In Montessori’s classrooms, the children, using her specially designed materials, usually worked by themselves and with materials of their own choosing. They could team up if they chose to, but the cardinal social principle was in essence: Thou shalt not disrupt a child doing his or her own work.

In the years prior to World War I, her methods caught on in the United States. The first American Montessori school was opened in 1911 in Tarrytown, New York, shortly followed by others. Her book The Montessori Method was translated into English and quickly sold through six editions. Inventor Alexander Graham Bell and his wife publicly supported her methods. In 1913, she traveled to the United States and spoke around the country, generally to large and admiring crowds. McClure’s Magazine, a widely read publication of the day, featured a series of articles on her methods. During this period, a century ago, Montessori schooling held a great deal of promise for the future of cognitive training in this country.

Shortly thereafter, several prominent American intellectuals rejected the antiacademic standpoint of the educational establishment and proposed a new, highly academic program for training the intellect. Among them were Robert Maynard Hutchins, the youthful president of the University of Chicago; and Mortimer J. Adler, a relentless autodidact and possibly the only person in history to receive a PhD (in psychology from Columbia University) without a high school or college diploma.

Together, these two led a concerted campaign on behalf of a “Great Books” program. Hutchins and Adler maintained both that “a liberal education was unthinkable without a grounding in the Great Books”—the classic works of Western civilization—and that such academic training was the proper purpose of education.