Independence, Self-Mastery, Inclusiveness, and "A Righteous Sense of Responsibility": What Montessori’s Educational Philosophy Meant to 20th-Century Americans
The Montessori Resurgence
The appeal of Montessori’s philosophy in America among both many “child-centered” progressives and those attached to the northern educational tradition unleashed diverse individual potential in the face of alternative philosophies perceived as impersonal or dehumanizing. During the height of the American Progressive era (1890-1920 or so), Dewey and Montessori were seen as representing different strains of progressive education (with some overlap). But by the late 1950s, not long after they had both passed away, this was no longer obvious. Both stood out from other progressives as advocates of experimental alternatives to public school systems perceived as crushing individual and social potential, and, once again, not everyone grouped Montessori’s philosophy with the American progressive movement.
Newspaper archive searches show that mentions of “Maria Montessori” spiked several times from 1957 to the early 70s, and that most of these mentions were connected to the growth of the independent school movement. People—parents and education reformers alike—were looking for alternatives to public schools. Many might think this was related to de-segregation policies, but the regions and timelines don’t add up. There may have been a connection to the centralization and standardization of the school systems that eventually followed de-segregation policies, or to the justification for “tracking” (educating similarly-aged students differently for any reason) having become morally suspect.
It is often overlooked that, from the 1930s to the 1960s, child-centered progressive education tended to be confined to a few independent/private schools. During this period, public education “was dominated by the social engineering strand of progressivism.” Although public school progressive experiments did exist in places like Gary, Indiana and Winnetka, Illinois, especially in the 1920s, “from the transformation of the high school from an exclusively academic institution at the turn of the century to a host for life adjustment functions by the 1930s, to the social class- and race-based tracking systems that separated academic and vocational education, public progressive education from the 1930s to the 1960s stressed life adjustment rather than intellectual functions and often helped to reproduce rather than ameliorate social class, race, and gender inequalities.”
Indeed, child-centered progressivism was evidently such a distant memory by this time that the 1957 spike in newspaper mentions turns out to have been caused almost solely by the remarks of former President Harry S. Truman, who told schoolteachers in his hometown of Independence, Missouri that “boys and girls would behave better if their teachers were allowed to switch them,” as his own first-grade teacher had done to misbehaving “smart alecs.”
“About a half-century ago Dr. Maria Montessori, a great Italian psychiatrist, conceived the idea of letting kids do as they please to develop character. The Montessori plan, along with lazy parents, baby sitters and a shortage of switches, has made the teacher's role a hard one and our educational system a coddling process. My first-grade teacher opened school with a prayer. She also kept a good limber switch in the corner…”
This nationally circulated story got a lot of attention, but little pushback, indicating that Montessori was associated with a tendency of Americans to be “soft” and aimless in their attitudes towards education that had occurred in the early 1930s. (The Great Depression and subsequent long, eventful presidency of FDR likely interfered with the flourishing of both the northern education tradition and more enlightened child-centered progressive innovations, allowing “life adjustment” and other “practical” approaches to take off where inertia didn’t reign.) In Truman’s mind (dominated by the northern education tradition), the Montessori plan wasn’t a teaching methodology or broader ideological tendency, but a vague, irresponsible “coddling” ethos that many Americans had absorbed while his party had been busy governing. (Eisenhower had succeeded Truman in 1953, and was still president at this time.)
The Whitby School
As others have pointed out, despite the tendency of some Americans to mourn the 1950s as a golden age of sensible education and consensus, it was the very decade when complaints about the alleged deteriorating and ideological quality of education began to emerge. Why Johnny Can’t Read was a hit in 1955, and by 1960, Montessori was back in the news due to coverage of the Whitby school in Connecticut, run by Nancy McCormick Rambusch. A long New York Daily News piece about the school was titled “Johnny Can Read,” and declared that Whitby was “the first school to this country an educational system which has been in Europe for more a century.” At Whitby, “there are no grades; children are grouped by ages: roughly, 3 to 6, 6 to 9 and 9 to 12,” and children learned to recite poetry and read Latin at surprisingly young ages.
“….the system which Whitby uses [is] the Montessori Method, an old idea which is being used in a new setting…Dr. Maria Montessori…in the early 1900s, [invented the method while working with young children] in her native Italy…The results were phenomenal, and the Montessori Method quickly spread throughout Italy. Soon, too, the idea caught on elsewhere in Europe…Maria Montessori saw herself as a crusader against a system of Old World education which, she said, ‘annihilated’ the creative talents of children and treated children ‘like rows of butterflies transfixed with a pin’… Though some of the Montessori ideas in classroom design and teaching aids were adopted here, no full-scale Montessori school was started in this country until September, 1958, when Whitby opened in a converted stable on a Greenwich estate, with 17 pupils and a faculty of two…The school was founded by a group of Catholic parents as a private Catholic school. The school is not a parochial or diocesan school, but it comes under the ultimate jurisdiction of Bishop Lawrence J. Shehan of the Diocese of Bridgeport. Religious instruction is in the curriculum. About 10 of the students are non-Catholic.”
The school was now expanding, and the description radiated general dissatisfaction with the public school system of the last few decades, and the modernist values it was seen to embody, at least among the well-off northeast crowd: “[C]loakrooms, swept out of schools by modern architects, will make a comeback at Whitby. Basic education is also making a comeback at Whitby. Geology, English grammar and composition, chronologically-taught history---and penmanship---are all in the curriculum, undisguised. There are no courses in life adjustment. (Italics in original; bold is my emphasis).
Rambusch was quoted as saying “basic education is Montessori’s prime concern.” At Whitby, children kept the classroom clean and neat, but “this work is not considered play.” No teacher picked up after them if they did not—“this work is their responsibility.” Rambusch said that ages 3-6 were when children most easily learned “the ground rules of human behavior.” Discipline was described as gentle but firm, with children free, happy, and responsive to teacher’s instructions. “Even in their uniforms…they manage to look and act as individuals. Individuality is stressed at Whitby. There is no ‘lock-step’ classification of children by their ages. ‘If a child persists in wanting to read,’ Mrs. Rambusch said, ‘it is usually an indication that he is ready to read. Children move themselves toward learning.’”
Various Montessori-associated sensory materials and techniques were mentioned—playing with sandpaper letters and an emphasis on early reading and writing, etc. Whitby was described as expensive, but this was portrayed as justified by the high (“Montessori-trained”) student-to-teacher ratio, “an integral part of the Montessori Method” that “could never be adapted in the average public school.”
Whitby was also involved in teacher training:
“This missionary work is slowly spreading the Montessori gospel. And many American educators are dropping in…But the only other school in the country which even partially uses the formal Method is the Sophia School in west Los Angeles…There is no Montessori equivalent of the American report card (which in recent years has become so vaguely worded that it often baffles both parent and child)….but probably the biggest obstacle facing the growth of the Montessori Method in America is its revolutionary idea that teachers aren’t as important as children. ‘The central idea of the Montessori system,’ the mother of a Montessori-trained child has said, ‘is a full recognition of the fact that no human being can be educated by anyone else. He must do it himself or it is never done.’” 
Montessori in 1960s Massachusetts
By 1962, the Boston College School of Education had opened a Montessori kindergarten, and such independent ventures for young children were popping up everywhere in the press, each with a unique twist, usually portraying he method as old, European, and allowing children to advance at their own rate rather than be graded by age.
On July 5, 1964, The Boston Globe announced that a Cambridge publisher would soon be printing copies of “The Montessori Method,” about a “controversial mode of teaching” that had been out of print for 50 years. “Recently there has been a revival of interest in this plan of education,” it noted, without further explanation. The spark of interest appears to have been related to various New England Catholic institution-affiliated (but non-sectarian) projects, but it seems to have gotten a boost upon R. Buckminster Fuller’s involvement starting in 1965, which began to make the press around 1967. Unsurprisingly, the glimpses of an emphasis on Emersonian individualism that emerge in the coverage of these schools without age grading came to the forefront with Fuller, then “a spry 72 years old.”
