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Marietta Pierce Johnson (1864–1938)

Organic Education, New Trends in Education

Founder of the School of Organic Education in Fairhope, Alabama, Johnson won international recognition as a child-centered Progressive educator. She was born near St. Paul, Minnesota, and grew up as a twin in a close-knit farming family. After attending public schools in St. Paul and graduating from the state normal school at St. Cloud in 1885, she taught in rural elementary and secondary schools, and served as a training teacher in normal schools. Johnson found success and popularity as a traditional instructor, priding herself on how quickly she could teach first graders to read.

Organic Education

After a decade and a half of classroom work, she suddenly rejected the very methods she practiced and demonstrated so impressively. In 1901, with all the force of a religious conversion experience, Johnson was convinced that her well-intended but misguided teaching methods violated the "order of development of the nervous system. I realized that my enthusiasm was destructive, and the more efficient I was, the more I injured the pupils!" (Johnson 1974, p. 8). The catalyst for this change was a personal reading program that led Johnson from child psychology books into works by Jean Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Froebel, and John Dewey. Through these readings as well as her own observation, she came to see that children move through distinct stages as they grow and that parents and teachers should key their educational efforts to the developmental process.

Johnson's belief in social reform made her unusually receptive to ideas on educational reform. She and her husband John Franklin were socialists, and in 1902 they moved to the small Gulf Coast village of Fairhope, a utopian community dedicated to the single-tax philosophy of Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty (1879). At home among former Midwesterners and northeasterners who seemed determined to set an example for the rest of the world, Johnson added an educational dimension to the Fairhope experiment.

Johnson immediately began searching for ways to educate each student as a complete organism–a "whole child," as Progressive educators would soon have it–paying balanced attention to body, mind, and spirit. The School of Organic Education she founded in 1907 became known as the most child-centered progressive school in the nation. Dewey explained in Schools of To-Morrow (1915) that he was one of many students and experts who had made pilgrimages to this remote corner of the Deep South to see Johnson's experiment. Dewey pronounced it a "decided success," and his rave review helped catapult Johnson into national prominence. Soon the School of Organic Education was attracting talented teachers and well-to-do boarding students from throughout the country.

Johnson's approach to education was genuinely radical. The once eager teacher now steered students away from books until the age of nine. Younger children, she maintained, were not ready for print. They could learn more through direct experience with the environment. Dewey and other visitors to the school were impressed with the time spent teaching and learning outdoors or in the shop, which Johnson regarded as the "most important place on our campus." Every student did daily handwork in the shop, while students and teachers joined in daily folk dancing. Students did no homework and took no tests until high school; nor did they receive grades or report cards. Such features drew most of the attention so that observers tended to overlook the curriculum, which became more demanding and rigorous as students gained maturity.

Refusing to compare one student to another, Johnson rejected "external, competitive" standards in favor of the "inner, human" standard of simply doing one's best. To critics who charged that the school was a "do-as-you-please" school–a common caricature of child-centered Progressive education–she countered that "children have no basis for judgment [and] do not know what is good for them" (Johnson 1974, p. 95). Teachers and parents, she insisted, were responsible for taking charge and directing young people away from "unwholesome" activities.

Such tough talk notwithstanding, Johnson was anything but authoritarian. She relied instead on personal appeal–a quiet but powerful presence–to convince people to do things her way. She was a charismatic woman who projected self-confidence. She shared some of these qualities with other women founders of early-twentieth-century progressive schools, most of which were elite private institutions. In an era when males imposed a business-oriented, measurement-driven version of progressivism on public schools, a few women opened private schools as child-centered alternatives. But Johnson was less autocratic than most of her peers, and her school also differed in significant ways.

Part of an experimental community, Organic operated as a quasi-public institution that charged local children no tuition. During Johnson's lifetime, one-half to two-thirds of Fairhope's white families chose to send their children to her school, which she hoped would become a model for reforming public education. She worked to create a climate of equal opportunity for females, accommodated disabled students, but reluctantly yielded to community pressure to bar African Americans.

Despite support from local tax revenue, Johnson fought an uphill battle to keep the Organic School solvent, a situation that forced her into a parallel career as a fundraiser. She spent much of her time on the lecture circuit, speaking throughout the United States and in several other countries, recruiting boarding students whose tuition and fees subsidized the attendance of local students. She was especially popular in the New York City area, where a group of socially prominent women organized the Fairhope Educational Foundation to support her efforts, particularly her work as director of the Edgewood School in Greenwich, Connecticut. A cofounder of the Progressive Education Association in 1919, Johnson tried with limited success to use the organization to promote organic education nationwide. Her efforts did inspire the founding of several private child-centered progressive schools, including the Peninsula School in Menlo Park, California, and a school in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania.

New Trends in Education

While the Great Depression of the 1930s wreaked financial havoc on an already unstable Organic School, Johnson's name lost some of its magic within the Progressive education movement, now dominated by social reconstructionists who dismissed her as a "play schooler" despite her longstanding commitment to social reform. Disappointed that few public educators had accepted organic education, she died in poor health in 1938. Without Johnson, the Organic School has drifted far from its educational moorings at times, but unlike many such schools, it continues to offer, in the early twenty-first century, a version of its founder's original vision.


ADSHEAD, MARY LOIS. 2000. "Marietta Johnson, Visionary." Alabama Heritage 58:28–35.

DEWEY, JOHN, and DEWEY, EVELYN. 1915. Schools of To-Morrow. New York: Dutton.

GASTON, PAUL M. 1984. Women of Fair Hope. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

JOHNSON, MARIETTA. 1929. Youth in a World of Men. New York: John Day.

JOHNSON, MARIETTA. 1931. "Standards and the Child." Progressive Education 8:692–694.

JOHNSON, MARIETTA. 1974. Thirty Years with an Idea. Birmingham: University of Alabama Press.

MARIETTA JOHNSON MUSEUM. 1996. Organic Education: Teaching without Failure. Montgomery, AL: Communication Graphics.

NEWMAN, JOSEPH W. 1999. "Experimental School, Experimental Community: The Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education in Fairhope, Alabama." In Schools of Tomorrow, Schools of Today: What Happened to Progressive Education? ed. Susan F. Semel and Alan R. Sadovnik. New York: Lang.


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