Friedrich Froebel by Elbert Hubbard

Story type: Essay

The purpose of the Kindergarten is to provide the necessary and natural help which poor mothers require who have to be about their work all day, and must leave their children to themselves. The occupations pursued in the Kindergarten are the following: free play of a child by itself; free play of several children by themselves; associated play under the guidance of a teacher; gymnastic exercises; several sorts of handiwork suited to little children; going for walks; learning music, both instrumental and vocal; learning the repetition of poetry; story-telling; looking at really good pictures; aiding in domestic occupations; gardening.


Friedrich Froebel was born in a Thuringian village, April Twenty-first, Seventeen Hundred Eighty-two. His father was pastor of the Lutheran Church. When scarcely a year old his mother died. Erelong a stepmother came to fill her place–but didn’t. This stepmother was the kind we read about in the “Six Best Sellers.”

Her severity, lack of love, and needlessly religious zeal served the future Kindergartner a dark background on which to paint a joyous picture. Froebel was educated by antithesis. His home was the type etched so unforgetably by Colonel Ed. Howe in his “Story of a Country Town,” which isn’t bad enough to be one of the Six Best Sellers.

At the age of ten, out of pure pity, young Friedrich was rescued from the cuckoo’s nest by an uncle who had a big family of his own and love without limit. There was a goodly brood left, so little Friedrich, slim, slender, yellow, pensive and sad, was really never missed.

The uncle brought the boy up to work, but treated him like a human being, answering his questions, even allowing him to have stick horses and little log houses and a garden of his own.

At fifteen his nature had begun to awaken, and the uncle, harkening to the boy’s wish, apprenticed him for two years to a forester. The young man’s first work was to make a list of the trees in a certain tract and approximate their respective ages. The night before his work began he lay awake thinking of the fun he was going to have at the job. In after-years he told of this incident in showing that it was absurd to try to divorce work from play.

The two years as forester’s apprentice, from fifteen to seventeen, were really better for him than any university could have been. His stepmother’s instructions had mostly been in the line of prohibition. From earliest babyhood he had been warned to “look out.” When he went on the street it was with a prophecy that he would get run over by a cart, or stolen by the gypsies, or fall off the bridge and be drowned. The idea of danger had been dinged into his ears so that fear had become a part of the fabric of his nature. Even at fifteen, he took pains to get out of the woods before sundown to avoid the bears. At the same time his intellect told him there were no bears there. But the shudder habit was upon him.

Yet by degrees the work in the woods built up his body and he grew to be at home in the forest, both day and night. His duties taught him to observe, to describe, to draw, to investigate, to decide. Then it was transplantation, and perhaps the best of college life consists in taking the youth out of the home environment and supplying him new surroundings.

Forestry in America is a brand-new science. To clear the ground has been our desire, and so to strip, burn and destroy, saving only such logs as appealed to us for “lumber,” was the desideratum. But now we are seriously considering the matter of tree-planting and tree-preservation, and perhaps it would be well to ask ourselves if two years at forestry, right out of doors, in contact with Nature, wrestling with the world of wood, rock, plant and living things, wouldn’t be better for the boy than double the time in stuffy dormitories and still more stuffy recitation-rooms–listening to stuffy lectures about things that are foreign to life.

I would say that a boy is a savage, but I do not care to give offense to fond mammas. To educate him in the line of his likes, as the race has been educated, seems sensible and right. How would Yellowstone Park answer for a National University, with Captain Jack Crawford, William Muldoon, John Burroughs, John Dewey, Stanley Hall and a mixture of men of these types, for a faculty?

Froebel thought his two years in the forest saved him from consumption, and perhaps from insanity, for it taught him to look out, not in, and to lend a hand. At times he was a little too sentimental, as it was, and a trifle more of morbidity and sensitiveness would have ruined his life, absolutely.

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The woods and God’s great out-of-doors gave him balance and ballast, good digestion and sweet sleep o’ nights.

The two years past, he went to Jena, where he had an elder brother. This brother was a star scholar, and Friedrich looked up to him as a pleiad of pedagogy. He became a professor in a Jena preparatory school and then practised medicine; but he never had the misfortune to affront public opinion, and so oblivion lured and won him, and took him as her own.

