Maria Montessori, pedagogical orthodoxy, and the question of correct practice (1921–1929)
From Firenze University Press Journal: Rivista di Storia dell’Educazione
Bérengère Kolly, “Lettres, Idées, Savoirs” Laboratory, University of East Paris Créteil
In 1914, Maria Montessori wrote in a letter to Augusto Osimo1, Director of the Humanitarian Society (Società Umanitaria), that the continuity of her pedagogy depended not only on the courses she gave, but also on at least one school even a small one “properly apply-ing my method” (“col mio metodo ben applicato”),in order to lend value to my words «This is the fundamental thing, everything else can be remedied» («Ecco la cosa fondamentale, tutto il resto è rimediabile») (cited in Pironi 2018, 21).The question of correct practice theorised in particular by Henri Louis Go (2007) theoretically concerns every pedagogue. In Montessori’s case, it was a particularly pressing concern from the very outset, not least in Milan (Pironi 2007, 2018)2, and came through clearly in her relationships with other pedagogues (Kolly 2020).
However, this key issue has yet to be explored as such by historians of education. We therefore set out to explore it in an original manner, for instead of studying Maria Montessori’s writings, we decided to examine the views that her contemporaries expressed in the pages of Pour l’Ère nouvelle. The articles published in the early years of this journal clearly show that correct practice, or ortho-doxy, was the aspect of Montessori’s pedagogy that was most avidly discussed.Maria Montessori explained on several occasions that while teachers were evidently free to make their own pedagogical choices, they had to be consistent once they had done so. Sheila Radice (1920) wrote in this regard:If teachers want to get the same results that she has had, they will do as she has done; if they do not want to, they will not. One thing she objects to, and that is that teachers should make variations on her method and ascribe the results to her (Radice, 1920, 24).It should be noted that this adherence to a single line of conduct and rejection of any mixing of pedagogies, interpreted as rigidity and dogmatism, has long been and continues to be presented as a key aspect of the Montessori movement (Kramer 1988, 377 et seq.; Pesci 2019, 105).
We decided to take Montessori as an example of the controversy surrounding the question of correct practice in the field of pedagogy. We saw her as a generic case, enabling us to raise issues that are relevant to any-one who propounds a specific pedagogy. To this end, we looked at how Montessori’s pedagogy was analyzed by her contemporaries in the early years of the journal Pour l’Ère nouvelle. These writers reproached Montes-sori less for her specific practices or philosophy than for the way she applied her pedagogy. The orthodoxy-real or imagined of Montessori’s pedagogy was thus the main point under discussion. The term orthodoxy first appeared in 1924, in an article published in the journal by Ovide Decroly (1924, 63). At that time, it was used to designate educators who strictly applied Montessori’s principles and techniques, without any additions or mix-ing; Decroly criticized Montessori’s rigid attitude as hindering the widespread application of her pedagogy. The term was subsequently used many times in the journal to distinguish Montessorians strictu sensu from educators inspired by Montessori. We attempt to show that this pedagogical controversy was far from merely anecdotal. First, the question of orthodoxy and correct practice influenced the strategies used to disseminate the Montessori method, the forms it took in other countries, and the degree to which it spread (just as it would for any pedagogy; see Droux and Hofstetter, 2015). Second, it explains some of the controversies and misunderstandings that arose between Montessori and several of her contemporaries, in particular Decroly and Adolphe Ferrière, who at that time were key figures in the field of new education (Depaepe, Simon and Gorp, 2003).
It should be noted that we do not consider the New Education Fellowship to have been a coherent network, either practically or philosophically, owing to the considerable heterogeneity of its members’ political and pedagogical positions. This is why we chose to explore this controversy via a single journal, the archives of Pour l’Ère nouvelle. First published in January 1922, this French-language journal affiliated with the International League for New Education (LIEN) reflect-ed both new ideas in education and the diversity of the strategies adopted by members of the Fellowship. For each protagonist could potentially have a different relationship with and opinion about Montessori, and these could change over time.
This analysis highlights the reticence that some of Montessori’s contemporaries displayed, not toward her pedagogy, but toward a certain way of conceiving of and applying it. By so doing, it provides an opportunity to think about the issues raised when attempts are made to protect a specific method (Montessori) within an array of philosophical and political practices and positions (New Education Fellowship). We chart the early years of Pour l’Ère nouvelle, from the conference in Calais (1921) to the one in Elsinore (1929). As a counterpoint, we also study the first issues of the Montessorian journal The Call of Education. In our chronological analysis, we describe I) the issues relating to dissemination and internationalization, II) the more pedagogical issues concerning the importance of the material versus the inventiveness of the teacher, and III) the more political issues involving the protection of a specific pedagogy or the affirmation of a plurality of pedagogies.