Montessori’s Uneasy Alliance with American Progressivism

Written by Kerry Ellard on February 16, 2022

As I have argued previously, the dispute over Montessori in America, both among progressive education reformers in the 1910s and among parents and independent educators/researchers since the mid-20th century, has had much to do with her approach being perceived as a way to cultivate Emersonian individualism and social responsibility.

This emergent impulse to cultivate these elements was rooted in countering a public school system structured around greater levels of impersonality, conformity, or collectivism, which was being advocated and then imposed during the first half of the twentieth century (in various ways and by various groups).

Many American parents, as well as education activists attached to the older traditions, sought someone who spoke to their desire to cultivate talent, creativity, personality, character, diversity, spontaneity, integrity, moral courage, intellectual honesty, the inherent dignity of the individual, and self-reliance: anything but credentialism, “science-based” tracking, and centralized planning.

Pragmatist theories of education represented one attempt to bridge this gap, but whether they resonated with the “Northern traditionalists” may have had much to do with the rhetoric used to describe them. Montessori’s approach shared elements associated with American pragmatist philosophy, just as Helen Parkhurst’s, John Dewey’s, and Booker T. Washington’s did,[1] but the latter three, highly conscious of the views of other American education reformers, generally used more technical language or progressive sloganeering, in an attempt to get ahead of accusations that they were behind-the-times. This made sense, but may have triggered the defenses of the “Northern traditionalist” crowd without really convincing their more progressive peers.

In other words, trying to achieve a broader appeal may have led such reformers to incur the distrust of both sides.[2] Trying to please everyone was a constant temptation during the Progressive era, as American life became more nationalized, requiring reformers to navigate sectional differences and conflicts. One scholar has proposed a “useful, if vague,” description of progressivism: “the emergence in the arena of national politics of all of the impulses to reform which had hitherto expressed themselves ‘socially’ and ‘locally.’”[3] With Montessori, both southerners and progressives find their way to useful concepts associated with the Yankee tradition without becoming uneasy. Montessori’s obliviousness to these American fixations and rivalries, and her focus on young and/or disadvantaged children, likely worked in her favor, as she didn’t fit neatly into any American “team,” and thus didn’t trigger any alarms.

For example, her scientific and medical theories of children’s varying development was less off-putting to American parents than those of many American reformers, because it originated in a study of severely neglected and/or developmentally disabled children—not a desire by a new class of experts to track “typical” schoolchildren (and young citizens of a democratic republic) into specific social roles based on "scientifically proven” differences in intellectual ability or demographic characteristics. Nor were they being asked to gamble their children’s futures on the vague, experimental theories of German-trained philosophers, or those of other domestic groups whose interests or motivations may not have been aligned with their own. Add this to her personal enthusiasm and earnest, detailed explanations, and Montessori was believable as an objective expert eager to share her beneficial discoveries with the world. [4]

In summary, a review of the historical record suggests that Montessori’s perceived holisticness, as opposed to a perceived break with either “traditional” or ”progressive” American approaches specifically, explains much of her American appeal. Unlike most American progressives, she did not see herself as defined in opposition to an existing system, a situation forced by changing circumstances, either by science, modernity, or by a need to recreate American ideals in a changing social world. In combination with coming from a different educational and political/cultural background from most American reformers, this allowed Montessori to transcend the dichotomies that such reformers dove into, restoring balance to the discussion and allowing a relatively “safe” ground from which to experiment (however much this baffled and frustrated Montessori). This remained true despite the many changes that occurred in America during the decades following her initial visit. And the late 1950s resurgence of her method suggests that many of these changes, while massive, may have been more superficial than they seemed.

American progressive education theory seems to have had two main phases. The first was from roughly 1895 to WWI, exemplified by John Dewey and others associated with using pragmatist philosophy, observations of human behavior/psychology, and scientific experimentation and research methods to manage the social problems of the modern world. The pedagogical approaches associated were largely implemented in private elementary schools, with experiments continuing into the 1920s.

However, the Great Depression in 1929 represented a sudden drop in the funding available to both public and private schools, as well as the appetite for reform and experimentation in schools. New Deal relief programs and the political realignment associated with them in the 1930s reversed this trend. Progressive school reform and expansion was seen as a component of an overall shift towards centralized state planning, and a way to reward members of the new Democratic coalition. This movement seems to have struggled to get beyond the theoretical debate stage, as the ideas were often superficially picked up by aspiring experts scrambling for influence and discarded when they inconveniently clashed with political realities. The matter was barely on the radar by the time of World War II. Both world wars re-arranged American life; neither movement translated well into post-war circumstances, and lost momentum/coherence. Both can only be fully understood in relation to a variety of historical factors.

A summary of the initial phase is offered in a 1933 study of American progressive education by a Massachusetts graduate student. He noted that there was an intense debate ongoing in the “current periodicals” about “the progressive school movement.” This probably represented the struggle among New Dealers to make the most of the new opportunities for education-related funding. The student, Andrew Anderson, proposed to provide answers to the questions “Why have our leading educators so definitely taken sides?” and “What is a progressive school?” This seems to indicate a real split between the world of people featured in “current periodicals” and everyone else, at least since WWI, as to the importance of this issue.

In fact, while Anderson was doing his research, a Nebraska public school superintendent was being asked by a local newspaper to explain what this whole progressive school thing was. His response reveals how much had changed during the Progressive era, when the foundations of a nationwide public school system were laid, and public high schools were normalized in urban areas. In the early 1900s, he said, the school year lasted about only six months in Nebraska, probably because children were needed to help with farm work. Now, all of the students were in session for no less than nine months. To him, that was the big story—no need to get fancy about definitions, no matter what fad the theorists were going on about this time.

“I have before me fifteen definitions of a progressive school, by fifteen outstanding educators of America,” he pointedly remarked, before offering his own take. “Attention to individual differences” is what defined a progressive school. To him, this meant that “promotions are made by subjects rather than by grades or years”—in other words, each child was allowed to learn at his or her own pace. But, probably reflecting his long residency in rural Nebraska, he put an interesting twist on this. “Modern progressive teachers” knew that “sound pedagogy” could only be discerned from “human nature.”In fact, “In the modern rural school...pupils are promoted according to nature rather than according to any artificial invention,” and “any autocratic supervisor” was therefore a “hindrance” to them. For twenty years, “each one-room school teacher here has been making her daily program to fit her own school,” he said proudly, before concluding with a rather traditional flourish: “Where is there a city school system that can qualify as a progressive school as easily and naturally as can the one-room school, the Cradle of all American Institutions!”[5]

What’s interesting is that, as a young scholar in Massachusetts, Anderson offered a definition that matched the one given by the experienced public-school superintendent in rural Nebraska. While Anderson engaged in a historical investigation of the ideas and people involved, he concluded his analysis with a confident, simple summary of the movement that transcended all the usual debates.

The progressive school, he explained, was a revolt against the traditional public-school methods. As it was an oppositional movement, this revolt was not an outgrowth of a common plan, and could take many forms, overlapping only insofar as they were responding to the same general concerns and hit upon similar remedies. He saw the diverse progressive approaches as ongoing experiments in public and independent elementary schools nationwide, set off by Dewey in the early 1900s. These schools were defined by methods that took the natural interest of each child as their guide, using it in service of learning. The underlying theory was that schools should fully develop each child’s potential, and society’s potential, by tailoring their approach to the needs of the individual student. This meant, just as the Nebraska super-intendant had said, doing away with age-grading, which now seemed “preposterously” arbitrary or counterproductive, thereby allowing students to master the subject matter at their own pace, and removing “dominating” and rigid influences from the classroom.

He also tied the rise of progressive schooling to the needs of teachers in one-room rural schools, noting that Helen Parkhurst, a major leader of the progressive school movement along with Maria Montessori and Dewey, had started out in just such a school. Struggling to give “oral instructions to one class and at the same time keep seven other classes busy,” she found a solution in the project method, which led to her long career in progressive school experimentation.

Anderson saw Dewey’s contribution as the idea that "the teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which will affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences," but noted that this was no recent fad—intellectuals had been objecting to this for hundreds of years, and this was simply a continuation of that debate.[6] He expressed puzzlement that Pestalozzi was not considered by modern intellectuals to be an adherent of progressive education philosophy, noting that Pestalozzi’s approach contained two of the defining elements of the philosophy as he understood them: "individual attention to the child, and inspiration and guidance rather than domination on the part of the teacher.” He believed this was because Pestalozzi had not explicitly addressed a third defining element: “recognizing individual differences and being guided by them.”

