Many demands made by this eminent educator have been implemented in the educational policy and science of the German Democratic Republic. The high esteem Diesterweg enjoys is also reflected by the fact that educational institutions bear his name, the medal and box of honour of the Academy of Educational Sciences of the German Democratic Republic show his picture and a Diesterweg Medal is presented to outstanding educators who are given the honorary title ‘Honoured teacher of the people’ at a ceremony held every year. The Diesterweg Prize is awarded annually to the best graduates from teacher-training institutions.
Diesterweg was born on 29 October 1790, one year after the French Revolution. Thus he was a contemporary of Kant, Goethe, Schiller, Pestalozzi, Schleiermacher, Comte, Herbart, Fichte, Beethoven, Froebel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, R. Owen, Spencer and Tolstoy - all these names being of epochal significance, and Diesterweg may claim a worthy place among them.
Diesterweg saw the downfall of the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon’s victory over Prussia, the Prussian reforms, the wars of liberation of the peoples against Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna, the foundation of the German Confederation, the weavers’ uprising, the 1848 Revolution, and Prussia’s war against Denmark. It was during his lifetime that capitalism developed in Germany, the working class started gradually to organize and the ‘Communist Manifesto’ was published.
If we made an attempt to put his educational work in a nutshell we could say: F. A. W. Diesterweg, together with Froebel and K. F. M. Wander, was one of the great German bourgeois educationists of the nineteenth century, whose work brought bourgeois classical pedagogics to a supreme climax. These educationists were intellectual followers of Komensky, Ratke, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Basedow, Salzmann and many other educationists of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Diesterweg most consistently applied the following great bourgeois educational ideas to primary school (the Volksschule) and primary-school teachers: all people are originally equal and educable, education must aim to develop an all-round and harmonious personality, and an education must be there for all. He associated these ideas with all the problems of practical education, which was to be provided to everybody, and thus sought to make them a ‘handy’ tool for the primary-school teacher in particular.
During his lifetime, problems of primary education and its teachers became more and more the focus of his manifold activities, although his first few professional years took quite a different course.
After graduating from the Latin school in Siegen, where he had received anything but good educational impressions, he studied mathematics and physics in Herborn, Heidelberg and Tübingen. Later he obtained his doctorate with a mathematical-cum-philosophical paper. The circumstances of the time prevented him from taking up a technical profession, which had originally been his intention. At first he was a private tutor, then a mathematics teacher in Worms and Frankfurt, before he joined the Latin school in Elberfeld as a deputy headmaster in 1818. Under the influence of Pestalozzi’s ideas, which he came to know through pupils of Pestalozzi’s at the Frankfurt model school, and insights into the social position of the proletariat in an industrial area, he gradually resolved to devote himself to primary education. From 1820 he was head of the Prussian teachers’ training college in Moers-on-Rhine and from 1832 of the Berlin teachers’ training college. Altogether, these were twenty-seven successful years during which Diesterweg trained teachers for the primary school. He was removed from office by the Prussian educational authorities in 1847 and compelled to retire in 1850. The reasons for this disciplinary step against an educator who had already become a celebrity in all German states were given by the Prussian educational authorities as follows: Diesterweg’s ‘agitating writings and raising the question of the relationship between school and church’,1 ‘statements and views... which contradict the principles followed by the state administration on education’, a ‘link with party activities’2 and even ‘socialist-communist and demagogical tendencies’.3 Such arguments, which also served as a pretext for banning Froebel’s kindergartens somewhat later (in 1851) had nothing to do with Diesterweg’s and Froebel’s real ideas and demands.
The real reasons were political ones. Under the influence of the Prussian reforms (started in 1807) and the war of liberation against Napoleonic oppression the primary school and the training of primary-school teachers received a clear impetus during the first twenty years of the nineteenth century. This development was encouraged by Rousseau’s and Pestalozzi’s ideas and the educational activities of W. V. Humboldt and Süvern. The period following the German wars of liberation, i.e. the Restoration and the German Confederation with its feudal-state conditions (1815-47) was characterized by stagnation and restriction, which turned into downright reaction after the 1848 bourgeois-democratic revolution. Democratic and national ideas and efforts of the people, especially the petty bourgeoisie, were ascribed by the representatives of the ruling nobility primarily to the primary school and its teachers. A senior official of the Prussian Ministry of Culture, which during the years of the Restoration up to 1848 and the ensuing reactionary period never stopped urging that the educational level of the primary school be kept low, once said: ‘It always made a most repugnant impression on me to see the kind of presumptuous and arrogant teacher, alienated from the Christian faith, who came from Diesterweg’s school.’4 These trends culminated in the Prussian Regulations of 1854. They strictly limited the programme for primary schools (which were, as a rule, one-class) and primary-school teachers’ training colleges to a low level. Education provided to children and student teachers was infiltrated by the orthodox church; primary schools were placed under strict control of the clergy, the living and cultural standard of primary-school teachers was to be kept down. All the ideas of bourgeois classical pedagogics of the importance of a general education for all children were withdrawn. There was no need to take into consideration the demands of a rapidly developing capitalist industry for an improved education of the children of the people, because the existing educational potential - most young people were able to read and write and knew the four fundamental operations of arithmetic - was still sufficient for the time being.
Throughout his life Diesterweg rejected this official educational policy of the feudal state and its ministerial bureaucracy more and more resolutely. Instead he put forward a democratic educational programme which also took the social problems of workers into consideration. These were probably the real reasons for his ‘official shipwreck’,5 as he himself called it.
Diesterweg pursued this democratic educational programme not only as a teacher’s trainer but even more in his comprehensive journalistic work, as a member of the Prussian Parliament, a speaker at numerous teachers’ meetings, and an initiator and supporter of the German teachers’ association. His literary work as documented and scientifically commented on in the edition of his collected works6 was very comprehensive indeed. These works will comprise about twenty volumes of more than 10,000 pages and yet be incomplete since only part of Diesterweg’s textbooks or excerpts from them will be included. He wrote fifteen textbooks and nine textbook guides for teachers, which saw a total of 120 editions during his lifetime. Some of the textbooks were translated into Polish, Russian, Dutch, Danish and other languages. They were mainly written for the subjects of geometry, arithmetic, geography, astronomy and German language.
Diesterweg’s best-known educational work is his Wegweiser zur Bildung für deutsche Lehrer [A Guide to Education for German Teachers] (1835), which went through four editions during his lifetime. The purpose of the book, starting out from theoretical considerations and leading to a direct guide to action for teachers, was ‘to give instructions on how the teacher, or he who wants to become a teacher, will be able to improve his knowledge and teaching skills, which method he has to adopt for teaching the individual subjects and which tools he has to use’.7 The Wegweiser is an excellent example of Diesterweg’s belief that ‘all theory separated from practice’8 must be rejected in the educational field.
Further, Diesterweg published many small papers such as Ober Erziehung im allgemeinen und über Schul-Erziehung insbesondere [Education in General and School Education in Particular] (1820), Die Lebensfragen der Zivilisation [Vital Questions of Civilization] (1836/37) and Pädagogisches Wollen und Sollen [Pedagogical Intentions and Obligations] (1857).
Diesterweg edited the Rheinische Blätter für Erziehung und Unterricht mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Volksschulwesens [Rhenish Journal for Education and Instruction with Special Reference to Primary Education] between 1827 and 1866, where he also published hundreds of articles written by himself. In these articles and in thousands of reviews and annotations of contemporary pedagogical literature he directly took up educational issues of his time. From 1851, he published the Jahrbuch für Lehrer und Schulfreunde [Yearbook for Teachers and Friends of the School], also known as Pädagogisches Jahrbuch [Pedagogical Yearbook], contributing many important papers himself. During all his life he remained devoted to the natural sciences, and his book entitled Populäre Himmelskunde [Popular Astronomy] (1840), which went through numerous editions, served the enlightenment of the people in an exemplary manner, as it was a scientific book for the general public.
