Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

By Dr. E. E. Ayres

Born January 12, 1746 in Zurich, Switzerland

Died February 17, 1827 in Brugg Switzerland

Rousseau’s radical ideas had evil as well as good results. In estimating the good, we must remember that it was reserved for Pestalozzi, the schoolmaster, to apply the principles of Rousseau in the school room, and to furnish the world with concrete illustrations of his method.

Pestalozzi was born at Zurich, Switzerland, where he received his early training from his widowed mother. Later he attended the University in his native town, where he became an ardent student of social conditions, and a zealous reformer at heart. He saw the masses sunk in ignorance, poverty, and vice, and their masters for the most part utterly heartless and indifferent. In company with his grandfather, a country pastor in the neighborhood of Zurich, he frequently visited the sick and the abandoned, thus becoming profoundly interested in the social conditions of the peasants. In early youth he resolved to dedicate himself to the amelioration of the poverty and degradation of the masses.

But how to accomplish this purpose was his problem. He first studied theology, expecting to become a pastor. Later he turned to law, hoping to find legal methods of redress for the oppressed. Having heard of a farmer who was experimenting with “improved methods of agriculture,” Pestalozzi joined him in his enterprise in order to learn these better methods. He became enthusiastic as to the possibilities of an intelligently directed country life. “I had come to him a political visionary, though with many correct views and anticipations in matters political. I went away from him just as great an agricultural visionary.” So he described his experience.

Pestalozzi therefore purchased a farm, and established there an agricultural school. Here he brought together a score of needy children, and undertook to give them an industrial education. The school was absolutely a “free school,” for Pestalozzi at his own cost furnished shelter, food, and instruction for all. Within a few years he had exhausted his financial resources in that noble enterprise, and the school was closed. His enthusiasm did not wane, however. He felt that he had discovered his true calling, and the most elementary and fundamental need of the people. He was now convinced that “Poverty can be relieved and society reformed only through ridding each and every one of his degradation, by means of mental and moral development.” Thus, Pestalozzi became the advocate of universal education, believing in the great possibilities of “all sorts and conditions of men,” and looking for the ultimate solution of all economic and social problems in general education. Thus only could the poor and the defective secure their opportunity in life. Of this he had convinced himself in the little farm school.

Eighteen Years of Hope Deferred

But bankrupt as he was, no further opportunity seemed open to the devoted schoolmaster. For eighteen weary years he waited with no school to teach. They were years of struggle and of hope deferred. During this time he devoted himself to authorship, for which he was poorly fitted, and in all his publications he kept setting forth his educational views. His story entitled “Leonard and Gertrude,” is regarded by many as his best exposition of his pedagogical principles. It tell how a good woman brought about the gradual transformation of a household, and then of a village. A later work of his was entitled “How Gertrude Teaches Her Children.” But “Gertrude” was simply a fictitious symbol for Pestalozzi himself.

In 1798, when Pestalozzi was already over fifty years of age, the army of France took possession of that portion of Switzerland in which he lived. Finding a sympathizer in the would-be schoolmaster, the new rulers of the Canton offered to reward him for his loyalty, and asked him what he have. “Nothing,” he replied, “but an opportunity to teach.” No political preferment was, in his mind, comparable to that. So they put him in charge of an orphanage at Stanz. His success with some forty to eighty children, without assistance or encouragement of any sort, was little short of marvelous. He could take the most unpromising specimens of humanity and transform them within a few months. For, in less than a year’s time, the soldiers required the school building for a hospital, and the school was closed.

After one or two other attempts to establish himself as teacher, he found himself installed in Yverdun, 1805, where he received some government support, and where he taught about twenty years. To this school pupils of all ages resorted, and from many countries. Throngs of visitors came to see the new center of educational experimentation. Some went away enthusiastic, and other “saw nothing in it.” Apostles of the Pestalozzian principles went forth to various parts of the world, and many schools were organized under his name.

His Methods

Unlike Rousseau, Pestalozzi was greater as a teacher than as a writer. He had little learning, and no fondness for books, but in the school room he actually produced astonishing results. He made little use of textbooks and had no gifts of administration. Nothing in his school was done by system, but everything was informal and “natural.” His chief ambition was to teach the student how to observe accurately, and how to give a correct account of what he had seen or heard.

Objects for observation he found everywhere about him. He insisted that the learner should practice suspension of judgment on facts until the facts had been carefully examined, compared and understood. Hasty judgments on insufficient data he regarded as educationally pernicious. Criticism had to wait on facts.

Just here Pestalozzi has a lesson of supreme importance for the musician. No trait of the half-educated musician is more striking than his readiness to pronounce judgment on composers that he knows little about, or upon other musicians whom his is hardly qualified to speak of intelligently. He becomes a ready champion of some new or old composer without knowing exactly why, and a sharp critic of others on insufficient data. It is customary to warn students against these hasty judgments on ethical grounds; but there are a few students who realize how great a damage they do themselves, intellectually, by this habit of judging on the basis of feeling instead of facts. No really high order of education is possible for anyone who is dominated by such pernicious intellectual habits.

Music students are by no means alone in this matter. It is perhaps the chief weakness in all our American teaching today, from the Grammar School to the University. We lack the patience and the courage to wait until we have made ourselves familiar with all the facts in the case. It takes courage sometimes to acknowledge that there are some composers whose works we are not yet qualified to judge.

So Pestalozzi insisted that “The time for learning is not the time for judging, not the time for criticism.” This is the very essence of the method of research which has made Germany, educationally, the foremost nation in the world.

The eye was not the only sense honored at Yverdun. One of Pestalozzi’s assistants, Nageli, devoted himself to the musical training of the students. Nageli’s little book of melodies, prepared for use in the school at Yverdun, became quite famous, and is said to have exercised much influence over our own Lowell Mason. Pestalozzi insisted that the poor should be taught to observe the beautiful in nature, and to take part in musical exercises, especially in the singing of joyous songs. The popular interest in music in Germany is doubtless to be traced in large measure to Pestalozzi.

The greatest single factor in the success of Pestalozzi’s school was doubtless personality of the teacher. He knew how to make the student’s work interesting without losing his seriousness for a moment. He spent no time on jokes and pleasing anecdotes. But he made their work absorbingly interesting, by making it clear to their understanding. “The feeling of clear apprehension,” says he, “I hold to be the only condiment of instruction.”

Pestalozzi was truly a heroic characters. His persistence in spite of ridicule, and poverty, and endless difficulties was magnificent. He never lost his sense of the exalted character of his calling. Karl Ritter, speaking of his pilgrimage to Yverdun, says, “Never have I been so filled with the sense of sacredness of my vocation and the dignity of human nature as in the days I spent with this noble man.”

His humility was almost touching. It is said that “the habit of self-depreciation was almost the habit of his soul.” He made no protest when he was called “ignorant” and “visionary” and “foolish.” Yet he became known personally to the greatest men of his day, including Fichte, Goethe, Wieland and Herder. And the French government honored itself by making him a “Citizen of the French Republic,” at a time when he was nearly starving. His fellow townsmen thought of him as the “agent of the devil,” when he was consecrating his every power to his philanthropic task. On one occasion he exclaimed, “the contrast between what I would and what I could is so great that it cannot be expressed.” He did not deny that his was “a chimerical and unpractical spirit,” and made no reply to his many detractors, who had much to say about his “lack of scholarship.” But whether he knew anything or not he could and did lead others in the direction of real knowledge.

Napoleon and Pestalozzi

Pestalozzi visited Paris and tried to interest Napoleon Bonaparte in his scheme for universal education, but without success. Asked on his return if he had seen the great Napoleon he replied “No. Nor did Napoleon see Pestalozzi.” This apparently arrogant reply becomes more interesting when we remember how the schoolmaster’s principles were accepted at once in Germany. Rejected by Napoleon and Talleyrand, as unworthy of the consideration, he was acclaimed as the hope of the German States.

Everywhere in Germany his little book “Leonard and Gertrude” was read with enthusiasm. And when Prussia was conquered and humiliated by Napoleon in 1806, Fichte, the philosopher, appealed to the Germans, insisting that education was the only means of raising the nation, and declaring that their public instruction must be based upon the principles of Pestalozzi.

The Kind of Prussia also exclaimed, “We have lost in territory, and our power and credit have fallen. I now desire above everything that the greatest attention be paid to the education of the people.” And most significant of all is the record found in the diary of Queen Louisa, written about the same time: “I am reading Leonard and Gertrude, and I delight in being transported into the Swiss village. If I could do as I liked I should take a carriage and start for Switzerland and see Pestalozzi.”

The German government sent teachers to Yverdun to learn the master’s secret. Within a few years Pestalozzian schools were to be found everywhere in Germany. Thus were the foundations laid for what is now honored everywhere, the wonderful German system of popular education.

Quotations from Pestalozzi

“The school is the center whence everything should proceed.”

“What we conceive clearly we have no difficulty in expressing.”

“The time for learning is not the time for judging, not the time for criticism.”

“The individuality of the pupil is sacred.”

“The fishes in a pond brought an accusation against the pike, who were making great ravages among them. The judge, an old pike, said that their complaint was well founded, and that the defendants, to make amends, should allow two ordinary fish every year to become a pike.”

“What you can’t do blindfold you can’t do at all.”

“I hold it extremely important that men should be encourages to learn by themselves.”