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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Book review: To Educate the Human Potential

Here is my review of Maria Montessori's To Educate the Human Potential, as found on Amazon:

4 out of 5 stars

The introduction explains that this book is meant to follow _Education for a New World_, and it "helps teachers envisage the child's needs after age six." This book is part theory, part history, covering the psychology of the elementary-aged child, the history of life on Earth, and some highlights and principles of the development of civilization. This seems to be motivation and background material for the "great lessons" of the Cosmic Education as commonly used in elementary Montessori curricula. Those seeking an introduction to core Montessori theory, especially relevant to three- to six-year-olds, would be better off turning to _Education for a New World_, or the more demanding _The Absorbent Mind_.

The first few chapters discuss the educational needs of six- to twelve-year-olds. According to Montessori, it is at the age of six that the child's principle educational need switches from absorption of environment to absorption of culture. A great emphasis is placed upon placing seeds of motivation and "wonder" in the child's mind, using a big, integrating picture of the world which is supposed to raise more questions than it answers, so that the child will desire to fill out his or her knowledge in later years.

The child of this age thirsts for moral knowledge, but also for mental independence, claims Montessori, so moralizing lectures will not be accepted and should not be attempted. She also observes that children of this age have a strong impetus to organize themselves socially.

An elementary program, it is advised, should not over-emphasize hands-on learning nor abstract subjects which require "imagination," but should integrate both, since the personality is one and indivisible.

A chapter is devoted to three psychological principles of the subconscious which are fundamental to the theory: (1) subconscious memory, the "mneme," which is specific to and built into each species; (2) Bergson's "Elan Vitale," or Horme, a vital urge which drives every living creature in every activity of its life; and (3) the Association of Ideas, the principle by which most methods of education conceive that certain ideas must follow and build upon certain others, but is now, Montessori claims, understood by psychologists to be only superficially true on the conscious level, though it does importantly apply to the operation of engrams in the subconscious. The chapter ends with a fascinating argument that a real love for humanity, for one's "neighbor," cannot be based on preachy, patronizing sentiments of political or religious brotherhood, but only upon recognition of the productive toils of those countless individuals, living or dead, who have built and benefited our world.

Several chapters tell the story of the world, its nature and history. Surely much of the science here is out of date. The theoretical point met again and again is that the planet and the lifeforms upon it are all interrelated as one whole, working in symphony, progressing upon the Cosmic Plan. This teleological, somewhat mystical theme seems out of place in Montessori's theory, given her otherwise tremendous dedication to a naturalistic worldview. One thing missing from her cosmological account here is what will eventually be the first "great lesson" in Montessori curricula -- I'm guessing Big Bang theory was not incorporated into the Cosmic Education at this point because it was not yet well known or accepted.

At one point she mentions the huge chart of world history which is still used in Montessori elementary classes, saying: "[Children] see how brief has been the human span, compared with what went before it, yet how great has been its work!" Incidentally, this is the exact opposite of the interpretation of some current Montessori teachers, who hope that their students will perceive on the chart how small and unimportant humanity is.

For a few chapters the story switches to human history, up to the Hellenic age. Dr. Montessori emphasizes that humans may have weak bodies, but also a "new cosmic energy" in their mental faculties, by which they have developed superiority in all things, and have become "God's chief agent on earth for creation." She discusses human greatness at length: "[T]he history of human achievements is real, a living witness to the greatness of man, and the children can easily be brought to thrill to the knowledge that there are millions of people like themselves, striving mentally and physically to solve the problems of life, and that all contribute to a solution though [only] one may find it."

It is interesting, if not a contradiction, that although Dr. Montessori was a champion for peace, she here discusses the great value of ancient wars and conquests, which resulted "in added wealth of one kind or another to both conquered and the conqueror, and to the sum of human life in general." The whole world is like an organism, with its own vital functions, interdependent organs, and teleological ends.

On the one hand she appreciates the wisdom of certain religious language -- saying that the cosmic plan may be called the Will of God -- but she also describes the limits and divisive effects of religions: "Religions and languages keep men apart, while arts, sciences and products of industry unite them." Eventually, she tells us, education will succeed and "religion then will not need to be taught, which it cannot really be, but reverence for truth, inner as well as outer, will grow in natural freedom...."

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