Back in the 1980’s, Whitney Houston released one of the sappiest songs of the decade. Do you remember it? It began, ‘I believe the children are our future—teach them well and let them lead the way…’ Banal platitudes, of course. But the thing about banal platitudes, as David Foster Wallace pointed out in 2005, is that they’re very often true. So it is in this case. The trouble is that we seem to be unable to take it seriously.
I don’t mean that we don’t educate them. They’re pushed relentlessly to achieve in mathematics, science and English. And they are taught what is expected of them in the world of work. Recently, I attended an event at a primary school in the next town, and found a poster in the school hall identifying the traits and skills that would make them employable. Four- to eleven-year-olds need to learn arithmetic and reading and science, of course. But I am not convinced that they need to worry about getting a job. They have a job: childhood. One of the key principles of Maria Montessori‘s educational philosophy is that the child makes the man or woman. Children are fashioning their future selves through all their learning, play-based and otherwise. And it’s hard work.
It’s hard work that’s made all the more difficult by that message I found proclaimed in the school hall: what you’re doing now is about your future. That may be true, but it isn’t what kids between the ages of four and eleven need to be concerned about. Our job as adults is to worry about their future. It’s not fair for us to transfer that worry on to them. They need to be supported in their learning by having their curiosity stimulated and then having the materials in place so that they can satisfy that curiosity. I teach university students, many of whom have managed to get there without having any intellectual curiosity left. Very few of them are there because they had a thirst for knowledge. They’re there because their degree is a qualification they need to be employable.
It’s hard work, too, because there is more to forming one’s future self than learning math and English. We were fortunate that our children’s primary school did a good job teaching them about justice and mercy. But here, too, I think we fail children, even when we have the best of intentions. The kids’ primary school was recently ranked ‘gold’ for promoting children’s rights. While all the things listed are things every child should have—an education, freedom of expression and association, freedom to practice their religion, and so on—teaching children about their rights changes their vision of who they are. No longer are the duties of parents, schools, communities, and governments the responsibility of the adults: children need to know their rights and have the courage to demand that they be respected. If that’s really the case, then we have failed them, and failed them very badly. If it is true (and I think it is) that a society is judged on how it treats the most vulnerable, the fact that we as a society think children need to look after their own rights is disgraceful.
The freedom that children most need is the freedom to be children: to learn through play as much as possible, to be curious and to have their curiosity nurtured, to be free to express themselves in a community—that is, in a place where they naturally bump up against each other and have to learn how to get along with each other, preferably with a minimum of adult intervention. Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy concentrated not on the learning of academic subjects, but on becoming people of peace. We hear a lot about how Montessori-educated kids are self-starters, imaginative folks, entrepreneurs. But Montessori wasn’t nominated for the Nobel peace prize three times for forming entrepreneurs. The true cornerstone of her educational method was forming children for peace through education.
Recently, I came across a meme designed to get us to wake up: ‘If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do during slavery, the Holocaust, or the civil rights movement, you’re doing it right now.’ I wondered how what I do on a daily basis would measure up. Then I thought about Maria Montessori. She was nominated for a Nobel peace prize for resisting fascism. But what she is chiefly remembered for is the path she charted to peace: giving children the space to become people who embodied it. The only way to make the world a more peaceful place is to raise children who know what it looks like and how to maintain it.
The thing is, saving the world, and all the vulnerable people in it is not something we adults can do on our own. It is an intergenerational project, and our most important part in it is to raise that generation who will be the change we hope for. Montessori believed that ‘if help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children’. All the band-aids we adults can put on the world are nice. But without raising a generation of kids who know how to heal its wounds, the sores are just going to get worse. Whitney Houston was right: the children are our future. Now we have to work on that next bit: teaching them well, so that they can lead the way to peace.