Dr. Maria Montessori: Biography

Education is the best weapon for peace.
~ Dr. Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori was born on August 31, 1870 in the town of Chiaravalle, Italy. Her father, Alessandro, was an accountant in the civil service, and her mother, Renilde Stoppani, was well educated and had a passion for reading. 

 

The Montessori family moved to Rome in 1870 and in 1871 the young Montessori girl enrolled in the local state school. Breaking conventional barriers from the beginning of her education, Maria initially had aspirations to become an engineer. 

 

When Maria Montessori graduated secondary school, she became determined to enter medical school and become a doctor. Despite her parents’ encouragement to enter teaching, Maria wanted to enter the male-dominated sphere of medicine. After initially being refused entry, Maria was eventually given entry to the University of Rome in 1890, becoming the first woman to enter medical school in Italy. Despite facing many obstacles due to her gender, Montessori qualified as a doctor in July 1896.

 

Soon after her medical career began, Dr. Montessori became involved in the Women’s Rights movement. She became known for her high levels of competency in treating patients, but also for the respect she showed to patients from all social classes. In 1897, Dr. Montessori joined a research program at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome as a volunteer. This work initiated a deep interest in the needs of children with learning disabilities. In particular, the work of two early 19th century Frenchmen, Jean-Marc Itard, who had made his name working with the ‘wild boy of Aveyron’, and Edouard Séguin, his student. Montessori was appointed as co-director of a new institution called the Orthophrenic School.

At the age of twenty-eight, Montessori began advocating her controversial theory that the lack of support for mentally and developmentally disabled children was the cause of their delinquency. The notion of social reform became a strong theme throughout Maria's life, whether it was for gender roles or advocacy for children. 

 

In 1901, Montessori began her own studies of education philosophy and anthropology, lecturing and teaching students. In this period, the development of Rome meant that children were left at home as their parents worked. The number of children needing a guide and role model presented Maria with an opportunity to work with children with normal development and push her ideas into the mainstream. 

 

In 1907, she was invited to work in a school, which became her very first “Casa dei Bambini” or Children’s House. This school was the epitome of a classic Montessori school: it utilized puzzles, hand-held materials, and vegetable cutting to teach children valuable skills. The materials were also individualized, which allowed students to learn independently and at their own pace. Dr. Montessori put many different activities and other materials into the children’s environment but kept only those that engaged them. What she came to realize was that children who were placed in an environment where activities were designed to support their natural development had the power to educate themselves. This school was just the beginning of a very special era, and soon after, news about the Montessori method was diffusing through Italy and eventually the world.

By 1909, Dr. Montessori gave her first training course in her new approach to around 100 students. Her notes from this period provided the material for her first book published that same year in Italy, appearing in translation in the United States in 1912 as The Montessori Method, and later translated into 20 languages. 

 

A period of great expansion in the Montessori approach now followed. Montessori societies, training programs and schools sprang to life all over the world, and a period of travel with public speaking and lecturing occupied Dr. Montessori, much of it in America, but also in the UK and throughout Europe. 

 

Although Maria Montessori’s schools and ideas were becoming very popular, about fifteen years after the establishment of her first school, fascism became a prominent issue as Italian dictator Benito Mussolini rose to power.

Surprisingly, Mussolini welcomed Montessori’s ideas and he gave her governmental support and cooperation after she was recognized and made a member of a female fascist group in 1926. However, Montessori still wanted to create an independent educational system. This caused her relationship with the fascist government to become unstable. The government tried to use her to gain popularity throughout the world by appointing her as “Italy’s child ambassador” under the fascist government. But she repeatedly declined the offer until she would be called head of the Montessori movement—a movement that would not directly affiliate her to the Italian government.

 

For about ten years, Montessori and the Italian government had a positive relationship; Mussolini made Montessori education of national importance. Then, things began to change. Montessori believed in certain ideals and many of them were dichotomous to Mussolini’s and his fascist government.

Montessori said, “To aid life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself, that is the basic task of the educator…” She believed education should be done through freedom and at the pace of the pupil, rather than the curriculum and teacher, which blatantly opposes the views and policies of Mussolini and his idea of fascism. While fascism is where a dictator has complete rule and is able to enforce any rules, Montessori’s philosophy and pedagogy directly oppose any sort of tyranny.

 

In addition, Italian fascism pushed children at an early age to shape their personalities and knowledge because Mussolini felt that youth morale would affect society the most. This is in blatant contrast to Maria Montessori’s thinking of allowing children or students of any age to learn at their own pace rather than rushing their education. She believed education was not taught by a teacher, but rather it developed naturally and spontaneously in a human being.

 

Having long held the ambition to create her own permanent, long-standing center for research and development, Montessori was held back by the rise of fascism in Europe. To no surprise, in 1933, Nazi leaders in Germany closed every Montessori school in Germany and both books and effigies were burned. A year later, Mussolini followed the lead of his friend, Adolf Hitler, and shut down all Montessori schools in Italy. 

In 1939, Maria and her son Mario moved to India to lecture, initially intending to travel for only three months, the trip lasted seven years, due to the outbreak of war and the risk of arrest. In India, Maria trained over a thousand Indian Teachers. Returning to Europe, Maria addressed UNESCO in 1947 with the theme of Education and Peace and ultimately receiving her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949. Maria died in 1952, in the company of her son Mario, to whom she bequeathed the legacy of her work.

- Sources: amsq.org, ami-global.org, sandpipermontessori.org, nndb.com, history.com, dictionary.com, ohioacademyofhistory.org, montesorri.org.au

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