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October 7, 1997

Experimental School, Experimental Community:

The Marietta Johnson School Of Organic Education In Fairhope, Alabama

by Joseph W. Newman

Half a mile from the shops and restaurants that line the business district of Fairhope, Alabama, the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education sits tucked away down a side street, perched atop a piney-woods bluff. Once the very heart of a community of reformers, intellectuals, and freethinkers, today the school is set some distance apart, struggling to survive while it tries to recapture the spirit of its past.

The four main buildings mimic the architecture of the white-frame Bell Building, the centerpiece of the old downtown campus the school occupied for eighty years before selling in the late 1980s in a bid for financial security.

The school still hums with the activity of sixty students, all but one of them white, most of them upper-middle class and from the immediate area. All seem happy to be there. Some of the students have had difficulty getting along in more traditional settings, but most have parents who simply want a different kind of education for their children, something less regimented, less hurried, less competitive.

The Organic School tries to fill this niche in the educational marketplace of the 1990s -- a small niche, apparently, even in an artsy community like Fairhope -- by offering pupil-teacher ratios of 10 to 1, generous individual attention, and, yes, glimpses of Marietta Johnson's original vision.

The Experiments

It was an experiment, she wanted people to understand, repeating the word until early visitors came away using it. Marietta Johnson was conducting an educational experiment as part of a larger community experiment. John Dewey explained in Schools of To-Morrow published in 1915 that he was one of the many "students and experts" who "made pilgrimages" to Fairhope to see the School of Organic Education. Fittingly, Dewey titled his chapter on the Organic School "An Experiment in Education as Natural Development," and he pronounced it a "decided success." But despite rave reviews from Dewey and other notable pilgrims, and notwithstanding the true-believer optimism that seemed to be everywhere in Fairhope, it was too early to call either the educational experiment or the community experiment a success.

Fairhope had been established in 1894 as a single-tax colony devoted to the theories of Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty. Of the millions who read George's 1879 bestseller, a few disciples took his words seriously enough to put them into practice. This Deep South colony, which its founders believed had a "Fair Hope" of succeeding, was the first and largest single-tax experiment in the nation.

The original colonists, most of them from the Midwest, resolved to make their new home a model of "cooperative individualism." Under the terms of the community experiment, the colony owned the land, with individuals and families holding 99-year leases on their plots. The annual rent paid to the colony constituted the "single tax" on land, which generated funds for such public amenities as parks, a beach, and a library. The colony also owned the utilities. These arrangements, George's followers believed, would help control the gap between rich and poor by preventing the wealthy from monopolizing the land and its resources. George himself, though, doubted an experimental "single tax city" could succeed.

From the very start, Fairhopers won a well-deserved reputation as an intellectual group united in their belief that the economic system of the United states was flawed. Beyond that central conviction, the early residents agreed to disagree. But even if Fairhopers took different sides on a wide range of issues, virtually all residents drew inspiration from the utopian idealism of Progress and Poverty. Working together in an experimental community gave them a sense of self-importance, an identity they enjoyed projecting to outsiders. Upton Sinclair, who enrolled his son in the Organic School while wintering in Fairhope in 1909, captured the spirit of the early community in his 1962 Autobiography: "Here were two or three hundred assorted reformers who had organized their affairs according to the gospel of Henry George. They were trying to eke out a living from poor soil and felt certain they were setting an example for the rest of the world."

Marietta Johnson added an educational dimension to the Fairhope experiment. Alabama was still in the process of building a viable state school system in the early 1900s. It was easy for Fairhopers to make unfavorable comparisons between the midwestern and northern schools they left behind and the schools they found in rural Baldwin County, Alabama, where the colony was located. But beyond raising additional local funds and trying to attract better teachers, the colonists had no special ideas on how to improve schooling. Nor did Henry George have much to say on the subject. Marietta Johnson did.

Born Marietta Louise Pierce on October 8, 1864, near St. Paul, Minnesota, she grew up in a close farming family that included a twin sister and six other siblings. Marietta later attended public school in St. Paul and graduated in 1885 from the State Normal School at St. Cloud. She began her work as a teacher with five years of service in rural Minnesota schools. Enthusiastic, charismatic, and ambitious, she quickly climbed the occupational ladder. She taught every elementary school grade and several high school subjects on her way to becoming a "training" or "critic" teacher in the normal schools at St. Paul, Moorhead, and Makato. Although Johnson was self critical, her faith in herself was always a hallmark of her personal style.

That faith shook to its foundation in 1901 when she "underwent a conversion experience." The religious imagery is appropriate, and Johnson herself used it to explain the intensity of her ordeal. It began when she read the 1898 book, The Development of the Child, by Nathan Oppenheim, a pediatrician at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. "The world has a wrong idea of its children," Oppenheim insisted. Parents and teachers who think of children as "adults in small" and of childhood as a time for mastering adult behavior are causing children harm--in some cases irreparable harm. According to Oppenheim, children are "absolutely different from adults, not only in size, but also in every element which goes to make up the final state of maturity." Constantly changing, children need a "special treatment and environment" to guide and encourage their development.

As Johnson read on, she began to question virtually everything she had learned about teaching; indeed, she felt appalled at what she had been teaching teachers. She convinced herself she had been a "child destroyer" whose efforts violated the "order of development of the nervous system." Johnson took Oppenheim's book as her "educational Bible," soon supplementing it with works by Dewey and other child-centered educators. When she first arrived in Fairhope, she would stay up late at night, poring over these texts. She would revisit them for "inspiration" and "support" for the rest of her life.

Johnson's chance to experiment in a school setting came in January 1903, less than a month after her move to Fairhope, when the thirty-eight year old woman took charge of the colony's public elementary school. In what became a pilot project for her later work at the Organic School, she added gardening and manual arts to the curriculum, invited adults to school to make music and tell stories, and organized a normal course. At the start of the 1903-04 school year, Johnson announced ambitious plans to expand the normal course, develop a high school program, and recruit out-of-state students.

These plans were cut short by her husband's decision to move the family to Mississippi in 1904. Frank Johnson was a farmer and rancher, and at this time in their lives together, his work came first. But their attempt at pecan farming failed, his eyesight steadily worsened, and a fire destroyed most of their possessions.

The Johnsons returned to Fairhope in 1907. From then on, her work came first. Although Frank would be elected mayor of Fairhope in 1912 on the Socialist ticket, his primary work outside the home was as a manual arts teacher in the School of Organic Education, where he used his skills as a carpenter and cabinet maker. Frank stayed busy within the Johnson household. Until his death in 1919, he played a supportive role as "Marietta Johnson's husband," taking on a large share of domestic duties to enable his wife to spend long hours with her educational experiment.

"An Original Demonstration"

Elated to be back in Fairhope after the discouraging sojourn in Mississippi, Johnson opened the School of Organic Education in November 1907. The school started modestly enough as a kindergarten in a small cottage. Lydia and Samuel Comings, the Johnsons' close friends in Fairhope, provided the cottage as well as a monthly subsidy of $25. Six kindergartners, two of them the Johnsons' own sons, enrolled the first day and were quickly joined by a handful of older elementary students. Additional financial support would soon be forthcoming from the colony council, enabling her to run the school as a quasi-public institution with no tuition for local children. By the end of January 1908 she had enrolled more than 30 students, 20 of whom were in the kindergarten.

Johnson appropriated the concept "organic" from C. Hanford Henderson, former headmaster of New York City's Pratt Institute, whose 1902 book, Education and the Larger Life, became another of her educational Bibles. Johnson advocated treating each student as a complete organism -- a "whole child," as the progressive slogan would later have it -- balancing the mental, spiritual, and physical. As Dewey noted in Schools of To-Morrow (without acknowledging Henderson, for the two were rivals), organic education "follow[s] the natural growth of the pupil" and provides the "occupations and activities necessary at each stage of development."

Johnson's experiment was not designed as an empirical test of the different child development theories to prove one superior. Instead, she accepted a set of developmental principles that struck her as valid and incorporated them into the framework she adapted from Oppenheim during her conversion experience. Then she set about finding ways of putting the principles into practice. Johnson's experiment was not a theoretical test but a practical application. It was, in her words, an "original demonstration."

Dewey Visits, Plays Santa Claus

The experiment was well underway by the time Dewey visited the Organic School in 1913. Now boasting an enrollment of 150 students, the school had attracted two-thirds of Fairhope's elementary-aged white children, who attended tuition- free. As Dewey put it, "Mrs. Johnson is trying an experiment under conditions which hold in public schools, and she believes her methods are feasible for any public school system....Any child is welcome."

