From Each According to His Abilities, To Each According to His Needs

Nina - Sandy Hook, Connecticut
Entered on May 4, 2008

I have come to believe in the credo “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” though I confess I was taken aback when I first saw these words on a placard by the Chapel at my sons’ new school. What relevance could this Marxist philosophy possibly have to education? I considered the family-style eating in the dining hall – teachers and students sitting together and filling their plates from communal dishes. Something odd was definitely going on here.

In our society, education is typically hierarchical. The motto of our previous elementary school was: “All children can and will learn well.” Not only does this put teachers and students on a different plane, but it describes a one-way flow of knowledge, and a reverence for individual achievement. We decided to try the new school with its small class size and ‘community feeling’.

Eight years of excellent education later, my teenagers are passionate learners and engaged community members. Their school is not a commune or a hotbed of subversive political thought, and yet the phrase on the placard is more than a platitude. In fact, it plays a vital role in the curriculum. “From each according to his abilities” – from third graders wiping down tables after lunch to seniors directing work crews across the campus, students grow to accept jobs of higher responsibility. “To each according to his needs” – high school juniors arrive at school early to help first graders struggling to learn how to read. While individual achievements are celebrated, no one is more important than another, and growth is a community-level process of greater understanding and empathy.

Though the phrase was made famous by Karl Marx, the ideas are found in the Bible, describing the way Christians lived in small groups after Jesus’ death – a social contract for survival in a harsh environment. At its core it is a declaration of human interdependence. As a philosophy of education, it is egalitarian and relationship-focused while our current system is authoritarian and preoccupied with personal success. I know our school is not alone in its efforts, but I believe that most of our educational institutions are producing a nation of self-focused overachievers, ill-equipped to help us survive today’s harsh environment.

As a mother, I sometimes instinctively put my child’s needs and wants first. But these days, my sons, who have been brought up in this compassionate community, do not reprimand me for this. They are merely patient and slightly embarrassed for me, as if I were a child still learning a difficult lesson. No doubt some believe that my children will be disadvantaged in the ‘real world,’ that they will not be able to achieve their dreams because they lack competitive survival skills. But I believe my sons have a deeper understanding of what it means to succeed. They know that if we are to overcome the challenges that lie ahead of us we must do so as a community, as a nation, as a world. The skills they have learned will serve us well.