Montessori's Initial Reception in America

Written by Kerry Ellard on May 7, 2021

The initial popularity of Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy coincided with the triumph of America’s Progressive Movement in the years before World War I. Around 1912, her work became a major topic of conversation among professional educators in America, many of whom she met while visiting the country in December 1913.

At the time, an interest in professional education was highly correlated with Progressive ideological views,[1] as America, due to its historically weak and decentralized institutional culture, had never developed systematic philosophies in the manner of European intellectuals. These views “reached their apogee in the Progressive party and its national convention of 1912,” a gathering of “businessmen, intellectuals, academics, technocrats, efficiency experts and social engineers, writers, economists, social scientists, and leading representatives of the new profession of social work.”[2] 

But Montessori’s work did not provoke enthusiasm among all commentators. A review published in the Dial declared that “the whole Montessori system is where the American system was twenty-five years ago," and that, "if she had lived in America, she would be thought to be behind the times.” A professor declared that she was thirty years behind, someone who belonged “in the history of American educational theory essentially along with the writers antedating 1880.” This has been described by scholars as “criticism,”[3] but it appears to have been merely stating the obvious. The Dial reviewer’s next sentence was “It is a great improvement upon general Italian practice in Rome, but it does not give the American teacher a new point of view which will be of service to him in solving his present problems." (Emphasis added.)

It is probably not a coincidence that the Dial was founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had died in 1882, just as the Progressive Era began. The reviewer recognized Montessori as one of his own, in a sense, and was likely not surprised by the similarity. Emerson always maintained that his philosophy was timeless and could be independently discerned by any person attuned to the natural operations of the universe.[4] This was not a belief that appealed to most Progressives, who were overjoyed to believe they were the recipients of unprecedented knowledge, scientific advancement, opportunity, liberation, and moral enlightenment. This has led to a bizarre situation in which 20th-century American intellectuals repeatedly re-imported Emerson’s views from their European counterparts, believing them to be new and exotic insights.[5]

The brief, sudden, enthusiastic, and “seemingly inappropriate public response” to Montessori’s work, is probably better characterized as a “Progressive elite response,” reflective of their needs at that time.[6] One gets the sense she became something of a political football—the educational traditionalists, like Jesuits, saw her as one of their natural Progressive enemies, whereas the “kindergarteners” made the opposite mistake. (The professor who accused her of being thirty years behind was a leading proponent of the kindergarten model, and naturally felt no need to engage with anything about American education “antedating 1880.”) Caught in the crossfire, Montessori probably didn’t know even know she had stepped into this American culture war to begin with. 

The prominence of the “kindergarteners” in the debate is significant. Early childhood education philosophy was a German concept, one that had only just started to gain ground in America[7]: 

“The first kindergartens in the United States were private and taught by German immigrants in the middle 1800s. Kindergartens were promoted by American educators like Elizabeth Peabody and received foundational (financial) support from charity societies created by women. Per the appeal of supporters kindergartens unlike infant schools were made public, therefore available to all children in 1888—the first public kindergarten was in St. Louis, Missouri.” [8]

It was this aspect of Montessori’s work that likely caught the eye of Progressives at that time, along with the fact that she stood for the professional and educational achievement of women.[9] While many articles indicate there was a widespread enthusiasm among American parents following the attention given to Montessori, I am not convinced that this was true until later, when Montessori was rediscovered in the US in the 1950s. Most of the 1912 publications were not read by general audiences; the enthusiasm for Montessori was a phenomenon of the elite. It is more likely that, between 1906 and 1915, there were a small number of highly motivated devotees promoting her work in communities with a lot of receptive Progressives. In cities like San Francisco, Progressives gained control of the public school systems around 1920, after a long battle with locals, especially Catholic immigrants.[10] Several of the Americans who went to study with Montessori were women from California. 

My initial impression of all of this is that it revolves around the somewhat paradoxical nature of “democratic education.” European nations created their education systems to integrate people into an existing social order. America did not have a strongly established social order, and was basically the only country at the time committed to self-government in which all citizens could participate. 

It was clear in the 1830s and 1840s that America was entering a period of instability, in part due to anti-slavery agitation and the expansion of suffrage. People like Horace Mann, Emerson, and Abraham Lincoln all sensed this and tried to put forward a mode of education that might enable the country to weather the storm. They all essentially attempted to secularize a religion that could serve as a grounding moral education for young people, while leaving the acquiring of skills and content largely to common sense and individual circumstances.

Mann “sought to reconcile social stability with individual autonomy by promoting a shared culture organized around a balance among mental faculties in each citizen.”

