On Popular Education
Leo Tolstoy
2:58 h
Level 6
On Popular Education is an essay by Leo Tolstoy. In it the writer analyses principles and development of pedagogy and states his ideas of democratic education.

On Popular Education

Leo Tolstoy

I suppose each of us has had more than one occasion to come in contact with monstrous, senseless phenomena, and to find back of these phenomena put forward some important principle, which overshadowed those phenomena, so that in our youthful and even maturer years we began to doubt whether it was true that those phenomena were monstrous, and whether we were not mistaken. And having been unable to convince ourselves that monstrous phenomena might be good, or that the protection of an important principle was illegitimate, or that the principle was only a word, we remained in regard to those phenomena in an ambiguous, undecided condition.

In such a state I was, and I assume many of us are, in respect to the principle of “development” which obfuscates pedagogy, in its connection with the rudiments. But popular education is too near to my heart, and I have busied myself too much with it, to remain too long in indecision. The monstrous phenomena of the imaginary development I could not call good, nor could I be persuaded that the development of the pupil was bad, and so I began to inquire what that development was. I do not consider it superfluous to communicate the deductions to which I have been led during the study of this matter.

To define what is understood by the word “development,” I shall take the manuals of Messrs. Bunákov and Evtushévski, as being new works, which combine all the latest deductions of German pedagogy, intended as guides for the teachers in the popular schools, and selected by the advocates of the sound method as manuals in their schools.

In discussing what is to form the foundation for a choice of this or that method for the teaching of reading, Mr. Bunákov says:

“No, an opinion about the method of construction based on such near-sighted and flimsy foundations (that is, on experience) will be too doubtful. Only the theoretical substratum, based on the study of human nature, can make the judgments in this sphere firm and independent of all casualties, and to a considerable degree guard them against gross errors. Consequently for the final choice of the best method of teaching the rudiments, it is necessary first of all to stand on theoretic soil, on the basis of previous considerations, the general conditions of which give to this or that method the actual right to be called satisfactory from the pedagogical standpoint. These conditions are: (1) It has to be a method which is capable of developing the child’s mental powers, so that the acquisition of the rudiments may be obtained together with the development and the strengthening of the reasoning powers. (2) It must introduce into the instruction the child’s personal interest, so that the matter be furthered by this interest, and not by dulling violence. (3) It must represent in itself the process of self-instruction, inciting, supporting, and directing the child’s self-activity. (4) It must be based on the impressions of hearing, as of the sense which serves for the acquisition of language. (5) It has to combine analysis with synthesis, beginning with the dismemberment of the complex whole into simple principles, and passing over to the composition of a complex whole out of the simple principles.”

So this is what the method of instruction is to be based upon. I will remark, not for contradiction, but for the sake of simplicity and clearness, that the last two statements are quite superfluous, because without the union of analysis and synthesis there can be not only no instruction, but also no other activity of the mind, and every instruction, except that of the deaf and dumb, is based on the sense of hearing. These two conditions are put down only for beauty’s sake and for the obscuration of the style, so common in pedagogical treatises, and so have no meaning whatever. The first three at first sight appear quite true as a programme. Everybody, of course, would like to know how the method is secured that will “develop,” that will “introduce into the instruction the pupil’s personal interest,” and that will “represent the process of self-instruction.”

But to the questions as to why this method combines all those qualities you will find an answer neither in the books of Messrs. Bunákov and Evtushévski, nor in any other pedagogical work of the founders of this school of pedagogy, unless they be those hazy discussions of this nature, such as that every instruction must be based on the union of analysis and synthesis, and by all means on the sense of hearing, and so forth; or you will find, as in Mr. Evtushévski’s book, expositions about how in man are formed impressions, sensations, representations, and concepts, and you will find the rule that “it is necessary to start from the object and lead the pupil up to the idea, and not start with the idea, which has no point of contact in his consciousness,” and so forth. After such discussions there always follows the conclusion that therefore the method advocated by the pedagogue gives that exclusive real development which it was necessary to find.

After the above-cited definition of what a good method ought to be, Mr. Bunákov explains how children ought to be educated, and, having given an exposition of all the methods, which in my opinion and experience lead to results which are diametrically opposite to development, he says frankly and definitely:

“From the standpoint of the above-mentioned fundamental principles for estimating the value of the satisfactoriness of the methods of rudimentary instruction, the method which we have just elucidated in its general features presents the following plastic qualities and peculiarities: (1) As a sound method it wholly preserves the characteristic peculiarities of all sound method,—it starts from the impressions of hearing, at once establishing the regular relation to language, and only later adds to them the impressions of sight, thus clearly distinguishing sound, matter, and the letter, its representation. (2) As a method which unites reading with writing it begins with decomposition and passes over to composition, combining analysis with synthesis. (3) As a method which passes over to the study of words and sounds from the study of objects it proceeds along a natural path, coöperates with the regular formation of concepts and ideas, and acts in a developing way on all the sides of the child’s nature: it incites the children to be observant, to group their observations, to render them orally; it develops the external senses, mind, imagination, memory, the gift of speech, concentration, self-activity, the habit of work, the respect for order. (4) As a method which provides ample work to all the mental powers of the child, it introduces into instruction the personal interest, rousing in children willingness and love of work, and transforming it into a process of self-instruction.”

This is precisely what Mr. Evtushévski does; but why it is all so remains inexplicable to him who is looking for actual reasons and does not become entangled in such words as psychology, didactics, methodics, heuristics. I advise all those who have no inclination for philosophy and therefore have no desire to verify all those deductions of the pedagogues not to be embarrassed by these words and to be assured that a thing which is not clear cannot be the basis of anything, least of all of such an important and simple thing as popular education.

All the pedagogues of this school, especially the Germans, the founders of the school, start with the false idea that those philosophical questions which have remained as questions for all the philosophers from Plato to Kant, have been definitely settled by them. They are settled so definitely that the process of the acquisition by man of impressions, sensations, concepts, ratiocinations, has been analyzed by them down to its minutest details, and the component parts of what we call the soul or the essence of man have been dissected and divided into parts by them, and that, too, in such a thorough manner that on this firm basis can go up the faultless structure of the science of pedagogy. This fancy is so strange that I do not regard it as necessary to contradict it, more especially as I have done so in my former pedagogical essays. All I will say is that those philosophical considerations which the pedagogues of this school put at the basis of their theory not only fail to be absolutely correct, not only have nothing in common with real philosophy, but even lack a clear, definite expression with which the majority of the pedagogues might agree.

But, perchance, the theory of the pedagogues of the new school, in spite of its unsuccessful references to philosophy, has some value in itself. And so we will examine it, to see what it consists in. Mr. Bunákov says:

“To these little savages (that is, the pupils) must be imparted the main order of school instruction, and into their consciousness must be introduced such initial concepts as they will have to come in contact with from the start, during the first lessons of drawing, reading, writing, and every elementary instruction, such as: the right side and the left, to the right—to the left, up—down, near by—around, in front—in back, close by—in the distance, before—behind, above—below, fast—slow, softly—aloud, and so forth. No matter how simple these concepts may be, I know from practice that even city children, from well-to-do families, are frequently, when they come to the elementary schools, unable to distinguish the right side from the left. I assume that there is no need of expatiating on the necessity of explaining such concepts to village children, for any one who has had to deal with village schools knows this as well as I do.”

And Mr. Evtushévski says:

“Without entering into the broad field of the debatable question about the innate ability of man, we only see that the child can have no innate concepts and ideas about real things,—they have to be formed, and on the skill with which they are formed by the educator and teacher depends both their regularity and their permanency. In watching the development of the child’s soul one has to be much more cautious than in attending to his body. If the food for the body and the various bodily exercises are carefully chosen both as regards their quantity and their quality, in conformity with the man’s growth, so much more cautious have we to be in the choice of food and exercises for the mind. A badly placed foundation will precariously support what is fastened to it.”

Mr. Bunákov advises that ideas be imparted as follows: