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Pestalozzi: his life and work online

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Merian, of Basle, who was a pupil of Pestalozzi's from 1806
to 1810, and who afterwards became an engineer at Neu-
chatel :

" 12th January, 1808. Pestalozzi's birthday festival.
At the end of the day the richer children made a collection
amongst themselves for the poor of the town. Mrs. Pesta-
lozzi and Mrs. Kuster took charge of the money, which
amounted to about four pounds.

" 30th September, 1809. Fortieth anniversary of ' Father '
Pestalozzi's marriage. Great rejoicings, discourse by
Niederer ; beautiful songs, room decorated with garlands.
Grand supper for three hundred people in five rooms.
Afterwards dance, opened by Mr. and Mrs. Pestalozzi alone,
in the old-fashioned way." l

It was the custom, on Christmas Eve, to set up a great
fir-tree in the room in which the services were held, lighted
with candles and loaded with golden nuts, apples, etc. This
was the traditional and popular German Christmas-tree, at
that time unknown in French-speaking countries, but since
then naturalized everywhere. There were also religious
discourses and prayers, interspersed with joyful songs, in
which the children always took an extreme pleasure.

Indeed, singing played a great part in Pestalozzi's insti-
tute, and was the joy of nearly everybody in the house.
There was singing everywhere and always. Two Swiss,
Pfeiffer and Nsegeli, had brought Pestalozzi valuable help
in this matter by publishing some admirable collections of
sweet, simple songs for children, in which Germany, it

1 Pestalozzi was then sixty-three years old, and his wife seventy.


must be confessed, is very rich. We were also taught a
few French songs, but they were far from satisfying us
to the same extent. Thanks, however, to many praiseworthy
efforts, France has sensibly improved in this respect.

We have tried to show what the "Yverdun institute was
like during the first years of its existence. At that time
its fame had spread far .and wide, and yet, as we shall now
see, it already contained a defect which was destined to
result in its ruin.



Pestalozzi the first to point it out. Its causes. Pestalozzi asks
the Swiss Diet to inspect his institute. Father Girard's
report. Niederer's controversy with tfte newspapers that
disparage the work. He quarrels with Schmidt. The latter
leaves the institute. Pestalozzi' s yearly discourses. New
helpers. French pupils and masters at Yverdun. Alexander
Boniface. Illness of Pestalozzi. The Allies in Switzerland.
Pestalozzi and the Czar at Basle. The Peace appears to
bring new prosperity to the institute. Numerous pupils
and visitors. Doctor Bell at Yverdun. Internal troubles
at the institute. Schmidt recalled. Death of Mrs, Pestalozzi.
The other masters impatient with Schmidt's spirit of
domination. They leave the institute.

AT the end of 1807, when the establishment at Yverdun was
at the zenith of its fame and exciting the admiration of
scholars and sovereigns ; wnen it was attracting crowds of
pupils, disciples and visitors from every country, and filling
everybody connected with it with joy and hope, one man
alone was dissatisfied, one man alone saw that it could not
endure, that it was doomed, like a plant at whose root there
gnaws an undying worm. This man was Pestalozzi himself.

It was his habit on New Year's day to assemble the
whole of his establishment, and, after passing in review the
events of the past year, to give expression to his hopes and
fears for the future, speaking quite freely all that was in
his heart.

His discourse of the 1st of January, 1808, is full of
sadness and discouragement ; he pronounced it by the side
of his open coffin, which he had ordered to be brought into
the room. It runs as follows :

" The old year is gone ; the new one is here. I am still
in your midst, but feel none of the joy you would expect me


to feel. I seem to see my hour approaching ; I seem to hear
a voice crying above my head : ' Give an account of thy
stewardship, for thou must die.'

"Can I give a satisfactory account? Have I been a faith-
ful steward towards God, towards men, towards myself?

