Crossing the Street


As a semi-longtime Montessorian, I find satisfaction in getting surprised, inspired, and taught by my fellow teachers when I least expect it. Most recently, I was at a parent orientation for my son. Since he started at a new school and a new age group, my husband and I went together. Our son’s elementary teacher told us how she feels it’s essential to take her class out: to the library, hiking, and camping. A Montessori class is meant to be a microcosm of the world, but in a Montessori elementary class, children begin to experiment in the community at large. And then my son’s teacher said, “nothing we do is as educational as crossing an actual street.”  

Montessori education purports that we should educate the whole child. 

How do we define the whole child? 

Do we include their emotional wellbeing? Of course. A child who feels safe can learn.

Do we include them and all their senses? Of course. Children begin their Montessori career with the education of the senses, and then they synthesize that information into abstract thought and ideas.

Do we include the social creature? Of course. We use grace and courtesy lessons to teach social mores, explicitly teaching how to live within a community. 

To cross the street safely, let’s explore living in a community. It’s a testament to the brilliance of Maria Montessori as a thinker ahead of her time that she began writing about interconnectedness. By the 1930s, her cosmic education had crystallized into pedagogy for Montessori elementary. Generations later, the paralyzing anxiety that accompanies every purchase in our modern lives is proof and a symptom of the interconnectedness of nature and humanity. Is this coffee fair trade? Who made these sneakers? What is the carbon footprint of this shipment?

By the early 20th century, global free trade had brought the world closer together. As the world seemed to open and expand, Maria Montessori addressed this new global consciousness with the idea of “cosmic education,” where children learn of the whole, the universe, and then its pieces-- culture, geography, history. Through the great lens of the universe, everything the child views is by definition interconnected.  

The optimism of that time was short-lived, as a war on a global scale simultaneously raised awareness of our interconnection and laid humble our utopian visions of a worldwide community. So it’s no wonder that after witnessing the horrific aftermath of war, Dr. Montessori sought to sow peace for future generations.  

Since Montessori’s lifetime, our cosmic awareness has coalesced further. If our global consciousness was born from the first World War, the remainder of the 20th century sees our notion of the oneness of humanity evolve with the first picture of Earth from space and finally manifest in our own homes with the internet and the digital age. Topic-based forums like Usenet (and later Reddit) created communities based on interests despite geopolitical lines. It’s easy to see how those whose hearts were filled with love for their fellow people (despite carrying the generational trauma of war) could see the early internet as a tool for community building. In a 1950 lecture, Dr. Montessori suggested that internet communities were inevitable: “Now we find that groups tend to unite; not because the individual members have grown to love each other, but because obviously, the next step in human evolution is the unity of mankind.”

Dr. Montessori understood that a vision of humanity, both great and small, was part of holistic education. And that vision, combined with everyday practice like grace and courtesy lessons or… crossing the street, would hopefully create citizens of the world. Students practice civic duty and rules of engagement with class meetings where children participate in discussing and solving problems of their community. Children engage in the democratic process by writing shared regulations for their community to abide by. 

In our present moment, it's tempting to lose faith in the idea of community and dismiss Montessori’s ideas on cosmic education as Pollyanna-ish naivete. The modern world is fickle, connecting us and highlighting the worst of humanity. It can be easy to feel that our culture rewards arch, cynical pessimism.  

But let’s take a moment to find a ray of hope, a test of community that is small and intimate. This is the kind of test for which Dr. Montessori’s cosmic education prepares our children.

Consider something as trivial as the shopping cart. After a fruitful grocery trip, its job is done and it is emptied of its contents. Now what? Do you return it or leave it in the parking lot? 

There’s no reward for returning it and no punishment for leaving it. Likely no one will notice whichever you choose. The only reason to take the time and effort is to honor community bonds. Your action will help someone else, a person you don’t know who will likewise not know of your effort. It’s a moral test, and the answer is simple for a child who truly sees how connected we all are. Montessori children return the shopping cart because doing so will help their neighbors. If there is an unseen force that binds us all, indeed that knowledge makes it imperative to live and act as though we are accountable to each other.  

When we prepare children to cross the street, we do more than teach them traffic rules. We prepare them to face challenges, hardships, and moral dilemmas independently. When we give children a cosmic, global education, we provide them with the roadmap to living as loving, upstanding global citizens. 

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