In his writings Diesterweg dealt with all educational fields, ranging from educational aims to methodological details concerning almost all subjects of instruction. As the years of his life - which was marked by numerous struggles and disputes - advanced, he maintained certain political points of view in a more and more pronounced way.
It would be too simple to assign, without reservations, Diesterweg’s political position to the broad spectrum of liberalism of his days, as he did place his hopes in a constitutional monarchy. But in education he went far beyond liberal demands. He regarded equality of all citizens in both rights and duties to be the governing political principle. In 1863, summing up his political views, he wrote:
The nature of democracy contains the following elements - free movement of citizens according to their individual needs and the aspirations of their character; equality of all citizens in rights and duties; participation of the people in legislation, regulated by law, through freely elected representatives.
These are the main elements of the democratic constitution, from this everything else follows: freedom of the press, religious freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of association, self-government of community matters, free movement and free trade, and many more things the main outlines of which already exist.9
Diesterweg quite early started to deal with social problems and experienced the depressed situation of the proletariat in the Wupper and Rhine industrial areas. Full of indignation, he wrote that millions of people lived there ‘who miserably lack the most essential food, clothing and shelter;... a vast number of children are deprived in their early youth... of the development and training necessary for strengthening the body and developing the mind...’.10 But such critical insights did not lead Diesterweg to revolutionary conclusions. Like many eminent progressive bourgeois educationists he believed that social reforms and the ‘propagation of correct views’,11 especially through education of the people, were the ways to improve the situation and conditions for the free development of individuals, their self-determination and liberty.
He aimed at such development for all people, having in mind a concept of man which essentially was humanist, rationalist, striving towards enlightenment, anti-dogmatic and anti-Church (but not anti-religious). It was largely influenced by Rousseau’s views on man’s original goodness and was not marked by the doubts Pestalozzi tended to have. Diesterweg, with respect to his conception of man, took up the ideas of his great exemplar Pestalozzi primarily with regard to the latter’s idea of development, optimistic basic attitude and confidence in man and his powers, in his capabilities of being reasonable and kind and able to lead a meaningful life in the community.
Diesterweg’s conception of man can briefly be described as follows: man is capable of development and improvement; activity as the reason for existence and a condition of development; faith in reason and a dialectical relationship of thought and action; trust in the nature of man; worldly mindedness; taking pleasure in the variousness of the world; man’s aspiration and ability to subject the world, nature and society to his ends and suitably organize them; the law-governed development of man; consistency of the personality, with all its manifold qualities; harmony of the individual and the community; development of all human powers to the benefit of the individual and society; original equality of all men; the predisposition of human nature to unlimited diversity.
These views of the nature of man determined the most general aim of education as formulated by Diesterweg, who associated himself with German classical ideas: self-activity of man devoted to the truth, the beautiful, and the good. In the Wegweiser he wrote: ‘Perhaps the expression “self-activity devoted to the truth and the good” should be given preference to any other. It contains a formal principle: self-activity and a material one: the truth and the good, or the truth, the beautiful, and the good.’12
Later, especially after the 1848 Revolution, the idea of self-activity, or a free self-determination, and the development towards it became more and more pronounced in Diesterweg’s educational thoughts, in particular concerning schools, and was set against all restrictive political and educational measures of the Prussian ruling nobility and its bureaucracy. Evolution became the central concept of his educational theory. According to Diesterweg the principle of evolution corresponded with the principle of liberty in that it demanded that everybody should be allowed to develop his capacities and individual possibilities and that this should be ensured by social institutions. To this is related the principle of equality, which calls for society to guarantee all these opportunities to all children. Such reasoning led to the conclusion that schools for the privileged classes had to be abolished and a general Volksschule, a school of the people, be set up to ensure equal educational opportunities for all children. Diesterweg wrote in the Hamburg School Plan:
