Margaret Mead learned everything from her grandma

The legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead was homeschooled for most of her childhood by her grandmother, Martha Mead, an iconoclast who rejected rote instruction as “stultifying” and emphasized learning by doing instead. 

Martha was widowed young and supported herself and her small son, Edward, by working as a schoolteacher in Ohio in the 1880s and 90s. As a young man, Edward attended the University of Chicago, married a fellow student, and was hired as a professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania.

Martha moved in with the couple shortly after their marriage. Their first child, Margaret, was born in Philadelphia in 1901, and four more soon followed.

Martha educated them all.

Margaret, who called her grandmother “the most decisive influence in my life,” went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College and a doctorate from Columbia, where she studied with two of the founders of modern anthropology, Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict.

Margaret Mead around 1926 in Samoa with two of the women she was studying. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Margaret Mead around 1926 in Samoa with two of her research subjects. Photo from the Library of Congress.

She devoted her career to the study of childhood, adolescence, and family life in the South Pacific, Indonesia, and the United States. She believed that childhood was incomplete without grandparents and saw the rise of the American nuclear family as unnatural and dangerous.

In her most famous book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Margaret contended that adolescence was less torturous in Samoa than in the United States, largely because young Samoans could turn to a whole band of relatives for support rather than just to their mothers and fathers.

Here’s a passage from Margaret’s memoir, Blackberry Winter (1972), that appears in a chapter titled “On Being a Granddaughter”:

My paternal grandmother, who lived with us from the time my parents married until she died in 1927, while I was studying anthropological collections in German museums, was the most decisive influence in my life.

She sat at the center of our household. Her room—and my mother always saw to it that she had the best room, spacious and sunny, with a fireplace if possible—was the place to which we immediately went when we came in from playing or home from school. There my father went when he arrived in the house. There we did our lessons on the cherry-wood table with which she had begun housekeeping and which, later, was my dining room table for 25 years. There, sitting by the fire, erect and intense, she listened to us and to all of Mother’s friends and to our friends.

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In my early childhood she was also very active—cooking, preserving, growing flowers in the garden, and attentive to all the activities of the country and the farm, including the chickens that were always invading the lawn and that I was always being called from my book to shoo away …

She understood many things that are barely recognized in the wider educational world even today. For example, she realized that arithmetic is injurious to young minds and so, after I had learned my tables, she taught me algebra.

She also understood the advantages of learning both inductively and deductively. On some days she gave me a set of plants to analyze; on others, she gave me a description and sent me out to the woods and meadows to collect examples, say, of the “mint family.”

She thought that memorizing mere facts was not very important and that drill was stultifying. The result was that I was not well drilled in geography or spelling. But I learned to observe the world around me and to note what I saw—to observe flowers and children and baby chicks. She taught me to read for the sense of what I read and to enjoy learning.

With the exception of the two years I went to kindergarten, for Grandma believed in training the hands early, though not with too fine work, and the year I was eight, when I went to school for a half-day in the fourth grade in Swarthmore, she taught me until I went to high school and even then helped me with my lessons when my teachers were woefully inadequate, as they often were. I never expected any teacher to know as much as my parents or my grandmother did …

Because Grandma did so many things with her hands, a little girl could always tag after her, talking and asking questions and listening. Side by side with Grandma, I learned to peel apples, to take the skin off tomatoes by plunging them into scalding water, to do simple embroidery stitches, and to knit. Later, during World War I, when I had to cook for the whole household, she taught me a lot about cooking, for example, just when to add a lump of butter, something that always had to be concealed from Mother, who thought that cooking with butter was extravagant …

I think it was my grandmother who gave me my ease in being a woman. She was unquestionably feminine—small and dainty and pretty and wholly without masculine protest or feminist aggrievement. She had gone to college when this was a very unusual thing for a girl to do, she had a firm grasp of anything she paid attention to, she had married and had a child, and she had a career of her own. 

All this was true of my mother, as well. But my mother was filled with passionate resentment about the condition of women, as perhaps my grandmother might have been had my grandfather lived and had she borne five children and had little opportunity to use her special gifts and training.

As it was, the two women I knew best were mothers and had professional training. So I had no reason to doubt that brains were suitable for a woman. And as I had my father’s kind of mind—which was also his mother’s—I learned that the mind is not sex-typed …

After I left home I used to write long letters to Grandma, and later, when I went to Samoa, it was for Grandma that I tried to make clear what I was doing. She was not entirely happy with my choice of a career; she thought that botany would have been better than savages. Even though she herself hardly ever went to church—she had decided that she had gone to church enough—she taught me to treat all people as the children of God. But she had no way to include in her conception of human beings the unknown peoples of distant South Sea islands …

Throughout my childhood she talked a great deal about teachers, about their problems and conflicts, and about those teachers who could never close the schoolhouse door behind them. The sense she gave me of what teachers are like, undistorted by my own particular experience with teachers, made me want to write my first book about adolescents in such a way that the teachers of adolescents would understand it. Grandma always wanted to understand things, and she was willing to listen or read until she did. There was only one subject, she decided rather fastidiously, that she did not wish to pursue. That was birth control. At 80, she said, she did not need to know about it.

When I returned from Samoa, Grandma had already left for Fairhope, Alabama, where she had taken my two younger sisters to an experimental school. So I never had a chance to follow up the letters I wrote her from Samoa with long talks through which she would have understood more about what I was doing, and I would have learned more about how to say things useful to teachers.

In her later years she had devoted herself with almost single-minded passion to my sister Elizabeth, the one of us who was least like the rest. At the end of that year in Fairhope, Elizabeth graduated from high school. I have a vision of her standing in her white graduation dress in the garden where Grandma was sitting. I am sure Grandma felt that her hardest task—protecting and educating Elizabeth—was finished. She died on the way home, while she was visiting a favorite niece in Ohio. 

The closest friends I have made all through life have been people who also grew up close to a loved and loving grandmother or grandfather.