Please go to this link to read this article in Portuguese.
In this 2007 interview by Sara Pentz in The New Individualist (link above), Ms. Enright explains fundamentals of excellent education, the ingenious ways the Montessori Method gives students what they need, how we arrived at the dismal state of education we have today, the dire effects of Post Modernist influence on education, and how she is bringing the Montessori approach to higher education.
University Education As It Might Be and Ought to Be
Part I: What Is the Aim of a University Education?
By Marsha Familaro Enright
“Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.” — Maria Montessori
Standard education not only fails to teach the philosophy, history, economics, and politics of a free society, but its methods oppress individuality and instead encourage conformity and obedience. It does the opposite of teaching young people how to live as free, autonomous persons. For a detailed look at the collectivist and authoritarian purpose and history of traditional education, especially government-run, see my chapter “Liberating Education” in the book Common Ground On Common Core.
In the main, traditional university education’ methodology has been unchanged for centuries. Most classrooms rely heavily on an authoritarian, top-down structure of a single arbiter of knowledge, often in the position of lecturer, discussion leader, and knowledge authority, who conveys information to the waiting student-receptacles.
Of course, many colleges and universities are using all the bells and whistles of the latest physical technology, which makes the world’s knowledge available to their students through Internet-connected classrooms, cool electronic writing technology, online discussion groups, or handheld quiz machines.
But the more crucial and fundamental psychological and social elements to learning are often still ignored, especially at the university level. Yet, a free future demands more than the dissemination of information; where do free individuals learn how to use it in their lives?
Given what we now know about human development, learning, and motivation, education is ripe for a revolution in its psychological technology. Students need an educational program that embodies the ideals of self-sufficient, self-responsible, goal seeking, and autonomous individuals.
Furthermore, when freedom and autonomy are directly experienced, students become more engaged, interested, and enthusiastic learners and more often adopt the ideas and values of liberty.
Where can we find the kind of education that suits the development of autonomy? What specific considerations, methodologies, and curricula support this development? Such a system for lower education has been around for more than 100 years.
A Few of the Ingenious Features of the Montessori Method.
“When you have solved the problem of controlling the attention of the child, you have solved the entire problem of education.” Maria Montessori
When it comes to attention and learning, Montessori could have been talking about anyone, not just the child. Without attention, there is no learning. Attention is crucial, yet attentional resources (focus) are limited. They must be used well to efficiently learn the most possible.
Further, the developed ability to concentrate on work and goals and to self-maintain interest and focus allow a person to succeed in long-term projects and purposes. In Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, Jerry Kirkpatrick calls this “Concentrated Attention.”
In his studies on intensely productive and creative people, University of Chicago research psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pictured at left) found that certain conditions elevate the ability to pay attention, and pay attention deeply for long periods of time. He also recognized that specially designed practices in Montessori classrooms provide these conditions throughout the school day. His research group, including the work of Kevin Rathunde, found many exceptional outcomes from these Montessori practices. (A picture of an engaging Montessori material to teach geology is below.)
The use of the Three-Period Lesson is a case in point.
Much scientific research shows that humans learn best if:
- They are highly motivated to learn the material for some personal end.
- They are physically engaged.
- They understand the application of the material to their lives.
The classic Montessori Three-Period Lesson ingeniously engages human attention. With small groups of students, teachers (or “Guides” as we prefer to call them in Montessori) demonstrate learning materials specially designed to focus attention on an important concept, such as whole number versus fractions. Objects and materials incorporating shapes, colors sounds, and textures concretely make the idea vivid. These Montessori materials engage the student’s whole intellect, sensory, motor, and conceptual, thereby powerfully imprinting memory.
The lesson’s three parts are Naming, Recognition and Association, and Recall. The Guide gathers one to four students ready for the particular lesson, seats them in front of the materials, and then demonstrates their use with only the essential words, naming the objects. For example, the Guide might use fraction circles to demonstrate the addition of fractions. (see picture below)
These are sets of metal, pie-shaped circles cut into different quantities of wedges with little knobs on each wedge. One circle consists of 4 wedges, another of 12, to demonstrate fourths and twelfths while all the circles in the material are the same size, to embody whole number. There are numerous kinds of problems possible with these circles, including all the operations of arithmetic. In the most basic, the child can literally see the relationship of different fractional proportions by taking the wedges out of the circles and putting them back in—in different combinations. Each lesson demonstrates one possible use of the materials.
During the lesson, the Guide speaks little, allowing the student to focus and observe the demonstrated examples carefully so they recognize the elements and form associations. The Guide encourages questions from the students; she also, models curiosity, and triggers discussion with questions of her own when students are not forthcoming. Truly successful teachers are exceptional at listening to students’ questions, surmising what students need to know, and modeling and encouraging thinking.
After the fraction demonstration, the Guide asks the student to explain what to do with the materials to solve the next problem and moves the materials has the student accordingly. Finally, the Guide asks the student to demonstrate the material, turning student into teacher and thereby recalling the elements of the lesson, requiring a more complete level of understanding for the student’s performance.
After the lesson, the student is free to pursue more problems with the materials right then or use them later to practice when the student feels interested in working on the material (on the principle that one learns best when one is intrinsically motivated). The Guide regularly takes notes while observing the children in her class and if she finds a child avoiding some material, she makes it her job to think of a way to interest the child in the work.
A key to the Montessori Method’s success is ensuring that the amount of material conveyed at one lesson is not overwhelming but sufficiently interesting, i.e. just the conditions necessary for Flow. More frequent, shorter lessons with follow-up exercises are preferable to one long demonstration. Of course, preparing shorter, pointed lessons is far more taxing to the teacher, but the Montessori Method has systems to make this aspect of teaching less time consuming.
The Three-Period Lesson can be fruitfully adapted to many college-level subjects. In fact, some college classes, such as chemistry, often use a version of the Three-Period Lesson, with the experiment as the final student demonstration. However, as with most excellent methods, the devil is in the details.
Lectures in Their Proper Place
Lessons with materials and concrete experiences are not the usual in university education; lectures are the most common format. If organized well, lectures can distill a vast amount of information down to a few principles and key examples. A lecture can be an economical introduction to a subject. The best lectures essentialize the subject matter conveyed by the lecture.
However, as a method, lectures are designed to be easy for the teacher, not the student. They allow the teacher to recount his or her knowledge without feedback or interrupting questions and side issues from the listener. Although sometimes necessary, lectures are usually a difficult way to learn because they frequently run counter to human learning tendencies.
For several reasons, students must exert an enormous amount of attentional effort to stay focused on what the speaker says during lectures. A lecture requires the learner to mostly listen and look a little. Unlike learning methods that make learning easy, the lecture usually does not engage the whole mind, including vivid perceptions and imagination, or the body of the student. Listening and looking during a lecture involves little sensory-motor work, which normally helps cement learning in memory.
One of the reasons visual aids such as Microsoft® Office PowerPoint® are preferred for lectures is because they offer sensory stimulation, providing at least some perceptual imagery to associate with the ideas being conveyed. Although, like books, lectures can have illustrations, the student cannot study the illustrations in a lecture as long as he or she wants.
Human interaction usually helps to increase interest as well as physically engage the student, but during a lecture, there is very little interaction between student and teacher. Often the lecture is aimed at a large or general audience and thus cannot address individual student goals, interests and comprehension difficulties.
A student cannot stop the lecture to ask a question or request a further, clarifying explanation or replay what the lecturer said. Once confused, the student may find the rest of the lecture very difficult if not impossible to follow. Consequently, students often miss the important points and substantial content of the lecture.
In a lecture format, the best teachers attempt to address human learning needs by weaving their information into a story. Stories incorporate drama, character, values, passion, meaning, purpose, a climax and resolution. Winston Churchill was a master at this. This method utilizes human tendencies to search for meaning and purpose, to connect knowledge acquired to personal circumstances, and to remember people, places and things more easily than abstract ideas.
Excellent lecturers use plenty of concretes to make the information vivid and connected to real experience and, at least in imagination, to stir perceptual memory and bodily feelings of the listener. Imaginative work and bodily feelings help the student feel much more engaged in the material. Exceptional lecturer MIT physics professor Walter Lewin spends 30 hours and three practice trials developing each of the lectures for his remarkable classes.
The best learners are active learners. They can gain from almost any lecture; they come to a lecture motivated to learn for their own reasons. They expend extra effort in imagining their own examples in order to concretize the ideas they’re hearing. As they listen, they maintain an internal dialogue of questions with the lecturer, noting what they don’t understand and with what they take issue. They also tend to seek answers to their questions after the lecture.
Many teachers recognize that this kind of student is rare and usually has high intelligence, strong intellectual ambition, and great self-motivation. For the most part, traditional education methods do not nurture internal motivation and inherent interest in acquiring knowledge—qualities essential in the new global economy, which demands the ability to lithely move from job to job, or change careers.
A long school career of lectures, drills, memorization, and teaching methods out of tune with learning needs usually turns most students away from enthusiastic learning at school. They are only too often motivated mainly by external rewards of grades, adult approval, superior social position and the acquisition of credentials.
Unfortunately, lectures are so difficult to pay attention to, and psychologically painful for most students, that students work hard to avoid them. During lectures, young students often goof around; consequently, they learn that they are “bad” and “undisciplined.” They are expected to know how to force their attention on boring material.
Older students attempting to pass their courses seek low-energy ways to fulfill requirements while maximizing grades, such as the use of tape recordings, buying others’ lecture notes, or passing multiple choice tests without attending lectures.
These students aren’t inherently bad, they are responding to the high psychological costs of traditional education in a psychologically economical way. They more profitably spend their limited attentional resources elsewhere.
Sadly, they often feel guilt, frustration and anger for failing to live up to the traditional classroom’s expectations, with a nagging disappointment for what they’ve missed—or should have gotten—from education. Many students desperately need help to become “active learners,” interested in the material and in charge of their own education.
Integration—But Not the Kind You May Think I Mean
What college graduates do with the information they learn will now, more than ever, determine their competitive edge. Consequently it is imperative that education teach how to think, create and integrate what students learn in one subject with what they know from another with what to do with it to further their lives. Broad knowledge and capability to learn combined with the ability to deftly integrate new material into one’s repertoire is essential to become an adaptable Versatilist, capable of switching careers as the economy demands.
However, teaching methods and curricula need to take into account key psychological features that aid integration. Before valuable information and ideas can be stored in the mind’s subconscious, they have to pass through the conscious mind, which usually can handle only about seven discreet items at any one time (see George A. Miller’s 1956 psychological classic “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information“) If you’ve ever wondered why you need a list to remember what you have to do, here’s the reason, and it’s one of the reasons for the limited attentional resources of our conscious minds.
Ideas—abstractions—are the primordial human inventions that circumvent this limitation, because ideas incorporate myriad data into a single audio-visual concrete, a word or symbol. All instances of babies are integrated into the idea of “baby,” and you can apply what you know about babies to any individual baby you encounter. Voila! You’ve saved a lot of time and energy.
Ultimately, the integration of simple ideas, like those of colors or types of animals, into more abstract groupings like “mammal” make the human mind extremely powerful. Imagination and integration work together to produce the torrent that is human creativity. Integration of information into ideas and actions into skills is the psychologically economical way to use our limited conscious resources when thinking and solving problems.
The person who is a master at the careful, fact-based integration of knowledge is a highly effective thinker and actor.
This is the reason any good curriculum must emphasize work on subject matter across domains of knowledge, by studying works that integrate epistemology with poetry, science with history, philosophy with action, especially by asking students to relate what is learned in one class and course to with what is learned in another.
Part II: Creativity
Integration to Creativity
“What I cannot create, I do not understand.”—Richard Feynman
Integration of knowledge across broad ranges of subjects is a characteristic of creativity—and versatility. Research consistently finds that highly creative people tend to have very broad, as well as deep, interests and knowledge. They apply unconventional information and ideas to problems, integrating information in unusual ways across conventional subject areas.
Famed physicist Richard Feynman (at left) is a case in point.
Think of his brilliant demonstration of the space shuttle temperature problem, Challenger’s O-Ring: by dropping an O-ring in an ordinary glass of ice water, he simply and directly proved it could not stand up to low temperatures. His demonstration integrated an esoteric, bedeviling engineering problem with a mundane experience.
He was also famous for his wide-ranging interests, which included samba bands and experiments on ants. He put no limits on his curiosity about the world.
Feynman’s measured IQ was in the high range—124—but not what IQ test-makers consider genius (135+). Contrary to what many people think but consistent with research findings, most recognized geniuses do not have IQ’s in the 135+ range. Measured IQs of people considered to be geniuses are 116 or higher, apparently making an above average IQ a condition—but not a sufficient one—for high creativity. (Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity). (No one knows how individuals acclaimed as geniuses because of their work, such as DaVinci and Newton, would have scored on the test. Given the findings with current individuals, the results of an actual IQ test on Newton might surprise us!)
Unfortunately, IQ tests—and most tests—cannot measure working creativity and intelligence. In other words, they don’t adequately measure how intelligence is put into life’s service by creatively solving problems.
For example, the number of highly creative and successful business people who score average to low on SAT tests is indicative of the test’s inadequacy in measuring working intelligence.
Conditions other than IQ seem to be highly important to the development of creativity, conditions which we can create in educational settings, thereby enabling education to actively develop creativity, rather than stifle it.
For example, the tendency to amass information from close, first-hand observation is very important. Michael Faraday, (pictured here) exhibited this tendency par excellence as a young man: he had no formal education and knew only arithmetic, but discovered the laws of electromagnetism through fascinated observation of and experiments on nature.
A mind that is curious and constantly problem-solving is another characteristic of the creative. For example, the inventor of VELCRO, George Mestral noticed his dog became covered with burrs during a walk. Examining how the burrs use microscopic hooks to stick to the loops of his pant fabric, he realized he could make a new type of fastener. A little nature hike turned into a billion-dollar industry.
What’s needed in education to develop creativity?
“Our care of the [student] should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” — Maria Montessori
We cannot change what nature gives our students in terms of basic intelligence. However, we can offer a program that nurtures those abilities and habits of mind needed for creativity and productivity such as:
- Objective reasoning skills, not just in science and math, but all domains of knowledge, including such areas as art, history, and literature.
- Knowledge of a broad array of information, ancient and modern.
- Habits of connecting information and ideas from one domain of knowledge to another (the way highly creative people do), by:
- Teaching through works that are cross-domain, like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a work of moral philosophy that founded the study of economics, or Plato’s Meno, which examines history, epistemology, and social interaction.
- Guiding them to draw cross-disciplinary connections by example such as how a city’s buildings and layout are related to its history; pointing out examples of the way in which original thinkers made crucial connections, such as Newton’s connection of the apple’s fall with the idea of gravity.
- Curiosity through:
- Encouraging their questioning
- Modeling enthusiasm and inquiry about what is being studied
- Careful observation of the world through:
- Demonstrating careful observation and the relation of any idea to the facts on which it rests
- Questioning the observational/factual basis of their ideas
- Awareness and thinking about the meaning and purpose in life, by presenting a curriculum infused with deep questions which connect knowledge to living by:
- Always asking what any given fact or idea means to human life
- Asking of any knowledge: to whom is this information valuable and how will it be used?
