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The Drama of PossibilityExperience as Philosophy of Culture$

John J. McDermott and Douglas R. Anderson

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780823226627

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: March 2011

DOI: 10.5422/fso/9780823226627.001.0001

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Liberty and Order in the Educational Anthropology of Maria Montessori

Liberty and Order in the Educational Anthropology of Maria Montessori

(p.427) Chapter Twenty-Two Liberty and Order in the Educational Anthropology of Maria Montessori
The Drama of Possibility

John J. McDermott

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents an essay on the concepts of order and liberty in the educational anthropology of Maria Montessori. It was she, more than any other person in the 20th century, who realized that the life of the child demanded an education that was ordered, creative and distinctively personal. For her hope to be realized, it is imperative that Western civilization cease viewing the human situation as hierarchical, whereby the child is required to become an adult as quickly as possible. This essay notes that Montessori shares the late-19th century awareness of the developmental nature of humankind in an evolutionary context with other philosophers including William James, Henri Bergson and John Dewey.

Keywords:   Maria Montessori, educational anthropology, liberty, order, child education, essay

Unfortunately, except when it is centered on a notable and precocious performance here or there, the media's attention to children is generally focused on the heinous crime of child abuse. For those of us for whom children are a sacred trust, the increase of such abuse is bewildering. Part of the cause of such social violence is that as a society, we have not sufficiently articulated both the fragility and the potentialities of the child. The moguls of national education seem to be of little help in this matter, for they concentrate on quantitative scores in their evaluation of children, as though preparing little creatures for a fattening, for entrance into the churning and anomic gears of postindustrial society.

Though many of our children suffer from the deep maladies of inner loneliness, alienation, cultural sadness, and the confusion that often results from troubled families, many educators now think that the number-one priority for a child in our society is the attainment of computer literacy. Surely by now, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, we should realize that mere technological gimmicks do not address the (p.428) needs of the inner life of the child. Maria Montessori (1870–1952), for one, knew better. It was she, more than any other person in the twentieth century, who realized that the life of the child demanded an education that was ordered, creative, and distinctively personal.

Maria Montessori had great hope that the twentieth would be the century of the child. For that hope to be realized, one thing above all was necessary—that Western civilization cease viewing the human situation as hierarchical, as a ladder on which our first steps take meaning only from the last. Within such a conceptual framework, the child was required to become an adult as quickly as possible, and the education was characterized by the imposition on the child of the needs and the frame of reference of the adult world.

Freud, by proving that the phenomena of childhood pervade the human situation, demonstrated the inadequacy of such a viewpoint. He held that adult life could be understood only as a continuance of phases and tensions at work not only in the child but in the infant as well. Unfortunately, the original power of this insight has not been sustained; contemporary psychiatry, occupied with casing the plight of the beleaguered modern adult, has failed to make a breakthrough on the problems posed when Freud's view of the child is placed within the total fabric of society, particularly as related to elementary education. Instead, what were originally placeholders in a fascinating descriptive analysis of infantile and child psychic life have tended to become doctrine closed to experimental reworking; open terms have become locked categories which cut us off from the freeing experiences that should spring from insights as seminal as those of Freud.

Now the biology that informs Maria Montessori's view of the child is of a different cast. She shares with William James, Henri Bergson, and John Dewey the late-nineteenth-century awareness of the developmental nature of humankind in an evolutionary context. The theory of evolution caused most people to look behind them toward the origins of humankind; but the more explosive insight—to use Montessori's metaphor—was achieved by those who took seriously the fact that matter had a history and then boldly affirmed that it must also have a future. An understanding of human life, they held, depends on a new formulation of the unique way in which we live through matter while not equivalent to it. This tradition, central to contemporary thought, offers a (p.429) series of insights and methods that assume a developmental framework and simultaneously point the way to sustenance of those values central to the genuine growth of personal life. It seeks in addition to create new values capable of moving the human situation to the “unheard-of-heights” dreamed of by Thoreau.

Though Americans have begun to realize it only within the last five decades, the work of Maria Montessori is in the forefront of such efforts. It is a unique contribution to a distinctly modern movement. She began her work with mentally retarded children and thus, in a sense, shares a point of departure with Freud, who started with people suffering aberrant personality problems. Yet Montessori soon became far more concerned with the wider possibilities offered by the application of these new scientific methods of inquiry to the normal personality, particularly that of the child. She shares with Dewey an evolutionary and experimental pedagogy, but she is far more willing than he to submit religious and spiritual qualities to the rigorous demands of concrete educational processes. Deeply committed to Catholicism, Montessori nevertheless opposes that type of religiously oriented school which is characterized by an educational theory outmoded in language and insight and negligent of empirical data about the human personality. Montessori demands that the data of anthropology and the natural sciences take their place at the base of educational practices, including those of a religious nature. By comparison, then, with other modern efforts, Montessori's view of the child is perhaps the most comprehensive available. And for this reason, she does not see children as an element in a series of overarching concerns, but rather sees them as an experimental touchstone of both educational methods and the human experience as a whole.

