Spring 1999

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A review of

With Good Intentions?

Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America

by Bill Kauffman, 144 pages, index and chapter notes,
hardcover, Praeger, Westport, CT, 1998

reviewed by

Bill Treichler

In his new book, Bill Kauffman devotes separate chapters to child labor laws, school consolidation, women's suffrage, good-roads programs, New Deal homesteading projects, and war-economy rootlessness. All but the last two are generally acclaimed as the unassailable accomplishments of the Progressive Era. But note that question mark in the title.

Was protecting children from greedy fathers and exploitive employers the only object of the people who sought to prohibit child labor by law or was there a political intention to extend government control to the family level? Was school consolidation conceived only as a means for improving education, or as a way to distance children from parental contact, to more easily train them to become compliant citizens? Could resistance to the new "progressive" ideas be overcome by allowing women to vote? Were good roads desirable for the convenience of rural and small town people or were they necessary in the "progressive" scheme to transport children to the consolidated training centers and to make travel to factory jobs away from home inviting for parents. Bill Kauffman writes of the arguments by the men and women who cautioned against politically dictated "progress."

Many of the predictions by the critics of social legislation have come true. Now, 60 or more years after the enactment of the "progressive" agenda the good intentions have not been fulfilled and we do have pervasive government. The results of barring children from opportunities to work, and the failure of centralized schooling are evident in the numbers of unemployed and often violent urban youth, and in the falling reading and basic skills of children attending public schools. And women, who equally deserved to vote, have not been able to lessen political evils.

Kauffman tells, too, of government homesteading projects to place families on small, pleasant home plots. Even these well-intentioned efforts didn't succeed, largely because of bureaucratic control, and had to be abandoned. In the last two chapters he cites observers who deplore the relocations of military families, and the roving that weakens the attachment to home places and withers the neighborly feelings of so many lured to wandering by interstate highways.

But Bill Kauffman and readers of his book needn't feel discouraged, there are many energetic couples establishing rural homesteads and achieving a good life for their families inspite of land-use restrictions, arbitrary building codes, and high taxes. Along any country road you drive, count the expansive lawns, vegetable gardens, barns and small shops that go with family country living where children learn how to grow vegetables, care for animals, and use tools alongside their parents. Already some of these husbands and wives are prospering by working at home, and some of these children are acquiring a life-enhancing education through home-schooling.

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