“Mann's common school ideal, in which children of diverse backgrounds find common ground in the pursuit of mental discipline, had more to do with ‘education [...] the political role of schooling in shaping the character of the American people,’ than with ‘instruction, the imparting of skills and objective knowledge.’ Mann feared that democracy was being extended to people who would abuse it. ‘The great experiment of Republicanism, – of the capacity of man for self-government, – is to be tried anew,’ ‘wherever it has been tried – in Greece, in Rome, in Italy – [it] has failed, through an incapacity in the people to enjoy liberty without abusing it.’’[11]

Emerson, a fellow Massachusetts native who knew Mann well, had received the best of formal and religious educations available, and his character was beyond question. But he had become disillusioned with the value of even these rare advantages, and believed developing independent judgment from one’s own observations of what he called “Nature” was paramount.[12] While he had his concerns about the experiment with self-government, he did not believe true character could be dictated by authorities, as it was of a revelatory nature.[13]

Out in Illinois, self-educated Lincoln had far fewer options than Mann or Emerson, but his own position was somewhat similar to Emerson’s: he settled on trying to develop individual judgment and character, bounded by natural law and loyalty to the American project.

But Progressives rejected all of this as inadequate to the modern world, embracing a social engineering approach based on European models. However, unlike America, Europe was not then democratic, and European progressives were rather unabashedly elitist in their approach to education. This made things difficult for American Progressives, most of whom identified closely with democratic ideals.

Montessori seems to have independently arrived at an educational philosophy that had some resonance with themes that Americans had previously arrived at a few decades before she was born. Italy was, in some ways, similar: it was going through a period of social reorganization and had a weak institutional culture, but had hopes of a more modern and democratic society. There was room for independent-minded people to innovate, and similar concerns were raised among those Italians sensitive to these needs.[14] In a sense, Montessori briefly crossed paths with American educators moving in the other direction.[15]

[1] Willcott, P. (1968). The School Review 76, no. 2: 147-65, "The Initial American Reception of the Montessori Method".

[2] Peden, J. R. and Glahe, F R. , eds., 1986) The American Family and the State, “The Progressive Era and the Family".

[3] Willcott, P. The Initial American Reception of the Montessori Method.

[4] Montessori proponents have since picked up on the similarities. See, for example, this blog and this blog. The first post notes that Montessori “was deeply impressed by the harmony she discerned in the natural world, the ecology of existence that gives every living thing a meaningful function in the larger system. Every species, indeed every individual organism, contributes to the good of the whole by performing its inherent ‘cosmic’ function.” These are very Emersonian beliefs. It also says that, for Montessori, “each human being has his or her path of incarnation to follow, his or her destiny. Montessori, like Emerson, referred to the ‘secret’ within the soul of every child—the personal spiritual imperative that transcends whatever social prejudices, ideologies, and mundane educational curricula that adults seek to overlay onto the child’s personality.” 

[5] This happened most notably in the case of Nietzsche’s work, much of which was an attempt to systematize Emerson’s philosophy. Around the time Montessori became known, George Santayana wrote of Emerson’s prescience on what the results of this would be: “The Germans were great system-makers, and Emerson cannot rival them in the sustained effort of thought by which they sought to reinterpret every sphere of being according to their chosen principles. But he surpassed them in an instinctive sense of what he was doing. He never represented his poetry as science, nor countenanced the formation of a new sect that should nurse the sense of a private and mysterious illumination, and relight the faggots of passion and prejudice. He never tried to seek out and defend the book he had once planned on the law of compensation, foreseeing, we may well believe, the sophistries in which he would have been directly involved.” Emphasis added.

[6] See Willcott, P. The Initial American Reception of the Montessori Method. See also Coleman, K. (2011) Dissertations "The Montessori Method in America: Montessori Schools in New York and Rhode Island From 1910-1940" https://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss_6mos/2. (“Like the other instructional approaches awareness [of Montessori’s methods] was brought to light due American visitation abroad and subsequent literature in the way of articles made available to the American public. This method became an international sensation attracting educators, politicians, philanthropists and the like…”) Emphasis added.

[7] In an odd coincidence, the daughter of Senator Henry T. Blow of Missouri, who was very close with Abraham and Mary Lincoln, introduced German kindergarten to America in the 1870s. See this biography (“In 1859, when she was sixteen, Susan attended a private school in New York City…In 1861, the school shut down [due to the Civil War] and Susan returned to Missouri…[where she] studied on her own using the family library…She even joined a group of thinkers in St. Louis so she could talk with others about her ideas. Four years after the Civil War, Henry Taylor Blow was appointed ambassador to Brazil. Susan Blow went with her father and worked as his secretary for fifteen months. Afterwards, she traveled to Germany. There she had an experience that gave the rest of her life direction. She observed classrooms inspired by the work of Friedrich Froebel, an important leader in early education. In these ‘kindergarten’ classrooms, Blow noticed that young children learn important language, math, and science skills by playing with objects such as balls and blocks. She decided that children in America should have this kind of instruction, too.”)

[8] Coleman, K. (2011) Dissertations "The Montessori Method in America: Montessori Schools in New York and Rhode Island From 1910-1940"

[9] When Montessori visited America, S.S. McClure and Alexander Graham Bell were in the audience. It is worth pointing out that McClure was committed to promoting gender equality in journalism, launching the careers of reporters like Ida Tarbell and editor Willa Cather (the latter coming to promote Montessori ideas). Additionally, Bell was a second-generation teacher of deaf students and private tutor for elite students, a career he never fully surrendered in favor of his scientific pursuits. McClure’s Magazine had a definite Progressive bent, but Bell does not seem to have been as clearly associated with Progressivism. Bell may have been interested in Montessori’s work with students who did not fit a traditional learning profile, or, as a polymath, simply curious about any innovations in educational philosophy. Other scholars seem to have been led astray by ignorance of Bell’s background, and I suspect this leads them to exaggerate Montessori’s early appeal beyond professional educators. See, for example, Benjamin Raber, J. (2014) Doctoral Dissertation "Progressivism's Aesthetic Education: The Bildungsroman and the Struggle for the American School, 1890-1920"., http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:12271800 (“[Montessori] captured the imagination of many Americans following educational debates but unaffiliated with the educational profession itself; Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, rather than professional educators, were at the center of an amateur movement to open Montessori schools in the United States.”)

[10] Peden, J. R. and Glahe, F R. , eds., 1986) The American Family and the State, “The Progressive Era and the Family." See also Raber. (2014) Progressivism's Aesthetic Education :(“[The Progressive era saw] the rise of a massive new cultural edifice: the American educational profession”).

[11] Raber. (2014) Progressivism's Aesthetic Education (“When he began to bring the normal schools under state control, although he ostensibly confined their curriculum to ‘scientific’ pedagogy, Orestes Brownson accused him of establishing a state religion. Although Mann waved it off, Brownson's objection cuts to the heart of the project of democratic education; if one takes it seriously, American teaching comes to seem, in Charles Glenn's words, like ‘a semi-profession more similar to a religious teaching order, informed by a belief in its calling, than an autonomous profession, based on specialized expertise.’”)

[12] Emerson’s concept of “Nature” is similar to Montessori’s concept of “horme.” See Raber, Progressivism's Aesthetic Education (“She believes that human nature is inherently social, but…does not see its social side as something that must be built up; rather, it can be expected to grow or flow (plants and canals are her favored educational metaphors) from any self that has not been distorted by the imposition of others' materialistic agendas…. Montessori has a belief, equal parts scientific and religious, in a force called horme that permeates all things and directs them in their proper course of growth. Horme naturally steers human beings toward the activities that will lead both to their own flourishing and to the knitting together of a community, and eventually a society. The task of education, then, is not to direct the child, but to surround her untarnished hormic energy with protective walls, and to provide it with the materials it will need while strictly refraining from telling the students almost anything beyond the names of things.”)

[13] For this reason, Emerson would have been considered a leading theorist of American education in the 19th century, but his methods would not necessarily have been applied in a systematic way. Schools based on specific educational theories were rare until 1880. Americans in the early- and mid-19th century were surprisingly slow to put theory into practice, or even to reduce it to written standards. This is probably because the country was much less developed and centralized than Europe. Requiring medical licenses did not even begin until the 1880s. Those who attempted to follow specific methods were often following European literature or were trained in Europe themselves. 

[14] Raber. (2014) Progressivism's Aesthetic Education (“Montessori emerged from the context of Italian Progressivism, which was concerned, even more directly than its American counterpart, with shaping a citizenry capable of steering a modern industrial democracy. ‘We have made Italy,’ the slogan went; ‘now we must make Italians.’ Montessori's approach was diametrically opposed to that of the American administrative progressives, however. The dysfunction of the Italian government, which during the Progressive Era replaced its Minister of Education more than once a year on average, made her distrustful of complex centralized systems. Working through a network of private patrons, Montessori instead developed an educational idea that was, pedagogically and administratively, extremely simple, while still, from her perspective at least, taking advantage of the latest advances in the science of education.”)

[15] See Raber. (2014) Progressivism's Aesthetic Education (“Montessori's idea of social action is, paradoxically, almost libertarian…For Montessori, technocratic control of the classroom environment combines with libertarianism in teacher/student interactions to produce, theoretically, a spontaneously social self. This blend of science, efficiency (Montessori's schools were extremely cheap to operate), libertarianism, Romantic reverence for childhood innocence, and opposition to the school's entanglement with government and business captured the imagination of many Americans following educational debates but unaffiliated with the educational profession itself; Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, rather than professional educators, were at the center of an amateur movement to open Montessori schools in the United States. Indeed, the religious basis of Montessori's scientific ideas, combined with her personal drive for total control of her schools and their affiliated teacher-training programs, prevented her from fully engaging with the educational profession and its scientific standards. Rather than being absorbed by the US educational profession, which turned away from her in any case, she built her own independent institutional base.”)

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.