February 12, 2007
In a recent column called “Yesterday’s News” in the Mobile Press-Register, Marietta Johnson was quoted from an article that ran in 1932, stating that her school, The School of Organic Education, in Fairhope, provided “a Utopia for children.”
Beautiful words conjuring up an image of an idyllic setting of outdoor activies, sunshiny mornings of play woven into academic studies, and a joy in school as part of life for a child. On the other hand, the image conjured up might be different depending on one’s vision. One man’s Utopia is another man’s boredom, and one man’s idea of the love of learning may actually differ from that of the visionary Mrs. Johnson. She always maintained that her approach to education was as simple as life itself, but over the years it has been subject to interpretation, and has been misunderstood and mishandled as often as not.
The definition of this vision is especially difficult one hundred years later. The idealistic sentiments of the early 1900’s are a distant memory. Fairhope itself, founded as a Utopian colony and surely referenced in Mrs. Johnson’s remarks to the newspaper, is no longer what it was intended to be. People who move to Fairhope see only a pretty, upscale little town by the water’s edge. They are not inspired by the Henry George notion of real estate affordable to all; in fact, they hope to build something classy that will render them rich when they decide to sell. There is nothing unique in Fairhope any more, nor Utopian. It is a “nice” little town, like many others except for the parkland on the beach, which in any other town would have been developed years ago and would today be cluttered with the type of eyesores that infect most towns of similar size and location. Even though it was the Single Tax Corp. that preserved the very greenspaces that set Fairhope apart even today, all the talk of Fairhope’s artistic and Utopian heritage is just so many words now.
We have seen many wars, political conflicts, and social upheavals since the death of Marietta Johnson in 1938. We might say that mankind has changed. Her dreams of balance and authenticity for the lives of children have been undermined over the years as the education system, determined to compete in the world, ignored the basis of her form of education: The growth of the child. Over the years, the education Establishment saw artistic courses as “frills,” and more than ever, children were asked to put aside the business of childhood and behave as adults told them to with little regard to their particular phase of development.
The 1960’s brought a new consciousness to the land. Love, peace and flowers were everywhere. There was something beautiful in this presumed innocence, but it came to very little in the long run. Those baby boomers embraced the thought that they were the hope of the world, and they certainly were for a time. But their time too has passed.
Now ever so many who discover Mrs. Johnson’s little school see it as an extension of their own vision of love, peace and flowers – none of which was ever built into the educational theory Mrs. Johnson had designed. Utopia, perhaps – a world where children would be happy as they were learning – but a school all the same. Classes out of doors would emphasize the answers to children’s questions about nature, and stimulate further study right through the high school years, when they would read about biology from books and practice experiments with living things. In Organic Education, children’s curiosity is encouraged, and satisfied; yet all along they are being instructed in the many disciplines they need for their life in the larger world.
The school produced happy students, and still does. However, many of these children have parents who are troubled, insecure, and unable in the long run to trust this or any other school to do its job. Parents are less mature than they were in Marietta Johnson’s day. They seek to control every aspect of their children’s lives.
Why do they find solace in the ever-restrictive public school system? Simply because they feel they must. Those who choose to withdraw their children from our school may see their child, who was thriving, become unhappy trying to conform to the many rules and restrictions in their school life. The tragic thing is when these parents blame the child, as does the public school system itself, so rigid in its demands for conformity. In the Marietta Johnson School, the child is seen as precious and his individuality is respected. It is a Utopian vision for a pedestrian world.
A decade or so ago, a scholar wrote her doctorate dissertation based on research she did on the Fairhope school. A copy of Janet McGrath's work, appropriately titled A School for Utopia, is kept in the Marietta Johnson Museum in the old Bell Building, once a part of the Organic School. McGrath maintained that Mrs. Johnson's vision was a perfect fit for the Utopian Fairhope of the past, and that the school had adapted to the times and now was an all but forgotten symbol of a long-abandoned idealism of the town itself. An inspiring treatise, this dissertation contains interviews with all the graduates of the school McGrath could find, and gives a beautifully accurate picture of both old Fairhope and the philosophy and practice of the school.
As Fairhope grows, inevitably the Marietta Johnson School will grow again. There will always be parents who are willing to commit to a certain amount of risk in order to provide the best for their children, whether or not it is the conventional or predictable choice. And these parents will see that the real risk is in enrolling their child in other schools where creativity is discouraged and all progress is based upon test scores rather than the development of the child himself.
It is the risk of nothing less than the future of civilization.