Family Structure, Educational Liberty & ‘Creative Genius’

A Paper by Allan Carlson, President, The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society; International Secretary and Founder, World Congress of Families, delivered at the 11th Rhodes Forum, October 4, 2013

Writing in the early 1940’s, during the calamity of global war, the Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin offered “a glance into the future.” He predicted that what had been Western Christian Civilization would in the decades to come “divide increasingly” into two groups: on the one side, the partisans of a decaying, hedonistic Sensate Culture, “libertines, profligates, downright criminals, atheists, and cynicists”; and on the other side, “Stoics, saints, moral heroes, sublime altruists, intensely religious prophets, …ascetics, [and] mystics,” all working to build a new Idealistic Culture grounded in spiritual truths. He has himself been called the Prophet of the Culture War of our age; correctly so, I think.

Sorokin also correctly pointed toward two key steps necessary to the building of that new Idealistic order. Fundamentally, “[m]arriage and the family must be restored to their place of dignity among the great values in human life, not to be trifled with.” Turning to the subject of this session, Education, Sorokin also argued that schools needed to escape from sterile attention to mere job training, “animalistic theories of man,” and “degrading sensate ideologies.” Instead, schools should be organized to develop attitudes of duty and altruism in the young, to imbue “true wisdom” and not intellectual fads, and to nurture “creative geniuses,” those necessary few who would guide the building of an Idealistic Culture.

As a contribution to that first goal—restoring marriage and family to their places of dignity—I place before you this morning the concept of The Natural Family. An intellectual disease within recent American sociology, in particular, has been to distort and deconstruct the very word, “family.” Long holding a clear, universal meaning, it has been turned into a “plastic” word, endlessly reshaped to accommodate ever more unusual, or bizarre, human relationships. Only marginally better have been the adjectives commonly used to recover the original meaning of “family.” For example, the phrase “nuclear family” recaptures the essence of the father-mother-child core, but it ignores the extended family and it sounds too much like a bomb to be useful today. Meanwhile, while the phrase “traditional family” properly alludes to historically grounded truths about family life, it is too backward looking to inspire much enthusiasm and loyalty today.

Instead, in May 1998, a Working Group of The World Congress of Families met in the ancient city of Rome, in a room dating back to the Second Century B.C. Representatives of all the children of Abraham were there: Orthodox Jews, Roman Catholics, Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and Protestant Christians of various kinds. Also represented were the academic disciplines of sociology, history, psychology, anthropology, medicine, and international law. On the question of defining the family, the group’s consensus statement read:

The Natural Family is the fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature, and centered around the voluntary union of a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage for the purposes of satisfying the longings of the human heart to give and receive love, welcoming and ensuring the full physical and emotional development of children, sharing a home that serves as the center for social, educational, economic, and spiritual life, building strong bonds among the generations to pass on a way of life that has transcendent meaning, and extending a hand of compassion to individuals and households whose circumstances fall short of these ideals.

Since that time, distinguished persons representing Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and other global spiritual and moral systems have endorsed the language and meaning of “The Natural Family.” Notably, the phrase is in full harmony with—and partly inspired by—the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 16(c) of which declares that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society, entitled to protection by society and the state.”

That same document also declares—in article 26—that “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” This statement recognizes a fundamental precept of liberty: parents—not the state—should control and be responsible for the rearing of their children. This statement also assents to a great truth affirmed by the social, behavioral, and medical sciences: children thrive when raised by their natural, or biological, parents, bound by marriage. Any deviation from this model—be it sole parenting through choice or divorce, step families through remarriage, homosexual households, cohabitation, and so on—any variation predictably results in less satisfactory, and socially costly, results.

All the same, a second disease in contemporary American sociology is the ideologically-driven denial of this scientific record. As one research article recently argued, the central cause of children’s failure in school is not “family structure”—what we once usefully called “broken families”—“…but rather that society fails to support alternative family forms, rendering them fraught with instability”.

