I. SOME MONTESSORI CONCEPTS AS A BASIS FOR THIS TALK
1. Let's begin with Maria Montessori’s own definition of her “method” (a term which she dislikes):
THE MONTESSORI METHOD?
AID PROVIDED TO THE HUMAN PERSON TO CONQUER HIS INDEPENDENCE!
To say this is to recognize that:
. independence is never an immediate “given” from nature: thus, it involves a “cultural” action, i.e., one that is social, environmental, ideological and theological;
. this independence also needs to be conquered, which presupposes drills, strategies and tactics: complete training, will, continuity to the point of ...victory;
. the child is a person: a concept used independently of age, condition, and socio-economic and cultural conditions;
. this child is a human person: i.e, with specific recognized and inalienable rights;
. the child needs to be aided: aid that requires following a certain deontology.
2 - Let us also consider one of Maria Montessori’s favourite expressions, one that she places, as a demand for dignity, in the child’s implicit demand for help.
“HELP ME TO DO IT BY MYSELF”
Thus, first of all, “Let me exist in my own autonomy!”
I wonder if the fundamental requirement that the pedagogical act demands could be described better than with these simple words! What holds true for countries (the recognition of one state by one or other states) is also valid for ethnic groups (phylogenesis) as well as individuals (ontogenesis). Here, Maria Montessori places herself - and the debate - at the level of the fundamental philosophy of human nature. Thus, the child will exist as a “small human” only “to the extent he will know how to ‘do by himself’ ”. Without intending Sartre's exclusive meaning of existentialism (purporting that man is only what he does), together with Maria Montessori we can say that man is and exists only to the extent he is rendered capable of doing, and then the 'grand dame' adds: ‘by himself’!
Thus, in the Montessori vision, the “father of man” can be understood essentially from the perspective of capacity, potential, virtuality, becoming: as an undefined becoming, drawing from sources of multiple and diverse capacities, ever renewed by their use, but conditioned by the particularities of historic development. Such phases of development are possible only during certain periods of existence; a person's entire being will suffer from their absence, if these phases have not had a chance to be actualized during the period nature provided.
Here we sense the necessity and responsibility whereby the pedagogical action, thus considered, takes place. Maria Montessori goes so far as to locates the instance of nature where the primordial phase (i.e., the first in order of importance) of this proteiform and original activity is accomplished, even naming it: “the creative unconscious”, i.e., this something one is not conscious of, but which is more ourselves than ourselves (this is the definition Augustine of Hippo gives for God!).
3 - Maria Montessori tried to define this elusive kind of reality, - as everything related to the unconscious: this pedagogist makes some observations, and, as it were, “translates” the term “creative unconscious” by another concept, seductive both by its plasticity and its congruence, the concept of “the absorbant mind”. The child integrates notions with his “absorbant mind” that he would have much harder time acquiring at another moment: it is a state of an unconscious, creative mind constructing itself
. not due to efforts of the will,
. but guided by “internal sensitivities” (iconic “sensitive periods”: acoustical, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, visual)
. during a temporary period,
. that remains present just the time nature needs to accomplish its oeuvre.
4 - In this gestation of the child’s “human contents”, what Maria Montessori emphasizes is the notion of “internal order”: it enables the “humanity of man” to go from chaotic nothingness to inchoative origins: from the hubbub to the cosmos. Thus, finally, also a notion of “rhythm”: a clock of sorts, a calculating calendar, a personal internal balancing element, placed naturally within each person, accomplishing the ideal cadence of ontogenetic developments.
Let us collect our Montessorian harvest:
1. Autonomy of development
2. Creative unconscious
3. Absorbant mind
4. Internal Order and Rhythms
Here are (at least) 4 points, one could say four axes, an education in wisdom and as a corrolary, a wisdom of education can be considered!
II - WHAT EDUCATION FOR WHAT WISDOM, TODAY?
1. In a crazy world, a crazy wisdom: a paradox
It is a cliché to say that the world is crazy, that it doesn’t know where it's going, that it's heading towards a catastrophe! Another cliché, just as hackneyed, repeats the opposite: the world is wonderful, full of resources and promises, and if only man would..etc...etc...so that ... etc. etc.
In fact, the world is and will always be what it has always been: an unbelievable milieu/ instrument where we are and one that is in our hands. It only goes where we go, and we never go anywhere! If we don't know where we're going, that's because of our own lack of orientation, not to its folly!
There are enough stock images, enclosed within the primordial obscurity (the “chiaroscuro” of Caravaggio, that of Dioscures, i.e, the “Dii Oscuri” of the Capitol) of our unconscious that are only waiting to be activated by this Montessorian “mysterious sensitivity”. For example, we don’t use the "Significant Texts" of Humanity’s World Heritage enough. Perhaps we no longer know how to “tell the stories directly” to children. We abandon them in front of TV screens and let them stuff themselves with ready-made electronic images, 24 per second!
As a result, the visual force of their own internal production of images is becoming weakened. This is the force that should go searching in the night of its own destiny, the dream responses, i.e., the real responses to the children’s questions when they face the world with stupor: Stupor Mundi, was the nickname Friedrich der Zweite von Hohenstaufen's contemporaries called him!
Hence, the child, the father of man, begins to imagine his own response to what astonishes him in the world: either it's a ready-made and politically-correct response, a socio-electronic stereotype, - or a stroke of wise folly, as unexpected and as stupefying as the message from the world itself, - and necessarily one of protest!
How have those who were faced with unacceptable death, Egyptians and Incas, told us the stories in their books, The books of the Dead: Popol Vuh or Saqqarah? How did those people who were surprised by innumerable wars and genocides of the Indian sub-continent survive? They have told children the stories of Maharabattha and Ramayana, as infinite in their wanderings as were their ancestral quarrels! How often have those searching for a land, and then faced with the loss of their hope and the destruction of their faith, had to throw [THEMSELVES?] on the paths of doubt and fear? With the help of their God, they say, Hebrews then Christians, created their instruments of survival and eternal life. The Bible and the Gospels, from Genesis to the Apocalypse, lined the crazy avenues of their wanderings through space and time! And they are still doing it!
The paradox of life that wins, despite everything and despite appearances, isn't it the perfect paradox, because daily events seem to expose the world to annihiliation; hence, the story of the supernatural needs to be told, but with the voice of story-tellers! This is the
game board [PLAGE DU JEU?]
of this Montessorian “creative unconscious”.
2. In a complicated world, a complex wisdom: pluridisciplinarity
“How is the world doing, Sir? “It is, Sir.” Perhaps this reply à la Ionesco doesn’t explain anything, it comes straight out of ordinary cafe conversation, and yet it admits to a resignation of sorts in the face of the world’s complexification.
This morning, Edgar Morin - I am happy to say that his thought has inspired me for years, (especially this last decade I spent in South-East Asia, where everything that is, is without doubt, without quite being, but all the while being at the same time) - this morning, therefore, in his talk on “The Necessary Knowledge for Education in the Twenty-first Century”, Master Edgar spoke enough about pluridisciplinarity.
I will only emphasize that the difference between complication and complexity should be kept in mind:
. paradoxically, once again, complexity is a matter of healthy simplicity. Complexity reveals the wealth of reality; it doesn’t make reality opaque: it indicates that a multiplicity of paths lead to understanding, together and each in its own way. Complexity, one could say, is related to the stereophonics of intelligence: it hears and practices the greatest number of networks and paths all at the same time, together it enriches reality's appearance and its understanding!
. complication, inevitable (?) at first, simply reveals the excessively sophisticated ways some people need to grasp reality, before ridding themselves of certain parameters through an appropriate catharsis. No doubt they are interesting, however they “have nothing to do with the matter”: Matisse, Wolinsky, Arvo Pard, The Troisgros Brothers, Isse Miyake, to mention only some examples drawn from painting, drawing, music, cooking and ready-made clothing (textiles), found in some of our contemporaries. Each one of them cultivates colour, line, sound, food, and textile as a thing-in-itself that already carries within it its potentialities to be expressed.
Learn, learn, learn: always and everywhere. Everything! And then, drain, drain, drain off: all the knowledge-superstructures, after being transformed personally by rubbing against them, truly, as Jacob did during his combat with the angel. To come out of it limping as he did, perhaps, but to see before one’s eyes as he did, the sun of the new dawn rise on one's own metamorphized life! Autonomous, finally! (Let me do it! By myself, she said!)
Pluridisciplarian, yes! Encyclopedist, still again yes! Specialist of several disciplines, certainly! But never psittacism*, nor affectation. Pico della Mirandola, at the risk of dying young! or Giordano Bruno, an impassioned man!
3. In a global world, an integrating wisdom: holism
If the world is becoming “globalized”, in a certain way it's because it is shrinking. Already when the first railroad appeared, Alfred de Vigny said to himself (“Speed and time are vainquished”): this “sad and straight road”, as he called it). People in Hong Kong are bored if they don’t work 12-14 hours a day. But it doesn't matter whether someone works on the island or at the headquarters in Paris, the work is mostly the same, and it stays the same! Distance and time difference don't matter. On the other hand, environnemental analogies can serve to create a new state of consciousness; e.g. by relativizing one's professional activities, the spirit liberates itself from time and space. Then it can acquire a more essential understanding of the world, one that is more permanent and more intuitive of values concealed within. Here once again, the world goes from being complicated to becoming complex. By gaining such a view of the world’s teeming functioning, a person can develop a greater capacity to be liberated from it and a more differentiated pleasure to enjoy it.
Here is where one finds all the fullness of this Montessorian absorbant mind, generator of its own order and rhythm. By rendering the world organic - by making it into a cosmos -, it tends to make the world more understandable and inhabitable.
4. In a “fast” world, a wisdom of “second wind”: the “zen” effect:
Life goes quickly, it makes us breathless and runs out of wind itself. (“De prisa, de prisa!” “Quickly!” “Quickly!” was the title of one of the last films by the Spanish director, Carlos Saura). At the risk of seeming to state a cliché, I will say that life will never go fast enough, but we are “hurrying” it more and more, thereby confusing speed and precipitation.
Acceleration is a matter of a certain logic, not one of progress alone. Above all it is a matter of competence, know-how, professionalisation and the (good) habits (which is actually Thomas Acquinis’s definition of virtue). Here again is a place to verify and apply the Montessorian order and rhythms, perpetually accommodating itself (as the eye) when faced with “obstacles” (i.e, whatever is placed before us and comes to encounter us). Stimulated by the machines man creates, there is only one alternative: - (learn to) control them or allow oneself to be controlled by them.
This is what I call “wisdom of the second-wind”, a term I borrowed from the infinite training found mainly in zen meditation, required for practicing all the arts of Japan and that forms the matrix of all Japanese aesthetics. The “zen effect” is this mastery of being and the world, of my being in the world, of the world of things and thoughts, of this presence in the world where I establish my existence.
Once again this autonomy of dignity and liberty, dear to Maria Montessori, is situated within this internal order and rhythm: but always as a potential. Let me repeat that the interesting aspect of this vision is that it permanently underscores the fund of possibilities yet to be accomplished, and not merely those already accomplished: investing in a creative imagination.
5. In a world of cacophony, a symphonic wisdom: harmony
In this “insane history, full of sound and fury”, Shakespeare’s expression for existence, the absence of rules is increasingly becoming the rule: the “bandits” of our childhood westerns were qualified as “outlaws", des “hors la loi”. In the name of what law should one speak now?
Moreover, all the studies by Jean Piaget, the pedagogist from Geneva, especially in his radient little book on genetic epistemology, clarify this destabilizing reality of our non-contemporarity with ourselves. The multiple and diverse dimensions of our human development don't advance at the same speed nor do they attain the same level of output: for example, the intellectual dimension (studies, diplomas..) doesn’t necessarily evolve in harmony with the affective dimension (relational, emotional, sexual...). The stairs of social promotion (positions of responsibility, power, notoriety...) are not located in the same stairwells as spiritual progression (religious vocation, faith, altruistic commitment...).
