In 1836, Amos Bronson Alcott, the father of author Louisa May Alcott, was conducting the Temple School in Boston. His teaching method was Socratic. By conversation and examination, he believed he could lead the children to express moral truths which they already “knew” because they resided within every person.
When the record of these conversations was published, Alcott’s reputation suffered so much that he lost most of his pupils and finally had to close his school. (He retreated to Concord, where Louisa May Alcott grew up and wrote Little Women, based on their lives there — but that is another story.) Several things seem to have aroused opposition. First, by discussing religious texts and beliefs with the children, he opened those texts to interpretation, rather than simply telling the children what was true. Next, some of Alcott’s own interpretations were not conventional. And finally, and probably worst of all, he edged around the dangerous topic of sex.
Reading these conversations now, some of the exchanges with the children are charming, as here where he wants them to understand that small beginnings may have big results.
Despite his Socratic intentions, at times Alcott is quite authoritarian in his explanations:
If you can keep that all straight, you are ready to continue the conversation! The emphasis on spirit is typical of Alcott, who leads discussion of the birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus with an entire emphasis on the birth of spirit. The children don’t always get it. When one child suggests that baby John was brought by angels to his mother while she slept, another protests that that babies are usually born during the day.
Having thus confused physical and spiritual birth, perhaps Alcott could have passed on, but he seems unable to leave the topic alone.
In the midst of all this high thinking, occasionally a refreshing bit of childish realism appears. When they discuss how the boy Jesus stayed at the Temple, causing Mary to be concerned, Alcott wants to explore the concept of “God’s business.” The children, on the other hand, live in a world where parents know their rights.