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The Crucible of Consent: American Child Rearing and the Forging of Liberal Society

reviewed by Kevin R. Kosar - October 19, 2012

coverTitle: The Crucible of Consent: American Child Rearing and the Forging of Liberal Society
Author(s): James E. Block
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674051947, Pages: 464, Year: 2012
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The role of the community in the education of the young is a hoary topic of debate. More than two millennia ago, Plato and Aristotle considered it at length in the Republic and Nichomachean Ethics, respectively, and the often heated argument continues to the present day.  

How to educate and rear children draws eternal consideration in part because, to a great degree, notions of what constitutes a proper education are bound up with visions of the healthy society and good citizenship. Communities also have an inherent interest in self-perpetuation and order. Today’s parents and leaders one day will be replaced by today’s youth. Each society is a fantastically complex organization, and the young need to be prepared to find their place in it. Perhaps not coincidentally, prisons have existed for over two millennia, and they are the brutal repositories for individuals who do not operate by the community rules.

For liberal regimes, that is, communities governed by elected officials, the question of the community’s role in schooling is inherently problematic. As James Block points out in The Crucible of Consent, liberal societies are predicated upon the myth of the political compact.  Free individuals in a state of nature reasoned that uniting into a community would be advantageous.  From amongst themselves they periodically elect leaders who make the polity’s decisions in the interest of the governed.  For this all to work, citizens must consent to the government. Anyone who refuses to obey or riots is in violation of the rules of the compact and, for liberal theorists like John Locke, this amounts to a voluntary renunciation of one’s right to be free.  

This liberal view is especially widely held in the United States, the subject of Block’s study.  “Americans,” Block writes, “have always proclaimed consent to be the first principle of their political theology.”  They “cherish the story of their country’s birth, a stirring account of a land settled by opponents of tyranny who incurred great risks in pursuit of liberty” (p. 1).  As a capitalist nation, America similarly emphasizes the role of the free individual in choosing his trade and consenting to the economic outcomes of his decisions.  This liberal American model of life, Block observes, “has become the model for much of the world” (p. 2).

But what, Block asks, if consent is a chimera; what if “popular compliance arises not from free individuals but from pressures applied by entrenched interests?” (p. 3).  Perhaps the founding generation of the United States consented to governance, but what of those born subsequently?  The larger and more complex a society grows, the less the individual’s voice is heard and the less his choices influence the whole.  Large swaths of citizens do not vote regularly; this is a conundrum for those who believe that consent is the basis of American society, a matter that cannot be solved by proclaiming that nonvoters are tacitly consenting to the decisions being made.  A “satisfactory answer regarding the origin and role of consent has eluded democratic theory,” Block avers (p. 3).

The great bulk of Block’s book, however, is not a hermeneutic of suspicion interrogating the concept of consent. Rather, it is a lengthy description of “the project of liberal socialization from its origins in the early 19th century” in its varying permutations (p. 5).  The education of the young, Block argues, is the “crucible of consent”---it is the means through which America has produced a cohesive society.

By Block’s telling, this “project” of training the young began around the time of the Founding.  The Declaration of Independence had declared self-evident truths about man qua man, and stated that individuals were free to separate from an abusive political society.  The colonists bid farewell to a paternalistic king and the “mother country,” and was born anew---a novus ordo seclorum, or new order of the ages.  Individualism was unleashed, making the young nation fantastically dynamic.  New towns and states cropped up, new markets developed, and cultural disruption ensued as individuals’ claims to rights began to transcend the needs of the community.  

The U.S. Constitution was adopted to help hold it all together, but anxious community leaders sought further social glue in education.  The young would be trained up to be “agents,” responsible, industrious, “self-directed” persons who would make their way in the world within the confines of society’s laws and expectations (p. 217).  Despite having been socialized into this industrious creature, the young American would conceive of himself as self-made.  

This ethos was imparted in children by many means, not least parents and schools. The latter would cultivate in children an appetite for ostensibly individualistic goals, such as economic achievement and “self-realization,” while sculpting their characters to achieve them.  For early Americans, education was therefore “defined as the fulfillment of individual autonomy,” so that “social discipline had ceased to be a matter of imposition and had become the voluntary assumption of limits intrinsic to the empowered agent” (p. 221).

This highly individualistic conception of the goal of education may well have suited early Americans who often saw themselves as doing good in taming the wilderness and conquering American Indians. Come the end of the 19th century, however, the nation had changed. Corporations and the rise of mass organizations required a recasting of the vision of the self-reliant man.  Educators focused on the individual will and insisted “on increased discipline and order” (p. 291).

