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Transcendentalism and Education

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This essay originally appeared in The Ideal in the West, by David A. Beardsley  (

Another area in which the influence of the Concord Idealists is still felt is that of education.  The approach they brought to it is a logical outcome of the views we have seen regarding the soul; the self of each person and its immortality.

This in turn is derived from the view of Socrates, who of course also believed in the immortality of the soul.  In The Meno he attempts to demonstrate that at least some of the knowledge we exhibit in our lives comes from experiences we have had in previous ones, especially knowledge of virtues and the unchanging such as seen in mathematics.

 “…since the soul is immortal and often born, having seen what is on earth and within the house of Hades, and everything, there is nothing it has not learnt; so there is no wonder it can remember about virtue and other things, because it knew about these before.  For since all nature is akin, and the soul had learnt everything, there is nothing to hinder a man, remembering one thing only–which men call learning–from himself finding out all else, if he is brave and does not weary in seeking; for seeking and learning is all remembrance.¹”

Just as the the Idealists were consistent with this belief derived from Plato (and their own experience), it should be remembered that the state of education in the early 19th century was consistent with the prevailing Calvinist religious views of the time.  This held that since humans were afflicted with original sin, children were even worse and had to be disciplined with corporal punishment: “Spare the rod and spoil he child.”  Teachers were expected to administer beatings as part of the job.  Robert Richardson, in his biography of Henry David Thoreau, talks about Thoreau’s first job after graduating from Harvard, in the Concord Public Schools: “A famous anecdote tells how one of the Concord school board members, Nehemiah Ball, went one day to observe Thoreau’s teaching, called him into the hall, and reprimanded him for not using the cane.  Stung and angered past self-possession, the impulsive twenty-year-old teacher went back into the classroom, picked out six students at random–rather as one deals with a mutiny in the army–and proceeded to beat them.  He then quit the job.  It was all terribly sudden.  His entire career in the public schools was auspiciously launched and catastrophically concluded before a month had passed since commencement.²”  If this was the case in “enlightened” Concord, one can only imagine conditions elsewhere.

Although there was an effort to make education universal, for most children subjects were limited to the very utilitarian–the three R’s–and learning was done purely by rote.  Classrooms were very spare and, especially in rural areas, children of different ages were all crammed together into the proverbial one-room schoolhouse.  By contrast, the approach of the Idealists is summed up well in a passage from Emerson’s essay, “Education:”

     I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret. By your tampering and thwarting and too much governing he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions. Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude.

The figures who were most central to the change from education by fear to education with love were Amos Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who for a time in the early 1830’s collaborated in the experiment known as the Temple School.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, 1804-1894
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, 1804-1894

Peabody was born into a prominent New England family, just about a year after Emerson’s birth.  She had two sisters who were also accomplished in their own right: Sophia was an artist who married Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mary Tyler, an author who shared Elizabeth’s interest in childhood education and later married the educator Horace Mann.  Elizabeth never married, and was in many ways a model for the independent woman of that time or any other.  Among other ventures, she started a bookstore in Boston which became a salon and meeting-place for people interested in the “new ideas,” and which also hostessed Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations.”  She was also for a time the publisher of “The Dial,” the circle’s attempt at producing a magazine.

Amos Bronson Alcott, 1799-1888
Amos Bronson Alcott, 1799-1888

Bronson Alcott was born in 1799, and entirely self-educated.  He was not born into the Concord circle but was adopted by it, especially Emerson, starting in 1835. His remarkable career of failures has been well-documented, and won’t be repeated here, but his adherence to his own vision of the Ideal in the face of it is just as remarkable. Robert Richardson says of him, “Alcott now and for the rest of his life believed that the world of spirit is the only real world, and like William Blake he lived almost entirely in that world.³” He was apparently a remarkable presence and an entrancing speaker, but as was the case with Margaret Fuller (“My voice excites me; my pen never.”), this did not translate into good writing. However, this does not seem to have concerned him in the least.4

Title Page for "The General Principles of Spiritual Culture" by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
Title Page for “The General Principles of Spiritual Culture” by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

Had he been a better writer, and also not so focused on children (still a good way to doom yourself to obscurity), he might have had an equal stature with Emerson and Thoreau.  Now of course he is known mostly as the father of Louisa May Alcott.  But reading the books which Elizabeth Peabody published as records of his methods at the Temple School, his approach still comes through as radical.  He actually asks questions of the children, and then takes seriously their answers–especially on the subjects of God and the spirit (which of course would never be allowed today).

It would be rather easy to cherry-pick some quotes from these books as evidence of the remarkable insights the children can express when given the opportunity and the safe environment, but a real appreciation for his method comes only upon reading a number of the conversations.  These are still most easily available in a reissue of Alcott’s Conversations with Children on the Gospels, which was edited and reissued in 1991 by Alice O. Howell under the title How Like and Angel Came I Down.  She offers this assessment of Alcott’s work in her introduction:

Alcott pioneered the idea of nonsectarian “spiritual culture” of children.  We must not be deceived by the titles of his work into thinking that he was teaching Sunday School.  He was not.  He was applying a methodology of teaching used both by Socrates and Jesus Christ: the dialogue.  For this Alcott was accused both of heresy and blasphemy.  However, he was the first American teacher to have apprehended what Jung later was to call the “Collective Unconscious.” “The world of the Spirit is the inward life of all things,” is the way Alcott put it.  And he felt that young children, not yet cut off, had ready access to it.  For him, as for Wordsworth, the child came “trailing clouds of glory.”  Exposing them to those words of wisdom found in the works of the great philosophers and in the Gospels of the New Testament, he thought, would prove how we limit children by not grasping that the soul dwells, in part, always connected to the realm beyond time or space that we call eternity or what we recognize today as the unus mundus.  The remarkable results of the experiment are the content of this book.5

It’s unfortunate that sectarianism still prevails so completely that a school of this sort is difficult to imagine today, at least in the public sector.  But the spirit of Alcott and Peabody and others who worked with them still comes through in the attempts by schools to accommodate and teach all children of different backgrounds and different capabilities.  And even though educators are always under extreme pressure to teach only those things that can be readily tested and quantified, those who attempt to educe the spiritual qualities of compassion, creativity and self-realization are carrying on the work in which Alcott and Peabody labored in such obscurity.

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¹Plato, The Meno, from The Complete Texts of Great Dialogues of Plato, W.H.D. Rouse, trans., New American Library, 1970

²Robert D. Richardson Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, University of California, 1986, p. 5.

³Robert D. Richardson Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire, University of California, 1995, p. 212

4 Thoreau says of Alcott in Walden: His words and attitude always suppose a better state of things than other men are acquainted with, and he will be the last man to be disappointed as the ages revolve.  He has no venture in the present.  But though comparatively disregarded now, when his day comes, laws unsuspected by most will take effect and masters of families and rulers will come to him for advice.–“How blind that cannot see serenity!”

5 A. Bronson Alcott, How Like an Angel Came I Down, edited by Alice O. Howell, Lindisfarne, 1991, p. xviii

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