Connectedness Through Material Progress

Written by Lea Degen on November 19, 2021

Looking at the human achievements that ringed in the industrial world, some might discount the technological, scientific, and economic innovation by pointing out a perceived lack of spiritual progress to go along with it. It is often said that we have become overly materialistic, such that the Great Enrichment is largely negligible. Our material comforts are acknowledged, while the absence of human unity is bemoaned.

It is thus worth pointing out, as Montessori herself had already done by 1949 in her San Remo Lectures, that over centuries, the world has shrunken not only for travelers but also in regard to production, resulting in heavy interdependence of humans on one another. Think about it: while conducting your daily affairs – getting dressed, cooking food, waking up in a place of shelter, whether it be a house or an apartment – how many things that sustain you were the product of your direct labor?

“If tonight we have the facility of sitting here, it is because many millions of people are and have been working to render this possible. And in how many lands. Think back to the bread you ate for lunch: who has ground the wheat? Who has baked the bread? The reality of Society is that everyone is dependent on everyone else.”[1]

From clothing to food, from automobiles to the roof over our heads; the parts that cover our essential needs have been produced by people all over the globe, often not speaking our language, not accustomed to our particular culture. Yet, we are tied together in a growing net of interconnectedness.

“The prevalent dependence on the things by which we live and which we need, on the preparation and specialization of those who manufacture them, transform them, and offer them for use or consumption, excludes any possibility of living for oneself alone.” [2]

Predating Montessori by roughly a century, social reformer Frederick Douglass made similar arguments, illustrating that this drive toward interconnectedness has been an enduring process. Douglass writes in the context of the Industrial Revolution, and refers to wind, steam, and lightning that were harnessed for transportation, engines, and electricity—the drivers of the modern age. He saw the potential for international trade to enable greater freedom by breaking down previously impenetrable borders, within which autocratic rulers could freely reign. Douglass was optimistic about the resulting spread of knowledge that would make it increasingly hard for tyrannic leaders to isolate themselves and their people. And indeed, compared to Douglass’s day, we now have very few regimes that can fully and sustainably suppress their citizens while blocking any contact with the outside world – North Korea being a rare exception (though upholding this isolation requires an enormous army that all but exists to control its own population.)

Regarding the changes in human connectedness in his own day, Douglass writes:

“Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic, are distinctly heard on the other. The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”[3]

Importantly, this production-based move toward unity, as emphasized by Douglass in the context of ideas, and by Montessori, in the context of consumption, has occurred with no mention of us sacrificing anything to advance towards this form of connectedness. Humanity has grown closer through the Great Enrichment and is the better off for it. To elevate culture and advance civilization, one must have time to devote to intellectual and artistic pursuits in the first place. With the increase in economic collaboration throughout the past centuries, this option is now available to a greater number of people than ever before.

For Montessori, paying the industrial world its proper due was a matter of shifting our mental framing: we are united as never before; borders for both travel and trade continue to fall. Our error is a lack is in assigning proper significance to this fact and the positive ideas it entails:

“It is therefore useless to try to achieve unity amongst men inviting them to work for each other, since this has been happening for centuries. Instead, the question is to bring about a radical change in the way we view human relations, endeavoring to influence men’s consciousness by giving them new ideals, fighting indifference and incomprehension; to awaken in man’s spirit a sense of gratitude towards other men.” [4]

Montessori aims for a drastically different sense of unity. Her vision realistically entails the need for a new kind of empathy: an abstract awareness and appreciation for humanity’s interconnectedness. This new conception differs from the “direct” connectedness that people were accustomed to throughout most of history, when social circles were generally small enough that each person could personally be known in the village or the tribe. But with the complex networks of supply chains that exist nowadays, tracing the origins of even as simple an item as a pencil becomes an elaborate undertaking, and the same can be said for the chain of people producing it—they are, and will remain, people we will never meet.

"So, wherever you look, you find charity and service towards others. This is so, no matter what we do. If we, as teachers, help the children to become better men, we help society. You may probably continue to do your work here in your country or in your town but the children, when grown into men, may go anywhere and give there the benefit of the education you imparted to them. Some of your old pupils may be in Canada, others in Australia or God knows where. And whatever effort you have expended to make the children they once were into men better than they would have been without your help, this benefits not only the child himself, but many others you do not know. That is something else worth considering: […] the anonymity of this generosity. Who made this cloth for my suit? I do not now. Who tended the sheep? Who produced the wool? I do not know. All these gifts are brought to me anonymously. Is this not a marvelous form of charity, as I said, the very essence of mankind?”[5]

What is required for this sense of human unity is a paradigm shift towards acknowledging the beauty human collaboration. And not only collaboration in our own time: we can also acknowledge the collaboration of our ancestors throughout the centuries, thus enthralling children who learn to see themselves as a node in a vast network of individual efforts that collectively make up a stunning whole. Through learning about the many people before us who labored to bring about our present situation, children might also come to see themselves as a link between the past and the present.

This framework shift depends on a curriculum that values the great story of human progress and development. A curriculum that teaches the story of the human passage from tribe, to group, to nation; the blending of different ethnic groups in political organisms, as well as territorial expansion; the conquests of progress, and the interdependence of needs and interests. In fact, Montessori thought that children are especially suited to grow up with this new framing, which would give them the opportunity “to reflect on the beauty of labor carried out by others, whereby the common effort enriches the life of all.”[6]

One cannot help but wonder what society may look like if children learned to see the world around them with newfound awe for our modern marvels; from an increasingly interconnected, longitudinal perspective – an awareness of the long arc of past progress, as well as mindfulness for posterity.

Importantly, we must realize that new tools beget new problems, and our betterment has not come about without overcoming tremendous setbacks. But, a newfound appreciation for those past scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and institution-builders who overcame major challenges of their day and (at times, unintentionally) contributed to humanity’s flourishing, can inspire a new, industrially literate generation to not only cherish those efforts while looking back but pay progress forward as well.

“If we wish to bring to the children knowledge of the real and material world, nothing can be more significant and accurate than the image of the tree that is human solidarity, rooted in a distant past and extending its branches towards eternity, while we live the infinitesimal second allotted to human life.” [7]

[1] Montessori, M. (1956). The Human Tendencies.

[2] Montessori, M (1949). The San Remo Lectures.

[3] Douglass, Frederick (1854). What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

[4] Montessori, M (1949). The San Remo Lectures.

[5] Montessori, M. (1956). The Human Tendencies.

[6] Montessori, M (1949). The San Remo Lectures.

[7] Montessori, M (1949). The San Remo Lectures.