" I am happy, and the sound of my happiness is in my
ears like the noise of bees seeking a home. But I must die,
and what does this noise tell me ? That I do not deserve
happiness, that I am not happy. The past year has not been
a happy one. The ice has broken under me just where I
wanted to walk most surely ; my life-work has betrayed
defects which I had never suspected ; the very bond which
unites us has shown itself weak where I thought it strongest.
I have seen perdition where I looked for salvation, anger
where I looked for peace, coldness where I looked for love.
I have seen trust withdrawn at a time when I seemed
unable to breathe, to live, without it. ... There is my
coffin. What else is left to me but the hope of the tomb ?
My heart is lacerated; I am no longer what I was yesterday;
love, trust and hope have forsaken me. Why should I still
live ? Why did God preserve me so miraculously from the
feet of the horses ? l The bandage which blinded me to
the truth about my life is torn away. The dream which
deceived me as to my value and happiness is gone. What
is there left for me to do in a world where I have made
nothing but mistakes, where I have ever deceived myself,
and where, in an hour, I shall do so again? Yet this present
moment, this first hour of the year, should at least put the
whole truth clearly and plainly before our eyes. I have
made far too much of a happiness I did not deserve. . . .

" Poor, weak, humble, unworthy, incapable and ignorant,
I yet set myself to my work. The world accounted it
madness, but God's hand was with me. My work prospered.
I found friends who loved both it and me. I knew not what
I did, I hardly knew what I wanted. And yet my work
prospered. It came from nothing, as the world at its

1 In December, 1807, as Pestalozzi was walking with Krnsi on a very
dark night, he was knocked down by some horses, trampled upon, aud
thrown into a ditch, from which Krusi drew him out with his clothes
torn, but without a scratch. Pestalozzi at once returned thanks to God
for this miraculous escape.


creation. It is God's work. . . . Realize, my friends,
that it is God's work. And may God's work unite us anew,
not as the wicked are united, but as angels with angels.
You were astonished that I was saved from the horses' feet,
but my work has been preserved more marvellously even
than my poor body. It is a miracle that I am still alive,
but it is a still greater miracle that my work should have
escaped the dangers of Burgdorf, Munchenbuchsee, and
Yverdun !

" New dangers threaten it, which, with God's help, it will
surmount. But shall I surmount them? My heart is full
of doubt and fear ; I feel that I do not deserve my happi-
ness, that it is about to finish. But my work will subsist,
for gold is not consumed, but purified, in the fire. . . .

" But it will not subsist through me. It cannot ; I am
not worthy that it should ; for I have been weak in truth
and love. . . . Happiness I have had, though never for
long. Often have I allowed it to escape, where a child might
have held it. ... What God was doing for me I looked
upon as my own work. In my madness I thought that it
was I who worked the miracles with which He surrounded
me. I accepted praise for what I had not done, and thought
myself the author of a work which was not mine. . . .

" This work was founded by love, but love has disappeared
from our midst. It could not indeed stay, for we had not
foreseen the demands it would make upon us. The work,
too, required patience, and I had none. I was even impatient
when I should have been grateful. God, how did I
come to this, how did I fall so low ? Let me confess my
fault before Thee and these my friends. My blindness has
exceeded belief. With miracles Thou didst build up my
work, with miracles support it, and yet I fancied that it
needed little support. Afterwards, when I came to see how
much strength it required, I tried to make others do what I
myself neglected. I inconsiderately insisted upon what
I should have humbly prayed for, and tried to maintain the
life of my establishment by forces that my faults and weak-
nesses had banished from our midst. And so there have
been misunderstandings amongst us, and bonds are broken
that I thought fast tied for ever, and hearts estranged that
I thought indissolubly united.

" Such is my position. The coffin you see there is my


only consolation. I can no longer do anything to help. The
poison at the heart of our work is spreading, and the praise
of the world, which is ours to-day, will but encourage it.

" God, grant that our blindness may pass away ! The
laurels heaped upon us do but cover a skeleton, for it is
only the skeleton of my work which is before us, before my
eyes and yours. And I see that the laurels which cover it
will be consumed by fire, the irresistible fire of affliction
which is coming upon my house. My work will, indeed,
subsist, but the consequences of my mistakes will remain.
They will crush me ; the tomb is my only refuge.

"But though I go, you will remain. Would that my
words might be burnt into your hearts !

