatened into accepting school guidance. Many children may indeed benefit if their parents participate extensively in what teachers propose, but, in all cases, these efforts should be seen for what they are: attempts by the school to control familial educative practices that it disapproves of but has no direct power to change. Swap's book is typical of a genre that seems particularly blind to all the mechanisms through which parents are already profoundly involved in their children's education even if they rarely attend school functions (Gestwicki 1987; Kaplan 1992; Litwak and Meyer 1974; Munn 1982; Rich 1987). Parents, in most school districts in the United States, elect school Board members and approve tax rates. They supervise homework and, as mentioned, do all sorts of things that must be understood as direct parental involvement.

                     The issue that drives research on school controlled parent involvement has probably more to do with the quality of this involvement, as seen by school personnel than with the amount of involvement. Teachers, clearly, feel a resistance they often interpret as lack of interest, passivity, or worse. They may not know, or want to know, that parents are symmetrically dissatisfied with teachers whom they see as indifferent to their children, or worse. Many researchers hope that the problem is one of "communication" between rational interlocutors equally concerned with the welfare of the individual child. If communication is the problem, then meetings and other such activities might help. But there is another possibility that, I believe, better accounts for what we know: If the problem is structural--that is, if it has to do with the radically different position in which parents and teachers find themselves--then efforts at communication may only hide what continues to separate teacher from parent and the school from the families it serves. Indeed, the greater the professional passion of the teacher and the greater the parental passion of the father or mother, then the greater the potential for conflict. If the adults on both sides are indifferent, then the latent conflicts may not develop. If they bring to the interaction the kinds of political agendas that regularly burst on the national scene (think for example about the recent fights over Ebonics) then disagreements can get hot indeed. Even when there is a full sharing of views between teacher and parent, tensions remain. It is the rare parent who does not feel some qualms when crossing the school building’s door to meet various figures with the authority to open or close avenues of advancement for any child. Teachers evaluate and thereby constitute a possible future for children that parents must often refuse: "No, my child is not dumb, she is not in need of special education." Or, as generations of working-class and peasant parents (Reed-Danahay 1996) have told teachers: "No, however bright my child may be, she is not going to an elite school that will separate her from me and her kin." "NO!"

                     Happily enough, few parents and teachers find themselves in situations where the school directly threatens to transform a family by identifying the child as either a total failure or a total success. For most teachers, most parents, and most children, the routine moment of interface between the world of school and the worlds home is homework, the schoolwork a child is required to do at home. Much has been written about its instructional efficacy [REFERENCES]. Little has been written about the impact of homework on families (Varenne et al. 1982, 1986; McDermott, Goldman and Varenne 1984). When a child does school work home, it is as if the school itself had invaded the family, and the whole family has to organize itself to deal with this task. In a modern household, this is an ordinary task in the middle years of its life cycle, and fully subject to all the internal patterns that households evolve. The timing of homework, the space that is given to it, and, most importantly, the manner of its sequencing with other household tasks (that is, what can be interrupted or suspended for homework, what can interrupt or suspend homework), all this is controlled by the household in its relationship with itself, its neighbors, the rest of its kin, and other families. This is true of all families whether upper middle-class in Englewood Cliffs, or a few miles away, in the Newark's inner-city (Taylor 1983; Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines 1988) But the very commonality of these constraints explain why any mechanisms that differentiate one household from another (from the availability of a parent to be present while the child is at work, the number of rooms in the house, to the need to ask the child to perform other tasks), have an impact on the completion of homework and, to the extent that homework is a useful for instruction, on the eventual success of the child in the world of the school.


Familial Extensions of the School

                     Still closely related to the school are the subset of specifically labelled "educational" activities that parents will engage with their children even in the absence of any requirement that they do so, but under the school’s general organization and guidance. An example is parents reading to their children bedtime stories because they have been told that "it is a good preparation for learning to read in school,” and choosing books publishers present as particularly "educative." Making children watch Sesame Street or taking them to the “educational” spaces in museums, zoos, historical monuments, etc., proceed from the same movement. When they do this, parents bow to the legitimacy of school experts and regulators as they accept their guidance. And yet, at the very same time as parents yield to their authority the school, some thereby pervert the equalitarian ideals of liberal education by giving their children a special advantage that other parents may not be able to give them. Access to school-controlled but not school-based instruction is not evenly distributed across the population and this has all the more profound consequences that this instruction is more effective.

