The Concord Summer School of Philosophy at Orchard House

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[Emerson] ... speaks of our Summer School as “a brave thing,” successful beyond all reasonable expectation. ... Even my neighbors looked for its failure, surprised at the intelligence and enthusiasm that brought so many from afar. So it may have been, as my friend says, “a brave thing” truly.

-- A. Bronson Alcott, 23 August 1879


Hand-tinted postcard of The School, circa 1900, also shows the intricate landscape.

Dreamt about for forty years and finally founded in 1879 by Amos Bronson Alcott, The Concord Summer School of Philosophy was one of the first adult summer schools in the United States largely based upon the ideal of Plato’s Academy. Conducted its first year in the Study of Orchard House, The School received a generous donation from a New York City philanthropist, enabling Mr. Alcott to design and have constructed a building, originally called “Hillside Chapel,” on the grounds of Orchard House, where the next eight years of The School were held.

Left: A. Bronson Alcott on the steps of The School, circa 1880.

Early speakers at The School included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, William James, and Elizabeth Peabody, who were among the first to encourage the study of original American thought, especially Transcendentalism. The School was an enormous success, drawing hundreds of participants each summer from throughout this country and Europe, more than half of whom were women. With Mr. Alcott’s death in 1888, the School was closed in his honor after that summer’s sessions.

Right: Sketch of proceedings of The School, early 1880s.

In 1975, through a grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the building was repaired and re-opened for a series of summer lectures. Only minor modifications have been made to the structure, the exterior of which has been left unfinished — as it was in Mr. Alcott’s time — to harmonize with the natural surroundings. Plans are currently underway to properly reinforce and restore the structure so it may endure for generations to come.

The modern-day “Summer Conversational Series” (see photo at left) has endeavored to keep the spirit and purpose of the earlier School proceedings alive. In recent years, speakers have included psychologist B.F. Skinner, cartoonist Paul Szep, and educator Theodore Sizer, as well as renowned Alcott scholars from universities throughout the country. Themes for the Series are determined each year by Orchard House Staff and are carefully chosen to reflect current issues of importance so as to promote productive thought and stimulating discussion.


Since its re-opening, The School has had a varied life -- in 1982 it was the site of a one-woman show by Katharine Houghton, niece of actress Katharine Hepburn (who starred as “Jo March” in the 1933 Little Women movie); in 2002, First Lady Laura Bush held a reception for invited guests and gave media interviews within the rustic charm of its walls; and for the past several years, it has been the venue for dramatic re-creations of “The Trial of Anthony Burns” (a fugitive slave whose arrest and return to slavery captivated the attention and emotion of many citizens in the North during 1854) for middle- and high-school students. Every summer also finds numerous children’s programs and varied entertainments presented in The School to the benefit and delight of local residents as well as visitors from around the world.

Right:“The Trial of Anthony Burns.” interactive historical drama performed in The School by Theatre Espresso.

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Below: Youths enjoying Victorian games such as “Hoops & Sticks” outside The School

The building has such an evocative atmosphere that it is occasionally rented for poetry readings, professional meetings, and small weddings. Whatever the event, however, the motivation behind the use of the building remains true to the original intent of Mr. Alcott, and pays tribute to his insight and foresight. We leave you now with what would become one of Mr. Alcott’s last journal entries before his stroke in 1882:

Our village is livelier by this incoming of attendants at the School of Philosophy. … It is almost too much to credit my eyes as I gaze upon the spectacle. Here gather the best, the wisest persons of our time. From this humble beginning I know not what may spring and spread. Or should its present prospect fade and these walks be trodden no more by eager attendants, a creditable work will have been done on the spot for furthering good living and high thinking. The great and good things have a humble origin, and await their time, subject to reverses, but succeed over their seeming failures. Philosophy knows less of geographies than of the ideas that give place and time to all things.

 


Above: The School in snow at sunset.

 


 

 

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