Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1708:
BRONSON ALCOTT

John Lienhard presents guest essayist, Paul Cooke

Today, our guest, Paul Cooke, Director of the Houston Teachers Institute at the University of Houston, talks about a remarkable teacher -- and father. The University presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Bronson Alcott, 1799-1888Bronson Alcott went to school at a Connecticut crossroads in a small, bare room. His schoolmaster did nothing to stir him to think or to be curious. When Bronson became too useful on the family farm, his formal schooling ended. The year was 1812. He was thirteen. Still wanting to learn, he vowed to educate himself and read every book in the neighborhood he could find.

As he grew older he learned that the greatest thing he had learned in his first school was how children should not be taught. Alcott began the struggle of defying public opinion about how schools should teach.

Self-taught and not yet 24 years old, he took his first teaching job and soon came to see "teaching as the most crucial of all professions."

In 1827, after he had opened his own school, an article in the Boston papers praised it as perhaps "the best common school in the United States." But others criticized it because it wasn't stressing memorization of facts and straightforward study of practical information. Parents took their children out, and the school closed.

A second school failed, and then he started a third. Twenty students came on the first day to a room arranged to be uplifting. In the corners were pedestals with busts of Socrates, Shakespeare, and Milton. Students were arranged in a semi-circle, and Alcott began the day by asking them what they thought was the purpose of school. He talked to them about his duties as a teacher and asked them to talk of their duties as students. Dialogues with students were the rule.


Bronson Alcott's Temple School pictured in his
Record Of Conversations on the Gospel, 1834


He never let class activity turn into routine. Even the way spelling lessons were done changed from day to day. One spelling word on an occasion was "yawn," and he let students tell funny and embarrassing anecdotes about yawning. He often tied this work with words to issues having to do with the building of character.

But parents again took their children out, and the school closed. Alcott was too untraditional.

Louisa May Alcott, 1832-1888His discouragement after this third failure was great, and he was deeply troubled. His old friends Emerson and Thoreau comforted and encouraged him over a period of months, helping him return to sound health. Bronson Alcott's four children encouraged him, too, as his famous daughter told the world years later. Lousia May Alcott, the author of Little Women, in her "Recollections of My Childhood," wrote,

My father's school was the only one I ever went to, and when this was broken up because he introduced methods now all the fashion, our lessons went on at home, for he was always sure of four little pupils who firmly believed in their teacher.

Wanting to change American schools for the better, Bronson Alcott struggled with disappointment. His daughter, Louisa May, saw plainly that her father was simply ahead of his time -- the fate of many a pioneer.

I'm Paul Cooke at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Duck, L., Understanding American Education: Its Past, Practices, and Promise. Burke, VA: Chatelaine Press, 1996, Chapter 6.

Shepard, O., Pedlar's Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968.

Alcott, L. M., Louisa May Alcott: An Intimate Anthology. (New York Public Library Collector's Edition) New York: Doubleday, 1997, "Recollections of My Childhood," pp. 3-11.

Paul Cooke, author of Thomas Hobbes and Christianity (1996), has been associated with the University of Houston Honors College since 1993, teaching such courses as "Slavery and Its Consequences in America," and "Jesus, Socrates, and Justice." Since late 1998, he has served as the Director of the Houston Teachers Institute, a partnership between the University and the Houston Independent School District. The Institute was established under the guidance of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute as part of a national initiative to strengthen classroom teaching in U.S. public schools.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.