Although it is never objectively accurate to say that a certain time period was “the good old days,” there are many positive values that our society has lost in the past 150 years. One of the most tragic of these losses was the central foundation of family culture, and especially multi-generational connections and legacies.
Because many of us have never experienced the benefits of the family culture in our lifetimes, we may not even recognize our collective loss. Imagine with me, if you can, a culture where you are surrounded with people who know and love you. There are parents, uncles and aunts, cousins, grandparents and even on occasion great-grandparents. Living, working, playing and worshiping with these loved-ones creates a wonderful sense of security and stability. You know who you are, to a great extent, because of your relationships with those of your surrounding family. Family can serve as a fixed reference point, linking you to geography and to the past in a way that no other friendship or community can.
Allow me to outline some of the paradigm shifts that have occurred in American culture over the past 150 years, bringing about a disconnected and individualist society which has replaced the previous family-centered culture.
The Breakdown of the Family Culture
I would say that the breakdown of the family culture in America began largely after the Civil War in 1865. Over 620,000 American men died in a war that left virtually every family without a loved one. In the Reconstruction that followed the war, men often left their homes and began to work in factories, taking advantage of the new breakthroughs of invention and industry. Prior to the Civil War, the majority of Americans were agrarian and rural, and worked on family farms or in family-owned businesses.
At the turn of the 20th Century, it became clear that the machine was the way of the future. From Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, to Henry Ford’s automobile, from the steam engine to the success of the Wright Brothers’ flying machine, people were finding faster and more efficient ways to do everything, including get around.
Wise families started their own businesses and hired family members to keep their income “in house.” Around the turn of the 20th Century, many families became famous for developing financial systems that grew the family wealth exponentially. The Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Studebakers, and later the Kennedys, are all examples of family wealth. Whether you admire or disdain that kind of economic nepotism, you have to admit that they knew the collective potential of the family culture.
In 1840, Horace Mann had established the first state-funded, compulsory, government-controlled school in Massachusetts. This model spread around the country and before long, not only was the father removed from the home, but the children were as well. Instead of children working alongside their parents, receiving an education through family enterprise (and supplemented with either homeschooling or formal academics in a community-controlled “Common School”), students were now enrolled in “assembly-line” educational factories that utilized the Modernistic principles that were revolutionizing every other industry.
More important than the physical separation that occurred through mandatory governmental education was the emotional distance that was experienced as children embraced the culture of “social education.” Friendships through the “peer group” replaced the family as the child’s primary, foundational relationships.
Eventually the 20thCentury “Feminist Movement” put mothers into the workplace as well, effectively removing the central hub of the family from the home. Mothers were convinced to leave the education of their children to trained and certified “experts.” With the additional tax burden placed on families because of state-funded schools, many families felt the need to have two incomes just to make ends meet. There is no way to estimate the effect that the so-called “Women’s Liberation” movement has had on the lives of millions of children. Children need both parents (ideally) to be emotionally and socially balanced, but they especially need the daily nurturing of their mothers.
While some point to the positive gains made through “equal rights” movements like Women’s Liberation, the “freeing” of women from their families has devastated the family culture. Women’s Liberation mainly “freed” women from their children and made them slaves to their jobs. It’s not merely a matter of men and women working a job outside of the home, it is a mindset-shift from parents being responsible for the care and nurturing of their own offspring, to an expectation that the government is supposed to provide for all of our needs from the cradle to the grave, and we all work to support an over-grown bureaucracy that seeks to do for us what we should be doing for ourselves.
More than any other factor, Mass Transportation destroyed the extended-family culture. As new economic opportunities beckoned, families uprooted from the old home-place and took off across the country. The railroad, and later the automobile and the airplane, gave people a new mobility that changed the landscape of America.
Since the telegraph, and eventually the telephone, allowed families to keep in touch over the miles, many families made the choice to exchange local relationships with their extended families for distance ones. This geographical distance removed economic interdependence, and thereby removed a primary reason for staying connected. Working together for a common goal is great cement to bond relationships.
America is a nation of immigrants. Groups of families have come to America from every nation around the globe. They bring with them their own beliefs, cuisine, dress, language, and religions (in other words…their own culture). America has become the great melting pot. The tension these families experience (which is really the same struggle that every newly-married couple faces) is how to keep their own unique identities while being absorbed into the greater whole. Many ethnic groups have fought tenaciously to keep their families together, in the face of what seems like a relentless and pervasive attempt to strip them of their distinctives. As each generation follows, less and less of the “old ways” are retained as the new generations become absorbed into the larger American culture. But what is the new American culture? It is no longer the “Folk Culture” of each of these unique groups, it is instead an emerging consumer culture of entertainment and merchandizing; in other words, a Popular Culture.
Mass Media and the Creation of a Mass Culture
With the advent of radio and eventually television, all Americans, regardless of their geography, had access to the same news and information. Mass media and standardized education helped to shape a general culture. Rather than localized, provincial folk or agrarian cultures, Americans were increasingly adopting the lifestyles of urban and suburban society. But regardless of whether you lived in the country or the city, you were watching the same televisions shows, hearing the same commercials and using the same textbooks as everyone else in America.
As corporate marketers learned how to tap the vast potential of various media channels, people were slowly morphed into consumers rather than self-sufficient producers. Mass retail distribution through superstores, who sell everything from groceries to household goods, placed all of these nationally- advertised products on shelves within a few miles of nearly every American citizen.
The differences between the previous era of “Folk Culture” and the new “Popular (Pop) Culture” are quite stark. In the Folk Culture of the mid-19th Century, for example, families who enjoyed music would create their own music by playing together on the front porch, many times with homemade instruments. Occasionally they would be joined by their neighbors, who were often extended relatives.
Contrast that with the teenager who now listens privately to his MP3 player, subtly shutting out the rest of the world around him. Folk Culture was all about accountability, community, resourcefulness and creativity. Pop Culture is all about liberation, autonomy, spending aimlessly and consumerism.
While some may seek to defend Pop Culture, and look for its virtues, it is clear that whenever you exchange one type of culture for another, certain things are gained, and others are lost.
Convenience is perhaps the chief gain of Pop Culture. You no longer have to work together as a family or a local community to grow, can and store your annual food supply. You just go to the national superstores down the road and buy your garlic from China and your grapes from Chile and your coffee from Colombia. This is a tremendous time-savings, and can certainly be understood as being a gain in many ways. But there is a great loss in this way of life as well.
We have become far more dependent on impersonal, non-relational industries to supply our every need, and far less on personal relationships, especially of those within our own extended family.
So much of Pop Culture disconnects us from relationships. We turn on and tune out. Television, the Internet and much of the entertainment industry is created to make us passive consumers, silently absorbing hours upon hours of often meaningless “information” that is usually an end in and of itself, rather than an equipping means to some greater goal or purpose.
We hear a lot about Multiculturalism these days, especially in government schools, but personally I observe very little of it. I think a lot of people, particularly those in political power (regardless of party affiliation), are afraid of a truly multicultural society. A truly multicultural society cannot be easily controlled and manipulated. Therefore mandatory “group-think” has been the goal of many top-heavy governments over the past 100 years.
If you don’t have distinct differences in cultures, within your nation, then you are a monolithic culture, not a true multi-culture. The only way to truly preserve a culture (which is the accumulative sum of the beliefs and values of a people-group, externally expressed through their Art, Music, Literature, Food, Dress, Religious Practices, etc.), is to maintain an interconnectedness (which usually includes a certain level of interdependence) and to maintain a mechanism for passing on the shared beliefs, values and customs of that culture.
Homeschooling is the premiere way for any kind of Folk Culture to preserve its own unique identity while slowly embracing the universal, enduring values of the larger whole of the country. Regardless of your religion or other cultural values, you cannot expect the children who are born a generation or two after you to embrace your values if they are cut off from their familial roots. I believe the castration of unique family heritages and values is being systematically carried out through standardized, compulsory education, and is reinforced at nearly every point through Pop Culture’s homogenized worldview.
This worldview is that we are all expected to accept that we are merely workers and consumers in the greater society and that we must trust the experts (and those in control of the government), to lead us, teach us, and direct our futures.
To some, none of this is important. If the values of the current popular trends have already become your own, then who cares about all of this cultural distinctiveness and familial identity? Who cares about the Family Culture, and being connected to the generations who precede and follow you? Who cares about ensuring mechanisms of restraint, accountability, responsibility and obligation within the larger family context? Who cares about passing on values from your children to their children and to generations who have never been born?
If these values are not important to you, then rest assured that your task is easy. All you need to do is nothing in order to ensure that your children will embrace whatever cultural trends happen to be hip at the moment. If you want your children to grow up to love only themselves, think only of themselves, see no obligation to their parents or grandparents, make all of their major life choices with no regard for how it impacts their extended families, or to be simply users and consumers rather than creative producers and artisans; then your task is very easy indeed. Just do absolutely nothing. Send your children to any local government school, let them grow up with their little brains saturated in television and multimedia and never, ever, encourage them to build, read books, dream, play outside, have discussions with their gray-headed relatives or to see themselves as part of a family unit. I promise you that you will be successful in raising one more Pop Culture deadhead.
Our Mission…Should We Choose To Accept It
It takes work to pass on family values. It takes work to maintain family relationships. It takes work to think in terms of a multi-generational vision. For me, the work is worth it.
I don’t want to merely curse the darkness. We can’t turn back the clock and become Amish (although I’m sure I’d enjoy that…about 60% of the time!). Perhaps we can find creative ways to use technology and communication tools to keep us together, rather than splitting us apart.
Maybe we can find ways to live in this 21st Century without being absorbed in the Narcissism of it all. Perhaps we can keep the positive and enduring values of the generations past, while enjoying the comforts and conveniences of our modern age. The one thing I can assure you of, however, is that strong family bonds and the transmission of the right kinds of values never happen by accident. It takes intentionality, focus, planning and a lot of hard work. Let’s learn from the lessons of the past, and seek to shine a light for future generations.
Israel Wayne is the Director of Family Renewal, LLC. He is an author and conference speaker, and also the Site Editor for www.ChristianWorldview.net. This is an excerpt from his book, Full-Time Parenting: A Guide to Family-Based Discipleship.