by Ron Miller

The struggle to make education democratic and responsive to children's developmental needs is almost as old as America itself. The hopes - and frustrations - of today's alternative educators were shared by previous generations, and it may be helpful to reflect on their experience.

Although America was born amidst a great burst of egalitarian idealism, social history teaches us that underneath the slogans and hoopla, there was from the start an elite class - merchants and later industrialists in the north, land- (and, at one time, slave-) owners in the south - with a vested interest in keeping democratic enthusiasm within manageable bounds. This group has been served by its lawyers and politicians, by its religious authorities, and, we must realize, by its educators.
Still, class analysis by itself does not explain the origins of our public schools and their alternatives. There was, and still is to an alarming extent, a deep-seated belief that children must be forced to grow up properly. The idea that childhood is a distinct stage of human life with its own rhythms and needs was only beginning to emerge at the turn of the nineteenth century. Children were considered to be small adults (notice how they were depicted in contemporary portraits). Schooling, except for the tiny minority who were groomed for the professions, was an insignificant part of socialization in agrarian society. Its only purpose was to drill students in rudimentary skills and religious and patriotic catechisms. If children couldn't sit still and learn, they were simply beaten.
The first educator to significantly challenge this prevailing belief was Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) in Switzerland. He recognized that children learn through activity rather than abstraction, that the school must be a carefully planned, nurturing environment, and that it can play an important role in improving children's adult lives. Pestalozzi's schools were visited by hundreds of observers, including a Scottish-American philanthropist named William Maclure. Deeply impressed, Maclure invited one of Pestalozzi's associates, Joseph Neef, to come to the U.S.
Both Maclure and Neef had high hopes that Pestalozzi's ideas would catch on more rapidly in republican America than in Napoleonic Europe. In 1808 Neef published Sketch of a Plan and Method of Education (the first pedagogical work in English in the new world), and in 1819 opened a school in Philadelphia under Maclure's sponsorship. He introduced Pestalozzi's radical innovations; instead of the accepted authoritarian approach. Neef saw himself as a friend and fellow learner of his pupils. He led them on field trips, encouraged them to think and question for themselves, and abhorred corporal punishment. He sought to make education relevant to the students' lives; he considered Greek and Latin to be a waste of time, but taught them, since they were essential for college admission.
Neef had initial success, but eventually his zealous egalitarianism and freethinking religious views tarnished his reputation. He went west to Kentucky in 1813 but failed. By 1816, Maclure wrote to Neef that he had lost his optimism about America's ripeness for Pestalozzianism.
In 1825, though, Maclure joined Robert Owen's utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana. Neef came in 1826, and along with two other Pestalozzians Maclure had brought over, conducted what must have been the most stimulating educational environment in America of its time. But the New Harmony ideology, which Neef shared, was socialist, atheist and abolitionist. On all three counts, Neef was disqualified from serious consideration by the public. Although he continued to teach in Ohio for six years after New Harmony's collapse in 1828, his ideas had little impact.
In rural Connecticut, however, a young schoolmaster named Bronson Alcott, already intuitively sensitive to children's ways of thinking and learning, came across Pestalozzi's ideas and heard of the New Harmony school. In 1827, Alcott's own school was acclaimed as one of the best in the country, and a liberal minister, Samuel J. May (later a leading abolitionist and Alcott's brother-in-law), was impressed with his method, which, said May, served "to invite rather than compel attention, to awaken thought rather than to load the memory, and in one word to develop the whole mind and heart, rather than some of either."1 .
But the parents in Alcott's town were not so pleased; why weren't their children being drilled and disciplined? Why did they like their teacher so much that they visited him for further discussions in the evenings? The parents opened rival schools which drained Alcott's. So in 1828 he went to Boston, where he - along with a whole generation of reformers - came under the inspiring influence of the Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing. In 1830 Alcott left for Philadelphia, where he studied European Romanticism and idealism, and in 1834 returned to Boston a full-fledged Transcendentalist.
Under Channing's sponsorship, Alcott opened the Temple School and attracted children from some of the leading families of the city. He was assisted by Elizabeth Peabody, Channing's secretary and a gifted teacher in her own right (after 1860 she was the leader of the kindergarten movement in the U.S.). Alcott used conversations and journal writing; he admired Socrates and Jesus, who taught by evoking the intellectual and moral qualities already inherent in the person. To Alcott, education meant the cultivation of the spiritual essence of every individual. Like Pestalozzi, Alcott provided a loving, accepting environment, and maintained discipline through his own fatherly presence and by cultivating in the students a sense of responsibility for the classroom community.
For a few months in 1835-36, the school flourished. Peabody's Record of Mr. Alcott's School attracted favorable attention (and introduced Alcott to Emerson, who became his lifelong friend). But Alcott was on a spiritual pilgrimage of his own, and seeing the uncorrupted children as his teachers, he led them on explorations of Biblical passages and theological themes. In December 1836 and February 1837, he published - over Peabody's objections - his two volumes of Conversations with Children on the Gospels. Joining the barrage of Transcendentalist literature which was just then emerging, Conversations was perceived as a threat to ecclesiastical authority and conventional morality. While Neef's mistake was to be irreligious, Alcott's was to be too religious! Newspapers ridiculed him. Peabody resigned. Even Channing was critical. Parents withdrew their children, and Temple School closed in 1838.
Alcott tried to organize another school, but when he admitted a black girl, and refused to dismiss her when white parents complained, he lost most of his other students. By 1839 he was down to five pupils - three were his own daughters, including six-year-old Louisa May. So Alcott learned what Prudence Crandall had found in 1833 when she tried to run an integrated - and then an all-black - school in Connecticut: New England was not ready for racial equality.
Other Transcendentalists conducted schools that were innovative but less threatening to the community. Henry Thoreau, with his brother John, ran one in Concord from 1839 to 1841. Although classroom instruction was rigorous enough to prepare the older boys for college, there was no corporal punishment (Henry had resigned from the town school over this issue), and there were regular field trips into the town and countryside; Transcendentalism always encouraged direct education - or inspiration - from life. This school was popular, but closed because of John's failing health.
In the same year - 1841 - the Transcendentalist commune Brook Farm was established by George Ripley (who, like Alcott, had read Pestalozzi and been encouraged by Channing). The school was the most successful element of the experiment. A skilled and beloved faculty combined solid academic training with a variety of experiences on and off the farm. By all accounts, it was idyllic. But Transcendentalist idealism waned in the face of the muscle-flexing America that was emerging. Commerce, industry and westward expansion were booming. In 1846 the U.S. invaded Mexico. In 1850 the Fugitive Slave Law would be passed. In this atmosphere, Brook Farm seemed hopelessly romantic, and it finally closed in 1847.
So it was not a Neef or an Alcott, a New Harmony or a Brook Farm that would set the course for public education in America. It was a crusading lawyer/politician named Horace Mann. Ironically, Mann himself was influenced by Pestalozzi's work and Channing's moral fervor. He was even a quiet abolitionist. But he recognized that most Americans were not interested in having education cultivate the latent human qualities of every child. Schooling at the public's expense could only be sold as social insurance: with the country becoming urban and industrial, with large numbers of workingmen and then immigrants clustering in the cities, schools were needed to instill a sense of patriotic duty, a respect for authority, and habits of punctuality and thriftiness. In contract to Mann's sober, moralistic program, radicals such as Neef and Alcott seemed dangerously subversive.
Thus, in 1847, when Alcott offered to lecture at one of Mann's teachers' institutes, Mann turned him down, because Alcott's views were "hostile to the state." Think about it! The most talented teacher, and most provocative conversationalist, of his generation was not allowed to contribute to public education in this supposedly democratic society, because his ideas were too democratic. Here, in microcosm, is the entire history of alternative schooling in America.
1 Dorothy McCuskey: Bronson Alcott, Teacher (NY 1940) p. 49.
F.C. Dahlstrand, Amos Bronson Alcott, An Intellectual Biography (1982).
G.L. Gutek, Joseph Neef, The Americanization of Pestalozzianism (1978).
C. Mabee, Black Freedom - The Nonviolent Abolitionists (1981).
Dorothy McCuskey: Bronson Alcott, Teacher (NY 1940). Mendelsohn, Channing, The Reluctant Radical (1971).
A.C. Rose, Transcendentalism as a Social Movement (1971).
Ron Miller holds a master's degree in psychology from Duquesne and a PhD. in American Studies at Boston University, and was trained in the Montessori approach. He is the founder and editor of Holistic Education Review, and a founding member of GATE, the Global Alliance for Transforming Education. He wrote this article for SKOLE while still a graduate student, and has since written a book entitled What Are Schools For?
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