Marriage is not only a private contract, but a public one, too, with attendant laws governing care and responsibility for children. Traditional marriage, at its best, fosters social attitudes to help build self-reliant, competent, industrious, self-governing citizens. "The foundation of national morality must be laid in private families," John Adams wrote in 1778.
We don't have to read about soccer moms and dads and all those ambitious white and black middle-class parents -- who today fight to get their children into the best nursery schools -- to realize that many men and women have recovered from the bad old days, but it's also clear that the black ghetto families have not made the same recovery in rediscovering the benefits of marriage.
"The old-fashioned married-couple-with children model is doing quite well among college-educated women," writes Kay Hymowitz. "It is primarily among lower-income women with only a high school education that it is in poor health." Children in this environment don't get an educational message that teaches them society's manners, providing the structure to learn from what sociologist Brigitte Berger calls the "family's great educational mission." Education is the daily drip, drip, drip of details that engender in young children the aspirations and the tools to make a better life for themselves in their pursuit of happiness.
Neither of my parents, for example, graduated from high school, but they were determined that their two children would go to college. That was and is the message in many families today, but it's a message lacking in the ghetto. That's what Bill Cosby meant when he told parents: "You've got to straighten up your house! Straighten up your apartment! Straighten up your child!"
Many critics, of course, accused him of blaming the victim. But he wants to encourage a counter-revolution, a generational backlash against lost opportunities. That will require a sense of "can do," and "I do."