The Ordered Liberty of Montessori Education

Italian educator Maria Montessori is surrounded by children as she visits a Montessori school in London, England, sometime in the late 1940s. (AP Photo)

The following article was originally published in Law & Liberty. View it here.

At a tumultuous time in history, with too many parallels to our own, an astonishing drama unfolded. Amidst a raging civil war in 1939 Spain, Maria Montessori anxiously waited with her grandchildren on the second floor of their house in Barcelona as Communist anarchists ripped through the town, slaughtering priests, nuns, and ordinary lay Catholics like her. 

Then, something strange occurred: a group of these rough men, with their bandoliers of bullets, stopped in front of her house and began painting on her doorway. Soon, they left. She and the children raced downstairs to see, in black paint “Respect this house. It harbors a friend of the children.”

What had Montessori done to elicit such a tribute and protection? 

Maria Montessori was the first female doctor in Italy, a scientific genius. Starting out with slum children in 1907, she had discovered and implemented a brilliant and complex method of education. It treated each child as a unique individual and nurtured his or her development and powers to thrive. Children became hard-working, curious, creative, self-possessed, and high-achieving individuals who knew how to live peaceably and respectfully with others.

These are just the kind of people we need to live well in a free society, countering the worst trends in today’s educational landscape. How does her method accomplish this?

First, the Montessori classroom is complex and well-thought-out, physically, intellectually, and socially. Its fundamental principle is freedom in a structured environment. This parallels the structure of a free society, encouraging peaceful interactions while allowing members as much freedom as possible.

Second, each child is treated with gentle respect for his individuality, with coercion reserved for dire circumstances. Children are encouraged to learn through materials perfectly suited to the child’s developmental needs, exciting and interesting to the child. Also, the teacher conveys an attitude of curiosity and questioning that captures the child’s mind: “Let’s see how big an apatosaurus is compared to a tyrannosaurus rex! Let’s take some chalk, measure out each in the parking lot, and compare!”

Third, the child’s reasoning powers and independent judgment are strongly cultivated through the learning materials. 

Fourth, children love going to well-run Montessori schools: over my 27 years running Council Oak Montessori, I received many letters in which parents told me their children loved school so much they lied that they were not sick so as not to miss school!

Thus, the three essential values needed for a free society are developed: reason, individualism, and freedom.

Game-like, the distinctive materials used in Montessori classrooms teach mathematics, history, language, science, and the arts—all the classic subjects—as well as many practical skills. They are arrayed on low shelves around the room in subject order and difficulty level, enabling children to obtain them and work on them by themselves, and to know how far along they are in the curriculum. The materials and their order are designed to develop independence. Here are some YouTube videos showing the vast array of these ingenious materials and explaining how they are used.

For example, three-year-olds work on a three-dimensional puzzle of blocks embodying a trinomial equation called the Trinomial Cube. Each part represents one term of a trinomial equation, such as a cube with sides A or a rectangular solid with sides B-squared/C. They learn to assemble this puzzle and as the children grow older, they discover different patterns about its pieces and learn how to write the symbols for each piece. When they finally learn algebra, the puzzle is a well-known, real object that embodies the equation. With this material and hundreds of others in the classroom, their mathematical concepts are strongly grounded in reality, essential for good mathematical thinking.

Montessori’s aim was to create a better future on the principle that the child is father to the man.

Six-year-olds learn American history using a timeline organized by the terms of the presidents. They add figures, notes, maps, and other items alongside each term to flesh out what events occurred. By working with concrete objects representing the people, dates, events, and relationships, the knowledge is burned into their minds because, Maria said, “The hand is the instrument of the mind.”

As much as possible, classroom physical order enables the children to do things for themselves: after a small-group lesson on material, children have the choice to work on it then or later, just as adults usually have a choice about the order in which to work. The children can do math first, then geography, snack and clean-up, and finally read a book. Or they can use a different order, depending on their interests that day.

By allowing the child to follow his interests and inner guide, he learns faster and retains the knowledge better, just as you do when you work on something of your choice.

The teacher regularly devotes time to carefully observing each child, learning their exact developmental level, interests, and individual personality characteristics. She becomes highly equipped to guide children to what each needs to learn. 

Moreover, when students work on material, they can choose to make up their own problems: two boys in one of our classrooms would spend hours creating more and more math problems for themselves so they wouldn’t have to ask the teacher for more. This kind of freedom cultivates independence, self-reliance, and creativity. They’re both highly self-motivated engineers today. And they’re part of what the Wall Street Journal called “The Montessori Mafia” of highly creative and world-impacting people such as Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, John McWhorter, Julia Child, and Anne Frank.

Children want to develop self-mastery, which is needed to live in freedom.

Other features of the classroom which develop this are: 

  • The classes mix children of different ages, with children from ages 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, and 12-15 grouped together. This is similar to typical mixed-age adult work environment, and this grouping provides a wide variety of work that inspires younger children to do the next hardest work and older children to solidify their understanding by helping the younger.
  • Students can work at a desk, a table, their own rug on the floor, or in a corner they like.
  • They can work with others if they choose, but they are not forced to associate. Consequently, they freely associate just as adults do in a free society.
  • They can work on the material as long as they need to, but then they must put the materials carefully back on the shelves for the next person the way each of us must take care of and replace commonly used objects at the park, or in a family, or on a team. 
  • Each child is responsible for the classroom environment; if she spills water on the floor, she must clean it up.
  • Every week, each child is given a different job for maintaining the classroom, such as feeding the fish, sweeping the floor, or wiping the tables clean.
  • As children get older, their responsibilities grow so that in the 9-12 classroom, a child answers the phone or acts as host and guide to visitors. In the 12-15 classroom, students create field trips out of their learning interests, determine a budget and timing, and make all the reservations and transportation arrangements.
  • Children in the 9-12 and 12-15 classrooms create businesses to raise money for special trips, such as selling parents and visitors coffee and muffins they make every week, or learning calligraphy in order to have a business for inscribing wedding invitations.
  • The materials and the classroom are set up to be self-correcting. That is, they are designed so the child can figure out for himself if he has gotten the right answer, or is behaving correctly. For example, the furniture and shelves are carefully arranged so that if a child tries to run through, he could knock into shelves and cause objects to fall. He thereby learns not to run through class. If a student puts the wrong knobbed cylinders into the holes, not all of them will fit.
  • If they need to use the toilet, students check for and take the designated tag indicating the toilet is free, and go there themselves.
  • Even the smallest come to school and hang up their own coats and dress themselves when it’s time to leave. 

What are the results of this method? It creates young human beings that are remarkably self-disciplined, purposeful, and self-confident. Moreover, they have an independent, hardworking, and entrepreneurial mindset, and are socially adept and able to productively collaborate with others. This is so important for the business of a free society. They are superbly self-regulated, something desperately needed today among our young.

Montessori’s aim was to create a better future on the principle that the child is father to the man. If you have never seen a Montessori classroom, find a highly rated one and ask to observe. You will be astonished at how the little humans act so purposefully. They are self-controlled, respectful, and yet joyful in their classrooms. They love their work. This is the way human beings should learn if they are to become self-supporting individuals in a free society.

I Run a Private School, and I’m Against School Vouchers

Many, many people across the political spectrum are concerned about the dire state of government schools today. Not only are too many students arriving at college illiterate, innumerate, and ignorant, but many have had to survive a dangerous and destructive time in government schools.

Free society advocates argue that a market solution—thriving competition—is the key to change. In his 1960 Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek proposed a plan to take the government out of the business of schooling by providing parents with publicly-funded vouchers with which to pay for any school of their choice.

