Maria Montessori visits the Gatehouse School in London in 1951, where her teaching methods are still employed [© Jack Esten/Popperfoto/Getty Images]

Growing Peace: Gandhi, Montessori and What It Means to Begin with the Children

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(Reposted from: SGI Common Threads)

By Mitch Bogen

If you work in education, you might have seen it on a refrigerator magnet or read it on a poster; or maybe you’ve heard it quoted in a talk. Lately, you might have encountered it as an Internet meme. It being Gandhi’s claim that “if we are to reach real peace in this world … we shall have to begin with children.” This is one of those statements that few of us have any problem with.

Homeschooling Christians and public schooling secularists alike will be on board. The problem is that most of us leave it at that, satisfied with a quick scan of the quote and secure in the belief that we are building peace through our work with children. But is it possible that those of us who want to educate for peace are doing it wrong? Only time will tell about that, but the one thing we can answer now is what Gandhi intended when he spoke those words. If we want to honor Gandhi’s intent, how exactly would we work with children to secure real and lasting peace?

“If we are to reach real peace in this world … we shall have to begin with children.”

Before getting into Gandhi’s thoughts, let’s stop and ask a more fundamental question: Did he actually say it? Experience shows that if a quote attributed to a famous person is perfectly aligned with a given group’s agenda—in this case, educators concerned with peace—there’s a decent chance it isn’t true. Well, Gandhi did indeed say it—in a speech delivered at the Montessori Training College in London on October 28, 1931. Critically, when Gandhi offered this timeless quote, he actually was referencing a statement by Maria Montessori (1870–1952). Here’s the Gandhi quote in full, which concluded his talk:

“You have very truly remarked that if we are to reach real peace in this world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with children and if they will grow up in their natural innocence, we won’t have the struggle, we won’t have to pass fruitless idle resolutions, but we shall go from love to love and peace to peace, until at last all the corners of the world are covered with that peace and love for which, consciously or unconsciously, the whole world is hungering.”

I’ll share some themes from the rest of his talk and then look in more detail at Montessori’s vision of the interplay of peace and education—a vision motivated by belief in “natural innocence” and, by extension, disappointment with all manner of “idle resolutions” and misguided teaching methods. After that, I will consider the implications of the Gandhi-Montessori view for today’s education.

The Wisdom of Children

Before reading the entire speech, which I finally did earlier this year (2016), whenever I would come across Gandhi’s quote, I would worry that he was simply off-loading adult failure to achieve peace onto the next generation, as adults are wont to do. But that’s not Gandhi’s intent at all. Rather, he urges humility on the part of adults and a willingness to learn from the wisdom of children. “The greatest lessons in life,” he said, “if we would but stoop and humble ourselves, we would learn not from grown-up learned men, but from the so-called ignorant children. Jesus never uttered a loftier or a grander truth than when he said that wisdom cometh out of the mouths of babes.” This vision might strike some as overly romantic, but it was Gandhi’s conviction nonetheless.

Like Montessori, Gandhi believed that the natural inclination of children is not toward disorder and violence but toward harmony and fulfillment of inherent potential. It was through his encounters with many Montessori schools that Gandhi confirmed the wisdom of the Montessori method. The “more I came in touch” with these schools, said Gandhi, “I began to understand that the foundation was good and splendid,” that “children could be taught through the laws of nature—nature, consistent with human dignity, not nature that governs the beast.” Gandhi correctly put his finger on the faith at the heart of Montessori’s vision for peace and education. For Montessori, the wars that damage our world are not the result of education that failed to teach children obedience—to tame the beast—but rather because of an obsession with it.

The Prepared Environment

Actually, it isn’t quite correct to imply that Montessori’s educational philosophy is built only on faith in the inherent capacities of children for harmony and self-motivation. Yes, she believed that children were naturally inclined toward peace, but this belief was based on direct observation of their development, especially as they were being educated using her method. This is critical, since Montessori was by training a physician. As such, close attention to evidence is a requirement for proper treatment and healing.

“Like Montessori, Gandhi believed that the natural inclination of children is not toward disorder and violence but toward harmony and fulfillment of inherent potential.”

In their essay titled “Peace as a Premise for Learning,” scholars Jacqueline Cossentino and Jennifer A. Whitcomb explain the basics of the Montessori method and why Montessori education is inherently peace education. Montessori herself called her method “cosmic education,” and her ultimate motivation was the spiritual development of children. But her first forays into education resulted less from her grandest spiritual beliefs than from her work as a physician and her compelling desire to relieve human suffering. As a beginning doctor in Rome at the very end of the 19th century, she encountered those who were called “feeble-minded” and thus “sent to asylums where even their basic needs were unmet.” She wondered if a big part of the problem with these unfortunates was that their education was being attempted in environments for which they were not at all suited.

