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Maria Montessori: The Liberator of Children

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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,”[3] 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!”[4]

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.”[5] “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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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?”[8]

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.”[9]

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.”[10]

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[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

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,[14] 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,”[15] 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

Endnotes


[1] Kramer, Rita. 1976. Maria Montessori: A Biography. New York, Capricorn Books, 80.

[2] Garlanda, Federico. 1911. The New Italy. New York and London, 153

[3] Seguin, Edouard. 1866. Idiocy and Its Treatment by the Physiological Method. New York, 33

[4] Standing, E.M. 1962. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New American Library: New York, 34.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Maccheroni, Anna Maria. 1947. A True Romance: Dr. Montessori As I Knew Her. The Darien Press:Edinburgh, 12-13.

[7] Standing, 26.

[8] Ibid., 25.

[9] Montessori, Maria, Letter to Clara, 1896, quoted in Kramer, 115.

[10] Montessori, Maria. 1914. Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, Frederick A. Stokes Company: New York, 83

[11] Later turned into her book The Secret of Childhood.

[12] http://www.montessori.org/sitefiles/montessori_way_HS.pdf

[13] http://www.montessori-namta.org/FAQ/Montessori-Education/How-many-Montessori-schools-are-there

[13]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/

[13] Rand, Ayn.  1970. “The Comprachicos,” The New Left:  The Anti-Industrial Revolution.  New York:  Signet, 187-239..

References

Enright, Marsha Familaro and Doris Cox. Foundations Study Guide: Montessori Education.

Montessori, Maria. Works.

Montessori, Maria. Articles and Letters.

 

Interview with Marsha Enright by Karen Minto, Full Context, Vol. 12, No. 1

Q: How did the ideas of Ayn Rand impact your life?

Marsha: I read through Atlas the summer following The Fountainhead, and all the books and essays I could get my hands on after that, over the next few years. This included Nathaniel Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem, which greatly influenced my thinking in psychology, directly, and, indirectly, by introducing me to the works of Arthur Koestler in a footnote. I have been immensely influenced by Koestler’s ideas in both biology and psychology and, when it comes to writing science well, he is my hero.

It’s funny, a discussion I had recently made me reflect on how I went about accepting Rand’s ideas. Some friends were arguing that it was the practical arguments about capitalism that finally convince people about the truth and value of a free society, but I know that’s not what convinced me: it was the argument for the value and necessity of freedom for the reasoning mind. I guess I always sharply felt the oppression of others trying to tell me what to do—especially because of the stupid things they would want me to do! I experience the value of freedom in a very strong, personal way, even though I’ve never been the victim of political repression. This deep attachment to freedom makes me an absolute basket case when I hear the Star Spangled Banner or read about what Jaroslav Romanchuck is going through!

I remember that the biggest question in my mind after reading the novels was: was I fundamentally a person like Roark or Dagny? I knew I wasn’t like them in many ways, and it seemed difficult to know what personality characteristics were essential to be like a Randian hero. For one thing, Dagny and Roark seem to have been born the way they are—popping full-blown from Athena’s head, so there weren’t many clues as to how to get from there to here. And for another thing, Rand’s characters all seemed to be very little affected by other people’s negative judgments and feelings towards them. And in the characterizations, this seemed to be mixed up with being independent in judgment.

So, did you have to be both in order to be a Randian hero? I knew I wasn’t exactly like that because, even though you’d have to kill me before I’d stop arguing what I thought was right, I also knew that the kindness or meanness of others and the way other people felt and acted towards me could really affect me—it could make me feel wonderful or awful. I’ve spent many years thinking about the psychology involved, and my article “Why Man Needs Approval” in Objectivity examines this issue at length and in light of scientific research. I reached the conclusion that these characteristics—independence of judgement and sensitivity to the feelings of others—are two separate issues, the one an issue of character and the other of temperament. I ultimately decided that Rand, for personal reasons, had chosen to make her characters have the two characteristics together.

And I also had some personal interactions with Rand that I found really interesting in regard to this issue of the essential qualities of her heroes, because I got to see what the author of these books was like as a person. You know, her personality and temperament weren’t very much like her heroes’: she wasn’t a serene, cool, calm person rather indifferent to the feelings of those around her—she was a wildly passionate, hot-headed woman who reacted sharply to negative criticism or feedback. And she was on an intensely felt mission to save the world.

In the seventies when I was about 25, I attended almost all the lectures given by Leonard Peikoff and Allan Blumenthal in New York City. My best learning experience and most vivid memories from those lectures were conversations which I had with Ayn Rand. I would go up to her at the breaks and after the lectures and ply her with all kinds of questions—about the nature of free will or how to cast the movie Atlas Shrugged—and I was usually delighted to get her typically unique answers. I even got her talking about cats—between lectures I had left a little pin of a cat arched and hissing at her office for her birthday. When I saw her wearing it one day, I asked her if she liked it and she said “Oh yes—it is ze essence of cat!” I even humorously threatened to bring my cats for her to see—at which she said “Oh no, dahlink, you can’t do that!” Sometimes I think she thought I was about 16 years old!

Once I mentioned to her that I had noticed where she got the name Danneskjold: from Victor Hugo’s first novel, Hans of Iceland in which the hero becomes the first of the Counts of Danneskjold! I thought this was a great tribute to him, but she worriedly said to me “Oh yes, but it wasn’t plagiarism because there really were counts of Danneskjold!”
You see, if you can picture this, Ayn Rand was worried that she would be perceived as trading on Victor Hugo’s ability and glory!
The most striking thing that happened to me during these conversations is that Ayn Rand once asked my forgiveness. I wanted to bring this experience up because it was so different from the experiences of Rand related by so many other people, perhaps it gives a different side of her. […]

Q: Did your family or friends give you a hard time over Objectivism?

Marsha: I remember trying to interest several of my friends, but failing. I did get my father interested and it seemed to change a lot in his life, although he came under the distorting influence of Lonnie Leonard. My mother hated the books, because she saw how it liberated my father and me from her moral grip—ugh! And my brothers hated the books without reading them because they thought they caused my parents to get divorced!

Q: Quite a few Objectivists seem to feel alienated in a society that does not seem to share their values and have trouble making friends or finding romantic partners. Have you found this to be true for yourself or do you think there is something fundamentally wrong with their viewpoint?

Marsha: I did feel alienated from others for many years. It started long before I read Rand, but the sense of it was probably sharpened by the lens of her explanations, by knowing how different I was. I was always intellectual and outspoken, and these didn’t endear me to other kids or grown ups. But, what I only realized later was that I was also the victim of an inordinate amount of envy, and this is something that aggravated the alienation—and this was something Rand helped me to see. When I read The Fountainhead I immediately recognized the social-climbing characters and their ways—because that went on all the time where I lived and in my schools. Unbeknownst to me, as a doctor my father was on the high end of the social pyramid, which apparently many of the other families resented, given the kind of cruel remarks and treatment I experienced from their children. These experiences contributed to my sense of alienation.

I guess Rand’s ideas also made the alienation worse by the view that most other people were “the masses” and that they were this social-climbing bunch who were untouchable by reason. In some respects, this idea jived with my own personal experience. It was the novels’ non-developmental slant that was a problem, the idea that so many people just chose to be like this and were, in a sense, irredeemably evil. It took me some years to examine the truth of this view—which loomed large in my mind because, as an educator and psychological theorist, I wanted to know why. I came to understand that it’s not a simple matter of choice on the part of most people—ability matters in grasping the philosophical, like it matters in everything else. It is very difficult for many people to be intellectual enough and self-aware enough of the ideas and feelings that influence their thinking, feeling and action to easily recognize what’s right and wrong. They often labor under a blindingly complex set of ideas that they’ve unknowingly accepted, and which they can’t untangle themselves. They don’t even realize that these things are important to think about. And their lack of ability leads to a lack of the knowledge and experience necessary to deal with the issues. All these things make it difficult for them to even think about, no less think through, the philosophical issues involved and see the rightness and importance of what Rand wrote.

The experience I’ve had working with amazingly rational, intelligent and sensitive people at my school especially helped me overcome my alienation. I learned that there are many people in the world who are motivated by the truth and the right, so they really aren’t that different from me as it might first appear. But its my job to learn how to communicate with them if I want to convince them of Rand’s ideas. And now I feel very relaxed about my relationships with others, very socially integrated and in fact socially capable and powerful.

Q: How did you get involved with Montessori?

Marsha: Psychology and development were always interests of mine (not that I had the names for those interests until I was much older!) I’ve been interested in education since I was a little girl, because I always disliked how miserable the other students were in class. I personally loved school and got along great with my teachers but terrible with the other students, and their disruptions drove me crazy—they were such a distraction from the learning I was hot to do. I was especially impressed with how miserable some of the smart kids were in school, and I vowed that when I had kids I would make sure they got an education that wasn’t frustrating, that didn’t turn them off from learning and that was fun.

So when I read Beatrice Hessen’s articles in The Objectivist about the Montessori Method I was hooked. I followed up by reading all of Montessori’s books, and anything else about her and her method I could find. I knew then that that was the kind of education I wanted for my kids.

What most attracted me to Montessori was her biological approach to the psychology and development of the child and her deep, deep respect for individuals and the fantastic power of self-creation they have within them. She was the first woman doctor in Italy at the turn of the century, and an amazingly careful scientific observer. Because of her genius she was able to recognize, through observation, many things currently touted as the “new” discoveries of experimental research and cognitive psychology. Sensitive periods of development, the need for sensorial and motor materials as teaching tools for proper development, the variety of cognitive abilities and styles among people (made popular by Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” theory), the advantages of multi-age classrooms, the need for guided learning in the social and emotional realms as well as the intellectual (much discussed recently as “emotional intelligence”) and the need to maximize “flow” in the classroom to keep students motivated are a few of the “recently discovered” things which are principles of her system.

