Every Child an Emperor, by Rivka Galchen

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February 2022 Issue [Reviews]

Every Child an Emperor

On Maria Montessori

An educational toy designed by Maria Montessori, circa 1925 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

[Reviews]

Every Child an Emperor

On Maria Montessori
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Discussed in this essay:

The Child Is the Teacher: A Life of Maria Montessori, by Cristina De Stefano. Translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti. Other Press. 368 pages. $28.99.

She hires the daughter of a custodian to teach kindergarten. It is 1907 in a poor neighborhood in Rome, where there has never been a kindergarten before. An agency tasked with improving neighborhoods in the city is trying to provide a place for children to go while their parents are working, and Maria Montessori has been asked to run the program. Montessori instructs the inexperienced teacher that the children should be allowed to lie on the floor or sit under the table—to do whatever they want. Observe them closely and tell me what you notice, she says. The new teacher reports back: the children are more interested in helping her sweep than in playing with the donated toys. Montessori writes this down. One day when Montessori is on her way to the classroom, she notices a peaceful baby girl with her mother in the courtyard. She invites them in and challenges the young children to be as quiet as the baby. This goes well. Montessori decides to make a ritual out of it: a period of silence for the children, one that ends when each child is called by name into the next room. This, also, the children love. The practice is adopted.

Montessori saw her method as one that progressed through trial and error—a scientific method. “There are as many beginnings as there are children,” she said, noting also that “the adult must not remain on high, issuing judgments and grades. The adult must humbly get down among the pupils.” One adherent described her method as being “nothing other than a patient observation of childhood.” She believed that children possess an exceptional capacity for attention, not a diminished one, and that a classroom should be designed to elicit that kind of focus. If a child is inattentive or disruptive in class, it is because they are being coerced into paying attention to the wrong things. If a child seems disorderly, it is because their strong drive toward their own internal sense of order is being broken.

There are now some twenty thousand Montessori and Montessori-affiliated schools throughout the world, many of them in the United States. (The degree to which schools using the Montessori name adhere to her original precepts varies greatly.) Though highly progressive and directed to a great degree by the interests of the children, they are nevertheless organized according to a meticulous set of rules. Advocates point to students of “the method,” as Montessori called it, excelling in reading and math, developing advanced social skills, and displaying a heightened sense of creativity. Famous alumni range from Julia Child, Gabriel García Márquez, and Taylor Swift to Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Jeff Bezos, who is currently constructing a network of free Montessori-inspired preschools in Washington State. (“We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” Bezos tweeted. “Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”)

Among the aspects prized by the method’s admirers is the degree to which it seems to encourage independent thinking—“that training of not following rules and orders, and . . . questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit differently,” as Page put it in an interview with Barbara Walters. This would at first seem of a piece with Montessori’s daring life and work: she was the only female student in her Italian medical school, and her revolutionary and open-minded experiments led her to overturn centuries of pedagogical wisdom. It sounds like something from a children’s book on the lives of pioneering women. Yet the story of her life, as Cristina De Stefano’s biography, The Child Is the Teacher: A Life of Maria Montessori, reminds us, is a considerably more perplexing and interesting one, in which Montessori becomes controlling and distrustful, increasingly convinced of the messianic nature of her work—something that she hoped, as she put it in a speech at Carnegie Hall, would lead to “the eventual perfection of the human race.” What emerges is a powerfully gentle portrait of a willful and imperious child who grows into a willful and imperious adult, one whose central and profound contribution to society is the insight that teachers should heed the willfulness of small children—that children should be emperors of their own education.

Maria Montessori is born in 1870 in the small Italian town of Chiaravalle di Ancona, and by age five, she and her parents move to Rome. Rome is still a small city of a few hundred thousand people, surrounded by idyllic vineyards and, a ring farther out, malarial swamps. Her parents are older and attentive to their only child. Her father, who fought in the war against Austria, works for the Ministry of Finance. He sings lullabies to his little Maria at night. Her mother is a devoted schoolteacher who has given up her work for marriage and child-rearing.

One recurring theme in young Maria’s comments to her parents is a radical dislike of school. Her school prizes sitting still at a desk and proceeding through a series of memorization tasks. Maria frequently stays home with vague complaints of illness. She often refuses to take exams or do her homework. She fails three grades: first, third, and fourth.

Her parents tend not to resist their daughter’s will. This doesn’t appear to be programmatic, but a natural response to a dominant personality, however small the body it’s housed in. Montessori’s parents can read like a premonition of the much-mocked progressive parents of today, whose child—as the cliché goes—is still in a stroller at a late age, raging over carrots, refusing to give up the comfort of diapers. Yet with Montessori the incidental strategy of yielding proves fortuitous. Italy makes secondary education available to girls in 1883, when she is thirteen. Having failed three grades means Montessori can continue her education.

