In this episode, we explore the life of Maria Montessori a 20th‐century Italian doctor turned educator who, after witnessing the subpar outcomes of education, dedicated her life to creating a system of education which emphasized teaching children the values of spontaneity, freedom, and independence.
From a young age, Maria Montessori defied the conventions and standards of her time studying engineering a field dominated by men and moving on to medicine, becoming the first degreed female physician in Italy. Through her work in medicine treating children, Maria began to study the education of children. She realized that the standard methods of educating children were failing abysmally. She created her own system, which treated children as spontaneous, creative, and, most importantly, autonomous individuals. The end goal education for Maria was making a child independent and self‐sufficient. Her methods were highly effective, and she became a figure of international renown establishing schools across the globe throughout her busy internationally‐focused life.
When political philosophers talk about freedom and rights, they often gloss over children who tend to be the forgotten citizens of society. The education of future generations is an issue all political alignments care about deeply. There is a quote I like by the famous Brazillian abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco, who said, “Educate your children, educate yourself, in the love for the freedom of others, for only in this way will your own freedom not be a gratuitous gift from fate. You will be aware of its worth and will have the courage to defend it.” But this begs the question of how should we educate children in a love for freedom? Educating children in a love of freedom could mean a wide variety of methods for people across the political spectrum. For some, it means reciting the pledge of allegiance every day or learning about democracy or learning about your rights as a citizen or a mixture of all of these things. But how are children meant to love freedom if we do not give them an experience of what freedom truly is?
Today I will be discussing Maria Montessori, an Italian woman of the early 20th‐century who pioneered a system of education which emphasized above all the freedom of children to learn spontaneously at their own pace in a structured environment. You have probably heard the word, Montessori, today in the context of daycares, but Montessori’s are not just places to keep children while their parents work. They are at their best, a place for young children to cultivate independence, a virtue we can never have in excess. For this reason, I believe Maria Montessori’s life and thoughts are of great value not only to libertarians but people across the ideological spectrum who are concerned with how we want future generations to grow and flourish into independent people who respect the rights and dignity of others.
Maria was born on August 31st 1870 in a place called Chiaravalle. Her father, Alessandro was a wealthy manager of a state‐run tobacco monopoly. Her mother Renilde was from a well‐respected family and was well educated at a time when women were often given sub‐par education to their male counterparts or no education at all. When Maria was born, Italy was a place in which your role in life was largely determined by your family background and, of course, one’s gender. Women in wealthy families were expected to become mothers and the backbone of their household while men pursued careers in both public and private ventures. Maria was an only child and had no siblings.
In 1875 her father assigned a position in Rome, and the family moved to the eternal city. Maria’s parents enrolled her at a state primary school. Education back in the 19th‐century was dull. If you think you had it bad, Maria had it worse. Children sat in class silently while the teacher poured knowledge into their heads. Children were tasked with memorizing, reciting, and dictating passages from books while keeping silent and sitting still. The teacher resembled a drill sergeant calling upon people to speak. Spontaneity and creativity was not the aim of the game. Children passively received knowledge then parroted it back to their teacher. Despite this dull method of teaching, Maria was a bright student and had excellent grades.
Italian schools were divided into primary and secondary schools. A primary school aims to give children a foundational education while secondary schools specialized in art, commerce, agriculture, and engineering. After secondary school, only a small number of people attended university. Girls would typically be sent to what was called a finishing school. These schools, usually run by religious orders of nuns where girls learned manners and etiquette with the end goal of attracting a well to do husband. Maria defied the norms of her time and wished to attend a secondary school for engineering an unheard‐of idea at the time. Though Maria’s father Alessandro was hesitant to send her what was essentially an all‐male field, Maria’s mother Renilde supported her and convinced her father to do the same.
While she enjoyed her time studying engineering Maria decided she instead wished to study medicine. She applied to the University of Rome where an all‐male board promptly turned down her application. But Maria persisted and was eventually allowed to study medicine. Being the only woman was not easy, Her fellow students shunned her, she was not allowed to enter class until all the men were seated, and since dissecting a naked body was considered improper for women Maria was forced to perform her dissections alone at night when her male peers had left. But despite all of this ridiculousness by 1896 when she graduated and was one of the first degreed female physicians in Italy. Throughout her studies, she had attained scholarships and graduated with exemplary grades.
As if this all wasn’t enough, she was also an active feminist representing Italy in the international women’s congress of 1896. At a time of great tension between socialist and non‐socialist feminists, Maria argued for unity and to not ignore the plight of any woman regardless of class. She called upon her fellow feminists to volunteer in their communities to educate those who were illiterate. As a woman of science, she condemned commonplace yet absurd stereotypes of
Women being irrational and inferior. She envisioned a future of men and women with equal rights and equal duties.
