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Transcendental Ideas: Education

American Transcendentalists as Teachers of their Times

Krystyna Grocholski, Virginia Commonwealth University

Almost all transcendentalists, among them Ralph Walso Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, and Amos Bronson Alcott, were, at one time or another, teachers. Their teaching experiences provided them with hands-on knowledge about the problems of the American education, and gave them a basis for seeking solutions to those problems.

The years of 1830s and 1840s in America were times of reformers who, full of enthusiasm, wanted to make their society a better one. Some of the reformers understood their vocation in a very specific way. Among them was T. S. Arthur, an expert in rum demonology, who wrote a book Ten Nights in a Beer Room. He hoped that his novel would help establish a temperate society (alcohol abuse was a problem then), and at the same time raise level of literacy. An anti-alcohol movement  (The American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, founded.1826), and the movement for the promotion of the tax-supported system of free primary schools available to all students, originated in a Protestant dream of a perfect society. Soon a net of so-called "little red schoolhouses" was established as a mean of reaching that perfection through education, and Catholics objected to their clearly Protestant atmosphere. Politicians, however, "argued that [they] would provide a superb agency for social control in a society that was becoming increasingly individualistic, unruly, and downright 'licentious'"( Weinstein & Gatell, 321).

Very few reformers, among them Horace Mann in Massachusetts and H.Barnard in Connecticut, actually achieved their goals of societal improvement. Mann, the first superintendent of Education, raised teaching standards, extended the school year, increased state support for public schools by 100%, and introduced training for teachers (1839). He also modernized the school's curriculum and teaching methods (Weinstein & Gatell, 322). As the main focus was on elementary education, adults also had a chance to improve their education through the lyceum movement. As Weinstein and Gatell inform us," It originated in New England in 1826. Lyceums were established by the hundreds throughout the North and Middle West. They were basically lecture halls with small libraries and facilities for discussion and study groups. Lyceums drew a steady stream of well- paid lecturers [among them Emerson] on regional and even national tours. No better device existed for mass education in a country that still lacked universal literacy but which valued the arts of public speaking and debating" (323).

Very few colleges admitted women, and even fewer would allow black students to apply. Among the first ones that did were Oberlin College in Ohio (f.1833) and Antioch College, also in Ohio (f.1852). The first institution of higher education for women was Mary Lyon's Female Seminary founded by Mary Lyon. She was a teacher who gathered necessary funds "by soliciting contributions door-to-door, from other Massachusetts women" (Weinstein & Gattell).

In New England a movement to improve public schools was much needed. During colonial times a common school system was established, but by the nineteenth century it collapsed due to insufficient support. "Many economy- minded small towns had no schools at all; others had ramshackle schoolhouses with poorly paid teachers (mostly male at that time)" ( 321). Weinstein and Gatell further add that, "Although literacy in America was relatively high in comparison to other societies of that time, it is probable that before the Civil War a majority of Americans could not read or write."  Of course there were also Harvard, private schools and tutors available, but not for all. To obtain a good education one often depended more on caprice of fate than on accessibility to a good, free public school. In addition schools were often marred with the incompetent frustrated teachers, out- of–context curricula, overused corporal punishment, boring lectures, and memorization of material as main teaching devices. The goal of teaching was to force into students' heads as many facts as possible.

American transcendentalists had at least some favors of fate granted to them; they lived in New England, at one time or another, within the reach of the intellectual influence of Harvard. Being aware of the tremendous advantage of living in a great new country, and also of problems and hardships connected with that life, transcendentalists stressed the importance of developing and maintaining one's individuality and self- reliance. As teachers they respected the individuality of their students and felt responsible for helping them develop their own self-reliance. They acknowledged inborn goodness and intuition in people, and believed that man can approach God through nature.

According to Edward Ericson "Emerson, the chief celebrant of individuality and self- reliance, is the foremost teacher of the eternal unity and of the essential identity of the individual self with the oversoul, the universal self. This dual aspect poses no problem or contradiction for Transcendentalism, which sees a complementarity, a harmony, of the individual and the universal" (XI). Emerson's educational ideas are coherent with his philosophy; he always stresses the value of the individuality and importance of self-reliance. Emerson's teacher, the enthusiastic learner himself, is more the awaker than the educator. His role is to awake his students to the realization of their God-like qualities, their great potential and therefore, their responsibility to use that potential wisely.  The student should be awakened to the realization of the value of learning, and provided with all needed help by his teacher. But the very task of learning is to be conducted by the student himself.

Emerson dismisses the memorization of facts in favor of the development of intellectual curiosity in students. He also would like to see more academic freedom for college students: free choice of subjects to be studied, less professional control over students (no grades), and more inspiration from professors. Emerson perceives "the teachers of youth as the fosterers of the superior nature of man, prompt to remind him of the mediate and symbolical character of things. Where there is no vision the people perish" (Whicher, 202). Emerson's teacher/awaker can be paralleled with the Zen Buddhism master. The important difference between them is that the Zen master does not hesitate to awake his disciple to reality by a forceful blow with a club, while Emerson's teacher condemns coercion.

