Marietta Louise Pierce Johnson

Marietta Louise Pierce Johnson (1864-1938), founder and 30-year teacher of an Alabama experimental school, made herself a pioneer in the progressive education movement.

Marietta Louise Pierce Johnson was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, daughter of Clarence D. and Rhoda Matilda (Morton) Pierce. Her early education was in public schools in Minnesota, and even as a young girl in school she dreamed of becoming a teacher herself. On her graduation from the State Normal School (now St. Cloud State College) in 1885 she did become a teacher, and in time a distinguished one. Within a few years she had taught every grade in the elementary school and had also had some high school teaching experience. In 1890 she was appointed a supervisor of student teachers on the faculty first of the St. Paul Teachers' Training School (1890-1892), then at the State Teachers Colleges at Moorhead (1892-1895) and at Mankato (1896-1899). As a supervising "critic teacher" she observed students in practice teaching, gave special instruction in pedagogy, and on occasion would take over a class to demonstrate her ideas. She is remembered in these years as an inspiring and creative teacher, full of new ideas on schooling.

In June 1897 she was married to John Franklin Johnson, and they became the parents of two children. The Johnsons spent the winter of 1903 at Fairhope, Alabama, a small community on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay that had been founded some years earlier by followers of Henry George's single-tax theory. In this somewhat utopian community Marietta Johnson was invited to open an experimental school to explore some of her educational ideas. Her new ideas on schooling owed much to the early writings of John Dewey and specifically to Nathan Oppenheim's book The Development of the Child. As an educational theorist she was in broad terms the heir of the child-centered romanticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She accepted the opportunity with enthusiasm and in 1907 moved permanently to Fairhope to found the School of Organic Education which she served as director until 1938.

Beginning with six students the first day, the Organic School, as it came to be called, enrolled in time as many as 200 each year. With parent and community support and Johnson's tireless fundraising, the school received no public funds but was always tuition free to its students. It was called "organic" in that the central aim of the school was to "minister to the health of the body, develop the finest mental grasp, and preserve the sincerity and unself-consciousness of the emotional life." That is, the child was seen always as a "unit organism" in order for schooling to promote the growth of the whole child. In Johnson's view, education and growth were identical.

The curriculum organization and the life of the Organic School were carefully informal. All grades, marks, promotions, and reports were thought to create only tensions of self-consciousness and were therefore omitted entirely. Students were judged only in terms of their individual abilities and hence extrinsic rewards were eliminated in favor of the intrinsic satisfactions of learning and growth. The measures of success of students, and indeed of the entire school, were to be based on creativity, spontaneity, interest, and sincerity in their lives.

The school was divided into six divisions beginning with a kindergarten for children under age six and reaching through high school and college preparatory studies. Based on the Rousseauan (and later Deweyan) idea that formal studies should emerge from the child's awakening intrinsic interests, instruction in reading and writing were delayed as long as possible, certainly no sooner than age eight. Throughout the grades there was always strong emphasis on creative expression; on crafts, music, dance, and imaginative drama; and on trips and visits ranging over the countryside. In the later grades came the shift to more formal studies, from nature study to biological sciences, and so on. The high school was fully accredited; its graduates entered colleges on certificate, where they appeared to do well.

Commenting on the possible influence of her experimental school on American education in general, Johnson late in her life wrote, "It is very thrilling to contemplate what society might be in a few years…. No examinations, no tests, no failures, no rewards, no self-consciousness; the development of sincerity, the freedom of children to live their lives straight out, no double motives, children never subjected to the temptation to cheat, even to appear to know when they do not know; the development of fundamental sincerity, which is the basis of all morality." The principles of the Organic School in Johnson's view could be the basis for the transformation of public education and of American society.

Johnson's vision of a new education, based as it was on her Organic School experiment, took on national prominence with the publication in 1915 of the Deweys' Schools of Tomorrow. John Dewey and his daughter Evelyn after visiting and studying the school wrote extensively and glowingly about the experiment in this widely read survey of innovative schools in America. The Johnson school along with the others reviewed as Schools of Tomorrow helped form the base for the emerging theories of progressive education. Marietta Johnson herself was one of the leading spirits in the founding of the Progressive Education Association in the years following World War I and remained throughout her life an inspiration to that organization. In her later years she was honored by the association as a permanent honorary vice-president. Ever a crusader, Johnson established a second Organic School following the Fairhope model in Greenwich, Connecticut, and by the late 1920s she was dividing her time between Alabama and New England. She also was active over the years in conducting summer schools for parents, teachers, and children in Greenwich (1913-1916 and 1919-1921) and in Fairhope (1917 and 1918). Her best account of the Fairhope experiment and her statement of the principles of Organic Education are contained in her book Youth in a World of Men, published in 1929.

At the time of her death in 1938 Marietta Johnson was honored as one of the founding forces of the progressive education movement and as particularly influential in the child-centered schools organized in following years by such theorists as Margaret Naumburg and A.S. Neill. Her child-centered vision of education continues to inspire and stimulate new ideas in schooling.


Further Reading on Marietta Louise Pierce Johnson

Additional information on the work of Marietta Johnson can be found in Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957 (1962); John Dewey and Evelyn Dewey, Schools of Tomorrow (1915); and "Marietta Johnson and Fairhope," in Progressive Education (February 1939).