It Does Take a Village

YOU MAY HAVE HOPED that you had heard for the last time--- finally!--- that it takes a village to raise a child. May I ask you just one further indulgence? For now that the silly season of Presidential campaigning is mercifully behind us, we may allow ourselves some quiet reflection on the image of a village. There are veins of wisdom still to be mined in the soil of this piece of humble folk wisdom.

The dictum itself was morphed into meanings of all sorts. The family-values coterie pounced on it as thinly masked socialism, a guerilla attack on parenthood and all things godly. It is surprising that they failed to note the well-known fact that villages are notorious for pagan rituals of flag-burning.

At the same time the ideologues of the left saw in it a ringing endorsement of every tomfoolery and fad that has come down the educational midway since Spot discovered that Dick and Jane couldn't bark.

Meanwhile, a deeper truth is in danger of being lost. Fact is, we are all educated by villages. Sometimes they are actual physical communities of people; sometimes they are just called Morn or Dad. Better, of course, if they are "Mom-and-Dad" but all too many of our kids have to receive their education from village called Mom alone.

The Primary Educators

It has been one of the strongest proclamations of the church's perennial social teaching that parents are the primary educators of their children. And from what we have learned in the past 50 years about the formative nature of a child's first two or three years, the church's tenet has become almost tautological. In the course of a child's development, no later "educator" will ever remotely rival the formative effect of a parent. That's simply a given.

The gap lies in our understanding of what any parent reoresents. Our culture has a profoundly distorted assumption that each of us -- and therefore, each parent -- is a self-made individual, created by our omnipotent self, indebted to no one except biology, minted by our own free choices without reference to, or dependence on any forbears. A strange chimera, this: biography without history.

The truth is that every human is a village. Each of us carries within us the voices and messages we have personally appropriated from all the communities with which we have ever interacted. My father never talked about maleness, but I learned from him how a man behaves or doesn't behave in a certain Irish-American branch of our society. One need look no farther than the number of heart attacks males have because they never learned how to express emotions; it violated some macho message that might never have been "taught," but was surely learned. The same is true of most of the deepest messages that shape a person's identity: self-worth or lack of it, appreciation of the goodness--- or the vileness--- of one's body, the meaning to be attached to money and material possessions, the valence to be put on independence or dependence, a basic stance toward otherness --- skin color, ethnic diversity, religious orientation, you name it.

Each parent will indelibly affect a child's life and learning. The child does not reach the age of conscious choice as a blank tablet on which he or she is without constraint in determining what will be written. The material around which later conscious choices will be made has been woven into the texture of the young child long before there was freedom to do anything about it. We are not self-made.

So far so good. But we must take the case one step further if we are to do justice to reality. The second step involves realizing that if the child, the unconscious recipient of parental imprinting, is not self-made, then neither was the parent.

Which brings us back to the village. Now I am referring, not to the external village where the parent may now dwell, but rather to the parent's internal village, the one that resides within the psychic make-up of each mother or father.

Nurturing Natures

Within the spirit of every adult, all the voices of those who interacted in any significant way during the course of the parent's developmental years still resonate--- their parents, teachers, heroes and heroines, villains. There are customs passed down within the family for centuries: tiny shards of behavior labeled "good" or "brave" or "foolhardy" or "diabolical," attitudes toward the most profound human issues, even individual words that can evoke violent responses, taboos and myths and unexamined stereotypes.

I am referring, of course, to the reality and power of cultures within each of us. As an American, my attitude toward civil authority has been bred into me by a certain dumping of tea in Boston harbor just as surely as my biological makeup is shaped by parental DNA. (And the fact that we call it a tea party is just as formative; we Americans actually take a certain impudent fun in laughing at authority when it exceeds its bounds. That is not being "counter-cultural"; it's who we are.)

A Jesuit philosopher friend of mine, without directly using the image of a village, takes the notion of an interior network of voices further. His thesis is that we are able to live in community with those outside us to the extent that we can be in community with those who live within us. There is a village within us. Indeed, there are many such villages because most of us have been formed by more than one culture. Each has its own set of voices and messages. Some we accept and reinforce daily by small choices. Others cause us confusion, anxiety and tension, so we may be inclined to raise the volume on the comforting voices to drown out the disturbing ones. But they are there, and their signals form the repertory, both cognitive and affective, for responding to the situations we meet.

The several villages that still resonate within us and guide our responses to the outside world may form a peaceable kingdom among themselves. They may, on the other hand, be in some kind of life-long relationship of detente toward one another, with a Berlin wall running the length of the territory and only occasional bits of belief or behavior cutting a hole to the other side. Or they may be friendly rivals in a long history of Super Bowls, with brief winning or losing streaks but few lasting bragging rights. The village of my own parental wisdom has had its share of arm-wrestling with some pretty convincing rivals. It has not always won, nor should it --- but then again, that was one of my parents' own messages. They were forming humans, not parrots.

Diversity in Heritage

And so we return to parents-as-villages. The image raises the ante on education quite a bit. doesn't it? If parents are more than lone, self-made individuals, if they bear the messages of the villages that shaped their outlooks, then everything depends on "who lives in there." Who are the citizens of these internal villages? How do they relate to one another? What is important to them? What are their wars and armistices about? Who sits at the table and who sulks in the corner? What do they say and how do they say it?

Have you ever wondered what the interior village of a Phyllis Schlafly might be like? Want to try an Al Sharpton or Mother Angelica?

Imagine a parent whose own internal village has Homer, Isaiah, Aquinas, and Emily Dickinson seated at table, engaged in energetic conversation with Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X and Nietzsche. They are in a room filled with Rodins and Rembrandts and Kollwitzes, and the sounds of Palestrina, Stravinsky, Joan Sutherland and Dizzy Gillespie wash over them. And then in the house next door, look in on the parent whose village is peopled with the faces in the National Enquirer and "As the World Turns," with Cybill and Geraldo and Robocops, bombarded with the sounds of Gangsta Rap and the sight of graffiti. Two doors down, the parental village includes only the voices of the Bible, infallibly transmitted by some televangelist Svengali, with all other villages declared the realm of Gog and Magog. And next to them a village out of Walt Disney, harmonious and antiseptic, with nary a hair out of place.

In touring these villages it is not my intent to denigrate any of them. This is not an appeal for a Western intellectual canon, much less an attack on a more contemporary one. Long before the young boy or girl confronts any external book list, he or she will have been shaped by the parents' internal canon.

Debates about home schooling versus public schooling or about the choice of the materials we will employ in the process of developing our children's adult ability to dialogue with the cultures they will meet during their lifetime are perfectly valid. They touch on the formative character of our external villages, and they need all our best wits if we are to live with civility and respect in our wildly pluralistic society. But we delude ourselves if we make them the primary arena. The real task of education is, and always has been, the continued internal growth of the parent. Parents who choose to live in a monochromatic world, who build a palisade around their personal psychic village --- no matter who dwells there --- will impoverish their children. Openness to enter other villages, to appreciate and learn and be challenged by them, is the painful price exacted of each of us for human growth. For parents, for their children and for peace in our world.

[George B. Wilson, S.J., does church organizational consulting for Management Design Institute based in Cincinnati, Ohio.]