Hervé Varenne








Father of young children to father of older children: "Can I talk to you sometimes about your experience with schools in the neighborhood?" One is a private therapist, the other a university professor. Both decided to live on the West Side of Manhattan after their children were born. Both conducted long conversations with a myriad of people about "the schools": public here vs. public there, public vs. private, more vs. less expensive, private vs. parochial, Catholic vs. Jewish.

Such conversations are common in the United States and this essay explores the conditions that make them sensible ones for parents to have and the consequences of these conditions for all involved, teachers and students as well as parents. Schools make a difference, and so do parents as they control where their children go to school. And so one must ask: who are the most important people, those who send the children on to school? those who receive the children in school? or those, in government and elsewhere, who have made it compulsory, normal, and altogether morally necessary that the movement take place? The answer is obvious: all these people play a role in any child's career. Nothing else is obvious, particularly not the question of the relationship of these people to each other and the question of their relative power and authority to make a world for every one else.

                   This essay provides an overview of the current state of research in the social sciences about family, education and schooling in the context of the controversies that are raging about the political control of children. It starts with the premise that "families" are powerful actors and that their power cannot be minimized or ignored. Figures about the rise of divorce rates, the diminution of household sizes, or the increase in the number of hours children spend in front of the television, may be fascinating but they tell only a very small part of the story--particularly when the focus is placed on educational processes and the construction of children's careers. Some children may be set adrift by parents who cannot or do not care. The exact number of these is probably much smaller than one may imagine but, for all parents and teachers, it is the other parents, those who care and those who fight, who are the power to be concerned with.

                   Even though children spend many hours in the custody of State agencies (day care centers, schools, etc.), 99% of American children go back to some home at the end of the day. There they are under the practical control of small numbers of people who, mostly, reside together while maintaining contact with a limited number of other people in nearby households. These small groups--"families" for all intent and purposes--are not going away as the environment where adults encounter each other most intimately and where major decisions are made about how, where and by whom children are to be raised. This is true even if the people involved are not obvious "families" in some conservative mold. A woman living with her lover, three children from different relationships plus one or two grand-children is as much a family for analytic purposes as two spouses and their two children.

                   For 50 years, it has been common sense to talk about the weakening of the Family as a distinct institution. This must change. First, one must cease thinking about the small groups that are the perennial context for children's lives as one institution within a field of other institutions. These groups are a plurality of miscellaneous possibilities and the internal organization of each, as well as their position in relation to other families, is too diverse to allow for simple generalizations. Second, one must accept that families are not weakening. Indeed the reverse may be true. Families exert a power that no one in position of authority, particularly not school personnel, can afford to ignore. Families are ready to fight fiercely for their children--and not always in the obvious ways that make the evening news. Political action against school boards is one way to fight, and so is paying extravagant sums for special tutoring. Both are common practices, and they are very revealing of the conditions of all in the United States. And, finally, professional educators perhaps more than any one else must also confront the limits on their own educational power. School people may not teach about religion, and they cannot provide the intimate settings where fundamental learning occurs about such matters as sexuality or gender roles. School people, most fatefully perhaps, must also be concerned about testing and evaluation, something that parents, at home, do not have to do. How much education can take place when credentialing is at stake is a philosophical questions that cannot be quite escaped.

                   Educational professionals have reasons to be skeptical of a parental activity that is not well informed by any expertise in child development, curriculum theory, and other such matters. If it now takes six years of advanced and specialized work beyond high school to get a teaching certificate, does it really make sense to hand infants over to people who may not have finished high school, or were trained in fields unrelated to human development? It is not surprising that much of the literature on parent involvement is really a literature about parent education as if parents were ignorant of what is ultimately good for their children. They may be ignorant about much, but this ignorance is not quite the issue. The issue is that there are powerful limits to the power of professional educators and that they must be aware of these limits. Some of these limits are constitutional matters, some have to do with the nature of schools, and most have to do with the fact that parents are never fully cowed by the school's authority to suggest how to educate their child. Those who will exert control must expect reactions that will be all the stronger and more effective as familial control is more directly threatened. Parents will always fight ferociously, affirming their freedom and jealously defending it against the various institutions of the State. It is true that, often in the same movement, families ask it for its protection and support--but generally as a defense against the pressure of others, including school personnel. Whether the public call to the State is for individual freedom to marry and divorce, or individual freedom to educate one's children with certain children, in certain ways, and not with other children, in other ways, the movement is driven by a similar ideological engine that entangles individual and communities with the State. There is a paradox here that cannot be escaped whether by families, teachers, administrators or politicians. This would be true everywhere, but take a particular form in America where specific State institutions are designed to defend and enhance personal freedom and autonomy--thereby makes if a practical possibility for individuals and small groups to resist the State and the injunctions of its agents.

                   These are not abstract constitutional issues. They are not either purely a matter of belief or opinion. They directly concern the conduct of every day life in its more concrete and mundane of ways. If people are struggling to survive while others have more than they need, shouldn't city, state, or federal government do something to increase opportunity and equalize conditions? Shouldn't schools be improved, expanded even, to fill needs that some families cannot provide? Alternatively, shouldn't state authorities give families the means to chose and control their children's schooling so that parents, rather than remote experts, however well intentioned, can decide what kind of school will be most attuned to their ethical, cultural, or religious ways? Or, alternatively again, and most controversially perhaps, shouldn't the State limit the use of the resources the children of the prosperous have at their disposal so that the overall competition prove fairer?

                   Such issues issues, among many others, reveal that the problems of the Family and the School are not technical problems to be solved rationally. Rather, they are philosophical problems with which all must struggle. Whether America should build school-centered "villages," or distribute vouchers to parents so that they could build their own village is a profoundly political question that touches the very foundations of the American democracy. One vision emphasizes individual and local freedom, at the risk of anarchy and increased inequality. The other emphasizes State control through discussion among elected officials and panels of experts, even at the risk of uniformity, centralization and, a totalitarianism that would hopefully prove to be enlightened.

                   To affirm the need squarely to face families when talking about education, this monograph first reviews supporting research in the social sciences, and next presents an outline of the evolution of research into family processes. It then discusses the implications of this research for an investigation of educational practices within families. The monograph concludes by stressing the need to face the realities of current industrialized, and the concrete conditions which social and cultural evolution have produced, in order to better understand and respond to the activities of parents as they educate their children.

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October 2002