The Cult of the Pink Tower
Montessori turns 100—what the hell is it?
Instead, interest in Montessori's method withered in the United States. When she decided to leave Italy in 1934 because Mussolini's regime was interfering with her schools, Montessori decamped to Holland. While her reform movement had influence in Europe and Asia, Kramer writes how it "took on more and more of the character of a special cult rather than becoming part of the mainstream of educational theory and practice."
It took the free spirit of the 1960s to revive Montessori education in the United States. Montessori herself had died a decade earlier, but her emphasis on children's "absorbent minds" and their capacity to teach themselves aligned with the era's rebellion against school's traditional strictures. Montessori classrooms, with their silver candlesticks (for polishing), beautiful toylike cubes, and child-size shelves and bins, seemed like the perfect romantic alternative to boring workbooks and rows of desks. They still do. Mothering Magazine, my own barometer of granola parenting gone too far, calls them "magical" and filled with a "sense of wonder." On the 100th anniversary of the 1907 opening of Montessori's first school—in the slums of Rome—5,000 schools devoted to her method dot the United States, with another 17,000 worldwide. Many are preschools, but some are for older kids as well.
Montessori would have expected no less, as she became quite the grande dame in her later years. But she would not be pleased about the confusion that continues to surround her method. In many ways, Montessori education remains a cult: No one outside the fold (and lots of families inside it) really knows what exactly it is. The fog of magic and romance obscures the key to a Montessori classroom: It's all about structure and framework and purpose. Maria Montessori might have called the child "an amorphous, splendid being in search of his own proper form," but far more important, in the end, is a different canny insight of hers: Those splendid kids crave order.
My son Simon, who is 4, has spent the year at a Montessori school in Bethesda, Md., and I confess that I have remained one of the clueless. This is partly because parents aren't part of the scene in his classroom: We drop the kids off outside the door and are tolerated inside rarely and briefly. In the beginning, this was disconcerting. The night before Simon's first day of school, I worried about the next morning's sudden drop-off—it felt semiabusive. But when Simon started trotting off to school without complaint and chattering about the pink tower and the movable alphabet, I switched to congratulating myself for having chosen well, if blindly.
This week, I got permission to show up and watch. Promptly at 9 a.m., Simon's teacher clapped her hands, stared down my son and his friends, who were chortling over a book of Star Wars stickers, and said, "Gentlemen, it's time to get into our work." The "work" thing is one of Maria Montessori's quirks—she thought children's imaginary play was a waste of time. For months, I made fun of it. But you know what? The kids don't. Within minutes, two dozen of them were dispersed around the room, intent on their morning's pursuit.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. She is also the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. Her new book is Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.