Charlotte Mason vs Maria Montessori debate


The following is a letter that Charlotte Mason wrote to the editor of The Times in 1918.

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Dear Sir,

I’d like to remind your readers of an experiment that was tried a hundred years ago in the city of Kranconopolis. One of their citizens had been very impressed by the abilities of a man who had lost both of his arms as a child, but had made up for his lack of fingers by using his toes. The man was a bit of an artist, and he painted pictures, wrote, knitted, and carved with his toes. No matter what he crafted, his work was better than the work of most people who had hands.

One person who observed this recognized an educational principle: that whenever there’s a deficiency, Nature never fails to make up for it by compensating in another area. He reasoned like this:

‘Progress in any skill is the result of concentrated focus. Children who have hands don’t do well at writing because it’s too easy to write when you have hands. So they take it for granted and don’t give it their full attention. But what if we taught them to write with their toes? That’s a lot more challenging and interesting. Then they’ll be sure to pay attention, and they should make great progress.’

The idea caught on. The people of Kranconopolis, who loved hearing about new and novel ideas, eagerly supported his idea, and several Toe-Writing schools were established. Children between the ages of two to six had the most success because their muscles were more flexible. Besides, they were fascinated by their toes and they loved the carefully graduated exercises with needles, toothpicks, and skewers. Of course, their hands had to be tied behind them so they wouldn’t use their fingers, but once that was done, their progress was remarkable. Many people went to see, and Toe-Writing schools were started in several neighboring states. With observant and carefully trained teachers, the children learned to read and write at about the same time they normally would have in spite of their handicap because they weren’t as restless when they were busy with their reading lessons. No distractions such as songs or stories were used that didn’t encourage toe-writing, either directly or indirectly.

As I said, the results were amazing. When they finally went to other schools, they were a full year ahead of their classmates. But that wasn’t all. The friendly support and attention they had received from people visiting the schools gave them an easy, relaxed manner. And, because their toes were so important, they required some care, and the children got used to walking delicately, which made them graceful and dignified. Toe-Writing was lauded as one of the most important scientific developments of the age, and Toe-Writing schools became even more widespread than the previously popular ‘Tasting Schools.’ People reasoned, ‘After all, isn’t tasting good things a lot like bribery?’

I hope I won’t be accused of writing flippantly about a serious and noble endeavor. The insightful article in the educational section of November 6’s Times about The Montessori Method compels me to comment about such items as the cheerfulness and contentment of the children. If children have a pleasant room that’s made comfortable for them, and friendly visitors who make nice comments about what they’re doing, it’s only natural that they’ll be relaxed and open. If the school appeals to children and their parents, and they have to be clean to be allowed in, then of course their parents will make sure they’re clean. America has understood for a long time how to make free American citizens out of the diverse crowds of immigrants who come into the country using practically the same methods that Dr. Montessori uses. The delightful spontaneity of her young Italian students isn’t limited to her schools. It’s just as evident in every English home and cottage school, as well as in our summer schools. No child under the age of six should go to a school that doesn’t allow him the full freedom to run, or squat, or lay face down on the floor if the mood strikes him.

A few years ago I wrote to an educational journal suggesting that schools for very young children be held on the roof, except in bad weather. I still think that long hours in the open air with twice as much time to play as work is what children need. In Germany, as we know, children start school at age six, and a child entering school is proud of the milestone of beginning his eight-year education. But sometimes the preschool child at home is in his mother’s way, so he’s sent off to some little school they call Kindergarten. Perhaps the flat roof of a bigger school would be a better place to send him.

But ‘I tire of unlimited freedom; my chance whims feel like a burden’ is as true for children as it is for us grownups, and for the poet who wrote those words. We need the ease and discipline of good habits to save us the effort of having to make lots of minor decisions such as, ‘which foot goes after which?’ Making liberty a religion will raise up the next generation to be vagabonds. And, as far as Montessori’s extensive school diet of geometric forms and colored boards, we know what Dickens said about that in his tragic story of young Gradgrinds at his school. We would all benefit from learning it by heart.

But it isn’t the charming manners or the harmony and freedom of the Montessori schools that are attracting so many education experts that Switzerland alone has 70 of these schools. We all strive for these things in our schools, and we’re grateful to Dr. Montessori for showing us a way to do it. But let’s be honest. Her children can read and write by age four or five, while our own children don’t master those skills until age eight. That’s what appeals to us about her method. But we forget that education is more than the mechanics of reading and writing. Such skills don’t educate any more than mastering shorthand, or Morse Code. But we get excited thinking that, by teaching these mechanics earlier, we’ll gain two or three years of school life. But this is nothing new or novel. We’ve all heard that young boys in the slums of Russia learn Hebrew very quickly because there’s nothing else for them to learn. All people who train animals, acrobats and musical prodigies know that the secret of ensuring focused concentration is to shut out any and all other interests and pursuits. If you remove all distractions, you can get young children to do almost anything by channeling all of their effort in one direction.

