Aftershocks of a pandemic

“The parents weren’t just upset about all the screen time their kids were logging. They were upset about what they saw on those screens. For the first time, millions of moms and dads could watch, in real time, their children’s teachers teaching.”

That’s just one more aftershock from the great pandemic of the twenty-twenties.

We have all become aware of the workplace upheaval in which the world’s biggest corporations and the state bureaucracies of the planet – not to mention the real estate industry – are all grappling with the existential phenomenon of working-from-home. Pre-pandemic social communication had already made something of sea-change in our lives but the infliction of lockdown, while not perhaps being the mother of Zoom and its fellow inventions, was certainly the booster rocket which sent them into orbit, giving us meetings at our finger-tips and a new meaning to dropping in on family, friends and neighbours for a chat.

The architecture of the entire teaching-learning edifice which our world has known for the duration of what we call modern times now looks like it is in the process of a radical redevelopment, if not a wholesale demolition and rebuild. Not least among its structural features facing radical change is that which has taken care of which is perhaps its most lovable and most precious responsibility, elementary education.

Post-pandemic, millions of new families are moving to undertake the elementary education of their own children.

And why not? Are we so blind that we cannot see the logic, the justice and the beautiful privilege that the best educated generation in human history have the ability, and should have the right, to educate their own children. “Education bureaucrats, leave those kids alone!”

Barri Weiss’ Common Sense on the Substack platform spells out some of the details of this apparent landslide freedom movement in a guest post from another Weiss, Suzy by name, (sister, cousin?). In an age when the family has been put in greater danger than it has been in over one hundred years this is really good news. Not since the Marxist revolutions of the early part of the last century tried to obliterate the family, has it been so threatened. This movement is a real sign of hope. And this is not just for children but for the whole of western society. This is a revolutionary counter-revolution, a whiff of grapeshot moment of the kind in which Napoleon tore into the murderous zealots who had taken control of the French Revolution.

Throughout the western world – and increasingly encroaching on the societies and cultures of the rest of the planet – progressive elites with their bizarre readings of human nature, and what they think they can do with it, have penetrated education systems like a dry-rot penetrating the fabric of a building. That ordinary families with common sense and their feet on the real ground might take over the education of their children in their formative years is an anathema to these elites. The progressivists, academia and the teacher unions which they dominate, will resist but they must not be let undermine this most natural of movements.

These are some of the insights into this revolution which Suzy Weiss gives us in her post. The entire post is here.

In March 2020, as the coronavirus engulfed America, Kristen Wrobel got the news: “We heard on Friday that there would be no school for two weeks. Which just turned into no school.”

That was the last time her children — one in third grade, one in first —  were in a classroom.

In the beginning, they did the remote-school thing. Wrobel, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom with a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, called it a “nightmare.” The Zoom sessions, the Italian lessons on Duolingo, the stuff she had to print out, the isolation, the tears, the nagging, the shuttling the kids between her house, near Burlington, Vermont, and their dad’s, a half-hour away.

“Everyone was freaking out all the time,” she said. 

By May, at the risk of violating state truancy laws, Wrobel had stopped fighting and let her kids log on (or not) whenever they felt like it. It was, she said, “the darkest hour before dawn.”

That September, she started homeschooling. She didn’t like all the restrictions her kids’ private school had implemented: Students seated six feet apart. Masked. In wedding tents. Outside. 

She figured she’d send her kids back to the school in 2021, after everything had gone back to normal. 

That was then. Now? “There’d have to be a revolution in schooling.” 

She’s hardly alone. Wrobel is one of hundreds of thousands of moms and dads across the nation who have decided to become the principals of their very own, very small elementary schools. 

The number of kids going to school at home nationwide has doubled over the past two years. In 2019, there were about 2.5 million students learning at home. Today there are nearly 5 million. That means more than 11 percent of American households are educating their children outside of traditional schools.

