The Oppression of the Child
“No social problem is as universal as the oppression of the child” ― Maria Montessori
Of Montessori's many revolutionary ideas, one of the most essential redefines the nature of childhood. Imagine 19th century Italy, early industrialism and the rough conditions of compact urban centers. Imagine what it means to be a child in that culture, left by your parents during the day to fend for yourself while they work or, worse, responsible yourself to earn an income. Montessori's first school is founded almost twenty years before the League of Nations' Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and forty years before the United Nations adopts it, and seventy-five years before the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Declaration, adopted in 1924, asserts that:
The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.
The child that is hungry must be fed, the child that is sick must be nursed, the child that is backward must be helped, the delinquent child must be reclaimed, and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succoured.
The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress.
The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation.
The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow men.
Montessori's world was one in which the idea that children would be fed, healed and nurtured was revolutionary, one in which protection from exploitation and shelter even in poverty was ground-breaking, one in which the idea that children's lives have purpose required saying out loud.
As Montessorians, we commit ourselves to end the oppression of the child. Our classrooms are designed to be spaces that preserve the essential worthiness of the child, reflective of the belief that children are inherently good, that they are essentially peaceful and that they are intrinsically motivated to learn. The ways in which we organize our curriculum would not work were this premise not true. The language we use, or the freedoms children enjoy, or the ability of teachers to step out of a classroom without the children noticing: they all confirm those basic tenets of the philosophy.
And they are universal, across time and across culture, across political borders and the changing fads of school reform. As parents, teachers, advocates, and Montessorians, we know that our obligation to the child does not end at our own classroom door. Montessori helped to change the way we think about children, in revolutionary ways. Other thinkers and leaders in her lifetime articulated those beliefs publicly. But there's still work to do, both in policy and practice. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted in 1989, expands the articulated rights of children. It was ratified by all but three of the UN's member nations. In 2015, two of the remaining outliers, Somalia and South Sudan, ratified it, leaving the United States as the only UN member state not to have adopted the protections of the Convention.
Every day, we choose Montessori to preserve these rights to the children in our care. But it would be a disservice to her work to think that we are the fulfillment of her vision. Montessori left us a challenging legacy, to use our classrooms not merely for the protection of the children within them, but as a model to the rest of the world. Our Cultural materials, our Grace and Courtesy lessons, the civil-mindedness seeded in the society by cohesion of the Early Childhood classrooms and in full bloom in the Erdkinders: remember that these are the starting point. We have so much work left to do. In our classrooms, in our schools, our homes and our communities, we have so much work left to do.
“This is what is intended by education as a help to life; an education from birth that brings about a revolution: a revolution that eliminates every violence, a revolution in which everyone will be attracted towards a common center. Mothers, fathers, statesmen all will be centered upon respecting and aiding this delicate construction which is carried on in psychic mystery following the guide of an inner teacher. This is the new shining hope for humanity. It is not so much a reconstruction, as an aid to the construction carried out by the human soul as it is meant to be, developed in all the immense potentialities with which the new-born child is endowed.” ― Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind