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Margaret E. Stephenson, Message to Students

Miss Stephenson wrote the following message in May, 1974. It was sent to the students of the course at the Washington Montessori Institute, when she realised that illness prevented her from meeting them before they left the course.

This article was published in Communications, 1974/4 and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Miss M.E. Stephenson.

I have spent these last months in a house surrounded by a garden with grass, trees, flowers, birds, sky, clouds and sunshine, rain and wind. I have had time to wonder at the pattern behind all these created things. And always there has been, in the background of my mind, Montessori and what it is and means.

Almost seventy years ago, that first group of miserable, frightened children and Dr. Montessori met one another. What she saw in front of her, she describes in her first book. What she said about them, at the Inaugural Ceremony of that first Children's House, the Casa dei Bambini, on January 6th, 1907, was taken as visionary and exaggerated. But is it visionary, is it exaggerated, or is it the most realistic of all realisms, to see in the child the secret of all the ages?

What has the child got that we adults have lost? We have been conditioned by our environment, fulfilled by it, succumbed to it or risen above it; we have lived within an educational process and learnt from it or ignored it; we have been surrounded by our family and been shaped by it or cast it off; we have lived our life so far and made the best of it or grown in strength from it and our struggles within it.

But the child as he is born is the new start for humanity. His family, his environment, his education, his life, is fresh to him. What is he to make of all these factors? And will he have any help to make of them anything different from what millions of men before him have succeeded in doing?

What was it that Dr. Montessori saw in that group of children in the tenement building in the San Lorenzo Quarter in Rome? She was able to perceive the force for growth and construction that is the legacy given to each child by his parents. No one in the past ever need have been, no one ever in the future ought to be, no one of us now should be, pessimistic about the destiny of man, as each day we have a chance given to us, through the new-born of a new-born start for humanity. It was because Dr. Montessori saw that the child had a secret of his own and that the adult should seek for it and be consoled by it, that her work merits consideration once again. What she discovered in those first sixty children in the Via Marsi House, in the slums of Rome, was a power of construction that seemed to have been ignored through the ages, while kings, wise men, philosophers, teachers, had argued, pontificated, legislated, for a form that would enable the child to fit himself into the pattern of historical construction and education.

And so we have had theories and methods of education, we have had the liberals and conservatives, the Progressives and the reactionaries, we have catalogues of books and materials, we have buildings for education, Colleges for training to teach, the ebb and flow of discussion as to what should be discarded, what kept in the educational process, and meanwhile the child was still there, the 'guinea-pig' for each generation. Comparative education, the history of education, ancient education and today, the founders of educational process, the theorists and the practitioners - how interesting a study - but how much does it touch the heart of the whole matter - the child and his own power of construction of himself as a person.

Perhaps Dr. Montessori's greatest gift to education may be that she did not pretend to be part of it. Let us think in terms of 'aid to life" and so she gives us a different aim than an educational process of teaching and learning. We have as our task the search for the way to help the fullest development of the total human potential, instead of the limited role of teacher with educational aids and methods

Through Dr. Montessori's research and years of work, we have guides to help us in our search. Her meditations upon the absorbent mind of the small child, her realisation of the significance of the four planes of development, of the sensitive periods, the young child as a sensorial explorer and the child of the second plane of development as still an explorer but through the imagination, the need for realism and actuality for both ages as the foundation for these two forms of exploration, the true meaning of liberty and discipline as that bedrock upon which alone can be built responsibility to tower high, the recognition of work as the noblest avocation of man, as only through work can he fulfil himself as the being that he is, destined for glory and created for eternity. And we, Montessori students and teachers, have been called to a participation in this endeavour.

Through the months of training, you have been initiated into the discovery by Dr. Montessori of 'the secret of childhood'. Remember that it is only an initiation, a beginning apprenticeship. The human being is so complex, so vast, so special a creation, that it will take a lifetime, and beyond, for anyone to comprehend fully the immensity of the vision so vastly greater than ours, that could contemplate the creation of man.

We have to tread warily, using the principles to which we have been exposed and the techniques we have been learning. It is important to remember that if the child is to begin to understand his environment and to take his place within it, and thus be able to contribute to it in his turn, he has to be helped to learn from it. This is one reason why Dr. Montessori is so eminently a realist. She understood that contemplation of the environment is not enough, In order to be part of it, and in turn give to it for others, it has to be grasped and handled and worked on. Only then can it be transformed for greater use and thus be available to more than ourselves. Knowledge must become first our own and then be given back, expanded in the measure of the individual's capabilities, for the use of others. That is why our understanding of the Montessori materials must always be deepening. Our first need is for a recognition of the realism of their simplicity and limitation and that without those two factors the mind of the child could not grasp so clearly the knowledge they demonstrate. If we can keep in mind the fact that each piece of material is made in the way that it is, because it corresponds to the working of the mind of man, we shall have an understanding of the Montessori materials that will enable us to distinguish very easily the true from the false in the educational forest around us of teaching aids and processes.

Dr. Montessori's genius lies in the twofold approach she discovered as necessary to help the formation of man - the understanding of the power of the human being to become himself and the necessity of a methodology of principles and practice which would allow the individual the freedom to make his own construction, with guidance and techniques, in a framework of law and order, without which man can only become an anarchist and a destroyer of himself and thus false to that person he alone is to be.

And so I wish you that humility which Dr. Montessori asks of her teachers, enabling us to recognise the right of the child to his own work but also to our unfailing aid in the process - if we forget the first, we are dictators, if the second, we will lose sight of the fact that our task is to give 'aid to life'. May you find excitement, joy and a deep fulfilment in 'helping the child to help himself' and thus bring closer the time when Dr. Maria Montessori may be seen as of great significance in history, as that person who saw clearly the dignity, worth and force of the human potential and what that potential could achieve, if properly understood and aided for the future destiny of nations.

© Miss M.E. Stephenson