Schools, Slums, and Montessori
The scandal of modern education for slum children has lately become a matter of national discussion and worry. Since the Second World War, the gap has steadily widened between the educational accomplishments of middle-class children and of working-class children (particularly of Negro working-class children). Insensibly, our methods of instruction and our curriculum have come to assume greater and greater contributions by the home to the education of the child; and where these contributions are lacking, the schools are simply ineffective. The circle is as vicious as can be: because the school is ineffective, it is assumed that the child is no good, a proposition which is then verified by the class-biased IQ test; and because the child is no good, his teachers must not try to teach him much, for fear of damaging his mental health, until he finally emerges from the descending spiral, into the gutter, barely literate and thoroughly incompetent. This procedure is called “democratic,” because teachers are always telling the child about democracy, and supervisors are always telling teachers about democracy, and the supervisors of the supervisors are always telling the public about democracy. Clio, disguised as Lawrence Cremin, angrily calls, “Fraud!”
The pattern of our failures was a generation in the building, and it will not be broken by political decisions, even if they involve the expenditure of billions of dollars of new tax money. The sad fact is that we do not at present know how to give a reasonable education to a reasonable proportion of the children of impoverished homes in mid-century America. Every analyst has his own nostrum—based on team teaching (in Pittsburgh), or ungraded classes (in Chicago), or Gemeinfassliche Kultur (in New York), or some vague and vaguely glorious revolution (Paul Goodman), or the imaginative use of group pressures (in St. Louis). But all will agree, with varying enthusiasm, that extensive and intelligent pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs would be a help, and in this context there is no escaping the work of Maria Montessori.
As recently as five years ago, anyone so rash as to mention Montessori to a group of American educators would have been told not to trouble his head over her: William Heard Kilpatrick, the leading popularizer of Dewey, had “disproved her.” Her work has been brought back to prominence in the United States partly by the new concern over the education of unlucky children, both the genetically and the environmentally crippled, which inevitably looks back to the few examples of success with this intractable task and finds Montessori working cheerfully and productively with children in hospitals, at her Case dei Bambini in the primitive housing projects of Rome, in the slums of London, and (toward the end of her long life) in India. Indeed, none of the fashionable recent descriptions of the American poor is so directly disturbing as Montessori's comment on what she found waiting for her at the opening of school in San Lorenzo: “Sixty tearful, frightened children, so shy that it was impossible to get them to speak, with bewildered eyes, as though they had never seen anything in their lives.” Yet two years later these children, age six, were performing as well as the eight-year-olds in the middle-class elementary schools of Rome.
Fundamentally, however, Montessori is honored today for her original insight into the nature of the learning process and the potential of the school. It was insight, too, much as she claimed for herself the virtues of science: her notion that there is such a thing as an “experiment without preconceptions of any sort” shows her limitations in this direction. Montessori on education brings to mind the description of Kean's Hamlet, which was, Hazlitt said, like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. But at those moments when her hardworking observation brought revelation, Montessori was incomparably shrewd.
“We do not start,” she writes in The Montessori Method, “from the conclusions of experimental psychology. That is, it is not the knowledge of the average sense conditions according to the age of the child which leads us to determine the educational applications we shall make. We start essentially from a method, and it is probable that psychology will be able to draw its conclusions from pedagogy so understood, and not vice versa.” Jerome Bruner writes better than that, but Montessori's statement is an accurate description of what he has been doing at Harvard's Center for Cognitive Studies and in his meetings with the math and science reformers. Instead of prescribing instructional procedures from learning theory, which is what American educational academicians have been trying unsuccessfully for half a century, Bruner has been working to develop a theory of instruction from what he observes in selected classrooms, hoping all the while that somewhere within this theory of instruction a valid learning theory will have left a trackable spoor. Montessori would approve.
Born in 1870, Maria Montessori was the first female ever granted a medical degree by an Italian university. Her posture toward the world was that of the aggressive late-19th-century feminist (though apparently without the lesbian overtones that were common to the tribe). Helen Parkhurst, founder of the Dalton Plan and the Dalton School, and one of Montessori's earliest disciples in the United States, recently blamed the collapse of Montessori's reputation here less on any arguments against her procedures than on the educational community's scandalized discovery that the lady's companion and translator on her American trip was her natural son and not, as advertised, her nephew.
Then, as now, women did not go to medical school for the purpose of becoming teachers. Montessori, who never had an education course (yes, Virginia, there were education courses in the 1890's, too), came to the problems of schools in general from work with the mentally retarded. As an intern in psychiatry, she had become especially interested in the feeble-minded children then housed at all-age insane asylums, and in Edward Seguin's notion that the most effective therapy for many of these children would be education.
Presently, at the age of twenty-eight, Montessori became directress of a tax-supported school for defective children (perhaps the one occasion when being feminine was a help to her: a male doctor of twenty-eight would surely not have been entrusted with such responsibility, but it seemed only natural for a woman to be running a school). Working thirteen hours a day with the children, she developed materials and methods which allowed them to perform reasonably well on school problems previously considered far beyond their capacity. Her great triumph, in reality and in the newspapers, came when she presented “idiot” children from mental institutions at the public examinations for primary certificates, which was as far as the average Italian ever went in formal education—and her children passed the exam. Thereafter, by her own desire and by public demand, she was an educator, not a medical doctor.
It is important to keep in mind that the word “idiot” as Montessori uses it in her writings was a general term at the turn of the century, and did not have its modern meaning of total incapacity. The great majority of her children unquestionably fell in the range now described simply as “retarded” (IQ 50-75), though it is not inconceivable that there were some who would have measured in the range now labeled “imbecile.” (There were, of course, no IQ scores in those days—Binet and Simon did not publish the first of their tests until 1905.) The unhappy human beings psychologists now call “idiot” (IQ below 25) are essentially ineducable by anybody's methods, and usually so severely damaged that they do not reach maturity. Even the conventionally retarded, however, are hard enough to salvage, as everyone knows who has ever visited a “special” class in a modern school, and not many of them get to the level we would regard as satisfactory for an average twelve-year-old. Montessori's accomplishment continues to gleam through the ages, and one can well believe that she felt “a peculiar form of exhaustion.” Still, she drew from her experience a typically vigorous conclusion—that if these children could be brought to the academic levels reached by normal children, then there had to be something horribly wrong with the education of normal children. And so she moved on to the normal children of the slums.
Like many strong-minded people who denounce society for its arbitrary and cruel restrictions on liberty, Montessori herself had a highly authoritarian temperament, which allowed disciples but never collaborators. She was more than the leader of the group which worked with her—she was their mother, and they called her “Mammolina.” Among the weaknesses of her movement over the years was her inability to accept the need for what are called T2's in the notation of the National Science Foundation. (T3's teach children; T2's, the professors of education, teach the teachers; and T1's invent programs and train the T2's. Montessori insisted that she was the only T1 and she never tried to create T2's who could spread her ideas. Indeed, her training programs concluded with the issuance of a certificate which allowed its possessor to describe herself as a Montessori teacher, but specifically forbade her to hold herself out as an instructor in The Method.) In her writings, Montessori usually brings up a teacher's conduct of a class for purposes of criticizing it, to show her students what they must avoid. She could see the possibility that she and her disciples might both be wrong, but not that she could be wrong when her disciples were right. One of the confusions that doomed her early followers in this country was the belief that Montessori's commitment to “liberty” somehow involved a similar commitment to what Americans call “democracy.” But there was nothing in her background, training, temperament, or life-style that could have made Montessori an American democrat; and she wasn't.
Montessori's idea of “liberty” makes little contact with that word as it was defined by Kant or as it is understood in northern Protestant countries. Her “liberty” is that of Catholic tradition, which offers an absolute freedom to do what is right, but reserves to authority at all times the power of determining what is wrong. Conventional critics of Montessori who worried about “anarchy” in her classrooms were wildly off the mark—though Montessori classrooms in other countries, particularly non-Catholic countries, probably fell into occasional chaos, even as do our own “progressive” classrooms.