In Wrobel’s state of Vermont, homeschool applications are up 75 percent. And that’s in the northeast, where regulations are strictest. The phenomenon is exploding across the country. In North Carolina, the site for registering homeschools crashed last summer. In California, applications for homeschooling tripled from 2020 to 2021. In Alaska, more than a quarter of students in the state are now homeschooled. 

In Texas and Florida, parents are not required to notify the state, so it’s hard to know exactly how many kids are learning at home. But just one South Florida school, Jupiter Farms Elementary, saw 10 percent of its student population withdraw for this school year. Almost all of them are being taught at home.

The American Schoolhouse was in serious disrepair before 2020 — about that no one would disagree. But the events of last year tore the whole thing down to the studs. First, the pandemic. Then, the lockdowns. Then the summer of unrest: George Floyd, the protests, the riots, the mea culpas. Many local school boards seemed more concerned about teaching critical race theory and renaming schools than reopening them. Parents didn’t know what to do — what was safe, what was right, whom to trust. It was like being inside a tornado.

These were changes that rocked every American family.  So perhaps it’s no surprise that the homeschooling trend cuts across geographic, political, and racial lines: Black, Latino and Asian families are even likelier than white ones to educate their children at home. 

All of this is undermining the old, Democratic-educational complex — the powerful teacher unions and the office-holders beholden to those unions —  that has long maintained an iron-clad grip on tens of thousands of schools and the fate of tens of millions of American students. And it is forcing a long overdue reimagining of the way we educate children: the subjects they study, the values instilled in them, and the economy for which they are being prepared. 

Maria Magallanes homeschools Zola West, 7, a child who lives next door, at the Magallanes home in Alexandria, Virginia, in April 2020.(Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

For decades now voices have been crying in the wilderness about the corruption of academia and lower reaches of the teaching profession. Instead of getting better they just got worse and worse, crazier and crazier – and utterly arrogant.

Consider what Peter Boghossian had to bring himself to say in this post, also courtesy of Bari Weiss: “…brick by brick, the university has made… intellectual exploration impossible. It has transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division.”

Shortly after Boghossian ‘came out’ and took on the ideologues ” swastikas in the bathroom with my name under them began appearing in two bathrooms near the philosophy department. They also occasionally showed up on my office door, in one instance accompanied by bags of feces. Our university remained silent. When it acted, it was against me, not the perpetrators.”

There is no doubt, the Red Guards are back and they are not just in the United States. This kind of experience, in one form or another is replicating itself all over the academic world, formerly the free world.

In recent times it was depressingly hard to see from where the light at the end of the tunnel would come that would effectively bring about the change that is needed to bring an end to this cultural crisis. What our society and our civilisation is facing is truly worrying. Perhaps this is what is needed: a new generation, educated in common sense and with a grip on what true human values really are.

Life imitating ‘True Detective’ – no evidence of loving and nurturing here

The new series of HBO’s True Detective, which has just started in the United States, seems to be putting a serious damper on all the faux optimism about love being generated by the gay lobby there in recent days. Writing the majority opinion for Obergefell v. Hodges, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that marriage is a central institution that affirms an “enduring bond” and provides “loving and nurturing homes” for children. The petitioners, Kennedy argued, only wanted to build on this central social reality, making their appeal from a deeply held respect for its “recognition, stability, and predictability.”

That’s not the way it looks in True Detective, according to critic Mathew Becklo in Aleteia. In fact it seems the show makes Kennedy sound like one of the naivest men on our planet.

Becklo focuses on the picture of the venerable institution of marriage – and its raison d’etre, the family – being presented in the series. If Oscar Wilde’s paradox is even half true – that ‘life
imitates art far more than art imitates life’ – we are all in for a bad time.

