1902 Encyclopedia > Education > Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1745-1827)

(Part 18)

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1745-1827), Swiss educational reformer

Pestalozzi, on the other hand, was completely and entirely devoted to education. His greatest merit is that he set an example of absolute self-abnegation, that he lived with his pupils, played, starved, and suffered with them, and clung to their minds and hearts with an affectionate sympathy which revealed to him every minute difference of character and disposition.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi image

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi
Swiss educational reformer


Pestalozzi was born at Zurich in 1746. His father died when he was young, and he was brought up by his mother.

His earliest years were spent in schemes for improving the condition of the people. The death of his friend Bluntschli turned him from political schemes, and induced him to devote himself to education.

He married at 23, and bought a piece of waste land in Aargau, where he attempted the cultivation of madder. Pestalozzi knew nothing of business, and the plan failed. Before this be had opened his farm-house as a school; but in 1780 he had to give this up also.

His first book published at this time was The Evening Hours of a Hermit, a series of aphorisms and reflections. This was followed by his masterpiece, Leonard and Gertrude, an account of the gradual reformation, first of a household, and then of a whole village, by the efforts of a good and devoted woman. It was read with avidity in Germany, and the name of Pestalozzi was rescued from obscurity.

His attempts to follow up this first literary success were failures.

The French invasion of Switzerland in 1798 brought into relief his truly heroic character. A number of children were left in Canton Unterwalden on the shores of the Lake of Lucerne, without parents, home, food, or shelter. Pestalozzi collected a number of them into a deserted convent, and spent his energies in reclaiming them.

"I was," he says, "from morning till evening, almost alone in their midst. Everything which was done for their body or soul proceeded from my hand. Every assistance, every help in time of need, every teaching which they received came immediately from me. My hand lay in their hand, my eye rested on their eye, my tears flowed with theirs, and my laughter accompanied theirs. They were out of the world, they were out of Stanz; they were with me, and I was with them. Their soup was mine, their drink was mine. I had nothing, I had no housekeeping, no friend, no servants around me; I had them alone. Were they well I stood in their midst; were they ill, I was at their side. I slept in the middle of them. I was the last who went to bed at night, the first who rose in the morning. Even in bed I prayed and taught with them until they were asleep,—they wished it to be so."

Thus he passed the winter, but in June 1799 the building was required by the French for a hospital, and the children were dispersed.

We have dwelt especially on this episode of Pestalozzi’s life, because in this devotion lay his strength.

In 1801 he gave an exposition of his ideas on education in the book How Gertrude teaches her Children. His method is to proceed from the easier to the more difficult. To begin with observation, to pass from observation to consciousness, from consciousness to speech. Then come measuring, drawing, writing, numbers, and so reckoning.

In 1799 he had been enabled to establish a school at Burgdorf, where he remained till 1804. In 1802, he went as deputy to Paris, and did his best to interest Napoleon in a scheme of national education; but the great conqueror said that he could not trouble himself about the alphabet.

In 1805 he removed to Yverdun on the Lake of Neufchatel, and for twenty years worked steadily at his task. He was visited by all who took interest in education,—Talleyrand, Capo d’Istria, and Madame de Stael. He was praised by Wilhelm von Humboldt and by Fichte. His pupils included Ramsauer, Delbrück, Blochmann, Carl Ritter, Fröbel, and Zeller.

About 1815 dissensions broke out among the teachers of the school, and Pestalozzi’s last ten years were chequered by weariness and sorrow. In 1825 he retired to Neuhof, the home of his youth; and after writing the adventures of his life, and his last work, the Swan’s Song, he died in 1827.

As he said himself, the real work of his life did not lie in Burgdorf or in Yverdun, the products rather of his weakness than of his strength. It lay in the principles of education which he practised, the development of his observation, the training of the whole man, the sympathetic application of the teacher to the taught, of which he left an example in his six months’ labours at Stanz.

He shewed what truth there was in the principles of Comenius and Rousseau, in the union of training with information, and the submissive following of nature; he has had the deepest effect on all branches of education since his time and his influence is far from being exhausted.

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