At Jena poor Froebel did not make head. His preparatory work hadn’t prepared him. He floundered in studies too deep for one of his age, then followed some foolish advice and hired a tutor to help him along. Then he fell down, was plucked, got into debt, and also into the “carcer,” where he boarded for nine weeks at the expense of the State.

In the carcer he didn’t catch up with his studies, quite naturally, and the imprisonment almost broke his health. Had he been in the carcer for dueling, he would have emerged a hero. But debt meant that he had neither money nor friends. When he was given his release, as an economic move, he slipped away between two days and made his way to the Forestry Office, where he applied for a job as laborer. He got it. In a few days he was promoted to chief of apprentices.

Forestry meant a certain knowledge of surveying, and this Froebel soon acquired. Then came map-making, and that was only fun. From map-making to architecture is but a step, and Froebel quit the woods to work as assistant to an architect at ten pounds a year and found, it was confining work, and a trifle more exacting than he had expected–it required a deal of mathematics, and mathematics was Froebel’s short suit. Froebel was disappointed and so was his employer–when something happened. It usually does in books, and in life, always.

* * * * *

Genius has its prototype. Before Froebel comes Pestalozzi, the Swiss, who studied theology and law, and then abandoned them both as futile to human evolution, and turned his attention to teaching. Pestalozzi was inspired by Jean Jacques Rousseau, and read his “Emile” religiously. To teach by natural methods and mix work and study, and make both play, was his theme. Pestalozzi believed in teaching out of doors, because children are both barbaric and nomadic–they want to go somewhere. His was the Aristotle method, as opposed to those of the closet and the cloister. But he made the mistake of saying that teaching should be taken out of the hands and homes of the clergy, and then the clergy said a few things about him.

Pestalozzi at first met with very meager encouragement. Only poor and ignorant people entrusted their children to his care, and some of the parents were actually paid in money for the services of the children. The thought that the children were getting an education and being useful at the same time was quite beyond their comprehension.

Pestalozzi educated by stealth. At first he took several boys and girls of eight, ten or twelve years of age, and had them work with him in his garden. They cared for fowls, looked after the sheep, milked the cows. The master worked with them, and as they worked they talked. Going to and from their duties, Pestalozzi would call their attention to the wild birds, and to the flowers, plants and weeds. They would draw pictures of things, make collections of leaves and flowers, and keep a record of their observations and discoveries. Through keeping these records they learned to read and write and acquired the use of simple mathematics. Things they did not understand they would read about in the books found in the teacher’s library. But books were secondary and quite incidental in the scheme of study. When work seemed to become irksome they would all stop and play games. At other times they would sit and just talk about what their work happened to suggest. If the weather was unpleasant, there was a shop where they made hoes and rakes and other tools they needed. They also built bird-houses, and made simple pieces of furniture, so all the pupils, girls and boys, became more or less familiar with carpenter’s and blacksmith’s tools. They patched their shoes, mended their clothing, and at times prepared their own food.

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Pestalozzi found that the number of pupils he could look after in this way was not more than ten. But to his own satisfaction, at least, he proved that children taught by his method surpassed those who were given the regular set courses of instruction. His chief difficulties lay in the fact that the home did not co-operate with the school, and that there was always a tendency to “return to the blanket.”

Pestalozzi wrote accounts of his experiments and emphasized his belief that we should educate through the child’s natural activities; also that all growth should be pleasurable. His shibboleth was, “From within, out.” He thought education was a development and not an acquirement.

One of Pestalozzi’s little pamphlets fell into the hands of Friedrich Froebel, architect’s assistant, at Frankfort.

Froebel was twenty-two years old, and Fate had tossed him around from one thing to another since babyhood. All of his experiences had been of a kind that prepared his mind for the theories that Pestalozzi expressed.

Besides that, architecture had begun to pall upon him. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This was said in derision, but it holds a grain of truth.

Froebel had a great desire to teach. Now, in Frankfort there was a Model School or a school for teachers, of which one Herr Gruner was master. This school was actually carrying out some of the practical methods suggested by Pestalozzi. Quite by accident Gruner and Froebel met. Gruner wanted a teacher who could teach by the Pestalozzi methods. Froebel straightway applied to Herr Gruner for the position. He was accepted as a combination janitor and instructor and worked for his board and ten marks, or two and a half dollars a week.

The good-cheer and enthusiasm of Froebel won Gruner’s heart. Together they discussed Pestalozzi and his works, read all that he had written, and opened up a correspondence with the great man. This led to an invitation that Froebel should visit him at his farm-school, near Yverdon, in Switzerland.

Gruner supplied Froebel the necessary money to replace his very seedy clothes for something better, and the young man started away. It was a walk of more than two hundred miles, but youth and enthusiasm count such a tramp as an enjoyable trifle. Froebel wore his seedy clothes and carried his good ones, and so he appeared before the master spick and span.

Pestalozzi was sixty years old at this time, and his hopes for the “new method” were still high. He had met opposition, ridicule and indifference, and had spent most of his little fortune in the fight, but he was still at it and resolved to die in the harness.

Froebel was not disappointed in Pestalozzi, and certainly Pestalozzi was delighted and a bit amused at the earnestness of the young man. Pestalozzi was working in a very economical way, but all the place lacked Froebel, in his exuberant imagination, made good.

Froebel found much, for he had brought much with him.

* * * * *

Froebel returned to Frankfort from his visit to Pestalozzi, full of enthusiasm, and that is the commodity without which no teacher succeeds. Gruner allowed him to gravitate. And soon Froebel’s room was the central point of interest for the whole school. But trouble was ahead for Froebel.

He had no college degrees. His pedagogic pedigree was very short. He hoped to live down his university record, but it followed him. Gruner’s school was under government inspection, and the gentlemen with double chins, who came from time to time to look the place over, asked who this enthusiastic young person was, and why had the worthy janitor and ex-forester been so honored by promotion.

In truth, during his life, Froebel never quite escaped the taunt that he was not an educated man. That is to say, no college had ever supplied him an alphabetic appendage. He had been a forester, a farmer, an architect, a guardian for boys and a teacher of women, but no institution had ever said officially he was fit to teach men.

Gruner tried to explain that there are two kinds of teachers: people who are teachers by nature, and those who have acquired the methods by long study. The first, having little to learn, and a love for the child, with a spontaneous quality of giving their all, succeed best.

But poor Gruner’s explanation did not explain.

Then the matter was gently explained to Froebel, and he saw that in order to hold a place as teacher he must acquire a past. “Time will adjust it,” he said, and started away on a second visit to Pestalozzi. His plan was to remain with the master long enough so he could secure a certificate of proficiency.

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Again Pestalozzi welcomed the young man, and he slipped easily into the household and became both pupil and teacher. His willingness to work–to do the task that lay nearest him–his good-nature, his gratitude, won all hearts.

At this time the plan of sending boys to college with a tutor who was both a companion and a teacher, was in vogue with those who could afford it. It will be remembered that William and Alexander von Humboldt received their early education in this way–going with their tutor from university to university, teacher and pupils entering as special students, getting into the atmosphere of the place, soaking themselves full of it, and then going on.

And now behold, through Gruner or Pestalozzi or both, a woman of wealth with three boys to educate applied to Froebel to come over into Macedonia and help her.

It was in Eighteen Hundred Seven that Froebel became tutor in the Von Holzhausen family. He was twenty-five years old, and this was his first interview with wealth and leisure. That he was hungry enough to appreciate it need not be emphasized.

He got goodly glimpses of Gottingen, Berlin, and was long enough at Jena to rub the blot off the ‘scutcheon. A stay at Weimar, in the Goethe country, completed the four years’ course.

The boys had grown to men, and proved their worth in after-years; but whether they had gotten as much from the migrations as their teacher is very doubtful. He was ripe for opportunity–they had had a surfeit of it.

Then came war. The order to arms and the rush of students to obey their country’s call caught Froebel in the patriotic vortex, and he enlisted with his pupils.

His service was honorable, even if not brilliant, and it had this advantage: the making of two friends, companions in arms, who caught the Pestalozzian fever, and lived out their lives preaching and teaching “the new method.”

These men were William Middendorf and Henry Langenthal. This trinity of brothers evolved a bond as beautiful as it is rare in the realm of friendship. Forty years after their first meeting, Middendorf gave an oration over the dead body of Froebel that lives as a classic, breathing the love and faith that endure.

