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Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic Books, 1992 (400 pp.). The apparent disappearance of civil society in America has caused many to blame the situation on the collapse of the nuclear family; thus, we hear a lot of noise about "getting back to family values." For anyone who might advocate such a solution, Cootz asks, "What family values, exactly, are you talking about, because they never existed as you remember them." Relying on exhaustive historical research, she shows, for instance, that the 1950s family, the one many people mean when they talk about restoring family values, was not all that wonderful. "Beneath the polished facades of many ‘ideal’ families," she writes, "was violence, terror, or simply grinding misery that only occasionally came to light." Pick any period, Victorian or 1950s suburban America, and Coontz unravels the myths about "family values" that often determine our memories of the era. She also shows that many problems we complain of today (teenage pregnancy, dropout rates, one-parent families, violence, etc.) were often worse in the past, and that returning to the 50s won’t solve them. Rather than blame the disappearance of community on the collapse of the nuclear family (or the women’s liberation movement), she maintains, we should look at the social and economic conditions that underlie contemporary America. She also argues for more discussion about these issues within the public, not just government (i.e., a stronger civil society).


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