About marriage and its present discontents, Becklo refers us to Ross Douthat‘s analysis of our predicament where he points out the irony that while the “conservative case” for marriage’s centrality is winning in court, the “liberationist case” against marriage’s centrality is winning the culture. While 65% of the Silent generation, 48% of Boomers, and 36% of Gen X were married between ages 18 and 32, for Millennials the number is at a meager 26% and falling. The percentage of unmarried births (40.6%) has hit a record high, while the birth rate for women in their early twenties (83.1 births per 1,000 women) has hit a record low. In short, people are opting for more open-ended family structures and fewer children, a principle which lent support to a new form for marriage, but inevitably causes it to feed back into the decline of marriage overall.

It remains to be seen, Becklo concludes, whether millennials can buck the trend and restore the nuclear family to something like “centrality.” In the meantime, a show like True Detective reveals the tyranny of this liberation, a wider and stronger current that sets the parameters for and subsumes whatever new family models we construct to outlast us. The characters all look depressed and burdened by this new rule, and you can see the desire for truth still flickering inside – but in Vinci, (the fictional urbanization where the show is set) there is no oasis.

If that makes for an unnerving show, so be it. My strong suspicion is we get the entertainment we deserve.

Maybe we get the life we deserve as well.

Read the full Aleteia review here.

Trouble ahead for childhood

Fergus Finlay, who heads up the Barnardos charity in Ireland, in Tuesday’s Irish Examiner newspaper (March 3) chastises the Iona Institute for saying that the Government does not believe that “the ideal for a child is to be raised by their two married, biological parents. and therefore, it is a matter of total indifference to them whether a child is raised by one man, one woman, two step-parents, a cohabiting couple, two men, two women, or the child’s married biological parents”.

Finlay says “It’s amazing, isn’t it, how people can make such sweeping statements and still expect to be taken seriously?” But what The Iona Institute describes is precisely what the Children and Family Relationships Bill is designed to authorise. It permits cohabiting couples to adopt and therefore is indifferent as to whether or not the parents of children are married. It permits cohabiting couples, single people and same-sex couples the right to use donor eggs and/or donor sperm to have children even though none of these can give the resultant child both a mother and a father, let alone a married mother and father.

Furthermore, when a child is conceived via a donor egg and/or sperm the natural tie to at least one parent will be deliberately severed and therefore it is absolutely undeniable that the Government is entirely indifferent as to whether children are raised by their natural parents or not.

So in what way is The Iona Institute’s claim false? Mr Finlay does not say. Furthermore, Mr Finlay gives absolutely no indication that he himself cares whether children are raised by their biological married parents or not so long as they are raised by someone.

If Mr Finlay himself believes that, in general, children ought to be raised by their own mothers and fathers (assuming they are fit parents), and never be deliberately deprived of either, then let him say it. If he doesn’t believe this, then let him admit it.

What I find mind-boggling is Finlay’s disingenuous sleight of hand in failing to acknowledge the Iona Institute’s focus which is the natural parent of a child. Given the first-hand knowledge which one would expect him to have of the pain and confusion children experience when they suffer the loss oftheir natural parents – for one reason or another – one would expect him to be more in ture with all the realities involved here. Provisons in this Bill are going to deny some children the right to be able to know and love their natural parent. The added injury is that this proposed legislation is paving the way for turning natural parenthood into a cold, clinical and detached procedure, procreating children not for their own sake but for the self-gratification of adults.

He says “honest legislators have to accept that children are conceived in different ways.” No, they do not have to accept this. If they are honest they will have to think a great deal more deeply about all the ways which modern science and medicine can manipulate the act of procreation and they will, if honest,  moral and responsible, think of all the consequences of some of these ways – and legislate accordingly.

A very sobering but useful presentation

Mercatornet’s Conjugality blog has just posted a video presentation from the American Family Research Council on one of the burning social policy issues of the hour. What? The political drive to change the definition of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman to a bond between – well, who knows where it will stop? It looks at the the issue from a Judaic-Christian point of view but the factual picture it presents is truly disturbing from any perspective. Watch it here.

A ‘story’ that may or may not come true

The inevitable retreat of big government, third wave feminism and selfish individualism – all of them inherently unsustainable, –  was proposed as a golden opportunity for the rejuvenation of the institution of marriage, the rescue of the family,and the well-being of society over the coming decades at a conference on marriage in Belfast, Ireland, last weekend.

