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Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel was born on April 21, 1782, in Oberweissbach, a town in the small principality of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt in central Germany. Nearby Weimar, the ducal capital of this wildly beautiful region of ancient forests and dark valleys, had become world famous at the end of the Enlightenment not as a tourist destination but as the adopted home of Germany's most notable citizen, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who moved there in 1775. Both Goethe's writingmasterpieces of Romantic literature and an impressive body of scientific observationand Froebel's opusthe kindergartenwere rooted in their creators' independent meanderings through the Thuringian countryside. The almost fifty years Goethe lived in Weimar, the first decade of which he spent inspecting the royal forests and curious rock formations as the local duke's administrator of roads and mines, gave form to the intuitive appreciation of nature that became a driving force in all his creations. Froebel found in the same locales inspiration for his life's work.
In a long autobiographical letter penned in middle age, Froebel looked back upon a lonely youth devoid of parental attention. His mother died before his first birthday, and the sting of early solitude colored his entire life. His father, Johann Froebel, was the principal clergyman for several villages, and the care of his dispersed flock left him little time for the youngest of his three sons. Although Johann remarried when Friedrich was four, a new baby distracted his bride from any interest she might have taken in the upbringing of thesensitive boy. Froebel's yearning for motherly love was to be a significant motivating factor in the creation of kindergarten and helps to explain the worshipful, almost sacred, position young women were assigned in the system's administration.
Friedrich scornfully described his father as "a theologian of the old school, who held knowledge and science in less estimation than faith," but the minister's sermonizing was not lost on the boy: a child of the Enlightenment who became an accomplished student of natural philosophy, Froebel was first of all the son of a Lutheran minister. Despite his embrace of physical science, he remained deeply religious, and all of his theories about nature and human development were inextricably intertwined with aspirations toward God. Throughout his life, his method for reconciling advances in scientific knowledge with the doctrines of Christianity was to transform, in his own mind, the one into the other, so that they became interchangeable.
Friedrich recounted his father's painful attempts to teach him to read, and the muddled and obscure writings of his adult years betrayed his poor language skills. As a teenager, however, Froebel recognized his talent and facility for geometry, surveying, map drawing, and other endeavors that rely on the graphic communication of data independent of language. This emphasis on the concise visual exploration of a system's underlying structure became central to all that he attempted and achieved.
Out of the isolation of his youthplaying alone in the gardens on his father's modest propertyFroebel developed an early and unusually fervent love for nature that remained the most intimate spiritual force throughout his outwardly Christian life. Just as they did for Goethe, plants, particularly trees, became for him symbols of human life in its highest spiritual relations. Froebel had many opportunities to compare the disappointment and discord of his family life with the tranquil peace of the life of plants, and he remained in intimate communion with nature until his death.
When Friedrich was ten years old, an uncle on his stepmother's side who lived in the nearby district of Stadt-Ulm, recognizing the stifled, unhappy disposition of the boy and being recently burdened with the death of his wife and only child, requested of Johann Froebel that the child be turned over to his care. Like Froebel's father, Superintendent Hoffman was a well-known clergyman, but while the former was severe, the latter was mild and kind. The mistrust Friedrich garnered for his earlier reveries was here replaced by trust and latitude, and the straits of childhood were transformed to a boyhood of glorious liberty.
Reflecting upon the halcyon years in his uncle's house, Froebel first alluded to the theme that became central to his life and philosophy. Comparing his new freedom with his formerly stunted existence, he described his life as "harmoniously balanced." Harmony, unity, and the reconciliation of opposites are the concepts that formed the theoretical and practical underpinnings of the kindergarten. As Froebel grew they were intuited by the ten-year-old boy, explored by the twenty-year-old student, and put to practical use by the fifty-year-old pedagogue. The idea of the essential unity of nature and life under God, although a mainstay of German Romanticism and of the philosophical idealism that dominated intellectual discourse in Northern Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century, appears to have blossomed naturally in Froebel due to his own inclinations and the circumstances of his upbringing.
Froebel spent five of the most important years of his life in his uncle's home. At fifteen, he began a two-year apprenticeship to a woodsman in the Thuringian forest. Here, the familiar isolation of his youth was renewed, and Froebel found himself alone with his beloved trees once again. Making good use of his master's small library of excellent books on forestry and geometry and borrowing other texts on botany and language study from a doctor in the nearest town, Froebel reverted to his old habits of self-education, observation, and introspection. His nature walks took him through the still-primeval glens that became the focus of so much German Romantic art, from the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich to the stage sets of Wagner's mythopoetic operas. He closely observed the local flora, collecting and drying specimens for later classification and comparison. The succor he once took from the sermons of his father and uncle was now replaced by his ecstatic interaction with the world of the forest: "My religious church life now changed to a religious communion with Nature."
At the close of his two-year apprenticeship Froebel made known his desire to pursue further study of mathematics and botany and convinced his father to allow him to join his brother in the university town of Jena. This was to be the beginning of a formal education that would proceed in fits and starts for many years. Interspersed with diverse lectures and classroom activities were periods of financial difficulty, military service, and employment as a private tutor, all of which added to the curious melange of experiences that would ultimately blossom into his unexpected and remarkable life's work.
Froebel intended his studies to further his career in forestry and forest management. He heard lectures on applied mathematics, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, mineralogy, botany, natural history, physics, chemistry, accounting, tree cultivation, architecture, house building, and land surveying, and took studio classes in topographical drawing. The lectures that were the easiest for Froebel to comprehend, particularly in mathematics, were those whose concepts were commonly expressed in geometric figures. Given his gift for the visual portrayal of information, he gravitated to areas (like map drawing and geometry) where the problems, as he says, could be "perceived with ease and pleasure." Courses that emphasized the arrangement and classification of physical specimensmineralogy, biology, and botanyespecially appealed to him. His view of nature as a single complex entity whose lessons could be deciphered by concentrated observation was reinforced by the apparent objectivity of early-nineteenth-century science. For example, natural-history lectures describing the mutual relationship of all animals existing in an extended network and what appeared to be a fundamental skeletal structure shared (with variations) by the higher and lower creatures of the world jibed with notions he had previously formed. Although it would be decades before Darwin's evolutionary theories clarified the actual ties that earlier scientists hypothesized, their concepts of biological interconnectedness (a linchpin of twentieth-century ecology) were easily assimilated into Froebel's personal cosmology. "I could already perceive unity in diversity, the correlation of forces, the interconnection of all living things, life in matter, and the principles of physics and biology." By his eighteenth year, the principle of unity, embracing the spiritual potential within a person, relations between people in a free society, the place of the individual in relation to the nature that surrounds and includes him, and the life force that controls growth in all things, had already become Froebel's true faith.
At the end of the summer of 1801 Froebel had a chance to sample some of his father's editions of the then popular Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) and Goethe. These giants of Romanticism, who created a unique literary form that had a defining influence on German art and politics throughout the nineteenth century, were contemporaries of Froebel and famed in their own time. Shortly after this literary encounter, still in need of a settled income and in no position to disobey his father, Froebel was sent to work with relatives to study practical farminga pursuit that had little appeal to his poetic sensibilities. Nature for Froebel was apparently better appreciated with the senses than engaged with a plow. After Johann's death in February 1802, Friedrich was finally his own master and he moved on.
The next year found him in the former ecclesiastical principality of Bamberg, hoping to find work as a land surveyor: as a consequence of several unsuccessful German campaigns against Napoleon's forces at the end of the eighteenth century, France had acquired all of the territories lying along the left bank of the Rhine, and mapmakers were in demand. By 1805, he had decided on a career in architecture. This, the most technical of arts, might have been an excellent choice for him, given his familiarity with surveying, drafting, geometry, and construction techniques. Despite his apparent lack of discipline, Froebel, a man of curious passions and focused eccentricities, might have become an architect of lasting interest. By veering away from architecture to education at the very last moment, however, he influenced the history of architecture and all the plastic arts beyond any predictable proportion.
At this moment, a new path was opened to Froebel, and succumbing to an almost messianic idealism that remained unflagging until his death, he recognized and accepted his destiny. On the advice of a close friend (unnamed in his letters), Froebel cast aside his plans to pursue architecture and in the summer of 1805 accepted a teaching position at the Frankfurt Model School. The self-conscious inscription he left in his friend's album at the time has the ring of the New Testament: "Thou givest man bread; let my aim be to give man himself."
