Montessori, Peace, and Libertarianism

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by Stephan Kinsella: What
Libertarianism Is



Among libertarians
and Austrians, there is intense interest in the topic of how to
educate children. Of course we are all averse to the idea of government
schooling. This has led many libertarians to abandon government
schools in favor of private schools or home-schooling, or even the
seemingly odd approach of "unschooling."

One of the
less conventional approaches to education is that spearheaded by
Maria Montessori (1870-1952), the so-called Montessori
. Many libertarians may have heard of this approach because
Ayn Rand had positive
about it.

My son has
been in The Post Oak School
since he was 18 months old and is now in second grade (Lower Elementary).

Given the uniqueness
of Montessori, I'm often asked about it, by libertarians and others.
I can't claim to be an expert, but below I'll share some of my thoughts
about Montessori and related aspects of parenting.

There is apparently no Montessori trademark, meaning any school
can hold itself out as being "Montessori." Some are officially
the original Association
Montessori Internationale
. These are the so-called AMI schools;
Posk Oak, for example, is one of only three or so AMI schools in
the greater Houston area. Some Montessori schools in the US are
also accredited by the American
Montessori Society

of the split between AMI and AMS is a bit convoluted. Apparently,
after Montessori was established in Rome in 1907, by 1917 there
was intense interest in this educational approach in America. However,
the publication of the 1914 booklet The Montessori System Examined
by democratic socialist and John Dewey follower William
Heard Kilpatrick
helped dampen interest in Montessori in America
for decades. Many of his arguments have since been debunked, but
only decades after it served its purpose. Montessori remained popular
in other parts of the world, but in America it went into decline,
with little AMI presence. In the meantime, American Nancy
McCormick Rambusch
learned about the Montessori approach in
Europe and ended up founding the AMS. This led to AMS dominance
in the US, but there has also been an AMI resurgence in recent decades.

There are plenty
of unaccredited Montessori schools out there. Any parent considering
Montessori should make sure the school is either AMI or AMS accredited.

I know many
libertarians nowadays prefer homeschooling, but unlike certain left-libertarian
"localists" I do believe in the division and specialization
of labor, so think that an actual school can be superior
to homeschooling. The failure of government schools and even many
(government-influenced) private schools today has made home-schooling
a better option for some, which is a sad commentary on the state
of modern conventional and government schooling. If untrained moms
can do a better job than most government and conventional schools
— and it seems they can — then something is wrong with mainstream
education. In the current scheme of things, my view is that the
best solution is a good private AMI or AMS Montessori school; followed
by private and/or homeschooling (and for those who prefer homeschooling,
the Montessori approach can
still be employed
). They are all, generally speaking, superior
to government schools. There is another philosophy called "unschooling"
but I find it to be unsystematic and somewhat reactionary, but even
this is probably superior in many cases to government schooling.

Focus on
the Child
. Maria Montessori got her start working in the early
1900s with children with intellectual disabilities. She found that
she could "normalize" them by providing them with the
appropriate environment. ("Normalization"
is another idiosyncratic Montessori term referring to the idea that
if given the right environment, it is "normal" for all
children to
be able to shift
from the "ordinary condition of disorder,
inattention, and attachment to fantasy to a state of perfect normal
being, showing such external behavior as spontaneous self-discipline,
independence, love of order, and complete harmony and peace with
others in the social situation.") Imagine what could be done
with non-disabled kids, she thought! From extensive observation
and thought she developed theories about how children develop, and
what kind of environment they need to permit them to prosper and
reach their full potential, at various stages of development. As
Montessori wrote,

The child
cannot develop if he does not have objects around him permitting
him to act. Until the present, it was believed that the most effective
learning took place when knowledge was passed on directly to the
child by his teachers. But it is really the environment that is
the best teacher. The child needs objects to act; they are like
nourishment for his spirit. [Education
and Peace
, 57]

this resulted in a wide array of carefully-crafted tactile material
based on the view that developing humans are heavily tactile based.
This is one reason it's hard to recreate this method in a homeschooling
environment — most parents cannot afford to provide at home the
resources and environmental provided at a Montessori school (but,
as noted above, it can
still be employed
in homeschooling). This is the division of
labor. But this is not to say that the home environment is not important:
from the beginning the Montessori technique emphasizes the complementary
role of both parents and school in developing the child's full potential.

