Maria Montessori’s ‘Libertarian View of Children’

Maria Montessori’s Life: “The Child is Teacher”Cristina De Stefano’s e-book, Other Press. 248 pages. $28.99

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.

Her label of libertarian would be inaccurate. Politics were not something she was interested in, so she avoided them. She said that she only was interested in the children’s party when she was 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. Perhaps more importantly, however, she promoted a “libertarian approach to children,” which Emilio Bodrero (an Italian fascist) complained about in 1930. These ideas are still being taught in over 20,000 Montessori schools all around the globe.

 Maria Montessori’s Life: “The Child is Teacher”Cristina De Stefano, a European journalist, places Montessori within the context of the early 20th-century Italy where Freemasonry and feminism were rife. It goes far beyond what is usually written about disciples. Montessori shows great vision, but can also be described as an angry control freak and prone to 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. From the first day, she hated the idea of sitting in front of their computers for hours and listening to their teacher lecturing, repeating the lessons in chorus, and watching adults impose punishments. However, she was recognized by her teachers.

After receiving a Diploma from the Royal Technical Institute of Rome at age 20, Montessori decided that she would like to become a doctor. In later years, Montessori would declare herself to have been the first female doctor in Italy. 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. Contrary to what she claimed, she did not face opposition from the Freemasons and the Pope. In fact, her professors supported 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 thinking. 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!“”).

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 hospitals. Their secret relationship was quite transgressive. It was impossible for Montessori to make a decision when she found out she was pregnant. Married women weren’t allowed to work in those days. According to one her descendants, “She had two options. She could either marry Montesano or give up her career. Or she would have the choice of reneging on her child.” Her final months in pregnancy were spent away from Rome. She then split with her child.

Montessori continued to build on Séguin’s methods. Soon after, she and Montesano launched the National League for the Protection of Mentally Deficient Children. This organization raised funds for the opening of special schools. However, the paths of these lovers were soon broken. Montesano, who wanted his son to be raised and recognized, was hopeful that Montessori would one day marry him. He legally acknowledged his father’s paternity, but it was too late. His son married another woman. Maria felt abandoned and ended all relations with 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. It was when she received an offer to be the program director for San Lorenzo block kindergartens, in one of Rome’s most troubled neighborhoods. 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 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. The “miracle of San Lorenzo” was covered in newspapers, and many letters were sent asking Montessori for her methods to be replicated and opened schools around the world.

Maria became a prominent advocate and popularizer of “the Montessori Method” from this point on. Young disciples were her first victims. She demanded complete devotion from them. 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.

It was this openness that led to the unfortunate collaboration with Mussolini. 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. However, the project did not make much progress. 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. After fleeing Italy, Montessori rode to India and survived World War II.

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. This was not only unworkable but also a violation of her method’s spirit for 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. Many schools still have children sitting at their desks, listening to adult lecturers. Many parents realized this after the pandemic. Their children were given mediocre instructions via Zoom.

The big idea behind Montessori was that children can learn by themselves given the right environment and freedom. 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.