PostHeaderIcon Ayn Rand and Maria Montessori

There was an open thread discussing Ayn Rand on the Secular Right Blog this weekend, which attracted a remarkable number of erudite comments in a spirited discussion, which is already over 70 comments. If you are an Ayn Rand fan, you might enjoy perusing them. One of my early contributions was to offer a nexus between Ayn Rand and Maria Montessori, which is worth repeating here:

I particularly agree with the assessment that Rand’s epistemology is as or more relevant to the ills of our society, than her ethics at this point. I have been a devotee of Ayn Rand for over thirty years and an admirer, proponent, and practitioner of Maria Montessori’s Method of education for the past twelve.

Only recently, I discovered that there was a nexus between them. I was aware that many years ago, my partner was the Montessori teacher for the children of Leonard Peikoff and others at the Ayn Rand Institute; but I assumed that was just an accident. Then I stumbled across an article by Michael S. Berliner, Ph.D. entitled “Ayn Rand and Education,” which is remarkable for being 27 years old:

The revolution that Ayn Rand brought to philosophy has profound implications for education.

Since the purpose of education is to develop a certain kind of individual and society, education involves the practical implementation of philosophic ideals. Thus education has a specially close relationship to philosophy. Everything that goes on in a classroom rests on philosophic premises: education derives its goals from ethics, its methodology from epistemology and its administrative policies and political status from social philosophy.

Given the dependency of education on philosophy, it should be no shock that our schools are in chaos; they have derived their guiding principles from various forms of irrationalism, altruism, and collectivism. Only when educators turn to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, will sanity return to our schools. How would her philosophy rescue education?

He then offers eleven points for consideration. Among them:

6. Ayn Rand’s philosophic system can provide a theoretical foundation for the most promising educational method now available: the Montessori method. Despite the success of Montessori schools, there is amazingly little understanding of the reasons for that success. As a consequence, the method is either dismissed as nothing more than a series of clever techniques for teaching specific skills, or attempts are made to ground the method in Maria Montessori’s personal philosophy, a mixture of Catholicism and Indian mysticism.

At present, the supporters of the Montessori method are unable to defend it against either the educational establishment or compromisers from within Montessori ranks. Teachers and parents need to understand the real philosophic meaning of the Montessori method. Ayn Rand’s philosophy makes that understanding possible.

He is right about the confusion in the Montessori ranks, and regrettably I must report that the Montessori Method is being severely corrupted in America, by modern Montessorians’ ill-conceived quest for recognition by mainstream academia, and the attempts to shoehorn the Method into rigid public school curricula. Authentic Montessori programs are still available in the private sector; but the name is in the public domain and anyone can call their school a Montessori school, whether or not it provides an authentic Montessori curriculum. Caveat emptor.

At the end of the article, are some interesting quotes. I liked Peikoff’s:

Assault from the Ivory Tower: The Professors’ War Against America
by Leonard Peikoff

I wish I could tell you that your college years will be a glorious crusade. Actually, they will probably be a miserable experience. If you are a philosophically pro-American student, you have to expect every kind of smear from many of your professors. If you uphold the power of reason, you will be called a fanatic or a dogmatist. If you uphold the right to happiness, you will be called anti-social or even a fascist. If you admire Ayn Rand, you will be called a cultist. You will experience every kind of injustice, and even hatred, and you will be unbelievably bored most of the time, and often you will be alone and lonely. But if you have the courage to venture out into this kind of nightmare, you will not only be acquiring the diploma necessary for your professional future, you will also be helping to save the world, and we are all in your debt.

The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought by Ayn Rand, 206-207

Then, by Ayn Rand herself:

Ayn Rand on Education

The only purpose of education is to teach a student how to live his life — by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality. The training he needs is theoretical, i.e., conceptual. He has to be taught to think, to understand, to integrate, to prove. He has to be taught the essentials of the knowledge discovered in the past — and he has to be equipped to acquire further knowledge by his own effort.

“The Comprachicos,” The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, 231.

The academia-jet set coalition is attempting to tame the American character by the deliberate breeding of helplessness and resignation-in those incubators of lethargy known as “Progressive” schools, which are dedicated to the task of crippling a child’s mind by arresting his cognitive development. (See “The Comprachicos” in my book The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution.) It appears, however, that the “progressive” rich will be the first victims of their own special theories: it is the children of the well-to-do who emerge from expensive nursery schools and colleges as hippies, and destroy the remnants of their paralyzed brains by means of drugs.

The middle class has created an antidote which is perhaps the most helpful movement of recent years: the spontaneous, unorganized, grass — roots revival of the Montessori system of education — a system aimed at the development of a child’s cognitive, i.e., rational, faculty.

“Don’t Let It Go,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, 261; pb 214.

Finally, if you are unfamiliar with Montessori philosophy and at all interested in exploring it, I recently published an essay entitled, “Spontaneous Minds,” which covers the way in which the Montessori Method nurtures the spontaneous process children use to create their own minds, by interaction with their environment, during the crucial preschool years. â—„Daveâ–º

6 Responses to “Ayn Rand and Maria Montessori”

  • This is an interesting mashup, and perhaps a good opportunity to elucidate why I’m not on board with Randian Objectivism.

    I went to a Montessori pre-school. I have happy memories of it. I’m sure I learned a lot. But I’m glad I wasn’t there much longer.

    My nieces were, until recently, attending a self-proclaimed Montessori school. My oldest niece, who was 6 at the time, was struggling mightily with her reading. She’s smart, but there is dyslexia in her family and in any event she didn’t take to reading or writing intuitively. Because of the lack of structure, forcing her to attempt to intuit that which is not intuitive, the pleasure of learning gave way to frustration, eventually leading to a fear and loathing of the written word.

    Fortunately, she’s now in a much more traditional public school, and the instant improvement was marked.

    Learning how to properly use any language is not necessarily organic, and that’s even more true when it comes to reading and writing. Learning requires guidance, which requires an active TEACHER to teach, not just a line judge to bounce off of. Too much “teaching” can be destructive, certainly, but then so can too little.

    It’s like “teaching” certain plants to grow by building trellises. Too much, and the plant is smothered. Too little, and there is no framework upon which its full height can be realized.

    There are some things that must be actively taught, like math, history, spelling, and grammar. They are things that aren’t always pleasant to learn, but must be known and known by a certain time in a child’s life.

    And children also need to learn that their actions have consequences, and sometimes failure is NOT acceptable, and that carelessness IS a big deal. Children also crave firm boundaries, and respond to discipline (in the sense of an athlete being disciplined, not punishment) in a very productive way.

    The role of culture as teacher cannot be understated. There are reasons certain traditions, mores, and religions endure and thrive – it’s because they contain the truth and wisdom obtained (often at great expense) over the ages. They form a trellis for us, without which we individually cannot reach our full potential.

    (Equally, there are reasons certain cultures and religions have doomed their adherents to lives of poverty and oppression for centuries.)

    Leftists want the government to be that trellis, and certainly government is a part of it. But the left would reject any other component, and FORCE us all half way up the trellis of THEIR choosing whether we wanted it that way or not. They would cut back faster growing shoots and prop up the sickly ones in the name of fairness. When that failed to produce a healthy plant, they would add to the trellis more and more until the plant was completely smothered.

    They would then blame the vines for their malaise.

    It goes back to my conception that not enough government can be just as destructive to individual liberty as too much.

    And more, the only way to provide an adequate framework for us to reach our full potential (and to protect us from temporarily feel-good but ultimately self-destructive behavior) without being FORCED is to embrace a compelling but ultimately voluntary culture.

    Objectivism correctly focuses on the importance of individual liberty, but posits that non-governmental societal pressures are, like government, almost purely impediments to success. It assumes and celebrates the notion of being able to simply drop out of society – going Galt, as it were. It does not understand that while government FORCING you to be “charitable” and “moral” (for lack of a better word) is bad, a culture or religion PRESSURING you to do those things for reasons other than the fear of jail is often very, very good.

    This is why social conservatives are right and valuable – and wrong and destructive when they, too, forget this line between force and pressure. (See, e.g., Huckabee, Mike)

    Them’s my two pennies – disjointed and incomplete though they may be.

    • Boris Reitman says:

      The shoe is on the other foot: Objectivist education in elementary school involves conventional teaching/lecturing. See “Teaching Johnny to think “ by Peikoff

  • Thanks for the great comment, Orrin. I’ll tackle it in bytes, with separate replies over the next few days. First, Montessori. It was cool to hear that you were a Montessori child. I should have been so lucky. I am old enough that I had a stay-at-home mom, and I doubt that preschool ever entered her mind. I didn’t even have an opportunity for kindergarten, not that it accomplishes much more than socialization.

    “Self-proclaimed,” of course, does not mean much. Montessori works – splendidly – if it is done authentically; but I must admit that by now most so-called Montessori schools in America aren’t implementing an authentic Montessori curriculum. Also, you do not say if she went to a Montessori preschool. It is in the three years of preschool where they learn how to learn, and by the time a child is six, she has passed many of the sensitive periods when learning concepts is easy.

    All normal (at least 95%) children with cooperative parents (i.e. will take sage advice on home environment and parenting techniques) who enter our program at 2½, will be reading and reading well (at least at a third or fourth grade level, if not at a ninth) by the time they are five and would normally be entering kindergarten. Of course, Montessori children learn to write before they can read. Reading generally happens spontaneously one day, when it occurs to them that they can read what they just wrote, and then there is no holding them back.

    They will also be doing four figure math (+,-,x, & /); can name all the States of our Union, or all the countries of North and South America, on unmarked maps; name all the shapes in plane and solid geometry; explain the metamorphosis of a frog or butterfly; and readily distinguish between a Monet and Picasso. Not all Montessori schools achieve these results; but the good ones can and do.

    It is a mistake to assume that there is no curriculum and that the Montessorians are only acting as referees. There is a sequence to the didactic materials, and it is her job to make sure that each child receives a presentation on all of them in due course. They encourage and assist children constantly, and make sure they do not get stuck too long in one place. Obviously, teaching phonics to the three-year-olds takes much direct interaction.

    Of course, the task is much harder than it should be, because they must first “un-teach” them the names of the symbols. Why do parents insist on teaching their toddlers the names of letters instead of their sounds? Shouldn’t it be obvious that the only time we ever use the name of a letter is when audibly spelling a word, and it will be years before they need to do that?

    So the structure or “framework” is there underneath, and the Montessorians keep meticulous records of presentations and a child’s progress. There are very firm boundaries and self-discipline in a Montessori classroom, because it is expected, and nonsense or disruptive behavior is simply not tolerated for a moment. Children come to a Montessori school to work, not to play. Creating a mind is serious business, and the process is respected. More to follow. â—„Daveâ–º

  • Fernando Nandin says:

    Just today I was with my wife having an out loud thinking conversation about Montessori and the values in which its educational system is based, and my immediate thought was…”Have these two women ever shared a conversation?” Well it is hard to imagine how glad I am to see this post and will continue this research with great enthusiasm!

    My best regards.

    Fernando Nandin

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