Today, a determined woman unleashes the inventive
mind. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Maria Montessori was born in
Italy in 1870. She was a math prodigy. At 24 she
was the first woman to graduate from the medical
school in Rome. We know Montessori for inventing a
radical new scheme for teaching children. She got
into that when she started out -- caring for
Children, she said, are their own best teachers.
Adults have as much to learn from children as
children do from adults. Give children a rich
learning environment. Then give them room to
Montessori drew ardent support and heated
opposition. Her supporters were drawn by her
success. Her opposition said she destroyed
discipline with her methods.
Montessori was a complex, intriguing woman. She was
willful, hard-headed and passionate. On Christmas
Eve, 1916, a colleague saw her sobbing in her pew.
After Mass they talked. She said,
[They] think I'm a sentimental romantic who dreams
only of [kissing children], of telling them fairy
tales ... They weary me! I seek to discover the man
in the child ... the design of the Creator; the
scientific and religious truth. ... I don't need to
teach anything to children; it is is they who,
placed in a favorable environment, teach me, reveal
spiritual secrets as long as their souls have not
Montessori's outburst tells us a lot. We
catch her intensity. Of course, that crack about
deformed souls reveals something else about her. She
forced her successes by eliminating failure. She got
rid of kids who didn't harmonize with her classrooms.
She eliminated troublesome parents and their
relatives as well.
But my one small germ of trouble with Montessori is
over her philosophy, not her management. She
believed we should keep children's feet on the
ground. She said:
What we call [creativity] is in reality a
composition -- a construction raised on ...
material of the mind, which must be collected ...
by the senses. ... We are unable to "imagine"
things that don't actually present themselves to
So Montessori surrounded children with
sense data. And she steered them away from fantasy.
But is invention no more than reassembled
experience? I doubt it. Maybe creativity does rise
out of sense data. But it also rides the far rim of
sensible reality. If invention really is a leap in
the dark, then we limit the gift our children bring
by nailing their feet to the ground. Maybe we also
misread Montessori when we do.
In any case, Montessori ran on powerful
imperatives. One was that we have so much to gain
from the children we teach. We realize that gain by
seeing through the child's eyes. That was a
profound and religious conviction for Montessori.
And it can be a powerful creative tool in our hands
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds