“There is nothing in this world which does not form part of a universal economy; and if we have spiritual richness, aesthetic greatness, it is not for ourselves. It is part of the spiritual, universal economy and must be used for the universe.”

 

For a philosophy that seems to be focused on the development of the individual, Montessori herself reminds us that it is not the perfection of the individual that we are striving toward in our work, but the capacity of the individual to contribute to the perfection of humanity. 

 

We work toward our own self-improvement because we are the only ones capable of achieving it, but because its value is for the improvement of us all. 

 

Think about this in relation to the children’s work, and to our work as caregivers to the children. If we accept the proposition, it leads us to two other implications. First, that the life of the community is greater than the sum of its parts. And second, that we cannot only be motivated by what improves us, but that we need to place that obligation as a responsibility to our society. We work to strengthen our skills, to develop, to progress, not for our own wallets, but for the universal economy. 

 

How would decisions be made differently if we enacted this belief? If, in each of our “have-to’s” we recognized that the benefit was not only to us personally, but that we were, collectively, responsible to each other. Would we be protective about the strategies we use in our own classrooms, or would we share them generously with other teachers? Would we cast judgment on parents who are struggling with their responsibilities, or would we offer our support in the complicated juggling of adulthood and childhood? 

 

And more, would we trust that others believed it, too? Would we ask for the help we need without fear of people learning we aren’t perfect? (They already know.) Would we struggle along alone or would we risk reaching out even if it means we might give up some of our expertise? (It’s pretend anyway.) Would we stay alone when we feel alone, or would we say it out loud and trust that our people (they’re all our people) would offer us companionship. 

 

If we embrace Montessori’s proposal of this universal economy, despite it being slipped in almost like a side note in a chapter almost entirely devoted to movement, it elevates the mundane qualities of our lives. We know, then, that what she calls “aesthetic greatness” is not something to be admired in museums or on special occasions, but that each of our movements, each interaction with our environment, each relationship we hold has the potential (and, therefore, the mandate to us to try to reach that potential) of being holy. Montessori is challenging us to live with a different kind of mindfulness, not restricted to a few moments of stress-reduction at the beginning of the day or an evening routine of journaling, but a nobility of movement throughout our lives, an embodiment of our spiritual selves, expressed through the actions we take. 

 

All of them. Putting the spoons away in the drawers and caring for the garden. How we move across a space and whether we make eye contact with our children when they are telling us something important to them. If each of these movements, seemingly pedestrian, is the outcome of the special intelligence of humans, then we have a responsibility not to take them for granted. 

 

And even if we don’t believe that our enactment of that aesthetic matters to Montessori’s universal economy, there’s no doubt that it influences the children. When we move mindfully, they move mindfully. When we speak carefully, they speak carefully. When we love gently, they love gently. They are absorbing it all. 

 

When I was a novice teacher, I noticed a child in our classroom whose behavior piqued my curiosity. Tiny in all ways, this little girl had the effect of a spring breeze in our classroom. She moved with such a smoothness, especially for a three year old, that she seemed truly airborne. She was pink skinned, wore a short pixie haircut and the only feature that wasn’t petite were her enormous blue eyes. And before starting any material, she’d breathe in quietly, slide her right hand over her right ear, slide her left hand over her left ear, breathe out, then begin. It made no sense to me. Why did she insist on touching her ears whenever she started a lesson? Yes, they were adorable and poked out like elf ears, but surely she didn’t find her own ears as delightful as I did. I mentioned it to my coteacher, a far more experienced teacher who was often exasperated with me. “Why do you think she does that?” I asked. “Because you do,” she replied simply. “Every time you offer a lesson, you tuck your hair behind your ears first.” 

 

She was right. I had long hair then and, after sitting down and modeling noticing the materials, my hair often hung down by my cheeks. I would tuck my hair behind my ears, first on the right side (my dominant hand) and then on the left. Jessie noticed this. She took it in as a part of every lesson and, of course, she incorporated it. 

 

We work toward our own self-improvement because we are the only ones capable of achieving it, but because its value is for the improvement of us all. We analyze each movement of our hand during our teacher education programs not merely because we want to memorize the same lessons, but because we are growing toward an aesthetic perfection of those movements. We think before we speak because we seek to communicate with grace and exactness. We move with intentionality because, in doing so, we contribute to a more beautiful world. One which we will enjoy, no doubt, but, more importantly, the one that will of use to the child, and ultimately of use to the universe.

 

* A response to Chapter 13: Movement and Total Development The Absorbent Mind M. Montessori 

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