Education and Home

Maria Montessori: Una Vita Per I Bambini

A POINT OF AWARENESS - Preciosa S. Soliven - The Philippine Star

(A Life Dedicated to Childhood)

Maria Montessori was born on August 31, 1870, in a four-storey house in Chiaravalle in the seaport province of Ancona, Italy. Her parents, Alessandro and Renilde would often walk along the wharf with Maria toddling beside them. Alessandro, a descendant of a noble family of Bologna, received a medal of valor for taking part in the 1861 wars to free Italy from Austria. Renilde came from a prosperous upper class family and was well educated. She shared Alessandro’s patriotic ideals for a unified Italy.

When Maria was five, the family moved to Rome. The Italian government had promoted her father, now an official in the state-run tobacco industry. Although Maria could attend a more modern school in Rome than in Chiaravalle, elementary schools were crowded and poorly managed everywhere in Italy. The underpaid teachers themselves had little education.

An attempt to be an engineer

Strong-minded Maria wanted to become an engineer even though her father refused to consider the idea. To prepare for an engineering career, 12-year-old Maria would have to attend a technical school in Rome. The course of study at a technical school lasted three years, followed by a four-year course at a technical institute. Renilde, more broad-minded than her husband, approved of her daughter’s ambitions and encouraged her. Renilde had grown up in an era when upper-class teenage girls often lived in a convent until their parents chose husbands for them.

Shortly after her 13th birthday in 1883, Maria enrolled in Regia Scuola Tecnica Michelangelo Buonarroti for 3 years, earning a final score of 137 out of 150 points. For the next four years, she attended the Technical Institute Leonardo da Vinci.

An engineering career had been more than Alessandro could accept. Now, Maria’s plans to study medicine shocked him beyond belief. He refused to talk to her. None of this daunted Maria, who made an appointment to see Dr. Guido Bacelli, dean of the medical faculty at the University of Rome. The professor listened politely to her request but the medical school would never admit a woman. Maria shook his hand, thanked him, and said with confidence, “I know I shall become a doctor of medicine.”

Determinmed to become a doctor

She enrolled in the University of Rome to take premedical classes in math, botany, physics, chemistry, and zoology. For the next two years, all that mattered were her studies. She had no time to attend parties, read romances, or sit with friends in cafes. In 1892, with a grade of 8 out of a possible 10, she received the university’s Diploma di Licenza. If she had been a man, she could have enrolled in medical school automatically. Eventually the University accepted Maria as a medical student, but the male students did not. They showed their resentment in every way they could. They made sure she heard their unflattering remarks. She responded to men’s jokes good-naturedly. Not only did the men resent a woman in their midst, but they resented that this woman was a better student than many of them. She attended all lectures, although the university did not require full attendance. If they missed a lecture, they would borrow someone else’s notes. University students spent most of their time frequenting cafes and wandering about town.

Alessandro could not adjust to Maria’s independence. Not only had his daughter chosen a career unfit for a woman, but she had financed it herself by winning scholarships and tutoring other students. Maria longed for her father’s approval. Maria wrote a paper as the final requirement for graduation. She appeared before 11 examiners to discuss her 96 handwritten pages on paranoia. Maria waited outside the room while the examiners tallied her score. Anything over 100 was an exceptional score. Maria received a final grade of 105. When the committee called her back into the room, they awarded Maria Montessori, at age 25, the degree of Doctor of Medicine – the first female doctor in Italy, July 10, 1896.

In defense of women and handicapped children

In 1896, a group of learned and powerful women from around the world gathered in Berlin to discuss the poor living conditions of women workers. The Italian women who attended this international women’s congress asked Maria to represent them as a delegate. Maria had the delegates’ full attention as she eloquently presented her practical ideas. She told them that she was speaking on behalf of six million Italian women – the women who worked 18 hours a day in factories and on farms. Their pay was half of what men earned for the same work, and some women earned even less than that. The delegates unanimously adopted Maria’s proposal that women get equal pay for equal work. Maria never used notes for her speeches.

As an assistant doctor at the University of Rome’s Psychiatric Clinic, Montessori gained interest in idiot children, who were then classed together with the insane. The more she worked with these children, the more she realized that mental deficiency was a pedagogical problem rather than a medical one. Dr. Guido Bacelli, the university dean who refused her enrolment before, was then Minister of Education. He appointed Dr. Montessori to head a state orthophrenic school (“ortho” means correction of deformities and “phrenic” refers to the mind) from 1899-1901, to train teachers in the education of mentally disabled children.

How special education led to the reform of traditional education

Maria and her co-director at the school, Dr. Giussepe Montesano, worked closely together to develop a program that would help these children. Soon Maria and Giussepe fell in love. Sometime between 1898 and 1900, Maria gave birth to a child that she named Mario. She and Giuseppe never married, possibly because their families did not approve. Giuseppe promised Maria that he would never marry anyone else.

Under her skillful direction, the defective children learned to read and write so well that they passed the public examination together with normal children. The applause that greeted the “miracle” made Dr. Montessori remark, “while everyone was admiring my retardates, I was searching for the reason which could keep back the healthy children of the traditional school on so low a plane that they could be equaled in intelligence to my unfortunate pupils.” She turned her duties at the Orthophrenic School over to capable teachers she had trained. Maria may have had a more personal reason to leave the school that she had worked so hard to create. Dr. Montesano had broken his promise never to marry. In 1901 when he did marry someone else, Maria left the school. But she fulfilled her dream to work with normal children when the poorest district of San Lorenzo in Rome, where the Instituto Romano dei Beni Stabili, the principal banks of Italy built blocks of flats. These were ruined by the small children of workers, who left for work. Sixty ignorant little vandals did not have to be persuaded to work with the materials like the backward children. They worked spontaneously and independently with Dr. Montessori.

The Star of Bethlehem

It was on the feast of Epiphany, January 6, 1906 when Dr. Maria Montessori inaugurated the first Casa dei Bambini (Montessori preschool for three- to six-year-olds) at the rehabilitated slum area of Quartiere di San Lorenzo in Rome. The past year, 60 slum preschoolers who were vandalizing their newly constructed tenement building were miraculously “converted” to love work and order in a small classroom filled with scientific toy-like Montessori apparata, which the porter’s daughter, whom Dr. Montessori trained, guided them to use.

A strange feeling made the Dottoressa announce emphatically, “Just as the Star of Bethlehem beckoned the three wise men to come, and see the Light of Christ, so will this light shine forth within the child to illuminate the world.” Her system, correctly applied in different societies did ignite the spirit of the young child transforming him to love work, love order, obey and be self-reliant – thus transforming the nation.

An unstoppable lady with her son, Mario

She ceaselessly, calmly, never discouraged by calamities private or national, even a world war that exiled her to India, and went on steadily with her researches; principally on teacher training, curriculum and material development for elementary school and eventually professional high school.

While in exile in India, Dr. Montessori with her son Mario developed the elementary school curriculum known as the Cosmic Curriculum. When the war was over, she established her headquarters at Amsterdam (now the Association Montessori Internationale or AMI headquarters) since Mario married a Dutch lady, Ada. From here she would fly all over Europe to lecture or give training courses. Most of the latter were held in London, Italy and India. International conferences, which are not to be confused with the international training course, were held in Helsinki (1925), Nice (1932), Amsterdam (1933), Rome (1934), Oxford (1936), Copenhagen (1937), Edinburgh (1938), San Remo (1939) and the last one at London (1951) before she died in 1952 in Noordwijk at the age of 82.

In 1949, as a member of the Italian delegation she kindled the UNESCO advocacy of Early Childhood Education and adult literacy. Giving a training course in the University of Perugia she was made an “honorary citizen” of the city followed by other Italian cities. In Holland, Queen Wilhelmina conferred upon her the rank of Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau.

A whole sphere of education up to adulthood

Gratifying as it must doubtless have been to Dr. Montessori to have felt herself so widely appreciated, she herself had no intention of resting on her laurels. She realized that what she has accomplished was only the first step. There was much more still latent in her “movement” than anyone else realized.

People regarded her then (as many do still) simply as the founder of new method of education for small children. This was true enough as far as it went, but it was only a part of the story, and not even the most important part. She knew that she had discovered a key, which could unlock immeasurable constructive energies for human development. The immense potential energies were still waiting to be set free. “My discovery would act like a leaven, which would in due time, permeate the whole sphere of education right up to university age.”

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