This insight turned into the heart of her educational philosophy. Influenced by the ideas of Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin, physicians and psychologists who worked with children with disabilities, she contended that the key to the successful education of all children, not just those with disabilities, was two-fold: first to study children’s activity in the environment and then to adjust the environment accordingly, and second to customize these environments based on the needs of children at the various stages of their development. It can’t be stressed enough that Montessori felt the environment should be dictated by the natural inclinations of the child as opposed to creating environments that would prepare students for the needs of society as defined by adults.

Montessori referred to her classroom as “the prepared environment.” The goal, say Cossentino and Whitcomb, is a state of “freedom within limits,” which “rests upon a subtle partnership between the child’s spontaneous activity and an environment organized to frame that activity.” Far from being a pedagogy of “do your own thing,” the Montessori method depends on a great amount of careful planning to maximize the child’s natural “unbounded” curiosity as well as their inclinations toward “order, discipline and self-control.” An important aspect of the prepared environment is ready access to materials for manipulation, which stimulate the child’s innate need to investigate and learn—without needing adult assistance. The adult, however, is not passive. As close observers of children, the adults must learn to recognize what Montessori considered “sensitive periods” (clearly delineated in Montessori pedagogy) for “particular intellectual, social and moral awakenings” and to direct the child to the activities to produce the desired result. The teacher, like the prepared environment, functions as a facilitator of children’s natural tendency toward harmonious growth and development.

Peace and Education

It wasn’t until later in her life and career that Montessori framed her method explicitly in the context of peace education, most notably as presented in her lecture of 1943 called “Peace and Education.” After the disaster of World War I and during the rise of totalitarianism across Europe in the 20s and 30s, say Cossentino and Whitcomb, her thoughts on peacebuilding crystalized, and she framed her lifelong dedication to “cosmic education”—devoted to children’s emergence as autonomous spiritual beings—as an antidote to the culture of war.

From her earliest days as an educator she had felt that “traditional methods—teaching by rote (repetition and memory), restraining and silencing students and relying on reward and punishment—were detrimental to child development.” Now she became convinced that without attention to the very roots of conflict, every political peace would be bound to fail, just as the “peace” after World War I created the conditions that resulted in the next world war. These roots were located, said Montessori, in those traditional forms of education, which amount to nothing less than a situation where the adult “triumphs” over the child in a sort of demented competition. This is the mode of education that Gandhi said is pessimistically aimed at governing “the beast.”

“Far from being a pedagogy of ‘do your own thing,’ the Montessori method depends on a great amount of careful planning to maximize the child’s natural ‘unbounded’ curiosity as well as their inclinations toward ‘order, discipline and self-control.’”

In her talk, Montessori said that much of our strife exists because “the erroneous belief has persisted that it is the duty of the adult to fashion the child according to the pattern required by society. This misunderstanding, handed down from time immemorial, caused the first war between men, who were most emphatically intended to love one another; a war between parents and children, between teachers and pupils.” Montessori goes on to describe the consequences of control-model education: “The child who has never learned to act alone, to direct his own actions, to govern his own will, grows into an adult who is easily led and must always lean upon others.” Speaking when Hitler and Stalin were in power, the implications of Montessori’s argument were many and profound.

This is why Montessori didn’t approach peace education as fundamentally a question of course content. “Whether we speak or do not speak of war to the children,” she said, “whether we adapt history for their use in this way, does not change the destiny of mankind.” It was because he understood this aspect of Montessori’s philosophy well that Gandhi made reference to the futile passing of “idle resolutions” in his 1931 talk at the London Montessori school. As Montessori said, “Avoiding war is the work of politics, establishing peace is the work of education.” Her devotion to working with root causes made her a radical in the deepest sense of the word.

The only reference in “Peace and Education” to the actual social conditions of peace occurs near the conclusion when Montessori remarks that for humans to fully realize their potential “it would be necessary that wealth should be localized in no country but equally accessible to all.” However, she offered no policy in her talk aimed toward that end. Perhaps it is more instructive here to look to Gandhi, who agreed that the work of humankind is fundamentally spiritual in nature, but who also pioneered modes of nonviolent civil engagement and disobedience to work for justice and to alter political realities—though the catastrophe of the 1947 Partition of India, which tragically followed Gandhi’s liberation efforts and resulted in violence between Hindus and Muslims, might validate Montessori’s more apolitical focus on the educational sources of conflict.

Ultimately, peacebuilding in Montessori’s method rests on the particular and immediate, say Cossentino and Whitcomb. Montessori learning, they conclude, is a practice that “begins with the carefully defined limits of the prepared environment and is embodied in tiny movements—waiting one’s turn to use a piece of material, learning to pour from a pitcher with care, moving gracefully around the room so as not to disturb others.”

Implications for Today

One of the most intriguing aspects of Gandhi’s Montessori talk was his observation that Montessori-type education was exactly the kind of education he would like to see practiced widely in India. He explained how, as he observed the calm, self-directed orderliness of children in Montessori schools, “my whole heart went out to the millions of the children of the semi-starved villages of India, and I asked myself … ‘Is it possible for me to give them those lessons and the training that are being given under your system?’”