In seizing this opportunity men and women would need to change their attitudes to themselves and to each other. The family had no future without the engagement, commitment and support of its young women. Women had been profoundly misled by radical feminism, by the myth that they can be happy and fulfilled by a career that provides financial independence, making men and marriage optional, the conference was told.

Gerard O’Neill, Chairman of Amárach Researchamárach means tomorrow in the Gaelic language – was speaking in a personal capacity on the future of marriage to Ireland’s Catholic marriage care service, Accord, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its foundation. Mr. O’Neill spoke of the “new and often hostile forces arrayed against marriage as an institution and preferred choice in the early 21st century.”

He began by examining  marriage rates, past and present. Back in 1962, he said, there were 7 marriages per 1,000 people in Northern Ireland; in the Republic of Ireland there were just over 5 marriages per 1,000. Fast forward fifty years and the marriage rate in the North, part of the UK, has fallen from 7 to 4.5 marriages per 1,000, and in the Republic from 5.2 to 4.6 per 1,000. He put these rates in a European context, pointing out that  the rate in Cyprus was 7 per 1,000; Slovenia’s was the lowest at 3 per 1,000.”

He then moved to look at another significant social change over the past fifty years impacting on marriage and the family – births outside marriage. He described the trend here as “alarming”. Back in 1962, he pointed out, fewer than 3% of births were outside of marriage in Ireland. Today, the proportion is close to 40% and it is well over 50% in the cities. He set that in a European context where the rate today varies from a low 7% in Greece to a high 64% in Iceland.

“I say ‘alarming’ because the life prospects for a child born outside of marriage (to a single parent or even to a cohabiting couple) are worse on virtually every single measure we can derive than are the prospects for a child born to a married couple. Not for every child everywhere, of course, but for the vast majority consistently over the past fifty years. We have every cause to be alarmed.”

He then looked forward and began by looking at the forces which he believed would – one way or another – shape the future of marriage in Ireland and everywhere else for that matter. He didn’t offer forecasts or prophecies: only a ‘story’ that may or may not come true, perhaps all of it or just some of it. Reasuringly – somewhat, depending on your reading of half a glass of water – he quoted Herb Stein who said “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t”.

He suggested that in the coming years Western societies would face a number of surprising, even disturbing ‘stopping points’. He referred to the dire prediction known as “peak oil” – which describes a trend whereby global oil output reaches a peak as oil reserves are consumed faster than they are replaced and from that point on the flow of oil goes into decline. His view is that this peaking phenomenon can apply to more than oil and that it may affect three important factors which determine our lives and our society today – “big” government, radical feminism, and individualism.

We have already hit “peak government”, he suggested, in that we are living through an epic economic crisis in the developed world. That crisis has flowed from the finance and banking sector on to governments through sovereign debt. The bottom line was that a growing number of governments would be unable to fund their financial commitments into the future and so their spending would have to be cut, he said.

He connects this with marriage in a very simple way:

“in many parts of the world the Government has become the ‘daddy state’ – replacing fathers and husbands with expanding social welfare provisions.  But the ‘daddy state’ is about to become the ‘miser state’ – and so the dependency culture that was allowed to grow up around the expansion of profligate state spending will have to rapidly go into reverse.”

O’Neill moved into very controversial territory when he approached feminism. The second and third waves feminism, he said, had expanded rapidly throughout the second half of the twentieth century, especially in the Anglophone world, on the back of economic, cultural and technological changes.  The first wave had wanted equal citizenship for women – the right to vote at the beginning of the twentieth century. Second wave feminism wanted equal economic access for women – the right to paid employment. Third wave feminism, however, wanted, and still wants, much, much more, namely: “the transformation of society to the detriment of men. In case you haven’t noticed, feminism is no longer about equality.

“Of course, many feminists will deny this. They will point to the gender wage gap or other such controversies. But they then ignore gender gaps that are to men’s detriment: higher rates of unemployment, of emigration, imprisonment, sucide, as well as greater victimhood from violent crime. Men are also failed by our educational system (a growing majority of third level/university students throughout Ireland and the developed world are women). Men still die five years younger than women on average despite all the advances of science in the past fifty years.”

As he sees it, many feminists talk about the glass ceiling, while conveniently ignoring the glass cellar that traps their brothers, fathers, sons and husbands – or should that be partners, he asked? A Western culture sadly afflicted in the past by misogyny was now one afflicted by a strident culture of misandry – both equally intolerable.

“But as Herb said, if it can’t go on, it won’t. The thing is, most of the ‘success’ of gender feminism in the late 20th century has been the result of substituting men with the state: as employer, provider and defender. Ergo, Peak Government means Peak Feminism. Again, it won’t be pretty after the peak has past”, he promised.

In describing his third peak, he locked horns with the arch-priest of individualism, Abraham Maslow, in a full frontal assault. Maslow, an American psychologist, was at the centre of an unprecedented global revolution in values, culture and behaviour which took place over 50 years ago. Maslow’s description of the human “hierarchy of needs” said that security and sustenance were at the bottom while “self-actualisation” was at the top.

Abraham Maslow

“All very hippy, all very self-centred,” O’Neill said, “but a perfect charter for the radical liberal agenda of autonomy and individualism that has swept the world over the past fifty years. And also very wrong: we now know that the deepest psychological drivers of people relate to bonding, parenting and belonging.”

At this point O’Neill opts to read the glass of water as half-full rather than half-empty and states his optimistic belief that we have now reached the point of “peak individualism”. The tide which began to sweep over us form the 1960s onwards is now ebbing – along with “peak government” and “peak feminism” – because of “our ageing populations; the emergence of new types of communities and networks; and the resurgence of an older, deeper wisdom about what makes life meaningful and worthwhile. And it isn’t self-actualisation.”

O’Neill then suggests that if we are to realise the opportunity for positive change which our descent from these peaks presents to the institution of marriage, the family – and as consequence, our society – three things will have to happen.

Firstly, men will have to find their purpose again. Unemployment among young men throughout the world is the biggest threat to the future of marriage bar none, he said.

“It is also the biggest barrier in the way of our future wellbeing as a society. No civilised society can survive without the engagement, commitment and support of its young men. And right now we are failing an entire generation of young men throughout the Western world. Nor will men be civilised without the pre-requisites that historically have given them purpose and identity, namely: a job, a wife and a child – preferably in that order!”

Secondly, women, for their part must ‘woman up’

“we are all familiar with the call for men to ‘man up’ when the circumstances call for it. We’re less familiar with the call for women to ‘woman up’. Just as civilisation has no future without its men, so the family has no future without the engagement, commitment and support of its young women. Women have been profoundly misled by radical feminism, by the myth that they can be happy and fulfilled by a career that provides financial independence, making men and marriage optional. It doesn’t. The bottom line is that the family will only be saved by young women realising that marriage and motherhood are more important than a career.”

Thirdly, people of faith and Christians in particular must go on the offensive. While fifty years, he said, is a long time for a human being it is but a mere blink in historical time. Institutions like the Christian churches can and should take a longer term view of the future.

“Peak Government, Peak Feminism, and Peak Individualism”, he warned, “will unleash new forces in the world, not all of them benign. But it will also open up new spaces for organisations like the Catholic Church and other faiths (including Muslims) to use their wisdom, authority and resources to provide guidance and inspiration through the turbulent times ahead.”

He concluded by declaring that marriage and parenthood are as relevant to our wellbeing today as they were fifty years ago – or 2,000 years ago for that matter – and that marriage will be even more important to our wellbeing in the “post-peak” future we are now entering.

Dare We Hope?