In his biography of Maria Montessori, E. M. Standing brings together the main lines of her thought and places them in the context of their concrete application in the Montessori schools. After a discussion of her early career as a pioneer woman physician in Italy, he turns to an analysis of her remarkably successful work with slum children in 1907. Standing rightly holds that the search for the “normalized child” is at the heart of the Montessori approach and is the catalyst that allowed her so many fruitful insights into the genuine situation of childhood. Reversing the usual approach that considers the child a fertile field in which the (p.430) adult plants the seeds of sound development, or a formless being awaiting the molding of the educator, for Standing Montessori “discovered that children possess different and higher qualities than those we usually attribute to them. It was as if a higher form of personality had been liberated and a new child had come into being.”1

Just as the liberation of the inner life of the child is the point of origin for Montessori's work, so, too, is liberty the atmosphere in which the life of the child is to develop. She then offers us a truly amazing set of interdisciplinary elements as necessary to pedagogy. Her basic atmosphere for the educational process is freedom; her basic methodology is experimental. Montessori seeks as the goal of freedom the ordering of the inner life of the child as well as the ordering of the relationship existing between the highest activities of the mind and those fundamental sense activities so brilliantly described and analyzed by her under the name of “sensorial foundations.” Montessori is also profoundly aware of the necessary communal setting for all individual life; she has bequeathed to us some remarkable instances of successful miniature life-communities carried on in her schools, better known as “prepared environments.” So intriguing is her notion of freedom that she claims as a result of its proper nourishment, children prefer “work” to “play,” or at least the distinction is rendered as not to the point.

If we are given a new set of perspectives for viewing human life, a new set of values and relationships emerges. What has been said of William James by Bergson is certainly true of Montessori; with her “the whole man [woman] counts.” And she shares with James the belief that religious experience is a legitimate, and indeed profound, aspect of the philosophy of the person. In the same decade that Montessori makes her discovery of the “normalized child” and attempts in her Casa dei Bambini to realize experimentally each heretofore hidden dimension of the child's life, James tells us in the conclusion to his Varieties of Religious Experience that “so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term.” Maria Montessori was fascinated by such private and personal phenomena, particularly as found in the child, and she utilized all of the available empirical data and experimental (p.431) techniques. But her insights into the child soon outstripped the techniques she inherited. She was now forced to couple her vision with technical innovations in materials and methods. Only these would enable her to solve the educational problems she clearly diagnosed.

Readers who find themselves enthusiastic about Montessori and her achievements as a result of Standing's exposition should not allow their enthusiasm to flower in a cultural vacuum. Rather, they should acquaint themselves with the intentions, accomplishments, and weaknesses of the American educational establishment. It makes no sense to adhere to Montessori's program at the expense of that of John Dewey and other pioneers in early-childhood education, most of whose vision has been distorted in the competitive atmosphere so characteristic of early-learning centers. To do so would be the height of irony, since one reason the Montessori method did not take root earlier in America, despite its effort to do so, was the fact that it was too often seen as an antidote to American educational practice and values when, in fact, Montessori schools can be structured to sustain those values that are worthy. The gap between the philosophical, psychological, and social perception of the child as held by Montessori and that held by John and Alice Chip-man Dewey and their followers is small and not significant. Montessori had a richer grasp of the life of the child, whereas the Deweys knew more of the social and environmental context in which children come to consciousness and learn.

A second problem is the temptation to accept the Montessori system whole and entire rather than as one set of seminal insights among several, all of which can be used to formulate an expandable educational theory. (The adherents of Freud face this difficulty, as do the adherents of Montessori.) Certainly, the varied exercises of Montessori's pedagogy form a remarkably coherent and unified latticework of theory and practice. Yet she herself regarded that splendid creation as un tentativo: the person who ceases to be experimental ceases to follow Montessori's example. The cultish atmosphere that at times surrounds her followers does violence to her basic concerns. For example, the famous Montessori materials used for teaching reading and mathematics lack contemporary aesthetic qualities; there is no reason they cannot and should not (p.432) be radically improved through experiment. Some followers, however, consider them sacrosanct, an indication perhaps that they have lost Montessori's commitment to scientific inquiry. Rigid devotion to the details of her method might permit Montessori schools to spread, but they would do so as a parallel system—something foreign, something that did not penetrate to the heart of the contemporary scene. It would be far wiser to be an advocate of those elements essential to Montessori's view of the child, for they can stand not only the test of time but the fluid nature of the society in which we live.

The most striking feature of Montessori's work is that her method, her teachers, and the learning children in her programs are to be found throughout the world. No other educator has such global influence, for although Pestalozzi, Rousseau, Herbart, and Piaget have each made their contributions, they are restricted for the most part to Western culture. John Dewey, it is true, has had enormous influence in East Asia but not in Western Europe, Latin America, or Africa. Montessori, to the contrary, has struck a more universal chord. I trace this important fact to three sources. First, she wisely believed that children of very early age had an ability to learn—independent of their peer-group cultures—that was rarely tapped in any formal way. Second, it was not necessary to import teachers who had a secret message to deliver. Indeed, teachers in the usual sense were not part of the Montessori picture. What was important was the presence of Montessori directresses, and later directors, who could be either imported or homegrown so long as they honored the autodidactic activities of the children. It was the children, after all, who taught themselves, so long as the environment was prepared, the materials utilized, and the goals or directions made clear. In very young children this could take place, and has taken place, in a wide variety of cultures throughout the world. Third, the Montessori children were not class-structured. From the first days of the Casa dei Bambini, Montessori was convinced that children of all backgrounds and all cultural limitations were capable of self-learning. Indeed, it is often characteristic of a Montessori program that the children are representative of a far wider range of cultural and economic advantages than is true in the more traditional programs.

