The Child Is the Teacher: A Life of Maria Montessori, by Cristina De Stefano, Other Press, 248 pages, $28.99
Maria Montessori’s ideas about education stem from the principles of choice, individual dignity, spontaneous order, experimental discovery, and freedom of movement. They stand in radical contrast to traditional schooling, too often based on authority, central planning, rigid instruction, and force. She once described children in such schools as “butterflies stuck with pins, fixed in their places.”
It would not be accurate to call her a libertarian. She eschewed politics, which she said “do not interest me.” When asked, she declared that the only party she was interested in was the “children’s party.” 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. Yet perhaps more than anyone else, she advanced a “libertarian view of children,” as the Italian fascist Emilio Bodrero complained in 1930. Her ideas endure today in 20,000 Montessori schools around the world.
In The Child Is the Teacher: A Life of Maria Montessori, 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. The book goes beyond the typical accounts written by disciples: Montessori comes across as a brilliant visionary but also as a control freak prone to outbursts of anger, often on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
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. Sitting at their desks for hours, listening to a teacher lecture, repeating their lessons in chorus, watching the adults mete out punishments: She hated it all from the very first day. Nonetheless, her teachers recognized her talent.
At age 20, after earning a diploma from Royal Technical School of Rome, Montessori declared that she wanted to be a doctor. Later, she would claim to be the first woman 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. Nor, contrary to her claims, did she face the opposition of the pope, the Freemasons, and academia; indeed, her professors encouraged her. But she really was a pioneer, one of just 132 women among the 21,813 students enrolled in Italian universities.
The School of Medicine in Rome was a center of radical thought at the time. She became the secretary of the Association of Women, a group of activists who backed female suffrage, secondary education for girls, a law for the determination of paternity, and equal pay for men and women. When Montessori was selected as the Italian delegate to the 1896 Berlin International Women’s Congress, a reporter wrote that she had “the delicacy of a young woman of talent combined with the strength of a man, an ideal one doesn’t meet everyday.” When the Congress was disturbed by a socialist demonstration outside, she went out to confront the demonstrators, delivering a forceful speech from a wagon above the crowd; at the end she raised her hat, waved it like a flag, and shouted, “Viva l’agitazione feminile!” (“Up with 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.
During her work at the hospitals, she fell in love with Giuseppe Montesano, a brilliant and precocious medical student. They engaged in a clandestine relationship, which was rather transgressive at the time. When she discovered that she was pregnant, Montessori was left with an impossible choice. In those times, married women were not allowed to work. In one of her descendants’ words: “She could either marry Montesano and by doing so give up her career; or she would have to renounce her son.” She ended up spending the final months of her pregnancy away from Rome, and then separated from her newborn child.
Montessori continued to build on Séguin’s methods. She and Montesano soon launched the National League for the Protection of Mentally Deficient Children, raising funds to open special schools. But the lovers’ paths soon divided. Montesano, who wanted to recognize and raise his son, hoped Montessori would eventually marry him. When it became clear that this would not happen, he legally recognized his paternity and married another woman. Maria felt betrayed and broke off all relations, resigning from the League. (She was finally reunited with her son when he was 15.)
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. She got a chance to put that thinking into action when she was offered a job as program director for a new system of block kindergartens in San Lorenzo, one of Rome’s most disreputable neighborhoods. She accepted on the condition that she would have complete freedom to test her ideas on the children who had not yet entered the traditional school system.
Here is where the seeds of Montessori’s method bloomed. She turned the schools’ lack of funds into an advantage. There wasn’t much money for children’s desks, for teachers’ desks, or even for licensed teachers. So she left those out. She reproduced the Séguin materials from scratch, working with paper, clay, blocks, and colored pencils. Placed in an environment made for them, the San Lorenzo children responded to their freedom; many learned quickly to read and write. Newspapers covered the “miracle” of San Lorenzo, and letters poured in asking Montessori to reproduce her method and to open schools elsewhere.
So began Maria’s life as a popularizer and advocate for “the Montessori method.” She took on young disciples, from whom she demanded absolute devotion. She became an international celebrity, giving lectures around the world. Over the years, her travels would connect her to famous admirers ranging from Alexander Graham Bell to Helen Keller to King George V to Mohandas Gandhi.
This openness to all comers led to that regrettable collaboration with Mussolini. In 1923, the fascist leader asked to meet with Montessori, on the grounds that she was one of the most celebrated Italians in the world. Afterward, he announced that he wanted to transform Italian schools according to Montessori’s method, creating an agency called Opera Montessori and donating his own funds to the effort. But the project yielded little progress. Fascists in the government saw little to like in Montessori’s respect for children’s autonomy, and they undermined her at every opportunity. In 1933, a frustrated Montessori resigned from Opera Montessori, and the secret police put her under surveillance. In her public lectures, Montessori began to connect her ideas about educating children to peace. She ultimately fled Italy and rode out World War II in India.
One notable contribution of this book is its account of Montessori’s struggles with the business side of her operation. She entered several partnerships to publicize her ideas, license materials, split lecture and training fees, divide book royalties, and create certification associations. Few of these partnerships lasted: Suspicious and worried about losing control, Montessori wanted final say over everything. (Besides being unworkable, her partners complained that this was at odds with her own method’s spirit of experimentation.) Money seemed to come and go. Her mother managed the accounts until it became too much for her. The parents of wealthy disciples often secretly paid her bills.
It is remarkable how much of Montessori’s radical critique still rings true today. At too many schools, children still sit at desks and are lectured at by adult authorities. This has been a particularly unwelcome realization for many parents during the pandemic, as they witnessed their children’s mediocre instruction via Zoom.
Montessori’s big idea was that children are largely capable of teaching themselves if given freedom, a carefully prepared environment, and an adult who is willing to step back and observe. This anti-authoritarian ideal has been hamstrung by Montessori’s authoritarian personality: She demanded a dogmatic fidelity to her approach, a fact that has left an enduring tension between educators who wish to preserve her original methods in amber and those who want to keep building on them. Nonetheless, the schools she inspired offer kids freedoms that too often are denied them elsewhere.