Many things shaped Amos Bronson Alcott, both as a teacher and a transcendentalist. He is not very well known, in fact his daughter Louisa May Alcott is perhaps more widely known, yet he was one of the influences of the new ideas in education, his daughter and the transcendentalist movement via interactions with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. A deeper glimpse into the period of his life, his works and his accomplishments is fascinating.
Alcott grew from humble beginnings. He was born on November 29, 1799 to a flax farmer in Wolcott, Connecticut. He received no formal education in his young years, teaching himself to read and then subsequently reading anything he could get his hands on. He worked at various times as a farmer, factory worker in a clock factory and a peddler. At fifteen he left home to be a peddler, supposedly to add to the family's money, but ended up "four hundred dollars in debt" (http://www.alcott.net/alcott/home/biography.html). Thankfully this failure did not hold him from pursuing other goals later in his life.
At age 26 Alcott's teaching career began. His teaching method was grounded in his belief that knowledge and morals "spring from inner sources and it is the teacher's role to help these unfold in a beneficial way" (http://www.alcott.net/alcott/home/biography.html). He began to open schools based on his ideas and somewhat on a conversational technique of Socrates's. The classrooms included such unheard of subjects as art, music, nature study and physical education. His ideas were too ahead of the times, though, and he was forced to close many of these early schools because parents wouldn't allow their children to attend them.
With the growth of Transcendentalism, Alcott's ideas became more accepted. In truth Alcott was a heavy influence on the budding transcendentalist ideals. He lived as a transcendentalist before it became fashionable, so to speak. New England became rife with fresh intellectual views in the 1830's all the way through the 1860's. Ralph Waldo Emerson began publishing in 1841 with his first series of Essays. The second was published in 1844 and his poems were in print in 1846. Nathaniel Hawthorne also published in 1846 with Mosses from an Old Manse followed by The Scarlet Letter in 1850. Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, appeared in 1854. These fellow great minds, with Thoreau and Emerson being part of the transcendentalist movement as well, began to clear the air for Alcott's ideas (http://www.alcott.net/alcott/home/history.html).
Alcott's influence on Transcendentalism stemmed from his friendships with Emerson and Thoreau. He shared journals with Emerson while Emerson was writing Nature. These journals contained, of course, Alcott's thoughts and ideas, all very much transcendental. It is speculated that Alcott may have been the model for Emerson's American Scholar. He also touched Thoreau with his strong beliefs, which included nonviolent civil disobedience (although Alcott did not think of it in quite those terms, it was simply how he felt things should be done). Thoreau admired Alcott's arrest after Alcott's refusal to pay a tax he disagreed with, but was puzzled when Alcott referred to it as revolutionary. Obviously Thoreau eventually understood this, though, because he went on to practice civil disobedience at many different times. Yet if one takes the time to trace the lines of this movement, it began with Alcott. These influences and friends allowed Alcott to put into practice one of his beliefs.
In 1834 the Temple School was established. From 1834 to 1839 Alcott was able to freely practice his beliefs on correct teaching. Emerson supported the school, even giving donations of money. Alcott had two assistants for his school, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Margaret Fuller. Both women were acquainted with many of the foremost male intellectuals of the time. Elizabeth's sister Sophia married Nathaniel Hawthorne and she also had Emerson as a Greek teacher so it is obvious how she came to know Alcott. Margaret was also a good friend of Emerson's, as well as other leaders of the Transcendentalist movement. It is apparent that the trio of Alcott, Elizabeth and Margaret were well suited in temperament and social circles to run Alcott's school.
The Temple School embodied Alcott's teaching beliefs. As stated previously, he believed that learning was entirely from within the mind. Teachers should exist merely to guide the mind in the correct direction, encouraging it to think. Knowing Alcott's self-taught education, it is now apparent where these ideas may have risen from. He went so far as to even furnish the school in such a way as to promote intelligent thinking. Interestingly enough today's schools carefully choose the colors to paint their walls and the pictures to decorate their walls with. Although today's theorists tend to change their minds often as to what colors are best for learning.
Discussion was an integral part of Alcott's classroom. He was faced with the difficulty of a wide age range of pupils, yet this seemed to be an advantage in the descriptions from Peabody's Record of Mr. Alcott's School, Exemplifying the Principles and Methods of Moral Culture. The language lessons are perhaps the best example of this. All of the children gather around Alcott and a word is chosen. It is spelled and every student who can must raise their hand to define it and give any other thoughts that pertain to it. "This course" leads "often to disquisitions on the subject to which the word typically is applied" (http://moa.umdl.umich.edu/cgi/sgml/moa-idx?notisid=AGE1125 40). In this manner all of the students benefit. Spelling is studied, definitions are learned and with broad discussions many other lessons can begin. Although the Temple School closed in 1839, many of Alcott's methods are being re-evaluated today and are considered some of the best possible teaching methods. Some have even become mainstream techniques.
