Education History Reading, Continued: Pestalozzi, Part 1

Did manage to find some Pestalozzi on the web: How Gertrude Teaches Her Children. Am about 1/3 through.File:Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.jpg

Recap: We start with the current graded classroom model, and ask: how did this way of educating our kids come to be so much the dominant model that it is generally considered by definition ‘school’? Anything else is ‘alternative’ school.

Any trail you choose quickly runs to Horace Mann, the first great American hero of institutionalized education reform. In the 1830s, Mann fell in love with the Prussian model of education as instituted by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the 1810s – by the 1830s, Humboldt’s reforms were hailed as great successes, since – and this is critical – everyone could see that German industry and military might were taking the lead in Europe, despite the crushing defeat Germany had suffered under Napoleon. Von Humboldt, in turn, based his reforms on the proposals contained in Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation, which we’ve reviewed here on this blog.

Fichte, in turn, claims to base his proposed reforms on the work of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a German-speaking Swiss educator. Pestalozzi comes off as a well-intentioned man with great committment to his cause, a secular saint, even, yet dogged by failure most of his life. He did manage to run a couple different schools for a good number of years where his methods were used, and through which he made a number of devoted disciples and eventually attracted the favorable attention of the state. In his 50s he wrote How Gertrude Teaches Her Children in yet another attempt to explain what his method is. For the most curious thing in reading *about* Pestalozzi is how nobody seems quite sure what he meant or what he was doing. You can find some brief summaries, yet in every case those summaries, like the summaries of Hegel created by his  fans, seems to generate more controversy rather than actually explain anything.*   So, we here take the only approach acceptable under these circumstances: read what the author has to say for himself.*

This work is a collection of letters written by Pestalozzi to a Heinrich Gessner, in which he begins by explaining how people have misunderstood him and how Krüsi, Tobler, and Büss, three of his key disciples, came to work for him at Burgdorf, his first truly successful school. He then proceeds to reminisce on his experiences and to expound on his philosophy of education. I’ve only just started to get into that part.

What is immediately obvious from the first few letters is the source of the confusion over Pestalozzi’s method: it is Pestalozzi himself. Just about the only clear functional ideas in the first third of the book are contained in the extensive quotations Pestalozzi inserts from one of his critics, a dude named Fischer, in Fischer’s letter to a Steinmtiller. Pestalozzi’s quotations from this letter with his remarks goes on for pages without making Pestalozzi’s approach any clearer. It is a remarkable feat. Within the first 100 pages, which are taken up with the translator’s introduction and Pastalozzi’s preface, we learn a smidgen over nothing about what he’s up to.

For example, here is how Pestalozzi describes his Method:

I AM trying to psychologize the instruction of mankind ; I am trying to bring it into harmony with the nature of my mind, with that of my circumstances and my relations to others. I start from no positive form of teaching, as such, but simply ask myself :

” What would you do, if you wished to give a single child all the knowledge and practical skill he needs, so that by wise care of his best opportunities, he might reach inner content ? ”

I think, to gain this end, the human race needs exactly the same thing as the single child.

I think, further, the poor man’s child needs a greater refinement in the methods of instruction than the rich man’s child.


But there are some moments of relative clarity. Here is how he describes his principles and how he arrived at them:

By these tentative and erring measures, blending their course with the clearest views of my purpose, these first trials gradually developed in me clear principles about my actions ; and while every day it became clearer to me that in the youngest years we must not reason with children, but must limit ourselves to the means of developing their minds,

1. By ever widening more and more the sphere of their sense-impressions.

2. By firmly, and without confusion, impressing upon them those sense-impressions that have been brought to their consciousness.

3. By giving them sufficient knowledge of language for all that Nature and the Art have brought or may, in part, bring to their consciousness.

While, as I say, these three points of view became clearer” to me every day, just as firm a conviction gradually developed within me :

1. Of the need of picture books for early childhood.

2. Of the necessity of a sure and definite means of explaining these books.

3. Of the need of a guide to names, and knowledge of words founded upon these books and their explanations, with which the children should be thoroughly familiar before the time of spellings.

So, we see here a few ideas:

– don’t attempt to reason with young children. Instead, give them more and wider ‘sense-impressions’

– firmly impress upon them (?) those sense-impressions that the teacher has chosen (‘brought to their consciousness’)

– give them the vocabulary they need to name the the sense-impressions Nature or ‘the Art’ (that’s Pestalozzi’s ‘Method’ in practice) have given them.

To do this, one needs:

– picture books;

– a method to explain the books (?)

– a guide (teacher?) to use the method to explain the books to, you know, explain the books to the children.

There are a great variety of different approaches that might fall within this description, which is another way of saying they don’t help much. In addition to these explicit principles, there are a few deductions we can make:

– kids are not to be reasoned with, they are to be taught what the teacher decides to teach them;

– kids are not to learn words or spelling unless the teacher – or Nature – has already thoroughly impressed on them what those words stand for;

– poor kids are different than rich kids.

– Pestalozzi believes in messianic education reform: what we do for the individual child is what is needed for the whole world

– the goal of education is:  “to give a single child all the knowledge and practical skill he needs, so that by wise care of his best opportunities, he might reach inner content”.  This sounds good, and very modern, but note: the child, who is not being lead to reason, is to be content with the knowledge and practical skills he needs to pursue his best opportunities. Let’s just say that that definition of success leaves room for the interpretation that, since the state is the competent authority to determine what a child’s best opportunities are (See: Fichte), the appropriate level of knowledge and practical skills needed by any child is up to the state to determine.

There’s lots more to cover next time: Pestalozzi insists on the importance of the child’s mother as his first and most important teacher (Fichte says: bah, the state through its representatives should do that, because mothers are demonstrably incompetent). Also, Pestalozzi is an atomizer of knowledge: it is the system’s duty to predigest and simplify all knowledge so that kids learn it in the right way.

I have issues with these points.

One last aside: many years ago, I read up on cults, as I happened to work with a guy who was a ‘deprogrammer’ and we’d talked about it a lot. One characteristic of cult leaders is, not surprisingly, an out of control egoism. One example one book I read gave was an excerpt from the writings of the leader of a minor cult in the 70s. The subject of most sentences was ‘I’, and, even when another subject was used, it was constantly related to my this, my that, and me.  In this respect, Pestalozzi is the most intensely self-focused writer I have ever read.

* A prime example is the introduction to work linked to above, which is almost entirely a parade whereby each of Pestalozzi’s English critics and supporters is made to march by the review stand and get dressed down. But, amazingly, after 50+ pages of this, one is left with no better idea of what Pestalozzi method actually is than when one started!

** Unfortunately, I have to trust the translator, as I read no German. But still – as the reading of Fichte showed so well, reading what his fans say he said is a very different experience than reading what he says for himself. Even when a fan-boy translator is involved.


Author: Joseph Moore

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

1 thought on “Education History Reading, Continued: Pestalozzi, Part 1”

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