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From: News and Views | Opinion | Saturday, October 23, 1999
Raising Kids

by John Leo

If you doubt that ideas have consequences, consider what happened to a very bad idea that came out of the 1960s children's liberation.

As the civil rights movement broadened to include women and gays, children, too, were depicted as an oppressed minority in need of liberation.

Radical feminists like Shulamith Firestone thought women and children were both victims and natural allies in the war against the patriarchy. Popular writers like John Holt, author of "Escape from Childhood," deplored the legal, social and psychological oppression of the young. "Young People's Liberationists" viewed parental protectiveness as an ideology of control.

In America, ideological nonsense rarely just disappears. More often, it is modified and adopted by assorted experts, then inflicted on the public by lawyers and bureaucrats. "Ready or Not," a strong new book by Kay Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues that this is what happened to the extreme philosophy of child liberation.

One sign of this mainstreaming was the series of law articles published by Hillary Rodham in the mid-1970s proposing legal rights for children against parents, including "decisions about motherhood and abortion, schooling, cosmetic surgery, treatment of venereal disease, employment" and other matters. Her views weren't particularly radical. They simply reflected where children's-rights advocates were heading.

Hymowitz argues that as child-liberation ideas entered the mainstream, they hardened into what she calls "anti-culturalism" the idea that socializing children and attempting to mold the character of the young is a wrongful use of power by the strong against the weak. This idea is radical because it forbids what all cultures have assumed they must do: transmit cultural values from one generation to the next.

Hymowitz demonstrates how widely this improbable philosophy has managed to spread. "Anti-culturalism," she writes, "is the dominant ideology among child development experts, and it has filtered into the courts, into the schools, into the parenting magazines, into Hollywood, and into our kitchens and family rooms."

"Anti-culturalism" boils down to the notion that children should be allowed to develop on their own. The emergence of the moral self must not be quashed by what Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan calls the "foreign voice-overs of adults." Children are not to be raised, but simply allowed to grow.

Anti-culturalism has swamped the schools with fuzzy concepts like "discovery learning," "thinking strategies," "learner-centered math" and "learning to communicate mathematically" (as opposed to learning how to come up with correct answers). The assumption is that the child's innate drive to learn is so powerful that the traditional curriculum can be discarded.

This is the reigning view of the school establishment. A study by the Public Agenda research group found that only 7% of education professors think teachers should be conveyers of knowledge; 92% believe teachers should just "enable students to learn on their own."

Hymowitz thinks anti-culturalism explains why bad schools fight so tenaciously to hold onto failed programs. They're more interested in ideology than in results. She probably underestimates the strength of the current counterattacks against anti-cultural education, including testing for teachers, the turn against social promotion and the heavy new emphasis on content and standards.

Her bleak view of what anti-culturalism has done to child-rearing seems more justified. She thinks anti-culturalism is producing disengaged children and "Seinfeld"-like "postmodern postadolescents" who can't seem to grow up. This may be the natural result of a theory calling for parents to be moral and cultural bystanders in the lives of their children.

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