"Friends, be better than I was, that God may achieve,
throiigh you, the work I have failed to achieve. Do not, by
your faults, heap obstacles in your path, as I have done.
Be not deceived, as I have been, by the appearance of

"You are called to a great, an utter sacrifice; without it
you will not complete my work.

"Enjoy the present, enjoy the honour which men are
heaping upon us, but remember that it will pass like the
flower of the fields, which blooms for a moment and is

" Once more, look at my coffin. Perhaps this very year
it will receive my bones or those of a woman who, for my
sake, has sacrificed all the happiness of her life. ... I
already seem to see these walls hung with black, because
this coffin is beneath the ground, because I or my wife, or
perhaps both of us, have gone down to the grave. May we
rest in peace ! May you shed tears of love and pardon over
us, and may God's blessing remain with you. I await my
end calmly and hopefully. And yet there is another possi-
bility, the mere thought of which fills me with dread : I
might live, to see my work ruined by my mistakes. This
would be a calamity that I should not have strength to
endure. I should hang my room with black, and hide myself
for ever from the eyes of men, for whose society I should no
longer deem myself worthy."

This discourse is too characteristic for us to be satisfied,
like other biographers, with quoting a few isolated pas-


sages. We have, however, abridged it as far as possible,
cutting out everything that was only the repetition or
development of ideas already expressed.

Can this indeed be the head of a great institution speaking
to his assistants ? Is it conceivable that now, at the moment
of its greatest prosperity, he should feel obliged to speak
thus ? There is nothing in this extreme openness and
humility on Pestalozzi's part to surprise us ; but even allow-
ing for this, what reasons could he have had for taking this
view of the position of his institute and of its future ? We
must endeavour to make his reasons clear.

In the first place, Pestalozzi at that time felt instinctively,
though perhaps vaguely, that his work, so far as its realiza-
tion in an educational institution was concerned, was an
impossibility. He explains this at the end of his life in the
book entitled, My Experiences, where he says : " I was
already lost at Burgdorf by my attempt to do what was
utterly foolish and absurd." Indeed, when we remember
that his plan in teaching was to follow from the earliest
childhood an order entirely different from that followed
elsewhere, an order, that is, which should be natural and
unbroken; and when we remember, further, that he intended
that the power acquired by the child in its first exercises
should enable it to surmount subsequent difficulties by its
own efforts, we can hardly understand that he should have
thought it possible to pursue such a course in an establish-
ment which received children from every country and of
every age. It often happened, for instance, that big boys
arrived at the institute who could not be placed in the
elementary classes with the little children, and who yet were
not sufficiently prepared for the higher classes. Some com-
promise therefore was necessary, the result of which was
generally disastrous, not only to the method, but also to the
instruction of the pupils.

In the next place, Pestalozzi based morality and discipline
on the relations of the family life ; he wanted to be a father
to his children. This beautiful and touching fiction of
paternity, which had been a living and healthful reality in his
first experiments, could no longer be maintained in an institu-
tion which, from the number of its pupils and their many
differences of language, culture, habits, and antecedents, was
almost a world. It failed at Yverdun, in spite of heroic


efforts. In vain did lie divide the pupils amongst his assist-
ants, and ask them, as far as possible, to take his place, and
keep him informed of their needs and progress ; in vain did
he send for them in turn to his study for friendly talks, and
employ caresses and exhortations when he met them. They
still called him " Father Pestalozzi," it is true, but he no
longer knew them as a father should know his children. And
thus the discipline of affection slowly disappeared, without
being replaced by the more or less military discipline of the
school, and the home-life at Yverdun soon developed into a
sort of ill-regulated public life.

We have seen that Pestalozzi especially complains that
love and concord no longer exist in the institute ; that was,
indeed, the chief evil and the real cause of its ruin. But he
blames himself for it, attributing it to his impatience and
exacting demands. In this, however, he is doing himself a
flagrant injustice and with a magnanimity which should
have touched those who were really in fault. Niederer and
Schmidt were two powerful aids, both very valuable to him,
and in a measure necessary for the execution of his projects.
But neither of these two men could identify himself with
him as his earlier helpers had done, with perfect simplicity
and self-forge tfulness.

