Bronson Alcott: Early American Progressive Educator

Written by Kerry Ellard on January 27, 2022

Amos Bronson Alcott was born in Connecticut in the last year of the eighteenth century, and would live to see nearly the entire nineteenth, with its many upheavals and exciting events. From young adulthood until his death in 1888, Alcott made his influence felt in the American intellectual and education reform scene.

Known as a teacher, writer, philosopher, and reformer, Alcott, who went by his middle name Bronson, was brilliant and charismatic. He was also chronically prone to utopian schemes, as satirized by one of his daughters, the novelist Louisa May Alcott.[1]

In his forays into education in the early nineteenth century, Alcott emphasized a conversational teaching style and avoided punishing students, especially physically. Alcott’s innovative methods and interests tended to stir up controversy and derail his plans, but he was always active and never at a loss for supporters.

Alcott was born into poverty and had barely any formal schooling. But he loved to learn, and while making a living as a traveling salesman.[2] Eventually, he returned to Connecticut to pursue teaching, using family connections to get a position at a school in Cheshire, CT.

“[Alcott] quickly set about reforming the school. He added backs to the benches on which students sat, improved lighting and heating, de-emphasized rote learning, and provided individual slates to each student—paid for by himself. Alcott had been influenced by the educational philosophy of the Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and even renamed his school ‘The Cheshire Pestalozzi School’.”[3]

While his interesting ideas attracted attention from notable people, as well as his future wife, Alcott struggled to keep his schools open in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. Alcott’s ideas, as well as his general eccentricity and opposition to discrimination based on sex or race, tended to make local parents uneasy.[4]

The Temple School

One of Alcott’s more successful ventures was in Boston. In 1834, he opened the Temple School, attended by about 30 students, mostly from wealthy families. Reading about the Temple School, we see some overlap with later progressive educators such as Dewey and Montessori.

“It was named the Temple School because classes were held at the Masonic Temple on Tremont Street in Boston…The school was briefly famous, and then infamous, because of his original methods. Before 1830, writing (except in higher education) equated to rote drills in the rules of grammar, spelling, vocabulary, penmanship and transcription of adult texts. However, in that decade, progressive reformers such as Alcott, influenced by Pestalozzi as well as Friedrich Fröbel and Johann Friedrich Herbart, began to advocate writing about subjects from students' personal experiences. Reformers debated against beginning instruction with rules and were in favor of helping students learn to write by expressing the personal meaning of events within their own lives. Alcott's plan was to develop self-instruction on the basis of self-analysis, with an emphasis on conversation and questioning rather than lecturing and drill, which were prevalent in the U.S. classrooms of the time. Alongside writing and reading, he gave lessons in "spiritual culture", which included interpretation of the Gospels, and advocated object teaching in writing instruction. He even went so far as to decorate his schoolroom with visual elements he thought would inspire learning: paintings, books, comfortable furniture, and busts or portraits of Plato, Socrates, Jesus, and William Ellery Channing…”[5]

It’s worth noting that around this same time, due to various trends associated with modernity, public education was, for the first time, being taken seriously by a small group of enthusiasts in America and Europe. They shared ideas and discussed texts by earlier and contemporary education theorists; some, including Alcott, wrote books of their own, and many started experimental schools.

Alcott employed women of noted intellectual ability to be his assistants at the Temple School. A quick tour of their bios gives a sense of what the education and intellectual scenes were like in Massachusetts during the 1830s and 1840s.

