October 22, 2021
Thanks to A. Calhoun, a 2021 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s blog post.
[I]f in these times of fear,
This melancholy waste of hopes overthrown,
If, ‘mid indifference and apathy,
And wicked exultation when good men
On every side fall off, we know not how,
To selfishness, disguised in gentle names
Of peace and quiet and domestic love,
Yet mingled not unwillingly with sneers
On visionary minds; if, in this time
Of dereliction and dismay, I yet
Despair not of our nature, but retain
A more than Roman confidence, a faith
That fails not, in all sorrow my support,
The blessing of my life; the gift is yours,
Ye winds and sounding cataracts! ’tis yours,
Ye mountains! thine, O Nature! Thou hast fed
My lofty speculations; and in thee,
For this uneasy heart of ours, I find
A never-failing principle of joy
And purest passion.
–”The Prelude” by William Wordsworth (Book II line 51)
One could easily divide the great thinkers of the past into two distinct camps: those who put their faith in the free individual and those who seek to engineer a world of elite control. Man’s spiritual growth can be traced as the gradual realization of the implications of his liberty as imago dei and as adopted child of God, and his spiritual degeneration as a forgetting of who he is. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, writes,
For the Spirit himself giveth testimony to our spirit, that we are the sons of God. And if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him… Because the creature also itself shall be delivered from the servitude of corruption, into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that every creature groaneth and travaileth in pain, even till now. And not only it, but ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption of the sons of God, the redemption of our body (Romans 8:16-24).
Maria Montessori, the great Italian educational innovator, can be placed firmly with St. Paul in the tradition of the free individual. Her life was a great act of hope in the Child, in his capacity for productive liberty and in all of his glorious potential. Her lifetime was truly one in which every creature groaneth and travaileth; she lived through two World Wars and the rise of Communism and Fascism, yet, despite the state of the world, maintained her hope that the creature shall be delivered from the servitude of corruption, into the liberty of the glory of the children of God.
William Wordsworth, the great father of the Lake School Poets, also longed for human liberty, but, having witnessed the French Revolution, was also no stranger to the many ways such a search could go horribly wrong. Searching for authentic liberty, the poet wrote the following in Book II of his magnum opus, The Prelude:
Blest the infant Babe,
(For with my best conjecture I would trace
Our Being’s earthly progress,) blest the Babe,
Nursed in his Mother’s arms, who sinks to sleep
Rocked on his Mother’s breast; who with his soul
Drinks in the feelings of his Mother’s eye!
For him, in one dear Presence, there exists
A virtue which irradiates and exalts
Objects through widest intercourse of sense (The Prelude 43).
The human being comes into the world in the midst of a parental Presence that then permeates every sense experience and applies both to the Mother-Child relationship, but also to the Child-God-Nature relationship:
No outcast he, bewildered and depressed:
Along his infant veins are interfused
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of nature that connect him with the world.
Is there a flower, to which he points with hand
Too weak to gather it, already love
Drawn from love’s purest earthly fount for him
Hath beautified that flower; already shades
Of pity cast from inward tenderness
Do fall around him upon aught that bears
Unsightly marks of violence or harm (The Prelude 43).
Peace is the infant’s natural tendency, and his overflowing reservoir of love does not just make the flower more beautiful according to his perception, but ‘beautifies’ the flower in and of itself. He continues,
Emphatically such a Being lives,/ Frail creature as he is, helpless as frail, / An inmate of this active universe./ For feeling has to him imparted power/ That through the growing faculties of sense/ Doth like an agent of the one great Mind/ Create, creator and receiver both,/ Working but in alliance with the works/ Which it beholds… (The Prelude 43).
The blissful Child brings to and perceives reflected back love in everything around him. The Child is not alienated, not outcast, bewildered, depressed. He is united to the world and at peace with himself. He is creative, following the promptings of the active universe and working in free harmony with the one great Mind.
After following the winding path of his own development down from such lofty beginnings, Wordsworth recounts his travels in France on the eve of the Revolution. Caught up in the energy of the time, he became a revolutionary and wrote with great passion and eloquence about the ideals of human liberty. Yet, divorced from the developmental plan he identified in the loving relationship between the infant and the great Mind guiding it, Wordsworth arrives at the following conclusion:
And the errors into which I fell, betrayed
By present objects, and by reasonings false
From their beginnings, inasmuch as drawn
Out of a heart that had been turned aside
From Nature’s way by outward accidents,
And which was thus confounded, more and more
Misguided, and misguiding I lost
All feeling of conviction, and, in fine,
Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
Yielded up moral questions in despair (The Prelude 307).
Thus the situation we find ourselves in today. Without guidance from above and from within, Wordsworth thought himself into nihilism, and so recoils from all thought in fear. Just as the partisans of the French Revolution succumbed to the siren song of the control society, so we, wearied and confused, lost and alienated from Nature’s way, throw up our hands and seek answers not from within and from above, but from whoever claims with confidence to offer them, whether technocratic ‘experts,’ political demagogues, or those possessed by ideology.
Yet Wordsworth, drawing on his experiences, points to a way out: in infant love, in the Child’s willing co-creation with the Creator, the Poetic spirit:
—Such, verily, is the first
Poetic spirit of our human life,
By uniform control of after years,
In most, abated or suppressed; in some,
Through every change of growth and of decay,
Pre-eminent till death. (The Prelude 43)
It is here that Maria Montessori takes the baton and sets about organizing an approach to education designed to prevent the suppression of that poetic spirit, that loving, open cooperation with the Creator that Wordsworth described and that St. Paul believed was each person’s inheritance.
Montessori’s approach to education begins in the same place as Wordsworth’s Prelude — with the mystery of the individual. In her London Lectures of 1946, she said,
The purpose of education must be to elevate the individual; otherwise education would be of no use. This must be the goal of education. We must wish to love humanity, instead of merely wanting to apply a preconceived plan.
She is an educator without an ideology, without a ‘preconceived plan’ or curriculum. She has before her only the young child, “Working but in alliance with the works / Which it beholds…” (Wordsworth 43).
Wordsworth, in his revolutionary zeal, comes to have a ”heart that had been turned aside From Nature’s way” (307). He is paralyzed by the world’s problems because the disaster of the French Revolution has definitively proved to him that we cannot think our way out alone. His entire poetic effort was an attempt to seek out the root of the problem, to find his way back to a way of thinking and being in harmony with the ‘one Mind’ who is ‘the Creator,’ himself. Montessori, like Wordsworth, finds the point of rupture in the development of the young child:
At the present stage of civilisation one of the most imminent perils is that of going against nature’s law in the education of the child, to suffocate and deform him under the error of common prejudices. (The Formation of Man 66).
Her efforts were directed at preserving the ‘Poetic spirit’ identified by Wordsworth, so often snuffed out, ‘suffocated, or ‘deformed’ by the disruption not only of ‘nature’s law,’ but of, ‘the growing faculties of sense’ that Wordsworth identifies as allies of ‘the one great Mind’:
The children, who live a life more pure than ours, are divine workers; without pretensions, without pride, they accomplish humanity’s magnum opus: the construction of man (Citizen of the World 75).
These ‘divine workers,’ if allowed to labor according to Nature’s plan, will grow up into human beings according to that plan. Montessori believes that only these children, when they come into their divine inheritance, can work with the Creator to bring about a peaceful and harmonious world of genuinely creative individuals.
Wordsworth titled his great poem The Prelude or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind; An Autobiographical Poem. The poem is, indeed, a prelude and describes the path of development that the poet followed, led on by the ‘Poetic spirit’ that in some remains ‘pre-eminent til death.’ Like man today, he became alienated and lost, led through pride and abstraction cut off from the guidance of the Creator into an orgy of revolutionary violence. Only in returning to his childhood, in retracing where he went wrong, could the poet regain his voice, his direction, and his peace. What Wordsworth attempts to accomplish for the individual, Montessori seeks for the human race. Her educational project is the great fulfillment of Romanticism, of trust and faith in God’s plan for the human being as manifested in the Child. The Greek word for poet, ποιητής, means maker, creator, lawgiver. These are attributes of God. St. Paul called the spiritually regenerate heirs and sons of God. Montessori outlined an educational path for the growth of the poet’s mind in this broader sense. Indeed, “every creature groaneth and travaileth in pain, even till now” (Romans 8:23). May we, like Wordsworth, be led out of the darkness of fear and control by a little Child, carrier of the true Poetic spirit in this dark age of materialism.
Montessori, Maria. Citizen of the World: Key Montessori Readings. Amsterdam, Pierson–Montessori Publishing Company, 2019.
Montessori, Maria. The Formation of Man. Amsterdam, Pierson–Montessori Publishing Company, 2014.
Montessori, Maria. The 1946 London Lectures. Amsterdam, Pierson–Montessori Publishing Company, 2012.
Wordsworth, William. The Prelude or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind; an Autobiographical Poem. London, Edward Moxon, Dover St., 1850.