By Darrell Dow
The survival of culture depends not merely on the necessary work of reproduction but also upon the care and nurture of the young. Families are designed to be a culture, each with their own set of customs and traditions. “God has made the world in such a way that children who grow up in the culture of the family are to be shaped and molded by it,” says pastor Doug Wilson. The family is the central social institution—the little platoon from which life and culture bloom.
As the industrial revolution socialized production and moved it from the home to the factory, educational factories in the 19th century socialized child-rearing and nurture under the guise of compulsory state education. Correlated with the emergence of public education, the middle to late 19th century also witnessed the rise of the “helping professions” that have waged a ceaseless war on family for well over one hundred fifty years.
The common school appropriated familial functions and assumed the role of surrogate parent. Historically education was an extension of family authority. But statist schools have gone far beyond partnering with parents in teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and basic facts. Functions as diverse as vocational training and the household arts, instruction in manners and morals and sex education—all this training and much, much more has been commandeered by the state and fills the days of America’s youth as they aimlessly wander the halls of our public schools.
Not frequently considered is the role played by mass immigration in the birth of compulsory education and the nattering Nanny State embodied in the helping professions. The mass influx of the 1840s, arising from potato blight in Ireland and political revolution on the European continent, transformed American life and become a weapon directed at the family.
It is commonly assumed that our 19th century ancestors were backward rubes, but this is false. By 1840, prior to compulsory public education, 91% of the white population could read and write. In Massachusetts, home of Horace Mann, the literacy rate stood at an astounding 98% prior to the state’s compulsory education law. Barry Simpson writes, “Between 1800 and 1840, literacy in the Northern States increased from 75% to 90%, and in Southern States from 60% to 81%.”
However, starting around 1840 what had been a trickle of immigration became a flood. “The years from 1845 to 1854 saw the greatest proportionate influx of immigrants in American history,” writes historian George Tindall. Approximately three million immigrants entered the United States during this period, nearly 15% of the total population in 1845.
“Beginning with the Irish in the 1840’s,” writes Christopher Lasch, “the immigration of politically backward elements, as they were commonly regarded, sharpened the fear, already an undercurrent in American social thought, that the United States would regress to a hated old-world pattern of class conflict, hereditary poverty, and political despotism.”
Into the breech and eager to manipulate these legitimate anxieties were the likes of Horace Mann and Henry Barnard, who were able to receive a hearing for state education. From that point on the need to acculturate and “Americanize” alien populations became central to the American educational regime. Education thus became a form of social control and schools developed into institutions designed in part to initiate immigrants into American life and culture.
Fearful of surging Catholic immigration, some northern cities like Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia developed publicly-sponsored education for children. Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance laws in 1852. New York followed closely behind in 1853. A tidal wave soon followed and compulsory education soon became the norm in American life.
As night follows day public education was soon joined with and married to other elements of a burgeoning Nanny State: family therapists, social workers, and experts in “marriage and family life” that appeared in the 19th and 20th centuries to bring renewal to the family, propelled by the undergirding presupposition that families could not provide for their own needs without assistance from the beneficent state and their clients among helping professions.
According to Lasch, these experts “distrusted the immigrant family and saw the parent-education movement as part of a wider effort to civilize the masses” by Americanizing immigrants. Mass immigration thus became a blunt instrument in the hands of the enemies of the family.
Much too often Americans are cowed by the canard that immigration is a symbolic representation of freedom; that our essential nature and identity as a free people is inextricably tied up in the “liberty” of those who wish to “become Americans.” Unfortunately it is often the case that mass immigration undermines trust and social cohesion thereby becoming an excuse and a tool used to limit the freedom of Americans by augmenting the power of the state and its de facto agents to manage ethnic conflict.