Thinking about Abigail Eliot

Abigail Eliot was a member of the Unitarian Universalist church I grew up in. I have only vague memories of her, but somehow knew she was someone important. I didn’t realize just how important she was until I read No Silent Witness: The Eliot Parsonage Women and Their Unitarian World by Cynthia Grant Tucker.

It turns out that Abigail Eliot was a pioneer of early education in the United States, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Eliot first trained at Margaret McMillan’s famous nursery school in England. McMillan developed the nursery school for children who lived in English slums; her school was designed to educate the whole child, mind and body, including nurturing health through outdoor education. Eliot returned to the United States and founded the Ruggles Street Nursery School in Boston.

While Eliot was not the first person to bring the nursery school concept to a city in the United States, she was one of the most influential pioneers of American nursery schools. She founded her school in 1922, and four years later turned her school into a training center for other nursery school teachers. Eliot’s training center for educators continues in the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, a lab school that’s part of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University.

In addition to the material on Abigail Eliot in No Silent Witness, here are links to more information about her life and work:

I think Abigail Eliot has become a spiritual exemplar for me. She dedicated her life to child-centered education, and in so doing used her significant intellectual talents for the betterment of humankind. I wish I had better memories of her, but all I really remember is seeing her walk down the driveway to her house near the church. My friend Alison, who is my age and grew up in the same Unitarian Universalist church I did, is lucky enough to retain vivid memories of Abby Eliot. Perhaps not surprisingly, Alison went on to a lifelong career as a kindergarten teacher, and now Alison’s daughter is a schoolteacher in East Boston.

Those older Unitarian Universalists, people like Abigail Eliot, inspired many of us younger Unitarian Universalists to devote our careers to making the world a better place. Many of those older Unitarian Universalists worked in fields that are mostly ignored by the public. (Sadly, Abigail Eliot’s contributions to humankind receive far less recognition than those of her famous poet cousin, T. S. Eliot.) Yet what I learn from those older Unitarian Universalists is that public recognition is less important than doing good work in the world. That’s one of the reasons why we should continue to hold them up as spiritual exemplars.

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