Educating Through Desire: Lessons about Transcendent Leadership

In this excerpt from Luke Burgis' new book Wanting, he tells the story of Maria Montessori beginning her approach to education and her unique teaching style. 

Luke Burgis
3-minute read

Transcendent leaders don’t insist on the primacy of their own desires. They don’t make them the center around which everyone and everything must revolve. Instead, they shift the center of gravity away from themselves and toward a transcendent goal, so that they can stand shoulder to shoulder with others.

Maria Montessori built her approach to education with a keen insight into the nature of desire and tailored her work with children to it. In 1906, while Montessori was still a young teacher, she was charged with a difficult task: she was asked to be responsible for teaching sixty young children, most of them between the ages of three and six, who lived in an apartment complex for working, low-income parents in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Rome. It was one of the poorest places in the city.

Because the parents had to work and older children were off at school, the younger children were left alone to wreak havoc during the day, running up and down halls and staircases, scribbling on walls, and creating general disorder. Montessori remembered them in her memoir as “tearful, frightened and shy, yet greedy, violent, possessive and destructive” when she first met them. The housing authorities had called her in to help.

For weeks, she’d been making slow progress. The simple act of setting up small tables and chairs in the room she was given went a long way toward creating order. Still, there were no breakthroughs. One morning she had a new idea. She had noticed the children struggling to control their runny noses and sneezes. She conceived a lesson plan: teach the children how to use a handkerchief. A simple, practical, human act.

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She began by pulling a handkerchief out of her pocket and showing the children different ways to use it: how to fold it, how to wipe their noses, how to wipe the sweat from their brows, how to wipe a crumb from the corner of their mouths.

They watched with rapt attention. The children were simply learning how to use a handkerchief, but it was as if they’d been given a new iPhone in 1906 and were learning how to unlock its world-transforming power for the first time. Their excitement was palpable.

Then Montessori, trying to be funny, told the children that she was going to teach them how to blow their noses in the most unobtrusive way possible. She folded up and obscured the cloth in her hand. The children drew close and tried to find it. She cupped her hands over her nose, closed her eyes, and twisted the handkerchief back and forth, blowing so softly that she didn’t make a sound.

She expected that her exaggerated motions and totally silent blow would provoke laughter. But none of the kids laughed or even smiled. Their jaws were hanging open in wonder. They looked at their friends to confirm what they had seen. “I had hardly finished my demonstration,” writes Montessori in The Secret of Childhood, “when they broke out into applause that resembled a long repressed ovation in a theater.”

What was behind their unexpected reaction? According to Montessori, the children had been scolded and ridiculed their whole lives for having runny noses—yet nobody had ever shown them how to use a handkerchief. The lesson made them feel “compensated for past humiliations,” she said, “and their applause indicated I had not only treated them with justice but had enabled them to get a new standing in society.”

When the school bell rang at the end of the day, the children followed Montessori out of the school in a procession. “Thank you! Thank you for the lesson!” they shouted, marching behind her. When they reached the front gates, the children broke into a sprint. They couldn’t contain their excitement. They were running home to show their family their newfound stature.

Montessori discovered something about the children that day that nobody else had acknowledged: they wanted to grow up, carve out their place in the world, grow in dignity. She had gotten them started.

“The last major innovation in K-12 education was Montessori,” wrote VC Marc Andreessen. Her innovation was not just a methodology or curriculum; she reimagined education from the perspective of desire. She unshackled the children’s imagination and allowed them to learn according to their natural curiosity and wonder.

“The goal of early childhood education should be to cultivate the child’s own desire to learn,” Montessori wrote in The Montessori Method. And elsewhere: “We must know how to call to the man which lies dormant within the soul of the child.”

The desire to grow into mature adults—not the desire to earn A’s or win Little League games or get a sticker for good behavior—is each child’s primary and most important project, the thing each of them secretly cares most deeply about.

Good teachers awaken dormant desires and generate new ones.