Nature has provided the child with talents but leaves it to man to cultivate them... Society takes on the task of developing the talents that are equal in nature;... Since nature establishes equality, society follows suit... by providing equal educational instruments to all people, who are all equally in need for education.13
This idea of evolution was applied by Diesterweg to the most various branches of education, leading him to details such as:
The educational principle of evolution demands in the educational field: (a) respect for human nature and the nature of the individual; (b) its stimulation to development, expression, activity, self-activity; (c) natural, hence joyful, occupation of children; (d) stimulation to develop their senses, strengthen their organs, to explore, see themselves and discover things; (e) feeding their minds with digestible nourishment; (f) steady progress. It forbids: (a) arbitrary assumptions and treatment of human nature; (b) guidance to act blindly and mechanically; (c) drill of any kind; (d) memorizing stuff; (e) uniformity; (f) feeding with subject-matter that is not understood, etc.14
Diesterweg’s demands that general education should be provided to everybody and that the keynote should be the education of the individual to become a human being rather than a member of his class was in line with his principle of evolution. From this position he advocated raising the educational level of the primary school considerably, for example by dealing with good literature, science teaching, physical training and education to work, and he stressed in particular the idea of the development of powers (development of abilities and skills). Diesterweg coined the democratic expression: ‘First the education of men, then class and professional training’, because ‘the proletarian and the peasant should also be educated to become human beings’.15
Thinking about the essence of a general education of man - which means, in modern terminology, a general education serving an all-round development of personalities - Diesterweg arrived at the conclusion that the essential function of general education was to lay the foundations of a personality development which enabled everybody to stand his test in civil life through his activities. This makes it necessary to concentrate the subject-matter of instruction on essential things and to remove all inessential elements from the educational programme; what he wanted was ‘to define the genuine fundamentals of knowledge and education’16 ‘to give each child all the education which makes up human education’.17 When defining what is essential it would be necessary to demand, not only because of the ‘educating power’ but also for the sake of ‘living conditions’,18 much more than the usual educational programmes of his days provided for. From this point of view Diesterweg sharply criticized the sketchy knowledge to be taught in primary schools in accordance with the Prussian Regulations, but also contained in the teaching programmes of other German states. In his work entitled Didaktischer Katechismus oder Kurzer Unterrichts-Wegweiser in Fragen und Antworten [Didactic Catechism or a Short Teaching Guide by Question and Answer] Diesterweg attempted to outline the subject-matter ‘which must not be missing in a teaching system aiming at a complete basis of human education’.19 There he defined the aims, the subject-matter and the methods of visual instruction, arithmetic instruction, geometry, physics instruction and astronomy instruction. Even this still incomplete programme shows, with respect to the content of general education for the general primary school, how far he went beyond the education the ruling aristocrats were prepared to concede to the children of the ordinary people. Visual instruction was designed to prepare the child by means of surrounding phenomena - ranging from the classroom to the environment in the vicinity - for instruction proper and to help develop his language. In Diesterweg’s eyes, geometry was essential for all children because the pupil ‘does not know the appearance of things, which forms part of their nature, and consequently one aspect of their nature, unless he knows the qualities of space’.20 He regarded physics and astronomy as indispensable elements of a general education to be provided to all children, as they constituted a value in everybody’s life without which man would have an incomplete knowledge of nature. In other contexts Diesterweg gave further necessary elements of the general education to be provided by the primary school, for example native language teaching, history, sports, literature, geography and arts. What is important about this is the tendency to design an educational programme for all children of the people, which was amazingly broad and of a high level in those days, and to contrast it with the very few educational opportunities existing at that time.
