Protecting the Natural Mind

It’s one of the questions that divides Montessorians: What would Maria Montessori think about children and technology? Some tend to think that Dr. Montessori – as a forward thinker – would embrace technology and incorporate it into the classroom. Others take the opposite viewpoint, arguing that although technology has evolved at a rapid pace over the past 100 years, brain development has not. They feel that the classroom should only offer activities that support the way children’s brains naturally develop.

A trainer once told me: “When in doubt, turn to Montessori’s books. All of the answers are there.” Dr. Montessori is not around to put the technology debate to rest, but her words are. I recently found a transcript of one of her speeches, which addresses the issue of technology and human development. She gave this speech at the 21st International Course in London, in 1935-36 (a course that covered education for ages 3-12). It was published in the AMI journal Communications 2009/2.

She summarizes the topic of her talk as being “about the supra mind – the intelligence of man, and the product of the constructive work of the child.” She argues that primitive man developed his senses, physical abilities, and speech to their maximum potential as a means of survival. She calls these abilities “natural intelligence” or “the natural mind of man” and they represent “the development of the human being to the greatest possible degree”.

Dr. Montessori then uses the prefix “supra-” (from the same Latin word meaning ‘above’) to refer to all that goes beyond what primitive man knew or was exposed to. Therefore, “supra environment” refers to the technological advances man has created, whereby “instead of walking on his feet, [man] uses some mechanism, for instance the wheel; or he makes use of the wind to sail his boat.” The importance of the supra environment lies in its impact on the human brain. Through the creation and evolution of technology, “man is increasing his power. This development is not just of his body; it is of his intelligence. Supra man means the intelligence which adapts itself to a supra environment.”

The supra mind gives man incredible powers. In her florid Victorian prose, Dr. Montessori explains that man “is the lord of the whole earth. He possesses the visible and the invisible, and he can create everything as if he were omnipotent.” However, the irony is that these endowments have become “a bitter source of suffering… There is no creature who acts more cruelly than man himself”.  She argues that this incongruity stems from the adults’ misunderstanding of the needs of children:

“The external development of this supra world is more and more complicated as we go on, so that more and more protection is needed for the child who is building his natural mind… The child has to develop his [natural] intelligence in order that it may grow still more in adapting itself to the present environment.”

The key phrase here is “natural mind”. Dr. Montessori is making the point that the child first has to cultivate the foundational elements of human development. In a sense, each child has to travel the well-worn path of evolution. It is our role as adults to help in this work of creation by removing obstacles and protecting concentration, but she notes that we are often “busy with [our] own pursuits” and “defend [ourselves] from the child and isolate the child”, thereby repressing his developmental energies.

The methods of repression and isolation have changed over the decades: children were once locked away in nurseries and are now abandoned in front of the TV. However, the consequences remain the same. A child who is not allowed to freely pursue his own development will never know what he is capable of. He will have “an imperfect self-consciousness and what psychoanalysts call the ‘inferiority complex’,” which results in “…the wish to possess and dominate.”

Dr. Montessori goes a step further in the analysis of the phenomenon:

“This lessening of the personality of the child… also comes from lack of liberty in the joys of his own work. The difference for us resides in the instinct to work, and this does not derive from a mere notion (as psychoanalytic theory did), but from our experience that it is work which normalizes.”

We should note that “work” in Montessori has always referred to freely chosen, open-ended, productive hands-on activities that not only allow the child to learn a skill or concept but, more importantly, support his psychological development at each stage of growth.  A normalized child is one who can “become conscious of his own powers”, and with our guidance will understand the destiny of humanity. This child will then be able not only to adapt to the supra environment on his own, but also “realize his own greatness and beauty and… go forward and reign.”

In this powerful and timeless speech, Dr. Montessori is calling on adults to protect the child’s natural development by giving him the freedom to engage in work that will strengthen his mind, body and spirit. A child who is allowed to develop fully in the first years of life becomes a leader who adapts easily to the modern world and uses his talents for the benefit of all.

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