As husband and wife for 54 years, Donald and Charlotte MacJannet jointly pursued a radical educational vision that transcended national borders. But both were well into their 30s when they met and married in 1932. Two memoirs recently discovered in the Tufts University archives — one by Donald, one by Charlotte — shed light on the forces that shaped them separately before they joined forces with such inspiring impact.

Donald’s story:  The minister’s son, on his own

Donald MacJannet, age 21, c. 1915

Donald MacJannet, age 21, c. 1915

Editor’s note: In 1979, when he was 85, Donald MacJannet taped an extended interview conducted by Seymour Simches, the first director of Tufts University’s European Center at the Prieuré in Talloires, France. The first part of the transcript was recently discovered in the Tufts University archives; it provides new insights into Donald’s background, as well as the evolution of his educational philosophy. Some excerpts are provided below.  — Dan Rottenberg

Background and childhood

I’m from a small Massachusetts village called Sterling near Boston. My father, Robert MacJannet, had come from Scotland when he was nine years old, on a sailing ship to Canada with his family, and the journey lasted, I understand, 31 days. He worked his way through McGill University and was ordained a Baptist minister and served for a time in that denomination. But he soon decided that one should not be paid for preaching the gospel, so he joined the Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist church that met on Sundays in a circle with no ordained minister, somewhat as the
Quakers do.

My father became an Evangelist, and so I didn’t see very much of him during my boyhood days. He was an eloquent preacher but very strict. We were not supposed to do anything on Sundays but read the Bible or go to Sunday school— certainly not to play games. It was my mother that I knew and admired greatly.

We moved from one place to another, mostly in western Massachusetts. We were five in the family, and father had great confidence that God would provide for us— and
so He did, through my work and the work of my brother and sister. We used to help the neighboring farmers, weeding, picking strawberries for two cents a quart, and string beans at five cents a peck.

A hard childhood: Donald MacJannet, age about 14, perhaps 1908

A hard childhood: Donald MacJannet, age about 14, perhaps 1908

My father died in 1909, when I was quite young [14], and we all moved to Boston, where my father had friends. Until I entered college at 18, I lived with a widow named Mrs. Mitchell and her small son. When I entered Tufts, my tuition was only $75 a term, but I had to help support Mrs. Mitchell, her son and my own younger sister Jean (who was away at school in Northfield) as well.
I earned money by selling aluminum cooking utensils— a new product at the time, so I gave demonstrations before women’s clubs and church groups to show that aluminum wasn’t poisonous.

I also took a job as sexton of the Universalist Church in Medford. Another job was reading gas meters. I was paid only one cent a meter, but the job helped me develop a technique for remembering numbers, because the meters were often located in dark corners of tenement basements, and I found I could remember five or six at a time, then I’d come to daylight and write them down. Rarely did I make a mistake.

Disciplining unruly kids

My first job was in Washington. As a Phi Beta Kappa, class orator, and so forth, I had been interviewed by a number of headmasters who asked me, “What experience have you had?” And I said, “None.” They’d say, “That’s too bad.”

Finally I talked with William H. Church, who was headmaster of St. Alban’s School in Washing- ton, connected with the Episcopal Cathedral. It was the best school in Washington. He explained: “I came to St. Alban’s last year, with a staff that was experienced. Under the thumb of the athletic director. And the athletic director ran the school. He told me what I should do and what I should not do.  And I said, ‘I’m going to have my own staff, and in many cases I’m going to have men that I can train and will gladly do what I think is the right thing to do.” I taught there eventually for three years.

Teaching wasn’t so sweet at first, because I lacked experience. But Mr. Church was very good, and he had the room next to mine. And when the boys would be through with my class and go to his class, he would say to them, “I cannot understand it. When you’re with me you behaved beautifully. When you’re with Mr. MacJannet you were disorderly.” Eventually I found out how to do it. The disorderly student was usually warned. He would start shrieking or something, and if I sent him out of the room, he’d still shriek. Mr. Church would say, “Take him out when you’re preparing your lesson or doing something in your room. Have him sit in a corner, looking into the corner, and you go ahead with your work. Don’t speak to him. Let him just meditate. After you do that for a few days, he’ll be quite different.”

There were lots of things I decided I would do if I ever had a school or camp. I would make everyone feel safe and welcome there. In my youth I had been a minority of one: the minister’s son— “Get ready for your icy snowballs.”  I made sure that there was no sort of hazing. Everybody says, “Oh, boys will be boys.” Well, not in our camp! No child had to fear that there was someone behind him to give him a push so he would tumble over backwards.

We never had any punishment. Sometimes a child would be sent to my office, and I would talk to him about his being a guest with the other guests, and that he knew from his own experience that when his mother had guests to tea she expected everyone to be kind and generous to the other guests, and it was the best way and it was fun. And this lad who had annoyed the others and played tricks on the others— he must think about it.

Beyond book-learning

We felt also that what you learned from books was only a small part of what you should learn. You should learn from your own experience. So when our children came to our camp or school, they formed part of a group right away. They were hand in hand with their “family,” and they would be missed if they weren’t there.  But they were also respected as individuals. One had to discover the strong point of each child. Once you knew that, you could build the child’s unused talents that he didn’t know about. We’d find out what everyone’s talent was, and then give them a chance to show it in front of the others, and get some recognition.  Maybe one camper was the best whistler, in a contest. We’d have all kinds of contests. A great many of the children made their own flutes, with a piece of bamboo— very inexpensive, a lot of fun. They made it, tuned it, learned to play on it, decorated it, weaved a sack for it. I know heads of big companies who come back and say, “I’ve got my flute with me!”