Well, perhaps it’s not a coincidence, considering the influence of Piaget in developmental psychology. I remember a funny experience I had in graduate school when I was studying Piaget: his ideas struck me as awfully similar to Montessori’s, but in the language of German philosophy. Years later, I discovered that he had been a trained Montessorian, the head of the Swiss Montessori society and that he had done his observations for Language and Thought of the Child in the Jean Jacques Rousseau Montessori school in Geneva.

When I actually had my kids, I was charged and prepared to find the right school for them. Fortunately for us, a wonderful Montessori primary school (what others would call pre-school) had existed in the neighborhood for many years, so that’s where my children went until elementary. To make a long story short, I found there was a need and desire for elementary Montessori education in my area of the city, and I wanted it done right for my own kids. So, in conjunction with a few other mothers and one teacher, I started up Council Oak Montessori Elementary school in 1990 with 17 children, and its going into its tenth anniversary this year.

Q: If someone wanted to become a Montessori teacher what sort of training would they need?

Marsha: Anyone who wants to become a Montessori teacher needs to go to one of the special Montessori training courses given by the American Montessori Society or the Association Montessori Internationale (the original and most famous of which is given in Bergamo, Italy). These courses go into the philosophy and the method in immense detail, including exactly how to use the materials to give lessons in all the subject areas, manage a classroom and handle individual children. To give you an idea of the fullness of their content: one of our teachers was an education major in college and had gone for Montessori training. She had a thin, 20 page booklet which she had been given in one education course for the teaching of all arithmetic to all grades! From her Montessori training, she had a packed three-ring binder called an “album,” which contained the detailed methods and instructions for teaching arithmetic to 6 to 9 year olds alone!

These courses are given at training centers all over the nation and around the world, and they vary greatly in quality and somewhat in content. The best ones are incredibly loaded with important and useful information. For example, the AMS course given by the Institute for Advanced Montessori Studies is given in 10 weeks in the summer, with a year internship, a week of exams 6 months later and a year long project presented the next summer. Its one of the most un-Montessori ways of learning I’ve ever seen, given all the information crammed into 10 weeks, but I guess that was the only practically feasible way most adults could afford to take the course.

Q: You wrote an article in the IOS Journal Navigator about starting an Objectivist Salon. I have attended a few of your Salon meetings and was very impressed by the quality of both the topics and the people attending. What problems do you think many Objectivist groups have in getting a good group together?

Marsha: Thanks for the compliment! First, of course, you have the problem of overcoming the bad memories and bad habits of Objectivist events in former years, which were so unpleasant. So, the person organizing the group has to be skilled at making people feel comfortable, being very friendly and inviting and insuring that the discussions are extremely reasonable and respectful of all participants. This can be difficult because some people in Objectivist and Libertarian circles have developed very bad habits of argument—they can be condemnatory, contemptuous and impatient; they don’t carefully listen to what the other person is saying and think about what he or she means before they answer in some knee-jerk way, or they know only how to lecture to others rather than have a conversation. But a good organizer or moderator can set the tone by the way they talk and by interfering, moderating, when things get out of hand. You tell people that they need to let someone else talk, or you say “we really want to deal with the facts, reasons and issues about the ideas here, so can you give us the basis for your arguments?”—that kind of thing.

The other thing is to make the situation very social and inviting, so people have a chance to get to know each other in a relaxed way, not just during a formal event or discussion. And I try as much as possible to elicit the topics and the speakers from within the group, rather than use tapes or lectures, to get everyone to be active participants instead of passive receptacles of information from the chosen.

Q: If an Objectivist is interested in changing the culture, what are some of the things he/she should be doing that are most effective?

Marsha: I’m assuming you want to hear some ways besides giving out Rand’s books, writing letters to the editor, becoming a philosophy professor or organizing a political party? First and foremost, I think being the best, and most intelligent, understanding and reasonable in your profession and your personal life, whatever it is, can go far in affecting the culture. And here’s why—because, by the example of your person, you can interest the people you interact with in your ideas—they want to know what makes you so special, so different.

And that leads into the other thing I think is extremely important in changing the culture: like I said before, go out of your way to understand other people. Don’t jump all over somebody you disagree with, but try to listen to their exact concerns, and agree with them where you can. Then introduce the ways in which you disagree and why—but try to do it in language and vocabulary from the other person’s context. Don’t use special vocabulary unless you absolutely have to—and then carefully explain your meaning. These are all ways I’ve found to actually communicate my ideas to other people and change their minds.

Q: What kinds of projects are you planning for the future?

Marsha: I want to do an end-run around the educational establishment, which continues to be inhospitable to Objectivism and good education. I am developing an institution which takes the principles of Objectivism as its grounding philosophy and applies the Montessori method to the teaching of adults. Although I want to teach courses on Objectivism (in fact, I plan to start with an introductory course in January), I want more than that. I want a liberal arts institution which uses Objectivism to inform but not confine the way all subjects are approached, especially through standards of reason, objectivity and importance to life.
I’m working on the curriculum and organization, and searching for someone who would like to be the operations director and a founding partner. By the way, I’d love to ask any of your readers who might be interested in working on such a project to drop me a note: my e-mail address is deanima@juno.com.