Dr. Montessori Speaks

by Maura Joyce, Head of School | From the February 2019 issue of The Post

On occasion, I like to hand my head of school Post article over to someone else, whose words may resonate with all of you. Over the winter break, I re-read some parts of my Montessori books—ones I have had since 1990 when I underwent teacher training. The binding is frayed on many of them, pages dog-eared and print fading, but the words inside continue to be a treasure. As I listen to news today, I am drawn to the following passage in her book Education for a New World. Maria Montessori lived through two world wars and was indeed looking for a "new world." I sometimes feel that way. Montessori found hope for that "new world" in her observations and work with children, and I see it every day at Post Oak.

Dr. Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice for her work. She was uncomfortable with any accolades, and wrote:

If education is to be reformed, it must be based upon the children. No longer is it enough to study great educators of the past…I protest against myself being hailed as the great educator of this century, because what I have done is merely study the child, to take and express what he has given me… At the most I have been the child’s interpreter. (Maria Montessori, Education for a New World)

This interpretation she saw as a pathway forward to creating a new world, by allowing children to develop naturally, rather than "molding" them to accept the world in its current state and simply be a victim to events. I leave you with her words on this:

Our world has been torn to pieces, and is in need of reconstruction…But humanity is not yet ready for the evolution that it desires so ardently, the construction of a peaceful and harmonious society that shall eliminate war. Men are not sufficiently educated to control events, so become their victims. Noble ideas, great sentiments have always found utterance, but wars have not ceased! If education were to continue along the old lines of mere transmission of knowledge, the problem would be insolvable and there would be no hope for the world. Alone a scientific enquiry into human personality can lead us to salvation, and we have before us in the child a psychic entity, a social group of immense size, a veritable world-power if rightly used. If salvation and help are to come, it is from the child, for the child is the constructor of man, and so of society.

This may seem absurd but it becomes clear as the truth emerges that the child has a type of mind that absorbs knowledge and thus instructs himself. This is easily proved by the child’s acquisition of language—a great intellectual feat. The child of two speaks the language of his parents though none has taught him. All who have studied this phenomenon agree that a certain period of life the child begins to use names and words connecting with his environment and soon masters the use of all the irregularities and syntactical constructions that afterward prove such obstacles to adult students of an alien tongue. So within the child there is a very scrupulous and exacting teacher.

Scientific observation then has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment. The task of the teacher becomes that of preparing a series of motives of cultural activity spread over a specially prepared environment…. Human teachers can only help the great work that is being done as servants help the master. Doing so, they will be witnesses to the unfolding of the human soul into the rising of a new man who will not be the victim of events but will have the clarity of vision to direct and shape the future of human society.