Against Methods: The Arts of the Ordinary

This is another reply to Pascal Emanuel Gobry, in particular to his recent reply to me regarding the radical uniqueness of the Montessori curriculum.

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I’ve recently posted a few sketched-out ideas about the absence of generosity, rooted in fear, that grips the public conversation, especially online. There is so much of it and, tragically, I often find myself in the middle of it. Outrage is a fickle and easy chemistry, one click away from explosion.

This is one reason why this exchange with PEG, a person so talented and charming that I cannot begin to match his qualities, has come at a perfect time and in exemplary form. Given how much snotty-nosed dismissal and hyperbolic grandstanding passes for debate, I must begin by stating the obvious: this is a grown folks discussion.

We live in an age of savage inversions, when children are asked to act like adults and adults are praised for acting like child, and it is easy to forget what it is to disagree with the civility, class, and grace of a grown up. For my part, it is nothing short of a treasure to have such a colleague and discussion. Make what you may of the details to follow, but do not forget the performance — it is there that you will find the key.

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PEG is a champion of the Montessori curriculum. While I am not, I would not say that I am wholly opposed to Montessori in any serious way. In fact, when compared to the three curricula (Classical, Great Books, and Montessori) I wrote of yesterday, I am most friendly toward this one, at least in principle.

Let me also add that all the Montessori teachers I’ve met, one who I count as a close friend, are filled with a similar enthusiasm and healthy zeal for Montessori. They show, in every respect, a sanity of mind and openness of heart. They are not ideologues; nor is PEG. There is nothing I know of in the concrete about Montessori that I would judge as doing anything but adding tremendous value.

In other words, the matter is highly prudential and, in many ways, abstract. However, I would caution anyone of being too hasty in dismissing the abstract to the benefit of the concrete — especially those who are believers in a mysterium tremendum.

This is all to say that, no, I am not working from a bad anecdotal experience here and, yes, I would consider sending my children to a Montessori school someday.

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PEG is also right that when we look to Maria Montessori, the person, she is immune of many of the problems and carry-overs in the literature, particularly Locke and Rousseau. However, the Montessori movement, especially in the United States, joins a small but growing number of curricula that, on my reading, smack of Romanticism — of Rousseau’s Emile and Emerson’s Self-Reliance. This is not a bad thing, all things considered, but it does complicate the more tidy portrait of Montessori herself.

Nonetheless, I will table that complexity because PEG is ultimately right about the methodological orientation of Montessori, stemming from her own training as a scientist. Montessori, like John Dewey, saw the experimental method of science as bearing a transformative potential. Unlike Dewey, Montessori did not exchange a governing metaphysics — rooted in the dignity and beauty of the human person; most of all for her was the child — for scientific seductions.

Plus, Montessori was so much more than a lab scientist: she was a physician. In this respect she shares a kinship with William James, who was an MD, not a PhD. This is crucial because the medical approach to science is not only committed to the experimental model, it is also, in a more immediate and urgent sense, rooted in phenomenological observation of the human person.

So too with her teaching. She entered the scene without a method. She saw what she saw, and did what was needed. The she found popularity for that was a surprise even to her. This generalized itself into certain insights, but it is my opinion that what was most crucial — and properly scientific — about what she did was not her methods, it was what came before the methods.

Of those methods and movements, as PEG noted and I complicated above, her youngest grandchild said the following:

Since the beginning Montessori pedagogy has been appropriated, interpreted, misinterpreted, exploited, propagated, torn to shreds and the shreds magnified into systems, reconstituted, used, abused and disabused, gone into oblivion and undergone multiple renaissances.

This is of course no reason to abandon the serious and remarkable work of Maria Montessori nor the now global tide that her life and legacy has brought to education (well beyond schooling), but it is another way to press a cautionary button on the Montessori brand.

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In other words, when PEG writes that “every other education method starts with an abstract conceptual model of the child,” he is being a bit too dismissive of those who, like Montessori, have no methods to begin with. Those who, like a physician and a healer, begin with what is there, but not without a metaphysical (which will always, to some degree, be abstract) world to support it.

Montessori does not simply “work.” It is not a “just add water” set of “best practices.” Nonetheless, that it can become such a thing only speaks ultimately to its strengths, which are always the most seductive forms of weakness.

None of this is to say that we should not try out and even require certain practices that make sense. None of this suggests that methods cannot do some work. The danger is one of putting the horse in front of the carriage, in letting a curriculum be reduced to a method, to an instructional model, to a delivery system for stuff. Methods are tools and must be used with an instrumental priority that relies on a deeper and more fixed reality.

This is why, even when a Montessori curriculum doesn’t work, it might still be worthwhile as a curriculum. After all, the question of curriculum is “What is of most worth?” For Montessori, this answer she gave is more important and more valuable to teachers and schools and education in the widest sense than any of her methods.

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For these reasons I feel like it is PEG, not I, who sells the Montessori curriculum short, by employing a pragmatic, “It works!,” attitude and argument and by, in his parting blow, claiming that “we need methods and not just philosophical questioning.”

To be fair, PEG is not excluding philosophical questioning outright. And it would seem odd to say that we do not need methods. But that is, in fact, what I am saying; and Montessori herself offers us a compelling story about the power of an ordinary phenomenology to observe, diagnose, and heal with all the common sense of the scientific method, but also, and most of all, the judgement that seeks attunement and beauty with a fierce fidelity to the truth of the mystery of the human person.

This is not heady or abstract meandering. This is the sort of questioning that holds methods and social science and all the other tools at bay because of the weight and scale of the mystery of the child we encounter, shining with the light of Christ. This is the questioning that forces us to abandon pedagogy for mystagogy, learning for love.

This is why I continue to reject the need for novelty or even originality and all forms of external change. Montessori curriculum is to be lauded not because it is special or one of a kind but, instead, because, when practiced in the spirit of its namesake, it is ordinary and adds nothing to what already is there.

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Just as science can slip into scientism, so too can anything that bears fruit become ideology. Montessori is no exception, but that should not count against it so much as inspire caution to speak in its favour not too strongly, generally, or hastily.


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