Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Other Job of Children

The question yesterday: Was the purpose of childhood other than being an apprentice to adults? I promised a discussion of Montessori’s own answer and, as I figured, there are bits and pieces of it in so many of yesterday’s comments.

Montessori was more than keen to distance herself from what she saw as mere philosophical speculation about education and grounding the approach in empirical science – something she succeeded in to some extent, but not completely. She takes a complete stock of the biology of the times and insists that education not treat children as dumb little adults, but needs to be molded to the physiological and psychological stages that children go through. This may seem trivially obvious today, but at the time she needed to draw on the successes of embryology and argue by analogy in order to ground her thesis. Just as the human fetus goes through stages in utero, so the born child also progresses through a prescribed set of developmental stages.

This is the point where she appeals to evolution. The stages of development are genetically built into us and immutable. However, satisfying the need of the developmental stage is not merely a matter of growth in the body triggered by genes and accomplished by internal means. Rather, we are predisposed to acquire certain capacities because of the way our brains are formed, but we can only actually develop them if we experience certain stimuli in the environment at the proper time. We are not just bodies, we are environmental beings connected to our surroundings who develop in harmony with the world around us. Children are plastic – put them in a different environment and you get different adults.

This fact, she thought, undermined the institutional biases she saw around her based on race, class, and gender. The first Montessori school was for underprivileged children and its success she thought would liberate them from the class structure and allow the mothers to work, liberating them from the rigid sexist constraints of family life as it was then constructed (Montessori was the first woman in Italy to attend medical school and only through intervention of the Pope himself was she allowed to enroll). It was the unequal environment that harmed children and repressed their abilities, not some genetic predisposition to be inferior.

So while she took Darwin’s theory to be absolutely true, it does not lead to social Darwinism. Instead, she has a fascinating Lamarckian twist to it. Georges Lamarcke was a naturalist of the generation before Darwin and had a theory of evolution based on acquired mutations. If you keep cutting the tails off of lizards, the thought, eventually you would get tailless lizards. It was interaction with the environment that caused species to change over time. Montessori’s argument is a fascinating synthesis of Darwin’s account of our genetic make-up coupled with Lamarck’s. We are evolutionarily predisposed to develop a certain way, but how that is manifested depends on our environment.

But the human environment is always changing. She points to economic development. We went from economies based on slaves to servants to craftsman. In each new advancement, the children raised would be different, capable of living naturally in the new society and changing it for the better in a way that their forbearers couldn’t because they had developed in a way that was maximally conducive to their environment.

As such, children are the agents of change. They must be allowed to mold themselves to the brave new world we have created in order to go on and change it for the better when they become “rational” adults, only to have their children acclimate themselves to it so to change it again. The moral arc of the universe is long and it does bend towards justice, Montessori argued, but the bending comes from the spirit of the children and progress in society, she thought, could only continue if we helped the kids to BE kids when they are kids because it is only through the soaking in like sponges and the adaptation to their environment that they can be different from us – we who gave them their genes. We gave them bodies, now we must nurture their spirits so that they may advance social justice. Children, in a very real sense, Maria Montessori argued, are the future of humanity – all children without regard to race, gender, class, or any other factor.