The First American Tensions

Written by Cristina De Stefano on March 14, 2022

Excerpted from The Child Is the Teacher: A Life of Maria Montessori, by Cristina De Stefano

In the United States, thanks to Samuel McClure’s publicity campaign, interest in the method is extremely high. Maria’s book, translated by Anne George, arrives in the bookstores in 1912 and immediately sells out. It is enriched with a preface by Henry W. Holmes, a professor of pedagogy, who writes very positive things about the method but who also makes an observation that will often show up in academic critiques. “A system of education does not have to attain perfection to merit study, investigation and experimental use,” he comments, puzzled by the fact that Maria Montessori claims to have created a scientific method but then does not accept the idea that other scientists assess it and, if necessary, improve it. Personally, he is optimistic: “Dr. Montessori is too large-minded to claim infallibility, and too thoroughly scientific in her attitude to object to careful scrutiny of her scheme and the thorough testing of its results.”[106] In reality, that is just what Maria will do: insist on being the only one to assess and develop her method, thus antagonizing a large portion of American pedagogues.

A solution is found quickly for the sale of the teaching materials. Carl Byoir, a journalist with a flair for business, reads about the method in McClure’s Magazine and realizes its economic potential. He goes to Rome and proposes an agreement to Maria for the exclusive right to produce and sell the material in North America in exchange for a payment of six thousand dollars. To get an idea of the value of this figure, consider that at the time the average annual income in America was eight hundred dollars. Instead of providing for a percentage on every set of materials sold, as the Humanitarian Society does, Byoir offers Maria 20 percent of the shares and the related dividends. Upon his return to the United States he creates a company, the House of Childhood, and in January 1912 he starts production. It is a very profitable enterprise because a complete set of materials costs twelve dollars to produce and sells for fifty dollars. Yet less than a year after starting production, Byoir sells his holding in the company to another businessman and abandons the enterprise. We do not know the reasons for his decision. It can’t be ruled out that he came to understand Maria’s difficult character and preferred to capitalize on his investment and make his exit before entering into conflict with her.

More the optimist, McClure continues to dream of getting rich by capitalizing on the method. Owing to his poor management, he has been ousted from his magazine and is in trouble with his creditors. He founds a Montessori Educational Association to manage the avalanche of requests that come in to the editorial offices, but when he announces it, he gets a telegram from Maria, annoyed that the impresario has not waited to receive her authorization: “indignant/ announcement in july issue premature.”[107] The crisis is resolved quickly and the association begins operation. It will give rise to one of the many misunderstandings that will undermine their collaboration. Maria thinks that the association is a tool for attracting investors, while the Americans—accustomed to the tradition of committees going back to the time of the War of Independence—think of it as a way to allow for a collective leadership of the movement. The first American Montessorians apply the method with an open approach, thinking they are contributing to the development of something that is still evolving. Anne George, for example, observes that American children are different from their Italian counterparts and predicts that some adjustments will be needed.

She is comforted in this idea from the words of Maria herself, who has been saying for some time now that the method is not complete and that, more than a system of codified rules, it is based on the scientific observation of children: “That which is commonly called my method of education is in truth a first germ of positive science, which with its research methods has touched the truth where the souls of children are evolving. The Children’s Houses are the first laboratories of human science; that is why their fame has traversed the world at lightning speed.”[108] The principles applied in the method do not come from her but from the children, who, left free to work, reveal the workings of their minds to those who know how to look at them with attentive eyes. One of the Franciscan nuns who are students at the convent in via Giusti gave what may be the best definition of the Montessori system: “A method that is nothing other than a patient observation of childhood.”[109]

106. Central State Archive, Private Secretariat of the Duce, Ordinary Correspondence,1922–1943, B 288, F. 15230-15279.

107. Radice, The New Children, p. 37.

108. Clara Tornar, “Maria Montessori durante il fascismo,” in Cadmo 2 (2005), p. 21.

109. “Il caso Montessori,” in La vita italiana, May 1934, p. 615.

Cristina De Stefano

Cristina De Stefano is a journalist and writer. She lives and works in Paris as a literary scout for many publishing houses around the world. Her books Belinda e il mostro: Vita segreta di Cristina Campo (2002) and Americane avventurose (2007) have been translated into French, German, Spanish, and Polish. Her biography Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend was published by Other Press in 2017. Her most recent work, The Child Is the Teacher: A Life of Maria Montessori, was published by Penguin Random House on March 8, 2022.