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Is Montessori Ready for the Obama Generation? By Mark Powell “Your wonderful country is one of the hopes of the civilized world. The feel of youth is in the air and soil. You will rear here the greatest race the world has ever known. It is in your blood. The mixing of the peoples of the earth will produce a great prosperity. No country has the heritage to leave its children like the heritage of the American people.” —Maria Montessori, quoted in the New York Times, December 24, 1913, cited in Kramer (1988, p. 202). Hope ernment officials, including Philander Claxton, the U.S. One of the great strengths of the United States has long Commissioner of Education, who later stated that he been its relative tolerance for diversity of opinion—its supported the introduction of the Montessori system into willingness to question its assumptions and to reinvent public schools (Kramer, 1988, p. 193). The nation seemed itself. This is a relative strength that varies over time and eager for the revolutionary changes her methods promised. distance, and whose focus settles on some issues more With a family of color residing in the White House, comfortably than others. This rejuvenating potential has the United States will never be quite the same again, once again become unmistakable with the election of politically. Reforming education, where there are many Barack Obama. more entrenched interests and perhaps less willingness The groundswell of passion and anticipation aroused to question assumptions and reinvent traditions, may not by Obama’s run for the presidency in 2008 was in some be so black-and-white. The Obama administration’s ways reminiscent of the excitement surrounding Maria education agenda recognizes that “America faces few Montessori’s first visit to the United States in 1913. more urgent challenges than preparing our children to Montessori—female, foreign, and Catholic—arrived at compete in a global economy,” and has expressed an Carnegie Hall in New York to a triumphal welcome and interest in looking outside the box for ways to “restore standing-room-only crowds. The press had fanned the the promise of America’s public education, and ensure flames of interest in the Italian woman whose classroom that American children again lead the world in achieve- methods with young children promised to change the ment, creativity, and success” (The White House, n.d.). world (Kramer, 1988, p. 194). Contemporary accounts In his Education Agenda, President Obama proposes a painted Montessori in messianic terms: “the creator of a three-point agenda for meeting this challenge (ibid.): system of education that will within a few years modify • Identifying and promoting successful schools by all existing education systems and theories and as it is giving greater emphasis to school reform and accounta- developed, take their place, thereby evolving a new and bility, while at the same time providing the funding higher type of thinking and acting man” (Brooklyn Daily needed to carry out those reforms; Eagle, Dec. 7, 1913, cited in Kramer, 1988, p. 192). In • Placing greater responsibility on parents for their Washington, DC, Montessori met with prominent gov- children’s success; and 18 MONTESSORI LIFE ISSUE 2, 2009 • Addressing the lack of experienced, quality teach- These comparisons have made the crisis harder to ers in schools and reversing the drain of new teachers ignore, but politicians have been seeking easy solutions (30% of whom leave the profession within their first 5 to the ongoing problems of American education since at years of teaching). least the time of Montessori’s visit to these shores. The 2008 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll found that two-thirds A s part of the first point of his education agenda, of Americans believe that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) President Obama has committed to doubling
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