Maria Montessori: A vision of mankind transformed

by 05 Jul 2023UNESCO0 comments

In 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War, great interest was awakened in Rome by the announcement that Maria Montessori was to give a talk there on “Education and Peace.” Although Maria Montessori had studied in Rome (she held degrees in medicine, biology, philosophy and education) and her first research into the psychological development of small children had been carried out there, she had pursued the rest of her career in foreign countries, opening schools in England, the United States of America, Spain, Denmark, India, and the Netherlands. At last she was coming back to Rome, a dignified old lady dressed in black, with a halo of white hair. She had a very quiet voice and spoke so simply that no one could fail to follow her arguments.

She said there was no need to unite the world, for it was united already. In order to develop a peaceable disposition in young children, we must give them their place in this new united, unified world where everyone works for the benefit of his neighbour. For in the world of today nothing comes to us direct from nature in the old, simple way; men must work to bring it to us. She pointed out that this applied not only to houses, tables, chairs, books, but that even a fruit, which seems the most direct and genuine of nature’s gifts, comes to us only because men have tended the tree it grew upon, plucked it and brought it to market.

She went on to say that nothing was easier than to make little children aware of the human kindness which is constantly being expressed in work, for every child meets with such kindness in everyday life. Unconscious kindness, perhaps, but kindness all the same. It helps people a great deal if they realize they have this kindness within them. Maria Montessori never wrote out her lectures or lessons, and spoke without notes. When I went to ask her if I might have a copy of what she had said, she looked surprised and told me she had not got one. So I hurried home and wrote down everything I could remember. She read my notes afterwards and agreed that they were her words. Even so, they gave only a pale reflection of her ideas.

She had begun to take an interest in young children in the early years of this century, when she was working at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome and had been instructed to study the behaviour of a group of feeble-minded children. She had already received a thorough scientific training for this type of research from Giuseppe Sergi, the anthropologist, who had founded the first Institute of Experimental Psychology at the University of Rome; and she was also familiar with the work of Professor Cesare Lombroso, the celebrated authority on criminal psychology. On completing her studies she turned to research, gradually deepening her insight into the physical and psychical substratum underlying abnormality and her understanding of the educational methods by which behaviour could be improved.

To acquaint herself with what was being done elsewhere in the field of remedial education, she went abroad, spending some time in England and then in France. In the latter country the investigations carried out by Itard and Séguin interested her particularly. J.E. Marie Gaspard Itard (1774-1838) was a physician who had devoted himself to the education of deaf children. After her return to Rome, Maria Montessori continued her study of mentally defective children, improved her methods of training, and invented the teaching materials that bear her name: a set of objects (Interlocking puzzles, cubes, cylinders, laces, coloured implements, figures, letters) designed to stimulate dormant sensory perception.

Finally, she opened a school to train teachers for the difficult task of preparing feeble-minded children to play their part in normal life. Meanwhile, however, she had become increasingly absorbed by another question. “If,” she asked herself, “after all this scientific research and study of educational methods, we can now improve the lot of the mentally deficient child, what results should we obtain if we gave equally close attention to normal children, on whom the future of the human race depends?” She decided that the methods of scientific research must now be applied to the psychology of normal children, and that in order to obtain reliable data the children must be in surroundings where they could behave spontaneously and naturally.

An opportunity to put this plan into practice occurred when the city of Rome began to build large blocks of low-rent flats in slum districts, each provided with a Casa dei bambini (a kind of crèche), and Maria Montessori was asked to organize and manage these. This was in 1906. In these nursery schools, the children were given the Montessori teaching materials to stimulate their sense of touch, hearing, and observation; and most important of all, they had teachers who, though always on the watch, left them free to behave just as they wished. And to the amazement of these teachers and of Montessori herself, this led to the gradual emergence of a new type of child, who could concentrate on one occupation for a long time, who was thoughtful, pursuing its psychological development and building up its own personality in this quiet and peacefully experimental atmosphere; who was placid and naturally polite—a completely unaggressive child.

Was it her discovery of the unaggressive child that led Montessori to the conclusion that man was really intended for work and peace, not for battle and destruction? Or was it her wish to guide mankind along the paths of peace that prompted her search for the methods and surroundings which would produce peaceful men? We shall never know; but from this time on she devoted herself mainly to the search for “the better man” who is to be found in every child that comes into the world.

She noted at this period that “The child’s unsatisfied demands leave their mark on the grown man in the form of a conflict, a perpetual struggle that awaits man at birth and continues throughout his development—the conflict between the adult and the child, between the strong and the weak, and one might even add, between the blind and the sighted. The adult gets the better of the child, with the result that the grown man always carries the scars of these battles; something has been destroyed in him, and the price of his victory has been a painful adjustment.” And it grieved her deeply to realize that during the process “the finest psychic qualities of the individual are lost forever.”

When Maria Montessori gave her first public lecture on the theme of education for peace in 1932, at Nice, at a Congress of the International Bureau of Education she was almost dismayed by her realization of the novelty of this idea. Rather than make a frontal attack on the subject, she therefore chose an imaginative, persuasive approach. She went back through history some twenty centuries and spoke at some length on the mysteriously recurring plague which took, over the years, a toll of millions and millions of lives. This had continued until men of learning, scrutinizing the invisible universe, discovered the microbe that was responsible for the scourge, and halted its reproductive process by drawing up certain vital rules of hygiene and inducing society to adopt them. As a result, modern man is physically healthier than his ancestors.