                     Some educators, in and out of schools, are often suspicious of other activities that may be more useful to prepare a child for the acquisition of particular skills than to educate them. They complain that this or that television program, book, or computer software is not "really" educational. Cramming courses, like Kaplan or the Princeton Review, are particularly frowned upon, and yet perennially popular with parents who have the means to pay for them. But while school experts rely on their pedagogical authority to criticize particular familial policies, they also use it to certify programs. In any event, what is important here is that, when parents scan the shelves of stores for books and software and search for a suitable movie, they are in charge, accepting some expert suggestions, and dismissing others. This is direct parental involvement in education.


The Reconstitution of the School by Families

                     Somewhat paradoxical in its development is the attempt by some parents to take over the instructional tasks of the school. Why shouldn't parents do so? The possibility has caught the rebellious imagination of America under the label of "home schooling." There are left-leaning variations building on critiques by Illich (1970) and Freire (1972). There are religion-based variations (Colfax and Colfax 1988; Gorder 1990; Webb 1990). All are promoted as a means for parents to take direct control of instruction, and escape an oppressive school. For all the practical reasons that contributed to the development of the school in the first place, this is not an alternative that many parents will be able to undertake, even if they wish to. Most are required to do something else with their time and energy than instruct their children, and many do not have the needed skills. Indeed, there is indication that, as parents involved in home schooling get to know each other and build networks of information and mutual help, old forms of division of the instructional labor reappear (teaching specialization, centralization of the instructional space, textbook selection, etc.) and schools for all intent and purposes are reproduced. If and when these home schools get caught within State accreditation systems, then the reproductive process will be complete. In many ways, home schooling is as implausible in the long-run as is school parenting (boarding schools acting fully in loco parentis). Both are thinkable and can be implemented under special conditions, but the structural exigencies of all other institutions are such as to make them utopian goals rather than practical possibilities.

                     This movement is thus interesting for what it reveals about these structural exigencies and the conflicts they generate. It should be seen in the broad context of the movements which, through the 18th and 19th centuries have produced an ideological commitment to formal education leading to extensive forms of familial education in prosperous households to the spread of private academies and the like, and to the continuing institutionalization of the locally controlled public school. This has taken many forms. When one thinks about this movement, one should think not only about farmers in the Middle West taxing themselves to build schools, or about large urban centers developing public schools for the poor, but also about immigrant groups like Irish Catholics, building their own schools instead of accepting the education offered by their Protestant neighbors. One should think about the continuing flowering of "alternative" schools, both private and public, charter schools, and other products of parents asserting their political right to control how their children are to be taught. And one should think about the push to allow more parents to choose existing schools in their neighborhoods or cities though various voucher systems.

                     In all sorts of ways, the issue raised by home schooling is the inverse to the issue raised by the call for parent participation in schools. It is about the legitimacy of control and, for the majority who are not involved in either home schools or school parenting, it represents symbolically the two sides of the debate: Where is democracy in education to be found? In constant and ever more splintered decentralization? Or in an ever increasing gathering of the control of instruction and its ancillary tasks in the hands of educationists, politicians and regulators with the authority to impose guidelines? Whether it is pragmatically "better" for the children that parents directly control schools or hand this control over to complex bureaucracies is a matter of confused debate (Cookson 1994) since it depends so much on definitions of what is good for children, and on operational decisions about samples and control groups. In fact, the issues are not pragmatic ones about "what works," they are philosophical ones about "how things should work." These questions are fundamental but they do not address the kind of education that even the most determined centralization of education cannot prevent families from conducting.


Familial Curricula and Pedagogies

                     This section expands on a theme that has remained constant throughout this essay: familial education involves much more than the somewhat mechanical processes of socialization and enculturation. But it will always be difficult to specify exactly the curricula or pedagogies that a particular family may be using. This is directly related to my earlier discussions of the fact that, when talking about "The Family," one always keep in mind that one is always talking about "families"--local patterns of relationships that, mostly, escape bureaucratic rationalization and systematization and most other forms of State control. But one must not mistake the absence of regulation, certification, textbooks, etc., as the absence of a possibly implicit curriculum of matters to learn--however, wherever, and whenever it is in fact learned. What is fundamental here is that, as Cremin's definition of education suggested, human beings must be educated in much more than what is taught in school.

