Transcendental Ideas: Education
It could be argued that ideas about learning and growing intellectually and spiritually, education, in a word, are the heart of American transcendentalism. Even the transcendentalists' most literary works are explorations, open-ended and suggestive, both conducted by the author and, as they always hoped, the reader. All of the major transcendentalists--Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Palmer, Alcott, Brownson, Very and more--spent years in the classroom as teachers, and all had found traditional education to be inadequate and stultifying. Brook Farm found its greatest successes as an educational enterprise. Although their ideas were often too idealistic and revolutionary to be activated in the classrooms of their time--and indeed, many were more related to self-education than a group setting, they are still setting directions for creative thinking, theorizing, and change in education for all ages of learnings.
Transcendental ideas about education did not begin in a vacuum, as Meg Brulatour shows in her essay on Background for the State of Education in New England: Post-Revolutionary War to Mid-19th Century. Krystyna Grocholski's essay, American Transcendentalists as Teachers of their Times, offers an overview on Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Peabody, and Fuller as teachers, in classes but especially in their writings.
As usual with this group, Ralph Waldo Emerson set the tone for discussions about education, especially with his Harvard lecture, "The American Scholar " which has had endless "rewritings" by Phi Beta Kappa lecturers and writers; his later unfinished" Essay on Education" shows his lifelong interest in the subject. Krystyna Grocholski shares her responses to Alcott, Emerson, and Thoreau. Another response is the on-line essay, "Emerson's Philosophy of Education" by Sanderson Beck.
Henry David Thoreau tried to carry out some of his own revolutionary ideas, teaching several years in Concord. An excellent overview of his ideas may be found in Martin Bickman's essay, "Thoreau and the Tradition of the Active Mind"in Uncommon Learning: Thoreau on Education.
Amos Bronson Alcott, the arch-idealist, also was the one who most thoroughly applied transcendental principles in his Temple School, with the help of Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller. His philosophy is spelled out in his Maxims on Education. His experiments at Temple School were revolutionary, as this excerpt from Changing Educational Paradigms by Carol B. Macknight shows. See also John Crouch's essay on "Bronson Alcott's Experiment in Practical Transcendentalism."