DR. MONTESSORI’S LIFE AND THE ORIGIN OF THE CASA DEI BAMBINI
Before the origin of the Casa dei Bambini is taken up, a brief biography of their creator will help us to understand her development. Her early life, before her choice of a profession, need not interest us beyond the fact that she is the child of parents not materially well-to-do. Now the “ middle class ” population forms a much smaller proportion of the inhabitants of Italy than in other modern nations. One result of this condition is that the brilliant daughter of parents not well-to-do finds it much harder to pass into a class of associates and to find an intellectual background which suits her nature, than a similarly intellectual and original American girl. Even now in Italy such a girl is forced to fight an unceasing battle against social prejudice and intellectual inertia. It can be imagined that when Dr. Montessori was the beautiful, gifted girl-student of whom older Romans speak with enthusiasm or horror, according to the centuries in which they morally live, her will-power and capacity for concentration must have been finely tempered in order not to break in the long struggle.
Judging by the talk one hears in Rome about the fine, youthful fervor of Dr. Montessori’s early struggle against conditions hampering her mental and spiritual progress, she is a survivor of social prejudice who has emerged from the battle endowed with the hickory-like toughness of intellectual fiber of will and character which is the reward of sturdy pioneers. Certain it is that her battles with prejudices of all sorts have hardened her intellectual muscles and trained her mental eye in the school of absolute moral self-dependence, that moral self-dependence which is the aim and end of her method of education and which will be, as rapidly as it can be realized, the solvent for many of our modern problems.
It is hard for an American of this date to realize the bomb-shell it must have been to an Italian family a generation ago when its only daughter decided to study medicine. So rapidly have conditions surrounding women changed that there is no parallel possible to be made which could bring home to us fully the tremendous will-power necessary for an Italian woman of that time and class to stick to her resolution. The fangs of that particular prejudice have been so well-nigh universally drawn that it is safe to say that an American family would see its only daughter embark on the career of animal-tamer, steeple-jack, or worker in an iron foundry, with less trepidation than must have shadowed the early days of Dr. Montessori’s medical studies. One’s imagination can paint the picture from the fact that she was the first woman to obtain the degree of Doctor of Medicine, from the University of Rome, an achievement which was probably rendered none the easier by the fact that she was both singularly beautiful and singularly ardent.
After graduation she became attached, as assistant doctor, to the Psychiatric Clinic at Rome. At that time, one of the temporary expedients of self-modernizing Italy was to treat the idiot and feebleminded children in connection with the really insane. The young medical graduate had taken up children’s diseases as her specialty, and naturally in her visits to the insane asylums, her attention was attracted to the deficient children so fortuitously lodged under the same roof.
I go into the details of the oblique manner in which she embarked upon the undertaking of education without any conscious knowledge of the port toward which she was directing her course, in order to bring out clearly the fact that she approached the field of pedagogy from an entirely new direction, with absolutely new aims and with a wholly different mental equipment from those of the technically pedagogical or social-reforming persons who have labored in that field for so many generations.
She eventually gave up her active practice as a physician which had continued steadily throughout all her other activities, and accepted the post of Director of the State Orthophrenic School ( what we would call an Institute for the Feeble-Minded ). For years she taught the children in the Asylum under her care. All day she worked with her children, at night she was arranging, classifying, clarifying the results of the day’s observation, examining with minute attention the work of all those who had studied her problems before her, applying and elaborating every hint of theirs, every clue discovered in her own experiments.
Then one day, after long, uncertain efforts, a miracle happened. A supposedly deficient child, trained by her methods, passed the examinations of a public school with more ease, with higher marks than normal children prepared in the old way. The miracle happened again and again and then so often that it was no longer a miracle, but a fact to be foretold and counted on with certainty.
Then she turned to a larger field of action, the education of normal young children. It was in 1900 that Dr. Montessori left the Scuola Ortofrenica, and began to prepare herself consciously and definitely for the task before her. For seven years she followed a course of self-imposed study, observation, and thought. She began by registering as a student of philosophy in the University of Rome and turned her attention to experimental psychology with especial reference to child-psychology. The habit of her scientific training disposed her naturally as an accompaniment to her own research to examine thoroughly the existing and recognized authorities in her new field. She began to visit the primary schools and to look about her at the educational world with the fresh vision only possible to a mind trained by scientific research to abhor preconceived ideas and to come to a conclusion only after weighing actual evidence.
Picture this clear-headed scientist surveying the rows of immobile little children nailed to their stationary seats and forced to give over their natural birthright of activity to a well-meaning, gesticulating, explaining, always fatigued, and always talking teacher. It was evident at a glance that she could not find there what she had hoped to find, that first prerequisite of the scientist, a prolonged scrutiny of the natural habits of the subject of investigation. The entomologist seeking to solve some of the farmer’s problems, spends years with a microscope, studying the habits of the potato and of the potato-bug before he tries to invent a way to help the one and circumvent the other. But Dr. Montessori found, so to speak, that all the potatoes she tried to investigate were being grown in a cellar. They grew, somehow, because the upward thrust of life is invincible, but their pale shoots gave no evidence of the possibility of the sturdy stems, which a chance specimen or two escaped by a stroke of luck from the cellar, proved to be possible for the whole species.