If we don’t count the charming manners, the personal neatness, and the early success at the mechanics of reading and writing, since all of these are pretty generally achieved with similar means, what principles are left for us to imitate? I can’t find any principles. All I see is a practice–the practice of learning the shapes of letters and other things by touch instead of by sight. It’s hard to see the logic of preferring the less accurate and less active sense of touch over sight. The blindfolded children feeling shapes to discern their form remind me of the famous saying, ‘Whenever the nose puts his spectacles on in the daylight or by candle light, the eyes should be closed.’ You can try it yourself. Touch whatever’s closest at hand that has an outline, such as your own nose or mouth. Even after a lot of patient feeling, you won’t know what you’re touching unless your memory cheats and tells you. But possibly, if you were to touch certain specified objects for a prescribed number of minutes every day for months, you might finally be able to accurately draw a mouth, or write the letter ‘m.’ At first, the act of touching is boring. But after a while, it becomes soothing and you enter a tactile sensuous state of being, a little bit hypnotic. If you look at pictures of children in Italy and America doing their touch exercises, they do seem to be in a hypnotic state.

We know that the use of hypnotic suggestion is helping to advance education in some Continental schools. This might be a clue as to why children seem to suddenly and spontaneously have the ability to write, as we’ve been so excited to read about. But there may be reason for caution here. A child who is too easy will become an adult whose will power has been weakened, and whose brain has been overtaxed so that he’s not able to direct his own will effectively. The fact that normal, eager, active children have been beguiled to continuously touch objects seems to indicate that they’ve been subjected to too much outside influence, whether it’s the influence of the touching itself, or the influence of someone else’s will.

It’s claimed that ‘giving the eyes a break by developing and using the sense of touch’ is good for education. But we haven’t even determined whether this unnatural practice is safe. Blind people learn to read by touch. If we decide to use this method in schools for older children, we’ll need lots of bulky books in Braille. But a blind person doesn’t need any coaxing or beguiling to learn Braille because he does it out of necessity, and his own will motivates him, canceling any hypnotic effect that the act of sensory touching might have as he learns Braille. We can’t make ourselves and our children blind, and why should we? Light and natural, routine use is good for our eyes, it makes them stronger. Darkness and lack of use will make them lazy and useless.

The Montessori method is just one of many experiments being carried out in the interest of educational science. ‘I don’t believe there’s no such thing,’ said Betsy Prig [from Martin Chuzzlewit, by Dickens] Would she say that about educational science? And, if she did, would she be right? I think she would, even though every advance we make furthers educational ‘science.’ Practically speaking, the message of this kind of method seems to be, ‘If you develop a child’s senses, he’ll be educated. If you train his eye and hand so he can earn a living, what more does he need?’ But a child trained like that is not even as well educated as the native American Indian children we read about when we were children. Montessori children’s senses aren’t nearly as acute, and the Indian children had the added advantage of growing up with songs, and dance, and tales and legends. They developed a philosophy of life and even a religion early in their lives.

But Montessori students don’t have that opportunity. Yes, they develop one of their senses, but it’s at the expense of the sense of sight, which is even more important. And there’s no chance to gradually paint a lively backdrop in his mind that will enrich his life. No fairies play in his imagination, no heroes stir his soul, God and the good angels form no part of his thoughts. The child and the adult he’ll become are nothing more than a scientifically created phenomena, produced as the result of a lot of sensory tactile experience and a little seeing and hearing. Intangible, vague things like ideas have no place in science, and are thus left out. Science encourages the child to take hold of physical life, matching shapes with shapes and colors with colors. But songs and pictures, hymns and stories are tossed aside like unnecessary garbage. We’re grateful to Maria Montessori, the gracious Italian lady who showed us that, if we treat children with courtesy and consideration, we’ll see the dignity and grace that are within every child. She showed us that children’s rights include the freedom to educate themselves, and she showed us that every human being is precious and worthy of honor, especially during childhood. But I think that’s where our gratitude ends. The expensive equipment needed in her method, and the reliance on sensory touch instead of sight, and developing the senses at the exclusion of everything else, are serious mistakes.

I have deep contentions with her method. Man is more than a purely physical being whose brain discharges thoughts in the same way that the liver produces bile. Man’s body is merely the physical and spiritually tuned housing for a non-physical being. It’s been said about this being:

‘Even though darkness might blind his eyes, it can’t limit his imagination. Even while confined to bed, he might be, like Pompey and his sons, in various places in the universe. He might be enjoying the vast world within his own mind.’

