Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.
(Read by Mary Parker, chair of the Carriage House Nursery School Advisory Board)
The first reading is a draft of the revised mission statement of Carriage House Nursery School, which is operated by First Parish.
Carriage House Nursery School encourages learning and growth, curiosity and enjoyment, self-esteem and respect for others.
Our commitment to children [is] to provide:
Support for families through strong school partnerships;
Attention to the health, safety, and responsive care of all children;
Active, individualized, developmentally appropriate learning;
A culture of respect for one another and for all people and the world in which we live;
A culture of respect and awe for the natural environment, of which we are a small part.
The second reading comes from an article by Abigail Adams Eliot, titled “Nursery Schools Fifty Years Ago,” published in the April, 1972, issue of Young Children magazine:
“Day nurseries had been established for the sake of working mothers, mothers who needed somebody to take care of their children safely during the day…. Nursery schools had a new motivation — program. In fact the nursery school movement grew from a conviction that some definite educational plan is necessary before the age of five…. Nursery schools were no babysitting agencies, nor were they dedicated to the business of getting children ready for elementary school. Rather, they were interested in enrichment — in guiding children toward a more rewarding life….
“In addition to providing a rich program for children, nursery schools tried to educate adults. Contact with parents was an important phase of the work, as it is in good nursery schools today…. I myself told an early graduating class [of teachers] at the Ruggles Street Nursery School and Training Center, ‘If the nursery school movement does not result, ultimately, in better families, it will be a failure.”
Sermon: Early Education and Unitarian Universalism
Recently I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and early education recently. I should explain that “early education” is educational jargon for learning that happens before about age 8. Thus, early education includes first and second grades in school, kindergarten, and pre-primary school or nursery school.
If you’ve ever been in our Parish House on weekday mornings, you’ll know why I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and early education. Each weekday our Parish House houses dozens of young children, ranging in age from two to five, who come to the Carriage House Nursery School. Carriage House Nursery School is owned and operated by First Parish; it’s by far the largest program we provide to the wider community.
Unitarian Universalists have been involved in early education for over a century and a half. I believe that our interest in early education springs directly from our religious commitments. And to explain what I mean, I’d like to tell you about two Unitarians who were innovators in early education, and how their work in education grew out of their Unitarian religion. Then I’m going to tell you a little bit about our own Carriage House Nursery School, and how that relates to our Unitarian Universalism.
I’ll begin with one of my heroines, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Elizabeth Peabody was born in Billerica, Massachusetts, in 1804, and was raised in a Unitarian church by a Unitarian mother who was also a school teacher. It is no wonder, then, that Elizabeth Palmer Peabody became an educator who, like a good Unitarian, valued the individuality of each child in her care.
Elizabeth Peabody began her teaching career in and around Boston, and on Sundays she would attend services at the Federal Street Church. The minister there, William Ellery Channing, was the most prominent Unitarian minister of that time. Channing recognized that this young woman had unusual intellectual and spiritual gifts. William Channing so respected Elizabeth Peabody that he formed the habit of taking a walk with this twenty-something school teacher every Saturday so he could discuss that week’s sermon topic with her.
After teaching for a number of years, Elizabeth Peabody opened the West Street Bookstore in Boston. This bookstore became the center for Unitarians and Transcendentalists, and Elizabeth got to know most of the great Unitarians of her day, including: Ralph Waldo Emerson; the early feminist Margaret Fuller; and educational reformer Horace Mann. The bookstore was, in it own way, an educational institution.
But in the 1850s, Elizabeth Peabody returned to teaching school. She became one of the most important figures in the American kindergarten movement. The kindergarten movement was started in Germany by pioneering educator Friedrich Froebel. Elizabeth Peabody brought her own Unitarian beliefs to Froebel’s child-centered education. Here, for example, is how she defined “kindergarten” in her “Lecture No. 1 on Nursery and Kindergarten,” published in 1874:
“A kindergarten means a guarded company of children, who are to be treated as a gardener treats his plants; that is, in the first place, studied to see what they are, and what conditions they require for the fullest and most beautiful growth; in the second place, put into or supplied with these conditions, with as little handling of their individuality as possible, but with unceasing genial and provident care to remove all obstructions, and favor all the circumstances of growth. It is because they are living organisms that they are to be cultivated — not drilled (which is a process only appropriate to insensate stone).”
In Elizabeth Peabody’s day, “drilling” children meant forcing them to memorize and repeat facts and words; it was the main educational technique used in most schools back then. By contrast, Elizabeth Peabody favored a child-centered approach to education. For her, children had to be treated as individual human beings, and this was a direct result of her Unitarian beliefs. Today we might say she affirmed the inherent worth and dignity of every schoolchild.
Elizabeth Peabody also adhered to the Unitarian belief that education is one of the best ways to address social problems. She raised enough money to open a free kindergarten in a poor neighborhood in Boston. When that school proved to be a success, she traveled throughout the United states advocating for free public kindergartens. She also began training kindergarten teachers who could teach in those new schools. While there were others also promoting public kindergartens at this time, Elizabeth Peabody was perhaps the most important advocate, so I think of her as the mother of kindergartens in America.
