Conversations with Children on the Gospels,
by A. Bronson Alcott
Introduction and edited by Alice O. Howell,
Lindisfarne Press, 1991.
Reviewed by Mary M. Leue
- a book all of us who work with children ought to read carefully and"visit" often.
.............................. - Robert Coles
Here is one of these priceless, quiet books that we hold up and declare ,"Every parent, every teacher, every lawmaker, should know this work!"
........... - Joseph Chilton Pearce.
by Thomas Traherne
How like an Angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
When first among his Works I did appear
O how their Glory did me crown!
The World resembled his ETERNITIE,
In which my Soul did walk;
And ev'ry thing that I did see
Did with me talk.
The Skies in their Magnificence,
The lively lovely Air,
O how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
The Stars did entertain my Sense;
And all the Works of God so bright and pure,
So rich and great, did seem,
And if they ever must endure In my Esteem.
A Nativ Health and Innocence
Within my Bones did grow,
And while my God did all his Glories show
I felt a vigour in my Sense
That was all SPIRIT: I within did flow
With Seas of Life like Wine;
I nothing in the World did know
But 'twas Divine.
Well, I must confess: this review is being composed and written in a state of exultation which is probably not very conducive to objectivity. Even worse, I don't care! I'm in love with this book and I wish everybody would buy a copy, because it proclaims a truth about children that our society, let alone our school system, would leave entirely out of the equation if they could, because it's not an objectively provable equation! If we who work with children did so on the basis of this truth, our institutions would have to change drastically, and institutions don't operate that way - at least, not in America!
So thank God, Robert Coles and Joe Pearce agree with me! I guess, in the world I wish were our shared reality, nobody would worry overmuch about being objective, because it wouldn't be necessary. Instead, we'd have common sense to fall back on. Mark Twain is once said to have said, "Common sense is very uncommon." William James talks about the difference between genuinely being "in sync" with one's will - and making resolutions to do or stop doing something by "willing" to do it. The latter doesn't really work. Making real changes in one's way of doing things comes from a very different place, and more than not, works in the dark, only bursting forth full-blown, often to one's total surprise or even consternation! In other words, change is alchemical - it works on what Thomas Moore (or the Dalai Lama) would call the soul level.
Beginning with the Thomas Traherne poem (above) from which it detrives its title, this marvelous book is about the nature of life at the soul level, as seen through the eyes of children from the ages of five through eleven gathered in a small Boston school with two teachers in it which operated between the years 1835 and 1837. It's not really a book to be read straight through - at least, not for me. Like Coles, I receive it as a "place" I love to visit. Let me tell you about that "place."
The school was housed in the upper floor of a large stone building owned by the Masonic Order located in downtown Boston on a street named "Temple Street" - and so, the school was given the name, "The Temple School." A Miss Elizabeth Peabody, unmarried member of a distinguished Boston family, who had just opened a small school of her own, had become deeply impressed by Alcott as a teacher and offered to join forces with him in this new school, in which she would function as his assistant and later, recorder of his conversations with the children.
The cultural milieu for the school was the period in New England called by Van Wyck Brooks, "The Flowering of New England" - the 1830's; a time when such Transcendentalist luminaries as Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, William Ellery Channing and Herman Melville were New England's leading writers and thinkers.
Influenced by people in England like the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, these people were deeply imbued by a shared sense of the spiritual nature of human life. Brooks tells a lovely story about Margaret Fuller, one of their more flamboyant members, giving a lecture in England attended by the great Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. She flings her arms wide, crying out in ecstasy, "I accept the universe!" "Gad, she'd better!'' mutters crusty old Thomas Carlyle."
Bronson Alcott was another such person, a man deeply in love with and totally dedicated to the spiritual throughout his life, despite being dogged by great poverty from the beginning to the end of it! Louisa May Alcott's story, Little Women, is his daughter's unalloyed tribute to her father's influence on her own values! Poor as they always were, his wife and four daughters never once reproached or resented his saintly but totally impractical path!
