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Maria Montessori:A Biography

From the Introduction:
When the Hamburg-America Line’s Cincinnati steamed into New York Harbor on a cool December morning in 1913, a stout, smiling woman in black, wrapped in furs, her thick chestnut hair piled under a large black hat and veil, stood at the railing. She stood there quietly from the moment the New York skyline became visible until the liner had docked. “I must see everything,” she said to a companion. She had begun as an observer, and the habit of observation had led her to this moment. The ship docked and she came down the gangplank with regal self-assurance, a motherly smile for the disciples and dignitaries who surrounded her six-deep, embracing, gesturing, speaking at once in excited Italian. It was a royal welcome.

When Maria Montessori arrived in America at the end of 1913 she was at the height of her fame--indeed, one of the most famous women in the world. Newspapers, among them the august New York Times, devoted whole pages to interviews with her, and controversy about her ideas raged on the editorial pages and in letters-to-the-editors columns of all the major newspapers. The New York Tribune called her the most interesting woman in Europe. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described her as “a woman who revolutionized the educational system of the world...the woman who taught the idiot and the insane to read and write--whose success has been so wonderful that the Montessori method has spread into nation after nation as far east as Korea, as far west as Honolulu and south to the Argentine Republic.” Even the conservative New York Sun noted her arrival in headlines, along with the fact that she brought with her “a new race plan.”

An eager public was waiting for Montessori in America.

Her arrival shared front-page space with the activities of Pancho Villa in Mexico, the arrest of the militant suffragist Mrs. Pankhurst in England and President Wilson’s refusal in Washington to make a public statement on the question of women’s suffrage, and the recovery in Italy of the stolen “Mona Lisa” of Da Vinci. For many, although they didn’t know it, it was the last good year, the year before the first of the world wars that would devastate Europe and change the world forever. Women still hobbled in long skirts, the construction of the Panama Canal was under way, and the help-wanted columns were full of ads for valets and ladies’ maids. Life was comfortable for an unprecedented number of Americans, and if there were also unprecedented numbers of immigrant poor, noblesse oblige still went along with privilege. The middle classes and the wealthy thought about education--to enrich the lives of their own children and to help civilize and Americanize the newly arrived urban hordes. The miracle-working woman doctor from Italy seemed to be bringing an answer to both needs.

Everywhere she went she was hailed as a prophet of pedagogy and a major force for wide social reforms, and by the time she sailed for home on Christmas Eve it seemed reasonable to suppose that American schools would never be the same again--at the very least, that Montessori would leave some last effect on education here.

History has a way of confounding expectation. Within five years Montessori was all but forgotten by the American public. Ten years later hardly anyone but a few professors of education knew her name.

And while many of her ideas took root in England, in Europe, and in Asia, they became enshrined in a movement that took on more and more of the character of a special cult rather than becoming part of the main stream of educational theory and practice. She continued to work indefatigably, traveling throughout Europe and Asia, lecturing and writing, founding schools and teaching, until her death in Holland at the age of almost eighty-two. She had become a grande dame, a symbol to her devoted followers, little known to the rest of the world, no longer considered a major influence in educational thought but a historical relic. At the time of her death in 1952 many readers of her obituaries either did not know who she was or were surprised that she had still been alive and active in the postwar years. She seemed to belong to another time.

A decade after her death, half a century after her triumphant first visit to the United States, Montessori was rediscovered as the pendulum of school reform swung back to her view of the nature and aims of the educational process.

With the perspective of time, her genius becomes clearer. She remains one of the true originals of educational theory and practice.

“Marx, Freud, Joyce, Stravinsky, Cezanne...Maria Montessori belongs somewhere in the ranks of this company...Kramer has captured precisely the circumstances of Montessori’s achievement. For Kramer gives us not only a faithful portrait of a truly marvelous woman; Kramer’s biography is also a travelogue, a chronicle of the first half of the century and, not least, a history of a social and intellectual struggle.”

--The Village Voice