Leo Tolstoy about Education
It is amazing to see how innovative Tolstoy’s ideas are, especially the one about education. Over a century ago, he spoke about the importance of educating children for actual life, instead of presenting them with an overwhelming amount of information that they will never use.
Of course, classical education is important, dead languages too, especially when talking about tradition and teaching values. But still – Tolstoy does not give precedence to classical education, as he notices that few teachers could give you an answer to the question why they are teaching children all of the theoretical knowledge.
There should be a vital communication between the teachers and the students, and teachers should be at their best when responding to students’ needs. Tolstoy says:
The only criteria educational methods should follow is freedom. The only way of knowing is through experiment, through experience.
Tolstoy has something to say about schools and discipline, too. He believes there is more than one way to maintain authority in the classroom. The best way to earn trust and respect is to give trust and respect. That way, children won’t find themselves restricted by fear, in any way:
A good teaching method is the one that doesn’t need strict discipline. The one that includes punishment is by far worse [… ] We should try giving interesting tasks to students or teach through amusing storytelling. Or – let them leave their school desks, encourage them to teach one another, let one write something on the school board and others correct him. That way, every single one of them will be busy and there will be no need for punishment or harsh discipline.
Tolstoy thought that the elementary schools of his time were just too removed from real life and not sufficiently focused on specific life callings. It was as if children were taught nothing and everything at the same time, which often resulted in superficial and incomplete knowledge.
Tolstoy also noticed the lack of synchrony, when it came to the way elementary school was connected to higher educational institutions. He commented on the false prestige and snobbery of his time, when it came to the privilege of educating oneself.
Schools didn’t really prepare you for life, as they should, and there was nothing wrong with not knowing ancient Greek or Latin, if you lived your life in an honorable and productive way:
We can see many people who have the knowledge for doing agricultural work. Surely they understand the inner logic of that work, although they cannot read or write. Then, we can see exceptional military commanders, merchants, craftsmen, machinists, craftsmen who can read and write, but they don’t actually know much more than the first ones.
Tolstoy has come to a shift in his ideas regarding education: a teacher is shown much more as an equal to students, much more as a true friend and mentor – than as a frightening figure of authority.
What is the purpose of nurturing that kind of teacher’s image, if it doesn’t encourage children’s curiosity and willingness to learn? Tolstoy thinks teachers need to have more faith in their students, because that is the only way they will find out what they want to do with their lives and what is their true calling.
Thomas Mann called Tolstoy an anarchic educator, but in a positive way.
It may seem that Tolstoy’s ideas cannot fully apply in the real world. There are different opinions among modern educators when it comes to the amount of freedom to give to children in schools. But something needed to be changed, and in that sense – Tolstoy was completely right.
The whole point of education had been overlooked, and people started teaching automatically and mechanically, without ever thinking about the importance of a teacher’s role. Tolstoy was on to something big. Today, there are school systems that are an extreme representation of his ideas, although they didn’t directly derive from them. Take Summerhill School as an example.
Summerhill School is a boarding school in Suffolk, England. It is the most famous example of alternative education, founded by A.S. Neill. This school has many critics (both positive and negative ones), since its day-to-day operations are based on a really unusual democratic system, compared to the precepts of traditional schooling.
The school has a focus on the freedom of the child, and the most respected right of the student is to play. Children have an amazing power: to decide if and when they are going to study, and also – to learn through fun.
Summerhill is a community that plays an important role, not just as an educational institution, but also as a support to parents and a special factor in upbringing. Negative criticism mostly focuses on the freedom that has been given to children and concern that the amount of freedom at Summerhill could be harmful.
In addition to this – another modern reference to Tolstoy’s ideas – are the ideas of Sir Ken Robinson, a creativity expert who challenges the way children are educated today.
Again, his ideas do not directly derive from Tolstoy, but it is interesting to see where they overlap and intersect. Sir Ken Robinson insists on the importance of these factors in education: nurturing creativity, critical thinking and curiosity, not by teaching the same program over and over again, but by acknowledging the precious individuality of all students and responding to what they need.
This kind of tailored education isn’t that complicated: it means adapting to students, listening to them, as it will result in bringing out the most in them. You can watch Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk Do schools kill creativity.
Tolstoy had many great ideas, not just regarding education. His thoughts were written in a personal and intimate style, which is common for diaries.
If you want to learn more about his personal life and other topics, make sure you read the complete diaries of this, Russia’s greatest writer.
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