Dr Montessori's "old age"

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Fri, 2006-08-25 23:50

A thread begun by Kelly Elmore with a picture of her baby, just off to Montessori school, was interrupted by a contributor with the breathless exhortation that "Maria Montessori was a genius, but unfortunately she became a Fascist in her old age, and some 'Montessori Schools' teach a Fascist version."

So often so short of perspective, once again this contributor put in his contribution and came out with a lemon. What drives people to cut down heroes and heroines with snide onliners I'll leave as an exercise for the reader. What drives a so-called Objectivist who should know better I'll leave as another exercise, one for which the Objectivist literature itself provides a useful clue.

So what’s the truth about Dr Montessori? And as all good Objectivists should be asking, what’s the context? (And what on earth was the relevance to that original discussion?) That's what I'll focus on here.

First of all, was the Montessori system fascist?

No, of course it wasn’t. Dr Maria Montessori (1870-1952) had a competely open hand in the running of her classroms in Fascist Italy from 1922-1934 -- indeed, they were the same schools with the same Montessori Method that had already been set up in England, USA, Canada, India, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Austria, Belgium, The Netherlands and in many countries elsewhere: they offered to all children freedom within a prepared environment.

The Method is sufficiently well-described in the Objectivist literature by both Ayn Rand and Beatrice Hessen that I would have expected every Objectivist to be sufficiently familiar with them to be immune from such facile charges. Apparently however I was wrong.

So how did Montessori get involved with a fascist government?

She was seduced in 1921 back to open and re-open and to close failing Montessori schools in Italy at the invitation of the post-war Italian Government (pre-dating Mussolini's 1922 March on Rome) and at the behest of her great supporter and friend Antonino Anile, then Minister of Education (he succeeded philosopher Benedetto Croce). During this period she was living in Barcelona, and spending much of her time setting up and running the Montessori training course in London, and spreading the word around the world. Her main personal involvement was from 1930-34 when she ran a Montessori teacher-training course in Rome.

According to Rita Kramer, both Mussolini and Dr Montessori thought they would both get something out of the association: "Mussolini was hardly interested in a nation of independent thinkers, in providing a prepared environment in which spontaneous activity would liberate the child's potential to the fullest..." What he saw was the opportunity to have a world-famous Italian heroine associated with his "new kind of government," and a whole nation of children who could read and write by three or four.

Dr Montessori saw the opportunity to return to the country of her birth to set up government-sponsored Montessori schools as too good an opportunity to miss. (I briefly describe her early days in Rome here.)

Biographer Rita Kramer says "she felt she could use the power given her by the government to accompish her long-range educational goals, to reform education through the unique opportunity offered by this government to implement her sysgtem through the nation's schools."

What Dr Montesssori wanted out of it, after many earlier disappointments in her homeland, was to resurrect the Montessori movement in the country in which it had begun, just as she suggested in her famous 1926 address to the League of Nations on 'Education and Peace,' "not so much to invent a teaching method as to establish the right of every child to grow to its full stature, spiritual and physical, helped and not hindered by the adult." What her Method offered with respect to lasting Peace, she explained, was a the development of independent, mature adults who would be immune to the blandishments of men "with the aim of destroying one another."

Her experience in Italy was to show that such an aim was perhaps a trifle optimistic.

By 1930 some seventy-four Montessori schools were in operation in Italy (and several hundred more around the world), and she began a teaching course in Rome -- one hundred teachers from twenty-one different nations. But by 1934, when the first graduates of her Case dei Bambini emerged only to put on the blackshirts of the fascists and the government insisted on uniform-wearing and fascist salutes in the classroom, she knew it was over.

Rita Kramer describes the end: "Why Montessori drew the line at this particular decision is not clear. After all, she had closed her eyes to so much else. Perhaps the bloom of hope had rubbed off with the accumulation of small frustrations, the daily increment of observable repression and brutality that could no longer be denied. In any case, in a single day Montessori schools ceased to exist in Italy."

The relationship was to end with her schools in Italy closed, her exile from the country of her birth, and her books and effigies of her burned in Rome, Vienna and Berlin.

She moved back to Barcelona, then to Amsterdam and then to India, where in fact she did most of her later writing while teaching thousands of new Montessori directresses her Method -- and her Method is still widely recognised across India.

Was she a fascist?

Well, no she wasn't -- no more than 'We the Living' was a fascist film because it was produced in Fascist Italy. Dr Montessori was apolitical, naive perhaps, but she was no fascist. Bear in mind this was a period in which many countries around the world, including the US, were enthusiastically adopting Mussolini's corporatist model -- the New Deal in part and the NRA as a whole were modelled on the 'successes' of Fascist Italy. Much like the Soviet Union in these years, and as Wikipedia reports, "In the beginning Mussolini was given support from all political spectrums in Italy, from lefists to democrats." Until the pact with Hitler (1936) and the Ethiopian adventure (1934 on) it was seen around the world by far too many as something to emulate, not something to shun.

