A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter X." by Maria Montessori (1870-1952), translated by Anne Everett George (1882-)
From: The Montessori Method (1912) by Maria Montessori, translated by Anne Everett George. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912. pp. 149-161.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 149] 



ITARD, in a remarkable pedagogical treatise: "Des premiers développements du jeune sauvage de l'Aveyron," expounds in detail the drama of a curious, gigantic education which attempted to overcome the psychical darkness of an idiot and at the same time to snatch a man from primitive nature.

The savage of the Aveyron was a child who had grown up in the natural state: criminally abandoned in a forest where his assassins thought they had killed him, he was cured by natural means, and had survived for many years free and naked in the wilderness, until, captured by hunters, he entered into the civilised life of Paris, showing by the scars with which his miserable body was furrowed the story of the struggles with wild beasts, and of lacerations caused by falling from heights.

The child was, and always remained, mute; his mentality, diagnosed by Pinel as idiotic, remained forever almost inaccessible to intellectual education.

To this child are due the first steps of positive pedagogy. Itard, a physician of deaf-mutes and a student of philosophy, undertook his education with methods which he had already partially tried for treating defective hearing–believing at the beginning that the savage showed char- [Page 150]  acteristics of inferiority, not because he was a degraded organism, but for want of education. He was a follower of the principles of Helvetius: "Man is nothing without the work of man"; that is, he believed in the omnipotence of education, and was opposed to the pedagogical principle which Rousseau had promulgated before the Revolution: "Tout est bien sortant des mains de l'Auteur des choses, tout dégénère dans les mains de l'homme,"–that is, the work of education is deleterious and spoils the man.

The savage, according to the erroneous first impression of Itard, demonstrated experimentally by his characteristics the truth of the former assertion. When, however, he perceived, with the help of Pinel, that he had to do with an idiot, his philosophical theories gave place to the most admirable, tentative, experimental pedagogy.

Itard divides the education of the savage into two parts. In the first, he endeavours to lead the child from natural life to social life; and in the second, he attempts the intellectual education of the idiot. The child in his life of frightful abandonment had found one happiness; he had, so to speak, immersed himself in, and unified himself with, nature, taking delight in it–rains, snow, tempests, boundless space, had been his sources of entertainment, his companions, his love. Civil life is a renunciation of all this: but it is an acquisition beneficent to human progress. In Itard's pages we find vividly described the moral work which led the savage to civilisation, multiplying the needs of the child and surrounding him with loving care. Here is a sample of the admirably patient work of Itard as observer of the spontaneous expressions of his pupil: it can most truly give teachers, who are to prepare for the experimental method, an idea of the patience and the self-ab- [Page 151]  negation necessary in dealing with a phenomenon which is to be observed:

"When, for example, he was observed within his room, he was seen to be lounging with oppressive monotony, continually directing his eyes toward the window, with his gaze wandering in the void. If on such occasions a sudden storm blew up, if the sun, hidden behind the clouds, peeped out of a sudden, lighting the atmosphere brilliantly, there were loud bursts of laughter and almost convulsive joy. Sometimes, instead of these expressions of joy, there was a sort of frenzied rage: he would twist his arms, put his clenched fists upon his eyes, gnashing his teeth and becoming dangerous to those about him.

"One morning, when the snow fell abundantly while he was still in bed, he uttered a cry of joy upon awaking, leaped from his bed, ran to the window and then to the door; went and came impatiently from one to the other; then ran out undressed as he was into the garden. There, giving vent to his joy with the shrillest of cries, he ran, rolled in the snow, gathered it up in handfuls, and swallowed it with incredible avidity.

"But his sensations at sight of the great spectacles of nature did not always manifest themselves in such a vivid and noisy manner. It is worthy of note that in certain cases they were expressed by a quiet regret and melancholy. Thus, it was when the rigour of the weather drove everybody from the garden that the savage of the Aveyron chose to go there. He would walk around it several times and finally sit down upon the edge of the fountain.

"I have often stopped for whole hours, and with indescribable pleasure, to watch him as he sat thus–to see how his face, inexpressive or contracted by grimaces, gradually assumed an expression of sadness, and of melancholy [Page 152]  reminiscence, while his eyes were fixed upon the surface of the water into which from time to time he would throw a few dead leaves.

"If when there was a full moon, a sheaf of mild beams penetrated into his room, he rarely failed to wake and to take his place at the window. He would remain there for a large part of the night, erect, motionless, with his head thrust forward, his eyes fixed on the countryside lighted by the moon, plunged in a sort of contemplative ecstasy, the immobility and silence of which were only interrupted at long intervals by a breath as deep as a sigh, which died away in a plaintive sound of lamentation."

Elsewhere, Itard relates that the boy did not know the walking gait which we use in civilised life, but only the running gait, and tells how he, Itard, ran after him at the beginning, when he took him out into the streets of Paris, rather than violently check the boy's running.

The gradual and gentle leading of the savage through all the manifestations of social life, the early adaptation of the teacher to the pupil rather than of the pupil to the teacher, the successive attraction to a new life which was to win over the child by its charms, and not be imposed upon him violently so that the pupil should feel it as a burden and a torture, are as many precious educative expressions which may be generalised and applied to the education of children.

I believe that there exists no document which offers so poignant and so eloquent a contrast between the life of nature and the life of society, and which so graphically shows that society is made up solely of renunciations and restraints. Let it suffice to recall the run, checked to a walk, and the loud-voiced cry, checked to the modulations of the ordinary speaking voice. [Page 153] 

And, yet, without any violence, leaving to social life the task of charming the child little by little, Itard's education triumphs. It is true that civilised life is made by renunciation of the life of nature; it is almost the snatching of a man from the lap of earth; it is like snatching the newborn child from its mother's breast; but it is also a new life.

In Itard's pages we see the final triumph of the love of man over the love of nature: the savage of the Aveyron ends by feeling and preferring the affection of Itard, the caresses, the tears shed over him, to the joy of immersing himself voluptuously in the snow, and of contemplating the infinite expanse of the sky on a starry night: one day after an attempted escape into the country, he returns of his own accord, humble and repentant, to find his good soup and his warm bed.

It is true that man has created enjoyments in social life and has brought about a vigorous human love in community life. But nevertheless he still belongs to nature, and, especially when he is a child, he must needs draw from it the forces necessary to the development of the body and of the spirit. We have intimate communications with nature which have an influence, even a material influence, on the growth of the body. (For example, a physiologist, isolating young guinea pigs from terrestrial magnetism by means of insulators, found that they grew up with rickets.)

In the education of little children Itard's educative drama is repeated: we must prepare man, who is one among the living creatures and therefore belongs to nature, for social life, because social life being his own peculiar work, must also correspond to the manifestation of his natural activity. [Page 154] 

But the advantages which we prepare for him in this social life, in a great measure escape the little child, who at the beginning of his life is a predominantly vegetative creature.

To soften this transition in education, by giving a large part of the educative work to nature itself, is as necessary as it is not to snatch the little child suddenly and violently from its mother and to take him to school; and precisely this is done in the "Children's Houses," which are situated within the tenements where the parents live, where the cry of the child reaches the mother and the mother's voice answers it.

Nowadays, under the form of child hygiene, this part of education is much cultivated: children are allowed to grow up in the open air, in the public gardens, or are left for many hours half naked on the seashore, exposed to the rays of the sun. It has been understood, through the diffusion of marine and Apennine colonies, that the best means of invigorating the child is to immerse him in nature.

Short and comfortable clothing for children, sandals for the feet, nudity of the lower extremities, are so many liberations from the oppressive shackles of civilisation.

It is an obvious principle that we should sacrifice to natural liberties in education only as much as is necessary for the acquisition of the greater pleasures which are offered by civilisation without useless sacrifices.

But in all this progress of modern child education, we have not freed ourselves from the prejudice which denies children spiritual expression and spiritual needs, and makes us consider them only as amiable vegetating bodies to be cared for, kissed, and set in motion. The education which a good mother or a good modern teacher gives to- [Page 155]  day to the child who, for example, is running about in a flower garden is the counsel not to touch the flowers, not to tread on the grass; as if it were sufficient for the child to satisfy the physiological needs of his body by moving his legs and breathing fresh air.

But if for the physical life it is necessary to have the child exposed to the vivifying forces of nature, it is also necessary for his psychical life to place the soul of the child in contact with creation, in order that he may lay up for himself treasure from the directly educating forces of living nature. The method for arriving at this end is to set the child at agricultural labour, guiding him to the cultivation of plants and animals, and so to the intelligent contemplation of nature.

Already, in England Mrs. Latter has devised the basis for a method of child education by means of gardening and horticulture. She sees in the contemplation of developing life the bases of religion, since the soul of the child may go from the creature to the Creator. She sees in it also the point of departure for intellectual education, which she limits to drawing from life as a step toward art, to the ideas about plants, insects, and seasons, which spring from agriculture, and to the first notions of household life, which spring from the cultivation and the culinary preparation of certain alimentary products that children later serve upon the table, providing afterwards also for the washing of the utensils and tableware.

Mrs. Latter's conception is too one-sided; but her institutions, which continue to spread in England, undoubtedly complete the natural education which, up to this time limited to the physical side, has already been so efficacious in invigorating the bodies of English children. Moreover, her experience offers a positive corroboration of the [Page 156]  practicability of agricultural teaching in the case of little children.

As for deficients, I have seen agriculture applied on a large scale to their education at Paris by the means which the kindly spirit of Baccelli tried to introduce into the elementary schools when he attempted to institute the "little educative gardens." In every little garden are sown different agricultural products, demonstrating practically the proper method and the proper time for seeding and for crop gathering, and the period of development of the various products; the manner of preparing the soil, of enriching it with natural or chemical manures, etc. The same is done for ornamental plants and for gardening, which is the work yielding the best income for deficients, when they are of an age to practise a profession.

But this side of education, though it contains, in the first place, an objective method of intellectual culture, and, in addition, a professional preparation, is not, in my opinion, to be taken into serious consideration for child education. The educational conception of this age must be solely that of aiding the psycho-physical development of the individual; and, this being the case, agriculture and animal culture contain in themselves precious means of moral education which can be analysed far more than is done by Mrs. Latter, who sees in them essentially a method of conducting the child's soul to religious feeling. Indeed, in this method, which is a progressive ascent, several gradations can be distinguished: I mention here the principal ones:

First. The child is initiated into observation of the phenomena of life. He stands with respect to the plants and animals in relations analogous to those in which the observing teacher stands towards him. Little by little, [Page 157]  as interest and observation grow, his zealous care for the living creatures grows also, and in this way, the child can logically be brought to appreciate the care which the mother and the teacher take of him.

Second. The child is initiated into foresight by way of auto-education; when he knows that the life of the plants that have been sown depends upon his care in watering them, and that of the animals, upon his diligence in feeding them, without which the little plant dries up and the animals suffer hunger, the child becomes vigilant, as one who is beginning to feel a mission in life. Moreover, a voice quite different from that of his mother and his teacher calling him to his duties, is speaking here, exhorting him never to forget the task he has undertaken. It is the plaintive voice of the needy life which lives by his care. Between the child and the living creatures which he cultivates there is born a mysterious correspondence which induces the child to fulfil certain determinate acts without the intervention of the teacher, that is, leads him to an auto-education.

The rewards which the child reaps also remain between him and nature: one fine day after long patient care in carrying food and straw to the brooding pigeons, behold the little ones! behold a number of chickens peeping about the setting hen which yesterday sat motionless in her brooding place! behold one day the tender little rabbits in the hutch where formerly dwelt in solitude the pair of big rabbits to which he had not a few times lovingly carried the green vegetables left over in his mother's kitchen!

I have not yet been able to institute in Rome the breeding of animals, but in the "Children's Houses" at Milan there are several animals, among them a pair of pretty little white American fowl that live in a diminutive and [Page 158]  elegant chalet, similar in construction to a Chinese pagoda: in front of it, a little piece of ground inclosed by a rampart is reserved for the pair. The little door of the chalet is locked at evening, and the children take care of it in turn. With what delight they go in the morning to unlock the door, to fetch water and straw, and with what care they watch during the day, and at evening lock the door after having made sure that the fowl lack nothing! The teacher informs me that among all the educative exercises this is the most welcome, and seems also the most important of all. Many a time when the children are tranquilly occupied in tasks, each at the work he prefers, one, two, or three, get up silently, and go out to cast a glance at the animals to see if they need care. Often it happens that a child absents himself for a long time and the teacher surprises him watching enchantedly the fish gliding ruddy and resplendent in the sunlight in the waters of the fountain.

