Who Am I: Big Questions and Big Answers in Montessori Education
If all the difficulties during the turbulent metamorphosis of adolescence could be reduced down to one essential question, I think it would be, “Who am I?”
Related to this essential question are others, such as, “What do I value the most in life?” and, “Why am I here?”
The curriculum of any adolescent program, then, ought to serve the superseding purpose of helping teens formulate answers to this question and all of its relatives.
Of course, in many important ways, answers to these questions are deeply personal and therefore subjective. There is not one right and factual answer. Furthermore, the answers are fluid, ideally, because while some aspects of personality persist throughout time, others evolve as we learn more and have more experiences.
In another way, though, there is a scientific and objective answer to the question that applies to all ages, cultures, nationalities, ethnicities and races - an answer that applies to anyone from anywhere at any time history: a member of the human race.
Sure, this may seem obvious at first, but we are inclined to forget or ignore it all too easily. For most of our species’ existence, we operated as isolated tribes competing with other tribes for resources and, ultimately, survival. As a result, natural selection hardwired our brains for tribalism, leaving us hampered by what E.O. Wilson calls the “Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society” (The Meaning of Human Existence 176).
This is why, even though most educated people today accept the fact that we all belong to one human family on one shared planet, we don’t act like it. It is why we are susceptible to xenophobia, racism, nationalism, and even religious tribalism, despite the fact that we are an extraordinarily intelligent species with an abundance of facts at our disposal that overwhelmingly demonstrate the myopic and self-destructive reality of such Paleolithic mentalities.
Montessori often marvels at the incongruity of humanity’s brilliance and ignorance. In one speech, she observes that, “[Man] is more intelligent now, but the feelings that should accompany this increase in intelligence are still missing, and they cannot stir within him because his way of life is wrong. He is overcome with hatred and does not obey the laws of nature. Nobler feelings - awareness of the unity of all living beings, for instance - are very slowly appearing in him (Education and Peace 97).
This observation begs the question: how do we accelerate the actualization of these “nobler feelings,” particularly for those young people metamorphosing physically but also emotionally and psychologically in their final plane of development before adulthood? There is no simple fix, but one accelerant is a comprehensive curriculum that can help them answer the question, “Who am I?” We need a methodology rooted in scientific facts yet spreading out to all other fields of study in order to help us reach up to our highest potential as a species that possesses “enough intelligence, goodwill, generosity, and enterprise to turn Earth into a paradise both for ourselves and for the biosphere that gave us birth” (Wilson 176).
A fragmented approach to learning that emphasizes content at the expense of context results in a disorienting learning experience at best, and one devoid of meaning at worst. This traditional approach, prominent since the 19th century, leaves adolescents on their own, by and large, in their quest for answers to their biggest questions.
Montessori’s cosmic theory, which informs the pedagogy and curriculum of Cosmic Education in elementary, ameliorates this problem by connecting “all the items of culture...as different aspects of the knowledge of the world and the cosmos. Astronomy, geography, geology, biology, physics, chemistry are but details of one whole. It is their relation to one another that urges interest from a centre towards its ramifications. There is besides this the other part which concerns directing the consciousness towards humanity” (Basic Ideas of Montessori’s Educational Theory 131).
Presenting the whole universe story stokes the flames of imagination and piques curiosity about all subjects, as everything the child learns adds more detail to the story. Furthermore, humanity emerges from this cosmic narrative “as a sacred being of creation and as the greatest marvel of nature” (Ibid. 131). Thus, from a very young age, the Montessori learner becomes sensitized to the “unity of all living beings.”
Pictured: Kyle is given an elementary level Cosmic lesson by a learner, and then shares teen version.
The elementary years in Montessori lay the groundwork for profound revelations in adolescence, but the problem is that the Cosmic Curriculum does not extend into the third plane. Compounding the problem is that our content-heavy educational paradigm dumps information on teenagers without helping them assemble it into any kind of meaningful story, and if we’re not careful, that information dump can quickly suffocate the flames of imagination that once illuminated the world for the child.
Fortunately, a history professor named David Christian recognized this problem and developed a course called Big History. The details of the course are less important than the fact that the overarching objective, at least from a pedagogical standpoint, aligns closely with that of Cosmic Education. According to Christian, Big History is, “the attempt to understand, in a unified, interdisciplinary way, the history of Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity” (International Big History Association).
Rather than five Great Lessons, Big History demarcates the universe story with eight Threshold Moments of increasing complexity, the last three of which concentrate on the human story. Just as Montessori intended, this approach nests humanity within the larger context of the planet and the universe, and it sets up a magnificent stage upon which the story of humanity finds its proper setting.
For the past five years, our Teens Program has been using the Big History conceptual toolkit to link up all the content required by the state of Indiana into one cohesive narrative that aims, above all else, to help our teens answer their most burning question: “Who am I?”
Our highest aim is that our graduates “feel the pride and privilege of belonging to humanity” because this is the only way to break the Paleolithic Curse and move our species forward into a more fulfilling, safe, and prosperous future. Sure, aiming for good test scores would be much easier, but Montessori emboldens us with her mission, which is nothing short of “...the true salvation of humanity and civilization” (Education and Peace 28). And sure, it would be easy to surrender to cynicism and say humanity is a hopeless cause, but Montessori teaches us to see ourselves anew, as marvels of creation united as one organism on a very special planet teeming with life in an otherwise unremarkable solar system in an average galaxy among billions in a universe of infinite mystery and wonder. For the adolescent, and for all of us, that should give more than enough room to respond to the question, “Who am I?” with an answer that includes all of us: “I am a proud and privileged member of the human race."