With the closing of his school Alcott was in debt. He turned to his friend Emerson for support. He lived in Concord and Alcott was also supported by other friends. Alcott's daughters attended Concord Academy and had John and Henry David Thoreau as teachers. He wrote many articles for the Dial, the transcendentalist periodical of the time. Even though he was accepted by this circle, his ideas were still considered eccentric at times and his essays could be unintelligible. Soon Alcott put another one of his ideas into practice.
In partnership with Englishman Charles Lane, Alcott founded a communal farm call "Fruitlands" in Harvard, Massachusetts. With this community Alcott wanted to improve on the ideas at Brook Farm. He attempted to put even the most extreme facets of his Transcendentalist, pacifist, vegetarian view into practice. Despite Alcott's insistence that only vegetables who's roots grew upward were planted, the members of Fruitlands truly sought to live a simple, intellectual life. Unfortunately this commune failed after only six months.
Miraculously undaunted by all of his defeats so far, Alcott returned to Concord and held what he called "Conversations." These conversations, really more like speeches, ranged in topic from philosophy, theology, and education to animal rights and vegetarianism. Vegetarianism was, in fact, one of Alcott's most solid beliefs. He actively supported animals' right to live in peace. Sylvester Graham, a health crusader, believed "animal flesh was an unnatural food for human beings," and Alcott firmly agreed with him (http://www.alcott.net/alcott/home/biography.html).
Alcott also believed in equality for Blacks. His house was actually part of the underground railroad. All of this was accomplished despite the poor financial state the Alcott family suffered. Bronson Alcott worked hard at everything he did, many things that didn't include intellectual pursuits, like chopping wood and building Emerson a summer house. Still financial troubles (and Alcott's failed teaching attempts and other failed projects) forced the family to move often. At one point they were living in Boston with Abigail May Alcott (Bronson's wife) working as a social worker and both of his daughters teaching while he gave his Conversations. Much to her credit Abigail fully supported her husband's idealistic lifestyle, claiming "she would rather live on acorns than compromise matters of principle, and that no amount of money could divert them from their purpose" (http://www.alcott.net/alcott/home/biography.html). Eventually the family ended up back in Concord.
Emerson again came to Alcott's aid by getting him appointed to Superintendent of Concord School system. This job paid only $100 a year, but Alcott again had a place to practice his beliefs in teaching. He immediately re-hauled the curriculum and actually retained his position there for six years. In the late 1800's Alcott's ideas truly became popularly accepted and he traveled some giving lectures. His wife passed away in 1877 and Alcott published Concord Days in her honor. At the age of eighty he established a school of philosophy in Concord for adults as a summer retreat. Alcott lived for another 9 years, although he suffered a stroke that paralyzed him in 1882. He died on March 4, 1888 in Boston.
Amos Bronson Alcott led a truly remarkable life. His examples and ideas are the root of many reforms, both social and educational. Alcott is a defining figure of his era. The unswerving dedication he displays to his ideals is inspiring to educators and truly anyone willing to simply take a glance at his life works.
Cohen, Rosetta Marantz and Samuel Scheer, eds. The Work of Teachers in America: A Social History Through Stories. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.
"Cultural Background." Amos Bronson Alcott Network. (no date): n. pag. Online. Netscape. 4 March 2001. http://www.alcott.net/alcott/home/history.html
"Life of Amos Bronson Alcott." Amos Bronson Alcott Network. (no date): n. pag. Online. Netscape. 4 March 20001. http://www.alcott.net/alcott/home/biography.html
Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer. Record of Mr. Alcott's School, Exemplifying the Principles and Methods of Moral Culture. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1874. MOA Bibliographic Citation. (no date): 40. Online. Netscape. 4 March 2001. http://moa.umdl.umich.edu/cgi/sgml/moa-idx?notisid=AGE1125
"(Sarah) Margaret Fuller (Ossoli), 1810-1850." Amos Bronson Alcott Network. (no date): n. pag. Online. Netscape. 4 March 2001. http://www.alcott.net/alcott/home/champions/Fuller.html