Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Your background, your interests, your dreams?
I was raised an army brat. I lived in a handful of cities, from El Paso, Texas to San Francisco, California before I turned eight. Each stop of the way was a sort of preparation for what would later become home: Sioux Falls, SD. My parents, my mother from New York and my father from Alabama, instilled and emphasized three main threads in my childhood: modesty, hard work, and a willingness to participate in the community. While my family ultimately put down roots in Sioux Falls, I was increasingly restless. Perhaps, as any disaffected youth, I was anxious to explore the outside world, the one that we were somehow, rather eloquently, sheltered from. As cliche as it may sound, the moment I had the opportunity to leave, I vowed never to return. I went on to pursue what would become a rather short-lived basketball career at Lehigh University, where I later discovered my life-passion: philosophy.
Q: Why philosophy?
Philosophy had always interested me, even before I knew what it was. The allure of titan-like thinkers, and, more importantly, their seemingly inhuman ability to create concepts, exceeded any ambitions I had towards what would be considered as a socially acceptable professional career. Having secretly, but wholeheartedly read Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus in my youth, most often under the covers, late at night, I finally had the opportunity to follow my interests in the brilliance of the daylight. I think, when hard-pressed, that’s one of the reasons we started Baan Dek. To inspire children to have the confidence that only your passions truly require.
Q: When you close your eyes late at night, and imagine waking up and starting a new adventure: what is that adventure?
I have the same dream every night. I wake up at Baan Dek. It’s not because I worked late on an esoteric project and fell asleep – as my daily travel partner, June would never let that happen – but, because there’s literally no place like home. No place like this beautiful children’s house, at Baan Dek, that we spend every waking moment.
“ Each and every day at Baan Dek is a new and wonderful adventure. ”
It’s probably the single greatest joy we experience in life. Irrespective of politics, or rhetoric, or the current, dramatic, theater of existence, we, as Montessori would say, try our best to merely “follow the interests” of the child. When you adopt that position, which is open, focused and connective, it’s truly remarkable how the world suddenly reveals itself. Children, more than anything or anyone, afford us this special glimpse into the future. We constantly converse, rather optimistically, that it’s up to us, as to whether we will lay purchase to their visions. In many respects, June and I both think that our responsiblity is to try to showcase the luminous nature of childhood to society.
Q: Switching to Montessori, what was the process of starting Baan Dek like? Any advice to share for new Montessori schools?
This is actually a question we reflect upon fairly often. Maybe, more than what is considered healthy. We’re always looking for ways to improve. It’s the way we operate. Never content with the “status quo”. One of the ways in which we project upon the future, trying to decide which coordinates we should set, is that we continually return to the key impetus behind our motivations to start the school. Our ambition was a rather modest one. We sought to offer the community a 100 year old way of learning that resonated so deeply with us as individuals; and, one that, we felt, would provide a singular learning experience for children to meet the demands of the twenty-first century.
“ Our ambition was to provide the optimal conditions needed for children to discover who they wish to become. ”
Altruistically, and we mean this sincerely, our motivations have never been financial. If you set out to start a school to make money, our best advice is to start something else. There are easier ways to achieve personal wealth, and the core of the school, if it has those intentions, will never be one by which you will be able to grow. While this may seem trivial, as, of course, everyone needs to eat, and put a roof over their heads, it’s important to share that we’ve never made a decision at Baan Dek that revolved around how to increase profits. We’ve always stuck, rather steadfast, to our beliefs – often contrary to any economic concerns. With that in mind, our best advice to new and established schools would be to learn how to compete against yourself. As soon as you start competing against other schools, you’re already lost. Find your core, your true North, and hold the course, even as you set out on new routes.
“ Know what you need to return to, to be able to set out from. ”
Q: What have been the biggest challenges with Baan Dek?
Our mission has become one of an almost principled, conciliatory nature, of trying to reach out, to have a conversation, to meet families where they are, and overcome the standard, trenchant, often unsavory misconceptions of early childhood education – together. At the same time, and this is where the hard work really comes into play, we see ourselves, and our efforts, as committed towards fostering a positive, contemporary, generous community, one which thrives on the original insights of Montessori – in particular.
Q: Can you tell us about any obstacles?
If we can let ourselves lapse for a moment, and address a rather sensitive subject, one we rarely talk about, it might shed some light on some of the challenges we face. We also hope, and this is the reason that we share this now, that it may be important for other communities who are dealing with a similar issue to hear our story. Which is, namely, that for over thirty years, we had a daycare center in our community that operated under the auspices of what they called, “Montessori”.
Q: Not to press, but can you share more?
Well, it used to be that when people walked down the streets of our town and heard the term, “Montessori”, they instantly thought of that institution. Now, after a number of years, and a concerted effort to remain positive, and stay focused on who we are, and what we do, they reflectively say, “Oh, you mean Baan Dek?” Our approach, which is directly tied to our mission to create a bridge, has never been one of pointing the finger, so much as doubling-down, trying our very best to empower families to make an informed decision, one that works best for them. Simply put, we strongly feel that it’s in everyone’s best interest if the facts were made crystal clear.
Q: How does this relate to how Montessori and her efforts to spread the method?
That’s a terrific and important question. If we can be so bold, we would like to think that this is the same spirit in which Montessori enacted her revolution in education. She never patented her name, or her method. Instead, she wanted it to spread freely. She wanted people to have the chance to learn her method. With that said, and knowing her prescience, she took it upon herself to establish a set of authentic, standardized criteria by which to disseminate Montessori, and an equally rigorous process by which to validate those schools. That organization was called the Association Montessori Internationale, and Baan Dek is, rather proudly, the first and only accredited one in the state of South Dakota.
Q: Did you have a “Montessori Moment”?
That’s not fair! We ask this question of people that we interview. I’ve never truly reflected upon whether I had a “Montessori Moment” myself. I think, speaking rather off-the-cuff, that my answer would have to be along the lines of, I have a “Montessori moment” almost daily. Which is to say, the deeper our relationship with Montessori becomes, the more clarity, and revelation we seem to acquire. She’s one of those thinkers that I have yet to find myself exhausted by, as there are always new layers. One of my personal, favorite texts of hers is Education for a New World, which was written immediately following the end of World War II, and is an extremely hopeful, reflective, and purposeful text. You feel the urgency and conviction of her discovery. Needless to say, she constantly surprises us, with her continued relevance to contemporary conversations.
Q: What continues to inspire you about Montessori?
I’m often struck by this quote from Heraclitus. Let’s see if I can remember it: “Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.” That insight, however simple or profound, encapsulates my relationship with the Montessori approach to education. Personally, I’ve always found the way children approach problems, problems that we would otherwise deem as impossible, simply exceptional. Where we, as adults, see barriers, or obstacles, or difficulties, they see opportunities. Opportunities for exploration, latent with an unabated sense of optimism, community, and hope. They understand, more readily than most, that we’re in this together. That’s the type of world I’ve always aspired to participate in, and happily do, each and every day at Baan Dek. There’s just something extra special about how Montessori accelerates or unlocks this potential.
Q: Do you have any plans to expand Baan Dek to other communities or cities?
What a wonderfully difficult and personal question. Over the years, we’ve had a number of opportunities to franchise Baan Dek in other, more metropolitan, some might say, established Montessori cities. By that, we mean, cities who have had a Montessori school for decades. Quite frankly, none of the opportunities we have been presented with, no matter how promising, or compelling, or visionary, have felt completely right. When we put our hands on a project, our heart invariably, and necessarily, follows suit. We need the two to resonate, deeply, as one, to take us to the core of any enterprise. We just haven’t felt that, yet. Have I sufficiently sidestepped your question?
Q: Yes! Can you describe your collaboration with June?
It’s magical. We’ve become so accustomed to the patterns of each others thoughts, proclivities and talents that, more often than not, we don’t even need to communicate. We just know what and how each other thinks. On a more personal, practical, perhaps romantic level, having the opportunity to work alongside the one you love, well, that’s pretty special too. It’s probably the single greatest joy of my life. Working side by side, united in a quest to make a difference.
Q: Your life path was never one of Montessori. What made you choose this path?
As with so many other stories that we have heard over the years, Montessori reached out to me. I mean that, rather literally. It wasn’t the method or the style or the philosophy. It was something much more fundamental. It was an approach to childhood that took children seriously. One that endorsed, or rather, recognized their fragility. Instead of trying to expose that, to exploit those conditions by highlighting the inadequacies of childhood, she worked to strengthen their relationships with the world.
What do you mean by fragility?
Thanks for catching that. I should definitely offer a clarification there. What I mean is: Montessori chose to meet children where they are, instead of where we, as a society, think they should be. Namely, she adopted a novel attitude or posture towards childhood, which was one of mentor or guide – not teacher. There are actually a number of memorable comments Montessori makes as she qualifies who these new types of individuals will be. Basically, she chose to work with that perceived fragility – or quality of innocence, inability and naivety – seeing it not as an obstacle to growth, but rather as the very conditions need to actually grow.