While studying, Maria specialized in paediatrics and psychiatry. She volunteered at an asylum. Back then, children were kept in asylums with adults. They were not cared for and were merely kept alive. These children were deemed “feeble‐minded.”
As she tended to these children, Maria started to think maybe the issue was not the children’s supposed feeble‐mindedness but was instead the method of education. Intrigued by the conundrum she found, Maria threw herself into researching education, with a special focus on two doctors Jean‐Marc‐Gaspard Itard and Edouard Seguin, who had written about their experiences educating deaf children. The methods these two used would later become the foundations of Maria’s teaching philosophy, which I will get into a little later. By 1898 Maria was lecturing on children in asylums and how the issue was not their disability but rather how they were taught. She said that they needed a more individualized approach which took into account their situation.
At the turn of the century in 1900, Maria was appointed as the co‐director of the Orthophrenic school where asylum children were educated. Surprisingly what were formerly deemed feebleminded and defective learned to read and write and even scored higher than average scores on the state examinations. Maria’s success evoked a multitude of questions, mainly how did children formerly labelled as a disabled score so well? Why were the popular and accepted methods of teaching children failing? Maria began to hypothesize her methods could be effectively implemented on any child. Maria wished to pursue this line of questioning, but she was trained as a scientist, not a teacher. To remedy this, Maria began fervently researching psychology and educational philosophy. Many biographers comment on the fact that Maria was no trained as a teacher first gave her an advantage of not having any preconceived notions or bias in how children ought to be taught. She tackled the problem of education from a more scientific perspective attempting to move away from abstract metaphysical discussions on education towards more concrete and objective answers. But to find these answers, she needed to n opportunity to test her theories.
Thankfully an opportunity arose in 1907 when Maria was approached by Edoardo Talamo, the director of a philanthropic society that built housing for the poor. One of the buildings in the slums of Rome had run into an issue. While the working‐class parents were out working there, was no one around to supervise the children who began to roam the building idly and, at times, defacing the property. The plan was to gather sixty roaming children in one room and pay someone to watch them until their parents returned. Maria leaped at the offer seeing it as a chance to try out the methods she had devised while teaching asylum children and studying educational philosophy. Many of her peers were flabbergasted; this work was deemed beneath her, looking after kids all day? At this point, Maria was a professor lecturing. This seemed like a downgrade for her career. But Maria was determined to implement her new methods and see if they actually worked regardless of how her peers perceived her work, she was not after money or renown but a genuine humane urge to help children become educated.
Now it is time to discuss what exactly Maria believed was the correct way to teach children. As we have already seen, the contemporary wisdom was to sit kids down, pour info into their heads, and then make them repeat it back to you, rinse repeat all while children sat silently waiting to be called upon, Maria completely rejected this system.
The fundamental issue with contemporary education was that it denied children both freedom and the opportunity to become independent. Children, in her view, had a right to strive for independence, a right to activity and a right to explore the world for themselves. Maria had a reverence for liberty, which she regarded as the “personal and yet universal force of life, a force often latent within the soul, that sends the world forward.” Her system was based upon seeing children not as mere vessels to pour knowledge into but instead spontaneous and creative individuals who had an innate drive to learn what she called a “divine urge.” And because of this, she did not believe children needed to be tricked into learning through rewards or punishments. Children were not to be beaten or given gold stars, they will learn without them as learning is its own reward.
Building on the importance of freedom, the role of the teacher was revised dramatically. The teacher was no longer a drill sergeant, in fact, the teacher was no longer a teacher. Maria preferred to use to word directress to avoid the oppressive connotations of the word teacher. She was not there to tell students what to do but to guide them along with their self‐directed and self‐motivated journey.
According to Maria, children learn in a holistic manner through the senses as well as the mind. She set up prepared environments with a variety of different tasks and activities for the children to choose from. These were split between Maria’s own learning materials she had devised while teaching asylum children and practical tasks.
The teachings aids were designed from materials such as wood, cardboard, and sandpaper to give them a distinctive sense of touch. They were also designed to be self‐correcting tasks that taught simple concepts through the senses. Children were also encouraged to learn practical tasks such as learning to wash one’s hands, tie shoelaces, setting tables, and buttoning up shirts. While these sound like trivial tasks, they improved motor skills but also made it so children did not have to rely upon their parents for everything. She believed that doing things for oneself built a sense of confidence and dignity which aided children’s development into healthy and competent adults.
They were not told where to go and what to do but instead to choose which activity they wished to tackle. The teaching aids she used were self‐correcting. This means the children did not require an adult to affirm they were doing something correctly or incorrectly, they would know themselves if they had succeeded or failed. The classroom was a prearranged environment in which children could explore and learn at their own pace. Moving around the class and interacting with other children was promoted. She explained that “the task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility, and evil with activity, as often happens in the case of the old‐time discipline.”
I know what some people are thinking, this sounds let she is just letting kids run wild, but this is not the case whatsoever. Maria observed that when given a choice between the teaching materials she developed, and conventional toys children often chose the teaching materials, children actively sought to learn, master and perfect their skills when given the choice to do so. For Maria, discipline must come from within not without. She would later write that “We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.” True discipline is self‐discipline, which can only be cultivated by respecting a child’s autonomy and freedom. Of course, there are limits Maria explained that “The liberty of the child should have as its limit the collective interest” but as long as this caveat was not breached she held that children’s freedom” under whatever form it expresses itself,—must not only be permitted, but must be observed by the teacher.” Through free movement, choice, and expression children learned to cooperate and respect one another.
Another odd‐sounding innovation of Maria’s is child‐sized furniture, this is pretty normal today , so this needs some explaining. Formerly children sat on adult size chairs or benches at adult size tables, in Maria’s school furniture was made to be child‐size so they may sit comfortably but also rearrange the room for various activities. Cabinets and shelves were situated low so children could access them. Children could now manipulate their environment improving their sensory sensitivity and dexterity. While these sound a modest innovation at best it served a deeper purpose of allowing children to be independent and not rely upon adults, we all have memories as a child of being too short to reach the cookie jar and having to ask our parents.
At first, this might all sound a little bizarre. A bunch of slum kids who are introduced to an eccentric educator who goes against all the conventions of the time? It sounds like a movie. Maybe it would make a good movie who knows. But the most unique and remarkable idea Maria had was that reading and writing did not have to be imposed upon children, but instead learned a development of skills which would eventually culminate in spontaneous writing. Again this sounds outlandish but don’t worry, Maria was a woman of science. Children were given letters made of cut out cardboard and covered in sandpaper. Maria voiced the sound of the letter as the children touched and traced the outline on the cardboard. They heard the sound and mimicked the movements required to write it, firmly placing the letter in their mind. Children would then perform more complex tasks forming three‐letter words. After enough practice, they would compose words on their own without any help.
One day when on the roof allowing the children to play, she handed one child a piece of chalk and asked him to draw a picture of a chimney. After doing so, the child stopped for a second and wrote on the pavement the word mano, hand in Italian, in a moment of glee he exclaimed “I can write I can write” and began writing more words. Other children then joined in realizing that they were capable of writing something some of their parents might not have been able to do.
Her claims of spontaneous writing were met with skepticism, but today, the process has been repeated time and time again in Montessori schools all over the world. By 1908 she resigned her position as a lecture at the University of Rome and committed herself wholly to what she dubbed “the cause of the child.” Following her success in the slums, more schools were established throughout Rome. While her schools were intended for the disadvantaged, her methods were appropriated for middle and upper‐class children.
The Montessori method was not for any particular kind of child. In Maria’s eyes, it was for all children. Writing that “the fixed characteristics of the species do not change,– they can only vary” Maria was assured her method could be applied to Children across the globe regardless of race, class gender, religion, or any other denominator you can think list. Spreading this vision of a great revolution in education that emphasized the freedom of the child from this point forth became her life’s work. By 1910 Maria was garnering attention not only in Italy but throughout Europe and America. To spread her methods and findings, Maria lectured and wrote several books documenting experiences and explaining what came to be known as the Montessori method. Worried some might misconstrue or misuse her methods, Maria kept a tight hold on the Montessori education system and personally prepared and trained Montessori directresses. She held international teaching training programs in which people came from across the globe to be trained in the Montessori method from countries like Germany, Australia, India, the US, parts of Africa, and my home country, Ireland.
Come 1912, Montessori schools had opened in France, Australia, China, Japan, India, Mexico, Syria, and of course, the United States. Her life became inordinately busy so much so while reading about her I was wondering if she ever had any time to herself. She truly was wholly dedicated to promoting the education of children across the globe. She visited America in 1913, where she met opposition to her methods from adherents to the progressive education movement, which had begun to dominate American schools and universities. People such as John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick heavily criticized Montessori which damaged the early Montessori movement in America and led to it not resurging in popularity until the fifties. Despite setbacks in America, the Montessori movement grew in the UK, Netherlands, Ital,y and especially in Spain, prompting Maria to live there for the next twenty years until the outbreak of the civil war eventually causing her to flee the country.
