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May 09, 2003
Freedom and obedience - Montessori meets Victor Davis Hanson

It's funny how ideas often come at you in pairs, by which I mean that the exact same idea often comes at you from two wildly different places. What probably really happens is that idea first hits you, from the first place it hits you from and you find it very striking, and that makes you hyper-observant if your environment presents the same idea to you again at any time soon.

This has just happened to me, with an idea about how freedom relates to obedience.

First it was Maria Montessori, whom I was writing about not long ago. Forgive me if I don't supply the link - I'm on holiday and this is a strange computer. Anyway, what the linkless Maria Montessori said, among many other things, that one of the ways in which the freedom of children is expressed is in the form of chossing to accept the authority of the child's teacher. Choosing to obey, and obeying all the more obediently on account of the authority having been freely chosen. Well, you can see how that idea would be wide open to manipulation, for example by later generations of fascists in Maria Montessori's Italy. Nevertheless, I think the lady was on to someething.

Second, I have just encountered pretty much the exact same idea from Victor Davis Hanson, whose book Why The West Has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam is my current holiday reading. Hanson makes the same connection between the political and economic freedoms enjoyed (relatively speaking) by the soldiers of the West's armies and the ferocity with which, during a battle they take it upon themselves to obey orders and thereby to cooperate effectively. Hanson is adamant that the in-step formations of the West's soldiers, with their uncanny ability to move this way and that like the dancers in a mass ballet, has given the West a decisive edge in its many battles with non-Western enemies. The idea that freedom and the more complete acceptance of authority might go together is, if you think about it, the exact same idea as Montessori's.

In an earlier posting here not long ago, I speculated that a lot of war-making and war-preparing might be good for education, and not just in a bad way. This idea, endorsed by on the one hand the "progressive" educational theorist and on the other hand the military historian, reinforces that surmise.

The point to get is that the on-the-day obedience of a Western army goes hand in hand with the right of all ranks to have their say about the rights and wrongs of military policy before and after the battle. The Montessori/Hanson claim is that these two habits reinforce each other. And they stand at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the world of someone like the "great king" Xerxes (loser of Salamis despite having his Greek opponents being massively outnumbered). In that world, anyone who ever queries the wisdom of the great king's military dispositions risks instant execution without trial. So guess how much serious discussion of alternative military plans takes place in places run by the likes of Xerxes.

Come the battle, the army of Xerxes doesn't act nearly as cohesively as its quarrelsome Western enemy. The Greeks fight like cats and dogs amongst themselves before Salamis, and after Salamis. But on the day, they act as one, and pull off the sort of triumph that Xerxes' underlings could never contrive.

If I was using a more congenial computer, I might also here supply a link to that piece I did about Sean Gabb, the Anglo-Saxon adversarialist, teaching the consensual ladies of Asia.

I can imagine lots of people growling throughout the above. Freedom? Obedience? Make up your mind, man. You'll be telling us that freedom equals slavery next. But think of the enormous number of professional soldiers who, while doing their soldiering, think of their orders as like water in a desert, but who as soon as they stop their soldiering are as loud as anyone in their protestations of devotion to the idea of freedom. What if these people have a point, and what if the point they have is the same point that Montessori and Hanson are both making?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:00 PM
Category: Education theory

I don't see it as "freedom and a more complete acceptance of authority", with the authority coming from a source outside of one's self.

Rather, freedom places authority squarely where it belongs, each person an authority for their own self. Each person has to decide how to act. To take on the responsibility of deciding for one's self, is to assume authority; such a person will have more invested in their actions than one who abdicates authority to someone else.

It's not freedom to obey, but freedom to decide if the school's or the army's way of doing things is reasonable and right, and to decide to throw one's efforts into school or defense.

There is a big difference between the motivation and consequences of cooperation on a battlefield and cooperation in a classroom.

A child can gain an education without ever setting foot in a classroom. If there is something in the classroom that they wish to benefit from, they can decide to follow the classroom way of doing things in order to gain that benefit, or not. Maybe find a better way to get that benefit, without the classroom fol-de-rol.

But the soldiers on the battlefield have much more at stake, in figuring out the most likely way to survive and prevail. Defense of freedom, by those who savor it, is a powerful motivator. If the most effective way to win in battle has, so far, been shown to be obeying orders and cooperating, those who care to survive and prevail will do so.

In either case, though, a person who is not acting on reason and their own authority is open to being manipulated by those who wish to stand on authority and induce obedience. imo

Comment by: lars on May 10, 2003 07:31 PM

"In (Xerxes') world, anyone who ever queries the wisdom of the great king's military dispositions risks instant execution without trial. So guess how much serious discussion of alternative military plans takes place in places run by the likes of Xerxes."

Sounds a lot like The New York Times under current management..

Comment by: David Foster on May 19, 2003 12:42 AM
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