Addressing the Problem of Racism

As Montessori educators, we must identify how are we called upon to serve children and families in the context of the broader cultural awareness and urgency of the pervasive and destructive harm caused by racism

The Guidepost Team

Racism continues to plague America.

On May 25th, 2020, Memorial Day, George Perry Floyd, a black man, died painfully after nine minutes of struggle under the knee of a Minnesota police officer, while other officers stood idly by. George Floyd’s ordeal and death, broadcast by a bystander via Facebook Live and since shared across the country and the world, represent a horrific indifference to human life in officers nominally sworn to protect it.

This event is the latest in a decade of publicly scrutinized examples of police brutality against black men, made possible by unprecedented democratization of handheld filming and social distribution of media. For many Americans, there is a resulting conviction that too little is changing too slowly, and that a deep cultural reckoning remains necessary to address America’s long history of racism, and in particular racism against those with black skin. This conviction has given rise to a wave of protests. It has served as the impetus for a renewed reflection on the role of racism in American life, paired with urgency to translate reflection into action.

It is a painful time for America. The concerns about entrenched racism arise fresh against a backdrop of growing political polarization, suspicion of institutions, a resurgence of nationalist ideals after decades of globalization, and an ongoing pandemic that has blurred into an economic and political crisis of its own. The cultural response has been, all at once, good, angry, righteous, confused, empathetic, and sometimes violent.

The need is clear: for Americans to coalesce around and make real a vision of cultural reform.

As Montessori educators, we must identify our role in this work. How are we called upon to serve children and families in the context of the broader cultural awareness and urgency of the pervasive and destructive harm caused by racism?

Racism is the antithesis of Guidepost Montessori’s pedagogy, which is oriented towards the unique humanity of each individual child.

Our starting point at Guidepost Montessori is our deep focus on each child as a singular, unrepeatable individual. Each particular child is herself and no one else. Unique. Irreplaceable. A constellation of characteristics, experiences, interests, hopes, and fears that no other human being on earth possesses in the same way. Our work is to honor, serve, protect, and love each individual as an individual.

Any number of things combine to make up a given child’s individual identity. Everything from her love for numbers and math, to her reluctance to speak up in front of a larger group, to the fact that she is an only child but part a large extended family, to the various places where she has grown up, to her race, her culture, the communities of which she may be a member, and her own awareness of and ongoing evaluation of the way that all of these things add up to and for her.

At root, this focus on personal identity is an expression of Maria Montessori’s identification of the profoundly powerful humanity already present within each child: by virtue of being human, each child is inherently engaged in the process of creating herself. The spark of an agency that gives each of us our dignity is already burning at birth, constituting a unique soul and kindling a growing repertoire of choices and paths. Adults may help a child’s self-creation by setting optimal conditions, providing the inputs most favorable to her journey, modeling and supporting through loving guidance and channeling of natural interest—but in doing so we recognize that fundamentally as adults we cannot choose for a child, learn for her, act for her, feel for her, live for her. Children must choose, learn, act, feel, and live for themselves.

Our job as educators is to figure out how to best support a child’s self-creation, how to identify, develop, and deliver physical, psychological, social, and curricular building blocks to aid a child’s work of constructing herself into an adult. In doing this work, we take into account and support the child on her terms, in full recognition of her particular, idiosyncratic individual identity. (The fact that Montessori has created a system of serving individual differences is at the heart of historic genius.) We consider, and must consider, the whole child, including all of the factors—personal, familial, cultural, and more—with which she grapples. It is part of our identity as educators that we dedicate ourselves to understanding, as fully as possible, each child’s evolving personal identity as she constructs herself. This understanding is the basis of our ability to love her, to see her best self within her, and to help her most fully reach her potential.

Our implementation of the Montessori method centers entirely around honoring this power of self-creation and embracing it. As such, it involves having a kind of faith in humanity: that if we respect the nature of a developing child—if we work to meet the needs of that nature, if we have the courage to let go and get out of the way—then we will help ensure the natural course of each individual person is fundamentally good. To be fundamentally good, for a human being, is for her individual work of self-creation to be fully realized. In this way, individual by individual, we help support humanity in the aggregate in becoming good.

If we provide an environment consistent with human developmental needs, including an intelligent recognition and incorporation of local, contextual, and broader social needs, children find it in themselves naturally to engage in purposeful work, to interact empathetically, to overcome extreme adversity, and in time, to shoulder great responsibility and move the world forward.

In this great work, racism is our enemy. It is one of the most virulent of the enemies we face: it represents the total antithesis of our educational focus on the individuality and human potential within each child.

Racism is the idea that before a person is to be regarded as a unique, self-created, human individual, she is first regarded, based on her skin and physiognomy, as a specific subcategory of human. On this basis, she is not to be seen primarily as a particular, developing human—holding within her unlimited potential, the primal fire of self-creation, and unyielding moral dignity. She is rather seen as a token of a reified racial type, first—and second, if at all and only on the basis of what the racial type purportedly permits, a human with potential, agency, and dignity.

Humanism includes the reverence for the uniqueness of each person’s human experience and each person’s power to choose to understand and make oneself out of those experiences. Racism, in contrast, is the idea that one’s skin as such is of greater fundamental moral and anthropological significance than one’s humanity. It is the idea—the primitive, justifiably disreputable, completely discredited, and thoroughly abhorrent idea—that one’s race determines one’s inferiority or superiority, i.e. one’s basic worth, as a human being.

Racism can be held consciously or subconsciously. In a person, it can manifest as overt, egosyntonic bigotry—or more covertly, as egodystonic racially prejudicial slant towards others[JS1] (or self-loathing)—or anything between. More broadly, racism manifests across human behavior, artifacts, and systems. The result is always the same: a type of discrimination, intentional or implicit, that is so crude that it represents a wholesale attack on human agency and a fundamental rejection of human dignity. Where such prejudice exists, the humanity of all is undermined. And it sharply countervails and corrupts the humanism that underwrites the Montessori philosophy.

The presence of racism in a child’s life represents a major threat and obstacle to that child’s ability to develop into a flourishing, independent adult. In the American context, given the history of entrenched, legalized, and habituated racism against people with black skin, racism demands unique focus and attention in applying our principles, and we recognize that absent this type of unique focus, we fail to demonstrate in practice that the lives of black children matter to us. (More on this below.)

Our responsibility, rooted in our humanistic Montessori principles, and in our humanity itself, is to see our students as the unique individual human beings they are; and to be hyperactive in ensuring that our students, including our current and future black students, are provided the means—the knowledge, the skills, the clarity, the love and inspiration and fundamental respect as active, self-determined agents—that they need as unique individuals embedded in their particular life circumstances.

Guidepost Montessori’s pedagogical principles inherently undermine racism.

Irrespective of the particular, targeted actions that we as an organization will take to address the presence of racism in the lives of our students, and as a precondition of taking any such action, it is important to recognize that our pedagogy represents a fundamental rejection of racism and a fundamental attack on the causes and consequences of racism.

As missionary educators, we are here to change the world for the better. We shape the world by helping human children grow up in a certain way: helping individuals to live full lives, animated by meaningful work, decency, thoughtfulness, and mutual respect.

Here are three ways in which our basic approach undermines the prevalence of racism in our culture:

Love is the stronger force that withers cruelty. In our work, we help children build their authentic capacity to love.

Montessori’s unique perspective on love is that love flows from understanding. This is part of the reason why it is not just a given that human beings will love one another. Understanding, especially for others who differ from you in some way, requires work to pursue.

Montessori was skeptical that human solidarity and love for humanity could be achieved by educators exhorting the conclusion that humans were worthy of love. If it could be taught that way, she thought, we would have achieved it long ago, since this has been a common creed for centuries. Words can too easily become empty platitudes. True educators are those who demonstrate and model.

As Montessorians, we break down the components of respect for the human dignity of others and for self into something very concrete, accessible to the youngest children, and model them deliberately, consistently, with rigorous justice, within our communities.

This is the Montessori practice of “grace and courtesy,” and it represents a powerful form of moral education. From the earliest years, we model how to, in action, treat oneself and others with the love and respect demanded by one’s humanity in a way that is fundamental, derived from one’s basic capacity to act in the world, and unconditional upon other factors, including race.

We do the same thing with empathy: modeling and breaking down into component parts the effort and thought that we expend in order to understand another person’s point of view. As children grow and become better able to articulate their thoughts, we model and practice the skill of expressing ourselves thoughtfully, and listening equally to others who do the same, putting forth the time and work in order to understand and restate another’s point of view. This is especially important in times of crisis. For those of us working with older students, there is a need for us to model that effort to understand and care about the experience of each individual student and community member.

We arm our students with historical understanding and teach them how to think through complex, pressing issues.

The world is ever-changing. Today, we are facing a crisis in race relations. Tomorrow, new generations may face different, but equally complex, equally challenging moments of crisis. By arming students with the knowledge and with the ability to think independently, we give the means of grappling with difficult issues, thinking them through methodically, and reaching wise conclusions.

That includes (starting with our elementary students) learning history. In this case, as an example, the history of race in America, the history of police worldwide, the history of protest, civil disobedience, and social change. It is particularly important to learn the history of the ideas animating social change. The Civil Rights movement, from its inception through its present manifestations, has, like all intellectual movements, housed many passionate and conflicting voices, arguments, and philosophies. As educators, we guide each student to dig down into those voices, understand each—on its own terms and as having commonalities and contrasts with cognate views—and as a subject for her individual critical evaluation. We help our students to confront the fact that these issues are not just morally urgent but infinitely multifaceted, which drives curiosity and a search for answers.

We respect the agency of each other and each of our students. Understanding is something that individuals choose to do. You cannot force someone to think.

This is baked into the core of our pedagogy, but it can be very difficult to fully accept at times like this. Few are tempted by the view that we should just have students memorize facts or recite moral catechisms. But there is an immense temptation in a time like this to teach and assess specific moral conclusions. The more urgently we care about racism, the more certain we are about it, and the more clearly we see its impact on our students, the more tempted we will be to try to impart our moral conclusions directly before a student has the requisite base of knowledge and experience to analyze and form the conclusion on her own—rather than just parroting what we have told her.

As educators, we model (and in our classrooms ensure) the unconditional respect of each individual person’s humanity—and in so doing, we create a pregnant moral context that students can absorb and internalize. But when it comes to ideology, our job is to give students the inputs and the space they need to think through these issues independently.

Understanding is a process that goes through stages of confusion, of imprecision, of opposing sides of conflict and controversy, and even outright wrongness. And it can be derailed by poorly-tuned adult expectations, or by accidental projections of our own sensitivities or guilt. What the world badly needs, and what we badly want for our students, is people who have within them the skill, wisdom, and confidence to confront life’s toughest issues—including racial injustice—with the whole of their minds and hearts. Just as with math, with practical life, and with everything else, there is no substitute here for struggle, practice, and personal growth. And, as with everything else, well-intentioned educators can hinder this process as much as they can help it.

In acting to address the scourge of racism, our first and most important responsibility is to assess the extent to which we are practicing our fundamental pedagogical principles. These principles, expertly implemented, create the necessary context for any subsequent local and acute actions to be impactful. A child suffering the harms of racism deeply needs the provision of a loving, respectful pedagogical environment that serves her basic developmental nature as a unique, self-directed human being.

There is a need for a targeted focus on the problem of racism.

One theme of the reform movement spreading across the country is that a general intent to oppose racism is not enough. That is: at this moment, in which we as a country are reflecting on our collective shortcomings in addressing discrimination and injustice, it is not sufficient to simply rededicate ourselves to our patient mission of humanism. In the case of education, the applied point is that the social need to address racism is so acute, so urgent, so unique, that in addition to fundamental action, a more specific, targeted focus is required of us, as individual educators and as constituents of educational movements and organizations. Guidepost Montessori agrees with this identification. Our mission is our north star, and guides us to “enable children across the world to realize their human potential as knowledge guided, value-oriented, efficacious beings, so that they experience, undiluted and unimpeded, the joyous process of growing into successful, independent, and happy adults.” But such a broad objective is not pursued simply by mechanically rolling it out in a way that is oblivious to cultural events, needs, and shifts—to live up to it in practice requires the active, dynamic application of our framework to the particular issues arising in our communities. In particular, the moment leads us to think fresh about how to serve black children and families embedded in today’s particular cultural context, to affirm without qualification the fact that the lives of our current and future black students matter immensely to us, and to think anew about how to find a way to fully and unreservedly supporting the cultural and humanitarian call to action. There is a need to offer guidance to all of our stakeholders about how to grapple with the reality of race. And there is a need to do so in a way that ensures that we do not start treating people as racial or political abstractions, thereby downplaying or replacing the love and salvation that comes from the authentic, direct, personal connection between particular, individual human beings as particular, individual human beings, in all their miraculous uniqueness.

In recognition of this, Guidepost Montessori is reviewing its pedagogy and programming from the perspective of racism. Various task forces are being assembled to evaluate how to apply our principles uncompromisingly in ways that ensure that their general capacity to countermand racism is actually being realized. In addition, we have a heightened sensitivity to helping our students meet the specific forms and general ugliness of racism they may personally encounter growing up, so that we know we are doing everything we can to help them grow into morally, intellectually, and economically independent adults with deep and unshakeable self-worth.

Our multi-faceted efforts include:

  • In early childhood: assessing our programs from the perspective of whether they sufficiently expose children to, and helping them to appreciate and celebrate, a wide diversity of backgrounds, cultures, viewpoints, and experiences.
  • For elementary and adolescent students: assessing our programs from the perspective of whether they arm students with the knowledge, historical understanding, and ability to articulate their individual thoughts necessary to enable students to think through complex issues independently and advocate for their views.
  • For all ages: assessing our programs from the perspective of whether they help to eradicate racism at its root, and foster instead a natural and healthy goodwill towards all, by modeling, teaching, and practicing with children all of the components of respect for self and others.
  • For our educators, and all educators: assessing our training, research, advocacy, and outreach efforts from the perspective of whether they support educators who may have themselves suffered from racism, and provide thought leadership around how to understand and address issues of racism in relation to Montessori and other agency-centered and learner-centered approaches to education.
  • For our organization: assessing our priorities and policies from the perspective of whether we are actively leaning in to address issues of race and racism, in accordance with our unique mission and values, to support the emergence of a better world where prejudice no longer holds power.

We are investing significant resources in actively pursuing these targeted actions, as well as any research and development needs that surface as a result. This focus, informed by and in service of our underlying pedagogy, and in conjunction with our rededication to that pedagogy itself, represents Guidepost Montessori’s conviction that eliminating racism is core to our mission to “modernize and mainstream the international Montessori movement, and thereby enable children across the world to realize their human potential as knowledge guided, value-oriented, efficacious beings, so that they experience, undiluted and unimpeded, the joyous process of growing into successful, independent, and happy adults.”

Meet the Author

The Guidepost Team

The Guidepost Team is a group of writers and educators dedicated to helping demystify all things Montessori.

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