Child and Society

Chapter 5 of The Child, Society and the World, our book club reading for this week (register here), addresses the question of Child and Society.  It comprises two double lectures given in London in 1946 and those given at the University of Chenai/Madras in 1940.  The chapter closes with her 1951 Rome lecture entitled Schooling of Young People. Each of these lectures introduces a theme close to Montessori’s heart and one which guides us towards better understanding of her philosophy of education.

The London double lecture entitled, Children, Teacher and Society addresses the issues of moral and social education.  For Montessori these two are closely linked.  She begins by exploring what we understand by an individual’s unique development. She sees each child as a product of the society in which they are growing up – she states “They (the children) do not exist without society” and a little later she says “Morals are the rules of society” and “The human individual cannot develop without a social life” (Montessori, 1989:72 and 73).  Therefore, for Montessori, moral and social education are interlinked and governed by the examples set by adults both at home and at school. I wonder if, in the context of this writing, we have misunderstood and misrepresented Montessori’s pedagogical approach by focusing on the education of the individual rather than on children’s individual development within the social context of the home and the community in which they are growing up?

Montessori also addresses so called difficult children, those, who cannot be managed by parents who turn to doctors of psychology for advice.  She sees the reason for this in our lack of understanding of the nature of children, particularly those children below the age of 6. In the past, these issues of so called ‘naughtiness’ were subdued by punishment whereas today, we are trying to find a cause for these difficult behaviours.  Montessori is unequivocal in stating “…it is not the children’s fault.”  This for me, is an important statement, which directs our attention as practitioners away from the child towards reflection on our own behaviours, expectations and prejudices and towards the physical environment which we create for all children. 

As she explores the reasons for these difficult behaviours, she urges us to consider “Perhaps man’s behaviour has changed in this complicated world, perhaps he disregards something fundamental and family life is different and the children are the first victims of this disregard” (Montessori, 1989:74).  In these words, she is urging us to examine and reflect on our own behaviours saying “The relationship between the family, the teacher and the children must be harmonious because the school environment plays a larger part than it did before” (Montessori, 1989:74).  I wonder if Montessori could have foreseen the relatively recent developments where early years practitioner engage extensively in supporting parents.  We have seen the need for this family support particularly during the pandemic and we have witnessed the benefit this closer relationship with families brought to the children and also led them to better understanding of the role of the teacher in supporting both the children and their parents and carers.

In the concluding part of this lecture, she urges us to consider the need for a “positive contribution towards betterment of the human soul…… The progress and the growth of the individual are very important.  Progress is the care of the psyche of the individual in relationship to the environment …. If we are to make better conditions for the children, we must consider the parents ….  If we are to have a better humanity the grown-ups must be better.  They must be less proud, think less of themselves, be less dictatorial” (Montessori, 1989:75)   She continues the lecture the next day, by exploring the relationship between the child, the adult and the environment. She recognises each individual child’s potential which is guided by the inner urge and results in the emergence of the child’s personality. She recognises that maternal love ( in today terms also the love of the prime carer) plays a significant role in supporting the natural unfolding of the human potential, however it is the environment which needs to be carefully constructed to meet the needs of today’s children, particularly at the beginning of the children’s lives from birth to three. She aligns bad behaviour with deviated development and recommend that “… the only way to be successful is to put these children in an environment which will not stop their creative activity” (Montessori, 1989:78).  I understand this to mean that the child’s own creative energy and activity will help us in guiding the child’s journey towards normal development.  She is explicit in her advice to the teacher “they have a teacher who looks at them with love and hope and who is ready to help them….” 

The London lecture closes with Montessori  (1989:80) voicing her view  that the child will find his own natural path of development through concentration on “interesting work with the hand” – she explains this further in The Absorbent Mind when she talks about the child’s physical and mental energies coming together – she calls this process normalisation.  I personally would like to add to this definition of normalisation the child’s need for emotional stability – young children thrive on our love and hope and trust to progress on their path of natural development.

In the Chenai/Madras double lecture of 1940 Montessori addresses exploitation of children – she refers to the child as the forgotten citizen. Because of the child’s trust in and dependence on the adult, it is easy to see how this exploitation by individuals and by society can occur. To protect the child, she urges us to establish a Ministry for Children. In a way she seems to pre-empt the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNICEF, 1989) which, at the time of the lecture was fifty year away.

The second part of this lecture is entitled Work as an Anthropological Necessity.  She explores the meaning of work to us as adults and also to the child, she states “… the child is conscious of another kind of work, which has its origin in life itself” (Montessori, 1989:84).  She also refers to work which “comes from an inner source, it is much more intense and much more fruitful”.  These words resonated with me as over the weekend I have observed our three and half year old granddaughter sweeping leaves in her garden – I was overwhelmed by her purpose, determination, commitment to the task and resilience with which she managed a full size broom and made piles of leaves to be scooped with a dustpan and brush – this was a truly meaningful work from which she emerged joyful and proud of what she achieved.  Montessori (1989:85) continues to describe that “the aim of this work …is so strong that one gets all one’s energy from work itself”. I certainly witnessed this energising effect yesterday.

Montessori’s (1989:86) closes the lecture by voicing her belief that “one of the greatest urges of humanity which keeps society going from progress to progress is this irresistible inner urge to work, and it is one of the laws and one of the facts that childhood has revealed to us”.  This need to work and contribute to humanity is our cosmic task which Montessori expresses in three words – love, know and serve.  Man’s place in Cosmos is the title of the last chapter in this book which we will explore and share in our final book club of 2020 in November.

In the third, Rome lecture from 1951, Montessori addresses the education of the adolescent which continues to be problematic and challenging to this day. She describes schools as the places where “… nobody takes the slightest notice of the treasure that lies inside an individual, or of his dignity, or of the possibility of actively ‘becoming someone’ in a collective sense” (Montessori, 1989:88).  This description of school made me sad  because  so little is done to cherish the creativity and advocacy of young people of today – just think of what Malala and Greta have achieved and there are many, many more like them, but  they have not been encouraged to find their voice and articulate their passion, beliefs and commitments to their families and communities.

Barbara Isaacs, October 2020


Montessori M. (1989 [1979]) The Child, Society and the World: unpublished speeches and writings. Oxford:  Clio Press

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