‘Casa de Bambini opened in Rome, Italy in 1906.
Peace & Montessori Education
Six months after Maria Montessori opened her first Casa de Bambini in the San Lorenzo Quarter of Rome in 1906, her work was an international sensation. Kings, queens, and dignitaries from all over Europe came to witness the miracle of the children at work in the first environment prepared by Maria Montessori. Years earlier, when working with “defective” children living in asylums, she observed how animated children became when they had something to manipulate, even if it were crumbs from their previous meal. From 1899 to 1901 she was given charge of a school in which she was responsible for educating such “defective” children. While she received great praise for her success in helping some of the children to learn to read and write and even perform better than “normal” children on state exams, she began to contemplate what could so possibly deviate these “normal” children to such an extent as to allow her “defective” students to out-perform them.
A recently built housing project in Rome was being terrorized by the countless children left behind by their parents each day. Left with no supervision, hordes of these children were rampaging through the streets, vandalizing property, and getting into untold mischief. It was decided that they should all be gathered into one room during the day and watched over by someone who could keep them out of trouble. When Maria Montessori was approached for this task, she knew this was a great opportunity to try out her theories and methods on “normal’ children. The results were astonishing and her discovery of the child became a worldwide phenomenon.
Maria Montessori has shown us that the true nature of the child and the human is one of peace. If the conditions are right, inner harmony will naturally develop in our personalities, enabling us to create outer harmony in our community. Maria has shown us, through her own example, that it is not enough to attain peace in just one school, one community, or even one social class. What would have happened if Dr. Montessori had been content to work only with “defective” children or only Italian children?
Maria lived in a century of great destruction, surviving two world wars. In the times leading up to the Second World War, Mussolini had wanted all of the schools in Italy to follow the Montessori Method. He was interested in the external results only, similar to some parents today who send their children to Montessori schools only to outperform their counterparts in public schooling. But Maria had a larger vision than Italian Nationalism. She saw her schools and her methods as the heritage of all of humanity and a possible way to overcome the superficial divisions that had thrown the world into upheaval and destruction. She fled Italy and eventually settled in India where she had been invited to stay by the Theosophical Society. It was there, against the backdrop of the World War II, that she developed the Montessori Elementary Curriculum. She carried with her not only the sensibilities that had shaped all of her previous work, but an urgent mission to lay a course for humanity out of its current madness and into a rebirth of culture and of the spirit.
'Geometric insets', teaching materials created by Maria Montessori, have been in use worldwide for over a century
The Montessori elementary classroom works to cultivate peace through the appropriate development of the intellect, the heart, and the will. The mind is expanded through cosmic education, the heart through the children’s participation in the community of the classroom, and the will through the liberty afforded to the children. The freedom that children have in the Montessori classroom is the true key to Montessori education, for without giving the children the liberty to pursue their own inner voices, the rest would be an imposition and would not allow the discovery of their innermost nature—that of peace and love.
On an intellectual level, Montessori education seeks to give the children as open and all-encompassing a perspective of the universe as is possible. The elementary years open up with the Great Stories, telling of the origins of the Cosmos, the beginnings of life out of the primordial seas, the coming of humans onto the scene, and the subsequent development of language and mathematical thinking. These stories are meant to awaken the children’s imaginations and help them see how they are part of the vast, ongoing story of creation. They place the children’s current culture within the vast context of, not only human history, but cosmic history. The children come to see the fundamental needs of humans and all of the different ways they have been meet over the milennia, or even the variety of ways they are met by different people today. They come to see that we are all world citizens with a common heritage, and that we have similar hopes, dreams, and fears. This open-mindedness about other peoples inoculates children against the narrow pride of racism, nationalism, or any of the other isms, in the name of which people have waged war.
Similarly, we study all of the world’s religions and show how they are different ways of answering the same basic set of human questions. No path is so elevated as to be seen as higher than the others, nor are the various religions stripped of their uniqueness and marginalized into just another set of ideas that “some people believe”. All are honored for their contribution within or to the ongoing story of the humanity.
Turn-of-the-Century Montessori Classroom
The study of history, culture, and religion is in many ways patterned after biology, for it is the study of successive forms and their contribution to the greater whole that will prepare humanity to grapple with the complexities of modern social problems. Biology is taught with an eye towards the discovery of each life form’s “Cosmic Task” or way in which in contributes to the whole. The plant provides oxygen for animals just by doing what comes naturally to it: by breathing. It also, by making food for itself in its leaves with the help of sunlight, provides all the food that sustains the animals and fungi. Not only do plants have this task, but each species of plant has its own cosmic task. Some contain chemicals that help cure diseases in humans and animals. Some provide homes for desert owls, while others help retain groundwater, supporting a whole ecology. Human life is an important part of the web of life, but everything here has an existence and purpose that goes far beyond fulfilling our needs and desires. The Cosmos is a story and we are a part of it. We each have a cosmic task as well, but humans are unique in that we choose our task. Peace and sustainability can only come about if we choose wisely.
'Casa de Bambini'
Montessori education promises to give the child the world to explore. There is little room for harboring the prejudices and arrogances that have divided humanity throughout the centuries. Various religions and nationalities are transformed from targets of suspicion into areas of interest. There is enough room in the mind of a Montessori child to accommodate many peoples, many perspectives, and many ways of life. The vastness of mind cultivated by exploring the cosmos is matched by the vastness of heart that comes from being a part of the Montessori classroom community.
