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  • The Crucible of Consent, American Child Rearing and the Forging of Liberal Society by James E. Block
  • Barbara Bennett Peterson
The Crucible of Consent, American Child Rearing and the Forging of Liberal Society. By James E. Block. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012. 447 pp. $45.00 cloth.

James E. Block, associate professor of political science at De Paul University, asks the important question: How is citizen consent formed to support a democratic government? His book The Crucible of Consent, American Child Rearing and the Forging of Liberal Society answers that question by identifying the locus of consent in the training of children and youth. Block engages this question as an historical issue that has profound contemporary resonance. Within the family and the school, America’s post-revolutionary children were provided with the liberal self-initiative to uphold the societal values of freedom and equality. Block writes: “This is a story of how America came to be the first liberal nation” (p. ix). Americans embraced a common identity through child rearing practices; “socialization and education established the propensity in the young for voluntary engagement that was to be employed throughout liberal society” (p. x). Society’s cohesiveness was to be fixed through childhood socialization in the realms of economics, religion, politics, normative behaviors, and the ideal of Americanizing the world. The education of America’s young prepared them to validate institutions of their free society through popular consent. For Block, America’s contemporary issue is how to sustain a consenting citizenry convinced of their role as free citizens in a free society.

Most of Block’s efforts untangle the child rearing practices of the nineteenth century which encouraged the consenting citizenry. He examines early political culture and the mainstream middle-class Protestant work ethic which created citizens as agents supporting the nation. The twentieth century demanded that the consenting citizenry be expanded to include new immigrants, Native Americans, and the poor; hence child rearing socialization themes were continued by advertising and merchandising, textbooks, magazines, newspapers, and even family counselors and psychologists. Eventually the ideal of liberal citizens who were self-created and self-directed would be valued as an ideal to be spread worldwide. [End Page 173]

Block amasses formidable sources for his discussion invoking the thoughts of Harold Laski, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, John de Crèvecoeur, and James Madison, along with educational theorists such as Bernard Bailyn, Kenneth Keniston, Stephen Mintz, Ann Hulbert, Jay Fliegelman, Philip Greven, and Richard J. Storr who concluded that becoming an American was essentially an act of learning. Generating consent for a liberal society was accomplished within the malleability of childhood; sustaining that consent was accomplished through a learned internal monitor in adulthood. Unrestrained individualism could produce political anarchy; hence the young would be socialized to become citizens who consented to social norms and institutions. Block examines in voluminous detail the complexities of the socialization (educational–child rearing) process of America’s young, examining its educational advocates, theories, and challenges. Children were prepared for liberty and adherence to collective norms. The revolution against patriarchy during the American Revolution, the creation of the child-centered family in the nineteenth century which placed children at the center of the republican experiment, and the continued crucible of childhood socialization to create the selfhood and citizenship necessary to create the moral foundations of liberalism are traced by Block to explain the “cement” that binds individual happiness and collective welfare. Block explains the process through which John Locke’s ideals were put into practice: citizens consented to form a government and a civil society which protected their natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Because individuals voluntarily formed society, government derived from the consent of the governed. The manner in which consent of the people was formed and given forms his thesis.

In the book’s conclusion, Block identifies America’s contemporary problem—the illusion of a free society is unraveling, taking with it people’s faith in a government by consent. How to construct an enduring political order and cohesive society within a voluntarist and individualist culture? American children are taught that they are born free and equal; the problem becomes how to convince...


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pp. 173-175
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