As her strongly anti-fascist friends the Brauns said of Mussolini's assistance during this period, "He helped so much, and that was enough."

At her 'homecoming' in Italy she returned as Rita Kramer descibes "as a heroine" -- "she was not the first to dream of returning to Rome in glory... It would have taken more political acument than Montessori possessed ... to resist such a homecoming, the realization of that very human dream we all have of comeing back to where we began our lives to be honored for what we have made of ourselves since. The rest of the world had heaped honours on her [honorary degrees and doctorates; keys of the cityand the like]; to the child within every man and woman the only honor that counts is the honor of the home."

Among the many honorary honours to be "heaped upon her" was the dubiously awarded "honary membership of the fascist party," bestowed on her by a Fascist Womens Organisation at a function she didn't attend, and didn't invite. However she herself when "asked how she could reconcile her role as a fighter for the social rights of children with the actions of a particular regime Montessori simply answered, as she did to a reporter in Vienna in December 1930, "I do not belong to any existing political party."

Dr Montessori was not a fascist.

Did she become a fascist in her "old age" then?

No, she didn't. Her "old age" was spent largely in India and England and Amsterdam, not in Italy. In 1939 when she flew from London to India to give a training course in Madras attended by over 300 students, she began a ten-year mission to establish her Method in India, at which she was successful. Of this period biographer E.M. Standing writes "As a matter of fact during those ten years she was as active as ever. Inded it is true to say that this astonishing old lady at the age of seventy -- when most persons have already been retired for some years -- actually began one of the most interesting and important phases of her already remarkable life."

A life that too many moral pygmies take too much pleasure in tearing down.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright who lived over similar years, both were active to the very end. Like Frank Lloyd Wright too, her life was one of genius, accomplishment, and adventure. And like Frank Lloyd Wright and like heroes and heroines across time, she had and has people who sought to cut her down. Architect Philip Johnson once said of Wright that he hated him, "hated him for his genius." Ayn Rand describes the evil of a hatred of the good for being the good.

Why any so-called Objectivist would seek to damn Dr Montessori and her method with a smear such as this one only they can know. The irony is that this person claims to follow "Ayn Rand's example of not answering smears..." Perhaps that is because he just starts them.

Do some Montessori schools teach a "fascist version" then?

Montessori never copyrighted her name, meaning these days that anyone can open a school with her name on the signboard and get their chance at piles of money. And they do.

Just like someone who calls themselves an Objectivist but isn't, so there are many 'Monte-something' schools who teach all different versions of many different things, but you would not in all accuracy call any of these schools "Montessori schools," and you would not claim that Montessori schools teach a "fascist version" of Dr Montessori's Method -- not if you wanted to be honest, that is.

And you would not send your children to a school with a Montesori sign out front but without any trained Montessori teachers inside -- at least if you did you might have the wit to realise that it is not a Montessori educationyour child is getting.

As it happens, Montessori enthusiast George Bernard Shaw, writing in 1928 [described by Rita Kramer] "anticipated the way in which the Montessori name -- despite all her efforts to prevent its exploitation -- would later be abused by some self-proclaimed followers as well as by manufacturers of 'educational toys' and teaching games'."

I'm sure many students of Objectivism will be able to relate to that.

"If you are a distressed gentlewoman," wrote Shaw, "you can still open a little school; and you can easily buy a second-hand brass plate, inscribed Pestallozzian Institute, and nail it to your door, though you have no more idea who Pestalozzi was and what he advocated, or how he did it, than the manager of a hotel which began as Hydropathic has of a water cure. Or you can buy a cheaper plate, inscibed Kindergarten, and imagine, or leave others to imagine, that Froebel is the governing genius of your creche. No doubt the new brass plates are being inscribed Montessori Institute, and will be used when the Dottoressa is no longer with us by all the Mrs. Pipchins and Mrs. Wilfers throughout this unhappy land."

And so they do. Be warned.

So what about that claim in that thread, then?

Well, you be the judge -- of both claim and claimant.

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Peter Cresswell's picture

Welcome to SOLO Sharath. Carol Potts will be happy to see another Montessorian here, and an AMI Montessorian to boot!

Feel free to join Carol in answering the genuine questions about the Montessori Method that have been asked on the other thread related to this one.

Having two AMI-trained Montessorians here to answer genuine questions about Montessori education should be a real treat. Smiling

Cheers, Peter Cresswell

**Setting Brushfires In People's Minds**

**Integrating Architecture With Your Site**

A disgrace

Peter Cresswell's picture

Adam, you suggested people should just Google for themselves the evidence that you don't have in order to justify your smear that you won't admit is wrong.

