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They called it the "gentle revolution."
For six years I had the privilege of working with a group of therapists and researchers who believed that each child, at the time of birth, has the same potential as Leonardo da Vinci.
Their belief was so strong that they started with brain-injured children—children who navigate life as different. The labels varied, but they're not important. The children are. You see, typically we don't see framing in our narrative. It's like defaults. What you do with the cards you're dealt, that's what's important.
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In a letter to Maria Montessori, her colleague and physician Giuseppe Montesano says, "You need to recognize what is possible, overcoming their resistance, do, do, seeds always bear fruit." It was 1900. Montessori had just turned 30 and the slow progress of her research and work with the children that society considered “feeble-minded” or “idiots” was well under way. At the time, they considered the so-called phranasthenics (a term that preceded 'brain-injured') incurable—therefore committed for life.
One day, a resentful orderly tells Montessori about how “the children are filthy and gluttonous. Maria stops and, staring her up and down, asked to explain herself better.” It turns out that the children drop to the ground to gather up the bred crumbs as soon as they're finished eating. When Maria looks around, she notices an empty room, bare and cold. What if, she thinks, it's not hunger, but the desire to interact with something? That intuition, informed by observation, changed the trajectory of her life. From physician with a strong social and feminist commitment, Montessori steps on a journey to a “new concept of the child.”*
Discovering her mission took the best part of nearly seven years. Success came after another seven years and only after more people joined in her research and observation. Édouard Séguin had started work down the path of children's potential in 1840, publishing two books about his findings in 1846. But he was largely ignored and forgotten. Maria picked up his story and continued the work, which took her entire lifetime to do. She added her insights to further the research and her presence to the message that “the child is the teacher.” Montessori's legacy empowers the work of the therapists and researchers I learned from by translating and interpreting for Italian families.
Typically people don't care about frames. That's why damaging narratives sit unquestioned in the background. Except for the questions are in the work of visionaries, mostly obscure and vastly underestimated during their time, whose story others decide to pick up and continue. I've been blessed to work with a couple of those people during my time. Glenn Doman, who headed "the gentle revolution" method, lived a long (97) and productive life advocating for the potential of all children, regardless of the label. Doman's insights still inform my narrative approach for the development of organizations. Twenty-two years ago, I met another person who changed the course of my work.
In the third episode of Conversation on Value, I talk with Peter Tunjic about the concepts of “Value in Use.” Peter has been the impetus behind the main concepts for the entire series, so I consider this a keystone episode. Our conversation is a moment in time as we've been carrying on for the better part of twenty years. “We observe something strange,” noted Montessori, “left to themselves, the children work ceaselessly ... and after long and continuous activity, the children’s capacity for work does not appear to diminish but to improve.” It turns out that the impact of empowering is not play, but work. A message that got lost in translation over time.
Based on an insight by Aristotle on the Value Problem largely lost to history, Peter maintains that organizing corporations around the concept of exchange value is making the planet unlivable. The purpose of Peter’s millennia challenge is to develop a lens capable of predicting the current crisis and offering a safer alternative foundation for corporations, corporate law and corporate governance. He calls it the search for Phi.
Questions that emerged in the conversation:
Where does capacity to generate positive change reside?
What should we be producing and what shouldn’t we?
What can I use something for (beyond utility)?
How is value in use generated?
How can one be a ‘good person’?
What’s a meaningful measurement of value (in use)?
From a net value in use analysis, in the early days of social networks we generated the capacity to affect change, without money being involved. It was very powerful and empowering. Energy was the result of input and output both being present in our exchanges and sharing of intellectual capital (the more you use it, the more you have of it).
Continuing on that trajectory
could have led to the flourishing
and development of humanity.
This is an important conversation.
Culture, social capital, beauty—they all store value in use and make energy available in the environment for all of us. When we destroy them, we destroy them forever. I'm most aware of this paradox of trying to put a monetary value on people this holiday season tinged with sorrow and joy. Sorrow at the sudden loss of my little sister, and joy for the publication of my first book and the launch of the podcast on value. It is gut wrenching and disorienting to lose a sister. As I continue my work, I'm reminded of Mohandas Gandhi's remark in the context of World War II, "we must look at the world in the face with calm and clear eyes even through the eyes of the world are bloodshot today."
”Culture is the true last-mile problem of progress,” says Derek Thompson. Simple is not easy to do. But humanity is not incurable. We stand on the shoulders of giants. In many ways, the work is its own reward. (Though it does help to have champion or two and find ways to finance it, as Montessori found after more than a decade of unpaid progress.) To me, what “the gentle revolution” is all about. is handing down a legacy that empowers future generations. What I call, lasting impact.
Happy Christmas to you and your families. See you next year with more episodes of Conversation on Value to reframe narrative for positive change.
* From the marvelous biography by Cristina de Stefano, The Child is the Teacher: a Life of Maria Montessori (Other Press, 2022) in the superb translation by Gregory Conti.
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