                     One can start with religion where the issue can be sketched in the sharpest fashion. Where State and Church are as radically separated as they are in the modern United States, children will learn very little about religion in school: unless parents make specific efforts to teach their children about the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran, they will not learn about them. Here again, parents may end up relying on institutional means, probably modelled on Protestant Sunday schools and delegate the teaching of specific skills and specialized knowledge. Most parents could probably not teach the fundamentals of religions with elaborated esoteric knowledge that only specialists like priests or rabbis know much about. But there is more to religion than esoteric knowledge. One has but to think about the many different ways of beings Catholic or Jewish that developed in Europe and were brought to the United States to realize how complex the matter may be: a child may learn about the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in CCD classes but whether he takes it as a wonderful mystery, a fairy tale made up by power hungry priests, or simply as an irrelevancy to be forgotten as soon as he makes his First Communion and receives the attendant gifts, may depend on the social contexts of most relevance: the family, neighborhood, and peer group. Some Jews may fast on Yom Kippur, others may think that fasting is a pagan vestige. Their children will pay close attention and make up their own mind with what has been given to them.

                     What is true of religion is also true of politics. Schools may teach specific pieces of information, like the origin of the Golden Rule, or the difference between Aristotelian or Kantian ethics. They may require that children learn by heart the Declaration of Independence, or the Gettysburg address. Eventually they may require students to write essays about the impact of the Civil War on the evolution of American Democracy. But it is probable that a child's eventual level and kind of political participation is more dependent on parents' teaching by word and deed, than it is on their understanding of the facts of democratic life as taught by the school.

                     A similar analysis can be conducted for all matters relating to family life: marriage and divorce, child-rearing methods, gender roles, etc. Given the current shape of American culture, one can be sure that it is at home that children will learn about the possibility of divorce, the rationales for it, the ideology that allows for it, the possible consequences. Half the children in the United States will learn through direct experience about custody battles or child support payments and the other half from the experience of peers whose parents are divorcing. In this process, they may not learn the full details of custodial law, or the history of Supreme Court decisions that are pushing American marriage in a particular direction. Only specialists can teach this but, as a child now adult considers the evolution of his relationship with a friend, contrasts it with marriages and relationships among his acquaintances and relatives, it is probably the education received at home that will be most powerful. Similarly, the children of the poor must learn about welfare regulations, the power of social workers, and the ways to find informal income, through their family experiences--just as the very rich must learn there about trust funds and estate planning, and just as the urban middle class teach each other about private schools, their relative costs and merits.

                     Any comprehensive theory of education in modern societies must confront that what is most fundamental to human life in not taught by schools. It is also true that children will learn about religion, politics, family life or sexuality here and there, now and then, on a non-scheduled manner, depending on various accidents in the evolution of their life and that of their relatives or peers. This lack of systematic organization may make it difficult to study family curricula the way school curricula are studied but it cannot make educators discount them.

                     Matters of family "pedagogy" must be approached in the same manner. All families teach, but they certainly do not all do it in the same manner. The rise of interest in cultural variation within the United States has produced a number of accounts of "ways with (educating) words"--the most famous being perhaps Heath's (1983) whose phrase is used here. She summarized three different ways that parents in a smaller Southern town use to educate their children into the particular lore of their communities, identifying each way (pattern, subculture) with the particular ethnic that used it. The point of much of this research has been to suggest explanations for the difficulties children who receive their early education according to one kind of pedagogy would experience when they entered schools run according to another kind. I have argued elsewhere (Varenne and McDermott 1998) that school failure has more to do with the structural constraints on the school than on mismatches between school and family pedagogies. Still, the continuing work of anthropologists and sociolinguists on the variability in the relationship between adults and children cannot be dismissed as an artifact of collection procedures and sampling methods. It is just that the fact of this variability is easy to misinterpret in its implication for education.

                     There are other ways for parents to exercise their power over pedagogy. The most common mode, when possible, is to choose a different school from the one that might be most easily accessible even in the absence of direct, State-sponsored school choice programs. Parents often consider curriculum in their exploration ("does this school teach what must be taught?") but most are also very concerned with pedagogy ("how do they deal with discipline issues?" "what methods do they use to teach reading?"). In the United States certainly, the most vociferous disputes continue to center around the pedagogical side of the equation: parents, even those with little school training, have strong opinions about co-education, uniforms, phonics, homework, retention policies, sports, etc. Many parents are willing to let "the experts" make those decisions. Just as many question school policy as they refuse to grant authority over their children to school experts they do not trust.

                     While it is true that few people are able to articulate a sophisticated analysis of their situations or their response to it, this must not be mistaken for a lack of practical understanding. Nor should a practical inability to take action on the basis of this understanding--for example because one is too poor, or too isolated, to take a child from a school with which one is dissatisfied--be interpreted as a lack of understanding. For example, many of those in urban centers who believe, on pedagogical grounds, that Catholic schools would be more appropriate for their children than public schools do not have the means to pay the tuition. And so they send their children to the local public school with a full understanding that this is a practical instance of their position within the social structure of the United States.

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October 2002