The global influence of Montessori was not an accident of history. Long before our own awareness of the inextricability of our lives on this (p.433) Planet, she saw the need for the recognition and development of the abilities of children throughout the world. As early as 1910, she resigned her lectureship at the University of Rome, struck her name from the list of practicing physicians, and committed herself to “all the children in the world, born and as yet unborn.” She then began a lifelong journey on behalf of children's rights and of their liberation from the darkness of unknowing. Her work was to take her beyond Italy to the United States, Latin America, India, Ceylon, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Spain, Austria, and Pakistan. UNESCO had its spiritual if unsung founder, and the global consciousness of our time can he traced back to its remarkable anticipation by this extraordinary educator.

When Maria Montessori died in 1952, she was all but unknown in the United States. But her view of education can contribute to the solution of problems facing contemporary America. In 1984, there were close to one thousand Montessori schools in the United States. Further, there is increasing evidence of the influence of the Montessori method on early-learning programs of every persuasion. To those concerned with religious education, she speaks of the role that experiment and awareness of the child's developmental nature must play if true religious education is to be achieved. For those concerned with public and secular education, she cuts through the peculiar dilemma that arises from the affirmation of the continuity of school and society and the simultaneous denial of the teaching of values central to that very same continuity. To all, the work of Maria Montessori proclaims that the role of the spirit in the development of the child—a role that experimental methods help us define—can be wedded to a methodology harmonious with the nature of the child and pointing toward the direction modern pedagogy must take. In this way, the work of Maria Montessori presents a vigorous challenge to American thought and culture, particularly as ramified in education. After all, if we are to have a future, every century should be the century of the child.

The Present Setting

The current interest in Montessori results in part from a willingness to read her afresh in the light of new contributions to learning theory, and (p.434) in part from the urgent need for guidance, new or old, in facing the crushing problems of school systems that are not fulfilling their function of educating all of the children. Almost a century ago, the rejection of Montessori after an initial burst of interest was largely the result of an unnecessary and false tension that developed between “Progressivism in American Education” and Montessori.2 The basic criticism of Montessori, as offered by William Heard Kilpatrick, seemed to center on her failure to provide for “self-directing adaptation to a novel environment.”3 And the Deweys, although more sympathetic to Montessori than Kilpatrick was, could say that “Montessori, in common with the older psychologists, believes that people have ready-made faculties which can be trained and developed for general purposes, regardless of whether the acts by which they are exercised have any meaning other than the training they afford.”4 I would suggest that both of these attitudes result from a misreading of the Montessori method and fail to consider her already published Pedagogical Anthropology. The notion of structure, so central to Montessori's thought, does not of itself preclude the variety of experiences that is indispensable for learning. The entire criticism is rendered ineffectual by Montessori's explicit remarks relative to novelty, as found in Spontaneous Activity in Education: “As a fact, every object may have infinite attributes; and if, as often happens in object-lessons, the origins and ultimate ends of the object itself are included among these attributes, the mind has literally to range throughout the universe.”5 It is not simply a question of quantity that is at stake here, but rather the relationship between the potentialities of the child and the kind of experiences offered. It is not the number of options that constitutes novelty, for “it is the qualities of the objects, not the objects themselves which are important.”6 In his own language, Dewey comes to the same conclusion when he laments the lack of order in progressive education. He cautions that “it is not enough to insist upon the necessity of experience, nor even of activity in experience. Everything depends upon the quality of the experience which is had.”7

There were, of course, other reasons for the rejection of Montessori in her first American phase. As J. Mac. Hunt points out in his introduction to The Montessori Method, she ran into several of the more firmly (p.435) held psychological clichés relative to “fixed intelligence” and the “unimportance of early experience.”8 By the 1960s, the commitment to early learning of a prekindergarten kind had finally found its way into actual school operations. This applies particularly to “culturally disadvantaged” children, for whom there was then under way, partially by government sanction, a program of learning beginning at age four. Montessori, by name, is rarely mentioned in the framing of the new programs, although they were an obvious concession to the broadest dimensions of her revolution in educational practice—namely, the view that six years of age is late in life to begin the formal learning process.9

This development, devoted as it was to early learning, would seem to have bypassed Montessori and rendered her work an historical footnote. But there is a major difficulty in such a judgment: it is one thing to begin schooling at age three and quite another to know what to do for such children. In the American tradition, there exists a great gap between sophisticated learning theory and actual classroom practice. This is particularly true for programs centering on ages three to five, where, aside from the nursery school tradition, we have had very little practical experience of a public kind. With regard to those programs which look to early learning as a crucial step in alleviating some of the difficulties engendered by children coming to self-consciousness in an enervating environment, we are starting from scratch. In this situation it seems reasonable to study anew the liberal and seminal side of Montessori's thought for its relevance not only to the “culturally disadvantaged” child but also to the broader needs of early education.

Process and Structure

Montessori is most fruitfully read within the framework of the late-nine-teenth-century upheaval in experimental and philosophical psychology.10 She shares the metaphors and concerns of Bergson, James, and the early Dewey.11 The methodological breakthrough that characterized the nineteenth century had two sources of energy. First, an insight into the historical as a matrix for all inquiry. Found as early as the eighteenth century in the thought of Vico and Herder, it is primarily identified with the work of Hegel. Second, the emphasis on the developmental character of nature and, thereby, of behavior. This emphasis is essentially the (p.436) result of the Darwinian version of evolution. Parenthetically, it is also the basic theme of Montessori's Pedagogical Anthropology, where she states that “man changes as he grows; the body itself not only undergoes an increase in volume, but a profound evolution in the harmony of its parts and the composition of its tissues; in the same way, the psychic personality of man does not grow, but evolves, like the predisposition to disease which varies at different ages in each individual considered pathologically.”12 From the contemporary vantage point, we see the historical and developmental strands as actually a single contention, to wit: that the object of inquiry can no longer be seen as fixed or as “standing out” in such a way as to yield intelligibility from a single perspective. The implications for a methodology of inquiry were clear. If the object under scrutiny is found to be developmental, whether it be from the side of its history or from the side of its behavior, then the method of analysis must recognize and manifest development. Put another way, the insight into structure or order would have to be a function of activity or of process. To isolate the object of inquiry from this process and claim for it the reality in question would be a denial of the transformation implicit in all activity, and, in effect, would close off novelty from the act of inquiry.