Anyone who wants to teach children needs to decide whether man is just physical, or something more. It can’t be both ways, and even the most trivial detail of the school day will line up with one or the other of these two fundamental perspectives. One method is scientific education. The other is humane education. Both methods cultivate the senses and exercise the muscles, but for different reasons, and with a different goal in mind. To give just one example, scientific education (such an inaccurate phrase for it!) encourages a child to sort various boards by colors in the vague hope that, while handling the colored boards, the child’s mind just might secrete wonderful thoughts about all kinds of beautiful colored things. But the humane teacher has his own philosophy. He knows that a child who’s playing with colored boards is using his imagination to apply that color to the classroom, or the street, or even the whole world. If the teacher decides to go out of his way to teach something that the child would pick up on his own anyway, it won’t be with contrived artificial equipment. It will be with real things that the child recognizes from the world–things like leaves, flowers, beads, scraps of velvet or silk that the child already has mental associations with, and that might inspire more ideas in the child’s mind. And the child might do more than mentally pave streets. He might imagine a beautiful tower in the midst of bright gardens with winding brooks and sunny patches of leaves. The humane teacher realizes that the lesson itself isn’t the end. The lesson is merely a scrap of raw material that a child uses to help him speculate about the world. Because of that, a lesson is successful only if it lends itself to reflection and imagination. An artist I knew was given blocks of wood and stone to make sculptures for a huge building. He complained to me that he couldn’t find any men with initiative to assist him. They kept asking, ‘How should I do this?’ The artist would answer, ‘Do it however you want.’ But the assistants couldn’t think of any way to do it. They’d been brought up on a mental diet that was utterly lacking in ideas.

A great danger is threatening the country, and even the world. We’re losing our faith in ideas. We’re replacing guiding principles with mechanical practices. As I’ve said in previous Letters to the Editor, the trend in popular education these days is to have contempt for knowledge, and for the books that contain the knowledge of mankind. Instead, ‘Education by physical things’ is advocated, ignoring the principle that things can only lead to more and more other things. They have no impact on the thoughts of a person, therefore they have no effect on the person’s character or how he acts, except to teach him to analyze or make more things. A boy can be taught to build accurately crafted models out of cardboard or lumber. If he was already a neat, careful boy, that training will help him to do whatever job he ends up with. But if he was a lazy boy who learned in spite of his natural tendencies, then everything he learned will only help him in that particular craft. Handicrafts enrich our joy in life, and might help us get a job, but they don’t do anything to influence a person’s character. That’s why children shouldn’t do handicrafts (including sorting cubes and cylinders by size, or arranging colored boards) that don’t have some practical value or intrinsic beauty. A child is a person, and his education should make him a better person. The ideas that inspire better character are found in books, art and similar things. There aren’t enough people of strong character and good judgment. For those reasons and others, I think that any school or educational method that rejects knowledge in favor of scientific equipment and exercises is disastrous, no matter how contented and well-mannered the children seem. Knowledge is the only way to build up character. It’s the only thing that feeds and sustains the mind.

Yours obediently,
Charlotte Mason

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Original article from Bona Vista Rusticanda Est.

Prior to reading this letter, I did have some questions about the Montessori method at the back of my mind.

1. I understand that the creation of a child friendly environment or a prepared environment in Montessori’s terms is crucial. However, I feel that the child is able to adapt to whatever environment he grew up in. For example, if he cannot reach the table, he will learn to climb up a chair to reach it.
2. The original Montessori tools such as the pink tower, broad stairs seem boring and unappealable. There is only one way to use the apparatus. How stimulating can this get?
3. Many of the activities in Practical Life of the Montessori method are daily affairs which do not need to be dissected to become an activity on its own. A child is naturally curious about his environment and wants to mimic whatever the adults are doing. More often than not, it is the parents who limit what the child can do. As long as it’s within safe boundaries and under an adult’s supervision, I don’t see why not. For instance, my son wants to make his milk since he turned two. I will prepare the warm water in the bottle and he will go on to scoop the milk powder into the bottle. Of course, he creates a mess at first. But he is undeterred and I still let him practice till now. His hand control has grown better.

Despite these, I like the Montessori method for:

1. To promote independence, develop a positive and confident self image and to focus attention on a task.
2. The Three Step Lesson makes absolute sense.
3. I thank Maria Montessori’s research on uncovering the sensitive periods of a child. Though if you are an attentive parent, you may notice too but it sure helps having a guide to refer to when in doubt.

Hence I find myself preferring the Mason approach more which is more wholesome and holistic. However, her method veers on being idealistic and unachievable in this part of the world I’m in. Some elements of the Montessori method can be incorporated to meet the educational demands of today’s world.

So, this is my simplistic take on this issue. I would love to hear your point of view too.


3 thoughts on “Charlotte Mason vs Maria Montessori debate

  1. You actually make it appear so easy with your presentation but I in finding this matter to be really one thing which I feel I might by no means understand. It sort of feels too complex and very large for me. I am looking forward for your next publish, I will attempt to get the cling of it!

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