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I can’t help but chime in here because it seems to me that the main sticking point is the association of Montessori’s conclusions about human development with popular psychology when the two are in many ways at odds. Jonathan, your “rebel” approach to questioning the validity of all prevailing theories and challenging the rigid notion of One Right Way is actually an approach that served Montessori’s groundbreaking work in education extremely well. But I do think that Michael’s points speak to the ways in which your approach overlaps with Montessori’s. Perhaps it’s really a Socratic issue of defining our terms. What does Montessori mean by “sensation” and “intellect?”
Montessori argued – contrary to popular opinion then, and in many cases, even now – that children are not empty vessels that progressively become capable of “holding” more and more information as they get older. Rather, she used the cosmic metaphor of a nebula to describe the psychic potentialities of the child. The mind – even in the “unconscious” stage of development – is a nebula with the potential to bring forth concentration, imagination, language, math, morality, and so on. These potentialities exist and need not be “given” or “introduced” to the child; rather, all the child needs is an environment prepared to maximize the plan of Nature.
One great example that she uses is language – the child does not need instruction in grammar and vocabulary and verb conjugations and tenses and so on in order to begin speaking her native language. Rather, the potential to absorb language from the environment already exists in the mind of the child from birth. In a sense, you can think of that processing of language as intellect, but all of that complex processing actually occurs through the senses first. The child hears language first. The child intuits tone of voice and inflection, feels it and absorbs it first before intellectually understanding it. The auditory experience of language activates the unconscious cognitive processing that we may call “intellect.” So, it’s not that the child has no intellect at first, but rather, the very young child in this “Absorbent Mind” phase is not consciously exercising her intellect. Instead, the child’s initial sensorial exploration of the world forms her innate psychic nebulae into distinct manifestations, such as the utterances of her native language as opposed to any other.
So, with these definitions of “sense” and “intellect,” we can hopefully better appreciate the divergent perspectives in Montessori developmental psychology and “popular” theories. Jonathan, I agree with Michael that introducing the cosmic language and the cosmic awe at this young age will serve pre-school age children very well, as it (the story, the language, the tone of voice that communicates awe and wonder) all becomes part of the prepared environment that will maximize the Laws of Nature that will guide these young children’s development. They may have a conscious memory of this story, just as Madeline L’Engle retains a conscious impression of the majesty and brilliance of the stars in the night sky. Others may have no conscious memory of it; however, even these children will most certainly have an impression made on their psyche. Even if they can’t remember the point of origin, children who have had the benefit of absorbing awe and wonder from a prepared environment will almost certainly be more sensitive to these types of experiences later…and they will be more inclined to study them deeper in later years, when their intellect has grown even stronger through conscious exercise and thus can further illuminate the realities of what once were only nebulous feelings impressed profoundly in their absorbent minds.