Dewey was exaggerating. The Organic School's enrollment did reflect public school conditions -- which meant African-American children were not welcome. Racial segregation was so widely accepted throughout the nation during the early twentieth century, even John Dewey did not see fit to comment. Johnson held enlightened views on race for her day, going so far as to denounce racial prejudice in her speeches and writings. Some of Fairhope's nonsouthern founders shared her views but feared they would jeopardize their community experiment if they accorded blacks equal treatment. African Americans lived separate and decidedly unequal lives in Fairhope, and with respect to local race relations, the Organic School upheld the status quo.

Within the limits the white community established, though, Johnson worked to create an egalitarian climate at the Organic School. In addition to providing equal opportunities for female and male students, she accepted students from all socioeconomic backgrounds represented in the white population -- a fairly narrow range in the early days of the community. She also recruited "backward" (disabled) children for whom public schools made no provision.

Johnson also recruited students of very different kind: well-to-do northern and midwestern children whose parents were enamored of what would soon be called "progressive education." Some of these students enrolled for just the winter while their parents vacationed in the South. Resort communities were thriving along the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, and the single-tax aura of Fairhope, now a village with a New England look and more than 500 residents, had special appeal to artists, writers, and intellectuals. The combinations of sunny weather, heady politics, and child-centered education was attractive indeed to the Sinclairs and would-be Sinclairs. The two younger sisters of Margaret Mead, for instance, spent time at the Organic School during the early 1920s. Tuition and board-paying students made up approximately one-third of the enrollment and subsidized the attendance of local children.

Johnson was an effective recruiter for the school because she spent so much time spreading the gospel of organic education on the lecture circuit. Johnson became particularly popular in the New York City area. The New York Times regularly gave her positive publicity, including a full-page interview in March 1913. Soon after the interview ran, a group of socially prominent women in Greenwich, Connecticut, formed the Fairhope League (later the Fairhope Educational Foundation) to support Johnson's work. Under their sponsorship, she conducted an ongoing summer school in Greenwich for teachers, parents, and others interested in organic education. For several years she also served as director of the Edgewood School in Greenwich, which gave her a chance to experiment with organic education in an elite suburban context.

It was this group of well-connected friends from metropolitan New York who persuaded Dewey to visit Fairhope during the Christmas season in 1913. Johnson knew the stakes were high, calling the visit "the most critical experience of my life!" After she explained the significance of Dewey's planned pilgrimage to her students, they voted to hold school during the holidays, and boarders made arrangements to stay over. Although Dewey's daughter Evelyn made all the other site visits for Schools of To-Morrow, Dewey himself went on this one, taking along his 14-year-old son Sabino, who attended the Organic School for a week and liked it so much he wanted to stay. "Dewey in Fairhope" stories, still part of the local mythology, include a tale that has the bespectacled, white- haired philosopher playing Santa Claus and bouncing students on his knee.

Dewey's blessing catapulted the Organic School into the front ranks of progressive schools, but even before his visit the school was not only surviving but thriving. An $11,000 gift from soap magnate Joseph Fels underwrote much of the school's early growth, while revenue from boarding students and Johnson's earnings on the road provided critical operating funds. As the school grew Johnson hired teachers, some of them graduates of the two-year normal program she started in Fairhope and some recruited in Greenwich and elsewhere.

The Fels gift helped the school move in 1909 to a new location one block off Fairhope's main street, to a ten-acre site the colony provided rent and utility free. Johnson, Lydia Comings, and four other Fairhope women signed papers incorporating the school that same year. The Bell Building, named for the school bell that rang out at regular intervals across the village, served as the focal point of the campus. Several other structures were either in place or under construction by the time Dewey visited. A total of 10 buildings, including a money-generating dormitory called the School Home, would dot the campus by the early twenties.

