The Timeless Human Spirit
by Renilde Montessori
Presented at the 1988 International Study Conference, “Education for the Twenty-First Century,” in Washington D.C., this seminal lecture by the late Renilde Montessori captures the essential vision of Montessori education as a timeless support to human development. Renilde Montessori’s prescient words, spoken years before the turn of the century, describing the needs of the human spirit and the challenges confronting human civilization, still ring true today.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the global village needs a universal philosophy of education. Whether we like it or not, we have become one large community. We have totally covered our planet’s surface and we are inextricably bound together, caught in the complex network of our economy, victims of an inexorable onslaught of information pelting away at us like a never-ending storm of meteorites.
When life was less complex and human feelings were sparsely scattered over the earth, education was a simple matter. Children came into the world and adapted to the ways of their society with the help and encouragement of their elders. Education was immediate, relevant, and it dealt with comprehensible matters.
Over the past few centuries, technology and the sciences have evolved exponentially and information has accumulated exorbitantly. The three Rs have become an entire alphabet times three. Educators are confronted with the overwhelming task of conveying as many facts as possible to our children, who are condemned to an undeserved, to them incomprehensible, sentence from the time they are infants to their mid-20s. They are imprisoned in the unwieldy contraptions that educational systems have become. Reminiscent of great, clumsy, disgruntled machines, these systems laboriously grind information into bits and pour it like cement onto the minds of our children.
This, of course, creates problems because the human mind cannot assimilate cement. As a result, we have become masters of the remedy. An enormous percentage of the world’s professions are dedicated to solving problems that should never have arisen in the first place.
The horror of it all is that we find this normal.
A rather foolish man once said: “The fact that so many people undergo psychotherapy is a sign of mental health.”
A very intelligent man once explained why he moved from Chicago to Toronto: He was beginning to take it for granted that his children were not safe in the streets, that he himself drove around the block if someone unknown stood in front of his home, in short, that life had become dangerous.
We cannot take for granted that our children need remedial help in all areas and at all stages of their development. Wise people are alarmed, for the very good reason that humanity, like every living entity, tends towards wholesome growth. And when we build systems that become cumbersome and irrelevant, we sooner or later trash them and we begin again to look to see whether some other means is available to achieve our ends.
Perhaps because of this phenomenon, one hears these days much talk about taking Montessori into the 21st century. This creates the disquieting image of a solid body of precepts, injunctions, and exhortations; a package of barnacle-encrusted theories; an ancient artifact rusting away in cold but shallow waters that now is to be brought to the surface again, oiled again, so it may creak its way into our Brave New World; the world after the year 2000; that strangely significant, totally arbitrary milestone: The Dawn of the Third Millennium.
Montessori education is not an artifact, ancient or otherwise; it is not a static method, it is not a bundle of theories that is sometimes applicable, sometimes not. Trying to define Montessori education brings to mind the legend of the child emptying the ocean by thimblefuls onto a tiny hollow in the sand; or in another intellectual quadrant, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where, after several million years, the ultimate answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and all that is is found to be 42.
The definition of Montessori education cannot be reduced to a bland formula, because in its vastness and in its minute detail it is fluid and expansive like life itself. Indeed, Maria Montessori defined her pedagogy in the best possible way: “Education as an aid to life”; education as an aid to the spirit of life as it finds expression in the human species.
“And this is perhaps what is needed at this point in our evolution: a mode of education that, rather than dealing with the impossible task of conveying a myriad of facts and techniques, responds directly to the exigencies of the human spirit.”
And this is perhaps what is needed at this point in our evolution: a mode of education that, rather than dealing with the impossible task of conveying a myriad of facts and techniques, responds directly to the exigencies of the human spirit.
Undeniably, our temporal existence is in dire straits, to the detriment of our entire planet. It is commonplace to clamor about the danger we represent to ourselves and to the habitat we have in common with so many other, varied, intricate, fascinating species. We have become a giant, ill-conducted choir composed entirely of Cassandras, bewailing in tedious cacophony our evils and shortcomings and the doom that threatens due to our abject acquiesence in our own debility. This is a cop-out, unworthy of our human condition.
Accepting and condoning our weakness is an act of sabotage against life itself. The human spirit, that human spirit that we should first and foremost consider when we think of education, is glorious, enthusiastic; it is luminous, daring, grandiose, and infinitely delicate; melancholy, mirthful, tragic, passionate; earthy and ethereal; inquisitive, contemplative; tender, sorrowful, and joyous. Above all it is robust.