In addition,
Montessori views kids as individuals with full human rights and
status. Yes, they are at a different developmental stage, but we
treat them with dignity and respect. Witness the sushi example above.
And it is mirrored in the "positive discipline" techniques
Montessori schools promote. It is manifest in how even toddlers
are treated: they are given roles in the school, in the family —
helping set the table, clear the table, and so on within their capacities.
I was raised to think of spanking as normal; if you understand that
children develop naturally then usually if they do something that
"calls for a spanking" this is a sign the parent has gone
astray in the rearing or environment prepared for the child, or
inattention to his needs at this stage of his development (good
resources include Redirecting
Children’s Behavior
and Parenting
With Love and Logic

I will not
say I agree with every particular part of the Montessori philosophy,
as it is still a young, developing science. But what I appreciate
about it is its focus on the perspective of the child — the
developing human. The question teachers ask — and that parents are
encouraged to ask — is: what is appropriate for the child? So the
schools use child-size furniture for his environment. They provide
implements he can grasp and manipulate. The toilets are little kid
sized. Book shelves are low to the ground so kids can access material
independently (and put it back). When parents come to the classroom
for a teacher meeting, they are all sitting on half-sized furniture,
like giants. Because the room is designed for kids.

Planes of
. Montessori's empirical research led her to believe
that humans develop in four six-year "planes of development,"
each with its own particular learning characteristics; the environment
for each is designed accordingly. According to this view, humans
reach full maturity at around 24 years old. Each plane of development
has its own developmental stages, with the first three years of
a stage (a sub-stage) primarily geared to attainment of knowledge,
and the second three-year sub-stage focused on refinement of knowledge
appropriate to that plane.

Source: Montessori
101 Presentation
, Whitby School

Source: The
Montessori Way
, by Tim Seldin & Paul Epstein

has found some scientific support for this view of
human development and for the efficacy of the Montessori educational
approach. As for anecdotal evidence, as the WSJ
blog reports
, the Montessori approach produces many members
of the "creative elite," including "Google's founders
Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, videogame pioneer
Will Wright, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, not to mention Julia
Child and rapper Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. As noted on Post
Oak's site
, "A disproportionately large number of these
graduates are innovators, explorers, iconoclasts. The list includes
Nobel laureates, world leaders, successful entrepreneurs and ordinary
people — all living life with the gifts of self-awareness and intrinsic
motivation that are the legacy of every Montessori student."
And don't forget this great home-made video, I'm
in Love with Friedrich Hayek
, by Dorian Electra, a recent graduate
of School of the Woods,
an AMS Montessori K-12 school here in Houston.

as Guides
. Teaches are viewed as "guides," and children
do "work" so that they learn to love the learning process
and to teach themselves. Because of this focus they are not concerned,
as conventional schools are, with the "student to teacher ratio."
After all, if a lower student to teacher ratio is better, then ideally
it's one to one. This is obviously unrealistic. But in conventional
schools you have one teacher pumping out knowledge to students sitting
in desks arrayed in a grid. The students are passive and move in
lock step. In Montessori, there are no desks; students are free
to roam about, physically unrestricted, so that they can select
the work they are interested in or need to concentrate on. The teachers
guide the students to work on their own. As explained
on the AMI site

The Montessori
teacher's role is quite different from the role played by teachers
in many schools. They are generally not the center of attention,
and they spend little time giving large group lessons. Their role
centers around the preparation and organization of appropriate
learning materials to meet the needs and interests of each child
in the class. Montessori teachers will normally be found working
with one or two children at a time, advising, presenting a new
lesson, or quietly observing the class at work. The focus is on
children learning, not teachers teaching. Children are considered
as distinct individuals in terms of their interests, progress
and growth, and preferred learning style. The Montessori teacher
is a guide, mentor and friend.

will typically be found scattered around the classroom, working
alone or with one or two others. They tend to become so involved
in their work that visitors tend to be amazed at the peaceful

Because of
the role of teachers as guides, there is not the same obsession
with student-to-teacher ratio as in conventional schools.

class groupings
. Based in part on the idea of the 3-year sub-planes
of the 6-year planes of development, in Primary (years 3-6), Lower
Elementary (1st-3rd grade), and Upper Elementary
(4th-6th grade), kids are grouped into classes
spanning three years. For example, my son is now in second grade
in Lower Elementary — grades 1 through 3 are all together. One reason
for this is the idea that children in this age grouping are all
in the same sub-plane of development, so that they can share the
same environment and materials developed and appropriate for children
in that sub-plane.

Another advantage
of this approach is that the child has the same teacher for three
years. This allows the teacher (the "guide") to get to
know the children extremely well. Her reports to the parents about
the child's progress are verbal and qualitative, as opposed to quantitative.
Unlike many government schools, Montessori schools do not "teach
to the test" except as necessary to comply with mainstream
standards. They do not even give letter grades so as to induce students
to excel on their own instead of competing with classmates and judging
their success by how they compare to others. (In this recognition
of the difficulty
of quantitatively describing human actors
and their character
and capacities, I see a parallel to the Austrian
notion of value
as being subjective, ordinal, and not interpersonally

Another advantage
of this 3-year grouping is that the kids return to 2/3 of the same
class body every year. This makes for more continuity.

This approach
also gives the child a full spectrum of development over the three
years in that class: first, as a younger member of the class, they
are cared for and mentored by older children; as they mature, they
become responsible for being role models for and mentors to the
younger children. This is itself a powerful teaching model and an
incentive for the child to mature. My son and three other boys,
now in second grade, had for a while been being a bit disruptive
in class. The teacher explained to them that next year they need
to be role models for the younger kids; this prospect helped motivate
them to self-improve.

The Approach
to "Part-time."
The earliest stage of AMI Montessori
is "infant community" ("Casa Dei Bambini").
It starts as soon as the child is sufficiently potty trained and
ambulatory — 14 to 18 months, say, and goes to about 3 years old,
until the child is ready for "Primary" (ages 3-6). At
our child's school, at this stage you can select full-day or half-day
infant community. Unlike other schools, where "part-time"
may be 3 days a week, M-W-F, Montessori views part-time as half-day,
morning to 11:30, all five days; and full time extends to
3pm or so. The point is that the focus is on the child: half-time
is still five days a week, for consistency from the point of view
of the child. Imagine a child going to school M-W-F: they have one
day one; one off; one on; one off; two off; one on. It's discombobulating
to the child. The idea of going every morning, M-F, is more of an
established routine for the child. My point is not that I agree
with this particular practice. It is that it is developed with careful
attention to the needs of the child, based on the child's perspective.

and Realism
. The use of fantasy is downplayed in the early ages.
The idea is that developing young minds have insufficient context
to understand fantastical concepts; instead, initially, root them
in reality: real things, spoons, cups, objects. As explained here:

In Montessori
fantasy and imagination are very much a part of the creative process.
However, since the real world is seen as a wonderful creation
as it is, children are introduced to the real world in all its
variations in the first six years, and then use these experiences
to create for the rest of their lives. The word "work"
is used to describe the child's activities instead of "play"
because they as respected as adult activities.

Again: whether
they are right or wrong on this particular issue is not my point
(the Waldorf
takes the opposite
to fantasy); it is that it is developed with a careful
attention on the child's natural needs. I actually did introduce
fantasy to my child very early, but I was conscious of the notion
that he might not yet have the context to understand all of it,
and made sure he had exposure to the "realistic" things

and Writing
. One of my favorite things about Montessori is its
approach to learning reading and writing. Following a blend of these
ideas (see Montessori
Read and Write
) and Glenn Doman's How
To Teach Your Baby to Read
, I taught my own child to read
at a very young age. There
are several aspects to the Montessori approach:

