Maria Montessori or Why I Don’t Watch TV

I love to dip my toes into unfamiliar disciplines, partly out of pure curiosity, but also because I so often discover new concepts that shine fresh light on familiar ideas. Last night was a great example:

My wife and I have just started to think about schools for our son, Parker. A close friend of ours is a passionate believer in the childhood development philosophy of Maria Montessori. Several years ago this friend moved to Bergamo, Italy for a year to study the discipline at the Montessori Foundation headquarters. Upon her return to Seattle, she took a teaching position at a Montessori school located a few miles from our neighborhood.

Apart from this friend’s low-key advocacy and some glowing but unspecific reports from my brother and his wife (whose three kids attended a neighborhood Montessori program in Brooklyn), we didn’t know much about the Montessori method. So last night we attended an introductory session for prospective families at this same school where our friend is a faculty member. On the way into the room I saw a stack of school newsletters from prior years that had been laid out out for attendees as a takeaway. I grabbed one without really thinking about it and we settled into our seats.

At some point during the session I glanced at the newsletter in my hand and scanned the titles. The lead article was an exposition on “normalization”, which in my world means integrating disparate data types into a common framework so they can all be served up through the same application. In the parallel universe of Montessori, “normalization” describes the total focus and absorption a child experiences when they successfully engage with a “work” (the Montessori word for an individual set of classroom materials). The article then jumped to yet another parallel universe – this time, behavioral psychology – relating the Montessori concept of normalization to the idea of “flow” articulated by University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:

“…the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

By the time I finished the article and tuned back in to the meeting, the conversation had turned to the topic of the role computers and media played in the school’s curriculum. As the director launched into an impassioned explanation of how digital media undermine learning in young children, I glanced again at the last paragraph of the article. One phrase from the closing paragraph stuck in my head: “it is never as rewarding to consume culture as it is to create it and produce it.”

That’s it, I thought to myself. That’s why I hate TV!

If the best moments in our short lives are achieved through flow, and flow is achieved through engagement and creation, then watching TV is, for me, something like pure “anti-flow”. Active, creative work is an obvious vehicle for achieving flow, but even more passive forms like reading or listening to music invite you to envision in your own way the people, images and landscapes sketched by the author or performer. But the vast majority of television programming (and advertising) seems carefully designed to leave nothing to the imagination, asking as little as possible of the conscious mind.

This doesn’t mean that television can’t be entertaining, or funny, or even interesting. But it does help me understand why – when I feel like I never have enough time to tackle all the projects and read all the books and magazines and blogs and listen to all the new artists and see all the friends and family and get out for all the runs or rides and do all the other challenging and creative stuff I really care about – watching television always makes me feel like I’m pouring precious minutes of my life into a deep and empty hole. Thanks to Maria Montessori, I now have a better explanation for why that is.