The Temple School survived for less than three years, but its short span was an educationally brilliant one. A gentle man who genuinely loved children - and perhaps even more tellingly, respected them! - in addition to offering his pupils their ordinary school subjects, he conducted conversations with them twice a week based on a reading and then discussion of the Gospels, during which occasions he would ask them questions which enabled them to look deeply into their own psyches and bring out answers which represented their most earnest and heart-felt beliefs. These sessions were faithfully recorded by Miss Peabody.
This creative idyll came to an end largely as a result of the bad publicity engendered by the publication of Elizabeth Peabody's Record of a School, and Alcott's Conversations with Children on the Gospels. These verbatim accounts of what Alcott had been doing with his children were denounced from Boston's pulpits as obscene corruption of the "purity" of children - particularly of female children in "mixed" company - and focused on Alcott's (very delicate) discussion of the nature of birth on one occasion, and a comment made by young (five years old) Josiah Quincy on the body's coming into incarnation "through the naughtiness of other people."
The school was forcibly closed in a storm of bitter controversy and condemnation by these Puritannical Bostonians over the willingness of Alcott and Peabody to encourage freedom of thought and expression to children in a period when children were taught entirely by rote in other schools, who were supposed to be "seen but not heard" - and for the unorthodoxy of the views expressed by the children themselves.
Almost all the copies of these volumes that had not been destroyed ended up being sold by the publisher as paper to line trunks with! We are fortunate that a few copies survived.
Alice Howell's editorial commentary at the end of the book on the nature of true teaching is of equal value here. I reproduce a little of it: (educere) means drawing forth what is already within. This Alcott did supremely well. He listened. And by judicious questioning, he provided what I have called in my other books "occasions for attacks of insight" - those "Aha! I get it!" outbursts which are the teacher's delight.
Setting aside a few minutes in every class for a mini-conversation pays off. It establishes trust and mutual respect. Like the eye of a camera, the lens of the psyche opens wider, so that more information can subsequently flow in. Having attended so many schools in several different countries in my own childhood, I learned quickly to "psych" out my teachers and noticed what made some of them good and some even bad at teaching. You can also slam the door in a child's mind. I learned that fear closes the lens of learning. Fear of punishment, fear of mistakes, fear of ridicule, fear of criticism and rejection. There was no fear in Mr. Alcott's schoolroom, and I hope there was none in mine.
My good teachers, and I had three, all had two things in common: they loved what they were doing, and they made learning exciting. Over the years I have been privileged to observe several colleagues who had the same gifts, and I have read of many others. It is evident from Miss Peabody's records that the children greatly enjoyed the Conversations.
Why are these conversations interesting? said Mr. Alcott. Because they give us new ideas, said a boy. Many others said they liked them for the same reason. Mr. Alcott then said, conversations are the most perfect transcript of the mind. Could all the conversations of great minds be recorded, it would give us a better idea of them than the history of their lives. Why is the New Testament so interesting? Because it is full of the conversations of Jesus. Conversations of Socrates make the next most interesting book. Conversation is full of life. The spirit's workings come out in conversations, fresh and vivid. Why, if I thought I only gave you knowledge and could not lead you to use it to make yourselves better, I would never enter this schoolroom again !
Two of Miss Peabody's recorded remarks by children, as quoted by Alice Howell, are especially delightful to me. One of them is an outburst by a five-year old, "Oh, Mr. Alcott, I never even knew I had a mind until I came to this school!" The other is an answer given by Charles Morgan, whose father was a whale oil merchant, to the question of what he thinks his mission in incarnating in this life might be, "I think the mission of my soul is to sell oil."
And finally, I would like to reproduce Wordsworth's poem (also cited by Mrs. Howell) on birth and early childhood which has long been a favorite of mine, containing as it does a level of truth about the birth of children which we seem to have forgotten in our modern world. Like Alcott, like Alice Howell, I have found great innate spiritual beauty and profound wisdom within the beings of the children I have taught, and have always considered it my task to nurture that inner beauty.
by William Wordsworth
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his Joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Click here to read an excerpt from Alice Howell's Dove in the Stone.
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