Flannery O'Conner and Progressive Education: Experiences and Impressions of an American Author

By Beineke, John A. | American Educational History Journal, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Flannery O'Conner and Progressive Education: Experiences and Impressions of an American Author


Beineke, John A., American Educational History Journal


Progressive education is often examined through the lens of curricular theorists, educational historians, and the experience of practitioners. Over the past century, critics and supporters have written voluminously on the legacy of the progressive education movement. One perspective, infrequently found in the debate, has been the experiences of students educated under the progressive philosophy. However, when the perspective originates from a highly regarded woman of letters it increases the validity of the impression. The Southern author, Flannery O'Connor, who attended progressive schools on both the secondary and collegiate levels in Milledgeville, Georgia, is one such individual.

Progressive education was frequently attacked during its ascendancy at the turn of the twentieth century until Lawrence Cremin pronounced its waning in the late 1950s. The period that Flannery O'Connor attended progressive schools, from 1938 to 1945, can be considered the highpoint of the movement. This study will detail and examine three elements of the relationship between O'Connor and progressive education. First, a description of O'Connor's experiences during the seven years she was a student in two progressive educational institutions. Second, an exploration of her personal impressions and professional opinions of progressive education as found in O'Connor's correspondence and literary and artistic works. Third, an assessment and analysis of the influence progressive education may have had on O'Connor as an author.

Flannery O'Connor is frequently analyzed by students and scholars in the light of her literary works. Little attention has been paid to how the experience of progressive education influenced O'Connor as both a writer and an individual. This is especially true of the two recent full-length biographies of O'Connor by Jean Cash and Brad Gooch.

O'Connor's views on education become even more complete when they are juxtaposed with her time in Catholic schools prior to her progressive education experiences. Catholic education, referred to in the philosophy of education as Thomism or Theism, and progressivism can be considered stark opposites on the spectrum of educational thought (Gutek 2004). O'Connor's perspective on education can be considered unique, given that she moved from the highly structured curricula and methodology of her early Catholic parochial school days to the relatively free and open pedagogy in progressive institutions.

Mary Flannery O'Connor was born on March 25, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia. She would go by Mary Flannery in high school and college and then drop the Mary after she became a published author. In her teens the O'Connors moved to Atlanta and then Milledgeville, Georgia. In 1941, her father died of disseminated lupus, and Mary Flannery subsequently graduated from high school and college while living with her mother's family. In 1945, O'Connor became a graduate student at the prestigious Iowa's Writer's Workshop where she was arguably the first well-known writer to emerge from the program (McGurl 2007). She received her Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa in 1947, and she then spent two years at Yaddo, a writer's colony in upstate New York. After deciding on writing as her career, she lived in rural Connecticut with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, with whom she was to become lifelong friends. Living in a garage apartment on their property, O'Connor labored on her first novel.

In early 1950, on a holiday trip home to Georgia, O'Connor was diagnosed with lupus erythematous, the same disease that had claimed her father's life. Ten times more likely to occur in females than males, this inherited disease is an autoimmune disorder and incurable. Upon the diagnosis O'Connor returned to Milledgeville to live with her mother, Regina Cline O'Connor. Flannery and her mother moved in 1951 to a family farm outside the town known as Andalusia where Flannery died of complications of lupus in August of 1964 (Gilbert and Gubar 1996, 1879). …

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