As I watch, with dismay, the growing intolerance that surrounds us and manifests itself in varying ways through the world right now, I can't help but wonder if and how things could be changed for the better. Yesterday my two year old son pointed to a picture of a gun and kept asking me what it was; I found it difficult to explain because so many words that I had to use were not a part of his vocabulary or understanding!
Therefore, today I choose to focus on little minds - on their latent desire for peace and joy and what we can learn from them. Perhaps we can attempt to remember happy and uncritical thoughts and feelings that are buried deep within us, a sense of awe for nature and wonder for the gifts of the world, and see where it takes us. I quote below from a Montessori book (Basic Montessori, Learning Activities for Under-Fives, by David Gettman, one of the best books on this subject that I have read so far) -
"Peace Through Self Fulfilment
Maria Montessori lived through the two most terrible wars in the history of mankind, and the causes of war were very much on her mind, especially in the years after the Second World War. She came to believe that the widespread application of her method for education could help lead the world towards peace.
Montessori believed that her method enables children to satisfy fully their instinctual and personal developmental needs, and so helps to create fulfilled and well balanced adults, whose innate goodness can shine forth unimpeded by neurotic ambitions and desires. If her method would spread sufficiently throughout the world, she hoped, millions of adults raised by it would be free from such tendencies as greed and aggression. Then, with the passing of the old generations, threats to world peace would gradually subside and disappear.
The Montessori methods may also help promote peace by its study and support of the absorbent mind. If we consider the action of the absorbent mind - that children fully accept, without critique or prejudice, the behaviour and traits of those around them, that children transform themselves by incarnating these ways, and that children place complete faith in the goodness and benevolence of others - we see more than a mechanism for learning, but also children's saint-like charity or spiritual love for people..."
The Montessori system is quite 'spirit driven' (not in the religious sense) which makes it difficult to explain or advise an adult (teacher or guardian) on the exact approach to take for each child. The child drives the process and the hope is that the adult is sufficiently perceptive to support and facilitate this process of discovery and to respect the child's reactions and opinions. The techniques themselves are unusual - they have been developed by the children themselves (and refined as Maria Montessori watched the children choose and show her the way they wanted to learn). To illustrate this system further and describe how its fundamental principles can help children and adults view life in a different way, I quote from another section of the same book. This deals with Sensorial Activities (those that develop our sensing skills)-
"Finally, the Sensorial Activities can have a moral and spiritual importance for the child. A very young child, like the baby discussed earlier, who has not yet organised sense experience, sees the world as consisting of lively, responsive 'things', which behave like fountains of impressions, spouting changing sensorial stimuli in response to playful proddings. There is a moral danger at the point in the child's early psychic development when structure is first being applied to sense perceptions, that these thriving companions will be turned into lifeless repositories of dull existence, attended by a determinate set of functions or characteristics, which can be negated and replaced at whim by the indifferent observer. This 'objectification' of things, both living and inanimate, can result when they are identified and classed only in terms of their service to people (e.g. we grow plants for eating, keeping warm, and building homes) or are described as isolated pockets of existence with alterable attributes (e.g. 'this is a rock; it is rough, heavy, grey and hard to break'). The child learns from such lessons that the unsympathetic manipulation of things (as well as living creatures) is not only possible but expected, and the child is hardened to the wonderment of endless exploration which guides a baby's interactions with things. As a result, the world is narrowed to a place full of 'objects' to be possessed for our vanity, altered for our pleasure, or destroyed for our convenience.
Montessori's Sensorial Activities introduce the child to a structured comprehension of the world in a different way. The child is not led by activities away from the baby's world of lively thing-friends, but is only given the skills to clarify and order the sensorial gifts that may be received form them. The activities' enlargement of sensorial sensitivity increases the child's respect and awe for the things which are the source of those sense impressions. Rather than leave a child feeling that a thing is easily defined and manipulated, the sensorial Activities make the child aware of the endless depth available for exploring the thing in its infinite depth and fullness.
In this spiritual aspect of the Sensorial Activities, we can see one of the far-reaching differences between the Montessori approach and the conventional teaching methods. Note that the Sensorial Activities isolate a single perceptual quality by making each object in a set identical in all respects except one. Conventional teaching methods commonly introduce a quality in the opposite way; that is, the quality of interest is usually identified as the one most obvious quality which a group of otherwise unrelated objects have in common. For instance, to introduce the colour 'blue', a conventional teacher will gather together a blue flower, a blue toy truck, a blue cloth, and a blue pencil, all of which vary in shape, material, size, texture and weight, but have nearly the same colour. Though it might seem that Montessori's approach is nothing more than a pedagogical mirror-image of the conventional method, it is actually conveying an entirely different message to the child. The focus in the Sensorial Activities is not on objects, but on the phenomenon of colour as an experience. In Montessori's materials, the things themselves have no uses or functions outside the exercise; the quality is simply presented, explored and related to the child's actual experience of the environment. In the conventional teaching method, the focus is instead on the objects, which do have uses or functions outside the exercise, and which are shown to 'possess' various qualities, including the one under study. The point made by the conventional teaching is not that you can experience colour, but that a number of objects may all possess the same quality. In brief, the conventional teaching method perpetuates the 'objectification' of the child's world by subordinating experience to objects, while Montessori's approach introduces the quality as a facet of the child's experience, leaving 'things' free of the limitations and manipulations of human definition, preserving for the child a sense of their mystical depth and liveliness..."
I think the Montessori system (or other similar methods that involve the body, mind and spirit of a child rather than an adult's perception of a child) enables the child not to be afraid of differences (in others as well as in himself or herself) and to accept these differences non-judgementally at an early age. Judgement always creeps in as we grow older, but early lessons of respect of others' differences and of understanding one's own strengths and potential still remain and can be put to fear-free, peaceful and creative use in the years that follow.