In the buzzing Upper Elementary classroom, all of a sudden a cheer broke out, "The citizen! The citizen! The common citizen!" Another chanted, "He seems to have no power, but he makes it all possible!" I was struck speechless.
It's moments like these when I am awed by Dr. Montessori's consistent interweaving of the dignity of the common citizen. I had just given an introduction to the bead cabinet likening it to a "kingdom of powers." Taking a unit bead, a seven bar, a seven square and the seven cube, the students helped name positions within a kingdom: the common citizen, the knights, the princess and the king. I showed the unit as 7^0, the seven bar as 7^1, the seven square as 7^2 and the seven cube as 7^3. The lesson could have ended there; but as I learned in my elementary training, I illustrated how the unit is the foundation of all the other powers. I was unprepared for the student's reaction. They immediately understood the implications for wider society: while it can seem the common citizen is just one person with little power, it is the citizen which allows society to function. All of this from one math lesson!
As Montessori educators, we aim "to construct an environment that will allow the child and the adolescent to live an independent, individual life in order to fulfill the goal that all of us are pursuing - the development of personality, the formation of a supernatural order, and the creation of a better society." (Education and Peace, p. 106) In Elementary we have a well articulated and well formulated approach to doing so, namely Cosmic Education.
From my perspective, the most essential component to offering the children an education for peace is the emphasis on that which unites us. Montessori wrote, "Man must be inspired to seek universality until the day he dies. Man thus prepared, conscious of his mission in the cosmos, will be capable of building the new world of peace." (Education and Peace, p. 70) There are many powerful materials in the Elementary environment which are emblematic of Cosmic Education: the Cosmic Fables, the chart of Fundamental Human Needs, the Timelines of Humans, the Interdependency Chart, and the general orientation within all of our lessons, as illustrated in the story above.
Children are born with a moral compass and as they are brought in contact with human virtues, they develop more and more complex understandings of right and wrong. As part of the Montessori elementary classroom environment, children experience and resolve interpersonal conflicts along with dilemmas arising from working in community. Developing a classroom Charter is the perfect framework through which to solve problems. In solving issues at community meeting, students become aware of the consequences of their own actions. In Upper Elementary, we also present real-world relatable ethical dilemmas to broaden the child's social and civic understanding. "The amount of light a child has acquired in the moral field, and the lofty ideals he has formed, will be used for purposes of social organization at a later stage." (To Educate the Human Potential, p. 4) We are setting the stage for the adolescent sensitive period for justice.
Approaching ethics from a variety of angles, students develop a moral maturity which supports them when facing moral problems. Too often we see apathetic or unengaged adults in our society. During the elementary years, we show children the positive constructive work of humanity, so that when they are faced with the uglier and unjust realities as adolescents and adults, they are equipped to act, instead of shying away. Every interconnected element of cosmic education serves the ultimate purpose of Montessori education; this education for peace prepares students to become engaged citizens building a better world.