The principles behind Dr. Montessori’s “new education” originated in ancient Greece with Aristotle. He applied the processes of observation and reason to the task of understanding facts of reality, gathering so many data and formulating such a wealth of theoretical knowledge that no single scientist or educator has ever equaled his endeavor. A mere fraction of his works were spared from destruction at the hands of Christian anti-heretical zealots in the great library of Alexandria by Hypatia, and were later reintroduced to western civilization by the Islamic philosopher, Ibn Rushd (Averroës), and his Christian student, St. Thomas Aquinas. These works were the seeds of the Renaissance in 14th and 15th century Europe, as man rediscovered that the essence of the scientific method of learning consists of exploring, observing, questioning, experimenting, and thinking logically. Those same processes were employed by key philosophers, educators, and traders preceding the 19th century’s Industrial Revolution – the age of triumphant achievements in science and technology, conducted in a social atmosphere of expanding individual liberty and economic opportunity.
19th century science and technology, and the atmosphere of relative freedom in which they triumphed, were products of educational and political philosophies of the preceding two centuries – the Age of Reason. However, that atmosphere of individual liberty was short-lived, because the philosophers from the Age of Reason had failed to provide a rationally-based system of ethics to sustain the individualist foundations of those educational and political philosophies. Instead, by adopting medieval, faith-based altruistic ethics, they had sown the collectivist seeds for “modern”, “progressive” educational systems which produced the obedient citizenry necessary to sustain the totalitarian, statist political institutions of tyranny and oppression which fueled the “hot” and “cold” wars of the 20th century.
Ironically, out of pre-fascist Italy and post-revolutionary, communist Russia, came two of the 20th century’s most significant proponents of individual liberty. Dr. Maria Montessori, at the turn of the century in Italy, demonstrated, in her schools, the practicality of a “new education” based upon her uncompromising respect for the human dignity and individual liberty of children. After fleeing communist Russia in her youth, novelist-philosopher, Ayn Rand, at mid-century in America, demonstrated, in her epic novel, Atlas Shrugged, the practicality of a rationally-based system of ethics which mandates that uncompromising respect for human dignity and individual liberty. Montessori’s “new education” and Rand’s “objectivist ethics” are seeds for sustained social harmony and scientific achievement – seeds which 17th and 18th century philosophers had failed to provide.
Neither woman has survived to see whether or not her ideas will help to fuel a new Age of Reason in the 21st century. It still takes generations for great ideas to become manifest in our social institutions. However, although their ideas are still considered somewhat radical and alien to the traditions of the 20th century, it is becoming increasingly apparent that those ideas are, not only the logical extension of the great traditions of the Golden Age in Greece and the Renaissance in Europe, but also the necessary foundation for a new Age of Reason in which concepts of individual liberty are based on a rational system of ethics. In the wake of the current wave of reaction against the totalitarian, collectivist institutions of the 20th century, parents must now choose whether to provide their children with a traditional education, anchored to the old institutions and vocations of the 20th century, or whether to provide them instead with a “new education”, geared to the intellectual challenges and creative opportunities of the 21st century.