In 1907, Marietta Pierce Johnson (1864-1938) founded the School of Organic Education in Fairhope, as an experiment to study child development and provide children with the appropriate conditions for optimal development. Established within the Fairhope Single-Tax Colony, the school continues to operate in the community of Fairhope, and the original school is now a museum.
Marietta Pierce was born outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 8, 1864, into the farming family where she was one of eight children. As a young woman, she studied education at the Third State Normal School (now St. Cloud State University) in Minnesota and then taught in elementary and secondary schools in that state.
Marietta Pierce married John Franklin Johnson. They lived together in Minnesota before moving to Montana where they worked as ranchers. Learning of the Fairhope Single Tax Colony and its utopian community in Gulf Coast Alabama, the couple moved to Fairhope in 1901. Johnson taught in the Fairhope public school for a year before following her husband to Mississippi to run a pecan orchard. After its failure, the couple moved back to Fairhope, and Johnson took charge of the Fairhope Public School, overseeing its first high school graduating class in 1903.
One of the early pioneers of progressive education, Johnson studied the theories of child development promoted by pediatrician Nathaniel Oppenheim in his book, The Development of the Child (1898), as well as the social criticism of Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and the educational theories of education reformers Friedrich Froebel and John Dewey. Through a blending and expansion of their work, she developed her unique philosophy of education.
In 1907, Fairhope resident Lydia Comings urged Marietta Johnson to found a school based on her philosophy. With Johnson’s two sons and four other students, she established her experimental Organic School of Education school in a small cottage on Church Street in downtown Fairhope. Having studied Oppenheim’s theories of child development, Johnson’s vision included the idea that the school’s curricula should be structured and progress according to his concept of the stages of biological and neurological child development. She believed that the interests of children should be respected so that they could develop the power to think for themselves. Her concept of instruction, which she called organic education because it focused on the child as a complete “organism,” was a drastic departure from the traditional teaching methods of the day, which viewed adults as all-knowing and children as miniature, but incomplete, adults. In Johnson’s organic model, teachers were charged with presenting academic subjects in a natural setting that did not pressure children to conform to a rigid or regimented schedule. Students proceeded at their own individual and comfortable pace.
According to Johnson, childhood should be viewed as its own stage and not merely preparation for adulthood. Basic to the concept of organic education is the assumption that children are born to learn, that they want to learn, and that it is the job of educators to facilitate this by being aware of each child’s progression through the stages of development. She also believed that external standards tended to foster self-consciousness and thus the school had no tests or grades. Each child was simply expected to attend class and put forth his or her very best effort. She believed that the order of development of the child’s nervous system must not be violated and therefore all formal work such as reading, writing, and use of figures was postponed until age eight or nine. Classes were small and a sense of cooperation rather than competition prevailed.
Johnson was a proponent of a unique philosophy of progressive education inspired by her contemporary Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessorri. She did not believe any child should be allowed to fail.
The non-profit Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education celebrated its 100th year of continuous operation in 2007. It is located on a four-acre campus off of Pecan Avenue in Fairhope and continues to operate according to its founder’s ideals. The school offers instruction for children in kindergarten through eighth grade with a Learning Center for home-schooled high school students. The Marietta Johnson Museum is located in the original school house at 10 South School Street in Fairhope.