The nineteenth century, then, reversed the classical priority, in which order was assumed and the difficulty centered on how to account for change. Transformation, development, and process became primary, whereas order and structure seemed subsequently imposed.13 Perhaps the most revealing testimony to this state of affairs in the nineteenth century was found in impressionism, directed as it was to an evocation of the world consonant with the ways in which we experience, rather than to a statement of the nature of its underlying constituents. This attitude is crystallized in the work of Claude Monet, whose painting in terms of the flow of light suggested the view that there were no fixed objects but only a series of momentary versions which we catch on the run. William James puts it best when he urges that “we reinstate the vague and inarticulate to its proper place in our mental life.”14 There were, however, severe problems in this reversal of the relationship between structure and process.

(p.437) If structure were but a function of an ongoing development, did this not raise a question about the fundamental intelligibility of the world? After all, how could science and philosophy maintain their role in dispensing cognitive certitude in a world in which the very points of mooring, so trustworthy in the past, were to be seen merely as functional ways of managing the ever-changing flow of experience?15 In our day, the struggle between process and structure must be carried on within the context of process. This new beginning, with its roots in Hegel and Darwin, created an extraordinary ferment at the end of the nineteenth century, a ferment which remains active today. Three thinkers of that time made this question basic in their work: William James, John Dewey, and Maria Montessori. Their thought had tremendous repercussions for a theory of education.

Notwithstanding the difference in her style and subject matter, Montessori breaks through to offer specific contributions to the nagging problems that accompany the need to formulate this ongoing, developmental view of humanity. Further, it is Montessori, above all others, who holds to the entwining of empirical method, scientific data, and human aspirations—specifically as they are found in the world of the child—as the irreducible elements in any theory of education.16 What of the oft-heard charge that the Montessori version of early learning is committed to structure at the expense of potential growth? This charge holds that Montessori contravenes the most consistent insight of the behavioral sciences—namely, the primacy of the developmental and the processive. A more profound awareness of the generalized context in which she developed her thought would render this charge false. In fact, the situation is reversed. Not only does Montessori share this developmental point of view, but she makes a notable contribution by formulating it in pedagogical terms. In a sense, she can be said to have reoriented the philosophical question of the relationship between structure and process from the side of personal life, phrased as the relationship between liberty and order.

We are long past the time when it is possible to take a stand for one side of a disjunction between liberty and order.17 The present way of stating this problem clearly posits a delicate web of relationships that enable liberty and order to feed each other, although Montessori makes (p.438) it clear that of the two categories, it is liberty that is seminal and the way of experience. In The Montcssori Method, she tells us that “the pedagogical method of observation has for its base the liberty of the child; and liberty is activity.”18 Furthermore, in Pedagogical Anthropology, Montessori has indicated that liberty, as the sponsor, is the source from which one proceeds to delineate order. “It is this liberty that makes it possible for us to pursue experimental investigations, without fear that our brains may become sterile. And by liberty we mean readiness to accept new concepts whenever experience proves to us that they are better and closer to the truth that we are seeking.”19 But coming full circle, with her characteristic sense of balance she tells us in Spontaneous Activity that “creation finds its expansion in order.” Again, “the consciousness may possess a rich and varied content; but where there is mental confusion, the intelligence does not appear.” It is precisely within this framework of liberty and order that Montessori generates a series of new insights into the life of the child and the most effective way to educate him or her.

Sensitive Periods, Materials, and Environment

There are three major dimensions to Montessori's view of the child. First, she holds to the existence of sensitive periods in which the child is most amenable to personal development along specific lines. She delineates sensitive periods for language, order, and manners, among other areas of development, and contends that they occur most sharply in the very young child and cannot be artificially induced at a later time. In what is an obvious commitment to a behavioristic point of departure, she declares these sensitive periods to be the foundations for fruitful interaction between emergent personal life and the environment. In explaining how the child assimilates his environment, Montessori declares that “he does it solely in virtue of one of those characteristics that we now know him to have. This is an intense and specialized sensitiveness in consequence of which the things about him awaken so much interest and so much enthusiasm that they become incorporated in his very existence. The child absorbs these impressions not with his mind but with his life itself.”20 It is important to realize that Montessori, in contrast to (p.439) many Montessorians, does not construe these sensitive periods as fixed levels of development, but rather as phases of response on the part of the organism to the environment. Montessori is certainly closer to Dewey's refinement of the “Reflex Arc Concept” than she is to the fixed develop-mental schema of Spencer.21 Indeed, in Spontaneous Activity, she clearly breaks with Spencer. Further, her chapters on “Attention,” “Will,” and “Intelligence” are explicitly indebted to William James's Principles of Psychology. And, above all, her notion of the “sensitive periods” is not to be seen as a hangover from the older, discredited faculty psychology. Dewey's above-cited opinion notwithstanding, Montessori tells us in The Absorbent Mind that she in no way intends an atomistic conception of the mind but rather holds to the view that “the mental organism is a dynamic whole, which transforms its structure by active experience obtained from its surroundings.”22 From one point of view, Montessori would heartily agree with William James, who believed that “revival” in the human endeavor was consonant with the belief that “the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.”23 But she would hold equally to the need for specifying the ways in which this congeniality can be structured. As a result of this concern, she develops the notion of didactic materials and its sociological correlate, that of a “prepared environment.”

Even those who are out of sympathy with Montessori acknowledge the fundamental genius of her materials. Introduced in The Montessori Method, they are carefully described in Dr. Montessori's own Handbook and in The Montessori Elementary Material, which is volume 2 of the Advanced Montessori Method. Devoted to education of the senses and to preparation for work in the arts, and conceived as a basic method for stimulating reading, writing, and mathematical ability, these materials are still of considerable value, although not completely adequate for our present situation.24 But what should occupy us here are the implications of the very notion of didactic materials. It has long been an attitude of the “humanist” view that apparatus of whatever kind can never adequately perform the personalizing function of the teacher-pupil relationship. In our time, this prejudice is confronted by the tremendous pressure of those who wish to effect a technological revolution in the schools. From the latter point of view, those who hold to the supremacy (p.440) of the interpersonal situation for educational growth stand in the way of an absolutely necessary transformation of the schools. So critical a problem is this transformation that even those who side with the traditional use of materials are about to be bypassed. In a 1964 essay on “Technology and the Instructional Process,” James D. Finn could write that “the concept of programming and systems analysis it implies completely absorbs the idea of materials. Instructional materials becomes an outmoded atomistic, pretechnological concept useful mainly to the historians of education.”25 And again in 2001, the same claim can be made, and, sadly, must be made again.

Montessori materials may be pretechnological, perhaps even preindustrial, but they symbolize a breakthrough of major importance to both the defenders of the status quo and the new technologists. Montessori's use of materials reminds us, first, that the teacher is not necessarily the dispenser of learning, for the child may very well find himself in a more liberating and instructive situation when utilizing carefully structured physical correlates to his instinctual learning powers. Second, and of great significance from the other side, Montessori sees the didactic materials as of a piece with the entire classroom setting. They share with the furniture, the activity of the teacher, and the exercises of practical life an orientation to the experience of the child, and are thereby inseparable from what she calls the “prepared environment.” It would be of great peril for contemporary education, particularly in its coming technological phase, to ignore this insight into the organic continuity between materials, environment, and the inner life of the child. The technological revolution in education—be it in the direction of the earlier Skinner boxes, or the teaching machines of O. K. Moore, or the now-emerging automated classroom—must be chastened by a sober awareness of the role played by the school environment.

Montessori has shown that it is not the teacher by himself or herself that is crucial, but rather the humanizing effect of the setting, including the teacher, in which children are to learn. There is no reason for us to limit ourselves to Montessori's specific suggestions on the nature of the “prepared environment,” although they seem to be based on more solid observational evidence than many other options offered to us. Furthermore, in their broader considerations of mobility and classroom furniture, her insights have already been absorbed. What we must take (p.441) seriously, however, is her fundamental vision of the living context in which learning takes place. Seeing this context rather as a “preparing environment,” we must demand that innovations, no matter how capable of solving individual learning problems, must prove themselves within the total fabric of learning. This is an awareness that should characterize the schools and, for that matter, the whole of the human situation.

Montessori and the “Culturally Disadvantaged” Child

In addition to the generalized insights that would result from a careful analysis of Montessori, there is a more pressing reason to examine her approach: its peculiar relevance to the problem of “cultural deprivation.” The early 1960s saw imaginative educators and social critics urging the larger community to address itself to the educational crisis spawned by racial ghettoes (now the “inner city”) and poverty, and to view it within the context of an increasingly complex and mobile society.

It is well known that the restriction of childhood experiences to a narrow and drab environment results in serious personal damage. We are no longer distracted from this problem by “Horatio Alger” stories, however gratifying in themselves, about the singular few who have transcended their environment. It makes little difference whether we draw the implications for education from the broad perspective given to us by Michael Harrington's Other America or from the more specific statement by John Silberman,26 which charged that “neither the large cities nor the nation as a whole can afford a public-school system which fails to educate between 50 and 80 percent of its Negro and white slum students.”27 The problem was conceived of as needing an imaginative program addressed directly to this situation, described by Kimball and McClellan as “where there is a basic difference between the mobility culture of America as a whole and the aspirations of a locality, as in the racial ghettoes of our large cities, the standard fare is a failure. We have yet to design anything for areas like these.”28 So staggering an influence is the local environment, especially when coupled with the absence of positive family life, that it was understood that many a child of six years of age was already beyond substantial transformation, despite the best (p.442) intentions and efforts of the school. This being so, the significance of early learning—not only from ages three to five, but into the period of kindergarten and the first grade—was not primarily a matter of learning theory or procedures. The question was rather one of basic human nutrition, for poor children were understood for the most part as being cut off from growth experiences which would be of a more significant quality than the intellectual emphasis fostered in today's schools. The necessity for a freshly structured and incisive approach to these problems took precedence over any more speculative theory of learning. Such theories were of questionable relevance in the face of a widespread application. It is not enough to describe the children as “broken” or the schools as “delinquent.” At his best, Martin Deutsch stated the position well: “it is unfair to imply that the school has all the appropriate methods at its disposal and has somehow chosen not to apply them. On the contrary, what is called for is flexible experimentation in the development of new methods, the clear delineation of the problem, and the training and retraining of administrative and teaching personnel in the educational philosophy and the learning procedures that this problem requires.”29

