Freedom within Limits: Montessori and the U.S. Constitution

September 17th is the 227th anniversary of the Constitution of the United States, or as it’s officially known, Constitution Day. And while the United States as we know it today would not exist without the Constitution, September 17th often goes unnoticed by adults and children alike. Why is that?

The answer is fairly simple. We take the Constitution for granted. We can’t imagine living in a nation that isn’t free. But it wasn’t that long ago when a king, seated on a distant throne, ruled this land. And it wasn’t that long ago when every classroom on Earth was ruled by a teacher sitting at a desk at the front of the room. But the inevitability of classroom “tyranny” ended 107 years ago, when Montessori established the Casa de Bambini.

In days gone by (and in some traditional classrooms today) 30 children sat in desks, all learning the same thing at the same time from one teacher. But in the adult world, what happens when we limit the freedom of movement, the freedom of thought, the freedom of exploration, the freedom to discuss freely with one’s peers, the freedom to take action when desired, the freedom to work on what inspires us at that moment? When we take those things away, we call that autocracy, tyranny, or worse, totalitarianism. When we take those things away in the child’s world, some say, “That’s the way it is.” Children are too young to take matters in their hands and revolt, as American patriots did long ago. Instead, children whose developmental needs are not met simply behave “badly.” They don’t listen; they argue; they sulk. Some do even worse.

Can you imagine a nation without freedom? Overseas one tyrant is often traded for another, one regime for the next. Freedom is very hard to find in some nations. Sometimes it’s never found. And in nations that are not free, a curious thing happens: stagnation. When adults are not free, whole countries suffer from a malaise that often leaves those nations decades behind countries that are free. Similarly, can we expect great things in classrooms where the children are never truly free?

Some still believe children in a Montessori environment follow no rules and have no limits imposed upon them. But a classroom, just like a nation, cannot long survive without some sort of structure. And while the United States’ success is found in the freedom it gives its citizens, it is qualified as freedom within limits! Neither the government, nor the people, are permitted to trample underfoot the rights of others. Each citizen is left free to work hard and to experience the benefits of his or her efforts. Just so are the children in a Montessori classroom free from the negative influence of others. Their space is their own; their time is their own; their choice of work is their own, all within limits and guidelines. And because of this freedom, the children in a Montessori classroom feel the thrill of their own effort, which then inspires them to greater work and greater accomplishment.

It’s very easy to take for granted the freedom of this nation, along with the delicate balance of power found in our Constitution. Now that most of us have lived our entire lives completely free, if we were suddenly catapulted to a land where our lives were monitored and controlled by a central authority, we would crave freedom more than anything.

It’s also very easy to believe that the traditional model of education is okay for children. After all, that’s the way it’s been for hundreds of years. But Maria Montessori led a peaceful revolt that began in 1907, on behalf of the children of the world, and her work is still ahead of its time. While millions have benefitted from her method, there are still millions, perhaps billions, who have never even heard of the Montessori method. Today, nations with a strong totalitarian hand have little interest (unless it’s self interest), in allowing Montessori schools to take root in their cities. For such schools would surely represent the seeds of change.

On this September 17th, if you have a moment, you may wish to stop and give thanks to those who came before us, who so earnestly desired the freedom of mankind. Those early American patriots, along with Maria Montessori, deserve our deepest gratitude.

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