Once again we are being given some reason for hope when we look across the Atlantic. Or are we? We might be wrong on two counts. It is sometimes thought that what happens there will begin to take effect here in a matter of eight or ten years after. On that basis, if we see a shift in the US in the understanding of marriage, family, sexual behaviour, and a lot of other things besides, can we expect  that it might follow here? We are probably right on that one. We might be more doubtful as to whether those changes are a basis for hope or fear.

Ross Doubthat, New York Times columnist, commented recently (NYT December 6) on the findings of a survey by the US National Marriage Project. The NMP is trying to measure what it sees as “the decline of the two-parent family” among what it calls the ‘moderately educated middle’ — the 58 percent of Americans with high school diplomas and often some college education, but no four-year degree.

“This decline is depressing, but it isn’t surprising”, Doubthat argues. “We’ve known for a while that America has a marriage gap: college graduates divorce infrequently and bear few children out of wedlock, while in the rest of the country unwed parenthood and family breakdown are becoming a new normal. This gap has been one of the paradoxes of the culture war: highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them.

“But the Marriage Project’s data suggest that this paradox is fading. It’s no longer clear that middle America does hold more conservative views on marriage and family, or that educated Americans are still more likely to be secular and socially liberal.

“That division held a generation ago, but now it’s diminishing. In the 1970s, for instance, college-educated Americans overwhelmingly supported liberal divorce laws, while the rest of the country was ambivalent. Likewise, college graduates were much less likely than high school graduates to say that premarital sex was “always wrong.” Flash forward to the 2000s, though, and college graduates have grown more socially conservative on both fronts (50 percent now favor making divorces harder to get, up from 34 percent in the age of key parties), while the least educated Americans have become more permissive.

“There has been a similar change in religious practice. In the 1970s, college- educated Americans were slightly less likely to attend church than high school graduates. Today, piety increasingly correlates with education: college graduates are America’s most faithful churchgoers, while religious observance has dropped precipitously among the less-educated.”

So how does that add up to any kind of hope for parts of the world that may have a habit of following the mores of the US after a time? In an Irish context perhaps it means that the liberal elite which we have been accustomed to call “the Dublin Four set” may be about to change. But it also may be an indication that the Faith and Reason dynamic may well be working as we are always told it can and should work. When people begin to think seriously about their human situation, their values, their society – and education is about helping us to do that – then the reasonableness of their Faith becomes apparent to them and good sense in the end prevails.

We may attribute the loss of Faith and Reason among the less educated as partly the effect of the constant barrage of socially liberal propaganda contained in all sections of the mass media – press, radio, television, pop music, cinema. The first generation which passes into the better educated echelons will probably carry this effect with them. But the second generation, contemplating and thinking seriously about the disasters around them created by their parents’ ill-thought out liberalism, may be engaging in a process of full-scale re-evaluation. The Irish ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, someone who would typify the “Dublin Four set”, surprised everyone a few years ago when she talked about this set beginning to re-evaluate their lives and “tip-toing quietly back to Church”. This may be a big part of the effect that Doubthat is reflecting on in the US.  Let us dare to hope.

Keith Richards’ other church

Philip Harvey, writing this week in the online magazine, Eureka Street, told us that Keith Richards – a Rolling Stone, in case you have landed from Mars – has written about the importance and value of libraries. ‘When you are growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully — the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equaliser. As a child, you get to feel all these books are yours.’ This was in a book published back in 1995.

Harvey then talks about the Richards’ words at the promotion of his new autobiography, Life (Little, Brown, 2010). “The launch was not in some sleazy nightclub or glamorous rock dive, but at the New York Public Library.

“Richards spoke eloquently, revealing that he had originally aspired to be a librarian. He said that the library is the only place around where he willingly obeys the rules. This infers that he is an old-fashioned visitor, used to libraries that have not been turned into chat cafes.

“He declared that when he walks into a library he is always made truly aware of civilisation, of something that we are part of and that is at the same time greater than we are. This from a man who once led a side project band called The New Barbarians.

“At primary school in the 1960s I was inevitably caught up in the major dispute of the times and have never changed my position that the Beatles are greater than the Rolling Stones. I am not the only one who thinks their last great record was Some Girls (1978), with its magnificent soul masterpiece ‘Miss You’.

“Their subsequent career reminds me of those old bluesmen who keep playing the music they love best until the end of time, even if there’s nothing very new going on. But this is unimportant, compared with the dignity, honesty and humility in fact in which Richards relates his indulgent but harrowing life.

“ We still expect Richards to chain smoke, knock back Jack Daniels like it’s water, and never sleep. But Life reveals he hasn’t had heroin for 30 years. The mainstays of his existence seem to be the love of his family, the creation of his music, and libraries.

“Books were his refuge before he discovered blues music. Growing up in austerity England, Richards had no library at home, so values the retreat he has built for himself late in life. ‘It’s my sanctuary,’ he writes. ‘Reading keeps me in one spot. After a life on the road, reading anchors me.’”

Playing With Fire

How we humans love to play with fire? And how dangerous, even disastrous, our playing around can be? Metaphors wonderfully enrich our language and our thought. How dull our language and our thought would be without them. Yet they are also dangerous, as dangerous indeed as playing with fire if we let them muddle us and make us mistake the image for the reality. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet but anything other than a rose which we might decide to call a rose will get us into very embarrassing situations.  Today we seem hell bent on confusing our metaphors with reality and playing with fire as we do so. The family, one of nature’s and society’s foundation stones, is being messed about with in a way that is akin to playing with fire. We do so at the risk of pulling down our house on top of us. Indeed we have already begun to do so. The family in nature is a real thing. It is not just a nice idea, an image we have dreamed up for our own sentimental reasons. The animal world has no problem seeing this. It is we humans who seem to be getting the whole thing muddled.  In the animal kingdom the male comes together with the female and they mate. All other things being equal, offspring are begotten and for as long as is necessary and in the manner appropriate to each species, the offspring are nurtured to the point where they become independent and can go off and do likewise. Wonderful. It all happens as day follows night. Sometimes, it is observed, there can be confusion. Males mess around with males and get things wrong. This is all fairly exceptional and whatever happens is never set up as a model for future behaviour of the species. Eventually they all get on with the business of life. If they don’t they become extinct. It is the humans, poor creatures, who get themselves into trouble. Part of the trouble comes from their capacity to think and talk to each other, reflect on themselves and use beautiful language to do so. Our current confusion over the nature of family is a case in point. For aeons – and I don’t know when it started – we have been using the concept of family as a metaphor. Family of nations, family of businesses (ASDA is billed in Britain as “part of the Walmart family”), spiritual families, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is when we begin to confuse the real thing in nature with the thing which we are using it to help us describe. Occasionally in the animal kingdom we hear of a lost offspring of two progenitors attaching itself to other members of the species, indeed sometimes across species, and becoming a member of a family. All this illustrates is the power of the real, the natural power of the family rooted in the nature of the animals themselves. It works for nature because it is natural. Misunderstand its true nature, contaminate it with false sentimentality and it will no longer work.  Sadly this seems to be what we are doing. We have been misled by our metaphors. We want to call marriage what are patently not marriages. We want to call families what are patently not families. Which brings us back to the rose. A rose by any other name will smell as sweet. A true family by any other name will work as well. But if we call a potato a rose and send a bouquet of them to someone we love we know what will happen. Equally, if we concoct a ménage of any old kind and dare to call it a family then we will not have a family – and it will not give us the natural outcome that the true natural product will give. Furthermore, while our society may get away with a scattering of such arrangements on an ad hoc basis, it will not get away without dire consequences if we riddle it with them. Some societies are already so riddled. Do we really need to spell out the consequences? They are already there for all to see.  

Try this as a sample. Anthony Reynard was, until last year, part of the senior management team of one of the largest primary schools in the UK. He reflected recently in The Daily Telegraph:

“11 years after Tony Blair proclaimed “Education! Education! Education!” to be New Labour’s priority, schools are opening their doors to more poorly behaved pupils with greater learning difficulties who, in turn, are emerging from a growing number of broken or poorly functioning families.

 “Last year, having agonised over whether to leave a profession I loved, I finally turned my back on a position in a large London primary school. I decided that I had had enough after dealing with the behaviour of a boy who had shot himself with a handgun at home, having struggled to settle a girl who had been placed with her 12th foster parent and ninth school and, finally, having tried to comfort two assaulted teachers, one of whom had been knocked unconscious by a pupil in the playground.

 “It would be simplistic and incorrect to say that well-adjusted children invariably emerge from two-parent families and that maladjusted children are the inevitable product of broken families – we all know there are some very skilled and caring single parents out there. But it is clear to all teachers that the most settled children come from conventional two-parent families.

 “I’m reminded of three different schools I worked for. In the first, children ate in a spotless dining room and were praised for using the correct cutlery by teachers, who were happy to eat their own lunches with them, chatting for 10 minutes before succumbing to the pull of adult conversation in the staff room. In the same school, children routinely opened doors for adults and stood for them upon their entering a room.

 “In a second school, staff had to be coerced to eat with children, who used any implement available, including their hands, to eat. Proper conversation was impossible because of the noise, and teachers would make a bad-tempered exit as fast as they could.

 “In a third school, no teacher would be seen dead in the dining hall, where lunchtime supervisors were sworn at by pupils and the floor looked as if the contents of a pig trough had been up-ended there.

 “What was clear in each of these schools was that the effect of staff intervention on table manners was minimal. The state of dining decorum was quite clearly dependent on what had been picked up at home.”

 Which in turn brings us to fire. It was interesting to read Sir Peter Sutherland some weeks ago commenting on the genesis of the Celtic Tiger, where this wonderful beast had come from and how much longer it was likely to survive. Some say it is the creature of the European Union, some credit our level of corporation tax, some credit the wonderful family of Anglophone nations – there we go again – to which we belong and over which our generous Diaspora is spread. Some credit our superior education system. It was this lat that Sir Peter was probably most sceptical about. At best he thought our education system was mediocre. No, what he seemed to place real emphasis on was the strength and quality of the Irish family and the influence it exercised throughout our society – both in terms of the upbringing of children, the motivational force it exercised and the communities it created throughout our society. Of course it is, was and – if we are careful with it – always will be. Its power is even seen in the strength and cohesion of that very Diaspora with which we identify so closely. But will it last? Are we not really playing with fire as we mistake sentimentality for compassion, as we muddle love and lust, as we meddle with marriage and the family as our legislators – some of them anyway – are threatening to do?  

Michael Kirke, worked as a journalist with The Irish Press. He is now a freelance writer and the director of Ely University Centre, 10 Hume Street, Dublin 2. His views can be responded to at Other writing can be found on his blog, . 

Time for Vigilance and Action

The British Government has warned that parents are “ill-equipped” to keep their children safe from violent and damaging influences on the internet. No doubt the same can be said for parents in the remainder of the archipelago outside the United Kingdom as well. Ed Balls, the Children Minister, made the point that they were ill equipped because they simply did not know what was going on in the web or in computer games. Staggeringly only one parent in 20 – a survey revealed – knew that children give out personal details over the internet. But this, surely, is not a matter of being ill-equipped? It is a matter of culpable ignorance. Good parents who relate to their children will not only know what their children are doing generally and how they are spending their time. They will have some idea of the influences which are going to form their character, habits and attitudes. They will be keenly interested in what they are reading, what they are watching and who their friends are. This is a big part of what parenting is about.The British Government has set up a study group to assess the impact of the internet and violent games on children. All very good – but surely we know already what uncontrolled surfing of the net is exposing children and adolescents to and what the likely effects of that will be. What is really needed is something that will help reduce that appalling ratio of one in twenty to a considerably less worrying one.