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.
By Marsha Familaro Enright
Originally published in Free Voices, Spring 2013
One hundred and thirty two years ago last August in Chiaravalle, on the northeast coast of Italy, a baby girl was born who became the founder of a liberation movement: the liberation of children. Her work ignited interest around the world and is controversial to this day.
Maria Montessori was the highly precocious daughter of civil servant Alessandro Montessori and his wife, Renilde Stoppardi. Maria wanted to study engineering but graduated in 1890 at the age of 20 from the Regio Instituto Technico Leonardo da Vinci in physics and mathematics because she had decided to go into medicine instead—a shocking career for a woman in late nineteenth century Italy.
Over the objections of her father and the disapproval of her professors, she applied to the University of Rome where she went on to get a “diploma di licenzi” which qualified her for the medical school. There she, at first, endured shunning and contemptuous disapproval from the all-male students, and was required to dissect cadavers in a room separate from the men, due to the Age’s morals concerning the naked body. Yet, she was still able to win the sought-after Rolli prize of a thousand lire (a considerable sum in that time), and later, the coveted position of assistant at the hospital while only a medical student. The doors of achievement were open enough to this young, intelligent, self-confident woman that she slipped through.
Despite her difficulties, Montessori’s brilliance and perseverance enabled her to triumph, becoming the first woman doctor in Italy. At 26, she was chosen to represent Italy at an international women’s congress in Berlin and electrified her audience with her passionate, extemporaneous speech.
She was a feminist from the start, but so delicately feminine as to disarm, so charismatic as to enchant—without mincing words. To the theories of eminent male thinkers concluding that women were incapable, infantile, physiologically weak, she said “’It is certainly true that men lose their minds over women.’ Attempting to prove the absurdity of the feminist position, they had ended up making themselves ridiculous.”
A reporter commented that she was well-chosen to represent Italy: “The delicacy of a talented young woman combined with the strength of a man—an ideal one doesn’t meet with every day.”
In 1897 she took a position in the Psychiatric Clinic of Rome, working with mentally disabled and autistic children, which set the course of her life. The condition of these children in the asylums of the day were hideous, stuffed into barren rooms with only each other for company. Through her observations of them, she had one of her first pedagogical insights: these poor, deficient children were craving sensory experience. They sought it out through the little stimulation they had, their food, fondling the crumbs, savoring the tastes of their bread.
Improving their condition became her focus. While working in the clinic she studied anthropology and the history of education its theorists of the previous centuries including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Jean Itard, and Edouard Seguin.
Seguin’s dictum “Respect for individuality is the first test of a teacher,” was to be an essential of Montessori’s approach, as were his many materials, used to develop the sensory ability and motor movement in children. Montessori used his materials and created new ones to aid the deficient children.
She joined the newly formed National League for the Education of Retarded Children, and was chosen to go on a lecture tour that galvanized national interest in improving education for the retarded. In describing the changes needed to make life better for these children, she argued that technological progress would liberate women from the need to do menial labor, enabling them to achieve equal rights and the freedom to live as they wished.
Despite being a socialist, here, as in the rest of her life, Montessori recognized the liberating and individualist role of work in the marketplace. Indeed, her vision was for each person to find a professional place in the economy, a place that would valorize the ego of each. In her view, by productive achievement and peaceful exchange, individuals all over the world would be lifted out of poverty and enabled to flourish. Sound familiar?
In 1900 the League opened the Orthophrenic School to train teachers of deficient children, which Montessori directed with Dr. Giuseppe Montesano. She applied her newly-developed methods and materials to these children and the results were astounding: her eight year old deficient children were able to pass the state exam for normal children.
“the boys from the asylums had been able to compete with the normal children only because they had been taught in a different way…While everyone was admiring the progress of my idiots, I was searching for the reasons which could keep the happy healthy children of the common schools on so low a plane that they could be equalled in tests of intelligence by my unfortunate pupils!”
However in 1901, right at the moment of her triumph, she quit the Orthophrenic school and took a leave. Although it’s not certain, it’s likely that her illegitimate pregnancy by Dr. Montesano was the reason. Exactly when her son Mario was born and why Maria didn’t marry Montesano isn’t clear, but the baby was sent to live with a wet nurse in the country. Maria would visit him, but he wouldn’t know who she was. However, at the age of 15, he announced to her “You’re my mother,” and demanded to go with her, which he did. Eventually, he would become her constant companion and successor to her movement, taking her name instead of his father’s.
In 1901 she returned to study pedagogy and anthropology at the University of Rome, and studied Seguin’s methods in more detail, translating his 600 page book. Later, she became a lecturer at the Pedagogic School of the University of Rome where she established scientific pedagogy as a discipline and inspired the young teachers of abnormal children.
Her work brought her to the attention of the Instituto Romano di Beni Stabili, a group of real estate investors who had a complex in the impoverished San Lorenzo district of Rome. Although they had carefully chosen only married couples as tenants, their buildings were being defaced by the unsupervised children who lived there, left at home while their parents worked.
Once again bucking the conventional, Montessori took on the task of educating these children. The owners gave her a small room and free rein, but almost nothing else until she insisted on food, and enlisted Society women in raising funds for furniture and equipment.
And there began the first Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, in January of 1907. Within one year, the wonders that transpired in that house were famed throughout Italy; within five, throughout the world.
So what happened with this group of dirty, disheveled, mostly uncivilized, and completely uneducated children, ages two to six, from illiterate factory-worker families, that brought her such fame?
A transformation through principled freedom, unprecedented in educational history.
Montessori and the Society women brought in toys, dolls, paper and colored pencils—
and the materials she had developed for the deficient children. The room had a few tables and a cabinet, and she found an untrained woman living in the building to watch over them, under Montessori’s guidance and supervision. “I placed no restrictions upon the teacher and imposed no special duties.” “I merely wanted to study the children’s reactions. I asked her not to interfere with them in any way as otherwise I would not be able to observe them.”
Montessori was busy with many other projects; she stopped in once a week and over the course of the month, observed astonishing changes taking place. Leaving the toys aside, the children were drawn to the didactic materials, riveting their attention. They built towers with the cubes, fit the geometric shapes into their frames, and placed wooden cylinders in their holes, over and over, revealing powers of concentration hitherto completely unsuspected in children at all.
Remarkably, the children became healthier, with no change in their diet or exercise. “From timid and wild as they were before, the children became sociable and communicative. They showed different relationships with each other. Their personalities grew and they showed extraordinary understanding, activity, vivacity and confidence. They were happy and joyous.”
Montessori observed one little girl of three completely absorbed in working with the knobbed wooden cylinders, taking them out of their frame, mixing them up, then putting them back in the proper holes. No amount of noise or activity around her got her attention. At one point, Montessori had her lifted onto a table and the children dance around it, “As I lifted the chair she clutched the objects with which she was working and placed them on her knees, but then continued the same task…she repeated the exercise forty-two times. Then she stopped as if coming out of a dream and smiled happily. Her eyes shone brightly and she looked about. She had not even noticed what we had done to disturb her. And now, for no apparent reason, her task was finished. But what was finished and why?”
Unbeknownst to her, Montessori had discovered the phenomenon of optimal experience, now called “Flow.” Given a physical and psychological environment proper to their developmental needs, and the freedom to explore it according to the mysterious inner bio-psychological plan of each individual, the children flourished.
Their self-motivated interest in learning abounded, creating a self-discipline more rigorous than any adult could impose. Their desire for self-mastery knew no bounds. “I decided to give the children a slightly humorous lesson on how to blow their noses. After I had shown them different ways to use a handkerchief, I ended by indicating how it could be done as unobtrusively as possible. I took out my handkerchief in such a way that they could hardly see it and blew my nose as softly as I could. The children watched me in rapt attention, but failed to laugh. I wondered why, but I had hardly finished my demonstration when they broke out into applause that resembled a long repressed ovation in a theater.”
