Blank Slates, State of Nature, Pestalozzi & Rorschach Tests

Ah! Not only am I reformatting a work – J. A. Green’s The Educational Ideas of Pestalozzi – because I found the online sources almost unreadable – I’m going down endless rabbit holes, looking up people, places, historical events, ideas, books, etc., as they come up in the text. So far, I’m only about 35 pages into what will end up, once reformatted, as a 150 or so Google docs page book (maybe 300 pages in a traditional format?). But there are nuggets.

I confess to an intellectual shortcoming (one of many, not even counting ones I don’t know I don’t know): I take undue delight when I find a scholar agreeing with something I figured out. I mean, I should hope other people see what I see, but it’s nice to see it in print.

Case in point: Pestalozzi saw his life’s work not so much as addressing the immediate needs of abandoned and orphaned children as solving some ancient intractable problem with education. Therefore, in some ways his practical examples, the schools he actually ran according to his poorly-articulated principles, are considered by him the true illustration of his point. Yet this didn’t stop him and his followers from writing ideas out, ideas so uniformly vague and conflicting that they became little more than a Rorschach test for later ‘educators’.

This passage in Object Lessons: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Learned to Make Sense of the Material World, by Sarah Anne Carter, says it more politely:

(I stumbled across this passage in this interesting sounding book while searching for something else, but the book is just a little bit too far outside the target for me to have time to read it. Sigh.)

“This imprecision also offered ample opportunity for the next generation of educators to put his ideas into action in a range of ways.” Right. Fichte, who it turns out met Pestalozzi in 1793 and encouraged him to write out his philosophy of education, by 1808 can recommend Pestalozzian schooling as the panacea for all that ails Germany, with *slight* modifications: the state replaces the family entirely, not because the family is absent, but because the family always mis-educated the child in loyalties other than that due the state (hint: all and absolute). Pestalozzi’s focus on educating children in valuable skills so that they can take a suitable place in society needs to be flipped: the state will determine what it needs the properly-trained products of its schools to do.

I’m looking for evidence Pestalozzi rejected this interpretation, as he far outlived Fichte and lived through the first implementations of Prussian schooling modeled after Fichte’s ideas, largely by Fichte himself through the agency of the newly-founded University of Berlin where he was rector. Pestalozzi was a near-legend of impolitic behavior (one source of his repeated failures anytime he had to work with people who were not his hand-picked padawans), so I’d be nearly compelled to believe he approved if he didn’t publicly disagree. We’ll see.

Pestalozzi’s How Gertrude Teaches Here Children, called by Green “by far the most important of his writings,” meanders about without saying much of anything, except reiterating the central role of mothers in the education of the children – the one thing Fichte is clear he is against. Rather than mothers being the first and finest and essential teachers, they, along with fathers and family in general, are for Fichte the problem. Fichte doesn’t suggest helping mothers do a better job, rather, he wants the state to take children away from their mothers as early as possible.

Pestalozzi is routinely called a Romantic, was expressly a follower of the ideas expressed in Rousseau’s Emile (ick) and therefore takes a ‘state of nature is better and purer than the civilizations that muck it up’ approach. To be fair, he seems more particular in his criticism: he’s dealing with the specific shortcomings of the war-torn civilization of Switzerland in the decades surrounding the turn of the 19th century. When you end up with scores of orphaned or abandoned starving children wandering the streets as a result of ongoing wars, and have church and state largely impotent to do anything about it, it would be easy to get a little down on so-called civilization. At one point, Pestalozzi did manage to gather the local orphans together into an old convent, only to have French soldiers return, commandeer the orphanage, and throw him and the children out. Once the French were done ‘living off the land’ – seizing all the food they could steal from an already starving population – they left. But the local authorities refused to let him reopen his orphanage…

So, yes, civilization as locally manifested didn’t seem to do much good for any but the top few percent of the people. Pestalozzi to his credit focused on addressing the specific civilizational shortcomings – e.g., lack of family, moral compass, food, a sense of belonging and being loved – that left children starving in the streets and ill-equipped for any decent place in society if they somehow survived.

Fichte at least functionally is a blank slater: he is going to make children into whatever the state needs.


Author: Joseph Moore

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

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