Leaving Afghanistan—one more time

For the past week American TV screens have been crowded with views of people trying to leave Afghanistan.  Crowds scramble to board the departing planes at the Kabul Airport. The pictures are harrowing. The panic of terrified people fleeing from the incoming Taliban fighters can be felt by viewers thousands of miles away.

This isn’t the first time that foreigners have been ousted from the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Almost two hundred years ago the British invaded the country. They too were chased out, and the ordeal of their leaving was recorded by a brave British Army wife, Florentia Sale. Last year I wrote an account of her ordeal in this blog. Perhaps we can learn something about the folly of foreign wars by revisiting her experience.

As wise men have reminded us ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’

Maria Montessori–a Teacher for the World

During these waning weeks of summer, thousands of children are returning to school. Many parents struggle with questions about how the distance learning experience of last year has affected them. Will the re-entry into school go well? This is a good time to remember the words of Maria Montessori who wrote: One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.

Who was Maria Montessori? She was a woman who influenced early education throughout the world. But her path to education and to becoming the founder of a worldwide network of schools was an unexpected one.

Doctor Maria Montessori

Born in 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy, Montessori entered a technical school as a teenager, intending to become an engineer. After graduating from that program, she decided that she would prefer to be a physician and entered medical school in Rome. Both of these careers were unlikely choices for a woman in Italy at that time, but Montessori never seemed to consider the more usual female path of giving up her career to become a wife and mother.

Medical school was difficult for her because she was a woman and was therefore not allowed to view a naked body in the same room as male students. She had to do her studies in the laboratory by herself after other students had left. During medical school, Montessori specialized in the treatment of children with physical and mental disabilities that made it difficult for them to benefit from conventional education. After she completed her degree, she continued to work with these children and to study treatments available.

Maria Montessori’s only child, a son, was born two years after she graduated from medical school. If she and her partner had married, she would have had to resign from her professional work, so the two of them agreed to remain unmarried but to be faithful to each other. Unfortunately, her partner was pressured into marriage by his family, so Montessori was left with the full responsibility of raising their son. She was forced to allow the child to be raised by other people and was not in contact with him until he became an adolescent. In later life he worked with her in setting up her schools and promoting her educational ideas.

As Montessori studied children and how they learned, she came to realize that methods devised to teach children with mental disabilities would be beneficial to all children. She devised teaching materials and set up learning environments so that children could work on their own and learn from one another. Montessori also continued lecturing and writing and her work became well-known in Europe and beyond. Many of her suggestions are couched as “rules” for adults working with children:

Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.

The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.

Although not many children across the world attend Montessori schools, the ideas and practices that Maria Montessori pioneered have affected education for many of us.

Frances Trollope—a Troublesome Visitor

We often hear stories of immigrants who came to America hoping to find a country superior to the one they left. Many settled in the new land and became enthusiastic American patriots. Some histories, however, tell the stories of immigrants who came for practical reasons and some who discovered that America did not live up to their expectations. Frances Trollope was one of these disillusioned immigrants. She came, observed, and then went back home. Worse than that, she wrote about her experiences in a book that outraged many Americans.

Frances Trollope, born Frances Milton in 1779, was a well-educated Englishwoman, daughter of a minister, wife of a barrister, and the mother of five young children. Her husband was not a wealthy man, and when Frances heard about a new idealistic community being set up in America, she decided that she could educate her sons inexpensively there and live a comfortable life. In 1827, she packed up several of her children and headed off for the new country. The plan was for her husband to follow later with their younger children.

Frances Trollope

Trollope’s idea had grown out of her friendship with Fanny Wright, a radical reformer who planned to build a new settlement in Tennessee where enslaved Americans could earn money to buy their freedom. The hope was that slavery would disappear and that slaveowners would not suffer any great loss of income.

When Frances Trollope arrived in America, she had learned enough about slavery to be a strong abolitionist. What she did not know, however, was that she would be surprised and shocked by the everyday habits of many Americans. She observed, took notes, and later wrote about what she had seen. Several years later, she published her first book: Domestic Manners of the Americans, which became both a best seller and one of the most hated books of the time. Her comments on the dining habits of the men she met on a river boat journey were often quoted by both friends and critics:

…the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured …the loathsome spitting, from the contamination of which it was absolutely impossible to protect our dresses; the frightful manner of feeding with their knives, till the whole blade seemed to enter into the mouth; and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth afterwards with a pocket knife…

None of Trollope’s plans for life in America worked out as she had hoped. Fanny Wright’s community in Nashoba, Tennessee, was a failure and Trollope was not able to settle there with her family. She took her sons to Cincinnati, Ohio and tried to earn a living by writing and lecturing but was not successful. She was not sympathetic to the American culture and offended many people by noting the discrepancies between American ideals and the behavior she observed.  

In 1831, Trollope moved back to England and lived the rest of her life in Europe. She traveled around the continent and wrote travel books about Belgium, France, and Germany. She also began writing novels and by the time she died in 1863, had published 100 books.  Her books were very popular, and during her lifetime she was considered one of the outstanding novelists of the 19th century. Modern critics, however, have been critical of her work, and most of her books have become unavailable except in specialized collections.

Two of Frances Trollope’s sons became writers. Thomas Adolphus Trollope was a well-known historian and respected in his time, but Anthony Trollope, the younger son, outshone him. He was the author of several series of books that have been turned into BBC drama series. His Barchester Chronicles and The Pallisers have made him the most famous Trollope of them all.