Using the Great Books, what are often called the Classics, in the curriculum schools students in timeless ideas, of the best thinkers in civilization, useful in any era or place. These works are extremely influential today. They include works from philosophy to economics, mathematics to literature, history to science and more. Simultaneously, the Great Books’ authors and their ideas serve as examples of the highest in creative thinking skills.
Properly schooled to think deeply about these works, a student economically recognizes patterns, trends and influences everywhere in culture, from art to business, from job trends to medical discoveries.
One small example: Did you know that there was a time when people were confused about how something could be one thing now and another thing in the future? The ancient Greeks pondered this for some time. In the 400’s BCE, “What is, is,” said Parmenides, who believed existence is timeless and change impossible, a mere illusion. “I can’t step into the same river twice,” said Heraclitus, who argued that all was continuous change. The Greeks couldn’t reconcile how states and change could co-exist. How could something be an acorn now and yet the very same thing an oak tree later? They could not figure out how that worked.
It took the genius of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle decades later to resolve this problem with the identification of the concepts of “actual” and “potential.” Try to imagine our world without these ideas—how could we think about science and technology, societies or evolution?
Students need to learn about such great ideas as Aristotle’s breakthrough, along with the important fact that so much we take for granted in our great civilization was invented by creative individuals all through the ages. And reflecting on concepts that we take for granted raises students’ analytic thinking skills. This is just one benefit of studying the Great Books.
Knowledge Across Categories
Carefully crafted assignments, classes can purposefully integrate knowledge from one domain to another and encourage students to find connections between seemingly disparate material, just like creative thinkers such as Feynman and Mestral. Teachers can urge students to constantly seek connections among these great ideas and between the ideas and our contemporary world. Unfortunately, most college curricula and faculties make no attempt to execute these crucial tasks.
Discussing the place that a fact, idea or theory has in human life should be a constant aim. Teachers should consistently require—and offer–—proof for statements and beliefs, and explicit logical arguments. Everyone should examine the premises from which they draw their conclusions. Facts and truth, however unpleasant, should be the standard. By modeling and emphasizing these practices, faculty can encourage students to have excellent observational skills.
How to deal with unpleasant facts without denying them should also be a highly encouraged skill. Teachers who model such thinking teach volumes. And teachers need training to insure these aims—something which the rare university professor gets.
Ultimately, by consistently applying these practices, students will learn the skills needed to think objectively.
“First We Must Inspire, Not Just Inform”
Maria Montessori, pictured at left, noted that the student is a “spiritual embryo,” with his or her own innate pattern of growth ready to unfold, delicately and amazingly, given the right psychological and physical environment. The teacher’s role in this unfolding cannot be underestimated.
Maria Montessori said: Teachers “have to conquer minds stirring up the great emotions of life,” to achieve real learning in students. In other words, teachers must tap into students’ deepest desires and values, such as love, joy, and pride, to motivate students. And, although Aristotle’s dicta “All men by nature desire to know” captures the human species’ trait of curiosity, curiosity can be squashed through ridicule or sapped through boredom by teachers—or coaxed into riotous flowering.
Great teachers are often transformative to the student, helping him or her learn to love knowledge and serious work, to acquire heightened reasoning skills, to look at many sides of a problem, to gather information from far-reaching domains in order to find solutions and to be self-reflective and reasonable – all important ingredients to future success.
Famed investor Warren Buffet, who did not want to go to college, said of his time achieving a master’s degree at Columbia University, “But I didn’t go there for a degree, I went for two teachers who were already my heroes.”
These principles necessitate teachers of the highest order: those with the utmost respect for their students, who can teach by example and guidance through difficult material. To encourage the development of particular values and virtues in students, faculty become essential as role models. For example, by embodying great thinking, respect for independent judgment, and deep appreciation of individual freedom, the faculty model the very values of a free society, reason, individualism, and freedom.
While it is possible to be competent in communicating information and in conveying some of these traits long distance, in-person interaction is the most compellingly effective method. It’s important to have a program that actively uses technology of all kinds to creatively facilitate learning and collaboration and make scholars and public intellectuals from around the world accessible to students. But in-person classes with skilled, specially trained role-model teachers are indispensible for a great education.
Let’s examine some ways teachers influence students.
Teachers and Activation Energy
Csikszentmihalyi notes that human beings have limited mental resources and energy when it comes to paying attention (focusing on material), and these should be used wisely. Hence, a good program keeps these factors in mind and seeks to facilitate attention. And interest is one of the key ingredients to minimizing the use of attentional energy.
A small group of people, like concert violinist Rachel Barton Pine, seem to find riveting interests when they are mere toddlers. This kind of person often barrels full speed ahead in what they want to do; but most people are not as definite or enthusiastic about any particular interest. Teachers can make a difference in the subjects in which students become interested and even their choice of profession.
Often, a passionate teacher triggers an individual’s interest in a new subject. A previously unknown, boring, or distasteful field becomes the person’s area of professional interest through their teacher. I’ve seen many a student with no previous interest in, or maybe even a repulsion to, cicadas or worms, become enthralled with them after an enthusiastic teacher shows them the fascinating parts of the worm, the weird way the cicada flies, or how to eat it. The teacher fuels what research psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls “activation energy,” i.e. the energy invested in learning to do something new.
Many complex and deeply engaging areas of knowledge and skill require an enormous amount of unrewarding work before they become enjoyable. Ballet dancing, mastering physics, or successfully managing employees are a few examples. Initially, the learner must expend intense mental energy in order to focus on the learning and become interested in the subject or skill: this is the “activation energy.” Learning a musical instrument is a good example: the student spends hours practicing physical movements and enduring awful sonic productions before acquiring enough skill to make enjoyable music!
In the early 20th century, Montessori noted the same phenomena and realized its connection to teaching: “I believed that at the start the teaching material had to be associated with the voice of the teacher which called and roused the [students] and induced them to use the material and educate themselves,” Maria Montessori.
A great teacher like the character of Edward James Olmos in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” or Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” helps students through difficult material with contagious excitement and the ability to make it dramatically interesting and well-related to students’ deepest needs and values. This goes back to the principle that human interest drives learning.
Long-time Montessori teacher, Pat Schaefer, summed it up, “First: we must inspire, not just inform. Second: It is in relationship that the secret of [human learning] power is released.”
Teachers and Great Questions
On the precipice of full adult life, the college student needs answers to the great questions: “Why am I here?” ”How should I live?” ”How should I deal with other people?” “What should I do with my life?” If the student is not already asking himself these questions, it is his teacher’s job to show him how to ask them and how to find good answers.
Knowing how to pose the right questions can lead to a great awakening with unforeseen, amazing consequences. Forestry Consultant Charles Tomlinson often regaled friends and family with stories of his experience at The University of the South (called “Sewanee”) with “Abbo.” Charles claimed himself a rather complacent product of a middleclass Southern family when he encountered “Abbo,” English Professor Abbott Cotton Martin. Abbo spent considerable hours poking holes in everything Charles took for granted, from football to religion, with some English literature thrown in for good measure. This was Abbo’s stock-in-trade.
Abbo taught Charles to thoroughly question and examine what he thought he knew, as well as his beliefs. But Abbo didn’t just throw students in the water of quandaries, he made himself available to talk all during the week, not just during Sunday office hours. Charles learned to “check his premises” through Abbo’s prodding as well as reading Ayn Rand. The other wonderful teachers at Sewanee helped too. They inspired him to demand more of himself, leading to a long, creatively productive, exciting life.
This included deeply influencing many, many people, including Jaroslav Romanchuk, a major figure in the opposition to Belarus’ authoritarian government.
Active Listening and Independent Judgment
“Be “careful not to ask [your] questions of the [students]. Only when [students] seek to answer questions which they themselves ask, do they commit themselves to the hard work of finding answers that are meaningful to them…give only as much guidance and encouragement as is necessary to elicit the [students’] interest.” — Maria Montessori
Inspiration is the fundamental mission of the teacher, because of motivations’ deep importance to learning. Active Listening is a powerful teaching tool which promotes an inspiring relationship between teacher and student. For one thing, Active Listening conveys deep respect for the individual’s independence in thought and value.
Active Listening is a key skill enabling teachers to nurture independent judgment. The Active Listener authentically tries to understand what the other person means, empathizing with the other’s point of view by working hard to grasp his or her full context. This means trying to understand the other person’s level of knowledge about a subject, their age, what emotional issues may be affecting their thinking, and the set of ideas they are using to grasp the subject.
Active listening promotes the spread of truth. Only by Active Listening do we end up having a full idea of what the other person means and thereby gain the opportunity to respond with appropriate facts and reasoning.
Used in teaching, this means the Active Listener asks clarifying questions about the student’s terms, respectfully allowing the student time to finish what he or she is saying before responding and, importantly, conveying an attitude of alert interest in what the student says.
The Active Listener must try to leave aside any personal feelings about the subject and squash the desire to assert and forcefully drive home the rightness of his or her own opinion. These actions only serve to distract a student from deep thinking and learning by bringing in issues of social hierarchy, personal power, and self-worth (i.e., do I know enough, what does the teacher think of me, he’s got more status than I, I should listen to him). These issues elicit powerful, distracting emotions.
Further, the Active Listener tries to sense any motives in the student’s statements beyond the informational. For example, if a student in a class on Freud asks “What if a son is extremely fond and affectionate toward his mother—does that mean he has an Oedipus complex?” The teacher needs to be aware that the student’s study of Freud may have caused him to feel anxiety about his love for his mother. The teacher needs to respond with gentleness, general reassurance, and kindness.
Independent judgment is the well-spring of real choice, and good discussions nurture true individuality and judgment.. Unfortunately these days, teachers sometimes find it difficult to conduct good discussions because students have been led to believe all opinions are equal in value and everyone should open their mouths to babble whatever they wish, no matter how inaccurate or trivial. Resulting from the reign of the Post Modernist attack on objectivity, this belief cripples students’ minds by encouraging them to think that any opinion is acceptable, regardless of foundation, as long as it is theirs.
While stoking their egos by making them feel whatever they think is important, this practice stops them from learning that true, valuable opinion must be grounded in facts and good reasoning.
Postmodernist ideology further deforms a student’s concept of self by equating diversity with group membership. In the Post Modernist schema, one’s diversity depends on race or ethnic background or sexual preference rather than considered, ideological judgment. It promotes a collectivist concept of tribal or social diversity rather than true ideological difference.
In contrast, Active Listening in the classroom conveys a deep respect for the independence of the other person’s mind: the Active Listener takes the student’s ideological point of view seriously and tries to respond to it carefully. The aim of Active Listening is full understanding of what the other is saying in the service of arriving at truth. Just imagine the kind of productive political discussions we all might have if we used these principles!
Some people have a rare, natural ability or tendency to listen like this, but since it can be learned, there’s hope for the rest of us. It is also typical of the Montessori teacher, because of his or her deep training in careful observation of students.
For university students, we can bring together all the elements I’ve discussed through a special way of crafting curriculum by a special methodology which the teachers can use.
Part IV. Socratic Practice: A Methodology That Serves Young Adult Needs
“It is a sign of crudity and indigestion to throw up what we have eaten in the same condition it was swallowed down; and the stomach has not performed its office, if it has not altered the figure and shape of what was committed to it for concoction…Let the tutor make his pupil thoroughly sift everything he reads, and lodge nothing in his fancy upon mere authority…To the fragments borrowed from others he will transform and bend together to make a work that shall be absolutely his own; that is to say, his judgment. His education, labor, and study aim only at forming that.” — Michael Montaigne
Socratic Practice is a formidable discussion methodology that, when used properly, incorporates Active Listening at its best and nurtures reasoning skills and independence powerfully. Classrooms using Socratic Practice are active learning environments, intellectually, socially, and physically engaging. By encouraging the learners to ask their own questions of what they are studying, the motivating power of individual interest is harnessed. Furthermore, because they are so engaging, Socratic Practice discussions don’t tax attentional resources, making learning much easier and enjoyable; students often get into a Flow state, forgetting how much time is passing because they are engaged.
I am referring to a very specific, carefully crafted methodology of teaching, which I will describe shortly. Some of you may have been to classes called Socratic Seminars which are quite different from what I mean. In these, a teacher might ask a question like “What is justice?” and then proceed to tell students they’re wrong when they give an answer the teacher doesn’t want. Well, that’s wrong; Socratic questioning is meant to develop the student’s ability to think about a subject, not to test them and catch them when they are wrong or call them on the carpet for the right answer.
Teachers looking for the right answer encourage students to focus on pleasing the teacher, not on thinking for himself or herself. But the truly excellent teacher aims at helping students learn how to find the right answer themselves.
Students often view school as the place to feed back the answer the teacher wants to hear, not learn new knowledge in order to figure out the truth with their own powers. Teachers skillfully using Socratic Practice often have to spend time rehabilitating students after a lifetime of being told what to learn, what is the “right” answer—or that any answer is right, with no standard of truth.
Consequently, in the beginning of a program using Socratic Practice, the teacher (often called “tutor,” i.e. guide to learning) must work especially hard to shape the learning environment. Just as in any Montessori school, the prepared environment is a key to success in developing the thriving, independent-minded learner.
For the college level, these are the conditions that foster good discussion and develop excellent reasoning and social skills, as well as a strong sense of autonomy:
Physically, the environment must be quiet. All participants are required to respect the appointed time of discussion, with no phone calls, text messages, etc. They sit in a circle facing each other. Attention must be on the discussion, and all participants are expected to have read the assigned text.
Psychologically, the tutor shapes the environment by many principles. He or she requires a formal politeness among discussants, to encourage rational, civil discourse. Sometimes participants must address each other by title and last name (e.g., Ms. Smith and Mr. Murphy).
The tutor picks a text or work that has rich meaning and is well-made. It is most often a text but can be other things such as a painting, sculpture, building, or experiment. The Great Books classics are often used because they embody “The best that has been thought and said” and because they powerfully combine ideas and knowledge from multiple domains, aiding the work of integration. The right piece elicits many interesting thoughts and questions in the participants’ minds. This becomes the meat to explore in the discussion. The goal of the discussion is to reason together about the material, in order for each person to arrive at his or her own, independent judgment about the piece and the ideas and values discussed. Participants think together to think independently. The tutor guides the discussion by evidence-based rules as follows:
- Ask questions of the text and each other.
- Cite the text to give evidence for your ideas and interpretations.
- Try to make connections between the ideas in the text and what other participants say, and your life.
- Each person takes responsibility for his or her own learning and for the quality of the conversation; if you would like to change the direction of a discussion, please feel free to ask the other participants if they are okay with that; then if they are, proceed.
- Treat the other participants respectfully.
