Many will write today about the inspirational figure that is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I could add my voice to that chorus again, but this year I’d like to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy by writing about another peacemaker, another believer in the idea that only love can drive out hate: Dr. Maria Montessori.
Many are familiar with Dr. Montessori as a brilliant figure in education who developed a method for teaching children that is still widely used and respected today. Her methods have truly stood the test of time, and in recent years have been shown to align even with the most current research into child development 1, hence the method’s continued popularity.
There was far more to Maria Montessori, however. Not only was she a brilliant educator, educational philosopher, and physician, but she was a champion for peace and for equal rights. Despite her parents’ recommendation, Maria specifically chose not to study education since one of the few professional roles that the women of her day were encouraged to fill was that of a teacher. Instead, she pursued other interests and eventually attended the University of Rome’s medical school at a time when a woman doing such a thing was virtually unheard of. She faced a great deal of persecution in her time there, but persevered to become one of Italy’s first female doctors. She was her own women’s rights movement.
Montessori’s early work was in the university’s psychiatric clinic, where she worked with children with severe disabilities – children who at the time were considered “defective” and uneducable. She threw herself into research on methods of education that might reach these children, going to great lengths to find the resources she needed. She truly stood back and observed the children in her care, seeing them simply as children requiring a different approach. She treated them like human beings worthy of the same dedication and respect that “normal” children were given. Not surprisingly, these children were actually quite capable of being educated, and this fact was clearly shown when, after working with Dr. Montessori, they presented for the same state exams that their peers were given and received above-average scores. She gave these children her respect and dedication as well as fair treatment, and they thrived.
The first Montessori school, or Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) was not an elite private school like many of the Montessori schools of today. Instead, it was located in a housing complex in an extremely poor area of Rome 2. Dr. Montessori was brought in to solve the problem of these children, who were too young to attend the schools of the day, being left unsupervised while their parents were out working, and causing damage to the building itself.
Montessori took on this work, and the lives of the children in that first Children’s House were transformed by it, so much so that many more Children’s Houses were opened in the years that followed. Montessori believed, even then, in the education of the whole child and recognized the tremendous work that would have to be done in order to help these young children develop in a way that would empower them to come out of the poverty and oppressive conditions they were growing up in. There was great work to be done here, and the education of a small number of children was a start, but Montessori called for more. Each Children’s House, she said, was to be assigned both a “directress,” or teacher, and a physician. The mothers of the children in attendance were expected to meet with the directress each week. In this way, the goals of the Children’s House and goals of the home could be aligned, and the benefit of the Children’s House could touch the entire family. Montessori explains,
We have placed it [the Children's House] within as the property of the collectivity …
This idea of the collective ownership of the school is new and very beautiful and profoundly educational.
The parents know that the Children’s House is their property, and is maintained by a portion of the rent they pay. The mothers may go at any hour of the day to watch, to admire, or to meditate upon the life there3.
Montessori goes on to explain how the creation of the Children’s House is just the beginning of many changes she believes are possible, that will serve to liberate women
from all those attributes that once made her desirable to man only as the source of the material blessings of existence…She shall wish to be loved for herself and not for herself and not as a giver of love and repose3.”
In the creation and maintenance of the Children’s Houses, Montessori worked tirelessly to improve the lives of children and their families. Her methods gained a great deal of attention and she became an important figure in education, traveling, writing, speaking, and otherwise furthering her philosophy.
In 1922 Montessori was appointed as Italy’s Inspector of Schools, but things took a turn during World War II. The rise of fascism changed the social and political climate of Italy and Montessori was pressured to turn her schools into instruments to further fascist ideals, essentially training up soldiers. Montessori, always one to stick to her convictions, refused to cave to this pressure and was eventually exiled, together with her son, by Mussolini.
During this time, Montessori worked primarily in India, furthering her method and developing training programs for teachers there. While she had spoken before of the potential of the child to lead mankind toward a brighter and more peaceful future, world events at the time seem to have caused still deeper reflection on these ideas and Montessori began to speak all the more of education for peace. In the introduction to Education for a New World, she says:
Our world has been torn to pieces, and is in need of reconstruction, of which a primary factor is education … But humanity is not yet ready for the evolution that it desires so ardently, the construction of a peaceful and harmonious society that shall eliminate war. Men are not sufficiently educated to control events, so become their victims. Noble ideas, great sentiments have always found utterance, but wars have not ceased! If education were to continue along the lines of mere transmission of knowledge, the problem would be insoluble and there would be no hope for the world… we have before us in the child a psychic entity, a social group of immense size, a veritable world-power if rightly used. If salvation and help are to come, it is from the child, for the child is the constructor of man, and so of society. The child is endowed with an inner power which can guide us to a more luminous future. Education should no longer be mostly about the imparting of knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentialities4.
The education that Montessori spoke of was not the type that attempts to train children up in the way that adults think they should go, assuming the child to be an empty vessel in need of adult insights and wisdom. On the contrary, Montessori explains that,
…education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment…Human teachers can only help the great work that is being done, as servants help the master. Doing so, they will be witnesses to the unfolding of the human soul and to the rising of a New Man who will not be the victim of events, but will have the clarity of vision to direct and shape the future of human society4.
Many mistakenly view Montessori as a rigid system of education overly focused on academics. In reality, a true Montessori education focuses on holistic education, achieved by allowing all of the potentialities of the child to unfold and giving him or her a sense of the interconnectedness of all things5.
For her efforts, Montessori received six nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize over three years: 1949, 1950, and 1951. Not only did she revolutionize education, but she worked to further the rights of children, of women, and of all mankind. She trusted in the human ability to create a better, more peaceful society and her work, not only in education, but in the promotion of peace remains relevant to this day. Much can be learned, not only from her educational methods, but from her courage, passion, and unceasing commitment to peace and equality.
I’m linked up to Montessori Monday at Living Montessori Now.
- See Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius by Angeline S. Lillard, PhD ↩
- To get a sense of just how dismal the conditions were in this building, see this summary of Montessori’s inaugural address given at the opening of one of her later schools ↩
- Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method, (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), chap. 3 ↩
- Maria Montessori, Education for a New World, (Thiruvanmiyur, Madras, India: Kalakshetra Publications, 1974), 1-3 ↩
- This is a topic for another article altogether, but those interested can refer to a wonderful paper on the AMI website titled Montessori’s View of Cosmic Education ↩