And then Middendorf turned to his work, and dared prison and disgrace by upholding the Kindergarten System and the life and example of his dear, dead friend. The Kindergarten Idea would probably have been buried in the grave with Froebel–interred with his bones–were it not for Middendorf and Langenthal.

* * * * *

The first Kindergarten was established in Eighteen Hundred Thirty-six, at Blankenburg, a little village near Keilhau. Froebel was then fifty-four years old, happily married to a worthy woman who certainly did not hamper his work, even if she did not inspire it. He was childless, that all children might call him father.

The years had gone in struggles to found Normal Schools in Germany after the Pestalozzian and Gruner methods. But disappointment, misunderstanding and stupidity had followed Froebel. The set methods of the clergy, accusations of revolution and heresy, tilts with pious pedants as to the value of dead languages, all combined with his own lack of business shrewdness, had wrecked his various ventures.

Froebel’s argument that women were better natural teachers than men on account of the mother-instinct, brought forth a retort from a learned monk to the effect that it was indelicate if not sinful for an unmarried female, who was not a nun, to study the natures of children.

Parents with children old enough to go to school would not entrust their darlings with the teaching experimenter–this on the advice of their pastors.

Middendorf and Langenthal were still with him, partners in the disgrace or failure, for none was willing to give up the fight for education by the natural methods.

A great thought and a great word came to them, all at once–out on the mountain-side!

Begin with the children before the school age, and call it the Kindergarten!

Hurrah! They shouted for joy, and ran down the hill to tell Frau Froebel.

The schools they had started before had been called, “The Institution for Teaching According to the Pestalozzi Method and the Natural Activities of the Child,” “Institution for the Encouragement and Development of the Spontaneous Activities of the Pupil,” and “Friedrich Froebel’s School for the Growth of the Creative Instinct Which Makes for a Useful Character.”

A school with such names, of course, failed. No one could remember it long enough to send his child there–it meant nothing to the mind not prepared for it.

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What’s in a name? Everything. Books sell or become dead stock on the name. Commodities the same. Railroads must have a name people are not afraid to pronounce.

The officers of the law came and asked to see Froebel’s license for manufacturing. Others asked as to the nature of his wares, and one dignitary called and asked, “Is Herr Pestalozzi in?”

The Kindergarten! The new name took. The children remembered it. Overworked mothers liked the word and were glad to let the little other-mothers take the children to the Kindergarten, certainly.

Froebel had grown used to disappointments–he was an optimist by nature. He saw the good side of everything, including failure.

He made the best of necessity. And now it was very clear to him that education must begin “a hundred years before the child is born.” He would reach the home and the mother through the children. “It will take three generations to prove the truth of the Kindergarten Idea,” he said.

And so the songs, the gifts, the games–all had to be invented, defended, tried and tried again. Pestalozzi had a plan for teaching the youth; now a plan had to be devised for teaching the child. Love was the keystone, and joy, unselfishness and unswerving faith in the Natural or Divine impulses of humanity crowned the structure.

* * * * *

Froebel invented the schoolma’am. That is, he discovered the raw product and adapted it. He even coined the word, and it struck the world as being so very funny that we forthwith adopted it as a term of provincial pleasantry and quasi-reproach. The original term used was “school mother,” but when it reached these friendly shores we translated it “schoolmarm.” Then we tittered, also sneezed.

Froebel died in Eighteen Hundred Fifty-two. His first Kindergarten was not a success until he was nearly sixty years old, but the idea had been perfecting itself in his mind more or less unconsciously for over thirty years.

He had been thinking, writing, working, experimenting all these years on the subject of education, and he had become well-nigh discouraged. He had observed that six was the “school age.” That is, no child could go to school until he was six years old–then his education began.

But Froebel had been teaching in a country school and boarding ’round, and he had discovered that long before this the child had been learning by observing and playing, and that these were formative influences, quite as potent as actual school.

In the big families where Froebel boarded, he noticed that the older girls took charge of the younger ones. So, often a girl of ten, with dresses to her knees, carried one baby in her arms and two toddled behind her, and this child of ten was really the other-mother. The true mother worked in the fields or toiled at her housework, and the little other-mother took the children out to play and thus amused them while the mother worked.

The desire of Froebel was to educate the race, but what are a few hours a day in a schoolroom with a totally unsympathetic home environment!

