Maria Montessori and Educational Forces in America

By Shortridge, P. Donohue | Montessori Life, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Maria Montessori and Educational Forces in America


Shortridge, P. Donohue, Montessori Life


When Maria Montessori addressed two wildly enthusiastic American audiences at Carnegie Hall in December 1913, she thrilled the parents in attendance, but sent a shock wave through the educational establishment. Instead of accommodating skeptics from the teacher-training institutions seated there that night, she appealed directly to parents who found in the Montessori message an antidote to the miasma in their children's schools. Subsequently, the educational establishment that found more to dislike than to admire in Montessori marshaled their considerable power to discourage any permanent American Montessori movement for years to come.

This article will explore that clash: Montessori and optimistic American families versus tlie American educational establishment of tlie time. For further historical perspective, I will offer an analysis of the growth of the kindergarten movement and the emergence of progressivism in education as an outgrowth of tlie American Progressive movement at the tum of the 20th century. Maria Montessori's presentations at Carnegie Hall occurred at the apex of these convulsive forces.

The History of the Nursery School and the Kindergarten

Early childhood education in America can be traced back to tlie mid 1800s when adherents of Froebel's kindergarten methods immigrated to tlie United States from Germany But the kindergarten's roots extend back even further, to the nursery school movement in Eiuope. Robert Owen, a socialist cotton-mill owner in New Lanark, Scotland, sought to create an idyllic setting for the children of his workers, believing that environment molds tlie person. By 1813, Owen had created an environment where children from birth through 6 years old played, sang, and ate regularly. Soon after, numerous philanthropic organizations in England and Europe organized along the lines of New Lanark. Infant schools spread to Germany coinciding with the development of Froebel's kindergarten, a separate movement, similar but unconnected to New Lanark. By the 1830s in Germany, Kleinkinder-beivahranstalten (public institutions for the care of tlie poor) were established for young children, focusing specifically on the physical aspects of their well being (Forest, 1935).

In the United States, in tlie late 19th and early 20th centuries, tlie nursery school movement (generally considered to include children 4 years old and younger) represented a variety of formulating interests: the research- center nursery school, the cooperative nursery school, the private-school nursery school, the philanthropic nursery school, and tlie teacher-training nursery school (Forest, 1935, pp. 43-61).

Research-center nursery schools arose as an integral part of university research programs inquiring into the concept of normal development. Theorists became convinced that abnormalities in adolescence and adulthood originated in childhood. Psychologists, such as Yale University's Dr. Arnold Gesell, sought to observe children in natural settings to determine normal social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. Researchers, who originally set up child observations on a casual basis, quickly realized that trained adults could facilitate the children's groups. By the turn of the 20th century, the universities of Yale and Columbia sponsored just two of the many elaborately funded and equipped university nursery schools in America.

Cooperative nursery schools arose out of tlie need of young mothers to provide care for their children as the mothers sought work outside the home diuing World War I. Nursemaids were too expensive and mothers taking turns caring for the children often proved complicated. Again, trained care providers solved the problem and soon tlie tittle cooperative nursery school had evolved into the private nursery school movement, sanctioned by pediatricians as adequate for the needs of young children.

Philanthropic nursery schools were an integral part of settlement houses and churches in which the needs of poor children were served within their own communities. …

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