Maria Montessori and the Classical Tradition

Maria Montessori and the Classical Tradition

Maria Montessori was an educational theorist who lived from 1870 to 1952. She wrote several books about education which give specific guidance for educators of all ages of children, from the infant to the university student. As a committed Christian, she articulated ideas that reflect her Christian world view. A close look at Montessori’s theory of education reveals that it may be understood as a particular implementation of a classical education.[1]

For the purpose of this article, I will use the definition of Christian classical education (CCE) supplied by Dr. Christopher Perrin:

CCE is a traditional approach to education rooted in western civilization and culture, developed by the church, employing the historic curriculum and pedagogy of the seven liberal arts in order to cultivate men and women characterized by wisdom, virtue and eloquence.[2]

Given that CCE is rooted in western civilization and culture, it rests on the core philosophical underpinnings of western culture. Some of these foundational ideas exist as far back as Plato, who taught a set of ideals enumerated by Dr. Perrin:

  1. Truth exists and is knowable.
  2. Humans have a soul and it is eternal.
  3. There are moral truths and moral goodness that we can know and to which we should conform our lives.
  4. Beauty is real and the attractive radiance of truth.
  5. Children should learn by play.
  6. Children should be introduced only to the morally best and most beautiful music and literature.

Montessori’s classically-based principles align with Plato on all six points. This may be demonstrated directly from her writings as follows.

1. Truth exists and is knowable.

Unlike her progressive contemporaries, Maria Montessori asserted the existence of objective universals. This contrast is summarized by educational historian Gerald Gutek:

While Dewey’s philosophy was based on relativism, Montessori emphasized universals.[3]

Gutek elaborates on this contrast as follows:

Her views on the universality of human nature and values sharply contrasted those of Dewey, Kilpatrick, and other progressive educators who argued that value formation was culturally relative and conditioned by the time, place, and circumstances of human life.[4]

Montessori’s insistence on knowable universals (à la Plato) drew the ire of progressives who were infuriated by this aspect of Montessori’s philosophy. For example, W. F. Connell, a historian of education, derided Montessori’s method as a “curious mixture of perceptive and liberal ideas with traditional and mystical nonsense.”[5] Similarly, Gutek recounts:

Representing the instrumentalist— progressive response to Montessori, [Willian H.]  Kilpatrick’s critical book The Montessori System Examined, published in 1914, called the Montessori method a mid-nineteenth-century piece that was “fifty years behind” modern educational thought.[6]

2. Humans have a soul and that it is eternal.

Montessori asserted the existence of the soul. She wrote:

We have been mistaken in thinking that the natural education of children should be purely physical; the soul, too, has its nature, which it was intended to perfect in the spiritual life— the dominating power of human existence throughout all time.[7]

Plato is often noted for his dualism between matter and spirit. Montessori echoes this dualism when she asserts the greater importance of soul over body:

We shall have need in the future of a race not only stronger physically, but stronger mentally and spiritually, because the body is stronger and more perfect will cry out for a corresponding growth of the spirit and the intellect. The body is but of secondary importance. The important fact is that man carries in this body a mind and a soul that can attain to the progress of civilization.[8]

When Montessori writes of the soul, she is not speaking of a naturalistic or physical entity. She is clearly referring to an immaterial and spiritual entity. Gutek notes, “Montessori’s concept of child nature was spiritual, indeed almost metaphysical.”[9]

3. There are moral truths and moral goodness that we can know and to which we should conform our lives.

Montessori wrote extensively about the importance of teaching children to conform to moral goodness. One example will suffice for now:

Moral Education is the source of that spiritual equilibrium on which everything else depends and which may be compared to that physical equilibrium or sense of balance, without which it is impossible to stand upright or to move into any other position.[10]

This was so important to Montessori that she said it is the basis upon which everything depends.

