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“Here are the model children!” Revisiting Louisa May Alcott’s Representations of Her Parents’ Educational Theories

by Azelina Flint

This article examines Louisa May Alcott’s representations of her parents’ educational theories in the “Plumfield” community of Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Critical responses to these novels have focused on Alcott’s fictionalized portrayals of her father’s teaching methods but have failed to note that these methods are underpinned by her mother’s educational philosophy. Abigail Alcott opposed her husband’s emphasis on moral perfectibility and his endeavors to create “model children.” Instead, she tailored her children’s learning experiences to their peculiar temperaments and identified herself with their faults. My revisionist reading of Bronson and Abigail Alcott’s diverging philosophies is based on their differing interpretations of the educational theories of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Bronson affiliated himself with the Utopian impulses of Pestalozzi’s early work, while Abigail allied herself with Pestalozzi’s later interest in child psychology. Louisa May Alcott unites her mother’s emphasis on family life with her father’s communitarian vision by creating a utopian educational community that is an extension of the nuclear family. The educational debates of the Alcott family remain relevant to the concerns of primary and post-secondary educators today, facilitating productive conversations concerning freedom of expression, disciplinary practice, and community service.

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