Volume:2, Issue: 1

Apr. 1, 2010

Leo Tolstoy and the Yasnaya Polyana Pedagogical Institute
Scheuerman, Richard D. [about] , Ellis, Arthur K. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: a writer and a teacher; Yasnaya Polyana; prevailing instructional models; efficacy of student learning; teacher’s selection and preparation; freedom as the only criterion of pedagogy; regulations for the pedagogical institute; religion and religious education.

SYNOPSIS: this paper introduces to the English-speaking readers some new facts and materials which allow to better understand Leo Tolstoy as a great Russian educator and a founder of the first free school in the tzarist Russia. The authors analyze Tolstoy’s primary approaches to pedagogical education and disclose his intention and plans to build a teacher’s training institution in his estate.

“At the Door of the School”
Painting by N. Bogdanov-Belsky (State Russian Museum)
(Illustration used for Tolstoy, Pedagogical Articles [1904]).

Leo Tolstoy and the Yasnaya Polyana Pedagogical Institute

Leo Tolstoy’s experiences as a writer and a teacher led to the extensive publication of his own educational works and subsequent commentary by others on the development of his pedagogical ideas. From his premature effort in 1848 to teach peasant children at Yasnaya Polyana to completion in 1903 of a monumental two-volume The Circle of Reading (Krug Chteniia) — the work Tolstoy considered his major literary achievement, he energetically pursued educational endeavors throughout his adult life. Tolstoy had founded the famed school on his estate near Tula in 1859 and contributed a series of unpretentious if lengthy essays for the educational journal Yasnaya Polyana he edited to explore ideas on instructional methods, the psychology of learning, school administration, and community education. He also became vitally interested in teacher preparation. A remarkable document authored by Tolstoy in 1875 that relates to the organization of a pedagogical institute is presented here in English for the first time, and provides insight into his maturing thoughts on public education.

At the inception of his educational inquiries in the 1850s, Tolstoy had sought in vain to find useful instructional models in approaches that prevailed in 19th century Russia — “Bunakov’s lessons, Zolotov’s charts, Madame Daragan’s alphabets.”1 A longtime teacher described prevailing conditions in the Tula elementary school he had attended: “The teachers had no pedagogical training. They included semi-literate peasants, a deacon, a psalmist, and even the wife of the local priest, who could scarcely make out a word. Literacy consisted of the ability to read Old Church Slavonic and a smattering of writing... If, God forbid, one of the pupils had failed to memorize his homework, then fists, shoves, and hairpulling were brought into use… As far as scientific information and intellectual development are concerned, these teachers suppressed rather than encouraged them.”2

Tolstoy knew the condition of most Russian schools from observation and “turned to the literature of Europe” which led him to folk novelist Berthold Auerbach and to works by Rousseau and Pestalozzi. From these influences and his own didactic intuition, Tolstoy’s educational writings would anticipate the progressive twentieth century student-centered educational theories of Dewey, Nyesiyama, Montessori, and Steiner. He came to emphasize the need to focus on individual capacities and development, and to guard against the corrupting influences of society’s cultural and political elites that subordinate the common good for their own purposes. These views conflicted with widespread instructional practice in Russia and Europe where students were regarded as objects of state control to be shaped with teacher-dispensed information and knowledge.

In 1860 while on his second trip to Europe to investigate schools on the continent and in England, Tolstoy attended a lecture on education by Dickens, met with Proudhon and Froebel, and recruited the German schoolteacher Gustav Keller in Germany for arithmetic and art lessons at Yasnaya Polyana.3 Tolstoy hired several other teachers and inspired the formation of at least a dozen other schools in the Tula area soon after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. The emerging interests of the Russian peasantry in education led Tolstoy to consider the problems of pedagogical training in order to provide teachers who understood the needs and conditions of peasant families in whom he believed Russia’s destiny was anchored.

Tolstoy confessed to considerable “tacking” at the Yasnaya Polyana school due to his professional inexperience, but he was strongly guided by intuitive associations with child-centeredness. During a visit in the fall of 1868 by his American friend, Consul Eugene Schuyler, Tolstoy explained that “the old clerical way of teaching had outlived its time.” He found his young pupils to possess great knowledge of practical life, humor, simplicity, and honesty, and settled on two foundational convictions: compulsory learning through coercive discipline was detrimental to student interest though convenient for teachers, and the best pedagogical methods satisfy innate student interests. For these reasons Tolstoy found his chief educational aim to “find something which the pupils would be glad to learn” through a combination of multi-age individual, cooperative, and community experiences in which students creatively expressed themselves through narrative writing, art, music, and activities.4

Rather than the words of hopelessness envisioned by Dante at the gates of hell, a large inscription above the door of Tolstoy’s school testified to the founder’s philosophy, “Enter and Leave Freely.” The spirit is in contrast to the pedagogy of British utilitarianism caricatured in Dickens’ novel, Hard Times (1854), where the headmaster Gradgrind encounters a stable girl who is nevertheless unable to describe horses in acceptable technical terms he renders: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive,” and so on. Tolstoy knew from innumerable experiences with the “Marfutkas and Taraskas” in his Peasant School and elsewhere that children’s minds possess life experience from which valid connections could be made to daily lessons, and that their imaginations and moral sensibilities can fully contribute to self-directed aesthetic endeavors.

The great moralist first turned to time-honored classical works of literature, music, and art, only to find that introducing Homer and Gogol to learners too early was futile. He had met Schuyler in 1868 in Moscow who introduced him to a series of American reading textbooks, or “graded readers,” that were designated for specific ages. Tolstoy obtained some copies and understood the significance of the approach, but as a means to affirm Russia’s “thousand-year-old history of education”. He effusively wrote to his cousin in 1872, “All must be beautiful, short, simple, and above all, clear,” and embarked on a prodigious project to assemble a series totaling over 750 pages with two hundred short stories.5

Four separate volumes of The Primer of Count L. N. Tolstoy were designed for teaching the alphabet (his enduring Azbuka bestseller), elementary reading, Slavonic, and arithmetic. Above all, Tolstoy found selections from the Bible to be the most effective in combining with latent student interests to “raise the veil all the enchantment of the world of thought, knowledge, and poetry to which studies are to introduce him….”6 The Bible, he said, “took complete possession of them. …They grew to love the book, love study, and love me. All that I had to do was to guide them further.” He especially found the Old Testament to represent the basis for a comprehensive integrative education for teaching epic literature, lyrical poetry, ancient history, social relations, and science and natural phenomena. Emphasis on the quality of the elementary school experience affirmed Tolstoy’s belief that those years determined the level of subsequent intellectual, moral, and social development, and future life in general.7

Tolstoy’s ideas on teacher selection and preparation were influenced by the German cultural historian and conservationist Wilhelm Riehl, who held that teachers should be oriented to rural experience to better understand and appreciate sociological aspects of family life and the natural world. Teacher candidates from the Russian rural populace were generally unavailable until the 1870s as this role was served by village sextons, pensioned soldiers, and others considered by Tolstoy and many others to be of diminished intellectual capacity. In order to staff his Peasant School in 1862, Tolstoy recruited several university students who had been involved in radical political causes which he felt compelled to confront. Over several days he dissuaded them of their “quasi-liberal nonsense” for them to be able to serve as teachers who valued the Bible and peasant child inquiry above Herzen and other radical thinkers.8

Tolstoy had criticized higher education for alienating students from time-honored aspects of folk culture and morality that had long sustained the Russian people. In “Education and Culture”, Tolstoy had written that university life fostered “contempt, disgust, and supercilious pity” for the very environment and kindred responsible for the existence of those students who had come from the lower classes. Tolstoy went on to question the moral value of university education for training officials “who are convenient only for the government, or professor-officials, or literary-man-officials who are convenient for society, or men who are aimlessly torn away from their former environment, whose youth has been completed and who find no place for themselves in life.”9

Tolstoy’s emphasis on the efficacy of student learning against the convenience of teacher instruction represented a standpoint in conflict with prevailing practice. His reference to “tacking” during his Peasant School experience implies a measure of instructional agility and resourcefulness that cannot be reduced to a prescribed methodology. Effective teaching takes place variously when student interests are guided without reliance upon coercive disciplinary measures. Teachers may competently facilitate learning as a skilled art, but the process cannot be reduced to descriptive methodology.10

Instructional methods are adaptable to the complex combination of pupil characteristics, learning conditions, and other exigencies in dynamic teaching situations. While these various aspects of learning may be studied in isolation, skilled teachers view students holistically in what Tolstoy terms “many-sided analysis”. As teachers guide free learning to conform with natural principles of internal cognition, students grow intellectually and psychologically in accordance with this experiential tendency.11 Given these complexities inherent in the learning process, Tolstoy came only gradually to accept the concept of training teachers.

