We explore Maria Montessori's view on human development as an act of self-creation.
It is well-known that Maria Montessori views child development as a self-directed process. When children learn, whether it’s to grasp or to walk, to count or to write, to classify plants or to empathize with others, it is done by the child’s activity. Educators and caretakers can and ought to help children learn and grow in a variety of ways, by providing content, structure, opportunities, encouragement, and more. But, fundamentally, those are all inputs for the internally driven, self-activated processes of learning and growing up.
But Montessori’s view goes deeper than that. Her view is that human development is in significant part an act of creation. The human child is similar not just to a budding plant or infant mammal—who also grow and learn according to internally driven processes—but to a novelist or an inventor. The child, in growing up, learning, and creating herself, is achieving something, is creating something new: she is gradually creating her adult self.
In Montessori’s view, there is continuity between progress of civilization and the development of each individual child. The invention of the printing press, the idea goes, is fundamentally similar to learning how to walk.
Moreover, appreciating these achievements is itself an achievement. Whether we’re talking about an adult invention or a child’s hard-earned milestone, there is a risk of interpretation: that of taking achievement for granted. We can come to see the products of human creativity as things that are just sort of there, as part of the furniture of the universe. We can even become cynical about them; we can see them as flowing from ill motives or causing more harm than good.
Montessori is worried that we’ll take fail to appreciate the inventions, achievements, and creations of civilization—and also that we’ll take for granted a child’s process of growing up. She sees these mistakes as connected and is concerned to ensure that educators do not make either of them.
Here I’ll explore both halves of this idea in turn as well the whole view that emerges from them.
The Achievement of Civilization
In the first of her 1946 London Lectures, Maria Montessori makes the connection between the creative adult and the child explicit. She writes that our “interest must centre on the achievements of the child” (p. 5), and then immediately offers an exhortation to consider humanity—not children in particular, but mankind as a whole—from a certain perspective. Quoting her at length:
We have only to look at civilization to realize the greatness of which man is capable. But we are focused on his errors and mistakes, not on his greatness. The fault lies with us. Think how many things man has created—the wireless, to mention but one. Look around at all we have—small, great or beautiful—whatever it is, it has been created by man. But while asking for more and more of these marvellous inventions, we never think of the man that created them. We do not consider him at all. Although we try to do everything we can to enhance our comfort, we do not consider the greatness of man, we only consider his defects. We do not consider man, the creator. Therefore I say we must refocus our hearts. We must be the creations of man at the centre, and not his defects.
We must adopt the same attitude towards the child. When we see the miracle of a child walking, we take no notice because it is a daily occurrence. And yet we correct all his small peccadilloes. How much fuller and richer life would be if we saw the child in all his greatness, all his beauty, instead of focusing on all his little mistakes? These are so great in our eyes that they lead us to despondency because we see baseness all the time. Our aim is to study the child from this new point of view. With this change in our hearts we will want to study him in all his different phases, to study all his miracles, to realize how man reaches the stage of man through the child that constructs him. (pp. 5-6)
The reverence for the adult creator is a current that runs throughout Montessori’s work. In the passage above, she references the creation of the wireless (likely a reference to radio communication), and earlier in the lecture she more generally mentions the adults “who have and will produce (through multiple centuries) all the marvelous things that have ever been created to form civilization” (p. 4).
Her discussions of education for older students, elementary and beyond, are shot through with reminders to “never teach the various scientific subjects—geography, history, etc., without relating the passionate endeavors of the men who, with their work, their dedication, their sacrifice, brought light to new truths” (SRL 2, p. 21). She writes that we should teach, by example, that “every achievement has come by the sacrifice of someone now dead” (TEHP 3), and includes in the set of achievements the infrastructure of literacy (books, writing utensils, the alphabet, etc.), explorers who created maps, and the aforementioned scientists and investors. As a pedagogical point she is worried that children will be incurious or ungrateful about the amazing creations around them, and her antidote is always the same: a proper approach to history education, one that emphasizes the twin facts that the world did not always have such things and that these things were brought about by human creators.
Montessori is unabashedly positive about human civilization, and does see it as an achievement, as something fundamentally new. She writes of the importance of “the feeling that human life is triumphant over the cosmos: humankind should feel itself king of all that has been created, transformer of the earth, builder of a new nature, collaborator in the universal work of creation” (FCTA C). That she links human creation to divine creation shows how profound she considers the human achievements to be.
What about the argument that these many supposed human achievements are in fact ills in disguise, or motivated by petty selfishness, or achieved by exploitation?
While Montessori doesn’t address this sort of narrative at length, what she does say about it is quite damning. “A great obstacle what I call the cultivation of humanity,” she writes, “is the prevalent opinion that men are selfish” (SRL p. 18). In the same lecture she notes the globalization and advance of the world’s economy is a major instance of human solidarity (p. 16), one that creates interdependencies (pp. 13ff), solidarity, and “human progress” (p. 19). Instead of being cynical of these things, what we should be doing is morally elevating our view of these things, becoming conscious of how they are amazing, morally great achievements. She thinks this is true of helping children becoming conscious of them in this way, but also of ourselves: “If our educational task is to enhance the intellectual and affective faculties of children, we must first enhance our own” by ensuring that we see the heroism in mankind; if we do not, “our spirits will become arid, as will those of the little ones we are striving to educate for life” (p. 21).
While it is never a great idea to speak for the dead, it’s worth reflecting on how her views on these things might apply today. It is easy to encounter the view that civilization is in a state of general decline or significant depravity; that there is at least some category of technological innovation that represent, at best, a double-edged sword and at worst a civilization regression; that supposed “progress” is coupled with environmental destruction, increasing materialism, the destruction of our attention spans, our communities, and our willingness to connect with one another.
While there are real concerns here, at least some of which I personally share, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that Montessori’s immediate processing of World War II, the horrors of which touched her personally, is not to question but to double down on the greatness of human civilization. Her first lecture in 1946 begins by reflecting on “the sad times that have just passed” (p. 1), which notably include adults who are “crueler than the monsters in films”, “bloodthirsty, indulging in continuous slaughter” (p. 3). But she ends her lecture with the diagnosis quoted above, to “look at the civilization to realize the greatness of which man is capable.” The problem is that “we are focused on his errors and mistakes, not on his greatness. The fault lies with us” (p. 5).
For Montessori, the fundamental is human greatness, and greatness lies in achievement, in creation. The point isn’t to be a Pollyannaish optimist, or to ignore horrors. The point is we are surrounded by the evidence of mankind’s capacity for progress, achievement, creation, and improvement—and that we routinely ignore it, fail to properly valorize it, paying no heed to creators and taking their creations for granted.
The Achievement of Development
This sort of failure of awareness—ignorance of the source and value of the human goods—is a double failure for educators.
In part, this is for reasons already alluded to above. If we take for granted the achievements of mankind, we then inevitably convey—by modeling—that take-it-for-granted attitude to the children in our care. We not only make our own spirits arid, but those of the next generation.
Again, the point here is not to shelter children from the real struggles and failures in human history. The point is rather to emphasize how these struggles have been gradually overcome. The older children she worked with, Montessori writes, “were particularly interested in the difficulties these men had to overcome, the prejudices they had to fight, the privations they had to suffer in order to discover the secrets of the unknown world and of the mysterious forces of nature” (SRL, p. 20).
Human achievement is always a struggle, against both nature and the worse elements of our natures—but it is possible. She was actively engaged in a curricular project that made achievement morally central, particular more morally central than moral flaws and corruption:
Beyond everything I should work to inspire a faith in the greatness of man, the greatness that has been proved by enormous progress. Make clear to them [viz. children] man’s place in the world as an improver of the environment of nature, how he has always struggled on, despite being weighed down by so many moral defects. Help them to face up to and understand these moral defects that have crept into all the wonderful things that he has created. They do aspire for something fine, they have a faith in life; but each year that they live in the world they see these institutions of man to be so full of corruption that they attempt to disregard or destroy them. Instead we should help them to see how wonderful is the essence of the truth that lies beyond them, help them to understand exactly where the moral corruption lies, and then they can do their best to be free of it (CSW, p. 104).
So there is the achievement-oriented stylization of disciplinary content. But there is a deeper pedagogical point to be made: that all of human development is an achievement. “We need to change our attitude” towards humans not just to understand the great achievements of adults, but to “see the greatness of the child’s achievements” (1946, p. 5).
Montessori’s view is that every adult represents the result of years of work of a developing child. It is not just the case that children turn into adults, a truism, but rather than children actively create the adults they turn into. A child both teaches herself to walk and talk, and gradually comes to a view as to what this means in terms of her independence. She gradually builds her capacities, both his her and willingness to flourish and participate in human life, through her own efforts.
Each stage of human development represents work. We see children effortfully struggling to move, attentively observing and imitating human sounds, practicingbasic motions and cognitive exercises, seeking out certain experiences and interactions. It is not an exaggeration to say that Montessori’s core point about these activities is that they are effortful activities of the child that are key to producing the developmental milestones in that child. It is clearly not the case that children learn to speak by anything resembling adult language instruction. But it is also not the case that children learn to speak by a passive process, simply internalizing the linguistic nutrients of their surrounds. There is an observably effortful process—one that is simultaneously the expression of and development of the individual agency of the child.
Montessori thinks that in the same way that we are liable to look at a radio while being insensitive to the discoverers of electromagnetic waves and the inventors of wireless telephony—we are also liable to look at a toddler who is walking and talking while being insensitive to the true creator of those capacities. There is a deeply important respect in which it is neither us nor nature (though both are sources of important raw materials) but the child who gave herself her own powers. This is true of motor control, language, moral character—the whole stack of human powers gained over development. These are human achievements, each with a human achiever.
In those who tend to roll their eyes at the advent of material progress, Montessori sees those who tend to turn their heads at feats of human development.
It’s not an accident that, in the first 1946 lecture we’ve been considering, her contrasting emphasis is on the “defects” of the child. The wrong sort of attitude, one not centered on achievement, is most evidence when we are frustrated with a child—when they are misbehaving, or not understanding something, or otherwise causing trouble for us. It’s precisely because we take basic, good adult behavior and capacities for granted that we are inclined to attempt to read them back into childhood.
In reality, good manners, self-regulation, and a capacity to fluently communicate and resolve conflicts are not naturally present in adults. They are achievements built gradually throughout childhood. It necessarily follows that children either won’t have them in whole. The frustrating behaviors of children don’t really represent defects; most fundamentally they represent the absence of a hard-won achievement, one that is likely actively being worked on by the child. It can be frustrating to deal with a human who lacks basic physical self-control, emotional self-regulation, self-awareness, and has only the most miniscule capacity to communicate. But these lacks are the default state, not the product of some sort of defect or vice in the child. The child hasn’t achieved these momentous capacities yet; he is working on it and, indeed, needs our support.
That children create the adults they grow into is not just a biological point, or even a developmental one. For Montessori it means assigning the locus of control and responsibility to each child in a way that gives her real human credit for her developmental achievements, and gives each caretaker and educator the proper perspective, sympathy, and valorization of the effort that goes into the child’s achievements.
Montessori’s view is that in both the case of the child and the adult “we must refocus our hearts” and “put the creations of man at the centre” (1946, p. 6). And her view is that this is not an abstract point but a lived issue, one that colors our every interaction with the adult world.
For everyone, and particularly for educators, Montessori considers it important to sensitize oneself to achievement and to readily recognize it everywhere. This means a mindset that includes the following interrelated imperatives:
- Habitually identifying the achievers and creators, contemporary and historical, of everyday human values
- Not taking values for granted, whether material or characterological
- Taking seriously that disorder, frustration, and even danger is the default state, and that systematic departures from this state are achievements
- Taking seriously the chosen thought and effort that goes into every achievement
It’s worth noting, as a postscript, that not everything in development represents an achievement in the sense discussed here. While a child’s personality and character are fundamentally his achievements, there are aspects of his personality that are “native”, or perhaps developmentally canalized with respect to his effort (e.g. temperament). And while the coupling of a child’s capacity for action and his emerging conscious mind are achieved, there is an aspect of her basic neural and physical development that is given and that enables this development. Humans aren’t literally created ex nihilo, and it’s worth considering and separating out their achievements from the material that they have to work with. (There are further nuances worth exploring in terms of continuities of self-directedness with human and non-human growth, and differences between human child and human adult achievement.) Lastly, it’s also not the case that what the adults around children do have no impact on their capacity to achieve their growth. It does, and every advance in pedagogy is also a real achievement.
For Montessori, the point is that being achievement-oriented is an integrated perspective—an achievement in and of itself—that is culturally missing in general, that applies in spades to children, and that is there is, perforce, tremendous value in being a special area of internal focus for educators.
Montessori’s reverence for human beings is not an optional aside, or a peripheral motivator of her work. Loving humans—including adult humans, including material progress, including frustratingly ignorant children who are painstakingly growing themselves—is a critical part of her pedagogy.
All citations above are from Montessori:
- 1946: The 1946 London Lectures
- CSW: Child, Society, and the World
- FCTA: From Childhood to Adolescence
- SRL: The San Remo Lectures
- TEHP: To Educate the Human Potential