Blessed John Henry Newman relates in his own autobiographical writings that when he was a young boy, his mother, his father, and his grandmother had a tremendous impact upon him. He recounts stories and suggestions they gave to him more than fifty years later. Many of us know that we remember a number of events in our childhood better than we can remember what we ate yesterday for lunch. The reason for this is the first six years of life hold a unique place in the creation of our minds, memories, and the unfolding of our souls. Maria Montessori calls describes the child’s being as an absorbent mind.
Neurological the causes of this seem to be a hyper-expanded synaptically connected brain. Before birth, our brain undergoes a massive growth in synaptic connections between the neurons throughout many regions of the brain. Then during that first six years of life, what gets used stays strong and become relatively enduring and the synaptic links not used are lost. This is the neurological basis it seems for why the child can learn so fast in those first years. If you think about the amount of “learning” that takes place, it is enormous. Motor control of the body is learn from simply hand movements to walking, along with vast amounts of coordination between the senses, proprioceptors, and movement. As well, language is learned with an ease that the little child will never again experience. Every word the child hears is absorbed. The child can learn to write, draw, paint, dance, sing, dress, and build. Again, what the child does results in habits that endure and set the stage for the next period of life that begins around six or seven and traditionally was called the age of reason.
Montessori for this first level built a kind of children’s garden. It is a rich maternal environment with little keys to unlocking the immediate world of the child. Keys for motor movements, sensory perception, and coordination, along with keys to shapes and sounds, colors and textures, tastes and smells, which flow into various kinds of musical, artistic, and daily practices of family and life. They are keys because there is one thing at a time that is unlocked for the child. It might be diameter, or it might be tying a knot, or pouring a pitcher of rice. The child can easily discern if he or she has done it right or wrong. And there is a nature drive for doing it right and for order. So the child repeats the action or the observation over and over and over. While doing so, those same patterns of synapses are then kept and reinforce into that enduring layout. Thus these self-correcting keys focused on one facets of life or creation are central to the child’s creation and unfolding. The “teacher” in this environment is not controlling the mysterious unfolding of the child, but simply, every so often, shows the child how to use these keys (and does so with a kind of reverence and care to show every step of the key). The same is when those keys are showing children how to help each other, to be kind, generous, and to take care of their garden and keep it orderly. The children end up showing each other the keys as well, usually with great joy in their successes.
Newman complements all of this in the end not only because he was a genius at how to implement higher levels of education, but because he in a profound way understood how education flows out of the family and transmit the riches of tradition. He knew the ultimate aims of education in terms of preparing souls for eternity and for temporal life. He understood culture and history, and how these intertwined. He also understood the workings of evil, and how good rises out of evil, and how good builds on good. Thus, reading him, learning to see the world as he came to see it, opens up a magnificent universe of God’s glory and the struggles against evil. It opens up how suffering can build a life of faith and obedience, and ultimate one of joy.
So why is Newman a complement. Montessori’s rich maternal garden of living, her four-dimensional learning world, can be filled with any tradition, any sets of keys, good and evil. But which one’s should be introduced? This is where the discerning mind must come in, with clear long term aims, and a deep and wise heart and soul. One should bring in anything that is good from the culture and times of the day. One should bring in the materials and activities, those keys, that prepare the child for a life in the culture in which she or he lives, and one that will allow the child in the long run to sort out good and evil, and to live as the prophet Amos lived, as a dressor of sycamores, who can dress life allow the good to flourish and ridding it of its evils. Simple gestures between human beings for instance have empassioned ramifications, some of which can stir up the seven deadly sins, others of which can thwart them, and raise up the opposites of these, help the child to more easily develop habits of virtue. Much more can be said of course, but it is an important begin to realize how much we can learn from Newman about kinds of keys should be introduced into the various stages of these four-dimensional learning worlds.