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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Montessori, Dewey and Capitalism: Educational Theory for a Free Market In Education

For years, school-choice proponents have assessed and reassessed the possibilities of expanding government support for vouchers. Jerry Kirkpatrick’s Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism: Educational Theory for a Free Market in Education is a refreshing alternative to those tired discussions of political coalitions, legislative machinations, and disparate school-choice programs. Indeed, Kirkpatrick’s book is one of the first to consider the methodological and instructional foundations of an educational free market, and the author does so in an original and engaging way.

Kirkpatrick argues that the goal of education should be to cultivate self-esteem and independence and reject coercion and rationalism, thereby freeing the young mind and encouraging children “to be actively curious and practically self-assured.” To achieve these goals, he constructs a theory based on “concentrated attention,” a psychological concept central to the educational theories of Italian educator and philosopher Maria Montessori. Kirkpatrick defines concentrated attention as the “heightened awareness of one object out of the many that exist in our field of awareness.” According to Kirkpatrick, most educational approaches seek to either coerce children or neglect them altogether, but concentrated attention focuses on educational methods that nurture the child. He meticulously details the proper methods of employing concentrated attention and also outlines the content of education—the knowledge, values, and skills—needed to thrive in a free society.

Where did the idea of concentrated attention come from? Kirkpatrick finds its first clear expression among the child-centered educational theories of Enlightenment thinkers like John Amos Comenius, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the nineteenth century Johann Pestalozzi, Johann Herbart, and Friedrich Froebel further developed the psychological and philosophical foundations of child-centered education. In the early twentieth century John Dewey and Maria Montessori provided the modern theoretical foundations of the concept of concentrated attention. One may have wished, as I did, that Kirkpatrick had augmented this chapter by discussing the slew of dubious child-centered educational practices that followed Dewey and Montessori. Even so, Kirkpatrick’s history of child-centered versus teacher-centered theories of education is highly instructive.

While Montessori’s ideas provide a solid foundation to Kirkpatrick’s theory, Dewey’s educational theories appear to undermine it. Dewey was a collectivist who sought to use state-sponsored coercion to properly “socialize” children. In isolation, some of Dewey’s ideas may resemble Montessori’s concept of concentrated attention, but Dewey wasn’t interested in cultivating independent young minds. He was interested in using public schools to cultivate dependency on the State.

In defense of his use of Dewey’s ideas, Kirkpatrick argues against conflating Dewey’s political and educational philosophies. On one hand, Kirkpatrick acknowledges that Dewey and his Progressive colleagues sought government control over schooling. On the other, he suggests that Progressives wanted to free students from coercive educational environments by urging public schools to adopt student-centered instructional approaches. Kirkpatrick calls this a “contradiction,” but many critics maintain that Dewey’s political and educational philosophies were compatible. For example, in Anti-intellectualism in American Life, historian Richard Hofstadter noted that Dewey assumed “a kind of pre-established harmony between the needs and interest of the child and ‘the society we should like to realize.’” Kirkpatrick’s effort at separating Dewey’s political and educational philosophy is not entirely persuasive.

It is also difficult to agree with Kirkpatrick’s contention that there is an underlying compatibility between the educational theories of Dewey and Montessori. Dewey identified serious differences between his educational theories and Montessori’s. In Schools of Tomorrow, for example, he argued that Montessori adhered to “older” psychological theories, which asserted that “people have ready-made faculties which can be trained and developed for general purposes.” Dewey boasted that he ascribed to “newer” psychological theories, which claimed that children have “special impulses of action to be developed through their use in preserving and perfecting life in the social and physical conditions under which it goes on.” These substantive differences in their basic assumptions about the nature of learning required fundamental differences in their respective instructional approaches.

Aside from the difficulties of attempting to redeem Dewey’s educational thought, one nagging problem with Kirkpatrick’s book is that while he acknowledges that the content of education would be “freely chosen by the education consumer in a marketplace of ideas,” he doesn’t concede that consumers should also freely choose the method of education.

There is no guarantee that parents would flock to schools that implemented educational approaches based on concentrated attention. In a free market in education, parents who want to raise their children to become confident, independent adults might find concentrated attention-based instruction a desirable alternative to existing educational approaches. Even if they don’t, they should have the choice. Kirkpatrick’s success is in offering them a choice worthy of attention.