Rather than amusement, they were grateful for the lesson; they were frequently in trouble or humiliated because of their runny noses. Once again, Montessori had helped them be independent and self-reliant, civilized individuals. And they took this home with them: the order, beauty, and cleanliness the children learned at school caused them to demand it at home; their poor, uneducated parents began learning from them.
“Help me to do it myself” is the core of the Montessori classroom, where the physical and psychological environment is carefully structured so that the students can have as much freedom as possible to follow their needs. Its purpose is to enable individuals to learn at their own pace; to develop sensory-motor abilities, and knowledge, academic, social, and personal. They learn self-responsibility and how to behave in civil society, respecting property rights and the rights and individuality of others—in short, everything needed to become a successful, well-functioning adult. She recognized that only through the development of this kind of “new man” would we have peace in the world.
“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.”
Within a year of opening the Casa dei Bambini, it was famous worldwide. People flocked from Europe, the U.S., China, Japan, New Zealand, South America, and India to see this new “method” for themselves, and many begged to learn it.
By 1911, Montessori schools were established all over the world. Maria quit her position as lecturer at the University of Rome and devoted herself full time to the schools. A book describing her system was published, Il Metodo della Pedagogia Scientifica applicator all’educazione infantile nella Casa dei Bambini and by 1912, an English translation, The Montessori Method, had been prepared through Harvard’s education school. Within six months, it was in second place for the sale of non-fiction books. The international Montessori movement had begun. Despite World War I, by 1916, the book had been translated into English, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Catalonian, Polish, Rumanian, Danish, Dutch, Japanese, and Chinese.
Soon, she toured all over the United States, hosted by luminaries from John Dewey to Helen Keller. In 1915, a working Montessori classroom was one of the most popular exhibits at the San Francisco Exposition. Children worked on their materials, undisturbed by the marveling crowds around them.
However, the movement was not to last too long in the U.S.: strife was building between various Montessori groups and Maria over who should have control and the final say over the training and credentialing of Montessori teachers, and who was authorized to write about the philosophy. Further, William Heard Kilpatrick, the “million dollar professor” of education at Columbia University and a close associate of progressive theorist John Dewey, had visited the Casa dei Bambini in Rome and written The Montessori System Examined in 1914. He dismissed her system as based on 19th century notions, not in keeping with the “scientific” work of the nascent Behaviorists.
At the top of the pyramid as a teacher of teachers, his criticisms spread throughout Academia. By 1920, American respect for and interest in Montessori was dead. It wasn’t until the ‘50’s when a young parent, Nancy McCormick Rambusch, rediscovered it in Europe and brought it back to the U.S. that it was revived. She was instrumental in establishing the American Montessori Society in 1960.
It’s been a grassroots, parent-driven movement ever since.
The power of her method to change the lives of whole families was illustrated during the Spanish Civil War. The Method had been brought to Catalonia in 1916 and flourished there for decades. After Montessori fled Mussolini’s fascist Italy, she was invited to live in Spain. She gave a series of lectures on the Radio Associacio de Catalunya in 1936 to educate the public about the nature of children. Poor people began calling the radio station to thank Dr. Montessori. “It is true what you say. My child does the same things! I used to beat him because I though he was bad. Poor little one: It was I who was bad.”
However, in the midst of this work, the new republic erupted into chaos and the anarchists were burning and slaughtering Catholics and Italians (whose government had been suspected in helping the fascists). As Mario Montessori recounted the events, Maria was alone in her house with her grandchildren, watching the carnage from her veranda when anarchists approached with rifles in their hands, bandoliers of bullets across their chests, shouting and raising their arms in the Communist salute.
“The ‘militianos’ came straight to her door, but they did not ring. They…began to paint something over it with a black, dripping brush. The others, intense, stood watching. Soon it was finished. They all looked up, saw her at the window, raised their hand in salute, and marched away.
“The children and she ran down to see.
“On the wall, in large black letters, was the caption: ‘RESPECT THIS HOUSE. IT HARBORS A FRIEND OF THE CHILDREN.’ Under it was the sign of the hammer and sickle. The Child had paid its debt to its Knight.”
