By the time Maria Montessori died in 1952, at the age of eighty-one, she had invented a new kind of childhood for the twentieth century. Rather than being deficient adults-in-waiting requiring discipline and chastisement in order to land on the shores of maturity, children, Montessori proposed, already carry the necessary wisdom within. “The child, a free human being, must teach us and teach society order, calm, discipline, and harmony,” she famously declared. Or, as Cristina De Stefano proposes in the title of her new biography, it’s the child who is the teacher, and the grown-ups are playing catch-up.
In the seventy years since her death Montessori’s ideas about early childhood education have spread around the world. There are now at least 20,000 Montessori schools operating in 110 countries. In addition, Montessori principles have been absorbed into public school education across Europe, Asia, North America, and beyond. Many features of kindergarten that are now taken for granted—mats and tables rather than individual desks, the primacy of hands-on learning, the importance of free choice, even “circle time,” when children check in with one another at the end of the day—are all freely adapted from Montessori’s ideas. This dilution of her method would have appalled her.
Maria Montessori was born in the province of Ancona in 1870, just as Italy was being unified. She was, unusually for the time, an only child. Her father, Alessandro, was a middle-ranking civil servant and her mother, the altogether more dominant Renilde, a schoolteacher who burned with resentment after being made to give up her teaching career upon marrying. In consolation, Renilde poured her ambition into her girl, who she was convinced was outstanding in every way.
Keeping the faith must have been a challenge in those early years. For while young Maria was clearly bright, she failed spectacularly at primary school, being held back a year on three separate occasions. By the time she finally graduated, the teenager towered over her ten-year-old classmates. As an adult, Montessori maintained that it was a combination of boredom and resentment that had fed her refusal to learn. Arithmetic remained a particularly impenetrable mystery: “For the longest time I wrote down the answers using made-up figures, the first ones that came to mind.” This abject failure quickly became a foundational Montessori myth. The girl who would go on to become a medical doctor—she was known throughout her life as “Dottoressa”—was living proof that it was Italy’s educational system, rather than its unfortunate pupils, that was in urgent need of reform.
It is a measure of Montessori’s later self-mythologizing that she claimed to be Italy’s first female doctor, whereas she was simply among the first. Nor was it the case, says De Stefano, coming daringly close to calling the Dottoressa a fibber, that her career as a medical student at the University of Rome was impeded by the pope, the Freemasons, and the academic establishment—“all things that on close examination turn out to be invented.” In fact, the evidence that De Stefano has uncovered suggests that Montessori’s professors, who were as progressive and feminist as the times allowed, went out of their way to help. She was awarded a much-needed scholarship and while still a student was given a prized post as a hospital assistant over candidates from the year above. Her success on her final exam in 1896 was greeted with congratulatory articles in the local newspapers and a warm handshake from a Senator of the Realm.
From her earliest days at the university Montessori identified as a feminist and a socialist. She became secretary of the Association for Women, a group that lobbied for community education, female suffrage, a law for the determination of paternity, and equal pay for men and women, all issues that would come to impinge dramatically on her own life. When she began a relationship with a young psychiatrist named Giuseppe Montesano in 1895, Montessori laid down some nonnegotiable ground rules: her medical career came first, she would never marry, and their attachment must be kept private. It was the type of unsanctioned and voluntary arrangement that the pioneering “new women” of the 1890s were trying out around the world, from Moscow to New York.
Motherhood, however, has a way of disrupting even the most high-minded and equitable arrangements. In the summer of 1897 Montessori became pregnant. In an extraordinary inversion of the usual script, Montesano was happy to offer marriage, while Renilde insisted that her twenty-eight-year-old daughter consider no such thing. A family story repeated as late as the 1990s by Maria’s granddaughter has Renilde declaring, “You have done what no other woman has ever done in Italy. You are a scientist, a doctor, you are everything, now because of a baby you could lose everything.” At her mother’s insistence, Montessori gave birth in great secrecy, with the paperwork stating that both the mother and father of her baby son were “unknown.” In time-honored fashion, the infant, named Mario, was put into the care of a country wet nurse. Montessori, the antithesis of a modern madonna, contented herself with visits to her child whenever her busy working schedule allowed.
After graduating, Montessori’s professional occupations broadened from the narrowly medical to a practice that combined psychology, pedagogy, and social work. Through her relationship with Montesano, who was now chief physician at a large mental asylum in Rome, Montessori became deeply engaged in the welfare and education of children with a range of poorly understood disabilities, encompassing everything from epilepsy and autism to rickets and malnutrition. All too often these so-called phrenasthenics were herded into empty rooms and left to their own devices; Montessori observed them spending much of their time picking crumbs off the floor.
Shocked, she began to research ways of enriching their environment. In the course of her reading she discovered the work of the French education pioneer Édouard Séguin, who had used balls, feathers, and buttons to stimulate the senses of unresponsive asylum children fifty years earlier. It was then that she began to develop her larger principle that everything starts with the child, who instinctively knows what they need. The teacher’s job is to stay out of the way and observe, resisting the impulse to make even helpful suggestions. From this simple but fundamental realignment, Montessori believed that something extraordinary would flow: “My mind grasped the immense importance of a work that wished to do nothing less than reform child rearing and children’s education.”
Delighted by the way that previously agitated and noisy children were transformed into quiet, contented souls, Montessori became an energetic advocate and fundraiser for her methods. She was often invited to conferences to spread the word and raise her profile. She was young, pretty, an excellent orator, and she was all about the children—the press, naturally, found her irresistible. By April 1900 Montessori was working, with Montesano, as codirector of the Orthophrenic School of Rome, the only institution of its kind in Italy, dedicated to the training of special education teachers.
Personally, too, this was a happy time, until Montesano left her in 1901. De Stefano thinks that Montesano hoped his feisty lover would eventually come around to the idea of marriage and a reconstituted family life with little Mario. Once it became clear that Montessori was never going to agree did he choose to marry someone else. That September, shortly before the wedding, he registered himself as the father of their illegitimate child. This gave him the legal right to control every aspect of Mario’s upbringing, and according to De Stefano it also “eliminated” Montessori’s ability to have contact with her son. Her only recourse was to drive out to the countryside where the child was being raised and watch from a distance as he played with his foster siblings in the farmyard. During an interview decades later, Mario recalled that as a young child he had the vaguest awareness of a “beautiful lady” who arrived occasionally in a carriage to stare at him before vanishing as mysteriously as she had appeared.
It is this kind of twist that makes biographers rub their hands in glee while simultaneously wondering how on earth they will ever be able to make sense of such a contradiction: the celebrated educationalist who emphasized the paramount importance of environment to a child’s early years consigning her own son to conditions that were far from the Montessorian ideal. Worried perhaps about what to do with such an unsympathetic and contradictory heroine, De Stefano emphasizes how traumatic Montessori found the separation from baby Mario. After each excursion to the farm, De Stefano has the young mother returning to the bedroom that she still occupied in her parents’ house, closing the shutters, and sinking into a miserable funk.
Montessori resigned from the Orthophrenic School of Rome after her break with Montesano. Over the next decade she invested her phenomenal energy into establishing the Children’s Houses that made her famous. These were kindergartens in inner cities where she developed and refined her teaching methods on her own terms.
But shortly after her mother died in December 1912, she made contact with Mario, who by now was fifteen years old and in boarding school. De Stefano describes what happened next in the curiously abbreviated and staccato language of a fairy tale: “No reproach from the son, no fear on the part of the mother, only the happiness of finally being able to talk, like two heroes of a fable separated for years by a spell.” Their reunion is stylized and oblique, with De Stefano relying on a quotation from the American writer Rita Kramer, who was able to interview Mario for her 1976 biography of Maria:
Mario Montessori’s memory is of a spring day in 1913 when he was about fifteen, seeing on a school outing the lady whose visits have punctuated his childhood and been explained in his fantasies. A car stopped where he was resting; she got out and he went up to her and said simply, “I know you are my mother,” and told her he wanted to go with her. She made no objection, he got into the car with her.
The moment reads as nothing less than a romantic elopement. From this point on, mother and son lived and worked together, although she referred to him as her “nephew” until almost the end of her life. Whether a mother–son relationship that started in estrangement before switching to always-on intimacy was healthy or rewarding is one of several pressing questions that De Stefano evades.
Such evasion is possible because De Stefano writes her biography in the form of ninety-three very short chapters—vignettes that unspool in the present tense. This allows awkward questions to slip away into the gaps of a choppy narrative. For instance, she never resolves whether Montessori stayed away from her son because she was legally obliged to by Montesano, or because she feared her mother’s disapproval if the secret of her maternity came out and ruined her career. It is unclear why De Stefano decided on this approach—she includes no introduction and makes no mention of her methodology. She begins her account in medias res: “It starts with a little girl. She is sitting in a big classroom with a ceiling that’s way too high.”
One possibility is that these breathless jottings are intended to mimic the observational notes that are a central component of the Montessori method. Whatever the rationale, the result feels somewhat superficial, since there is no space for authorial reflection, counterargument, or much historical background. Perhaps by way of defense, De Stefano, whose publicity material makes much of the fact that she is writing as an outsider rather than as a member of the Montessori organization, explains in a note at the end of the book, “I leave to others the task of explaining Maria Montessori’s thought in all its complexity.”
Instead De Stefano sticks to the bare facts of Montessori’s life. In 1906 she was given permission to open her first Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, in a newly renovated working-class housing project in the “disreputable” area of San Lorenzo in Rome. The fifty or so pupils aged between two and six were barefoot and helpless, the kind of children likely to grow up feral. As far as the local government was concerned, if Dr. Montessori could furnish these children with the discipline required to become law-abiding laborers and respectable servants, then her methodology was worth trying.
The authorities were further thrilled that within a year of the opening of the Children’s House, the pupils’ literacy levels far exceeded those of their peers, thanks to the way they were taught their letters through feeling and gesture rather than laborious copying. Montessori made a point of appearing indifferent to what she nonetheless liked to call an “explosion of writing.” Attainment, grades, and testing of any kind had proved positively harmful to her own academic progress as a child. Consequently, she was adamant that a traditional classroom with its endless rewards and punishments destroyed the spirit and cramped the creativity of sensitive children, turning them into “psychic dwarves.” If they learned to read in the Children’s House, it was because they wanted to.
It was in this first Children’s House that Montessori directly challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that a child’s intelligence was fixed at birth and that all that was required was food, sleep, and the occasional slap to set them on the path to adulthood. Instead of the desks and benches that she had found so oppressive as a child, the Children’s House contained furniture that was tiny and light, so that it could be easily rearranged—it was designed to foster autonomy. Other objects facilitated learning through touch: solid pegboards, pink towers of wooden cubes, graduated rods, color spools, sound boxes, and block letters were developed from Séguin’s early prototypes. “Errors” such as trying to push a brick into the wrong space were not corrected. Instead, the child was left to work out a solution at their own pace, achieving a sense of mastery in the process. Montessori was fond of pointing out that when philanthropic ladies descended on the Children’s House bearing baskets of expensive toys, the children ignored them in favor of getting on with their “work,” which might involve such mundane activities as sweeping, gardening, or caring for pets, all of which provided opportunities for spontaneous learning.
It sounds idyllic, but there was trouble at the Children’s House. The beauty of the Montessori method was—and still is—that it plays nicely with other educational practices and can be easily integrated into preexisting protocols. But as the Dottoressa gradually relinquished the part-time university lecturing jobs from which she had patched together an income, she became hawkish about keeping intellectual and financial control over what she regarded as her rightful property. As early as 1910 she quarreled with the city authorities over her practices at the San Lorenzo Casa dei Bambini, with the result that she was locked out of the building permanently.
Montessori’s insistence that those who wanted to open an establishment based on her principles must use her specially designed equipment also aroused bad feelings. She had reached an arrangement with the Humanitarian Society, a socialist philanthropic organization with a strong interest in supporting craftworkers, to produce all those pegboards and pink cones and even abacuses in return for a percentage of every article sold. A surviving price list from 1916 shows that a complete set of materials cost 650 lire, roughly one fifth of what a public servant earned in a year. Teachers, likewise, could be employed in a Montessori school only if they had been trained and certified by the Dottoressa herself.
This fault line between the Montessori method as a progressive, democratic philosophy and a moneymaking enterprise became most apparent when Montessori traveled to the US in 1913, shortly after she reunited with Mario. She had recently teamed up with a hucksterish American entrepreneur named Samuel McClure, of McClure’s Magazine, who published an article about her and promised to set up a company “that will conquer the world and make lots of money. The boy will be the heir.” At first, things seemed to go well, with the US awash in what the newspapers called “Montessori Fever.” However, this soon imploded in a storm of arguments and fallings-out when it became apparent that local educators were not always prepared to stick to the Montessori template, and even dared to think they could improve on it.
Mabel Bell, who together with her husband, Alexander Graham Bell, opened one of the first Montessori schools in America in 1912, was especially horrified by what she came to regard as Montessori’s determination to maintain a monopoly on the method that bore her name. “How can any seeker after Truth say that a method must be held ‘without additions or modifications’?” she wailed. This was an irony that was not lost on university-based commentators either, who were genuinely puzzled that Montessori made much of her method being a “science,” born of close and careful empirical observation, yet refused to observe the standard protocols of her discipline, which required that she share her findings with her peers so that they could be tested and reproduced.
