The Fallacy of the Deserving Child

Okay, that should probably say “The fallacy of the more deserving child,” because I’m not about to go off on a rant about how kids these days are so pampered and back in my day, we had to walk to school barefoot in the snow and it was 40 miles uphill both ways, but this makes for a catchier title.

At any rate, one of the ethical challenges I’ve run into in the process of deciding to become a Montessori guide largely came about in conversations with friends who are also going into education. Many of them, as a result of their own desire to do good in the world, have decided to do programs like Teach for America, in order to work with disadvantaged children in terrible schools. I found myself in the awkward position of explaining that I’m probably going to teach privileged children in a private school.  (That’s not absolutely true, since there are plenty of public and charter Montessori schools, with more opening all the time, but still, most Montessori schools are private.) I ended up feeling like a terrible person for providing yet another advantage to already advantaged kids at the “expense” of disadvantaged kids.

I pondered that dilemma for quite a while, but ultimately decided to follow my heart. I really don’t believe that we’re going to “fix” schools by making small changes to the status quo (and as much as organizations like TfA do creative things, they’re not really in the business of seriously questioning the system), and I’d rather help build what I think are truly healthy and positive alternatives to the status quo than break my heart trying to work within a system that I believe is fundamentally misguided. Bringing in good, intelligent, committed, fresh teachers to terrible schools will certainly be an improvement for the students stuck there (though I suppose that view is pretty insulting to the teachers already there), and with any luck, will prove life-changing for some of them, but that doesn’t make up for the fundamental violence of a system that forces children to march in intellectual lockstep and then dictates their self-worth by how well they please other people. Those problems are problems of the system. A compassionate, determined teacher may be able to soften the blow by de-emphasizing grades/tests/etc, but they rarely have the opportunity to do away with them altogether.

The problem came around in another form a few months ago, when I was facing a possible choice between working in an overseas school mainly serving the children of extremely rich ex-pats (diplomats, business executives, etc); an inner city public Montessori school; or a private Montessori school serving the merely generically well off. Those options have fallen though (well, I haven’t heard about one yet), so the choice is moot, but I ended up spending quite a while pondering which choice would be the most ethical. On the one hand, the children from privileged background will have advantages that will likely make up for any of the failings in their education, everything from legacy at colleges to an advantage on the (biased) SAT to good connections thanks to their parents, so wouldn’t it make more sense to work with inner city children who probably won’t have those advantages? On the other hand, it’s a sad but true fact of life that those advantaged children are probably going to have more economic and political power as adults, so wouldn’t it be better in the long run to raise future leaders who are creative, intelligent, compassionate problem solvers with an appreciation of the advantages that come with privilege (all skills that you can learn from lots of sources, but that I think Montessori schools do a very good job of cultivating)? But on the other hand, isn’t that sort of patronizing? Wouldn’t it be better to help disadvantaged children learn to be independent and confident so that they can make a difference in their own communities?

Needless to say, I got myself pretty tangled up in all this. But eventually, I realized something: children are children are children. All children are deserve a peaceful, safe environment that respects their intelligence and integrity and allows them to develop their potential. I’m certainly going to keep pushing for more Montessori in more places, preferably in forms that are accessible to all children, but I can only work with 30 or so children each year. Those children deserve the best education I can facilitate, no matter how rich or poor their parents are.


One thought on “The Fallacy of the Deserving Child

  1. Well put.

    Our goal as guides should to serve humanity as a whole. A child of privilege who is raised in an environment of unhealthy competition and greed could do as much (or more) harm as a child of poverty who was raised in an abusive and disadvantaged environment.

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