The Absorbent Mind
More insights from Maria Montessori
I recently finished Maria Montessori’s The Absorbent Mind. The book, as to be expected, is filled with insightful and revelatory observations.
The most important contribution Montessori made in this particular book is the rejection of the mind-body dichotomy in education.
Montessori says, in The Absorbent Mind, “It is not good to cut life in two, using the limbs for games and the head for books.” Montessori believes mind and body should be fused in a “single whole,” with man’s mind guiding his actions and his actions serving the orders of his mind.
“One of the greatest mistakes of our day is to think of movement by itself, as something apart from the higher functions. We think of our muscles as organs to be used only for health purposes. We “take exercise,” or do gymnastics, to keep ourselves “fit,” to make us breath, eat or sleep better. It is an error which has been taken over by the schools. In the world of physiology, it is just as though a great prince were being made the servant of a shepherd. The prince—the muscular system—is only being use to help the vegetative life.
Such a grave error cannot but lead to injury: there comes about a separation between the life of movement and the life of thought. Since the child has a body as well as a mind, we feel we must include games in his curriculum, so as to avoid neglecting any part of nature’s provisions. But to be always thinking of the mind, on the one hand, and the body, on the other, is to break the continuity that should reign between them. This keeps action away from thought. But the true purpose of movement is far higher than to produce an appetite or strengthen the lungs; it is to serve the ends of existence the universal and spiritual economies of nature.”
Indeed. The rejection of the mind body dichotomy is a fundamental Objectivist principle. Ayn Rand says that a body without a mind is like a zombie and a mind without a body is a ghost. Man must be both mind and body. A body without a mind is like an ape, mindlessly engaging in actions. A mind without a body is impotent and futile. Ideas must be materialized to be worthwhile. “The organization (of man’s nervous system) has three main parts, brain sense and muscles. Movement is the final result to which the working of all these delicate mechanisms leads up. In fact, it is only by movement that the personality can express itself.” — Montessori
Maria speaks of her time, which was the early 1900s, but our education system is so backwards that the same problems still exist. Man’s mind is nourished on one side and his body on the other. Kids learn use their brain to learn mathematics, memorize scientific facts, write composition papers. Then their bodies are used in mindless games in gym class or playing at recess. The two are not fused.
A cartoon in a college newspaper sums up the mind-body dichotomy. In a sarcastic response to the university’s campaign to get student’s to “party smart,” the ad had a man at the entrance of a party who said to a student trying to get in “Sorry, if you don’t have a book you can’t come in. We ‘party smart’ here.” The rest of the cartoon was students with a drink in one hand and a book in another. Now, I am by no means suggesting that the epitome of the unity of mind and body is being responsible while drinking, however, the mind-body dichotomy is displayed well here, with students only applying being “smart” to books.
Indeed, nothing could fall shorter at helping a child negotiate reality. Man must use his mind while he is acting, not “just for books.” The “spiritual economies” that Montessori talks about are what an Objectivist defines as man engaging in some productive work. Productive work is the very essence of human survival, which involves both body and brain. “If all human capacity for movement went into the ‘taking of exercise,’ mankind’s total energy would be consumed and nothing produced.” (Montessori) Man’s mind governs his actions, but his body must be willing and able to do what his mind tells him. The doctor must be trained in the mind, but also in the body – his eyes must be trained to spot disease, his hands have to be trained to perform surgery. The engineer has to be trained not only in physics and math, but in assembling parts together as well. Man’s body must be ready to skillfully execute what his mind initiates.
This is not how public schools currently train students. While in school, the child learns that his brain is not to be used for his actions. He only uses his brain while in the strict confines of a classroom, poring over books and equations, not using his mind to guide his actions. His body is only used while playing. He is split in two. Indeed, the most loyal to educational principles, university professors in the liberal arts, display the result of this well. While all of them are intelligent, no doubt, many are so willowy and weak that they cannot plant a garden or start a fire. Many can’t even drive. This is the result of the divorce of man’s mind from man’s body.
Another place in which Montessori rejects the mind-dichotomy dichotomy is over the fantasy play that a child engages in. Montessori advocates that a child develop a vivid imagination, but not one that is out of step with reality. She says,
“Yet, when all are agreed that the child loves to imagine, why do we give him only fairy tales and toys on which to practice this gift? If a child can imagine a fairy and fairyland, it will not be difficult for him to imagine America. Instead of hearing it referred to vaguely in conversation, he can help to clarify his own ideas of it by looking at the globe on which it is shown.”
Montessori talks of a child who, when looking at the globe, asked to see New York, Hollywood, and the sea. “So this is the sea!” he exclaimed. His father had went to America twice a year. Left without any knowledge of what America looked like, the child was forced to falsely imagine where his father was going. When handed a globe, the little one could draw a real image of where his father was going. Indeed, the child was probably clamoring for sometime, looking for every piece of evidence he could find to imagine where it was his father was going.