Let us consider a few examples of the real evidence here, showing the falsehoods within that statement. Such evidence, I note, is trans-national:

--In academic data collected from 349 American adolescents, researchers found that “family structure” was far superior to any competing theoretical perspective in explaining children’s academic achievement. Children in intact families consistently earned higher grades than peers in single-parent or step-families.

--An Ohio State University sociologist found strong evidence that “family structural effects” accounted for most of the “quite substantial” gaps in educational performance separating minority students from their white peers, so confirming that “living with both natural parents is positively associated with academic performance.”

--In Canada, researchers have found that parental divorce lowers the odds that children will finish high school by a stunning 61 percent.

--In Norway, a land where economic inequality is quite low, researchers have still found that “marital breakdown during childhood is associated with lower levels of education.” Surprisingly, the negative effects of divorce are “substantially stronger for girls than for boys.” More surprising still, children growing up with cohabitating parents in Norway had the worst results.

--In Great Britain, “being born to cohabitating parents or a single parent had independent negative effects on each domain of cognitive achievement on the order of one-third to one-half of a standard deviation.”

--And in Uruguay, “being in a non-traditional family increases the probability of dropout from school and of falling behind for both sons and daughters.”

 “Creative Genius”—the intellectual process which Sorokin correctly identifies as a driving force in human affairs—is also in large part the product of “family structure”:

--Recent studies repeatedly affirm “the positive effect of the traditional two-parent family,” seen in lower rates for behavioral and health problems and “in dramatically higher performance on tests of cognitive ability.”

--Even among well-educated women, those who are married are decidedly more successful at promoting high educational achievement among their children then are equally well-schooled single mothers.

--Given the close bond between religion and family, it is also not surprising to discover that church attendance has a consistent, positive effect  on child development and the cultivation of creativity. Weekly attendance at church by father and mother correlate strongly to a child’s approach to learning. Put another way, the more that parents participate in public worship on a weekly basis, the higher the ratings for children’s eagerness to learn, persistence, sense of responsibility, and creativity.

As a positive model for the future, I should also remark on the growing American practice of home-schooling. This is, I know, a practice that is controversial in Europe. All the same, here we find American families engaged in a fundamental revolution, recovering a vital family function lost to the aggressive state a century-and-a-half earlier. With over two million children now involved—a number growing by about 15 percent a year—home school families are reinventing American education. The direct effects are broadly impressive. In grades one through four, according to a University of Maryland study, median test scores for home-schooled children are a full grade above those of public and private school students. By grade eight, the median scores of homeschoolers are nearly four grade equivalents above those of their peers in conventional schools. The domination of national spelling, geography, science, and history contests by homeschoolers in recent years testifies as well to the ability of family-centered education to motivate extraordinary individual accomplishment. Predictably, these children will be, disproportionately, the creative geniuses of the American future.

Equally important traits of home schooling are social and demographic. Simply put, home education empowers families. Ninety-eight percent of home school students have parents who were married, compared to 60 percent nationwide. Such families are also larger: 62 percent of homeschooling families have three or more children, compared to only 20 percent in a nationwide sample. A full third (33.5 percent) of homeschooling families have four or more children, compared to only six percent of families nationwide. Meanwhile, 77 percent of homeschooling mothers do not work for pay, compared to 30 percent nationwide. These are home-building women and child-rich families, creating the nurseries and schools for a sustainable future.

The Crisis of our age is nothing new. As Pitirim Sorokin explained in his numerous books, past Sensate Cultures in all corners of the globe finally entered into Crisis and Ordeal, as hedonistic and atomistic values proved unable to sustain human societies. And yet, he showed that this Destructive phase in human affairs would eventually give way to a Constructive phase:

The ‘atomization’ of values [would be] replaced by their universalization and ‘absolutization’; expediency, pleasure, and utility, by duty; licentious freedom, by the sanctity of norms and justice; coercion and egoistic contract… by more familistic and altruistic relationships. Religion, ethics, and law [would] overc[o]me the unbridled sway of force and fraud. God {would take] the place of materialism; spiritual values, that of sensate values.

We are now at that same turning point, faced by other civilizations before. The Rhodes Forum can and should play a leadership role in building that new, Idealistic civilization. May it be so!