Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism: Educational Theory for a Free Market in Education (Anglais) Broché – 1 février 2008
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Kirkpatrick is concerned to defend a particlar type of education - that utilizing the insights of progressive educators John Dewey and Maria Montessori - as the only proper plan of education in a capitalistic society. He suggests that in a capitalistic society, the "old way of educaiton" that teaches students to submit to the school's authority would be in contradiction with capitalism's anti-authoritarian structure.
My first objection is that, despite Kirkpatrick's argument, I do not see how any social structure REQUIRES a certain type of education. I do not see how a mixed economy or socialist country could not just as easily have a "lecture" style of education as it could a Montessori style. To suggest that a philosophy of educaiton and a philosophy of social organizaiton must be alligned is like saying that that a nation's philosphy of science must be alligned with its philosophy of social organization.
Secondly, Kirkpatrick takes it as unquestioned that Montessori's anti-authority method of education meshes well with capitalism's anti-authority structure. I do not see this as correct. When students move past high school, they will experience many "authoritarian" relationships, like that between them and employers and that between them and moneylenders. (I have even heard it argued elsewhere that an "anti-authoritarian" style of education leaves kids ill-preared to function in a capitalistic system, which involves learning to obey rules, laws, and mores.)
While I am not against the Montessori method of educaiton, I suspect that Kirkpatrick's confidence in it is exhuberant. Many well-argued books have been written outlining the dangers of current schools' infatuation with "progressive education" ideas ("whole child" education, "whole language" education, education as self-discovery rather than subject-discovery). The interested might read Stout's "Feel Good Curriculum" and Hirsch's "The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them," as starting points.
In brief, Kirkpatrick makes a big mistakes, probably related to his belief in Ayn Rand's philosophy. First, he is very much against coercion, extremizing this view into the idea that coercing children is an unqualified wrong. It is interesting to note, though, that even in a capitalistic society, the need to coerce children is recognized in an almost universal agreement that kids below a certain age need to be restricted in certain ways, as they lack the executive functioning skills to self-regulate. Kirkpatrick recognizes that students need freedom, but does not recgnize that students also need a good amount of structure. Before one can be self-disciplined, one needs to be taught discipline. (One cannot just "discover" how to be disciplined.)
Kirkpatrick goes on to describe what an educaiton system in a free market would look like. I think the discusison is a bit facile to be honest. Kirkpatrick is confident that a free-market system would do away with grades, rankings, standardized tests, degrees, and certificates. I see this as a very hasty and wrong judgment that misinterprets a key role of schools: to signify to future employers, colleges, etc, that the child has mastered a certain content and acquired certain skills. Without diplomas, grades, and tests, the very term "graduation" loses all meaning. (How would we know when a chlld is graduated? How would we know when to pass a child on to the next level? How would future employers know how their perspective employees did in school?)
Kirkpatrick also sees rankings, letter grades, and degrees as very bad things. Of course, as an educator, I can attest that the grading system is what often keeps kids motivated to work harder, and without it, students would find it very hard to know where they need improvement and how much improvement they need. If there were no such things as "exit requirements" I question whether many people would see any point to education at all (aside from those who learn solely for the enjoyment of it).
Quite simply, I think Kirkpatrick's book could benefit from a lot of rethinking. Particularly, he discusses his own ideas, but not once discusses existant or possible criticisms (as for his championing of Montessori and Dewey, there are many, many critics he could have dealt with. He chose not to.) As for his facile confidence that a free-market would gravitate towards a Montessori appraoch, he did not bring up the fact that the large majority of private schools in existence are non-Montessori schools with more "authoritarian" structure. (Is there a reason to suppose that this trend would reverse? We don't know; Kirkpatrick doesn't bring it up!) There are also many critics of a free-market approach to education that not once do we hear Kirkpatrick grapple with.
I give this book two stars. One star is for being one of the handful of books discussing education in a free market framework. The second was for Kirkpatrick's very learned, but skewed, history of the transition from "classical" to "progressive" education.