Recently some newspaper articles told a story about a team of nuns from several different orders. They rigged a boat and sailed along the Atlantic coast, anchoring in various ports, to bear witness in a full wind to the idea that a life following Jesus Christ is not incompatible with an athletic life full of risk, adventure and good health! Teilhard de Chardin participated in the Citroën Yellow Croisière as a paleontologist, and Jean Paul II continues to behave like a well-known international actor, in spite of (or is it not rather due to) the assassination attempt against his life, Parkinson’s disease and age!
Where does this wisdom of harmony come from? In some people it accomplishes a delicious and convincing synthesis of natural gifts, work on oneself, social position, and even grace? What is it that is lacking in others, theoretically and virtually promised to truly remarkable or ordinarily healthy destinies - those who will get lost in the erratic chaos, giving birth to monsters of humanity, ingenious perhaps, but tortured, unhappy, and finally “unlivable” lives? How can the suicides of Marilyn Monroe, Bruno Bettleheim, Louis Althusser or Thomas Bernhardt be understood? What puzzle piece is missing in their success, be it "glamorous”, pedagogical, philosophical or literary? What impossible harmonies haunted them until they became existentially unbearable? What deafening noises covered over the congenital moaning of their worldly existence?
Maria Montessori would say:
. “Was their development always alienated by an unconscious where no “work” ever would have been able to untie the knots enough?
. “At the required and opportune moment, wasn't their spirit put in a position so that it could absorb the global energies of an environment, one that would then remain irrevocably hostile?
. “Didn't they ever permanently set this internal clock of our affects and our acting out, this rudder integrated to our drifting and the courses we set, this calming metronome of our yin and our yang?”
Unable to face the demands of these disharmonies, in the end these people with such interesting lives suppressed them!
Two last remarks before ending these brief reflections
Here again is a word and a reality dear to Maria Montessori. Training in wisdom, in fact, is similar to contemplation. Time and exercise are needed for our entire being to become familiarized with them.
The repetition considered here is found regularly in the procedures used by mystics, particularly, Ignacius de Loyola, the mystic of action: the person returns to one of the various exercises recommended in the program of Exercises; as he returns again and again to the exercise, gradually he becomes aware that he has changed. This recognition of change is what transforms the person’s attitude towards the spectacle and business of the world.
For example, we find ourselves at a painting exhibit: yes, we are surrounded on all sides by Vincent Van Gogh's works. For a while now we have been shuttling back and forth from the Arlesian to Dr. Gachet and from St. Remy to Auvers. And then, before leaving room #4, a force pushes us to go back again to Vincent’s room in the asylum, you know, the one with the shoes and the yellow chair! We've already been there for a quarter of an hour! However, all the while these paintings have been in front of us, along with the Terrace of the Cafe and the Fantastic Night: "repeatedly" our gaze has been “informed” by our contemplation of the other paintings; thus transformed, our gaze has been enriched now by all the accumulated iconic harmonies. Returning to Vincent’s room once more, our new gaze now integrates the cell's narrow volume and the fabulous exterior landscapes of the Provence night.
2. FIND THE CHILD IN OURSELVES: his capacities are far from being used up
If one could retain only one of Maria Montessori’s convictions - one that she shares with all the great pedagogists, by the way - it's that the child that we were before continues to live within us and incarnates our permanent capacity to grow and develop, hence, to transform and adapt ourselves.
Moreover, this child guards the secret of tenderness we carry to the world and the world carries to us, if we allow it:
. show the adult his own path towards the future;
. liberate what his unconsciousness still harbours of creativity;
. spiritually absorb creation's spiritual emanations as a whole;
. finally, advance in the one’s own order and at one's own rhythm!
THE WIND IS RISING, IT’S TIME TO TRY TO LIVE!