What were Bronson Alcott’s educational reforms? Here’s a simpler approach

From time to time I have posted about Bronson Alcott, mainly from my reading of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson. I had been wanting to find a simpler explanation of Bronson’s educational reforms; they were considered quite radical in his day but over time became incorporated into mainstream educational thought. Just what were these reforms? Clara Gowing’s book, The Alcotts as I Knew Them provided what I was looking for.

Franklin Sanborn, Alcott biographer

Gowing relied exclusively on Franklin Sanborn’s Memoirs of Bronson Alcott.  While I will refer to pages in Gowing’s book regarding quotes, any direct quotes from Bronson were taken from Sanborn’s account.

All the page numbers I am citing here are taken from the e-book version of Gowing’s book.

A mission to educate the young

It is not surprising that Bronson approached education with a religious zeal since at one time he had considered entering the ministry of the Episcopalian Church. The expense involved with training in seminary prevented him from following this course (page 55, The Alcotts as I Knew Them) but he eventually drifted away from formal religion, preferring to carve out his own spiritual path.

Amos Bronson Alcott

Working out his spirituality through educating children

Time spent with the Quakers (p.60) “awakened a desire for purity and real worth, and a delight in exercises of thought and devotion.” It was to have a profound influence on Bronson’s spiritual journey.

Finding the Divine in the child

That journey was very tied in with young children. Bronson believed that the Divine spirit was found in young children and through the apparatus of education, he could, as teacher, draw out that spirit. He would not only enhance his own spiritual journey but would bring out the very best in the children he taught. He believed that once a child was “rightly instructed mentally, morally and physically, they would become the reformers of humanity at home.” (pg. 62). In essence, Bronson wanted to redeem mankind (and himself) through children.

Reforming the administration of discipline

One of the first reforms that Bronson introduced was the near elimination of corporal punishment. While teaching in Bristol, CT, he developed the opinion that gaining the confidence and affection of the children would make them behave – “Constant uniform kindness he claimed was more successful than corporal punishment. Correction was aimed at the mind rather than the body, as it was the mind that committed the error and should receive correction.” (p. 61)

Gowing adds, “One of his methods of punishment was to take part of the correction himself, thus proving that the innocent must suffer with the guilty.” (p. 74).

Growing the child’s conscience

This subtle manipulation of the child was meant to deepen the child’s sense of conscience. Judging from a quote from a student in the Temple School in Boston (p. 75), a deeper sense of conscience was successfully reached through a thoughtful reading and discussion of the scriptures.

Conversations as a  means to draw out knowledge

Another trademark teaching method that Bronson employed was his form of conversation with the children, where he would steer the discussion with questions to draw out the desired answers from the children, thus helping them to discover the answers on their own. Emerson wrote, “Friend Alcott declares that a teacher is one who can assist the child in obeying his own mind, and who can remove all unfavorable circumstances. He believes that from a circle of twenty well-selected children he could draw in their conversation everything that is in Plato, and much better in form than it is in Plato.” (p. 76)

A typical day at school

Gowling outlines a typical day of class in Bronson’s school:

  • The day began at 8 am with an hour of play and socialization in the yard (Bronson was the first in the state to introduce gymnastics).
  • At 9 am the class began with a story by the teacher about some virtue meant to stir desire in the students. The story was discussed including events and experience – lasting an hour. Undoubtedly Bronson employed his conversation techniques during these discussions.
  • Then the next 3 hours were spent conducting  exercises in spelling, reading, definition, drawing, etc. Two additional hours were spent in the afternoon on such exercises. Everything was always presented in a way that would spark interest so that the students engaged on their own initiative. Thus they were happy and interested in their own progress and pursuits. (p. 67)

Submission a necessary element

Bronson believed it was necessary to subdue what he saw as “obstructions to the growth of the mind; these lie in the appetites, passions, desires, and will. Intellectual results will follow the discipline of the sentiments … He who reaches the will and subdues the desires brings the child under his control …” (p. 70)

Stormy career

Bronson’s career as a teacher was never short on controversy, experiencing glorious ups with the Temple School, and many downs, inevitably ending when he courageously admitted a black girl into the Temple School. Parents then concluded that he was “corrupting the youth … by his conversations.” The Temple School closed and Bronson was never to teach in a formal way again.

A time in exile

After moving to Concord and being denied the chance to teach, Bronson prayed to God, “wilt thou permit me to be useful to my fellowmen? . . . How long, O Lord! how long wilt thou try me, by the exclusion from the active duties of Church and State, and more than these, from the discharge of my duties to my neighbors and to my neighbors’ children?” (p. 88)

Lasting effects

Clara Gowing sums it up nicely as to lasting effects of Bronson’s reforms (underscore is my emphasis):

“To one looking over Mr. Alcott’s experience the fact becomes apparent that many of his peculiar ideas and of the methods which he endeavored to introduce in his school and which caused his failure then, have since come into general use.* With all his fanatical and impracticable theories, which often induced ridicule even among his friends, he was pure in heart and character, strong in friendship, and generous to a fault, and his biographer, F. B. Sanborn, says, ‘When he died he left fewer enemies than any man of equal age can have provoked or encountered in so long a career.’ ” (p. 100-101) *as of 1914 when Gowing’s book came out.

Questions regarding Bronson’s techniques

I have to admit that I found some of Bronson’s techniques troubling, in particular his manipulation of the children and what I perceive as a Svengali approach to his teaching (note quotes on submission). While this blog has barely scratched the surface regarding this complex figure in history, we do know that Bronson’s unchecked megalomania proved disastrous regards to Fruitlands and wreaked havic with his family. Yet, his many of his educational reforms were stellar, and as we’ve seen in a previous post, he had an unusual understanding of the childish mind. With that in mind,  I love to know your take:

  • What do you think of Bronson’s educational reforms?
  • What do you think of his methods?
  • Do you see the potential for danger in his methods?
  • Did the results justify the means?

Let’s talk!


6 Replies to “What were Bronson Alcott’s educational reforms? Here’s a simpler approach”

  1. I certainly agree with eliminating physical punishment, but who doesn’t. I like the idea of play time and socializing before school (my 10-year-old son chose public school over homeschool because of recess). However the rest of the description is too sparing to evaluate. It is one thing to list subjects, quite another to see what happens during the day. As for being Svengali, I think all teachers condition students to some extent — often unconsciously. For the most part, schooling teaches obedience to government-approved authority, rewards compliance and punishes absence or inattention, with arbitrary materials and Pavlovian bells to herd children around. The current system falls far short of ideal — and might be closer to its antithesis.

    1. I haven’t had children in the public school system for a long time but from what I hear, I am glad I don’t! Bronson Alcott may have had his faults (some fatal flaws) but I think he was totally dead on when it came to how to educate children. Two of his daughters were high achievers.

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