The next Unitarian educator I’d like to tell you about is Abigail Adams Eliot. Born in Dorchester in 1892, Abby Eliot graduated from Radcliffe College in 1914, and became a social worker. But she quickly learned that social work was not the right career for her. Instead, around 1920 she found herself involved in the then-new nursery school movement. By the 1920s, kindergartens had become fairly widespread. But educators began to see that children under the age of five would also benefit from schooling. Yale professor of education Arnold Gesell put it this way: “The educational ladder of the American public school is a tall one and a stout one, but it does not reach the ground. It does not have a solid footing.” The nursery school movement aimed to bring the ladder of the American public school down to the ground, by providing schooling for children from age two to five.
Abby Eliot went to England to train at one of the first nursery schools, the McMillan Nursery School in London. She learned a great deal in her six months there. Sometimes she learned what not to do. She said: “One of the things I learned very well was never, never to put 32 two-year-olds together in one room. We came close to a panic about 4:30 one Friday afternoon when a think London fog rolled into the open-air shelter we used. The children got to fighting over toys or something, and the fog was so thick that my student helpers and I could not see the children. It was nip and tuck to quiet them before they hurt each other.” This is one of the best arguments I’ve ever heard for small class sizes for young children.
Abby Eliot also quickly discovered the importance of engaging the whole family, and even the wider community. When the school could engage the parents as well as the child, the result — so said Abby Eliot — was to strengthen families. And in one school that Abby Eliot ran, she invited high school students to come learn child development practices, so that when they eventually had children of their own, they would be better parents.
In 1921, Abby Eliot opened the Ruggles Street Nursery School in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Boston. Like Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, she had the same Unitarian-influenced goal of strengthening democracy and addressing social ills through education. Abby Eliot quickly proved to have real talent working with young children, and her school became a center for training nursery school teachers. Eventually, Abby Eliot’s training efforts were incorporated into the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, part of the Department of Child Study at Tufts University. (A parenthetical note: Tufts is a Universalist college.) The Eliot-Pearson Children’s School remains a training site for teachers working with young children.
I will make one small critique of Abby Eliot, a critique that also applies to Elizabeth Peabody. Like many Unitarians, they saw their mission as helping the poor and disadvantaged. This they understood to mean helping other people, seeing other people as the recipient of their good works. While it is admirable to help others, sometimes Unitarians have forgotten that we have our own problems that need to be addressed. However, after she retired to Concord, Massachusetts, Abby Eliot addressed a social problem within her own family by founding the Community Mental Health Center. She started this clinic based on her experiences of her own relatives who had struggled with mental health issues.
Now that I’ve told you about Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Abigail Adams Eliot, I’d like to turn to the Carriage House Nursery School, a Unitarian Universalist educational project right here in Cohasset.
When I heard Mary Parker the educational goals of the Carriage House Nursery School in the first reading this morning, I could hear echoes of the Unitarian values of Elizabeth Peabody and Abigail Eliot. Carriage House provides child-centered education — that’s like Elizabeth Peabody studying children to see who they are, and then helping them attain “the fullest and most beautiful growth.” Carriage House provide support for families — just like Abigail Eliot engaged families in her nursery schools. Carriage House fosters a culture of respect for one another, and for all people — just as Elizabeth Peabody treated the children in her care with respect, and fostered a sense of the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. And the mission statement of Carriage House Nursery School — to encourage learning and growth, curiosity and enjoyment, self-esteem and respect for others — sounds exactly like something both Elizabeth Peabody and Abigail Eliot might have said. So you can see that Carriage House Nursery School, even though it is a distinctly non-sectarian school, fosters values that are thoroughly aligned with Unitarian Universalism.
In fact, I’d say that Carriage House Nursery School is our congregation’s largest social justice project. It is clearly the largest community program we run, both in terms of the size of its budget and the number of people it serves. And I would call it a social justice project for several reasons. First, Carriage House aims to strengthen families. We often think that it’s only families in disadvantaged neighborhoods that need to be strengthened, but as a minister I can tell you that there are plenty of families in affluent neighborhoods that need support.
Second, Carriage House nurtures a culture of respect — as it says in the mission statement: “A culture of respect for one another and for all people and the world in which we live; [and] a culture of respect and awe for the natural environment of which we are a small part.” A culture of respect for all people is essential for a civil society essential for democracy. A culture of respect for the natural environment is absolutely critical to helping us address climate change and other ecological disasters.
We tend to forget that education can be a social justice project in itself. Social justice goes beyond providing direct services to those in need. Social justice goes beyond influencing policy makers. Social justice has to include education. When we influence young people, when we instill in them a respect for all human beings and a respect for the interdependent web of life, we are changing the world for the better. And the change that happens in education goes far deeper than providing direct services, or influencing policy makers: we are changing people’s souls.
And do not underestimate the power of early education to change people’s souls. A nursery school like Carriage House can do so much to influence a child’s character, to nurture their growth towards becoming more human, and more humane. Given that democracy is always fragile, we have a constant need to raise more children who are imbued with a respect for all people, and a respect for the web of life. This is why so many Unitarian Universalists over the centuries have gotten involved in education: education is one of the best ways for us to live out our religious values.
And maybe we can think together about how to make this social justice project have even more impact. Can we reduce the amount of money we draw from Carriage House so that we could offer more scholarships? Can we find ways to support the innovative outdoor classroom that was built over the summer? Can we get student teachers to come to Carriage House to experience our educational approach? How can we support the Carriage House Advisory Board, the group of people from First Parish who oversee the work of the school?
And finally — when you think about our First Parish social justice programs, I hope that the first social justice program you think of is Carriage House Nursery School. For Carriage House Nursery School is one of the most powerful ways we live out our values in the wider community: strengthening democracy, and helping children grow in respect for themselves, each other, and the whole world.