Niederer had grasped the master's thought by its philo-
sophical and speculative side, and had formulated it in a way
which, without entirely satisfying Pestalozzi, yet seemed
useful for spreading it abroad, and making it attractive to
scholars. It was in the direction of this philosophical idea,
as he himself had conceived it, that Niederer was always
encouraging Pestalozzi, opposing everything that seemed to
him a deviation from the principle. But Niederer had no
talent for practical questions of administration and discipline,
and in this respect was of little help to Pestalozzi.

Schmidt, on the contrary, saw nothing more in the master's
system than an excellent method for teaching mathematics,
to which he had applied it with a success which aroused
the admiration of the visitors, and contributed more than
anything else to the reputation of the institute. In addi-
tion to this, in matters of discipline and administration, his
strong common-sense and iron will made up for what Pesta-
lozzi lacked. He was pre-eminently practical, and this was
what attracted Pestalozzi to him. He cared little for prin-


ciples when it was a question of maintaining or extending
the reputation and material prosperity of the institute.

It is clear that these two men exercised a contradictory
influence on Pestalozzi; each wished to lead him his own
way. They could neither understand nor respect each other.
Their antagonism had broken up the harmony of this groat
family, and hence Pestalozzi had been able to exclaim so
sorrowfully, " Love has disappeared from our midst."

Such were the defects that Pestalozzi had discovered in his
institute at the beginning of 1808. For more than fifteen
years he struggled to remedy them, and not indeed without
occasional and momentary successes ; but at last, after many
changes of fortune, he was obliged to succumb, and thus
suffered the very misfortune he had so much dreaded, the
misfortune of outliving all his enterprises.

We have still to relate the different phases of this sad
period of decadence. In view of the inevitable end, the
story would have but little interest if we had not always
with us Pestalozzi's unfailing courage and genius; for,
although the old man became more and more incapable in the
ordinary matters of life, although he ended by submitting
blindly to the will of others and making mistake after
mistake, he yet preserved to the very last both his ardent
love for the poor and weak ones of this world, and the
powerful originality of a mind always occupied with the
educational reform which had been the one aim of his life.
In following Pestalozzi's thought from this point, we shall
find valuable help in the discourses he was in the habit of
pronouncing before the whole school at such times as Christ-
mas and the New Year, or on his birthday. These discourses
were the outpourings of his heart, in which all his fears and
hopes, sorrows and joys, thoughts and feelings, were laid
absolutely bare. They are full, too, of his religious faith,
his love for men, his ardent desire to raise the people, and
the educational views by which he sought to reach his end.
Most of the discourses have been published at different
times. They are all to be found in Seyffarth, volume xiii.

Pestalozzi's discourse of the 1st of January, 1808, had
painfully surprised all the masters, but they were not at all
convinced that the evil which he so bemoaned really existed.
They all endeavoured to reassure the old man by pointing to
the prosperity and increasing renown of the institute ; and,


this year particularly, the admiration of visitors and the
number of enthusiastic reports that were published on all
sides, seemed to lend colour to their arguments. And so
Pestalozzi took heart again, and, for a moment, his old
illusions revived. But his confidence was of short duration,
and in spite of all his assistants could urge to the contrary,
the feeling that the institute was in danger was soon stronger
in him than ever. At last, to finally dispel his fears, the
masters proposed that he should ask the Helvetian Diet to
make an official inspection of the institute, and to this the
old man consented. 1

Pestalozzi's request reached the Diet at Freiburg, in June,
1809, and shortly afterwards a Commission was duly ap-
pointed to inspect the institute, composed of Abel Merian,
member of the Petty Council at Basle ; Trechsel, professor
of mathematics at Berne ; and Father Girard, of Freiburg.

The commissioners arrived at the Castle in November,
1809, and spent five days there, interrogating masters and
pupils, and examining everything with the greatest care.

It is curious to see how Father Grirard speaks of this
inspection in the book he published thirty-seven years after-
wards, entitled : On the Systematic Teaching of the Mother-

" To cultivate the minds of the young was my intention as
it was my duty, but I did not, as yet, understand how useful
the mother-tongue might be made in this respect. It was
only on the occasion of an official visit paid to Pestalozzi's
institute at Yverdun that, by talking with my two worthy
colleagues, and by very carefully considering the official
report which I 'had been charged to draw up, the darkness
in which I had been groping was suddenly dispelled. On a
previous visit, I had remarked to my old friend Pestalozzi
that mathematics seemed to me to play far too important a
pai't in his school, and that I was afraid the general educa-
tion of his children would suffer from it. Whereupon he
answered with characteristic heat : ' The fact is, I do not

1 Schmidt alone was opposed to tins inspection, feeling that the system
of studies in tbe institute was not yet, as a whole, in a satisfactory con-

' Published at Paris in 1846, and crowned by the French Academy.


wish my children to know anything which cannot be proved
to them as clearly as that two and two make four.' ' In that
case,' I said, ' if I had thirty sons, I would not entrust you
with one of them ; for it would be impossible for you to
show him as clearly as that two and two are four that I am
his father, and that it is his duty to obey me.' This brought
about a retraction of the exaggeration into which he had
been betrayed, not an unusual thing with this impulsive
genius, and we soon arrived at an understanding.

" However, so great was the attention given to mathe-
matics in his institute, that the mother-tongue was Com-
paratively neglected, and suffered considerably in consequence.
My colleagues and myself were also struck by another
anomaly. We found that the children had indeed reached
a high pitch of excellence in abstract mathematics, but that
in all ordinary practical calculations they were inconceivably

This last criticism contains a manifest error on Father
Girard's part, which, considering his high position, would
certainly be most astonishing, if we did not know how hard
it is to place ourselves suddenly at a point of view totally
different from that to which we have been long accustomed.
Abstract calculations were precisely what Pestalozzi would
have nothing to do with ; he accustomed his children to
concrete numbers from the very first, and all the ordinary
problems of practical life they solved with ease. They
worked them, however, in their heads, and did not learn till
later the use of written figures, in which they therefore
remained weak and unpractised for a long time. But it is
just the conventional methods necessitated by our arbitrary
written system that constitute an abstract calculation, and
yet it is these very methods that Father Girard calls the
" ordinary practical calculations " in which he found the chil-
dren so " inconceivably feeble."

The examination being over, the masters of the institute
and the commissioners separated, not very satified with each
other. At Yverdun it was felt that the report would be
unfavourable. Pestalozzi had expected it, but Niederer and
those who shared his illusion were surprised and irritated
by it; they thought themselves misjudged. It had been
settled that written documents should be sent to the com-


missioners for the purpose of making their information still
more complete, and a very lengthy correspondence now
ensued between Niederer and Abel Merian, the president of
the Commission, and Father Girard, who was to draw up
the report. Niederer said that the commissioners had not
grasped the spirit of the institution ; that they had only seen
the changing outward form, and not the unchanging essence ;
to which the commissioners made answer that their instruc-
tions had charged them to examine facts and not ideas.

In a letter of the 31st of January, 1810, Father Girard
writes to Abel Merian that he is surprised at not having yet
received the documents which were to have been sent from
Yverdun, and adds :

" My opinion is that the institute was not worth all the
attention that has been bestowed upon it. Now that I have
considered it from every point of view, I am inclined to
think it far inferior to the cantonal school of Aarau, and the
Institute of St. Gallen, to say nothing of older institutions. It
is inconceivable that it should have obtained such celebrity
and favour."

Some time afterwards Pestalozzi himself expressed his
opinion of the work of the Commission as follows :

" The commissioners were alarmed at the very outset by
seeing how entirely we neglected the teaching of certain
common subjects which are treated with the utmost care in
the smallest schools, and that being so, they had neither
faith nor courage to go deeper into the matter, and much of
the good escaped them altogether.

" Their report did our work much harm, and placed it
much lower than it deserved."

But if Pestalozzi thought the commission had not seen all
the good, Father Girard thought it had not seen all the

Online LibraryRoger de GuimpsPestalozzi: his life and work → online text (page 27 of 43)