  • Do not teach
    kids the names of letters. This is a key insight. Just
    teach them how the letter sounds, and what it looks like. So if
    you point to the letters of the alphabet, you would say, "aah,
    buh, little-kuh (to distinguish c, "little-kuh,"
    from k, "big-kuh"), duh, eh, eff, guh,"
    and so on.
  • Writing
    is sometimes taught before reading. The idea is that "young
    children will often be able to write (encoding language by spelling
    phonetic words out one sound at a time) weeks or months before
    they will be able to read comfortably (decoding printed words)."
    And if you manage write a word, then you can read it — you know
    what you wrote. So strangely, by learning to write you can help
    teach yourself to read.
  • Cursive
    is taught before printing. Cursive, as I understand it, is not
    even taught anymore in some schools, which is a shame. In Montessori,
    it's taught first, since children are able to make the flowing
    motions of cursive more easily then print letters.

the Suzuki
of learning music — typically violin or piano — is similar
in some ways to the Montessori approach to language — children learn
to play by learning what keys make what sounds, without at first
bothering to learn the names of notes. Unsurprisingly, Montessorians
often recommend the Suzuki method.)

The Crib.
I didn't start learning a lot about Montessori until my son was
about 9 months old. If I had learned earlier I would never have
bothered to use a crib at all. As it was, we took him out of the
crib at 11 months and got rid of it — we put the crib mattress on
the floor in the corner, and he slept on that. Why lock a kid up
in a crib, as if he's in jail? Why restrict his freedom of movement,
his ability to explore? (And cribs are dangerous, too — many babies
fall out or get caught in the slats.) As Maria Montessori wrote:

When the
child is given freedom to move about in a world of objects, he
is naturally inclined to perform the task necessary for his development
entirely on his own. Let us say it straight out — the child wants
to do everything all by himself. But the adult does not understand
this, and a blind struggle begins. The child likes neither to
play idly, nor to waste time doing useless things, nor to flit
about aimlessly, as most people believe. He seeks some very precise
goal, and he seeks it with an instinctive directness of purpose.
This instinct that impels him to do things by himself makes it
incumbent upon us to prepare an environment that truly allows
him to develop. When he has freed himself of the oppressive adults
who act for him, the child also achieves his second goal,
working positively toward his own independence. [Education
and Peace, 55]

And if he rolls
off the mattress in the middle of the night, he can crawl back on
— giving him self-responsibility, independence, and self-reliance.

As noted in
the Michael Olaf The Joyful Child catalog:

Every child
follows a unique timetable of learning to crawl to those things
he has been looking at, so that he may finally handle them. This
visual, followed by tactile, exploration is very important for
many aspects of human development. If we provide a floor bed or
mattress on the floor in a completely safe room — rather than
a crib or playpen with bars — the child has a clear view of the
surroundings and freedom to explore.

A bed should
be one which the baby can get in and out of on his own as soon
as he is ready to crawl. The first choice is an adult twin bed
mattress on the floor. Besides being an aid to development, this
arrangement does a lot to prevent the common problem of crying
because of boredom or exhaustion.

It helps
to think of this as a whole-room playpen with a baby gate at the
doorway and to examine every nook and cranny for interest and
safety. If the newborn is going to share a room with parents or
siblings we can still provide a large, safe, and interesting environment.

he will explore the whole room with a gate at the door and then
gradually move out into the baby-proofed and baby-interesting
remainder of the house.

See also Designing
a Montessori Infant Environment at Home

New parents:
save your money. Don't buy a crib. All you need is a mattress, in
a safe room. For a newborn, I believe a bassinet is placed on the
mattress, until the baby is ready to be on the mattress itself.

Lunch and
. For a few miscellaneous observations — in conventional
schools I've heard of, the teacher might assign homework on Monday
that is due Tuesday, and on Tuesday, homework that is due the next
day, and so on. In my kid's school, homework for lower elementary
students is assigned on Monday, and due Thursday. It's up to the
kid to decide how to manage his time during the week and get it
done. This helps teach responsibility and time management.

Also, although
The Post Oak School is not inexpensive, there is no lunchroom and
no meals provided. The child is expected to prepare his own lunch
(with parental supervision or assistance) every morning. This teaches
awareness of nutrition and self-reliance and responsibility.