Fortunately, despite World War I, World War II and myriad local conflicts, the Montessori movement continued all over the world. During World War II, Maria and Mario Montessori were interned in India as enemy aliens and this led to a thriving Montessori movement in that country and those surrounding it, including the creation of many Montessori training centers.
She continued opening training centers and giving training sessions, observing schools and children everywhere. Over and over, she was struck by the universality of human nature and the variety of individual development. She used her sharp, scientific observational powers to further understand human needs and development, eventually encompassing adolescents. She called them the Erdkinder, children of the earth. Montessori lectured worldwide from 1916 to her death in 1952, and published many, many books about her method.
Montessori eventually called Amsterdam her home and it is the headquarters of the Association Montessori Internationale and the Laren Montessori Training Center. Mario worked closely with his mother. In 1961, he established the Centro Internazionale Studi Montessoriani for elementary level training in Bergamo.
Today, in the U.S. there are about 4-5,000 Montessori schools, ranging from simply Children’s Houses (3-6 year olds) all the way to high schools; worldwide, the estimate is 20,000 and growing.
Scientific research on the Method, through Mihalyi Cskiszentmihalyi’s and Angeline Lillard’s work has bolstered its profile. And, there’s been a spate of articles, such as “The Montessori Mafia” in The Wall Street Journal blog, in the past few years regarding the unusual number of former Montessori students who head very innovative companies, such as Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia.
In the ‘70’s, Montessorian Beatrice Hessen (wife of libertarian historian Robert Hessen), wrote a series of articles about the Method in Ayn Rand’s The Objectivist journal. These, combined with Rand’s article “The Comprachicos,” in which she contrasts the Montessori Method with Progressive Education, introduced thousands of liberty-loving people to Montessori. Many, many stayed and are involved in the movement to this day.
In 2007, the Montessori movement celebrated its 100th anniversary with a grand conference in Rome, over 1,000 representatives from countries all over the world attending. Among other national publications reporting on the anniversary, The Washington Post featured “Montessori, now 100, goes mainstream.”
However, the Montessori Method is rarely included in the national debate on education reform. Movies concerning the dire situation in public schools and the search for alternatives, such as “Waiting for Superman,” glaringly lack any mention. Although there are a number of government-run Montessori schools, and growing, my guess is that two major factors mitigate against Montessori in the public debate:
- Montessori education requires a radical Gestalt-shift in perspective on the nature of education and the role of the teacher, from a top-down, collectivistic, directive approach to a radically individualistic, child-centered approach. The teacher’s role is as observer, expert guide, and servant to the child—not a very acceptable to most traditional teachers.
- The education bureaucracy of government schools clashes impossibly against the radical freedom and individualism of Montessori philosophy and practice.
For additional information on the relationship of Montessori and capitalism, see my review of Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism: Educational Theory for a Free Market in Education by Jerry Kirkpatrick
 Kramer, Rita. 1976. Maria Montessori: A Biography. New York, Capricorn Books, 80.
 Garlanda, Federico. 1911. The New Italy. New York and London, 153
 Seguin, Edouard. 1866. Idiocy and Its Treatment by the Physiological Method. New York, 33
 Standing, E.M. 1962. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New American Library: New York, 34.
 Ibid., 26.
 Maccheroni, Anna Maria. 1947. A True Romance: Dr. Montessori As I Knew Her. The Darien Press:Edinburgh, 12-13.
 Standing, 26.
 Ibid., 25.
 Montessori, Maria, Letter to Clara, 1896, quoted in Kramer, 115.
 Montessori, Maria. 1914. Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, Frederick A. Stokes Company: New York, 83
 Later turned into her book The Secret of Childhood.
Sims, Peter. April 5, 2011. “The Montessori Mafia,” The Wall Street Journal blog, http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/04/05/the-montessori-mafia/
 Rand, Ayn. 1970. “The Comprachicos,” The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. New York: Signet, 187-239..
Enright, Marsha Familaro and Doris Cox. Foundations Study Guide: Montessori Education.
