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Joe Biden can inspire young people — if he listens to them

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on Friday. Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster

Joe Biden faces a crucial conundrum in his quest to win the presidency: How can he energize young voters, even as at 77, even though he is of a decidedly different generation and was not their candidate of choice during the Democratic primaries? Biden is also hampered by his desire to build the broadest coalition possible ideologically. And young voters have a track record of voting in lower numbers — even though polling shows they lean overwhelmingly Democratic. How Biden tackles this challenge may determine whether he wins or loses.

One possible answer: trusting and embracing young voters and their opinions. The Italian educator Maria Montessori, born 150 years ago, worked throughout her life to force politicians and governments to address children, whose potential as political actors was largely ignored. As a progressive educator, Montessori rethought the classroom entirely, putting the child at its center and regarding the teacher as a mere facilitator of the learning process.

Until the end of the 19th century, schools saw children as weak, feeble and dependent on adults for all their needs. Students were blank slates to be filled with knowledge by their teachers.

Montessori disagreed. She believed that even infants contributed actively and profoundly to the welfare of society at all levels. The early years of life are charged with what Montessori termed an immense creative power: children are builders of humanity, each the forger of his own character, physical health and intelligence. Youth, Montessori insisted, is the cornerstone of society.

In her view, a universal scientific, social and political commitment to liberating and focusing the power of children would prevent the formation of stunted, dysfunctional adults. To achieve this, the educational system would need to be radically reformed: the individual child would become central to the educational process, and his or her developmental needs were to guide the teacher in structuring everything else. All learning was to be self-directed by the child, under the supervision of the teacher.

Montessori herself designed specialized material that would help children identify, correct and learn from their own mistakes. Guided this way, the child would grow into a capable adult, with a strong sense of self, an ability to connect with others and the potential to be productive throughout her life.

This education, Montessori argued, could then pave the way for children to be considered independent citizens of the state. In 1936, she called for them to become champions of their own rights. She lamented the absence of political representation for youth, calling it a "dangerous void." She urged every nation to establish a political party to represent children's rights, in which they would serve as active members.

In Europe, governments were starting to recognize the importance of early-childhood education. The French established a Ministry of Infancy that extended education all the way back to the prenatal stage. Montessori considered the early years — when the brain grows more rapidly than at any other time and the most learning takes places — to be crucial for the cognitive and emotional development of the child. Even as World War II ignited, Montessori continued to argue that this kind of intervention was of vital importance. Children remained the largest but least powerful global constituency, influenced by government's edicts without any say.

This was a radically different way of thinking about children's economic, social and psychological needs. While documents such as the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, adopted by the League of Nations in 1924, showed an implicit respect for the dignity and worth of each single human being, the focus was on preventing harm and providing conventional assistance — not empowering children themselves. It reflected the unchallenged assumption that a child had to rely on an adult's protection to exercise his rights. From a political standpoint, children and young adults were neither seen nor heard.

After World War II, as the conversation about human rights gained momentum, the United Nations began adopting the key principles of Montessori's revolutionary conception of children's rights.

Nonetheless, it took decades to fully implement them. The 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child was built on the premise that humankind owes children the best it can give. Yet the bulk of it was vague on exactly what rights children have and who is responsible for guaranteeing them.

It was not until the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1990 World Summit that watershed changes actually occurred.

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child recognized that children, as humans, possess the same value as adults. Childhood was valuable in and of itself, not as a transitional phase that predates adulthood or simply as a "training period" for life. And vulnerable by nature, children needed special protections to be able to enjoy their rights in full. Most importantly, the 1990 convention enshrined the "principle of the child's best interest": the idea that the child's needs take precedence over those of the parents and the state.

Thirty years since it was first proclaimed, the declaration has prompted governments to approve laws and policies so that more children and youth can receive the health care, nutrition and education they need to reach their potential.

Article 12.1, on respecting the views of the child, reflected the core of Montessori's philosophy that a child has the right to be heard and that her ideas must be taken seriously. Since then, the child's capacity to be an autonomous decision-maker, a pillar of Montessori's theory of education, has slowly gained real traction.

Montessori's principles are now at the core of many progressive school curriculums: from the fundamental respect that each child deserves, to the idea that up to the age of six the child possesses the capacity to absorb knowledge quickly and effortlessly, to the fact that every activity provides the child with some way of assessing his own progress, without the need for help from a teacher. Along the way, Montessori or Montessori-inspired schools have proliferated dramatically.

Despite all of this apparent progress, children and young adults remain politicized but unable to be political. Mostly this is because politics remains an old person's game, seldom open to direct representation of young people and adolescents even in issues that directly concern them, such as the presence of armed security officers in school. Practically speaking, they continue to occupy a marginal place in politics, regardless of achievements made in their name. And when they do attempt to enter the public realm, they endure belittling comments from politicians and pundits, such as the vicious attacks endured by Greta Thunberg, disparaging her activism because of her age.

The latest protests to end racism and police violence have shown how a new generation of activists is willing to take on vexing, seemingly intractable issues, the very same problems that adults may deny even exist. These children and young adults do not stop at posting about change on social media; with an unwavering commitment to change, they have taken to the streets, organizing what has been called the largest demonstration movement in history. It is now up to organized political parties to harness the power of youth organizations, to galvanize them and inspire young people to believe that the existing political machinery is receptive to their demands and that politics can indeed change the system it represents.

Up until now, Joe Biden has struggled to speak to younger voters, evidenced by the results of the Democratic Party's primary elections. But by following Montessori's vision and listening to young Americans, he can harness their energy and inspire them.

Montessori was born 150 years ago, in a small town in Italy. As we observe that anniversary, we should reflect on her ideas about young people more than ever. The way we see childhood might be vastly less humane and progressive if not for her timeless example.

Moretti is an assistant professor of modern languages and cultures at the Fashion Institute of Technology-SUNY, and is currently writing a book on Maria Montessori's theory of pacifism and children's rights. This piece was written for The Washington Post.