In his celebrated 1862 essay, “A Project of a General Plan for the Establishment of Popular Schools”, Tolstoy had likened teaching to the work of artists and poets, and observed that the task was impossible apart from direct experience, even in the best German seminaries and French and English normal schools. But he soon came to realize the imperative of teacher training to meet pressing needs even without sufficient numbers of Repins and Pushkins to wield pointers and manuals. A dozen years after the emancipation of the serfs school attendance had risen from approximately one to five percent of the school age population, and by the end of the decade some 1,140,000 students of about 15 million were attending 22,770 schools.12 State and regional officials were clamoring for teachers to staff the expanding network of rural schools scattered across a vast portion of the continent. Elementary schools were authorized to offer six years of instruction, though in reality many were unable to provide or retain teachers at various levels (even into the twentieth century).

The principal means for teacher preparation were ecclesiastical seminaries, teacher institutes organized by local zemstvo assemblies following the emancipation, and, after 1870, state training schools (normal schools). Throughout nineteenth century Russia, these institutions essentially offered a more measured pace of instruction in the upper primary curriculum during a three-year rudimentary program. As Minister of Education Dmitri Tolstoy had declared to the Council of State in 1866, “The people need only reasonable literacy; they do not need expensive teachers.”13 Training in methodology usually began in the second year and included observations in local rural schools, followed by third-year apprenticeships of at least five hours each week using lessons approved by review board for content, level, and organization for each subject area. The central government imposed numerous regulations and careful recruitment in order to prevent populist democratic ideas from spreading throughout the country as well as notions about peasant children being educated beyond their rank in society.14

Leo Tolstoy’s experience with the state education system led him in 1874 to compose an essay, “On Popular Education” for the popular teachers’ magazine, Notes of the Fatherland. In it he repeated his criticisms of prevailing elementary school practice devoted to phonetic learning, rote memorization, and the study of tendentious texts. To be emphasized instead was understanding the local context of students with their parents and community. Once again he affirms the two fundamental elements of his instructional approach: “The only criterion of pedagogy is freedom, the only method — experience.”15 The appearance of the article and resulting controversy prompted Tolstoy to consider plans for teacher education, and he wrote to the Russian Minister of Education in 1875 soliciting support for a program based on principles formulated through his peasant school experience.

Tolstoy’s ideas were opposed by many in the educational establishment, but following a government inquiry into the matter, his proposal for a “university in bast shoes” was approved.16 Tolstoy also contacted government officials in nearby Tula who initially approved his request for tuition scholarships. The institute’s regulations and related “Excerpt from a Note on Public Schools of the Krapeviensky District,” also written in 1875, offer additional understandings of his intentions for teacher preparation. The Regulations consist of separate general, staff, and curriculum sections including a table of classes to be taught at the institute. In accordance with typical arrangements of teacher training institutions of the time in Russia, the program offered three years of instruction with substantial practical experience for students in the second and third years at a local public school to be affiliated with the institute. At the same time the general regulations section makes clear the focus of Tolstoy’s interest in recruiting candidates: “mainly peasants, of Orthodox Christian persuasion.”

Consistent with approaches in other normal schools, the curriculum and school life in general stressed traditional moral and religious values. But other programs not only did not emphasize the development of critical thinking skills and student-centered approaches, most considered such ideas to be subversive, and may have contributed to the demise of Tolstoy’s proposal.17 In the controversial essay he had written the previous year, “On Popular Education,” Tolstoy attacked conventional Russian as well as European pedagogical approaches in both state and church schools.

Tolstoy had recently written that in these educational settings “the mechanical side of instruction” predominated through compulsory practices for the convenience of teachers rather than the psychological conditions of childhood. Teachers put forth information deemed necessary by the state, rather than allow investigation of important questions relevant to a child’s life that would lead, in turn, to investigations of the wider world.18 In his institute’s admission process, Tolstoy specified, “The primary consideration is not the mechanical liveliness of answers, but understanding and the ability to reason” (No. 20).

