THE STATE OF THE FAMILY IN THE AMERICAN STATE
Do you know what Julie told me?! Apparently Clare spent the whole morning on her lap, crying. She told me that Clare was 'fragile' and then she asked whether I was working too hard, whether I was spending enough time with Clare, whether there was problems at home!! What was that woman thinking of!
Here is a mother, a professional in her own right, heatedly reporting a conversation with Julie, a teacher in a "good" pre-school for children of university professors. Two people are involved, and one institution. The people are struggling with each other, and with their mutual conditions, but from differentiated positions. When the teacher speaks, the school speaks and the mother feels attacked by the agent of an institution that could, conceivably, invoke the power of the state against her. Much is at stake here. The welfare of the child ("should I start a investigation of child abuse?") is at stake. The privacy of the mother, and of her intimate circle, are also at stake. Both teachers and mothers work within this framework of institutions, positions, and possibilities. Everyone is active, but every one is also constrained by what they do not control: parents by teachers and teachers by parents. When this is clearly understood, then everything that has been discussed here about the relationships of school to home follows.
This review started from a confrontation with the many controversies that continue to surround the organization of schooling in the United States and with the fundamental dilemma that America has not yet solved: the difficulty of preserving both privacy and equality, or, in this instance, the difficulty of reconciling the power of families with the authority of the school. Both are fundamental to everyday life in complex, industrial, post-modern societies. Both are structurally necessary and neither is fading away, not the school of course, and not the families--for the many reasons this review has explored. But structural interdependence does not make for a taken-for-granted peace. On the contrary, perhaps.
The point here is to move away from a model celebrating the happy family or the benevolent State, to a model that acknowledges the reality and significance of the day to day struggles of tired parents against tired teachers, both using the formal and practical tools at their disposal to perform difficult tasks that have always to be redone, day after day and year after year. Parents and teachers cannot escape each other. Worse, they cannot escape the need for each other. A family requires good schools to thrive; all schools require much work by parents to accomplish their goals. But what a family requires from a school may not be what that school wishes to offer; and what a school may need may not be what families can provide. Parents complain when their school closes for staff development days. Teachers complain when parents do not show up for conferences, or when they teach their child using methods they do not approve of. Some urban parents complain of racism; other parents complain that their children cannot pray. Some parents tax themselves astronomically with little regard to the "savage inequalities" thus produced between their school and another a few miles away (Kozol 1991). All are convinced that they are working as citizens of a democracy, and as philosophers building this democracy.
There is a fundamental conflict here that is inevitable because it derives from the very organization of America as society. On the one hand, there is the school with massive political and moral authority; and on the other hand there is a multitude of people organized in fluid but intense small groups, families whose significance is itself at stake, practically and politically. In other words, what we have here are not two institutions in structural-functional homeostasis, but one institution struggling with the people its serves and controls. The struggle is more or less regulated by the rules of a political system which, for example, allow parents who can afford it to develop private schools as long as they accept certain accrediting regulations. The struggle is also conducted in an economic arena that limits the ability of all, teachers as well as parents, to act on their understandings or values. In the long run, most teachers and parents will tire and develop pragmatic arrangements to "live and let live." Most teachers do not invoke their authority. Most parents limit their resistance to a kind of unnerved passivity. There are many advantages for parents when they collaborate with the school, and many do. Those who yield to this control may indeed see their children do better though at a price other parents may not want to pay. Most parents are reported as saying that they are satisfied with their own children's school even if they are pessimistic about U.S. education in general. It may be that most schools know how far they can go too far and have more or less achieved a modus vivendi with the parents they serve. But such pragmatic arrangements do not transform the underlying structure and the possibilities for conflict and transformations that may be activated at any time. Then, fresh energy enters the system and the cycle of controversies and fights starts again in earnest: uniforms, sex education, phonics, evolution, what history to teach, bilingualism, multiculturalism, all provide the spark to re-energize latent tensions. Even co-education, which remained uncontroversial for decades, has been re-opened as a locus for debate in New York City, of all places.
I started with the reality of these conflicts, and I end with them because they may be the clearest evidence that families are still a powerful force that educators must respect. If they do not respect this power, then they will fail in realizing their own goals. The school is not a total institution and there is little chance that it will become one. It is easy for school people to think that they might solve all sorts of problems by expanding their reach and developing the school into what some have called a "village" that would provide all services that, supposedly, families cannot provide. This is a noble experiment, but one that will fail because it does not face squarely the power of families, even apparently "failing" parents. Not even a "village" school can free itself from its dependence on small groups of adults each taking care of one or two children at time. Fathers may be absent; grandmothers or nannies may take of children their mothers ignore; couples may break up. All sorts of things can go wrong and, in the process of dealing with the difficulties, families may become larger, more complex, and more prone to painful conflicts. But this does not mean that, in this process, families become less relevant or powerful--on the contrary perhaps, for reasons that have to do with the school in its very organization.
The school, in concert with the all other major American institutions, directly constitutes the social space within which families can flourish. But this space has a quality that makes it quite difficult any institution to handle: families are miscellaneous. They must be dealt with one at a time and this makes it all but impossible to arrive at coherent policies that will not leave many families aside, free to develop, and possibly to challenge what seemed to make so much sense to school personnel. This is why this paper has talked about "families" rather than "the Family." It is families that educate, not the Family. It is families, in their particularities that attempt to pass on to their children whatever capital they have accumulated, whether economic or cultural. It is families, parents and kin in complex relationships, who struggle so that the children will have better chances than they had. Families smooth the road to Harvard, and they are the site of most of the violence children are likely to experience. Families may show how to survive on the farm or in the streets of urban ghettoes, and they may also discourage some children from working as hard as they could to succeed in school. Other families place their children in a world of prestigious schools and expensive tutors that all but guarantees their eventual success, at a significant cost for all those other children without these resources.
There would be something amusing about teachers complaining about parents not participating in school if this misunderstanding of familial involvement were not often rather dramatic. Much of teachers' problems have are not the product of a lack of participation, but rather of the reverse: parents are too intimately involved in the education of their children to give free rain to teachers. What teachers are experiencing is their failure fully to control family education. Family education proceeds under different constraints from the one imposed on school education, and it will thus never look the same. Parents are not teachers: parents do not have to get degrees in order to educate their children, they need not be certified, they do not get a salary for educating their children, and they do not have to worry about tenure or being laid of. Teachers are not parents: they do not cook for the children in their classrooms, not do they console them at night. Parents do not have principals, teachers do not have grandparents. And yet both educate. They do so together, with the same children but always at some odds with each other because they hold different positions. Still, they address the same concern--moving children into a proper position within an evolving good society--and for this reason at least, there is cause for an optimism tinged with a good dose of realism.