From a functionalist perspective, the traditional school system, based on the Prussian military model, was set up to train children to be clock-punchers within a bureaucratic corporate system. At best, the lining up, responding to the bell, completing assignments with as much attention to following directions as to the content of the work, grades, and authoritative discipline were meant to raise a class of middle managers, capable to carrying out orders, of following company policy, and of organizing the workplace according to ordered productivity centered around the omnipresent clock. As for the rest, the basic skills—reading writing, and arithmetic—would help them get a job within this order. To its credit, it opened the doors of universities to any who were capable, but what kind of nation is this system trying to create? At the turn of the century, the resounding answer would have been a nation of order takers. Although this is no longer the stated goal, the results are the same.
Montessori teaching materials
If you looked at Montessori education from this same perspective, what would you see? A classroom in which children problem solve, grappling with real life issues, while pursuing their own interests. They work in small groups, or “teams”, negotiating their roles and determining the best course of action. They are learning how to work with other’s strengths and weaknesses. They are learning how to assess themselves and how to acquire the skills or knowledge they need in order to carry out a project. They are learning, through their own experience, how to take an idea and make it a reality, whether it is a story, a play production, a go-cart, or a science fair experiment. From a functionalist perspective, Montessori education is preparing both the small innovative business teams of the future as well as the corporate executives.
Maria Montessori received worldwide recognition for her contributions to the field of education.
Maria Montessori’s vision of future society went well beyond the preparation of her students for any particular career. Her idea was to prepare her students for the creation of a new humanity. The Montessori classroom provides an environment in which peace, understanding, compassion, respect, and responsibility are cultivated. All of these virtues prepare the children to live in a more humane society, while giving them the skills to help bring it about.
Because the children work collaboratively in small groups, they learn the skills necessary to negotiate and to work together. They are being directly prepared for participation in a democracy and acquiring the emotional intelligence necessary to live happy, successful lives. Frustration over unsuccessfully meeting one’s needs leads to conflict far more often than a lack of intellectual understanding. It is the education of the heart—hard won by experience, not through the moralizing of an adult—that will enable humanity to pass out of its current phase of reactionary utilization of force to create security. In the Montessori classroom we are preparing our future peacekeepers and diplomats. They are already among us!
The liberty that Maria Montessori speaks so highly of is the liberty for children to follow their inner voice. In the classroom they are allowed to practice making moral judgments, to voice their opinions, and to know they will be respected. They cultivate the knowledge that they have the power to put their ideas into practice, to come up with their own rules for the classroom, to work according to their own learning styles. All of this assumes a prepared environment in which the child can make authentic choices that will contribute to his or her development.
An outdoor lesson in progress
Liberty, in and of itself, will not always tend towards a peaceful equilibrium in the community. The Montessori classroom requires a balance between freedom and responsibility. All the freedoms that the children enjoy come with a corresponding set of responsibilities that bind each child to the greater community. Children do not experience themselves as if in a vacuum, but learn the virtues of civic responsibility, environmental responsibility, and responsibility for one’s actions through immediate feedback from the environment. If the gardens are not tended, the plants will die. If a child does not pull his own weight in a project, he will certainly hear about it from the other children involved! If left to themselves, the children are capable of tremendous organizing efforts, like planning an entire camping trip, or writing, directing, and performing a play. These events are real and the consequences for poor planning or half-hearted efforts are real. Again, responsibility is learned through interaction with reality, not through the lecturing of an adult.
The adult certainly guides the children, setting boundaries and helping them become accountable for their actions, but the children still must come up the solutions to their problems. The class discusses important class issues and votes on the results. If their “motion” does not achieve the desired results, it does not fall to the wayside, but the children must again gather and discuss solutions they are willing to carry out. This is direct preparation for responsible world citizenship, something the world sorely needs.
A Montessori classroom in Tanzania
The responsibilities that the children shoulder are what allow them so much freedom in the Montessori environment. When children have no responsibility for their actions, then the adult must contrive consequences and restrictions in order to keep the children in check. Vast systems of punishments and rewards have been devised to cushion children from taking responsibility for their actions. There was a famous study called “The Authoritarian Personality” published in Weimar Germany warning of the German people’s predisposition to surrender their moral authority to their “superiors.” The intricate system devised to create a disciplined populace asked for obedience at the expense of personal and moral responsibility for one’s actions. This environment made Germany ripe for National Socialism. One thing I can assure you, and sometimes to my great inconvenience, we are not creating a classroom of blind followers! The guide of a Montessori classroom must take great pleasure in observing the children exercising their will, no matter how misguided it may seem from the adult perspective. It is the only through the exercise of the will that the spirit will mature.
Montessori education is not just a system of education, but is part of a larger movement towards the development of humanity. In the prepared environment of the Montessori classroom, children’s minds are opened to the great vistas of the cosmos. They are learning about the great systems—planetary, ecological, political, economic, spiritual—and how together they weave the rich tapestry of human experience. But more importantly, our children experience themselves as an important and empowered part of a community; their ideas are valued and have the power to shape their destiny. They learn, through their own powers, how to include, accept, and work with every type of person. Montessori children experience their own wills in action, sometimes glorious, sometimes faltering, but always alive and always maturing. Maria Montessori set an example for all of humanity to follow. A path out of the desert. All we must do is follow the child!
Copyright © 2008 Steve Thorpe. All rights reserved.