Thirty years ago this summer, I was an editorial writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and had a chance to interview Bill Bennett, who was secretary of education at the time in the Reagan administration. About a half-hour into our conversation in his Washington office, I saw his aide look at his watch so I knew I had time for just one more question, which went something like this:
"Mr. Secretary, we haven't been talking about a lot of rules or regulations or budgets when it comes to why so many American students aren't doing very well, but instead a culture that often undermines academic hard work and success. How do you change a very culture?"
I'm still asking that question, albeit not about educational shortcomings this time around, but rather family problems, as in the title of a new Center of the American Experiment symposium featuring 36 writers from Minnesota and across the nation, "Specifically, What Must We Do to Repair Our Culture of Massive Family Fragmentation?"
The United States has one of the highest rates of family fragmentation (also known as "family breakdown") in the world. It's past time to focus intensely on why this is the case. More directly, it's time to focus on the very culture that leads to so many babies coming into this world outside of marriage. To so many husbands and wives divorcing. To so many cohabiting couples going their separate ways so quickly. To so many children caught up and hurt by it all. To so much "churning" as sociologist Andrew Cherlin has summed up the disruption, pain and damage.
Here's a very small sampling of ideas from the symposium about why we're in the fix we're in and what must do.
Why is American culture, while oftentimes exceptional in socially benign and constructive ways, sometimes not?
"A lifelong marriage and the expectation of children may be your truth, but don't try suggesting it should be the general norm for most people. Such skepticism is especially salient because the ideal of permanence and stability in marriage and family life is seen more and more as unrealistic." Jason Adkins
"Our society has lost the moral vocabulary and categories of thought on which a vision of the 'good life' is based." Katherine Kersten
What secular ideas for fixing the culture might make a difference?
"Making families stronger means spending more time with family. Only by coming to love not the ideal of family but the people themselves - with all their annoying habits and human flaws - can the institution be strengthened. Love is a choice; it's also hard work." Erin Mundahl
"The best I can offer is a suggestion, not a solution, to this terrible problem of abandoned children. It is when two persons come together to be married and live together they take a vow, not only to love and cherish each other but also to be forever responsible for the children they produce or adopt." C. Peter Magrath
What faith-based ideas might make a difference?
"Repairing a culture of family fragmentation requires a culture of self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice must be modeled and taught if it is to be handed on. There must be schools to inculcate it. Consequently, the ongoing viability of such schools requires vigorous defense of First Amendment freedoms of speech, association, and exercise of religion." Todd R. Flanders
"When people become sick of their autonomy, their rights, and themselves, they will ask if there is an alternative. There is: A Savior whose service is perfect freedom - and it is better offered as preventive, rather than remedial, counsel." Bryan Dowd
What governmental initiatives might make a difference?
"To preserve the family and preserve a social order, we may need to start thinking the unthinkable - something like a basic income guarantee for everyone." Frank Conte
"There are no policy initiatives that will combat family breakdown, contrary to the fond hopes of conservative policy wonks everywhere." Heather Mac Donald
Bill Bennett's answer, by the way, to my question about what it takes to change the culture was that it's essential for people to say what they believe to be true about complicated and sensitive problems and say it over and over and over again. Three decades later, I don't have a better answer.
Pearlstein is founder and senior fellow, American Experiment, Minnesota's "think tank," Golden Valley, Minn.