In my talk about Maria Montessori yesterday, I read her description of the opening of her school for kids in 1907. What struck me was her mythological treatment of it, her sense that she was part of a grand story about to unfold— as indeed she was. While I am in awe of the depth of her thinking and the thoroughness of her scientific inquiry and the results of her approach, I’ve always felt her a bit distrustful of children’s fantasy life and imagination. As a trained doctor and scientist, she was much more inclined to the practical work of life on this planet and the intellectual triumph of figuring out how things work, more interested in shoe-tying and puzzle-solving than fairy tales and jazz improvisation.
And yet when she talks about her beginnings, she is calling forth a fairy-tale story and speaking from her imagination. And in the history of science and rationalism, this is often the case. Einstein talked about his insights coming from his musical practice or arising as a gut feeling in the stomach, as an intuition that grew in his dream life and blossomed in the dark. After the image came the math to check its validity. Somewhere I read about Watson (or was it Crick?) dreaming of two snakes intertwining and going on to reveal the shape and structure of DNA. And Descartes, that supreme “I think, therefore I am” rationalist, might have said “I dream, therefore I am” since the basis of his whole system of thought came to him in a visionary dream.
I value the intellect and scientific thinking while reveling in the dream-life of stories, poems, music, meditation and art and the body-life of dancing and cooking and hiking and the sensory life of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, really, it’s all of one piece. But it’s the visionary dream life that gives it all shape and meeting and I wish Montessori had trusted that a bit more and fed that stream in her work with children. I wish she had encouraged some dragons to circle around the pink tower (one of the Montessori materials). But no matter, at our school the Orff program helps cultivate the rich fantasy life of children into an expressive imagination, as do all the teachers who give children a chance to express themselves far beyond the mere correct procedure. How I wish I had the chance to have Maria observe my classes and then discuss the matter together!
Meanwhile, enjoy her little story here, taken from “The Secret Life of Childhood.”
Our first school for small children between the ages of three and six was opened on January 6, 1907. As yet, I had no special system of instruction. I had nothing more than fifty extremely poor, ragged, and obviously timid children, many of whom were weeping. Almost all were the offspring of illiterate parents who had entrusted them to my care.
For some undefinable reason I felt that a great work was about to begin and that it would prosper. It was the feast of the Epiphany and the theme of the Mass for the day seemed to be a kind of prophecy. “The earth was completely covered with darkness when the star appeared in the East whose splendor was to be a guide for the people.”
…I began my work like a farmer who has set aside good seed and who is offered a fertile field in which to sow it. But it turned out otherwise. I had hardly scratched the clods when I found gold instead of grain; the clods hid a precious treasure. I was like Aladdin with the lamp in his hands, not knowing that it was a key to hidden treasures.
The treasures that she found was the transformation of “tearful, frightened, timid children, poor neglected children who had been reared in dark, decrepit homes” into “poised little children, full of charm and dignity…children who were alert, active, but always composed, radiating a spiritual warmth that cheered the hearts of the adults who came in contact with them… There was now no obstacle lying between their souls and their surroundings. Their lives were unfolding naturally like the lotus that spreads out its white petals to receive the rays of the sun as it sends forth a fragrant odor. (pp, 114, 148 from The Secret Life of Childhood by Maria Montessori.)
There was a poet inside this scientist, someone adept at calling forth the imagery that is the language of the imagination— the star in the East, the buried treasure, Aladdin’s lamp, the lotus blossom. Her Montessori materials, as brilliant as they are in their limited field, don’t reach far enough into the imaginative life of the child. That’s our job now— to keep imagination and intellect joined at the hip to reach into all the corners of “the secret lives of childhood.”