Highlighted yesterday by the Rush Limbaugh Show, an article featured at ABC — that is, the Australian Broadcasting Company — ponders how reading to your children may give them an “unfair” advantage.
Professors Adam Swift (University of Warwick) and Harry Brighouse (University of Wisconsin-Madison) are working together on developing a “liberal egalitarian theory of the family.” Swift, the ABC article notes, “has been conflicted for some time” about how the “playing field” becomes lopsided — because some parents do more for their children than others.
‘I got interested in this question because I was interested in equality of opportunity,’ he says.
‘I had done some work on social mobility and the evidence is overwhelmingly that the reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens in those families.’
Once he got thinking, Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions—from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories—form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations.
So, what to do?
According to Swift, from a purely instrumental position the answer is straightforward.
‘One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.’
Although Swift invokes Plato and his advocacy of the abolition of family, he and Brighouse recognize that they can’t go that far.
Instead, they “sort[ed] out those activities that contribute to unnecessary inequality from those that don’t.” Like, for example, private schooling:
‘Private schooling cannot be justified by appeal to these familial relationship goods,’ he says. ‘It’s just not the case that in order for a family to realise these intimate, loving, authoritative, affectionate, love-based relationships you need to be able to send your child to an elite private school.’
In contrast, reading stories at bedtime, argues Swift, gives rise to acceptable familial relationship goods, even though this also bestows advantage.
“We could prevent elite private schooling without any real hit to healthy family relationships,” Swift says, but doing away with reading to your kids would be “too big a hit at the core of family life.”
Boy, I guess we should all feel … lucky that Swift still allows us that “luxury?”
Even with that “concession,” Swift says “I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.”
A quick personal aside: Professor Brighouse contributes to the progressive Crooked Timber blog. He was very fair-minded in my conversations with him over a decade ago regarding an educational consultant whose primary thesis is that the black-white achievement gap in schools is due to … white racism. You might expect a liberal to be right on board with such a theory; however, Professor Brighouse believes that such a philosophy is quite toxic.