A review of The Crucible of Consent: American Child Rearing and the Forging of Liberal Society, by James E. Block

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town on the Prairie, Pa takes his daughters Laura and Carrie to a Fourth of July celebration in a Dakota settlement. Laura keeps close to her sister while rowdy young men shoot firecrackers and politicians hold forth from the podium nearby, making speeches and reading the entire Declaration of Independence, every last abuse and usurpation. The long speeches get to Laura. She has “a completely new thought”:

Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences…when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t any one else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.

The thought thrills her: “This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good.”

But how does American democracy, rooted in the consent of the governed, maintain itself after its founding? As James Block’s The Crucible of Consent points out, American citizenship depends on a willingness to embrace duties and act on behalf of the common good. A professor of political science at DePaul University, Block argues that the difficulty of getting citizens to consent to self-government was clear in the first decades of 19th century. To solve the problem, American parenting methods and education were refashioned for a political purpose.

But if Americans really were naturally equipped for self-government—and the young closer to natural liberty than the old—what was left for mothers and fathers to do? Educators had to conceal their strategies so the young would be brought up for freedom without even knowing it. Looking at the poor state of civic education today, Block wonders how it all went wrong.

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His book is a sweeping history of liberal socialization in the U.S. One of its most interesting sections is the author’s treatment of youth culture in the early 19th century. Block discovers a current of dark, haunted worry in the literature of the time. Old sureties were gone, families dispersed to frontier and city. No one could be trusted.

Old ways of parenting were deemed inadequate now. At home, parents were to defer to their children, make them the center of the household, and cultivate warm affections so children would be happy and would want to choose the good. At school, they were to be untethered from boring, rote instruction and given experiential, active means of learning instead. Education shouldn’t “force open” children’s “mental gullets,” as Block puts it, but instead engage them in pleasure, play, and development. This early trend would culminate in the 20th century with John Dewey’s educational methods.

This discussion of 19th-century education is interesting, though not as groundbreaking as Block thinks. He believes that the role of socialization “has been long since shrouded in mystery,” and the “temptation to remove the evidence of institutional involvement was irresistible.” His book aims to unveil a sort of conspiracy: shadowy experts pressed parents to raise up a docile population. After the Civil War “child-rearing literature taught socializers how to shape this new nature without leaving telltale evidence.”

But who read these publications and followed their advice? Surveying a range of texts, Block does not so much trace their impact as assume it. But these experts are too mysterious and the public is presumed to be too tractable. We are given no proof of how widely received—or disputed—these writings were. Straightforward execution seems especially unlikely since advice of the same kind appears to come decade after decade. If, as Block insists, writers early in the 19th century embraced a new child-centered pedagogy, why would it be necessary still to sell these strategies as novel and urgent 20, 40, or 60 years later?

The book’s most glaring omission is of its failure to adequately address female-led activism and reform, from politicized maternal roles in the early republic to the employment of women teachers and the campaign for women’s suffrage in the 19th. Although Block occasionally notes that women had a special role in raising and teaching children, it would be more accurate to say that the new work of socialization he describes would be mostly handled by women. Childrearing was a specially female means of serving the country.

Schoolrooms for the growing nation needed staff, and women were recruited and trained. Traditionally a male occupation, teaching became predominantly a female one during the 19th century. Teacher-training institutions became a normal course for young women finishing secondary education and wanting more—further learning, a marketable skill to support themselves or their parents, a sort of equivalent to college when there were few that would take them. Block ignores this phenomenon.

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Likewise, though the book devotes pages and pages to how children were to be taught, it remains mostly uninterested inwhat they would be taught. The civic education in today’s public schooling that Block laments—a heavy focus on tolerance, occasional interest in elections, haphazard genial endorsement of “President’s Day”—reminds us that content matters. The 19th century’s citizens-in-the-making needed to hear what Abraham Lincoln called the mystic chords of memory: a reminder of the deeds and ideas of the American Revolution after the founding generation was gone. Content could also be highly divisive at the time, as the 1844 Philadelphia Bible Riots demonstrated, when Catholic immigrants revolted against what they saw as the Protestantization of their children.

Along with the rise of common schools, there was much experimentation in the education of girls: co-ed and single-sex schooling, female “seminaries,” curricula that added science or classical languages to ornamental skills like music or needlework. Common schools were open to male and female pupils alike. But the presence of girls in American schools is a problem for Block’s argument. If schools were to be the training grounds for citizenship, what were girls doing in them?

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Block fails to see that schools were not substitutes for political institutions. Citizenship entailed engagement in representative government. In the 19th century, political parties were the real crucibles of consent. Though leaders in the first decades of the republic worried about partisanship’s corrosive effects, parties became vehicles of political education as young men and immigrants took up the responsibilities of citizenship. Party membership contributed to one’s identity, community standing, and associations. Parades, commemorations, and bonfires—not to mention elections—gave citizens the opportunity to express consent and learn about their government. Ordinary men had the opportunity on many occasions beyond presidential contests to express consent and act for the common good.

Block underestimates the value of voting, seeing it an “‘occasional and ‘largely passive’ exercise.” But electing representatives within their states, living with the laws of those states, and serving as local officials gave many Americans the lived experience of consent. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed while traveling in New England, “town institutions are to freedom what primary schools are to knowledge,” as they “give men the enjoyment and habit of using it for peaceful ends.”

Although Block presents antebellum America as having a common culture and stable boundaries, he only focuses on the northeast and midwest. The book doesn’t consider the South, except briefly in the context of the Civil War. But regional differences bear on American ways of understanding citizenship. What’s more, the United States was adding new states. The organization of territorial governments and the process of moving territories to statehood were important occasions for the articulation of consent. The founding principles were being refreshed again and again as new states entered the Union.

Although James Block regrets that today’s “progressives have fallen back on an agenda of inclusion…rather than serious reform” when it comes to education, he is unable to account in his own book for those once excluded and later integrated as citizens: freedmen, women, or immigrants. If he wants to discover real expressions of consent, he should look to the 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments.