Published Online: June 11, 1997

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Cultural Guideposts, From Families to Penmanship

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In 1992, Dana Mack embarked on a research project to investigate the sources of what she calls the "declining well-being of American children." In the following years, the author met with and listened to more than 250 parents around the country. Their insights and frustrations, supported by the author's own research, are the centerpiece of The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family.

With these parents' voices, the book registers a chorus of dissatisfaction with a national culture that undermines child-rearing efforts. Whatever their marital status, parents today, the book contends, have too little power over what ultimately becomes of their children. Parents feel their authority over their children being stripped away, placed in the hands of child-development and social-policy experts. Increasingly, parents are butting heads with these same experts over issues of family autonomy and what parents see as the bureaucratization of children's lives. Ms. Mack writes: "[Parents] see their children suffering the encumbrances of overdirected lives. Children, they say, have lost 'innocence.' ... But most importantly, they have lost precious time to cultivate emotional intimacy with parents, siblings, and their extended families."

The changing face of American education, according to the author, contributes significantly to this sense of lost innocence. The Assault on Parenthood confronts the educational trend of de-emphasizing the basics--math, grammar, history--in favor of more "life skills"-oriented curricula. Schools proffer a "feel good" pedagogy steeped in multiculturalism, Ms. Mack contends. One of the book's most thought-provoking themes asks the reader to reconsider such issues as attention-deficit disorder and literacy shortcomings in light of the socializing "pedagogy of self-esteem" that has supplanted more "tried-and-true traditional teaching methods."

The most egregious examples of schools' culpability, in Ms. Mack's estimation, are those involving sex education. She examines school systems in which children--from high schoolers to kindergartners--are taught what she and her parental subjects describe as candid lessons in sexuality. She then bolsters this contention with citations from studies that charge sexuality educators with "contribut[ing] to the very problems they purport to combat."

But The Assault on Parenthood moves beyond these criticisms to the impact of such practices on society. In Part III, "The Familist Counterculture," Ms. Mack details countercultural movements that have emerged in resistance to "the political and social pressures of public schooling, and to the larger anti-family pressures of the culture." Examples include home schooling, charter schools, and a larger philosophical shift known as "the New Familism." This movement signals parents' growing criticism of "child-rearing by proxy" and an increase in at-home parenting by both men and women, she writes.

Ms. Mack, an affiliate scholar with the New York City-based Institute for American Values, concludes with seven "pro-family proposals," suggesting what government can and should do for families. This final chapter, like those preceding it, remains faithful to the book's originally stated purpose--The Assault on Parenthood is in fact a "petition on [parents'] behalf."

(Simon & Schuster, New York)

Five years ago, family historian Stephanie Coontz's The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap debunked stereotypical notions--both liberal and conservative--about family life in the past. In her latest book, The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families, the author looks at the present and challenges equally ingrained modes of thought about the ways we now live.

While conventional wisdom may suggest that the collapse of the traditional family jeopardizes society's future, Ms. Coontz maintains that this is too simplistic, and too pessimistic, an outlook. The Way We Really Are analyzes the causes and consequences of today's family trends. Ms. Coontz writes, "Most discussions of family issues assume too sharp and permanent a division between different family forms." The book asks us to consider the possibility that some of the problems facing families today exist "not because our families have changed ... but because our institutions and values haven't changed enough."

The author's discussion on children's upbringing and at-risk youths is exemplary of the book's approach. Ms. Coontz unravels the charge that poverty and marital instability alone determine delinquency and criminal behavior. Lost in this debate, she argues, is whether the nation as a whole is prepared to invest, economically and socially, in the futures of the most endangered communities.

The Way We Really Are argues that the rising costs of raising and educating children have been met with "government disinvestment" in future generations. The current retreat from public education expansion, she says, is one important example of such disinvestment. "At heart," Ms. Coontz contends, "this is not a family crisis but a social crisis."

We cannot rely heavily on the past, Ms. Coontz argues, for answers on how to strengthen families today. According to historical and economic trends, the book assures us, working mothers, single-parent homes, stepfamilies, and other forms of family diversity are here to stay. Instead, the author suggests that every familyhas strengths that can be fostered and vulnerabilities to be avoided. She spells out these possibilities and pitfalls in her final chapter, "Working With What We've Got."

The Way We Really Are, according to its author, grew out of the public exchanges that followed her 1992 book and the attention that has continued to swirl around issues such as family values. Ms. Coontz doesn't belittle concerns about the family and society, but places them in context. Ultimately, her goals today are strikingly similar to those she had five years ago--to challenge "widespread misconceptions" in the popular press, and "to get people to look more realistically at the strengths, weaknesses, and surprising variability of family life."

