Why it really does take a village, and what that really means

Thomism: Mommy Edition

I’m currently making my way through Maria Montessori’s The Absorbent Mind.  In all likelihood I will be homeschooling the wee people at least for the early years and many people whom I respect very much heap praise upon Montessori’s philosophy of education and I have seen many, many, many estimable products of Montessori education.  I am inclined to think that her philosophy is particularly well suited for educating males.  But I’m reserving my overall judgment until I’ve read more.  (The Well Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer is next on my list, BTW.)

I must admit, however, that I was very uncomfortable with her contention that the child belongs to society.  It seems that this is one of the central premises from which much of her thinking proceeds:

If society holds it necessary to make education compulsory, this means that education has to be given in a practical fashion, and if we are now agreed that education begins at birth, then it becomes vitally necessary for everyone to know the laws of development.  Instead of education remaining aloof and ignored by society, it must acquire the authority to rule over society. Social machinery must be adapted to the inherent necessities of the new conception that life is to be protected.  All are called upon to help. Fathers and mothers must shoulder their responsibilities; and if the home fails for lack of means, then it is requried of society not only to give the needed instruction but also the support necessary for bringing up the children.  If education signifies a protection of the individual, if society recognizes as necessary to the child’s development things that the family cannot provide, then it is society’s duty to provide those things.  The state must never abandon the child. p14

I found myself reacting to this assertion in  much the same way I reacted to then First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s famous declaration that it “takes a village to raise a child.”  That is to say, my conservative instinct rebelled against the suggestions that the ever encroaching modern State had some claim over the education and formation of my child.  But with a bit of calm deliberation I realized that there is much truth in what both Montessori and Clinton had to say if understood properly – or at least if understood as I now do.

The first thing to understand is that there is an essential difference between “society” and “the Government.”  In the modern, Hegelian/Marxist world, this distinction is vanishing.  But in truth, there is a huge difference and we must re-establish this distinction in our public consciousness.  Societies exist in many different forms and do not necessarily possess the coercive powers of government.  Aristotle taught that life-long marriage exists for the sake of the child and that the family is the foundation of society.

In a very real way children to belong to society – this is one of the reasons it is so important that as a society we self-censor our public behavior/dress/language and rein in our pop culture images of violence/sex/exploitation.  Children soak up these images everywhere they go and cannot remove those images once they’ve entered their minds.  We are all responsible for the behavior that we model before children: our own and others.  If we understand Clinton’s statement in the same vain, then she clearly is right.  Of course, it takes parents to raise a child – and children do have a right to be raised by a mother and a father who are committed to each other for life – and parents cannot adequately be replaced by some nebulous “village” concept.  But children – and families for that matter – benefit immensely from an expanded social/support network.  The modern American concept of the nuclear family – mom, dad, kids, dog – living primarily independent of extended family is an odd concept indeed.  Not only does the tangible help of extended family make parenting easier, but giving children the opportunity to know the unconditional love of multi-generational / extended family life: grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc represents incalculable blessings to the children.  Human beings flourish in a loving, intimate family-environment.

The problem with Clinton’s use of the village metaphor is that she lacks the unwavering conviction that “family” and “marriage” have definite meanings or that they are anything more than mere human/social constructs.   A village populated by promiscuous heterosexuals or homosexuals, for instance, cannot provide the kind of unconditional, stable, loving environment that children and society need to flourish.  Moreover, modern liberals tend to believe that the State or Government can provide adequate substitutes for life-long marriage-bound parents/families.  Welfare programs that make it possible/easier for unwed mothers to raise children without fathers do far more harm than good to the social fabric.  Social norms that permit men to behave like roving inseminators without consequence destroy villages.  One reason that non-governmental social welfare systems are more effective at reducing these kinds of behaviors is because they lack anonymity – the people providing the assistance get to know the ones receiving the aid and there is a kind of accountability and appropriate stigma that can be associated with the behavior.   Non-governmental social welfare also counters the entitlement mentality which is so destructive of family life.  Rather, material assistance offered through churches, local food banks, private shelters are correctly viewed as “offering a helping hand”.  These organizations are better suited to establish personal relationships with the individuals seeking help – and this is the basis of authentic community building, community enhancing, welfare enhancing programs.


  1. Kevin Walker said,

    May 29, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    About Montessouri — She appears to follow the usual rhythm of education theory: she confronts one problem with a new idea; because it’s a bad idea, it creates a new problem, which in turn will demand a new idea… and on and on it goes.

  2. Mamma C said,

    May 30, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    perhaps. But she also gets quite a bit right. It is easy to look at a baby and see think that nothing is going on upstairs – but they ARE absorbing everything. Hence the importance of modeling the right things for them. And she’s spot on when it comes to basing education on developmental readiness rather than strictly age. The problem – one of them – is when government tries to administer things it cannot possible be as individually oriented as it needs to be; hence my emphasis on small, private association/”societies”.

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