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Friday Note (Thursday Edition): Happy Birthday, Maria Montessori
Happy Thursday, everyone.
Today, August 31 of 2023, is Maria Montessori’s 153rd birthday.
Montessori, towards the end of her life, said of her pedagogical method that it
is a new approach to education and it is for everyone. The method is a small thing. As I have said in the past, it must be considered as similar to ‘a bar of soap’, a small addition to civilization.
I think this is an accurate comparison, but I find the apparent modesty of her tone amusing. The mass production of soap, and related antiseptic and hygienic practices (that Montessori spent her early life advocating), was a major breakthrough in human wellbeing. So is her method.
Just speaking personally, Montessori changed my life. I didn’t have any Montessori education as a child, but when I was exploring work opportunities as an adult, what excited me wasn’t education, in the abstract, it was Montessori education. It was seeing a room of 20 or so 3- to 6-year-olds, each one of them voluntarily and happily focused on real work and deep learning—on making a snack or a map of political geography or skip counting with beads—in a way that I had only ever previously seen in children with things like Legos.
Everyone speaks of unlocking human potential, to the point where it is almost a meaningless cliche. But Montessori really did it. Reliably, cross-culturally, in group settings, and for people so young that they have historically barely been considered human.
So today I thank her, for her “small addition to civilization”, and specifically and personally for me for enabling me to do a type of work, from first principles and with a high degree of craftsmanship, that would not have been otherwise possible.
To celebrate her further, I’m going to share one of my favorite Montessori passages.
Have a good Friday, tomorrow, have great weekends—and, for those of you for whom September represents the turn of the school year, have a great new beginning, one born out of the kind of love that Montessori describes below.
(From Montessori’s Education and Peace, part III chapter 12.)
We do not use the term work in the ordinary sense of the word. The child teaches us that work is not a virtue, not an effort that man is forced to make; it is not the need to earn a livelihood. Work is man’s fundamental instinct.
Man can be cured of his psychic ills by working; he can break through a genuinely spiritual life by working. Work is the means of remedying all his shortcomings; a number of traits that we observe in children are not at all typical of the ordinary adult. Man is born to work. The instinct to work is his most outstanding trait. We must change our lives, for much that we ordinarily consider good or bad in our lives is not really so at all.
We regard it as good if a child shows affection; obedience is taken to be the moral virtue par excellence; being able to sit quietly and being imaginative are considered good. But all these traits disappear as the child works. Flightiness, laziness, rebelliousness, and deceitfulness disappear also. What is left then?
What is left is the new man, who has none of our defects—the man who works diligently, the man who is healed of all his ills. This man has genuine qualities—love, which is something different from attachment; discipline, which is something different from blind submission; the ability to relate to reality, which is something different from flights of fancy.
Most of us experience the kind of love that causes us to be deeply attached to others; but this is a passing love. There is ample reason, however, to believe that the human spirit is inherently capable of another kind of love that is not transitory, that does not change, that does not die. Man expresses this by saying that he loves something that transcends his family—he speaks of his love of his country, of his love of God.
Man has had intimations of this higher form of love because he has intuitions within his soul of every truth, though he has not often followed and applied them in his everyday life. This higher love comes naturally to children, however, and is characteristic of them.
This love is the essential fire in man, without which he cannot live. It is not simply tender affection. I assure you that I have seen this love; I have been amazed by it; I have called it ‘love for one’s environment’.
What do I mean by this? What is this love like?
The love of one’s environment is the secret of all man’s progress and the secret of social evolution. It becomes manifest in people who have survived life’s vicissitudes, who have been able to keep their integrity, or who have rediscovered such integrity within themselves. Love of the environment inspires man to learn, to study, to work.
Love spurs man to learn. It leads to intimate contact between the thing that is loved and the human spirit, which in turn leads to production. Labour, life, and normal human development result. Love leads human beings to study things that seem repellent to most of us. In the United States there was a man who had a love of this kind for snakes, and he devoted his life to studying their habits. The object of such a love is not important. What is important is that love spurs man to use his mind, to produce, to labour. All the products of civilization are the result of man’s labor. Every new thing that comes into being is produced by men, who love their environment: bread, dwelling places, furniture, and so on. Everything in our social environment is the result of some form of labour.
Men who have come to experience love are privileged. When there is an interchange between an object and a man’s spirit, something deep inside him is awakened—human dignity.
Love is the instinct that guides our actions. Even animals have such an instinct. If it is not aroused in man, he will not have a normal life. Instead of finding his work absorbing, it will exhaust him and he will feel hatred rather than love.
Love is a goal to be attained, not a starting point. Sermons on love will not help us; it is not by force of will that we can produce love. Its basis is moral health. … Now that we have caught a glimpse of what a normal man can be, we have reason to believe that all mankind may one day become better, become normal.
Executive Director, Montessorium