Education must become coextensive with life.
All who enter the educational world tend to be cut off from society.
Young people leave the university with their minds so shackled and sacrificed that they have lost all power of individuation and can no longer judge the problems of the age in which they live.
The world of education is like an island where people, cut off from the world, are prepared for life by exclusion from it.
Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 10, 11
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Deciding what path to pursue for the education of our children – mental, physical and spiritual – is a daunting task. Like most anything else, it can be boiled down to two major schools of thought. And depending on who you ask, or what book you read, each person has legitimate reasons for choosing one or the other.
As of now, we are trying to embrace the Montessori philosophy of education, as opposed to the classical approach. (Not that they are mutually exclusive.) The Montessori method seeks, essentially, to integrate learning with life. It does not begin with facts, which later turn to theory. It is not a system that sets up standards of knowledge that a child needs to master by this or that year. (Although she does strongly emphasize the different stages of a child’s development.). Rather, it emphasizes nurturing the soil of a child’s mind, giving him the tools for learning at his own pace. Just as soil is only as fertile as what is put into it, so it is with the child’s mind.
We are far from perfecting this approach. In fact, we feel quite desperately amateur at it. There are two things going against us. One, we have no personal experience with this method (that is, neither of us experienced it growing up), and two, culture is not conducive to this style of learning. We are a culture that values measurable results. (As if standardized testing could really measure one’s ability to get by in life.)
My entire schooling was spent in public education, with the exception of a year-and-a-half at Wheaton College in Illinois. There was Mrs. K’s Kindergarten class, with nap time, ABCs, piano lessons, cardboard bricks and snack time. There was Miss M’s 2nd grade, in which all I can remember is struggling through words like ‘blood’ and ‘flood’ and peeing my pants mid-lesson for fear of 8th grade bullies in the bathroom. There was Mrs. K’s 3rd grade class, where we started the drudgeries of mathematics which seemed ten steps above me, and her walking around during lunch, stealing popcorn and pretzels out of the children’s baggies. There was free-play on the wooden playground, running across the bridge, and popping one another to devilish heights as we jumped with all our miniature weight on the other side.
There was 8th grade Social Studies with Mr. H, a tall, bright-faced, balding man with slicked back strands and circle frames. Writing his notes on the chalkboard, word for word, with his wily arm. And I would sit with my mother, memorizing those sentences, so I could answer long form on his weekly tests. There was every year of English, with every well-meaning teacher, tirelessly teaching us the building blocks of language, and I, never quite grasping adverbs and pro-nouns (and whether it’s ‘me and you’ or ‘you and I.’)
The pathetic school dances, raising money for who knows what by selling overpriced chocolates, and after school detention for spitting on a ‘friend’ who had first spit on me.
With every grade there is this vague memory mush of awkward situations, teacher personalities and quirks, bullies, introductions to the taboo, and a continual longing for escape. Escape from the restraints of sterile learning. To escape to real life. To get out from underneath the heavy burden of mental theory, and to taste and see how things work together in the broken, real world.
Yet, with every year that passed, while my mind ‘developed,’ I became more and more inept at the very things I would need to do at the end of my school career. I became more and more disillusioned as I learned in a vacuum, imagining that all problems had a clear answer that could be looked up in the back of a textbook. I imagined that life after school would be nothing more than a series of problems and answers that, in my test taking savvy, deduction and process of elimination would point me to the correct multiple choice answer every time.
Of course, this is not how life actually is. But, whether I liked it or not, this is what my education got me. I did, at least, feel that in college I learned how to learn (whatever that means). I no longer had teachers holding my hand through everything. Even so, I did not learn how to apply that knowledge to real-world situations, simply because there were no real-world situations to apply them to. (I’m sure this is the value of internships, but I did not see that at the time.)
Every time I think of these sixteen years of my life, it seems utterly ironic the discrepancy between input and output. The days spent in the classroom, the nights on homework, memorizing facts, tables and sequences. Years of energy that I wouldn’t entirely consider wasted, but rather, misapplied and misguided. I say without exaggeration that I am completely at a loss to think of one single life skill that has carried me through to this day.
I certainly hope that I am in the minority.
I mentioned, also, the cultural barriers. Montessori argues that children six and under are well endowed with the capacities for learning, but that we skip over them, as though we were waiting till they got to an appropriate age to actually learn anything. She says, “The child has a mind able to absorb knowledge. He has the power to teach himself…. The only language men ever speak perfectly is the one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach them anything! …. It is as if nature had safeguarded each child from the influence of adult reasoning, so as to give priority to the inner teacher who animates him.” (5, 6)
She talks about the first schools they started, in which children entered at the age of three.
No one could teach them because they were not receptive; yet they offered us amazing revelations of the greatness of the human soul. Ours was a house for children, rather than a real school. We had prepared a place for children where a diffused culture could be assimilated from the environment, without any need for direct instruction. The children who came were from the humblest social levels, and their parents were illiterate. Yet these children learned to read and write before they were five, and no one had given them any lessons. If visitors asked them, “Who taught you to write?” they often answered with astonishment: “Taught me? No one has taught me!” (7)
Environment is key, yet the environment of today’s world is set up for adults, not children. She could fall off the counter, he could cut himself with that knife, she could burn herself at the stove, he could fall down the steps, she could fall into the toilet, he could burn himself with scalding water, the lawn mower could take off her head, the vacuum is too heavy, the cleaning product too toxic, the tree too tall to climb, the stream too polluted to jump in, the dirt too dirty.
We not only protect them from physical things, but also the abstract. Take money. Our bank accounts are online, and every transaction can be logged electronically. Our children rarely see money exchange hands, except at the toll both. “Why didn’t he give any back to you?” Our debit card is all we need.
But that is not all we deal with in the abstract. Our phones (or now, the cloud) contain all the information we need: phone numbers, quotes, book lists, grocery lists, reminders, mail, messages, music, Bible, Bible reading plans, maps, weather. Not to mention all of the entertainment and shopping options.
I bring all this up not to be sensationalistic, but rather, to point out the obvious irony. That is, we have created a culture and society in which all of the things our children will eventually grow up to do are withheld from them until they are fully grown. We have replaced childhood with learning that is separate from life, and forced upon them entertainment to keep them out of our hair so we can just get the dishes done.