Montessori and the future
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Maria Montessori’s view of human unity
Today, in the era of COVID-19, is so different from yesterday that it is difficult to know what tomorrow will be like. There is talk of going “back to normal” or to a “new normal,” but the only way we can ever go is forward. Humankind is ever-evolving and ever-adapting to the conditions in which we find ourselves and using our native ingenuity to solve problems large and small. Today is a new day and we try to rejoice in it however we can.
A time of soul-searching and deep reflection
Our nation and the Montessori movement are in a period of deep soul-searching, trying to come to terms with the facts of our past, of slavery both in the United States and many other nations and of racial and gender inequities. We are seeking to balance the deeply flawed parts of our past with the gifts of profound freedom our nation has given us and that we so prize in our Montessori classrooms. We are deeply engaged in pondering and reflecting because we honestly want to be better people. We know psychologically and spiritually that, until we can see our internal issues and biases, we cannot let them go. This vital process of self-searching is for the purpose of change. While change is difficult, the resources for real transformation are deep in our hearts. As we identify biases in deep-seated thinking patterns in one or another, do we let them define us or can we surrender them and truly change? Can we make certain that what we learn is reflected in our relationships and our classroom environments?
It is my observation that some folks are beating themselves up, and at times disrespecting and judging others around them as they undergo this deep, unsettling process. Maybe it is helpful to envision a pendulum, which goes from one extreme to the other and gradually comes to a point of balance. We may be moving away from ignorance (i.e., either ignoring what we know to be true or simply not knowing) toward intense scrutiny and self-awareness. Montessori wrote: “All spiritual development is a conquest of consciousness, which assumes to itself something that was formerly outside. It is by going along this road of discovery that civilization advances.” In other words, we have to take what we are learning and internalize it. We can grow.
In her writings on the spiritual preparation of the teacher, Montessori reminds us that pride and anger are the two essential blocks to having a quality relationship with children. Perhaps all the various “isms” that we seek to root out are subtle variations on the pride that exists within us.
There are always children
But the most important thing is that there are always children who need us. Now, more than ever, we are needed by children the world around. They require love and balance and the richness that the Montessori prepared environment and the prepared adult can give to them. Maria Montessori taught us to see the child who is not yet there. If we are to thrive in the present and the future, we can do it with grace, with tolerance for current imperfections, and with great love. She taught us that our job is not to judge but to help life.
In 1949, just three short years before her passing, Maria Montessori gave a series of lectures in San Remo, Italy, at the 8th International Montessori Congress. She talked a great deal about building a new world and the importance of history. One of her lectures was called “Human Solidarity in Time and Space.” It offers profound food for thought with numerous examples, reminds us to look at an essential truth of human unity, and gives us a great task.
Montessori argues that, while we persist in thinking that we must educate men to achieve world unity, it already exists through trade, travel, and the exchange of ideas and goods. Ties of solidarity exist, and it is essential to help people to become conscious of this reality. Those of us who are Montessori elementary teachers know this theme well from the parable of the Great River and Montessori’s cosmic plan.
A great obstacle to what I call cultivation of humanity is the prevalent opinion that men are selfish. Men suffer because they believe they are selfish, while, well considered in general they are not. How can a man be selfish who works for the good of his fellow men, often under the direst of circumstances? The baker, for example, who rises before dawn to make sure people will have their fresh, crusty bread in the early morning? The shoemaker, who provides shoes so that others may walk in comfort?
And the educator, the teacher who instructs the small strangers entrusted to his care, welcoming all who come, not choosing one and rejecting another, giving equally his understanding to all?
Montessori goes on to reflect on the fact that humanity is stuck in thinking about economic and material benefits, the satisfaction of vanity, a desire to be thought well of, and “ambition pure and simple” above everything else. She says we must fight this “flawed and dangerous” attitude. We would look more deeply into what makes us one and understand why we are here rather than creating superficial divisions.
This is the great task of education: to make the child conscious of the reality and depth of human unity…. We must explain, by precise and logical analysis, the origin and the essence of this great human brotherhood. Above all, we must make the children understand how extraordinarily moving it is that men are not united by their interests alone, but that a deeper bond exists at the very root of their brotherhood.
As we deeply feel the unity of all mankind and strive for a future that meets the needs of every human being, we know that this is indeed Montessori’s essential message of “help to life.”