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When I first began to understand to some extent the thoroughgoing radicalism of the philosophy of liberty which underlies all the intricate detail of Dr. Montessori’s system, I used to wonder why it went home to me with such a sudden inward conviction of its truth, and why it moved me so strangely. This woman is not the first, by any means, to speak eloquently of the righteousness of personal liberty. As far back as Rabelais’  “ Fay ce que vouldras ”  someone was feeling and expressing that. Even the righteousness of such liberty for the child is no invention of hers. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s  “ Emile,”  in spite of all its disingenuous evading of the principle in practice, was claimed to be founded on it in theory ;  and Froebel had a vision of the liberty his followers admit in theory and find so hard to allow in practice.

Why, then, should those who come to Rome to study the Montessori work, stammerers though they might be, wish, all of them, to go away and prophesy ?  For almost without exception this was the common result among the widely diverse types I saw in Rome ;  always granting, of course, that they had seen one of the good schools and not those which present a farcical caricature of the method.

In thinking the matter over since, I have come to the conclusion that the vividness of inward conviction arises from the fact that the founder of this philosophy bases it on the idea that men reach their highest development only when they have, for the growth of their individuality, the utmost possible freedom without interfering with others.

If you will imagine yourself living sixty or so years ago, when, to conservative minds, the idea of personal liberty for women was like the sight of dynamite under the foundations of society, and to radical minds shone like the dawn of a brighter day, you can imagine how startling and thrilling is the first glimpse of its application to children. I felt, during the beginning of my consideration of the question, all the sharp pangs of intellectual growing-pains which must have racked my grandfather when it first occurred to him that my grandmother was a human being like himself, who would very likely thrive under the same conditions which were good for him. Just as my grandfather, in spite of the sincerest affection for his wife, had never conceived that he might be doing her an injury by insisting on doing her thinking for her, so I, for all my love for my children, had never once thought that, by my competent, loving  “ management ”  of them, I might be starving and stunting some of their most valuable moral and intellectual qualities.

In theory I instantly granted this principle of as much personal liberty as possible for children, but the resultant splintering upheaval of all my preconceived ideas about children was portentous.

The thing that Dr. Montessori’s penetrating eye had seen in her survey of the problem of education had simply never occurred to me, in spite of Froebel’s mild divination of it ;  namely, that children are human beings. True, children are not exactly like adults. Children are much weaker physically, their judgment is not seasoned by experience, and their attention can be fitful. Hence they need guidance. But, on the other hand, the motives, the needs, the potential capacities of children are all human and nothing but human.

Although we cannot allow children as much practical freedom as that suitable for men of ripe experience, it is apparent that it is our first duty as parents to make every effort to give them as full a measure of liberty as possible. But this is not an easy matter. The family is so old a human institution that, like everything else very old, it has acquired barnacle-like accretions of irrelevant tradition. Elements of tyranny have existed in the institution of the family so long that our very familiarity with them prevents us from recognizing them without an effort, and prevents our conceiving family life without them. To renovate this valuable institution of the family, we must engage upon a daily battle with our own moral and intellectual inertia, rising each morning with a fresh resolve to scrutinize with new eyes our relations to our children.

I speak from poignant personal experience of the difficulty of holding this conception in mind. For I am continually perceiving that I saw these consequences but vaguely through the dimmed glasses of my unconscious, hidebound conservatism, and I am constantly being startled by the possibility of some new, although very simple application of it in my daily contact with the child-world.

One principle, then, of the Montessori school is that human beings reach their highest development only when for the growth of their individuality they have the utmost possible liberty without interfering with the liberty of others. When Dr. Montessori, five years ago, founded the first Casa dei Bambini, she not only believed in that principle but she saw that children are as human as any of us ;  and she put these two convictions into actual practice.

She took as her motto the ever-misunderstood one of  “ Liberty ! ”  She was convinced that the  “ necessity for school discipline ”  is only another expression of humanity’s enduring suspicion of that freedom which is so essential to its welfare, and that schoolroom rules for silence, for immobility, for uniformity of studies and of results, are of the same nature and as outworn as caste rules in the world of adults.

This constant turning to that trust in the safety of freedom is the keynote of her system. This is the real answer to the question,  “What is there in the Montessori method which is so different from all other educational methods ? ”  This is the vital principle often overlooked in the fertility of invention and scientific ingenuity with which she has applied it.

This reverence for the child’s personality, this idea that liberty of action is not only safe to give children, but is the prerequisite of their growth, is the rock on which the edifice of her system is being raised. It is also the rock on which the barks of many investigators are wrecked. When they realize that she really puts her theory into execution, they cry out aghast,  “ What ! a school without a rule for silence, for immobility, a school without fixed seats, without stationary desks, where children may sit on the floor if they like, or walk about as they please ;  a school where children may play all day if they choose, may select their own occupations, where the teacher is always silent and in the background—why, that is no school at all—it is anarchy ! 

Dr. Montessori has two answers to make to such doubters. One is that the rule in her schools is that no act is allowed which transgresses against the privacy of other individuals, or is in itself uncomely or offensive. That the children are free, does not mean that they may throw books at each other, or light a bonfire on the floor. It means simply that they are subject to no arbitrary restraint, and above all to no meddling with their private preferences. The second answer, even more convincing to hard-headed people than the first, is the work done in the Casa dei Bambini, where the Montessori theory has been proved, with an abundance of confirmatory detail. The bugbear of discipline simply does not exist for these schools. By taking advantage of their natural tendencies, the children perform feats of self-control, and discipline, impossible to obtain under the most rigid application of the old rules, and, as for the amount of information acquired unconsciously and painlessly by those babies, it is one of the fairy-stories of modern times.

A Montessori Mother  by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

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