In 1967, Fuller was in Boston for his 50th Harvard class reunion, and he made a trip to Roxbury to unveil plans “plans for a $3 million ‘village’ based on the Montessori teaching method.” Due to Fuller’s eccentricity and extravagant visions, it is difficult to tell exactly what he had in mind, other than to donate the “architectural” designs and materials. He was collaborating with Roxbury’s Mrs. Mae Gadpaille, “president of the Montessori Family Center, Inc.,” and founder of a “small Montessori school” in the basement of a Roxbury parochial school. “She said she asked Fuller's help in 1965 because he is ‘deeply impressed’ with the Montessori technique,” which they both seemed to see as well-suited to helping the socioeconomically disadvantaged children in the neighborhood.
The Globe emphasized the project’s ability to combat racial inequality—Gadpaille and most of her students were African-American. This was a new angle of emphasis for Montessori coverage, but one in line with both the Massachusetts experimental progressive tradition and the New England version of the northern educational tradition (with its emphasis on equality, unifying personal leadership, and moral suasion). The incredible personalities and visions of Gadpaille and Fuller were emphasized, as well as their personal, collaborative, unifying, and spiritual but not sectarian approach.
“Gadpaille envisioned a community of 150 Black-owned homes centered around a Montessori school serving ages birth to 18, and she recruited famed architect R. Buckminster Fuller, noted for his space-age geodesic domes, who skipped part of his Harvard reunion to volunteer the design. The Boston Globe called it a modern day ‘“Black Brook Farm,’” after the eighteenth-century Transcendentalist utopian community based in nearby West Roxbury. Fuller was attracted to Gadpaille’s charisma. ‘She is one of the people who should be backed in every way...I only hope the world catches on to her.’”
Montessori’s Appeal: Building Character?
What can be discerned here is that, among Americans devoted to overcoming racial prejudice, Montessori's philosophy was seen to allow for an inclusive pluralism and with justifications for integrating new elements (with their own pragmatic spin applied, of course, in typical American fashion). This was true in several different circles/eras:
- The privileged Emersonian Yankee women of the pre-FDR era (Helen Parkhurst and Dorothy Canfield Fisher)
- Mid-20th-century Catholic women who believed that all children deserved a morally sound education and experimented with the many new resources available, including mass media promotion, educational changes around federal funding and other matters, and small-scale local outreach (Rambusch, Gadpaille) 
- Old northeastern visionaries who wanted to fuse the pluralistic Transcendentalism of their childhoods with modern possibilities (Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell, Buckminster Fuller,) probably some Great Society Democrats or Kennedys) 
One could even argue that this group includes, in some some sense, young critical theorists of the last few decades who have looked into the injustices and divides within the history of progressive education and published scholarship on it. As the latter group noticed, this eagerness to engage with the issue was a radically different approach to the issue of racial prejudice in America than that of leading American progressive education figures like Dewey.
It also speaks to American parents’ sense that Montessori’s philosophy provided the character-development that had conspicuously disappeared from the American approach, at least in the eyes of many well-off parents (contra Truman). One scholar remarked in 2012,
“It is ironic that [William Heard] Kilpatrick [an educationist closely associated with John Dewey who is remembered as a prominent critic of the Montessori Method] thought Montessori’s didactic material was appropriate for the poor children in Rome but not the (wealthier) children in America, as it was wealthy children in America who first had access to Montessori schools, when the schools were originally introduced in 1911-15 and then reintroduced in the late 1950s.”
