Summer Conversational Series 2014: Bronson Alcott as the father of modern child psychology

My thanks again to Kristi Martin for sharing her notes and her photos with this site.

kristina westKristina West’s presentation highlighted the educational work of Bronson Alcott and his role as arguably the father of modern child psychology. This is one workshop I wish I had not missed. West’s careful study of Bronson serves to redeem him as being the villain in the Alcott family to some. While Bronson surely caused his family much consternation and material poverty due to his feelings about working for money, there were many stellar and more esoteric gifts he gave to his family.

Bronson’s writings

West has done a close-reading of selected passages from Bronson’s “Observations on the Principles and Methods of Infant Instruction,” “Observations on the Spiritual Nurture of my Children,” and “Preface to Conversations with Children on the Gospels.” These were studies of infant behavior and his methods of conversation and observation which were aimed at knowing the child, Bronson considered the development of the whole child: physical, mental, and spiritual. His lack of writing skill prevented publication of his works which is why he is often not given his due. His writing style was flowery and dense, a perfect example being Psyche (a study of third daughter Elizabeth’s soul rather than her day-to-day growth) which West found almost impenetrable; her opinion agrees with Emerson’s criticisms.

Bronson’s brilliance

West believes that “Observations on the Spiritual Nature of my Children” is absolute genius. West’s assessment reminds me a lot of Madelon Bedell’s brilliant work, The Alcotts Biography of a Family; she too felt that Bronson showed genius in the psychological study of children.

The better parent?

West maintained that Bronson believed he understood the children better than their mother, and criticized her parenting methods. From what I’ve read, seeing that Abba was almost constantly either pregnant or post-partum, it would be understandable if she was high strung. Bronson was able to take the time to read to his daughters and play with them; Bedell notes this in her book. This kind of care extended to Bronson’s students.

The use of conversation

The Temple School
The Temple School

West called attention to the problem of conversation as an analytic tool of observation because of the influence in leading the children. Bedell maintained that Bronson manipulated the children through the art of conversation, molding them into what he wanted them to be. But there is no doubt the children gained a great deal through his teaching.

Bronson as genius

West argued that Bronson was a genius for his exceptional originality of thought and Bedell agreed. West expressed the concern during the question and answer porition that Bronson is largely misunderstood because no one reads what he actually wrote. I agree with this having taken a turn at reading his journals as presented by Odell Shepard. While some of the metaphysical and esoteric writings went right over my head, much of his journals that Shepard chose to share were enlightening, especially his later somewhat prophetic writings on other writers around him such as Emerson and Thoreau.

Gaining perspective

West also believed that Bronson had trouble finding perspective on himself and lacked a sense of humor. It is unfortunate that it took so long for him to learn how to write so that others could understand what he meant. I believe that as he got older and experienced death and loss in his family, that he gained that perspective.

More to come!

My thanks again to Kristi for these notes. More to come as I discuss the presentations of Anne-laure François, John Matteson and Olivia Milch. Stay tuned!

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2 Replies to “Summer Conversational Series 2014: Bronson Alcott as the father of modern child psychology”

  1. While I agree that he had some forward thinking ideas when it came to his children and children as a whole, including education, I still see him as the Alcott villain and I am unsure if that shall ever change.

    I am, however, interested by your statement that you believe Abba was postpartum. Please explain. Reading the Abba’s writings I didn’t get that vibe.

    1. Oh dear, I’m afraid I used that word too loosely; I didn’t mean to say that she had a postpartum depression but just that the hormones were likely raging as they do after having babies. She was high strung already so I imaging it just added fuel to the fire. Bronson could be a lot more steady and didn’t appear to be rattled by small children. Then again, he had the luxury of just being with them without all the other domestic duties which Abba was expected to perform on her own.

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