There is some controversy about Montessori in Italy and her involvement with the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini. Seeing the accomplishments of the Montessori system, he decided to meet with her in 1924 and with support from the government Montessori schools throughout Italy. The minister of education Giovanni Gentile talked about the kinship between Fascism and Montessori. Is Maria Montessori a fascist or at least a fascist sympathizer for her efforts under Mussolini? Throughout her life, Maria described herself as apolitical she only wished to establish her schools that she believed, in the long run, would greatly benefit children. She would take support from any source she could procure and establish schools in any country regardless of ideology, but, and this is a big but she would only do so as long as she had sole control of her system of education and was the final arbiter of any issues which arose. She did not accept infringements upon her method.
When Mussolini wished for children to wear their Fascist Youth uniforms to school and to take fascist loyalty oaths along with the teachers, Maria refused. Education had nothing to do with politics. Education is about preparing children for life; politics is not welcome in the classroom. Angered, Mussolini placed Maria under surveillance until she eventually fled the country, following this, Mussolini quickly shut down Montessori schools. A similar issue arose previously in Spain when Maria yet again refused to involve herself in politics over the issue of Catalonian independence in the 20s despite being hounded to take a side.
It is a true testament to the stupidity of Mussolini that he supported an educational movement that was centred around the importance of freedom pioneered by a person who was a cosmopolitan who wished to spread her ideas across the globe because of her belief in the fundamental sameness of all children’s development regardless of race. It seems like a true hyper‐nationalist, Mussolini only liked Maria Montessori because she was Italian. Her system of education was ill‐suited for the Fascist utopia Mussolini wished to create. On the other hand, it is indicative of Maria’s political naivety that she could work within such an irredeemable and vile system.
In 1932, Maria lectured on the topic of Peace and Education at an International Montessori Congress in France. Lasting peace she argued was to be achieved through education. She explained that “Preventing conflict is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education.” This lecture was converted into an essay and republished. She delivered the same lecture in Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Later in both 1950 and 1951, Maria would be nominated for a Nobel peace prize but tragically was not awarded one.
After leaving Italy in 1936, Maria settled outside Amsterdam in the Netherlands, which to this day is the home of the Association Montessori Internationale. During this period, Maria continued to travel across the globe to spread her system through lecturing and teaching new directresses. Her travels took her as far as India in 1939, where she planned to begin lecturing in Madras and then touring across the country lecturing at universities. However, these plans were cut short by the advent of world war II. When Italy joined the war on the side of the axis Britain interned all Italians in the UK and the colonies. India was still part of the British empire confined Maria to Madras admirably but allowed her to travel abroad to give lectures and train new Montessori teachers.
After the end of world war II, Maria returned to Europe and spent the next six years again traipsing the globe spreading the Montessori method with the unwavering and compelling sincerity she had carried with her since her first school was established in the slums of Rome. She eventually passed away in the Netherlands at the age of 81 in 1952 after living possibly one of the busiest and international lives of any person of the 20th century.
Today there are around 20,000 Montessori schools worldwide with 5,000 of these being located in the US. Montessori schools offer an alternative to the standard kindergarten education and despite excessive government regulation, Montessori schools are still growing in number to this day. Montessori also boasts an impressive list of alumni including such as Jeff Bezos the founder of Amazon and Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, the political activist Helen Keller, former first lady and icon Jackie Kennedy, the Grammy award‐winning singer Taylor Swift and a whole host of other talented individuals.
Maria was explicitly an apolitical person, so we cannot say she was a libertarian. To label her as such would be disrespectful to her wishes. What we can say is that there is a lot within her educational philosophy which resembles libertarian ideals. Her system of education is fundamentally individualist, each child is given as much freedom as possible. Children choose their own activities and choose the pace that they wish to learn and work. The teacher, or more accurately the directress does not exist to command children. Their job is to prepare a structured environment in which children can express their full individuality and spontaneity. Unlike the traditional education, Maria went through herself, the Montessori system encouraged movement, play, and interaction with others. Detractors of the Montessori system criticized Montessori as a system which overemphasized individualism to the detriment of collaboration and socialization. But the Montessori system had no qualms with children collaborating and working together. Children are encouraged to help one another and respect one another’s autonomy. I began this show by quoting Joaquim Nabuco who believed teaching children a love of freedom was the best way to ensure freedom for future generations. The Montessori system is a living embodiment of Joaquim’s advice.
Maria Montessori was an amazing person who put her heart and soul into fighting for children’s right to spontaneous action. Her method knew no geographical or political boundaries. Maria spent her life constantly travelling throughout the world to spread her teachings making her a true cosmopolitan. Her philosophy of education was revolutionary at the time. By putting freedom and spontaneity at the forefront of her philosophy Maria aimed to educate children, not through dry academic or arbitrary tasks, but instead by giving them a taste of life animating force, freedom. For this reason and a whole host of others, I have listed throughout today’s episode, I believe Maria Montessori should be admired and studied by libertarians of all stripes for her tireless efforts to bring a world full of peaceful, respectful, and independent individuals. H