Happy Birthday, Maria Montessori!


As we looked at the calendar, and started to plan the week, we wanted to make a special note of Maria Montessori's birthday. We found ourselves wanting to celebrate, to wish her good tidings and spread her joy of learning through a birthday card. Is it possible to get a signature for every life she affected? Then, we began to wonder how many students remember Montessori, not only on her birthday, but rather, have internalized her philosophy of life to use throughout the year?

Birthdays are special occasions. If you are lucky enough to celebrate, family and friends often gather, with cake, candles and happy wishes for healthy, successful days ahead. Maybe your grandparents even fumble with FaceTime to excitedly join in from their new retirement home in Florida.

Birthdays are also opportunities for reflection.

On one hand, they offer, at least in our words, the chance for introspection. There's something about the moment, on this meaningful day, that forces us to look back and take stock, to evaluate and assess our accomplishments. In a way, we may ponder the questions to which we already know the answers.

On the other hand, birthdays also encourage us to project upon the future. To, rather crudely, ask ourselves what remains to be done with our lives, and how we can work towards those goals. Is there enough time? Do we have the energy? Will there be enough support?

Some relish these perspectives and embrace what they mean, while others cast them aside, and profess that birthdays are just another day. Not zeniths by which to glean insight.

When we are no longer fortunate enough to blow that great gust of life across our birthday cake, the task of celebrations are left to others. "Will they remember us?", we may ask ourselves. "What will they say about our accomplishments?" "Did we do anything worthwhile?" In our deepest, darkest, or even most optimistic moments, we may even disclose to ourselves, "Will we have led a useful, joyful, memorable life?"

Today, as the calendar page turns to August 31st, we would like to wish Maria Montessori a happy birthday. We would like to neither reflect, which is to say highlight her amazing legacy and accomplishment, nor project what she means for us today. Instead, we believe there's a third path, a more wily and uncertain one, which will help inspire a renewed appreciation for Montessori and foster another type of student.

On the one-hundredth anniversary of Henri Bergson's birth, one of his most famous students, and a dear disciple, Vladimir Jankelevitch, led a gathering to commemorate the birthday of his esteemed mentor. He started his comments in a rather tepid tone, before finding the warmth that only a student can truly radiate:

"We know that at the end of his life, Bergson preached the return to simplicity. One may wonder whether what we're doing here tonight is very Bergsonian. One may wonder, whether it is very Bergsonian, generally, to commemorate Bergson."

Jankelevitch's point was rather profound, and it's one that we, as a society, probably know too well. It's something he learned from Kierkegaard. All too often, we fall into the trap of only celebrating anniversaries. Which is to say, we forget our allegiances to our heroes throughout the year - and, in effect, betray their legacy by trivializing their relevance.

Are we being very Montessorian by wishing her a happy birthday today?

Bergson, a contemporary of Montessori was, to put it short, a philosopher of life. He hypothesized against an overly mechanistic worldview, by advocating novelty and process as a necessary condition of life. Instead of finality and determinism, relics of Newtonian physics, he promoted the idea that creativity could help us learn how to innovate our own way. That destiny was, to use a turn of phrase, in our own hands, if only we can remain open to the new. Sure, birthdays are important, but what really matters is a constant practice of trying to find the creativity that takes us outside of the calendar. The celebration of the every day.

If there is a renewal of Montessori on the horizon, then, we wager that it will not come from an historical appreciation. Instead, it will rise on the backs of a new generation of students. Students who will have found a way to incorporate the lessons of Montessori into their daily lives. Students who are mindful of what it means to mark an anniversary, but more committed to actively taking her practices one step further. While the candles on Montessori's cake are increasingly added each year, and subsequently blown out, don't be surprised to see their flame reignited, and a new type of student emerge.

Happy Birthday!