4. Beauty is real and the attractive radiance of truth.

Beauty was so important to Montessori that she required teachers themselves to radiate beauty themselves. Endorsing Edouard Seguin (1812-1880), she writes:

[Teachers] must, [Seguin] says, render themselves attractive in voice and manner, since it is their task to awaken souls which are frail and weary, and to lead them forth to lay hold upon the beauty and strength of life.[11]

Montessori found a transcendent basis for beauty, explaining:

Beauty lies in harmony, not in contrast; and harmony is refinement; therefore, there must be a fineness of the senses if we are to appreciate harmony.[12]

Given the objective character of beauty, it plays an important role in Montessori’s method.

5. Children should learn by play.

For Montessori, play is foundational not only to learning, but even to moral development. Play is not an idle activity or a way to pass the time. It is the work of education. She writes:

… it is not by philosophizing nor by discussing metaphysical conceptions that the morals of mankind can be developed: it is by activity, by experience and by action. It is interesting to notice how attractive all practical actions become even during the period of development that precedes adolescence.[13]

6. Children should be introduced only to the morally best and most beautiful music and literature.

Montessori shared Plato’s conviction of the importance of controlling children’s exposure to music. Montessori wrote that “Musical Education … must be carefully guided by method.”[14] She reached back to classical roots to find the most beautiful instruments for musical instruction:

I believe that stringed instruments (perhaps some very much simplified harp) would be the most convenient. The stringed instruments together with the drum and the bells form the trio of the classic instruments of humanity. The harp is the instrument of “the intimate life of the individual.” Legend places it in the hand of Orpheus, folklore puts it into fairy hands, and romance gives it to the princess who conquers the heart of a wicked prince.[15]

In addition to aligning with the truths attributed to Plato, Montessori’s method can be shown to conform to the elements of Dr. Perrin’s definition of CCE.

A. CCE is rooted in western civilization and culture.

Montessori looked back with fondness to the educational institutions of the Middle Ages and sought to restore their grandeur in the modern era. She writes:

In the Middle Ages the University bore a stamp of grandeur and dignity. There were centers of studies such as the famous University of Bologna, whither students came from the different countries of Europe and the different Italian states.

The students had a feeling of intellectual responsibility towards their own nation or state which, in its turn, was proud to be able to count among the students of the University some of its citizens. The University of Bologna put upon the walls of its Forum, richly reproduced in enamel and gold, the coat of arms of the cities and states represented by its different students.

The students took part in philosophical and political discussions which encouraged them to realize their own values and moral responsibility. The great learning and renown of the professors, their ermine cloaks, the solemn functions were a permanent proof of the special dignity of those centers. At those universities there were no examinations except the academic one which conferred the degree. The students pursued their studies with intensity, urged to acquire the treasures of knowledge and hoarded their years of study, taking full advantage of every hour. The festivals at the universities which bore the stamp of art were public events.

The Universities were then, in reality, the “Centers of Culture” whence civilization was transmitted all over the world, the students becoming its propagators.

But today Universities are not the only centers from which culture emanates. Today civilization and culture are spread everywhere by other means which become always more extensive and easy. Culture expands through the Press and other rapid communications which bring about a universal leveling.

So, the universities have gradually become ordinary professional schools, distinguishing themselves from other schools only by their more advanced culture. But they have lost the dignity and distinction which made them a central instrument of progress and civilization. Students whose aim is merely to reach a simple and obscure personal position can no longer feel that lofty mission towards an ever greater progress of humanity, which once formed the “spirit of the University”. The common object of the students has become that of evading work as much as possible. Their principal aim is almost exclusively that of passing examinations anyhow, and of taking the degree which will serve their individual interest. so, while there has been a progress in culture so great as to transform civil life, the Universities themselves have suffered a decline.[16]

Besides simply wishing for the restoration of the classical ideal of the love of learning, she also saw a solution for high school education in the pattern of the Middle Ages. She writes:

This trade could have special effect in preserving something of a past age when personality could be expressed in the construction of the simplest objects.