Inside (and Outside) the Organic School

The school's facilities were handsome and well ventilated, to be sure, but Dewey and other visitors were even more impressed by the time the students spent outdoors. Students and teachers often took the pleasant half-mile walk down to the colony beach on Mobile Bay. Nature study and field geography brought them into the woods, fields, and streams. Dewey's camera caught students working math problems on the walls of a deep gully and exercising in a field they called "the gym." A photograph he snapped of Johnson and a group of students outside the Bell Building became the frontispiece of Schools of To-Morrow. It would soon become fashionable for progressive educators to claim "the whole community is our campus," but during the early 1900s those words probably rang truer at the Organic School than at any other school in the nation.

Beyond the time spent outside, several other features seemed especially striking to visitors. Over the years, it became easy for Johnson to anticipate their questions and comments, which she worked into her speeches and writings. Why didn't students take reading or even use books until they were eight or nine years old, visitors wanted to know. Why were there no tests (until high school), no grades, and no report cards? Given the lively atmosphere of folk songs, folk dances, arts, and crafts, weren't Johnson and her teachers just letting student do as they pleased?

Her insistence on postponing reading instruction deserved all the attention it got, for it symbolized the way her "idea" of child development permeated the Organic School. To parents who complained they could not prevent their children from reading at home, Johnson retorted, "You keep [them] from doing other unwholesome things, why not direct [their] attention away from books until you are sure such work is desirable?"

Beg your pardon, Mrs. Johnson? Parents could not believe a teacher, of all people, could brand reading "unwholesome" -- for any age group.

Once the shock wore off, Johnson offered her explanation that children's nervous systems were not sufficiently developed to handle reading before age 8 or 9 -- actually age 10 or 12, according to Oppenheim, but Johnson faced strong parental pressure not to wait quite so long.

Johnson frustrated academic traditionalists, so sharp were her attacks on bookishness and so strong her preference for experience as a way of learning. On the printed page, however, her views sometimes came across as simplistic. And yet people who heard Johnson speak, or better still visited the Organic School and watched her work, sensed something that was hard to put into words. Johnson had a gift. Somehow, she managed to lift her school high above the pedagogical jargon that mired the literature on child development. She invited everyone to look at the results, and yes, the students in her school did seem to read easily, naturally, happily. And within a few years, as she loved to remind critics, her students' reading skills equaled or surpassed those of students who learned at earlier ages under traditional methods.

If it was understandable that critics accused Johnson of allowing students to do as they pleased, it was predictable that Johnson lost no time setting them straight. Trying to sound tough minded, just as Dewey did on occasion, Johnson flatly stated "children have no basis for judgment, they do not know what is good for them, or their desires are often quite unwholesome." Children need discipline, she readily admitted, always adding discipline "must really be for their good, not for the convenience of the adult!" She urged teachers to say "yes" to as many wholesome requests as possible to win student confidence and respect. Even more importantly, she structured the curriculum to provide activities and occupations appropriate to each developmental stage, which helped minimize discipline problems by keeping students interested and involved.

As part of her curriculum plan, Johnson modified the single-year grade groupings used in other schools. Four and five-year-olds she placed together in the kindergarten class, six and seven- year olds in the "first-life" class, eight and nine-year-olds in "second life," ten and eleven-year-olds in "third life," and twelve and thirteen-year-olds in the "fourth life" or junior high class. For the last four years, students attended high school.

Just beginning to extend her experiment to older students when Dewey visited, Johnson tried to insure the high school curriculum continued the organic emphasis on folk music, folk dancing, drama, and handwork. These subjects were no less important than the academic subjects, she insisted, going into detail to explain how the daily work students did in manual arts, for instance, helped promote balanced development of body, mind, and spirit. "Our shop," she noted, sometimes with fond references to her husband, who directed the manual arts program, "is the most important place on the campus." Seeing the pride students took in their ceramic and wood work left a lasting impression on visitors, as did watching every student take part in daily folk dancing.

An easy target for critics, the "playschool" image of child-centered progressive education drew attention away from a high school curriculum that was surprisingly traditional. Students took four years of literature, history, math, and science and two years of Latin and French. High school students did homework and took examinations. Looking back on their experiences, members of the senior class of 1931 wrote in their yearbook, the Cinagro, "Remember the funny feeling we had the first morning we were in High School?...The first thing we remember is work. We really snapped out of being silly and got some backbone."

Still, high school classes tended to be animated and engaging. Often they were project centered, and students had considerable freedom in selecting and designing the projects. The only students who failed were those who absolutely refused to their best.

