Author: Hillary Rodham Clinton
Type: Non-fiction, single subject
Full title: It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us
I read it: September 2016
I found this book on the Salvation Army shelves and figured I should learn a little more about our future president, as I was already supporting her with my votes. I was in elementary school when Bill first got elected, and middle school when this book was released, so really didn’t know much about the Clintons while they were most active in the public arena.
This subject matter is obviously a passion project of Hillary’s, which makes the book part memoir, part research, and all advocacy. She chose the title “because it offers a timeless reminder that children will thrive only if their families thrive and if the whole of society cares enough to provide for them.” Early on, she underlines how all issues involving children are societal issues at the core, and we must improve society if our goal is to help future generations.
We learn how the author was raised (her father an old-fashioned Republican) and her accounts of being an ambitious young woman in many areas of her life. She explains the stability of the hardworking adult community she thrived in, and acknowledges the ways she saw young girls and women being stifled in various pursuits. But even throughout these lessons from the past, her book is about looking ahead: “We cannot move forward by looking to the past for easy solutions. Even if a golden age had existed, we could not simply graft it onto today’s busier, more impersonal and complicated world.” Her definition of the village is not a quaint one, but the larger village that stretches out beyond every type of home, town, and city.
I appreciated how she brings some science into the conversation by discussing then-current views of the brain. At one point, she responds to the idea that intelligence is fixed at birth and unchangeable: “This view is politically convenient: if nothing can alter intellectual potential, nothing need be offered to those who begin life with fewer resources or in less favorable environments.” She goes on to sum up the complexities of the issue: “It is increasingly apparent that the nature-nurture question is not an ‘either/or’ debate so much as a ‘both/and’ proposition.” (And when it comes to nurture, it seems we put all the burden solely on the parents.)
Of course, in all the talk about families comes the idea of family planning, and a requisite mention of abortion. Here, Hillary must acknowledge the tiresome battles waged over this topic, battles that only obscure the real issues and rational approaches to them. She explains: “The irony is that sensible family planning here and around the world would decrease the demand for legal and illegal abortions, saving maternal and infant lives.” Ease up on the logic there, lady. You wouldn’t want to deprive a good portion of the population from their precious chance to scream about murdering babies.
On the broader topic of what children do with their young lives, she writes: “Children should be encouraged to learn in all sorts of ways, not just scholastic ones. They have a natural sense of curiosity and a love of discovery that needs to be nurtured to sustain itself. Applaud and encourage learning for learning’s sake, whether it’s cloud-watching or understanding what keeps a kite in the sky or mixing paints to make new colors.” This deceptively simple concept of learning for learning’s sake continues to need explained and defending even today, as is happening in more recent books like The Importance of Being Little. It’s the type of learning that you can’t easily quantify in school progress reports, because children are “more attuned to the present than the future, the process than the product” and “are not afraid to fail or to make fools of themselves.”
Willing to wade into complexity, Hillary mentions the difficulties of raising our kids in a capitalist economy. Although acknowledging, as a politician must, that our system depends on people buying things, she’d like to draw a line on advertising that targets kids. She warns against the creeping influence of TV and video games, with some classic 90s examples that seem a bit quaint now, such as the brutal fighting of Mortal Kombat. I grew up in that TV and video game era but I didn’t grow up with the internet, and the point remains valid that onscreen images are a fierce influence on young child’s mind. (Let’s be real, they’re a fierce influence on adult minds as well.)
Toward the end of the book, as if she hadn’t already laid out a hundred other challenges, she describes a phenomenon that seems more salient now than perhaps it did 20 years ago: “the middle class, the backbone of our nation, is splitting, with more and more falling into ‘the anxious class’ of honest, hardworking Americans who go in debt every time a child falls ill or a family car breaks down.” The lack of universal health care for children is one of the great failures of our species, and medical bills are just one of the many reasons that families are sitting on the knife edge of stability. As Hillary reiterates again and again, it’s children who suffer most from these financial strains.
Despite all the interesting points brought up, I’m not claiming that this is a perfect book. One thing that baffles me is the complete lack of bibliography. There are plenty of stats and statements referenced throughout the book (if these didn’t exist there would be no argument to make at all), yet there is not one source cited. On top of that, it’s simply hard to know how similar or different any given fact is when updated to today’s reality. There are also the silly slogans peppered throughout, such as the need to “get us and our children to shut the refrigerator door and open the front door.” (The flip side are the bite-sized tidbits that ring more true, such as the promotion of community service being “the rent we pay for living.”) And finally, there are a lot more references to church and religion than I was expecting, though nothing seems to suggest that she would ever promote anything that threatened the separation of church and state.
It’s also clear that this book is a popularity tool for the brand of Hillary Clinton, which is more political fact than anything else. (Plus, who exactly was the audience for this thing? The godawful cover art suggests single aunts who indulge in large quantities of kitsch.) I’m not entirely blind to the criticisms against our current candidate, and there are valid points to be made for and against supporting her. Still, I believe her more than capable enough to have written a book on her own (even though apparently she didn’t, and there was some controversy around the fact) and that she really does hold the cause close to her heart.
In a prescient move, the final pages even warn against divisive anti-government views that won’t solve anything but instead plunge us further into chaos. While plainly stating that we should not overlook flaws in government because “critism and public debate are vital to a democracy,” she feels the need to further outline what we are trying to do as a society:
The idea is not to weaken government to the point of ineffectuality but to make it leaner and more supple in fulfilling its basic responsibilities: (1) to build a strong, globally competitive economy that grows the middle class and shrinks the underclass; (2) to bring the American people together around the shared values of opportunity for and responsibility from all, to support families at work and at home, and to build communities that fulfill their obligations to families, the environment, and those who need and deserve support; (3) to keep America the world’s strongest force for peace, freedom, democracy, and prosperity.
The success or failures of fulfilling these goals affects kids the most. This should be obvious, but it always helps to hear it spelled out again. And nothing should be more obvious that there is only one clear choice for president in 2016. We all have families, we are all struggling, and even those without children don’t want children to suffer. Are we skilled and compassionate enough to make these issues less urgent over the next 20 years?
Soon, we find out.