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From Preschool to Post-Grad: Montessori Education and Interdisciplinary Pedagogy

April 20, 2017 • By Hannah Gitlin From Preschool to Post-Grad: Montessori Education and Interdisciplinary Pedagogy

I remember that in my application to The University of Chicago, I said that I was excited to explore the interdisciplinary opportunities that the University had to offer. This past June, I graduated from UChicago with an interdisciplinary degree. 

My interdisciplinary leanings—I’m pretty sure—came from my 12 years at a Montessori school, where learning almost always happens collaboratively, and across traditional subject lines. 

The synthesis of all my schooling—from Montessori preschool, to a very Catholic high school in a very conservative Illinois county, to the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts program at UChicago (through which I took a class on Kant with Professor William Schweiker)—has put me in a position to really appreciate the work I’ve been doing with The Enhancing Life Project. 

I firmly believe that being a “Montessori kid” played an instrumental role in developing my capacities as a critical thinker, and though I cannot generalize about “all Montessori students,” I can at least speak to my own experience. So what is it that differentiates the Montessori method from “traditional” schooling? What insights can be gleaned from Maria Montessori’s pedagogical theories? 

Montessori started developing her methods of “scientific pedagogy” in the early 20th century, while studying pedagogy at the University of Rome. In the following years, she took these ideas out into the world, establishing her first school, the Casa dei Bambini, in one of Rome’s lowest-income neighborhoods. At this school, she observed the natural behavior of children interacting with constructed environments (“freedom within limits”). Through these observations of which activities encouraged the children to flourish and to find fulfillment, Montessori outlined what she saw as the key facets of human development. 

These observations crystallized into a formal theory. Inherent to that theory was the notion that the child’s mind—indeed, the human mind—is inherently absorbent and eager for knowledge. A love of knowledge, to Montessori, is not something to be instilled, but rather to be cultivated from seeds that are already there. How do you get young children to care about the universe’s most fundamental questions? According to Montessori, it’s not as impossible as it might initially seem. In her 1947 work To Educate the Human Potential, she wrote: 

“The laws governing the universe can be made interesting and wonderful to the child, more interesting even than things in themselves, and he begins to ask: What am I? What is the task of man in this wonderful universe? Do we merely live here for ourselves, or is there something more for us to do? Why do we struggle and fight? What is good and evil? Where will it all end?” 

Though this seems like a pretty hefty task, I can reach back into my personal experience with Montessori education to confirm that the interdisciplinary lessons I learned in Montessori classrooms laid the groundwork for my tendency to want to break down the barriers that separate science from theology from politics. The “creation myth” that we learned in elementary school involved the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, and a female God who smiles upon her creation. We learned lessons about sustainability through interacting with local forest preserves. We spent weeks learning about Illinois’ Native populations, their traditions, and the way that they thought about and interacted with the land. We built fences, we composted, and we made our own decisions about what work we would do on a day-to-day basis. We were free (within limits) to pursue our interests. We celebrated not Columbus Day, but Gandhi’s Birthday. One of our major yearly celebrations was UN Day, for which each child would choose a country, prepare a presentation about that country, and work with their family to prepare one of that country’s traditional dishes. 

“An education capable of saving humanity,” according to Montessori, “is no small undertaking: it involves the spiritual development of man, the enhancement of his value as an individual, and the preparation of young people to times in which they live.” Montessori’s methods, and her concepts of human development, align closely with interdisciplinary methods in higher education—there are echoes of Montessori’s methods in the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts program, from which I received my degree. Auto-education, mixed-age classrooms, freedom within limits, and the idea that the human mind is, above all, absorbent—all of these ideas remind me of the motto of the University of Chicago: “Crescat scientia; vita excolatur. Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.” 

There are resonances of Montessori’s methods in the pedagogical mission of The Enhancing Life Project. I first noticed these connections during my Q&A with Professor William Schweiker a couple months ago. When I asked Professor Schweiker about some of the major obstacles to being able to adequately incorporate religion into our public discourse, he said that a lot of the problems we’re currently seeing can, in some respects, be traced to elementary education. “I think that we should start teaching about religion in the elementary schools,” he said. Montessori agreed. Although Montessori education is secular in nature, it incorporates theology into the major curricular lessons. “It’s absurd,” said Schweiker, “that in a multicultural, global society, we do not teach these traditions as human phenomena very early on.” In a pedagogical mission statement that mirrors Montessori’s faith in the young child’s cognitive capacities, Schweiker also said that: “If we want to have an intelligent society that can deal with the complexities of the global age, we need to start with education. This is what makes me very concerned about our current situation in the United States, because it seems that we’re going down a road that may potentially gut elementary and secondary education. As a professor of primarily graduate students, I can tell you that if there’s not proper formation in the lower grades, students cannot advance to take on stuff like advanced studies of religion.” Though this “proper formation” can be defined broadly, and although Montessori’s ideas by no means constitute the only viable method of interdisciplinary early education, William Schweiker and Maria Montessori seem to agree on the vast majority of their pedagogical philosophy. 

In my case, it seems that you can take the kid out of the Montessori school, but you can’t take the Montessori education out of the kid. And that, for me, has been a very good thing.