A new hope and a new vision. It’s one of Montessori’s quotes that finds its way across the scope of novice teacher’s philosophy essays, or school brochures, or t-shirts about Montessori. It’s a simple and manageable turn-of-phrase, a reminder to us that we care differently for children because children offer hope and the potential for a better future.
It’s a good quote.
Remember what precedes it:
“You cannot create man, but you can make him more perfect by acting upon the psychic embryo. This gives great power to the adults and to education because it confers control over psychic growth and psychic development. This power is immense if we compare it to the power society has had when it acted merely upon the adult.”
Montessori is writing after the trauma of World War !!, as witness to the ways in which political regimes manipulated young people to be able to carry forward dangerous ideas. She is not speaking from a Pollyanna optimism, some Hallmark card on the birth of a new baby with romanticized language about new life and new promise. She is reminding us that the impact of adults on the development of children can be for good, but just as easily for bad. Her witness elevates the urgency of her message, a message which still chimes true so many years later.
And it we take it seriously, it forces us to think differently not only about the structures of school and the particular curricula we fund, but about all of the experiences a child has. We have to think not only about what they learn when we intend to teach them, but what they’re learning all of the rest of the time, about our responsibility for each other, about our stewardship of the earth, about how we value human life and when we begin to value it.
The child is absorbing it all. Their observations in early childhood become their native tongue, the psychological “home towns” from which they will direct themselves as adults. If those spaces enact hatred, hatred will be their mother tongue. If they enact bigotry, bigotry will be their mother tongue. If they are hostile, then hostility. If they are competitive, then competition.
But what if children became fluent in stewardship? What if they were fluent in compassion? What if, instead of growing in a culture that protected power for people who had always had power, they were raised to look for the ways in which they could lift people up? What if, instead of being compared to other children and measured against national standards that valued some economies over other, they were allowed to incarnate themselves and encouraged to support the same in others?
It’s hard to model, when these qualities have not been our mother tongue. Even if we know there’s a different way of doing this, we’ve never seen in before. We’re learning it while we’re building it, and, as adults, we are the least well equipped for the evolution it demands.
We’re like foreign speakers trying to teach a language which we have only recently learned.
There are going to be grammatical errors.
We won’t get it right all the time.
But what if children became fluent in humility, in self-reflection and persistence? What if they became fluent in vulnerability, in being open to change, even when that change is hard, even when it means giving up what we are confident in and moving faithfully toward a horizon we haven’t yet mapped? We can enact that. We may stumble on the accents, but we can do this work.
Indeed, we have to. And if we remain committed to speaking this new language, as best as we can, even though we are self-conscious of our accents, even though we may use the wrong word sometimes, we’ll get better at it. Montessori hopes for more understanding, greater welfare, greater spirituality. Not perfect. Just more. If, each day, we offer more understanding, greater welfare, greater spirituality, even incrementally, we move toward a new fluency in ourselves, and a new native tongue for our children. A new hope and a new vision.
* A response to Chapter 6: Man’s Universality, The Absorbent Mind. M. Montessori