Amos Bronson Alcott: Visionary Educator with Spirit of Reform

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Amos Bronson Alcott

Amos Bronson Alcott was a visionary American educator, philosopher, and reformer. He is considered the most extreme of the New England transcendentalists. Despite his lack of formal education, Alcott believed in stimulating thought and awakening the soul in children through gentle conversation and honoring their inner voice. His unorthodox methods, however, often led to the closure of his schools. Yet, he is credited with establishing the first progressive school in America and influencing educational practices.

Amos Bronson Alcott's early life

Bronson Alcott was born near Wolcott, Conn., on Nov. 29, 1799. His was an old New England family which had fallen on hard times, with the result that Alcott received only scanty schooling. He was the self educated son of a poor farmer. However, he educated himself through much of his long life. He early discovered that he wanted to educate others, and he traveled as far away as Virginia to seek a post.

He traveled in the South as a peddler before establishing a series of schools for children. Unsuccessful there as elsewhere, he turned to peddling in Virginia and the Carolinas. After his return to New England in 1823, he spent the next decade in a variety of teaching positions and seldom stayed long in any one place.

Amos Bronson Alcott

The school system in the United States and Amos Bronson Alcott

The school system in the United States at this time was marked by narrowness and rigidity, stressing memorization and discipline. Alcott felt that the basic impulses in the human being were noble ones and that education should consist in freeing the child from restrictions and giving full rein to his imagination.

Education should encourage the child mentally, morally, spiritually, esthetically, and physically. For Alcott, the body was as important as the mind, so he introduced into his classes such innovations as organized play and gymnastics; he also tried to introduce the study of human physiology.

As a transcendentalist

Bronson Alcott aimed to stimulate thought and awaken the soul; his method was conversational, courteous, and gentle. Questions of discipline were referred to the class as a group. The feature of his school that attracted the most attention, perhaps, was his scheme for the teacher’s receiving punishment, in certain circumstances, at the hands of an offending pupil, whereby the sense of shame might be instilled in the mind of the errant child.

Alcott treated the children as adults through such devices as the honor system, and he led them to discover their personal views through the constant use of the Socratic dialogue. But the picture of Alcott gently questioning a 6-year-old about infinity or punishing him when a child misbehaved was enough to startle any school board, and it is no wonder he became an educational nomad. If school boards found him shocking, the members of the emerging transcendentalist movement found him admirable though at times exasperating.

Philosophy of Amos Bronson Alcott

Amos Bronson Alcott’s philosophy was eclectic. His educational theories owed something to J.H. Pestalozzi, the Swiss reformer, but more to the examples of Socrates and the Gospels. To the Quaker idea of inner vision, he added the idea of intuitive knowledge; he adopted the notion of preexistence; he believed that spirit was the only reality and that man’s everyday world was merely an emanation of it; and he permeated this mystic philosophy with a feeling that was close to the ecstatic. He proved to be more Emersonian than even Ralph Waldo Emerson (the leading transcendentalist). The transcendentalists as a group were often accused of being visionary and impractical; Alcott was the personification of those qualities.

His impracticality showed in his family life. Married in 1830, he soon fathered a large family for which he could never provide. Besides school teaching, he attempted a bit of farming, a brief stint in communal living at Fruit lands (a cooperative community that he helped found near Harvard, Mass.), itinerant lecturing in the guise of paid conversations in the Socratic mode, and some writing. But it was not till he was an elderly man that his family’s financial plight was relieved when his daughter Louisa May Alcott published Little Women, a best seller.

Alcott's achievement

Amos Bronson Alcott‘s achievement lay in establishing the first “progressive school” in America, in Boston’s Masonic Temple. The Record of a School, Exemplifying the General Principles of Spiritual Culture (1835) consists of his observations there as edited by his assistant, Elizabeth Peabody. The school lasted till 1839 despite Alcott’s notoriously unorthodox methods. The blow that killed the school was his enrollment of a Negro girl. These innovations were not widely accepted, and before he was 40 he was forced to close his last school, the famous Temple School in Boston, and sell its contents to ease his debts.

In 1842 with money from Ralph Waldo Emerson he visited England, where a similar school founded near London was named Alcott House in his honor. He returned from England with a kindred spirit, the mystic Charles Lane, and together they founded a short-lived utopian community, Fruitland’s, in Massachusetts.

 In 1859 Alcott’s friends got him appointed superintendent of the public schools of Concord, Mass., the native home of transcendentalism. Though he remained as innovative as ever, Concord had become tolerant and allowed him to do a good job. In 1879 he started the Concord Summer School of Philosophy and Literature for adults, which carried on until his death.

Writing and other works

Amos Bronson Alcott published several books later in life, including Tablets (1868), a collection of aphorisms, Concord Days  (1872), with essays about his life in Concord, and Sonnets and Canzonets (1882), a poetry collection. He also wrote an autobiographical poem titled New Connecticut (1881). Besides writing on education, he contributed Orphic Sayings to the transcendentalist magazine, the Dial, and published poetry and reflective essays. These writings were considered mystical and vague by some critics.

Personality of Amos Bronson Alcott

Thomas Carlyle caught the flavor of Amos Bronson Alcott’s unique personality: “The good Alcott; with his long, lean face and figure, with his worn gray temples and mild, radiant eyes; all bent on saving the world by a return to acorns and the golden age; he comes before one like a venerable Don Quixote, whom nobody can laugh at without loving.”

Alcott was a vegetarian, an Abolitionist, and an advocate of women’s rights; his thought was vague, lofty, and intensely spiritual. Always poor or in debt, he worked as a handyman or lived on the bounty of others until the literary success of his second daughter, Louisa May Alcott, brought him financial security. The best of Alcott’s writing is available in The Journals of Bronson Alcott (1938), selected and edited by Odell Sheppard.

Death

Amos Bronson Alcott died on March 4, 1888, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was 88 years old. Interestingly, his daughter, the famous author Louisa May Alcott, passed away just two days later. Bronson Alcott was a visionary educator who believed in stimulating children’s thoughts and freeing them from restrictions. His methods were too progressive for his time and led to the closure of his schools.

Read further article: Patricia Bowman

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