Founder of the School of Organic Education in Fairhope, Alabama, Marietta Johnson built an international reputation as a progressive educator. Johnson viewed the Organic School as an ongoing experiment, an original demonstration of her idea that students should be educated as complete organisms with balanced attention to body, mind, and spirit. As director of the most child-centered school in the United States, she spoke throughout the nation, lectured abroad, and took her place in the front ranks of founders of progressive schools.
Under Johnson’s guidance, the Organic School opened in 1907 as an experimental school in an experimental community. The small town of Fairhope was a single-tax colony dedicated to the principles of collective land ownership advocated by Henry George in Progress and Poverty (1879). Johnson and her husband, who were socialists, moved to the Gulf Coast from Minnesota in 1902 and felt immediately at home in the utopian community of idealists, artists, and freethinkers.
Johnson arrived in her late thirties as a seasoned teacher and normal school instructor who was undergoing an educational conversion. She embarked on a self-directed reading program that led her to the thought of Rousseau, Froebel, Dewey, and developmental psychologists. Soon, she rejected traditional teaching methods in favor of a new pedagogy, one keyed to the needs and interests of students. For the rest of her career, she would downplay external standards—along with grades, report cards, and other competitive measures—and emphasize instead the internal standard of doing one’s best.
Directing the Organic School gave Johnson the chance to put her ideas into practice. Everyday, students at the school spent an hour folk dancing and another hour working in the shop. She postponed formal reading instruction until students reached age eight or nine. Much teaching and learning took place out of doors. This extremely child-centered pedagogy, infused with left-of-center politics, perfectly suited its community. Financial support from the single tax colony and several philanthropists allowed local children to attend the Organic School tuition free, while well-to-do boarding students enrolled from throughout the country.
The success of the school during the 1910s and 1920s was so encouraging that Johnson set the goal of developing a model for reforming public education nationwide. A group of socially prominent women in the New York City area organized a foundation to sponsor her work, booking as many lectures and other engagements as she could handle. A full-page interview in the New York Times in 1913 brought her tremendous public exposure and set the stage for a visit by John Dewey, who gave Johnson and her school a rave review in Schools of To-Morrow (1915).
In 1919, she cofounded the Progressive Education Association, an organization of university teacher educators and leaders of progressive schools, hoping that it would become another avenue for promoting organic education. Her lectures and workshops for parents and teachers, which kept her on the road and numbered in the hundreds over the course of her career, stimulated the establishment of several other schools on the organic model.
The Great Depression of the 1930s, however, wreaked financial havoc on the Organic School, and Johnson lost status within the progressive education movement. Despite her long-standing commitment to social reform, her version of child-centered education came across as out of touch with the times. In addition, Fairhope’s commitment to experimentation and reform weakened as the town grew and the founding generation passed. In the years following Johnson’s death in 1938, the Organic School lost the support of the community and drifted away from her genuinely radical pedagogy. Now a full century old, the school is struggling to reclaim its heritage.
- Dewey, J., & Dewey, E. (1915). Schools of to-morrow. New York: Dutton.
- Johnson, M. (n.d.). Organic education: Teaching without failure. Fairhope, AL: Marietta Johnson Museum.
- Newman, J. W. (2002). Marietta Johnson and the Organic School. In A. R. Sadovnik & S. F. Semel (Eds.), Founding mothers and others: Women educational leaders during the Progressive Era. New York: Palgrave.
- Marietta Johnson Museum: http://www.mariettajohnson.org
- Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education: http://www.fairhopeorganicschool.com
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