To awake in the student the desire of finding his own vision is perhaps the most important task of a teacher. Another one is to exercise the student's perception. As Lewis Leary stresses "Perception was the secret--perception, as Henry James would explain, at the peak of passion. But perception in quiethood also. Take all my senses, Emerson once said, but save me my eyes. To see beneath appearance"(98). Perception is important because, as Emerson said, "the world exists for the education of man." And, as Leary summarizes, " every natural fact is symbol of spiritual fact, so that everything perceived or learned has meaning which transcends itself if a person has wit to recognize it" (79- 80). To bring that wit to the surface is the role of the teacher.

Thoreau's first teaching experience in 1836 was prompted by his financial difficulties during his Harvard years. He left Harvard temporarily, and went to teach in Canton, Massachusetts. In Canton, as R.J.Schneider informs us, Thoreau " came briefly under the influence of Orestes Brownson, one of the most brilliant but controversial of New England theologians" (4). Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837, and he was determined to pursue a teaching career.

His first teaching job in a public school ended abruptly when he refused to apply corporal punishment. Then, within a year from his graduation, he founded a private school in his mother's house. The school existed three years, during which it grew to the extent that Thoreau decided to hire his brother John to help him teach math and English, while he himself taught science and foreign languages. Since more room was needed the school was transferred to the Concord Academy buildings.

R.J.Schneider quotes H.Thoreau's self-description as a transcendentalist, " The fact is I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to a boot" (7), and describes his belief in the reality of nature as "unshakable." Then he links that description with Thoreau's educational practices, " [Henry and his brother] frequently took the children for hikes and used practical, "hands-on' teaching methods, such as having the children assist in repairing the brothers' boat or using surveying instruments to teach math' (7). As one can see nature was real enough for Thoreau to be acknowledged through his teaching methods; surveying instruments were first used outside, within the realm of nature, then math formulas were applied, and finally the abstract aspect of those formulas was discussed. The usual math-teaching in Thoreau's days was conducted the other way around; children memorized formulas first, then applied examples. There was no "natural practice outdoors. Likewise, there was hardly any excitement ever about learning math among students taught by traditional method.

After the Thoreau brothers closed their school (John became ill), H.Thoreau continued his teaching activities through his own writings and through his lectures at the Concord Lyceum. His aim was to better his fellow-man whom he gladly perceived as the eternal student, even if that student was also a teacher.

As S. Paul writes, " He advised the American scholar to live by…manual labor, moreover, not only because it was honest and because it rooted one in the native soil, but because it taught one how to reason from the hands to the head""(108). S.Paul acutely perceives the most significant message of H.Thoreau as a teacher: that teaching should be rooted in personal experience.

Thoreau's educational ideas expressed in Walden are always grounded in empiricism as in his remark from the "Sounds," " I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans." Here again Thoreau gives priority importance to the hand-on experience. Thoreau's remark does not indicate that he denied the books any value. It rather signifies that he was able to infer from his observation of the rhythm of nature when it was appropriate to read books, and also when it was time to hoe beans. F.O.Matthiesen rightly perceives H. Thoreau as, " the student and observer that he has settled himself to be at the end of his second chapter of Walden "(169).

Being a student and an observer, Thoreau always remains the teacher. Walden is H.Thoreau's educational device through which he exemplifies a worthy life. R.J. Schneider quotes an explanatory passage from Walden's " Economy" chapter:

 I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
He then points that "The verb phrases in this passage- "live deliberately," "front the facts," "suck out," "live sturdily," "put to rout," "cut a swath," "shave close" and "drive life"- all make it clear that Thoreau himself considered his life at the pond to be an active, energetic, even courageous one" (14). Thoreau deliberately uses energizing expressions to educate his fellow man on the possibility of making choices in one's life, of having courage to be. That existential courage involves, according to Thoreau, the ability to recognize the essence of things; Aristotle named it substance, that which stands beneath the qualities perceivable by senses (e.g. chairness of a chair). Thus, in "Economy" Thoreau writes, "Children, who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men, who fail to live it worthily…I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface of things. We think that is which appears to be"(Walden).

Against that kind of perception, shallow and damaging to one's life, H. Thoreau advises that "youths better learn to live. . .by at once trying the experiment of living" (). The he asks, "which would have advanced the most at the end of a month- the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this--or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?" Thoreau does not deny the educational value of an abstract idea; his aim is to teach others how to use a relevant theory for their well- defined, concrete needs.

