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Abigail Thernstrom, R.I.P

One of the highlights in doing research for a book of mine published in 2014 was interviewing political scientist Abigail Thernstrom and her historian husband Stephan Thernstrom at their home outside of Washington, DC.  The book was Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future, and I had been particularly interested in talking to them about the educational implications as well as racial aspects of so many young people growing up mostly or exclusively with one parent, not two.

Thanks to my American Experiment life, I’ve been lucky to become friends over the years with insightful, fearless, and essential scholars.  Brilliant and major players.  Abby, who died last week at 83, was all those.  Here are a few of the things she had to say in Broken Bonds.

In describing family fragmentation as a “huge” problem, she made a point about educationally enriched homes, and their opposites, that I had not heard put that way before.

“I’m particularly concerned about children who have so little going for them.  When we look at high-performing kids, like our own grandchildren, where do they get educated?  They get educated at home, even though they go to schools a certain number of hours a day.  I always think of our now-adult children as having been homeschooled in effect.  The dinner table was a school.”

Think about this in a time of pandemic-provoked, across-the-board homeschooling.

Abby, who had visited large numbers of inner-city and other schools, especially when she and Steve wrote No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning in 2003, talked about how “We’ve got an awful lot of kids coming into adulthood without the necessary skills to do well, and that picture is not likely to change in the near future. . . . With few exceptions, teachers are terrified of delivering messages that can be heard as dissing mom.  Some public schools don’t dare not having nursery schools in them.  ‘Oh, you’re pregnant, Sally?  Well, then, you don’t have to do your schoolwork until you’re on your feet and then we’ll take care of the baby.’  These schools are just total disasters.”

I noted at this point in our conversation that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in a Supreme Court case a decade earlier dealing with affirmative action admissions at the University of Michigan Law School, argued that preferences wouldn’t be necessary 25 years hence because K-12 achievement gaps would be largely erased by then.  Abby – accurately and uncommonly – said there was no evidence whatsoever that would be the case, especially given the debilitating fact that nonmarital births for African Americans remained far higher than for whites.

On re-reading these observations just now, which sadly remain accurate, I’m struck by how they nonetheless miss one of Abby’s most important contributions and that of her husband Steve: Detailing how much real racial progress has, in fact, been made in the United States.  Their 1997 book, for example, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible, has been described as a “comprehensive assessment of racial change on par with Gunnar Myrdal’s classic, An American Dilemma, written in 1944.”  With “racial change” meaning excellent progress.

No small praise.  But it’s a sign of the academic era how their chronicling of good news was often criticized just as nastily as when they cited bad news.  Think of it as P.C. coming and going, not that they are the only right-of-center scholars ever to get attacked this way.  It took a person – and a husband and wife team – of uncommon courage to dismiss such ridiculous blasts and continue writing superbly as well as serving that way.  As Abby likewise did in the perpetual hotseat of vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Blessings, my friend.

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