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Jessica Collier
University of California, Irvine. Department of English

Crossing a Bare Common School:
Transcendental Pedagogy and the Architecture of the Classroom

In her 1836 Record of a School, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody describes Bronson Alcott’s painstaking and expensive consideration of the ornaments, furniture, and layout of the Temple School, reading the careful attention to design and comfort as “a silent reproach upon rudeness.”  Moments of practical application of much Transcendental thought, Alcott’s various classrooms stand in contrast to the comparatively rude set-ups of most of the period’s schoolhouses—inadequate ventilation and sanitation, little furniture other than backless benches—as well as to the corresponding rudeness of instruction.  When it opened in 1834, the Temple School was furnished with busts of Shakespeare and Socrates, blackboards from Wales, a comfortable sofa for visitors, and a small library.  Alcott had also designed a large, crescent-shaped teacher’s desk and, with his cousin, William Andrus Alcott, an elaborate individual student desk, surely significant portions of the $317 cabinetmaker bill.  According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alcott’s “book is his school, in which he writes all his thoughts.”  This paper will read the furniture and architecture of the Temple School, housed in Boston’s Masonic Temple, alongside Alcott’s pedagogical methods of silent introspection, journaling, conversation, and a “common conscience.”  This reading seeks to understand some of the ways in which Transcendental thought—informed by the Romantic idealization of childhood and characterized by mystical, often opaque language—intervenes in a contemporary culture of reform and is translated into precepts, practices, and material objects for the education of actual children.        


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