The First Student
Thoughts & Reflections
We rarely discuss the significance of Mario Montessori.
Whenever a conversation begins on the nature of Montessori, it always starts with Maria Montessori. Of course, this is where the story should start, in the San Lorenzo district of Rome, where she first glimpsed what would become her novel insights into the nature of early childhood education. Yet, there’s also another side to the movement that she enacted – the Montessori movement – a campaign that was carried out alongside her charismatic son, Mario Montessori, and one that he carried on, long after her death.
Mario Montessori was born March 31, 1898. He grew up in the Italian countryside, where is unwed mother, Maria Montessori, was pressured by society to send him to live with a family that could raise him, free from social discrimination and prejudice. Only later, when he turned fifteen, would he join his mother in her life’s work. Mario’s daughter, Marilena Henny, revealingly states: “She had no place in his absorbent mind.”
There’s a sense in which the other side of the Montessori method starts here, outside the limits of the city. With no formal training as a teacher, conducted in accordance with the rules and conventions of the day, Mario Montessori embarked upon a professional career in education, accompanying his mother on her extensive travels.
“ The amazing thing about this man with no real scholastic or academic background was the clarity of his total understanding of the working of her mind. ”
From a very early age, as early as seventeen years old, Mario Montessori served as liaison, confidante, and overall partner. Dutiful son and the consummate collaborator, he participated in the worldwide phenomenon that soon came to be known as “Montessori”. He acted, as some might want to classify more officially, as an executive administrator.
By all accounts, Mario was instrumental in helping his mother develop this new system of education. Not only its eventual, widespread dissemination, but also working to strengthen its already strong foundations. According to his daughter, he took on much of the daily activities, ‘organizing courses, examining students, lecturing on materials, practical life, etc.’
Anticipating the need for an authenticating body, he also founded, alongside his mother, the Association Montessori Internationale, which would oversee the establishment of authentic programs throughout the world. Clearly, the name and philosophy weren’t enough, as there needed to be accountability, and a way to govern or shepherd the complete vision.
As Maria Montessori’s fame continued to grow, Marilena Henny deduces that she became increasingly withdrawn from public life. Here, Mario Montessori proved invaluable: “Without him she would have grown frustrated by the lack of understanding, retreating into her spiritual isolation, unable to cope and fight alone to preserve the purity of her work.”
Imagine, for instance, if Montessori’s work had fallen into obscurity due to lack of promulgation or organization, a task for which Mario Montessori proved particularly adept.
“ Thanks to him, she never suffered the isolation common to genius, never became static. But he was not just a very bright sounding board for her ideas; he helped her to clarify them and give them shape, enabling her to continue developing her unique mind to the end. ”
We can’t help but wonder, with both a level of curiosity and scientific-intent, who was the cardinal student of Montessori? Or, in a more Platonic tone, a voice in which Maria Montessori often adopted in her writings, “Who was the ideal Montessori student?”
Which is to say, not insouciantly, if the method was innovated with a single child in mind, who was that initial student by which everything originated? Was it Mario Montessori? Or, further still, was it a community of learners by which she envisioned her contribution to the future of education? The community that Mario Montessori had helped her to usher in…
Peeling back the layers, ever so carefully, we now turn to Mario Montessori Jr, Mario Montessori’s son and Maria Montessori’s grandson, who describes a memorable childhood-event, which has lasting impressions, even upon us. He writes, rather poetically:
“I remember her peeling potatoes and looking at them with profundity, as if they could reveal some secret of great importance. She continued her task, wondering aloud how man originally discovered the value of the potato plant, outwardly a weed with insignificant little flowers and producing poisonous fruit. What made him look further? By what trick of chance did he discover that its usefulness to him lay not in the part of it that appeared above the surface, but in the part that was hidden in the earth? How did he learn that this part was not poisonous, but edible? Potato plants apparently came from the New World. How had they come to be introduced, adopted, and cultivated throughout Western Europe?”
It’s one thing, of course, to discover the potato. It’s an entirely different story, however, to distribute them across the planet. In many respects, that takes just as much genius. Both, to be sure, are equally important. One cannot achieve the same level of success or sustenance, without the nourishment and expertise of the other. This particular passage offers a wonderful reflection on the nature of how Maria Montessori thought.
Mario Montessori Jr continues: “The way she could talk about things like potatoes brought one immediately to a higher level of thinking and view of reality, while, at the same time, one remained immersed in human life. It was a unique experience; it was connected with a special quality of her personality and a profundity of insight fundamental to her success.”
Needless to say, this success, and its subsequent international reach and lasting influence, would not have been possible without the guidance, patience, support and love of Mario Montessori. It wasn’t just the love of a son. It was something else too. Namely, a desire to inscribe upon the future, the signature of the child. It was a love, as his daughter, Marilena Henny would later describe as:
“ An all encompassing love which dominated his whole existence. ”
We’ve been thinking a lot about Maria and Mario Montessori. Their relationship, or partnership, was something extraordinary. It sought to bring a new type of learning to cities, as well as countrysides, in an effort to meet the individual, developmental needs, of each and every child. That alone was revolutionary, latent with the potential of deep, meaningful, societal transformation. There was also something else at work, which is apparent in the description of the potato: Montessori attempted to ground the abstract ideals, in a concrete appreciation of the world.
Mario Montessori, who very well may have been the first student of Montessori, would spend the rest of his life committed to this premise: that every child was unique and should be afforded an opportunity to firmly plant their feet in a world otherwise committed to the firmament. The ideal son may have been the ideal student, but he also wanted to spread this idea to children everywhere.
Carrying out this mission, Mario Montessori died in 1982, thirty years after his mother. A constant apprentice, he championed (and, arguably represented) a vision of what learning could become, ever remaining the faithful disciple of his mother and the Montessori method.
Written by:Baan Dek