Postmodern Conservative

Vacation Pop Sociology

I’ve been out of action because my daughter and her husband just had their daughter (their second child), and so we’ve been spending some time with them in Decatur, Georgia. Decatur is an extraordinarily child-friendly community and a telling piece of evidence that a crippling birth dearth is not the inevitable future of our democratic individualism. People in Decatur are usually highly educated and productive; it ain’t cheap to live here. The choice to live here over more affordable (and in many ways equally amenity-laden) surrounding communities is often for the public schools. You’re choosing to pay more in housing and taxes for free schools you can trust and in which parents can be fully involved. So the many tasteful, tasty, and relatively inexpensive restaurants of Decatur are crawling with kids. Another interesting feature about Decatur is the genuine religious, political, and racial — if not so much economic — diversity. It’s no Boulder, Colorado; many of the wide variety of churches are full (it is in the South), but it’s much more liberal, “crunchy” (with some urban chickens in backyards), and physically fit than most of the rest of Georgia. White people vote in significant numbers for candidates of each of our two major parties, which is not the case in most of Georgia.

There aren’t many lifelong residents in Decatur, and the city, with expert and popular political leadership, has intentionally transformed itself in many ways over the last several decades. It has the feel but not the reality of a fairly traditional place through controlled development. People move here to choose to be at home in that more stable family way celebrated by the sociologists of our cognitive elite. It is true that families are typically smaller and more “planned” than they would have been a couple of generations ago, and many more moms have high-achieving careers. Still, it’s striking how many moms are ready and able to choose not to work and how many more wish they had (or hope to soon have) that option. And although it’s rare that a dad doesn’t work, fathers are typically happily involved in all the details of parenting. No one with eyes to see would deny that mom usually takes the lead in making sure that everything gets done in the right way.  Parent equality is allowed to have its natural limits, which aren’t arbitrary gender-based oppression.

Although I haven’t done a study, I would imagine that there’s less homeschooling in Decatur than in other parts of suburban Atlanta.That makes lives both more and less traditional. Nothing is more traditionally American than centering part of family life around a neighborhood school, and we conservatives should bemoan more than we do the “secessionist” implications of the justified breakdown in confidence in the common school. When I was growing up in merely middle-class, suburban Alexandria, Virginia, “school choice” was limited to walking to either the Catholic or the public elementary school, and both were good enough to be worthy of a reasonable parent’s choice  One was free and the other had the tuition of $25 per family. So although most moms stayed at home and many had three or more kids, nobody thought about schooling at home.

Today, Americans are, more than ever, educationally and economically segregated by zip code, and the neighborhood public schools in the most advantaged zip codes have become more consumer-sensitive and genuinely excellent than ever, as many or most of public schools continue to get worse. Those who could easily afford to opt out of public education frequently have no good reason to do so, while those who can’t often have every reason to wish they could. The common experience of a decent public or parochial education that used to level the playing field at least for some children of both the rich and the poor is increasingly (although, of course, not completely) yesterday’s news. So rich guys date poor girls (and vice versa) maybe less than ever.

It’s easy to understand the appeal and real — if very limited — successes of the “school choice” movement, a movement originating with rich Republican businessmen but claiming, not without reason, to benefit the Democratic poor. But it’s libertarian utopianism to believe that the introduction of the disruptive logic of the competitive marketplace into our educational system could really, on its own, fix what’s wrong with our highly inegalitarian and underperforming schools. Those two dozen or so nations that are whipping us on the various achievement fronts typically have a lot less genuine educational diversity or parental choice than we do. That’s not to say that I’m against using various libertarian means (although not every conceivable means) to give parents more control over the raising — including the schooling — of their kids.

One more point: High technology has made “intellectual labor” much more family-friendly by allowing many (including my daughter and son-in-law) to work from home or some other undisclosed location a couple of days (sometimes more) a week. Agrarian traditionalists can make us selectively nostalgic for the family farm where everyone was always at home, and there’s no denying that the hours suburbanites have spent commuting have been at the expense of a vibrant family life. But for the best-educated Americans, the daily drive to the office may be withering away. What’s better than being at home but without the farmer’s endless rounds of chores and dependence on the random indignities of nature? You can have, if you want, a garden and chickens and goats, but without your existence really being dependent on them.

The relationships among choice, chance, and necessity (and, of course, each remains really, really there, along with grace) have changed, giving people new freedoms and some new constraints  We can thank Pat Deneen, Wendell Berry, and others for reminding us of the degrading side of our most pervasive form of dependency. Where would we be if our technology were to fail us? Our libertarians obsess over freeing people up from dependence on government, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s techno-dependence that in many ways makes us more weak and whiny, as well as more distracted. Having said that,  I have to add it’s inspiring to see so many highly educated parents these days rigorously limiting their kids’ access to technology (TV, tablets, smartphones, etc.) with their moral and intellectual development in mind. Meanwhile, I see our schools at all levels moving in the other directions by attempting to move instruction online. We can hope that the latter is only a phase.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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