“Learning’s Altar” - The Rise of Adult Education and Lifelong Learning in Concord and Beyond
Sunday - Thursday July 10 - 14, 2022
~ CALL for PROPOSALS ~
[William] Ellery Channing *
For decades, educator and Transcendental philosopher A. Bronson Alcott cherished a dream that was finally realized in 1879 with the opening of The Concord School of Philosophy and Literature, one of the very first summer schools for adults in the United States. Among the notables who presented during Mr. Alcott’s lifetime were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Peabody, Ednah Dow Cheney, Julia Ward Howe, and William Torrey Harris, the last of whom, along with Alcott, Emerson, and Concord educator Franklin B. Sanborn, was also a founder of The School.
The 1879 sessions were held in Mr. Alcott’s Study in Orchard House, with distinguished academics, writers, scholars, artists, and reformers among the participants. Many were also women, whose access to higher education had been severely limited during their lifetimes; some even traveled alone each year from the Midwest and beyond to attend the series. By the next year, “Hillside Chapel” was built on the grounds of Orchard House and served as The School’s venue for the next seven years.
Noted for Platonic-based conversational interaction between presenters and attendees, the sessions offered a unique style of learning for participants. Unlike single-night Lyceum lectures or the popular religion-based Chautauquas held around the country, The School of Philosophy conducted upward of seven weeks of daily educational sessions. Attendees flocked to Concord, often staying for the entire length of series. Among the topics discussed were art, religion, politics, science, Shakespeare, philosophy, history, and mysticism.
The School closed after the Summer of 1888 in honor of Mr. Alcott’s passing, but re-opened to the public in 1976 with a revived summer lecture program. In 1999, the Series was further enhanced by incorporating Mr. Alcott’s conversational style of learning into a week-long interactive educational program which thrives to this day.
* Quote painted on the mantelpiece in Orchard House's Study by May Alcott
This year’s Summer Conversational Series will offer participants an in-depth examination of the history of adult education around the world, and how programs like The School of Philosophy revolutionized attitudes toward lifelong learning and intellectual growth.
Please note that the 2022 Summer Conversational Series will be an all-virtual event; an in-person component may be added after an evaluation of public health developments in June. Please consult our website for event updates.
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of 14 August 1880 contained sketches of The School of Philosophy and notable Concordians by artist W. Parker Bodfish that filled the entirety of page 400! In addition, The School and Mr. Alcott were described in a written notice thus:
The Concord Summer School, which held its second term for lectures and conversations on philosophical subjects during the month of July, was founded by A. Bronson Alcott, and its permanent establishment and the possession, through the munificence of Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson, of a pretty chapel, the venerable philosopher sees the realization of the dreams of forty years or more.
Some forty-four years ago, before the great transcendental movement in New England began, he became widely known by conversations with his schoolchildren in Boston —conversations which Miss Peabody faithfully reported and embodied in a little volume entitled “Record of a School.”
Long ago Mr. Alcott gave up formal conversation with children, and it is within five years that he has engaged regularly in conversations with professional and literary men. His conversations at Joseph Cook’s parlors and at the Chestnut Street Club have been chiefly instrumental in giving him the unique reputation which of a sudden he has acquired in his old age.
In these “conversations” . . . his benignant face aglow with the feu sacre [sacred fire] . . . with twenty-five or thirty friends gathered around him . . . and, with a mind well stored by wide reading and deep meditation, the thoughts drop from his lips like honey from the honeycomb. From the first he spoke calmly but distinctly, and his melodious, captivating voice charmed the attention of the hearer. Even in the most abstract metaphysical reasoning he did not deviate for a moment from the uniform simplicity of his language, and, with occasionally a gesture, vividly picturing his thought in space, even the darkest thought was made clear. He is a venerable and striking figure. . . . His eyes are clear, dark, luminous; his hair, which is now long, is fine and white, and his face full of gentleness, sympathy, and benevolence. . . .