New Harmony Essay

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New Harmony, Indiana, was the site of two utopian communities, the second and more noteworthy one founded by educational pioneer Robert Owen, who gathered a group of scholars to work on educational reform. New Harmony was the site of the first kindergarten, the first infants’ school, the first distinctive trade school, the first school system offering the same educational advantages to both sexes, and the first self-governing or “free” school. This entry recounts its history and achievements.

The town of Harmonie (1814–1825) was founded by a group of religious Separatists led by Father Johann Georg Rapp. After the Harmonists returned to Pennsylvania, Welsh-born industrialist and social reformer Robert Owen purchased the town and surrounding land that would become New Harmony for his communitarian experiment. In 1826, a group of scientists, educators, and artists arrived aboard the keelboat Philanthropist, which was dubbed the “Boatload of Knowledge.”

Owen’s philanthropic idealism provided an opportunity for a number of educational reformers to start work of considerable importance. The group included William Maclure, the first American geologist. An advocate of the Pestalozzian system of education, Maclure believed in reform by education alone, whereas Owen believed in the reform of the entire environment. Maclure was placed solely in charge of education. It was the most ambitious educational experiment that had yet been attempted in the United States.

Others who arrived in the Boatload of Knowledge were geologist Thomas Say, geologist Gerard Troost, French naturalist Charles Alexander Lesueur, and artist and engraver John Chappelsmith. Frances (Fanny) Wright, the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, also spent time at New Harmony. Among Maclure’s educationists were Marie Duclos Fretageot and Joseph Neef, who had been associated with Johann Pestalozzi’s school in Switzerland. In 1808, Neef published Sketch of a Plan and Method of Education, the first book on pedagogy written in the United States. New Harmony not only introduced the Pestalozzian system of teaching to the United States, but also contributed directly to its eventual success by acting as a training center for teachers who popularized the system when they left the community. The Pestalozzian system emphasized that the child is guided to learn through the natural use of the senses.

Perhaps confirming Owen’s belief in systemic reform, the community gradually disintegrated due to factional divisions, while the educational experiment soared. Many of the scientists and other intellectuals, however, remained in residence, and Owen’s sons enhanced the family legacy. Robert Dale Owen became the most notable advocate in the country of free, equal, and universal schools and the legislative father of the Indiana free-school system, which was eventually adopted throughout the Midwest. In 1839, David Dale Owen established the headquarters of the U.S. Geological Survey at New Harmony, where it remained until the Smithsonian Institution was completed in 1846. New Harmony was also responsible, through the example and industry of its Working Men’s Institute and Library (established in 1838), for the growth of 144 public libraries in Indiana. As a result, Maclure could be considered the first founder of free libraries in the United States.

Bibliography:

  1. Pitzer, D. E. (1998). William Maclure’s Boatload of Knowledge: Science and education into the Midwest. Indiana Magazine of History, 94, 110–135.
  2. Historic New Harmony: http://www.newharmony.org and http://www.usi.edu/hnh

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