She begins to take to school. The detachment of scientific reasoning appeals to her. She attends the Royal Technical Institute of Rome, hoping to become an engineer. There are only two women in the engineering program. The school keeps them indoors during recess so that they won’t be bothered by the men.

She decides that what she really wants to study is medicine. The dean tells her she has the wrong credentials—she hasn’t studied Greek or Latin. Her willfulness helps her here. She finds a loophole, enrolls in the science department, then succeeds in transferring to medicine. The year is 1893. There are 1,664 medical students. Montessori is the only woman.

This does not go unnoticed. She’s selected to represent Italy at the Berlin International Women’s Congress in September 1896. “Her grace conquered all the pens—we might say the hearts of the journalists,” according to one newspaper. Another describes the advocate for women’s voting rights as a young woman in a “simple summer dress, with black hair, well combed, a thin, graceful waist, appetizing figure and complexion, seductive and healthy.” Of all this, she writes to her parents, “Nobody will dare sing the praises again of my so-called beauty. I am going to work seriously.” In later years, she is known for wearing dark dresses that are old-fashioned and severe.

As Montessori gets older and more successful, she becomes (perhaps unsurprisingly) harder to simply admire. De Stefano makes a consistent effort to withhold judgment, choosing instead to pay close and descriptive attention. She also avoids weighing in too much on the pedagogy, claiming that she is not an expert: “I leave to others the task of explaining Maria Montessori’s thought in all its complexity.”

The result is a biography written the way a naturalist, or a Montessori protégé, might. Each chapter is short, often between two and four pages, and reads like something between a field note and a pensée. “A Partisan of Free Love” provides a two-page glimpse of Maria’s time teaching an anthropology course at a summer school, not long after she gave up a son born out of wedlock. “Where Are My Trusted Friends?” offers three pages about the aftermath of a visit to the United States at a time when her pedagogical method was gaining ground in the Americas and losing it in Europe. This gives the biography the at once complex and childlike feel of a diorama.

For now, Montessori is still a young woman who has made international headlines sort of for her smarts, and sort of for her beauty. After medical school, she works in a poor community in Rome. In Montessori’s Italy, only 50 percent of children live to five. Very young children are sometimes leased out to serve as chimney sweeps, or to help with the harvest. While working at the community clinic, Montessori sees infant girls who have syphilis; there’s a superstition that an adult’s syphilis can be cured through contact with an infant girl.

One day early in her medical training, Montessori needs a break from a room full of cadavers. She may be a revolutionary woman, but she’s still an innocent, unaccustomed to the frank handling of human bodies; she had nearly passed out in a lecture on reproduction. She goes to take a walk outside. There she sees a beggar boy sitting under a tree with his mother. He’s holding a red strip of paper. His look of attention, De Stefano writes, strikes Montessori as like that of a “king in his realm.” The image stays with her. She later cites the scene as a foundational moment for her work.

Montessori pursues her degree under a professor who studies the development of children with mental illness. She also works at a mental asylum in Rome. When Montessori arrives, management of the asylum is being shifted away from nuns and priests, who see mental illness as divine retribution, and over to scientists and doctors. A fellow physician named Giuseppe Montesano is head of the asylum.

An anecdote that Montessori tells of this turning point in her life has to do with an orderly complaining that the children are dirty and food-obsessed. Montessori asks what she means; the orderly replies that as soon as the children finish their meals, they gather all the crumbs from the ground and eat them too. The children’s room is large, barren, and cold. Montessori thinks that maybe it’s not that the children are hungry, but that they have nothing to do. The crumbs are the only objects for them to interact with. She resolves to work with the children.

Italian society at the time considers these children “incurable.” They are confined for the entirety of their lives. They have a wide variety of problems, from muteness to epilepsy to rickets, and are grouped together as “feeble-minded” or “idiots.” There are few models for how to educate these neglected children.

Montessori researches the pedagogue Édouard Séguin, who worked with children in a Paris asylum half a century earlier. One of the Séguin books is so old that Montessori’s father insists it be disinfected before she can read it. Séguin’s approach to educating disabled children focused on physical materials, such as cubes, movable letters, and jigsaw puzzles. “The voice of Séguin seemed to me even then that of the precursor shouting in the desert,” Montessori says. “And my mind grasped the immense importance of a work that wished to do nothing less than reform child rearing and children’s education.” The insight is that learning happens with one’s entire body.

Then the researcher realizes that she is pregnant. The father is Montesano. They are not married, and they do not get married. It’s not entirely clear who is leading the decision-making. There is no sense from any of the involved parties that Montessori can go on working either as a married woman or as an unwed mother. It’s a Catholic city and a Catholic country, and Montessori comes from a devout Catholic family. Montessori’s mother arranges for her daughter to go away to the countryside during her pregnancy, and for the child to be kept a secret. That is what is done.

Part of Montessori’s approach is to take the bodies of children seriously. When Montessori, years after working at the asylum, agrees to take on a project running a school in the poor neighborhood of San Lorenzo, she finds there is very little money, so there will be no desks—and Montessori likes that. Rather than put the children in adult-size desks, she has child-size furniture made. Sinks and mirrors are installed at the children’s height. Aprons are made with buttons in front, so the children can button them without help. And the children are given sandals that are easy to take on and off.

“But it’s a children’s house!” exclaims a visitor who comes to see the school. The children of San Lorenzo, who had taken to throwing vegetables out the window and dirtying the walls, now love to wash their hands and set the table, handling the ceramic tableware with care. The teacher never raises her voice, but lowers it when she needs to capture the children’s attention. The students are found to write at a much earlier age, and more often than those in other programs. Montessori talks about writing as a gesture of the hands, as opposed to a reproduction of the letters of the alphabet. Montessori’s approach—which amounts to encouraging the students to scribble with chalk and to make protowriting gestures—works. This “explosion of writing” is one of the first aspects of the Montessori method that draws acclaim.

Throughout this period of success, Montessori has almost no contact with her son, Mario. Sometimes, on weekends, she is able to observe him from a distance. Her relationship with the boy’s father had been a happy one; De Stefano describes it as a “free clandestine union.” It lasted about five years. However, a few years after Mario is born, Montesano marries another woman. At that point, under Italian law, Montessori loses all legal rights to her child. Very few people know of her secret, and there is almost no record of her feelings. When young Mario asks his father about his biological mother, Montesano tells him that “she is a very famous woman and very busy, and someday she will contact you.”

Montessori continues to work very hard. She has trouble piecing together a salary, with much of her work unpaid. In her crowded lectures and in her writings, she argues that expelling children from school for bad behavior simply turns them into delinquents. She advocates for a law that will prohibit the employment of children younger than fourteen. She has the clarity of vision to consider that children who are jailed for vagrancy and prostitution are not to be blamed but helped. Montessori’s overwhelming will is essential to her work. She is able to open a school in the reformatory, where previously women were not even allowed to visit. A picture of the reformatory class is taken and dedicated to Montessori, with the words “To their mother.” Montessori says, “Making the child feel that they are loved, and pushing them to love in turn, is the end of our teaching just as it was the beginning.”

The Children’s House that Montessori puts together in San Lorenzo is a great success. There is a call for four more to be opened. This involves extensive collaboration with the director of the Real Property Institute of Rome, Eduardo Talamo, who had recruited Montessori in the first place. Talamo wants Montessori to be in charge of teaching, and for himself, Talamo, to be in charge of discipline.

Montessori says the two can’t be separated. Talamo says they can. Montessori says that if she’s not granted control of the classrooms, she won’t allow her teaching materials—materials sold by the Humanitarian Society, which pays Montessori 20 percent of all proceeds—to be used in class. Talamo finds this maddening and unreasonable. By 1910, the conflict has escalated and Talamo bans Montessori from the classrooms.

Montessori’s point about discipline being inseparable from pedagogy is persuasive. That she threatened to sue over her materials—basically sandpaper letters and boards for counting—is less so. Over time, however, the particularity of the dispute seems irrelevant. Montessori’s life becomes marked by a pattern of conflicts over control that lead to abrupt breakups of substantive relationships. As her influence grows, the pattern intensifies. The mayor of Rome, Ernesto Nathan, wants to integrate Montessori’s ideas into the public school system; within a few years they are not speaking to each other. The minister of public instruction, Luigi Credaro, is Montessori’s great supporter; then he feels pushed by Montessori to spend more money than he is willing on very specific versions of the materials she markets, and the relationship ends unhappily.

Montessori becomes preemptively distrustful, feels serially betrayed. While in Spain, she discovers that her methods are being discussed alongside other techniques at a local teaching college—she finds this intolerable. De Stefano describes Montessori’s personality transition through the period of her growing success in this way:

In the early years, she spoke as a scientist, explaining that the mind of the child shows itself to anyone who is willing to observe it . . . Now she increasingly takes the position of someone who—having received a revelation—has to communicate it to the world. The risk, as her critics are starting to note, is that, as a scientist who suggests to her colleagues how to study children in the conditions of an ideal environment, she transforms into a prophetess who is the custodian of a message and who transmits it to a few initiates, selected and trained by her.

