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Letter to the Duke of Meiningen

I was born on 21 April 1782 at Oberweissbach in the Thuringian Forest. My father, who died in 1802, was the leading clergyman there. I was at an early age initiated into the pain and pressure of life's conflict, and was affected by unnatural circumstances and an unsatisfactory education. Soon after my birth my mother became ill, and she died after she had nursed me for nine months. The shock of this loss conditioned my whole future development and this event, I consider, more or less determined the circumstances of my life . . .

My father, as I have already mentioned, was of the old orthodox school of theology, and so the language of hymns and sermons was strongly metaphorical and symbolic - a stone language, as it were, for it takes a powerful disruptive force to break its outer covering and release the inner meaning. This may be hidden even from a mature mind at the height of its powers; yet children in their first exploration of cause and connection can often grasp it, though the period of experiment and reflection may well be prolonged. I was, indeed, delighted if ever my searchings led me to find a meaning.

I grew up in early childhood among surroundings which gave me many sensory experiences, and so from the first I paid close attention to the pleasures which the senses provide. It was my habit to analyse and question, and my conclusions were quite clear and positive even if they were not put into words. I realised that sensory pleasures are transitory, without any enduring or satisfying influence, and so should never be pursued too seriously. I was at that time entirely impressed with this conviction, just as now I base the whole foundation of my life for the future on a critical examination and comparison of the innner and outer worlds and on a study of their interconnection. The fundamental characteristics of my life from the very first have been unceasing self-contemplation, self-analysis and self-education, and they have remained so to this day.

In my educational work it has always been my fundamental principle and aim that human being's pleasure and power in working uninterruptedly at their own education should be aroused and strenghened . . .

I entered my new sphere of educational work in July 1807. I was twenty five years of age but still immature. I was conscious not of my age but of my ambition, of my whole intellectual development and experience. I knew that I was awkward and uneducated, ignorant of life both as it is and as it seems to be. My whole upbringing could only lead me into conflict, from now on I found myself in at odds with all existing forms of education, and so the whole of my teaching and tutorial career was one long battle.

It was good for me that this was my experience from the beginning. Then and later on I was able to console myself with the thought that I foresaw how it would be. Still, one cannot always anticipate unpleasantness, and it is the unexpected which, as I found, is often the hardest thing to overcome. My situation seemed one which held insurmountable difficulties. This is attributed, with some justification, to the shortcomings of my education, and especially to the fact that my university career had been discontinued.

I meant to be an educator and teacher. As far as I knew, I had to do this freely and independently in such a way as, I was just beginning to realise, might meet the needs of an individual's character and relationships. Everyone finds self-understanding difficult, and I found it particularly so; I began to think that I must look for help outside myself and try to gain from others the knowledge and skill I needed.

So I thought again of preparing myself to direct an educational enterprise of my own by continuing my university training, but there was the fact that I had withdrawn from this particular path. As soon as I felt my inadequacy, I not only looked for the remedy in Nature, which fate had determined should be my school, but also turned to the men who had divided the field of education into separate areas of knowledge and had provided us with a vast literature.

I was depressed and worried by this need for help that I intended to give up my educational work and try to go again to one of the universities as soon as possible, but I cam to see that I had not understood myself and decided to stay where I was. This decision was for me the beginning of great activity in the field of education. My first absorbing idea was the clear conviction that in order to educate properly one must share the life of one's pupil. Then came the question: What is elementary education? What is the value of the methods advocated by Pestalozzi? Above all, what is the purpose of education?

In answering the question, "What is the purpose of education?" I started at that time from the observation that we live in a world of objects which influence us and which we wish to influence, and so we must know these objects in their characteristics, their essence and their relation to one another and to us.

Objects have form, size and number and these must be taught.

In talking of the external world I meant only Nature. I lived so in Nature that works of art and of human labour were nothing to me. So for a long time I found it an effort to agree with Pestalozzi's pupils, Tobler and Hopf, and regard the products of human labour as an object of elementary education. My point of view was greatly extended when I was able to think of the external world as inclusive of the works of people.

At the level of thought which I had then reached I tried to explain everything though people and their relationship to themselves and the outer world. The most significant phrase which occurred to me at that time was - "It is all a unity; everything is based on unity, strives towards and comes back to unity." It is this striving for unity which is the cause of all the different aspects of human life. But there was a great gap between seeing this truth in my own mind and being able to understand and act on it.

It seemed to me that everything that can and should be done through education is, in the nature of the stages of development through which an individual must pass, implied and given in an individual and in the relationships in which that individual is set. The educated person is one who has been brought up to respect and recognise these relationships, to see them as a whole and to control them.

During this period I did a great deal of hard work, but I found the methods and purposes of education to be so incoherent and fragmented, so entirely unorganised, that for some years my efforts to rationalise them did not get very far. I hoped to know everything in its living and inner relationship, and to show how this happens. Fortunately for me, certain works on education by Seiler, Jean Paul and others came out at his time, which encouraged and stimulated me because I found I agreed with some of their views but not with others.

I knew the Pestalozzian method in its essential characteristics, but I did not see it as a living force such as would meet people's needs. I was oppressed by the fact that there was no organic connection between the subjects of instruction; I certainly felt this strongly although it was not apparrent to my pupils.

Free and joyful activity flows from the vision of the whole world as a unity; all life and activity are one, for it is conditional on the essential character of the universe. This I soon felt convinced, was true education, and so my beginning as an educator was merely my own life and the force of my actions; more than this I was not in a position to give.

Why is it that as individuals we have so little regard for the advantages we possess from the very beginning? When I now try to explain the life and work of an educator, instances from that period come freshly into my mind. I now look at that childhood of my life as a teacher and learn from it, just as I look back at the childhood of my life as a man and learn from that too. Why is it that all childhood is unaware of its great riches, which are lost before they can be appreciated? Must this always be so? Must it be so for every child? Surely there will soon come a time when childhood will be protected by the experience and insight which age and wisdon bring? What is the use to humanity of the older person's wisdom and experience if they take it with them to the grave?

My life and work with my pupils was at first very limited, for it consisted merely in living, giving out and walking in the open air. As yet I did not bring the simple life of Nature within the sphere of education - it was my pupils who taught me that. In view of my own educational background I encouraged every sign of a feeling for Nature, and so they experienced that enjoyment of natural objects which enriches and enhances our lives . . .

It is intended that people should recognise Nature in her multiplicity of form and shape, and also that we should understand her modes of being and come to a realisation of her unity. So in their own development children follow the course of Nature and imitate her modes of creation in their games. Children like to build and to imitate the structuring of form which we find in Nature's first activity, in the formation of crystals.

However, it must be sufficent now merely to indicate that there is a deeper meaning beneath children's games and occupations. This process of self-employment has not yet been studied as any depth or considered in what might be called its cosmic and anthropological significance. So at any moment, I expect, someone will write a book about it. As I see the loving attention and pleasure with which children work as these occupations another important point occurs to me.

Play necessarily connects the child with a wider world. If the child is building a house, the child builds it so that the child can live in it as grown-up people do, so that the child can have the child's own cupboard and so on, and be able to give others something out of it. One should be careful not to give a child the sort of gift which will overwhelm the child, for it is important that the child should be able to give something in return. In fact, it is necessary for the child to do so, and the child is happy when the child knows how to meet this need by making various things which the child can give away.

Children have the human need to please and to give. Children already feel a part of the whole world and belong to the whole of Nature, and want to be recognised and treated as such. When this happens the most important means of development open to a human being at this stage has been discovered. Good-natured children value only that which can serve as a shared possession, a bond of union between themselves and those they love. This should be noticed by parents and teachers and used to arouse and develop children's impulses to activity and expression. No gift, however small which a child makes should ever be disregarded.

These extracts from the letter written by Friedrich Froebel to the Duke of Meiningen in 1827 have been edited to reflect the gender inclusive language of the original German text.
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Friedrich Froebel: His Life, Times and Significance

This book by Peter Weston for the general reader is an illustrated life of Friedrich Froebel that places him in the turbulent political and intellectual context of his times. It also identifies those aspects of his educational practice that are of enduring value in the contemporary world.