Renato Foschi, review of Erica Moretti’s “The Best Weapon for Peace: Maria Montessori, Education, and Children’s Rights”

Erica Moretti. The Best Weapon for Peace: Maria Montessori, Education, and Children’s Rights. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2021. 330 PP. Paper $22.95. ISBN: 9780299333140.

Erica Moretti, an Associate Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology-SUNY, has been studying the life and thought of Maria Montessori for many years.[1] Her most recent book, the biography The Best Weapon for Peace: Maria Montessori, Education, and Children’s Rights, reconstructs Montessori’s pedagogical work within a broader cultural context. It is a valuable contribution. Although Montessori is an important historical figure, until recently she has often been treated in a polarized manner as either a minor figure in the history of Italian academic pedagogy, or hagiographically, as a heroine whose actions were disconnected from contemporary history. Yet, as Moretti shows, Montessori was a complex scholar whose life and thought needs to be situated within multiple intersecting historiographies. She was in contact with Protestant, socialist, feminist, Freemason, and Catholic circles; she was also long associated with Theosophy but at the same time was staunchly Catholic. She was a positivist and at the same time possessed a great humanitarian and religious attitude. These characteristics have made it difficult to work on Montessori in the past. Moretti’s book, the product of many years of research, succeeds where others have failed. It clearly demonstrates that Montessori’s life and thought can help us understand a number of vitally important contests and movements in the twentieth century, including the conflict between positivism and neo-idealism, Catholic modernism and traditionalism, liberalism and fascism, and the European history of the first-wave feminist movement.

To begin, Moretti challenges the idea that Montessori did not have firm ideological or political positions, or that politics was not important to her, one of the recurring themes in the existing historiography. It was only in recent years, for example, that books on Maria Montessori’s feminism appeared. Moretti goes further, however, arguing that the central theme Maria Montessori’s life and thought was her commitment to pacifism. Again, the contrast with existing scholarship is stark. In the past, Montessori’s pacifism was considered a kind of marginal moral attitude within the framework of Montessori’s life.

Moretti begins to correct this oversight as early as her first chapter, which reconstructs the birth of the Montessori Method in early twentieth-century Rome. At the time, she explains, Montessori was a physician committed to the social hygiene movement, which was particularly popular among her professors and peers at Sapienza University. This movement emphasized that teaching women’s hygiene was an important part of childhood education. The social hygiene movement was also committed to a positivist trust in science, and a broader commitment to emancipating women through the prevention of disease, especially during pregnancy. Montessori, Moretti explains, linked these positivist and feminist themes with a parallel commitment to pacifism, which she thought complimented them “from within.” “As soon as she [the woman] becomes a free human being with her own social rights,” Montessori wrote in 1899, “she will begin to work for peace” (34).

In the second chapter, Moretti turns her attention to Montessori’s (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to join the international “Red Cross” with a “White Cross” during World War I, which would have worked to address the mental health of children traumatized by war. Moretti explains how Montessori’s humanitarian efforts clashed with the nationalist ideologies that later led to Fascism in Italy, which was itself a part of a broader ideological shift from the socialist humanitarianism of the early twentieth century to the warmongering nationalism of the 1910s. Childcare was increasingly overshadowed as governments began to imagine the child as a future soldier rather than a peacemaker (79).  In Italy, too, interest in Montessori’s liberationist pedagogy waned, and other pedagogical models that were more paternalistic and marked by efforts to make children into docile and passive citizens took hold (80). Even the Catholic Church refused to favor the “White Cross” Montessori imagined (89).

The third chapter of the book is devoted a series of lectures Montessori gave on pacifism in the spring of 1917 in San Diego, California. In Moretti’s telling, the lectures exemplified Montessori’s unique ideas about pacifism, particularly her belief that children educated in tune with their nature would exhibit or develop pacifist attitudes. Moretti also uses the chapter to describe the many other ideas about pacifism swirling around the Italian milieu in which Montessori was educated and in the international feminist movement in which Montessori was engaged (100-112). What distinguished Montessori’s approach, Moretti claims, was her desire to end WWI through a continuous peace education. Her notion that the development of the child’s mind would also naturally develop a spontaneous pacifist attitude became, for Montessori, an ideal foundation on which to build international pacifist associations. And indeed, as Moretti notes, Montessori’s pacifist hybridization of psychology, pedagogy, and theosophical and Catholic influences ultimately proved to align perfectly with ideas that, after World War I, would lead to the founding of the League of Nations (112-124).

