More Education History: Pestalozzi and American Normal Schools

Been busy, reading, researching, and taking notes on several books and collecting several more, plus some letters and essays. The pile keeps growing. Archive.org is the biggest single rabbit hole in existence.

Finally made some headway in discovering the origin of the age-segregated classroom that is the main feature of modern schooling, and its bane. First, finished up  The Educational Ideas of Pestalozzi by J. A. Green. Surfing around, it seems Green in general and this book in particular are well-regarded by education historians. The book has been reprinted a few times since its 1905 debut, and shows up in the references in other books. Since I don’t read German, it is a little encouraging to find I’ve stumbled across a work that has begun to pass the test of time.

I’m coming to appreciate Pestalozzi more, at least, insofar as Green represents him. While he had practices and behaviors to which a modern parent would object, and his inability to explain his principles or, indeed, to understand what he was doing, remain stumbling blocks, at least he, himself, loved his students and treated them well.

Pestalozzi has this recurring idea of an ‘A-B-C’s’ of X, where X is a category or type of education, such as an A-B-C’s of reading, or arithmetic, or morality. Although he was not the kind of man to use terms like these, it’s a bit like Aristotle’s epistemology, where we start with a ‘this’, a thing that by its nature separates itself out from the background, generalize, and finally define the species and genus, moving from what is most readily known to us to what is more knowable by nature. Thus, the general pattern for Pestalozzi is something like sense-impressions, followed by analysis, followed by words. His point, made repeatedly, is that, without focused attention on the initial sense impression, without careful analysis of what one is seeing, the words used to express definitions will be at best crippled. He is concerned about what he sees as the damage caused by rote learning, where a child can succeed by parroting words he doesn’t understand.

All well and good. The result is that, to be a Pestalozzian teacher, one must learn to present appropriate sense impressions to the child, focus the child’s attention on every detail, and only then start in with the proper naming and defining of the thing. Thus, reading and writing are in some ways the capping activity, to be pursued once the child really understand the thing the words signify. Pestalozzi is very concerned that this process happen in the right sequence and degree appropriate for each child. Each area of learning, in Pestalozzi’s view, had its own appropriate A-B-C waiting to be discovered and made into a ‘science’. He thought his work here incomplete – he has discovered some, and made some progress on others, but at the end of his life did not think the ‘science’ fully fleshed out.

He calls his method ” the organic-genetic elementary method which aims at seeking out and establishing the unchangeable starting points and the unchangeable lines of progress in all instruction and education.” It is an unconditional principle of the method that it cannot put into the child what is not already there in germ. The child is made in God’s image. He is not a tabula rasa on which one may write from without, nor is he an empty barrel which has to be filled with strange matter, but a real, living, self- active power .which from the first moment of its existence is busied with its own development, using the materials presented to it by circumstance to that end.

Quote from Pestalozzi’s Lenzburg Address in Green’s The Educational Ideas of Pestalozzi

And there’s something to this, especially when one considers what it must have been like in the schools of the time, where failure to comply with rote recitals might get a kid whacked with a ruler or worse. If you wanted to destroy a kid’s interest in learning, starting with memorization of things the kid doesn’t understand backed with corporal punishment would seem a pretty good way to do it. (1)

What is more important to Pestalozzi., the most important thing of all, is gaining the trust of the student, of loving each child and selflessly willing his good. The teacher in Pestalozzi’s view is an extension of the child’s family and particularly the child’s mother. He insists that, in the normal course of things, children should learn first and best from their own mothers, then from the larger family, and then, when ready, move on to more formal schooling.

Schooling should always aim to educate the child in a manner appropriate to his concrete situation. The children of laborers, artisans, and the wealthy get different education, appropriate to the life they will be living once their schooling is finished. There should be the possibility of further education to children who show particular promise. Thus, the child of a landowner might get Latin and Greek, while a farm boy usually won’t – unless he shows interest and ability in it.

I have commented before that Pestalozzi’s writings seem to be more a Rorschach test than instructions anyone could follow. He was a notoriously poor writer – Green makes a subtle plea for the readers understanding at one point, stating that, unless one has attempted to claw Pestalozzi’s German into English, one cannot appreciate the challenge. Further, his practice was consistently observed to be at odds with his (often poorly and inconsistently defined) principles. In one example, he lays down the principle that it is damaging to children for them to learn words before they understand what those words signify, then teaches the kids rhymes full of unfamiliar words for the fun of it. That he doesn’t see any contradiction in this is typical; that it baffled those trying to understand him is also a running theme.

Pestalozzi’s message of love and respect for children, his faith in there being one correct and scientific way to do education that merely awaited discovery, and his rejection of all previous methods of instruction made him a hero to the late 18th century Enlightenment crowd. That his most devoted followers would say it took years to understand the method, and then disagreed on what the method was, and that the people who came to study his method generally failed to successfully implement it, testify to, at least, his lack of clarity.

Green himself falls into this trap.

Then came the crushing events of 1806, followed, in the winter of 1807, by Fichte’s stirring Addresses to the German Nation in which the Prussian people were exhorted to seek national regeneration in the education of their children. Although Fichte criticised sharply certain details in Pestalozzi’s theory and practice, taking a general view he urged the Pestalozzian school as the true type.

Pestalozzi praises the family, especially mothers, as the indispensable first teachers of children; Fichte sees the family as the educational problem that his schools will solve. Pestalozzi wants to educate children for the world and situation they find themselves in; Fichte wants to educate children for an upcoming fantasy world which will supplant the current world in its entirety. Pestalozzi teaches children the 3 R’s to equip them for their future lives; Fichte discounts reading and writing as unessential to true education, an afterthought. Pestalozzi’s unspoken but inescapable goal is to equip children to be parts of their own families; Fichte wants unquestioned loyalty to the state to replace the all family loyalty.

Details. (2)

I will do a more detailed write-up of Pestalozzi’s A-B-C approach, which appears to be the heart of his ‘science’ of education at some future point. In reality, what made his schools work was his love of the children. He genuinely cared for their welfare, and sacrificed much to help them. This trumps any method, as long as love can overrule process at any point. This love of children is also how Catholic schools in America also succeeded as much as they did. The teaching sisters understood each student was a beloved child of God, even if they often imperfectly lived and expressed it.

That Pestalozzi was beloved by his students is attested by one of them:

One of the most interesting accounts of the work at Yverdun is that given by Vulliemin in his Souvenirs racontes a ses petits enfants. He entered the school as a pupil at eight years old. “Imagine, children, a very ugly man whose hair stood on end, whose face was deeply pitted with small-pox and covered with red blotches, with a ragged, untrimmed beard, without a necktie, with trousers half unbuttoned, and hanging in folds over stockings that were down over his clumsy shoes. Add to this an unsteady, jerky walk, eyes which sometimes opened wide and blazed with fire, and sometimes were half closed as if given up to inner observation. Think, too, of features which now expressed deep sadness and now the most benign happiness, and of a voice whose utterance was sometimes slow and sometimes quick, sometimes soft and melodious, and sometimes thunderously loud. This is a picture of him whom we called Father Pestalozzi.

“Him, whom I have just described, we loved; we all loved him, for he, too, loved us all. When it happened that we did not see him for a time, we were quite sad, so heartily did we love him; when he appeared again we could not take our eyes away from him.”

This former student mentions the drills in accurate sense-impression analysis in context of a field trip:

For the first elements of geography we were taken into the open air. They began by turning our steps to an out-of-the-way valley near Yverdun, through which the Buron flows. This valley we had to look at as a whole, and in its different parts, until we had a correct and complete impression of it. Then we were told, each one, to dig out a certain quantity of the clay, which was embedded in layers on one side of the valley, and with this we filled large sheets of paper, brought with us for the purpose.”

When we got back to school, we were placed at large tables which were divided up, and each child had to build with the clay, on the spot assigned to him, a model of the valley where we had just made our observations. Then came fresh excursions with more explorations. Thus we continued, until we had worked through the basin of Yverdun, and had observed it as a whole from the heights of Montela which command it entirely, and had made of it a model in relief. Then, and then only, did we turn to the map, which we had only now gained the power of correctly interpreting.”

