Leading, listening and location: The MacJannets’ radical educational experiment
To many, the MacJannets were primarily concerned about the cause of international good will—first between Americans and the French (beginning in the 1920s through their school outside Paris and their camp at Talloires), later between American and Europeans (through their international exchange programs) and ultimately among peoples throughout the globe (through international conferences at the Prieuré as well as today’s MacJannet Prize for Global Citizenship).
International relations was of course important to the MacJannets. But then, that subject is important to many other people as well. How were the MacJannets different?
In my own view of the MacJannet ideals, international goodwill was a by-product rather than the centerpiece of their vision. Above all, I believe, the MacJannets had unique ideas about the ingredients of a great education.
Today’s MacJannet Traveling Fellows programs— oriented around the Prieuré in Talloires— essentially continues the key elements of the MacJannet educational design: a welcoming atmosphere; a sense of nature’s enchantment; the opportunity to take risks in cultivating the individual’s potential; and the chance to become bi-lingual and cross-cultural.what Rousseau saw as his natural goodness while participating in an inevitably corrupt society.
The MacJannets chose spectacular environmental settings for great education— environments like Talloires, which provide a certain ambiance for learning, reflection and harmony at all levels. The Talloires area, which Donald first discovered in 1925, met their requirements. He disguised his summer program there as a “camp,” but it was like no other camp. Education there was continuous from morning to night.
In effect, the MacJannet Camps in Talloires as well as the MacJannet American School, which opened at St.-Cloud outside Paris in 1924, constituted Donald’s attempt to realize in practice the ideals expressed in Emile: or, On Education, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 treatise on the individual’s relationship to society, and in particular how the individual can retain
Donald’s younger sister, Jean, was placed in a good foster home with Unitarians who believed in fair monetary compensation and boarded her in return for a stipend that Donald was also required to pay. Donald’s older brother and sister were already committed to obligations elsewhere— and, maintaining their own devout poverty, could be of no help to him.
Teaching by not teaching
Of course, many another poor Horatio Alger-style hero of that day also overcame similarly overwhelming adversity. But pluck and determination were not Donald’s sole assets. He was also a natural teacher who believed in teaching by not teaching. He told or led guided tours of historical sites (with plenty of jokes), but his objective was to have the students do the teaching. He created an environment of discovery learning.
At his school at St.-Cloud in the 1920s and ‘30s, for example, students were continually engaged in excursions and field trips. These were not the ordinary sort of field trips to the local science museum or government offices, but field trips to places like Africa, Scotland and Megève. Even on the short trips, it was always part of the MacJannet tradition that at the end of the day, the entire school or camp assembled, and someone from each group explained to everyone else what discoveries were made during the trip. By tradition, the accounts were embellished. The MacJannets listened with rapt attention.
Charlotte’s cultural perspective
When Charlotte arrived on the scene as Donald’s bride in 1932, she brought her perspective of German culture, at a higher level of understanding the arts than most Americans possessed. Consequently, she discovered voids in Donald’s approach. (At the same time, she was something of a rebel against certain aspects of high German culture.)
‘I can’t sing’
Also, she refused to accept defeatist attitudes such as “I can’t sing,” or “I can’t dance.” In this respect her approach differed sharply from that of my own grammar school music teacher, who declared, “George can’t sing,” and asked me to just lip-synch, along with four of my compatriots who were also wrongfully accused of mocking the music program.
A wonderful photograph of Mr. Mac, taken in the Prieuré garden during a reception about 1980, captures the process better than any words. At such occasions, inevitably, someone brings along a child for lack of a baby sitter and the child has nothing to do. But in the picture, Mr. Mac and this six-year-old are carrying on what appears to be a deep conversation.
But the Macs cloaked their experiment with proper trappings of Victorian manners and avoided discussion of the underlying controversial philosophy as much as possible. If you asked them about their philosophy, they might say something like: “Each person must feel safe and welcome. That way, a person can develop his/her own potential and become aware of the beauty and joy in the world around them. A person does not see these discoveries from a perspective of fear and intimidation.”
Most parents would probably pay lip service to such an idea, but the MacJannets practiced this idea in a way that was truly remarkable. Their philosophy of using empathy as both a social setting and an educational objective is 180 degrees removed from the educational philosophy of other prep schools of that time— such as St. Alban’s in Washington, D.C., where Donald taught after graduating from Tufts, and my own secondary school in the 1960s, Salisbury, in Connecticut. These traditional prep schools believed in hardening young people so they would be able to thrive in a dog-eat-dog world.
Talloires was one of many locations where the MacJannets pursued their educational design. Belle Isle, Cannes, St.-Cloud and Sun Valley (during World War II) were among the others. At one time— after the U.S. Navy took over their school facilities at Sun Valley— they thought of opening their school in Venezuela, at yet another spectacular location.
Talloires has proven to be a suitable place in which the MacJannet educational experience works. As the Tufts European Center has demonstrated at the Prieuré since 1978, it still does.
But the MacJannets were never about Talloires per se. What the MacJannets were about was an educational design. That design is still there— and it can still be carried on, even now when the MacJannets are gone, precisely because it was never about listening to the MacJannets. It was about listening to the environment to which they led people.
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