Education History Reading, Continued: Pestalozzi Wrap-up

NOTE: This post sat in the drafts folder for months, as in trying to complete it, came to the conclusion that I don’t understand Pestalozzi at all. I’m going to try to hunt up some other works by him, but my hope is not too high – if it were not for Einstein, who attended a Pestalozzi prep school and spoke highly of it (“it made me clearly realize how much superior an education based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on outward authority.”) I’d give up. What’s mind boggling is that Fichte saw what he needed in Pestalozzi (with unspecified modification) for his complete state-focused “reforms” of schooling and that Einstein, famously distrustful of authority, end up praising the same source. There’s something to be figured out here. It may have to do with Einstein attending at an age later than what sounds like the endless drill and micromanagement of childhood, so he gets the freedom without being run through the wringer first. Or, even more likely given the confusing nature of Pestalozzi’s writing, his model acts as a Rorschach test mirroring whatever his reader wants to see, all shrouded in words of sympathy and, frankly, egomania. Anyway:

The Pest-Man! Woot!

Finished How Gertrude Teaches Her Children, Pestalozzi’s attempt to explain his ‘Method’ via a series of letters to an admirer. First part here.

The most striking thing about this book is a juxtaposition: Pestalozzi’s insistence that education result in the formation of clear ideas, and the almost complete lack of clear ideas in this book. Compounding the problem is 1st person issue – there is almost no mention of any actual students, but rather we are invited into Pestalozzi’s thought processes and hardships and challenges. Here, for a randomly chosen example:

I saw their misery ; but I lost myself in the vast prospect of its scattered and isolated sources ; and while my insight into their real condition became ever more wide, I did not move a step forward in the practical power of remedying the evil. Even the book that my sense of this condition forced from me, even “Leonard and Gertrude” was a proof of this my inner helplessness. I stood there among my contemporaries, like a stone that tells of life, and is dead. Many men glanced at it, but understood as little of me and my aims, as I understood the details of skilled labour and knowledge that were necessary to accomplish them.

Quick count: References to Pestalozzi (I, me, my): 12; possible references to children (them, they): 3.  And this is not atypical, throughout the first 2/3 of the book. Pages and pages are devoted to Pestalozzi’s laments, his thought processes, his insights, and so on. He must have been very charming in person, one can only imagine.

His disciples, at least at first, fared no better in penetrating his thinking. He quotes letters from three of his key followers, and all three begin with words to the effect that “I can’t figure out what he’s talking about” and end with “OK, after months or years, I sort of get it.”

In the last 1/3 are his attempts to get more concrete. It doesn’t work. About all I could glean from it was that he is in favor of breaking subjects down into little itty-bitty pieces that must be mastered before the next step can be attempted. Teaching and, one presumes, learning are best or only done by invariant little tiny steps directed by the teacher. Two observations: first, this atomization of knowledge is by no means how all people learn all things. Sometimes, seeing and appreciating the whole of something is indispensable to understanding why and even how one should learn. Imagine learning woodworking if you’d never seen a chair, or the piano if you’d never heard any pieces. That why great teachers tend to be examples and masters of what it is they are trying to teach.

But second, this approach puts great emphasis and burden on the teacher, who now must understand the world so that things worth learning fall into subjects, and those subjects can be divvied up into daily activities that add up, over time, into KNOWLEDGE – or, at least, for Pestalozzi, the skills needed to hold down the kind of jobs currently available.  The temptation to use this idea – that the teacher must first decipher the world, then present it predigested, as it were, to the student under carefully controlled conditions – is one Fichte, not to mention everyone from Mann to James to Woodrow Wilson to our current betters, to ‘move forward’ and ‘make progress’ according to their undoubtedly correct (Hegelian) understanding of the world…

What could possibly go wrong?

Author: Joseph Moore

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

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