Montessori at the World's Fair

Written by Lea Degen on August 5, 2021

The Fair

One of the best emblems of the cultural optimism that was so characteristic of the 19th and 20th centuries is the World’s Fair, which took place on US grounds many times between the 1870s and 1980s. Driven by a desire to display the gains made by waves of technological and scientific innovation, the World’s Fairs were a celebration of immense and ongoing progress.

In 1915, to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, a feat that took more than half a century and that reduced Atlantic-Pacific shipping distances by an entire continent, San Francisco hosted the Panama Pacific International Exposition. In the spirit of the times of great ambition, the 635-acre fair was constructed in four years—actually within budget and schedule, a first in World’s Fair history. Less than a decade earlier, large parts of San Francisco had laid in ruins after the devastating earthquake of 1906 hit the city. But instead of retiring their still-fragile plans for a fair, they now decided to double down and present a vision of a city that pulled itself up by the bootstraps, a city that was as forward-looking as ever.

The fair’s official goal was to “curate the planet”: to create “a microcosm so nearly complete that if all the world were destroyed except the 635 acres of land within the Exposition gates, the material basis of the life of today could have been reproduced from the exemplifications of the arts, inventions and industries there exhibited.” [1]


The fair featured a collection of the century’s ingenuity. Among other things, one could find an actual Ford assembly line in one of the fair’s Greco-Romanesque exhibition halls. Perhaps the most unexpected exhibit was a tucked-away classroom with 30 children, aged 2 ½ to 6, with three of the walls dominated by extensive window panes that afforded easy viewing. This “glass classroom” became a visitors’ favorite in the four months of their attendance. [2]

Here, Maria Montessori provided insight into her new educational model, one that had a significant following in the US. The students in the classroom had been intentionally selected by Montessori: she only took in students without prior schooling experience. Attentive at work in a child-sized classroom that featured everything from china to candles to beautiful linen, they quickly became known as the “miracle children”. Visitors were fascinated by the children’s concentration and productivity, their self-possession.

Demonstrating their absence of distraction, most of the time the children were oblivious to the watching crowds. Even then their absorbedness in their work stood in stark contrast to a world in which the scattering attention was (and is still now) considered the norm—especially for children. Before long, the ever-returning spectators received their own label: the bleachers. But rather than filling the bleachers to witness a sporting event, they repeatedly attended to witness a framework shift in education.

The Aesthetics of Progress

World’s Fairs might just be the epitome of a culture of optimism. They not only celebrated past achievements but also envisioned an even more dazzling future. They were both the products of ongoing technological and scientific advancements and the catalysts of it, capturing and maintaining a culture of progress.

While they displayed the technological and scientific marvels of the day, artwork, ranging from Impressionism to Futurism, was displayed as well., Montessori’s participation is particularly noteworthy in one respect: she put the field of education into the progress paradigm.

Montessori was one of many educators at the time who saw their work as a piece with the progress of civilization—thus progressive education. These efforts were opening up people’s minds to the idea that education is malleable; that the status quo of a relatively static elementary curriculum, delivered largely by rote to bored children over their elementary years, was not inevitable.

Montessori was part of these efforts, but was also exceptional. Her focus was on younger children, further shattering the status quo paradigm. Her efforts were different—intriguing and popular to many Americans, but extremely controversial with the progressive education intelligentsia of the United States, where she was met with more skepticism. And, perhaps most significantly for the Fair, her efforts were demonstrable. She had done considerably more work than other progressive educators to systematize her pedagogy into a codified, prepared environment and instructional practices. The results of her work were far more material than other approaches, which tended to lean more on ideology and have practical models that were less consistent with one another.

Montessori’s aim for a cultural shift was apparent in the breadth of works she published over the course of her lifetime. Of course, then, the very content of those works aimed for a grand framework shift regarding children: the child as the maker of man, a characterization that elevated the nature of childhood to new heights. No longer were children distracted troublemakers whose attention and behavior needed to be directed by force. The child was instead seen as a bundle of powerful, unfolding potentials, one to be treated with tremendous dignity, care, thought. The educator was to be rigorously trained, both morally and intellectually. She was both to internalize this new view of the child’s potential and the attendant respect it afforded to children, and she was to adopt a view of the classroom as analogous to a lab, one in which she would make careful observations and precise interventions. This would bring education closer to becoming a science.

Few things are as upstream of progress as education: education shapes the character and beliefs of the very people who, roughly a generation after they enter the system, will be tasked with bringing progress to fruition. Montessori embraced this notion, seeing the unlocking of the child’s potential as a component of unlocking the potential of society.

Was Montessori's Optimism a Passing Fad?

Today, we have lost the magic of the World’s Fairs of the past. While international expositions continue to exist, they are much more narrow, incremental, and conservative in their claims. (The US has not hosted one since the mid-80s.) In this present culture of dreamless caution, the mission of the Panama Pacific International Exhibition, “the curation of the planet”, comes across as naïve and grandiose.

Similar claims are made about Montessori’s writings on progress. Montessori was a true believer in human potential and wanted children to grow up with the understanding of the marvels that humanity had accomplished throughout its existence. Even within the Montessori world, these views are sometimes minimized—or at least not emphasized—and declared to be a mere symptom of the techno-optimist age she lived through: less a defining, intentional feature of her thinking, and more a normal, inherited outlook, one to be seen as naturally emergent in her historical context.

Even if an optimistic attitude was just part of the historical background, there’s something odd about the disinterest toward Montessori’s views on progress[3][long footnote]. The desire to incorporate progress into the curriculum comes up again and again in her writings and serves as an important aim that clearly penetrated quite far into Montessori’s awareness and self-conception of her work. If it was an idea of the age, it was one that she considered characteristic enough to provide lessons for her present and the future, and to use as an analogy to make clear her pedagogy.

Furthermore, Montessori—while cheerful about technological progress—goes beyond the chants of mass euphoria. Her ideas are deeper. She sees achievement as central to her philosophy and this is not limited to the achievement of the child. She expanded her view from the individual unit to the whole, stressing the achievement of humanity at large. To Montessori, the two are inseparable. Part of what the child can and should absorb is the arc of human achievement, which collectively forms a sort of growth-oriented worldview that she can use to drive her own development and eventually, as an adolescent and adult, herself participate in the larger project. Human progress is as much of a cornerstone of her teachings as the progress of the child is.

Much of her proposed historical curriculum is based on her belief that in order to be effective in their time, children need to understand their past, primarily as the explanation of their present. This is a timeless need: it applies to any generation that is surrounded by institutions and other cultural patterns which were founded on certain premises that determine their logic and dynamics. Especially since the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions, doing so presupposes learning about the immense progress that has been made in science, technology, and, to those valuing their liberty, governance.

"If a century ago someone had told the men who were traveling in stagecoaches and using oil-lamps that some day New York would blaze with light at midnight; that men would ask for succor in mid-ocean and that their message would be understood on land; that their flight in the air would surpass that of the eagle – our good forefathers would have smiled incredulously. Their imaginations would never have been able to conceive these things. To them, modern men would have seemed almost like men of another species.

This is because the imagination of modern men is based upon the positive researches of science, whereas the men of past ages allowed their minds to wander in the world of unreality.

This single fact has changed the face of the world." [4]

"That method which denotes the redemption of the intelligence ought to be the method by which all new humanity is molded—the formative method of the new generation." [5]

It is important to recognize this difference in recent times. Most of history—though it can and should be considered from the perspective of progress, achievement, and the fulfillment of human needs—contrasts sharply with the explosive dynamism of the modern age. Montessori considered it important, both as background for understanding her philosophy of education and for the children themselves, to become conscious of and enamored with the concept of civilizational progress. Even more so than in Montessori’s time, when this view was widely (though, she thought, insufficiently) embraced, we would benefit from intentionality around our awareness of and education concerning the nature of progress.

If we want to maintain growth and solve some of the major challenges of our times, the real question is why we should not get inspired by the sentiment that percolated in an age that burst of dynamism; a dynamism that is best embodied in the descriptions of the Fair’s visitors:

"In the crowd, a child might be standing shoulder to shoulder with an actual gold rush forty-niner, a Civil War veteran, or a survivor of the Donner Party. And that same child would be transfixed by the images on her home television set sixty-four years later as she watched a man walk on the moon." [6]

We would almost certainly benefit from more visionary thinkers and audacious projects of which the World’s Fair is the best example. The collaboration of thousands, friends and foes alike, toward a bigger goal that not only enchanted the nation but the globe, is an image of collective effort to which we might do well to return. The boldest changes require thinkers and practitioners like Montessori, innovators who bring fresh thought to a stale field.

If education lives up to her expectation of making children fall in love with the great parts of humanity—coupled with an understanding of the unsolved problems and injustices of the world—we will hopefully return at a time when it is culturally tolerated to dream audaciously. A time when children are part of and participants in that dream.

1. Kale, S. (2015). History. Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

2. American Montessori Society. Montessori on Display.

3. (Image Credit) Ron Plain (2015). On this day - April 13. Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

4. Montessori, M. (1917) Spontaneous Activity in Education.

5. Ibid.

6. Kale, Shelly. Overview: What Was the PPIE?.