Part 3 of a series on Bronson Alcott: his rise, fall and redemption, based on reflections from John Matteson’s biography Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father
If you want to refresh your memory on previous posts in this series, here are the links:
Bronson Alcott’s life as a teacher began quite modestly in 1823 as a schoolmaster in Cheshire, CT (page 26).
Teaching was not regarded very highly as a professional field and thus it was not required for teachers to have any formal training.
This made it easy for Bronson to take up the profession after he realized that peddling was not going to lead him closer to God (coincidentally his peddling was falling on hard times).
Birth of a lifelong passion
Teaching immediately resonated with Bronson and he came to believe there was no more important work to be done than educating the young. Surpassing even that of preaching Alcott commented that “Early education was the enduring power.” (pg. 26).
This passion for teaching would stay with him throughout his life, shaping his professional, philosophical and child-rearing ideals (pg. 26). Education would lead him down the road to his glory, his downfall, and his inevitable redemption.
Bronson’s educational influence
It was during this period that Bronson became familiar with educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.
Pestalozzi, a native of Zurich who was inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believed that people were innately intelligent. This belief shaped the idea that it was more fruitful to coax that intelligence out of a person rather than cram that person with information. (page 26)
The domestic nature of education
Pestalozzi’s writings not being in English, Bronson relied on English pamphlets based upon Pestalozzi’s writings known as Hints to Parents. These pamphlets were key to Bronson’s development of the gentle conversational style used to draw out his students. Hints to Parents also maintained the importance of a domestic atmosphere in the schoolroom, not unlike that of a well-run home.
Pilgrim’s Progress fits right in
Hints to Parents paralleled the moral teachings of Bronson’s beloved Pilgrim’s Progress, exhorting parents to “deafen themselves to the judgments of a corrupt and vanity-ridden world.” (page 27). Hints urged a religious-type zeal in parents with regards to educating their children, stressing the equal importance of imparting virtues and academic knowledge.
Inspired by what he read, Bronson sought to implement Pestalozzi’s principles in the Cheshire, CT school.
- He worked to make the physical environment comfortable, decorating the classroom with flowers and greens, and affording each child his or her own desk (versus the long tables with hard benches).
- He scrounged together a library of over 100 books.
- He used art, music and games to liven up the learning environment, making the classroom a welcoming place.
- Corporal punishment was rarely used. (page 27)
Failure leads to opportunity
Cheshire was in a very rural part of Connecticut and parents were not quite up to all these changes. The school inevitably failed but not before it attracted the attention of Samuel May of Boston, brother of Abba (Bronson’s future wife). May was very taken with Bronson and his ideas and would end up supporting him in future efforts.
We know, of course, what came of Bronson’s meeting Abba.
In part 4, I will explore Bronson’s relationship with Samuel May and the winding path it led him on.
Point of Trivia: Did you know Bronson instituted the idea of recess? I just learned this yesterday on my umpteenth tour of Orchard House. :-)
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