No one had formulated a method of individual instruction and tried it out until Maria Montessori, however, as Anderson saw it. That was her unique contribution, which she had eventually introduced to America and the rest of the world, receiving a remarkably favorable reception. “Maria Montessori...has gained worldwide recognition as one of the foremost educators of the day,” he wrote, noting she was considered radical and controversial and in some circles, but had persisted, and was “now is well established in Italy and is gaining footholds in other countries.”

Anderson seemed to see Montessori as the most personally influential of the progressive educators when it came to the public mind, due to the appeal of her accessible and pragmatic, yet fresh and memorable ideas, like child-sized furniture and the application of her scientific and medical work to her theories about children’s educational development. He also seemed to see her general approach as more practical, sensible, and comprehensible than those of the “competition,” and therefore having a better chance of catching on in the long term.[7]

The perception of Montessori as the creator of “individual instruction” concept supports the argument that her theory combined an emphasis on individualism, creativity, community integration/leadership, science and evolutionary/social development with “the two major emphases within [American] Progressive education–child centeredness and social reconstruction.”[8] As the idea of individualized instruction was very old—the essence of private tutoring—presumably what seemed original about Montessori was the concept of ”child-centeredness” in a classroom environment, where the teacher had to discern and respond to the differing abilities of many children at once.[9]

Anderson apparently did not detect any sort of “social reconstruction” element in the progressive education movement as of 1933 [10] nor did he make any connection to Emerson, despite his residency in Massachusetts and study of Helen Parkhurst’s Dalton work. This is probably because he did not connect the goal of most “child-centered educators”—producing adults who reached their full potentials individually and helped society to do the same—to the shift in teaching methods for young children.

He did not perceive that early child-centered American progressive educators were often trying to compensate for what they saw as a regression in American character development and a corresponding decline in effective social cooperation, due to the dysfunctionality of existing norms under modern conditions.[11] This may explain why suggestions from desperate teachers in the new rural schools and Montessori’s revelations while studying neglected and disabled children in Italy held such appeal. Answers to such a difficult and unprecedented problem seemed most likely to be stumbled upon in out-of-the-way places by those grappling with less-than-ideal and unfamiliar circumstances.

This impulse—compensating for perceived national regression by means of raising individuals to see life as an experiment and generate means of social renewal—seems to be the most unique element of American progressivism education. It may not be the defining element, but the assumptions underlying it at the very least exercised a strong influence on the development of every form of American progressive education in the first half of the twentieth century, including the way Montessori’s ideas were embraced and interpreted.

From Anderson’s 1933 perspective, it was Montessori and Dewey, largely by force of their personalities, who had provided most of the principles for American progressive schooling advocates to coordinate around. And he indicated much more confidence in the success of Montessori’s approach, if sensibly implemented.[12] While he found Montessori right at home among the American progressives of his time, Anderson appreciated the ways that different strains of progressivism could be combined in ways that defied neat categorization,[13] and he got right to the heart of the distinction between her approach and Dewey’s:

“[Dewey] differs with Montessori regarding the ends he wishes to accomplish. In ‘Democracy and Education’ he says that ‘the natural and native impulses of the young do not agree with the life customs of the group into which they are born. Consequently, they have to be directed and guided. This control is not the same thing as physical coercion; it consists in centering the impulses acting at one time upon some specific end and in introducing an order of continuity into the sequence of acts.’ While Montessori’s method encourages spontaneous activity on the part of the children for the sake of methodical scientific observations, Dewey insists that spontaneous activity in the native and natural impulses of the young do not agree with the life customs of the group and must be guided. The teacher, then, observes the child only that she may guide him along the road of correct group behavior. The difference in their points is indicative of their fundamental differences.”[14]

For many Americans interested in progressive education, this fundamental difference was not and is not always obvious, because they were primarily focused on the kind of child such an education had the potential to produce, rather than the exact methods used or the precise reasoning behind them. Both assumed that the new, unformed energy that young children possessed would prove a valuable resource in overcoming the kinds of challenges they faced. As Dorothy Canfield Fisher had written back in 1912, what was “new” about Montessori’s method, 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.”[15]

It is impossible to adjudicate whether or not Maria Montessori’s philosophy counts as a form of progressive education or not, or which particular strain(s) of progressive education it most represents. Perhaps most importantly, however, it is possible to conclude that it was not an American form of progressive education, giving it unusual flexibility to influence or be used as a symbol for various trends in 20th-century American education.

1. See, for example, R. E. Chennault, “Pragmatism and progressivism in the educational thought and practices of Booker T. Washington,” Philosophical Studies in Education 44, 121-131, 2013, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1015729.pdf (“[Booker T.] Washington’s belief in ‘correlating’ industrial with academic instruction seems a manifestation of his adaptation of Pestalozzi’s philosophy and Fröebel’s ‘object studies.’ Washington’s apparent knowledge of the work of Pestalozzi and Fröebel—and his attempt to graft their thinking onto the context of the Negro in the South—helps situate him in the progressive education tradition.”) (Emphases added.)

2. It is interesting that Parkhurst included a long Emerson passage in her book about the Dalton Plan, one which meets anticipated criticisms in a straightforward and simple way: "But I hear the outcry which replies to this suggestion: Would you verily throw up the reins of public and private discipline; would you leave the young child to the mad career of his own passions and whimsies and call this anarchy respect for the child's nature? I answer; Respect the child, respect him to the end, but also respect yourself.” This was, of course, one of the popular criticisms of the Montessori system by American educators, and she arguably gave an answer more similar to Emerson’s than to many American educators’ of that time: she rejected the framing of the question rather than trying to fit herself into the categories.

3. Ibid.

4. See Andrew Anderson, “What is a progressive school?,” Thesis submitted for degree of Master of Science, Massachusetts State College, Amherst, Mass., 1933, https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2420&context=theses (“The important thing to bear in mind about Montessori is that her first experience in education was with mental defectives. Individual differences among these unfortunates varied to such a degree that a highly individualized method of education was necessary. In addition, as is so often true among people of very low Intelligence, their bodies were deformed and glands and other organs did not function normally. As this physical condition had a direct bearing on their mental processes, it was necessary to make very detailed and complete examinations of each individual at intervals.”) I believe this was a significant factor in Montessori’s appeal, and did much to capture the public interest, because, on average, even impoverished urban American children were well-fed and socialized relative to those in European cities, so there was curiosity about how much could be done by experts to remedy early neglect, malnourishment, etc., and what the broader applications of that were.

5. The Schuyler Sun, January 19, 1933.

6. Andrew Anderson, "What is progressive education?”, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 1933.

7. Ibid.

8. Harold Rugg (1886–1960) - Education, Social, Curriculum, and School - StateUniversity.com https://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2381/Rugg-Harold-1886-1960.html#ixzz7JnOdTzsc. (Emphases added).

9. See ibid. “Child-centeredness” is often associated with “personalized” education, a concept which is now sometimes interpreted as little more than being “nice” to students or recognizing that personality differences exist. At the time, however, both terms tended to suggest the notion of creating adults whose natural faculties had been most fully and usefully “developed,” and who would thrive in society and help it reach its own untapped potential. The personalization aspect overlapped significantly with individualism, creativity, and evolutionary/social development---it was similar to Emerson’s desire to create strong individuals and Dewey’s to create people capable of democratically solving social problems and adapting, all of which made sense in the changing environment of this time.

10. This strain may not have been especially prominent until around the late 1940s, long after Anderson was writing. See Semel, ”Women Progressive Leaders in the Twentieth Century” (”In the 1930s and early 1940s, a third strain of progressivism, social reconstructionism, had a limited effect on the school practice. Based upon the work of Harold Rugg, George Counts, and Kenneth Benne and the journal the Social Frontier,a number of schools adopted a philosophy that espoused a radical reconstruction of the social order, especially with regard to inequalities...they neither had a wide following, nor a lasting influence.”) (Internal citations omitted; emphases added.)

11. These people were almost always relatively well-off Northeasterners of ”Yankee” heritage. For a variety of reasons, many educated people from this culture were inclined to perceive and interpret the circumstances of early 20th century America in this specific way. This particular form of anxiety seemed to subside significantly with the arrival of World War I, which probably distracted them with a new set of concerns, but its presence in 1910s debates had a lasting impact on how we think about progressive education. See, for example, Paul Sherman, Randolph Bourne (United States: Minnesota University Press, 1966), and Matthew McClelland, "Emerson And The Vision Of The Child," 2011, Theses and Dissertations, Washington University in St. Louis, https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/etd/614.

12. Anderson, ”What is progressive education?”

13. See ibid. (”[Carleton Washburne] is a follower of Dr. Montessori in that he is an exponent of Individualized teaching. However, instead of devoting his interests to an individualized from of instruction based on the biological sciences, he has conducted a number of experiments in curriculum making.”) (Emphases added).

14. Ibid.

15. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, A Montessori Mother (United States: H. Holt, 1912)

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.