The implications for the era (as in many 21st century school contexts) may have been too radical for ministry officials already concerned about demands emerging from the zemstvo assemblies in the 1870s for universal primary education. Tolstoy’s dream for a teacher education institute was never realized although a dozen students had applied for admission. University officials may have reconsidered the proposal but the real reason behind the abortive decision is unclear. Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina at this time and his interest in the project may have waned given the substantial personal responsibilities outlined in his “Regulations for the Pedagogical Institute” (1875). Tolstoy had long since achieved international acclaim as a novelist but his writings most critical of the government and church would not begin to appear until the following decade. Although he would never abandon his enduring interests in public schools and pedagogy, Tolstoy’s attempt to establish the pedagogical institute was his last civic effort to influence the Russian education system.

________________________________________

Regulations for the Pedagogical Institute [1875]
By Count L. N. Tolstoy19

Part I: General Regulations

1. The Pedagogical Institute for public teacher preparation is being established by Count L. N. Tolstoy in the village of Yasnaya Polyana in the Krapeviensk District of Tula Province.
2. The goal of the Pedagogical Institute is to offer pedagogical education to young adults of all social classes, mainly peasants, of Orthodox Christian persuasion, who wish to devote themselves to a teaching career in public schools of Tula Province.
3. The Institute has a public school attached to it in order for students of the Pedagogical Institute to practice their teaching skills.
4. The Institute and the School exist at Count L. N. Tolstoy’s expense, and are open institutions.
5. Enrollment of students cannot be determined precisely but is expected to be no less than fifty.
6. The Institute consists of three cohorts. The course of study in each is three years, one year in each class.20 However, it can be shortened for some more able students by the founder of the Institute. (For students who are not completely ready for independent teaching, it is permissible to stay in this institution for another year.)
7. The Pedagogical Institute is under direct supervision of the Superintendent of the Moscow School District.

Part II: The Staff of the Pedagogical Institute for Preparing Public Teachers

8. The Pedagogical Institute and the Public School attached to it are managed directly by Count L. N. Tolstoy.
9. Count L. N. Tolstoy is entitled to supervise vigilantly the moral behavior of the students not only inside the walls of the institution, but outside them as well when possible.
(10. At the end of the year Count L. N. Tolstoy is to offer a report to the Superintendent of the School District on the state of his institution.)
11. The staff of the Pedagogical Institute consists of one instructor in religious education and teachers of other subjects. Their number is up to the discretion of the founder of the Institute and a public school teacher.
12. The teachers are selected and appointed by Count L. N. Tolstoy. In accordance with a preliminary agreement with the leadership of the Diocese, the instructor in religious education is eligible for this role on the basis on his education. Other teachers are eligible from those individuals who meet the requirements to be instructors at pedagogical institutes based on their education.
13. The teachers are obliged: (a) to be present at each other’s lessons for merely pedagogical reasons as much as time permits; (b) to guide students in their practical work in the Public School, help them in their studies outside the classroom, and teach their subjects; (and (c) assist Count L. N. Tolstoy in moral supervision of students in and outside the walls of the institution.)
14. In case of teacher illness or absence, the fulfillment of his duties is shifted, as much as possible, to other teachers upon the founder’s orders.
15. In the case of Count L. N. Tolstoy’s illness or absence, he appoints one of the teachers to take his place.
16. Should it be necessary, Count L. N. Tolstoy will gather students together for meetings concerning various affairs of the institution. These include: (a) admission of those desiring to study at the Pedagogical Institute, and providing them with certificates upon graduation; (b) determining awards and penalties; (c) expulsion of unreliable students (especially with respect to their morals); (d) the way studies are organized at the Pedagogical Institute and Public School, establishing programs and methods of teaching, selecting textbooks and guidebooks approved by the Ministry of Education and the Department for Religious Affairs, and distributing subjects and classes among students; (e) ordering books for the students and for the library; and (f) searching for any measures, in general, that can improve the organization and achievements of the institution in educational, administrative, and economic matters.
17. Young adults, sixteen years of age or older, may be admitted to the Pedagogical Institute.
18. General admission to the Pedagogical Institute takes place once a year before the beginning of the academic year. However, private admissions may happen throughout the year at the founder’s discretion so long as those who wish to study have the same knowledge and development as the rest of the cohort they wish to join.
19. Applicants to the Pedagogical Institute must meet Count L. N. Tolstoy in person and present to him their birth and baptism certificates, as well as the following documents: (a) Individuals in serf status: (1) a passport, or a permanent residence and community approval certificate, and (2) a letter from their parish priest or a person known to the Count, showing their good behavior, if the applicant is personally acquainted with the founder; or a school certificate showing academic achievements and good behavior if the applicant studied in a public school. (b) Applicants of other social statuses: Evidence of academic achievement and good behavior from those institutions where they received their education, or letters from individuals known to the founder, if not acquainted to him.
20. All applicants to the first class of the Pedagogical Institute are to take an examination in the subjects taught in public schools. The primary consideration is not the mechanical liveliness of answers, but understanding and ability to reason. Note: The course of studies at public schools is determined by curricula attached to the rules for receiving a certificate on completing the course of studies at a primary school by an individual who, upon completing the term of his military service, would like to use the privileges mentioned in paragraph 4, chapter 56, of the Military Service Regulations.
(21. Students of the Pedagogical Institute are exempt from all their duties, including the military, for the duration of their studies at the institution.)
22. The life> 23. The graduates of Count L. N. Tolstoy’s Institute do not receive public teacher certification from this institution, but receive that title in a manner anticipated by law. However, they can be accepted by inspectors of public schools for teaching positions if found capable by the inspectors.