One of his assistants was Margaret Fuller, a well-educated Bostonian “known for translating German literature and bringing German Romanticism to the United States.” The same year the Temple School opened, her first published work, a response to historian George Bancroft, appeared in the North American Review. By her 30s (which coincided with the 1840s), she had earned a reputation “as the best-read person, male or female, in New England,” and she was the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard College.[6] Her intellectual abilities attracted the notice of prominent literary men, and by 1839, she had moved on from teaching, accepting an invitation by Ralph Waldo Emerson to edit his new magazine The Dial.[7]

Another was Mary Peabody Mann, the wife of Horace Mann, who taught French at the school. Her sister, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, also taught there (a third Peabody sister was married to Nathanial Hawthorne, and assisted Alcott with his book Conversations with Children on the Gospels).[8] Elizabeth Palmer Peabody later became known for opening the country’s first English-language kindergarten.[9]

Contrary to some modern education scholars, creative and child-focused education was not absent in the 19th-century U.S., as both Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s careers clearly demonstrate. Peabody “embraced the premise that children's play has intrinsic developmental and educational value,” and after the Temple School closed, she published Record of a School: Exemplifying the General Principles of Spiritual Culture, “outlining the plan of the school and Alcott's philosophy of early childhood education.”[10] (In addition to Record of a School, she went on to publish Kindergarten Culture, Kindergarten in Italy, Letters to Kindergarteners, and Lectures in the Training Schools for Kindergartners. [11])

Anticipation of Progressive Education

Other methods employed by Alcott clearly anticipate later progressive approaches in American education, especially of the Dewey-an variety, such as the idea of constant “conversations,” perhaps inspired by Margaret Fuller’s approach and the Concord lecture culture.[12] As scholar Bruce Bliven wrote back in 1964:

“Alcott’s attitude and technique were utterly different. He called his appearances ‘Conversations,’ and to some extent that is what they were. The solitary Emerson insisted on staying in hotels where he could be alone; Alcott demanded hospitality in private homes so he could talk all clay. The Conversations were held in someone’s front parlor, and rarely did more than eighteen or twenty persons attend. Members of the audience were invited to question him, but he was equally likely to question them and—unlike his behavior with Emerson—to listen eagerly to their replies.”[13]

Some of Alcott’s methods sound like caricatures of modern progressive education:

“Alcott was fundamentally and philosophically opposed to corporal punishment as a means of disciplining his students. Instead, beginning at the Temple School, he would appoint a daily student superintendent. When that student observed an infraction, he or she reported it to the rest of the class and, as a whole, they deliberated on punishment. At times, Alcott offered his own hand for an offending student to strike, saying that any failing was the teacher's responsibility. The shame and guilt this method induced, he believed, was far superior to the fear instilled by corporal punishment; when he used physical "correction" he required that the students be unanimously in support of its application, even including the student to be punished.”[14]

There are also Montessorian elements to his thinking about the education of young children, as well as practices common to American education today, his influence on which was historically overlooked.[15]

“The most detailed discussion of his theories on education is in an essay, "Observations on the Principles and Methods of Infant Instruction". Alcott believed that early education must draw out "unpremeditated thoughts and feelings of the child" and emphasized that infancy should primarily focus on enjoyment. He noted that learning was not about the acquisition of facts but the development of a reflective state of mind. Alcott's ideas as an educator were controversial. Writer Harriet Martineau, for example, wrote dubiously that, "the master presupposes his little pupils possessed of all truth; and that his business is to bring it out into expression".Even so, his ideas helped to found one of the first adult education centers in America, and provided the foundation for future generations of liberal education. Many of Alcott's educational principles are still used in classrooms today, including "teach by encouragement", art education, music education, acting exercises, learning through experience, risk-taking in the classroom, tolerance in schools, physical education/recess, and early childhood education.”[16]

Later Years

Unfortunately for Alcott and his talented assistants, many people found the school’s methods to be “close to blasphemous,” given that he “asked students to question if Biblical miracles were literal and suggested that all people are part of God.”[17] However, at the time, Massachusetts was undergoing a burst of religious radicalism and innovation, and Alcott was introduced to the Transcendentalist philosophical community. When the Temple School failed, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who led that community, gave him some land in Concord to live on, as well as financial support and career advice. Alcott spent much of the pre-Civil War years writing books and attempting to launch utopian communes, without much success.[18]