Could it be that, due to social changes, wealthy American children now did need more assistance in this area than they had in the past? Or at least new and adaptive approaches? Alexander Graham Bell's mother and wife were deaf, and both he and his father spent a long time working with deaf students. Bell would have appreciated how children of the same socioeconomic resources and developmental capacity might have varying educational needs. Similarly, those sensitive to racial prejudice and social change could see how a ”healing” or ”integrative” education might be needed even among relatively well-off Americans in the mid-late 20th century.
Indeed, as the same scholar noted, Kilpatrick also ignored Montessori’s idea of discipline coming through the children’s work, or “the activities they choose to participate in based on their interests and the uninterrupted time they have to see their work through to completion.” Montessori believed “that by allowing children to choose what they are interested in as an activity, the children will take care of their deep-seeded needs for independence and self-control,” and her approach reflected these observations. Were these “needs for independence and self-control" central to the attraction?
Dorothy Canfield Fisher, author of A Montessori Mother, thought as much all the way back in 1912! (She blamed this at least in part in the realization that traditional religious education and moral instruction was often done poorly.)
“Hypocrisy, conscious or unconscious, is a far worse enemy than ignorance, since it poisons the very springs of spiritual life, and yet few things are harder to avoid than unconscious hypocrisy. A realization of this truth is perhaps the explanation of a recent tendency in America for fairly intelligent, fairly conscientious parents utterly to despair of seeing any light on this problem, and to attempt to solve it by running away from it, to throw up the whole business in dismay at its difficulty, to attempt no moral training at all because so much that is given is bad, and to let the children go, until they are old enough to choose for themselves."
Nevertheless, just because “this attempt at spiritual instruction is as bad as it can be, it does not follow that the moral nature of the little child does not need training fitted to its capacities, limited though these undoubtedly are in early childhood.” She continued:
“There is no more reason for leaving a child to grow up morally unaided by a life definitely designed to develop his moral nature, than for leaving him to grow up physically unaided by good food, to expect that he will select this instinctively by his own unaided browsings in the pantry among the different dishes prepared for the varying needs of his elders.”
Anticipating and rejecting Dewey’s “bargain counter” approach, Canfield Fisher adopted a more Emersonian approach, one she obviously perceived in Montessori.
“The usual method by which bountiful Nature, striving to make up for our deficiencies, provides for this, is by the action of children upon each other. This factor is, of course, notably present in the Casa dei Bambini in the all-day life in common of twenty children. In families it is especially to be seen in the care and self-sacrifice which older children are obliged to show towards younger ones. But in our usual small prosperous American families, this element of enforced moral effort is often wanting. Either there are but one or two children, or if more, the younger ones are cared for by a nurse, or by the mother sufficiently free from pressing material care to give considerable time to the baby of the family. And on the whole it must be admitted that Nature's expedient is at best a rough-and-ready one. Though the older children may miss an opportunity for spiritual discipline, it is manifestly better for the baby to be tended by an adult.”
Though this characterization of the children Montessori worked with may seem self-absorbed, Canfield Fisher probably had a point about what had been lost in modern family life when it came to privileged American children. She did not disguise the fact that her target audience was well-off “Yankee” mothers. Her lament echoes Dewey’s concerns about modern children being cut off from the spontaneous community interactions and practical tasks he remembered enjoying as a boy in rural Vermont. It also anticipates the desire to revive pre-age-grading era, in which children of different ages freely mingled. (Emerson, writing at a time when New England families tended to be large and roam freely, had noted that children enjoy and get a lot out of teaching or assisting younger children.)
Canfield Fisher insisted back in 1912 that “of course, there is nothing new in the idea of associating children with animals and plants--an idea common to nearly all educators since the first child played with a puppy.” What was new, in her eyes, was “our more conscious, sharpened, more definite idea, awakened by Dr. Montessori's penetrating analysis, of just how these natural elements of child-life can be used to stimulate a righteous sense of responsibility.”
