Transcendental Learning

The Educational Legacy of Alcott, Emerson, Fuller, Peabody and Thoreau

John P. Miller, University of Toronto

A volume in the series: Current Perspectives in Holistic Education. Editor(s): John P. Miller, University of Toronto. Kelli Nigh, University of Toronto.

Published 2012

Transcendental Learning discusses the work of five figures associated with transcendentalism concerning their views on education. Alcott, Emerson, Fuller, Peabody and Thoreau all taught at one time and held definite views about education. The book explores these conceptions with chapters on each of the five individuals and then focuses the main features of transcendental learning and its legacy today. A central thesis of the book is that transcendental learning is essentially holistic in nature and provides rich educational vision that is in many ways a tonic to today’s factory like approach to schooling. In contrast to the narrow vision of education that is promoted by governments and the media, the Transcendentalists offer a redemptive vision of education that includes:

-educating the whole child-body, mind, and soul,
-happiness as a goal of education.
-educating students so they see the interconnectedness of nature,
-recognizing the inner wisdom of the child as something to be honored and nurtured,
- a blueprint for environmental education through the work of Thoreau,
- an inspiring vision for educating women of all ages through the work of Margaret Fuller,
- an experimental approach to pedagogy that continually seeks for more effective ways of educating children,
- a recognition of the importance of the presence of teacher and encouraging teachers to be aware and conscious of their own behavior.
-a vision of multicultural and bilingual education through the work of Elizabeth Peabody

The Transcendentalists, particularly Emerson and Thoreau, sewed the seeds for the environmental movement and for non-violent change. Their work eventually influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and it continues to resonate today in the thinking of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama. The Transcendentalists’ vision of education is worth examining as well given the dissatisfaction with the current educational scene.


"A Transcendental Education provides a powerfully hopeful, integrative, and holistic vision that can help guide education out of its current vacuum. The book is thoughtfully explicated, expertly synthesized and completely relevant for anyone interesting in helping education find itself. Like the transcendentalists themselves, this is both down-to-earth and soaring in its potential implications."

Tobin Hart author of "The Secret Spiritual World of Children" and "From Information to Transformation: Education for the Evolution of Consciousness."

"The secret to a vital, renewed America lies in the life and writings of the Transcendentalist community of Concord, Massachusetts in the 19th century. Jack Miller, who I know has been devoted to a new, living form of education throughout his career, has written a book that could inspire a revolution in teaching. It goes against the tide, as do Emerson and Thoreau. But it offers a blueprint and a hope for our children."

Thomas Moore, author of "Care of the Soul."

"A timely account of great thinking on genuine education. Reading this, today's beleaguered teachers should experience a renewal of spirit and commitment."

Nel Noddings, author of "Happiness and Education."

1. Transcendental Learning 2. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Visionary and Mentor 3. Bronson Alcott: Pioneer in Spiritual Education 4. Margaret Fuller: Voice for and Educator of Women 5. Henry David Thoreau: Environmental Education/Holistic Educator 6. Elizabeth Peabody 7. A Transcendental Pedagogy 8. The Legacy: Holistic Education

"John P. Miller’s vision of the current state of the world is bleak, characterized by increasing corporate corruption, financial instability, distrust of politicians, environmental destruction, and “an empty lifestyle based on materialism and consumption” (Miller, 2011, p. 4). In addition, he suggests that overall, contemporary educational systems’ pervasive emphasis on preparation for competition in the global economy is only intensifying the fragmentation and alienation felt by many youth. However, throughout history, some advocates for children have called for radical changes in methods of educating, towards a more balanced holistic approach. In a time in which it is essential to marshal all potential resources to support spirit based education, the “American transcendentalists” are a potent and overlooked source. Miller’s book demonstrates that this small group of American philosopher/educators has much to offer.

Miller’s style is clear and straightforward so that ideas presented can be easily understood; thus the book is appropriate for a wide audience, from undergraduates to academics. It is a book well worth pondering, a distinctive addition to the holistic/spiritual educator’s library. In concluding, Miller says: “Their work should encourage us to look within and trust our own intuitions so we can “build our own world” (Miller, 2011, p. 122). This is crucial wisdom echoing across centuries to a world that, more than ever, cries out for inspired rebuilding." Dr. Aostre N. Johnson Saint Michael's College in International Journal of Children's Spirituality

"One can point to alternative schools, such as Waldorf and Montessori schools, and certian private schools, but hardly any of our public schools, where a holistic educational model is so desperately needed. However, for those who view teaching as a subversive activity, Miller ofers valuable advice for bringing the principles of Transcendental learning into the classroom." Barry Andrews in Thoreau Society Bulletin

"Useful for educational history or philosophy classes, the book would also be appropriate for those exploring outdoor learning, environmental education, feminist pedagogy or peace studies. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readership levels." S.T. Schroth Knox College in CHOICE