Parent-Free Zone


"Anticulturalism" is the dominant ideology among child development experts, and it has filtered into the courts, into the schools, into our kitchens and family rooms.

John Leo

If you doubt that ideas have consequences, consider what happened to one very bad idea that came out of the 1960's — children's liberation. As the civil rights movement broadened to include women and gays, children, too, were depicted as an oppressed minority in need of liberation. Radical feminists like Shulamith Firestone thought women and children were both victims and natural allies in the war against the patriarchy. “Young people's liberationists” viewed parental protectiveness as “an ideology of control.” Popular writers like John Holt, author of Escape from Childhood, deplored the legal, social, and psychological oppression of the young. One overheated legal scholar wrote that laws pertaining to teens looked like laws about runaway slaves.

But in America, ideological nonsense rarely just disappears. More often it is modified and adopted by assorted experts, then inflicted on the public by lawyers and bureaucrats. Ready or Not, a strong new book by Kay Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues that this is what happened to the extreme philosophy of child liberation. It seeped into mainstream thinking as skepticism about childhood and a feeling that government should step in to free children from the “social captivity” imposed by parents and schools.

One sign of this mainstreaming was a proposal by Harvard law Prof. Laurence Tribe to declare childhood “a semisuspect classification.” Another was the series of law articles published by Hillary Rodham in the mid-1970s proposing legal rights for children against parents including “decisions about motherhood and abortion, schooling, cosmetic surgery, treatment of venereal disease, and employment.” Rodham's views were not particularly radical. They simply reflected where children's-rights advocates were heading. The view of children as autonomous was putting heavy pressure on traditional views of family and child rearing. Hymowitz argues that as child-liberation ideas entered the mainstream, they hardened into a philosophy she calls “anticulturalism”—the idea that socializing children and attempting to mold the character of the young is a wrongful use of power by the strong against the weak. Children should develop independently of the prevailing culture and even in opposition to it. This idea is radical, because it forbids what all cultures have assumed they must do: transmit cultural values from one generation to the next.


Hymowitz demonstrates how widely this improbable philosophy has managed to spread. “Anticulturalism,” she writes, “is the dominant ideology among child development experts, and it has filtered into the courts, into the schools, into the parenting magazines, into Hollywood, and into our kitchens and family rooms.” It boils down to the notion that children should be allowed to develop on their own; that parents and schools should stimulate and encourage but otherwise stay out of the way. The emergence of the moral self must not be quashed by what Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan calls the “foreign voice-overs of adults.” Children are not to be raised, but simply allowed to grow.

The philosophy owes something to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's famous tenet that people are good, while society is bad. It reflects traditional American ideas about individuality and independence, and it is influenced by the current postmodern idea that all values are biases that cannot be imposed on other people.

Anticulturalism has swamped the schools with fuzzy concepts like “discovery learning,” “thinking strategies,” “learner-centered math,” and “learning to communicate mathematically” (as opposed to learning how to come up with correct answers). The assumption is that the child's innate drive to learn is so powerful that the traditional curriculum can be discarded. So educators tell us that self-directed schoolchildren make meaning for themselves under the watchful eye of teachers who don't really teach but function as facilitators.

This is the reigning view of the school establishment. A study by the Public Agenda research group found that only 7 percent of education professors think teachers should be conveyers of knowledge; 92 percent believe teachers should just “enable students to learn on their own.” Hymowitz thinks anticulturalism explains why bad schools fight so tenaciously to hold on to failed programs: They are more deeply interested in ideology than in results. She probably underestimates the strength of the current counterattacks against anticultural education, including testing for teachers, the turn against social promotion, and the new emphasis on content and standards.

Her bleak view of what anticulturalism has done to child rearing seems more justified. The idea that children are inherently good and will develop morally all by themselves is out of sync with news about Columbine and increasingly violent crimes by 8 and 9 year-olds. Hymowitz thinks anticulturalism is producing disengaged children and Seinfeld- like “postmodern post-adolescents” who can't seem to grow up. This may be the natural result of a theory calling for parents to be moral and cultural bystanders in the lives of their children.


Leo, John. “Parent-free zone.” U.S. News and World Report (Nov. 1, 1999)

Reprinted by permission of John Leo and US News and World Report.


John Leo writes the Outlook column for U.S. News and World Report.

Copyright © 1999 US News&World Report

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