The Frankfurt Model School was fairly new in 1805. Its founder, a man named Gruner, was a protege of the Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), and his school was one of the first based on Pestalozzi's progressive pedagogy. Pestalozzi's influence on education and society, through the eventual international dissemination of his techniques and attitudes toward children, was nothing less than revolutionary. At a time when the poorest children were systematically excluded from obtaining any education, the doors of his school in Yverdon, Switzerland, were opened to orphans and peasants. As the first practical proponent of "natural" educationwhere the innate desire to learn is nourished and curiosity is unfetteredPestalozzi abandoned the tradition of interminable lectures followed by student recitation that characterized typical instruction for all age groups, in favor of more active, hands-on activities and what he termed Anschauung: "object lessons" or direct, concrete observation. The long reign of pedagogical terror, enforced by flogging, was to give way to voluntary obedience elicited by respect for the dignity of each beloved pupil.
Pestalozzi's impetus for replacing the stultifying conventions of traditional European teaching with pedagogy that emphasized the personal experience of the child supported by loving encouragement (the basis for all modern educational theory) was the strange and radical tract Emile of 1762, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Emilewhich was widely read for a century after it appearedwas an unequivocal attack on conventional French society, an attempt to capsize the status quo in the realm of education and child-rearing. The very first line of the book summarized Rousseau's educational theories and served as a guide to action: "Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Author of Nature; but everything degenerates in the hands of man."
Emile is an imaginary boy upon whom Rousseau can test his theories of education. The treatise follows Emile from birth to age twenty, liberally dispensing advice on all aspects of child-rearing, with an overall emphasis on freedom and the hitherto unrecognized strengths and capabilities of youth. Rousseau implores parents to observe nature as it tests and excites children to activity. At a time when play was generally dismissed as an empty waste of time, he urged his readers to love childhood and encourage its sports, pleasures, and "amiable instincts": "Is it nothing to be happy? In no other part of his life will he be so busy." Teachers in Emile are no longer information dispensers but guides, and the child's willpower becomes the agent of his education, as he learns by doing. Books, evil repositories of secondhand opinion, are to be avoided until the child approached the age of twelve. Learning how to read too soon merely interferes with learning how to learn, reason, and be (as Pestalozzi later reaffirmed, "First form the mind and then furnish it"). Free from the meddling of lecturing teachers, children would absorb the lessons of nature (of which they are a part) immediately and in uncorrupted form. "Our first teachers of philosophy are our feet, our hands, and our eyes."
Emile was a battle cry for educational reform from a man who made a career out of clashing with complacent society. Certainly, Rousseau made some perverse assertions in his tract that seem merely misguided now. Never allowing a child to wear a hat, at any age, is funny; preventing the inoculation of a child with the recently perfected smallpox vaccine so he may "take it naturally" is obstinacy in the service of polemics. Yet the grand themes of Emilethat childhood is a sacred period of human development, that the child's own empirical explorations are the engine of the expanding mindbecame the foundation for all progressive education to follow. With our late-twentieth-century sensibilities about childhoodshaped by Pestalozzi and Froebel, Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget, universal education and child-labor lawsit is difficult to appreciate the shocking impact of Rousseau's ideas, with their emphasis on natural equality and personal freedom.
Within three days of his meeting with Gruner in Frankfurt, Froebel departed for Yverdon for his first brief meeting with the already famous Pestalozzi. With little actual training as a teacher, Froebel was not yet prepared to evaluate Pestalozzi's methods during the two weeks he spent at Yverdon Castle. A former stronghold of the dukes of Saxony that was built on the remains of a Roman fortification, Pestalozzi's school had been in operation only a few months when Froebel arrived. After many years of writing important tracts on education, including the awkwardly titled but highly influential How Gertrude Teaches Her Children (An Attempt to Give Directions to Mothers How to Instruct Their Own Children) of 1801, and several abortive attempts at starting schools based on his theories, the gift of the spacious compound from the local authorities was a blessing for the elderly Pestalozzi. For twenty years, until it closed its doors in 1825, this revolutionary institution received a stream of distinguished visitors from all over the world.