- References to material outside of the text must be cogently linked to the text and discussion at hand, and explained in general principle, comprehensible to general reasoning. References dependent on knowledge not available to every participant are not considered cogent to the discussion.
- Be concise.
- In the discussion, reason is the only authority. This means no person is the authority on the text, but each must use logic and facts to support their opinions.
Unless a student starts the discussion, the tutor leads off with a thoughtful question about the reading—or often a factual question if the material is mathematical or scientific. The tutor always finds a question to which he or she genuinely wants to know the answer. This initiates a real inquiry. Students recognize leading questions requiring prescribed answers—which cuts off the student’s own thinking.
Learning to reason objectively about complex material requires the willingness to entertain possibly incorrect ideas in order to examine them fully, to measure them against the facts, and to analyze their rational foundation.
The tutor skillfully encourages questions and comments evincing an earnest search for truth, while discouraging or disallowing talk in which the student is proving his knowledge or disingenuous agreement with the tutor.
For example, during a seminar on Aristotle’s Politics, the tutor might deflect a student who says “Richard McKeon says that Aristotle’s politics…” from lecturing about these details by a question such as “What does Aristotle say that makes you think that is true?” The tutor aims to bring the discussion back to the facts of the text studied, plus the student’s own experience and reasoning. In order for the discussion to be excellent, all participants should be able to judge the facts discussed for themselves, firsthand. If a participant brings up a lot of facts and claims he alone knows, how can anyone else examine those claims firsthand? Instead, the tutor encourages observations of the facts, generalizations closely derived from the facts, and conclusions reasoned from the facts of the work the entire class is studying together. Any outside material must be explained in general terms, understandable to general reasoning.
The tutor must walk a fine line, skillfully encouraging excellent reasoning while being careful not to discourage students from talking because they might have errors in their arguments. If a student is too fearful of looking foolish or feeling humiliated when caught in an error, he or she won’t explore complex ideas thoroughly enough to find out if they are true.
To help students be more consciously aware of how to reason well, both inductively (e.g., how to make an accurate generalization) and deductively (e.g., how to derive a conclusion from already-given facts and ideas) the tutor gives students extra, explicit instruction in reasoning skills and logic. Sessions on logical fallacies especially valuable in sharpening students’ awareness of reasoning’s pitfalls.
When Socratic Practice is implemented well, the group engages in excellent objective reasoning, learning from each other because each person brings their understanding and thoughtful interpretation of what the text and its implications mean. The tutor doesn’t aim at a “right interpretation,” yet it is common to see well-functioning groups reasoning together arrive at solid conclusions, conclusions an expert would reach, about the meaning of very difficult texts, whether Plato’s Meno, Einstein’s Relativity, or Mises’ Human Action.
An excellent seminar leader asks intriguing, deep questions respectfully, keeps discussion on important topics but lets students diverge from the set topic if it means exploring something important and meaningful to them. Clearly, much art and judgment is involved, which is why extensive training is necessary.
To be a good listener, a teacher must be a careful observer. As a scientist, Maria Montessori, incorporated the scientific method into her teacher-training program. She urged her teachers to spend time every day sitting back and watching the students work, interact with each other and deal with problems. In this way, teachers learn a great deal about each student, their interests, abilities and difficulties, thus enabling the teacher to guide him or her well. Observe, empathize, respect—these are the basics of good teaching.
The only way teachers can learn these methods is by intensive questioning and self-reflective experience. Guidance by mentors with great knowledge and skill, plus plenty of experience, helps. Such training should be a key component of every teacher’s education—yet few university professors get any training in teaching at all. Good professors know their area of expertise, from philosophy to physics. But whether they know the subject of human learning and development is idiosyncratic.
The evidence that the methods of Socratic Practice, consistently applied, increases cognitive skills is strong. Our advisor, Michael Strong, extensively discusses these methods in The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.
Strong established remarkable programs in four high schools around the country. He measured program outcomes with the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, a cognitive skills test correlated with performance on intelligence tests and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. Administering this instrument before, during and after a year at school, he found cognitive skill gains ranging, for example, from 30% to 84%. The mean score of one school’s 9th grade group moved from below the national 9th grade mean to above the 12th grade mean in one year, while one inner city student who scored at the 1st percentile on the initial test, scored at the 85th percentile by the end of four months. While more work is needed to fully validate his results, they were consistent from school to school. Any teacher would be proud to so deeply help students learn to think well.
Professor John Tomasi implemented this method in his hugely successful special program, The Political Theory Project at Brown University. He says: “Kids are sick and tired of being told what to think. They want to make up their own minds. They want to be challenged.” The kind of work done through Socratic Practice discussions of the Great Books does exactly that.
Scott Buchanan, architect of the Great Books program at St. John’s College, voiced the ultimate goal: “Have you allowed adverse evidence to pile up and force you to conclude that you are not mathematical, not linguistic, not poetic, not scientific, not philosophical? If you have allowed this to happen, you have arbitrarily imposed limits on your intellectual freedom, and you have smothered the fires from which all other freedoms arise.”
The Delicacy of the Young Spirit
Achievement and success require the vision of the possible and the ability to weather the actual.
To navigate the stormy waters of life, the difficulties, the disappointments, the setbacks and the failures, students need cognitive skills and plenty of encouragement and emotional fuel. They need great examples of other human beings who have successfully dealt with many difficulties.
As the scientific findings of Positive Psychology have recently identified, knowledge and cognitive skills integrate with emotional habits and character traits. Healthy, successful, happy people tend to have cognitive habits that deeply influence their emotional tone in a positive direction.
Models are particularly important as they provide concrete experience and A higher education program should always include instruction about human achievement and what makes it possible, both existentially and psychologically. Further, the teachers should implement his or her best attributes:
- commitment to clearly knowing what he or she knows and doesn’t know (the first step on the path of objectivity);
- passion for learning new material and integrating it with other knowledge;
- commitment to modeling the highest virtues of the free person, including honesty, responsibility and respect for the rights of others;
- commitment to the restless pursuit of personal improvement and growth;
- willingness to submit to careful investigation and evaluation in order to improve.
Through embodying these virtues, the teachers inspire students to the highest ends of the free man and woman.
To prepare a young person for life as a free, autonomous individual, capable of making his or her own choices and putting them into action, an excellent curriculum should endeavor to educate the student in the full range of ideas, history, and knowledge. This means using the works of the Classics as well as modern science, and significant modern works, which should include the usually neglected works of the liberty movement. The curriculum should include the study of philosophy as the basis of all knowledge and self-understanding, but also take into consideration findings in scientific psychology and neuroscience. And the teachers and other staff should be available to help students in many aspects of their lives.
This way, students come away from their education armed with inspiring and invigorating knowledge, skills, experiences, and habits that help them achieve their goals.
Published originally at TheSavvyStreet.com, Spring 2015
“Liberating Education” by Marsha Familaro Enright, is the final chapter in Common Ground On Common Core. This chapter discusses the history of education in the U.S. since the time of the Pilgrims, and what education would like in a fully free society and laissez-faire market. Click on the link to read the PDF of this chapter.
Education As If Individuals Matter
Jerry Kirkpatrick, Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism: Educational Theory for a Free Market in Education (Claremont, CA: TLJ Books, 2008), 212 pages, $18.95
Reviewed by Marsha Familaro Enright
Jerry Kirkpatrick, a professor of International Business and Marketing at California Polytechnic Institute, has come out with another book applying his passion for philosophy to the practical world.
Kirkpatrick says that his interest in education theory was launched when, as a high-school sophomore in the 1960s, he refused to cooperate with his teacher’s demand to “just memorize” an out-of-date biological classification system without an explanation of its meaning. This incident launched his quest to answer what evolved into the following question: What type of education properly suits individuals in a free, capitalistic society, preparing them for a life of productive work and the ability to pursue their own interests?
His answer: an educational approach that cultivates independence of judgment and action and that enables the individual to develop purpose in life.
In Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, Kirkpatrick lays out a theory of education that develops and respects the autonomy of the individual. It’s a product of hard study and deep thinking applied across a wide array of subjects, including history, psychology, epistemology, and sociology.
His resulting “Theory of Concentrated Attention” is deceptively simple. It proposes an education that fosters the ability to apply concentrated attention to tasks—an education that leads to independence and autonomy by encouraging the development of long-term purposes. Kirkpatrick argues that educators can develop this capacity in students by teaching according to the students’ interests, because individual interest drives attention and helps to create purpose. Simply put, if a student is interested in a subject or activity, he or she will be motivated to pay attention to it. And the student who learns how to pursue personal interests with concentrated attention will be able to find and pursue lifelong purposes, such as a career.
Ultimately, he argues that the Montessori Method, when properly implemented, achieves these aims of education. Along the way, Kirkpatrick finds that John Dewey’s theory of undivided interest and many of Dewey’s specific practical recommendations for curriculum and teaching integrate well with the proper aims of education in a free society. Of course, the devil is in the details, but Kirkpatrick gives us plenty of them.
Kirkpatrick shows how the coercion of bureaucratic government schooling sets the context for educational practices that undermine the development of student autonomy. It is impossible to consistently develop free, independent human beings under such a coercive system. Its structure and incentives are all wrong, producing followers ready to be told what to do, not autonomous personalities capable of living fulfilling and successful lives in a free society.
This is a little book packed with a wealth of thought and information, stemming from a deeply grasped and integrated knowledge of the nature and needs of education. Expect to hold onto your hat in reading it, because you will be drawn through a hurricane of information and ideas, some fairly arcane for the lay reader. The storm ends in sunshine, when Kirkpatrick lays out a detailed description of his excellent theory of education.
Then and Now
Kirkpatrick opens the book with a quotation from Adam Smith that summarizes the experience of many a student at today’s colleges:
In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.
The discipline of the colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefits of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students, in all cases to behave to him as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability.
It is remarkable how little has changed in more than two centuries since this was written, which supports the author’s contention that educational practices are largely motivated by two factors: deep views of human nature and cognition, combined with a political context.
Kirkpatrick gives a fascinating, sweeping account of educational theory from Plato and Quintillian through the Jesuits, Locke, and Rousseau, to Dewey and Montessori—always with an eye to thinkers who recognized the need for concentrated attention. He does not examine current theoretical writing in any detail, but spends time on Locke and Rousseau because their thinking is seminal to modern theories of education, including those of Dewey and Montessori. “Locke refutes original sin and emphasizes the primacy of nurture. And Rousseau develops the notion of the organic child who must be left free to unfold.” In searching for those who understand the importance of attention to education, he hits the mark a number of times, including Locke’s statement “The great skill of the teacher is to get and keep the attention of the scholar.”
Dewey: Friend or Foe of Independence?
According to published comments, early in his intellectual career, Kirkpatrick attended private lectures in which John Dewey and the Progressive Method of education must have been excoriated. For this book, he started reading Dewey with great trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised at what he discovered. Throughout Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, he refers to Dewey’s great knowledge of learning, his recognition of the importance of “undivided interest,” and his concern for the individual child’s well-being. And although Progressive education was roundly criticized for promoting method over content, Kirkpatrick found that Dewey himself criticized Progressive schools for their content-light approach.
However, I had to ask myself why, if Dewey’s ideas about education were so good, the schools following his philosophy have been so unsuccessful. I asked Dr. Kirkpatrick about this in a telephone interview. He posited that government-run schools make it impossible to implement the Progressive Method successfully. However, this doesn’t explain the same problems in private Dewey-Progressive schools, such as the University of Chicago Laboratory School, founded by Dewey in 1896. This school suffered “content-light” complaints early in its existence.
Perhaps the answer lies in the deeper philosophical foundations of Dewey’s theory, especially in his basic moral values. Dewey’s deepest philosophical debt is to Rousseau, revealed in “My Pedagologic Creed,” in which Dewey states, “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.”
Dewey’s Creed is straight out of Rousseau’s Social Contract, in which “personal desires must be subordinated to the General Will.” With this, Rousseau throws down the gauntlet against the individualism of the Enlightenment; Dewey picks it up in the late nineteenth century and implements it with the socialistic principles of twentieth-century Progressive education.
Like so many anti-individualist theories, Dewey’s addressed important issues and thereby seduced many to accept his whole package. For example, children are stimulated to develop many of their powers due to their social context: a normal human child will learn language without instruction, but only if placed among those who speak. And most toddlers are happy to repeat and repeat a new skill when they see their parents’ delight at the accomplishment. This lent plausibility to Dewey’s emphasis on socialization.
Another seductive aspect of his theory is his rebellion against the practice of learning abstractions removed from action, a tendency encouraged by the German philosophy that was so influential in nineteenth-century education theory. In the context of the high abstractions of German Idealism, such as Kantian thing-in-itselfism and Hegelian Worldwill, Dewey seems refreshingly sensible and this-world-oriented. His ideas seem appealing—until we remember that he was one of the founders of the philosophy of Pragmatism. In his writing, Dewey makes clear his Pragmatist view of human nature: that action precedes thought and action is what is most important. Action before thought? Perhaps the unruliness in Progressive schools is the logical consequence of this view?
As Dr. Kirkpatrick discovered, Dewey was a very insightful philosopher, teacher, and observer of learning processes. He enunciated many of the principles which enable successful learning to occur. Still, the larger political issue, which Kirkpatrick recognizes, is that Dewey wanted to use this knowledge to shape the child for social, collectivist purposes.
By contrast, though Maria Montessori was a political socialist, her goal was deeply individualistic: a method aimed at developing the individual mind of the student to create an independent human being. While she incorporates many principles and skills for social interaction in her program, every fundamental principle of instruction and action incorporates deep respect for the individual nature, needs, and aims of the child. Children emerging from Montessori schools know how to function well as productive, responsible, rational, civil, self-disciplined, and independent human beings who deeply respect the rights of others.
It’s therefore no accident that Dewey’s staunch adherent and highly influential follower, William Heard Kilpatrick, criticized the Montessori Method for its individualism in his book The Montessori System Examined. Still, Dr. Kirkpatrick’s experience in reading Dewey underscores the importance of first-hand knowledge in making a judgment about any thinker. A thinker’s odious purposes do not negate his real knowledge and accomplishments—or what we might learn from him. Nazi engineers achieved some amazing feats, for example, the V-2 rocket. (See the review of Von Braun in this issue. —Editor.) If the United States had ignored their discoveries simply because they used them for evil purposes, would we have gotten to the Moon?
The Roots of Education Theory
Kirkpatrick devotes considerable time presenting the philosophical and psychological ideas he believes underpin his theory of concentrated attention—a theory based on his view of the good life:
Success in human life requires the expert use of consciousness to guide one’s choices and actions. At root, therefore, education is intellectual, meaning that the knowledge, values, and skills acquired in school consist primarily in the accumulation of concepts and principles and in the application of these concepts and principles to concrete situations. “Intellectual” here does not mean that learning is an end-in-itself disconnected from practical action. It means that abstractions and, especially, their use in everyday life are prerequisites to living a happy, independent life in a free society; it means that mind and body are one integrated unit, but that bodily action is controlled and directed by the mind.
He emphasizes the active nature of the mind, and his arguments are anchored in Ayn Rand’s theory of concept-formation, which he explains at length. The abstraction and classification of data from awareness of concrete, specific things is an active process. The primary action of the conscious mind is differentiation, finding the differences between and among things. In contrast, the primary action of the subconscious is integration, a dynamic connection-making process. In this view, the conscious mind distinguishes one thing from another, while the subconscious discovers their relations.
According to Kirkpatrick, the subconscious tends to overgeneralize. Consequently, “the key to learning and, more generally, to the correct identification of the facts of reality, would seem to be differentiation . . . .[L]earning, therefore, can be described as a process of greater and greater differentiation, an act controlled by the conscious mind. . . [T]he crucial role of the conscious mind is to direct and control the subconscious.”
He goes on to explain the importance of “thinking in principles” and “thinking in ranges of measurement.” By the latter, he seems to mean the habit of keeping many examples in mind when thinking about an issue. In his sweeping account, Kirkpatrick also includes his views on emotions, values, and subconscious processing. He examines the problems of repression, defense mechanisms, how values are developed, how self-esteem is nurtured or crushed, creativity, imagination, and volition in their relationship to learning.
There are many valuable ideas and insights incorporated in this discussion of foundational ideas. However, I have questions about many of his claims. Just to name one area: his ideas on the nature of the subconscious, differentiation, and integration.
Primitive peoples, for example, are known to conceptualize only themselves as “people,” regarding everyone else as “others”—especially if the foreigners are quite physically different. Think of the Aztecs encountering Cortez and the Spaniards on horses, and their belief that the Europeans were some different kind of being, perhaps gods. Is this an error of integration? Or of differentiation? I think it could be argued both ways. Further, I’m not sure how consciously these people formed their concept of “people.”
That’s just one example. I don’t presume to know the answers to my own questions—that would require some difficult and extensive research on how people go about forming concepts and ideas. All I know is a case can be made for several different explanations of such processes, which Kirkpatrick does not address.
Don’t get me wrong: His exposition contains a mound of useful ideas and information. It’s not that his discussion of the subconscious and the psychological foundations of learning is generally wrong-headed. I merely think he sometimes overstates his case, not considering enough possibilities or offering sufficient evidence.
Learning with Purpose
After laying extensive groundwork, Kirkpatrick presents his views on the best principles, methods, and environment for learning.
“Three concepts—interest, attention, and independence—form the core of the theory and constitute the criteria of educational accomplishment. If successful, the education will have enabled the young to choose values that will give their lives meaning and significance,” he writes. “What drives concentrated attention is interest, and concentrated attention, in turn, drives independence . . . by directing effort to the achievement of a goal.”
Developing the capacity to pursue goals over extended periods of time enables an individual to attain life’s most important values, such as productive achievement, successful personal relationships, and even excellent health and well-being.
The biggest failure of traditional education is in capturing the interest, and therefore the attention, of the student, because traditional education uses external motivators—punishment and reward. Rather than a taskmaster demanding performance, in Kirkpatrick’s view the parent or teacher should be a kindly guide, showing the child the way to intellectual and emotional maturity. As Montessori puts it, parents and teachers should make their basic dictum “Help me to help myself.”
To that end, he proposes that parents and teachers provide an environment rich with the knowledge and activities needed for development, surrounded by “guardrails” of guidance. Within this environment, the child is encouraged to actively explore and absorb the mental and emotional nutrients required for excellent growth. The Montessori principle “freedom in a prepared environment” sums it up.
Further, he hones in on the inherent problems with the command-and-control approach to child-rearing and teaching. For example, the toddler who is constantly rebuked or slapped while exploring breakable objects implicitly concludes that he will get in trouble for pursuing his natural interests, and he can become withdrawn and passive. The rebellious teenager whose parents impose arbitrary rules instead of reasoned principles doesn’t have the chance to exercise her assertiveness appropriately if all she hears is “Go to your room! You’re grounded!” when she breaks adult rules. Nor does she learn how to resolve conflicts.
By contrast, concentrated attention is a superior means of learning because it integrates a child’s natural interests with his developmental needs. Kirkpatrick distinguishes this kind of attention from other intense forms, like meditation and what he calls “defensive attention,” i.e., in difficult situations, focusing on some object or activity like a videogame or book, to forestall feelings of fear and anxiety.
For me, Kirkpatrick’s Theory of Concentrated Attention immediately brought to mind the theory of “Flow.” That’s the name Positive Psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has given to that state of intense, complete concentration resulting from optimally enjoyable activities, activities pursued for their own sake. Indeed, Kirkpatrick recognizes “flow” as a form of intense concentration and accurately describes the theory. Though he acknowledges that “flow and concentrated attention have much in common,” he dismisses its relevance to his theory, saying that “the goal of education is not to achieve flow experiences; flow is just a pleasant consequence sometimes achieved as the result of concentrated attention.”
I think he might have missed the significance of flow to learning. Over time, the repeated pleasure derived from flow experiences becomes a driving force in maintaining a person’s interest in an activity. We cannot always account for a person’s initial interest in something—likely there are some inherent tendencies to fixate upon one object or activity over another, which vary from person to person. But individuals remain interested in an activity only if it brings some pleasure—or forestalls some pain. The experience of flow is a major motivator. It keeps a person coming back for more.
Montessori recognized this phenomenon about a century ago. She found that new students tended to flit from one activity to another until they hit upon something that caused them to become deeply engaged. She advised teachers to present new students with different activities and to observe carefully which caught and held their interest. Once the young student experiences deep involvement and attention in an activity, he becomes remarkably self-disciplined and purposeful.
Kirkpatrick turns to the intellectual conditions that result in optimal learning. He argues that real learning requires conceptualization, not just memorization—understanding the principles of the matter, not just remembering some facts or procedures. Students learn most from well-prepared presentations that help them focus on essentials. And self-correcting activities are the most valuable, because they prepare the student for adulthood. In adult life, there’s no one hanging over your shoulder, telling you when you’ve made a mistake; you have to figure that out yourself and learn how to fix it.
He also discusses the emotional and social environment necessary for good learning, an environment in which the student’s independence is supported and respected. Here he pulls together a bevy of ideas from insightful thinkers including Maria Montessori, Haim Ginott, Thomas Gordon, and Alfie Kohn.
As for the content of education, Kirkpatrick presents only an outline, stressing that any educational system should be content-rich and emphasize cognitive skills that can be used to acquire any type of knowledge. These include generalization, evaluation, application, introspection, and execution. Thinking in principles, thinking in ranges of measurement, and forming definitions are essential skills. So is learning logic. In addition, skillful introspection allows a person to be more fully in control of his consciousness—to know what he’s thinking, doing, and feeling, and why. And while all educational systems convey values, with a superior education, students become highly conscious of what values they are learning and why.
Kirkpatrick goes into more detail about the principles of learning and teaching than I can possibly convey here. My only regret is that he did not provide more concrete examples for his excellent discussion of the teaching and learning processes.
Bureaucracy and Education
After presenting his theory, Kirkpatrick shows how economist Ludwig von Mises’s theory of the nature of bureaucracy applies to education under government control. However, he points out that today’s private schools are subject to so many governmental regulations that they, too, are often deformed into bureaucracies.
From first to last, Kirkpatrick is opposed to government-run schools. Only a free market will truly serve children. Frankly, from my own study, I concluded that when public schools succeed, they often do so only through the drive and ambition of achievement-oriented families.
Kirkpatrick speculates that a real free market in education would produce a cornucopia of new approaches. However, it is unlikely we will see such a flowering, given the continued use of force through the gigantic, ever-consolidating government education bureaucracy we now have. Supported by taxes, its tentacles reach from preschool to graduate school. Centralization of power, bureaucratization of systems, and decreases in quality are the more likely future.
Kirkpatrick closes his book with a thoughtful consideration of the need for independent judgment in a free society—and an examination of the psychological reasons that people may have difficulty with independence. He contends that children need to learn “a healthy disrespect for authority” and “to be taught how to differentiate true expertise from the specious varieties and how to react to all forms of adult thoughtlessness, intimidation, and coercion.” The alternative—the mindset of obedience to authority—results in “mental passivity . . . a lack of ability and willingness to make first-hand judgments about the world, other people, and oneself and, more importantly, a lack of ability and willingness to stand by and act on the judgments made.”
Given what students will encounter in school, especially in college and graduate school, they need such abilities more than ever.
Picking a Few Nits
While I highly recommend this book as thought-provoking, original, and educational, I had a few difficulties in reading it.
For one thing, I’m not sure what audience Kirkpatrick is aiming for. The text is at a middle level of abstraction: neither crammed with specific detail, references, and factual research nor, for the lay reader, unapproachably abstruse. Consequently, the reader can follow Kirkpatrick’s reasoning—if he has his own adequate supply of examples or personal knowledge about the issues of education and factual experience of classroom practice.
One problem is that he makes many conclusive statements about theories and historical issues without a great deal of argument or factual support. Often, I agreed with his statements because I had sufficient knowledge of the issues to validate them or supply the qualifications that would make them more exactly true. Other times, I thought his statements were interesting and intriguing and sounded as if they could be right, but I wondered about their full justification, or found myself disagreeing.
Moreover, I wished he had cast his statements in a more persuasive style rather than the teacherly-academic tone he tends to use. Further, he chose to save many examples and references for footnotes, leaving the text somewhat dry. On almost every page, I had to stop reading the text to note his supporting data and mull his side-bar comments. This was distracting. It was as if he was torn between writing for the general public and writing for an academic journal. I think his story and arguments would have been more compelling if he had interwoven his many interesting facts and specific comments into the general text. Paul Johnson’s book The Renaissance and Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation are good examples of this style.
In the main, his argument is a philosophical/psychological one, supported by some references to developmental research and his own experience. Happily, the research evidence of which I am aware, plus my long Montessori experience, also support his theory. However, inclusion of more of the psychological research in his book would have bolstered Kirkpatrick’s arguments.
Finally, the book could have profited from some additional editing. On and off, I found slight syntactical mistakes, such as “newly unpublished” when he seems to have meant “new, unpublished.”
But these are minor flaws in comparison to his achievement in bringing together a vast amount of historical, philosophical, and psychological material to present a truly original theory of learning. Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism will educate you about the kind of education suitable to members of a free society—and educate you far beyond your expectations.
First published in The New Individualist, April, 2008.
by Marsha Familaro Enright
SOCRATIC SEMINARS are a method of teaching, which, if properly implemented, foster independence, develop excellent reasoning skills, and nurture a sense of the rightness of individual liberty. These seminars significantly increase the participants’ abilities to think for themselves. The term “Socratic Seminar” is used variously, but the following describes the kind I am talking about:
A discussion in which all participants read a common text, or study a common work of art, or scientific experiment, or film, etc. and examine its meaning and implications together, following a delineated set of principles which will be described in the following. In this type of discussion, no person or persons are accepted as an authority about the material studied; Reason is the only authority, i.e. facts and logic concerning the material.
Also called a Collaborative Seminar because participants reason together to understand the material.
PRINCIPLES OF SOCRATIC SEMINARS
THE GOAL OF THE DISCUSSION IS TO THINK CLEARLY AND
TO THINK CLEARLY TOGETHER
Rules of the discussion:
- Ask questions of the text or work studied, and each other.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what you don’t understand, no matter how trivial it may seem – the goal is to understand the meaning of the work clearly.
- Cite the text or indicate the feature of the work which gives evidence for your opinions/conclusions.
- References to material outside of the work must be cogently linked to the work and to the discussion at hand, and explained in general principle, comprehensible to general reasoning.
- References dependent on knowledge not available to every participant are not considered cogent to the discussion.
- Be concise.
- Keep comments related to the work while making connections with your other ideas and experiences.
- Each person takes responsibility for his or her own learning and for the quality of the conversation; this means that if you are not happy with the way things are going, please speak up and suggest solutions so as to make the discussion better.
- Each person treats the other participants respectfully.
- In the discussion, Reason is the only authority.
THINKING SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE
Most methods of teaching assume the teacher’s goal is merely to convey a given body of information. Lecture, testing, review are preferred. What good things are left out of such conventional methods?
– INSTRUCTION AND GUIDANCE IN FIRST-HAND THINKING: e.g. in how to look at any aspect of reality for yourself; a skill needed in order to be independent.
– EXPLICIT TUTELAGE IN THINKING SKILLS: Asking questions while learning is essential to develop thinking skills; it is a way of determining what you know or don’t. But, in a conventional classroom, questions about the ideas being taught are often quashed as interfering with the business of information acquisition.
– TUTELAGE IN CREATIVITY SKILLS: thinking of many different possibilities and combinations of ideas and facts—the substance of creativity—are not usually encouraged in traditional classrooms. This has been especially true with the focus on testing these past decades because of the assumption of most tests that there’s only one right answer. Creativity researcher Ken Robinson has a very informative talk about this at TED.com.
– INTEGRATION OF KNOWLEDGE: Very little is done to connect subjects across domains of knowledge. Students aren’t taught the relationship of math to history, science to English, geography to politics, or the relationship of philosophy to all the subjects, and to your life. Yet, the ability to use diverse information and ideas from many sources and knowledge domains is crucial–practically, creatively, and productively.
– CONNECTION OF ABSTRACT TO CONCRETE: Very often students are given little help in connecting the ideas and theories they are taught to the facts, or what they are learning to the practical. What’s the connection between the Napoleonic Wars and my contemporary life? Yet, there is a crucial connection.
– PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT: No special learning or guidance is taught about inner development and interpersonal skills. Yet these skills are crucial for self-control, self-direction, productivity, and working with other people.
Here’s what one of my students said about her education before coming to our The Great Connections summer seminar, which uses Socratic seminars:
“I knew about dates and facts, but I wasn’t able to view processes along history, the connection between the facts and philosophy….in many cases, learning is not meaningful for the student.”
LEARNING TO THINK FOR YOURSELF ISN’T EASY
Identifying your own opinions, how you arrived at them, and whether they comport with the facts is difficult. It’s a lot of work to continuously analyze ideas and assumptions down to their base. One has only a limited amount of time to think; it’s hard to constantly stop and think about fundamentals. But that’s exactly why it’s so important to develop the habits of mind that make it easy to think about fundamentals in everyday life. Once you have developed these habits, you can analyze and understand events, ideas, readings, people, etc. much more quickly.
Thinking in fundamentals also leads to more creative thinking, because you’re going to the root of the ideas, to the actual reality on which the ideas are based. You are looking directly at the facts, and not accepting the conventional package of thinking, the conventional “box” about the issue or problem. This is how hugely productive, innovative thinkers such as Aristotle or Michelangelo or Michael Faraday or Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs proceeded.
PRINCIPLES TO STRENGTHEN THINKING
All of the following skills and values–and more–can be developed through Socratic Seminars.
- CHECK YOUR PREMISES: identify the facts and ideas on which your conclusions rest and their justification, follow the chain of ideas from the abstract to the fact it rests upon, thereby developing the habit and ability to identify the fundamentals of an argument or work.