One of the most fascinating features of the Montessori philosophy,
for libertarians, was Maria Montessori's passionate devotion to
peace. This can be seen in the schools, where kids are taught
that they are all members of the human family, that we are children
of the world, and that we should respect each others' individual
rights. They are taught cooperation and responsibility, and to respect
others. Some Montessori schools go out of their way to encourage
mediation- or arbitration-like dispute resolution (see my LRC post
of the Mouths of Babes
). See the video Education
for Peace: The Essence of Montessori
(embedded below).

But the Montessori
approach to peace is much more than this. The idea of peace is deeply
embedded into its entire educational approach. Maria Montessori
believed there were several reasons the human race had not yet achieved
peace. One was a false idea of peace as merely the cessation of
war. She discusses this in detail in her amazing book Education
and Peace. As she notes there,

Human history
teaches us that peace means the forcible submission of
the conquered to domination once the invader has consolidated
his victory, the loss of everything the vanquished hold dear,
and the end of their enjoyment of the fruits of their labour and
their conquests. The vanquished are forced to make sacrifices,
as if they are the only ones who are guilty and merit punishment,
simply because they have been defeated. Meanwhile the victors
flaunt the rights they feel they have won over the defeated populace,
who remain the victims of the disaster. Such conditions may mark
the end of actual combat, but they certainly cannot be called
peace. [pp. 6-7]

This was presciently
written in 1932, as the false "peace" of WWI was sowing
the seeds for WWII.

also lamented the lack of a science of peace: "it is
quite strange, in fact, that as yet there is no such thing as a
science of peace, since the science of war appears to be highly
advanced, at least regarding such concrete armaments and strategy
…." (p 5). This is echoed in a moving and insightful 1985 article
by John Bremer, who writes: "From my little knowledge of eastern
thought, it appears quite possible for a discipline of peace to
exist already, and I mean a discipline for a way of life and not
an academic discipline." ("Education
as Peace
" N.A.M.T.A. Quarterly 11, no. 1 (Fall 1985),
p. 26.)

If it is true
that libertarians can profit from Montessori's educational insights,
it is also true that Montessorians searching for a science of peace
can stop looking: this is what libertarianism is. Libertarianism
recognizes the world of scarcity that we inhabit gives rise to conflict
and war, and the solution is the adoption of civilized rules of
cooperation and allocation of property rights — a libertarian private
law society. If Montessori had been apprised of the insights of
Austrian, free market economics and of anti-state, pro-peace liberalism,
who knows — maybe she would have become a key advocate of libertarian

of statism, individualism, and love of freedom permeates the Montessori
perspective. It is worth quoting at length from Bremer's piece:

Maria Montessori
… knew that education, properly understood, is a disturbance of
the universe as it is conventionally conceived and experienced.
It places the power structure at risk since there is the
strong possibility that it will be exposed for what it is — an
imposition upon the sacred order of things, a distortion of
what is natural
, for the supposed benefit of those not willing
or not able to learn. She also understood more clearly than any
of her contemporaries that if the perversion of the natural order
of things is to be maintained by the power establishment, then
the soul must also be perverted because it is the one power, the
one course of energy in the universe that is able to see and to
show the corruption and perversion of the whole and to correct
it. This perversion of the soul arrogated to itself, for obvious
rhetorical advantage, the name of education. In reality, it is
what was characterized earlier as a form of indoctrination, and
it rests upon an imbalance, an inequality of power.

The key to
Montessori is contained in the two sayings which are more often
repeated than argued about and understood — "Follow the child"
and "Look to the child."

… The fundamental
fallacy of conventional apologetics in education is [that] if
the teacher establishes control, the students can learn. … This
fundamental educational fallacy has, of course, its political
counterpart. How could it be otherwise when in conventional opinion
"education" is a sub-branch of "politics"?
The basic political fallacy is that if people are controlled "by
proper authority" then they will improve. I suppose they
might improve as sheep but scarcely as human beings
, as citizens.