[UPDATE: For a MUCH better book than this one exploring the desirability of a capitalistic model for education, the interested reader should read Walbert and Bast's "Education and Capitalism: How Overcoming Our Fear of Markets and Economics Can Improve America's Schools." Tt is much more realistic and pluralistic approach than Kilpatrick's book.]
Most educational theorists (such as Dewey) largely based their practices on their philosophies, or on tradition (which often had little relation to reality). As a physician and surgeon, Montessori's work was a precursor to neuroscience, and she based her theories and practices on the actual anatomy and biology of the developing human being. Much of what Montessori discovered was misunderstood because her critics were educational theorists and were not scientifically trained in physiology.
To illustrate, puberty is a natural stage of development that does not commence because of the will of the individual, nor can it be commanded to begin by a parent or outer authority. Because the changes that take place in puberty are so obvious, everyone sees and acknowledges this stage. Through scientific observation, Dr. Montessori realized that the child undergoes a long progression of similar smaller stages (which had gone virtually undetected because no one was looking for them, and they are less perceptible). She realized that our traditional methods of education were in direct contrast to our biology. She discovered that the brain possesses mechanisms that allow children to learn certain things easily at different stages of development, and she made these subjects and materials available to students to match those optimal sensitive periods.
Further, because Montessori's lessons are broken down into concrete representations of academic concepts, the child can easily move from one concept to the next because the materials are in order of only the smallest isolation of difficulty. She broke down algebra, geometry, trigonometry, biology, botany, etc...into concrete experiments and found that CHILDREN ARE NATURALLY DRAWN TO THEM, and are "driven" to explore these concepts. Therefore, they needed very little instruction from the adult. Their natural inclination for repetition caused the development of strong neural pathways. This created an organized "filing system" within the brain that increased the ability to identify, classify and process new information, allowed for easier memory and retrieval of facts and experiences, aided creative problem solving, and strengthened critical thinking skills. Multi-aged groupings allow children to reinforce learning and formulate precise language, as students take leadership roles in the classroom. The child's vestibular systems, nervous systems, limbic systems, etc., all benefited from activities that matched their biological needs, just as offering the right nutrients benefits the body.
So, when Montessori talked about her method of education producing a new kind of civilization, she only meant that for the first time in history, human beings would be operating from an optimal state of health and wellness... physically, mentally, spiritually, socially, and emotionally.
Do I agree that the result of Montessori education would be a citizenry of individuals who are more responsible, creative, intelligent, independent, and able to choose their courses of action with more clarity? Yes, I do. Do I think that Montessori did not realize what she was proposing (as Kirkpatrick suggests)? Not for a second! She was very aware of the implications of her work. She defended her work from Mussolini, from progressive educational theorists, and even from many of her own supporters (who were overzealous and sometimes misrepresented her, or made their own alterations without proper attribution).
Maria Montessori was not a person who had an educational (or political) theory and THEN tried to invent a methodology that would allow for the realization of that theory. Rather, she observed a phenomenon that repeated itself in children in countries and socioeconomic settings from all over the world, and then she worked to find explanations and theories that accurately accounted for what she had seen. She did not want children to "work" or "labor" because of any affinity with socialism. She simply recognized the period in which the hand and the eye refines their connection, the need of intentional motor control for inhibiting primitive reflexes (which plays a role in learning disorders), etc. However, in her personal notes, she often wrote that her observations deepened her religious belief in the principles of free will.
So, while similarities between Dewey and Montessori may exist in word, they are largely incidental. It is one thing to talk about the independence of the individual, but it is quite another to invent a way to bring this about. Dewey did not test and refine experiments for more than 50 years, creating a system of education that: is not dependent on the talent or authority of any given teacher, responds to the precise stages of the individual developing human being ...and that also provides a rich multidisciplinary curriculum with absolutely NO GAPS in instruction, that can be replicated under any conditions because its based on our own innate biology, and a profound respect for life.
Maria Montessori was a woman ahead of her time. Rather than associating her with failed methodologies, her brilliant observations and contributions to the science of pedagogy deserve serious consideration on their own terms.
Tibor R. Machan*
*Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in business ethics and free enterprise at Chapman University. He is the editor of, among many books, Education in a Free Society (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2000).