The Family and the Education System

In evolutionary terms, the family is a type of segmentary differentiation, which preceded functional differentiation but, obviously, still exists. In fact, functional differentiation relies on this already existing social form, as any new differentiation must use an earlier differentiation as a kind of foundation.

Functional differentiation weakens traditional family bonds, as each family member becomes (as observed by the legal system) a legally recognized individual. Also, the psychic systems of the different family members tend to grow more loosely coupled. We can look at how this works in the education system. The education system sets the curriculum and it, not families, decides when a student has achieved its educational standards. The education system also creates the concept of a standard (spoken and written) language. This is supposed to be the language of public life.

Richard Rodriguez, in his 1982 autobiography, Hunger for Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, describes starting school in California and being thrown into English and struggling to master this second language. Recognizing this struggle, his teachers asked his parents to speak to their children in English at home, and the result was that the family lost a sense of warmth and intimacy. Spanish terms of endearment (e.g., Hihito/a) were not used as much within the family, and the children soon spoke better English than their parents. This disrupted the family structure.

Rodriguez takes individuality and draws a new distinction–the distinction between private individuality and public individuality–and this new distinction allows him to make an argument against bilingual education. Rodriguez went to school before bilingual education became popular in the United States in the 1960s, and he doesn’t like it. He writes,

Today I hear bilingual educators say that children lose a degree of ‘individuality’ by becoming assimilated into public society. . . . But the bilingualists simplistically scorn the value and necessity of assimilation. They do not seem to realize that there are two ways a person is individualized. So while they do not realize that while one suffers diminished sense of private individuality by becoming assimilated into public society, such assimilation makes possible the achievement of public individuality. . . . Only when I was able to think of myself as an American, no longer an alien gringo society, could I seek the rights and opportunities necessary for full public individuality. (26-27)

So in systems-theoretical terms, the education system creates what Rodriguez calls public individuality, which is the individuality of the individual lost in a crowd. The education system disrupts family segmentation. In this context, the American homeschooling movement, which took off around 1980 (the time of the “Reagan revolution” or counterrevolution) is a reaction against the functional differentiation of education. Public education has come under sharply increasing pressure since the mid-1970s, as revealed by trends for the term “secular humanism,” which is often used derogatorily by homeschooling advocates.

secular humanism

Returning to Richard Rodriguez, he came to believe that the weakening of family ties is painful but necessary, at least for first-generation Americans like himself. Education is often a mixed blessing.

And this isn’t to say that I agree with Rodriguez’s position on bilingual education. I’m just using this as an example of one the many ways that the function system of education undermines traditional forms of segmentation.

Of course, homeschooling used to be the norm, particular for gentry. For instance, the only reason John Stuart Mill was able to receive the amazing education that he did–reading Greek at age 3, Latin at age 8, reading all of Plato before adolescence–was because his father did not allow him to attend school or even associate with other children outside the home.


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