Birth of a visionary educator: Bronson Alcott, part 3 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)

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:

Read Part One here
Read Part Two here
Read discussion question here

The beginning

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

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

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.

Pestalozzi in the classroom

Implementing Pestalozzi

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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11 Replies to “Birth of a visionary educator: Bronson Alcott, part 3 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)”

  1. Your story of Bronson reminds me of my grandfather in 19th century Kansas. He had little formal education when he got his first teaching job. Then, as a teacher, he had his summers free to take various courses and improve his own knowledge. I think at that time, the people who hired teachers were more concerned with their ability to manage a sometimes unruly country school than with how much the teacher actually knew.

    1. And I imagine that Bronson’s classroom was probably well-behaved as he intuitively understood the needs of his students. While I agree that it’s important that teachers today be properly trained, still, there would have been no Bronson Alcott as educator had those standards been imposed in his day. It’s all rather ironic.

      1. The standards would have excluded my grandfather who became, by middle life, a very well educated man who fathered well-educated children. Even as a young man, while still working as a farmhand, he always attended the church with the preacher who used the biggest vocabulary in his sermons. Grandfather listened carefully and then looked up all the unfamiliar words so that he could use them himself.

      2. I greatly admire people like your grandfather who were self-educated and have that drive to learn. I have it now but I wish I had had it earlier. Still, it’s never too late to begin!

  2. This is fascinating! I have been interested to learn more about the real Alcott family and am so excited to read your blog! Thank you for sharing all of this great research.

  3. All of this is so interesting. I really, really want to like Bronson. It sounds like he did a great deal for improving the educational system in America!

    I love this quote:

    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.

    1. I like him better after reading what I’ve read but still find him very problematic. He was better when he was young and innocent, and when he was old and wiser, but in the middle, eeesh! But yes, he did bring on a lot of educational reform. School was a dreary and frightening place before he stepped in.

  4. I love this piece! I’m a teacher and try to make my classroom environs as much like home as I can, and I tell my students that! Over time, this approach truly helps calm some stressed and worried children.

    1. Thank you! It’s cool to hear testimony from a teacher that uses this approach (though I know it has been used for years). What grade do you teach and do you teach in the suburbs, the city or in a rural area?

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