Can you elaborate on what you mean?
As adults, I think we often overlook the significance of childhood. We take for granted that we’ve already become accustomed to the world. We then automatically assume, since we’ve made it ourselves, that we somehow know how best to raise children. Yet, what we grossly underestimate, as a society – please keep in mind this is not a personal affront on parents, because I would place myself in the same camp – is how much we have left to learn from children. For Montessori, what makes her so relevant, and so unconventional to traditional approaches, is that she endorses a different set of criteria by which to assess education. For example, determination, willpower, creativity, perseverance, focus, these are some of the many characteristics that lead to academics. It’s not the other way around. This is, to put it bluntly, the fundamental shift Montessori enacts, and the one we are still trying to incorporate as a society.
Q: If you had to start over, would you do it all the same?
I wouldn’t change anything. I think if you asked June, she would have a similar response. No regrets. Of course, as they say, looking back everything becomes more obvious. It even seems fated. Growing slowly really allowed us the chance to focus on what matters most. For us, that’s trying to create an ideal environment for children to explore their interests. Needless to say, when we first started, and we only had three students, we would literally looked at each other every day and ask, “how can we get another student so we can eat next week”? We now see this time in our history as one of joy and happiness. Things were simple. The major advantage to our path of maturation was the opportunity to build a solid foundation, one in which we didn’t compromise our values.
Q: When you think about the future of education, what hopes and aspirations do you have, both personally and for the broader community? For example, will Montessori one day become the status quo?
This may be my favorite question thus far, as it’s oriented towards the future. I’ll take it in two parts. First, to address the status quo. There’s definitely a very real sense in which, if we are successful in our campaign (to reorient society towards the values of early childhood education), Montessori will not have the same cache. It will have already been incorporated into our cultural psyche. This would mean that we were truly successful, as a community, in our endeavors, and a new type of student emerged. Or, said better, a different system has been enabled to encourage children to truly become who they wish to become. For us, this would include vanquishing one of the greatest misconceptions of Montessori, namely that it is only for the elite.
“ In many respects, Montessori must learn to overcome itself. ”
Q: And, the second…
In a turn towards my personal interests, which I always am reluctant to discuss, I am particularly fascinated by this special type of landscape, or environment, that Montessori created. She shifted the conversation from one of consumption, as in the acquisition of knowledge, to one of creation, as in the participation in the new. What does this mean for us as a community? How will this affect our bodies? What about our relationships to thinking? What type of teachers and students will this space inspire? There are a few contemporary thinkers who are working really hard in this space. I’ll note a few recent ones, who have influenced me tremendously: Serres, Sloterdijk and Stiegler.
Q: Any quick tidbits you can share about these thinkers?
Here’s a snippet from a wonderful interview with Serres: “Today, too, a new way of thinking – and quite simply, a new head – is emerging. You can see it in the computer: It holds your memory and a lot of your operating system. As a result, there are many old brain functions that are being replaced by the computer, and thus the head is changing. That’s the new human being. The thinking subject is changing, but our way of being together is also shifting.”
Q: With the personal in mind, we know you are a cineaste. Do you have a favorite film or director?
Orson Welles taught me to think differently about everything. Not just film, but also, philosophy, architecture, literature, education, etc. He gave me a new set of eyes by which to view the world. Summarily, he innovated a method called depth of field. Instead of mandatorily, as a director, telling an audience what to look at, when to look at it, and how to look at it, he showcased the entire scene, simultaneously, keeping the whole picture in focus. What this technique affords, then, is a new type of audience, one which can participate in the creation of the viewership.
“ The lines that are drawn when you compose them yourself are drastically dissimilar to those that are drawn on your behalf. ”
Similarly, you’ll notice how this structure of thought parallels that of Montessori, who created a new type of student, one that can actively work towards the construction of their own education. Orson Welles was, as Marlene Dietrich says in the closing sequence of Touch of Evil, “some kind of a man”.
Q: Anything else you would like to share?
As a society, if we can only learn to concentrate our efforts more on, as Montessori would say, “following the child”, we think the world itself would be more at home. We encourage everyone to schedule a time to observe their local accredited Montessori school. There’s absolutely nothing like it. Lastly, thank you! If you have any questions, or if we can be helpful in any way, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re all in this together.
Q: Thanks for sharing, Bobby George!