- The Montessori MethodThe Development of a Healthy Pattern of Desire in Early Childhood
Perhaps we fail to understand the mimetic nature of desire because we rarely refer to the first stages of human development. Every child has appetites, instincts and a given cultural milieu in which he learns by imitating adults or peers. Imitation and learning are inseparable.—René Girard, Evolution and Conversion
It may be said that we acquire knowledge by using our minds; but the child absorbs knowledge directly into his psychic life. . . . Impressions do not merely enter his mind; they form it. They incarnate themselves in him. . . . We have named this type of mentality, The Absorbent Mind.—Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
The Montessori Method of early childhood education offers mimetic theory an avenue to explore healthy patterns of desire in children. Such an investigation emphasizes the unconscious dynamic of mimetic relationships and their [End Page 87] rootedness in the body. The absorption of language, cultural norms, and customs by children is more than a metaphor. The child is literally taking the world into himself through his hands, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. For this physical exploration of the world to take place, the world must be brought into focus and remain in view. The centrality of objects for development in early childhood offers a sharp contrast to mimetic rivalry, in which objects become less important than the rivalry itself. Dr. Maria Montessori’s model of education provides a blueprint for children to have mediated but intense object relationships by training teachers to perform benign or withdrawn mediation. Teachers thus initiate the possibility for a shared admiration of the object, thereby opening up the opportunity for the child to have direct interaction with the material world. In this way, children are inducted into a healthy pattern of desire in which acquisitive desire remains fluid, models remain luminous, and objects remain in view.
Dr. Montessori’s claim that her educational method would become the foundation for a more peaceful world is difficult to test. It does however invite an investigation by mimetic theorists. With its understanding of the dynamics of rivalry, mimetic theory can diagnose where the Montessori Method is liable to fail. What the Montessori education system offers mimetic theory is a living laboratory in which to study the intentional development of healthy patterns of desire. Such a dialogue will be fruitful for both.
Dr. Maria Montessori
Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Italy, in 1870 and came of age at a time when humanity seemed on the verge of its greatest achievement since the foundation of human culture, that of ending war. The extraordinary progress in medicine, science, sociology, and psychology seemed to promise that all human ills, even war itself, would succumb to the inevitable march out of the primitive past toward a harmonious future of universal peace. Evolutionary theory was interpreted by some to mean that nature naturally progressed from the ugly and brutish to the beautiful and wise. Criminals and the insane were considered throwbacks to a primitive stage of humanity that we were rapidly, inevitably leaving behind. Beauty, defined as the perfection of European features, seemed an achievement within reach of the entire world population. When the war to end all wars erupted and then was followed by a second paroxysm of violence and death, the hope for universal peace seemed betrayed. What the dreamers had failed to take into account was just how difficult it would be for humanity to [End Page 88] renounce the violence that had been so successfully “hidden since the foundation of the world.”1
Difficult but perhaps not impossible. Maria Montessori became convinced that the only way to achieve universal peace was to attack the problem at its source, which she held to be the individual. Why do people choose again and again to go to war in the face of overwhelming evidence that war is not in anyone’s interest? Leaders may declare war but citizens follow with the greatest enthusiasm, as if they were going to a joyful event and not to their deaths or to cause the death of others. For the practical and scientific Dr. Montessori, this...