Alcott, Bronson (1799-1888)

views updated May 23 2018

Alcott, Bronson (1799-1888)

Born November 29, 1799, in Wolcott, Connecticut, Amos Bronson Alcott (known as Bronson) was an educator, author, child psychologist, reformer, self-styled conversationalist, lecturer, and transcendental philosopher. He formulated an innovative approach to education and revised traditional assumptions about childhood. However, Alcott's strongest legacy is the formative impressions he made on his betterremembered daughter, Louisa May Alcott, and his many friends, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Often characterized by historians as a dreamy, vague, ineffectual man, Alcott's greatest crime may have been poor writing. Although he was a great conversationalist and public speaker, his intimate companions proved more able to communicate his principles in writing.

Alcott grew up in rural poverty; his schooling began with charcoal letters on the floor and formally ended at age thirteen. Afterward he found employment as a peddler and journeyed to the South before returning to Connecticut to work as a schoolteacher in 1823. His early educational innovations included beautifying the schoolroom with pictures and tree branches, adding physical exercise to intellectual exertions, and developing his students' reasoning capacities rather than their memorization skills. Alcott found support in the educational reforms proposed by Johann Pestalozzi in Switzerland and Robert Owen in England. Yet his ideas were not well received by local parents, who withdrew their students from his school, forcing him into itinerant teaching after 1827.

In 1830 Alcott married Abigail May, the reform-minded daughter of a socially prominent New England family. At the birth of their first daughter, Anna, in 1831, Alcott started a journal of infant observation. He continued his scrutiny of Anna and her younger sisters for five years, filling over fifty journals. He concluded that children were born with intuitive wisdom and the potential for good; it was the responsibility of parents and educators to elicit children's innate morality and to develop their self-knowledge, self-control, and self-reliance. Alcott's effort to understand child development have earned him a reputation as the first child psychologist.

To put his philosophy into practice, Alcott opened the Temple School in Boston in 1834. The Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing supported the project and persuaded many elite families to enroll their children. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who later founded the American kindergarten movement, assisted. Alcott tried to elicit his students' inner wisdom through silent study, physical exercise, journal writing, and Socratic conversations. He limited corporal punishment; nonetheless, he was a stern disciplinarian, working on his students' consciences rather than their fearstwice he even had students hit him to evoke their contrition. His school was initially popular, but when Alcott published his Conversations with Children on the Gospels (1836-1837), many were shocked by his unconventional approach to religion and withdrew their children from his classroom. His admission of a black student the following year lost Alcott the remaining pupils, and the school failed.

In 1840 Alcott moved to Concord to be close to his friends Emerson and Hawthorne. He engaged in many projects before his death in 1888, but few were successful. Alcott's utopian community Fruitlands (1843-1844) attracted many visitors but quickly fell apart. His books had few readers, although his speaking tours were popular. He depended on his wife and daughters for economic support, especially after the success of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), the text that best captures his ideas.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Little Women and Louisa May Alcott.


Dahlstrand, Frederick C. 1982. Amos Bronson Alcott, an Intellectual Biography. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

McCuskey, Dorothy. 1940. Bronson Alcott: Teacher. New York: Macmillan.

Strickland, Charles. 1969. "A Transcendentalist Father: The Child-rearing Practices of Bronson Alcott." Perspectives in American History 3: 5-73.

Rachel Hope Cleves

Amos Bronson Alcott

views updated Jun 11 2018

Amos Bronson Alcott

Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), the most brilliant and visionary American educator of his time, was also the most extreme of the New England transcendentalists.

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. 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. 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.

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. Alcott treated the children as adults through such devices as the honor system, and he led them to discover their personal views through constant use of the Socratic dialogue. But the picture of Alcott gently questioning a 6-year-old about infinity or punishing himself 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. His philosophy was eclectic. 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 Fruitlands (a cooperative community which 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 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.

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. Besides writing on education, he contributed mystical "Orphic Sayings" to the transcendentalist magazine, the Dial, and published poetry and reflective essays.

Thomas Carlyle caught the flavor of 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."

Further Reading

There is little current work on Alcott, with the notable exception of The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, edited by Richard L. Herrnstadt (1969). The only adequate biography is Odell Shepard, Pedlar's Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott (1937), which corrects and extends the memoir of Alcott by F.B. Sanborn and William T. Harris, A. Bronson Alcott: His Life and Philosophy (1893; repr. 1965). The former can be supplemented by Hubert H. Hoeltje, Sheltering Tree: A Story of the Friendship of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Amos Bronson Alcott (1943). Alcott as an educator is treated in Dorothy McCuskey, Bronson Alcott, Teacher (1940).

Additional Sources

Dahlstrand, Frederick C., Amos Bronson Alcott, an intellectual biography, Rutherford N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1982. □

Alcott, (Amos) Bronson

views updated Jun 27 2018

Alcott, (Amos) Bronson (1799–1888) US philosopher, teacher and reformer, father of Louisa May Alcott. A leading figure in transcendentalism, Alcott helped found the utopian community of Fruitlands, Massachusetts.

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