At the same time that she was making these amazed an disconcerted visits to the primary schools, she was devouring all the books which have been written on her subject. My own acquaintance with works on pedagogy is limited, but I observe that people who do know them do not seem surprised that this thoroughly trained modern doctor, with years of practical teaching back of her, should have found little aid in them. Two highly valuable authorities she did find, significantly enough doctors like herself, one who lived at the time of the French Revolution [Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard] and one perhaps fifty years later [Eduard Séguin]. She tells us in her book what their ideas were and how strongly they modified her own.
We have now followed the course of Dr. Montessori’s life until it brings us to chaotic ancient-modern Rome. All the while that Dr. Montessori had been trying to understand the discrepancy between the rapid advance of idiot children under her system and the slow advance of normal children under old-fashioned methods, another Italian, Edoardo Talamo, was studying the problem of bettering the housing of the very poor.
The plan of Signor Talamo’s model tenements was so wise and so admirably executed that, except for one factor, they really deserved their name. This factor was the existence of a large number of little children under the usual school age, who were left alone all day while their mothers, driven by the grinding necessity which is the rule in the Italian lower working classes, went out to help earn the family living. These little ones wandered about the clean halls and stairways, defacing everything they could reach and constantly getting into mischief, the desolating ingenuity of which can be imagined by any mother of small children. It was evident that the money taken to repair the damage done by them would be better employed in preventing them from doing it in the first place. Signor Talamo conceived the simple plan of setting apart a big room in every one of the tenement houses where the children could be kept together.
Although the sphere of Signor Talamo’s activity was far from that of the woman doctor specializing in child education, he knew of her existence and asked her to undertake the organization and the management of the different groups of children in his tenement houses, collected, as far as he was concerned, for the purpose of keeping them from scratching the walls and fouling the stairways.
On her part Dr. Montessori took a rapid mental survey of these groups of normal children at exactly the age when she thought them most susceptible to education, and saw in them the experimental laboratories which she so much needed to carry on her work and which she had definitely found that primary schools could never become.
How completely Dr. Montessori was prepared for the opportunity thus given her can be calculated by the fact that the first Casa dei Bambini was opened on the 6th of January, 1907, and that now, only five years after, there arrive in Rome, from every quarter of the globe, bewildered but imperious demands for enlightenment on the new idea.
For it was at once apparent that the principle of self-education was brilliantly successful. The children very soon went far beyond anything even she had conceived of their ability to teach and to govern themselves. For instance, she had not the least idea, when she began, of teaching children under six how to write. She held, as most other educators did, that on the whole it was too difficult an undertaking for such little ones. It was her own peculiar characteristic, or rather the characteristic of her scientific training, of extreme openness to conviction which induced her, after practical experience, to begin her famous experiments with the method for writing.
The story of this startling revelation of unsuspected forces in human youth is too well known to need a long recapitulation. The first Casa dei Bambini was established in January, 1907, without attracting the least attention from the public. About a year after another one was opened. This time, owing to the marked success of the first, the affair was more of a ceremony, and Dr. Montessori delivered an eloquent inaugural address. By April of 1908, only a little over a year after the first small beginning, the institution of the Casa dei Bambini was discovered by the public. Pilgrims of all classes found their way through the filthy streets of that wretched quarter, and the barely established institution was set under the microscopic scrutiny of innumerable sharp eyes.
The result we all know : the rumors, vague at first, which blew across our lives, then more definite talk of something really new, then the prompt response in our magazines and the appearance of an English translation of Dr. Montessori’s book.
And, so far, that is all we have from her. It is a strange situation, intensely modern, which could only have occurred in this age of instantly tattling cables and telegrams. It is, of course, a great exaggeration to say that all educated parents and teachers in America are interested in the Montessori system, but the proportion who really seem to be, is astonishing in the extreme when one considers the very recent date of the beginning of the whole movement. Over there in Rome, in a tenement house, a woman doctor begins observations in an experimental laboratory of children, and in five years’ time her laboratory doors are stormed by inquirers from Australia, from Norway, from Mexico, and most of all, from the United States. Teachers of district schools in the Carolinas write their cousins touring in Europe to be sure to go to Rome to see the Montessori schools. Mothers from Oregon and Maine write, addressing their letters, “ Montessori, Rome,” and make demands for enlightenment, urgent, pressing, and shamelessly peremptory. From innumerable towns and cities, teachers, ambitious to be in the front of their profession, are taking their hoarded savings from the bank and starting to Rome with the naďve conviction that their own thirst for information is sufficient guarantee that someone will instantly be forthcoming to provide it for them.