The Shop itself could be regarded as a revival of the medieval exchange which as a general meeting place and social center, which was beautifully decorated, and blessed and consecrated by religion, and where buying and selling were conducted with scrupulous honesty. This was also a place where the small tradesman could make those individual bargains which are also the beginnings of acquaintance and the foundation of friendship and build up social life. In times gone by the churches themselves were places of business, and so were the streets, where the scanty traffic left enough space for goods to be exposed for sale when only small transactions were made. Many reminders still exist of the old custom of mixing up trace with friendship and personal contacts. And this custom could be re-established by the young people with the happiness, enthusiasm and their desire for every kind of experience.[17]

Montessori was eager to avoid the perception that her ideas were novel and untested. She took pains to show the continuity of her thought with earlier research dating back to the previous century. She writes:

… underlying these two years of trial, there is a basis of experiment which goes back to the days of the French Revolution, and which represents the earnest work of the lives of Itard and Seguin.[18]

As would be expected from an educator in the classical tradition, she rejected the excesses of romantics such as Rousseau. Gutek explains:

Montessori found much to question in Rousseau’s ideas, especially his romantic view that children learn best by following their instincts and impulses in an unstructured natural environment.[19]

For Montessori, this kind of permissiveness to “let the child do as he likes,” when no powers of control have been developed, violates the true idea of freedom.[20]

B. CCE was developed by the church.

As a committed Christian, Montessori developed her ideas within the context of her church and Catholic faith. She rooted her ideas upon the life of Christ Himself. In an extended passage she explains:

I shall finish by comparing the life of man to the three stages of the life Christ.

Behold at first the miraculous and sublime Child.

This epoch is the period of “creative sensibilities,” of mental construction, of such an intense activity that it is necessary to sow in this period of life all the seeds of culture.

Then comes the epoch of adolescence, epoch of inner revelations and of social sensibilities. Christ as a boy, forgetful of His family, is heard to discuss with the doctors. He does not talk as a pupil, but as a Teacher, dazzling by the flashes of His light. But later He devotes Himself to manual work and exercises a craft. He shows that the adolescent should be able to manifest his hidden treasures and at the same time work and be initiated into a craft.

At last, comes the Man who prepares Himself for His mission in this world.

And what does He do for this preparation?

He confronts the Evil One and overpowers him. This is the preparation!

Man possesses the strength of becoming aware of, and of facing the dangers, the temptations of the world so as to become inured to them in order to overcome them.

The temptation to be overcome are literally those illustrated in the Gospel: The temptation of possession and the temptation of power.

There is something in man which stands above them: he is able to understand what is required to create a very powerful, a very rich, and a purified world.

There is only one way: that each individual know how to overcome the temptations of power and possession.

That is the path of his Kingdom.

But in order to attain this level through education, it is necessary to seek the child and to consider him under a new aspect.

Montessori’s ideas were developed by the church in that she founded them upon the life of Christ.

C. CCE employs the historic curriculum and pedagogy of the seven liberal arts.

One of the hallmarks of CCE is the rejection of utilitarian education. Learning is for the man, not the profession. Montessori shared this deep loathing for utilitarian education. She bemoaned the schools of her day, writing, “The secondary schools as they are at present constituted do not concern themselves with anything but the preparation for a career.”[21] She instead insisted on a program with “a truly educational, not a utilitarian purpose.”[22]

In CCE, all students receive a common education in the seven liberal arts, and specialization is deferred until the common curriculum is covered. Montessori also deferred specialization till after the education of the man. She writes:

The plan aims above all at “valorization of the personality” in the present social conditions. It should not be restricted to consider exclusively the specialized training that will ensure a well-paid post in the future. It is quite obvious that the necessity for such specialization exists and must be considered, but only as means, as a practical method of becoming a member of society, not as an end to which must be sacrificed both the values of the individual and his feeling of responsibility towards society as a whole.[23]

For Montessori, the high purpose of education is the development of virtue, not specialized workers for society:

This work should, instead, be an exercise of “utilized virtues”, of “super-values” and “skills” acquired outside the limits of one’s own particular specialization, past or future.[24]

Montessori believed all students should receive be instructed in “The theoretical knowledge and practical experience that will make the individual a part of the civilization of the day (General Education)”[25] Indeed, she extended this call even to adults:

He should certainly not be limited to the acquisition of that knowledge which will be necessary for him in the exercise of his profession. University students are adults, who will be called to exercise an influence upon the civilization of their times.[26]