Nevertheless, and though it is hard to discern Alcott’s precise contribution, he had a significant and underappreciated impact on American education, philosophy, and culture more generally.[19] Bruce Bliven’s 1956 piece on Alcott, mentioned above, sums this up nicely:

“Alcott’s ideas of education were indeed novel. He had a mystic belief in the unconscious wisdom of the child, and often, instead of talking to his pupils, he asked them questions; those who saw him in action believed that he was genuinely seeking to share the wisdom of these babes, and not to impart his own knowledge to them. When a child needed reproof, his troubles were invariably aired before the whole school; Alcott believed in sharing.

Physical punishment was universal for boys in those days, and the schoolmaster accepted the tenets of the general culture, with some modification; when blows were to be struck, it was the miscreant who swung the rod and Alcott’s shoulders that were hit. He used somewhat the same principle in disciplining his daughters; if they were very naughty they were forbidden for a day to mind the baby or to help with the housework—no doubt a desolating punishment.

It should be said, in all fairness, that main of Alcott’s educational ideas are considered quite acceptable by some of our progressive educators today.”[20]

Further Reading on Alcott’s Educational and Cultural Influence

John Crouch, “Bronson Alcott's Experiment in Practical Transcendentalism,” American Transcendentalism Web.

Amy Belding Brown, Biography of Amos Bronson Alcott, American Transcendentalism Web.

Jean McClure Mudge “2.2 Dialogues with Self and Society, 1835-1860,” in Mr. Emerson's Revolution (Open Book Publishers, 2015), 119-166.

1. A great article on Alcott is Bruce Bliven, “Mama, They’ve Begun Again!,” American Heritage, Volume 16, Issue 1, December 1964 (“Emerson called [Alcott], but not to his face, “a pail with no bottom,” and agreed with the critic who said of his writing that it resembled “a train of fifteen cars with one passenger.” Seeking to make him less windy, Emerson told him, “You are tempted to linger around the idea in the hope that what cannot be stated in a few words may yet be suggested by many.” It was all in vain. Yet Alcott’s verbosity was not accompanied by intellectual arrogance—not toward Emerson, at any rate, whom he worshipped humbly as the greatest philosopher of his time…for many years both lectured for money, which was practically the village trade of Concord.”)

2. See Wikipedia contributors, "Amos Bronson Alcott," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Amos_Bronson_Alcott&oldid=1063247362 (accessed January 19, 2022) (“At age six, young Bronson began his formal education in a one-room schoolhouse in the center of town but learned how to read at home with the help of his mother. The school taught only reading, writing, and spelling and he left this school at the age of 10. At age 13, his uncle, Reverend Tillotson Bronson, invited Alcott into his home in Cheshire, Connecticut, to be educated and prepared for college. Bronson gave it up after only a month[ and was self-educated from then on. He was not particularly social and his only close friend was his neighbor and second cousin William Alcott, with whom he shared books and ideas…Starting at age 15, he took a job working for clockmaker Seth Thomas…At age 17, Alcott passed the exam for a teaching certificate but had trouble finding work as a teacher. Instead, he left home and became a traveling salesman in the American South, peddling books and merchandise. He hoped the job would earn him enough money to support his parents, "to make their cares, and burdens less ... and get them free from debt", though he soon spent most of his earnings on a new suit. At first, he thought it an acceptable occupation but soon worried about his spiritual well-being.”) Internal citations omitted.

3. Ibid.

4. See ibid. (“Remaining steadfast to his pedagogy, a forerunner of progressive and democratic schooling, he alienated parents in a later "parlor school" by admitting an African American child to the class, whom he then refused to expel in the face of protests.”) Emphases added.