Sounds charming and fun.

Pestalozzi is also in favor of less school, and, it would seem, less professionalism among those who teach:

My aim all through was to push the simplification of all means of instruction to such a point, that any common man might easily be put in a position to teach his children, thereby making it possible to dispense almost entirely with the need of schools for the first elements. Just as the mother is the child’s first physical nurse, so should he receive his first intellectual nourishment from her, and I look upon the tendency to send children too early to school and to substitute outside artifice for the home in the early education of children as a very serious evil. My experience quite confirmed these views. I am also more than ever convinced that the sooner we unite firmly and psychologically instruction with manual work, the sooner a race will arise which will discover, that what has been hitherto called learning need not take up one tenth part of the time or the energy which it has done in the past. My experience has certainly established two facts which will contribute to this end — first that it is possible to teach a large number of children even of different ages at one and the same time, and second that this large number may in many cases be taught they are engaged in manual work ….

Another departure for Fichte, who wants kids schooled entirely apart from their families for about a decade.

Much more to be thought over here. What needs to be kept in mind is that however poorly articulated and however many times his devotees failed in their attempts to implement them, Pestalozzi’s ideas dominated discussions of education in 19th century Europe and America like no other theorist.

Back to  Rise and Growth of the Normal School Idea in the United States. The Holy Grail of my research has been to discover the origins of the now ubiquitous age-segregated classroom. I suspected it traced back to Pestalozzi or at least to Fichte and von Humboldt. I was wrong. The bulk of the Prussian schools implemented in the 1810s and 1820s seem to be largely indistinguishable from American one-room schools in how they functioned; Pestalozzi himself always had age-mixed groups with plenty of peer-to-peer teaching.

In America, at least, the bane of age-segregated classroom with rigid, child-indifferent curricula seems to trace back to 1853 in Oswego, NY:

The history of the normal school at Oswego, N. Y., constitutes an important chapter not only in the history of the training of teachers, but in the history of the public schools of this country . It originated, indeed, out of the necessities of the public schools of Oswego. In the spring of 1853 these schools were organized and consolidated [‘consolidation’ was the process of eliminating local one-room schools and replacing them with much larger, centrally controlled schools – ed.] under a board of education. Under the new arrangement a mixed system of schools went into operation, and a close classification was soon adopted. So thoroughly was this perfected that each teacher had but a single class of children of nearly the same age and of the same stage of advancement. Every grade had the same daily programme, so that the superintendent could tell at any given hour of the day exactly what exercises were going on in any school in the city. All promotions were made upon the basis of examinations conducted under the direction of the superintendent, who prepared all the questions and marked all the answers on a scale of ten. The standings were published in the annual report.

But as admirable from a management point of view as schools thus structured must be, they left a little something to be desired, at least in the heart of E. A. Sheldon:

But Mr. E. A. Sheldon, who had been elected superintendent of schools in 1853, and who had originated this educational machine, was not satisfied with it. It seemed to him that something was wanted to give it life. As a mere machine, it was, indeed, worthy of all admiration. The definite tasks assigned to each teacher and pupil, each hour in the day, each day in the week, each week in the month, each month in the year, and each year in the course, were performed with praiseworthy exactness. Every rule and every definition was committed to memory with an exactness that defied criticism and applied with wonderful celerity. The system was, indeed, a perfect body, but it was dead, or rather it had never been alive. Words, words, words, were thrown into the hopper and the grist was nothing but words. The children could answer with great readiness all questions relating to what they had learned in their text-books, but outside of their text-books they were helpless. In a word, the system was an excellent machine for transferring the utmost possible amount of text-book information into the minds of the children, but as a means of developing latent powers, of cultivating permanent intellectual interest, of quickening and expanding the whole intellectual life, it was very defective indeed.

Couple of things to note. First, we see here the implementation of total teacher control. The only way to be sure that the students are doing *exactly* as directed is to direct the activities of the teachers with equal rigidity. This is a clear example of the filtering process much discussed on this blog: only people who could embrace such rigid direction need apply. In other words, anyone who had any active sympathy for the children and who wanted to really teach would never make it through the normal school. The second is that schooling any more different than what Pestalozzi practiced could hardly be imagined. The beloved and unpredictable father figure as teacher, leading kids of various ages on one impromptu adventure after another is about as completely incompatible with the ‘machine’ described above as could be imagined.

So, of course, Sheldon brings his machine to life by applying his understanding of Pestalozzian theory. He traveled to Canada, where he met a superintendent who had studied at a school in London that employed one of the teachers Pestalozzi himself trained, as well as the son of another such teacher.

When he returned to Oswego he resolved to thoroughly reconstruct the course of instruction and radically change the methods of teaching in the schools under his supervision. He resolved to begin this reformation at the bottom of the ladder and go up step by step. He accordingly laid out a detailed plan of work for the primary schools based on Pestalozzian principles.

How he went about implementing this new Pestalozzian undersstanding is telling:

The first year after the introduction of the new course of study Mr. Sheldon gave all his time and energy to the introduction of the new methods into the first year or lowest grade of the primary school. He met the teachers of this grade every Saturday, and during the following week he went through the schools of this grade, encouraging and aiding them in carrying out the instructions given the preceding Saturday. The second year he pursued the same plan with the next higher grade.

So, essentially, he kept the machine intact, kept the age-segregated grades and the teachers who had mastered and had experience tending the machine, and attempted, grade by grade, to implement a Pestalozzian approach on top of it.

The earlier one-room schools, structurally at least, were much more consistent with Pestalozzi’s practice than the new age-graded schools which had consolidated them out of existence. You could not but end up with a Frankenstein’s monster of a school, where some understanding of Pestalozzi’s theory is applied as a veneer to a system completely at odds with his practice, where kids are grouped for the convenience of the school and taught the same exact lessons according to an externally -established detailed schedule, by professional teachers trained for such an environment. The kindly and beloved old man encouraging kids to teach each other and taking pains that each child be taught what is appropriate for that particular child – that part, which is the part that might work, is tossed.

And then you run into the problem first expressed by Socrates: that when people are paid to teach what any competent adult knows, they will make the easy hard, and the quickly learned long.

The Oswego approach caught on like wildfire. Sheldon invited other educators to visit and comment, and the reaction was almost universally positive. Sheldon couldn’t keep his own teachers – once he had trained them up, other school districts would hire them away at salaries his own district was unwilling to meet. Thus, via impressed educators and teachers trained in the approach, the idea of a age segregated Machine cranking out educated students began to get the death grip on American education we see today.

Been a while since I posted, there’s a ton more here worth thinking about, but that’ll have to do for now.

  1. The psychologist Alice Miller reports that 19th century German child-rearing books advised fathers to break their children, to set them up to fail and punish them for that failure, in order to teach them to rely entirely on the authority of the father. Sick, but easy to see in the undoubtedly true stereotype of the knuckle-busting teacher.
  2. Reminds of a similar bit of wishful thinking from Fichte’s translator: “Some of the ideas and opinions expressed in the Addresses are obviously false and cannot be accepted, while others are gross exaggerations and require considerable modification. Little comment need be made on Fichte’s conception of the German language as the sole living language), or on his notion of the part that Germany has played and must still play in the process of the salvation of the world. His whole-hearted enthusiasm for things German inclines him at times to regard everything genuinely German as necessarily good, and everything foreign as necessarily bad. It is obvious what evil results would accrue from the logical development of such a conception. He greatly exaggerates the part played by Luther and by Germany in the reformation of the Church ; and it may be that his forecast of some of the good results that would follow upon the adoption of his educational reforms is fantastic and overdrawn. The fact, however, remains that these false and exaggerated ideas are but small blemishes in the work; they are easily explained, if not justified, when we consider the desperate state of the times, the exalted aim of the lecturer, the peculiar difficulty of his task, and his enthusiastic personality. In any case they do not affect to any considerable extent the tremendous influence of the Addresses at the time, and their great importance for the understanding of subsequent periods.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

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