Magazine Tells Of Marietta Johnson, Visionary
January 2, 2001 - Filed under: Uncategorized
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — At a time when the issue of education is a political football and buzzwords such as “vouchers” and “testing” and “accountability” are floated with impunity, it is interesting to consider that these very concerns were being debated –perhaps with even more fervor — in the early part of the century as well.
Mary Lois Adshead takes an in-depth look at the life and work of the progressive educator Marietta Johnson in the fall 2000 issue of Alabama Heritage magazine. Johnson’s School of Organic Education in Fairhope was on the cutting edge of pedagogical theory and practice for its day, advocating independent learning and constructive play.
Johnson, a 38-year-old schoolteacher from St. Paul, Minn., moved to Fairhope with her husband just after the turn of the century. Attracted by the mild climate and the Fairhopers’ bent toward social reform — the town itself had been founded on the economic principle of single tax, which Fairhopers believed would narrow the gap between rich and poor — Johnson started her school in 1907.
Johnson based the principles behind the Organic School on the educational theories of Jean Jacques Rousseau, one of the great figures of the French Enlightenment; Friedrich Froebel, the father of kindergarten; and John Dewey, a pre-eminent American philosopher and educator of his day. In fact, Dewey visited the Organic School in the winter of 1913 and declared in his 1915 book “Schools of Tomorrow” that “the school has proved a decided success.”
This success was not with out a price, both personal and professional. Though the school was enormously popular –talented teachers from around the country wanted to come teach at the Organic School and would take little pay in return for the opportunity –Johnson increasingly found herself in the position of fundraiser. She kept the school running for decades — even through the Depression — a testament to her tenacity. But it cost her time from her own family and ultimately, she simply grew too tired to keep up the necessary schedule. In December of 1938, she died in Fairhope, cherished and mourned.
The Organic School did not die with her. Perhaps the greatest legacy Johnson left was the sense of propriety she instilled in Fairhopers regarding the Organic School. The school was not her school but everyone’s. The principles of organic education were not just her principles — everyone believed in them. Indeed this legacy lasts today as the Organic School continues to educate students wholly, much as Marietta Johnson would have done it herself.
Mary Lois Adshead was raised in Fairhope and graduated from the School of Organic Education in 1958. After attending the University of Montevallo and the University of Southern Mississippi, she moved to New York for a career in journalism, public relations, and the theater. In 1989, she returned to Fairhope, where she created a professional theater company that operated until 1997, when she took on the job of director of the Marietta Johnson Museum.
Alabama Heritage is a nonprofit quarterly magazine published by The University of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. To order the magazine, write Alabama Heritage, Box 870342, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0342, or call 205/348-7467.
The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.
CONTACT: Sara Martin or T.J. Beitelman, Alabama Heritage, 205/348-7467