In the fourth chapter, Moretti proceeds to address the relationship between Montessori and Fascism. Montessori collaborated with the Fascist regime to expand her educational activities in Italy from 1922 to 1934, and historians have often had difficulty understanding the reasons for this collaboration. Moretti emphasizes that Montessori was no longer residing in Italy in those years, but in Barcelona, while working to expand her already dense international network of collaborations within feminist and pacifist circles as well as maintain relations with the Italian government. The Fascist regime, on the other hand, was interested in maintaining relations with Montessori because she represented “Italian excellence,” even though it did not trust her—and, in fact, had her followed by a network of spies. Montessori ultimately realized that the regime wanted a Montessori education in Italy “without Montessori” and wished to oust her from the leadership of the Italian pedagogical movement (140). A pacifist could not be tolerated for long by Fascism.

The fifth chapter is a continuation of the fourth. Moretti describes Montessori’s ongoing trials and tribulations with the Fascist Italian regime and also describes her continuing international activities. Indeed, throughout the 1930s, Moretti explains, Montessori continued to attend pacifist conferences—now organized, increasingly, to try to avoid WWII—and even went so far as to attempt to found a full-fledged “Social Party of the Child” that combined her ideas about pacifism with children’s rights (173).

The pacifist networks Montessori frequented in the 1930s were often connected to the Theosophical Society, a theme Moretti explores in detail in her sixth chapter. Theosophical spiritualism had been a constant presence in Montessori’s life for some time by then; she formally joined the Theosophical Society as early as 1899. From 1939 to the end of WWII, however, Maria and her son Mario lived at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Adyar, India as guests of George Arundale (1878-1945) and his wife, Rukmini Devi (1904-1986). Arundale was a professor, politician, Freemason, president of the Theosophical Society and a bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church.  He and Montessori became close; according to her son, in India she was considered “to be the reincarnation of some great religious teacher of the past” (196). But, more importantly, according to Moretti, among the theosophists, Montessori felt free to express herself without political or religious constraints or controls. This chapter is essential to understanding the complexity of the scholar who integrated various “personalities” and interests; for the first time, a complex picture is drawn of Montessori’s relationship with India and Theosophy, aspects often overlooked in other biographies. Moretti connects Theosophical themes to Montessori’s pacifism and her radical conception of the child as an agent of change (202).

Understanding the theosophical influences on Montessori’s work is very important because it helps to understand how Montessori’s pedagogical work was not only an integration of social engagement, positivism and Catholicism, as often reconstructed in her biographies, but had a broader connection to a tolerant spiritual tradition that wanted to integrate science and religion and put the child and woman at the center of this worldview. Moretti also recalls the role played by the Theosophists in the first feminist wave in which Montessori had participated in the late nineteenth century and which represented an early point of contact between her and the Theosophists.

The seventh and final chapter of Moretti’s book explains how later movements and thinkers followed in Montessori’s footsteps by integrating pacifism with children’s policies. She describes Montessori’s various nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize and highlights how the congresses organized by the Association Montessori Internationale were ecumenical and cosmopolitan gatherings that were unparalleled in the landscape of pedagogical associationalism. Even after Montessori died, her ideas lived on, Moretti argues, in the initiatives of the United Nations, which in 1990 arrived at a “Convention on the Rights of the Child” deeply influenced by the culture Montessori promoted throughout her life (224).

Moretti’s book is an important one for understanding the history of education and interwar Europe. She shows how Montessori, inspired by the spirit of associationism active in advanced capitalist countries, actually founded an international peace education movement on the basis of a pedagogy directed toward the children who would become the adults and parents of the future. Moretti’s book is thus a milestone in the bibliography on Maria Montessori that presents and expands the most up-to-date historiographical literature and points scholars to new research hypotheses.

[1] See, for example, Renato Foschi, Erica Moretti, & Paola Trabalzini (Eds.), Il destino di Maria Montessori: promozioni, rielaborazioni, censure, opposizioni al Metodo [Maria Montessori’s Destiny: Promotions, Reworkings, Censorship, Opposition of her Method] (Roma: Fefè Editore, 2019).

Renato Foschi photoRenato Foschi, Professor of History of Science at Sapienza University of Rome. He has worked on Montessori pedagogy and political psychology. He is currently working mainly on the History of Psychology and Psychotherapy.

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