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Liberal States, Authoritarian Families:
Childhood and Education in Early Modern Thought

by rita koganzon
oxford, 224 pages, $74

Parental authority has been an issue of lively and often bitter public debate over the past two centuries, and it seems likely to play a significant role in the 2022 elections and beyond. As I write, a lead story in the Washington Post features a new nationwide organization called “Moms for Liberty,” which insists, “We do NOT CO-­PARENT with the ­GOVERNMENT,” and objects to a variety of practices of local public schools, including mandatory masking and purported indoctrination of children in Critical Race Theory.

Rita Koganzon does not address these current controversies; she discusses how John Locke and other political theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries understood parental authority in relation to wider civic goals. For Thomas Hobbes, it was essential to minimize any threat the family posed to the authority of the sovereign. The child should learn “to appreciate the curbs that the sovereign’s law places on what would otherwise have been their fathers’ complete power over them and to anticipate the day they are freed from their fathers to be subject only to a distant and largely non-­interfering master.”

Hobbes sought to delegitimize the family and other independent sources of formation, thereby creating a monopoly of authority within the state. This vision became public policy during the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution, during subsequent eras of nation-building in Europe and the Americas in the nineteenth century, and under authoritarian regimes worldwide in the twentieth.

Government policies in many countries have sought to use popular schooling to inculcate loyalty to the nation, and to overcome divisions that might arise from community traditions, religious convictions, and other differences among the population. The child belongs to the state, with parents enjoying a temporary guardianship subject to cancellation at any point if they are guilty of providing an understanding of life that is in tension with the state orthodoxy.

Koganzon goes on to discuss the very different role of the family in John Locke’s essays on education, society, and government. Unlike Hobbes, Locke had a pluralistic vision of society. He sought to weaken the role of authority in civic life. And he argued that doing so required emphasizing authority within the family. “It is precisely to provide a hedge against the power of fashion, custom, and opinion,” Koganzon writes, “that Locke re-introduces a narrow and strictly pedagogical form of authority over children into the family after he has delegitimized it everywhere else.”

Locke seeks to show how “the child can be trained to judge, sort, and reject his desires in an environment that is, at least in childhood, relatively insulated from the power of fashion, so that he may grow up better equipped to resist this power when he is no longer insulated from it.” Parental authority must be exercised to liberate children from the influence of peers. Only this will allow them to function effectively as free-standing adults in a liberal society of diffuse authority.

Koganzon describes such families as “authoritarian.” Her meaning would be better served by the word “authoritative,” which has long been used to describe the mean between too much and too little parental strictness. Laurence Steinberg, in his study of how peer influence affects school achievement, Beyond the Classroom (1997), argues that “growing up in an authoritative home makes youngsters more psychologically mature, especially when it comes to their willingness to work hard and to take pleasure in doing something well.” These are the qualities that, as Koganzon shows, John Locke sought to develop through the influence and example of the father rather than subjecting youth to the influence of peers.

The other major focus of Koganzon’s study is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She concedes that parents are allowed no role in the education of Emile—he may indeed be an orphan—or in the formation of citizens described in The Social Contract. Koganzon suggests, however, that Rousseau’s ultimate prescription for education is consistent with that of Locke. She arrives at this original conclusion by focusing on the often neglected final section of Emile. It is Emile’s destined wife Sophie who receives an education, in her family, that prepares her for life in society. This education compensates for the ­unworldliness of her husband. ­Unlike Emile, who is raised in a way meant “to avert his dependence on others (and especially on women) until the latest possible moment,” Sophie—like other girls—is “taught from the outset to seek esteem and approval, to obey authority.” Sophie thus knows what Emile does not: the role that “deception, manipulation, and domination” play in social life. Koganzon concludes that the education Rousseau sees as proper for girls can and should be given to boys as well.

This is an interesting reading of Rousseau, and certainly contrary to that which has led educational ­theorists and many of their disciples, for more than two centuries, to call upon Rousseau to justify the hegemony of educators over the moral and intellectual formation of their pupils. Whereas The Social Contract offered a vision of state monopoly over the minds and loyalties of citizens, Emile provided a contrasting vision of youth free to choose, even to invent, their own identities, values, and attachments, free of any ties to family or tradition. In recent decades, the latter prescription (often called “comprehensive liberalism”) has largely replaced the former in fashionable theorizing about education. We can now see the results of comprehensive liberalism’s ­triumph. As ­Koganzon notes, children left to govern themselves “have not, on the whole, become happier, but rather lonelier, angrier, and sadder.”

Though Rousseau’s contrasting accounts of why families should be marginalized have in effect served as founding myths for countless influential theorists, from Pestalozzi (who actually practiced his theories on orphans) to the present, they have also been singled out as harmful by critics more comfortable with Locke’s validation of the primary role of the family in forming character. It is thus a remarkable achievement on Koganzon’s part to suggest that, for the practical purpose of life in society, the education provided to Sophie is superior to that provided to Emile and is, finally, very much what Locke recommended.

“The family,” Koganzon writes, “does prepare the child for citizenship, but not by having him rehearse civic principles from a young age. Rather it does so by inoculating him against the worst tendencies of liberalism—the tendencies to be ruled by fashion, custom, and the opinions of the majority.” This essential rootedness is in urgent demand today in a society tossed about by passions that make unbridled democracy a threat to the freedom not only of individuals, but also of families and religious communities.

Charles L. Glenn is professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy at Boston University.

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