Among these needs H.Thoreau places the need for " A written word [which] is the choicest of relicts." Throughout the entire "Reading" chapter, Thoreau emphasizes the educational value of books and of reading for "the adventurous student, [who] will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?" To those, who deny the value of classics, H. Thoreau answers with irony, "We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old." Books have an educational value, according to Thoreau, if they are written and read with care. He realizes that the reading habits are comparable to those of an athlete: they have to be built gradually and continuously. The education through reading should transcend one's school years. Thoreau firmly advocates an adult education, both for men and women. He proposes that local communities should sponsor:
1. Lyceums (auditorium), especially during winter times
2. The best lecturers available
3. Libraries
4. Subscription to the " best newspaper in the world"

Thoreau underscores several times that local communities would be undertaking "the place of the nobleman of Europe" as the patron of education. He believes that people should be self-reliant in the matters of culture; they should not only support it, but also select their own readings instead of depending on the choices made by big publishing companies. But for that, people need to educate themselves on a value of a culture "of all the learned societies." So they may choose wisely. "We need to be provoked [intellectually], writes Thoreau, "and throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us."

One of the reasons H. Thoreau wrote his Walden is that he wanted to lessen that "gulf of ignorance." His advice on education is strikingly pragmatic. But the entire book can be viewed as a great metaphor carrying its latent educational message like that contained in the "The Pond in Winter" chapter:

If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point. Now we know only a few laws, and our result is vitiated, not, of course, by any confusion or irregularity in Nature, but by our ignorance of essential elements in the calculation. Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to those instances which we detect; but the harmony which results from a far greater number of seemingly conflicting, but really concurring, laws, which we have not detected, is still more wonderful. The particular laws are as our points of view, as, to the traveler, a mountain outline varies with every step, and it has an infinite number of profiles, though absolutely one form" ().
Here Thoreau expresses his quite modern opinion that the goal of an education should be the development of critical thinking, which would allow man to perceive the interrelatedness of phenomena. Today that goal remains the same.

Amos Bronson Alcott was a talented teacher who developed his natural talent for teaching through the years of pedagogical practice. Perhaps it was a lack of the rigorous formal teacher's training that contributed to his creative pedagogical thinking, which he was able to implement during his Temple School years. As Odell Shepard informs us:

Bronson Alcott knew more about [pedagogic method and the psychology of the learning process] than one might at first suppose [knowing that his own schooling schooling had ended when he was thirteen] but he had to get his knowledge from his own observation as he went along. He got it rapidly, making in a first two years a greater advance in teaching method than all the schoolmasters in America had made in as many centuries. But this is not so much remarkable, or at any rate so interesting and significant, as the high motives that he gives himself for his work, or as the mood--firm without belligerency and courageous without impudence- in which he advances upon the old entrenchment of prejudice" (93).

Alcott was a living example of transcendental ideal of Emerson's and Thoreau's self-reliant man who finds his own vocation early in his life and follows it with a full devotion. Shephard describes him as a man who was an idealist before he read Plato and transcendentalist before he read Emerson. He approaches material side of life in a manner of Thoreau, giving it as little time as possible.

In 1834 Alcott established the Temple School in Boston with the help of Dr.Channing and Elizabeth Peabody. Margaret Fuller enthusiastically joined the teaching team later. Alcott's pedagogical talent included the ability to create a special atmosphere, which added to the success of a charismatic teacher. The interior design of his classroom contributed to that atmosphere:

One sees the tall Gothic window full of sunshine, the colored carpets, the busts of Milton, Shakespeare, Scott Plato, and Socrates, behind the master's desk the bas-relief of Jesus,--so frequently referred to as the final arbiter of every moral discussion, and the symbolic figure of called "Silence" near the window. Each scholar has his own desk, near the wall, and his own small blackboard. The master's desk is at some distance from them, but when he wishes to talk or read to the whole school he asks them to bring their chairs, very quietly, and sit near him in a semi-circle. (Shepard, 167)
All the school activities were conducted in a way eliminating a "dull routine" in the atmosphere of politeness. Slater underlines the fact that Alcott, instead of "forcing information into children's heads" preferred to develop "their inherent abilities and …capacities for understanding, imagination, and character. There was no corporal punishment in his school; his students learned by the conversational method, they worked on an honor system; they had a kind of self-government. All of these were startling innovations." (27- 28 ).

Alcott educated his students to be cooperative and mutually responsible members of society by making them aware that they belong to the group (of the students). Staebler considers Alcott's school, " the extraordinary [and] progressive, in which he aimed at a genuinely democratic education, training minds to think through the Socratic method and refusing to discriminate against Negroes- a stand which ultimately forced him to close his doors because of lost patronage" (40). Alcott embraced the transcendentalists' idea of finding oneself and making it "the object of school…to unveil soul"( Shepard, 173).

