Luskin: To Learn And Be Self-Motivating

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(HOST) This week, VPR has been observing Women’s History Month with a series of stories about remarkable Vermont women. Today, we conclude with commentator Deborah Luskin and the story of how Vermont writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher became an early advocate of the Montessori method of teaching.

(LUSKIN) Dorothy Canfield Fisher was deeply concerned by what she saw as a national trend toward overprotective parenting at the beginning of the last century. I can only imagine that she’d be absolutely horrified by the "Tiger Mothers" and "Helicopter Fathers" that have become the current norm. Indeed, one of Fisher’s most enduring works of fiction is a young adult novel titled, Understood Betsy, the tale of a young girl overcoming learned helplessness, published in 1917.

Nine year old Elizabeth Ann is orphaned, and her Great Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances take her in because it’s the right thing to do, because they’re bored and lonely, and because they don’t want Elizabeth Ann to go to the Putneys, their Vermont cousins.

Aunt Frances, who’s largely responsible for Elizabeth Ann’s care, attends a mother’s club and takes a correspondence course in mother-craft, so that she can do well by her niece. She does the best she can, but mostly she instills timidity and incompetence by being overprotective. Elizabeth Ann doesn’t even learn to dress herself. But when the aunts fall ill, Elizabeth Ann is packed off to the Vermont relatives.

Where Aunt Frances worries aloud all day long, Great Uncle Henry is a farmer of few words. Among the first he says to his new charge when he fetches her from the train is, "Here, you drive," and he passes her the reins, with brief instructions about how to steer the buggy. And so Betsy – as her Vermont kin call her – has her first independent experience and thoughts. Indeed, her Vermont relatives assume Betsy’s competence to dress herself, to set the table, to help with meal preparation, and with chores around the farm. Once she overcomes her learned fear, Betsy enjoys her tasks.

Betsy’s experiences at the local, one-room school house, are life-changing too; there she finds herself reading with the seventh-graders and learning arithmetic with the first. What Fisher describes is the Montessori method of education.

A few years before writing Understood Betsy, Fisher had traveled to Rome, where she met Maria Montessori, whose innovative educational philosophy Fisher championed back in the United States, where educational reform has long been of perennial interest and political concern.

While born and raised in the Midwest, Fisher lived her adult life in Arlington, Vermont, where she supported her family by writing. She believed that people could learn for themselves by doing and reading. In addition to fiction, Fisher wrote non-fiction about life in small-town Vermont, the only place, she said, where people really get to know one another.

I’m quite sure Fisher would disapprove of parents who swoop in to rescue their offspring from even suspected unpleasantness. It’s antithetical to Fisher’s belief in the human ability to learn and to be self-motivating. Fisher would also say there’s something more important than mere achievement. At the end of Understood Betsy, having learned from her own experiences, Betsy finds happiness.

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