Having thus built up a proper basis for comparisons, Maria Montessori carried her argument further: “War is like plague,” she said, “and it leaves us bewildered. But just as a new physical constitution was needed to defeat plague, so we need a new spiritual constitution to help us put an end to war.” A child is required to be obedient, both at home and at school; as this demand for obedience is not based on any inner conviction, and makes no appeal to reason or justice, it merely produces men who are submissive to blind forces. The form of punishment, so frequent in schools, which consists in holding up the offender to public obloquy—putting him, as it were, in the pillory—gives children a senseless, irrational fear of public opinion, even when that opinion is manifestly unjust and mistaken.

“Adjustment to these circumstances, and to many others of a similar nature, which help to create a permanent inferiority complex, breeds and encourages a spirit of devotion, almost of idolatry, directed towards the ‘leaders’, the authorities who, for such repressed personalities, are a reincarnation of parents and teachers—the figures the child was taught to regard as perfect and infallible. In this way, discipline becomes almost a form of slavery.”

But, declared Maria Montessori, there was another way in which schools could be regarded as the breeding-ground of war, inasmuch as instead of developing the child’s sociability, they discouraged it. Five years later she stressed this point again: “Education in its present form encourages the child’s sense of isolation and his pursuit of his own interests,” she said. “Children are taught not to help one another, not to prompt those who do not know something, to think of nothing but their own advancement, to aim solely at winning prizes in competition with their companions. And these pathetic egotists, mentally wearied as experimental psychology reveals them to be, then go out into the world, where they live side by side like grains of sand in the desert—everyone cut off from his neighbour, and all sterile. If a gale arises, this human dust, with no spiritual essence to give it life, will be swept away in a death-dealing whirlwind.”

The death-dealing whirlwind was just appearing on the horizon; for this was in 1937. At the VIth International Montessori Congress, at Copenhagen, the founder declared that the words “Educate for Peace” should henceforth ring out like a command. As she spoke there was a new note of distress in her voice. At the opening meeting she praised Denmark, “great and generous in offering hospitality to world peace,” and expressed her satisfaction that Belgium, Catalonia, Chile, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, France, Greece, Haiti, Latvia, Mexico, Rumania, the U.S.S.R., the Swiss Canton of Ticino and the United States had responded to her invitation by sending official representatives to the Congress. She spoke of education for peace, of peaceful children, of peace as the true destiny of mankind, throughout that week in August, from the first meeting of the Congress to the last.

The Second World War confirmed her belief that her methods should be applied as widely as possible. As soon as it was over she began again to address teachers in her assured way, putting her ideas to them clearly and convincingly. And so she worked on, tirelessly, to the age of 81.

It might well be asked: “What was so original about Maria Montessori’s ideas?” She undoubtedly follows in the great tradition of Rousseau, who declared that the child is basically good, but is spoilt by society. But whereas in Rousseau this belief sprang from poetical intuition, in her it was the outcome of a precise, scientific study of the hundreds of young children she had the opportunity to observe. It is true that while she was engaged in research and experiment other investigators in different parts of the world were working on the same lines and reaching similar conclusions. But she alone was guided by this ardent vision of mankind transformed; and she alone pointed out that nothing but an educational system which, instead of crushing the child, fostered his psychical energies, could produce men with the moral qualities required to control the tremendous scientific advances they themselves had brought about.

Transcribed for better readability and translations from “The UNESCO Courier”, April 1964 Pages 2, 16-20

UNESDOC Digital Library Record


Maria Montessori: a vision of mankind transformed


The UNESCO Courier: a window open on the world, XVII, 4, p. 16-20, illus.

Material type

article [65936]

Year of publication

1964 [2948]





Also available in



Person as author

Remiddi, Maria [3]

Main topic

Child psychology [617]

Child development [1111]

Behaviour [1670]

Secondary topic

Peace education [379]

Person as subject

Montessori, Maria [49]


Published in 9 editions

Media type



Call Number (library)

001(100) [24904]



Catalog Number


Summary by Andi Becker

“Maria Montessori: A Vision of Mankind Transformed” by Maria Remiddi is a detailed account of Maria Montessori’s career, ideas, and contribution to education. The article reflects on a speech Montessori gave in Rome in 1947, two years after WWII, on “Education and Peace.” Montessori emphasized the importance of educating children about the interconnectedness of the world and the human kindness involved in labor, fostering an understanding of the collective effort required to sustain society.

Montessori’s career began with research into the psychological development of children, particularly those with cognitive impairments. Her observations and experiments led her to develop unique teaching materials to stimulate sensory perception. However, she was intrigued by the thought of applying the same educational methods to normal children, which could significantly influence the future of the human race.

In 1906, she was given the chance to put her methods into practice in Rome’s low-rent flats, which housed a Casa dei bambini or “children’s house.” She found that when given an environment with freedom to act naturally, the children became more concentrated, thoughtful, placid, and unaggressive.

Montessori believed that every child carries an inherent conflict, a struggle between their individual needs and the societal expectations forced upon them. She argued that traditional obedience-based education instills a deep-seated inferiority complex in children, fostering blind submission to authority. She also felt that such education discourages sociability, instead promoting self-centeredness, which she regarded as a root cause of war.

Montessori’s first public lecture on education for peace was in 1932. She compared war to a plague, one that could be eradicated with a new spiritual constitution. Schools, she argued, should be places that foster sociability, cooperation, and mutual respect, instead of encouraging individualistic, competitive behavior.

The advent of WWII only strengthened her resolve to apply her methods more extensively. Until her death at age 81, Montessori worked tirelessly to promote her vision of transforming mankind through education. Although she shares some ideas with philosophers like Rousseau, Montessori’s approach was rooted in scientific study and a passionate belief in the transformative power of child-centered education.