Review – The Secret Of Childhood

The Secret of Childhood

by Maria Montessori, published 1936, 1982

If you’re looking for a “how-to” on the Montessori Method, this isn’t it. What this book is is an exploration of the philosophical foundations of Maria Montessori’s view of the child in society, based upon some of her historical experiences and study of related social research.

Although this book was published long ago, Montessori’s revelation appears to be, by and large, still a secret. Sadly, it is not just a cultural secret. Even in the West, and particularly the United States, where her ideas seem to have the strongest following, the parenting and educational mainstreams seem to have done little to absorb Montessori’s insights into both theory and practice. If Montessori was correct in her discovery, then it says something both appalling and demoralizing about the failure of society to integrate such important truths. So, what is this “secret”?

The secret of childhood is that it is a period of time during which the child works, not to assimilate himself into society, but to assimilate himself into himself. We hear echoes of Max Stirner (1806-1856, Germany) in Maria Montessori (1870-1952, Italy), for example, compare Stirner,

school is to be life and there, as outside of it, the self-revelation of the individual is to be the task… only freedom is equality… we need from now on a personal education (not the impressing of convictions)… knowledge must die and rise again as will and create itself anew each day as a free person.

to Montessori,

Adults look upon a child as something empty that is to be filled through their own efforts, as something inert and helpless for which they must do everything, as something lacking an inner guide and in constant need of direction… the adult makes himself the touchstone of what is good and evil in the child. He is infallible, the model upon which the child must be molded… An adult who acts this way… unconsciously suppresses the development of the child’s own personality.

or to Montessori’s son, Mario, from the preface,

Man has discovered flight, he has discovered atomic energy, but he has failed to discover himself.

or to Margaret Stephenson, a Montessori instructor, from the foreword,

How can one learn through group play what it means to be a mother, father, space pilot, dog, when one does not yet know what it mean’s to be one’s self?

This psychic development of the child, a “universal” as Montessori puts it, into an individuated person, the man, unfolds along a predetermined path dictated by nature.

Childhood constitutes the most important element in an adult’s life, for it is in his early years that a man is made.

That is not to say that man’s childhood development is deterministic, but that there is a logic and a succession of predictable stages and events to it, much like a caterpillar becomes a cocoon and then a butterfly.

The place an animal will have in the universe can be seen at birth. We know that one animal will be peaceful since it is a lamb, that another will be fierce because it is a lion cub, that one insect will toil without ceasing since it is an ant, and that another will do nothing but sing in solitude since it is a locust. And just as the lower animals, so the newly born child has latent psychic drives characteristic of its species… A child develops not simply as a member of the human species, but as a person.

And the implication of this fact is that the child, in his childhood, has special needs during this period of development which will allow this process of psychic development to occur without obstruction or injury, ranging from the suitability of his environment, to the tools and instruments he has at his use, to the way he is interacted with and communicated with by adults, who he sees as omnipotent, almost magical, beings of power and authority. (Isn’t it funny to stop for a moment and consider how sure of ourselves and the nature and limits of the adults around us we are, and how truly mysterious any of this was when we first made our way into the world as small children? Just ponder that for a moment if you’re having trouble grasping the significance of Montessori’s “secret”.)

What are some of these differences and needs between children and adults? The first is understanding the significance of work to each. For adults, work is a means to obtain a fixed and known goal, and the general idea is to work efficiently, that is, to get the highest yield in terms of outcome for the smallest amount of resources and energy expended. But for children, the purpose of work is to learn about the self– work is not performed to obtain an income, or to be fed, or to avoid a threat, but rather work is performed to experience the psychic benefit of knowing how to perform the work.

An adult walks to reach some external goal and he consequently heads straight for it… An infant, one the other hand, walks to perfect his own proper functions, and consequently his goal is something creative within himself.

In working, a child applies their intellect to the world, they come to understand their power and ability as a person to influence and change the world more to their liking, a fact that mature adults take for granted.

His hands under the guidance of his intellect transform this environment and thus enable him to fulfill his mission in the world.

Because of this, a child may be seen to work “aimlessly”, or “inefficiently”, or “incompetently”, but this observation is made from the point of view of an adult which is not applicable to the child and their psychic purpose in working. Montessori relates how adults who are finished working are typically tired and in need of rest or recreational stimulation, whereas children who are finished working are exhilarated and self-satisfied at accomplishing whatever it was inside of their psyche that compelled them to perform their work.

