16 July 2014

Reflections from the Classroom - Adult Learning at the Summer Conversational Series

Bronson Alcott was at heart an educator. Whatever else he did, he came back to education: from being a teacher of young children, to serving as the superintendent of Concord schools, to traveling across the country to give conversations. The Concord School of Philosophy was the last of his endeavors, and the most lasting. Although the School closed after his death, the ideals of the School of Philosophy became the foundation for a yearly conference, begun in 1999. For the last 15 years, the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House has continued Bronson’s legacy of adult education. Individual talks no longer last all day, but for the scholars who come, it is a chance to present more than the typical 20 minute talk given at most academic conferences. Young scholars still pursuing their studies, classroom teachers who remain life-long learners, college professors from multiple disciplines, and eminent scholars from museums and other institutions all come together in the same room. The yearly theme connects all the presentations together; threads of discussions begun on Sunday connect throughout the week until the final conversation on Thursday afternoon, when participants then reflect on those connections. Bronson Alcott would be pleased!

Topics for the Conversational Series have included 19th century issues such as abolition, the women’s sphere, and education. We have looked at Louisa May Alcott’s lasting legacy, what primary sources can teach us about the past, and Transcendentalism. John Matteson shared his early research on Bronson and Louisa one year, and the next year read from the finished Eden’s Outcasts (and the next year was celebrated for being awarded the Pulitzer prize for biography). Sarah Elbert, author of several books on Louisa May Alcott, has spoken at the Series many times, as have Joel  Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Eve LaPlante (an Alcott relative). Presenters have come from France, Japan, and Argentina.
This year the series focuses on Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts. Only half-way through the week, and the conversation ranged from discussion of the Faust myth, the difference between talent and genius (according to the Alcotts themselves), what illustrations can tell us about interpretations of Little Women, and Louisa May Alcott’s marketing genius. Although these may sound like very different topics, they have all overlapped and built on each other. We may not yet know exactly what genius is, but we are enjoying the journey this conversation is taking us.

I have traveled from California each year since 2006, first as a participant, then as a presenter. It is the best week of my year, seeing people who have become friends, gaining new insight into the life and work of the Alcott family. If it were not for this Series, I would not have as deep an understanding of Bronson, as developed an appreciation of May, or as strong an admiration of Abba. And my love of Louisa’s fiction might still be just a hobby, rather than a scholarly pursuit.

What is it that draws us all here, besides the chance to share our work with like-minded people? There is something special in this yearly meeting. Perhaps it is that many of the presenters stay for the week. Having heard the earlier talks, later presenters can build on what’s come before. Those who have already presented can share ideas that they did not have time for, when they connect to the current discussion. The conversation after each talk becomes a true conversation, not just a Q&A. The Series is a space where the scholar (who has written multiple books) thanks the graduate student (just beginning dissertation research) for new insight into a specific topic. Speakers bring work they have just started, or read from finished books. Participants, all of whom are genuinely interested in what’s being shared, ask astute questions and add their own insight through their comments. And added to all of that, is Orchard House itself. Volunteers and staff bring lunch and home-baked goodies and select and beautifully wrap gifts for each presenter. We all, presenters and participants, go on the house tour and shop at the gift shop (what new books can I find this year?). As I talk to others during the Series, I sense that many of us simply love this place. It is not just the Alcotts, or the people who come to the Series. It is all of it together. I am proud to be part of Bronson Alcott’s educational legacy, and I am already planning for next year.

- Dr. Cathlin Davis, professor of Education, CSU Stanislaus
Part I will focus on 19th Century French women authors Madame de Staƫl and George Sand
and their influence on the Concord Transcendentalists, while Part II will examine the
representation of women in two well-known French works of 1857 --

Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

1 comment:

  1. I love coming to this series, this was my third year. Learned tons and made lots of friends who share my passion for Louisa. Thanks for this great series!