Leonardo was a Montessori Child

To me, one of the most fascinating characters in history was Leonardo da Vinci. The Italian Renaissance polymath studied and produced original works of sculpture, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. He has been called the father of paleontology, ichnology, and architecture. He envisioned and designed the tank,

 

parachute, and helicopter. And, by the way, he painted what is arguable the most famous portrait in the world, and another of his paintings—Salvator Mundi—recently sold for the largest sum ($450 million) ever paid of any work of art. When we look up “Renaissance Man” in the dictionary, we’re likely to find da Vinci’s portrait. For my friend Leo, nothing was boring, and everything deserved consideration.

I recently thumbed through a review essay by Claudia Roth Pierpont of a new biography of da Vinci (Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster) that revealed aspects of the early life of the great man that, until that moment, were unknown to me. Because he was illegitimate he was destined not to follow in his father’s footsteps as a notary. What education afforded him (and very little of that) was in mathematics and writing, rather than the works of Latin authors—reserved for students from families of higher rank. Pierpont calls him lucky for it. She writes, “Untrammeled by authority, he was free to think creatively.”

Untrammeled by authority—not confined, limited, or impeded, as Webster would have us understand it. Whether Pierpont understood the backdrop of what she wrote I can’t say, but she recognized that the classical education—which to this day is considered “high-brow”—impeded creativity. Montessori recognized the ill effects of adults getting in the way of children’s natural curiosity by requiring them to learn facts and concepts that they—the adults—thought were important. She did not trammel. She did not confine. She liberated.

Readers might take exception to some of what I have written. Like the pesky fact that the Montessori Method came into being 382 years after da Vinci died, making the title of this essay patently false. Okay, I admit to a slight time-line issue with my assertion that da Vinci was a Montessori child. But the perceptive reader will already know where I was headed: he was educated, though quite by accident, like a Montessori child.

They might also argue that, while the notion of letting children find their way might work for a genius like da Vinci, a more-normally-powered person might not achieve the same greatness. I would be hard pressed to give a list of people with the same broad-gauged mastery of the world around them, who had actually attended a Montessori school. But that isn’t the point. Da Vinci, and Montessori children, reach their individual potential. And to that point we can roll out the usual suspects who did achieve a kind of greatness of their own: the founders of Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, the Sims gaming empire, as well as Nobel laureates and legions of lesser luminaries who work in our laboratories, universities, on stage and screen, or as really good parents.

Some may argue that children need more direction in order to be prepared for real life after high school or college or (dare we hope) graduate schooling. This argument holds some water, but it’s a delicate balance. How many readers of this essay were bored or frustrated in school because the class—marching solemnly in a linear path to the existing reality at the time at the speed of the student whose ability was somewhere in the middle of the class—was too slow or too fast? How many of our children have a burning flame when they are 5 or 6 years of age, and burn out by the time they’re 8 or 9 because school doesn’t meet the needs they feel. Would it not be better to allow children to buy into their own education? Maybe they won’t master all the facts (which change anyway: how many planets circle our sun?) we wish for them, but they will be engaged and gobble up so much more information, appreciation, insight that, cumulatively, will make them far richer than the student who dutifully memorizes everything in order to get an A. In our classrooms we hedge the bet, by the way, by encouraging the students to engage with the full array of materials in order better to make informed choices. In this way the adult “manages” the balance between freedom of inquiry and curriculum.

So, while technically my title is misleading, my intent (besides getting the attention of the reader) was to highlight the parallels between the education of one of the greatest minds of all time and the education of the Montessori child. I apologize for the subterfuge.

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