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Montessori: In Praise of Independence
Montessori: In Praise of Independence

Montessori: In Praise of Independence

“I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” –Thomas Jefferson (from a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush of September 23, 1800. ME 10:173 — according to the Electronic Text Center of the Library of the University of Virginia) Independence. It is the American way. More fundamentally and more importantly, it is an aspect of human nature and human reason. I’d say — looking through human history and at our everyday experience — “tyranny over the mind of man” is tyranny against independence.  And vice versa. (Consider, for example, the American Revolution. Or WWII. Or a thief saying “give me your money.” Or slavery.) I think independence is an important idea to consider in raising our children and teaching our students. And so does Elizabeth G. Hainstock, author of Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Pre-School Years, a short how-to book on using Montessori methods and materials in your home (for children pre-5 years old). The book is primarily a collection of educational and practical exercises: dusting, folding a napkin, tying laces, building a tower of blocks, using “cylinder blocks”, tracing sandpaper letters. Ms. Hainstock lists the steps to go through in each exercise, the goal to achieve, how “error” (doing the exercise wrong) is controlled, what materials you need for an exercise. She has an appendix in the book that tells how to construct some materials. I recommend the book. The exercises all teach the child to do for self, and that he/she can do for self. And they teach the child how to think. I like that in the introductory section, Ms. Hainstock takes a position and writes strongly. She is not wishy-washy. She clearly puts a high value on children, on human independence, and on human thought. These things are important to her and she does not want to see them attacked or degraded. (Update (4:40 PM): Parenting and child rearing are things that we are sensitive about and that are personal. Don’t take what Mr. Hainstock says as an insult or criticism, but rather as good advice and a reminder of something we can all forget at times.) Regarding independence, Ms. Hainstock says:
Let your child have the practical training that is so necessary to his physical independence. The child must be taught independence, and you, the parent, must resist the temptation to always “help” if you care about his future well-being and development. One of the cruelest and most selfish things a parent can do is to make his child completely dependent on him. [This is a misconception of “selfish.” See below. –MG] Parents too often do this because they want to feel needed; by the time they realize their mistake irrevocable damage has been done. A parent who is able to raise a child well and then let him go is a far better parent than one who raises a dependent, clinging creature who cannot lead a life of his own.
Far too many schools today are also guilty of not allowing our children to think for themselves. Children are too often being forced to submit to an unimaginative curriculum in an environment where the teacher makes all the decisions, while the children suffer under the delusion that they are really learning. What they are getting is shallow, superficial learning that profits neither teacher nor pupil. Today’s children need far more stimulation than they are being given. They are learning by rote, responding to stock questions with stock answers; too seldom are they allowed to use their minds imaginatively and creatively. On the few occasions when a child or young adult is suddenly presented with a “thought” question, he is unprepared to cope with it — his thinking processes have become stagnant from disuse. It is a pathetic fact that too many young people today are able to think and talk only in vague generalities and abstractions. Is it the fault of the child that he is ill prepared, or does the fault lie within the structure of our present-day educational [system] and, indeed, with the parents themselves, for placing too much emphasis on dependency? Are we raising a generation of pampered, dependent children, who are slowly being allowed to lose all concept of originality and creativity? The importance of teaching our children how to learn and think for themselves in the earliest, formative years cannot be overstressed. A solid, sound framework must be laid, on which the child’s future learning — a never-ending process — can be based. The child prepared in this way will not be satisfied with superficial learning but will want to delve more deeply into whatever he studies on his own. (pp. 15-16, Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Pre-School Years by Elizabeth G. Hainstock, (c) 1968 Elizabeth G. Hainstock, A Plume Book (New American Library), New York, first Plume printing October, 1976.)
Sound advice. I think independence and the proper functioning of reason go hand-in-hand (again, by looking at history and everyday experience; and philosophically by the abstract identifications that we have free will and that reason is volitional), so in order to teach a child to reason and to apply reason to understanding the world and living life, we need to teach her/him to be independent. Montessori ideas are a great start.


One should, I think, be careful in throwing around terms like “selfish” and “altruistic.” We need to know what the terms mean exactly, and we need to know in what context someone uses those terms: what does the person think about man’s nature? reason? free will? the nature of the universe? the individual’s relation to society? human rights? Answers to these questions are crucial to giving meaning to “selfish” and “altruistic.” Why do we have the concepts “selfish” and “altruistic” anyway? Those two concepts identify answers to the basic question of who should be the prime beneficiary of your action and values. Selfishness says you should be the prime beneficiary of your action; altruism says someone or something other than yourself should be the prime beneficiary of your action. (The term altruism was coined by the philosopher Auguste Comte.) Yes, some schools of the general position in morality called selfishness are irrational and rail against the absolutism of causality in our universe — some people say to act on whim; some say to follow your own emotion; some advocate disregarding consequences — but not all schools of selfishness are irrational. Some schools are rational and believe in the causal absolutism of reality — i.e., they believe that you can benefit from your action only if you obey human nature, the laws governing human survival, and the laws governing existence. They’d say: obey causality, or suffer or die; values can only be achieved in this world, by obeying its laws. It should be pointed out that altruism does not mean merely “being nice to other nice people;” it means you have to serve someone/something else. (We already have concepts for charity and benevolence: “charity” and “benevolence”. “Altruism” is not another word to mean the exact same thing.) In altruism, there are a range of possibilities for who the “other” could be: the Fatherland, a god, a range of gods, the environment, the proletariat, your mother or your husband. The range is limited only by human ingenuity and imagination, but in any case, the principle of altruism says someone/something else’s values and life have to come first; satisfying those values and life is your primary purpose. That raises the questions: does being altruistic make it hard to be independent and self-sovereign? And is altruism consistent with independence and self-sovereignty? Regarding use of the word “selfish” by Ms. Hainstock — making your child dependent on you is not necessarily selfish. Sometimes it’s short-sighted. Sometimes it’s an innocent mistake. Sometimes it’s psychopathic. Sometimes it’s plainly and simply destructive. Sometimes it’s hatred. On a rational view of selfishness, if your child is a value to you, it is anti-selfish to make your child dependent on you. By this view, if you value individual responsibility in all men, if you value self-sovereignty in all men, and if you value your individual, unique child, if those values make up part of who you are, then it is an attack on your own values and ideas, on your own self, to crush your child’s independence, and therefore his/her future life and nature as a human being. This view says it is in your self-interest to give your child the best upbringing you can. And what’s more, giving your child the best is an obligation you take on in choosing to have children in the first place. As independent, self-sovereign beings, we have to decide for ourselves how to live, whether to be selfish or altruistic and why, and how to raise our chldren. I hope to get answers we use reason: identify all the (essential) relevant evidence, ponder it objectively, follow the laws of induction and deduction, indentify principles, indentify cause-effect relationships, use the methods of science.

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