Admittedly, when its inherent sturdiness is allowed to dwindle and become petty, mean, fearful, puny, humorless, and bleak a terrible sin has been committed, for life is then reduced to something we must cope with as best we can instead of perceiving it for what it is: a gift, a privilege, a source of delight, and a cause for celebration. It is with this conviction that we should educate our children. They come into the world with unlimited potential, their spirit clean and bright and shining, eager to embrace the marvels of existence, energetically striving to take in and interact with their environment. As adults it is incumbent upon us to understand, to be alert and acutely aware of the force which impels our children to so passionately pursue their human tendencies.
Maria Montessori, in Education and Peace, speaks of this force as a “…kind of love that is not transitory, that does not change, that does not die…love for one’s environment…. The love of one’s environment is the secret of all man’s progress and the secret of social evolution…. Love of the environment inspires man to learn, to study, to work.”
To learn, to study, to work—these fundamental human tendencies so forcefully present in our children, when taken out of the context of the human spirit, become a stark skeleton upon which education is raggedly hung, becoming “we teach and you study, and the work is hard.” There is a punitive element, “a buckle-down-kiddo-or-else” quality about this attitude towards education. Education then becomes a travesty of the vital process it should be. Most frightening, that which should be a process of enrichment becomes an exercise in impoverishment because the goals we set of education are poor, limited, and limiting.
There is an old adage, “Man does not live by bread alone.” To bring this saying up to date would require several pages if it were to describe the material necessities we nowadays consider as indispensable as bread. And education is reduced to drab mathematical formulae: This packet of education will buy you that many things. With this amount of education, you will be worth that much on the job market. With this accumulation of facts you will receive such and such a degree of recognition. Where, in all of this, is the essence of true learning, the spirit that urges us to learn because we so love our environment?
There is a terrible sadness in a building that is abandoned before its construction is complete, that becomes a ruin before it ever contained life. There was great desolation when men first landed on the moon and found no trace of living things.
In Education and Peace, Maria Montessori writes: “The human being needs to know things, and he is much more capable of learning spontaneously than we have supposed. It is also true, however, that if a child’s intelligence is not stimulated, he withdraws, and his interest flags. The majority of children are thus condemned to waste their childhood and never realize their potential.”
A child who has never realized his potential inspires a sense of bereavement similar to but infinitely greater than a building abandoned, a planet that never harbored life.
We may not want life after death, but certainly we want life before death.
We want our ruins alive with ghosts and memories, we want to find a record of our past existence.
There was recently a television documentary on underwater archeology. It showed a group of people with very little money and scant equipment who were diving in a remarkably chilly-looking lake to search for objects in an ancient sunken village. One diver appeared with a wooden ladle—complete, well-preserved, and in itself quite beautiful. But the true beauty of the old spoon was to be seen in the diver’s reverent posture as he held with loving hands this humble object like a sacred symbol—for he was touching something used two thousand years ago by people who could have been ourselves long past.
We love the written records of our ancestors. Finding the Dead Sea Scrolls was a source of deepest emotion. We still mourn the great library of Alexandria.
In an essay entitled A Holocaust of Words, Lance Morrow writes: “The library in Leningrad burned for a night and a day. By the time the fire was out at the National Academy of Sciences, 400,000 books had been incinerated…. The mind cracks a little in contemplating a holocaust of words. No one died in the fire. And yet whenever books burn, one is haunted by a sense of mourning. For book are not inanimate objects, not really, and the death of books, especially by fire, especially in such numbers has the power of a kind of tragedy. Books are life forms, children of the mind. Words (in the beginning was the Word) have about them some of the mystery of creation…the Leningrad fire was a natural disaster. Deliberate book burning seems not only criminal but evil…. One can live with the thought of one’s own death. It is the thought of the death of words and books that is terrifying. For that is the deeper extinction.”
We cherish the expressions of our love for the environment, past and present; for literature, music, dance, the visual arts, the sciences—all are a celebration of life.
We love ourselves and our achievements, great and small; we love the places and the orders of our daily life, our moments of glory, our pomp and circumstances, our knowledge. Above all, we love to learn about ourselves and about all the truths that lie beyond ourselves, and yet are part of us within the realm of our spiritual biosphere. Colin Turnbull, in The Human Cycle, tells this story:
“There is a tale: An African child, drinking from a body of water, saw on the shimmering surface the reflection of a beautiful bird. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. But looking upward, he knew that the bird had already gone. He sought it throughout his adolescence and throughout his youth…. The quest continues through adulthood and the hunter who has become a hunter after truth, is always one step behind his quarry. Village after village tells him it has just left, heading northward. In his old age the hunter reaches the lower slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, and is told that the bird has been seen high up on the snowy summit. With the last of his strength, the old man, whose quest began with the vision of a child, climbs laboriously up the mountainside. Nowhere does he see any trace of the great bird he has devoted his life to finding.
“Finally, he reaches the top and he knows that his quest is over, for up there in the equatorial snow and ice there is no bird, nothing but emptiness. He lies down to wait for the end, recalling the vision of his childhood, content with a life well spent, for he had been lucky enough to find beauty once and in his heart he had never lost it.
“And as he closed his eyes for the last time on an empty sky, he called on the name of his mother, who had given him such a wonderful and joyous life. And as he stretched out his arms in a final gesture, his open hands upturned, down from the sky came a solitary feather and settled in one hand. The hand closed slowly, then held it as tightly in death as the vision of beauty had been held during life.”
Most poignant in this lovely story is the child’s initial perception of beauty—of the beauty of existence, of the infinite beauty of truth to be sought. It is devastating to realize how poorly we respond to the purity of this perception. It should be the guiding light in the education of our children. Instead, we all too often educate them with what seems to be deliberate perverseness, to become hollow.
There are two laudatory expressions that evoke the image of highly detestable individuals: “He has a mind like a steel trap,” and, “He has all the answers.”
The mind like a steel trap seems to be in a state of painful tenacity, an unkind mind, baleful and unenlightened. It inspires compassion, for to paraphrase D.T. Suzuki in a definition of Zen Buddhism, education should be based on “freedom, giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts. Generally, we are blind to this fact that we are in possession of all the necessary facilities that will make us happy and loving towards one another.”
The pathetic anxiety of the man with all the answers precludes happiness—the joy of learning for its own sake, the infinitely satisfying, unending quest for understanding. The man with all the answers unashamedly parades his weakness as he claws his way from ledge to insecure ledge, finding precarious footing in an illusion of arrival at non-existent absolutes.
The steel trap does not allow for lovingness—it is a cold vise that negates learning as defined by Krishnamurti:
“Learning is the very essence of humility, learning from everything and everybody. There is no hierarchy in learning. Authority denies learning and a follower will never learn.”
Both the man in authority and the follower are unfree and therefore irresponsible. The sane human neither leads nor follows but functions independently in an interdependent society. The only valid form of leadership is the temporary assumption of responsibility when required; the only acceptable follower is the one who uses his prerogative of joyful obedience, firmly, wisely, and constructively for the good of himself and others.
“...human beings, if they are to fulfill their potential, need to learn to study, to work; to observe, to explore, to question; and having found the answer, discover with great cheer that it leads to further questions; to search for truth, content to know that ultimate truth will not be ours; to strive for goodness which once achieved will allow us to strive for greater goodness.”
This ramble through some perceptions and definitions of what education should be and should not be seems to indicate that human beings, if they are to fulfill their potential, need to learn to study, to work; to observe, to explore, to question; and having found the answer, discover with great cheer that it leads to further questions; to search for truth, content to know that ultimate truth will not be ours; to strive for goodness which once achieved will allow us to strive for greater goodness.
And all of this, with hardness, in freedom, as fully-functioning, independent individuals, driven by the love that lies at the very roots of our existence: love for our environment.
Does Montessori education provide for these human needs? Can it indeed lead us into the 21st century?
The Montessori philosophy of education has in common with many of the great philosophies an earthy spirituality. It is unique in that it provides clear and explicit guidelines for helping the human being achieve his potential. Therefore, one can safely say yes, Montessori education can lead us into the 21st century. It serves humanity now and will do so in the 21st century and beyond throughout time, for so long as humanity exists, for so long as it is understood for the stern, elegant discipline it really is.
And for so long as we continue to understand that when Maria Montessori enjoins us to follow the child, we are dealing with a triple paradox. At one and the same time, we follow our children, we guide our children, and we walk by their side, matching our steps to theirs, aware that they are lead by the one teacher we must all joyfully obey.
For in the end, education as an aid to life heeds only life itself. By following the child, we follow the timeless human spirit, the spirit “that is inherently capable of a kind of love that is not transitory, that does not change, that does not die.”
© AMI/USA 2014