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Education as Dialogue, not Instruction

"Democracy in the school meant for Tolstoy self-determination of themes by the students and a dialogical relation to the learning community.. For Tolstoy, education became dialogue." Tolstoy's libertarian school could give us new perspectives and enthusiasm in fighting for the quintescence of a just and human society, educational opportunity.
Education as Dialogue, not Instruction

Tolstoy's Libertarian School

By Ulrich Klemm

[This article originally published in: graswurzelrevolution 270 sommer 2002 is translated abridged from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.graswurzel.net/270/tolstoi.shtml.]

Tolstoy is discussed in the libertarian context regarding his anti-militarism, his pacifism and his libertarian social criticism (cf. GWR Nr.138/ November 1989; Nr 200/ September 1995). He inspired generations of (libertarian) persons and motivated them to nonviolent resistance against the state, church and injustice ("resist not evil with force"). Nevertheless his pedagogical engagement remains relatively unconsidered in the libertarian and pedagogical discussion.

Tolstoy was one of the most important libertarian reform educators who influenced anti-authoritarian currents in pedagogy worldwide in the 20th century... Tolstoy's didactic of dialogue is emphasized in this article. The remarkable report of his former pupil Wassilij Morosov who wrote down his student experiences in Tolstoy's school and published them in a German translation is at the center.

Tolstoy as Educator

When the author-philosopher died in 1910, he left behind a world-shattering literary work and a social ethic and pedagogy that made him well-known far beyond Russia's borders.

After completing his main literary works "War and Peace" (1864-1869) and Anna Karenina (1872-1877), Tolstoy first turned away from artistic works and pursued libertarian and philanthropic goals to change destructive and authoritarian social relations. With his "religious crisis" at the end of the 1870s, a new stage of life began for Tolstoy. From then on, he wrote numerous political and religious tracts that were known worldwide. However this breach in Tolstoy's life did not represent a change in the sense of a spiritual reversal. Rather this rupture represented continuity and a consistent libertarian radicalism for him.

Tolstoy's work was penetrated by a free or liberal attitude as an educator and pedagogue. In the middle of the 19th century, he was the founder of an educational reform movement whose efforts went far beyond Russia, a libertarian reform pedagogy. When he was 21, he established a school on his family estate "Jasnaya Poljana", 100 kilometers south of Moscow. In 1859, after several years of voluntary military service during which he participated in the Crimean war (1853-1856), he founded a peasants' school which he directed until 1862. This period from 1859 to 1863 is regarded today as the phase of his intensive occupation with pedagogical questions. Beside this school which is considered a classic example of an anti-authoritarian libertarian school, he also edited his own pedagogical journal that appeared in twelve editions from 1862 to 1863. This journal disseminated his educational conceptions and motivated a reform discussion within pedagogy in Russia. Tolstoy's central pedagogical essays from that time appeared in this journal.

Tolstoy's foreign travels in 1860/61 were very important during this time. He traveled nine months through Germany, France, Italy, England, Belgium and Switzerland intent on becoming informed about the western European educational system. He sat in on German and French schools and kindergartens, attended lectures at Berlin university and met with important educators. He wrote about the school pedagogy in Germany on July 29, 1860: "was in the school. Terrible. Prayer for the king. Cudgels, everything learned by heart, frightened, intellectually crippled children". A few days later, as an anti-thesis, he declared: "Montaigne first clearly expressed the idea of freedom of education. Within education, equality and freedom are most crucial. At the beginning of 1881, Tolstoy returned from his "education travel" convinced "that the only basis of education is experience and its only criterion is freedom". In his programmatic essay "Thoughts about Popular Education". He explained these ideas: "When experience is made the foundation of the school, when the school becomes a pedagogical laboratory so to speak, then the school will not fall behind the general progress and firm foundations will be created for the discipline of education."

Tolstoy criticized the existing pedagogical praxis and offered a theoretical concept. He connected his pedagogy with a social criticism. What is the purpose of education? Tolstoy distinguished between "education" as free instruction and "education" as a coercive measure. When an immoral phenomenon like coercion in education can exist for centuries, the cause must be sought in human nature. This cause can be discovered firstly in the family, secondly in religion, thirdly in the state and fourthly in society." Tolstoy proved himself an educator critical of ideology unmasking structures of an authoritarian educational reality. He understood pedagogy as a discipline built on experience that must re-constitute itself according to the principles of freedom and freedom from rule.

The reprisals of the czarist government contributed to the end of his first "pedagogical phase". On October 3, 1862, the Russian home minister wrote to the education ministry: "Careful review of the pedagogical journal `Jasnaja Poljana' edited by count Tolstoy shows that this journal through its propaganda for new teaching methods and popular schools often spreads ideas that are inaccurate and harmful... " Tolstoy was charged with conspiracy against the czars. His house and school were searched and ravaged. Embittered about the political conditions in Russia, Tolstoy withdrew from pedagogy and dedicated himself to his great novel "War and Peace".

The School of Jasnaja Poljana

Tolstoy's school in Jasnaja Poljana was undoubtedly in the center of Tolstoy's activities. He set signs for a new libertarian understanding of education that was also a model for later progressive educators. A series of testimonies and reports about his school make it transparent for us today. Besides his own experiential report that appeared in his journal in 1862, the "recollections" of his student Wassilij Morosov give us a graphic picture of his peace pedagogy.

Tolstoy's school praxis started from the pedagogical principle of individual freedom and was consciously different from the praxis at that time. This praxis understands education as spontaneous, voluntary and everyday-oriented, not as indoctrination.

Tolstoy explicitly distinguished between education as application of coercion and education as a voluntary and free encounter between teachers and stude3nts. This principle led to a praxis of free schools that has not changed in its goal up to today. In his 1964/65 report on the "First Street School", George Dennison wrote that "one is not confronted with a vacuum or with a chaos when the customary routine of a school is abandoned (the military discipline, the timetable, the punishments and rewards, the standardization) but rather with a new order grounded on relations between grown-ups and children and between children and on the truth of human nature that the intellect or mind doesn't function independent of feelings or emotions but that thinking is part of feeling and shares in feeling and feeling is part of thinking."

In the summer of 1859, Tolstoy in "his village" proclaimed the news of the opening of a voluntary school free of charge on his estate. Morosov reports on the first school day when 22 children came with their parents: "We left the school, said goodbye to our dear teacher and promised to be there early the next morning. Our ecstasy and delight knew no limits... " They spent the first months learning the ABCs. "Three months passed and our school thrived. In this time we had already learned to read and the number of students rose from 22 to 70. Children from all corners of our countryside were there, children from urban petty-bourgeois, small merchants, farmers and people from the intellectual class... "

The Pedagogical Problem of Punishment

Although Tolstoy wanted to abolish all coercion along with class work, house work and grades, situations arose that provoked grave reactions... Students of a free school are not braver, more orderly or more just. Rather what characterizes a free school is the reaction to everyday senile or seemingly disruptive conduct. On account of his high claim to practice a free, non-authoritarian education, Tolstoy had more problems than teachers at state schools whose conduct was predetermined by certain rules.

Tolstoy's moral claim to give children and adults equal rights made his instruction more open, free, and unconstrained and simultaneously assumed a greater measure of humaneness, tolerance and strength. Tolstoy was by no means immune from mistakes. The decision-making process and the dynamic of teacher-student interaction distinguished Jasnaja Poljana from other schools at that time.

"Disruptive cases" were discussed by the whole class. Tolstoy decided he would not be master over praise and punishment... No one should be punished for exuberance, high spirits, disobedience or laziness.

Education as Dialogue

The "pedagogical relation" was an important characteristic consciously considered by Tolstoy and Morosov. This relation was essentially different from the traditions of a tainted authoritarian one-sided teacher-student relation. For Morosov and his class, the pedagogical relation was an education experience based on community and mutuality. "We were one heart and one soul about these joys, pleasures and rapid advances. Without him, the world was empty to us. He also could not be without us. We were inseparable and only left him deep in the night."

Education for Tolstoy was a common experience with the goal of making life more understandable. The traditional teacher's role lost dominance in Jasnaja Poljana. Only one accepted by students can teach. The teacher role must be delegated so to speak, ascribed by the participants. Tolstoy remarked: "The freedom to suddenly run away from lessons is useful and necessary, a way of preserving the teacher from the most extreme and grossest errors."

Democracy in the school meant for Tolstoy self-determination of the themes by the students and a dialogical relation to the learning community. In a section describing a race with gymnasts from Tula, Morosov described how Tolstoy's school increased the zest for life, created a pleasant atmosphere and realized learning successes...

The dialogue was a central resource in education for Tolstoy, not instruction or didactically processed material. For him, education became dialogue. These educational conversations took place in swimming, ice-skating, traveling, strolling and instruction itself in a seemingly accidental and spontaneous way.

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