Current events, currently—and generally
Education and social tumult
Violence in the news—war, riots, school shootings, police violence, and sometimes even non-violent events (ahem, Covid)—induce soul-searching in educators and parents. Most immediately: should we be talking to our children about this, and if so, how? More long-term: are we adequately preparing our children to cope with and even flourish in an at-times terrifying world? Even wider: how does our approach to development interface, if at all, with wider societal patterns?
Montessori was an ardent pacifist, and believed that the only ultimate solutions to the problems of war were educational. Here’s her son, Mario Montessori, in summarizing a key part of his mother’s view:
But had they been helped during childhood to incarnate, besides the reality of the functioning of the world and of society, a feeling also of gratitude towards the anonymous benefactor who works for them—and which is the whole of humanity—then I have no doubt, if some fanatic of new ideologies were to tell them ‘follow me to glory’ (meaning: follow me to war) they would stop to think. They would probably react as you and I would, were someone to tell us, ‘Look, you see that balcony there? You see the little birds flying around? You are a little bird, but your mother does not want you to fly. Kill your mother, jump off the balcony and start flying’. Because they would know what the consequences would be to their feelings if their mother were to die at their hands and to their own body if they were to jump from the balcony. (“The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education”)
On Montessorium, I lay out the outline of Montessori’s argument on why our current approach to education fosters war. I also indicate some reasons why I am skeptical.
It’s not so much that a better approach to education won’t help. It’s that I don’t think we can lay this burden at the feet of the next generation of children and wash our hands of it in this one. That’s too cynical a view of the adult world, and it’s also a practical contradiction: how can we sustain a better approach to education, at scale, without changing the hearts and minds of educators and parents worldwide?
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight to change education, partially for these reasons. But it’s part of a broader project and cannot be undertaken apart from that project.
If you’re interested in the topic of Montessori’s pacifism, definitely check out her collected lectures on the topic, Education and Peace. Even if you’re not interested in the topic of her pacifism, it has some of her best work. In particular check out II.7 and III.12 in that book, which are among my very favorite Montessori essays, touching on work and love.
You should also check out Erica Moretti’s recent book, The Best Weapon for Peace, which frames Montessori’s educational project in terms of her peace activism. I think the book overstates the extent to which it’s right to think of this as the mission of her educational project—at times it seems like it’s being presented as a “mere means” for peace. But the book is shot through with value, including difficult-to-find letters, accounts of her trainings and discussion, and so on.
Indirectly, the Montessorium initiative on Agency and Identity is relevant to this topic. Particularly relevant is the notion that it is critical in development for children to learn to see themselves as agents authoring and navigating, rather than patients of, events. For terrible events, this means not letting victimhood settle into a mindset that undermines agency.
I want to write more in the future about how to talk to children about current events. In the interim, Dr. Meg Meeker has some pretty good advice reported on here, though a bit on the overly avoidant side. The part I agree with: there does not need to be a rush to talk to young children about these things when there isn’t prior awareness or interest—and rushing to do so is probably the biggest mistake adults make.
But delay isn’t always possible either. Children pick up on a lot, and in some unfortunate circumstances, it can even comes to dominate the child’s experience. The most fundamental need isn’t reassurance, but thought: to the extent that you can, help the child understand in terms that make sense to her.
Next-day addendum: Emily Oster offers a more thorough 5-step breakdown here of having hard conversations with kids. Really wonderful, as expected, especially the models of how to start with an initial script.
In other, happier news, the US-wide rollback of pandemic restrictions continues at pace.
As per last week’s special newsletter: Many of our schools have ended mask restrictions, and most others will do so in the next couple of weeks.
NYT: The CDC has (finally) indicated that it is strategically changing metrics in a way that will lead to masking rollbacks.
ParentData: And whether (like me) you’re happy about this change or worried about it, Emily Oster has a good, neutral analysis of how to think about it as a parent.
Pulling back from all of this, my advice to educators is always to, well, pull back.
Education is a long game. It operates on a generational scale. And what children need the most is help developing lifetime-scale virtues, scaffolding to help them build their capacities for growing knowledge, engaging in meaningful work, and sustaining and reaping the value of the human world.
That can’t be done apart from current events. It’s this specific world in which children are growing up, about which they need to learn, and which they need to come to somehow love.
But the nature of both the work and the value is much more fundamental than any headline.