While I have not yet read the newest biography of Maria Montessori, The Child is the Teacher: A Life of Maria Montessori by Cristina De Stefano (published March 8, 2022 by Other Press), the buzz emanating from the New Yorker magazine review by executive editor Jessica Winter has certainly saturated my social media thread of late.
It is understandable why many Montessori educators are concerned by The Miseducation of Maria Montessori, as she devoted less than 10% of the article’s words to directly review what is claimed by the publisher as “the first biographical work on Maria Montessori written by an author who is not a member of the Montessori movement.”
Her article goes on to use the book’s content to accuse Dr. Montessori and her method of being commodified, thereby limiting her educational style to only those that can afford it. She relies upon content from and yet compares De Stafano’s biography to Rita Kramer’s 1976 biography claiming she “…recapitulates the same events and pulls from the same sack of anecdotes and quotations, but often strips them of historical, cultural, or pedagogical context.” The same claim could be made of Winter’s review.
A group of seventeen Montessori leaders and researchers from across the community’s various organization highlight and address Winter’s inaccuracies, and their efforts have ignited a flurry of responses from Montessorians.
Winter’s singular, anecdotal, and highly personal account of her own experience as a mother attempting to access a specific private Montessori school in what is assumed to be New York City sets the stage for an article steeped in half-truths removed from a broader understanding, and misinformation at best. I found her assertion of Montessori elitism lacking the context that a more thorough analysis of Montessori today might reveal.
Winter references Montessori researcher, author and executive director of Yale’s Education Studies program Mira Debs as proclaiming public Montessori schools follow a pattern of “becoming Whiter and wealthier with time,” yet Winter omits the greater context of Debs’ work and those of Montessori BIPOC innovators countered in a Twitter thread here. Winter’s claim there are only “a few hundred public Montessori schools” generated a reply by Sara P. Suchman, Executive Director of the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector that provides irrefutable data points offering a fuller picture of public Montessori today. Winter also makes no mention of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos $1 Billion investment in Montessori schools for low income neighborhoods, an effort I believe that Montessori herself would admire given that her very first schools were established in a poor neighborhood of Rome to help its children acquire a strong education. The question of elitism of which Montessori herself and the methodology are accused is far more complex an issue than Winter suggests.
In her response, Suchman suggests that not all publicity is good and refers to Winter’s criticism as being “the familiar claim of elitism and exclusivity.” While it is easy for some readers to dismiss this criticism and thereby Winter’s article, I suggest this is an opportunity for both critical self-analysis and a starting point for a dialogue for the very reason that it is unfavorable publicity AND a “familiar claim.”
Montessori parent, educator, and blogger Alicia Diaz-David’s blog Montessori & the Miseducation Conversation (March 13, 2022) brought a deeper clarity to the imperative nature of discourse and and I would like to amplify her parting words, “It is in opinions that are shared and passed along as truths, that we establish our social understanding of the truth.”
Tammy Oesting has spent the last 28 years delivering professional development workshops, consulting schools, and educating new Montessori teachers. Her passions include issues of social justice, educating support staff, life sciences, neuroscience as applied to educational practices, and exploring the magnificence of the world. She is location independent and enjoys making and appreciating art and design, reading, and experiencing nature.