“As has been shown by Professor Milton Friedman (M. Friedman, The role of government in education, 1955), it would now be entirely practicable to defray the costs of general education out of the public purse without maintaining government schools, by giving the parents vouchers covering the cost of education of each child which they could hand over to schools of their choice. It may still be desirable that government directly provide schools in a few isolated communities where the number of children is too small (and the average cost of education therefore too high) for privately run schools. But with respect to the great majority of the population, it would undoubtedly be possible to leave the organization and management of education entirely to private efforts, with the government providing merely the basic finance and ensuring a minimum standard for all schools where the vouchers could be spent.” (F. A. Hayek, 1960, section 24.3)

Many free society advocates have been campaigning for voucher systems the past 2-25years, and some locales (Milwaukee, New Orleans) and states (Florida) have instituted them.

The main opposition to school vouchers is that they threaten to put public education in direct competition with private education, reducing and reallocating public school funding to private schools. Of course, the teachers’ unions and National Education Association are against them.

But I have an entirely different reason to oppose vouchers, and it revolves around the phrase “ensuring a minimum standard for all schools where vouchers could be spent.” Contrary to the opponents who worry that vouchers will undermine the public schools, I’m sure they will undermine—level—the private ones.

That’s because whomever controls the money, controls the curriculum.

I founded and have been running Council Oak Montessori School for children 3 to 15 years old for 25 years. We are a classic Montessori school; we do almost nothing like a traditional school, yet we’ve been cited in Chicago Magazine as one of the best private elementary schools in the city. Our outcomes are remarkable, but not easily standardized. Our students generally do well on standardized tests, but that’s not why we’re good.

Instead, we produce students who maintain their delight in learning, work hard, and know how to behave well with others while remaining their own person. Many do exceptionally well academically, but that depends on the individual. They are good at finding what they love to do and being good at it—and that’s not always an academic path.

We have graduates who struggled mightily with the academic work – and are now designers at Google and illustrators for the movies, gemologists, and auto mechanics. We also have graduates who didn’t want to do much but math—and are engineers and research scientists mad for learning history and reading literature. They just needed to develop their interest in their own time.

Traditionalists just don’t get Montessori. They have objections up the wazoo, despite our 100 years of experience. It’s too different, too child-centered, too individualistic.

I’ve seen what happens to Montessori programs under the thumb of traditionalists—in Chicago public school Montessori magnet schools, and in private Montessori schools run by traditionalists—or caving to parent fear and pressure, and there’s plenty of that to go around.

So, I can imagine what would happen under a voucher program, and here’s what I fear for the private schools: only the richest private schools will be able to continue without taking vouchers. Inevitably, there will be corruption. This will lead to government oversight, and before you know it—boom! We’re back to the government controlling the curricula, teachers, and program. And the differences between private schools will be fundamentally wiped out. What bureaucrat is going to decide the standards? Once government bureaucrats begin regulating, you’re down the same slippery slope that got us into our current educational mess.

It’s happened elsewhere: Belgium is a good example. In 1917 they instituted a voucher program to enable students to go to private and religious schools. Over the years, the schools have come to be more and more regulated by the state, so that now, there’s not a significant difference in them.

But we don’t really need to refer to what’s happened in Europe; we need only see the dire consequences of Federal student loans at the college level today. The Feds have become an octopus, encircling and strangling our colleges and universities with regulations, mandates, and controls. Between them and the New Left manning the professoriat, the market in college education is hugely diminished. Diversity in ideas is down to a few places.

The only completely privately funded college I know of is Hillsdale College, in Michigan. They chose to stay privately funded because of affirmative action: they were started in the 19th century by abolitionists who did not believe in discriminating based on race. In the ‘70’s, they were required by the Feds to employ affirmative action if they wanted to use Pew grants. But they considered affirmative action a form of racial discrimination. Rather than continue with it, their trustees decided the college should become entire funded privately.

And now Hillsdale stands as one of the only ideologically unique higher education institutions in the nation. Too bad more places haven’t had the integrity to follow that path.