Of course, added to this specific social structural problem of the “culturally disadvantaged” child is the more generalized one of the increased automation and bureaucracy that characterizes our American society, with its ensuing demand for a comprehensive retooling of the entire school process. It is true that the resolution of these difficulties, particularly those involving estrangement from the community, demands a reworking of the environment. It is also significant to note, however, that a major contributing factor would be the ability of the schools to offer a realistic program to meet the actual situation in which these or any children find themselves. Clearly we can no longer assume the standard school operation, with or without increased expenditures, to be adequate. What seems to be needed here is an educational program that will recognize, accumulate, and encompass hostile environmental structures, and thereby encourage a development in the child that is personally expansive and socially conscious.30 The “prepared environment” of Montessori, so successful with the Italian slum children among whom her work began, deserves renewed study with the effort to alleviate the alienation of an ever-growing number of children in our communities.

(p.443) More specifically, then, what can the Montessori perspective contribute to the contemporary renewal of the schools? John Silberman puts it this way:

The Montessori approach may be particularly relevant to our time for a number of reasons. It emphasizes what psychologists call “intrinsic motivation”—harnessing the child's innate curiosity and de-light in discovery. Each child is free, therefore, to examine and work with whatever interests him, for as long as it interests him, from the materials that are available. What is available is determined by the Montessori concept of “prepared environment,” which places great stress on training the sensory processes: cognition is enhanced by providing stimuli to all the senses.31

Of particular importance is Montessori's contention that the young child is characterized by self-creating energies, which can be sustained and enhanced by the imaginative and controlled use of environmental materials. It is not that this “prepared environment” denies the power or centrality of the neighborhood or family, but rather that it stresses experience options heretofore largely neglected. A fascinating parallel to this effort of Montessori can be seen in the work of Sylvia Ashton-War-ner,32 whose experience also shows how extraneous to the life of the child are the great majority of educational materials. In emphasizing the active interrelationship of the personal and the instinctive, the Montessori approach encourages human growth, which is ever characterized by a genuine physical and psychical development proportionate to the demands placed on intelligence.

The constant, and often unnecessary, appeal to conceptualization that generally prevails in school experience is for many youngsters an over-whelming and illegitimate demand. This results not so much from lack of intelligence as from the arrangement of institutionalized education that renders intellectual activity largely irrelevant. When we are asked to develop an assessment of “experience” age rather than of “chronological” age at the same time we are asking teachers to develop rich environments for enhancing the activities of their children, then we are in the tradition of Montessori's primal insight into the relationship between awareness and achievement, an insight that enabled her to pioneer the notion of “ungraded primaries.” After all, isn't Jung basically correct (p.444) when he states that “one consequence of repressing the instincts is that the importance of conscious thinking for action is boundlessly over-esti-mated”?33 Such excessive concern for conceptual learning causes endless invidious comparisons to the substance of education, even for the very young. This is so powerful a tradition that, in one of the classic ironies of our time, Montessori schools are often sought out by parents so that their children will distinguish themselves intellectually at an early age. Such an objective reflects, of course, a serious misinterpretation of Montessori. It is offensive to her vital concern for an integral, personal development of the child, in which the activity of intelligence would be liberating for self and community, and not developed for the purpose of giving an edge to the youngster as he enters the competitive arena. And what a disaster that intellectual competition has become the hallmark of new interest in early learning, a development that advances the “dropout” syndrome of the “culturally disadvantaged” child by some three years!

It is not the purpose of early learning, especially for the “culturally disadvantaged,” simply to simulate the school experience at an earlier period. Rather, it is to effect a liberation of the personality, and to establish a living and fecund relationship with the environment that can make subsequent learning possible. In effect, Montessori attempted to recast the very mode of inquiry in a way that would bypass the reigning dualism between the task of intelligence and the development of instinctual life. In so doing she moves directly to the problems afflicting those children who are cut off from taking advantage of the school as the major vestibule through which they might have access to the society. By the very fact that it concentrates on early learning, beginning at age three, the Montessori approach frees itself of the burden of making its first achievements primarily intellectual. The emphasis on muscle control, or the “exercises of practical life,” introduces the child to the dialectic of activity with respect to the body. In such an approach, the child is seldom put to an irremediable disadvantage as he or she begins to create an explicit tie to the world through mastery of the physical environment. Socially conditioned within the “prepared environment,” the child thereby begins the process of self-realization, so indispensable because of the burdens subsequently placed upon all children in the name of intelligence and achievement.

(p.445) Montessori's position is clear: the school environment should be organized to reflect the actual potentialities and needs of the child rather than the superimposed compensations and burdens of the adult world. At this state of the discussion, Montessori's specific ideas as to the “prepared environment” are not crucial but her insight into the need for such an environment and her assertion that it takes its lead from the life of the child are absolutely critical. Jung has told us that “we do not usually listen to children at any stage of their careers, in all the essentials we treat them as non compos mentis and in all the unessentials, they are drilled to the perfection of automatons.”34 It is in this spirit that Montessori insists that the revamping of the “prepared environment” should take place always in terms of hard or observational data gathered from the children themselves. This applies to all teachers, in all teaching situations. Each teaching situation develops its own insights. The insight developed in the “laboratory” school, whose insights are not easily applied elsewhere, often loses relevance when shifted to a less favorable environment.35

Montessori saw the “school itself in action” as a “kind of scientific laboratory for the psychogenetic study of man.”36 Sharing with Dewey a keen pragmatic concern, she insists on the inseparability of intellectual modes of inquiry, that we have neglected studying the countless other ways in which the child humanizes his environment—and this in spite of the major currents of contemporary thought, especially in art and social psychology, which continually reveal new ways of conducting inquiry.

American education, hurried on by the demands of information technologies, on the one hand, and large numbers of “culturally disadvantaged” children, on the other, may very well have to make a radical breakthrough in the area of inquiry. It would seem that we have come to the end of the classical mode of inquiry characterized by its dualism of subject/object, cognitive/noncognitive, and mind/matter. Philosophy and psychology have been struggling to abandon them, but in the realm of public language these polarities are more persistent, particularly as formulated in educational terms. We tend to speak of “tracks” and “dropouts,” both mechanical metaphors, and in our personal evaluations we systemically bypass experience in favor of externalized categories, such as diplomas and degrees. In a word, we are committed to a (p.446) single version of the educational process and have failed to incorporate into our basic school structure what many disciplines have shown in a smaller setting to be the untapped ways in which the human personality opens itself to learning experiences. Montessori certainly has no specific answer to this gnarl of problems, but she stands with Freud, James, and Dewey in pointing to the misleading, and even self-deceptive, character of an education derived primarily from the activities of the intellect.

Spontaneous Activity in Education

After reading and analyzing The Montessori Method, one is moved to inquire about the nature of the ideas that support such insights. Further, one wonders whether Montessori's views are limited in application to ages three to seven. Her Spontaneous Activity in Education attempts to sketch out a reply to the first question, and, in conjunction with The Montessori Elementary Material, extends her concerns to children aged seven to eleven.

Like most of Montessori's writing, Spontaneous Activity has an impressionistic quality. There are long stretches, particularly in the chapter “Imagination,” which are almost conversational in tone and seem to refer to experiences and concerns of a local kind, never clarified in the text. But the way to read Montessori is to allow her to introduce large problems in such a way that we may subsequently break through the encrusted prejudices surrounding them and encourage a reworking of the most fundamental kind. The very notion of “spontaneous activity” as the source for curriculum development is a typical Montessori insight. This was not only a major revolution in her time but is still useful, for, in our own age, “spontaneity” is honored as a watchword but rarely reflects actual practice. In any event, the basic simplicity of Montessori's thought, and its expression in a type of rambling, colloquial prose, should not keep us from dwelling on the extremely important problems she brings to light.

Her primary concern is the problem of liberty. She early anticipates one type of subsequent criticism,37 as expressed in her statement that “the principle of liberty is not therefore a principle of abandonment.”38 Indeed, true order in the life of the child is a hopeless endeavor outside (p.447) the atmosphere of liberty. “Hitherto the liberty of the child has been vaguely discussed; no clearly defined limit has been established between liberty and abandonment.”39 Montessori felt that even the newly won admission of the child's hygienic rights was but a prelude to what she called “the civil rights of the child in the twentieth century.” And “civil rights” they are, as the term is used today: the right to make optimum use of the environment, to achieve the fullest realization of one's personal life. This theme preoccupied Montessori throughout her life; else-where she writes of the need “to educate the human potential.”40

In Spontaneous Activity, she sets down the basic structure as consisting of an inseparability between the growth patterns of physical and psychical life, as understood within a specific environmental setting. Put another way, it is the dialectic between liberty and the demands of the environment that brings the child to self-realization. This theme is expressed effectively in the chapters treating “Experimental Science,” “Attention,” and “Intelligence,” the strongest in the book. In line with this concern she tells us that “it is necessary that the spontaneous activity of the child should be accorded perfect liberty.”41 Liberty does not mean for Montessori that the children be sated with what we think they want. Indeed, “overabundance debilitates and retards progress; this has been proved again and again by my collaborators.”42 And of course, deprivation of stimulus material will all but eliminate spontaneity.43 The thing to be exactly determined is: what is “necessary and sufficient as a response to the internal needs of a life in process of development, that is, of upward progression, of ascent?”44 Is there a more important question in the education of young children?

For many, this concern for the interweaving of physical, psychical, and intellectual growth is a truism. But they have often given up hope of utilizing current institutions to achieve social amelioration, whence the favor shown the creation of imaginative parallel structures, such as Walden II, Summerhill, and the suggestions of Paul Goodman. These ideas have an important critical effect, but to function as a transforming element in our society, they must demand that our basic institutions— for example, the schools—start virtually anew. Now the exciting aspect of Montessori's revolution in education is that, taken as a point of departure, it does not involve the creation of a parallel and totally different (p.448) social structure. In accordance with the American commitment to public education, the approach of Montessori should urge us to redirect our energies to bring about a more integral development of all children by means that are liberating in educational content and gentle in extraneous effects.45 The question at stake is fundamental. Do we believe that the school introduces the child to the rote assimilation of an already-structured version of human life, or do we believe that the school is the arch through which the process of insight, liberation, and human growth proceeds? It is clear where Montessori stands.


(1.) E. M. Standing, Maria MontessoriHer Life and Work, with an introduction by John J. McDermott (New York: New American Library, 1984 [1957]), 33.

(2.) The complexity of this early-twentieth-century period in American education is carefully analyzed by Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962).