Montessori, Maria. Works.
Montessori, Maria. Articles and Letters.
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.
Revised August 1997
Formerly a psychotherapist, Marsha Enright, co-founded the Council Oak Montessori School (elementary level) in 1990, of which she is the president and administrator. Another cofounder of the school and its corporate secretary, Doris Cox, currently teaches middle school children at Council Oak.
The education of the human child is of profound importance to anyone dedicated to achieving “the best within us,” but especially to those who have, or wish to have, children of their own, and to those who are or wish to become teachers. What are the child’s nature and needs? How are they different from those of an adult? How can we best foster the child’s development so as to help him maximize his potential for productivity and happiness in life? Current research validates Montessori’s ideas. We believe that, on the whole, the philosophy of the child developed by Italian physician and teacher Maria Montessori, is most consistent with the Objectivist view of human nature, needs, and values.
Maria Montessori, the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome Medical School, became a doctor in 1896. Her first post was in the university’s Psychiatric Clinic.
In that age, retarded children were considered a medical problem, rather than an educational one, and were often kept in hospitals for the insane. Montessori’s visits with children in Roman insane asylums prompted her to study the works of Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard (1775-1838) and Edouard Seguin (1812-1880), two French-born pioneers in education for the mentally deficient. She went on to read all the major works on educational theory of the previous two centuries.
In 1899, Montessori became director of the State Orthophrenic School, where her work with the retarded was so successful that the majority of her students were able to pass the state education exams. While other people exclaimed over this phenomenal success, Montessori pondered its implication for normal children. If the mentally deficient could do as well on the exams as normal children, in what poor state must those normal children be! This reflection led her to devote her life to education.
Montessori opened her first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) in 1907, applying to children of normal intelligence the methods and materials she had developed for deficient children. She also spent a great deal of time observing and meditating on what children did with her materials—what brought out their best learning and their greatest enthusiasm.
As a result of Montessori’s achievements at the Casa dei Bambini, her method spread rapidly. By 1915, over 100 Montessori schools had opened in America, and many more had opened in the rest of the world. In Switzerland, one of the most important 20th-century theorists in child development—Jean Piaget (1896-1980)—was heavily influenced by Montessori and her method. Piaget was director of the modified Montessori school in Geneva, where he did some of the observations for his first book, Language and Thought of the Child, and served as head of the Swiss Montessori society.
Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work, by E.M. Standing, is an interesting historical account told from the viewpoint of a devoted follower. A more recent and objective biography is Rita Kramer’s Maria Montessori.
The Montessori Method
Maria Montessori’s own works constitute the best source of information concerning her theories and methods. The Montessori Method, the first overview of her educational techniques, remains the best in many respects. Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook goes into the details of her philosophy, materials, and methods. The Discovery of the Child is a later detailed summarization of Montessori’s philosophy and method of teaching, with much discussion of the child’s nature and the best means of approaching the child with work. The Secret of Childhood is a history of what—and how—Montessori learned about the unique nature of children, the problems that can arise when the child’s nature is not properly nurtured, and the repercussions that proper and improper nurturing of the child have on society. This work is especially recommended for parents.
According to Maria Montessori, “A child’s work is to create the person she will become.” To carry out this self-construction, children have innate mental powers, but they must be free to use these powers. For this reason, a Montessori classroom provides freedom while maintaining an environment that encourages a sense of order and self-discipline. “Freedom in a structured environment” is the Montessori dictum that names this arrangement.
Like all thinkers in the Aristotelian tradition, Montessori recognized that the senses must be educated first in the development of the intellect. Consequently, she created a vast array of special learning materials from which concepts could be abstracted and through which they could be concretized. In recognition of the independent nature of the developing intellect, these materials are self-correcting—that is, from their use, the child discovers for himself whether he has the right answer. This feature of her materials encourages the child to be concerned with facts and truth, rather than with what adults say is right or wrong.
