Fichte, Part 4

Note: I’m reading and posting about Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) because he is widely recognized as a key figure in modern education. He greatly influenced von Humboldt’s reforms of the German school system, which in turn greatly influenced Horace Mann and that crowd. It’s important, I think, in any discussion of modern education to recognize just what kind of a nut Fichte was.

Things really pick up starting with Address # 9.  We’ve waited with bated breath for JGF to get around to telling us how all this is supposed to work in practice, instead of telling us how good it will all be when it has been carried out. Turns out that Fichte accepts, with heavy and fundamental modifications, the model developed by the contemporary German-speaking Swiss of Italian descent, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.

Before we go there, a quick set of bullets: File:Parade 1894.JPG

– Fichte does recognize that the his idea of how the State should be in charge of education traces back to Luther.* The key aspect is that the State – or states, as political institutions laid atop the Fatherland of native German speakers – cannot leave the proper development of morality to the vagaries of education conducted within family life. Note the naive assumption that the State will get it right where the family has gotten it wrong. Fichte is absolutely untroubled by the thought that maybe ‘the State and its advisers’ might not get it right. They just will, if only they listen to him.

– Fichte contends, in fact he asserts it to be patently obvious, that the child’s greatest desire is for approval – ‘respect’ – from his father. The state can easily refocus this desire on the respect of its teachers. The key mechanism of moral education is the state, through the instrument of its teachers, judiciously doling out or withholding approval to the students in order to shape their moral universe. This is what Fichte means by destroying free will – the properly schooled child will be unable to think anything other than what his teachers want him to think.

The free will to be destroyed is the ability to choose between moral options. Earlier, I mentioned Fichte’s theory of free will, where freedom does not lie in an uncertain evaluation of and choice among options, but rather in the will, having been fixed on the good, willing to actualize that good. The good is defined as the next stage in human development, the bringing about of heaven on earth by Germans who have escaped Original Sin as a result of their German education. It’s all good!

– As an aside – the kind of aside the ‘the State and its advisers’ were sure not to miss – Fichte says that a benefit of his new education would be an undefeatable army that you won’t even have to draft men into. The properly educated German would of course fight better than anyone else, and be more than willing to lay down his life for the Fatherland. So Sparta peeks out from behind the curtain.

Back to Pestalozzi. Couldn’t find his treatise on education, the pithily-named Enquiries into the Course of Nature in the Development of the Human Race online, so I’m forming tentative opinions based on summaries of what other people say he said – not sound practice. Pestalozzi’s father died when he was 6, leaving him and 2 siblings for his mother and a faithful maid to raise. He went from middle-class comfort to poverty overnight. Being an extraordinarily bright kid, he managed to get an education and become a Calvinist minister – at which he failed miserably. (note: ‘failed miserably’ is a recurring theme.) Then: lawyer. Failed miserably. Then: decides to start a farm and gather in orphans to work it for him, so that he can provide them a home and educate them. Failed miserably, which might have a little to do with having no business talent whatsoever and having no knowledge or experience of farming whatsoever. But, hey, the man was not intimidated by challenges. Usually failed to overcome them, but he was not intimidated.

Before laying into poor Johann Heinrich any more, I do admire his heart and good will, and his willingness to take chances in order to do good. Sterling traits, but unencumbered by any apparent practical talent.

So, having failed at everything he tried, Pestalozzi is now a recognized expert in education. The little bits I’ve picked up third hand:

– He’s a Romantic, in the bad sense of thinking society is the bad thing, while human nature is good. How human society, a product of human nature, got to be bad is a point never adequately addressed by Romantics.

– He thinks education should be atomized and then built up. Haven’t discussed this particular bad idea before here, so here’s the elevator pitch: knowledge is connected. People learn best when they see a big picture, and learn to fill in the details. Regurgitation of facts has its place, but it’s a smallish, rudimentary place.

– He – just like Fichte – says all kinds of good things that nobody would dispute, about educating the whole child, making sure to recognize and work with individual differences, caring more about moral development than mere job prep. Good stuff. The devil’s in the details.

There’s tons more packed into these Addresses. Maybe I’ll write a book nobody will read about it someday. Here’s a parting quotation. Fichte was not into homeschooling, it seems:

Of course, it is not to be expected that all parents will be willing to be separated from their children, and to hand them over to this new education, a notion of which it will be difficult to convey to them. From past experience we must reckon that everyone who still believes he is able to support his children at home will set himself against public education, and especially against a public education that separates so strictly and lasts so long.

“that separates so strictly and lasts so long” – we’re talking handing over your kids to the state at some young age and not seeing  them again for many years. I could see how moms and dads might have a problem with this.

* As mentioned elsewhere, the idea of compulsory state education is at least as old as Sparta and Plato’s Republic, and was practiced to some extent in the ephebia  ubiquitous to the Hellenistic world. Sparta had the problem of being horrifying; the ephebia could be seen as a sort of 2-year cultural finishing school for young men. There was no real implementation of state-run schooling on the scale or to the degree Fichte and Luther imagined in the Greek world. Luther’s contribution was to wed the Church and State in such a way that the State becomes, through education, the conduit for all moral training. The Catholic tradition, with its claim that parents are the first and primary educators of their children, with its Holy Family and Jesus being obedient to his parents, was Not Working. In a couple short steps, we replace mother and father with the Fatherland.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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