Friday, June 13, 2014

The Life of Dr. Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori has had an enormous impact on children all around the world. She was a university professor, a leading advocate for women's rights, and one of the first female doctors. There were professors who told her that women had a smaller brain and therefore were incapable of academic study. She fell foul of Mussolini, saw her work destroyed by Hitler, and was forced to leave her son to have a career. She recognized, however, that she could still create through education, to create more reformers after her own vein. She became a citizen of the world, an exile of her homeland, to complete her work as an educator.

The woman who would transform the education of millions was born in coastal Italy in 1870. Her academic mother instilled the belief that women can forge their own path, in contrast to her father, Alessandro who disapproved of her career as a scientist. In 1875, the family moved to the capital of the new Italian state where Maria was to start school. At that time, schools were often cold and uninspiring, delivered in the lecture style. Italian girls were expected to gain domestic skills in order to obtain spouses, but she had a different future in mind for herself, interested in mathematics and science.

In her outspoken confidence, she entered technical school, which was at that time the domain of boys. Her interest was not in becoming a teacher but rather in becoming a scientist. Her father vigorously objected to her studying the sciences and insisted on her becoming a teacher. "Anything but a teacher," she exclaimed.

Having performed well at school, the 20-year-old woman entered medical school in Rome, an unusual step for a woman at that time. Most women who entered university at that time studied the humanities, so it was especially unusual that she entered to study medicine, which was at that time almost exclusively the domain of men. At that time, Montessori discovered she was entering an environment hostile to women. Her professors told her that it was indecent for a woman to study medicine, and she had to be escorted by her father to class. She was not allowed to enter the lecture hall until the male students had taken their seats. Male students showed open disdain for a female in the class and felt she was bringing the medical profession into disrepute and openly harassed her. It was considered inappropriate for her to observe the cadavers with the male students, so she had to attend laboratory studies on her own, independently, after hours.

While considering giving up the course of medicine, on her way home one day, she noticed a child totally absorbed with a piece of paper. She felt inspired by some kind of mission that human beings have, of which we are not aware. Now, when male students mocked her, she became more determined. In 1896, she graduated as the first female doctor in her university and in Italy. The fervor she showed in her studies continued in her life. She was soon the published author of original research and a fellow of a hospital, San Giovanni.

In Italy at that time, women could not own property or vote, and Montessori became busy with the cause of women's rights. At the age of 26, Maria Montessori spoke at her first feminist conference. When she found she had influence, she then worked for other women. She courted controversy by teaching women about sexual health at the university. She also lectured for equal pay and became known for her ability to speak well and passionately. Rather than downgrade her sense of femininity, she became known in the papers as one with "the delicacy of a woman and the strength of a man".

Montessori was more interested in the serious work of visiting asylums for the insane. Here, she came across children with severe learning difficulties, growing up in total lack of affection and stimulation. The children of Rome's asylums had been condemned to a life of misery. Appalled by the conditions, she became passionate about placing dignity within the grasp of these children. She believed in their capacity and founded a school to look after the lives of mentally handicapped children, who were then known as "idiot children". From morning to night, she and her colleague Giuseppe Montesano worked to appeal to the senses of these children, going to carpenters to have materials made for them to help them function in better ways. She began to see that not all children would be left at the level that they had been assumed to be. She entered a few of them in Italian examinations without indicating their status in the asylum, and some performed better than neurotypical students.

Rather than being proud of her accomplishments, she was horrified by the performance of children with all of their mental faculties. In 1901, at 30 years old, she made the monumental decision to turn her attention to all of Italy's children. Her personal life had taken a turn, as well. Secretly, she conducted a relationship with Montesano without marrying, conducted in an open fashion. She did not desire to marry, since it would mean forfeiting her career. Within a few years, she became pregnant and still refused to marry. When the child Mario was born, she made the decision that she could not keep the child. Mario stayed with a family of farmers, where he would be raised.

In an ironic twist of fate, the woman who so loved and respected children would be a distant figure in her own son's life, never at that time able to reveal that she was his mother. Montesano agreed that if they did not marry each other, they would never marry at all. In 1901, Montesano married another, and Montessori gave up her psychiatric work and began to study again, famously never forgiving him. Instead, she threw herself into her work with ferocious energy. Not only did she continue to lecture, but she enrolled herself as a student of anthropology and psychology, as well as child development.

Eventually, in 1906, in the San Lorenzo district of Rome, Maria Montessori took charge of a project to supervise the street children of Rome. She elaborated upon her work with children of the asylums. Montessori observed that children learned spontaneously and reached out for knowledge there, and much of what was happening in schools was preventing children from learning. They would rather focus their attention on the work of learning rather than idleness. She found a way of making this possible: as a scientific experiment, she created a new environment totally different from mainstream schools in Italy. She sized the furniture to their height and gave them tables to work at, allowing them to work on the floor with their own materials. As she watched them engaging with the new materials, they thrived and would become completely engaged in their tasks. One child of four focused on her work so intently that there was no breaking the focus of children working with the materials.

She also observed their innate sense of love for order. At the Casa dei Bambini, she taught them simple acts of cleanliness that no one had ever instructed them in before, in a sense of dignity never recognized by adults. They required neither rewards nor punishments, as their activities were rewarding in and of themselves. She introduced sandpaper letters mounted on wood, and they instructed themselves in learning to read. They put together the sounds of words they knew without further instruction. It was an explosion into writing and reading, spontaneously, given the correct materials and environment. Legislators, teachers, and doctors soon began arriving to the Casa dei Bambini to observe the marvel of children teaching themselves.

In 1909, she opened a school for training teachers and published a book on the her method. In 1912, her mother Ranilda died. On a visit to her son Mario, he asked her to take him with her after years of separation. From that time on, they were inseparable. At that time, it was highly extraordinary that she should be openly a single mother, at first introducing him as her nephew and an adopted son. At 42 years old with a teenage Mario as her constant companion, she devoted herself to the promotion of The Montessori Method, and she became a world phenomenon, as far afield as India and Japan. She traveled Europe lecturing and spreading the word. By 1913, there were a hundred Montessori schools in the US, including one in the White House basement, set up by the wife of Woodrow Wilson.

The appalling devastation of WWI impassioned Montessori to urge others to focus their attention on children, the hope of the future. In France and Belgium, Montessori schools were established for the orphans of the war. She was praised by Bertrand Russel, Freud, and Thomas Edison. Freud wrote to her that her educational methods were the first to show a love and an understanding of humanity.

Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Italian fascist party, had battled his way into leadership and saw great possibilities for the newly industrial country he was attempting to establish in her methods. He observed great success in the schools and wished to expand the philosophy. With Mussolini's endorsement, the Montessori movement flourished, and he established factories to build Montessori materials. It was a marriage of convenience. Eventually, they reached a conflict, where Mussolini's end was fascism and her end was to create scientific, independent thinkers. Maria Montessori outright refused to take the fascist oath that Mussolini asked of her and her other teachers. Then, she fled the country in 1931, never to live there again. Within months, Mussolini closed all Montessori schools in Italy.

As an exile, she sought a new patron. In 1931, on a visit to London, Montessori discovered that Gandhi was also in the city. He met her saying, "We are members of the same family." They experienced a great connection, as he was tuned in to the philosophical elements of the movement. He was interested in the method as a way to educate the millions of Indian children living in poverty. In 1933, Hitler came into power and closed all Montessori schools in Germany. The Nazi party burnt the books and burned an effigy of Maria Montessori in the streets. In September of 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland, another fascist regime threatened to invade her country. Leaving England, she took a plane to India.

By 1939, the movement for Indian independence was gaining momentum with Gandhi at its leadership. A new system of education was going to be needed to educate the masses of illiterate citizens of the new republic. Montessori was invited to Madras to open a new Montessori training course, with 300 new teachers to learn the method. She embraced Indian culture, while events in Europe were escalating. However, as Italian citizens in a British territory, she and Mario were considered alien enemies, and Mario was taken into a camp for enemies. Finally ending the house arrest, the authorities allowed her to leave her home to train personally over a thousand teachers. She was presented with a telegram from the viceroy of India from the British government promising the return of her son, for her 70th birthday gift from Great Britain. She wrote to a friend, at the end of the war, that her vivacity and her faith diminished, because she no longer needed to struggle.

In 1946, Maria and Mario returned to a Europe devastated by war. She felt, more strongly than ever, that peace would only come from the proper education of children. "Childhood is an inexhaustible source of hope," she wrote. In her absence, however, much of her work had been forgotten. She toured the continent to lecture on the subject of Montessori schools, causing a revitalization of interest in the method.

Today, there are over 8,000 Montessori schools globally on six continents. From its earliest days, her revolution would have a global impact on all schools, even on the general primary schools, which have shifted even the public school system closer in line with her philosophy of education, with the child as the active rather than passive learner. In the last years of her life, Maria Montessori's home in Amsterdam became a hub for her honors: She was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1949, she addressed the members of the United Nations about the search for peace centering on the child.

In 1952, she died. Today, her name is known globally, but as she wrote, "Don't look at me. Look at the way I am pointing."

My notes for this post were derived from a BBC documentary about the life of Maria Montessori shown in my Montessori training. 


Jeannot Jonte Boucher is a Montessori educator and parent in Dallas, Texas. 

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