If Montessori could not make Mario rich, at least not yet, she could keep him safe. During World War I, in order to avoid the young man’s conscription into the Italian army, she decamped with him to Spain. By the time the pair—still oddly passing as aunt and nephew—returned to Italy, the landscape had both changed and remained unhelpfully the same. Montessori had long been criticized by the church for her early anticlerical remarks, which included denouncing the Jesuits as hindering “the light of progress.” Despite the fact that she was increasingly explicit about the part her Catholic faith played in her philosophy, the church could not get beyond her method’s direct challenge to the hierarchical basis upon which its own schools operated.
There was, though, support from a new quarter. One former elementary school teacher who had always been impressed by the Montessori method, which he had encountered as a member of the Humanitarian Society, was Benito Mussolini. In 1924 he donated 10,000 lire of his own money to help found the Opera Montessori, an agency with public and private funding to promote the system. Il Duce saw the advantage of Montessori’s method for producing industrious, disciplined, and literate future citizens. The Dottoressa was naturally delighted—here at last was the official support that she had long wanted. There would be training courses, a journal, a whole Montessori ecosystem that, with any luck, would provide a living for her beloved Mario, who by now had joined her in the family business.
De Stefano is scrupulous about not underplaying Montessori’s dalliance with Mussolini. In 1931 she wrote to him:
In sum, my method can collaborate with fascism so that it will realize the possibilities to construct great spiritual energies; create a real mental hygiene that, when applied to our race, can enhance its enormous powers that—I am certain—outstrip the powers of all the other races.
This is chilling. All the same, De Stefano points out that Montessori soon fell out with the people with whom she was meant to be cooperating. Exasperated by her micromanagement, Mussolini’s educational administrators started to plot to “transform the Montessori School into a ‘Montessori-type’ school, thus eliminating the doctor herself. In other words, Montessorism without Montessori.”
In January 1933, just two years after hailing Mussolini as the savior of the world, the Dottoressa wrote a letter resigning from all involvement in the Opera Montessori. “From that moment, the secret police put her under surveillance,” De Stefano writes. But they “failed to find any evidence of antifascism.” The fortune that Montessori had managed to assemble by that time disappeared shortly afterward, thanks to a rogue accountant.
By then the Montessoris had moved their organization to Amsterdam in an attempt to distance themselves from the continuing rise of the Fascists in Italy. When the Nazis marched into Holland in 1940, property seizures swallowed what remained of the family’s wealth. Fortunately for both Maria and Mario, they were in India when World War II broke out and were obliged to stay there for the duration. As Italian citizens, they might have been expected to endure harsh internment, but such was the prestige of their method on the subcontinent that they were allowed to live relatively freely. Mother and son, who were now less anxious about being identified as such, spent the war years setting up institutions and training teachers throughout India.
De Stefano thinks that Montessori never won the Nobel Prize, despite being nominated three times, because the bad odor of collaboration continued to cling to her. She ends her narrative with Montessori’s death in 1952; indeed, her use of the present tense makes it logically impossible for her to continue further. But by then the seeds for what came next had been sown. Montessori lived long enough to see her methodology gain a renewed following in the optimistic, liberal postwar world. On a return trip to India in 1947 she reported excitedly that “they are enrolling children in the Montessori school from birth.” The “they,” though, referred to an educated, professional elite, the sort of people who had the psychological and financial resources to plan ahead.
Under Mario Montessori’s direction, which lasted until his own death in 1982, the Association Montessori Internationale strictly enforced its monopoly on equipment and training. Consequently the method was increasingly available only to those able to afford it, a trend that continues to this day. Although there are currently around six hundred public Montessori schools in the US, many more are private institutions obliged to charge parents sizable fees.
Here is just one of several puzzles that the reader is left with at the end of this brisk yet oblique biography. No matter how careful Cristina De Stefano is to avoid the trickier aspects of her subject’s life and career, they still insist on making themselves felt. The most fundamental of these is that Maria Montessori, the woman who told the world about the centrality of early environment in shaping a child for life, chose to abandon her own son to conditions that fell far short of those she lavished on the children in her care. Then there is her often-stated, and doubtless deeply felt, desire to make her educational revolution available to all children across the world, regardless of class and race. Her fierce use of patents and monopolies meant—and still means—that only those who could afford it got to sit in those cute tiny chairs and play with those brightly colored blocks and fuzzy felt boards.
The Dottoressa’s quarrel with Mussolini was not so much about his politics as about his plan to roll out her method across the country without consulting her at every point. All lives are morally compromised, especially the ones that tend to attract biographers—straight-as-a-die types do not make for thrilling subjects. It’s the biographer’s job to reframe or at least add some background to their subject’s life so that her moral blind spots start to make richer, deeper sense. Instead, as if anxious about what Montessori’s life looks like at first glance, De Stefano hobbles herself with a gappy narrative and a breathless present tense that only serve to make the reader more determined to read between the lines.