History

Early American Newspaper Commentary on Montessori

Written by Kerry Ellard on May 14, 2021

A look at the early press coverage of the Montessori Method in America indicates that interpretations varied significantly. It was likely in part a case of seeing what one wanted to see, but it likely also had to do with the way in which people were introduced to the method, what they saw as the goals of education, and what methods they were contrasting it with. Additionally, people who had a vested interest in other education methods naturally tended to find the enthusiasm overblown. But they all seemed to have pretty similar general expectations about early childhood education, indicating the prevailing worldview among educators. Two newspaper articles from Washington, DC illustrate this dynamic.

In 1913, the Evening Star ran a piece on a group of locals who were urging that the city become the American “headquarters” for the Montessori method. The group was sponsored by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, and it was to launch in a room at his home.

“If the efforts of a group of Washingtonians who are intensely interested in the Montessori method of child-education are successful, Washington will become the American center for the spread of this new method; its educational system will absorb the Italian psychologist's ideas, and the parents of the children who are now being educated … will be the sponsors for the awakening in America of this twentieth-century discovery as to the best way of getting the best out of a child. The parents of children who have been attending this "laboratory" since November met at Dr. Bell's home yesterday morning, determined to keep the Montessori center of America right here in Washington. It is more than a mere matter of having a small private school here: the movement has for its object a much larger thing. They want Washington to adopt the method for its educational system and to have the adopted system become the show piece of the nation, from an educational standpoint....There is something unique and of historic importance in the pioneer school in the Bell Home. It is important because the head of it is Anne George, the first American graduate of the famous Dottoressa Maria Montessori of Rome, the woman who upset all previous notions as to educating children and whose discoveries are fast getting out of the "fad" stage and are attracting the serious wonder and attention of the scientific world. Miss George is a pioneer in Montessori, and has always been a free lance in education, kicking over the traces of convention and seeking for the latest and best developments. She was in Chicago, a private school teacher, when she heard of Dr. Montessori in Rome. That was before the magazine writers had begun their assault of interviews on the doctor in Rome. Miss George went to Rome, saw that a new continent had been discovered in the world of educating children and went to work to conquer its difficulties..."The Montessori method," Bell wrote, "may be illustrated by the ordinary method of feeding chickens, which is to scatter the food on the ground where the chickens may get at it and then leave the chickens to pick it up for themselves." To read these notes of Dr. Bell's and to read what Miss Fletcher had to explain about the method is wonderfully clear in the light of having seen exactly what the children do, but it is probably true that a wider range of interest may be found by citing some bald examples of what the children accomplish without accompanying the citations by the scientific explanations, beyond the rather interesting observation that Dr. Montessori started out with the theory that education of children should proceed from a biological standpoint. The Froebel kindergarten methods are left ‘centuries behind,' in the opinion of the Montessori enthusiasts…The little Montessori-taught lads and lassies have a distinct air of independence, initiative, self-reliance, or call it what you may; there is none of the running to nurse or parents with a "What shall I do next?" query. That shows, the expert will tell you in scientific manner, what sort of an education is going on in the little life. They get a grip on the child, start him doing something in a manner that takes his whole attention, and before one realizes it, he is developing the manliness in him at a startling rate. Another odd and useful little Montessori-taught trait is the custom of these children to dress themselves at a far earlier age than the ordinary child...This latter bit is a part of the ‘exercises in practical life.’ All sorts of buttons and lacing and hook and eye effects are given to the children, and so interested do they become that they will not be satisfied until they have mastered the mysteries of all the fastenings that the human dress is heir to. This is not the end and ambition of Montessori--to teach a child to dress. By no means. It is but a single occupation chosen as an illustration Along the same lines do the children learn to read and to write before they know what they are doing. If the word auto-education can be used at all, it can be used for Montessori's methods... Whatever ‘it’ is, it seems to get children in a state where they attack their problems with a strength and firmness not seen ordinarily….”[1]

While the reporter’s own views and sensationalism may somewhat color the story, what can be taken away from it is this:

  • There was much discussion over what the Montessori Method actually was, and whether it was new.
  • It tended to be promoted by young female educators, usually socially connected and who had traveled to Europe, who had a passion for theories of education and innovative methods. One gets the sense Bell is charmed by their enthusiasm.
  • Part of the attraction was the perception that it was based in “science” and “biology,” and that it was novel, with unprecedented potential.
  • In education circles, there was an ongoing rivalry with the kindergarten crowd, and a feeling that there was no greater sin than being “behind” the times. (“The Froebel kindergarten methods are left ‘centuries behind’…”)
  • There were a number of fads and ideals popular in education circles that were being compared with the Montessori method. The author’s references, somewhat playful, to “reading ‘out of the air,’” an “orderly, modern, scientific and far from freakish method,” “auto-education,” etc. It seems people were rebelling simultaneously against ideas seen as rather silly and against the older “pate de foie gras” method Bell spoke of.
  • Both Bell’s chicken-feed comment and the emphasis on independence and manliness, especially the keyword “self-reliance,” reflect Emersonian philosophy, which permeated American culture. Emerson never proposed specific methods—he was not concerned mainly with education, and certainly not childhood education. He was concerned with cultivating individual judgment by observing the world’s operations. But it is clear that many 20th century American educators were influenced by the 19th-century literary themes that Emerson represented. (Emerson’s writing is full of allusions to classical literature, history, philosophy, mythology, all major religious, and even scientific treatises, so many of these themes were “universal” or “timeless.”) These themes generally appealed to them, so they used a lot of the same language, but many believed Emerson’s unstructured individualist approach was wholly inadequate and that his ideas remained underdeveloped and unmodernized. 

A little over a year later, another DC paper looked into the ongoing debate over the Montessori method. The reporter interviewed Catherine Watkins, director of public kindergartens in the Washington public schools, who said that Washing kindergarten programs included “all the benefits claimed for the Montessori system, and comprises additional merits not included in the Montessori kindergartens.”[2] Watkins had studied the Montessori methods used in Chicago and Washington Montessori classes, the latter of which presumably included the school at Bell’s home.[3]

“The claims for the Montessori methods far exceed their actual value to education…And I make that statement with a full realization, that Madam Montessori has contributed much that will be of lasting value if it awakens Italy, and America, as well, to the needs of the young child… The use of the steps.... indicates one point of difference between the two systems. In a kindergarten the child climbs the steps unconsciously, for the purpose of coming down the slide. In the Montessori school they are encouraged to climb steps for the sake primarily, it is stated, of cultivating grace of carriage and correlation of muscles. But whatever may be true of the Italian child, we have not found it necessary to expend much thought on American children in that particular. They perform the act or climbing steps with poise and ease…” [4]

What stands out from this interview is that the characterizations of the Montessori Method are almost the reverse of the ones in the piece from a year earlier. From Watkins’ perspective, which is clearly invested in the kindergarten model, this is not at all “something entirely new,” although the interviewer paraphrased Watkins as saying that “light, easily moved furniture is required by both the kindergarten and Montessori methods.”She perceives the Montessori method as much more familiar and structured—she emphasizes the directed, almost drill-like tasks more than Bell does, to the point of explaining that Montessori students climb stairs to cultivate graceful movement, rather than “unconsciously, for the purpose of coming down the slide.” This does not sound very much like self-directed learning. But Watkins continued in a way that contradicts this, speaking of similarities between both systems. 

“Both believe in working with concrete material. Both encourage children in the care of material, in the performance of practical duties, such as cleaning the floor, in feeding animals, in taking off and in putting on their own wraps [shawls or coats]...Both systems observe the luncheon period in about the same manner, encouraging the children to help in its serving, and in cleaning and putting away the dishes… Both systems feel the child can be given ethical and mental instruction by a contact with natural phenomena…”

Watkins describes these tasks not as having practical value in themselves or developing specific skills (i.e., learning to get dressed) so much as an expression of a child being allowed to interact with their natural environment and discern how to navigate it using one’s own judgment (i.e., putting on or removing coats as needed). Here is where she thought the systems differed:

“The Montessori system emphasizes the individual. The kindergarten, while providing abundant opportunity for individual development and variation, emphasizes the group. Thus the individual life is extended and enriched and a foundation is laid for those virtues which arise only through social relationships and social co-operation…Children, at play, tend to reproduce the life about them. This may be made a potent element in developing their sense of social relationships, if it is wisely directed. So far as I can see the Montessori system provides no opportunity for such group play. We have some interesting experiences in kindergartens by this inborn aptitude of children to formulate games from what they observe among adults. In a Montessori school the teacher merely is the silent observer of the child. In the kindergarten she performs that function, and also is the mediator between the instinct of the child on the one hand and the complex problems of modern living on the other."

Watkins told the interviewer that the observation role “involves either a lack of restraint or lack of incitement.” It was evident that kindergarten was seen as something designed to prepare kids for “the complex problems of modern living,” which had a heavy social component, as well as the cultivation of independent judgment that was admired about the Montessori method. Watkins’s next comments are significant: 

"The Montessori system subordinates imagination and language to the senses…Montessori materials are restricted to exact, definite uses, with little provision for creative expression. Kindergarten materials stimulate creative power in many directions. The kindergarten is cultural, the Montessori School merely aims to be scientific…Though modifications have been introduced in Washington schools, the simon-pure Montessori class room rejects, wholly or in part, all stories, pictures, songs and music generally. The rhythm work used in the Montessori schools here was introduced through Miss Alys Bentley, and is similar to that she gave to the kindergarten long ago, while she was director of music in the schools. "

It seems that Watkins perceived the method as overly literal and robotic, focusing on almost a sort of muscle memory rather than being a more cultured member of the social “body.” Something like today’s STEM v. humanities debate. This perception may have been simply due to what American Montessori proponents chose to emphasize, or due to the socioeconomic disadvantages of the students Montessori was working with. Waktins also said that while Montessori schools claimed the absence of punishment or reward is what distinguished them from other schools, this approach had in fact long been “in vogue” in kindergartens. 

"In the kindergarten there is no concrete letter or number work. It is believed that it is more natural to lead the child to the grasp of ideas before he is introduced to the symbols that express those ideas."

Watkins emphasized that “the Montessori and kindergarten ideas should not be antagonistic,” saying she believed that “the Montessori methods so far used are not so comprehensive as the kindergarten ideas,” but that “the Montessori system makes excellent provision for children from two to four years, while the kindergarten then could continue their development in their fifth and sixth years.” What Watkins said next was interesting, and may shed some light on confusing complaints that the Montessori method was both overly rigid and overly permissive.

"A kindergarten has been aptly described as a 'republic of childhood' The Montessori gives older children too little chance to express their own ideas; on the other hand, it gives them too much leeway in directions where they have not had sufficient experience to correlate things they observe to their own experience. The daily program of a kindergarten includes the morning hour for conversation and songs, wherein the teacher is brought into close contact with the children's viewpoint, and gets into close sympathy with them. They are given full opportunity to express themselves freely and frankly. The group relationships develop certain virtues which can be developed in no other way. These group relationships the Montessori system overlooks. I was impressed by an incident I noticed in a recent visit to one of our kindergartens. The children were arranging, at their own suggestion, to make a Jack o'lantern, later to be taken by them to the home of a child who was ill. I attended another kindergarten, where a girl, lame from an accident, had returned, and it was interesting to watch the spontaneous courtesy with which the boys treated her, quietly placing a chair near her as she moved about, and performing other thoughtful acts."

This is interesting because the previous piece emphasized that the Montessori method made the little boys more manly and able to socialize among themselves without assistance! Watkins concluded by saying that the lack of religious training in the Montessori system was one of the most serious issues she had with it. [5]

"In each kindergarten there is a morning prayer and hymn. We believe this is a valuable asset in character building. There is no set prayer. Children simply are led to the idea that the things in which they delight, the sunshine, the flower, and all nature's beauty. Is something for which they should give thanks to a higher power, and gradually they are led, in their own words, to utter a brief prayer of thanks for these things. Spiritual development of the child cannot be left to chance any more than his physical nourishment can be left to care for itself. I do not wish to be unfair to the Montessori system. But so far as I have observed, or read, there is no evidence that the Montessori school provides for this spiritual growth of children."

This is a pretty Emersonian statement, but it is complicated by the fact that Emerson was always writing to self-reliant adults and urging them to develop their own judgment from observing Nature. It was a solo affair. How this relates to early childhood development is more complicated. [6]

[1] Washington Star. (1913).

[2] Hildebrand, J.R. (1914) “Kindergarten Expert Finds Ideas Long Familiar Here in Montessori Schools,” The Washington Times".

[3] During the Progressive era, Chicago was one of the most fashionable cities, and the culture generally favored both innovation and female independence. This may explain why so many young women were introducing innovative education techniques in Chicago. 

[4] Hildebrand, J.R. (1914)

[5] At this time, anti-Catholic prejudice was strong in many circles, even among non-devout Protestants, and that could have had some influence on these sorts of remarks.

[6] I do not think he denied the reality that children have to be raised and properly educated, even though he pretty much rejected the idea that adults should automatically follow anyone else’s system—some of his ideas on this can be gleaned from scattered comments, but he just did not focus much on how adults should educate children. In the community in which he grew up, the norm for children was a very strict religious education, but this was combined with a lot of free-ranging play and an exciting intellectual climate. It seems possible that he thought an old-fashioned classical and religious education was an ideal foundation for independent pursuits in adulthood, but he believed self-education could be entirely adequate for poor but motivated young men, and even superior to a university education.

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.