5. Ibid. Internal citations omitted.

6. Fuller was largely taught at home, first by her father, then by herself, largely through reading. See Wikipedia contributors, "Margaret Fuller," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Margaret_Fuller&oldid=1064844877 (accessed January 19, 2022) (“On November 6, 1839, Fuller held the first of her Conversations, discussions among local women who met in the Boston home of the Peabodys. Fuller intended to compensate for the lack of women's education with discussions and debates focused on subjects including the fine arts, history, mythology, literature, and nature. Serving as the "nucleus of conversation", Fuller also intended to answer the "great questions" facing women and encourage women "to question, to define, to state and examine their opinions". She asked her participants, "What were we born to do? How shall we do it? Which so few ever propose to themselves 'till their best years are gone by".) Internal citations omitted.

7. Ibid. (“Emerson had met Fuller in Cambridge in 1835; of that meeting, he admitted: "she made me laugh more than I liked.") Men such as Alcott and Emerson also attended discussions hosted by Fuller. She also had close ties to Horace Greeley, Henry David Thoreau, and Edgar Allan Poe, among others, and also to many women in the literary and reform community, such as the Peabody sisters, Caroline Healey Dall, and Susan B. Anthony. Later, Fuller worked for the New-York Tribune, where she served as its first female editor, America’s first female war correspondent, and America’s first full-time literary reviewer of either sex. She died in a shipwreck in 1850, which was a shocking blow to her prominent friends, who did much to memorialize her. See Wikipedia contributors, "Amos Bronson Alcott" and Wikipedia contributors, "Elizabeth Peabody," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Elizabeth_Peabody&oldid=1058472345 (accessed January 19, 2022) (“[Elizabeth Palmer] Peabody was also the first translator into English of the Buddhist scripture the Lotus Sutra, translating a chapter from its French translation in 1844…”)

9. The kindergarten was opened in 1860. See ibid. (“When Peabody opened her kindergarten in 1860, the practice of providing formal schooling for children younger than six was largely confined to Germany. She had a particular interest in the educational methods of Friedrich Fröbel, particularly after meeting one of his students, Margarethe Schurz, in 1859. In 1867, she visited Germany for the purpose of studying Fröbel's teachings more closely. Through her own kindergarten, and as editor of the Kindergarten Messenger (1873–1877), Peabody helped establish kindergarten as an accepted institution in American education. She also wrote numerous books in support of the cause. The extent of her influence is apparent in a statement submitted to Congress on February 12, 1897, in support of free kindergartens: ‘The advantage to the community in utilizing the age from 4 to 6 in training the hand and eye; in developing the habits of cleanliness, politeness, self-control, urbanity, industry; in training the mind to understand numbers and geometric forms, to invent combinations of figures and shapes, and to represent them with the pencil—these and other valuable lessons… will, I think, ultimately prevail in securing to us the establishment of this beneficent institution in all the city school systems of our country.’”) Internal citations omitted.

10. Wikipedia contributors, "Elizabeth Peabody." Alcott’s philosophy had drawn on German methods that were popular at the time.

11. Ibid.

12. See n1, above. See also Martin Bickman, “Won’t You Come Home, John Dewey?,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2004(“If the kind of re-forming of education suggested here existed only in the pages of John Dewey, it would be one more utopian dream. But Dewey himself was able to realize many of his ideas in his laboratory school at the University of Chicago from 1896 to 1903. Indeed, there is an entire tradition of mediating this self-destructive conflict in schools, stretching from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “American Scholar” address to some of the more intellectually minded educators of the 1960s and ‘70s, like John Holt and George Dennison. There have been successful embodiments on a small scale, such as the schools of Bronson Alcott and of Henry and John Thoreau, bohemian schools such as the Walden School and the City & Country School, the First Street School of the 1960s and the schools created by Deborah Meier today.”) Emphases added. Alcott’s work also had commonalities with other strains of 20th century-progressive education. See, for example, Goodchild, L. (2012). G. Stanley Hall and an American Social Darwinist Pedagogy: His Progressive Educational Ideas on Gender and Race. History of Education Quarterly, 52(1), 62-98. doi:10.1111/j.1748-5959.2011.00373.x, which notes, in n84, that “This ideal of motherhood as a ‘holy mission’ was part of the Romantic and religious ideal for women in the nineteenth century, as espoused by Emerson, Alcott, and others—again being part of Hall's worldview and, for example, the leader of early kindergarten education Elizabeth Peabody…”