(3.) William Heard Kilpatrick, The Montessori System Examined (Boston: 1914), 10; see also Robert H. Beck, “Kilpatrick's Critique of Montessori's Method and Theory,” Studies in Philosophy and Education 1 (November 1961): 153–62. This essay, like that of Kilpatrick, rests solely on an interpretation of The Montessori Method, and no attempt is made to redress Montessori's reputation in the light of her other writings, as, for example, Spontaneous Activity in Education, with an intro. by John J. McDermott (New York: Schocken, 1965 [1917]).

(4.) Evelyn Dewey and John Dewey, Schools of Tomorrow (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1962 [1915]), 118.

(5.) Montessori, Spontaneous Activity, 207.

(7.) John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1956 [1938]), 16. A further anticipation by Montessori of pragmatic concerns is found in her Spontaneous Activity, 154–57 and 159–65.

(8.) Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method (New York: Schocken, 1964 [1912]), xx–xxiv. This essay is by far the best statement of Montessori's significance from a psychological point of view.

(9.) An historical note: however halting may have been the work of the American Montessori Society, founded nearly a decade ago by Nancy McCormick Rambusch, there is little doubt that it has been one of the decisive catalysts in forcing educators to look again, not necessarily at Montessori, but certainly at early learning. Of itself, this will prove to be a major contribution.

(p.552) (10.) We do not, of course, deny the often acknowledged influence of Jean Itard (1775–1838) and Edouard Seguin (1812–1880) on Montessori. The work of Seguin, devoted to “mental defectives,” was especially influential in her early thought.

(11.) With regard to James and Bergson, this tie to Montessori was recognized as early as 1912; see Harriet Hunt, The Psychology of Auto-Education (Syracuse, N.Y.: 1912).

(12.) Maria Montessori, Pedagogical Anthropology (New York: 1913), 17–18.

(13.) Edwin Boring states that “it seems fair to say that the process-nature of consciousness, the fact of change and flux, has been pretty clearly recognized since about 1890” (Boring, The Physical Dimensions of Consciousness [New York: 1933], 216n).

(14.) William James, Psychology: Briefer Course (New York: Collier, 1962 [1892]), 179.

(15.) See G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 589, for the dangers of self-deception that accompany such cultural changes.

(16.) J. McV. Hunt, intro. to The Montessori Method, xxxiv, is no doubt right when he states that Montessori “confused experimentation with clinical observation.” I simply mean to stress, at this point, her demand that pedagogy be open to the specific conclusions of science. Even today, this is no mean request and, given her time, it was a position of great boldness and imagination.

(17.) See the chapter “Liberty within Limits” inNancy McCormick Rambusch, Learning How to Learn(Baltimore: Helicon, 1962), 24–28.

(18.) Montessori, The Montessori Method, 86.

(19.) Montessori, Pedagogical Anthropology, 22–23.

(20.) Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind (New York: Adyar, 1959), 23.

(21.) See John Dewey, “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology,” Psychological Review3 (July 1896): 357–70.

(22.) Montessori, Absorbent Mind, 82.

(23.) William James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in idem, The Will to Believe(New York: Dover, 1956 [1882]), 86.

(24.) An acute appreciation of the didactic materials and their limitation is given by Martin Mayer in his introduction to another edition of Montessori, The Montessori Method(Cambridge: Robert Bentley, 1964), xxx–xxxviii.

(25.) James D. Finn, “Technology and the Instructional Process,” in The Revolution in the Schools, ed. Ronald Gross and Judith Murphy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964), 29–30.

(26.) See Michael Harrington, The Other America (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 56, 65–66.

(p.553) (27.) John Silberman, “Give Slum Children a Chance,” Harper's (May 1964): 42.

(28.) Solon T. Kimball and James E. McClellan, Education and the New America(New York: Random House, 1962), 8.

(29.) Martin Deutsch, “The Disadvantaged Child and the Learning Process,” in Education in Depressed Areas, ed. A. Harry Passow (New York: Teachers College, 1963), 178.

(30.) See the pertinent remark of Deutsch, “Disadvantaged Child”: “Part of an hypothesis now being tested in a new pre-school program is based on the assumption that early intervention by well-structured programs will significantly reduce the attenuating influence of the socially marginal environment” (178).

(31.) Silberman, “Slum Children,” 41–42.

(32.) See Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Teacher (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963).

(33.) C. G. Jung, The Development of Personality (New York: Pantheon, 1954), 15n5.

(35.) See Hunt, intro. to Montessori, The Montessori Method, xxxiv, for a careful statement of the continuing significance of Montessori's position on the relationship between observation and pedagogy.

(36.) Montessori, Spontaneous Activity, 125.

(37.) Montessori is often criticized for (a) a rigidity of setting and (b) giving too much freedom to the young child. I find this ambiguity in Montessori's critics to be indicative of the actual balance in her doctrine of liberty.

(38.) Montessori, Spontaneous Activity, 9–10.

(40.) Maria Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential (New York: Adyar, 1961).

(41.) Montessori, Spontaneous Activity, 71.

(43.) Montessori's insight into stimulus deprivation is powerfully set forth in Spontaneous Activity, 25–26, in a brief analysis of prison life. For her, significantly, starvation of the spirit occurs when one is cut off from a richness of colors, sounds, and forms.

(45.) The significance, possibilities, and limitations of Montessori within the American cultural context are examined by John J. McDermott, “Montessori and the New America,” in Building the Foundations for Creative Learning, ed. U. H. Fleege (New York: American Montessori Society, 1964), 10–28.