Journal Entry

The American Experiment as a Prepared Environment

For both The Founding Fathers and Maria Montessori, the conception of the human being inspired hope for the future.

“Ye that love mankind!” implored Thomas Paine in 1776, “receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”  In Paine’s view, the cause animating the American resistance could be extended to all people everywhere. Seeing the rejection of freedom across the world, he longed to welcome the global oppressed to American shores.

But what exactly was the nature of the “asylum” he wanted to prepare for those he invited to emigrate? What universal truths of human nature, “hunted round the globe”, did America seek to honor—and why did it come to represent such an achievement?

In thinking about this, I’ve found it illuminating to draw a parallel between the American system of government and the Montessori classroom. Both represent a radical system redesign, and in both cases that redesign arises out of an attempt to be consonant with a particular view of human nature. Specifically, both see the fact of human agency as necessitating an environment that allows its exercise.

Montessori’s work grew out of a deep recognition that children develop primarily as a result of voluntary, self-directed interaction with the world around them, and that the developing child, far from seeking the path of least resistance, is naturally inclined to put forth the effort required to grow and mature.

If this is the case, she held, the first thing a child’s education demands, “is the provision of an environment in which he can develop the powers given him by nature.” Where traditional approaches to education demand that children still themselves and passively absorb adult direction and instruction, fighting the child’s identity as an autonomous, self-directed agent, she came to see the single most important task of the educator as that of preparing a culture of voluntary action and inner discipline.

Fundamental to Montessori pedagogy is the concept of the “prepared environment”, a set of classroom materials and ground rules—environmental conditions—that allow a child to make choices and drive his own development. The prepared environment frames an across-the-board rethinking of the role of the educator. It rejects at root the mistaken view held by centuries of educators that the adult can do the work for the child, or compel the child to learn against his will. Instead, she must direct her creativity towards figuring out how best to facilitate the child’s own active motivation towards self-creation.

If we consider Montessori’s views in relation to the American experiment to construct a new form of government, the underlying similarity is obvious. The fact of human agency, if taken seriously, demands a radical shift in the role of the government. Just as it later led Maria Montessori to reject the conventional model of education, so the same observation over a century early led the Founders to reject the conventional model of government.

If human life requires the exercise of free action, the role of the State necessarily shifts. The ancient regimes assigned dutiful subjects to their lot in life, and zealously protected fiefdoms and familial authority structures. Instead now the activity of government would become that of protecting the ability of individuals to make their own choices and pursue their own ends—enabling a whole society of independent individuals to coexist and collaborate. Instead of issuing edicts and commands from on high, governance becomes about creating conditions, bounding spheres of action, codifying norms of association. As Montessori does later in redefining the classroom, government shifts from a model of direct instruction or command to one of structural facilitation.

In the history of our species, two related documents stand above all else as capturing what can metaphorically be thought of as a prepared environment for the human adult: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. This pair of documents helped institute the political conditions—individual rights, rule of law, etc.—consistent with a radical new view of human nature.

The American experiment represents, to large measure, the same fundamental view of human agency that later inspired and justified the Montessori pedagogy. The American system is based, for example, on a conception of human beings as fundamentally self-created, as sovereign beings capable of achieving physical, moral, and intellectual independence, of experiencing success and growing from failure, and of living in social harmony and peaceful progress.

The American founders grounded their principles not in some circumstance or fad of the moment, but on the basis of a profoundly revolutionary view of human nature. That asylum Thomas Paine sought to ready for mankind—not unlike the radically new classroom Maria Montessori introduced over a century later—is at its heart a recognition of the human being as self-aware, self-motivated, and capable of greatness in thought and action.

And for both the Founding Fathers and Maria Montessori after them, this conception of the human being inspired hope for the future. In his eloquent address celebrating the 4th of July, John Quincy Adams expressed the view that the Declaration of Independence effectively prepared the human environment for a new future:

“It was the first solemn declaration by a nation of the only legitimate foundation of civil government. It was the cornerstone of a new fabric, destined to cover the surface of the globe. It demolished at a stroke the lawfulness of all governments founded upon conquest. It swept away all the rubbish of accumulated centuries of servitude. It announced in practical form to the world the transcendent truth of the unalienable sovereignty of the people. It proved that the social compact was no figment of the imagination; but a real, solid, and sacred bond of the social union…

“It stands, and must for ever stand, alone, a beacon on the summit of the mountain, to which all the inhabitants of the earth may turn their eyes for a genial and saving light.. It stands for ever, a light of admonition to the rulers of men, a light of salvation and redemption to the oppressed…

“So long as this planet shall be inhabited by human beings… So long shall this Declaration hold out to the sovereign and to the subject the extent and the boundaries of their respective rights and duties, founded in the laws of nature, and of nature’s God.”

In recognizing such facts of human nature, Montessori notes over a century later that we then “become witnesses to the development of the human soul,” and see “the emergence of the New Man, who will no longer be the victim of events but, thanks to his clarity of vision, will become able to direct and to mold the future of mankind.”

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