13. Bliven, “Mama, They’ve Begun Again!”

14. See Wikipedia contributors, "Amos Bronson Alcott." Internal citations omitted; emphases added.

15. See ibid. (“The teachings of William Ellery Channing a few years earlier had also laid the groundwork for the work of most of the Concord Transcendentalists.”) Internal citations omitted.

16. Ibid. Internal citations omitted; emphases added.

17. Ibid. (“In the Boston Daily Advertiser, Nathan Hale criticized Alcott's "flippant and off hand conversation" about serious topics from the Virgin birth of Jesus to circumcision. Joseph T. Buckingham called Alcott "either insane or half-witted" and "an ignorant and presuming charlatan". The book did not sell well… The temple school was widely denounced in the press. Reverend James Freeman Clarke was one of Alcott's few supporters and defended him against the harsh response from Boston periodicals. Alcott was rejected by most public opinion and, by the summer of 1837, he had only 11 students left and no assistant after Margaret Fuller moved to Providence, Rhode Island The controversy had caused many parents to remove their children and, as the school closed, Alcott became increasingly financially desperate.”) Internal citations omitted.

18. See ibid. The town of Concord, MA, is pronounced “conquered,” as in “Concord Grapes.” For more on Concord, see Bliven, “Mama, They’ve Begun Again!” (“Concord saw many other odd people in those days: champions of peculiar reforms in economics, diet, dress, bathing practices, and what not. Like a homing pigeon, every zealot with a fresh revelation instantly took it to Mr. Emerson, in the fond belief that if he would put his prestige behind it, the battle would be won.”)

19. Bliven, “Mama, They’ve Begun Again!” “In his later years, Alcott had some successes in the Middle West, then a pioneer society where men of ideas were a novelty; but there were exceptions. He had been invited to St. Louis to lecture to a small group of men, and the Conversation speedily got around to Hegel. Alcott had barely heard of the German philosopher, but confidently relied on his ability to spin an iridescent web of words that would bemuse his hearers. Not at all. This group knew an enormous amount about Hegel. They had studied every syllable of his works; they were engaged in translating them for publication. Poor Alcott was promptly cut to ribbons. Back home in Concord he tried to read a little Hegel, could make nothing of it, and gave it up as a bad job.Alcott always needed help; like a novice skater, he started to fall the moment you let go of him. He scorned money and money-makers so completely that he constantly had to borrow more of the loathsome commodity; it was not until he was sixty-nine that his daughter Louisa, thirty-six years old and shattered in health by haul work, heroically managed to write Little Women, enabling him to settle back contentedly on family bounty.”) Some insight into his approach to education may be found in how he raised his own children. See, for example, Amy Belding Brown, Biography of Amos Bronson Alcott, American Transcendentalism Web (“In his schools he introduced art, music, nature study, field trips, and physical education into the curriculum, while banishing corporal punishment. He encouraged children to ask questions and taught through dialogue and example. His daughter, Louisa, wrote of his methods: "My father taught in the wise way which unfolds what lies in the child's nature, as a flower blooms, rather than crammed it, like a Strasbourg goose, with more than it could digest”….Believing that the key to social reform and spiritual growth lay in the crucible of the family, Alcott instilled the values of self-reliance, self-sacrifice, and charity in his children from an early age. He promoted self-expression by nurturing his daughters' individual talents and encouraging them to keep journals. These journals were shared with other family members to foster openness of thought and feeling.”) Emphases added.

20. Ibid. Emphases added.

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.