Dewey or Don’t We? Why Our Kids are Messed Up

“Personally, I’d prefer a kinder, gentler set of relationships: more like the give-and-take of an elegant dance than the rough-and-tumble of the full-contact sport that is the modern hook-up culture.  For that to happen, however, parents would have to remember that teaching their children how to dance, how to date, and how to court and be courted is their job.  No one else is going to do it.  And the results when they don’t do it are really very tragic and sad.  There are many things we college professors can teach your children, some of them might even be moderately helpful to them.  But one thing we definitely can’t teach them is the one thing that every study shows will be most important to their future happiness and flourishing:  how to meet someone, marry, and stay married.  If your son or daughter doesn’t know how to date and how to act on a date, you’re probably leaving them to the wolves.  Please don’t.  I’ve seen the wounds.  They’re not pretty.”

Such was the last paragraph from an article I published on this site a few weeks back entitled “Courtship, Etiquette, and the Adolescent Male.” There I argued for the value of inculcating certain modes of “gentlemanly” behavior in young men as a means of instilling in them a greater respect for the dignity of women.  The same advice could be given, quite naturally, as a means of instilling respect for the elderly, infirm, those with mental disabilities, and all others considered “uncool” or “totally out of it” by teen society.  Rules of etiquette are a way of softening and civilizing the oftentimes coarse and violent tendencies of young men.  But the point I want to emphasize here is that neither etiquette of this sort nor any of the other dispositions related to the development of a good character and conducive to a happy domestic life can reliably be entrusted to the care of the schools.

I’ve had several conversations about my previous article since it appeared, and all of them dealt with this strange presupposition our parents seemed to labor under as we were growing up that the schools would teach us nearly everything we needed to know about life, including things like dating, marriage, family, how to get a job, and how to buy a house.  The truth is, I think our parents assumed it would be inappropriate or out-of-place for them to teach us about these things: they might be “disrupting” our education or teaching us “the wrong way.”

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One of the dubious gifts of the post-World War II era was the emergence and exaltation of the “expert” class.  (For a good discussion, see Christopher Lasch’s wonderful book The Revolt of the Elites).  Increasingly the presumption spread that people were not supposed to make decisions about much of anything, even the sort of basic life decisions that people have been making for themselves for centuries — such as how to have a baby, how to feed one’s children, how to meet a potential spouse and court, and how to get married — without checking first with the “experts” to find out the latest “best practices?”  The latest “best practices” must of course be distinguished from the “best practices” from last year as from all previous years, all of which are now totally passé, and none of which were measured against actual results to discern whether they had earned the label “best practice” so as to distinguish them from “another-hair-brained-scheme-masquerading-as-expert-advice-just-like-the-last-ten-best-practices-from-highly-paid-consultants-none-of-which-worked-better-than-common-sense-suggests-this-one-is-likely-to”  (If I were a German, I’m sure there would have been one word for all of that).

I won’t try to put an exact date on when this tendency to entrust the social and cultural development of our children to the “experts” in the schools began, but it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t widespread in, say, the 1930s, but it had become fairly common, as far as I can tell, by the late 1950s and seems to have been nearly universal by the time those of my generation were being bundled off to school in the late 1960s and early 1970s.   Some people associate the problem with the educational philosophy of the pragmatist and avowed secular humanist John Dewey, who suggested in the early part of the century that the schools should play a key role in the socialization (the Americanization) of America’s youth.  But Dewey’s thought is complex, and the schools we have today are certainly nothing like the ones he favored.  Still and all, somewhere along the line, parents became convinced that they could shuffle off their children to school, and the school would, to put not too fine a point on it, essentially raise their children for them.

One of the results of parents leaving education entirely to the schools was that, especially when it came to the domestic sphere of life, students either learned nothing, or what they did learn was utterly toxic to their future development as a healthy and happy adult — sometimes the source of misinformation was one’s peers, sometimes it was the school itself — but either way, when adulthood finally dawned, each young person pretty much had to reinvent the wheel for him or herself.

In fact, at first I was thinking of titling this essay “Things My Father Never Taught Me,” but I didn’t want people to think this was a screed against my parents.  My parents did the best job the white, Protestant, middle-class suburban culture of the 1960s and 1970s allowed them to do.  And besides, I was a rotten, willful, stupid kid who would have tested the patience of St. Francis himself. So it’s not exactly their fault, but just for the record, here are some of the things my parents didn’t teach me, nor did most of my friends’ parents teach them:

  • How to choose, buy and finance a car wisely.
  • How to do laundry competently. (Whites don’t go with colors?  Who knew?)
  • How to iron a shirt. (A friend of my brother’s taught me before my mother’s funeral.  What did I do before that?  Never ironed anything.)
  • How to buy a suit.
  • How to cook an actual meal (with vegetables and all).
  • How to wire an electrical outlet or a hanging lamp.
  • How to fix a leaky faucet.
  • How to finance and buy a house.
  • How to furnish an apartment or house.
  • How to plan a household budget.
  • How to be a good judge of character.
  • How to court and marry a spouse.

As I take a look at this list, two questions occur to me.  First, why would anyone have though that a school would have taught us any of those things?  And second, how did anyone think we were going to survive, let alone thrive, in the adult world without a basic knowledge of at least a fairly good number of those things?

