Montessori and “The American Scholar”
By Eryn Killian
In his speech “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson asserts that schools “can only highly serve us, when they aim, not to drill, but to create” (698-699). These words were spoken nearly two centuries ago, but since then the evolution of the American school system has not been completed. Our society is accustomed to the current system, and change is slow and difficult. Yet there exists in the world today a system of education by which children are not drilled in meaningless facts, confined by desks and grades, but rather create their own education, and learn to love learning for its own sake. Emerson and Maria Montessori both recognized long ago the value of freedom in education I have come to appreciate during my own time in school. As a Montessori student for seven years, and the daughter of a Montessori teacher, the teachings of Montessori have been a central part of my upbringing. Now, however, I am in my seventh year of traditional school. Having experienced both methods, I can confirm that Emerson and Montessori have it right.
The freedom of the Montessori classroom can often appear anarchic to outsiders. They hear the concept that children choose their own work and immediately assume that the kids are spending the entire day drawing pictures and generally goofing off. However, anyone who has actually seen a Montessori classroom at work knows that is not at all the case. I believe one of the biggest causes of the flaws in our education system is that adults underestimate the motivating power of curiosity in children. Surprising as it may seem, most children want to learn. They are excited to discover new things, and master new skills. With this belief in mind, Montessori students are allowed, with the guidance of their teachers, to manage their own time, choose their own work, and choose their own workspace, whether it be at a table or on a mat on the floor. All materials are designed to encourage the student to make discoveries on his or her own, with the teacher acting as a guide, not as a dictator. In the end, the highest goal of Montessori is, as Emerson suggested, to create and not to drill—“to set the hearts of their youth on flame” (699). This philosophy guided my learning until I was ten years old.
Coming to a “normal school,” then, in fifth grade, was a huge culture shock. I was completely unaccustomed to such concepts as having to ask to use the pencil sharpener or to sit in a desk all day taking notes or to fill out worksheets. I was now being asked, not to discover facts through my own practical experience, but to sit passively and accept all that I was told as truth. I recall once asking my teacher how I was going to use a concept in real life. She replied, “Because you’ll need it for middle school.” That was certainly true, and I probably did need it for middle school. But to a child of ten, that answer means nothing—it was knowledge without context, which I therefore quickly forgot.
My chief problem with traditional school, however, was that we all learned everything at the same time. The obvious problem with this is that people learn at different rates, and may be more proficient in one subject than another. Our society trumpets Thoreau’s notion of the “different drummer,” but our school system has yet to follow his concept to the conclusion that Maria Montessori did. If all people learn differently, you cannot possibly have all of them learning everything all at once without some feeling very bored and others feeling very stupid. In an ideal education, therefore, each child would learn at his or her own pace, without feeling the pressure of working too fast or the tedium of working too slowly—which is exactly what Montessori does.
If there is one final concept of the Montessori Method that I admire, it is the absence of grades. The practice of giving grades is, in my opinion, disgusting—especially in elementary and middle school, where everyone knows they do not really matter. So why do our teachers tell us that they do? Why do parents ground their little kids for getting C’s? Grades can do nothing but detract from our education. They give parents an excuse not to communicate with teachers (“My child has all A’s, so why should I bother going to conferences?”), foster unnecessary competition among students, and turn all of us into numbers, not people. Grades make some kids grade-grubbers, and others apathetic, resigned to their status as less than excellent. Neither of these attitudes should be acceptable in children, or adults. When I attended the Governor’s Honors Program this summer, everyone I met mentioned how he or she felt so much more motivated without grades. There is no need, then, to quantify education, not when a mere tenth of a percent marks the difference between an A and a B, or between passing and failing. If children were brought up from the start in an environment which prizes learning and creativity and encourages personal exploration, grades would no longer be necessary because all students would feel motivated to learn in order to better understand their world, rather than to be labeled by a letter or number.
The Montessori Method is slowly but steadily becoming accepted in preschools, and someday, perhaps, it will make its way upward. But if we truly wish to effect change in our educational system, the real answer is to start from the top; because in high school, we are now informed that we learn things “because we’ll need them in college,” and that our grades matter “because they’ll get us into college.” So now, we need to reverse the system. Only when colleges request portfolios instead of SATs and GPAs will high schools be able to leave the grading system behind, which will in turn cause middle and elementary schools to abandon it as well. Then, at last, will we be able to give our children the holistic education they deserve, and fulfill Emerson’s vision of the American Scholar.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.