Another need is the need for separate property. Children exist in a world created by adults, for the benefit of adults and adults can be capricious with their property and arrangements in ways that are befuddling and intimidating to children. Everything in the child’s world (for example, in the home) belongs to the adults– the furniture, which is sized for the adults; the dishware and glassware and silverware, which is sized for the adults; the books, the clothes, the walls, the art, even the pets!

[An adult is tempted to overvalue his material possessions when they’re being handled by a child, such as with a glass of water being carried by his child.] The adult who does this may even be very wealthy and intent upon increasing his fortunes many times over in order to make his son still more wealthy than himself. But for the moment he esteems a glass as something of greater value than the child’s activity and seeks to prevent its being broken [and so interferes needlessly with the child’s development in stopping him from his activity with the glass].

Montessori describes the adults as “kings”, who may of occasion grant the child a right to temporary use of the king’s property, but never the right to possess the property themselves.

An adult, however high or low he may be, is always a powerful being in comparison with a child.

The child can feel as if it lives only at the mercy and privilege of the king. The child is constantly being instructed and informed how to use something, what to touch and what not to touch, to keep away from this or to go be near that. The child needs some of its own things, in sizes and qualities specific to its uses, so that it may explore and understand and “work” in the world around itself without constantly being in conflict with the adults.

An adult is constantly interrupting the child and breaking into his environment. This powerful being directs the child’s life without ever consulting the child himself. And this lack of consideration makes the child think that his own activities are of no value.

A final need is for adults to appreciate the differences in perceptive faculties of children, who, as Montessori describes, pay attention to details not just different in magnitude, but in kind.

A child’s psychic personality is far different from our own, and it is different in kind and not simply degree.

Adults are accustomed to looking at the world and paying attention to details in a particular way based upon their individual goals, ambitions, professional outlook, educational level, etc. etc. But children often pay attention to details quite differently, and in ways that conflict with adult perceptions or treat them as non-sensical or unimportant.

Children an adults are in possession of two different mental outlooks… Adults frequently attempt to point out ordinary objects to three- or four-year-old children as if they had never seen anything before. But this must have the same effect on a child as one shouting at another whom he thinks to be deaf [who is not so].

An adult may wish to draw a child’s attention to the beach and the ocean, but the child is fascinated by a tiny bug crawling across the sand. Adults are often quick to pass judgment on the child in these moments, as if they are “wrong” for not being interested in what the adult wants them to be interested in, or even questioning their intelligence or development when they seem incapable of taking such an interest. But as with work, observation serves a different purpose for the child than for the adult– it is not to satisfy his desire for recreation, or to attend to a productive goal, but to stimulate his psyche according to these innate, natural needs of his development.

Here are some other interesting quotes I collected:

  • The child is a universal… There is, in reality, only the child of all times, of all races, heir to tradition, hander-on of history, crucible of culture, pathway to peace.
  • The absorption of culture, of customs, of ideas, ideals, of sentiments, feelings, emotions, religion, take place during the period of the absorbent mind, in the child from zero to six.
  • We should try to understand that there is an intelligible reason behind a child’s activities. He does nothing without some reason, some motive… A child does not simply run, jump and handle things without purpose and thus create havoc about the house… Knowledge always precedes movement. When a child wishes to do something, he knows beforehand what it is. [A very Misesian idea!]
  • An adult’s avarice, which makes him jealously defend whatever he owns, is concealed under “the duty of properly educating one’s child.” [What Stirner would refer to as a “spook”, or a mental hobgoblin an adult uses to frighten his own psyche and thus prevent himself for taking ownership over his actions.]
  • When a child moves slowly, an adult feels compelled to intervene by substituting his own activity for that of the child. But in acting thus an adult, instead of assisting a child in his psychic needs, substitutes himself in all the actions which the child would like to carry out by himself.
  • What an adult tells a child remains engraved on his mind as if it had been cut in marble.
  • When a child is disobedient or has a tantrum an adult should always call to mind the conflict and try to interpret it as a defense of some unknown vital activity necessary for the child’s development.
  • Toys furnish a child with an environment that has no particular goal and, as a consequence, they cannot provide it with any real mental concentration but only illusions.
  • Before anyone can assume a responsibility, he must be convinced that he is the master of his own actions and have confidence in himself.

I enjoyed reading this book, it stimulated MY psyche and made an impression upon me in terms of how much more there is to think and know about this subject than what I possess currently. I also enjoyed the archaicness of it, Montessori writes like a civilized person of years gone by, speaking articulately and frankly about the world around her without apology and with much conviction and passion for her subject, something which doesn’t seem to exist anymore in our world of sterile, clinical academics reluctant to take a position on anything of import. But it was not always an easy read and it was fairly repetitious. I will likely come back to the book at some point to re-read certain passages that I found hard to appreciate without an experience of raising a child myself. Yet, I wouldn’t recommend this as an “essential” title for someone looking to up their parenting game unless I already knew they were more philosophical in their approach.

