Timothy E Smith
ENC 1135 A1W
MLA Research Paper
Number of Words: 1678
October 4, 2012
Despite considerable controversy over the cause of its problems, most Americans
agree on the need to improve education. The lack of an adequate education has dramatic
impact on an individual’s well-being, condemning him to a life with little reward and
little hope. However, almost a century ago, an educator ascertained the proper approach
to education by recognizing the importance of liberty—not only in society in general but
also in the education of children in particular. Maria Montessori made an important
contribution to free society by advancing pedagogical methods that promote personal
freedom and recognize that children are independent beings and should be treated as
Montessori was born in Italy in the 19th century, a time when scientific research
was beginning to have a positive impact of the lives of ordinary people. After receiving a
degree from the medical school at the University of Rome (“Maria Montessori,” par. 2),
Montessori began working with supposedly “mentally retarded and deficient” children.
Her observations of these children drew her attention to education (pars. 3-4). In 1907,
Montessori began working with poor children at a children’s home in Rome. Her success
in educating these children led her to develop and promote her teaching methods (par. 5).
Montessori presents her theories of education in The Montessori Method, first
published in Italy in 1909 with an English translation published in 1912 (“Maria
Montessori”). Montessori approaches the task of educating children from an interesting
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perspective. Rather than claiming that there is anything extraordinary about her methods
of teaching, she wonders why so many educators fail to recognize how
counter-productive their own pedagogical methods are. In discussing her work at the
Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Rome, Montessori writes:
While everyone was admiring the progress of my idiots [her child patients
at the Psychiatric Clinic], I was searching for the reasons which could
keep the happy healthy children of the common schools on so low a plane
that they could be equalled in tests of intelligence by my unfortunate
pupils! (39; ch. 2)
In Montessori’s view, all children are remarkable. What is amazing is that so-called
“normal” children should be so oppressed that they are only capable of achieving at the
level of idiots. An important premise of Montessori’s theories of education is that
teachers in a tradition school setting may actually hinder the development of the child
(90-92; ch. 5). She emphasizes that “environment [. . .] can modify in that it can help or
hinder, but it can never create” (105; ch. 5). The child possesses an innate ability to
learn. The teacher must cultivate that ability by creating an appropriate environment. In
The Absorbent Mind, Montessori compares this environment with the natural
environment in which children acquire language.
Montessori uses scientific data to form a theory of education that includes “a
mechanical functioning of the mind of the child” (Cro, III par. 6). Montessori applies the
methods of language acquisition in children to more general learning processes:
“whatever is absorbed by [unconscious memory] stays with the child forever” (Cro, III.3
par. 1). Children learn language in an informal and self-directed manner. Montessori
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believes that children also possess the ability to acquire other knowledge in this same
manner. According to Cro, “this universal or philosophical language, which is far more
advanced than anything we know, is the aim of Montessori's method” (“Scientific
Hypothesis for Language” par. 7). Children are natural learners. Teachers must create an
environment that will allow children to exercise this natural ability.
Other proponents of progressive education also support this natural method of
learning. Dewey writes “that there is no such thing as genuine knowledge and fruitful
understanding except as the offspring of doing” (Education and Democracy, “The
Modern Theory of Experience and Knowledge” par. 16; ch. 20). Doing equals learning.
In discussing Freud’s influence on progressivism, Cro writes:
Failure and retardation would be eliminated by abandoning or minimizing
formal courses of instruction, abandoning or minimizing academic
subjects, and abandoning or minimizing competition and achievement. In
their place would be substituted projects and other group activities, play,
and especially creative self-expression through art and other aesthetic
activities. (I.a.2 par. 1)
This philosophy emphasizes the active participation of the child in his own education, a
concept that is fundamental to Montessori’s method.
Montessori observes that the physical restraints placed on children in the
classroom also restrain their ability to learn. She writes “of the public schools where the
children are repressed in the spontaneous expression of their personality till they are
almost like dead beings” (14; ch. 1). Montessori’s method “has for its base the liberty of
the child; and liberty is activity” (86; ch. 5). This notion of liberty echoes the beliefs of
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Rousseau. According to Rohrs, Rousseau’s ideal educational environment is analogous
to the environment Robinson Crusoe faced on his island: one that “permits a spontaneous
acquisition of knowledge” (par. 5). Creating such an environment for the student
requires the teacher to assume a new role as a “mediator” rather than a “transmitter of
knowledge” (par. 10). In assuming such a role, teachers guide the natural abilities of
This natural method of learning is not without its detractors. In his review of
Montessori’s Pedagogical Anthropology, Edgar indicates that Montessori “would have
education based upon and guided by the anatomical or anthropological characteristics of
each child” (par. 3). Edgar argues that the purpose of education is to take individuals
with diverse characteristics and from diverse backgrounds and to provide those
individuals with “a similar training, similar activities, a similar environment” (par. 10).
This process prepares children to participate in society by providing them with “a
national common sense” (par. 10). Children should be guided through this process rather
than left to discover things on their own (par. 12).
The importance of this commonality is well-recognized. Levine and Weingart
conclude that “with the increasing technological need for greater specialization, general
education is increasingly important to provide a basis for common humanity among
people” (qtd. in Cro, I.c par. 1). But Montessori understands this need. According to
Montessori, the child learns to participate in society by developing personal discipline,
and this discipline comes from acquiring an understanding of good and evil (93; ch. 5).
But a child must learn this discipline in an environment that allows him to thrive, rather
than in one that represses his spirit. As Montessori puts it, “we do not consider an
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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” (86; ch. 5).
This self-discipline provides the basis for a child’s interaction with society. But when
Montessori speaks of liberty, she is not describing unbridled chaos. She writes:
We must, therefore, check in the child whatever offends or annoys others, or
whatever tends toward rough or ill-bred acts. But all the rest, every manifestation
having a useful scope, whatever it be, and under whatever form it expresses itself,
must not only be permitted, but must be observed by the teacher. (87; ch. 5)
It is here that Montessori hits upon the true nature of liberty: not only in the classroom
but also in society as a whole, individuals must be permitted the greatest degree of
freedom that is compatible with a stable society. This view of liberty is Montessori’s
great contribution to education.
If liberal society is to survive, and the rights of individuals are to be secured for
future generations, children must come to understand and appreciate freedom. This
recognition of freedom comes from the daily experiences the child has in the classroom.
A child taught in an oppressive environment learns to accept oppression; a child taught in
a free environment learns not only to expect freedom but also to demand it. This attitude
is as important as any fact or skill that a child may learn in school, and it is something
that is repeatedly overlooked in discussions on education reform.
There is far more to Montessori’s method than can be adequately covered in a
paper of this length; however, as an aspiring teacher, I have found that researching
Montessori’s contribution to education has been important for me to gain an appreciation
of the student as an individual and to understand the importance of liberty in the
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classroom. Regardless of whether I teach in a public school or private, whether I have 15
students in a class or 30, or whether I teach in a state-of-the-art classroom with computers
or a one-room schoolhouse with chalk and slate, if I fail to provide my students with an
environment in which they can use their natural curiosity to explore their world, I will
have wasted a tremendous opportunity and my students will suffer for it later in life. As I
continue my education, I must always keep this fact in mind. I must evaluate every new
teaching method that I learn from a point of view that treats the student as a unique, free,
and capable individual. From this perspective, I will be better able to understand the
different needs of individual students and to guide them towards a productive and
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Cro, Stelio. “Education and Utopia in Maria Montessori.” Canadian Journal of Italian
Studies. 10, 24 (1987) : 23-42. Rpt. in Literature Resource Center. Detroit:
Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: McMillan, 1916. On-line.
Institute for Learning Technologies. Internet. 27 Mar. 2002. Available:
Edgar, John. “A Review of Pedagogical Anthropology.” Mind. 91 (July 1914): 433-34.
Rpt. in Literature Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
“Maria Montessori.” Contemporary Authors Online. (14 Sept. 1995). Rpt. in Biography
Research Center. Detroit: Gale, 2000.
Montessori, Maria. The Montessori Method. 2nd ed. Trans. Anne E. George. New
York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1912. On-line. University of Pennsylvania Digital
Library. Internet. 20 Mar. 2002. Available:
Rohrs, Herman. “Robinson Crusoe goes to School.” UNESCO Courier. (1 May 1983):
20. Rpt. in Biography Research Center. Detroit: Gale, 2002.