… [I]n our
international relations we will have to learn whatever the counterpart
is of "Follow the Child" and of "Look to the Child."
It is possible that we will come to see, eventually, the nation
state for what it is — an extensive defence mechanism against
, and we may find some new pattern of human organization
which will simultaneously offer security and the opportunity to
learn. Just as Montessori diplomas are different from ordinary
credentials, I suspect that Montessori diplomacy may be of a different
order from that played by the brinksmanship of Kissinger and the

… I rest
my confidence in the knowledge that if power corrupts and absolute
power corrupts absolutely, then learning liberates and universal
learning liberates universally. And universal learning is peace
in action. [pp. 33-34]

Note the keen
recognition of the state's lies and corruption and use of education
for propaganda. It is thus no surprise to learn that Maria Montessori,
as the Inspector of schools in Italy, refused to use the education
system to produce soldiers for Mussolini. As noted here:
"In 1922 she was appointed Inspector of Schools in Italy. She
lost that position when she refused to have her young charges take
the fascist oath as the dictator Mussolini required." More
detail is provided here:

in 1929 Montessori
opened the Association Montessori International in the Netherlands,
with another center following in 1947 in London. The political
world had its own affairs in the works however, most notably the
rise of fascism in Italy and the spread of Germany’s Nazi regime.
Montessori found herself under dire pressure to turn her schools
into training centers, to mass-produce soldiers for the war. Naturally
she refused, and for a brief time she and son Mario were interred.
Freed and then exiled by Mussolini, they fled from Italy, taking
refuge initially in Spain and India, and finally the Netherlands.

believed the reason we have war, and not peace, is not only because
of false conceptions of peace, but because the nature of the child
was neglected during education, leading to moral paralysis and morally
stunted individuals who have no defenses to resist the state's propaganda
and demands for war. And the reason for this was a misconception
regarding the nature of the child and his relation to the adult,
and about the proper method of education.

As she wrote:

The child
and the adult are two distinct parts of humanity which must work
together and interpenetrate with reciprocal aid.

it is not only the adult who must help the child, but also the
child who must help the adult. Nay more! In the critical moment
of history through which we are passing the assistance of the
child has become a paramount necessity for all men. Hitherto the
evolution of human society has come about solely around the wish
of the adult. Never with the wish of the child. Thus the figure
of the child has remained outside our mind as we have built up
the material form of society. And because of this the progress
of humanity may be compared to that of a man trying to advance
on one leg instead of two. [Quoted in E.M. Standing, Maria
Montessori: Her Life and Work
(1998 [1957]), p. 81.]

A key insight
by Montessori here is the realization that children create the

Each of
us has not always been a grown-up person; it was the child who
constructed our personality. Before we became the important adult
personage we are now, the respected member of society, we were
another personality — very different, very mysterious — but not
considered by the world, at all; not respected; of no importance
whatever; with no say in the running of things. Yet all that time
we were really a personality capable of doing something that we
cannot do now. He who is the constructor of man can never be a
person of no importance. He is capable of doing something great,
like a seed. It is only when w realize the wonderful way in which
the child creates the man that we realize, tat the same time,
that we hold in our hands a secret by which we can help in the
formulation of a better humanity. (Just the opposite of a secret
weapon to destroy it." (Quoted in Standing, Maria
Montessori: Her Life and Work
, pp. 157-58.)

In sum, Maria
Montessori argues that the only way to reach world peace is to educate
the young according to their nature, to produce naturally peaceful
"citizens of the world." Her vision is grandiose and her
language grandiloquent, metaphorical, and flowery. But she is right.
This is exactly is why I think economic education, in particular,
is so important. Maria Montessori's vision, I think, was of a Montessori-type
educational system sweeping the world and transforming the next
generation, so that when they matured, the world would reach a state
of peace and cooperation (though I have not found any formulation
so explicit; she was probably too modest). A grand, ambitious vision,
to be sure, but one to be admired. In fact Maria Montessori was
nominated three
for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Whether her
particular educational methods are "the way" to unlock
the civilized potential of budding humans, I do not know. But, as
always, hope is with the young — something recognized by Montessorians
and libertarians alike. And on that note, I'll close with the closing
words of E.M. Standing's biography of Montessori:

It is along
this path that the nations of the world will progress most surely
towards that harmony foretold by the prophet, when "the wolf
shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together — and
a little child shall lead them." [p. 370]


28, 2011

Kinsella [send him
] is an attorney in Houston, director of the Center
for the Study of Innovative Freedom
, and editor of Libertarian
. His website is

2011 Stephan Kinsella

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