MARIA MONTESSORI vs JOHN DEWEY (The Fight of The Century)
I’m no expert on the Montessori Method. Maybe there’s details I’m not fond of. I still want to declare: I Love Maria Montessori!
I’ve been studying Rudolph Flesch, the reading wars, the ed wars, John Dewey, and all points in between. Along the way I learned a lot about Montessori, and her losing, bruising battle with America's top educators. Mainly, I learned that she deserved to win.
Montessori was the first female doctor in Italy, graduating in 1896. You know she was extremely smart and determined; you know she thought for herself.
She got into education along an odd tangent. She wanted to help retarded children (at a clinic in Rome). She devised her own techniques and was soon producing miracles: these retarded children were beating the so-called normal kids! Now, that right there is an amazing and wonderful story. But it gets better.
Montessori next asked the very questions that would obsess me: what the heck were the public schools doing to Italy’s children that they lagged behind her retarded children? How could she, a medical doctor, come along and beat those schools at their own game?
Long story short: she applied her techniques to ordinary kids and, soon, she was the talk of Europe and then the world. Her ideas swept through enlightened circles in the USA. She came here to speak in 1913.
And then comes one of the most shameful moments in American education. John Heard Kilpatrick, a crony of John Dewey, wrote a piece in the New York Times (1914) that devastated Montessori. Her reputation in the USA collapsed. Montessori schools closed. Her name disappeared until the 1960s. (Both she and Dewey died in 1952.)
Now, if you want to study the differences between Dewey and Montessori, here’s a long and thorough article: “The Egg Man and the Empress,” on Looksmart.com. But I warn you, you might study the material for a semester, and still be confused. So many platitudes, abstractions, details, generalizations. Finally, it comes down to what an educator is REALLY trying to do.
Maria Montessori was trying to set kids loose, make them smart, tap into all their resources, explore (and explode) their potential. That’s what I believe in.
John Dewey and his gang were all too willing to settle for mediocrity. They were Socialists and they believed that too much learning and knowledge got in the way of producing the cooperative, interdependent children they wanted. John Dewey specifically says in “My Pedagogic Creed” (1897) that he didn’t believe in too much history, science, math, geography, literature, and so on in the early grades. That is, ages 6 to 9 when, according to Montessori and common sense, kids are on fire, eager to learn, growing every day. No, John Dewey says that he wants to emphasize social activities, including “cooking, sewing, manual training, etc.” (his words). He wants to slow kids down, to retard them. The pay-off is supposed to be that they will grow up to become good little Socialists. (Even Antonio Gramsci, a real Communist, said that if you want to help poor kids, you had better give them lots of basic academic skills.)
Here's what I've figured out: you have to look at motives. Montessori was obsessed with making slow children fast. That's a pedigree I can trust. Dewey was obsessed with making all kids Socialists. So, from day one, Dewey was not an educator in the traditional sense. He believed in conditioning. He was a social engineer, trying to build the Brave New World he saw in his head.
A century later, we are still paying for Dewey’s bad ideas. Dewey, I submit, is the Father of Dumbing Down. He and his gang specifically did not like too much literacy. That is, they were comfortable with more illiteracy. And they got it. By promoting whole word, which does not work, they made sure that this country’s literacy rate would steadily drop. This pedagogy is also, I believe, responsible for all the dyslexia and reading problems we hear about. (Want to eliminate dyslexia? My guess is that the simplest way is to eliminate sight words. Every last one. Once children start to see word-shapes, they become doomed, no longer able to perceive sounds in print.)
The problem with Dewey and Kilpatrick is that they were trying to pull off a silent coup. They wanted a Socialist America. You think they can speak candidly about their goals or strategies? Never. That’s why anything Kilpatrick, Dewey or their allies say about Montessori will be bull and balderdash. It will, more formally, be disingenuous.
Bottom line: Let's don’t get stuck in the details. Montessori was a real educator. She always INTENDS to educate. Dewey was a real Socialist. He always intends to create Socialists. As most people understand the term "education," Dewey was actually anti-education. Or, to be charitable, he was remarkably cavalier about it!
CODA: Well, I confess I’ve had a good time trying to figure out why our educators hated Flesch so much, and why they hated Montessori, and why we have 40,000,000 functional illiterates and a national scandal called dyslexia. All these problems are beautifully linked to each other and to John Dewey, America’s Most Famous Educator. (Intellectual history, I find, is the most interesting history; and it teaches this: garbage in, garbage out.) If you would enjoy further analysis along this line, please see “A Tribute to Rudolph Flesch” and “Phooey on John Dewey,” both on Improve-Education.org.
About the Author
Bruce Deitrick Price is a novelist, artist, poet and education activist. He is the founder of Improve-Education.org and the author of THE EDUCATION ENIGMA--What Happened To American Education. His research focuses on the most destructive ideas introduced by our educators: Whole Word, Constructivism, Reform Math, Cooperative Learning, and many others. All of these are said to improve education but in practice they actually tend to sabotage it. (Order THE EDUCATION ENIGMA on Amazon.)