That's pathetic enough.

Now you're trying to further justify your evidence-free smear by your question-begging suggestion that "a school director or teacher with an authoritarian personality and outlook will be able to find in Montessori's works enough that is compatible with her authoritarianism."

You are an absolute disgrace.

As Sharath points out, you can find out all about Dr Montessori's association with the Italian government from Rita Kramer's book, and every Montessorian around the world will already have done so. What you won't find is any evidence to back up your face-saving fabrication that Dr Montessori was an authoritarian whose fascist approach to education was what attracted Mussolini.

Why not just admit you don't have evidence for what you said and you don't have a clue, and just stop smearing Dr Montessori's reputation in order to save your own.

Cheers, Peter Cresswell

**Setting Brushfires In People's Minds**

**Integrating Architecture With Your Site**


AdamReed's picture

Please forgive me for not going over all of that. I do understand now that Montessori's 50s and 60s were not her "old age," and that this term should be reserved for the time she spent in India and after. I should not have used it.

The point I was trying to get across is that a school director or teacher with an authoritarian personality and outlook will be able to find in Montessori's works enough that is compatible with her authoritarianism (after all, there was enough that Mussolini found compatible with his) to run an authoritarian school and still claim to be completely (authentic, official) Montessori. Parent beware. Observe and ask questions before you risk your child's mind.

Of course, if after observing and asking questions you are satisfied that you are dealing with a Montessori school run by genuine individualists, then your child is fortunate you found it. And kudos to the teachers.

Dr. Montessori as Fascist

Sharath's picture


I have been a Montessori student and teacher for the past 17 years. I have both the Primary and Elementary training (AMI) I took the Primary twice, once in India and once in the US. I am currently a Montessori Primary teacher in a School in the US.

I knew about Dr. Montessori's association with the Italian Government from Rita Kramer's book, but you seemed to suggest that there was some independent work done since then. You seem to be saying something more than what is contained in the Kramer book. You are saying that in her "old age" she turned into a fascist (please note that I did not capitalize "fascist").

I wondered if Marsha Enright had gotten hold of some new facts that conclusively proved that Dr. Montessori went through a spirtual conversion from a thinker in the Aristotelian tradition to an advocate for totalitarian government. I didn't find anything on the Web to support that position--neither in the writings of Marsha Enright nor in any scholarly paper.

Please be specific about the source of your information.

I didn't capitalize "fascist" for this reason: You indicate that there are Montessori teacher training courses based on her thinking before her Fascist association with Mussolini--which is the good part of the Montessori Method--and training courses that are based "under the influence" of Mussolini--which are to be avoided...and this trend continues to the present day! Unless Dr. Montessori went from Fascist to fascist there couldn't be two different types of Montessori schools--representing her early and later thinking.

I don't know of any significant differences in the courses she gave under the patronage of the Italian Government and those that came prior to it.

(The truth is that the first training course delivered by Dr Montessori was in 1929. And this means that all of the modern development of the Montessori Method owes its origin to the training courses that she set up "in her old age".)

So, on what facts of reality are you basing your judgment of Dr Montessori as Fascist-in-her-old-age leading to fascist teachers and fascist schools?


AdamReed's picture

I mentioned Enright considers herself an Objectivist, and her articles on Montessori are acknowledge the issue. But she did not write whole articles specifically about it. I suggest separate scholar.google searches, on Montessori and Fascist, and on Enright and Montessori.

Dr. Montessori as Fascist

Sharath's picture


I googled to find any work by Marsha Enright on Dr. Montessori's Fascist past. I couldn't find any. Could you direct me to where I could find out more about Dr Montessori's background. I am interested specifically in what Marsha Enright may have written up. Also I am interested in obtaining a scholarly article--with footnotes, citations, etc.



eg's picture

That's much better.



AdamReed's picture

Brant - I don't owe you entertainment. What's in it for me?


eg's picture

Why don't you fight back? This is repulsive, sublimated smarmy on your part.



Robert's picture

... timely, interesting and extremely well written summary of Dr Montessori's life.

Bravo Peter!

Thank you

AdamReed's picture

Thank you for posting this. There is more to the story - especially Montessori's involvement with Syndicalists in Barcelona, and the ideological affinities between Syndicalists and Fascists - but at least it contributes to, rather distracts from, the discussion.

"Her main personal involvement was from 1930-34 when she ran a Montessori teacher-training course in Rome." Note that schools that use the teacher training manuals published by Montessori for the Fascist government do proclaim themselves, with some justification, "genuine Montessori" schools. There is no substitute for critical observation of your child's prospective teachers at work.

And thank you for alerting Carol to the discussion on the Montessori Education thread. I look forward to a continuation of the discussion there.

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