What Canfield Fisher calls a moral education appears to overlap with the development of a sense of agency and responsibility. The Boston Globe’s 1969 feature on Gadpaille called attention to the ”The Montessori values of independence, order, persistence and their enforcement through an object-environment as teacher have caught on....Today Maria Montessori's credo that ’"things are the best teachers’"and her desire to sensitize children through them, to encourage ’"spontaneous reasoning " and self-mastery sound very contemporary.” Perhaps what Canfield Fisher said all the way back in 1912 continued to hold true about Montessori’s post-1950 appeal:
“Our part, therefore, in this connection, is to catch up the hint which the great Italian teacher has let fall and use our own Yankee ingenuity in developing it, always bearing religiously in mind the fundamental principle of self-education which must underlie any attempt of ours to adapt her ideas to our conditions.”
As we can see, even decades after Canfield Fisher’s remarks, educational experimenters in America continued to be attracted to the idea of freedom from age-grading. To them, such classifications represented an arbitrary and damaging restriction on individual development. For children to actually learn the material and develop their potential, they had to be given the flexibility to work things out at their own pace. This approach struck most reformers as hopelessly inefficient. As they implemented a more bureaucratized public school system, complete with age-grading, independent reformers continued to perceive an alternative in child-centered approaches like those of Montessori.
1. Of course, as one scholar has suggested, such comparisons can be dubious because “Montessori was a medical doctor and scientist and Dewey was a philosopher”--they were coming at different problems from different angles, and focusing on different countries. Barbara Thayer-Bacon, "Maria Montessori, John Dewey, and William H. Kilpatrick," Education and Culture 28, no. 1 (2012): 3-20, doi:10.1353/eac.2012.0001.
2. This shared "child-centricness" had earlier been seen as two very different approaches to the child: See ibid. Thayer-Bacon writes: ”Kilpatrick judges Montessori as not up to date on educational theory, suggesting that her idea that “education is a development from within” is an old idea that can be traced back to Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel...and he is uncomfortable with her doctrine of child liberty, thinking Rousseau, Froebel, and Dewey should be credited with this general point of view, especially Dewey.” A child’s inner development and greater liberty for the child in his education were seen as unrelated, even contradictory concepts, because of theoretical disagreements among reformers over whether children had an innate ”personality“ that inevitably expressed itself. The general consensus by the 50s was that they did, ending that perceived conflict. The child’s innate personality was what took advantage of the freedom.
3. See, for example, Angela K. Murray et al., "Hidden Black Voices in the History of Montessori Education, ”American Educational History Journal, vol. 47, no. 1-2, annual 2020, pp. 205+, Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A637504065/AONE?u=mlin_oweb&sid=googleScholar&xid=935a2a5e.
4. Susan F. Semel, ”Women Progressive Leaders in the Twentieth Century: From Caroline Pratt and Helen Parkhurst to Lillian Weber and Deborah Meier,” City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Center, Keynote Address at ISCHE 26, July 15, 2004, Geneva, Switzerland.
5. Harry S. Truman, quoted in The La Crosse Tribune, August 31, 1957.
6. In this sense, Montessori represents for Truman what Dewey represents for many today: an all-purpose symbol of cultural deterioration. But even back in the 1910s, before Montessori had been introduced, this behavioral tendency had been noticed, and was perhaps better explained by social upheaval and the erosion of norms associated with to modernity. See Dorothy Canfield Fisher, A Montessori Mother (United States: H. Holt, 1912).
7. “Johnny Can Read,” New York Daily News, October 23, 1960.
12. In a parenthetical, the writer added “To offset the modern child’s ‘woman-ridden’ life, only male teachers are used from what is the equivalent of the fourth grade and up.”
15. The Boston Globe, June 13, 1967.
16. Ibid. After discussing the fact that Montessori worked with “Roman slum children,” the article noted that “Fuller, who was born in Milton, said he used to visit Roxbury as a boy and still had a "feeling" for it despite neighborhood deterioration.” See also note 17, below.
17. The Boston Globe, November 16, 1969. Fuller opines that the focus on race can be a distraction from Gadpaille’s real significance. Gadpaille’s vision is portrayed as more collectivist and social reform-oriented than Fuller’s, but her remarks seem to indicate a decentralized, community leadership, parent-involved approach more similar to 19th Massachusetts than anything European or modern, as indicated by comparisons to “Brook Farm” and kibitzes. They agreed that early education and environment were inseparable, and that Montessori represented this belief. "From the moment he is born, a child learns by absorbing his environment and imitating adults,” Gadpaille is quoted as saying. “This child creates the man who builds society.”
18. Excerpt from Mira Debs, Diverse Families, Desirable Schools: Public Montessori in the Era of School Choice (Harvard Education Press, 2019), in a review by Angela Murray, “Is Montessori Really for Everyone?,” in Montessori Life.
19. See Canfield Fisher, A Montessori Mother (”Our part, therefore, in this connection, is to catch up the hint which the great Italian teacher has let fall and use our own Yankee ingenuity in developing it, always bearing religiously in mind the fundamental principle of self-education which must underlie any attempt of ours to adapt her ideas to our conditions.”)
20. Murray et al., "Hidden Black Voices in the History of Montessori Education“ (The Montessori Family Center served children from the late 1960s until Gadpaille's retirement in 1990. But, beyond her focus on the local school, she used her persuasive talents to speak out in public and on television and radio arguing for the necessity of quality childcare in the poorest communities to be a national issue. For example, Gadpaille was featured on Boston television in 1970 discussing Montessori education and arguing that children learn best between the ages of two and seven. A special broadcast of a radio program Options during Black history month featured Gadpaille representing one of the few Black community schools and discussing the Montessori Method. She was also a delegate to the World Assembly for Moral Re-Armament at Caux, Switzerland, in 1971 where the conference theme was, "Today's choice--Tomorrow's world" with participants bringing "fresh evidence of answers to difficult problems solved on the basis of 'What is right' rather than 'Who is right.'") (Emphases added; internal citations omitted.)
21. See, for example, Jeff DeGraff, ”The Best Place to Light a Fire is Where the Sparks Fly: Diversity produces the constructive conflict necessary for growth,” Psychology Today, December 5, 2011, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/innovation-you/201112/the-best-place-light-fire-is-where-the-sparks-fly.
22. Murray et al., "Hidden Black Voices in the History of Montessori Education“. (“These inspiring women remind us what can be accomplished with the power of a passionate belief in the potential of a community's children. They also highlight a history that is more diverse and socially conscious than is typically ascribed to Montessori education. The prevalence of Montessori education in private preschools serving predominantly white, middle class families in recent years has led to the misconception that it is an educational approach designed for privileged families. Disrupting this conception, Mae Arlene Gadpaille, Roslyn Williams, and Lenore Gertrude Briggs illustrate the power of Montessori education to work toward social justice. Rediscovering these stories reconnects Montessori educators to the approach's origins as a great equalizer with the promise of empowering historically marginalized communities through an educational model rooted in deep respect for human potential, the value of community spirit and belief in the promise of the child for building a better future regardless of socioeconomic, racial, or ability barriers.”)(Emphases added; internal citations omitted.) See note 23, below.
23. Thayer-Bacon, "Maria Montessori, John Dewey, and William H. Kilpatrick.”
24. On November 16, 1969, The Boston Globe reported that ”Nancy Rambusch herself has moved from middle class Connecticut to teach in the New York slums,” a reversal of Gadpaille’s career path: the Globe also wrote that ”Mrs. Gadpaille came to the Montessori modes after graduation from Howard University, teaching older children science and math, and grappling with the personal problem of being black in White America...” (Emphases added). Gadpaille, who was born in 1905 and studied theology in Massachusetts during the 1920s, converted to Catholicism and became a nun in the 1940s.
