It's the people who are comfortable
who have time to worry over little trivial things.
-- William McFee (1916)
It Takes a Village to Raise a Child
It takes a village to raise a child. To be what? Village idiot? Village prostitute? Village drunk? Village ne'er do well? These are not failures of village education but roles integral to certain kinds of community life. Without the fallen, the at-risk, the tempted, those we celebrate as moral leaders would have little to do in a village. Comfortable educators purveying their wares to an increasingly comfortable clientele sentimentalize beyond historical recognition the outcomes of village life. These outcomes were usually not very good for the majority of village dwellers. The motto of village life is not "Thrive" but "Just survive."
I grew up in an urban village. Separated from the rest of the city by a "crick" and a seemingly impenetrable wall of smoke-belching industrial waste producers, my neighborhood enjoyed something of village life I have heard tell of in the hollows of Appalachia, or the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Settled primarily by first and second generation Europeans, there were no African-Americans, no Jews, and no Asians to distract us from our compulsive fixation on individual difference: Polish, Irish, Italian, Scotch, Catholic, Protestant, Publicks, Catlicks, Orthodox, Nationals, Romans, red-haired, dark, fair, blonde, drunk, playing-around, faithful, wife-beating, gambling, hard-working, pious, churchless, and so on. These were "okay" people, so I was instructed. They were "your kind." The black man who walked the streets in the summer singing about his deviled clams wasn't one of our kind; but it didn't matter, he was just passing through.
The schools, two parochials -- one Irish, the other Polish -- and a public, did their thing and families did theirs. They did not bother each other very much. The teachers in the public school I went to harried us somewhat with concepts of civic culture, citizenship, all men are created equal, and that sort of thing. We didn't -- we couldn't -- take it home. But parents did not blame the schools when their kids got bad grades, even though teachers might occasionally suggest that the home had a hand in it. The villagers cared little about the wider world and kids were dissuaded from getting too interested in it.
Did the village raise its children? Yes, in some sense. Any adult felt free to tell a child what to do. Children were expected to obey. When an adult told me to hand over my mother's grocery money to him for safe-keeping, I, at seven years old, was not considered at fault for obeying. The presence of the thief was the neighborhood scandal. He was an outsider; he had to be. Only outsiders did really bad things in our neighborhood. What our neighbors did, e.g., bloodying their wives' noses, breaking their child's arm, wasn't really bad. For our own kind, the quality of mercy could not be strained.
An article in the Sunday, December 4, 1994, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports another aspect of village life. Titled "Family Sentenced for Killing Westernized Girl," it tells how a Turkish immigrant family in Paris responded when their fifteen-year-old daughter fell in love with a native French boy she met in school. When she persisted in defying her parents despite public beatings, her brother felt compelled to do the "logical and normal" thing: he strangled her with the assistance and in the presence of her whole family. (This behavior, insisted Islamic clergy brought in for the trial, is not condoned by any notions of Koranic justice. I make a point of this because even educated Westerners tend to be prejudiced on this issue.) What we see here is an expression of village mores, akin to shotgun weddings, the exiling of pregnant girls to "homes," and the hiding of sexual abuse. A little reading in anthropology easily demonstrates that females in the great majority of cultures around the world are not well-served by village mores. It is ironic that the First Lady of the most powerful civil culture in the world should adopt a slogan romanticizing one of the least equitable and cruel educational environments ever devised: the village.
The Family versus Civil Society
The reason the village has such negative potential is because it is an extension of the family. The family may be a nurturant necessity, but it has a great potential for corruption. Among the ancient Greeks, a tyrant was a ruler who governed the state as though it were a family. The idea of checks and balances, of respect among equals, is an artifact of civil society. The much more ancient practice of complementarity, the mutual dependency of different roles, tends to justify the inequalities and even the abuses of family life.
There is something very important for public educators to recognize in the practice of social elites around the world: parents tend to keep away, except on special infrequent occasions, from the schools they send their children to. Private schools, boarding schools in particular, reduce the possibility of parental indulgence that might undermine the character development of children very likely, it is believed, to be the leaders of the future. Civil societies are not well-run by people with familial or village-level leadership habits. Serbia and Rwanda serve as clear warnings. The very basic concerns in our society for equity, fairness, even-handedness, are seldom developed in the expectably indulgent -- or unchallengably harsh -- atmosphere of home or village.
Fallacy or Incapacity
Cartoon characters Sally Forth and her husband wonder why it is they have to attend so many inconsequential school functions. In the September 19, 1997, edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer she remarks, "Now we pack gymnasiums for pre-school graduation ceremonies." (Educators should note that something is amiss if this is the content of daily newspaper cartoons.) The point is well taken. What is this compulsion about parental involvement in the schools?
The initial compulsion comes from a misinterpretation of research results on effective schools. Because schools with consistently high academic achievement and low discipline problems tend to have greater parent involvement, the conclusion is mistakenly drawn that by getting more parents involved in a school, academic achievement will rise and discipline problems will go down. Once more Desperate Hope triumphs over Logic. (Unless they are short of cash, private school leaders tend not to succumb to this fallacy. They know parents have their place . . . elsewhere.)
But perhaps the best reason for educators to invite parents into the schools is that educators need the political support such relationships provide. Over the past forty years many things have happened that no longer allow public schools to be the fortresses of civil culture they represented in the village. For instance, schools can no longer ignore or cast out students because the students are not acculturated to the expectations of teachers or to the assumptions of school structure. The law has reduced the power of school personnel to coerce compliance with school rules and regulations, because civic concepts of human relationships have come to be seen as ethnocentric (although there has never been any village culture from which they derive). So far as moral education is concerned, the media does a much more effective job than family upbringing and schooling combined.
The modern school is desperately seeking the glue to hold it together. What were previously the byproducts of achievement -- self-esteem and other good feelings -- are now directly pursued, independently of any concerns for merit. But here, too, there is a consequence: they are lost to us as motivators. Perhaps most important, we have seen a great unwashed skepticism become the moral substrate of our society: Everything is not only suspected of selfish contamination, but is often celebrated for it. "Deferred gratification" -- the driving force of the famous Protestant Ethic -- is now an oxymoron; indeed, a threat to the very economic stability of our credit-card civilization. Involving parents in schooling sounds positive at face value, but before calling for a mass parental march into schools, should we not examine the values parents bring with them to determine if school-parent partnerships are really a good idea?