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It has often been remarked that citizens of the American republic are possessed of a distinctly Manichean sensibility. Certainly the literature, film, and television of the nation supports that inference, and it's not at all difficult to speculate on the sources of that cultural disposition. The most enduring and romantic source is perhaps the birth-narrative of the youthful Republic. By rejecting the authority of its European parentage the infant nation freed itself from a degenerate legacy. Unfortunately, like most adolescents, she is experiencing the growing pains of dislocation and uncertainty -- a condition made more acute by her suspicion of all traditional sources of comfort; that is, the church, the family, and the arts.
Kay S. Hymowitz's book, Ready or Not: What Happens When We Treat Children as Small Adults is an effort to understand the effects of what she calls anti-culturalism, especially as it pertains to young children and adolescents. Her thesis is a simple one: popular culture, "progressive" child-rearing practices, "value-free" school curricula, and unprecedented economic pressures have all conspired to perpetuate the uniquely American myth of self-creation. A Whitmanesque faith in untrammeled nature -- most specifically the nature of the unsocialized child -- has produced a bored, brittle, and bewildered generation which is ill-equipped for deep or lasting relationships. As Hymowitz's rightly notes, so long as we are human beings we cannot exist in a cultural void; it is both a conceptual and a practical impossibility. Something will always fill the supposed vacuum, and it is a despairing thought that slick merchandisers now seem to occupy the space that was traditionally the preserve of faith and family.
Predictably, and not unfairly, Hymowitz takes special pains to expose the anti-cultural assumptions that pervade depictions of the nuclear family in film and television. Acknowledging an ambivalence about an earlier generation's role models (She wryly observes that, "Even Ozzie and Harriet was no Ozzie and Harriet."), she finds ample evidence to support the claim that a cynical attitude now attends almost all depictions of parental authority. Fathers are targeted more often than mothers (although the latter aren't spared either), and seem always to be absent or inept. One needn't have a profound knowledge of popular culture to identify some of the more egregious examples: The Simpsons, Married With Children, Rugrats, South Park, and Home Alone. To these Hymowitz adds a few surprises which fit the bill nicely with a little reflection. Even wholesome family fare like the Star Wars trilogy features a disconcerting dad; while other, more domestic, dramas shine a spotlight on curiously competent children. Consider Doogie Howser, the pre-teen lawyer on Ally McBeal, and Little Man Tate. It seems that parents have become superfluous, if not a downright menace.
If this weren't worrying enough, "family rot" messages, as Hymowitz dubs them, are a staple of public school curricula. In an effort to be inclusive, and to avoid law suits from youthful First Amendment activists, schools have fled from the task of "values education." "Old fashioned etiquette," which forbade the use of profane or racist language in the classroom, has largely been forsaken, as have most initiatives designed to produce a socially responsible citizenry. If Hymowitz is right, students have been abandoned to their rights. On her view, whole-language initiatives, discovery-based learning, so-called constructivism (that is, a reluctance to use controversial words like Truth and objectivity), and sexuality education have forced children to shoulder the responsibility of an adulthood they don't yet possess. At the end of the school day they return to empty houses and the perils of the electronic hearth. It's no wonder they're letting us, and themselves, down.
Many of us share Hymowitz's concern with an educational system that no longer takes the task of cultural transmission seriously. Technological proficiency is hardly a replacement for the wisdom of previous generations. But it's an inescapable fact that complex multicultural societies like the United States cannot be sanguine about an educational system that merely recounts the glories of Western civilization (and its sometimes dubious historical victories). Hymowitz occasionally acknowledges this problem (which I take to be the reason for her reluctance to offer remedies or strongly worded reprimands), but she has a tendency to over-simplify. All of these pedagogical initiatives are tarred with the same brush, and the connection between particular teaching strategies and the problems of our youth is frequently tenuous and grounded in anecdote and surmise.
Ready or Not is written in a vigorous style, and will have an intuitive plausibility for many. The chapter headings alone are worth the read: "Baby Geniuses," "The Teening of Childhood," "Fourteen-Year Old Women and Juvenile Men," "Postmodern Postadolescence." Unfortunately, it is too much a product of the black and white sensibility it decries. Like the adolescent nation they are products of, children are nether blank slates nor the helpless victims of adult culture. Kay Hymowitz advances a fine brash hypothesis, but, as is the case with such things, it may yet suffer the death of a thousand qualifications.
© 2001 Ann Iverson
Ann Iverson is a doctoral candidate in the philosophy programme at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Although she specialises in legal theory, she also works in political philosophy and applied ethics (including most especially biomedical ethics, and business and professional ethics). She has taught courses in legal theory, and the philosophy of sex, love, and friendship. She is the mother of a teen and a tweenager. In a previous incarnation she taught secondary school.