There seems no end to the notion that anything society desires is just some clever legislating away.  So it should come as no surprise that, since society desires certain things of its parents in the education of their kids–kids in which today’s consumer-driven society claims a vested interest–society in the person of the state (i.e., government), would eventually turn to legislation to get it, from the New York Times Motherlode Blog

 Teachers are fed up with being blamed for the failures of American education, and legislators are starting to hear them. A spate of bills introduced in various states now takes aim squarely at the parents. If you think you can legislate teaching, the notion goes, why not try legislating parenting?

It is a complicated idea, taking on the controversial question of whether parents, teachers or children are most to blame when a child fails to learn.

But the thinking goes like this: If you look at schools that “work,” as measured by test scores and graduation rates, they all have involved (overinvolved?) parents, who are on top of their children’s homework, in contact with their children’s teachers, and invested in their children’s futures. So just require the same of parents in schools that don’t work, and the problem is solved (or, at least, dented), right?

What these reformers seeking to pin the blame on parents for their children’s educational failure don’t understand is that the parents seem so disinterested in their children precisely because parental prerogatives at child training, education and rearing have been all but usurped by a litany of state initiatives implemented over the course of the incremental statism attendant to the evolution from agriculture to industry to finally, a post-industrial consumer and service economy.  Parents are losing interest in their kids because the state gradually decided that parents don’t matter, or at least they don’t until the state decides it wants them to.  Then the state delegates responsibility, but without the necessary relinquishment of authority, necessitating punitive measures for failure to follow its mandates.   It is the essence of poor leadership, but then poor leadership has defined the relationship between the government and its citizens in nearly every realm in its statist march.

Go back all of a hundred years.  Parental responsibility and authority in the rearing of children was complete and unquestioned.  State intrusion in familial relationships was virtually non-existent, limited only to the same criminal limitations governing interpersonal relationships generally. 

A century ago, the majority of parents still had an economic interest in their children; the economic transition from agriculture to industry was just gaining purchase, and children were still valuable assets for the yeoman (“family”) farmers that populated the countryside.   As industrialization took hold, children lost economic value in the family, except as they could work alongside their parents in the factories and mines, which they did until the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act prohibited employment of anyone under sixteen, except in agriculture.  With industrialization and its need for masses of at least crudely-educated workers to work its factories and mines and consume the outputs thereof, but without necessarily contributing anything to the economic well-being of the families from which they came, the education and training of children gradually became a state (i.e. government), and not parental, imperative.  The authority of the parent began its relentless erosion.

The idea that universal literacy and education were unquestionable social goods arose, not accidentally, about the same time as industrialization.  In the early stages of implementing the idea of universal education, the authority of the teacher to teach was delegated, on an ad hoc basis, from the parents.  The responsibility for the child’s education remained with the parent. In the intervening hundred years or so, parental authority and responsibility for their child’s education gradually eroded, with teachers increasingly no longer answerable to anyone except the state.  Without authority, responsibility is meaningless, so parents ultimately became obstacles for the state to overcome, or peons to be ordered about, instead of being partners in education. 

In the meantime, children became a huge economic liability for the parent.  The state trained them for its purposes, and where it purposes conflicted with that of the parents, the state’s imperatives held sway.  Yet, the parents were tasked with providing everything but the child’s bare-bones educational foundation, with no direct economic benefit accruing to the parent as a result.   Fertility rates plummeted, and the state had no choice but to encourage immigration, illegal and otherwise, to keep its population, and the markets thereby supported, from plateauing and declining.

So that gets us to today.  The state has so completely usurped parental responsibility and authority in raising children that it now is forced to mandate how parents behave with their children in order to protect the state’s imperatives and interests in raising a crop of minimally-educated workers and consumers.   Fertility rates among all but the population of recent immigrants continue to decline.  Putative parents have wisely calculated that raising children for the state’s benefit and according to the state’s increasingly oppressive directives is just not worth the effort.  

Yet the state took over more of the familial responsibilities than just child education and rearing.  It also agreed that it would care for parents in their old age.  As it weakened familial bonds with its educational imperatives, it ameliorated the effect by also assuming what had once been a responsibility of the child.  But the parents didn’t cooperate, and failed to provide enough workers to support the state’s promise of old-age pensions and healthcare. 

Once that promise fails completely–give it a couple of decades–expect to see a concomitant strengthening and rebirth of familial bonds, including the resumption by the parents of  the responsibility and authority for educating children.  Then some well-meaning social engineer will come along to show how much better things would be if more responsibility and authority for child education and training accrued to the state.  Which will ultimately bankrupt the state, again.  And the cycle will start anew.