As Montessori says, “faulty fantasy” is what most children are forced to engage in. I remember doing this and most people probably can too. Montessori vehemently rejects the encouragement of a child imagining things that are not real. The child, she argues, will develop a disordered mind. “The more the mind is divorced from its normal function the more exhausted it becomes, and useless as a servant of the spirit […] Unfortunately, many people think that these fanciful activities which disorganize the personality are those which develop the spiritual life. They maintain that fantasy is creative in itself; on the contrary, it is nothing by itself.”
Montessori believes a mind should be well attuned to the outer world. This focus on getting the child to look outwards to reality to think is another Objectivist value. If the child’s brain isn’t attuned to the outer world, Montessori argues, “atrophy” of the organs on which the spiritual life depends occurs. A teacher, she argues, should guide a child to think of something real. “Recapturing an attention of a mind that has wandered from reality” is what is needed as a “cure” to this atrophy.
Similarly, Montessori argues that people who are genuinely creative reject the dichotomy of being creative on one side and practical on the other. Here, again, we see the mind-body dichotomy. Most people believe that you are either creative and imaginative or mathematical and logical. But this isn’t true.
Instead, most great artists and inventors were not just creative and artistic, but also good at math, science etc. including Michelangelo and all great artists from the Renaissance. “If we study the works of all who have left their marks on the world in the form of inventions useful to mankind, we see that the starting point was always something orderly and exact in their minds.” (Be still my heart!)
This is opposite of what they preach in classrooms today. Instead, creativity is taught as being divorced from reality. A child is hailed as being very creative if he paints the grass pink instead of green because green is what grass is in real life. This does not sound like a creative genius, but a kid on drugs. If a child is to develop creative inventions useful to man, he has to reject this variant of the mind-body dichotomy which preaches that to be imaginative one must not look to the real world. Indeed, as Montessori points out, all great inventors were not flippant artists, but very logical men with mathematical minds. To develop inventions on earth, man must be both endowed with a practical mind and a creative mind.
The next important contribution by Montessori was her idea of how a classroom should be set up. In traditional schools, the classroom is set up with child in a desk and the teacher feeding him the information. In the progressive school, the child is allowed to wander about, engaging in any experience whatsoever that he may like. In the Montessori school, the child is given a very specific environment with very specific stimuli for him to engage in. The child initiates his own experiences, but the environment is one in which is designed for maximum learning benefit.
An interesting note Montessori makes is that an animal’s organs actually develop in response to the environment around them. The place in an animal’s brain for a certain organ develops before the organ does in animals (a discovery made by Coghill in 1929). One would think it would be the other way around – that the organ would form, and as a response, the center in the brain would program to its use. But it is in fact the other way around. The reason for this is so the organs can “assume a form corresponding to the services they have to render in the environment.” In other words, the environment shapes the animal. Certain insects suck nectar from certain flowers existing in their local environment. Anteaters develop tongues just large enough to pick up worms.
Similarly, man is designed to respond to his environment. Except, his brain is not limited to simply adjusting to worm height, but open to almost all skills that he may want to develop! A stimulating environment which provides him with developing the most useful skills he needs is the best way to develop a young child’s mind.
This idea, of a stimulating environment developing a child, has been proven in neuro-biology. In “Endangered Minds,” by Jame M. Healy, she writes that X neurobiologist (find name) has made discoveries in rats. Rats put in a highly interactive environment develop larger brains and higher intelligence and that the same things happen in humans. The book even goes into detail of the nerves at work which develop when a child is given a lot of stimuli. The book argues that there is “hardwiring” and “softwiring” in humans – and that the softwiring is vast. Hardwiring, i.e. an instinctual skill given by genetics, is found in a vast amount in animals. Many animals are born with skills already, such as horses who born able to walk. But humans have mostly softwiring, they have to be programmed. The good news is that because of this, the possibilities open to a human are far greater than a horse. The bad news is that without any programming, the human falls to a level much lower on the evolutionary scale than the horse.
Today, seminars passing out this new information are given all over America to educators at public schools. The book reported that educators are dumbfounded at the results. “Imagine what this will do to education!” they exclaim, with no hint that they will adopt the new findings. Indeed, these findings were made by Dr. Montessori in the early 1900s. She did not need a neuro-biology degree, she needed only a scientific approach to developing the best way to educate a child.
Before I move on, some notes about the development of a child. Montessori advocates that a proper educational theory is derived from the nature of the child. Montessori has ample information about the biological formation of the child, and at what stages, exactly, it is appropriate to form what skill. Only until a child is ready to develop a skill can he learn said skill. Only until his vocal chords are formed can he learn to speak. Only until his cerebellum has developed can he learn to keep balance and thus to walk.
Indeed, Montessori’s insistence on “following the natural laws” laid down by reality to educate the child is pure gold. No other educational theorist, from what I can tell, advocates this. None of them look at the metaphysical facts of the child. Instead, they engage in much abstract speculation of what an education should be like, but I digress.
The final, most revelatory contribution by Montessori is her insight into character education. Montessori draws a large circle broken up into 4 circles. In the middle circle, Montessori says, is perfection. These people, blessed by hereditary, naturally attain ideal character traits. In the circle just outside of this are people who aren’t perfect but whose naturally tendency is towards attaining that ideal. They try to improve themselves. They are in constant drive towards that inner circle. In the very outer circle are criminals and delinquents who have no control over their body at all. In the 3rd circle from the center and just before this outer circle are where most people, Montessori says, currently lie. They are people whose naturally tendency is towards that outer criminal circle. They need constant support to resist the temptation of evil.
Montessori wants us all to be in the first or second circle of perfection. This value of attaining an ideal state which is one in which man finds a constant joy, not a constant struggle against something, is Objectivist as Objectivist gets. Indeed, it is not mystery that it is religion holding people back in the 3rd and 4th circles. Religion says that man is inherently evil and needs a duty based morality to whip him to behave ideally. Indeed, it is a self fulfilling prophecy. “The education of today is humiliating. It produces an inferiority complex and artificially lowers the powers of man. Its very organization sets limit to knowledge well below the natural level. It supplies men with crutches when they could run on swift feet.” (What a classic quote!!!)
The way to get main to become ideal, which as Montessori says, is a man who wants to progress (translated to Objectivist language: to become man the producer) is to mold him into a man. The very essence of man is that he is a creature of reason. Developing man’s brain is the best way to get a child to “build character.” As Dr. Salsman (an Objectivist) said in a speech once, the producer mentality is one that can’t even fathom the idea of stealing to get what he wants or raping a woman. The producer mentality is one that strives to make life better, i.e. prosper as Montessori says. To turn a young child into a man, i.e. to feed his brain is the best way to develop his character. It keeps him at that first and second circle where he can “run on swift feet,” instead of constantly being whipped by the guilt, duty and fear of religion into behaving ethically.
The ultimate result of a child who goes through proper Montessori training is a young adult who is comfortable in moving into and negotiating any environment he may find himself in. The child, not rejecting the mind-body dichotomy and being used to being in an environment where is encouraged to explore his surroundings, not sit bound in a desk – will naturally explore his environment and figure out how to do things in it. He has a value which is distinctly absent from university students today: initiative. Most university students come to class, or to work, and expect to be told what to do. They actually want to be programmed by the professor or the employer to be told what to do. They are obedient. This is a result of an educational philosophy which is training us like animals, not men. Men should not be raised like cattle. Men should be taught to use their mind and to initiate things, with their own hands/body, in the environment around them. This was the philosophy of Jack Welch which made him the most successful CEO ever. He did not want top-down orders, with executives barking orders and training employees like a general in the army does over his enlisted soldiers or how an animal trainer trains his animals. Instead, Welch encouraged each of his employees, from the bottom to the top to think on their own. He allowed just about every person in his organization to be a decision maker of some kind. Welch unleashed a vast amount of human potential this way.
There is much more insight in Montessori’s book, but not enough to put in my little book report of it. The book is only designed at training a child from 0-6 yrs old. I don’t agree with her on everything. It is mostly her seemingly political views I don’t agree with. She seems to think the purpose of education is to bring peace to the world. I don’t agree with this at all. The purpose of education is to teach a child how to negotiate reality – and that’s it. Creating peace is a side effect of this. But reason is the antidote to violence.
I highly recommend “The Absorbent Mind” or any piece of work by Maria Montessori. The woman was a wonder. Her honest, scientific mind along with the capitalization on her talents, resulting in her highly valuable educational theory makes her, in my ever so humble opinion, in the top 10 most important people to live – ever.
- Reject the mind-body dichotomy.
- Child should learn how to use his body along with his mind. This creates a child who is a producer. His hands are ready to execute what is his mind tells him.
- Child should not be encouraged to imagine things which aren’t real. It creates a disordered mind. Instead, the child should be taught to think creatively of things that actually exist. Focus child’s attention on the outer world
- Reject the dichotomy of artistic and scientific brains. Instead, great men had both mathematical and creative brains. This is the only way useful things to man come about.
- A stimulating environment is the best way to create intelligence in the child. The teacher plays a hands off role
- Development of child should be in accordance with his natural laws
- Character building happens by developing the child’s brain. The child becomes ‘normalized’ and attains an ideal character “on swift feet,” not a character which needs guilt and fear to operate, “on crutches.”
December 2, 2002