Supporting Causes With Integrity

Introduction

I am a skeptic when it comes to charity– I believe most charity efforts are inefficient ways to make the desired impact, misunderstand the nature of the problem they seek to address and are doomed to treat symptoms rather than causes or, at worst, create more problems than they solve. I believe that this is partly due to the incentivizes and mechanisms of philanthropic activities versus monetary/commercial exchange activities, and partly (mostly) due to the fact that most people interested in charity do not spend much time thinking philosophically about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it.

As I do intend to contribute to (or even create) some philanthropic entities over the course of my life and I do not wish to be a hypocrite, I have attempted to identify and outline some important tradeoffs which must be considered before engaging in charitable activities.

Spectra of tradeoffs

Short-term vision vs. Long-term vision

This tradeoff involves the consideration of looking at problems which are immediate, present or developed in nature versus looking at problems which are distant, in the future and developing or potentially could develop based on a particular trend playing out. This tradeoff also has implications for questions of fund-raising and financing methodology and the construction of a strategy to meet the problem (ie, building a strategy which is active in the coming year versus a strategy which may only become active many years from now). This tradeoff has a generational component– looking at one’s own generation or the immediately following generation, the generation of one’s grandchildren or even more distant successors, or looking at the general inheritance of mankind for all time.

Physical issues vs. World of ideas

This tradeoff involves considering problems related to things that affect the material well-being versus predominant ideas, values, culture, etc. An example would be providing books to schools, versus influencing what is in the books in schools.

Treat symptoms vs. Prevent problems

This tradeoff is one of both urgency and quantity. It implies a certain metaphysical reality for the tradeoff to exist, that is, that a smaller good can be had now at the expense of a larger good later. The tradeoff demands that we consider which is more important: ending present suffering or ending the the cause of suffering. An example is providing malaria medication, versus providing mosquito nets.

Act locally vs. Act globally

This tradeoff involves the radius of impact and the desire to improve one’s own community versus the potential to affect a more desperate community further afield. An example would be trying to end homelessness in your own city, versus trying to provide clean drinking water to everyone on the planet.

General application vs. Specific application

This tradeoff is similar to the impact radius consideration but the question asked is more precise: “Given that resources are limited, do you seek to relieve the problem as it affects one specific group, or as it affects all groups?” A person may choose a specific group far away or a specific group they know familiarly, that is why this is not a question of acting locally or globally. An example might be seeking cures for childhood cancer, versus seeking cures for all cancers.

Verifiable impact vs. Difficult to measure

This tradeoff involves considerations of the empirical measurement of philanthropic influence. You may decide only to support a cause which has a clear and objective metric to indicate the influence your contribution is making, or you may decide to support a cause where the impact is subjective, mixed up with other independent variables or is simply on too vast of a scale to easily measure. An example is delivering computers to third world classrooms, versus improving the happiness of a community.

DIY vs. Pay to fund others

This tradeoff is a question of agency and considers whether one will serve as the agent of change himself, or whether he will hire others to do the work for him. It is not just a question of leveraging the efforts of others through the division of labor– it is about whether it is personally desirable to be involved as an agent oneself or whether it is preferable to provide things like ideas, organization and money while leaving others to actually execute on the plan. An example is going on a mission trip and building houses for the poor, versus making a donation to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Change the system vs. Work within it

This tradeoff involves an analysis of the contribution the social system (rules, laws, cultural customs, traditions, economy, etc.) makes to the existence of the problem in question. You might see the problem as a necessary outcome of the system itself, necessitating a “revolution” to resolve it, or you might see the system as largely disinterested in or detached from the problem meaning it’s possible to use the system, or channel its energy differently, to resolve the problem. An example is abolishing the tax code, versus seeking a privileged status within it such as 501(c)3 designation.

For-profit vs. Non-profit (Self-sustaining vs. Dependency)

This tradeoff examines the proper method of financing a charitable activity. It signifies an awareness of the way that the existence of a charitable resource might influence the supply or stickiness of a social problem. It also provides consideration for the likelihood of strategically resolving a social problem with a potentially uncertain, inconsistent or mismatched method of finance. It understands that the design of economic systems and the consideration of incentives is often background for the existence of certain social problems. An example is a business that purposefully hires various “at risk” demographics to keep them out of trouble, versus a charity which spends significant time and energy ensuring its continued financing by others; a corrolary example is a charity with a substantial endowment which is intelligently invested over a long-period of time allowing it to grow, versus a charity which comes hat in hand every year asking for new donations to continue its operations.

