Lovescaping and Tolstoy
“Love is the fundamental law of life” -Tolstoy in a letter to Ghandi.
“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills.” – Tolstoy in A Letter to a Hindu.
Tolstoy is one of my favorite writers. The first novel I read by him, “Anna Karenina,” marked and influenced me tremendously, both from a literary perspective and a philosophical one. I have always wanted to learn Russian just to read Tolstoy’s (and Dostoevsky’s) work in the original. There is so much to be said about Tolstoy’s literary genius, but I wish to bring him up here to revisit his pedagogy, because Tolstoy wasn’t just a great writer, but also a great teacher and an advocate of free, public education. Often overlooked, Tolstoy’s contribution to the progressive movement of education in the US and elsewhere, was unprecedented during his time. Tolstoy’s social conscience developed solidly as he witnessed the massive inequalities that existed in Russia, where the vast majority of the peasant population was left behind, not having access or opportunities to “progress.” Tolstoy established the first free public school for peasants in his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, where he experimented tirelessly with different pedagogical methods which led him to reach numerous interesting conclusions, some of which I wish to share here because, as his writing, they are timeless, and I believe fit quite well in our current time where we are experiencing a “marketization” of our education systems.
Tolstoy was an advocate of education for the people, by the people. He decided to take it upon himself to become a teacher, and teach the majority of the people, who couldn’t read his writing, how to read and write, creating what he called a “literature for the people.”
His interest for education led him to travel around Europe, where he visited Germany, France and England in search of pedagogical methods, participating in classroom work and observing classes. He was horrified at the schooling system he witnessed, claiming:
“It is terrible! Prayers for the king; blows; everything by rote; terrified, beaten children.”
Doesn’t this sound familiar, fellow Dreamscapers and Lovescapers? The current mainstream move in education with the standardization of learning brings Tolstoy’s exclamation back to life.
Tolstoy believed education should be free and non-compulsory. In his experience, he saw that if education was stimulating and interesting for the students, then they would happily and willingly attend school. He said: “If education is good, then the need for it will manifest itself like hunger.”
He wrote numerous articles and books based on his experience as a teacher, where his accounts are inspiring, since children were eager to attend his school, where he placed a sign that read “Enter and Leave Freely.” The children at his school thought that education was a precious and blissful practice.
Tolstoy was a firm believer of the emancipatory aspect of education, of the potential it had to combat inequalities and inequities in society: “In education, once more, the chief things are equality and freedom.”
In regards to pedagogy, Tolstoy held that the only criteria was freedom, and the only method, experience. The purpose of education, according to him, did not lie in the accumulation or assimilation of a certain quantity of information, but rather in awakening in students an interest in knowledge.
In his article “On National Education,” Tolstoy defined education as “a human activity based on desire for equality and a constant tendency or urge to advance in knowledge.”
Tolstoy held originality, creativity and freedom as necessary pillars in education. He saw as only natural the fact that his students were eager to learn and behave properly, since they were not obliged to attend, or remain at school. He fostered that love for learning.
Tolstoy saw teaching as an art, not as a method. Therefore, there wasn’t such a thing as perfection or finality, since it was a constant work in progress, a constant development that needed to be perfected infinitely.
He held children in the highest regard, and marveled at their ability to comprehend intricate and complex issues that went beyond the scope of simple grammar or arithmetic. “Schoolchildren, are people, even though they are small. They are people with the same needs as ourselves, who think in the same way as we do. They all want to learn; that is why they go to school and that is why they will have no trouble in understanding that they must submit to certain conditions in order to learn.”
Tolstoy’s humanistic and progressive educational ideas were met with great criticism and skepticism during his time. Some even called him a “pedagogical nihilist.” But his teachings and his writings have served as a base for later progressive movements in education. Tolstoy wrote countless articles on education and pedagogy, including the famous, “Who Should Teach Whom to Write, We the Peasant Children or the Peasant Children Us?” which deals with the age-old question of what is and who creates knowledge. His textbook, “The Primer of Count L.N. Tolstoy” had a significant influence in the education of the time and of generations to come, in which he espoused his humanistic principles, using a clear and simple structure that would be appealing and understandable to all. In fact, he said that in education, as in his textbook, everything should be “beautiful, brief, simple and, above all, clear.” Tolstoy wrote this textbook out of his love for education, saying: “What will come out of it I do not know, but I have put my whole heart into it,” and once it was finished, claiming, “Now I have written The primer, I can die in peace.”
I know this post has been much longer than usual, but I wanted to revisit Tolstoy’s pedagogy, teaching principles and experience because I see in his writing and in the love he transmitted as a teacher a true Lovescaper and Dreamscaper, and I wanted to remember him, to revisit his timeless ideas, and share with you my gratitude towards him for the indelible mark he has left on this world. He is an inspiration to me.
Tolstoy lived his entire life in the pursuit of Truth. It was for Truth and because of Truth that he breathed. I believe that for him, Truth with a capital T was Love. There cannot be Truth without Love: Truth is Love.
“The more I live- and especially now that I am approaching death, the more I feel inclined to express to others the feelings which so strongly move my being, and which, according to my opinion, are of great importance. That is, what one calls non-resistance, is in reality nothing else but the discipline of love undeformed by false interpretation. Love is the aspiration for communion and solidarity with other souls, and that aspiration always liberates the source of noble activities. That love is the supreme and unique law of human life which everyone feels in the depth of one’s soul. We find it manifested most clearly in the soul of the infants. Man feels it so long as he is not blinded by the false doctrines of the world.” – Tolstoy in a letter to Ghandi, 1910.
Mahatma Ghandi and Leo Tolstoy Letters: http://www.mkgandhi.org/ebks/MG_Tolstoy_Letters.pdf
Simmons, Ernest, “Writings On Education,” Introduction To Tolstoy’s Writings (1968) http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/smmnsej/tolstoy/chap4.htm
Yegorov, Semion Filippovitch, “Leo Tolstoy,” PROSPECTS: the quarterly review of comparative
education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol.XXIV, no.3/4, June 1994,