The Shift in Massachusetts' Educational Philosophy

Written by Kerry Ellard on May 3, 2022


In earlier pieces, I discussed the common school/public school system of Massachusetts at length, and the general educational emphases associated with it. But the education of prominent 19th-century residents of antebellum Massachusetts, and their influence on late 19th-century educational developments, is worth a closer look. Many of those involved in education reforms were privately educated, tutored at home, and/or self-educated. Some grew up in rural areas without access to common schools, or preferred self-education to the early common schools, where corporal punishment and uncomfortable conditions were common. Others came from socially or economically privileged families, who were able to make private arrangements or homeschool.

In general, private tutoring, small private academies, home-schooling, and self-education were the norm, with promising young men of social standing continuing to Phillips Exeter and/or Harvard in their teenage years. Boston Latin, a public exam school that admitted academically promising young men from local families, was another option.

By young men, I mean students who were junior high- and high school-aged, in modern terms, who had completed their primary level education and were interested in pursuing higher education, probably at Harvard. The common school system, even after Horace Mann’s reforms, was designed to make primary level education as accessible as possible, but formal education at the secondary level was typically privately arranged, and much rarer.

Demand for such education did increase over the course of the nineteenth century, however. Small private experimental schools started popping up in the 1830’s, as part of the New England Transcendentalism movement (I refer to this as “Emersonian philosophy”). This movement reflected anxieties common to influential residents of Massachusetts who were passionate about education. See the below section on Transcendentalist Academies. Those associated with the movement displayed great pride and missionary zeal with regard to the state’s educational tradition and institutions, but at the same time expressed deep concern, often desperation, about its perceived inadequacies. The dynamic is best summarized as a fear that the approach had become legalistic or disconnected from present realities, failing to serve or perpetuate the spirit that originally animated the traditional practices.

Some of these inadequacies were related to a perceived unwillingness to pursue the highest potential of individuals or cultivate the full talents of the community, being too easily satisfied with the comfortable and enviable situation they had achieved, verging on complacency that could lead to ossification and vulnerability. Others were related to the preservation of their deepest values and social conditions.

“The younger generation [who reached adulthood in] the 1820s still grew up with the immediate accessibility of the nexus of founding and order in the form of living fathers; this same generation was of necessity thrown into an iden­tity crisis by experiencing the death of the fathers,” explained one scholar.

By the end of that decade, there were signs that these young people had experienced a “psychic blow” in losing “the assurance provided by their sense of the presence of leaders and an instituted order,”
particularly as mob violence increased. The national political crisis was exacerbated in Massachusetts by, among other things, the collapse of religious authority, and the defeat of President John Quincy Adams by Democrat Andrew Jackson in 1828, leading to a culturally anarchic environment in the 1830s and 1840s in which frantic innovation flourished.

In other words, the behaviors associated with Emerson and Transcendentalists were more of a symptom than a cause before 1850, and the underlying disorder gave rise to more than one symptom: “Many Americans were more or less attempting the emotional task Emerson had undertaken: that of incorporating the powers of the fathers who no longer seemed to be present, qua father, or minister, or state.”

Some individuals, especially those who had been aspiring members of the old social order, felt a responsibility to assume the burden of trying to replace "outer supportive structures of custom and institutions [that] had disappeared or lost imaginative authority.”
They were not trying to overthrow the existing order; in their eyes, it had already disintegrated, leaving them with no choice but to figure out how to get by on their own.

So, while reformers at this time are often seen as a self-undermining mix of conservatism and radicalism, or else blinkered utopians unable to see what they were setting in motion, it would be better to understand them as people who wanted to preserve the spirit of the past by translating the educational process (moral, institutional, and academic) into new forms—something done in response to a well-founded sense of being surrounded by rapid and destabilizing social changes. The nature of Massachusetts’ religious and cultural practices led many reformers toward a “theory of educated anarchy” that could address social, political, and individual educational needs simultaneously and allow for stability without a centralized authority.


“...for reasons that included a traditional belief in the moral authority of the ministry as well as a novel religious orientation, Channing and Parker [liberal Boston ministers] extended the theory of educated liberty American democrats had proposed as their definition of free institutions. They added one critically important injunction: educate with a scrupulous regard for the individual, and all life will then be educational. There was no other attitude consistent with their theology. Granting the transcendent importance of the individual, even schools geared to republican necessities were false institutions; only by restoring education to its root meaning could it be made to serve the human soul. But their theological commitment to pedagogical reform was also consistent with democratic attitudes.

A reformed popular education offered a way in which progress and morality might be served without force or coercion or political machinations; it promised to support liberty with liberty.”


This paved the way for more radical Transcendentalist approaches, which encourage casual and constant small-scale and self-selected experimentation among those within the tradition and attached to the institutions that embodied it, in an effort to discern its full potential and range of expression. Such reformers also wanted to improve upon existing traditions as much as possible, and modified ideas borrowed from European Romanticism, a contemporary movement.