- LOOK FOR THE CASH VALUE OF IDEAS: Connect abstract ideas and theories with concrete reality.
- INTEGRATION: Connect the facts and meaning related to one set of ideas to all your others. This method of discussion emphasizes connections between ideas. Combined with the study of the Classics, this leads to much integration of one’s knowledge. That’s because many of the works used cover issues and questions that span multiple domains of knowledge, such as Plato’s Symposium, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Nietszche’s Ecce Homo. This practice is important for understanding, living, and creativity;
- PHILOSOPHICAL DETECTION: Identify the moral implications, the implications for living, of any set of ideas. What would idea X mean if I put it into practice?;
- KNOW YOURSELF: like Socrates, identify information/data about yourself and your motivations; learn how to introspect successfully.
FOR A GOOD SOCRATIC SEMINAR, A PREPARED ENVIRONMENT IS CRUCIAL FOR LEARNING
It has three elements:
The text or work.
The physical set up.
1. Role of the Work: You must use a text or work (art, movie, scientific experiment, musical composition) of stimulating depth and interest, because of the CENTRAL ACTIVITY, which is: Participants discuss the exact meaning of the text or work, carefully thinking about the wording (or aspects relevant to the kind of work it is) and the implications, and inferences.
PARTICIPANTS ACT AS SCIENTISTS, with the work as the reality to explain, the facts to grasp and analyze, and to integrate with their knowledge and life.
THE WORK must be able to elicit deep thought, significant insight, and add much to knowledge, which is why the Classics or Great Books are so often used. Examples of useful works:
- The Pledge of Allegiance,
- Plato’s Republic
- Film: “Gattaca”
- Sculpture: The Winged Victory
2. The Role of the Teacher: the teacher is a guide who demonstrates rather than talks about ways of investigating. He or she must be a highly self-reflective person with a great love of learning, whose passionate aim is the nurturance of minds and spirits.
The teacher must present himself as the Expert Learner who serves as an example of rational inquiry, independent examination, and discovery—rather than an expert in the information. To reiterate, the discussion follows these principles:
- Each person recognizes that Reason is the only authority in the discussion.
- Participants must ask questions of the text and each other.
- Participants must cite the text to give evidence for their ideas and interpretations.
- References to material outside of the text must be cogently linked to the text and discussion at hand, and explained in general principle, comprehensible to general reasoning. References dependent on knowledge not available to each participant are not considered cogent to the discussion.
- Participants should try to make connections to their lives.
- Each person takes responsibility for his or her own learning and for the quality of the conversation.
- Each person treats the other participants respectfully.
The teacher guides the discussion, helping participants reason together by asking questions that encourage participants to actively think about the work and its meaning. Questions such as:
- What does the author mean by using this word instead of that word?
- How does what the author says in this paragraph relate to what is said in that paragraph?
- How do these ideas relate to other ideas I know? How can I relate these ideas to general principles I know?
- If I tried to do what the author suggests in real life, what would happen?
The teacher also models how to respectfully talk to others in the discussion.
Further, the teacher encourages students to take ownership of the discussion by encouraging the student to suggest different strategies to approach issues and do any work needed, such as listing ideas on a blackboard, elaborating on the meaning of a passage, or suggesting a way to make the discussion better.
At the end of the seminar, the teacher leads a DEBRIEF: a 5-minute self-reflective discussion about the process of the discussion, including the reasoning and the personal behavior. The teacher asks what ideas, comments, principles, or conclusions advanced or detracted from learning and how to improve the conversation and the behavior for the next time. Blaming is discouraged; constructive ideas encourage.
The Debrief improves future discussions and develops self-awareness and responsibility by encouraging each person to reflect on:
- What they could have done differently or better to improve their or their classmates’ understanding of the work or their understanding of what others said,
- How they could have encouraged others to speak, or how they could have modified detracting discussion habits.
The Teacher’s Guiding Principles:
- Find exceptional works which require careful thinking and analysis to understand, and which have complex import.
- Help students with careful questions to understand these texts or other material (artworks, scientific experiments, musical compositions, etc).
- Keep his own opinions mainly to himself; instead, lead by example as a most enthusiastic and careful inquirer into the meaning of the study material; showing relationships to other important ideas, with reason as the only authority.
Encourage students to:
- Voice their own responses to the work and point to evidence in the work to demonstrate what gave rise to these responses.
- Be unafraid to admit thoughts about the work that don’t seem, at first glance, obvious conclusions, and then explore why they may be thinking them.
- Carefully listen to and respond to the meaning of what others are saying.
- Help other participants voice their reasons.
- Competitive displays of knowledge.References to other works and sets of ideas which cannot be simply explained to other seminar members and/or related directly to the material studied.
- Anything but respectful comments and behavior towards other participants.
All must be done subtly and artfully, so as not to take away the initiative of students or squash their egos.
The Teacher must also give students lots of rein in the direction of the discussion, even if it gets off the specific topic of the text, as long as the discussion still actively and seriously explores ideas. These diversions are perfectly acceptable as a learning exercise because the goal of the discussion is to learn how to analyze materials well, not to master specific material (mastery comes as a result of learning and thinking about the material on your own, before and after class).
Off topic discussion can sometimes be very effective in achieving the discussion goal.
THE ROLE OF THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
The discussion group should be small, preferably not over 15 people.
- Enables a controllable discussion.
- Develops personal relationships among the students; they get to know and care about each other, and gain a depth of understanding which galvanizes the discussion, just like a talk with a good friend.
The discussion should be held in a quiet room, with chairs in a circle, no materials except the works being discussed and water, paper, and pen. This environment:
- Encourages each member to view others as co-learners;
- Emphasizes that each person’s mind is his or her ultimate authority.
- Allows concentration on learning.
- Establishes seriousness and respect for the learning endeavor.
THE VALUE OF THE GROUP INTERACTION
- The practice of putting your thoughts into words in order to communicate with others develops your clarity of thought.
- Each person brings a different focus to the work, thereby drawing participants’ attention to far more aspects and meanings than one person could think on his own.
- In the discussion, students learn different ways in which the same information can be reasoned about and integrated.
- The respectful atmosphere can lead to close personal relationships, which can be encouraging and psychologically validating.
- Students learn how to collaborate to achieve understanding, a very valuable skill in adult life in which trade requires collaboration between buyer and seller and in teams of workers.
- The ability to ask good questions to find the meaning of any work, skill, or situation in reading and analyzing any text or problem, even outside one’s area of knowledge.
- The ability to be exact about the meaning of words and their definitions, which sharpens thinking and knowledge tremendously.
- The ability to identify the logic of arguments.
- A vastly expanded network of information and knowledge, particularly about some of the greatest, most influential thinkers, writers, artists and scientists.
- The ability to be self-responsible about learning, not dependent on what a teacher says to learn or think.
- The confidence and ability to question anything and anybody;
- The confidence that one’s mind is capable to grasp reality and the most difficult ideas, theories, and works available in any domain of knowledge;
The confidence that one can learn anything.
Michael Strong is an expert in Socratic Seminars and the author of the book The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. In addition to this book, you can find him discussing Socratic Seminars on YouTube. He created 5 high schools based on a Socratic Seminar curriculum, over a period of 15 years.
He administered the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (WGCTA), a cognitive skills test, to his students before beginning his program (of 5-day-a-week classes), after four months, and then at the end of the school year.
Here are some of his results:
- 9 of 12 minority females gained a 20% or more increase in their WGCTA scores in four months.
- One inner city student tested at the 1st percentile at the start, then at the 85th after four months.
- Even highly achieving upper middle class Montessori students gained cognitive skills. In four months, the average 8th grade Socratic seminar student (n=71) scored 6% higher than the national average.
Through my organization, The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, we offer week-long and weekend seminars using the Socratic method described here, and emphasizing integration across domains and with practical knowledge. Here’s what a former Great Connections Summer Seminar student said about her experience:
Liz Parker was a senior at George Mason University in Economics when she attended in July 2009, interviewed in the fall of 2010:
“When my college classes started they were a big disappointment.
“I normally struggle with ideas on my own and say to myself “It’s not too important to understand.”
“But when you share with people, you’re not so scared about getting the wrong conclusion because, together, you find different ways to think about the readings and the ideas. It makes it more fun to read really hard texts.
“For example, we were reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics onThe Principle of Non-Contradiction and we spent so long on just the first sentence, we were going crazy—
“And then, all of a sudden, someone said something that made it all clear, and I thought “Yes, that’s exactly what I understand it to mean!”
“When two people find that same common understanding, that same interpretation of words that someone else wrote hundreds of years ago, that’s so precious—you hardly ever get that moment of understanding with anybody.
“And there’s no upstaging one another or seeing who knows the most. The way you gauge someone is not whether they get all the answers right because the questions you’re asking don’t necessarily have an answer. It’s more how do you interpret this word or sentence or paragraph, or what does that mean.
“Now when I’m reading something about politics, I can take things to their logical conclusion and see if they’re contradicting themselves—it makes a big difference.
“It helped me at an IHS seminar last year with students from Harvard and MIT who were really intimidating political science guys.
“You could tell who really pays attention to the fundamental ideas, who knows the principles.
“I often found that their ideas were just wrong. Maybe they were just following the ideas of their teachers or maybe some intellectual they like, but they really didn’t have good reasons for what they said.
” What the seminar taught me was that no matter what text I have in front of me, or what my knowledge on a subject, I can understand something that the author is trying to say. I can interpret it from their words. I don’t need to do a lot of research or to consult a lot of experts. I can use my reason, and their words and the text and find my own opinion, and their opinion. It was so empowering just to know I can figure out such difficult ideas.
“Also, now when I go to job interviews, I’m not shy and timid about what I have to offer. I think that I can contribute good work and I’m productive. I think “Not only do I have technical skills, I can analyze texts, no matter what they is, I can figure them out, even if I’m ignorant on the subject.”
You can read the full interview and that of 2 other students on our website, www.rifinst.org.
College students today face an ideological onslaught from educators who are more concerned with creating “good citizens” than teaching them real knowledge. And it’s time for a new approach.
I’m running a program for high school and college students this summer because of a first grade perplexity — and Ayn Rand.
When I was kid in the late 1950s, I looked forward to the exciting new things I was learning every day at school. I was amused at the class clown, Mike, who nearly gave our teacher a heart attack by putting fake ink on her grade book. But I was also annoyed by his antics, and by the distractions of students who talked out of order, threw paper airplanes, and noisily dropped pencils while we were studying.
Why didn’t they find the challenge of learning as riveting as I did?
Slowly, it dawned on me that they were not happy in school. It bored them, or made them feel frustrated, or belittled. Lashing out at others was a consequence, and I was a frequent victim, with humiliating names thrown in as a bonus.
I vowed that none of this would happen to my children. I wanted to ensure their days were filled with the joy of learning, not the dread of school. This set me on a quest to find a different form of education.
Years later I came across Beatrice Hessen’s articles “The Montessori Method” in The Objectivist. Wow, this seemed like the educational method for me! It individualized learning, followed the child’s psychological development, and provided a peaceful, respectful, and orderly environment in which the child could exercise his or her abilities and choices while learning — a great way to learn how to live in a free society.
But I needed more proof than a few articles — and I got it in dozens of books by Maria Montessori in which she described her scientific approach and its results. I followed this with dozens of first-hand observations in Montessori classrooms all over the country and abroad. I also founded Council Oak Montessori School in 1990 which runs to eighth grade, where my own children flourished.
In the meantime, I was worrying about college. Back in the ’70s I attended Northwestern University where my organic chemistry classes were interrupted regularly by Vietnam War protesters. It made no sense to me — how was taking over a class in the Krebs cycle going to stop the war? Then I read Ayn Rand’s “The Anti-industrial Revolution” and understood the collectivist philosophy and anti-mind tactics behind the New Left.
Her article about Progressive education in lower schools, “The Comprachicos,” proved just as revelatory. Today, we’re seeing the consequences of 40 years in which the Progressive Left’s collectivist emphasis on socialization over mastery of knowledge has left many elementary school students ignorant and deficient in learning skills.
And it gets worse. The 1970s leaders of the New Left who destroyed property and bombed government buildings, such as Bill Ayers, are now influential intellectuals shaping the minds of the young. Ayers is celebrated as “Senior Professor of Education and University Scholar” at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He and many like him are in charge of teacher training programs all over the nation. They’ve transformed the national teacher accrediting agencies into nurseries of the New Left by requiring study of such works as Paolo Freire’s political tract, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, at most teacher education programs.
By Freire’s theory, schooling is not the conveyance of objective knowledge through the development of rational, individual thought. Rather, it is always a political process, subjectively biased to the benefit of those in power. Teachers are urged to develop, not reason, but “critical thinking” skills, i.e. critical of Western civilization. Classic books such as John Locke’s or Adam Smith’s mold students to submit to an oppressive, capitalist society, in this view. Freire and his cohorts had a different power structure in mind — represented most notably by a society he admired, Maoist China.
However, collectivist indoctrination is not limited to education schools. The dominant collectivist left professoriate dismisses great works of Western civilization as the product of the white elite. The consequence: research by The Association of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) finds that many college graduates in 2009 know less than high school graduates 50 years ago.
Knowledge of American history and civics is frighteningly depleted. Studies by the University of Connecticut Department of Public Policy found that 81% of seniors from the top 55 colleges failed a high school U.S. history exam. For example, over one-third could not identify the Constitution as establishing the separation of powers in our government. Thirty-seven percent thought Ulysses S. Grant was the general at the battle of Yorktown.
These are students at colleges ranked “best” by U.S. News & World Report.
If that’s not bad enough, consider what’s happening to free speech on campus. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) litigates many campus restrictions on free speech. But did you know that FIRE is fighting a battle against Purdue University which literally revolves around judging a book by its cover?
A student employee, Kenneth Sampson, was found guilty of racial harassment because he offended another student by reading Notre Dame vs the Klan: How the fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan. The cover shows a Klan hanging, and that was enough for a university administrator to reprimand Sampson. No matter that the book, in fact, is written as an indictment of the Klan!
Not surprisingly, for decades Ayn Rand’s books have been excluded from the curriculum at most colleges and universities, despite the fact that they are some of the best-selling and most enduring works of the 20th Century. Many academicians belittle her literary and philosophical value — while cartoons are studied in UCLA literature classes and feminist authors of every collectivist stripe are lauded in the Ivy League. Her academic critics don’t usually present “arguments,” so much as misrepresentations of her views, or fallacious ad hominen andad majorum attacks.
What does this imply? When people find it necessary to call names instead of make rational arguments, they’re often afraid of the ideas they are confronting. And no wonder: when readers apply reason and facts, her philosophy of reason, individualism, capitalism, and heroic achievement wins many of their minds and hearts and inoculates them against collectivist indoctrination.
Don’t Ayn Rand and Henry Hazlitt deserve to be included in the curriculum, along with Marx and Engels? Shouldn’t Ludwig von Mises be taught beside John Maynard Keynes? Only then will students fully understand the world around them and how it got that way. Only then will they have a real choice of ideas.
I’m convinced it’s time to offer an alternative to balance the current direction of higher education. For this purpose, I have been working with an accomplished group of trustees and advisors to establish a new college, the College of the United States. Of course one doesn’t start a new college overnight. Which brings me to why I’m running a seminar for high school and college students this summer.
Students need mental ammunition to withstand the ideological onslaught at college. They need to learn the great ideas which have formed our remarkable civilization. This means studying the classics along with modern science. This means developing students’ objective reasoning skills to counterbalance the classes in politicized “critical thinking.”
This coming July, we’ve planned a week-long introduction to our College program that will be both a live demonstration of our approach, and a way of giving students the tools and skills they will need, regardless of which college they attend.
And that’s how my perplexity in grade school led me to a seminar this summer.
originally published in Montessori Leadership
“Help me to do it myself,” self-responsibility, peace: these are fundamentals of the Montessori philosophy. How many of you know that another, highly influential thinker with these same beliefs has had a huge influence on the Montessori movement: Ayn Rand? Today, there are thousands of parents, teachers and heads of school who came to Montessori through her.
Novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand is most famous for her books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. According to a 1999 survey by the Book of the Month Club, Atlas Shrugged ranked second in influence with readers, after the Bible. Rand’s books have sold over 100 million copies and sell over 100,000 copies a year to this day – she has obviously affected a lot of people.
However, Rand wrote many other works, including an essay on education called “The Comprachicos,” now available in The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. In it, she discussed the Montessori Method at some length. She also published an article by the late Beatrice Hessen, “The Montessori Method,” in The Objectivist magazine, which article is now reprinted in John Chattin-McNichols’ Montessori Schools in America: Historical, Philosophical and Empirical Research Perspectives.
These two articles introduced millions of Rand’s readers to the Montessori Method and movement – and many of them stayed. I, for one, had been searching since I was a child for a way of schooling which kept the joy in life while guiding students in learning. The Rand and Hessen articles intrigued me and led me to a life-long love for the Method, which included founding Council Oak Montessori school in Chicago. Currently, I am working on a new college using the Method (see www.collegeunitedstates.org).
I do not think I am an exception. You will find Rand’s influence in Montessori schools all around North America, from North Carolina and Pennsylvania to Illinois and Colorado; from Toronto to Texas – and I’m sure almost anywhere you look. In California, there are a group of Fountainhead Montessori schools.
Why was Ayn Rand interested in Montessori? Ayn Rand dearly wanted peace, freedom, happiness and achievement for all the individuals of the world, having lived through the death and destruction of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. She knew that only through strong independence of judgment would our children avoid the mob madness and mass murder of Communism, Fascism, Nazism or, today, Islamic terrorism, which have been responsible for over 100 million deaths (Rummel, 1994). Only independence and respect for other individuals’ rights to make up their own minds and live their own lives would prevent any further killing fields and keep us out of war.
As she had hoped, the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957 ignited a revival of interest in Classical Liberalism and free-market thinkers like John Locke, Adam Smith, Ludwig Von Mises and Frederick Hayek, nurturing and triggering a huge movement to achieve freedom and prosperity throughout the world. Last year at the centenary of her birth, many groups and publications paid homage to her vital role in this revival and its exciting consequences, such as the fall of the Soviet Union and the spread of freedom around the world.
The Social Entrepreneurship movement is also a result of this change in thinking, in this case, specifically applied to helping the poorest around the globe, and it is a huge engine of social change. Rather than centralized government programs, thousands of micro-entrepreneurship projects are spreading wealth through the world by helping individuals create their own jobs. For example, in Bangladesh, Mohammed Yunnus created Grameen Bank to provide micro-credit loans all over the third world. Mark Frazier, a Rand fan, created the Internet site Openworld through which young people from developing countries can get quality information and training inexpensively. If needed, he helps them obtain computers and Internet hook-ups.
However, Rand’s similarity to Montessori went well beyond their common desire for peace. In “The Comprachicos,” Rand lauded the Montessori Method as exactly what children needed to develop properly. “The purposeful, disciplined use of his intelligence is the highest achievement possible to man: it is that which makes him human.” “[the best development of intelligence is what] Dr. Montessori had in mind…when she wrote the following about her method: ‘The didactic material, in fact, does not offer to the child the ‘content’ of the mind, but the order for that ‘content.’…The mind has formed itself by a special exercise of attention, observing, comparing, and classifying…which leads them to become active and intelligent explorers instead of wandering wayfarers in an unknown land.’” (Rand, 1970, 196)
Rand recognized that the Montessori Method is superb at developing a child’s thinking skills, independent judgment and inner self-confidence, while maintaining his or her love of learning. She also applauded the sensitive, individual approach to each child’s personality and development, and the respect for order, property and other people nurtured by the Method – all important elements for a happy, productive life.
Like Montessori, Rand believed judging others by their individual actions and achievements, not their group membership, race or any other feature outside of their control, was the basis of real respect. She realized that the road to peace was through educating individuals in the importance of thinking well and respecting the individual rights of others.
R.J. Rummel, Death by Government (Transaction 1994). Rummel is a now-retired political science professor. He has extensively researched forms of government and war, summarized in his charts, available at
He found that no democracy has made war on another democracy since 1816 (democracy defined as government by the people either directly or through elected representatives).
Chattin-McNichols, John, ed. 1981. Montessori Schools in America: Historical, Philosophical and Empirical Research Perspectives. Lexington: Ginn Custom Publishing.
Rand, Ayn. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.
Rand, Ayn. 1970. The Comprachicos in The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. New York: Signet, 187-239..
Rand, Ayn. 1943. The Fountainhead. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
Rummel, R.J. 1994. Death by Government, New York: Transaction Publishers
Copyright © 2007 by Marsha Familaro Enright. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the author and inclusion of her byline.
Marsha Familaro Enright has been attracted by the pleasures and problems of education since the third grade. Trained in biology and psychology, she has written research articles on psychology, neuropsychology, development, and education for a number of publications. She founded the Council Oak Montessori School near Chicago in 1990 and has served as its president since then. Recently, as founder and president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, Marsha and her colleagues have been developing a new college informed by the Montessori Method, the Great Books, Ayn Rand’s ideas, and classical liberalism. Information about that project can be found at its website, www.rifinst.org. Marsha also contributes articles and reviews to The New Individualist, including popular profiles of famous authors such as James Clavell, Cameron Hawley, and Tom Wolfe. Recently, she spent time with TNI contributing writer Sara Pentz to discuss the state of modern education, the prospects for its reform, and her own college project.
TNI: How did you get into the field of education?
Marsha Enright: When I was a kid, I loved school and I loved to learn. I looked forward to it everyday. But I was frustrated by the many kids around me who were miserable in school and often disrupted things. There was a lot of teasing and ridicule. I did not understand why that was happening, especially why the smart kids were not interested in learning. I vowed to myself that I would find a system of education that would really support kids in their learning and be a good environment for my own kids when I grew up. That is how I got interested in education.
But, ironically, that is not what I decided to go into when I went to college. At first, I wanted to be a doctor, like my dad. I was a biology undergraduate. After a while, I got interested in psychology, and toward the end of my college years, I decided that that was really where most of my interest lay. So I went on to graduate school and got a Masters in psychology at the New School for Social Research.
In high school, I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and got very interested in her ideas. And in one of her journals, The Objectivist, there were some articles about the system of education called the Montessori Method. They were by a woman named Beatrice Hessen; I think she owned her own Montessori school. When I read those articles, I said, “Wow, this sounds like a fantastic system.” I read all the books that I could get my hands on about the Montessori Method, and I visited many Montessori schools to observe how they worked. I determined that that was what I wanted for my children.
So, when I started having my children in the early 1980s, I looked around for a Montessori school. There was one in the neighborhood for pre-school, three- to six-year-olds. I put my kids there, and I was very happy with it. When it came time for elementary school for my son, I found a Montessori school in a nearby suburb that he went to for three years, but then it closed. I wanted to make sure that he and my other children could continue in Montessori, so I organized some of the other parents to open a Montessori school in our neighborhood. And that is how I got started as an educator, running Council Oak Montessori School in Chicago.
TNI: What interested you about Maria Montessori and her approach?
Enright: Montessori was a great scientist. She was trained as a medical doctor, the first woman doctor in Italy, and she approached human learning as a scientist, observing in great detail what children did and trying out different materials and activities with them to see what would work best.
Her method is very concerned with the individual child. She started out working with retarded and autistic children. And she became almost instantly famous around the world in the early part of the twentieth century because, after working with these children for a year and applying her observations and her methods, they were able to pass the exam for normal children.
But while everyone thought this was wonderful, she was thinking, “My gosh, if my poor retarded children can pass the exam for normal children, what is happening if normal children are only being asked to learn up to that level?” That is when she started working with normal children. And there, again, her results were so phenomenal that she gained even more fame.
Because motivation is so important in learning, she focused on the proper conditions to keep that fire burning. If you look at children who are one or two or three, you can see that they have tremendous motivation to learn everything they can—crawling around the floor, putting things in their mouths, looking at every book, following what their moms are doing, imitating. They are just balls of energy when it comes to learning everything they can about the world, about objects in the world, about how to move, how things taste, smell, look, about what people are doing with each other.
Montessori noticed, for example, that if she could get a child to concentrate on an activity and really be involved in it, when the child eventually stopped the activity he would be happy; he would be calm; he would be tired, but in a very contented way. And that would keep him interested. The next day, the child would want to learn and do more. So it became a self-feeding process.
TNI: What, besides motivation, is really important to learning?
Enright: Well, I see learning as acquiring the knowledge and skills that you need to function in the world—to be productive, happy, and successful. Just like a flower: If you put a flower under a rock, it is going to struggle around that rock to try to reach the sun and water, but it is going to become deformed. But if you put it in the right kind of soil with plenty of water and sunshine, it is going to be beautiful and flourishing. A child is like that, too. Montessori called the child “the spiritual embryo.”
TNI: What did she do to nurture that “embryo”?
Enright: Her method became famous in 1907 in Rome when she set up what she called the House of Children—Casa de Bambini—where she worked with slum children. It was a wonderful environment for learning that respected the individual child’s interests and his natural learning tendencies. It used the teacher as a guide to learning and had the children collaborate with each other, but very respectfully.
Their behavior changed so markedly that people came from all over the world to train with her, and soon her method started spreading globally. Alexander Graham Bell’s wife became interested and opened the first Montessori school in the United States in 1912.
TNI: That’s remarkable.
Enright: It was remarkable, because she was able to get three and four year olds to concentrate for long periods of time.
She had a famous example of a little girl working on what is called the knobbed cylinders. It is made of a bar of wood with cylindrical pieces of different widths in it. Each cylinder has a knob on it for grasping, and the child has to take all the cylinders out of the bar and then put them back into the right-sized holes. If they do not put them in all the right-sized holes, then one cylinder is left over, and the child knows that he made a mistake.
This is what we call, in Montessori education, a “self-correcting” material. The goal, as much as possible, is to help the child see for himself if he achieved the goal or not, if he “got the right answer.”
TNI: So they are not constantly being corrected by someone else?
Enright: Exactly. If you want the child to be an independent individual when he reaches adulthood, he has to be able to know on his own when he has achieved something or when he has failed—to judge that independently.
In this example, the girl working on the cylinders was so engrossed in her work that it did not matter that Maria had a crowd of children around her singing, or that she moved her seat around or anything; the child just kept focusing on the cylinders for forty-five minutes.
TNI: That’s impressive.
Enright: You see this in Montessori schools all the time—this incredible concentration, which, interestingly, Montessori figured out back at the turn of the century, was a key to learning and self-motivation. More recent psychological research by professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, on the optimal conditions for the most enjoyable kinds of experiences, independently and completely supports her original observations and conclusions. Csikszentmihalyi called this kind of experience of engrossing activity “flow,” because when he first discovered it, he was studying artists in the ’60s who would be totally engaged in what they were doing. And they said, “I’m just in the flow.” They would forget where they were, they would forget what time it was, and they totally enjoyed what they were doing. In sports, it’s “getting in the zone.” When the Montessori people read his books and contacted him, he recognized what was going on in the Montessori classroom—that Maria had created this optimal flow environment for learning.
TNI: And the focus was on the individual.
Enright: Exactly—that we are all individual human beings with human wants and needs.
Montessori schools spread all over the States, and they were spreading all over the world, too, when along came this very influential professor from Columbia University Teachers’ College, William Heard Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick decided to “scientifically” analyze the Montessori Method. He went to some schools, he interviewed her, and he wrote a book called The Montessori System Examined. His book basically gutted the Montessori Method, discrediting it with the academics.
You see, Kilpatrick was a staunch advocate of John Dewey’s “progressive” method of education. Dewey’s method, if you look at its basic principles, is actually almost the opposite of Montessori—although a lot of people think that it is very similar because it emphasizes experiential, “hands on” learning.
For one thing, Dewey opposed the development of the intellect when a child is young; he considered it stifling to the imagination. Whereas Maria said, “Well, you cannot really do imaginative work until your mind has some content.” So, the imaginative work goes hand-in-hand with learning about the world.
In addition, Dewey focused on the socialization of the child. For him, the school was about teaching the child how to get along with other people and be a part of society—this was the crux of his “pedagogic creed.” You can see it in his famous declaration about the purpose of education, first published in The School Journal in January 1897. Dewey wrote, “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling, and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.”
TNI: At that time, there was a big push for socialism in all aspects of our society. Anybody who promoted individualism was in the minority.
Enright: Exactly. Even Montessori herself was, politically, a socialist. I mean, it was generally believed that socialism was the most advanced political point of view. She understandably would have been seduced by all those ideas. That was not her field.
Now Maria Montessori’s method does teach social skills as a conscious element in the curriculum. We call it “the grace and courtesy aspects” of the curriculum. But contrary to Dewey’s approach, hers is about how people properly interact with each other to be productive and happy individuals, in the course of developing their minds.
You can see this in the whole system, starting with the very way that children are allowed to work with the materials in the classroom. They can go to the shelf where the materials are, select something, bring it to their own space defined by a rug or a desk or a table or wherever they wish to sit, and work on it. They can work by themselves with the material as long as they want; the children are taught to try not to disturb each other. They can share the material with the other children if they want to, but they are not forced to. Consequently, what happens is that they tend to be very happy to collaborate with other children.
TNI: How interesting.
Enright: And when they are done, they are required to take the material and put it back on the shelf where it was so that the next child can use it. To me, all of these principles taught in the Montessori classroom train children how to behave in a free society with other responsible individuals.
TNI: I can see that.
Enright: Montessori’s is not a focus on “You must get along with other people no matter what.” The focus is very much on intellectual development, on the individual trying to learn, to develop himself, and to interact in a respectful way. In some respects that is the opposite of the collectivist idea that Dewey had of how we should interact. One result is the consistent reports we get from upper-level teachers and employers that Montessori students stand tall in what they think is right.
