Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Damaging Impact of a Lack of Community on Children and Our Society

When Hilary Clinton wrote her book, It Takes a Village to Raise a Child, there were many, especially on the right, who ridiculed her for making this statement.  Bob Dole in his 1996 presidential nomination acceptance speech said that it doesn’t take a village, it takes a family to raise a child.

But this ancient African proverb is as true today as it was when it originated in the village-based societies of Africa.  Of course it takes a family to raise a child.  The influence of the immediate family, for better or worse, has a dominant impact on a child’s  development, emotionally and otherwise.  

Children, however, do not live in an isolated world bounded by borders of their family home.  From an early age they come into contact with many other influences ... mass media, peers, teachers, strangers.  Unfortunately, in our culture, most of these influencers, even teachers, have very little interest in the healthy development of the child.  Each has their own interest that prevails.  

Media wants to influence the child to do what its bidders want the child to do.  They want to manipulate the child.  

Other children are often quite selfish and can be very cruel.  They deal with their own insecurities by acting out against others who are weaker in any way than they are.  

Teachers ... and of course there are many exceptions ... are so burdened by the number of children they must deal with and the often chaotic condition of the school and classroom that they are overwhelmed.  They go through the motions of teaching, rather than really teach.  

And strangers, except for the occasional good samaritan, have no interest in the child and will act on their own interests and needs.

What I’ve described is the antithesis of growing up in a village, at least the communal villages of primitive societies.  Even before the industrial revolution, the village in western cultures, while a self-contained society, was not communal in nature.  The impact of individualism, while so much more pronounced now, was present even in those nostalgic days.  And so the child came into contact with many people who had little or no concern for its wellbeing and development.  And its insecurities were deepened.

In the communal villages of primitive societies, the attitude towards children was very different.  Every child was in many ways everyone’s child, not just the parents’.  Everyone in the village had a concern for a child’s wellbeing and development.  That was the culture.  The strength of people lay in the combined strength of the village, not in their individual attainments.  You of course had individuals who excelled in various areas, but their work was dedicated to the good of the whole, not themselves as individuals.  A child brought up in this atmosphere felt secure and wanted, a part of a larger whole.

It is this absence of community in our society that has resulted in the prevalence of gangs and other antisocial organizations, and more recently of growing ultra-religious groups, that provide the feeling of community that everyone yearns for but at the cost of the larger society’s cohesion.  It is the absence of community that results in a heightened insecurity and an attitude that the only thing that’s important is me, and perhaps my immediate family.  We live in a dog eat dog culture because of the absence of a feeling of shared community and responsibility for each other.

I don’t know how we revive a sense of community in our country.  We are farther from that ideal now then ever, I fear.  And there appears to be precious little interest in turning back from the polarized state we are in.  It does not bode well for the future of our country.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Schools As the Educator of Citizens

What is the function of a public school system?  Generally people would say that the function of a school is to teach children the practical skills they will need in order to maximize their opportunities in their work lives ... as one used to say, the three “R’s”: reading, riting, and rithmetic.

And while that remains a critically important function, one in which many schools, especially inner city schools, fail terribly, there is another equally important function on which the future of our democracy depends: preparing students to be good citizens.  

What does it mean to be a good citizen?  It means to be committed to the American social contract ... that with the benefits of citizenship comes a shared responsibility for the welfare of the nation and of our fellow citizens, each according to his means.  We meet that responsibility in many ways, one of which is paying taxes to support the government in its work to protect the public good and work towards ensuring equality of opportunity for all, as promised in the Declaration of Independence.  This is not a conservative or liberal statement, it is the essence of the American view of citizenship, democracy, and the role of government.

There have always been differences between Republicans and Democrats on how government should perform this role and how large a part government should take.  But there has never before in modern times been disagreement between the parties in the essence of the American social contract and the role of government.  The social contract is apolitical.  It has been supported by all administrations since President Teddy Roosevelt.

But that changed with the election of Ronald Reagan and the Republicans who have followed him, first by turning the government more into an enabler of the rich rather than a protector of the public good and most recently by an almost complete renunciation of the role of government in ensuring equal opportunity.  As Republicans have said, “If you fail, it’s your own fault.”  Period.

The issues of citizenship and the social contract do not, however, just apply to people with  means. The poor as well have responsibilities.  One responsibility that applies to both the poor and those with means is to obey the law, to not abuse or injure their fellow citizens.  Whether it's the poor drug-addict who steals, even from his family, to support his habit, or the investment banker who acts in conscious disregard of the impact of his actions on his fellow citizens to support his "money habit," both actions are equally unethical and contrary to the social contract.

Schools need to address the issue of citizenship, and obviously in an apolitical way.  Schools should teach courtesy, respect, ethics, and shared responsibility, while pointing out how conservatives and liberals have often disagreed on how these values should be implemented.

If we want the future of America to be strong, then the people, the body politic, and the economy of the United States must be strong.  And it will only remain strong if its citizens are committed to their country and their fellow citizens, and if we have, not just a thriving elite class, but a thriving middle class and a diminishing number of poor.