Saturday, December 4, 2010

Guest post: Tolstoy in the schools of Marseilles

[From Chris, originally posted at A Blog About School]

As a follow-up to FedUpMom’s post earlier today, here’s Tolstoy, writing almost a hundred and fifty years ago:

Last year I was in Marseilles, where I visited all the schools for the working people of that city.

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The school programmes consist in learning by heart the catechism, Biblical and universal history, the four operations of arithmetic, French orthography, and bookkeeping. In what way bookkeeping could form the subject of instruction I was unable to comprehend, and not one teacher could explain it to me. The only explanation I was able to make to myself, when I examined the books kept by the students who had finished the course, was that they did not know even three rules of arithmetic, but that they had learned by heart to operate with figures and that, therefore, they had also learned by rote how to keep books.

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Not one boy in these schools was able to solve, that is, to put the simplest problem in addition and subtraction. And yet, they operated with abstract numbers, multiplying thousands with ease and rapidity. To questions from the history of France they answered well by rote, but if asked at haphazard, I received such answers as that Henry IV. had been killed by Julius Caesar. The same was the case with geography and sacred history. The same with orthography and reading. More than one half of the girls cannot read any other books than those they have studied. Six years of school had not given them the faculty of writing a word without a mistake.

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After the lay school, I saw the daily instruction offered in the churches; I saw the salles d’asiles, in which four-year-old children, at a given whistle, like soldiers, made evolutions around the benches, at a given command lifted and folded their hands, and with quivering and strange voices sang laudatory hymns to God and to their benefactors, and I convinced myself that the educational institutions of the city of Marseilles were exceedingly bad.
At the root of the problem, Tolstoy believed, was the degree of compulsion -- which “becomes worse and worse in every year and with every hour,” to the point where “There is left only the despotic form with hardly any contents.” To the contrary, Tolstoy concluded, “the criterion of pedagogics is only liberty.”

But why listen to people like Tolstoy and Einstein when we have Arne Duncan, E.D. Hirsch, and that principal with the baseball bat?


  1. Chris, thank you for an interesting post! It seems like the education debate has been the same forever.

    The funny thing is I was just planning a post about Tolstoy's own education as a child -- I'm going to do a series of education experiences through history.

    Tolstoy, of course, was an aristocrat who was educated at home with tutors. Like today's homeschoolers, he studied just a few hours a day, and wound up with an excellent education.

  2. I'm really enjoying this "Tolstoy on Education" book and expect to post a few more excerpts. I'd love to hear more about his own education.

    By the way, in that same essay, he wrote that bookkeeping, "as it is taught in Germany and England, is a science which demands about fifteen minutes of explanation in case of a pupil who knows the four operations in mathematics." Spoken like a true homeschooler!

  3. So I looked into Tolstoy's early education and it's a mixed bag.

    The bad news: it seems to have involved a lot of memorizing texts under the direction of a grumpy tutor.

    The good news: it took only a few hours a day. Tolstoy wound up fluent in German, French, and Russian.

  4. PsychMom says:
    We happened to be home yesterday because my daughter was sick. Caught Oprah and the BIg announcement by Michelle Rhee and her declaring herself in charge of the education revolution. Just send her money, seemed to be the message. I'm not sure what the money is for..what little I know about American politics, it sounds like she's forming a lobby group.

    Any comments from my compatriots?