The Difficulties of Teaching about Divorce in an Anecdotal World

The greatest challenge to my teaching is the relativist, anecdote-dominated view of knowledge many of my students have absorbed by the time they enter my classroom. Too many of their teachers embrace the view that relativist, subjectivist, and ultimately personal experiential knowledge is the only kind available to us—or at least that it trumps other kinds of knowledge.

For two decades now, I have been endeavoring to teach undergraduates at a small, elite liberal arts university about divorce’s effects on children. A lot of scholarly work in the social sciences on divorce suffers from political bias, given that social scientists are overwhelmingly likely to hold progressive views about marriage and family. But, nonetheless, plenty of good scholarship is available. The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, which is directed by Brad Wilcox, is a wonderful site of reliable data and analysis. Public Discourse contributing editor Mark Regnerus, the late Steven Nock of the University of Virginia, and Princeton’s Sara McLanahan (who very recently passed away) have also done important research on the topic, and I frequently teach my students their findings.

The evidence shows with undeniable clarity that divorce harms children. Judith Wallerstein followed a sample of children of divorced couples for twenty-five years, documenting multiple, serious deficits in comparison with cohorts in intact families. Such deficits have been shown to harm the cognitive development of children. The further down the socioeconomic hierarchy you go, the more harm children of divorce incur. High economic status does not protect children from divorce’s harm. Research has shown that divorce results in adverse psychological outcomes for children compared to their peers who come from intact biological families, even when one controls for economic status. However, divorce is less common among upper- to middle-class families than among the lower classes. And when upper-middle class families do experience divorce, they are able to cushion at least its financial disruption with their resources.

Given these trends, the real difficulty I face teaching students about the harsh realities of divorce is not the politicization of the research. Rather, the greatest challenge to my teaching is the relativist, anecdote-dominated view of knowledge many of my students have absorbed by the time they enter my classroom. This way of thinking is increasingly prevalent on all topics, but it is perhaps especially common on this one, given the disconnect between the backgrounds,  experiences, and beliefs of my students, on the one hand, and the data on divorce’s effects, on the other.


The Limits of Anecdote

My students’ implicitly relativist and anecdote-driven epistemology is antithetical to the basic workings of social science. If one wants to accurately understand how an institution like marriage works, the first sociological rule is that one must focus on the broad patterns produced of data based on large numbers of cases. Personal anecdotes are, of course, one important way to convey and understand individual experiences with marriages and divorces, but they do not necessarily tell us anything useful about the larger social landscape. Your individual case might be representative of broader trends, but it also might not. There is no way to know which is the case unless one looks beyond the personal.

At the university where I work, a demographic fact about the very large majority of students often gets in the way of a full understanding of this issue. The typical Bucknell University student comes from an upper-middle class background that is not representative of the overall American family structure. I give them this calculator to get a rough estimate of where their families are in the overall American social class structure. These data show how high the average Bucknell family sits in that hierarchy.

Not unlike many others in their age, education, and socioeconomic brackets, my students skew leftward politically. They tend to accept the claims that marriage is a contractual, individualist matter that ought to last only so long as the two parties to the contract are fully satisfied. Divorce, they assume, is a basically harmless act necessitated when one or the other party to such a contract desires to exit the agreement. These a priori prejudices are often reinforced by their own familial experiences of divorce. In virtually every class I teach in which this topic is treated, at least one student will say: “Well, my parents are divorced, and I did just fine. So how can any of what we’re reading and talking about here be true?”

Beyond Your Experience

To be fair, many people start with their own experience when they discuss or think about any political or social issue. It’s not a problem to start with anecdote. The problem emerges when our study of a phenomenon ends with the anecdote. If one wants to understand a matter at a populational level, one must move beyond the personal to ask these questions: “Is my experience representative of others in my society, both generally and with respect to others of more or less the same social situation as mine? Am I an outlier, an exception to general patterns and trends, or do I fit neatly into a larger pattern of the experiences of others?”

Eighteen-year-old college students have reasonable excuses for their evident lack of facility with these questions. At their age, the powerful engine of self-concern that drives us in infancy and youth is starting, albeit very slowly, to power down. For most, up to this point their thoughts are dominated with egoistic concern. But they come to universities—or at least we ought to want them to come—to be educated in more sophisticated, more truth-bound ways of thinking. College studies are the time to shake the bad habits of constant self-reference.


Relativist Teachers

But the difficulty of instilling in students openness to evidence is that too many of their teachers embrace the view that relativist, subjectivist, and ultimately personal experiential knowledge is the only kind available to us—or at least that it trumps other kinds of knowledge. A freshman in college who thinks only anecdotally is expected. But what should we make of people with social science PhDs who are teaching in universities, yet seem just as incapable of this kind of reasoning as their first-year students?

I have seen many such examples in my twenty years in academe, and they have grown more common in recent years. Just recently, a social scientist of my generation—that is, solidly middle-aged—was on one of her social media accounts cheering the fact that she had divorced her spouse and raised her child basically as a single parent, with little involvement by the father. This was, by her account, a rebuke of conservatives’ claims that divorce disadvantages children.

She did not raise any of the complex questions I have just noted. Did her upper-middle-class income and the flexibility of her elite academic job have anything to do with the fact that the divorce had worked out relatively unproblematically? No mention of this. What are the comparative data on outcomes for children who are like hers in class position but who grew up in intact families, and how much of the difference between upper-middle-class children of intact families and those of the same class from broken families could reasonably be attributed to effects of divorce? She had nothing to say about this either.

On another occasion in recent memory, I attended a talk on campus by a sociologist from another university who had been invited to discuss marriage patterns among working-class and poor Americans. She brusquely asserted that there was no evidence that the comparatively low marriage and high divorce rates of less affluent Americans contributed significantly to the struggles of children in those families. I mentioned several bodies of work that showed just that. She dismissed their authors as “reactionaries” and said that she had personally seen many children in such families during her own life and career experience who were doing just fine. I asked how this constituted a response to the broad-ranging data of the “reactionaries.” The moderator of the event quickly moved on to another, more friendly question from the audience.


The broader American culture is fully saturated in the message that is presented in these examples. Popular writers (themselves frequently personally experienced with divorce) explain away negative effects by mumbling about how adversity will make children stronger and how imperfect marriages are themselves more harmful than their dismantling. Children’s books present divorce as a positive event in that it doubles the number of love-filled homes children will get to inhabit. Nothing ever stays the same, these books preach, including what children most rely on for security and stability, so they had better just get used to that.

But this general cultural drift cannot excuse the failure of the teachers to teach. In fact, the cultural movement toward “divorce happy talk” has itself been massively influenced by the way educators have so egregiously failed. Teachers are given an intellectual and moral charge to show their students the truth and how best to discern it. With teachers like those I have described, is it any wonder that some college students are massively confused on this issue? The public, whose children are being miseducated in this manner, must challenge this process  to avoid further decline into the relativist cultural swamp.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!