Montessori, Maslow, and Self-Actualization

By Weinberg, David R. | Montessori Life, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Montessori, Maslow, and Self-Actualization


Weinberg, David R., Montessori Life


What must never be forgotten by the Montessori teacher, or by any teacher of young children, is that his or her primary task, his or her primary obligation, his or her primary sacred duty is not the teaching of the "three Rs" but that of nurturing the psychological health of the child. Montessori stated it very clearly: "Education must not be understood in the sense of teaching, but of assisting the psychological development of the child" (1965, p. 28). Upon this single sentence rests the entire superstructure of her methodology. And as Montessorians, we can proudly point to this single sentence, this new and cogent definition of education, as her monumental contribution to humanity.

Every element of Montessori methodology is designed for the care of the soul, which for Maria Montessori begins from the moment of birth. This is her description of welcoming the newborn and her advice to us:

He zs like a Pilgrim who comes from somewhere far distant, worn out and wounded. . . . The child should be picked up by means of a light, yielding support, like a soft hammock. . . . But the care of the new-born should not be limited to preserving it from death, to isolating it from infection. . . . There are the problems of the "psychic care of the child" from the very moment of birth. . . . The new-born is not only a body ready to function as a body, but a spiritual embryo with latent psychic capacities. . . . [T]He psychic life of the child needs a defence and an environment analogous to the sheaths and veils that nature has set round the physical embryo. . . (1965, p. 16).

This concern for the soul is laced through all Montessori' s pedagogic writings and is at the core of her "prepared environment." With the great variety of didactic materials in the classrooms, teacher concerns are sensory motor development, language development, math concepts, and so on. But while these are the direct goals of the materials, Montessori keeps emphasizing the indirect yet profound outcomes of the accompanying spontaneous activity, concentration, and repetition, all of which are powerful internal psychic values. So despite the great profusion of the didactic materials, she reminds her teachers that the "prepared environment" is not primarily designed for academic learning, as important as that surely is, but rather designed for psychic health.

The terminology we use for such an education is that of educating the "whole child." What we really mean, however, is an education for the "whole adult."

But what does the "whole adult" mean? What goals are we laboring toward? What kind of person are we hoping for? What are the characteristics of such a person?

The eminent psychologist who described the "whole adult" was Abraham Maslow (1908-1970). Maslow used a more technical term, "The Self-Actualized Individual/' and he charted the necessary fulfillment of needs that lead one toward self-actualization. As opposed to Freud and the Freudians, Maslow studied psychologically healthy individuals in order to ascertain the determinants that brought about their state of psychological health.

Maslow' s contribution was as profound and monumental as Maria Montessori's. Here was a new psychology, bold in its break from traditional thinking. Maslow himself stated its vision and purpose: "Freud supplied to us the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half" (1999, p. 7). Maslow' s life's work was filling in the other half. His book Motivation and Personality (1954) began a philosophical revolution for psychologists out of which grew humanistic psychology. It changed views of human nature from those of the Freudians and the behaviorists who believe that man is a conditioned or tension-reducing organism to one in which man is motivated from within to realize his full potentialities.

Others worked with the same worldview: the Adlerians, the Rogerians, Goldstein, Horney, Allport, Murray, the Gestalt therapists, the neo-Freudians and post-Freudians, and many others, and the group of theories that developed became known as "third-force psychology. …

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