Rumors have abounded for many years that Maria Montessor, the founder of the Montessori method of education, was a theosophist. In truth, she did have an association with theosophists while interned in India during World War II, but this was at the end of her life and after her teaching methods and schools were already well established.
For background, Maria Montessori was born on August 31, 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy, and died on May 6, 1952, just before her eighty-second birthday. Her pioneering spirit was evident early on in life when she chose to be educated as a doctor – something that was unheard of at the time – rather than marry and raise a family.
According to an article by the Thesophical Society’s Quest Magazine, she initially specialized in work with mentally challenged youngsters and was so successful that her students were able to pass examinations meant for normal children. This made her believe that normal children should be able to do much better than they were in school and began looking for opportunities to work more closely with them.
That opportunity came when officials of Rome opened a project in a very poor area of the city called San Lorenzo, they invited Montessori to start a school for three, four, and five year-olds. After carefully observing public school classrooms, she designed the San Lorenzo classroom with furniture and cabinets that were proportionate to the size of children. She employed the same materials and teaching methods used with her mentally challenged students and found that the children blossomed on many different levels.
Thus was launched the Montessori method which is described by the Columbia Encyclopedia as consisting chiefly of self-motivation and autoeducation.
“Followers of the Montessori method believe that a child will learn naturally if put in an environment containing the proper materials. These materials, consisting of ‘learning games’ suited to a child’s abilities and interests, are set up by a teacher-observer who intervenes only when individual help is needed. In this way, Montessori educators try to reverse the traditional system of an active teacher instructing a passive class. The typical classroom in a Montessori school consists of readily available games and toys, household utensils, plants and animals that are cared for by the children, and child-sized furniture-the invention of which is generally attributed to Dr. Montessori. Montessori educators also stress physical exercise, in accordance with their belief that motor abilities should be developed along with sensory and intellectual capacities.”
The major outlines of the Montessori system are based on Dr. Montessori’s writings, which include The Montessori Method (1912), Pedagogical Anthropology (1913), The Advanced Montessori Method (2 vol., 1917), and The Secret of Childhood (1936).
At the time of her exposure to theosophy in 1939, Maria Montessori, a devout Catholic, was 69 years old. Her system of education for three to six year-olds had already been in use for 32 years and her methods for six to 12 year-olds for 22 years. She had already writeen many books about her methods and theory and had also begun to draft her system for religious education, which would later be published as The Child in the Church, and her system of education for adolescents in her book on Erdkinder. So it is highly doubtful that theosophy had any real influence on her teaching methods.
Her contact with the occult-based philosophy of theosophy began when the Theosophical Society in India, which had begun to use her methods in their schools, invited her to India to conduct teacher training sessions. While she was there, World War II broke out and because she was an Italian citizen, and India was a British colony, she was considered to be an enemy and was interned there for several years. It was during this time that she lived with several prominent members of the Theosophical Society.
This seems to be as far as it went. I can find very little evidence to support the notion that Montessori openly adopted the theosophist worldview. That she had some exposure to them and their ideas is evident from her biography, but her educational methods had long since been established and were never changed or altered in any way in her later years to reflect any change in ideology.
In fact, her book on religious education is considered to be “an explicit Catholic approach to religious education in early childhood that nurtures the young child’s personal relationship to God” writes John P. Miller and Yoshiharu Nakagawa in “Nourishing the Spiritual Embryo: The Educational Vision of Maria Montessori.”
In addition, the philosopher Robert G. Buckenmeyer asserts that Montessori’s Catholic faith “is the basis for her educational philosophy, namely, that the child is created by God and merely loaned to parents and teachers whose job it is to respect the mysterious possibilities of each child. . . .” (Buckenmeyer, 1997, pp. 232n, 203n).
Those who are interested in learning more about Maria Montessori may want to invest in a biography of her life written by Rita Kramer and available at Amazon.