Part III: The Educational Program

24. The Pedagogical Institute consists of two cohorts with Junior, Middle, and Senior year-long classes in each level.
25. (The course of studies at the Junior and Middle levels is theoretical.) Students (of these classes only study. The curriculum for the Senior level is theoretical and practical; the students of this class) not only study themselves, but under their teachers’ guidance, gradually practice teaching at the Public School attached to the Institute.
26. The academic year at the Pedagogical Institute starts on September 15 and continues through May 1. On Sundays and holidays students do not attend classes. No classes are held during Christmas from December 24 through January 7, from Meat-fare Friday through Monday of the first week of Great Lent, and from Lazarus Saturday through Monday of Thomas Week. During Passion Week the students fast.21
27. During the Christmas holidays, Passion Week, Bright Week,22 and during summer holidays from May 1 through September 15, students may leave to stay with their parents and relatives.
28. The disciplines taught at the Pedagogical Institute are determined by the Institute Plan introduced to the Superintendent.
(29. Practical sessions for students of the Senior Class in the Public School coincide in times with their theoretical sessions at the Pedagogical Institute. That is why the students usually participate in the former ones [practical sessions] taking turns, in small groups of two to four people, except for two hours per week when all them should be present.)
30. The Public School attached to the Pedagogical Institute offers the same courses as any other public school, i.e., Religious Education,23 Reading and Writing in Russian, Reading in Slavonic, Arithmetic, and Singing.
31. Every class at the Pedagogical Institute is assigned with 30 one-hour sessions per week. This number includes two hours in the Junior Class and three hours in the Senior Class assigned for three practical sessions for senior students in the Public School under the guidance of the founder of the Institute or one of the teachers appointed by him. (Students of the Public School study 20 hours per week.)
32. The number of lessons in each subject is shown in the table below. Any changes in it are made by Count L. N. Tolstoy upon agreement to them by the student body. Decrease or increase in the weekly number of lessons is done only upon permission from the Superintendent of the School District.

Table of Subjects Taught at the Pedagogical Institute


Subjects

Junior Class

Middle Class

Senior Class

Religious Education

4

4

3

Arithmetic

6

6

3

Russian
Slavonic
Geography

6
-
-

6
-
-

6
2
2

History

2

2

2

Linear Geometry
Technical Drawing and Geodesy
Singing

2

-
2

2

-
2

2

2
2

Algebra

-

-

6

Practice Lessons
Calligraphy

2
6

2
6

2
-

 

30

30

30

 

Excerpt of a Note on the Public Schools of the Krapeviensk District [1875]
By Count L. N. Tolstoy

…[W]hile believing that everything is true and educative in the natural sciences, I could still say sincerely that it is not good, and not because I do not like it, but because the people do not want and do not like it. And what the people like does not prevent any kind of development. One can learn how to read using the Psalter, and then they can read Darwin.

Our whole mistake in the new pedagogy is that it is completely forgotten that the people had a thousand-year-old history of education. One should not start writing on them as if they were tabula rasa. In general, for education to catch on, not to become dangerous, we should defer to people’s demands, help them satisfy their needs while offering new things, and allow the role of education itself to be carried out by individuals elected from them.

Endnotes

1 Lev N. Tolstoy (1875), “On Popular Education,” Pedagogical Articles, Vol. XII, trans. Leo Weiner(Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1904), 285.
2 P. S. Sheremetev (1898), quoted in Ben Eklof, Russian Peasant Schools: Officialdom, Village Culture, and Popular Pedagogy, 1861-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986

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