Froebel taught in Frankfurt for two years before becoming the private tutor to three young brothers whose parents had set aside a small parcel of meadowland for their use as a garden. Transplanting and tending flowers and shrubs from the surrounding countryside reminded Froebel of his own youthful interactions with nature. The simple games he invented for his young charges confirmed the value of Rousseau's notion of education through action and direct observation and helped to form his notion of the kindergarten gifts.
In 1808, when he returned to Yverdon for a stay of two years, Froebel had greater success in assimilating the teachings of the master. Many of Froebel's ideas, including his motto, "Last uns unsern kindern leben" (which was translated as both "Let us live with our children" and "Let us live for our children," but actually means something like "Let us live in an exemplary fashion for our children") are directly traceable to Pestalozzi's influence, and his first important treatise, The Education of Man of 1826, is throughout reminiscent of Pestalozzi's own writings.
Like Rousseau, Pestalozzi frequently compared the development of the mind to that of a tree. Just as nature creates the largest tree incrementally from a single seed, the teacher must endeavor to make gradual additions to a child's knowledge in every action taken. Each new idea thus becomes an expansion of existing knowledge and is understood and accepted as it is compared to that which is already known. The central tenets of Pestalozzi's theories were elucidated in How Gertrude Teaches Her Children: 1. To be meaningful, all human activity must be self-generated; therefore, the traditional educational methods of rote memorization and mechanical drill are psychologically unsound. 2. Perception, developed by means of number, form, and finally language, is the fundamental source of all learning. 3. Because children learn through active engagement, physical education, progressing from simple to complex movements (whether in hiking, dancing, sports, or organized maneuvers), must be included in the daily coursework. 4. Ethical and moral education develops from the trust and love that are first manifested between mother and child.
Objects were used in the teaching of all classes and the primacy of books was greatly reduced. In arithmetic, tools of perception (apples, stones, and so forth) were used to develop distinct ideas by grouping (addition and multiplication), separating (subtraction and division), and comparing (ideas of more and less). Geography was taught on nature walks, and the terrain was evaluated firsthand. Samples of plants and minerals were collected and later described at school, and the older children (eight to ten years old) made topographical relief maps of the surrounding countryside out of clay. Published maps, with their ever-changing political borders (particularly at that time when Switzerland and most of Europe were under French control), were viewed as valueless abstractions.
The teaching of science was rudimentary. Pestalozzi, parroting Rousseau, urged that "fathers should lead their children out into Nature and teach them on the hilltops and in the valleys.... Let the child realize that She (Nature) is the real teacher." History and literature also got short shrift at Yverdon. On the positive side, Pestalozzi was the first to introduce music into the primary-school curriculum as an aid to moral education. The songs that were sung in groups as the students went on their country walks did double duty: most came from the standard Protestant hymnals, but Pestalozzi was less interested in the religious content of the children's songs than in the music itself, which he recognized as a spiritual and civilizing force that could be appreciated intuitively by even the youngest children.
The traditional educational activity of drawing was greatly emphasized at Yverdon, as Pestalozzi considered it of primary importance in the teaching of writing and the comprehension of form. Recognizing that children manifested a natural "taste for drawing" and, just as commonly, an aversion to the study of letters, Pestalozzi developed techniques that incorporated a combination of both. In their joint publication of 1803, ABC der Anschauung, his assistant Johannes Buss went so far as to construct an experimental "alphabet" of form consisting of various segments of lines drawn in the squares of a "gridded matrix. Abstract and unintentionally iconographic, the ABC was a tool developed to facilitate observation and the learning of writing by fragmenting letters and pictures into their basic components. Pestalozzi hoped to create a method whereby any series of letters called out to little children would be immediately comprehensible in specific visual form.
When Froebel determined to make primary education his life's work, when he set about creating a system for educating the very young, the Pestalozzian insistence on the recognition and appreciation of form before nomenclature was at the forefront of his thoughts. The short segments of line and simple geometric shapes that were components of letters and pictures in Pestalozzi's universe were for Froebel symbolic of the building blocks of the actual universe. Anschauung was defined by Pestalozzi as "things before words, concrete before abstract." Kindergarten, designed by Froebel to launch young souls on their lifetimes' passage of spiritual growth, was closer to forms before things before words.
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