Charles Henry Pearson on the Decline of the Family


A common observation and frequent lament about family change in contemporary societies is of the shift of childraising responsibilities from parents to the state. This shift (and what might be done to reverse it) was a theme, for example, of James S. Coleman's 1992 presidential address to the American Sociological Association. In the new circumstances, said Coleman, “carrying the family's honor into the future is less important”; in many families adolescent children “are abandoned psychologically and socially.” The state, however, still has “strong interests in maximizing a child's value to society, or minimizing its cost.” A century before Coleman, Charles Henry Pearson, in the passage reproduced below from his book National Life and Character: A Forecast (1893), wrote of the decline of the family in quite similar terms. He argued that state intervention was undertaken only reluctantly, a byproduct of changes in conjugal relations from arranged marriages to “marriages of inclination,” along with easier divorce, and consequent lessening of parental interest in the family line. The state, almost by default, needed to assert the public interest in the raising of children, even though its measures, notably compulsory education, further eroded parents' rights over their children and children's sense of duty and obligation to their parents. While Pearson mostly welcomed the gender equity and individualism he saw emerging, he regretted their effect on the family—on what he termed (metaphorically) “the religion of household life.” His prescient forecast was of “a state of things in which marriages will be contracted without reflection, and broken up without scruple, in which children will be cared for when they are young with, it may be, even more tenderness than of old, but with incomparably less anxiety to fit them for the moral obligations of life, and in which the claim of parents to be obeyed will cease with the children's need of support.” His conclusion: “Family life will be a gracious and decorative incident in the system of such a society; but the family, as a constituent part of the State, as the matrix in which character is moulded, will lose its importance as the clan and the city have done.”

Charles Henry Pearson (1830–94) was a British historian who had a second career as an educationist and politician in the colony of Victoria in pre-Federation Australia. Educated in London and Oxford, he was appointed professor of modern history at King's College, London. His early work included travel writings and a well-received History of England during the Early and Middle Ages (1867). When his academic career stalled (partly because of very poor eyesight) he emigrated to Australia, where he became closely involved with educational issues. He was elected to the Victorian legislature and was for a time minister of education, able to put into practice his firm views favoring secular education. (See his remark below that Church-run schools “have generally been strong enough to exclude competition, [but] not rich or enlightened enough to use their monopoly well.”) In 1892 he returned to England, and the following year published National Life and Character. This work, widely read and praised at the time, went through several editions over the next two decades. It essayed forecasts in various domains of society and politics, including a prediction (couched in elitist language) of the passing of the ascendancy of European peoples as other nations grew in numbers and strength (“We shall awake to find ourselves elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust aside,…”).

The excerpt is from pages 261–270 of Chapter 5, “The Decline of the Family,” in National Life and Character: A Forecast (London: Macmillan and Co., 1893).