In the United States today, it is a matter of great debate how best to educate poor and other marginalized children—our counterpart to the dispossessed of India. Based on his remarks, we can conclude that Gandhi’s sympathies would not be with the popular charter school models that emphasize stringent rules-based discipline, for example, as we find at the Success Academies where children are required at all times to keep their eyes on the teacher with their hands locked and their backs straight. Clearly, just because Gandhi might not have endorsed such a model doesn’t mean that many parents don’t prefer it for their children.

Charters are also praised by supporters for helping students achieve higher scores on standardized tests. This argument gets a lot of traction, since the driving force in American education over the last decade and a half has been a regime of high-stakes standardized testing that is used to evaluate, reward and punish schools and school systems. Testing supporters believe in this strategy as the best way to help students formerly ignored by society to excel as students and get into colleges. Good intentions and various successes aside, it goes without saying that the top-down testing model is antithetical to the Montessori-Gandhi ideal.

“These roots were located, said Montessori, in those traditional forms of education, which amount to nothing less than a situation where the adult ‘triumphs’ over the child in a sort of demented competition.”

But is the latter incapable of producing competitive scores, and, if so, does it matter? I once posed this question directly to the influential progressive American educator Deborah Meier. She’s not a Montessori educator, but Meier has been a leader in modes of education that somewhat parallel Montessori in the emphasis placed on students taking ownership of their learning and in the way that the school seeks to be responsive to the unique needs and inclinations of students rather than vice versa. Talking with her about her experience as founder of the Mission Hill K-8 School in Boston, which serves lower-income students, I asked Meier what she would say to parents who worry that her pedagogy won’t produce test scores as high as those at schools more focused on that goal. She said that she would honestly tell them that she would not compromise good pedagogy to teach to the test. As she and other progressive educators such as Alfie Kohn have argued, less-advantaged kids deserve the same kind of creative, ambitious and trusting education that affluent students receive. In our hypercompetitive society, Meier’s approach will strike many as too risky. Nevertheless, it comports well—no, exactly—with Gandhi’s hope “that it will be possible not only for the children of the wealthy and well-to-do, but for the children of paupers to receive training of this [Montessori] nature.”

How then does education explicitly intended as peace education fare in light of this discussion of the Montessori method? Two major strands of contemporary peace education are multicultural education and education for global citizenship. These programs, when rigorous, include significant components of cross-disciplinary content, ranging from literature to history to science and more. For example, one of the best and most successful education models working in this general arena is Facing History and Ourselves, which takes the Holocaust as a starting point to engage secondary-level students with a whole range of issues relating to peace, justice, identity, community and individual and social responsibility. Students learn from primary historical source materials and from each other as they grow in empathy and critical thinking capacities.

Few educators committed to this type of peace education would accept at face value Maria Montessori’s statement that what we teach about war doesn’t matter. It’s likely, however, that this was a rhetorical point rather than a dictum, since a quick perusal of United States Montessori organizations online reveals that they are presently engaging in the detailed work of mapping their curriculum to the new Common Core State Standards. Montessori’s comments might also have been made with the youngest grades in mind. The crucial point is that how you teach your content matters. In fact, it matters so much that one’s methods might not just fail to support the content but might actively subvert it.

Treating Gandhi’s or, say, Dr. King’s achievements as facts to be memorized won’t do, no matter how great those achievements are. Nor will expecting students to simply agree with the content, no matter how noble. Rather, students should learn to engage with the material, with one another and with the community outside of the school with the same independence and commitment and compassion that the great figures of peacebuilding throughout history have exhibited, qualities inherent in each of us. My conclusion here is not a statement of the Montessori method, but I believe it does no violence to it.

Trust

When I started brainstorming and researching this essay, I was motivated by the thought that a key element of peace education as conceived by Gandhi and Montessori is trust. This is not a startling insight, but it bears repeating. Yes, when the teacher trusts that the child’s natural inclination is to grow and realize their potential in harmony with others and therefore seeks to guide rather than control them, from the Montessori perspective, better learning results. But more crucially, the act of trust has been modeled by the teacher. The child is taught that trust works, that trust is the natural order of things. This is vitally important, since trust is the quality that will make global peace—that is, peace across nations and religions and all manner of allegiances and circumstances—possible. Critics of peace movements are not just skeptical of these movements but can also get downright angry about them; not because these skeptics desire war but because they think peace activists are setting us up to be taken advantage of by those of nefarious intent. It’s true that people can and will act in untrustworthy ways, and we need to be aware of that. But if we abandon trust, avenues to peace such as dialogue and compromise are closed off and we are left only with what Daisaku Ikeda calls the “logic of force.” And as history has shown, the logic of force results in never-ending cycles of domination and retaliation, the mode of being that Maria Montessori wished us to vanquish.

Mitch Bogen is the publications associate at the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue, where this article was first published. Mitch has been a writer and editor for a number of educational nonprofits, taught comparative religion and been a contributing writer for the Harvard Education Letter. He holds dual master’s degrees from Harvard University, in theology and education.

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