Already in his Wegweiser Diesterweg had put special emphasis on the idea of power formation. Later on, he said:
The formal tendency or purpose of instruction is to stimulate, develop and strengthen mental powers, in particular the higher ones, judgement, intellect and reason, whose development enables man to properly conceive the world and control low instincts using his intellect. It is in this way that man, mainly through the intellect, really becomes - man.21
The method of development, also called by him the individualizing or inducing method, was to fulfil this task. This method proceeds from facts, theory follows the facts, from the material world to the ideas, from the experiment to the axiom, from the concrete to the abstract, from views to concepts, from the particular to the general, from intellectual closeness to distance, from variousness to unity. Using this method, the teacher’s role is that of a stimulator and the pupil is self-acting. In his work entitled Pädagogische Rück- und Vorblicke [Pedagogical Retrospects and Prospects] Diesterweg explained the method:
On the basis of attention and illustration the pupils’ intellect is developed in an elementary way, and their speaking and thinking powers are released and trained. Formal intellectual talents are trained by means of real objects, and the latter are incorporated in the mind for free use. This is done through stimulation by the teacher and the pupil’s consequent self-activity.22
The Wegweiser zur Bildung für deutsche Lehrer contains - mainly from the aspect of stimulating the children’s self-activity in the educational process - a relatively uniform system of didactic statements. In regard to the educational aim, the conception of man and the idea of a general education of man, all the essential knowledge of previous bourgeois pedagogics is condensed and arranged in such a way in this Wegweiser as to form a useful and direct guide to action for the primary-school teacher. This is what Diesterweg intended, as can be seen from the phrasing where the teacher is directly addressed. He wanted to express didactic rules in the form of instructions for action for the teacher, recommending to him, for instance: Teach naturally - organize instruction according to the natural developmental stages of children - start teaching from the pupil’s point of view, proceed steadily, without gaps, and thoroughly - do not teach anything that means nothing yet to the pupil at the time when he is learning it and do not teach anything that will no longer mean anything to him later - teach in an illustrative manner - proceed from the close to the distant, from the simple to the composite, from the simple to the difficult, from the known to the unknown - teach in an elementary rather than academic way (meaning: the lecture-type teaching methods used in higher educational institutions) - always pursue the formal (power formation) and the material (provision of subject-matter) purpose at the same time - never teach anything the pupil cannot understand as yet - ensure that the pupils remember everything they have studied - accustom the pupils to work - take the individual character of the pupils into account, etc.
A necessary consequence of Diesterweg’s devotion to the cause of education for the people, i.e. to primary education, was that he attached much importance to the training, further education and social position of its teachers. He was an outstanding champion for raising the social standing of primary-school teachers in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, even though, during his lifetime, his ideas and demands were bound to remain unrealized in view of the policy pursued by the ruling classes.
What mattered to him, he wrote, were three main aspects: the ‘educational (didactic, methodical, disciplinary, etc.) competence of the teachers’, the ‘independence and autonomy of the school’, and finally ‘a secure position of the teachers, especially with respect to a sufficient income’.23
During all his life Diesterweg championed a thorough and scientific training to be provided to the primary-school teacher. He stood up against all restrictions concerning their training in training colleges, especially after the Prussian Regulations were enacted in 1854. First of all, he demanded that teacher training should be organized on a scientific basis. He wrote that many people thought, though, that it was sufficient to train schoolteachers in their own narrow, special field24 and that they were unable to ‘cotton on’ to anything else, if they did learn to ‘cotton on’ they would break away from the narrow circle assigned to them once and for all, for ever, and there would be no getting on with them any longer.25 In contrast to this, Diesterweg demanded: ‘Confidence in education, confidence in progress, confidence in man and - preparedness to cope with all the consequences of education.’26 He came out strongly for freeing primary school from Church obligations and from supervision by the clergy and demanded instead that such supervision of schools and teachers be exercised by educational experts. The teacher must be given a seat and vote in local bodies (the school board, membership in elected bodies) deciding on school matters. He kept fighting for improvement of the teacher’s social position and demanded in his articles and parliamentary speeches that primary-school teachers should be adequately paid by the state to free them from their degrading material dependency on local despots, especially landlords. He expected the state to take measures to secure the material position of teachers’ widows and orphans. And it was Diesterweg who kept calling on teachers to organize their own teachers’ associations, where they together should assert their interests, contribute to their further education and thus serve educational development.