(Basic Books, a division of HarperCollins, New York)

Opening the inside cover of Tamara Plakins Thornton's Handwriting in America might release a flood of memories, the lines and swirls of script reminding readers of days spent practicing penmanship in school. But memories associated with this particular branch of pedagogy--its impact and significance--originate out of a specific time and place. As Handwriting in America: A Cultural History shows, the personal importance attached to penmanship has been with us since the emergence of script as a statement of self in 18th century America.

Ms. Thornton, as associate professor of history, writes that "the history of handwriting only seems to be a small subject." "Once I grasped its internal logic," she continues, "I realized that it holds broad significance for the study of American culture."

Handwriting in America covers a broad swath of cultural ground, from the aesthetic variety of scripts--including colonial, Victorian, and modern--to the hobby of autograph-collecting, the vogue of handwriting analysis, and the social perception of forgery. What links these subjects, according to the author, is "the consistent identification of handwriting with the self that produces it." Ms. Thornton places this relationship in a variety of contexts as well: economic developments, the changing definition of manhood and womanhood, and scientific expertise.

The chapter titled "Automatic Writing?" looks at penmanship-instruction methods of the 20th century. Ms. Thornton demonstrates the ways in which penmanship drills suited the greater agenda of progressive-era schools and their push toward general automatism. "Educators," she writes, "now called for bodies to be disciplined, nowhere more so than in handwriting instruction. Thus educators claimed that the penmanship regimen, in asserting control over the 'student body,' would yield important social benefits." The chapter also discusses, on the other hand, a print, or "manuscript-writing movement." This pedagogical movement, according to Ms. Thornton, was spearheaded by those who rejected the idea of penmanship as a motor habit, rejected drills, and "placed a premium on individualized writing."

In exploring the relationship between handwriting and culture, Handwriting in America takes its cue in part from scholarship that has established similar ties between culture and literacy, reading, and print. But by forging a separate space for the study of handwriting, Ms. Thornton helps establish the medium's independence from both orality and print. Handwriting, she argues, is not incidental to these practices.

(Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.)

Is the purpose of education to make good citizens and inculcate socially relevant skills and values?

Is it to master certain bodies of knowledge?

Or is it the fulfillment of each student's unique potential?

These questions reflect three major educational ideas, each of which, according to Kieran Egan, an education professor and 1991 winner of the Grawemeyer Award in Education, is incompatible with the other two. In fact, Mr. Egan's book, The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding, argues that the incompatibility of these goals has caused conflicts at every level of education--from curriculum decisions to teaching methodology.

The Educated Mind begins by elaborating on the three conflicting ideas on education's purpose. The author analyzes each one individually: its theoretical underpinnings and proposed teaching methods; its potential for educational improvement; and the ways in which it undermines fulfillment of the other two principles. He then proposes an alternative educational theory, one that "describes education in terms of a sequence of kinds of understanding."

This new theory, according to Mr. Egan, "conceives of education as so intricately tied in with the life of society and its culture that it is also a theory about Western cultural development and its relationship to education in modern multicultural societies." Thus, the book conceptualizes education as a recapitulation of the kinds of understanding that have developed in cultural history. These kinds of understanding, Mr. Egan says, are generated by our development of particular "intellectual tools," such as language and literacy.

The Educated Mind charts, chapter by chapter, five distinct and successive kinds, or modes, of understanding. These five Mr. Egan calls somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophic, and finally, ironic. Focusing on our use of language, or linguistic tools, he shows that "each kind of understanding results from the development of particular intellectual tools that we acquire from the societies we grow up in."

After plotting his educational theory--that education consists of our learning to use these "intellectual tools" that shape how we make sense of the world--Mr. Egan poses a series of questions to himself in Chapter 6, mimicking a conference question-and-answer session. His exchange with this critical ''audience'' allows readers to reflect upon and clarify the book's central argument. (Mr. Egan even provides his e-mail address for those in the audience whose questions go unanswered.) Chapters 7 and 8 narrow the book's focus further, as Mr. Egan discusses specifically his theory's implications for classroom curriculum.

Mr. Egan admits that The Educated Mind is not a book of new discoveries. Rather, it "simply reorganizes long-known ideas into a coherent scheme." Juggling multiple education theories, while simultaneously presenting a new one, is a delicate procedure. Throughout his book, Mr. Egan is careful to reflect upon the evolution of his own theory, thereby avoiding further incoherence.

(The University of Chicago Press, Chicago)

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