Montessori’s common curriculum for secondary schools aligns closely with the seven liberal arts. Her common program includes the following explicitly enumerated subjects (using Montessori’s own labels and structure):[27]

  1. Music
  2. Language
    • Diction, elocution
    • Acting of stories or poems
    • Practice in making speeches and in logically presenting ideas, debates and discussions
    • Practice in public speaking so as to be audible and hold the attention of the audience
    • Open discussions where they can present their own ideas
    • Development of language
    • Foreign language
  3. Art
  4. Moral Education
  5. Mathematics
  6. The study of the earth and of living things (including astronomy)
  7. The study of the history of mankind

These subject are mapped to the trivium and the quadrivium as follows:

Liberal Art Montessori’s Terms
Trivium Grammar ·      Acting of stories or poems

·      Development of language

·      Foreign language

Dialectic ·      logically presenting ideas, debates and discussions

·      Open discussions where they can present their own ideas

Rhetoric ·      Diction, elocution

·      Practice in making speeches

·      Practice in public speaking so as to be audible and hold the attention of the audience

Quadrivium Arithmetic ·      Mathematics
Geometry
Astronomy ·      Astronomy
Music ·      Music

·      Art

Montessori believed that much of this learning was to be obtained from books. She writes:

The available material should include a library of books on the subject, geographical atlases and a History Museum containing pictures, portraits, reproductions of historical documents and prehistoric objects.[28]

Even so, Montessori felt that dialectic was also essential to learning. She describes it this way:

It seems that the capacity of really understanding is connected with discussion, with criticism, or with assent of others.[29]

The end result of this learning is knowledge, “the privilege of initiation to the knowledge that is the pride of our civilization.”[30]

D. CCE cultivates men and women characterized by wisdom and virtue.

In CCE theory, the highest purpose of education is the development of virtue in the student. Montessori aligns with this emphasis in her consistent emphasis on the role of education as moral training. She summarizes this emphasis when she writes:

And, so in the school we now wish to establish by the same method of science a sort of people who will be stronger morally and spiritually, who can better fight the evils existing in the world about them, who will be better able to combat the difficulties which may come to them.[31]

Montessori’s scope for moral training is broad and includes such traditional virtues as character and courage:

In this fierce battle of civil life one must have strong character and quick wits as well as courage: one must be strengthened in one’s principles by moral training and must also have practical ability in order to face the difficulties of life.[32]

Her method also trains children in the virtue of patience: “The children are initiated into the virtue of patience and into confident expectation…”[33]

In the classical tradition, the concept of virtue includes piety, which in the Greek and Roman context includes an element of civic responsibility. Montessori reflects this emphasis in her theory of education as well:

They are learning of the beginning of civilization which occurred when the tribes settled on the land and began a life of peace and progress while the nomads remained barbarians and warriors. An immense ideal: that of civilization that unfolds in the environment of nature ought to uplift the kind of life to be led by these “novices of society”. Just as nature is brought by the labor of man to a higher degree of beauty and usefulness so man must raise himself to a state that is higher than his natural state, and the “Land-child” must see that society is in a state of “ascent from nature” in which he, as a civilized and religious man, must play his part.[34]

Montessori understood that her emphasis on moral training ran counter to the focus of schools of her day which had become more and more influenced by progressivism. She writes:

… today, there is a need for a more dynamic training of character and the development of a clearer consciousness of social reality.[35]

She felt that mankind’s progress in technology did not lessen the need for moral training, but rather increased it:

But beware, for the man of ill-will may be rendered dangerous by machinery; his influence may become unlimited as the speed of communication increases. Therefore a new morality, individual and social, must be our chief consideration in this new world.[36]

What our marvelous civilization lacks today is the strength of the spiritual man, the straightness of conscience which feels its responsibility…[37]

Montessori believed that teachers played a critical role in this formation of virtue. For example she writes:

Strict discipline in everything that effects the daily life and the aims of the school must be enforced on the staff attached to the school as well as on the students who will only learn to adjust themselves to the demands of an ordered environment.[38]

The active involvement of the teacher is even more important in the secondary school, which she envisioned (loosely reminiscent of Plato’s Republic) as a boarding school run by house-parents concerned chiefly with protecting the virtue of the youth:

Boys and girls may be accommodated in one hostel: but in this case its management should be given to a married couple, House-Father and House-Mother, who would develop a moral and protective action on the conduct of the children.[39]

In the classical tradition, virtue (ἀρετή) refers not only to moral excellence but to personal excellence in other categories as well. Montessori seems to use the word virtue in a similar way, speaking of secondary school training as the exercise of “utilized virtues”:

This work should, instead, be an exercise of “utilized virtues”, of “super-values” and “skills” acquired outside the limits of one’s own particular specialization, past or future.[40]

For Montessori, the cultivation of virtue does not end with the end of formal schooling. Rather, it remains the man’s focus for life:

To better the species consciously, cultivating his own health, his own virtue, this should be the goal of man’s married life. It is a sublime concept of which, as yet, few think.[41]

E. CCE cultivates men and women characterized by eloquence.

The final component of the CCE definition involves the explicit goal of cultivating eloquence in students. This emphasis is heartily shared by Montessori, whose curriculum explicitly includes the following subject areas directly linked to the cultivation eloquence (Montessori’s terms below):

  • Practice in public speaking so as to be audible and hold the attention of the audience.
  • Practice in making speeches and in logically presenting ideas, debates and discussions.
  • Open discussions where they can present their own ideas.
  • Diction, elocution

In addition to the core definition of CCE, certain other features are typically associated with CCE. These additional features are shared below, along with Montessori’s implementation of these features.

Stages of Learning

Gutek notes that educators since the classical age have identified stages of learning. He writes:

The Roman rhetorician Quintilian (ca. AD 35-100), the Czech theologian and educator John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) had all recognized the crucial importance of developmental stages in education.[42]

In keeping with this classical tradition, Montessori also identified stages of learning. She enumerated them as follows:

  1. Birth to Age 6 (Early Childhood)
  2. Ages 6–12 (Childhood)
  3. Ages 12–18 (Adolescence)
  4. Ages 18–24 (Maturity)

In harmony with CCE theory, she indicated that teaching should be appropriate for the stage of the child. Gutek explains:

Education then is a process of collaboration with the child’s nature and stages of development.[43]

Since Montessori kept with the classical belief in universals, she saw these stages as universal, rather than being conditioned by culture or environment:

For Montessori, children have a nature that is universal, as are the periods of human development.[44]

Montessori favorably quotes Seguin’s view of the progression of learning:

“from the education of the senses to general notions, from general notions to abstract thought, from abstract thought to morality.”[45]

Montessori’s belief in the stages of learning and the progression from the senses to abstract thought is nearly indistinguishable from CCE’s feature of Mimetic (Didactic) instruction followed by Socratic instruction.

Scholé

Contemporary CCE theorists assert the importance of scholé, which may be loosely translated as “leisure” or “rest.” The basic idea is that true growth requires times where one is not working. Montessori also embraced this concept of scholé, writing:

But it is necessary to consider not only the active occupations but the need for solitude and quiet, which are essential for the development of the hidden treasures of the soul.[46]

Montessori understood that for a person to properly develop his soul, he requires rest.

The Father of the Man

David Hicks noted an important feature of classical education, which is that the child is “the father of the man.” He notes that “… [Isokrates] ignored the ‘child’ and appealed directly to the ‘father of the man’ within his student.”[47] Montessori follows the example of Isokrates and writes, “…we must know how to call to the man which lies dormant within the soul of the child.”[48]

Conclusion

In this brief article, I have shown that Montessori’s theory of education meets the following criteria to be considered a form of classical education:

  1. Her method affirms the six timeless educational principles of Plato.
  2. Her method conforms to the five key distinctives of CCE.
  3. Her method shares many of the additional features commonly associated with the CCE.

Do you find my article convincing? If you do, then we should expect the following:

  • Classical schools to import techniques from Montessori’s methods.
  • Classical schools to hire Montessori experts as consultants to help update and tailor curriculum and teaching techniques.
  • New classical schools to form that explicitly claim to be “Classical and Montessori.”
  • Existing Montessori schools to append “Classical” to their name.
  • New articles, books, and papers to appear that explore the implications of the classical elements of Montessori’s method.
  • A scholarly reassessment of Montessori, to the end that she is no longer historically classified as “progressive,” but rather as “classical.”
  • CCE web sites and authors to include Montessori’s name in the lists of classical educational theorists.
  • Montessori-specific articles and blogs to appear on CCE web sites.
  • Updates and modifications to the Montessori theory to appear which incorporate insights from other streams of the classical tradition.
  • Existing Montessori schools to join the Association of Classical Christian Schools.
  • Dialog and cooperation between the American Montessori Society and leading CCE organizations, with the ultimate end of the merging of those organizations.
  • Montessori as a distinct method of education to eventually fade away and become part of the broad stream of Consensus CCE.

Do you expect to see these things?

If not, then perhaps you do not find my article convincing. Where, then, did I go wrong? All of the data I have provided is real and externally verifiable. So what is wrong with my reasoning? Did you find the flaw? Please comment below and let me know.

References

[1] As defined in the next paragraph.

[2] Comments section of http://www.charlottemasoninstitute.org/reconsidering-charlotte-mason-and-the-classical-tradition-by-art-middlekauff/, accessed 11/24/16

[3] Gutek, Gerald Lee (2004-04-05). The Montessori Method: The Origins of an Educational Innovation: Including an Abridged and Annotated Edition of Maria Montessori’s The Montessori Method, p. 11.

[4] Gutek, p. 55.

[5] Gutek, p. 34

[6] Gutek, p. 32

[7] Gutek, p. 263

[8] Gutek, p. 272

[9] Gutek, p. 45

[10] Montessori, Maria. The “Erdkinder” and the Functions of the University, p. 10

[11] Gutek, p. 86

[12] Gutek, p. 180

[13] Montessori, p. 16

[14] Gutek, p. 173

[15] Gutek, p. 173

[16] Montessori, pp. 14-15

[17] Montessori, p. 7

[18] Gutek, p. 90

[19] Gutek, p. 10

[20] Gutek, p. 58

[21] Montessori, p. 2

[22] Montessori, p. 5

[23] Montessori, p. 7

[24] Montessori, p. 4

[25] Montessori, p. 10

[26] Montessori, p. 18

[27] Montessori, p. 10

[28] Montessori, p. 12

[29] Montessori, p. 17

[30] Montessori, p. 2

[31] Gutek, p. 272

[32] Montessori, p. 2

[33] Gutek, p. 145

[34] Montessori, p. 6

[35] Montessori, p. 2

[36] Montessori, p. 12

[37] Montessori, p. 18

[38] Montessori, p. 13

[39] Montessori, p. 13

[40] Montessori, p. 4

[41] Gutek, p. 104

[42] Gutek, p. 7

[43] Gutek, p. 46

[44] Gutek, p. 38

[45] Gutek, p. 87

[46] Montessori, p. 9

[47] Hicks, David. Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education, p. 39

[48]  Gutek, p. 86

2 Replies to “Maria Montessori and the Classical Tradition”

  1. Just a few questions come to mind. What did Montessori say about herself, and what did her contemporaries say about her? Also, what if her method was compared with progressive ideals, would there be the same number of similarities? Also, what about a typical day or week in a Montessori school vs. a typical day in a Classical Christian school; do the days activities look the same? What about the role of the teacher and student, isn’t it important to compare this relationship for a better understanding of where her method fits?

  2. I think Jennifer has some great questions. I don’t have any experience with Montessori’s writings, but I have seen a little of Montessori’s philosophy in action in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. It is fascinating to see her say, ” The body is but of secondary importance.” when there is such a strong emphasis on the physical materials in the Montessori environment.

    I do wonder if there’s a larger problem here though – the definition of CCE seems so broad. It seems like just about anything that is at least somewhat Christian and rooted in some sort of historical consideration could be made to look like it falls into this definition. It is also relatively easy to pull quotes from all over a large body of work put them together into a narrative that may not really match all of the source material. Which is perhaps your point as well?

    How about Rudolf Steiner next? Or perhaps that takes the ad absurdum logic too far?

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