When they reach Rome, most of them quite unable to express themselves in Italian or even in French, what do they find, all these tourists and letters of inquiry, and adventuring school-mistresses ? They find a dead wall. They have an unformulated idea that they are probably going to a highly organized institution of some sort, like our huge “ model schools ” attached to our normal colleges, through the classrooms of which an unending file of observers is allowed to pass. And they have no idea whatever of the inevitability with which Italians speak Italian.
They find—if they are relentlessly persistent enough to pierce through the protection her friends try to throw about her—only Dr. Montessori herself, a private individual, busy with important work, who does not speak or understand English, who has neither money, time, or strength enough single-handed to cope with the flood of inquiries and inquirers about her ideas. In order to devote herself entirely to the undertaking of transmuting her ideas into a definite, logical, and scientific system, she has withdrawn herself more and more from public life. She has resigned from her chair of anthropology in the University of Rome, and last year sent a substitute to do her work in another academic position not connected with her present research—and this although she is far from being a woman of independent means. She desires for the development of her educational ideas, that time and freedom so constantly infringed upon by the well-meaning urgency of demands for instruction from her.
She lives now in intense retirement, absorbed in her work, surrounded and aided by a little group of devoted disciples who live with her. Together they are developing a complete educational system based on the idea of self-education which gave such brilliant results in the Casa dei Bambini with children from three to six. For the past year, helped spiritually by these disciples and materially by influential Italian friends, Dr. Montessori has been experimenting with the application of her ideas to children from six to nine, and I think it is no violation of her confidence to report that these experiments have been as astonishingly successful as her work with younger children.
It is to this woman burning with eagerness to do her work, absorbed in the exhausting problems of intellectual creation, that students from all over the world are turning for instruction in a phase of her achievement which now lies behind her. The woman in the genius is touched and heartened by the sudden homage of the world, but it must be apparent from the sketch of her present position that she would need to give up her very life were she to accede to all the requests for training teachers in her primary method, since she is at the head of no normal school, gives no courses of lectures, and has no model schools of her own to which to invite visitors. It is hard to believe her sad yet unembittered statement that there is now in Rome not one primary school which is entirely under her care, which she authorizes in all its detail, which is really a “ Montessori School.” There are, it is true, some which she started and which are still conducted according to her ideas in the majority of details, but not one where she is the leading spirit.
There are a variety of reasons which account for this state of things, so bewildering and disconcerting to those who have come from so far to learn at headquarters about the new ideas. The Italian Government teachers naturally fear revolutionary changes which would render useless their hard-won diplomas, and carry on against the new system a secret campaign which has been so far successful.
In the other camp, fighting just as bitterly, are the Montessori adherents, full of enthusiasm for her philosophy, devoting all the forces at their command to the success of the cause which they believe to be of the utmost importance to the future of the race. It can be seen that the situation is not orderly, calm, or in any way adapted to dispassionate investigation.
And yet people who have come from California and British Columbia and Buenos Ayres to seek for information, naturally do not wish to go back to their distant homes without making a violent effort to investigate. What they usually try to do is to force from someone in authority a card of admission either to the Montessori school held in the Franciscan Nunnery on the Via Giusti, or to another conducted by Signora Galli among the children of an extremely poor quarter of Rome, or, innocent and unaware, in all good faith go to visit the institutions in the model tenements, still called Casa dei Bambini. But Dr. Montessori’s relations with those last schools ceased in 1911 as a result of an unfortunate disagreement between Signor Talamo and herself ; and those infant schools are now thought by impartial judges to be far from good expositions of her methods, and in many cases are actual travesties of it. Furthermore, Dr. Montessori has now no connection with Signora Galli’s schools. This leaves accessible to her care and guided by her counsels only the school held in the Franciscan nunnery, which is directed by Signorina Ballerini, one of Dr. Montessori’s own disciples, as the nearest approach to a school under her own control in Rome. This is, in many ways, an admirable example of the wonderful result of the Montessori ideas and is a revelation to all who visit it. But even here, though the good nuns make every effort to give a free hand to Signorina Ballerini, it can be imagined that the ecclesiastical atmosphere, which in its very essence is composed of unquestioning obedience to authority, is not the most congenial one for the growth of a system which does away with dogma, and fosters self-dependence and first-hand ideas of things. More than this, if this school admitted freely all those who wish to visit it, there would be more visitors than children on many a day.
It is not hard to sympathize with the searchers for information who come from the ends of the earth, who stand aghast at this futile ending of their long journey. And yet it would be the height of folly for the world to call away from her all-important work an investigator from whom we hope so much in the future.
A Montessori Mother by Dorothy Canfield Fisher