It also led to attempts to expand the tradition to those who had not yet been integrated into it. More conservative and practically-minded reformers like Mann consciously attempted large-scale cultural assimilation of the poor and uneducated, immigrant or native, in order to prevent social strife. This perspective led him to pursue relatively rigid and bureaucratic approaches to providing a simple, civics-oriented primary education to children, one that could be scaled up quickly and broadly, by coercion if necessary. He "conceived of popular education as a vehicle carrying not only morality but truth itself to those who might otherwise neglect them.”

The decentralized “educated anarchy” of Emerson and Alcott was not for him, which Emerson interpreted in an 1839 journal entry as a lack of faith in individual potential and judgment: “[Mann is] full of the modern gloomy view of our democratical institutions, and hence the inference to the importance of schools."

Nevertheless, Mann was more a creature of 1830s Boston than of Prussia:


“...Mann thought in terms that were socially conservative yet pedagogically liberal...Mann criticized the Prussian monarchy for depriving its subjects of an opportunity to exercise their intellectual and moral faculties in elections, legislation, the conduct of public affairs, or the practice of religious freedom. He also predicted that a well-educated people would ultimately demand the right of self-government, and he pleaded with the king to liberalize his government rather than precipitate a revolution.

...Like most Democratic liberals, Mann anticipated an almost infinite human progress, guaranteed by free institutions and supported by public schools...his interest in the extension and improvement of public education led him increasingly to adopt liberal democratic sentiments...his career as an educational reformer, which converted him from an advocate of improved standards of instruction and school facilities to an avowed proponent of democracy, foreshadowed a development that affected educational reform throughout the country. Once the possibilities of educational reform had been recognized, in a society which prided itself on its free institutions, it could not help but serve democratic rather than conservative purposes.”


To get a sense of the educational environment and how it evolved in the middle of all this change, it is useful to look at a handful of people and schools that coexisted within it:

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, born in Cambridge in 1809, to one of Boston’s most respectable families, first attended the Port School, a select and co-educational private academy in Cambridge, alongside Margaret Fuller.

The students’ age range seems to have been approximately 8-12. This was probably considered the equivalent of a primary school education, and in the case of students like Holmes, it was usually preceded by being taught to read at home and several years of exploring the family library.
From there on, schools were usually single-sex, with young women receiving more of a finishing-school education during their teenage years. Young men, if they had not been admitted to Boston Latin and did not need to drop out and work for a living, prepared to enter college between the ages of fifteen and twenty, after a course of tutoring or “prep school.”

In Holmes’s case, his father sent him to the most prominent prep school, Phillips Academy in Andover, at age fifteen. Phillips prepared students to succeed at the entrance exam for Harvard College, and was known for its orthodox Calvinist teachings, also in line with Harvard’s culture.

In other words, it was considered a feeder school for Harvard, just as Boston Latin was, and usually a single year of preparation was sufficient to secure admission. Holmes’s father hoped his eldest son would follow him into the ministry, but Oliver was not on board with that plan, or with the culture of Phillips Academy.

“Although he achieved distinction as an elected member of the Social Fraternity, a literary club, he disliked the ‘bigoted, narrow-minded, uncivilized’ attitudes of most of the school's teachers. One teacher in particular, however, noted his young student's talent for poetry, and suggested that he pursue it. Shortly after his sixteenth birthday, Holmes was accepted by Harvard College.”


There, Holmes received a liberal arts education.

While he later became known in Boston for his literary talent and social prominence, at Harvard he trained as a physician, and following graduate he practiced medicine, even pursuing further studies in France and publishing ground-breaking work on puerperal fever. He also spent many years as a professor and dean at Harvard Medical School, but today, he is probably best known as the father of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932. The younger Holmes, born in Boston in 1841, appears to have followed a similar educational path.

In antebellum Boston, even the most privileged, academically inclined students who went onto to become great scholars tended to have mixed feelings about the rare educational opportunities they were offered. Even John Adams, born in Quincy (then known as Colonial Braintree) all the way back in 1735, skipped school and tried to drop out upon reaching the age when it was legal for him to do so. His father flatly refused to let him, and Adams entered Harvard at age sixteen.


Perhaps because of this, many of these men showed a consistent interest in educational reform throughout their adult lives. In his later years, Dr. Holmes, like his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, was excited by some of the recent reforms that had been made at Harvard since Charles W. Eliot had become president in 1869. Approving the medical school's new emphasis on the practical and experiential, Holmes praised Eliot for turning Harvard “over like a flapjack.” Holmes’s last public appearance was at a National Education Association reception that was held in Boston in 1893.

He appeared in his capacity as a noted poet, presenting his latest work, “To the Teachers of America.”

Margaret Fuller

Born in Cambridge in 1810, Margaret Fuller was taught by her father, a classically educated congressman and former schoolteacher, to read and write at the age of three and a half. He went on to offer her “an education as rigorous as any boy's at the time and forbade her to read the typical feminine fare of the time, such as etiquette books and sentimental novels."

He also taught her Latin and his extremely high standards were a source of anxiety.

However, as mentioned above, Fuller did attend formal school, starting with two years at the co-educational Port School in 1819, when she was nine, alongside Holmes. She then spent two years at the Boston Lyceum for Young Ladies. At age fourteen, she was sent to the School for Young Ladies in Groton, leaving after only two years. At home, she studied the classics, trained herself in several modern languages, and read widely. She did not feel that she was cut out for the life expected of a woman in antebellum Boston, and hoped to be a professional writer, but her father’s unexpected death in 1835 led the independent-minded 25-year-old to assume the position of head of the family and scramble to support herself, her mother, and her younger siblings. In 1836, Fuller was given a job teaching at Bronson Alcott's Temple School in Boston, where she remained for a year. She then accepted an invitation to teach at the Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island, in April 1837, with friends having secured her the unusually high salary of $1,000 per year.

By her 30s, Fuller became possibly the most well-read woman in Boston at this time, and a noted translator of German literature. She used her knowledge to give private lessons based on the teaching style of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who had also taught at Alcott’s school. Now deeply involved in the Transcendentalist movement and respected by Emerson, Fuller arguably became America’s first female public intellectual, magazine editor, and newspaper reporter. Tragically, she died in a shipwreck in 1850 after several years in Italy, but the situation for young girls and women with intellectual aspirations in the Boston area had certainly improved by that time, in part due to Fuller’s own efforts and example.


The innovation she was most remembered for was her “Conversations” discussions, attended by a small group of socially respectable female intellectuals in Boston starting in 1839. They met in the Peabody home, where Fuller showed off the brilliant conversational skills that would soon make her famous among Boston elites and the northeastern literati more generally.


“Fuller intended to compensate for the lack of women's [formal higher] 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". In Conversations, Fuller was finally finding equal intellectual companions among her female contemporaries.”


One of these was Sophia Ripley, born in 1803, who in the 1840s was part of the Transcendentalist-associated utopian community called Brook Farm in West Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston. She and her Harvard-educated husband George moved to the community, along with George’s brother and his wife Marianne Ripley. Sophia and Marian “oversaw Brook Farm's primary school using a progressive child-centered pedagogy that has been compared to the later reforms of John Dewey.” She was a practiced educator, as “her father traveled abroad often and left his daughters to fend for themselves,” so at age 20, while he was away, she and her sisters decided to earn their own living by teaching. They opened a girls’ school in Cambridge, with Sophia serving as the principal teacher.


Frank Sanborn’s Concord School

"Transcendentalist Academies,” the more practical descendants of the Brook Farm experiment, were run by people who subscribed to what we’d call progressive ideas about education in the period between 1830 and 1870. They were almost all located in eastern Massachusetts, many of them in Concord, with a few in Boston or Cambridge. They were small private schools, attended by the children of open-minded community leaders. The founders and schoolteachers were normally well-educated, self-employed “freestylers” who didn’t stay in one job long, but the values their schools promoted were visible in their other endeavors, and sustained a culture where such experiments were constantly being made. The most famous are A. Bronson Alcott’s Temple School and Frank Sanborn’s Concord School.

Franklin Benjmain Sanborn was a well-connected political activist, abolitionist, Transcendentalist writer, journalist, and intellectual born in New Hampshire in 1831. After a year of private tutoring and a year at Phillips Exeter Academy, he was admitted to Harvard, and graduated in 1855, at which time he moved to Concord and set up a school, apparently running it out of a house he was renting.

By 1859, Bronson Alcott would note in his journal that Sanborn, who he described as a scholar, ”sensible and manly,” and commanding the respect of all who know him, had “a popular and prosperous school here, and attracts scholars from good families.

The school was co-educational, which was still controversial at the time for students who had reached adolescence. That at least some of the students were from out-of-town and boarded at the school may have exacerbated this concern.


The highly-educated and innovative Transcendentalist elite that congregated in Concord was perhaps the group most interested in progressive education at the time, and they certainly were the most dedicated to the experiment, by funding it and enrolling their own children. They shared a distaste for physical punishment and believed in lifelong, experiential learning, and believed in cultivating self-reliant and socially responsible adults by encouraging creativity, questioning, debate, independent thought, and self-expression.


The school must have been something special, as both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horace Mann enrolled their own children. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s children Edward and Edith were about ten and thirteen, respectively, upon the school’s founding, and attended it for most of their teenage years. Horace Mann, Jr. seems to have done the same, while pursuing nature studies with Henry David Thoreau in his spare time.


Five years after the school opened, when Nathanial Hawthorne’s family returned from a long stay in Europe, he enrolled his fourteen-year-old son Julian, but not his teenage daughters. (The co-educational dances held by the school were particularly upsetting to Mrs. Hawthorne). This recalls the problem Alcott faced in abandoning traditional methods for experimental ones: even open-minded parents from similar backgrounds found they disagreed over exactly where to draw such lines.


In these three examples, we see how the educational tradition in Massachusetts was becoming both more democratic and more focused on promoting the fullest expression of individual potential. Reformers and thinkers reacted to social change and restrictions by pioneering more active and collaborative approaches to education. However, while they were in agreement that existing practices were inadequate, their proposed solutions were not identical and often tentative. As a result, this creative energy proved difficult to institutionalize. Striking the right balance between innovation and practicality continues to pose challenges to American education reformers.


  1. Excerpt from the English translation of Jürgen Gebhardt, Americanism: Revolutionary Order and Societal Self-interpretation in the American Republic (United Kingdom: Louisiana State University Press, 1993). I do not agree with all of Gebhardt’s analysis, but I think he is correct in his characterization of this situation.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Rush Welter, Popular Education and Democratic Thought in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.)
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. See ibid. (“One outgrowth of this agitation was Emerson's Transcendentalism, which broke completely with orthodox traditions in social theory and repudiated every influence that one man might attempt to exercise over another. Another outgrowth, however, was Horace Mann's work as an educational reformer...stressing the proposition that knowledge is power for good or evil according to the moral framework in which it is presented, Mann...insisted that the common schools practice self-government. ‘He who has been a serf until the day before he is twenty-one years of age,’ he wrote in 1845, ‘cannot be an independent citizen the day after...As the fitting apprenticeship for despotism consists in being trained to despotism, so the fitting apprenticeship for self-government consists in being trained to self-government.’”)
  10. Ibid.
  11. "Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.," Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Oliver_Wendell_Holmes_Sr.&oldid=1079054322. Before entering the Port School, Holmes studied under Dame Prentiss and William Bigelow. See ibid.
  12. See ibid.
  13. See ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid. (Internal citations omitted).
  16. Ibid.
  17. See ibid., ”Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.,” Biography, April 2, 2014, https://www.biography.com/law-figure/oliver-wendell-holmes-jr.
  18. "John Adams," Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Adams&oldid=1080177731. (“Adams, as the eldest child, was compelled to obtain a formal education. This began at age six at a dame school for boys and girls, conducted at a teacher's home, and was centered upon The New England Primer. Shortly thereafter, Adams attended Braintree Latin School under Joseph Cleverly, where studies included Latin, rhetoric, logic, and arithmetic. Adams's early education included incidents of truancy, a dislike for his master, and a desire to become a farmer. All discussion on the matter ended with his father's command that he remain in school: "You shall comply with my desires." Deacon Adams hired a new schoolmaster named Joseph Marsh, and his son responded positively.”)
  19. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.," Wikipedia.
  20. Ibid.
  21. "Margaret Fuller," Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Margaret_Fuller&oldid=1075756937.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid. While people found her eccentric personality and unconventional lifestyle polarizing, there is no doubt that Fuller was perceived as one of the most intellectually interesting and vivacious women in American literary circles. Edgar Allan Poe called one of her books "a book which few women in the country could have written, and no woman in the country would have published, with the exception of Miss Fuller", noting its "independence" and "unmitigated radicalism". Henry David Thoreau also praised it, especially its "rich extempore writing, talking with pen in hand,” ”suggesting that its strength came in part from Fuller's conversational ability.“ Susan B. Anthony and Caroline Healey Dall found her an inspiration to women, and Walt Whitman drew inspiration from her call to create uniquely American literature. Emerson, who hired her to edit his new journal on Transcendentalism, said that when they first met, "she made me laugh more than I liked,” and referred to her as ”my vivacious friend.” See ibid.
  24. Ibid. (Internal citations omitted).
  25. Sophia Ripley," Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sophia_Ripley&oldid=1068464379.
  26. See Franklin Benjamin Sanborn," Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Franklin_Benjamin_Sanborn&oldid=1078207253; "Mother Mary Alphonsa," Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mother_Mary_Alphonsa&oldid=1072921178. Mother Mary Alphonsa was the adult name of one of the Hawthornes’ daughters. Ibid.
  27. See "George Luther Stearns," Wikipedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=George_Luther_Stearns&oldid=1070033637. Possibly only boys were allowed to enroll as boarders, or arrangements may have been made for girls to board with local families. Both practices seem to have been fairly common at the time.
  28. See, for example, "Mother Mary Alphonsa," Wikipedia.
    60.", Concord Library, https://concordlibrary.org/special-collections/emerson-celebration/Em_Con_60.

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.