Montessori, Peace, and Libertarianism

Previously 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 Method. Many libertarians may have heard of this approach because Ayn Rand had positive things to say 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.

Accreditation. There is apparently no Montessori trademark, meaning any school can hold itself out as being "Montessori." Some are officially accredited by 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 (AMS).

The history 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.

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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]

Ultimately, 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 Development. 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

Recent research 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.

Teachers 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:

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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.

Students 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 atmosphere.

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

Three-year 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 comparable.)

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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.

Fantasy 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 method takes the opposite approach 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 too.

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Reading 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.

(Incidentally, the Suzuki method 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]

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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.

Eventually 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 Homework. 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.

Peace. 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 Out 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]

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

Montessori 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 views.

Skepticism 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.

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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 learning, 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 like.

… 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.

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Montessori 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.

Therefore 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 adult.

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 times 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]

Further Reading

April 28, 2011