The impact of violence on a child’s mind

Driven by anger and internal political compulsions, Israel’s leaders have chosen to ignore the message that Maria Montessori had given to the world

November 24, 2023 01:20 am | Updated 09:34 am IST

Palestinian children wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are treated at al Aqsa Hospital on Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip on November 21, 2023.

Palestinian children wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are treated at al Aqsa Hospital on Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip on November 21, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

Maria Montessori would have felt amused by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resolve to finish off Hamas by bombing Gaza. She wrote classics such as The Secret of Childhood and The Absorbent Mind. But she also gave some hard-hitting lectures on war and peace during the 1930s. Collected under the title Education and Peace, these speeches elaborate on her life-long mission to make the world recognise the significance of early impressions. A child’s encounter with violence — personal or collective — sets in motion a cycle of revenge. Montessori saw this cycle as the root cause of war. A few thousand children have been killed in Gaza, but many would have survived. Montessori’s arguments suggest that these survivors will prove Mr. Netanyahu’s hope a folly.

Vulnerable to violent roles

A similar argument was presented by the celebrated Jewish philosopher and writer, Elias Canetti. In the book Crowds and Power, he devotes a section to the child’s mind. Canneti points to the seed of revengeful thoughts that the experience of violence lodges in the young mind. Over time, it grows into a full-blown motive to resist social norms. When the child becomes an adult, the resistance mutates into rebellion in many cases. Often induction into violence during adolescence occurs when historical circumstances, including technological forces, create the ground. Poverty also adds to the factors that make children vulnerable to violent roles. In a study of Nepal, Sanjeev Rai presents an interview with child soldiers who became victims of this combination of factors. In several reports, UNICEF has discussed how difficult it is to rehabilitate children who have experienced or participated in violence, into civic life.

Israel’s retaliatory assault on Gaza will have several unpredictable outcomes, but one outcome that can be easily predicted is its psychological impact on Palestinian children, especially adolescents. Thousands are reported to have been killed. The rubble in the streets shown on television is extensive, but no one is looking for survivors buried underneath. Those who survive and migrate (under the Israeli army’s orders) to the southern part of Gaza must be facing an awful uncertainty about their future, along with the agony of forced displacement. No matter what efforts their parents make in the post-conflict scenario, the children who have lost all semblance of childhood will fulfill Montessori’s worst prophecy: the perpetuation of violence.

Violence and Children

In TheSecret of Childhood, Montessori underlined the role of peaceful circumstances in a child’s upbringing. First published in 1936, this book presented her thesis that all major individual and social problems have their roots in childhood. Montessori was not the first to argue this line, but she developed it into a full-scale pedagogic philosophy and strategy that might enable society and the state to break the cycle of the influence of historical circumstances on children’s mind and behaviour. The implications of this perspective were drawn out in her lectures on peace and liberation from the reproductive cycle of war. Driven by anger and internal political compulsions, Israel’s leaders have chosen to ignore the message that Montessori had given to the world during and after a horrific global war.

Also read | ‘A curse to be a parent in Gaza’

Montessori was part of an inter-war movement, initiated by eminent educators of the time, for using education to fight the culture of war. Rabindranath Tagore was also involved in this international effort. Although it could not prevent the Second World War, the movement has left behind a rich legacy of ideas for us to engage with in our turbulent present. One aspect of this legacy is to worry about children who grow up in a war-infested world. Technology of communication has dispersed the Gaza battle all over the world. News of the killing of Israeli civilians by Hamas at the beginning of October and heart-rending scenes of human misery caused by Israel’s armed forces in Gaza have reached children everywhere. No one can guess or predict what consequences this exposure to aggression and violence will have in the long run.

Education and peace

Can education mitigate the effects of this massive dose of violent imagery? In principle, education has this potential, but most systems of education today lack the energy required to harness this potential. In fact, frustration with education is common across the world. Many believe that education cannot reverse the political impact of dangerous ideologies. Disappointment with education has grown in recent years. Russia’s war with Ukraine and the ongoing destruction of Gaza raise serious questions about the power of education to inculcate basic good sense. Russia, Israel, and the U.S. are among the most educated nations of the world, but they have failed to use education to nurture peace. Current discussions about the future of Gaza are focused entirely on politics. They must include the future of education in Gaza — and in Israel as well.

Those concerned about children in Palestine will have a tough time deciding their future course of action. In Israel too, education has not played a peace-building role. Two decades ago, I attended a workshop on peace education in Jerusalem. The headmistress of a school for Palestinian children in Old Jerusalem was invited to talk to us. I wanted to visit her school, but the organisers did not agree to arrange the visit — due to security concerns, I was told. The children in her school were studying textbooks presenting a very different view of the past from the ones I had seen in the school on the campus of Jerusalem University.

Also read |Gaza becoming a graveyard for children: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

Contrasting portrayals of the past are common in contiguously located hostile nations across the worlds. They are just one more factor that keeps old hostilities alive. Conciliatory histories are rare in such cases. No wonder education reinforces and perpetuates divisive ideas, preparing the adult mind to accept such ideas as the only way forward.

Krishna Kumar is a former Director of NCERT and the author of Prejudice and Pride

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