Exactly 100 years ago, the renowned Italian educator first landed in America with a method that pushes independent thinking. Today, the results are everywhere -- notably at Google HQ.
The life stories of great people who have changed America can often be traced back to a common starting point: a boat from Europe sailing into the New York harbor with a salute toward the Statue of Liberty and an obligatory passage with the immigration officials at Ellis Island.
But for an elegant Italian signora who arrived on the Cincinnati yacht exactly 100 years ago, the landing told a different story, with journalists and photographers awaiting her arrival on a Manhattan pier.
In 1913, renowned Italian educator Maria Montessori received a queen’s welcome, setting the groundwork for the future diffusion of her pedagogical method throughout the United States. In no other country have Montessori schools spread so widely or been so successful as they have in the USA.
A century after that initial landing, entire generations of “Montessori kids” have made a name for themselves in American society, permeating it with the ideas of the teacher from the central Italian town of Chiaravella. Among these well-known names, a large number of Internet prodigies stand out: Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon; Jimmy Wales, creator of Wikipedia; and above all, Larry Page and Sergey Brin who, from Mountain View in California, lead the digital incarnation of the Montessori method: Google.
The road that leads from early 1900s New York to Silicon Valley today has been shaped by the teachings of the studious Italian. Montessori’s reputation preceded her, and over 100 schools inspired by her methods had already sprung up across the country in the few years before her first visit.
In an era when teaching was dominated by a rigid authoritarianism emanating from the teacher’s desk, many Americans would wind up being won over by Montessori’s ‘play’ pedagogy which provided space for children’s innate creativity to emerge, acknowledging differences in each child’s personality and rate of learning.
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, was one of the first people to speak out in favor of the Montessori method: an endorsement that appears to confirm that, a century before Amazon and Google, it was a method that struck a chord with the imagination of creators and inventors even then.
Upon her arrival in Manhattan, Maria Montessori found entire pages of the New York Times dedicated to debates about her, with columnists and readers divided between extravagant praise and severe criticism. The New York Tribune defined her as “the most interesting woman in Europe,” while the Brooklyn Daily Eagle presented her to their readers as the woman who had "revolutionized the education system" across the world. Montessori returned to the United States many times during the next two years, and travelled extensively around the country, holding conferences and training courses for those who wanted to apply her teaching methods.
And yet, soon after, the enthusiasm died down and the Italian’s critics, many of whom were followers of the influential John Dewey, successfully attacked the foundations of her methodology.
By the time Montessori died in 1952, she had been almost completely forgotten in the United States. Then, a decade later, school reform was placed firmly back on the agenda and America launched itself into the rediscovery of the Montessori method, and the number of schools dedicated to her approach exploded.
When Montessori kids meet at Stanford
Today, of the 20,000 Montessori schools all over the world, more than 5,000 are in the United States. They are almost always private schools, often rather expensive, and they conquer American parents’ hearts with the originality of their approach: mixed-age classes, an emphasis on experimentation and play, little time for marking and testing, and strong encouragement to challenge the teachers and question everything.
And this is the fertile sandbox that gave life to Google. Larry Page went to Montessori Radmoor in Okemos, Michigan; Sergey Brin to Paint Branch Montessori in Adelphi, Maryland. When they met for the first time at Stanford, they recognized each other straight away.
[rebelmouse-image 27087137 alt="""" original_size="3017x2267" expand=1]
With chairman Eric Schmidt, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page - Photo: Joi Ito
Marissa Mayer – one of Google’s first employees and now CEO of Yahoo! – still tells, with a mixture of horror and admiration, how Larry and Sergey seemed to compete at public events to see who could challenge protocol the most. During a dinner at St James’s Palace in London, they scandalized Prince Phillip by drinking the fruit coulis which was to be served as a topping for the soufflé. When Mayer tried to explain how to eat it correctly, the two founders replied, as they have done in many other similar circumstances, with the proverbial Says who? "We're Montessori kids," Mayer recalled. "We've been trained and programmed to question authority."
Page and Brin told their favorite biographer, Steven Levy, how the Montessori method influenced their choices when creating a company different from any other. And also when it came to decorating. There can be no doubt that the Mountain View Googleplex is a giant Montessori nursery for adults, with colored pilates balls spread throughout, fridges filled to the brim to satisfy any gastronomic desire, and paid time-off to “invent things”. “Montessori really teaches you to do things kind of on your own, at your own pace and schedule,” Brin told Levy.
Pointing to the Googleplex's pool tables and astronaut suits, he adds: “It was a pretty fun, playful environment -- as is this." And from this sunny campus, the two most famous Montessori kids in the world continue to build a company worth $100 billion that has forever changed America, and the lives of us all.