In an online book discussion organized on Tuesday 7th of December by New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, author of “The Best Weapon for Peace: Maria Montessori, Education, and Children’s Rights” Erica Moretti joined Vanessa Roghi and David Forgacs to expand on her book, her biographical writing process and answering readers’ questions.
Moderating the zoom discussion, Chair in Contemporary Italian Studies David Forgacs opened the conversation by thanking Moretti for her thorough book and extensive research, and provided a few introductory key points on the equally iconic and controversial Maria Montessori.
Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was an Italian children’s educator who lived through both World Wars and witnessed their traumatic aftermath on youth, best known for the famed “Montessori Method.” Montessori began her professional journey training as a doctor and obtaining a medical degree, assisting children with disabilities in Rome through nursing. Over time, she progressed into the psychological sphere, ultimately adopting a mission to not only assist war-traumatized children and refugees, but also provide them with a learning environment that would mold future collaborative, politically-forward and pacifist adults. Unlike most biographies on Montessori, Erica Moretti’s does not analyze Montessori’s pedagogic and pacifist goals separately, rather, she explains that the two are inextricably linked.
Vanessa Roghi, Fellow and member of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, seconded Forgacs’ grateful sentiment and complimented Moretti’s book, “Erica is one of the most brilliant historians I know. Her book was beautiful, a pleasure to read.” Struck particularly by the book’s structure, Roghi asked Moretti to say a few words on how she approached Montessori’s biography as a writer.
“Montessori can’t be described in a series of vacuumed events,” Moretti said. Her unique book structure was partially a result of her search and use of undiscovered primary sources. For instance, Moretti explained that while the Montessori family seemed very cooperative with providing documents and information at first, they completely shut down when she asked about her connections to fascism. Although she started with Montessori’s own writings, Moretti later started taking advantage of all and any archives shedding light on her work, including the Vatican’s archive.
Moretti did not want to start her book by discussing the ‘Montessori Method’ like most. Instead, she started with a vignette: an old photo depicting Montessori working to visually show readers what she was doing. Moretti wanted to communicate Montessori’s overall persona, placing both her character and fixation with education at the center of the conversation. “What I’ve been trying to say with my work is that there is much more beneath the surface,” Moretti said.
Expanding further on the Montessori Method, in reply to Roghi’s request, Moretti clarified that it only took one month for Montessori to write it. “[Montessori] discovered that it was a veritable cure for those affected by war trauma, specifically through soothing repetitions and progressively organized activities.” Furthermore, Montessori was adamant on recruiting women who had suffered from the war’s effects to teach and recruit more teachers themselves; she was convinced that only they had the proper empathy needed to cater to young war survivors. A fundamental issue that Montessori faced was funding, Moretti stated. She was in dire need of funding to support her ambitious educational goals and traveled constantly in search of new sponsors, seldom finding many. In fact, Montessori even personally wrote to the Pope and, when she was denied any financial support, she allegedly did not take that very well. Her main goal was to prevent the war’s trauma— which Montessori often referred to as the “disease of the century”— from being transmitted through generations. Montessori was revolutionary in her approach, resorting to both material and psychological support.
Roghi’s second question concerned the political perspective, asking Moretti to expand further on “how and why Montessori thinks about peace and how we can consider this a political point of view.” Montessori certainly placed much emphasis on women’s emancipation and inevitably must be considered a political figure today, argued Moretti. To some the “Education and Peace” collection of essays may seem like a carefully crafted marketing operation, but it’s important to note that Montessori had been engaging with these ideals from the very beginning. As many know, continued Moretti, Montessori did become a fascist at one point. “I think of her as a pragmatist,” said Moretti. She took advantage of her surroundings opportunistically and, when she could no longer develop her educational systems within the fascist Italian regime, she left. “In the 1920s Montessori made several cosmetic changes. She deleted any reference to materialism, to appeal more to the intellectuals.” Montessori was an extremely savvy woman with an impressive knowledge of international politics.
Opening the floor to the audience’s questions, the first concerned Montessori’s paradoxical transition from starting by helping the poorest children to eventually creating a very expensive educational institution. “Montessori was extremely entrepreneurial, she patented all her work,” said Moretti. The first hut featured in Moretti’s book for example, shows a very avant-garde architecture for its time. A lot had to be invested in the children’s environment, for this was essential to their educational nurturing and for performing the best possible work within their surroundings.
Another noteworthy question regarded Montessori’s feminism: “how successful was Montessori in promoting women’s rights and education?” Not very successful, according to Moretti. Montessori’s feminism is a very early, conservative kind of feminism. Women were fundamentally important, but they had a specific biological function to embrace. Montessori believed that women had the role of diffusing science as teachers do and she had immense respect for teachers. “Successful? I don’t know. But I think it was foundational to the pedagogic conversation,” said Moretti.
“Is Greta Thunberg an example of politically active upbringing today?” asked another member of the audience. Yes, she definitely is, answered Moretti. The author mentioned an article she recently wrote for the Washington Post about inspiring today’s youth where she specifically referred to Thunberg.
Finally, Forgacs asked Moretti to comment on Montessori’s non-violent approach to education. Even Forgacs himself was raised in an academic environment wherein physical discipline was normalized so, in that sense, Montessori seems extremely revolutionary and ahead of her time. Montessori never specifically talked about empathy, however this is an essential component of her teachings and needs to be taken into account from a young age, Moretti responded. Montessori was very precise in crafting children’s educational space and, as the ultimate goal was to deter them from war and crime, “there was no space for violence.”
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