One day I received from the teacher in Milan a letter in which she spoke to me with great enthusiasm of a truly wonderful piece of news. The little pigeons were hatched. For the children it was a great festival. They felt themselves to some extent the parents of these little ones, and no artificial reward which had flattered their vanity would ever have provoked such a truly fine emotion. Not less great are the joys which vegetable nature provides. In one of the " Children's Houses" at Rome, where there was no soil that could be cultivated, there have been arranged, through the efforts of Signora Talamo, flower-pots all around the large terrace, and climbing plants near the walls. The children never forget to water the plants with their little watering-pots.

One day I found them seated on the ground, all in a [Page 159]  circle, around a splendid red rose which had bloomed in the night; silent and calm, literally immersed in mute contemplation.

Third. The children are initiated into the virtue of patience and into confident expectation, which is a form of faith and of philosophy of life.

When the children put a seed into the ground, and wait until it fructifies, and see the first appearance of the shapeless plant, and wait for the growth and the transformations into flower and fruit, and see how some plants sprout sooner and some later, and how the deciduous plants have a rapid life, and the fruit trees a slower growth, they end by acquiring a peaceful equilibrium of conscience, and absorb the first germs of that wisdom which so characterised the tillers of the soil in the time when they still kept their primitive simplicity.

Fourth. The children are inspired with a feeling for nature, which is maintained by the marvels of creation–that creation which rewards with a generosity not measured by the labour of those who help it to evolve the life of its creatures.

Even while at the work, a sort of correspondence arises between the child's soul and the lives which are developed under his care. The child loves naturally the manifestations of life: Mrs. Latter tells us how easily little ones are interested even in earthworms and in the movement of the larvae of insects in manure, without feeling that horror which we, who have grown up isolated from nature, experience towards certain animals. It is well then, to develop this feeling of trust and confidence in living creatures, which is, moreover, a form of love, and of union with the universe.

But what most develops a feeling of nature is the cul- [Page 160]  tivation of the living things, because they by their natural development give back far more than they receive, and show something like infinity in their beauty and variety. When the child has cultivated the iris or the pansy, the rose or the hyacinth, has placed in the soil a seed or a bulb and periodically watered it, or has planted a fruit-bearing shrub, and the blossomed flower and the ripened fruit offer themselves as a generous gift of nature, a rich reward for a small effort; it seems almost as if nature were answering with her gifts to the feeling of desire, to the vigilant love of the cultivator, rather than striking a balance with his material efforts.

It will be quite different when the child has to gather the material fruits of his labour: motionless, uniform objects, which are consumed and dispersed rather than increased and multiplied.

The difference between the products of nature and those of industry, between divine products and human products–it is this that must be born spontaneously in the child's conscience, like the determination of a fact.

But at the same time, as the plant must give its fruit, so man must give his labour.

Fifth. The child follows the natural way of development of the human race. In short, such education makes the evolution of the individual harmonise with that of humanity. Man passed from the natural to the artificial state through agriculture: when he discovered the secret of intensifying the production of the soil, he obtained the reward of civilisation.

The same path must be traversed by the child who is destined to become a civilised man.

The action of educative nature so understood is very practically accessible. Because, even if the vast stretch [Page 161]  of ground and the large courtyard necessary for physical education are lacking, it will always be possible to find a few square yards of land that may be cultivated, or a little place where pigeons can make their nest, things sufficient for spiritual education. Even a pot of flowers at the window can, if necessary, fulfil the purpose.

In the first "Children's House" in Rome we have a vast courtyard, cultivated as a garden, where the children are free to run in the open air–and, besides, a long stretch of ground, which is planted on one side with trees, has a branching path in the middle, and on the opposite side, has broken ground for the cultivation of plants. This last, we have divided into so many portions, reserving one for each child.

While the smaller children run freely up and down the paths, or rest in the shade of the trees, the possessors of the earth (children from four years of age up), are sowing, or hoeing, watering or examining, the surface of the soil watching for the sprouting of plants. It is interesting to note the following fact: the little reservations of the children are placed along the wall of the tenement, in a spot formerly neglected because it leads to a blind road; the inhabitants of the house, therefore, had the habit of throwing from those windows every kind of offal, and at the beginning our garden was thus contaminated.

But, little by little, without any exhortation on our part, solely through the respect born in the people's mind for the children's labour, nothing more fell from the windows, except the loving glances and smiles of the mothers upon the soil which was the beloved possession of their little children.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom