Lev Tolstoy

Education and cultural formation





This excerpt from Tolstoy's writings on education anticipates ideas that will appear more than a hundred years later under the heading 'deschooling'. It is therefore interesting to see what the term 'school' meant to Tolstoy.

Source: Review Jasnaja Poljana, n. 7, July 1862, in, Tolstoy on Education, The University of Chicago Press, 1967.



School instruction as manipulation

I do not want to prove that which I have already proved and which is very easy to prove, - that education as a premeditated formation of men according to certain patterns is sterile, unlawful, and impossible. Here I will confine myself to just one question. There are no rights of education. I do not acknowledge such, nor have they been acknowledged nor will they ever be by the young generation under education, which always and everywhere is set against compulsion in education. How are you going to prove this right? I know nothing and assume nothing, but you acknowledge and assume a new and for us non-existing right for one man to make of others just such men as he pleases. Prove this right by any other argument than by the fact that the abuse of power has always existed. Not you are the plaintiffs, but we, while you are the defendants.

I have several times been answered orally and in print in reply to the ideas expressed in Yasnaya Polyana, just as one soothes an unruly child. I was told: "Of course, to educate in the same manner as they educated in the medireval monasteries is bad, but the gymnasia, the universities, are something quite different." Others told me: "No doubt it is so, but taking into consideration, and so forth, such and such conditions, we must come to the conclusion that it could not be otherwise."

Such a mode of retorting seems to me to betray not seriousness, but weakness of mind. The question is put as follows: Has one man the right to educate another? It will not do to answer, "No, but - " One must say directly, "Yes," or "No." If "yes," then a Jewish synagogue, a sexton's school, have just as much legal right to exist as all our universities. If no," then your university, as an educational institution, is just as illegal if it is imperfect, and all acknowledge it to be so. I see no middle way, not merely theoretically, but even in practice. I am equally provoked at the gymnasium with its Latin and at a professor of the university with his radicalism and materialism. Neither the gymnasiast nor the student have any freedom of choice. From my own observations even, the results of all these kinds of education are equally freaky to me. Is it not obvious that the courses of instruc­tion in our higher institutions of learning will in the twenty-first century appear as strange and useless to our descendants, as the medieval schools appear to us now?

It is so easy to come to this simple conclusion that if in the history of human knowledge there have been no absolute truths, but mistakes have constantly given way to other mistakes, there is no reason for compelling the younger generation to acquire information which is sure to prove faulty.

I have been told: "If it has always been that way, then what are you worrying about? It cannot be otherwise." I do not see that. If people have always killed each other, it does not follow that it ought always to be that way, and that it is necessary to raise murder to a principle, especially when the causes of these murders have been discovered, and the possibility of avoiding them has been pointed out.


Beyond school manipulation

In order to answer the questions put to us, we will only transpose them:
(1) What is meant by non-interference of the school in education?
(2) Is such a noninterference possible?
(3) What must the school be, if it is not to interfere in education?

To avoid misunderstandings, I must first explain what I mean by the word "school," which I used in the same sense in my first article. By the word "school" I understand not the house in which the instruction is given, not the teachers, not the pupils, not a certain tendency of instruction, but, in the general sense, the conscious activity of him who gives culture upon those who receive it, that is, one part of culture, in whatever way this activity may find its expression: the teaching of the regulations to a recruit is a school; public lectures are a school; a course in a Mohammedan institution of learning is a school; the collections of a museum and free access to them for those who wish to see them are a school.

I reply to the first question. The non-interference of the school in matters of culture means the non-interference of the school in the culture [formation] of beliefs, the convictions, and the character of him who receives that culture. This non-interference is obtained by granting the person under culture the full freedom to avail himself . of the teaching which answers his need, which he wants, and to avail himself of it to the extent to which he needs and wants it, and to avoid the teaching which he does not need and which he does not want.

Public lectures, museums are the best examples of schools without interference in education. Universities are examples of schools with interference in matters of education. In these institutions the students are confined to certain limits by a definite course, a programme, a code of selected studies, by the exigencies of the examinations, and by the grant of rights, based chiefly on these examinations, or, more correctly, by the deprivation of rights in case of non-compliance with certain prescribed conditions.

In these institutions everything is so arranged that the student, being threatened with punishments, is obliged in receiving his culture to adopt that educational element and to assimilate those beliefs, those convictions, and that character, which the founders of the institution want.

The compulsory educational element, which consists in the exclusive choice of one circle of sciences and in the threat of punishment, is as strong and as patent to the serious observer, as in that other institution with corporal punishment, which superficial observers oppose to the universities.

Public lectures, whose number is on the continuous increase in Europe and in America, on the contrary, not only do not confine one to a certain circle of knowledge, not only do not demand attention under threat of punishment, but expect from the students certain sacrifices, by which they prove, in contradistinction to the first, the complete freedom of choice and of the basis on which they are reared. That is what is meant by interference and non-interference of school in education.

If I am told that such non-interference, which is possible for the higher institutions and for grown-up people, is not possible for the lower schools and for minors, because we have no example for it in the shape of public lectures for children, and so forth, I will answer that if we are not going to understand the word “school” in the narrowest sense, but will accept it with the above-mentioned definition, we shall find for the lower stages of knowledge and for the lower ages many influences of liberal culture without interference in education, corresponding to the higher institutions and to the public lectures. Such is the acquisition of the art of reading from a friend or a brother; such are popular games of children, of the cultural value of which we intend writing a special article; such are public spectacles, panoramas, and so forth; such are pictures and books; such are fairy-tales and songs; such are work and, last, the experiments of the school at Yasnaya Polyana.

The answer to the first question gives a partial answer to the second: is such a non-interference possible? We cannot prove this possibility theoretically. The one thing which confirms such a possibility is the observation which proves that people entirely uneducated, that is, who are subject only to the free cultural influences, the men of the people are fresher, more vigorous, more powerful, more independent, juster, humaner, and, above all, more useful than men no matter how educated. But it may be that even this statement need be proved to many.

I shall have to say a great deal about these proofs at a later time. Here I will adduce one fact. Why does the race of educated people not perfect itself zoologically? A race of thoroughbred animals keeps improving; the race of educated people grows worse and weaker. Take at haphazard one hundred children of several educated generations and one hundred uneducated children of the people, and compare them in anything you please: in strength, in agility, in mind, in the ability to acquire knowledge, even in morality, - and in all respects you are startled by the vast superiority on the side of the children of uneducated generations, and this superiority will be the greater, the lower the age, and vice versa. It is terrible to say this, on account of the conclusions to which it leads us, but it is true. A final proof of the possibility of non-interference in the lower schools, for people, to whom personal experience and an inner feeling tell nothing in favour of such an opinion, can be obtained only by means of a conscientious study of all those free influences by means of which the masses get their culture, by an all-round discussion of the question, and by a long series of experiments and reports upon it.

What, then, must the school be if it is not to interfere in matters of education? A school is, as said above, the conscious activity of him who gives culture upon those who receive it. How is he to act in order not to transgress the limits of culture, that is, of freedom?

I reply: the school must have one aim, - the transmission of information, of knowledge, without attempting to pass over into the moral territory of convictions, beliefs, and character; its aim is to be nothing but science, and not the results of its influence upon human personality. The school must not try to foresee the consequences pro­duced by science, but, in transmitting it, must leave full freedom for its application. The school must not regard anyone science, nor a whole code of sciences, as necessary, but must transmit that information which it possesses, leaving the students the right to acquire it or not.

Final reflections

Well, what then will the school be with the non-interference in education?

An all-sided and most varied conscious activity directed by one man on another, for the purpose of transmitting knowledge, without compelling the student by direct force or diplomatically to avail himself of that which we want him to avail himself of. The school will, perhaps, not be a school as we understand it, - with benches, black-boards, a teacher's or professor's platform, - it may be a panorama, a theatre, a library, a museum, a conversation; the code of the sciences, the programme, will probably everywhere be different.

(I know only my experiment: the school at Yasnaya Polyana, with its subdivision of subjects, which I have described, in the course of half a year completely changed, partly at the request of the pupils and their parents, partly on account of the insufficient information held by the teachers, and assumed other forms).


I doubt wheter the thought, which I have expressed, pehaps indistinctly, awkwardly, inconclusively, will become the common possession in another hundred years; it is not likely that within a hundred years will die those institutions, schools, gymnasia, universities, and that within that time will grow up freely formed institutions, having for their basis the freedom of the learning generation.


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