Montessori and Plato: a surprising parallel

My wife and I have slowly been starting to investigate Montessori education as a possible option for our children in a couple of years. Thus far the biggest surprise for me has been some of the parallels of the Montessori educational philosophy with Plato’s understanding of the nature of education in his masterpiece, the Republic.

The most famous part of the Republic–that is, the only part many people have heard about–is the “Allegory of the Cave” in Bk. VII (yes, like the Mumford and Sons song, “The Cave”). In this allegory, prisoners are kept in a cave, where they are chained to seats and forced to spend their entire lives looking at shadows cast onto a wall by a fire positioned behind them (think “shadow puppets from hell”). Of course, since this is the only life the prisoners have known, they believe the shadows cast on the wall are real things.

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If life in the cave doesn’t sound like fun, note that release from the cave is not fun either. The prisoner has to be unshackled and turned around from the wall with its dancing shadows.  He then must begin walking up and out of the cave: first toward the fire behind him, and ultimately up toward the entrance of the cave. With eyes unadjusted to light, a freed prisoner experiences pain and confusion as he tries to look at the bright fire illuminating the cave. The light at the entrance to the cave–the sun–brings even more pain. The prisoner, as Plato remarks, would need to be coerced out of the cave. He would need to be dragged. But once he is out of the cave, the former prisoner’s eyes do adjust after a time, and he finally sees the real world. He realizes that the shadows in the cave were just that–shadows, images, cheap imitations of what is true and real.

Now if this little allegory had been written by a modern-day academic, the professor would then pedantically explain how we also need to break out of the “Cave” of our own stupid, provincial worldviews (so as to more easily be indoctrinated into the professor’s own politically correct, progressive worldview which is every bit just as stupid and provincial). Perhaps, like the teacher at Florida Atlantic University, he would try to make you trample on a piece of paper with the name of Jesus written on it, so you could learn about “breaking taboos,” being unshackled from your chains.

But Plato understands something different by the allegory. Of course it is an allegory about education–in that, at least, the modern day academic would be correct–but for Plato is it less about the need to be educated or “enlightened,” and more about the nature of education:

“Then, if this is true, our view of matters must be this, that education is not in reality what some people proclaim it to be in their professions. What they aver is that they can put true knowledge into a soul that does not possess it, as if they were inserting vision into blind eyes.” (518b-c, trans. Paul Shorey)

Rather, according to Plato:

“It <the soul, the mind> possesses vision but does not rightly direct it and does not look where it should.” (518d)

In other words, Plato does not think that education consists in making people smart, in the sense of filling them with knowledge like you would fill an empty glass with wine. That would be to understand the human being not as free person, but rather as an inert object. According to Plato, people are already smart, not in the sense of necessarily knowing lots of facts, but rather in the sense of being capable of having a built-in, automatic capacity to teach themselves, to “enlighten” themselves.

The problem, according to Plato, is that people pay attention to the wrong things. To put it in terms of present-day examples, they direct their amazing learning capabilities to the local gossip, to “reality” TV shows, to video games, and other things of no importance. Such people might seem dumb, but in fact, they are quite smart. They might not be able to recite the Declaration of Independence for you, but in their “chosen fields of study,” they actually know an amazing array of facts–all self-taught. The goal of education, then, for Plato, is to “turn the soul around,” to get people to pay attention to the things worth paying attention to. That is the true role of the teacher. The teacher does not lecture the prisoners chained in the cave; he unshackles them and leads them to the real things.

Now, Montessori. Consider some of the following statements from one of the most well-respected introductions to Montessori educational practices, How to Raise an Amazing Child the Montessori Way by Tim Seldin:

“Given the right stimulation at the right time, children are able to learn almost unconsciously.” (p. 15, emphasis mine)

Seldin is writing a friendly, introductory book, so he doesn’t throw around any Plato quotes (that’s my job), but the parallel with Plato is striking. The child is not only a self-learner, but an amazingly proficient self-learner. He learns “almost unconsciously,” like breathing. As Plato would put it, the child’s soul “possesses vision.” Directed to the right thing at the crucial moment, the child teaches himself.

And, though it is not part of the Allegory of the Cave, that Montessori emphasis on the “right stimulation at the right time,” also has echoes in the Republic. In the strange “utopia” of the Republic, every person is limited to the one job for which he is naturally suited. Plato does not recommend this in order to stunt people’s personal growth, but rather with the understanding that every task has its “crucial moments” that only the expert in that task can recognize:

“If anyone lets slip the right season, the favorable moment in any task, the work is spoiled.” (370b)

This led Plato, in several spots in the Republic, to give fairly detailed instruction concerning the education of the future leaders of the utopian city; certain subjects were to be studied at certain times in their lives. In a like manner, Maria Montessori recognized that children “go through stages of intellectual interest and curiosity–what she called sensitive periods–in which they become intrigued and absorbed by particular aspects of their environment” (Seldin, 14). Montessori education, at least in my elementary understanding of it, is aimed at taking advantage of these periods so that the child can learn in the easiest possible way.

There may be good arguments against Montessori education–as I wrote earlier, my wife and I have only recently begun to look into it–but this recognition of some ancient truths recognized by Plato is certainly an initial mark in its favor.

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One Response to Montessori and Plato: a surprising parallel

  1. mamaberg says:

    I am a certified school teacher and I am currently undertaking my Montessori teacher training. Prior to pursuing a career in education, I completed a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy with an emphasis on Plato, metaphysics and epistemology. As I am working through my training, the connections between Plato and Montessori are becoming more and more apparent. Montessori education in and of itself is highly philosophical, allowing students to derive mathematical formulas (such as the formulas for perimeter, circumference and area) through logical premises and conclusions; they make philosophical arguments that lead them to see the ‘truth’–not unlike Plato’s forms. At the higher levels, they derive and prove the Pythagorean theorem. It’s amazing stuff and it’s essentially a union of my philosophical training and my education training. Very intriguing stuff. After teaching in a more traditional school environment for the past 8 years, I am becoming a convert of the Montessori approach to education. It is intricate and probably superior to conventional educational methods for young children. Indeed, knowledge is treated as a kind of ‘recollection’.

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