To reach and interest the mother in the problem of education was well-nigh impossible. Toil, deprivation, poverty, had killed all the romance and enthusiasm in her heart. She was the victim of arrested development; but the little other-mother was a child, impressionable, immature, and she could be taught. The home must co-operate with the school, otherwise all the school can teach will be forgotten in the home. Froebel saw, too, that often the little other-mother was so overworked in the care of her charges that she was taken from school. Besides, the idea was abroad that education was mostly for boys, anyway.

And here Froebel stepped in and proved himself a law-breaker, just as Ben Lindsey was when he inaugurated the juvenile court and waived the entire established legal procedure, even to the omission of swearing his witnesses, and believed in the little truant even though he lied. Froebel told the little other-mothers to come to school anyway and bring the babies with them.

And then he set to work showing these girls how to amuse, divert and teach the babies. And he used to say the babies taught him.

Some of these half-grown girls showed a rare adaptability as teachers. They combined mother-love and the teaching instinct.

Froebel utilized their services in teaching others in order that he might teach them.

He saw that the teacher is the one who gets the most out of the lessons, and that the true teacher is a learner. These girl teachers he called school-mothers, and thus was evolved the word and the person.

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Froebel founded the first normal and model school for the education of women as teachers, and this was less than a hundred years ago.

The years went by and the little mothers had children of their own, and these children were the ones that formed the first actual, genuine kindergarten.

Also, these were the mothers who formed the first mothers’ clubs.

And it was the success of these clubs that attracted the attention of the authorities, who could not imagine any other purpose for a club than to hatch a plot against the government.

Anyway, a system which taught that women were just as wise, just as good and just as capable as men–just as well fitted by nature to teach–would upset the clergy. If women can break into the school, they will also break into the church. Moreover, the encouragement of play was atrocious. Mein Gott, or words to that effect, play in a schoolroom! Why, even a fool would know that that is the one thing that stood in the way of education, the one fly in the pedagogic ointment. If Mynheer Froebel would please invent a way to do away with play in schoolrooms, he would be given a pension.

The idea that children were good by nature was rank heresy. Where does the doctrine of regeneration come in, and how about being born again! The natural man is at enmity toward God. We are conceived in sin and born in iniquity. The Bible says it again and again.

And here comes a man who thinks he knows more than all the priests and scholars who have ever lived, and fills the heads of fool women with the idea that they are born to teach instead of to work in the fields and keep house and wait on men.

Mein Gott in Himmel, the women know too much, already! If this thing keeps on, men will have to get off the earth, and women and children will run the world, and do it by means of play. Aha! What does Solomon say? Spare the rod and spoil the child. Aber nicht, say these girls.

This thing has got to stop before Germany becomes the joke of mankind–the cat-o’-nine-tails for anybody who uses the word kindergarten!

* * * * *

“Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Had the man who uttered these words been given a little encouragement, he probably would have inaugurated a child-garden and provided a place and environment where little souls could have bloomed and blossomed. He was by nature a teacher, and his best pupils were women and children. Male men are apt to think they already know and so are immune from ideas.

Jerusalem, nineteen hundred years ago, was about where Berlin was in Eighteen Hundred Fifty. In both instances the proud priest and the aristocrat-soldier were supreme. And both were quite satisfied with their own mental attainments and educational methods. They were sincere. It was a very similar combination that crucified Jesus to that which placed an interdict on Friedrich Froebel, making the Kindergarten a crime, and causing the speedy death of one of the gentlest, noblest, purest men who have ever blessed this earth.

Froebel was just seventy when he passed out. “His eye was not dimmed nor his natural force abated”–he was filled with enthusiasm and hope as never before. His ideas were spreading–success, at last, was at the door, he had interested the women and proved the fitness of women to teach–his mothers’ clubs were numerous–love was the watchword. And in the midst of this flowering time, the official order came, without warning, apology or explanation, and from which there was no appeal. The same savagery, chilled with fear, that sent Richard Wagner into exile, crushed the life and broke the heart of Friedrich Froebel. But these names now are the pride and glory of the land that once scorned them. Men who govern should be those with a reasonable doubt concerning their own infallibility, and an earnest faith in men, women and children. To teach is better than to rule. We are all children in the Kindergarten of God.

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