Returning to our fundamental problem: what about the kids! What about the millions that are getting a terrible education in public schools. Aren’t we concerned with all those individuals? Should we advocate that they languish just because of what might happen 50 years down the road? Maybe we should just bite the bullet and use vouchers and charter schools (don’t get me started on those crony capitalist institutions!)?

I think there’s a much better way to transition to a free market in education.
I would have to investigate the full legal ramifications, but tax credits seem a better road, although not without pitfalls. Tax credits are via individual tax returns, not controlled and handed out by some government bureaucracy.

A person could get a tax credit for any amount donated towards a student’s tuition and fees, whether related or not. I can envision that private charities like The Donors Trust, would arise to administer the scholarships. Of course, there’s still the specter of the government regulating the use of the tax credits, a serious concern. But the fact that they are more arms-length from government regulators is a big plus.

If you’d like an idea of what a real free market in education would be like, see Common Ground Against Common Core. I’ve penned the final chapter, “Liberating Education in which I outline the rich market in schools that would ensue if we had no government education program, but a completely private market – and how everyone could be educated in it, no matter their wealth or penchants or problems. The evidence is there.

M. Friedman, The role of government in education, 1955 Hayek, Friedrich. 1960. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, section 24.3

Referenced: 2/ 82e4-0cc47a0d164b school-vouchers/

To Restore American Liberty, We Need Colleges that Actually Teach the Liberal Arts

The following article was originally published by The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. View it here.

Collectivists of many stripes—but one aim—have been eating away at our free society for over one hundred years.

If we want to reverse America’s current slide into authoritarianism and actively move towards a fully free society, we need to be as clear about our goals as the collectivists have been about theirs. And theirs have always been power and control—to that end, ingeniously using indoctrination masquerading as education.

To counter this, our educational goal should be to vigorously nurture that autonomous, active minority in every profession who are capable of being society’s change agents and who are entrepreneurial. It is this active minority who change societies everywhere—the Medici in Renaissance Florence, the U.S. Founders, and Cobden and Bright in the U.K.

In that effort, the greatest guardian of liberty is autonomy because autonomous people do not tolerate being ruled. Free human beings recognize each other’s sovereignty and seek to persuade others and trade with others as equals, rejecting the force that collectivists use when they can’t persuade.

We need a college (colleges!) specifically dedicated to nurturing autonomous individuals who are well-schooled in the values of reason, individualism, and freedom. We have to keep in laser focus: What kind of education helps young people learn how to live in freedom? To develop autonomy? To discover how to be entrepreneurs of their own lives?

In other words, what is a truly liberating education?

This is why I’m working to open Reliance College in 2024. We want Reliance students to enter the world as self-reliant individuals. We’ll endow them with a rich portfolio of knowledge and skills, and build a portfolio of work, so they can plan and succeed in the lives they imagine for themselves, able to overcome any obstacles and adversities that stand in their way.

Reliance will be a residential college offering a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, with deep emphasis on reasoning well and objectively, complemented by a real-world problem-solving project in the student’s career interest.

The program will be a specially organized version of a classic Enlightenment liberal arts curriculum, dedicated to the free inquiry of free minds. The college will be entirely endowed by private funding to ensure utmost independence from governmental mandates. It incorporates:

1) Classic works from across the ideological spectrum, treating those of Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Frederic Bastiat, and other free-society advocates in many fields as equal to other great and influential thinkers;

2) A special methodology which incorporates the study and practice of careful reasoning, concept formation, integration of knowledge across categories, and connecting ideas to their effects on life and the world;

3) Real-world problem projects (in the field of student professional interest) that will connect students to outstanding, accomplished professionals as mentors and create valuable experience and material for a professional portfolio. We’ll find extraordinary mentors, such as The American Optimist’s Joe LonsdaleUCG Group’s Jim KandracExplaining Post-Modernism’s Stephen Hicks, and Laitram’s Jay Lapeyre;

4) Special work on crucial skills such as writing, active listening and teamwork, personal finance and economics, and the role of art in a well-lived life.