As I look back on it, I realize now that “school” had very little to do with preparing us for adult life and nearly everything to do with Sputnik, the space race, and catching up with the Soviets.  Even “civics,” that odd class my older brothers had taken when they went through school, had already quietly and unceremoniously disappeared from the curriculum by the time I arrived.  And since we did a lot of “interactive learning” in our “social studies” classes, which had replaced the actual history courses, I never learned any real history. I could name George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and John Kennedy, and that was about it.  And I certainly never studied any geography, read any great literature, or was taught to write anything approaching literate prose.  The last of these was a crippling disability that persisted well into my graduate-school years and which remains with me to this day.  (Answer to obvious question: good editors).

In retrospect, I suggest that what had crippled the public schools in those days wasn’t so much a grand conspiracy by John Dewey and his followers, but rather the pathological consequences of a host of debilitating diseases from various sources.  Dewey had done his part, no doubt, to inoculate many of the younger teachers against teaching us any solid information in the humanities, but the rest had much to do with the effects of the logical positivism and reductive materialism of the sciences trickling down into the secondary school curricula. Within this ideological universe, science and math dealt with “facts” and with things that were “true” or “false,” whereas everything else was mere “opinion” or “emotions” or about “clarifying one’s values.”

This thin sort of intellectual pablum was markedly inadequate to the task of dealing with the constant social upheavals of the late sixties and early seventies, let alone coping with all of its resulting sexual and cultural pathologies.

Be that as it may and whatever the source of the problems, consider the consequences of entrusting a child’s entire education as an adult to such schools, even the best of them.  What were they going to teach?  Certainly not anything about courtship or character: “courtship” had been made to look ridiculous by the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, and no one wanted to look “uncool,” and an education in “character” would have required the sort of moral conviction that teachers were increasingly being fired for expressing and school districts increasingly found themselves being sued for allowing.

So without courtship or character, without family or morals, what was left for the schools to teach their up-and-coming adults?  Oddly enough, the one thing left was the one subject traditionally thought “too controversial” or “too hot to handle,” that previously the schools would never have ever dreamed of touching — you guessed it: sex.  Dealing with sex had become less of a problem than trying to deal with either courtship or character formation. The reductive materialism and scientific positivism of the age insisted that sex was only a matter of basic biology, after all, and who could object to teaching that?

And yet, by the same token, since we were in the midst of the “sexual revolution,” and the reigning moral theory, to the extent America had one at all, was utilitarianism, for which  maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain and/or disease were the ultimate values, “sex ed” classes often suffered from a peculiarly schizophrenic character.

On the one hand, most of our classes dealt with some pretty basic biology and physiology, all of which could have been handled (and undoubtedly more competently handled) by the science teacher.

On the other hand, the standard sex ed teacher, who was often enough the school psychologist (a person laboring under his or her own set of reductivist, supposedly “morally-neutral” categories), was also responsible for dealing with another set of decidedly trickier issues: issues  related to the mutual sharing of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, especially pain from disease, and to an even greater extent, from the unintended consequences of getting pregnant.

Under this regime of social conditioning, getting pregnant became one of the dirtiest words we knew and certainly the most unspeakable outcome any of us could imagine.  Getting pregnant would, we assumed, mean the end of life as we knew it, leaving us in never-ending shame and a life of cruel, grinding poverty, working at the Seven-Eleven all night living in a trailer park with nothing to look forward to, missing out on all the college fun everyone else would be enjoying, and worst of all, no way out.

Except perhaps one.  Well, no one was exactly proposing it — out loud, in public, in front of the other students — but by the same token, certainly no one was going to be allowed to express a moral judgment against those who took what was pretty clear to all of us the only reasonable solution to “the problem:” (shhhh) abortion.

So the result was that parents were bundling their children off to school thinking that the schools would teach them everything they needed to know to become successful, flourishing adults, and the one thing these precious young adolescents got when it came to the domestic sphere were lessons about sex.  What else was there to talk about once marriage and family were taken out of the picture?  In the circumstances, can anyone really blame American teens for increasingly getting the idea that becoming an adult had primarily to do with having sex?  We weren’t being required to take courses and read books on how to buy a house or how to feed your children or how to remain faithful to your spouse, after all.  It wasn’t “adult ed;” it was “sex ed.”  The overriding importance sex was supposed to play in our adult lives was made clear to us pretty much from the moment of our earliest hormonal stirrings.

“Getting a good job” and “getting good sex:” these were the two things adults thought we should be prepared for; it didn’t take a French cultural anthropologist from the École Normale Supérieure to figure this out, everyone pretty much knew.  These were obviously the only two things the culture deemed worthy of serious discussion.  And as it turned out (not entirely coincidentally) these two — getting a good job and getting good sex — fit rather nicely with our natural hormonal stirrings at the time: on the one hand, for more and more consumer items, for which we would naturally need a potentially unlimited source of income; and, on the other, for the vast amounts of endlessly entertaining and mutually enriching sex of the sort we thought was the natural accompaniment to our emerging adulthood.

“Marriage and family” were nothing more than dim afterthoughts; they were barely on the radar screen. These things would probably happen “some day,” we thought, but with regard to what was going to be necessary to achieve the levels of achievement we foresaw for ourselves in both our business careers (doctors, lawyers, CEOs) and our sexual careers (presumably no one was going to be foolish enough settle on his or her first, entry-level job), unfortunate encumbrances such as “marriage” and “family” were better left until later rather than earlier. They would happen “some day” in the abstract,” just like we knew that “some day” we were going to die, although no one could really imagine that day ever actually coming.

Unfortunately, I’ve found this tendency to cast “marriage and family” into the realm of the unknown “some day” in the future fairly often among the college students I’ve taught, especially the really bright, ambitious ones from the “good” families.  I’ll have more to say on this subject tomorrow.


  • Randall B. Smith

    Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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