In this struggle for the primary school and its teachers, Diesterweg again and again stressed the main principles of educational policy: the need to dissociate the Church from the school and to regard school as a state institution which is - including the teaching staff - financed and maintained by the state; the need to ensure a unified education system leading from the kindergarten, which he - on the basis of Froebel’s ideas - strongly supported, through to university. The state was to guarantee ‘to every child an entire, uncurtailed primary education and in addition, if necessary, education provided by the pre-school and the kinderbewahrschule (day nursery) and the Nachbildungsschule or Fortbildungsschule (further education school)’.27
In 1849, he wrote that the new time would open up the prospect of education being no more provided according to the small individual powers but that ‘the whole would declare itself jointly committed’ to making it possible for the entire nation. He went on:
Thus the state meets and fulfils a general human right, the right to education, without which a human, moral life beneficial to the public is not possible. Without education neither civic nor human duties within the family and in human society at large can be fulfilled.28
On the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday Diesterweg received honours and congratulations from all parts of Germany. He had become an acknowledged pioneer of educational progress and the raised standing of the primary-school teacher. Among the congratulations was a telegram from August Bebel, one of the leaders of the German working class which was organizing itself at the time.
Friedrich Adolph Wilhelm Diesterweg died in a cholera epidemic on 7 July 1866.
His work lives on in the education system of the German Democratic Republic and in the teachers’ daily work. In our country, his ideas and demands for an all-round education of all children are being realized.
Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, German Democratic Republic
1. Sämtliche Werke [Complete Works], Vol. IX, p. 40, Berlin, 1967.
3. Ibid., p. 45.
4. Quoted from Geschichte der Erziehung [History of Education] (edited by Karl-Heinz Günther, Franz Hofmann, Gerd Hohendorf, Helmut König and Heinz Schuffenhauer), twelfth ed., p. 269, Berlin, 1976.
5. Sämtliche Werke [Complete Works], Vol. IX, op. cit., p. 17.
6. Sämtliche Werke [Complete Works] (edited by Heinrich Deiters, Robert Alt, Hans Ahrbeck, Ruth Hohendorf, Gerda Mundorf et al.; revised by Ruth Hohendorf), Vols. I-XV, Berlin, Volk und Wissen Bolkseigener Verlag, 1965-.
7. Wegweiser zur Bildung für deutsche Lehrer und andere didaktische Schriften [A Guide to Education for German Teachers and other Didactic Writings] (selected and introduced by Franz Hofmann), p. 68, Berlin, 1962.
8. Sämtliche Werke [Complete Works], Vol. III, p. 363, Berlin, 1959.
9. Pädagogisches Jahrbuch 1863 [Pedagogical Yearbook 1863], p. 35.
10. Schriften und Reden [Writings and Speeches] (selected and introduced by Heinrich Deiters), Vol. 1, pp. 117 et seq., Berlin/Leipzig, 1950.
11. Ibid., pp. 137 et seq.
12. Wegweiser zur Bildung für deutsche Lehrer..., op. cit., p. 59.
13. Rheinische Blätter, Neueste Folge, Vol. 18, 1866, pp. 266 et seq.
14. Pädagogisches Jahrbuch 1855 [Pedagogical Yearbook 1855], p. 85.
15. Sämtliche Werke [Complete Works], Vol. XII, p. 285, Berlin, 1974.
16. Sämtliche Werke [Complete Works], Vol. XI, p. 216, Berlin, 1972.
19. Sämtliche Werke [Complete Works], Vol. XII, op. cit., p. 151.
20. Ibid., p. 158.
21. Schriften und Reden [Writings and Speeches], op. cit., p. 303.
22. Pädagogisches Jahrbuch 1866 [Pedagogical Yearbook 1866], p. 191.
23. Sämtliche Werke [Complete Works], Vol. VIII, p. 413, Berlin, 1965.
24. Sämtliche Werke [Complete Works], Vol. V, p. 283, Berlin, 1961.
27. Sämtliche Werke [Complete Works], Vol. VIII, op. cit., p. 42.
28. Ibid., p. 113.
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