Over many years, I have built my knowledge about human development, starting with my work at Council Oak Montessori School for students ages 3-15, which I founded and ran for 27 years. The Montessori educational philosophy has been ahead of its time for 100 years in understanding the importance of human development to optimal learning and growth. I have used the Montessori framework while honing my knowledge of what young adults need to grow into flourishing human beings. We have incorporated this knowledge into every aspect of our educational programs.

By developing their autonomy and self-reliant entrepreneurship, the program strongly influences students to grasp and accept the values and ideas of living as a free person in a free society. It does so by:

1) Helping them to develop an objective, reality-oriented way of thinking (and we know that a free society is, objectively, the best way for humans to thrive);

2) Providing a process by which students can deeply examine the meaning and consequences of ideas from all sides, collectivist to individualist, while treating the works of the freedom movement thinkers as equal to that of other great thinkers;

3) Offering a culture of inspiration, love of beauty and greatness, and deep community of shared ideas and values. Young people desperately need such a culture, especially when surrounded by as many postmodernist, nihilist intellectual and artistic influences as we find in contemporary America.

At Reliance, we will offer young people the vision of a life full of adventure and achievement.

We already have a successful track record with this program. For the past 13 years, we have implemented it in carefully crafted summer and weekend programs with remarkable results, and we’re running one this summer, July 23-30, in Chicago. (See The Great Connections for more information.)

Student after student has spontaneously reported to us that their approach to their lives has been transformed by these programs. To this day, we hear from them about their successes due to what they learned at The Great Connections. Students attending our full college program will have the opportunity to learn and develop far more.

Given the caliber of the students who have attended our summer program, Reliance will likely attract highly intelligent students who are dissatisfied with what’s available elsewhere. Reliance’s program will boost their functioning so they will be outstanding in their work performance. Their academic performance, combined with their real-world problem project work, will make us attractive to more and more employers, students, and parents. This will build the College’s reputation quickly.

The program will also achieve our end goal: to develop an active and self-confident minority who can defend their rights to their own lives and the free society. We’re aiming for a New American Revolution!

Our long-term plan is to:

1) Start with a small school in rented quarters where students get the individual attention and guidance they need;

2) Rapidly add a continuing education program for retired adults looking for their next path in life (and who will become great supporters and allies);

3) Build and facilitate a rich cultural community for free-society advocates, with events and discussions on movies, art, architecture, poetry, plays—you name it—emulating the vibrant salon community of the 19th century;

4) Expand our campus to hold multiple small colleges, similar to the Oxford University model.

We are growing a private scholarship fund and endowment for the program. Given the rigorous nature of the program, we don’t expect acquiring accreditation to be difficult.

There will be no faculty tenure. Teachers will be expected to uphold our values and follow our mission.

We seek teachers in love with our program and dedicated to our methods. Our teachers will attend a special training course in our methodology and approach. We also plan regular faculty sessions in which we’ll reflect on whether we’re following our mission and will strive for teaching improvement. Thus, we will avoid drifting into the “wokeness” that afflicts so many colleges.

We have created a comprehensive, well-funded, and expert marketing plan to get started. We have a business model that enables reasonable budgets with affordable tuition for the next seven years, created after years of research conducted on the administration and funding of colleges in the United States.

Reliance College will offer all this to people who expect to pay a reasonable price for a real education rather than a price inflated by no-longer-deserved prestige. We will look for students who want more than vocational training or ideological programming.

Given the current state of education, it’s an auspicious time to start a new, independent institution of higher learning.

Marsha Familaro Enright created the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute (RIFI), which runs The Great Connections Seminars. She is the co-founder of Council Oak Montessori Elementary School, one of the top private elementary schools in Chicago.

Why the U.S. Needs New Colleges

This article was originally published by The Chalkboard Review. View it here.

Collectivists of many stripes—but one aim—have been eating away at our free society for over 100 years. If we want to reverse America’s slide into authoritarianism and move towards a free society, we need to be as clear about our goals as the collectivists have been about theirs. And theirs have always been power and control, especially through the means of education.