Along with the development of the introspective skills by students, Alcott emphasized the importance of expressing their own views and ideas not only on any chosen subject, but also on various Biblical issues, which shocked Bostonians. He encouraged children to write down their ideas in notebooks (some recorded several hundred ideas per week!), while Elizabeth Peabody recorded his conversations with children in her Record of a School. Shephard considers it " one of the more interesting of the forgotten documents of Transcendentalism"(166).
As a reformer B. Alcott also:

demanded that parent give careful consideration to every action, every angry look, every trifling disappointment, every severe voice. He wanted a complete philosophy of child-rearing resting on a solid theoretical base. For it was in the home, in the relationship between parent and child, that true reform began. Even a model school like his at the Temple could not repair damage inflicted by the home environment. (Dahlstrand, 121)
Alcott is unique, among transcendentalists advocating individualism, in his perception of necessity to help his students to see value in cooperation within society. In his attention paid to each of  the individual students and in his attempt of helping them into a spiritual development, he is a typical representative of Transcendentalism.

Elizabeth Peabody, the teacher of Latin, geometry and geography in Temple School dutifully recorded Alcott's Conversations. Although she initially fully admired his methods and ideas and defended him from the occasional attacks of some members of a Boston society shocked by his innovations, she gradually turns her interests toward less radical but equally impressive novelty of, the invention of Froebel. She even goes to Europe and visits Baroness von Marenholz Bulow  (Froebel's student). In Baroness' "Kindergarten Seminary" she is "amazed" by "lovely cubes…peg boards and soft woolen balls…and music" (Tharp 323). In 1870 she becomes a founder of the first public kindergarten  in America. Many years after closing Temple School, Elizabeth Peabody and B.Alcott both lectured at the Concord School of Philosophy (Alcott was the dean of the school).

Margaret Fuller taught Latin and French in Alcott's Temple School. She enthusiastically supported his teaching ideas and methods. As Slater points out, " She knew how much suffering [her own father's] rigidity and pressure had cost her, and she was sure she would have learned as much--and much more happily--in a free and relaxed atmosphere" (28). Blanchard stresses the boredom of Margaret Fuller's early education by her father, and contrasts it with "the alertness of the children [and with the] free atmosphere of the [B.Alcott's classroom]" (108).

Margaret Fuller, in a manner similar to that of Thoreau and in agreement with the spirit of Transcendentalism, taught through personal example, "Besides teaching five days a week and two or three evenings a week translating. . .Margaret attended Emerson's lectures and heard a variety of other speakers. . ., and went to as many concerts (sometimes two an evening) as possible." She was the living proof that the self-education of women (and adults in general) is possible. She also exemplified transcendentalists aiming at spiritual perfection.

But her main commitment (except literature) was to women's education. Her extraordinary talent for conversation and for an attentive listening , along with her broad education, helped her to be a good teacher. Together with Elizabeth Peabody she developed Reading Parties at which women who paid a small fee, could meet and discuss "books and ideas" (Slater, 42) into Conversations parties. The subjects of those conversations were various: from mythology, fine arts, ethics and education to woman, school, church and society. In 1842 she introduced Conversations for men and women, "but the men were far more sure of themselves intellectually than the women and tended to monopolize the discussion and to divert it from its original course into areas in which they were particularly interested and expert. In the face of this, the women became increasingly intimidated, self-conscious, and embarrassed, and retreated into what one of them called "dullness" (Slater, 46). The experiment of Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody proved that Conversations were much needed, and that they served the purpose--the education of women, who could "literally feel their minds growing" (45) after the meetings.

Teacher-transcendentalists turned their creative ideas into practice. Although the circumstances of practical implementation of their ideas were often different, they all were reformers who wanted to make the world better by educating their fellow man. Their impact on education is and society is significant. Within the area of child's education their most important achievement is changing bringing focus on students and their educational and emotional needs.


Dahlstrand, Frederick C. Amos Bronson Alcott. Associated University Press, East Brunswick: 1945.
Erickson, Edward. L., ed., Emerson on Transcendentalism. Ungar, New York: 1986.
Leary, Lewis. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Twayne Publishers, Boston:1980
Matthiessen,F.O. American  Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Schneider, Richard J. Henry David Thoreau. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987
Shepard, Odel. Pedlar's Progress.The Life of Bronson Alcott. Greenwood Press, New York: 1968.
Slater, Abby. In Search of Margaret Fuller. Delacorte Press, New York: 1978.
Staebler, Warren. Ralph Waldo Emerson.Twayne Publishers, New York: 1973.
Tharp, Louise H. The Peabody Sisters of Salem. Little, Brown and company, Boston: 1950.
Weinstein, Allen, and Frank Otto Gattell. Freedom and Crisis. Random House, New York: 1981
Whicher, Stephen. E., ed.,The early lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Harvard Univerity Press, Cambridge:1964.
Wilson, Leslie Perrin. :"New England Transcendentalism."The Concord Magazine, Nov. 1998

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