Years of Success

Johnson and her school hit their stride during the 1910s and peaked during the 1920s. Bolstered by a steady flow of students from the Northeast, Midwest, and California, enrollment at the school varied between 100 and 220 students, about a third of whom were usually not local residents.

One of the school's greatest assets was its faculty. As Johnson's reputation spread, she attracted teachers who were willing to work for low wages in order to work with her. Now in a position to be selective, she hired teachers whose academic credentials were generally as strong as their admiration for her. Johnson, who lacked a college degree, took special pride in assembling a faculty whose members held degrees from major state universities, the Ivy League, even Oxford and Cambridge. Some of these teachers came south to work at the Organic School and spent the rest of their lives in Fairhope; others served an apprenticeship and moved to other progressive schools; a few went on to found their own schools based on the organic model.

The example par excellence of the caliber of teacher Johnson attracted was Charles Rabold. A student of the noted English folklorist Cecil Sharp, Rabold left a position in the music department at Yale to teach at the Organic School. During the 1920s he turned the already well-established dance program (which Sharp himself had helped Johnson develop) into one of the defining features of the school. With a confident, outgoing personality that complemented Johnson's, Rabold could help even the most awkward students and teachers learn to enjoy English folk dancing -- country, Morris, and sword. Rabold became Johnson's close friend and assistant director.

As Fairhope's population grew from 853 in 1920 to 1,549 in 1930, Johnson redoubled her efforts to stay in touch with her neighbors. Despite her heavy travel schedule, she remained a highly visible presence in Fairhope -- not only at the Organic School but on village streets, in colony and town meetings, and in the pages of the Fairhope Courier. Not every resident of Fairhope was a true believer in either single taxation or organic education, of course, but most locals felt proud Johnson was putting their small town on the intellectual map.

Years of Depression

Then the Depression hit, and the Organic School felt the impact almost immediately. The number of boarding students dropped off sharply, decimating the operating funds from this vital source. The financial crisis reminded the school's supporters of how precarious its situation had always been, even in better days. In 1924, for instance, Johnson and other members of the corporation had been forced to mortgage the school in order to keep it open. Much of this debt remained outstanding when the stock market crashed in October 1929.

A personal tragedy foreshadowed the trying years ahead. In February 1930 Charles Rabold was killed in an airplane crash. Rabold was the faculty member whose charisma and other qualities best matched Johnson's, and she was planning to turn the school over to him when she retired. Rabold's death, coming late in her life and at a difficult time for the school, was a loss she never got over.

As the Depression wore on, Johnson had to work at maintaining her characteristic optimism. She did manage to keep up her busy schedule of lectures and demonstrations, for they continued to generate money for the school. But while invitations to speak regularly crossed her desk, Johnson had to face the fact that her name was losing some of its magic within the progressive education movement. As social reconstructionists seized leadership of the movement, they pushed aside Johnson and other child-centered educators.

By the time she turned 70 in 1934, she was being dismissed as past her prime, written off as a "play schooler" despite her unwavering commitment to single taxation and other social reforms. No publisher would touch her manuscript for a second book, which she called "Thirty Years with an Idea." (Her first book, Youth in a World of Man, had been published by John Day of New York in 1929.) Some of her New York and Greenwich friends remained loyal, but the collapse of the Fairhope Educational Foundation during the 1930s dried up yet another source of revenue for the school.

Every summer it appeared the school would not reopen in the fall, but Johnson refused to give up, turning to donations from friends, supporters, and her personal savings to keep the school alive. Students and parents noticed a decline in the quality of instruction as key faculty members, trying to remain loyal but unable to survive on their salaries, reluctantly said goodbye. Johnson also became more lenient in accepting tuition and board-paying students with learning or behavioral problems.

At last Marietta Johnson's struggle ended. In poor health, mentally as well as physically, she died on December 23, 1938, 25 years after Dewey's visit. The Organic School's struggle for survival would continue for years to come.

Part II - The Post-Johnson Years, continues in the next issue.

Joseph W. Newman, Ph.D., is professor of education and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations at the University of South Alabama.

Marietta Johnson's books are back in print in a combined edition, Organic Education: Teaching Without Failure, is available from the Marietta Johnson Museum of Organic Education, 440 Fairhope Avenue, Fairhope. Call 990-8601 for further information.

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