Individuals vs. Families/communities

This tradeoff involves the philosophy of “If you can change the life of just one person, you’ve made a difference” as opposed to “It takes a village” or “Only together may we truly prosper.” It asks one to focus their consideration on whether the problem is truly being solved if only some are relieved or whether a wholesale solution must be put into affect to feel a sense of accomplishment. An example is a scholarship for a talented student, versus constructing a school for an “underserved” community.

One causes vs. Many causes

This tradeoff considers whether one can do the most good by having many plates spinning and doing a little good in a lot of places, or if it’s better to dig deeply and do a lot of good on just one issue. An example is putting all your effort and resources into diabetes research, versus supporting the local children’s hospital, a charity sports league, providing scholarships to handicapped students and funding a legal defense fund.

One project vs. Many projects

This tradeoff is similar to the one immediately preceding it. The difference is simply that one could have one project at each of many causes, or many projects at one and only one cause, or some other combination of the two. It is partly a question of finishing what you started before going on to something else. An example is just feeding the poor, versus feeding the poor, providing job training for the poor and organizing community awareness seminars about the challenges of the poor.

Mankind vs. Other Organisms

This tradeoff is self-explanatory– do you seek to resolve human issues, or ecological issues (including issues related to the state of the environment, the welfare of non-human animals, the prevalence of plant species, etc.) An example is building a church, versus saving a species of river smelt from extinction.

Conclusion

When it comes to philanthropy, I believe the most important epistemic principle is that you should have a rational, deeply contemplated answer to the question, “How do you know you aren’t making it worse?”

Notes – Edward Tufte’s “Presenting Data and Information”

Edward Tufte is a Yale-connected academic who conducts several private seminars around the country each year promoting his view of visual design for the display of quantitative information and statistics. He has published multiple books through his own publishing mark such as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Beautiful Evidence, Envisioning Information and Visual Explanations. His personal website which contains articles, research papers, examples of his work and principles and other information is at EdwardTufte.com. A friend who is a fan has blogged some notes about the man and his seminar courses.

If I were to summarize Tufte’s philosophy of information design into a single sentence, which is certainly a crude way to approach the nuanced and thoughtful lifework of a person, I’d say this– beautiful design means creating the highest density information display the resolution of your medium will allow. This stands in stark contrast to the reigning paradigm of “less is more” and sacrificing much of the available real estate of an information display for white/empty space, navigational or UI elements and “inference assists” (my term) such as arrows, boxes and non-data lines which are supposed to draw the viewer’s attention to what’s important or where to focus their eyes.

In Tufte’s own words, he summarized the philosophy with the pithy, “The information is the interface; maximize content reasoning time; minimize design decoding time.” [Note: on my hand-written notes written in a darkened room early in the morning at the start of his seminar, I think I mistakenly wrote “maximize design decoding time” but meant to write “minimize”.] Even more pithy, and in Tufte’s own words:

The purpose of information display is to assist thinking about its content.

I attended his seminar in San Diego, CA in February. Below I am posting my notes which may or may not be useful to a person unfamiliar with his work or the content of the seminar. Tufte, who introduces himself as “ET”, likes to circulate amongst his audience before, during and after the session and introduce himself– clearly he enjoys what he does and appreciates the people who have taken an interest in his work which is a good professional example for others to follow.

  • The information is the interface.
  • Idea: maximize content reasoning time; minimize [maximize? see above] design decoding time
    • design decode effort/time is wasteful as the pattern for design is often not repeated in the future
  • Graphics are only useful when there is a lot of data, not a little bit of data
  • Design should encourage scanning, scrolling and choosing
  • Increases in resolution allows for spatial adjacency [note: this is the idea of putting lots of information side-by-side versus having to change mediums, windows, displays, repeatedly to compare and contrast blocks of information]
  • Digital display screen resolution is finally approaching “P.A.P.E.R. technology” (paper) resolution
  • Simple, clear conventional design with rich, complex data is preferable to complicated design devoid of content; many designers invest too much effort in display relative to content quality
  • NYT, WSJ are highly trafficked websites high in information density (many links, many pieces of data and text) which demonstrate this approach is desirable for design of corporate sites
  • Names have reputations, put your name on your work
  • Reasoning on a flat surface means all viewers can go at their own pace; a slideshow makes most people wait; think “documents” not “decks”
  • Listing sources for data provides credibility and reasons to believe
  • Look at sources, start points, end points, rates of change, to examine whether a chart establishes a relationship between evidence and conclusion
  • Annotations help explain all data by providing specific information about one data point captured in the graphic
  • Look at “excellence in the wild” to contrast your own efforts against the pros
    • Use Word, not PowerPoint
    • Be web-based
  • Order data tables by performance, not by alphabet; performance often tells a story
  • ESPN.com demonstrates that even complex data can be appreciated by lesser intellects (!)
  • Dashboards are idiotic and no way to operate a business or institution
  • How to Make A Presentation, some tips:
    • show up early (head off problems, ensure equipment works, room not double-booked, etc.)
    • talk to people
    • give them a document for discussion; don’t give it in advance of the meeting, no homework
    • begin meetings with study hall, people can read faster than you talk
    • the document addresses the principles of individualism and personalization as people can take what information from it they deem important
    • PPT disappears as you go higher up an org chart, the top execs have no time for the “long and winding road” (Steve Ballmer anecdote); submit ideas to discuss as written documents
    • provide intellectual leadership about content, stop discussing production methodology
    • finish early, your audience will thank you
    • Remember “Problem, Relevance, Solution”, three necessary components of any good presentation
  • How does Jeff Bezos run a meeting? Read the Forbes article or watch this Charlie Rose interview:
  • Applied presentation tip– provide notes/documents of medical concerns for a doctor to read during your doctor visit; this is what they’re trained to do and they’ll pay more attention to the information if you give them something to read
  • Check out The Public Library of Science and its templates for ideas on content rich documents
  • You can copy the source code from EdwardTufte.com and use the CSS to apply style ideas to your own blog or website
  • Real reading entails looting and hacking the valuable materials useful for later efforts, liberating them from the text; always read with an awareness for context (what came before this, what comes after, why did the author write it?); this echoes the idea of “making the work your own” of Mortimer Adler
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 78-79, using diagram trees appropriately (annotated linking lines)
    • links need to convey causality and action
    • replace generic lines with words and numbers– annotate!
  • Turn fundamental principles of analytical thinking into design decisions
  • The purpose of information display is to assist thinking about its content
  • Don’t pre-specify a data display method, use whatever method the job requires
  • Look at Google Maps and ask IT why you can’t achieve similar design capabilities; their maps are rich, colorful, multi-dimensional, varied fonts and orientation of information, etc.
  • Refer to “Visual Explanations”, pg. 90-91
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pgs. 82-83, 114-115; exploring words, numbers and images together
  • Today’s computer interfaces separate and segregate information based on the method of production
  • Statistical graphics can be anywhere a number or letter can be
  • Statistical graphics can have the same resolution as topography
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 46-47, “sparklines” method for creating text-sized data graphics, embedded within text (inspired by Galileo’s revelation of Saturn)
  • “Nature” magazine has some of the best data-driven graphical displays, good place to look for examples of the possible
  • Why aren’t all data displays excellent? Tufte suggests there is a profit-driven bias and the dominance of Microsoft combined with the lack of scientific rigor of many data designers results in a failure of the “public spirit” principle; color me skeptical about profit and “public spirit” being at odds!
  • Excel, Google Analytics can both produce sparklines
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 58, for the famed Swiss mountain maps, or see this video (YouTube):
  • The human eye-brain optic system operates at 20mb/s in 16-bit color, digital displays don’t come close to this much data and resolution
  • Content and credibility are the keys to presenting and spectatorship
    • have the sources been credible in the past?
    • demonstrate your understanding of detail and mastery of verbs, not nouns (not who is who, but who does what to whom?)
    • threats to credibility: lying, cherry-picking (evidence vs. evidence selection), over-polished, hidden or absent sources (“proprietary”, “legal liability”, “violate federal law”, etc.)
  • Know your content, not your audience; maintain respect for your audience
    • “know your audience” leads to pandering
    • use presentations as a teaching moment to inform people of your content
  • Scan lots of material and drill down where you see discrepancies for superior economization on large volumes of data to achieve relevance
  • Investigate how data was measured; go out, walk around, see the process producing the data
    • people can not keep their own score; the metric is gamed as soon as it becomes important
    • eg, Google words are gamed by SEO, so use Google Images to search
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 32-33 for “small multiples” concept; use the need to learn a repetitious format to get people to focus on the content
  • Universality and “forever ideas”; Galileo was the supreme data designer; why should the “best thing ever” have occurred recently versus long ago?
  • Personal curiosity– why are US internet pipelines significantly slower than other developed nations?
  • Spatial adjacency versus temporal stacking (hi-res vs. low-res)
  • Different modes of display are not competitors, they are co-operators in communicating information; no one display is optimal