Religion and Education as Keys to Family and Community Living


By THE REV. JOHN LaFARGE, S.J., Executive Editor, America

Delivered at the New England Conference on Tomorrow's Children, Harvard University, July 10, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 694-696.

RATHER annoyingly, the other evening as an old friend of mine and a few others of us were gathered together at his home to discuss what we thought were serious problems, his little daughter rushed in and flung a bunch of keys down upon the table. They were the keys to the family car, and her gesture was intended to convey despair or heroism, you could take your choice. "There are the keys, Papa," she exclaimed, "and much good they will do us now. If the family hasn't any car, it just means the family doesn't do any more living."

"Well," said Joe, with a sigh, "it just means also that we shall have to look for the keys to some other kind of living than that supplied by gas and rubber. Perhaps it will bring a whole lot more life, in the long run, to the home and to the neighborhood."

"You know," he continued, being in a philosophical mood, "it is remarkable the change that has already occurred. We surely do miss the car. But it is quite a new thing to have the neighbors visit you; I mean neighbors in the literal sense. Our friends come regularly now, of an evening, who are within walking distance. We have to think of something to do, something to talk about. This means first, we are starting to talk to one another, and know one another. It means we are really starting to do a little thinking. And I believe that in the end it will be making us do something new for our own good, for the good of the community. It is beginning to show us that each family has a part to play in the community; and to teach us right here at home that each person has a part to play in the home itself.

"So, though I miss the car as much as anybody, and hope that Saint Butadiene or some one else will give us soon our synthetic rubber, I am not all gloom about the present situation. I think, too, that this little person is beginning to adapt herself to it."

The moral of the incident is simply this, that war-time restrictions, by cutting us off from some of the distracting recreations that tended to disrupt or disintegrate family and community life, have somewhat turned our attention to the problem of restoring family and community living from within.

The war situation is one more reminder of that need to which we have grown more and more conscious in recent years: the need of a definite education for family and community living.

The need for such an education may perhaps be most clearly seen if we compare the condition of the family today with its condition in the times when the family was an important economic unit.

In our average urban life, we are so used, today, to economic independence on the part of the different members of a family, we are so little familiar with the idea of a family economic cooperation, that it is difficult for us to visualize a closed family economy. Such an economy is growing rarer and rarer in our times, even in the rural districts, where it would naturally enjoy the longest lease of life.

In the days when the family was held together by a strong economic bond, its members were educated by the nature of things to take their distinctive parts in the family life. Family living was determined by their struggle for their daily bread. Since they were physically dependent upon one another, they learned to be morally and spiritually dependent as well. The tasks assigned to the children in the family enterprise required cooperation, mutual forbearance, practice of patience, industry, perseverance, and other domestic virtues, if they were not to find themselves dispossessed, as tenants, or in the hands of the sheriff, if they owned their own home.

Home ownership, indeed, was closely connected with the economic unity of the family. This thought has often come to me as I have watched the gradual passing of the beautiful old homes or manor houses in the Tidewater region of Maryland, where I worked for many years, out of the hands of the descendants of the original settlers.

Inability of the old families of the Tidewater country to retain their ancestral properties reflected, in its own particular way, the process that has affected the family in every part of our country and all over the world: the loss of the family as a natural economic unit.

The economic unity of the patriarchal family was seen in every characteristic of these old residences. Most of them had no well defined architectural limits. They spread out from an imposing center, dropping off by degrees into a variety of appendages, utilities, and outbuildings. It was a picture of the self-contained economic family, which was spread out from a central core of blood-relationship over a multitude of relatives, dependents, servants, and (in earlier days) slaves. With all its offices and appurtenances, the old manor house was a picture, too, of the family's intricate and seasonal economic life; it was the theatre of variegated production, in field, water-course, barnyard, home workshop, storeroom, kitchen, and domestic workroom.

No longer, in our days, are families held together as of yore by a common economic purpose. With the passing of this type of bond, there passed the natural link between the Tidewater family and the Tidewater home. With new interests and new characteristics, the country families of the latter days are better housed in modern surroundings. The merely accidental features of the old manor homes—their picturesque elements of structure or location—meet a very real need of a different type of family or of individual; and so the change in ownership, though regrettable from many a wider reason, is natural enough from the standpoint of purely family economy.

What, then, can hold together the families themselves when they are no longer united by the bond of a common economic purpose and activity?

Education is obliged to play the part that was reserved for family economics in earlier times.

In the case of the patriarchal families, the unfortunate circumstances was that their education, as a rule, was not equal to the burden placed upon it of becoming the guardianof the family hearth. Or it was the type of education that had little relevance to family unity and family needs, but tended rather to educate the individual away from the family. The patriarchal family could stand the strain, but the economically disorganized family could not endure it, and the result was that the families themselves, in great measure, disintegrated or became so culturally impaired as to lose their value for the local and the wider community. From the standpoint of family integrity, a heavy burden is placed upon education today.

Education is now called upon to supply the unity of purpose, the community of interest that once kept the family united. Community living, too, is no longer united, as a rule, by a common economic bond. Even our rural communities, for the most part, are incredibly individualistic; their cooperative endeavors are obliged to struggle against the perpetual inroads of the individualist, on the one hand, or run the risk of being engulfed by the state Socialism, on the other.

It is evident, therefore, that a heavy burden is placed upon education if it is going to shoulder the difficult task of supplying, for the family and for the community that stimulus, that cohesion, which was offered in former times by the pressure of common economic necessity. People, as a rule, are not united in a domestic family or a local civic family as a measure of self-protection against starvation. Their bonds are today of another character. Is this to be lamented? Or has the present dispensation its compensations? Whatever our answer may be to that question, there is no use spending time in lamentation, but it is time to get busy and discover what higher and more widely human factors there are in our lives that will serve, through education, as a firm bond to families and communities.

Religion, therefore, has here its essential part to play. The problem is not that of mere family or community existence; but that of living. Into the concept of living go two essential elements: that of a vital principle, which in the case of a social group is the person, in all the fullness of that concept, as distinguished from the mere individual, and organism, which in the social group means an organic relation to common good.

If we ask, therefore, how religion furnishes the key to family and community living, I think the answer can be found in the fact that religion, at least in the Christian concept of religion, is the means whereby the self-centered, socially sterile individual is transformed into the person—a source and center of human activity in the fullest and adequately spiritual sense; and the mere group or aggregation is transformed into the living social organism, that body of persons who are united by a common interest, a mutual esteem, an organized and representative authority.

With this idea in mind, therefore, it seems to me that religion and education can go hand in hand at the present time in working out a program which would take into view more precisely in the future than has been done in the past the need of some educational measures aimed directly at the development of family living as such, and of community living as a natural consequence of that family living. Lest we lose ourselves in generalities, let me explain in a few instances what I have in mind. It may be summed up as urging that our education, beginning with the education of very small children, should be always careful to take into consideration the need of educating the young to their responsibility and their opportunities as persons, as well as to their relation to that immediate, tangible organism, that grows, by its very nature, out of a community of persons.

Or: to put the matter still more succinctly: let the parents, who are the primary educators, learn with the assistance of the Church and the school, to supply that education in socialpersonality that was offered of old by the natural economic unity of the family and local community.

The idea of educating children to social responsibility is not new. But how can we educate to our responsibility toward others until and unless we have first educated the young to their responsibility to themselves? And how can we educate them to responsibility to themselves, unless we have shown them their responsibility to the Creator, who gave them their own selves, who is the center of their inmost and highest self-hood?

Why is it not possible to educate children even from the beginning to family living as a whole, complete in all its aspects? I am not referring in this particular instance to so-called sex education; but the education of children to the rounded and perfect concept of the family, as a work of God, as belonging to their own fullest selves?

Why cannot the whole circle of truths be touched by the child's mind even from beginning, proceeding from year to year by a concentric development? It is just this wholeness, this rounded and adequate and balanced concept, which our Christian Faith offers to the world; and since Christianity draws no veil of an arcana over its teachings at any stage in its educational process, why cannot even the child mind reach out and touch the main outlines of that picture which the years and experience will fill in?

Some of these main outlines might be thus described:

The child can learn his dependence on God for his own personality, as well as for his mere existence; and how precious a thing that personality is.

He can learn, likewise, the part that the family plays in his living that personality: what the family means to him, and what he means to the family.

He can form an idea of the beauty and perfection of the family, quite naturally, for, under normal circumstances, it is naturally interesting and acceptable to children. Problem cases will demand problem treatment.

He can learn of the technique and secrets of family living; for instance, that where something of the old-time family economic unit can be restored, so much the better for the family and for the community; pride in production and self-sustenance, pride in taking part therein.

He can learn the value of family tradition, not in a narrow, exclusive sense, but as a matter of principle; the value of forming new traditions in the home, quite as much as of inheriting them from the past. They can learn to look upon family worship, at Church and at home, as the highest expression of what their family really is. They can see how such worship brings out the best in themselves and in their neighbors, how it purifies and ennobles the whole community, and links in a common destiny, the young girl and the young boy who can begin, even at an early age, to think of the creative side of the family; the joy of creating their own home, of working out their own life, of foreseeing their own descendants. Creating a better home now, is a prelude to creating a living home in the future.

They can learn the dignity and interest of taking part in the family's cultural and intellectual interests.

They can come to see how God is working out His plan in the world not only through themselves individually, but through themselves as members of a family present and future; and through the cooperation of that family with other families in the community. In that way, there can be built up a community spirit characterized by mutual esteem and a genuine spirit of cooperation.

It would be easy to prolong this enumeration; for most of which my hearers are better qualified than myself. Mention of these matters arouses a thousand memories, and there is not one who cannot add a helpful suggestion, an enlightening vista taken from personal experience. There are thepeculiar and precious traditions of a special type of family: professional, artistic, business, military, etc. All that I wish to dwell upon in this brief sketch is the possibility and the need of such emphasis in our educational process at the present time, an emphasis by parents, first of all; by religious teachers and by the schools. It is not a question of new and formal courses in the overladen scholastic curricula; but of an atmosphere, a reference, imparted naturally as a matter of course in countless instances over the whole period of education from the kindergarten to the university. The notion of the human person, with all its implications, andof the relation of that person to an organic whole, actuated by devotion to the common good, are not ideas that can be left to germinate automatically as they were so left of yore. They must be patiently, purposefully, and intelligently taught, over the years and in constant relation to the ever new problems of growing youth.

If by such a program the positive and spiritually motivated concept of family and community living were built up in the coming generation, a vast amount of the worry now spent over sex problems and over broken homes would be, I think, lifted from our shoulders.