In 2013, the Ernst Strungman Forum assembled a thinktank of academics with representatives from the fields of anthropology, economics, psychology, neuroscience, education and peace studies to consider a question: ‘does the way we raise children hold promise for promoting peace in the world?’ (Leckman, Panter-Brick, & Salah, 2014, p. 3). The findings from this forum resulted in a peer-reviewed publication, Pathways to Peace: The Transformative Power of Children and Families and the formation of the Early Childhood Peace Consortium at Unicef. Notable among their contributions was the distinction they made between ‘healthy children’ and ‘peaceful children’ and the power of parents, caregivers, communities and childcare professionals in nurturing the latter.
The authors define peaceful children as those who are ‘committed to relational harmony and social justice, resting on a steadfast attentiveness to human dignity with the power to promote this human disposition across generations’. And they explain that ‘while healthy children form secure attachments, have well developed social skills, and exercise the capacity to reason and communicate, peaceful children have additional capabilities: the capacity for empathy, respect for others and a commitment to fairness and trust in relationships’ (Leckman et al., 2014, p. 7, italics in original). These peace-making capabilities go beyond effective conflict resolution skills or maintaining harmonious relationships; they signify the expression of a peaceful disposition, rooted in our interdependence, which enables peaceful children to ‘think and act in ways that will promote equity, safety and the well-being for all people’ (Leckman et al., p. 8).
‘These peace-making capabilities go beyond effective conflict resolution skills or maintaining harmonious relationships; they signify the expression of a peaceful disposition, rooted in our interdependence, which enables peaceful children to “think and act in ways that will promote equity, safety and the well-being for all people”.’
As a student completing a Montessori teacher training, I have been keen to ascertain whether Montessori education can nurture the development of peaceful children – after all, establishing peace was the ultimate goal of Montessori’s vision for education. The Montessori approach emphasises the importance of spiritual development and independence, viewing children as keen learners, capable of learning in well-prepared environments organised by respectful and attuned educators.
While I greatly admire Montessori’s contributions to peace education, her work suffers from some ontological inconsistences. In brief, Montessori (2018) conceptualises the individual as ‘independent’ while viewing the social order as ‘interdependent’ – we are part of one ‘interdependent’ global family. Montessori (2018) acknowledges that there is a relationship between the individual and society; however, she believes that this relationship is ‘linear’ and not ‘reciprocal’. Indeed, she says that ‘any form of social association is composed of separate individuals’ and that individuality is the ‘basic building block of society which is made up of many individuals, each functioning autonomously’ (Montessori, 2018, p. 51). She goes on to explain that education must concern itself with the development of individuality, allowing the ‘child to remain independent throughout all stages of his development’ (Montessori, 2018, p. 52). Through some alchemy never quite explained, these children will go on to develop an ‘interdependent’ outlook, a natural ‘love for humanity’ and ‘unite as constituent elements of a single organism’ (Montessori, 2018, pp. 32, 23).
Montessori’s conceptualisation of the individual also contradicts the growing body of research that points to our interdependence. Over the last forty years, researchers from the fields of developmental psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary anthropology, health sciences and primatology have repeatedly found that we are relational and that ‘connection is integral to healthy human development’ (Way, Ali, Gilligan, & Noguera, 2018, p. 3). Studies led by Professor Bloom at the Yale Baby Lab have demonstrated that relational qualities – such as empathy, care, concern for others, trustworthiness, co-operation and justice – are observable in infants as young as three months old. For example, ‘when shown vignettes of a square helping a ball up a hill or a triangle obstructing the ball’s progress by pushing it downhill, three-month-old babies preferred to watch the square. Six-to-nine-month-old children overwhelmingly chose the helper shape over the hinderer to play with’ (Divecha, 2013). So convincing is the interdisciplinary research that the distinguished primatologist, Frans de Waal, has called for a ‘complete reassessment of our assumptions about human nature’ (Waal, 2019, p. 7).
It is difficult to see how Montessori education can be used as a tool to nurture the development of ‘peaceful children’ unless the ontological assumptions underpinning the approach are re-examined. Such examination inevitably calls for a search for more accurate ontological frameworks that reflect our interdependence. The African philosophy of Ubuntu, which roughly translates into ‘I am because we are and we are because I am’, recognises our inherent interdependence and may be one possible line of enquiry to explore.
Divecha, D. (2013, December 11). ‘The moralist in the crib’. Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_moral_baby
Leckman, J. Panter-Brick, C., & Salah, R. (2014). Pathways to peace: The transformative power of children and families. MIT Press.
Montessori, M. (2018). Education and peace. Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company.
Waal, F. (2019). The age of empathy: Nature’s lessons for a kinder society. Crown Publishing Group.
Way, N., Ali, A., Gilligan, C., & Noguera, P. (2018). Crisis of connection: Roots, consequences and solutions. New York University Press.