Also basic to Montessori’s philosophy is her belief in the “sensitive periods” of a child’s development: periods when the child seeks certain stimuli with immense intensity, and, consequently, can most easily master a particular learning skill. The teacher’s role is to recognize the sensitive periods in individual children and put the children in touch with the appropriate materials.
Montessori also identified stages of growth—which she called “Planes of Development”—that occur in approximately six-year intervals and that are further subdivided into two three-year segments. These planes of development are the basis for the three-year age groupings found in Montessori schools: ages 3 to 6, 6 to 9, 9 to 12, and 12 to 18.
From birth to age six, children are sensorial explorers, studying every aspect of their environment, language, and culture. Montessori’s The Absorbent Mind provides a detailed discussion of how the child’s mind and needs develop during this period.
From age six to twelve, children become reasoning explorers. They develop new powers of abstraction and imagination, using and applying their knowledge to further discover and expand their world. During this time, it is still essential that the child carry out activities in order to integrate acting and thinking. It is his own effort that gives him independence, and his own experience that brings him answers as to how and why things function as they do. Montessori’s The Montessori Elementary Materials discusses the materials and curriculum to be used for children during this period.
From Childhood to Adolescence, also by Montessori, outlines the changes children undergo in mentality and outlook as they grow from childhood to adolescence, and the nature and needs of the adolescent child. She also proposes a radical concept of schooling for the adolescent.
Valuable secondary works on the Montessori method include Elizabeth Hainstock’s Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Preschool Years, and Teaching Montessori in the Home: The School Years. Both give an abbreviated view of the philosophy and the method, as well as detailed instructions on how to make and use the materials. Paula Lilliard’s 1972 work, Montessori: A Modern Approach, reviews the history and nature of the Montessori philosophy, discussing how “current” it is in addressing modern educational concerns and what it has to offer the contemporary family.
Throughout her writing, Montessori combines keen observations and insights with a heroic view of the importance of the child’s work in self- development—work by which each man creates the best within him. Many writers and critics dislike Montessori’s romantic rhetoric, and admittedly her phraseology tends to the mystical. Nevertheless, we find her language refreshing and inspiring. As the following sentence illustrates, she always keeps in mind the glory and grandeur of human development:
“Humanity shows itself in all its intellectual splendor during this tender age as the sun shows itself at the dawn, and the flower in the first unfolding of the petals; and we must respect religiously, reverently, these first indications of individuality.”
The Montessori method always places its principles and activities in the broad context of the importance of human life and development, intelligence and free will. Indeed, one of the cornerstones of the Montessori method is the presentation of knowledge as an integrated whole, emphasizing conceptual relationships between different branches of learning, and the placement of knowledge in its historical context.
Dewey Versus Montessori
In American academic circles, Montessori is little known, except as a name from the past, and textbooks on educational theory therefore tend to discuss her method only in an historical context. Much of this learned ignorance can be traced to The Montessori System Examined, a small but highly influential book published in 1914 by Professor William Heard Kilpatrick. In his time, Kilpatrick was one of the most popular professors at Columbia University’s Teachers College, an institution with far-ranging influence among educational theorists and one of the main redoubts for John Dewey’s Progressive method of education.
Dewey and Montessori approached education from philosophically and psychologically different perspectives. Dewey’s concern was with fostering the imagination and the development of social relationships. He believed in developing the intellect late in childhood, for fear that it might stifle other aspects of development. By contrast, Montessori believed that development of the intellect was the only means by which the imagination and proper social relationships could arise. Her method focused on the early stimulation and sharpening of the senses, the development of independence in motor tasks and the care of the self, and the child’s naturally high motivation to learn about the world as a means of gaining mastery over himself and his environment.
Thus, behind Kilpatrick’s criticism of Montessori’s educational method lay a great deal of antagonism towards Montessori’s philosophy and psychology. Kilpatrick dismissed Montessori’s sensorial materials because they were based on what he considered to be an outdated theory of the faculties of the mind (Dewey was greatly influenced by early Behaviorism) and a too-early development of the intellect. Kilpatrick also criticized Montessori’s materials as too restrictive: because they have a definite outcome, he felt, they restrict the child’s imagination. Following Dewey’s collectivist view of man, and his central focus on the social development of the child, Kilpatrick also disliked Montessori’s decidedly individualistic view of the child.
In the United States, the views of Dewey and Kilpatrick prevailed, and the name of Montessori was largely forgotten for several decades. Fortunately for recent generations of American children, a dissatisfied American mother, Nancy Rambusch, rediscovered Montessori in Europe during the 1950s. Rambusch began the “second-wave” Montessori schools in the United States, lectured widely on the Montessori method, and helped found the American Montessori Society. Over the past forty years, grass-roots interest has spurred a phenomenal growth of Montessori schools in America, but the movement is not generally recognized or promoted in university education departments.
The Montessori Controversy and Montessori Schools in America, both by John Chattin-McNichols, discuss research on the relationship of the method to historical and current educational theories; and controversies that have arisen between the Montessori movement and academic theorists, and also within the Montessori movement.
Interestingly, Montessori Schools in America includes Beatrice Hessen’s article on the Montessori method, originally published in The Objectivist. As this Study Guide indicates, a link between Objectivism and the Montessori method of education is a promising connection for both movements. Montessori’s methods encourage children to be at home in a free society, such as Objectivists would like to establish. Respect for the person, property, and ideas of others are primary values in the Montessori classroom, as are respectful cooperation and personal responsibility. Children are required to care for the materials they use and the environment of the classroom; they are encouraged to work on projects cooperatively, but only when they wish to do so. At a deeper level, Objectivism’s epistemological and ethical ideas offer a rich theoretical soil in which Montessori’s methods can thrive and perhaps even develop further.
In the United States at present, training for teachers is offered through the Association Montessori Internationale/USA, an arm of Maria Montessori’s original training organization; and through the American Montessori Society, founded by Nancy Rambusch. Many independent organizations also offer training. The North American Montessori Teachers Association is a center of research and information. Further information can be obtained from these organizations at the following addresses:
Rochester, NY 14607
American Montessori Society
281 Park Ave. South, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10010-6102
11424 Bellflower Rd. NE
Cleveland, OH 44106
Many of the titles in this listing are available at Amazon.com. If you use this link, or the search box below, then IOS will earn a commission from Amazon.com on each book purchased.
John Chattin-McNichols. The Montessori Controversy. Albany, N.Y.: Delmar Publishers, 1992.
John P. Chattin-McNichols, ed. Montessori Schools in America: Historical, Philosophical and Empirical Research Perspectives. Lexington, Mass.: Ginn Custom Publishing, 1981, 1983.
Elizabeth G. Hainstock. Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Preschool Years. New York: New American Library, 1968.
Elizabeth G. Hainstock. Teaching Montessori in the Home: The School Years. New York: Random House, 1971.
William Heard Kilpatrick. The Montessori System Examined. American Education Series, No. 2. Salem, N.H.: Ayer Company Pubs., 1972. Reprint of 1914 Houghton Mifflin ed.
Rita Kramer. Maria Montessori: A Biography. New York: Capricorn Books, 1976.
Paula Lilliard. Montessori: A Modern Approach. New York: Schocken Books, 1972.
Maria Montessori. The Montessori Method, rev. ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1964.
Maria Montessori. Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook. Edited by E.C. Orem. New York: Schocken, 1965.
Maria Montessori. The Absorbent Mind. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1967.
Maria Montessori. The Child in the Family. New York: Avon Books, 1956.
Maria Montessori. The Discovery of the Child. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.
Maria Montessori. The Secret of Childhood. Bombay: Orient Longmans Ltd., 1936.
Maria Montessori. The Montessori Elementary Material. New York: Schocken Books, 1973.
Maria Montessori. From Childhood to Adolescence. New York: Schocken Books, 1973.
Jean Piaget. Language and Thought of The Child. New York: New American Library, 1955.
E.M. Standing. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New York: Mentor Books, 1962.
Copyright © 1992 by Marsha Familaro Enright. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the author and inclusion of her byline.