Maria Montessori’s ‘Libertarian View of Children’

Maria Montessori’s views on education are based upon the principles of freedom, choice, individual dignity and spontaneous order. This is a radical departure from traditional schooling that relies on central planning, force and authority. They were like “butterflies, stuck with pins and fixed in their spots,” she used to call children attending such schools.

She would not qualify as a libertarian. Politics were not something she was interested in, so she avoided them. She stated that the only party in which she was interested was the “childrens party” when asked. To advance her ideas, she wanted “anybody’s help, without regard to his political or religious convictions”—leading to more than a few unwise collaborations, including one with Benito Mussolini. She promoted a “libertarian perspective of children” that was perhaps even more important than any other person, as Emilio Bodrero in 1930 complained. These ideas are still being taught in over 20,000 Montessori schools all around the globe.

Maria Montessori: The Teacher is the Child, the European journalist Cristina De Stefano places Montessori in the milieu of early 20th century Italy, where ideas from—feminism to Freemasonry were swirling in the air. This book is not your typical account of disciples. Montessori appears to be a visionary, but also a control freak who can sometimes erupt in anger and even panic attacks.

The story begins with 6-year-old Maria attending a public primary school in Rome—”a prison for children,” as De Stafano summarizes Montessori’s views. It was a long, tedious process. Maria hated sitting at her desk for hours listening to the teacher speak, singing along, and then watching as the adult punished her. Her teachers were able to recognize her talents.

After receiving a Diploma from the Royal Technical School of Rome at age 20, Montessori decided that she would like to become a doctor. She would later claim that she was the first Italian woman to become a doctor. This was not true: While it was unusual for women to pursue medicine at that time and place—upper-class girls were typically guarded as precious objects, waiting for husbands to come along—she was not the first to do it. She was not opposed by the Freemasons or the Pope, as her professors actually encouraged her. She was, in fact, a pioneer. In total there were only 132 female students studying at Italian universities.

Rome’s School of Medicine at that time was an important center for radical thought. The Association of Women was a group of feminist activists that supported female suffrage and secondary education for girls. They also supported a law to determine paternity and equal wages for women and men. One reporter said that Montessori had the “delicacy” of an 1896 Berlin International Women’s Congress delegates. She was a talented young woman with the strength of men. This is something one rarely sees every day. After the Congress was disrupted by the demonstration of socialists outside, Montessori went to face them and delivered a powerful speech. She waved her flag at the end, raised her hat like a flag and shouted: “Viva l’agitazione feminile!“” (“Up with the women’s unrest!””).

Montessori’s medical internship at the Royal Psychiatric Clinic introduced her to the abysmal treatment of the children in the asylum, so-called “phrenasthenics”—a broad category of the “feeble-minded” that included children with autism, deafness, muteness, blindness, dementia, or mental illness. Searching for a treatment to reach them, Montessori discovered the work of Édouard Séguin, a nearly forgotten French physician who a half-century earlier had proposed using hands-on materials to stimulate these children’s abilities.

Giuseppe Montesano was an intelligent and precocious medical student that she met while she worked at the hospital. The couple had a secret affair that was very transgressive. She was soon pregnant when Montessori found out. Married women weren’t allowed to work in those days. According to one her descendants, “She had two options. She could marry Montesano or give up her career. Or she might have to abdicate her son.” Her final months in pregnancy were spent away from Rome. She then split with her child.

Montessori continued to build on Séguin’s methods. Montesano and she soon founded the National League for the Protection of Mentally Deficient Children. They raised money to build special schools. The paths of the lovers soon split. Montesano hoped that Montessori would one day marry him. He wanted to raise his child. He legally acknowledged his father’s paternity, but it was too late. His son married another woman. Maria felt abandoned and quit the League. When he was 15, she was finally reunited.

Having left an organization devoted to atypical children that she had helped to found, Montessori began thinking about how Séguin’s ideas might -benefit more typical children as well. When she was approached by San Lorenzo’s disreputable neighborhood, Montessori accepted the job of program director of a system of block kindergartens. With the understanding that her ideas would be tested on children who were not yet in traditional schools, she agreed to accept the job.

This is the place where Montessori’s methods took root. This was where Montessori turned the school’s lack of money into a benefit. The money wasn’t there for teacher’s desks or for classrooms. She left these out. She reproduced the Séguin materials from scratch, working with paper, clay, blocks, and colored pencils. They were placed in an environment designed for them and many of the children at San Lorenzo learned how to read, write, and speak quickly. Newspapers reported on the miracle of San Lorenzo and people wrote to Montessori asking for replications and opening schools in other parts.

Maria became a prominent advocate and popularizer of “the Montessori Method” from this point on. Maria took in young students, demanding absolute devotion. In giving talks around the globe, she was a global celebrity. Her travels over the years would bring her in contact with famous admirers, including Helen Keller and Alexander Graham Bell.

Mussolini’s regrettable partnership with Montessori was due to his openness to everyone. The fascist leader in 1923 asked Montessori to meet him, citing her fame as one of the greatest Italians. After meeting with Montessori, the fascist leader demanded that they meet. He created Opera Montessori as an agency and donated funds. His goal was to make Italian schools more Montessori-like. The project was unsuccessful. Facists within the government didn’t like Montessori’s respect for autonomy of children and undermined Montessori at every opportunity. After becoming frustrated, Montessori left Opera Montessori and was placed under surveillance by the secret police. Montessori started to link her views on educating children and peace in her public lectures. In the end, she fled Italy to ride out World War II in India.

The book’s account of Montessori’s struggle with the business aspect of her operations is a significant contribution. Montessori formed partnerships in order to promote her ideas, distribute license materials, split lecture-training fees, share book royalties and establish certification societies. Many of the partnerships she entered did not last: Montessori, who was suspicious and concerned about losing her control, wanted to have final say. Her partners also complained about how unworkable this was. They said it did not align with Montessori’s own spirit of experimentation. It seemed like money would come and go. She was unable to manage the money until her mother took over. Her bills were often paid by her parents, who are wealthy followers.

You are amazed at how many of Montessori’s original critiques still hold true today. Too many children are still being lectured by adults at schools. This was a painful realization for many parents, who saw their children receive mediocre instructions via Zoom.

It was Montessori’s main idea that children were able to learn independently if they are given space, freedom and an environment where learning is encouraged. The authoritarian nature of Montessori has hampered this anti-authoritarian idea. She insisted on a strict adherence to her method. This has caused tension between those educators who would like to retain her amber methods and those who are keen to build upon them. The schools that she founded offer children freedoms they are often denied elsewhere.

Maria Montessori: The Teacher is the ChildCristina De Stefano, Other Press. 248 Pages, $28.99