A reconsideration of her magnum opus.
I recently revisited Hillary Rodham Clinton’s It Takes a Village, published 20 years ago. The village has since then become a Clinton trademark. It’s part of the Clinton personae and shtick.
“We know that Hillary Clinton believes it takes a village to raise a child,” writes Lisa Bonos at the Washington Post. “The presidential candidate still draws on that village philosophy on the campaign trail.” The Post book critic Carlos Lozada calls It Takes a Village “the closest thing we’ve ever had to a fully formed political manifesto from Hillary Clinton.”
The book does provide some insight into the Clintons’ core beliefs, such as they are. If Hillary is elected president, the nation will hear its contents recited for the next four years. “We can build that village,” Bill Clinton echoes. “We can beat back the forces of division and cynicism and reinvigorate our national community.”
But what precisely is that village philosophy? Is that “philosophy” in any way superior to, say, Marcus Aurelius or Edmund Burke? Is there anything more cynical than trying to dupe earnest parents and voters with dopey flim-flam talk about building a village?
Clinton’s village, we should understand, is the central state, Leviathan, providing custodial care for millions of neglected children born amid collapsing families and sleaze. Its clock tower is federal law, velvet-glove oversight and guidance, and the funding cornucopia of Washington, D.C.
A blockbuster publishing event, It Takes a Village sold about half a million hardback copies, and another 200,000 in paper. Clinton-bedazzled editorial boards and reviewers hailed its arrival, and the contents were widely discussed by educators.
It Takes a Village was not just a book about schools or child welfare. Clinton — then a relatively fresh item in American politics — pondered her future after the White House.
This was a campaign book, written by committee in Washington-style cut-and-paste. (Martin Amis wrote a funny review at the time about this.) Every thought and proposal is calculated to appeal to constituencies inside the Democratic electoral coalition and Clinton’s admirers.
Designed partly to soften Hillary’s image with women, the book begins with Hillary’s pregnancy and getting Bill to attend Lamaze classes with those other defensive dads. The book’s title, said to be an old African proverb, has no clear provenance but gives a cozy multicultural feel to the volume. In her acknowledgments, Clinton stiffed the chief ghoster, Barbara Feinman, a journalism professor at Georgetown University. Feinman got angry at her claims of authorship and let the world know who actually wrote the book.
The contents present an infinity loop of propositions such as “society needs to re-create a sense of community in polarized neighborhoods and fragmented families that have lost their support systems,” and “I don’t want the school to become a social service agency, but I want the school to work in partnership with parents and other people who are concerned about children so that no child falls through the cracks.”
Platitudes follow on platitudes, with asides on health care, tax policy, gun control, drugs, and technology. Clinton worries about “an obsession with IQ tests and other means of labeling people.” She promises that “forward-thinking teachers and school administrators across the country are creating a whole range of alternatives to cookie-cutter teaching and evaluation methods, such as the use of student portfolios and exhibitions in addition to conventional exams to assess students’ progress.”
Whatever Clinton’s labels are, and whatever she means by “cookie-cutter teaching and evaluation methods,” she misses the boat on instruction and performance. It Takes a Village hedged toward the center 20 years ago, and the Post’s Lozada suggests Clinton’s views about families, premarital sex, race and criminal justice, and divorce seem overly conservative today.
Still, for most school-related social-service providers — and there are many — Clinton is more than a stateswoman. Clinton represents their beau ideal. When she appears at a Children’s Defense Fund or Planned Parenthood national meeting, thousands stand and cheer in elation.
Clinton’s Village People have a direct interest in perpetuating the vast public child-care and special-needs industry. They are fluent in federal entitlements, target populations, diversity codes, and state regulations. They go for the grants. They are all-in for the whole child, special education, therapy, and wellness. Their salaries often depend on it.
They exist for a reason. At the bottom of the barrel, public schools provide warm classrooms and decent food in the cafeteria. They are shelters from chaotic, rough Section 8 warrens and ramshackle trailer parks. The waifs and punks come in black, white, and every other shade, all disconnected from an economy that rewards academic skills and hard work, and few possessed of any promising attitudes or abilities. Troublemakers flourish. The custodial village that Hillary and the Village People tirelessly defend seems to breed sloths and sociopaths, and educational cesspools seem to be a major incubator.
Clinton’s Village People are foundational to the Democratic Party. They represent liberal assumptions, policies, and programs in place for decades that have proved incorrect, futile, or worse, and that are now complicated by rising race-based sensitivities about discipline, learning disabilities, and evaluation.
Undaunted by failure, the Village People remain proud of the better world they are building one brick at a time. They have plenty of self-esteem, pointing at certifying degrees in education, sociology, and psychology to verify their proficiency. Embracing “special needs” and “at risk populations,” school administrators from state superintendents to principals, education professors, diversity workshop presenters, psychologists, curriculum developers, and entertainment executives are in on the fix. We care!
But all the money, counseling, and good intentions in the world cannot make up for intelligence, ambition, or family values. Politicians of both parties promise to bridge the achievement gap and leave no child behind. They know otherwise. Their real job is to fund and sustain the federalized Village of the Damned.
It Takes a Village may be cotton candy, but it is one of the most important policy books of its generation. It collects — one-stop shopping! — conventional wisdom about family and school policies that federal, state, and local education officials Republican and Democrat alike daily ratify. “For there is good money to be made out of bad schools,” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said.