Core Philosophy

Montessori and War

Written by Dr. Matt Bateman on February 24, 2022

Is Montessori education a solution to war?

In 1946, after WWII, Montessori wrote that men "have earnestly tried to create a world where peace could reign. And they have not succeeded… 'Love one another' has been preached for centuries, and yet peace has not come." The missing ingredient of peace, in her view? The right approach to education. Her lectures on this topic have been collected in Education and Peace, but she makes this point in almost all of her books.

Is the view that education can end war plausible? Yes and no, in my opinion.

First: what is Montessori’s argument?

She regarded most education, and most childrearing practices generally, as establishing a power struggle between the adult and the child, one born of misunderstanding.

"We love our children or believe we love them, but we do not understand them."

Because we don't understand them, their struggles and needs are felt as the unreasonable nuisances of the subhuman. Their resistance to being ushered along a misconceived path towards being more human is met with the paternalist's toolkit: we know better, and so you must obey.

The explicit message children get is: we love you, everyone should love one another, everyone has dignity and deserves respect. But the implicit message children get is: your needs don't matter, I don't need to understand you, and you must do what I say. Obedience is sought. Quiet, compliant children are valorized and set on that path permanently. Spirited, rebellious children are set to believe that there is something wrong with them. This sort of power struggle is set up, deep within the child's soul, as profoundly normal. These implicit lessons are powerful and enduring. It is never fully overridden by explicit teaching.

And what about explicit lessons? What lessons are children taught when they are older? There is, of course, some golden-rule type preaching, but often human civilization is presented as corrupt, either in whole or in part. Even more notable: the unity and progress that we have achieved is not highlighted. Montessori viewed human accomplishment and especially material progress as of high moral significance. For older children, they are concrete signifiers of the capacity for human elevation.

Seeing the greatness of other human beings is inspiring and induces gratitude. It sets the child up to want to participate in humanity, not by telling but by showing.

"It is therefore useless to try to achieve unity amongst men by 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. This can also be done with children."

More generally, the work of participating in civilization—of harmoniously working in an interdependent society—is not valorized. Schoolwork is somewhere between a boring task and a thankless duty that is primarily a matter of obedience. Children miss out on the joy of work.

Here is her vivid and depressingly relevant view of a child's sense of possibilities for humanity and their place in it, up to the point of arrival at university:

"The inert child who never worked with his hands, who never had the feeling of being useful and capable of effort, who never found by experience that to live means living socially, and that to think and to create means to make use of a harmony of souls; this type of child will become a selfish youth, he will be pessimistic and melancholy and will seek on the surface of vanity the compensation for a lost paradise.

And thus, a lessened man, he will appear at the gates of the university. And to ask for what? To ask for a profession that will make him capable of making his home in a society in which he is a stranger and which is indifferent to him. He will enter into society in order to take part in the functioning of a civilization for which he lacks all feeling."

A better approach to education, the approach that she pioneered, would blast these implicit messages away. Young children would implicitly learn that they were genuinely understood and could harmonize with adults and children. They would learn to love themselves and others. They would learn to love effort, love the capacity in themselves and others to change the world for the better by working productively, together. A confidence earned by effort, at a young age, is the foundation for self-love and a secure relationship with others.

Children wouldn't ignore injustice—to the contrary, they would be sensitized to it in education—but they wouldn't become cynical about it. Their minds and hearts would be centered on human greatness and unity as an achievable ideal, worth struggle and effort.

They would be emotionally inoculated from some of the political and social patterns that inevitably lead to war. Here's her son, Mario, on the envisioned effect:

"But had they been helped during childhood to incarnate, besides the reality of the functioning of the world and of society, a feeling also of gratitude towards the anonymous benefactor who works for them—and which is the whole of humanity—then, I have no doubt, if some fanatic of new ideologies were to tell them ‘follow me to glory’ (meaning: follow me to war) they would stop to think. They would probably react as you and I would, were someone to tell us, ‘Look, you see that balcony there? You see the little birds flying around? You are a little bird, but your mother does not want you to fly. Kill your mother, jump off the balcony and start flying.’ Because they would know what the consequences would be to their feelings if their mother were to die at their hands to their own body if they were to jump from the balcony."

So, that's the argument. How plausible is it?

I think there is much in this that is plausible. But I'm doubtful that the right way to think about it is that education could bring about an end to war. First, note that the world of childrearing (if not education more generally) has moved in a more progressive, less authoritarian direction. It's done so in a clumsy, overly permissive way, which is not what Montessori envisioned. But if "children should be seen and not heard" was the cause of war in some simple way, the progress we've made on that front would probably have had more of an effect.

That's a more minor quibble, though. The reality is that overly permissive/progressive education also sets up power struggles, in a more complicated way, so I think it's still at least mostly compatible with her story. It's more notable to me that many of the things that Montessori advocated for as part of "peace education" are now controversial amongst Montessorians.

Montessorians tend to be quite skeptical of presenting a positive vision of material progress as morally significant. Many, many people, including Montessorians, balk at upholding, as a core moral sentiment, that humanity's mastery over nature is the ground for unity. I often quote passages such as the below, but, even among Montessorians, they aren't particularly popular.

"...[H]umanity, as it progressed, reached a plateau that places it above nature. We have to do everything possible to make [the child] aware of the universal value of this conquest that creates a real and profound unity among all men. ..."

If anything, Montessori educators have gravitated towards highlighting injustices in a way that leads to reinforcing power struggles and cynicism. The Montessori world is susceptible to a sort of "everything is oppression" bias—which is part of what Montessori wanted to avoid!

What does this show? What does it mean that Montessorians are insensitive to some of the most core aspects of her views of peace education? It means that the causes of peace are philosophical and controversial in a way that extends beyond education. You can't "just" get these things right in education, and trust the next generation.

In order to get things right in education, you have to reach this generation.

It has to be true that adults today come to be more aligned on the causes of conflict for better implicit/explicit teaching on this subject to become widespread. You can't have an education at scale that delivers a message that is not well-defended in the adult world.

Second, and relatedly, "peace" is in some ways a very low bar. Weirdly, I don't think it's an inspiring enough message to carry a new moral ideal for education. Not being at each other's throats is a negative. We need a positive vision, a vision of a human world to work towards.

Montessori herself was acutely sensitive to this. A great deal of Education and Peace is about presenting a positive ideal, an ideal of people. But, again, swaths of that ideal, particularly those related to the love of work and civilization, aren't well-understood. And they aren't well-understood because there's no bypassing how contentious and difficult it is to provide a philosophical vision for human beings.

The short version of my objection to Montessori's view of education as the panacea is that, even if it's true, it just can't be achieved in isolation. We have to fix the child's world and the adult's world in parallel.

Contra Montessori, I don’t think that even widespread, radical education reform will fix all the world’s problems. But I do think that achieving said education reform requires a widespread, radical change in beliefs about human life, and that philosophical shift will fix a lot.