Anyway, Kilpatrick said that the Montessori Method was based on an old-fashioned theory of faculty psychology. Now, at that time, 1918, the ascendant theory—the so-called “scientific theory of psychology”—was behaviorism, whose basic tenet is that you cannot scientifically say that there is a mind, because you cannot see it; you can only study behavior.
As a consequence of Kilpatrick’s books, the Montessori schools started closing down. Only a few remained over the long haul, and they were quite small. Students going to teachers’ colleges were discouraged from going into Montessori because it was considered old-fashioned—too much focus on the intellect, not enough on imagination; too individualistic, not the proper kind of socialization.
But the Method was rediscovered in Europe in the ’50s by a mother, Nancy McCormick Rambusch, who was very dissatisfied with education in the United States. She brought it back to the U.S. and eventually started the American Montessori Society. Ever since, it has been a grassroots, parent-driven movement, not an approach promoted out of the universities.
TNI: At that point, education was inundated by the ideas promoted by Dewey. Is that correct?
Enright: Right. You have to remember that traditional education was mostly either self-education or education of the wealthy, who could afford to hire tutors. The problem of mass education arose because a republic like ours needed an educated populace. But because not all parents could pay for school, public education started with the basic problem of how to educate so many people on a limited budget. To solve that, they came up with the factory model, which is to have everybody in one room doing the same thing at the same time. The teacher is the one lecturing or directing everything that the children are doing.
TNI: Sort of like mass production.
Enright: Right. And in some respects, it worked. I do not think it would have worked so well if not for the fact that many children going into this system were highly motivated immigrants—because motivation is the key to learning. Even today, as bad as some of our public schools are, you will find reports about immigrants from Somalia, Serbia, Poland, China, all doing fantastically in public schools where other children are failing.
People look back at nineteenth-century traditional education and early parts of the twentieth century and say, “Look at how well people were educated then, compared to now.” Yes, we have many examples of remarkably high-achieving people from all levels of society at that time, but what proportion of the population were they?
Actually, discontent with public education runs back a long way. There is a book from the ’60s by Richard Hofstadter called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. He has a chapter called “The School and the Teacher,” in which he talks about the American dedication to education, how it is the “American religion,” and the concern, going back to statements of Washington and Jefferson, that we have an educated populace. He documents that objections to the kind of education received in public schools goes back to 1832—objections by Horace Mann in Boston, among others—and the complaints sound remarkably similar to what you hear today! Complaints such as: Not enough money being spent on students or teachers; teachers not getting the kind of social recognition they should for their important work; too many people apathetic about what was happening in the public schools.
So there were serious criticisms of traditional, factory-model education early on. But today there are serious problems with education as a result of the mass influence of Dewey’s philosophy of education and the ideas of leftists so deeply incorporated into the system of learning.
TNI: How do the ideas of leftists undermine education?
Enright: Well, the most serious problem is caused by the philosophical ideas of egalitarianism that became embedded in the system starting about thirty years ago. Egalitarianism is basically just a new variation on the socialist ideas which drove Dewey’s educational philosophy.
In the United States, we believe that people should have equality of opportunity. In other words, they should not be hampered by unequal treatment under the law, or by other people forcibly preventing them from pursuing what they want to do. Egalitarianism, however, takes the view that everybody should be made actually equal—not equal before the law, but materially and personally equal—that everybody should have the same amount of money, everybody should have the same abilities—
TNI: And opportunities.
Enright: Yes, and opportunities, regardless of their own effort. That these opportunities should be provided for them. This socialist permutation of Marxism was incorporated into the educational system in the way we spend public education money. Nowadays, we cannot spend more money on students of superior intelligence or talent than we do on students who have a lot of problems. We must focus instead on lifting kids with problems to the same level as everybody else. So a lot of money has been poured into “special education”—euphemistic code words for the education of poorly functioning children—and it is sold to the American public with the argument that we should give these kids an even break. In other words, it’s sold with an individualist spin: Since it’s government money, and since the government should be promoting equal opportunity, we should give problem kids extra help so that they can get on par with everyone else.
TNI: It’s easy to see how people can agree with that view of equal opportunity.
Enright: And it is true that we do need an educated populace. But there is a disjunction between the customer and the person paying, because public education is paid through government. So you have all of this conflict over what is going to be taught in the schools; and you end up having political pressure brought to bear by whoever has the dominant philosophy, influences the teacher’s colleges and education departments, or controls the local governments that run the educational programs.
There are two obvious consequences of introducing egalitarianism into the system. One is this idea that we must spend all kinds of money to raise the level of children with problems. As a result, a lot of money has been taken away from programs for what are called “gifted” children; after all, they’re already at a high level, so it’s not “equitable” to spend more to raise them higher.
The other consequence is the multiculturalism movement. That’s the idea that everybody should be considered equal no matter what their beliefs, or their racial, cultural, family, or ethnic background. Of course, as Americans, we think that you should not judge somebody based on his background or race, whatever group he is in, or anything like that, right? We think we should judge people as individuals. So, multiculturalism was floated in American society with an individualist twist.
But it is not about individuals. It categorizes everybody according to what social and cultural group he belongs to. And with egalitarianism comes cultural relativism: Every culture is equal to every other, none is better than any other. You throw out objective standards of what is good and what is bad.
So now, we are supposed to respect everybody regardless of what his culture or background brings to the table. If your culture believes in cutting off heads and ripping out hearts—well, it’s all relative!
TNI: And you have to be so careful about what you say, where you say it, and how you say it, in terms of being politically correct.
Enright: Exactly. And why is that? The egalitarians do not want anybody’s feelings to be hurt. They do not want people’s self-image to be hurt by the fact that they are not a white male, an Olympic athlete, or something like that. They have elevated a person’s self-image to being the main consideration, instead of what the person has actually achieved: We’re going to make everybody feel equal, even if they are not. Whereas our usual American approach to equality is: We do not care what your background is. If you have achieved something great, we are going to recognize and reward that.
TNI: We see the effects of this kind of philosophy, for example, in the “No Child Left Behind Act.”
Enright: Yes. No Child Left Behind is a way that conservative policymakers have tried to deal with the bad effects of egalitarianism in public education. They said, “See what this egalitarian approach to education, where everybody is worrying about hurting somebody’s feelings, has done to education. It has gotten teachers to give kids social promotions, which means that even though they have not mastered third-grade material, they are still promoted to fourth grade. We need to impose standards on public schools to make sure children are being educated to a certain level.”
So they imposed a centralized, top-down testing system for all schools, to try to make sure everybody was up to the same standards. This reflects the traditional way education is organized, because it is all about making everybody do the same thing at the same time.
TNI: And advance through the grades.
Enright: Right, advance through the grades. The other use of the term “grades” has to do with the evaluation of the child’s work on a task, essay, or project. Did you know that the use of the term “grades” came from the idea of grading shoes and saying that “this group of shoes is the best group, this group is just okay, this group is not too good, and that group must be thrown out”? What’s bothersome about this is that, as educators, our job should be to craft an environment to help each child, whatever his ability or background, so that he can learn and achieve as much as he can, so he can fulfill his best potential as a unique individual.
But in the grading system, you are thinking about how to decide whom to pass and whom to fail. In the traditional view, failing was the child’s fault, not the educational system’s—the child just didn’t try hard enough. One thing that traditional education was criticized for, and one reason why these newer methods were incorporated, was that we were losing all this human potential. But that truth was twisted through egalitarianism.
TNI: Then, at some point, there are classes where no grades are given at all, so nobody gets his feelings hurt? Or like the Little League where no score is kept?
Enright: Right. Nobody is labeled a winner or a loser.
I think that for young children, this is not always a bad idea, because grades and scores focus on competing with other people. In Montessori schools, we do not generally keep grades. We focus on whether or not the child is mastering the material. And each child is evaluated separately. A child also learns how to evaluate himself. “Have I mastered this material? Can I go on to the next level?”
TNI: And this is easily determined by the teacher?
Enright: Easily. Because the teacher knows the curriculum well; she knows what the child should be working on. And we have a general idea, from the scientific study of development, at what level children usually should be functioning at a given age. Not everybody will fall into the statistically normal sequence of development, because there is so much individual variation in human development and potential. We use a very broad category of what is objectively normal development.
TNI: This is also based on the biology of the child?
Enright: Exactly. One of the reasons we do not use grades in Montessori is that we recognize that education is, at root, self-education. Our job is to guide children in their self-education; we are very concerned that each child be concerned with doing his best and challenging himself. This only happens in the right educational environment because, you see, human beings are naturally very competitive. That, I think, comes from our nature as social animals competing in the social hierarchy, and it is very easy to let that trump the desire to learn.
So, when you introduce grades and all those comparisons in the early ages, children tend to focus on comparing themselves to each other and determining who is on the top of the heap and who is not. Their focus tends to be, “What is my grade? Am I pleasing the teacher? And am I better than the next guy?” They do not tend to focus on “What am I actually learning? Am I understanding what I’m doing? Do I know how to use it?”
TNI: That can be very dangerous. And it can undercut their self-esteem.
Enright: In the sense of undercutting their real self-esteem, their deepest sense of self-confidence. “I’m not good at math—I can’t do it as well as Johnny.” But maybe he’s just a late bloomer. Einstein was supposed to be a mediocre math student in the early grades. Being constantly compared to others can cut a child’s motivation to persevere and keep learning something, even if it’s difficult. So, we are very concerned to downplay that kind of competition. Competition happens anyway, but to a reduced degree. A child will look at what another is doing and say, “Hmm, I want to be able to do that.” If there is not a lot ofpressure to compete, this natural tendency will actually motivate him in a good way.
TNI: It’s more of a healthy, inner competition—
Enright: —than something externally directed. You want to encourage this intrinsic motivation to learn and achieve that we see in the two year old, because when you become an adult, you want to be self-motivated—to achieve things yourself and to know what you enjoy doing, in order to be happy.
TNI: Why do conservatives not like the Montessori Method?
Enright: Well, I do not know if I can speak about all conservatives. Some send their children to Montessori schools. But, politically, the conservative approach is, “Let’s go back to what was done before.” They tend to think in the paradigm of what was done traditionally in education. That ends up being the factory method.
And they want to reintroduce standards, since egalitarians following the Dewey method took standards and mastery out of the picture because they did not want to hurt anybody’s feelings. So, since nobody is learning or acquiring the skills needed to succeed, the conservatives’ response is, “Well, let’s reintroduce standards.” Their way of doing it is by using these tests. It is ironic that conservatives, who seem to want a more free-market approach to things, should introduce the federal Education Department’s top-down, one-standard idea about what everybody in the whole country should be doing.
My teacher friends now call it the “No Child Left Standing Act,” because of the tremendous focus on producing higher test scores at all costs. The money that schools get is so tied to the test scores that the focus of teachers and administrations is almost solely on whether the children are passing these tests at the designated levels—not whether the children are really learning things. As we all know, it is very easy for many kids to learn only what they must for the short–term, to pass the test, but in the end they know very little about the subject.
TNI: It’s the old practice of “cramming for the test” until the last moment, taking the test, and then forgetting everything.
Enright: Exactly. Whereas real learning is about gaining the knowledge and skills that you need, relating these to other things you know, figuring out how you can use it all in your own life, and understanding how it affects the world.
The conservatives wanted to revert to traditional testing to assess what the child was learning. But, unfortunately, a test is not generally an authentic measure of what the child understands. Many smart kids are encouraged to compete to get good grades and learn to “game the system.” The kids who succeed the most in school oftentimes are the best at doing whatever the teacher tells them. They know what they need to do to get good grades, to get into the good high school and college. We see students who do fantastically on the SAT and may even do well in college, but they do not know how to think well. They just know how to play along by other people’s rules. When they get out into the real world, they are not necessarily especially successful or great employees.
TNI: They don’t succeed in reality.
Enright: No. Sometimes they are tremendous failures.
There was interesting research done on millionaires by Thomas J. Stanley. He discovered that quite a few of them got under 950, total, on their SAT scores, and yet they are fantastically successful in business. Obviously, their talents were not served or assessed well in school.
TNI: So, it is ultimately an issue of learning how to think, is it not?
TNI: And that is never taught, is it?
TNI: What about the kids of single parents or kids from minority homes lacking the usual advantages—kids who may not be instilled with much motivation to learn? Also, why do children from some ethnic groups, such as kids from India, seem to be more motivated to learn?
Enright: Indian culture really emphasizes education.
TNI: As does the Chinese culture.
Enright: Yes. So your question is: What can we do to motivate children who come from less-supportive backgrounds? Well, for one thing, research finds these children tend to do very well in Montessori classrooms.
Also, speaking of motivation—I remember a John Stossel TV special some years ago. There was a segment about Steve Marriotti, a former businessman who decided to teach in a Harlem high school. And he just had an awful time. Almost the whole year, the kids made fun of him and caused trouble.
Just before the end of the year, as he was about to quit, he asked his class, “If I did one thing right, what was it? If one thing I did was interesting, what was it?” And he said, “A fellow at the back of the class, a gang leader, raised his hand and said, ‘Well, when you talked about how you ran this import/export business and how you made it successful.’” Right there, this gang leader basically reconstructed Marriotti’s income statement for him. Obviously, he was an intelligent student—he had absorbed all the facts about the economics of Marriotti’s business.
It dawned on Marriotti that what would really motivate these kids to rise out of poverty was to learn how to become entrepreneurs. So he instituted a program that is now worldwide, to teach kids how to be entrepreneurs—the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. One thing he found is that children from these backgrounds are used to tolerating uncertainty and risk, which you must be able to do to be a good entrepreneur.
Enright: But people from a very stable background will not easily have that ability. In fact, we have an opposite kind of problem nowadays. We have so many kids from wealthy families that they lack the motivation to make money, and they do not have any direction. Their parents do not instill in them enough sense of purpose and drive. They end up being profligate, drunks and drug addicts, just spending money—Paris Hilton or whatever.
Because we are such a wealthy society, that is another reason why teaching our children in ways that nurture their intrinsic motivation right from the get-go is so important.
TNI: Back to an earlier point. If conservatives don’t have the right approach to education, what about libertarians?
Enright: The libertarians have mostly been encouraging school choice—the idea that parents should have a right to decide where their child goes to school. Encouraging school choice is a good idea; it is certainly a step away from this monolithic public education system we now have and towards a more individualized educational market.
TNI: That means supporting the voucher system, right?
Enright: I have to say, the voucher system scares me, in this respect. With the government paying for private-school education through vouchers, on the scale of money we’re talking about, there will inevitably be corruption. And then political people will say, “Well, if these private schools are going to take government money, we have to have government oversight and control.” It is a real, dangerous possibility that the government will step in and standardize everything, and that will be the opposite of a free market in education. It’s what happened in the Netherlands.
TNI: Is that where libertarian educators are moving?