The United States extends a grand greeting to Maria Montessori. She gives a talk at the Masonic Temple in Washington, then another at Carnegie Hall, at which she announces her intention to perfect the human race. She meets Alexander Graham Bell, who has set up a Montessori school Stateside with the help of his wife and one of the many acolytes that Montessori tends to attract. She visits with Helen Keller, who tries to draw her out on politics, to which Montessori responds that though she began as a sympathizer of all manner of political revolutionaries, “it is the liberation of . . . what we have in our own hearts,” she came to realize, “that is the beginning and end of revolution.” She’s invited back to Carnegie Hall to give another lecture a week after her first.

When an American mother who had visited the Children’s Houses in Rome writes a book about applying the Montessori method to her own six-year-old child, Montessori is not pleased. In another instance, when one of her devoted protégés leaves her—tellingly, in order to follow a religious ascetic—Montessori makes it clear that no one is to speak the former disciple’s name. Montessori’s method, once a child in her own home, has now gone out into the world, and Montessori cannot tolerate the transformation.

When Montessori makes her second visit to the United States, all of her former collaborators have been cut off. Mabel Bell, the president of the Montessori Educational Association in the United States, wants to contact Montessori. One administrator writes: “She is undoubtedly a genius, but at the same time she seems to me of a very suspicious nature.” Bell then asks for help from a professor, who meets with Montessori and returns with a document stipulating extensive conditions for collaboration. The association is not even to send out a bulletin without direct approval from Montessori. All schools must be led by a graduate of one of Montessori’s training courses. There must be no mixing with other pedagogies, and no modifications.

Bell is disillusioned, even shocked. She is astonished by Montessori’s memorandum, which seems to contradict everything the Montessori method stands for. “How can any seeker after Truth say that a method must be held ‘without additions or modifications’?” she asks. “Neither she nor any one mind, however wonderful, has the monopoly of scientific ways of doing things.”

Certain authorities remain charismatic for Montessori. When her mother dies, Montessori goes to meet her son. He is a teenager. The timing suggests that it was tacit obedience to her mother’s wishes—to avoid being a fallen woman—that had kept her from him. They remain nearly inseparable for years.

De Stefano convincingly details the connection between the sensuality of Catholicism—the scents, the rituals—and the sensuality of the Montessori classroom, focused as it is on touch and movement as a form of learning. After Montessori is reunited with her son, she writes to a prominent priest to assure him of her faith, and asks that he not mistake her scientific language for heresy. She hopes her methods will be adopted by Catholic schools. Instead, in 1929, Pope Pius XI issues an encyclical criticizing “scholastic innovators,” and reaffirming that “children are to be corrected in their disorders and passions, if necessary, also with severity.”

It is with a special variety of heartbreak that a reader watches Montessori attack those most interested in her insights, but maintain a deferential tone with those above her and against her. To Mussolini, whose politics she never endorsed, she writes:

I have only a few years left of effective energy; and only your protection can make it so that my remaining energies succeed in completing the design, which surely Divine Providence has outlined, to help the men in the children of the whole world; and he placed it, Excellency, before you so that it might have the radiant center of His race, of which you are the Savior.

The project of opening a Montessori training center never comes together. Meanwhile, Fascism ascends. Much of Montessori’s accumulated wealth is lost through business failures and Nazi seizures of her properties in the Netherlands. Mario takes over much of the administrative side of the Montessori method; Montessori herself retreats to focus on her research.

Montessori, her brittleness and imperiousness notwithstanding, left the world a gift of perspective—of centering the potential of a child. Part of what is moving about her method, especially in its inception, is that the inherent value of children is the given from which all else follows. It is the environment around the child that is seen to need amendment or improvement. Though my immigrant, math-oriented parents were not in any way bohemian or well-heeled, they sent me to a Montessori preschool, which—not knowing anything about the Montessori method—they chose in part for the sunflowers in the garden. My mother still views that school as the pinnacle of my education. I remember that each of us small children knew how to put on our own winter coats, by laying them down on the floor in just such a way that allowed us to put our arms through the sleeves, and then, with a planar twist over the head, find the coat installed on our little bodies. The lucky among us had a chance to fulfill our roles in the kingdom of childhood. Almost no one solves the conundrums of the kingdom of the grown.