For Montessori, the human being is a personal being. This personality that is characteristic of every human being regardless of their race, culture, religion or sex can be differentiated according to two main aspects: individuality and sociality.
For Montessori, every human being is a unique and distinctive individual. However, he or she is, at the same time, “a social being by nature” or — as she once put it — “the social being par excellence” (Maria Montessori, “Frieden und Erziehung”, Freiburg: Herder, 1973, p. 15). In order to foster children and young people, education has to take into account both aspects. Montessori emphasised that although both aspects play a role from birth on, until the end of childhood, approximately at the age of 12 years, the fostering of individuality is to the fore, whereas afterwards, during adolescence, the fostering of sociality, especially in its extensive social and cosmic dimension, is more important.
It is evident that Montessori laid particular stress on the fostering of individuality, for she regarded society as an agglomeration of individuals. According to her, the quality of a society is dependent on the development and quality of the individuality of the different human beings who are part of it. Thus, society can develop only if the individual human beings with their individual talents develop. Vice versa, the development of individuality is dependent on the development of society. Thus, there are social structures that prevent individual possibilities from unfolding appropriately. Most important in this dynamic-dialectical development is individuality and its fostering though. However, it is not sufficient if the respective individuality is in full blossom. Rather the human being, whose individuality has developed to the full, is to embrace the cause of society within the framework of a moral code of solidarity.
Montessori claimed that, unlike animals, the human being is not bound by instinct but is a highly adaptable and cosmopolitan being and has a certain degree of freedom of action. “For human beings there is no pre-stabilisation” (cf. Maria Montessori, “Das kreative Kind — der absorbierende Geist”, Freiburg: Herder, 1972, p. 90). What is given are mere potentialities. The human being, one could say, is first of all a complex of possibilities. Thus he possesses a basic potentiality for language. However, there are infinite forms in which this faculty of language can take a concrete shape. The same is true for religion, the mathematical mind or the ability to differentiate between good and evil. For these potentialities Montessori also uses the term nebule. According to Montessori, a post-natal embryonic time and a long childhood are an expression of this special position of the human being.
However, in this basic make-up of human beings there are individual differences which remain obscure at first and manifest themselves only in the further development of the human being. For the mental development of the human being Montessori used the image of the “mental embryo” and spoke of a “natural blueprint” that controls this development. Yet, she rejected an interpretation of this development as mere maturation in analogy to the physical development as “too biological” (cf. ib.). The human being does not unfold like a plant that contains the programme of its development.
Rather the human being is by nature a cultural being. He is dependent of culture and creates culture. Moreover, he is not born as a mature human being but has to grow into an independent person himself by actively engaging with his natural, social and cultural environment. Insofar the child is the “architect/master builder” of the human being. To his natural equipment belongs an urge of activity that drives him to progress with dealing with his environment and developing his mental structures. In a world that has grown highly complex young people need more educational help than ever before in order to be able to accomplish this task. For Montessori, the human being is — as one can summarise according to Pestalozzi — a work of nature, a work of the human being and a work of himself. Only all three perspectives together that can never fully coincide nor be done without allow an adequate evaluation of man’s development.
Montessori differentiated between a basic framework of development and its shaping through the child’s individuality. Although Montessori was convinced of the secret of the child’s individuality, she said, in the same context, that “all the children in the world are the same”: “All children are the same from birth on. They develop in the same way and follow the same laws of nature” (cf. ib., p. 87). These basic laws of the child’s development can be researched scientifically by observing children who are engaged in free work. One of these laws is that the development of children and young people progresses in stages which, in their temporal dimension, can be roughly characterised by giving age spans and which, as to their content, have a distinctive image through the child’s or young person’s receptivity to the acquisition of certain abilities or skills. In this context, Montessori spoke of “sensitive periods”. Moreover, the small child under the age of three has an intellectual gift that Montessori called “the absorbent mind”. It enables the small child to take in worldly impressions holistically, an ability that man does not have at his disposal later on. One example is the acquisition of language. However, such pre-conditions are not rigid but change during the young person’s development and can only be realised by “free activity in the environment” (ib., p. 89).
We cannot recognise at first sight with which individual possibilities this basic framework of development is filled. It is thus relevant that, in this period of his development, the young person is fostered comprehensively according to the recognisable basic developmental structures and that, at the same time, he has scope to develop in accordance with individual impulses that are effective within the young person but are not immediately discernible. The educational result of these considerations is the concept of a “prepared environment” that has to be created for the child according to the peculiarities of his respective developmental stage and the social and cultural pre-conditions.
For the anthropological assumptions that have been outlined here Montessori primarily referred to scientific knowledge of her time and to her own empirically orientated experiments and observations which she had made in her early time mainly with children from Europe but later also in non-European countries and cultures. Although her studies were not strictly empirical compared with today’s standards of an empirical-analytical approach — especially as Montessori gradually adopted a more phenomenologically orientated form of observation that she herself had developed since 1907 —, Montessori operated within a scientific framework.
Yet, from the very beginning another level of thinking can be found in Montessori. It is the religious dimension with which she tries to give her image of man and her educational theory a final basis and orientation that exceeds science. The final reason for Montessori’s deep respect for human individuality is the fact that the human being is not only an example of the genus or a work of art of nature but a unique creature of God who has called everyone by his or her name. In the end, the powers that are efficient within a child are divine powers for Montessori. Thus, to support the young person in his individual development means to contribute to the divine work of Creation. (cf. Maria Montessori, „Gott und das Kind“ (Kleine Schriften 4), Freiburg: Herder, 1995.)