I have been aware of Maria Montessori and her educational “movement” (as its often referred to) as part of the spectrum of educational alternatives available mostly to more well-to-do families who can afford the tuition to send their kids to a private Montessori school. There are over 3000 such schools in the United States today and more than 20,000 around the world. I have read about her early work researching child development, opening her first school in her native Italy and how she became a star of the progressive education world in Europe and the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century.
I am both intrigued and troubled by the fact that her ideas about creating a developmentally appropriate environment for children seem to have had so little impact on our public education system in what are conventionally the preschool and elementary school years. In digging a little deeper into the history, it seems her innovative ideas suffered a similar fate as the ideas of other “holistic” educators like John Dewey, succumbing to the “business efficiency” movement in education in the second and third decades of the 20th century.
Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. Overcoming barriers to women, she managed to gain a degree in the natural sciences from the University of Rome and, despite opposition from students and faculty, fight her way into medical school at the University, finally graduating in 1896 as a doctor of medicine. Her early career involved working with mentally disabled young people and researching ways to help them overcome their developmental challenges. As part of that research she read everything that had been published in the previous 200 years regarding education theory, and applied this wisdom to improving her efforts on behalf of this specially challenged group.
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I love the narratives of human history, especially when compelling threads can be drawn out (hopefully real and not just imagined) connecting events, choices and consequences over the scope of centuries. I am particularly drawn to contemplating how a particular event, and how people chose to react to that event, can impact events centuries later. For example, the cynical machismo of Western leaders (along with their countries’ intellectuals and artists) driving choices that lead to World War I. One could argue that this power struggle at the expense of cultural suicide destroyed the “immune system” of Western culture and led to the “cancers” that followed: economic depression; the growth of totalitarian states driven by fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism; and the wars (hot and cold) and other holocausts that they perpetrated on their fellow humans throughout the century.
In a less apocalyptic vein, I have been contemplating these past few days another historical narrative thread that links Napoleon Bonaparte and particularly his victory over the Prussians at the 1806 battle of Jena with the development of the public school system in America and the continuing educational controversies, dysfunction and dilemma that we have in that area today. I was inspired by a comment made by a reader of my blog piece “Schooled to Accept Economic Inequity”, regarding my reference to the Prussian influence in the development of the U.S. public school system.
I first read about that Prussian connection in John Taylor Gatto‘s book, The Underground History of American Education, a book which has shaken and reshaped my whole conception of education as much as Riane Eisler‘s book, The Chalice and the Blade, has reshaped my understanding of human history and the challenge of that history today. It is Gatto’s insight which I then try to put into Eisler’s framework of a continuing cultural thread of patriarchal top-down control.
From Chapter Seven of Gatto’s book, focused on the U.S. education system’s Prussian connection…
The particular utopia American believers chose to bring to the schoolhouse was Prussian. The seed that became American schooling, twentieth-century style, was planted in 1806 when Napoleon’s amateur soldiers bested the professional soldiers of Prussia at the battle of Jena. When your business is renting soldiers and employing diplomatic extortion under threat of your soldiery, losing a battle like that is pretty serious. Something had to be done. (Gatto page 131)
You may think it a stretch, but I think it is at least a good story with truth to it. A narrative thread of how the patriarchal control paradigm perpetuates itself within a larger context of human civilization’s transition from hierarchies of power and control towards a circle of equals. So here goes… Continue reading →
This is the title of a book by Raymond Callahan first published in 1962, but brought to my attention in the suggested reading list in radical educator John Taylor Gatto‘s book, The Underground History of American Education. Callahan’s book focuses on the history of the public education system in the U.S. in the first three decades of the 20th century, and his premise that, the system was transformed into a business-industrial model which one could argue continues to this day. Perhaps we have seen a resurgence of that business-industrial model in recent decades with curriculum standardization, scripted teaching methodologies, high-stakes testing, the growth of and “education-industrial complex” and efforts to exert more external top-down control over teachers.
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There are at least two misnomers out there today about the beginnings of the U.S. public school system…
1. That it was set up to to bring basic instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic to the children whose families did not have the means to hire tutors or send their children to private schools.
2. That it was set up on the factory model to train workers to work in the proliferating factories of the beginnings of industrialism in the first half of the 19th Century.
Though our public schools eventually adopted the “three R’s” and the factory model of timed classes, bells and such, those were later “innovations”.
The reality of the beginnings of U.S. public schools is quite different, and a fascinating book to read on this subject is The Myth of the Common School, written by Charles Leslie Glenn Jr. in the mid 1980s. The “Common school” being the original name given to the universal one-size-fits-all public schools envisioned and developed by Horace Mann and other education reformers of the early 19th Century.
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In my previous blog piece, “Teachers Take Control of a Detroit School”, I got generally positive comments on Daily KOS on the good news this story represented for progressives. One commenter, a former teacher, wished they could have been involved in such a school, while instead…
I taught in secondary schools for sixteen years. I left because I had two choices… 1. Fight constantly with administrators, school boards, district officials et al for the freedom to teach the best possible curriculum with the best possible methodology for the students in my classroom… OR 2. Blindly follow the wishes of all of the above people regarding curriculum and methodology to the detriment of my students… I got tired of fighting and left the profession. I would give anything to teach in a school like this where teachers and students matter more than filling out forms that confirm that standard 12.1.3 Letter H was taught on school day 42.
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