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Redefining the American Family: A 21st Century Perspective

This article was originally published 20 years ago in “The Future: Images for the 21st Century,” edited by University of Michigan Professor Bunyan Bryant. It is the final of three parts. 

Transforming our Schools

To redefine and reinvent our families, we will also have to redefine and reinvent our schools. In the past, it was assumed that families had responsibility for raising children, instilling in them common sense and values, while the role of the schools was to provide cognitive or academic skills. Conservatives still argue for this sharp division of roles. On the other hand, as more parents have been forced to work outside the home, they have come to depend upon the schools not only to babysit their children but also to teach them “sense.” As a result, there is a growing tension between teachers and parents. Teachers complain that children do not come to school prepared to learn, while parents complain that teachers do not educate their children.

The American school system is structured for the advancement of the upwardly mobile individual and thus reinforces the individualism that Bronfenbrenner says is one of the chief causes for the decline of the family. As long as American industry was expanding, this system worked pretty well. A small minority went on to college and got the diploma that enable them to get good jobs and escape from the community. Those who dropped out of high school got jobs in the plant, which enabled them to marry and raise families. But in today’s de-industrialized cities, there are no decent paying jobs for the more than 40 percent who drop out of school; so men father children but don’t get married.

And school dropouts take out their frustration and anger in acts of vandalism and violence that create fear and devastation within the community. Thus, we urgently need to restructure our schools so that they are no longer institutions to promote individual advancement out of the community. Instead, they should serve the building of the community and the all-around development of the individual. The core of the school curriculum should be the economic and social development of the community, with teachers, administrators, students and citizens working together to achieve this goal. In this process, children will learn through practice, which has always been the best way to learn. While they are absorbing the values of social responsibility naturally, they will be stimulated to learn skills and acquire information in order to solve real problems.

Instead of simply being fed information from secondary sources, young people will be involved in solving the problems of their neighborhoods, communities and cities; solutions that will require value judgments as well as factual knowledge and skills.  Working collectively rather than as individuals competing with one another, they will also discover that multiple answers are possible, a discovery that will reinforce the importance of living in a pluralistic and ever-changing society.

For example, how can we renovate rather than demolish homes to combat the low-cost housing shortage that has created the growing homes population? How can we grow our food in neighborhood gardens and greenhouses so that it doesn’t have to be adulterated with preservatives as a result of being transported thousands of miles? How can we conserve energy in our homes and school buildings and recycle what we do and do not use in our homes and schools? How can we serve nutritious and environmentally friendly food in the school cafeteria? How can we utilize the natural resources of our region, e.g., the sand, which is so abundant in Michigan, to manufacture storm windows and other glass products for solar heating?

Schools restructured along these lines will require cooperation and mutual respect between teachers who know and are concerned about the community and members of the community who are concerned with the development of children. Children who grapple with such questions in school will be prepared to strengthen their families, their communities and their cities as “communities of work.”

It is not going to be easy to create a new relationship between our schools and our communities. The old relationship has lasted so long and has been accepted so uncritically that change will require intensive dialogue, time and experimentation.  Fortunately, the growing movement toward “choice” and decentralized administration of schools provides the opportunity and challenge for local communities to undertake experiments. Change in this direction is especially urgent for schools in the inner city.  Unless the community becomes the core of the curriculum of inner-city schools, these schools will continue to be abandoned by those parents most interested in the education of their children.


These “rebeginnings” may appear utopian at this time. However, in the next 30 years — as we are confronted with the continuing erosion of our families, our communities, our schools and our cities, as permanent unemployment becomes a reality for the tens of millions who are no longer needed by American high-tech and multinational corporations, as environmental considerations cry out for more conservationist and human-scale lifestyles and as the bankrupt budgets of city, state and federal governments continue to cut back on social programs — necessity will force more and more Americans to move toward reinventing and redefining our families, our communities, our cities and our schools along these or similar lines.

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