It is hard at this distance in time to see why so many people, both supporters and opponents, went so far wrong in their judgment of what Montessori's procedures meant. She states her position quite plainly in The Montessori Method: the teacher must not interfere with any activity of the child which may be educational, but “useless or dangerous acts . . . must be suppressed, destroyed.” Montessori lectures the teacher who has learned too well the lesson of freedom: “Then I had to intervene to show with what absolute rigor it is necessary to hinder, and little by little to suppress, all those things which we must not do, so that the child may come to discern clearly between good and evil.” As hierophant of her own method, Montessori reserved for herself the judgment of good and evil in childish actions. The real worry about her, as some critics saw, lay not in the danger of anarchy but in the danger of unnecessary rigor. A case can be made to justify Dewey's fear that the Montessori procedure was philosophically similar to that of conventional schools—the teacher continued to be the sole judge of what the child might do, and merely expanded from its previously strait condition the range of activity that was permissible.
A case can be made—but not a strong one. All differences can be treated as differences of degree, but somewhere they pass the shadow line that makes them differences in kind. If Montessori did not believe in “liberty” as Tom Paine knew it, she did believe quite profoundly—for reasons tracing back to St. Francis of Sales more than to Rousseau—that the child left to himself must will what is good for him. In fact, then, Montessori was prepared to let children make the vast majority of decisions for themselves. Though her theory could have led her the other way, Montessori in the classroom was forever urging her teachers to leave the children alone, to tolerate disorder and mess and apparently random or even self-punishing behavior, on the grounds that the child probably knew what he was about better than the teacher could know it. She brushes aside quickly (and without specific advice) the question of how to handle the disruptive child; indeed, she is prepared to expel from the Children's House “those who show themselves to be incorrigible.” (These situations do not arise, in part, probably, because of The Method, and in part because Montessori schools have always been voluntary and to a degree selective.) What she lingers over are the delights and benefits of liberty, in the setting of the Montessori classroom.
But the Montessori classroom is not like other classrooms. Here the process of education is controlled not by the interpersonal relations of teacher with children and children with each other, but by the “didactic materials” that have been supplied to the school and that are the only objects of interest to which the child has access. Montessori is quite specific in this area, too, and she makes an important claim for her material: that it “contains within itself the control of error.” Later she filed the argument down to an aphorism: “Motto: Things are the best teachers.” This logic sticks in the American craw, even today. Yet in all truth Montessori's “didactic material” is nothing more or less than what the new breed of science educators calls “hardware.” And the liberty which Montessori praises is nothing more or less than the reliance upon induction to which modern educators have given the disgusting name, “discovery method.”
Montessori is beautifully untroubled by traditional questions of educational philosophy. When they arise, she protects herself against them by a quasi-religious, personal mysticism. Few people who actually work with children ever do worry much about the aims of education—it seems obvious enough that the purpose of the enterprise is to help children become decent and competent men and women in the society where they will live, and that over the long run decency requires competence (ignorance is no better an excuse in ethics than it is in law). There are professions where the lack of a philosophy can be crippling. (One of these days, the doctors are going to have to face up to what is meant by the Hippocratic Oath in a time of greatly increased technical facility, and ask seriously about the purpose of keeping human vegetables alive, prolonging the final stages of inevitably fatal disease at great agony and ruinous expense.) In education, fortunately, the common sense of the teacher in the classroom is an excellent philosophical guide, always provided it has not been destroyed by dogmatic indoctrination in ritual teacher training.
In her neglect of philosophical questions, however, Montessori goes a step further: she assumes not only that we know the aims of the enterprise as a whole, but also that we know what it is we wish to teach in any given area. This is, educationally, a luxurious attitude, available only to those who are willing to stress the individual acquisition of skills and tools which the student will use for his own purposes. Each bit of material, each piece of hardware, can then be judged on a purely pragmatic basis: does the child “learn” (grow in competence) from contact with the material? But in Montessori's own hands, the approach is never naïve, because she sees with great clarity (though she never writes about it) the essentially ambivalent nature of the learning process.
Education, at bottom, involves an improvement in the ability to discriminate among different classes of stimuli, accompanied by an improvement in the ability to generalize discrete classes into linked groups of classes. Most theorists emphasize one or the other; today the conventional wisdom of educators stresses the second category, the acquisition of “concepts,” which are usually third-generation abstractions couched in imprecise language. (Even mathematical language can be vague—“s=16t2” is not worth much unless the units of “s” and “t” are agreed upon ahead of time.) With the possible exception of the geometric shapes, all the Montessori materials are designed to be useful for both educational purposes: children handling the silken colors or the cylinders or the sand letters first tell them apart, then arrange them in useful orders. Over and over again, the effort is made to refine perception (most beautifully, perhaps, in the insistence on the periods of absolute silence, to lower the threshold of recognition of sounds), and then to make sense of what is perceived.
All this is fairly easy to say, but exceedingly difficult to do. Given a little dramatic instinct, the attention-getting device of the human voice, the stick of the examination, and the carrot of praise, a teacher can persuade the majority of a class to reproduce for her on demand whatever it is she has fed out. To organize a child's experiences in such a way that he comes out of them with what you want him to have is a far more complicated job. Most of what even a fairly young child knows and can do in Western society is beyond the innate equipment of the animal; as the biologist P. B. Medawar recently wrote, we are all born into the Old Stone Age, and in theory could stay there. Accepting the human need for knowledge—the drive to organize perceptions and secure an equilibrium of prediction—it still remains true that the organism is easily satisfied. All kinds of sympathetic magic will be accepted, by children or (to use an unfashionable word) by savages, as an appropriate and usable explanation of raw experience. Unaided, induction from life itself is likely to be misleading (Dewey points this up unusually well in How We Think), and the essence of the inductive approach is rigorous limitation of the aid to be given. Life must therefore be rearranged, very cleverly, to provide abstract experiences that start the mind on paths which actually go somewhere.
To achieve such results, the didactic materials must be:
(1) simple—which does not mean “easy.” The materials must be precisely denotative in terms of the discriminations to be learned, and not at all connotative. Teaching by an inductive approach, whether it involves concrete materials or words, rests first of all on the exclusion of irrelevancy. The lesson, Montessori writes, “must be stripped of all that is not absolute truth.” Montessori reserves her greatest scorn for the teachers who complicate a lesson; and she disposes once and for all of the notion that there is some value to gaining a child's attention through the employment of a trick not directly related to the subject matter.
Didactic materials must also be:
(2) inherently interesting. Montessori makes much of the children who go on and on with the same repetitive game, arranging and rearranging a set of the materials. Any nursery-school teacher knows how often a child left to himself will go back to the same puzzle he solved yesterday, simply for the pleasure of getting it right, though puzzles easier or harder than this one—or, apparently, to adult eyes, more interesting—are lying untouched upon the shelves. Generally speaking, the rule is that one does not know what will interest a child until one tries it. This difficulty (while real) is less severe than the others, because it can be met simply by quantity and liberty—if the teacher leaves enough stuff around the room, the child will find something that interests him. Boredom is most likely to arise when the teacher forces the situation, insisting that everybody must be interested in the same story or demonstration or lesson.
If the children are to be working largely on their own, however, it is also necessary that the materials be:
(3) self-correcting. Montessori lays great stress on the idea that the teacher must not tell children they are wrong, but must rather put the materials away and try again later. Such actions may be frustrating for the child, who wants to know what is going on, and one imagines that the letter (if not the spirit) of the rule was often violated by Montessori herself as well as by her directresses. But the insight is certainly true: unless the child can see for himself whether an answer is right or Wrong, didactic materials are likely to be ineffective. This self-correcting quality is what Montessori means by “objectivity,” and it is most easily achieved when there are literal objects which the child has arranged either correctly or incorrectly, and which he can then step back to examine. The evanescence of words makes the spoken answer extremely difficult to use for inductive purposes unless it can be instantly inserted into a written problem. Written answers to written questions may meet the specifications, if the lesson has been really imaginatively planned. There is no reason why a child cannot be confronted with a word correctly spelled, or a map correctly drawn, to enable him to compare his own work with better work; but in fact, unfortunately, teachers rarely do organize their classrooms or take the time to let the child correct himself. Mathematics is the most natural subject in which to achieve “objectivity,” because written answers can be tried out in the written problem, and because concrete materials are convenient. It is worth noting, however, that neither the abacus nor the Montessori beads are wholly satisfactory for the inductive teaching of mathematics, because the beads once handled become part of memory just as quickly as words once spoken—it is usually necessary to start again, without evidence of the prior error, if a mistake is made.
Finally, if self-correcting materials are to be well used in a classroom, it is essential that they be:
(4) thoroughly comprehensible to the teacher herself. For all Montessori's optimism, and the occasional euphoric statements by the modern reformers of math and science instruction, there are no “teacher-proof materials.” However self-checking the puzzle may be, the teacher must know when to present it or to withhold it, how to verify what (if anything) has been learned from it—and, if possible, how to improve it to eliminate error-generating elements. In any event, the teacher is so important a personage in the child's life, even if she is merely a “directress,” that she cannot avoid influencing what he perceives. Apart from certain bits of physical business, materials are usually self-correcting only when a teacher makes them so.
Another aspect of the Montessori materials, regarded as desirable for quite different theoretical reasons, is their attempt to involve muscles and tactile senses in fundamental learning operations. As Jerome Bruner has pointed out, there are a number of activities (Bruner's example is the tying of sailor's knots) which cannot be very well described in words or plainly presented in drawings—one gets the notion by watching someone do the job, and acquires an “understanding” through the process of duplicating what has been observed. The Montessori frames for buttoning clothes and tying shoelaces are lovely examples of this sort of thing, and their failure to become standard equipment in nursery schools and kindergartens is totally inexplicable. Think how much more nervous energy kindergarten and nursery teachers would have for important jobs if children could be got into their clothes at the end of the day by some technique less exhausting than force of will.
The most striking and famous example of Montessori's use of touch and muscle to approach abstraction comes, of course, in her prescriptions for the teaching of reading and writing. In the Montessori system, children learn the alphabet through the use of “sand letters”—sandpaper insets on smooth boards—over which they run their questing fingers. By the process of tracing the sand letters, the child acquires the basic movements which will enable him to write the letters when a pencil is placed in his hand. Here again, Montessori stresses the control of error, by the fact that the child's finger runs off the sandpaper onto the smooth wood; but now she insists, too, on the importance of “the muscular memory . . .” “Indeed,” she adds, the child “sometimes recognizes the letters by touching them, when he cannot do so by looking at them.”
Having learned the alphabet in this manner, the child is ready to move on to the construction of words, which is done in a straightforward manner through the use of alphabet cards. The child takes the cards from a storage box modeled on a printer's type-case, and spells out words which are dictated to him. Here, too, Montessori claims (though less convincingly) a self-checking feature: the child “will have the proof of the exact solution of his problem when he rereads the word.” This process is easier in Italian than in English, though the gap in difficulty can be exaggerated—the difference between the sounds of the initial “e” in fede (faith) and fedele (faithful) is about as great as such differences are in English, and the fact that there is a logical adult explanation for it does not much help the child learning to read; moreover, there is no very logical reason for spelling differences like that between obbligare (to oblige) and obliare (to forget). Assuming this hurdle already topped, however, the next step is, as Montessori says, pure natural magic—the child, having learned to trace and write the letters, and then having put words together with pre-printed letter-cards, suddenly discovers he can write, all by himself. And despite the incredible blatherskite that passed for “science” among American reading experts during the last generation, Montessori was unquestionably correct in her statement that children as young as age four Very much want to read and write, if they get the notion that they can read and write.
The didactic materials she describes in The Montessori Method, and at greater length in Elementary Material (which is volume two of Advanced Montessori Method), lie at the center of the Dottoressa's thought about education. And many of the materials are touched by genius. It is a great mistake, however, and one which too many Montessorians have made, to assume that only the materials developed by Montessori herself can be useful for her purposes, or that invention ceased when the old lady ran out of teaching ideas and shifted her attentions to Mankind at large. Toys like the Playskool postbox, with their requirement that the child find a two-dimensional figure (a hole in the box) matching in outline the shape of a three-dimensional figure (a block in his hand), point the way to games more interesting than Montessori's wafer-thin geometric shapes. The tying-shoe, which asks the child to lace a shape similar to the nuisance on his foot, is better than Montessori's tying frame. And it is possible that Omar Moore's electric typewriter, set in a “responsive environment” (the words used by Montessori herself), represents a true technological advance over Montessori's sand letters, though admittedly it does not yield the same advantages in terms of “muscular memory.” In any event, one can certainly imagine a Montessori classroom with booths at one end containing an electric typewriter and a computer programmed to calculate what response should be made to the child's explorations on it.
In mathematics, the Montessori materials have been clearly superseded. Centimeter rods (popularly, “Cuisenaire” rods, which is the brand name and pays tribute to the Belgian teacher who first systematized their use) are far more valuable mathematically than Montessori's rods. In the Montessori materials, the unit of length is greater than the unit of the cross-section of the rod, which means that only addition and subtraction problems can be managed—and not all of those. The centimeter rods, however, with a cube for the “1,” offer opportunities to handle all the four rules of arithmetic (multiplication becomes the calculation of area, which is a useful notion later). Even if we decide not to teach more math in kindergarten, it is foolish to switch the child from one set of materials to another when he can start with the more valid. Montessori was by no means a mathematical illiterate (few others interested in elementary education before the year 1955 could have made her comment to the effect that a knowledge of the differential calculus is essential to an understanding of Newtonian astronomy), but we have advanced great distances in recent years in the teaching of mathematics. Montessori's willingness to teach “0” as “nothing” is totally unacceptable today, when the number line is available as didactic material for teaching the notion that “0” is also the balance point between positive and negative numbers or vectors—and when “arrays of number lines” will be used with seven-year-old (and perhaps even six-year-old) children to start them on work with Cartesian coordinates. There is good reason to suspect that very young children's mathematical sense is much more susceptible of development than Montessori or modern educators ever realized, and that appropriate mathematical games of a wholly Montessorian nature could further enliven the educational aspect of the kindergarten.
Finally, montessori's views of art and music are pretty hopelessly those of the 19th century. She had both genius and spunk in deciding that musical instruments would have to be invented for her schools, but she was obviously too sure in her separation of musical sounds from “disordered and ugly noises.” (In this connection, too, it might be observed that Martin Deutsch, working in New York nursery schools and kindergartens, has come to the conclusion that for slum children today the necessary aural-discrimination training lies in picking signals from a noisy background, not lowering the threshold of perception through systematic silence. Probably both are desirable. The point is that a Montessori school ought not to be stuck with its founder's outdated aesthetics and communication theories, but should expand its procedures with the growth of knowledge.) In art, too. Montessori was in our terms backward, demanding as her definition of beauty the literal portrayal of “reality.” Though the Fauves were tearing Paris apart as she wrote, she insisted that the child who painted the tree-trunk red was demonstrating that he was not yet ready to advance in his abstract education. We have not progressed much in education since Montessori—but if her guidance is to be significant in the years to come, those who accept it must also be willing to reject those details which have lost their usefulness with the passage of fifty years.
Montessori's techniques were used first in mental institutions, then in the slums. Though her approach has values for the education of children from all backgrounds, many of the specific materials were designed to help children whose experience was desperately impoverished. In the years since, Montessori's inventions have had little impact on the schools, but they have been highly influential with the better toy manufacturers. There is something amusing about sophisticated parents, who have stocked their homes with Montessorian toys, spending up to fourteen hundred dollars a year to secure for their four-year-olds the values of exposure to Montessori's didactic materials in a schoolroom atmosphere. But it is not at all amusing to find that neither day-care centers nor kindergartens in the slums make use of the only systematic collection of educational devices designed for the sort of crippled children who are within their doors.
People who wish to plan Montessori schools for slum areas, however, should probably keep in mind that there were sociological as well as instructional innovations at the original Case dei Bambini, and that the Montessori approach might not work anywhere near so well in a “standard” school. The fact that Montessori's school was physically part of the model tenement where the children lived may have been quite important; the fact that the directress herself lived in the tenement was unquestionably quite important. There was, moreover, a certain toughness about Montessori's rules that will be difficult to recapture in the modern climate of opinion, which holds that a working-class child with dirty hands is insulted, alienated, and miserable whenever anyone tells him to wash up. Montessori's Case accepted only children whose parents were prepared to acknowledge “two obligations: namely, the physical and moral care of their own children. . . The parents must learn to deserve the benefit of having within the house the great advantage of a school for their little ones. . . The mother must go at least once a week, to confer with the directress, giving an account of her child, and accepting any helpful advice which the directress may be able to give.” Children who showed up in a soiled shirt could be sent away, and all dialects (in which Italian is as rich as English) were to be stamped out.
Whether the directors of new Montessori schools wish to go this far or not, they would probably be wise to take two basic principles from the Roman experience: that the school and its personnel must be very intimately a part of the community, which accepts some direct responsibility for it; and that attendance must be a privilege earned by both parents and child, not a right. Many promising programs in the slums have been first handicapped and then gutted by an administrator's sentimental insistence that everyone must be part of them. At present, the schools succeed, more or less, with about 20 per cent of the children in the slums; and it will take a near-miracle to raise this proportion to 50 per cent within a generation. In all fairness to the children, we should measure our efforts by their contribution to this near-miracle, not by standards of Utopian justice. People who wish to build the New Jerusalem are always welcome, but they should practice their hobby on their own time, not at the expense of children who might be helped by intelligent efforts to increase the probability of escape through education. In the slums, as anyone knows who has ever watched an unintelligent social worker, the line between all-encompassing charity and criminal irresponsibility can be very thin indeed.
There is also a danger in putting too many of our eggs in the basket of pre-school experience. Starting with D. O. Hebb a decade ago, and reaching complete statement with Jerome Bruner and Martin Deutsch in the last few years, psychologists have developed a new theory suspiciously like the old business of “mental exercise,” holding that children who are insufficiently stimulated at a very early age lose all chance to acquire certain significant abilities. The men responsible for this theory are the best we have, and they should not be frivolously criticized. But because the theory has a physiological provenance (in Hebb's terms, the completion of “phase assemblies” in the brain), a relatively small number of cases which deny it must leave it in the limbo of the unproved. The wretched orphanages of half a century ago, which gave children even less stimulation than a slum home, produced a better proportion of educated adults than Harlem (or modern foster homes) can boast today. There are no illiterates in Denmark, though most children at a low economic level (and there are “disadvantaged children” in Denmark, too) never see the inside of a school before they are seven years old—while in France, where most poor children start school at age three, one still finds catastrophic failures sitting over-age at the back of the elementary class. The argument for greatly enriched pre-school experience is certainly strong enough without an insistence on eternal damnation for those not lucky enough to enjoy it.
Nobody who has looked seriously at these problems doubts that first-rate nursery schools could help, and the Montessori model is the best we have. Nursery schools, however, may not be sufficient in themselves, and conceivably they may not be necessary. In the fashionable lingo of our day, the children we are trying to help are “multi-problem” children, and it would be wise to develop multiple approaches to them. But whatever we do, much of it must be informed by the Montessori spirit, and some of it must employ the Montessori method.