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.