This is why I’m working to open Reliance College, dedicated to developing autonomous and entrepreneurial young people. Our program focuses not only on crucial knowledge but on what learning experiences develop the habits and skills, as well as courage, autonomy, and entrepreneurship. 

As we look around at what historian Brad Thompson calls the education apocalypse, I am reminded of its origins in the 1960’s student “rebellions.” I remember sitting in a biochemistry class at Northwestern University in 1971 when some students forced their way in to protest the Vietnam War — the keyword being ‘forced.’

As George Leef and others have written about, Herbert Marcuse’s Repressive Tolerance justifies the use of force. Leef writes: 

“the spirit of his book Repressive Tolerance animates the speech code enthusiasts. Marcuse argued that free speech was actually repressive because it allegedly put status quo ideas in a position of dominance and suppressed the voices of dissent. His ‘solution’ was to suppress ideas critical of his radical Marxist notions to make things more fair.”

Bottom line: If others don’t accept your demands, force them into compliance. Sound familiar? We see that endgame played out all around us today: the violent occupation of city centers, condoning of looters, and heavy-handed controls throughout the epidemic.

The left advanced their goal but didn’t succeed in the 60’s and 70’s so they went into education. Violent 1960’s radicals became influential professors, such as bombing Communist Weatherman Underground leader Bill Ayers who was a Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He’s spread his social justice vision far and wide among teachers. And he’s but one, albeit very active, example. With all the teachers they have influenced, any wonder this ideology is being taught and enforced everywhere from pre-school to graduate school?

Department after department in school after school made it difficult for professors who disagreed with them—see the recent study by Langbert and Stevens of how ridiculously far Academia leans to one side, politically.

What’s worse, students have become gleeful enforcers of the authoritarians, using such tools as cell phone videos, Twitter, and the heckler’s veto. It allows students to enjoy the thrill of power over their superiors while believing that they are moral crusaders when outing ideological violators.

Thankfully, alumni are waking up and refusing to support these institutions; and some of the less financially stable schools have been folding. But, with all the government loan money and vast endowments at the elite institutions, defunding the universities is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Countering this trend is Hillsdale College, along with a few others. And free society advocates have been creating wonderful centers for study at schools around the country, such as the James Madison Center at PrincetonGeorge Mason University Law School, and the Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson. They’re doing terrific work for their students but they aren’t able to change their institutions.

At this juncture, we need a Parallel University System, as free as possible of government controls. Bari Weiss and Panos Kanelos have thrown their hats in the ring with the proposed University of Austin, which has the laudable aim of the “fearless pursuit of truth.” I look forward to the university’s success, but is one alternative enough to restore us to a free society?

Free societies emerged from the eminence of reason, the development of individualism and autonomy, and the recognition of individual rights during the Enlightenment. The greatest guardian of liberty is autonomy because autonomous people do not tolerate being ruled.  We need a college specifically dedicated to nurturing autonomous individuals who are well-schooled in the values of reason, individualism, and freedom. 

For the past 13 years, we have implemented such an education in carefully crafted summer and weekend programs with remarkable results. Now we’re ready to expand to Reliance College, opening 2024. Reliance will be a residential college that offers a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts, with deep emphasis on reasoning well and objectively, and complemented by a real-world-problem solving project in the student’s career interest.   

We are looking for people who want more than vocational training or ideological programming. We seek people who want to think for themselves and pursue their own happiness. Contact me if you want to join us.

Austrian Economist Bob Murphy Interviews Marsha Familaro Enright on School Vouchers

Austrian economist Bob Murphy talked to Marsha Familaro Enright about the reasons for her opposition to school vouchers, even though she founded, and ran the private Council Oak Montessori School for 27 years. Enright warns that they will ruin the independence of private schools.

Enright also describes her work towards creating optimal higher education using the Montessori philosophy, through The Great Connections Seminars. Listen to the discussion on Murphy’s podcast, The Bob Murphy Show here.