Enright: What I understand is that libertarians originally were encouraging tax credits for education. Milton Friedman talked about that, years ago. Individuals could take money off what they had to pay in taxes in order to use it for private-school tuition. Also, non-parents and organizations could give money to educate others, like poor children, and get tax credits. If there weren’t enough monies that way, I imagine that you could set things up so that children whose parents did not pay enough taxes would get some kind of voucher.
But, at some point, many libertarians decided that that was not going to fly, politically, and so they turned instead toward vouchers for everybody. But the politicians will end up regulating private schools that use vouchers, maybe saying that all voucher-accepting schools have to have state-certified teachers or curricula.
TNI: So this may put Montessori out of business.
Enright: Yes. Because once the government begins to issue vouchers, the schools are going to have to accept them—except, perhaps, for the schools of the very wealthy. All the other private schools, where middle-class and lower-middle-class students go, will either have to accept them, or they will go out of business.
TNI: Ah, yes.
Enright: So, the libertarians are encouraging a free market in education, which is a good thing. The thing I do not hear from them, however, is much talk about what kind of education is objectively best for human beings. That is because most libertarians believe in a free market, which is the political end of things, but they think that your moral standards and ethical beliefs are entirely private and subjective.
Okay, I do not think that the government should be regulating morals, either. However, although I think that what is right and wrong is often a complex question, I also think that you can look at human nature and reality and say, “Just as certain things are good for human health, certain actions are good for human education.” It is a matter of science and experience to figure out what is objectively good in education. But libertarians do not discuss objective standards of education very much; it is something they leave by the wayside.
TNI: I know that standards and discipline in education are important to you.
Enright: They are. But there is a good side to them and a bad side. The conservative view of education tends to be that children need to learn certain things, and we must make them learn them because they are not necessarily interested in learning those things right now. I call this the “Original Sin” view of education, because it fits many conservatives’ ethical views: They think children tend to be naughty and would rather play, so you have to discipline them to make them learn.
TNI: Force them.
Enright: Force them to learn, right. And what Maria Montessori discovered was that theylove to learn, if you give them the right environment, and they will do it of their own free will. You, as the adult, just have to be clever enough to give them what they need at the right time. You have to be the right kind of guide in their learning process, in their self-education. So, what tends to happen in the well-run Montessori school—and this is one of the things that is remarkably different about them—is that the children are very well-behaved of their own accord.
TNI: Because they are focused on learning and their own self-fulfillment—on intrinsic competition, as opposed to getting the best grade, fighting with others, and worrying about their self-images.
Enright: Exactly, exactly. What is so striking when you enter a Montessori classroom is this busy hum of all these children doing their own individual work all around the classroom. They are working on things; they are excited about what they are doing and sharing it with each other, but quietly. They are allowed to talk to each other. Maria said, “We learn so much through conversation as adults. Why do we stop children from talking to each other?” Well, that happens in traditional education because children end up talking about things that are different from what the teacher is directing them to pay attention to, right?
Enright: People often ask me, “How do you know that a Montessori school is better than other schools?” And here is some of my proof: Over the years at my school, I cannot tell you how many children have lied to their parents, saying that they are not sick when they really were, because they do not want to miss school! We get notes from parents all the time about this.
TNI: That’s fascinating. It’s also fascinating that you have taken these concepts and have decided to put together a college for young adults. Why did you decide to do that, and how it is going to work?
Enright: It is well known that leftist philosophy dominates academia. Stories about how people with conservative or libertarian views are kept out of the academy are common. Furthermore, on campuses you have a proliferation of anti-cognitive, anti-free-inquiry ideas, like political correctness. The kids are not allowed to talk about things in certain ways because it might offend somebody. If they hold politically incorrect views and express them, they are ridiculed. In many instances students are punished with bad grades by professors who do not like what they write—not because it is poorly done, but simply because the teachers do not like the content. Well, that strangles debate. That strangles the reasoning mind. That strangles independent judgment.
TNI: It’s all too common.
Enright: Plus, it concerns me that the many students coming out of college are not able to think well. These people will take over the leadership of our society; yet they cannot think for themselves, and they have been encouraged to strangle their minds with political correctness.
So, I thought to myself, maybe it is time to start another kind of college, one consciously devoted to reason, to individualism, and to encouraging students to learn how to think for themselves—not only by the ideas that we’d teach, but by the very methods that we’d use to teach those ideas. A school where the teachers are not authority figures telling you what the truth is, and you are just absorbing it and spitting it back to them on the tests. Instead, a school where the teachers are expert guides to the best knowledge and ideas in the world—where reasoning skills are emphasized in every classroom, whether it is science or art, whether it is mathematics or history.
TNI: And you are going to find teachers able to do this—and wanting to do it?
Enright: Yes. I do not think it is going to be a problem to find teachers, because I have so many highly qualified people approaching me, saying they would be interested. It would be a matter of finding those with the right combination of skills, attitudes, and knowledge to properly implement the curriculum we have created.
TNI: Talk a little about that curriculum.
Enright: It is going to use what are called “The Great Books” as its foundation. These are group of classics first identified in the late 1920s and ’30s. Robert Hutchins, a far-seeing president of University of Chicago, was concerned, back in the ’20s, that college was getting too professionalized—that everybody was focusing on just getting a job, and that they were not being educated well enough in the great ideas of our world to understand what was going on around them.
So, he put together this committee of experts in ideas, works, and education—Mortimer Adler, a philosopher at U.C.; Richard McKeon and Mark Van Doren from Columbia; Stringfellow Barr from the University of Virginia—a number of people. They picked a group of books that they thought were the most influential, the best-reasoned, the most important works in Western civilization, and they called these “The Great Books.” Since then, the list has been expanded to include titles from civilizations around the world.
A person educated in these books knows a tremendous amount about the ideas, history, and people who have influenced the world we live in today. So, we are going to use that list of books, plus a select group of more contemporary ones, such as the works of Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Richard Feynman, and others. These will form the basis of our curriculum.
We will also incorporate philosophical questions in all classes—very reality-oriented philosophical questions. When the student is learning mathematics, he will also learn, “Why am I learning mathematics? What does it teach me about how to think? How can I use it in the way I live? How does it affect our society? What place does mathematics have in the marketplace?” So, when he graduates, he will have a firm grasp of the relationship between what he learned in school, and the workforce, and his life, and history, and political goings-on—all of these things. We will give him much stronger, more integrated knowledge of the world than does the usual curriculum.
TNI: And he will be independent.
Enright: And he will be independent. He will consciously know how to question and analyze. Through encouragement, reasoning skills, excellent philosophical knowledge, and the way the teachers will guide him, his independence will be highly nurtured. He will be much more confident of his own point of view because he will have thought it through so well. And whatever work he chooses, he will be able to be a confident leader promoting freedom.
Since I’ll bring Montessori principles up to the adult level in this school, a large component of the curriculum will be a “practical life component,” where the student not only intellectually grasps relationships between ideas and what is going on in the world but gains practical experience with that, too. We’ll give students an opportunity from their freshman year on to get involved in outside internships, research projects, and other activities where they can learn about whatever they might be interested in doing. They can try different kinds of work—
TNI: —actually working alongside business people, or interning with scientists?
Enright: Yes, precisely. The internship program will also demonstrate to people how well the students are doing, as they display their excellent thinking skills, their work ethic—all the kinds of things we are going to encourage and nurture.
TNI: Do you know for a fact that people out there would be willing to bring these interns into their environment?
Enright: Oh, yes. I know quite a few businessmen who are involved with me in this project, and they are very excited about the idea. You know, businesses today have a great deal of trouble with employees who are not prepared to work in the right way.
TNI: So, is this college going to be a reality?
Enright: If I have anything to do about it.
TNI: How are academics throughout the country responding?
Enright: I have quite a group of enthusiastic academics on my advisory board. When I go to conferences of the Liberty Fund and the National Association of Scholars and tell them about the college, many people are extremely interested. And, as I said, there is a lot of interest from professors who would like to work there.
TNI: You sound like an educational optimist.
Enright: I am. I think the basic principles of education—and educational reform—are now well-established. You have to remember that when Maria Montessori started, she basically taught slum children.
TNI: And proved that, given the right kind of education, these kids could rise out of poverty and become successful.
Enright: Absolutely. Every day, through a combination of factors, including drive and their own free will, people emerge from the worst of backgrounds and succeed. But what you want to do, of course, is to make it possible for more of them to succeed. And that is what education should be about: crafting a learning environment that allows the greatest number of children to develop themselves.
TNI: Well, it is a fascinating subject—and as your own project develops, I’m sure that we will talk with you about it again. Best wishes, Marsha.
Enright: Thank you, Sara.
When I was in grammar school in the late ‘50’s, I loved school. I eagerly looked forward to learning every day. But by the time I was eight I noticed this wasn’t true for everyone. No. In fact, many, many of the other children were confused or defiant or scared or just plain bored. I could understand the confusion of children who were having trouble keeping up with what was being taught – although I didn’t understand why they were having trouble. And I was simply outraged at the kids who got their jollies from picking on other children. But what really puzzled me were the smart kids who just hated to come to school and who caused all kinds of trouble. Why didn’t they find learning fun? Why did they misbehave constantly, rather than focus on their school work? Why were they so bad?! Why was school such a miserable experience for so many of my schoolmates? What was wrong?
I vowed that I would not let this happen to my own future children, and that they would go to a school that they loved. That vow sent me on a decades-long mission to discover a better way of education.
In 1971 I had the good fortune to read an article on the deepest problems of modernist education, in which the author recommended the Montessori Method as a brilliant alternative1. This led me to read Beatrice Hessen’s article “The Montessori Method,”2 and I was hooked!
The deepest insight Dr. Montessori taught me was: don’t blame the children, question your assumptions. In other words, when you see unhappy children, misbehaving in school and having difficulty learning the material, ask yourself: “what should I do differently? What is frustrating that child?” It’s a simple question that any gardener asks when her plants don’t thrive. This is exactly what Maria asked herself in the first years of the 20th century – and answered by careful, scientific observation of children. And this is the essence of the Montessori Method.
But we don’t seem to have learned that lesson well enough. After twenty plus years of crisis, education pundits are still dithering over what’s wrong. Activists want to throw ever more money into a failing system. And politicians demand we revert to old methods of rote learning and testing. But scientific research shows these very methods are merely mediocre in judging learning, achievement and potential! Ironically, it was the failures of traditional systems that led to the early 20th century explorations in education of John Dewey, Rudolph Steiner and Maria Montessori almost 100 years ago.
What most parents and even most educators don’t know is that the traditional method of education is based on the factory model. Centuries ago, mainly the rich were educated, because their families could hire private tutors for one-on-one lessons. With the advent of the U.S. as a democratic republic, a need arose for mass education to ensure that citizens had enough knowledge and understanding to effectively participate in a free society. Most people couldn’t afford to hire their own teachers, so factories for learning were set up all around the country. Large numbers of children were taught to learn the same thing at the same time in the same way: letters, numbers, reading and history lessons ‘by the book’. To facilitate mass production in education, children were ranked by the same system as shoes: in grades.3
This helped many to acquire basic skills in reading and arithmetic, history and geography, mathematics and maybe a little science. Bright but poor children were at least exposed to the realms of knowledge through these schools, and many bootstrapped themselves to later success. The well-to-do were able to get a richer education in private schools. However, wherever traditional methods were used, the emphasis was – and is – on acquiring as much information as possible. The systematic growth and development of the individual was usually left to chance.
A century ago, most jobs required rote learning and rote work – in factories and farms. Today is a far, far different story. More than ever, working individuals need to be highly motivated and capable learners, able to find out what they need to know and figure out what to do with that information. They need to be able to think well and to judge complex situations using the latest technology. And they need to interact with people all over the world in the vast global markets.
Most jobs today require knowledge workers, not just arms or legs to put parts on an assembly line. Our factory workers use some of the most complicated, computerized equipment the world has ever seen. The phenomenal productivity of the American worker is made possible by his or her ability to run the complex machines that now do the physical labor. Even artists need to learn technology – for animation, sculpture, film – a whole host of media. How can people of widely varying abilities and intellects get a solid educational foundation of knowledge and still be able to develop their individual gifts to the fullest? How can we expect to consistently nurture capable, knowledgeable, highly motivated individuals in a factory system? What education today needs is a truly innovative approach to individual education.
What’s really needed is right in our backyard, thriving since the early ‘60’s through a grassroots movement but largely ignored by educational theorists. It requires an entirely new way of thinking about education, a way that recognizes and respects the needs of the individual child. And that is the Montessori Way. It is a remarkably dynamic modern approach that’s almost 100 years old!
These are the reasons many more parents and teachers need to understand the Montessori Way. Fortunately, The Montessori Way by Tim Seldin and Paul Epstein has recently been published to help them. This book does a brilliant job of translating Dr. Montessori’s deep insights into 21st century terms for parents, teachers and educators of all kinds. It relays the Method’s exciting history and successes as well as recent research that supports her findings and the century of experience at Montessori schools around the world.
It shows how Montessori practices enable each individual child to develop his or her own unique powers while respecting others. It illustrates why a good Montessori school is one of the best environments for children to learn the responsibilities that come with freedom and the respect of others that is necessary for true independence.
This book is written in very clear, accessible language, with beautiful illustrations and photos. And it is comprehensive in its scope. Anyone unfamiliar with Montessori should be able to come away from reading this book with a clear picture of what the Montessori Way is about and how it works.
With all its advantages, why hasn’t the Montessori Method swept the country as a model of educational reform? There are several concrete answers to that question which the authors, Tim Seldin and Paul Epstein explore. But one of the deepest reasons is a matter of outlook: To understand the Montessori Method requires a change in thinking as revolutionary as the United States War for Independence.
That war was fought for a new idea of Man: the idea that life was best lived when each human being had the right to determine his own choices and actions, and follow his own path. It was a war for the freedom of the individual over the tyranny of other men.
The Montessori Way requires a similar revolution in thinking about the individual with equally revolutionary consequences. It requires parents and teachers to understand that each child has a principle of self-growth and self-determination within him. This principle will lead him to shrivel or to flower, depending on his educational environment. Just like a garden, if we make the physical and psychological environment serve the needs of the individual child, he will thrive.
It is truly an “Education for a New World.”4 Parents and teachers here in the New World and everywhere around the world need it more than ever to help children become productive, effective individuals, capable of working happily at the highest levels of creativity and success. This book should go a long way to showing why the Montessori Way can make that happen.
This book is only available directly from the publisher, the Montessori Foundation in the bookstore of its website,
- Rand, Ayn. 1971. The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. New York: New American Library.
- Chattin-McNichols, John P., ed. 1983. Montessori Schools In America. Lexington: Ginn Custom Printing. Seems to be out of print, but may be available from Dr. Chattin-McNichols. orThe Objectivist 1966-1971 by Ayn Rand.
- William Farish: The World’s Most Famous Lazy Teacher
- Montessori, Maria. 1946, 1989. Education for a New World. Clio Press: Oxford.
Copyright © 2003 by Marsha Familaro Enright. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the author and inclusion of her byline.