Block’s study utilizes an impressive breadth of both primary and secondary sources. Like Tyack’s The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (1974), Block persuasively shows that education is rarely apolitical.  The Crucible of Consent is a provocative and erudite inquiry into the evolving 19th-century discourse on education.

Laurels presented, the book is not without its shortcomings.  This reader wishes Block had structured the text solely as a historical and critical examination of shifting 19th century education philosophies.  This is a worthy scholarly undertaking.  

Unfortunately, he does as scholars so often feel obliged to do---he problematizes the topic, perhaps in the effort to make it more intellectually beguiling.  So Block’s history of education discourses is couched within a great philosophical handwringing over the health of the American way of thinking about governance.  Thus, Block proclaims that currently there is “abundant skepticism whether Americans still possess any common agreement holding their political experiment together” (p. 9). These “apprehensions about the viability of the republic and the capacity of its citizenry for freedom and democracy now expose the unaddressed contradictions of liberal society and its strategy of citizen formation” (p. 37).

As the above quotes indicate, he compounds the trouble by making the error that political theorists so often make---trying to explain complex phenomena primarily through theory.  Plainly, political theory can illuminate aspects of reality; but it is methodologically bogus to employ it as the primary tool for describing phenomena.  In short, if you want to discuss why Americans consent to the government they have, you cannot figure this out by looking mostly at old books and pamphlets.  Other variables matter; they affect both the phenomenon itself and the theories generated.

This misuse of theory produces some peculiar results.  Throughout the book, readers are told that a “they” undertook a national “project” of socializing the young for republican self-governance.  Who is this they, and how did they coordinate this project?  Of course, Block cannot say because there was no “they” doing this “project.”  The federal government certainly did not; it made no entry into schools’ curricular policy until after the Civil War, and even then limited its short-lived efforts to the children of recently freed Blacks.  The regnant notion of federalism until recently held that localities had authority over education policy.  Throughout, readers confront tendentious and even bizarre assertions about reality.  “Americans,” Block insists, “have refused to acknowledge any systematic conditioning of the will” (p. 11).  Later he makes things sound more sinister, when he speaks of an “erasure” of political socialization via education from our collective memory (p. 32).  In spots, Block seems to catch himself hyperbolizing about reality, and hedge his portrayals. For example, after noting that early 19th century child rearing had been redesigned to “provide children with the ability to act as self-reliant agents of worldly and spiritual ends,” Block concedes that the actual number of folks who did this “were few in number” (p. 48).  Similarly, he speaks of “the specter of uncontainable youth” but notes “this is not to suggest that all youth were actually running amuck” (p. 69).

These methodological slips are no small matter.  If readers accept Block’s contention that the American Founders faced a crisis of order, then the means through which consent was established and a liberal order perpetuated are little illuminated by The Crucible of Consent.  

Block’s source materials, however, focus primarily on New England thinkers, particularly child-rearing experts (pp. 5-6, 26-27).  The limitations of the ‘New England as all America’ approach to history are plentiful (Greene, 1988).  But more broadly, the very topic of Block’s inquiry, consent, is inarguably the product of a much broader range of factors than he considers.  Popular media (e.g., newspapers), wars, and economic, technological, and social disruptions all affected how much fealty a citizen felt towards their government.  Which is to say nothing of the young nation’s various patriotic practices.  Independence Day celebrations, for example, went from being scattered local affairs to a national holiday (1870).  That the Bible was widely read and often by families together surely counts for something in the consideration of why most young Americans did not “run amuck” and abandon their communities for licentious or anarchic pursuits.  So too does the fact that schools often provided useful information to students. A century ago, Texas schools taught pupils how to grade cotton, which was an economically remunerative skill. (Flanders, 1925)  Consent, then, lives not just in the minds of citizens, but also in their hearts and habits.

All told, readers seeking to deepen their understanding of the shifting discussions about education for citizenship will benefit from a close study of the Crucible of Consent.  But those who want to learn more about the real world interplay between education and consent should look elsewhere.


Aristotle (1999). Nichomachean Ethics. (Terence Irwin, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Block, J. E. (2002). A Nation of Agents: The American Path to a Modern Self and Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Flanders, J. K. (1925). Legislative Control of the Elementary Curriculum.  New York, NY: Teachers College.

Greene, J. (1988).  Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture.  Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Tyack, D. (1974).  The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Locke, J. (1689/1988).  Two Treatises of Government.  Peter Laslett (Ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Plato. The Republic of Plato. (1991) (Allan Bloom, Trans., Ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 19, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16904, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 9:00:54 AM

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About the Author
  • Kevin Kosar
    Federal Education Policy History
    E-mail Author
    KEVIN R. KOSAR is the author of Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005). He is the editor of the Federal Education Policy History website, http://federaleducationpolicy.wordpress.com, and a researcher at the Library of Congress.
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