Tuesday, July 18, 2006

God and Mrs. Johnson

July 18

In her theory of educating the child, Marietta Johnson always said the process should address the whole organism, body, mind and spirit. What she meant by “spirit” has always been something of a question. When Henry Ford considered endowing the school, he was bothered by a lack of religious instruction. Ultimately he decided to fund his own school, in which such instruction would be included.

Mrs. Johnson wrote very pointedly about spirituality and religion in the lives of children in her first book, Youth in a World of Men. In her discussion of religion and the child, she states that being taught to live a sincere, frank and open life is the best way to bring out a child's innate spiritual and moral sense, and that "a child's interpretation of so-called religious teaching" can lead to "the idea of an anthropomorphic god who is merely a big man off on a throne somewhere, who may or may not be good to him. This is probably the worse thing that can come to a child."

She went on to describe the use of such insecurity as a way to manipulate children into certain behavior out of fear. She believed, on the other hand, that study of Bible stories and the practice of church rituals was good for children, and that it would be wise for parents to participate with their children in church and Sunday School in order to know what the child was being taught and how it was affecting him. She wrote, "If the more spiritually developed people withdraw from the church, how may it ever hope to fulfill its high mission?"

She worried that adults might try to introduce specific religious concepts too soon, that is, before a child is able to grasp them, and create confusion and misguided application of religious tenets that would last a lifetime.

"Man is too apt to meddle; he is too anxious to make others do right. This, of course, is an egotistical self-consciousness, very far from a true religious spirit. In our zeal to 'save souls' we may be anything but religious. Too often our 'love of God' makes us quite intolerant and critical of our fellows."

In her ideal world, (and in her school), a child would be "allowed to live in such a simple, sincere way as eventually to develop the idea that his relation to God is expressed in his love for his fellow men and his relation to his fellow men indicates his relation to the Divine." Neat and simple. She wrote, "He grows in this thing called love, the essence of which is giving; his religion will be one of devoting himself utterly to causes and objects of his affection, and this affection will grow in confidence in himself, in his fellows, and in the universe."

We didn't have classes in religion at the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education. We didn't have classes in self-confidence. We had a spirit of love for each other and our school that transcended the ability to articulate it. Mrs. Johnson felt strongly that mention of God -- the entity that might sit on a distant throne -- was not the way to imbue young children with such a spirit. She knew it would happen in a healthy, loving, unstated spiritual atmosphere.

It was not until the high school years that a prayer was introduced into our school life. At our morning assemblies we said it, a non-sectarian, humanist kind of prayer of reverence for the planet.

Nobody knows where the prayer came from, but I have always suspected that it was written by Marietta Johnson. I base this assumption on the knowledge that she insisted it be said often, and that she never acknowledged the writer. I think if someone else had written it she would have identified the person, and if she wrote it she would never have taken the credit. At any rate, if you mention "the school prayer" to anyone who went to the Organic School before the 1980's (and probably afterward), they will immediately crank it up and say it for you, reverently, as if for the first time.

Organic School Prayer

Give us thy harmony, O Lord,
That we may understand,
The beauty of the sky
The rhythm of the soft wind's lullaby,
The sun, the shadows, the woods in the spring,
And thy great love
That dwells in everything.

The Marietta Johnson Museum, at 10 S. School St. in Fairhope, republished the two books Mrs. Johnson wrote as one volume called Teaching Without Failure. To order a copy, visit the Museum's website via the link on this page, or you can buy one from the bookstore at the Alternative Education Resource Organization, which is also online. It's a great read, written by one of the unsung heroes of education reform.


mellowdrama said...

I think this entire blog entry should be included in any Organic School literature. It should be on the website under the link, "Our School and Religion", or some such thing. It is a fine synopsis of the school's stance on spirit, which I had never heard even though I spent a morning at the school learning what the school thought I should know. It seems to me to be the basis for all else that the Organic School stands for, giving an idea of approach and technique, not curriculum. When you are talking about touting "A Love of Learning", maybe school curriculum is the least important thing.

To leave out the topic of spirit, when it can obviously be presented so eloquently, is to miss a narrow, but important, segment of the population entirely.

Salomé said...

You make me wish that every school was like Mrs. johnson's school. What a world we might have if this philosophy of teaching were the guiding force everywhere.