Bronson Alcott's Experiment in Practical Transcendentalism

John Crouch

Bronson Alcott probably exerted major, though indirect, influence on American education. His publications were neither definitive nor systematic, and his affiliations with institutions were ephemeral, but consequential nonetheless. Born in 1799, and given little formal instruction, as a young man he wandered through the South as a Yankee pedlar. In 1825 he became a schoolteacher, and as he made a name for himself with his methods and his writings, founded celebrated schools in Boston and Philadelphia. I propose to survey the theory and practice of this involved, formative period of his life from the late 1820s to 1839. After his last school failed he retreated to Concord and to the Fruit lands commune, which was immortalized in his daughter's gentle farce. He mostly flourished -- by transcendentalist standards, anyhow -- during his second forty years, introducing well-received reforms as Concord's school superintendent and remaining eminent thanks to his daughter's works. FN

Any description of Bronson Alcott's educational ministry must be complex, precisely because he strove for simplicity, for practical improvisation and natural interaction outside the confines of method and convention. One writer noted in wonderment that Alcott made no distinction between theory and practice. FN His all-encompassing philosophy was both practiced and expounded in his every recorded contact with children and adults alike. As might be expected of one influenced by Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Locke, Pestalozzi, Bunyan, the Scottish philosophers, Fox and the Quakers, his philosophy is so interconnected and circular, ineffable yet obvious, that perhaps it is best to begin, as he would, with pictures: an acorn, a robin's egg being incubated through its mother's unquestioning devotion, a fragile, newly-hatched butterfly "unfolding" for the first time, "the warmth which germinates a seed" and develops its inner logic according to some celestial, yet discernible plan. FN

Alcott's revolutionary pedagogical beliefs are the most comprehensible, verifiable, and the most relevant to present concerns. They arose, however, from his intricate philosophy of God, humans and nature, spirit and matter, morality and knowledge, which will be explicated further when we examine how he communicated it in the classroom. Briefly, Alcott came to see humans, like lower forms of nature, as a combination of Spirit and matter. Spirit imposes form on matter, and continually acts to change all beings, making them more finely formed and more like itself. Alcott saw God as pure Spirit. Thus he taught that while one's individual conscience must be the supreme ruler, as it represents spirit, one's material passions and appetites must be resisted. FN

Alcott also seemed to hold the common notion that an individual organism develops according to an inner spiritual logic which recapitulates all of evolution. Thus he could see each individual as precious and perfectible, even unique, but subject to discernible scientific laws which prescribe similar treatment by those who would cultivate them. Just as Alcott's study of one child demonstrated truths about all children and all creatures, so the child could see all of heaven in one flower.

Alcott's first practical exposure to alternative manners of instruction came when he lived among Quakers, among whom he underwent his Christian "awakening." FN In his first formal teaching post two years later he discovered that "Whatever children do themselves is theirs. Originality tends to produce strength. " He found it ridiculous that students recited statements of fact without being able to define their terms. FN He was a strict disciplinarian at a time when disorder was unexceptional in many classrooms, but his discipline was not physical. He punished through orderly indictment, argument, disapproval, and requests for public apologies. His vision of individuals, and of society, dictated that all discipline must come from within. Reading at second hand of Pestalozzi's ideas of guided, step-by-step induction, he labeled his school Pestalozzian, and soon reported that he had seventy students, indicating much more parental confidence than he deserved or could easily fulfill. FN

When his success attracted the overtures of Philadelphia's school board president Roberts Vaux, Alcott displayed a bottomless self-confidence that might have made him rich in mercantile or financial occupations, and which later experts and reformers would probably consider suicidal. He proposed "to operate chiefly on the characters of the children," ensuring a life of "pure feeling, and correct action. " Since these results could not "be rendered immediately obvious," but would grow as slowly as diamonds, he demanded "parents with the necessary patience. " FN

In an 1830 pamphlet, argued that education must be adapted to "the order in which [the] faculties appear. " He outlined four vital consecutive stages of growth: "the animal nature, the affections, the conscience, and the intellect. " He argued that a child first must be allowed to roam, play, and interact with the physical world, without premeditation, but be protected from bodily harm. The affections were perhaps the most important faculty: since people learn by free association, everything good and true must be presented as pleasant. Thus to "facilitate" the being's natural development was to show reverence for its designer. The principal qualification for such a facilitating teacher was not formal education, but patience, benevolent fairness, and the ability to set a pure moral example. FN

Alcott found his evangelical Christianity compatible with John Locke's theory that people learn only through their senses. He did not limit himself to the usual five senses, however: he estimated that Thoreau probably had ten!11 For ordinary use, he urged children to exercise, develop and sensitize their sixth sense, conscience, which would make them feel bad when they had done something wrong. He was quite successful in demonstrating this to children by asking them to recall their own actions and feelings. FN

He found new philosophical or psychological reasons for the antipathy he and his students felt for harsh punishment and mindless fact. "Systematic instruction is repulsive," especially in "minute detail. " Even to compel the child's attention too much was harmful, he thought. Young children learn through "desultory impressions" of "a few elementary facts wrought up with incident and affection." FN A teacher must use ordinary objects and speak simply, he believed, avoiding any accidentally bizarre impressions and protecting the tender bud from all "noxious influences." FN Thus he advocated teaching through stories with explicit morals, either Bowdlerized or especially written for children. He noted that Jesus taught through parables. FN Alcott's record of his Temple School indicates that children got quite involved in moral stories, especially when asked to see themselves in roles within the story. FN

Alcott conducted his classes by a "living intercourse" of questioning, making each child's individual decisions appear all-important. FN He continually asked how they felt about things, and why or why not. Occasionally the children themselves asked questions, which were enthusiastically discussed. Such questions as the relative primacy of chickens and eggs, the power of positive thinking, the location of heaven, and the physical characteristics (if any) of angels and demons were deemed especially important and instructive. FN The scholars even wrestled with the concepts of "the Idea of Absolute Being" and the typology of humans as derivatives of the absolute. A few appeared to understand a little of that one. FN

The scholars of the Temple School, at least, were responsive as often as not. They often seemed to be regurgitating his figures of speech, but he was acutely conscious of this danger, and when he thought they had not grasped the point he pressed them to define their terms. When he did this, which was probably not as often as a less optimistic teacher using the same technique might have, they usually performed promisingly. It appears, however, that there were many who rarely spoke, as in most other classrooms. Some children were conscientious enough to volunteer that they had not understood a question, or to dispute whether the spirit really could or would pervade all material things. FN

Alcott espoused what seemed to be the commonsensical argument that the teacher, in a natural atmosphere of "familiar and affectionate conversation," should act as the student's conscience, appealing to the stirring forces of reason and conscience to prepare the soil for independent intellectual development. FN A child once expressed some distrust of Alcott's apparent impartiality, responding to his questioning by asking, "What do you think?" Alcott would not answer, but said, "I do not wish to influence your opinions by mine. I teach what every pure person believes. " He seemed to see himself as a helpful companion to the children, following them from one interesting object to another, because he was sure that all their paths would lead to one idea, especially with his gentle encouragement. He was able to take joy in facts without seeing them as the goal or center of education. FN

Alcott's favorite instructional technique was to appeal to the imagination through pictures, or, even better, by demanding pictures from the children to make them give meaning to his words. Thus truth would "clothe herself with beautiful associations." FN He once delivered a graphic visualization of a lamb being slaughtered, apparently succeeding in convincing his class of the high pleasures of self-sacrifice. More suitably for contemporary tastes, he once explained symbolism to the children and demanded symbols of birth from them. They responded with elaborate images of rain, sunrises, winds and tides, rivers and oceans. FN

At the zenith of his teaching career, Alcott published a brief, relatively clear essay on The Doctrine and Discipline of Human Culture (in the sense of cultivating and growing humans), spelling out his philosophy of education in a framework of high Hegelianism and Christian millennialism.

Education was now seen as the mission which would bring about the millennium of human perfection. It was time to accept Christ's challenge to "Be ye perfect," since "in this he was true to our nature. " Christ said this because "He knew what was in man, and the means of perfecting his being. " The Hegelian construct of Idea and Spirit imposing themselves on matter was the same as the spirit's mandate to subdue the flesh; thus, "Man's Mission is to subdue nature. " A belief that was as basic to Alcott's age as it is foreign to ours was that there was ultimately a congruence, and not a contradiction, between respecting nature (i. e. , something's highest nature) and subjecting it to spiritual control. FN

Thus education was "the art of revealing to a man the true Idea of his Being" so that he might perfect his own spirit. The child was a holy mystery of nature, whom the teacher must gently "inspire in order to unfold" into perfection. To perfect this art, we must know mankind in every stage of its development. If teachers follow their own highest natures one step at a time, they, too, should discover "the means of perfecting" humans. FN

In practical terms, this meant a teacher should be "simple and extemporaneous" like Jesus and Socrates. Teachers needed fewer "precepts and rules," and more practicality. Their principal aim was to develop not mere knowledge or competence, but "genius," "the free and harmonious play of all the faculties. " He bemoaned the vast waste of human potential. "Depravity," he warned, "springs from our low estimate of human nature." FN

In one of his clearest, simplest images of how Spirit acts through matter, Alcott told his classes that he believed that one's soul continually makes one's body, both in birth and in life. From this principle he deduced a firm acceptance of phrenology and physiognomy, which his students comprehended and adopted wholeheartedly. Nearly the whole class agreed that candies and gravy were demonic temptations that could corrupt the soul, which in turn would produce a flabby body. All pain, he assured them, was produced by some sin, perhaps ancestral sin, as far back as Ham or Adam. FN

Alcott repeatedly suggested to the children that in birth, they had been pure, and that infancy was related to heaven and perhaps to some past life of the soul. The most striking evidence that he did not believe this as a mere abstraction is contained in his letters to his young daughters, which address them as if they were perfect creatures. The letters are not exactly complacent, however; they express concern that the girls continue to develop their perfection, and confidence that they are resisting temptation. On Louisa's seventh birthday he observed that her only "true pleasure" came from obeying her "CONSCIENCE." FN

When Alcott asked children at the Temple School to describe an angel, they moved from a view of angels as grand, splendiferous things to a consensus that they probably resembled infants. One girl exclaimed, "We were all angels when we were babies!" FN

Alcott had a persistent interest in the holy mystery of human birth, which one biographer attributes in part to his first child's birth and precarious infancy. FN He pressed children to think about the question, noting that "vulgar things" had been said about it. A very young student offered a theory that birth was made possible by a sort of synthesis of people's "naughtinesses [which] put together, make a body for the child, but the spirit is the best part of it. " Alcott asked them each to form an opinion on the matter. FN

When he published these exchanges in the first volume of Conversations with Children on the Gospels, beneath such racy chapter headings as "Conjugal Relations" and "Gestation," he attracted unfavorable attention from Calvinist clergymen and some journalists. The Boston Courier wrote, accurately in my opinion, that "He seemed to delight in his own person in directing their attention to the more improper subjects-& when they appeared with intuitive perception to shrink from contact with them, he has forced their minds to grapple with them." FN

Alcott took up this accusation in class, in an exchange which both described and demonstrated his puzzling technique: "Welles. I got my unclean spirit, partly at home, and partly at a school I went to.

"Mr. Alcott. Does Mr. Alcott know what it is?

"Welles, (blushing. ) Yes; I believe he does.

"Mr. Alcott. Does it seem to you that he often talks all round it, and that it soon must go out?"

Someone changed the subject, as usual, and the matter was forgotten as offhandedly as it had been brought up. FN

The public did not forget the controversy, and despite the support of eminent clergymen enrollment in the school drifted downward. When Alcott admitted a biracial girl to the school in 1838, the remaining parents revolted and his creditors grew impatient. FN As he put it, "I left Boston, finding that the people were not ready to support a man who would reform not only their children but themselves." FN

Many of Alcott's convictions were the same ones that develop mentalists would champion at the turn of the century, and would, in more diffuse form, become mainstream assumptions behind all American education, even undergraduate higher education and extracurricular activities. These include the belief that schools and other institutions exist principally to build character and to encourage children to develop each of their faculties in healthy proportion, rather than to teach certain knowledge or skills. They also include less mainstream ideas of participatory and child-centered learning. All these beliefs have come down to us through many channels besides Bronson Alcott, but he was one of the first who dared to test and practice the promising new notions that were current in his time.

Most of Alcott's practical ideas of education, epistemology and juvenile morality are solid and worthwhile, even to one who just does not want to deal with his tangled Hegelian cosmology. Laying aside his theories about the development of the conscience, many whose parents have emulated him in gently setting high expectations for children can testify that his techniques often appear to work. Consistently with his philosophy, most of his observations about people resonated with his personal experience, and were corroborated by others. It is this taste for obvious yet unorthodox truths that are true and pleasing on several levels that makes transcendental thought so attractive, yet so frighteningly dubious. As his scholarly biographer Frederick Dahlstrand put it, Alcott was "perplexing but captivating." FN

People who have had some form of religious education, even an occasional Sunday School class, will be reminded by Alcott's Conversations with Children on the Gospels that children do occasionally speculate on matters of epistemology and philosophy, and can get into intense discussions which usually overwhelm the twentieth-century teacher. Perhaps there are still ways for schools to unlock and use this curious spirit.

It is his activity, much more than his ideas, that make Alcott a compelling, exemplary figure. In the 1830s his life was one continuing experiment, an interplay of hypotheses, results and conclusions, foreshadowing John Dewey's experiments at his Laboratory School. (An even more irresistible analogy is provided by Fred "Mr." Rogers. ) Alcott was able to maintain a rare degree of respect for the human subjects of his studies, though freighted with numerous assumptions about them which now appear questionable. His techniques of continual, semi-methodical searching, challenging students to grasp what is within reach and adapting himself to their interests, appear as sensible and warm-hearted now as they did then. Students, teachers and parents should find them useful, or at least inspiring, in achieving the less transcendental educational goals of our own time, or any other time.