Saturday, August 7, 2021

This Day in Education History (Elizabeth Peabody, Bronson Alcott Part Ways in Experimental School Debacle)

Aug. 7, 1836— Elizabeth Peabody, a schoolteacher, editor and bookseller who boosted talented male intellectuals, withdrew from a school founded by another such figure—the genial but erratic father of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott—once she sensed disaster arising over his unorthodox pedagogy.

Miss Peabody and Amos Bronson Alcott breathed books, and they figured in them as well, not just as biographical subjects but as characters in fiction (Alcott, as the absent Father March in Little Women; Elizabeth, as the elderly feminist reformer “Miss Birdseye” in Henry James’ The Bostonians). They shared a passion for enkindling young minds, and for a while it seemed that their educational venture would be one of the brightest points in the intellectual movement centered around Boston.

But their idealistic vision of an experimental institution headed by Alcott, Boston’s Temple School (pictured), ended in acute embarrassment and failure.

The lives of Alcott and Peabody had amply demonstrated that they were unafraid to strike out in bold new directions. Those experiences, however, also underlined the differences in temperament that would corrode their collaboration.

The son of a Connecticut farmer, Alcott had, through a rigorous program of self-improvement, advanced in learning enough that his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson thought he could converse with Plato.

By 1828, he was speculating in his journal how to take children on a similar journey of learning, observing that the “province of the instructor is awakening, invigorating, directing, rather than forcing a child’s faculties upon prescribed and exclusive courses of thought. He should look to the child to see what is to be done, rather than to his book or his system. The Child is the Book. The operations of his mind are the try system.”

Peabody was one of a trio of sisters who were a key part of intellectual circles in antebellum America—“The Flowering of New England,” as critic Van Wyck Brooks later termed it. (Mary Peabody, a reformer with literary inclinations, married politician and educator Horace Mann. Sophia Peabody, a talented painter, wed novelist and short-story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.)

Elizabeth assisted and advocated for a series of what literary scholar and philanthropist Millicent Bell called “husbands of the mind”—the minister William Ellery Channing, Emerson, and Mann. Along with Margaret Fuller, she was one of only two female members of the Transcendental Club who instigated a kind of intellectual American Revolution of the 19th century.

The daughter of a schoolteacher, Elizabeth had been educating students herself since the age of 16. A biographer of her family, Megan Marshall, has observed that schools operated by women were freer than their male counterparts to experiment.

In Alcott, this selfless, even devoted, collaborator with innovators thought she glimpsed a kindred male soul working towards an enlightened alternative to the educational practices of their time.

It would take close personal and work encounters for her to discover the infinite frustrations that others discovered about this original, radical but eccentric thinker. Emerson captured both what drew people to Alcott and what annoyed them about him: he was “a good and guileless man,” but also “a man of genius with few talents.”

Impractical and improvident, Alcott continually drove his family to the brink of poverty with his schemes—and drove his followers to distraction. Among his dominant characteristics was a propensity towards being out of sync with his age. Depending on the strength and timing of this impulse, he could be a dreamer, an idealist, a visionary…or just a plain fool. He disregarded the counsels of caution—including entreaties from women with his best interests in mind, such as his wife Abby and Elizabeth—bringing his projects to repeated ruin.

The property he settled on in 1834 for his new ideas, a grand, converted Masonic Temple overlooking the Boston Common, was christened Temple School. His classrooms featured comfortable desks, slates and objects for handling and counting—all innovations of the time.

Remarkably for male teachers of the period, for instance, he preferred Socratic dialogue—or, as he called them, “conversations”—with young students to rote learning. Moreover, rather than resort to corporal punishment, he rapped his own knuckles rather than the youthful offender’s.

In their stress on this more open communication between student and teacher, Alcott and Peabody anticipated the theories of progressive education advanced by John Dewey.

With the same zeal she had devoted to Channing in transcribing the Unitarian minister’s diffuse sermon notes into a collection of coherent addresses, Elizabeth threw herself into the Temple School. She steered her own students to the school, and recorded the conversations of Alcott.

Alcott would address the students in general terms in the morning, while Peabody—possessing the qualifications to teach Latin, geography and arithmetic that he lacked—concentrated on particular subjects in the afternoon.

As time went on, though, Peabody couldn’t help noticing that Alcott, though an advocate for open communication between teacher and student, didn’t practice this with her.

After she accepted his invitation to stay at the family’s boarding house, she found herself disagreeing with him, more often, more vigorously and more uncomfortably—and he did little to hide his journal rant that she was exhibiting “too much of the man and too little of the woman in her freedom.”

In particular, while Alcott was delighted by Peabody’s popular account of his pedagogy, Record of a School (1835), he overrode her qualms about a projected sequel, Conversations With Children on the Gospels. Her initial concerns about how these recorded conversations revealed his self-aggrandizement and manipulation of children’s thoughts and behavior soon gave way to outright alarm frank classroom discussions of sexuality.

One child’s answer to Alcott’s question on how the body is made—“by the naughtiness of people”—was bound to provoke controversy, both because of its precocity and its source: six-year-old Josiah Quincy, the grandson of the president of Harvard.

Tired of Alcott’s increasing disregard of her concerns, anxious about Abby’s occasional tempestuousness, and unable to continue her volunteer teaching, Elizabeth withdrew from Temple School at the start of August. The storm that erupted later that year with the publication of Conversations With Children on the Gospels confirmed the worst of her fears.

The outcry was widespread, with perhaps the sharpest reaction registered by Andrews Norton, a professor of sacred literature at Harvard, who called it “one third absurd, one third blasphemous, and one third obscene.”

In its fervor, the uproar over Alcott’s unusual teaching resembles a modern culture war. It provoked the same outrage over touching on sexuality (no matter how gauzily Alcott expressed it), and the same tensions between religious conservatism (in this case, traditional Calvinism) and less sect-based spirituality (Transcendental philosophy).

Then as now, there were limits to what the enlightened elite was prepared to tolerate. That boundary was breached the following year, when Alcott admitted a single black student to the school. This attempt at racial integration led the parents who had previously stood by Alcott to withdraw the remaining students.

Once Temple School finally closed in 1837, an entry in Alcott’s recently transcribed journal notes that he suffered a nervous collapse that lasted a week. Alcott operated another school for one more year until it, too, shut its doors. Thereafter, though he served briefly as superintendent of Concord Public Schools in Connecticut two decades later, he never taught again.

Peabody, tougher and more resilient than her former employer, survived the failure of their experiment in much better shape. Staying at the Concord home of the Emerson family revived her spirits. 

The Boston bookshop she ran in the 1840s did much to spread Transcendentalism to the reading public, and later she made her most lasting contribution to American education by helping to import the kindergarten movement from Germany to this country.

Over a decade ago, while visiting Concord, I stopped by Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. On that crisp autumn morning, I marveled that so many of the nation’s most prominent 19th-century literary lights—including Emerson, Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott—were in as close proximity on this still hillside as they had been in life.

Now, however, thinking of two of those buried there—Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody—what strikes me is not the quiet of their surroundings but the loud reverberations of their dialogues about Temple School—of the continuing debates over how to mold young minds and how to introduce innovation into a skeptical world.

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