25. See International Journal of Progressive Education, Volume 13 Number 2, 2017, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1145585.pdf. Kilpatrick's criticisms seem to have stemmed mainly from finding her beliefs theoretically uninteresting/unpersuasive/outdated, and a sense that Montessori’s popularity could undermine the position of the faction of reformers he was associated with in some way. He was intensely ambitious and had a long and influential career. Because he dismissed her ideas as unsatisfactory, at least when it came to subject matter adjacent to his own, his arguments have struck many people as harsh and unfair, and he has been charged with her failure to take off in the 1910s. See David Norbert Campbell, ”A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF WILLIAM HEARD KILPATRICK'S 'THE MONTESSORI SYSTEM EXAMINED,'" University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1970, https://www.proquest.com/openview/cebc81e9496da6cae34a4e9227cfd720/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y. Interestingly, Campbell remarks that " A number of factors were responsible for [the intense interest in Montessori's work], certainly not the least important being the lack of any real precedent in preschool education at the time. But no doubt the single greatest attraction was the seriousness and self-directive nature of the Montessori System." (Emphases added.)
26. See International Journal of Progressive Education, Volume 13 Number 2, 2017, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1145585.pdf Ibid.(”Rousseau and Montessori both believed that their approach to education would lead to a more enlightened, authentic and peaceful society. However, the details of their methods centered initially on what they each perceived as the needs of their students based on social class. In the case of “Emile”, Rousseau argued against the corruption of materialism and the superficiality of the rich while Montessori sought to protect her students from the ravages of poverty such as stress and disorganized thinking. At the core of each approach was a focus on the individualized needs, strengths and interests of the child. Both writers described the teacher as a nurturing guide. In Rousseau’s “Emile”, the teacher supported the child’s natural inclinations through the endless opportunities of the natural world. Montessori’s teacher provided a carefully planned environment designed to correspond precisely to each child’s developmental needs and natural inclinations. Therefore, while the social context of these forbearers of progressive education centered on opposite economic classes, the methods and philosophy they espoused were similar.”)
27. Canfield Fisher, A Montessori Mother (“The children of six who conceive of God as a policeman with a long white beard, oddly enough placed in the sky, lying on the clouds, and looking down through a peephole to spy upon the actions of little girls and boys, have undoubtedly been cruelly wronged by the creation of this grotesque and ignoble figure in their little brains, a figure which, so permanent are the impressions of childhood, will undoubtedly, in years to come, unconsciously render much more difficult a reverent and spiritual attitude towards the Ultimate Cause.”)
28. Ibid. (Emphases added).
30. Ibid. (Emphases added.)
31. Ibid. (Emphases added).
33. Still, there does seem to be an intense drive for a revival of moral seriousness/authority among those Americans attracted to Montessori after 1950. See note 21, above, and The Boston Globe, November 16, 1969. (”[Gadpaille’s] code is Montessori's code. But beyond Montessori, she reaches back into an African heritage and out to the parents in the community with her own stringent, if slightly authoritarian Catholic-based moral values.”) (Emphases added). And, perhaps related to both that aspect and the agency/responsibility aspect, both Rambusch and a later African-American Montessori educator working with disadvantaged children in Harlem advocated for more male teachers at their school. See “Johnny Can Read,” New York Daily News, October 23, 1960 and Murray et al., "Hidden Black Voices in the History of Montessori Education.“
34. The Boston Globe, November 16, 1969.
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.
Montessori’s Uneasy Alliance with American Progressivism
Montessori transcends the categories of the American education debate. An examination of how American progressive educators interfaced with her pedagogy reveals much about the wider conversations surrounding progressive education itself.
The American Montessori Revival, Part I: 20th-Century Massachusetts
After World War II, Montessori's educational philosophy began to find its footing in the United States: starting in 1965, there were rarely fewer than 500 mentions of Montessori in the national press annually, and the totals spiked several times before mostly leveling off for the rest of the century around 1980.
In 1980s Massachusetts, however, things were just getting started...
Montessori's Initial Reception in America
The initial popularity of Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy in the US resonated with the Emersonian philosophy of education and intersected, albeit only for a few years, with the societal views of the Progressive elites of the day.