At the end of Tolstoy's first literary period, before his marriage and the beginning of 'War and Peace', disillusionment with literature and art turned his thoughts to problems of education. A series of experiments resulted in a collection of educational writings that are both fascinating and important and all too frequently overlooked by students of Tolstoy. These publications, apart from their intrinsic value to progressive educational thinking, clearly anticipate in intellectual quality and style the much larger body of religious and philosophical works after his spiritual revelation, and they also have a real connection with later theorizing in his notable treatise, 'What Is Art?'
After Tolstoy's speech at the Moscow Society of Lovers of Russian Literature in 1859, the president of that organization, devoted to popular views of the immediate social significance of literature, coldly reminded him that, however eternal truth and beauty may be in art, the artist is a man of his own times, and that the present historical moment was one in which self-indictment acquired a special meaning and an indefeasible right and hence must manifest itself in literature.
The time would come when Tolstoy's own views on literature for the people would radically change, but at the moment he had reached a point of despair and thought of abandoning literature forever. To scribble stories was stupid and shameful, he told A. A. Fet in a burst of enthusiastic confidence when he learned that this poet was thinking of settling on an estate near him and subordinating literature to farming. Literary friends, learning of his intention to plunge into educational theory and start a school at Yasnaya Polyana, pleaded with him not to deprive Russia of his literary leadership. He answered that his new endeavours bore a direct connection with his retreat from literature. For whom did Russian authors write, he asked? For themselves and the cultured few. For masses of illiterate Russian peasants literature was useless. If they could not read his writings, then he would teach them. This, he declared, was the first and essential step toward the creation of a "literature for the people." Here was a purpose that would satisfy his thirst for activity and moral influence.
When Tolstoy opened his school in the autumn of 1859 in a single room of his large manor house at Yasnaya Polyana, free education for peasant children did not exist in Russia. Occasionally, a village would boast of a priest or an ex-soldier who taught a few children at so much per head. The subjects were elementary, the method a mixture of blows and learning by heart, and the results negligible. This situation Tolstoy wished to remedy by substituting public education based on entirely original pedagogical methods.
With half a year of highly successful teaching behind him, it was almost inevitable that Tolstoy should find himself bedevilled in a maze of speculation on pedagogy and obsessed with schemes for improving national education. In March, 1860, he wrote to a friend, E. P. Kovalevsky, brother of the Minister of National Education, of his efforts and mentioned that he already had fifty students and that the number was growing.
"Wisdom in all worldly affairs it seems to me," he continued, "consists not in recognizing what must be done but in knowing what to do first and then what comes after."
He boldly questioned the value to progress in Russia of roads, the telegraph, literature, and the arts, as long as only about one per cent of some seventy millions of people were literate. As a remedy he proposed the establishment of a Society of National Education. Among its duties would be setting up public schools where they were most needed, designing courses of instruction, training teachers in suitable educational methods, and publishing a journal devoted to the dissemination of the society's pedagogical ideals.
Tolstoy received no official encouragement for his proposed program, but from the evidence of fragments of pedagogical essays at this time it is obvious that he had begun to think out his own course of instruction. In one fragment, entitled "On the Problems of Pedagogy," he wrote:
"For every living condition of development, there is a pedagogical expediency, and to search this out is the problem of pedagogy."
Aware that he was trying, without sufficient knowledge, to handle large abstract concepts of educational theory, which in Russia were entirely dominated by Western European influence, he went abroad in 1860 to study them at the source. A full account of this effort reveals how thoroughly he pursued his objective. He visited schools and participated in classroom work in Germany, France, and England; he talked with teachers and leading educational theorists in these countries; and he collected and studied quantities of textbook samples and read numerous foreign treatises on education. After visiting schools at Kissingen, he jotted down in his diary:
"It is terrible! Prayers for the king; blows; everything by rote; terrified, beaten children."
Another entry shortly after:
"The idea of experimental pedagogy agitates me. I can scarcely contain myself...."
And in still a third entry, after reading Montaigne, he wrote:
"In education, once more, the chief things are equality and freedom."
Julius Froebel, nephew of Friedrich Froebel the celebrated educational reformer and founder of the kindergarten system, has left an interesting account of his discussion with Tolstoy:
" 'Progress in Russia,' he told me, 'must come out of public education, which among us will give better results than in Germany, because the Russian masses are not yet spoiled by false education."'
Tolstoy went on to inform him of his own school in which learning was in no sense obligatory.
"'If education is good,' he said, 'then the need for it will manifest itself like hunger."'
And Froebel also relates that Tolstoy spoke of the Russian masses as a "mysterious and irrational force," from which one day would emerge an entirely new organization of the world, and said that from the Russian artel would develop in the future a communistic structure.
This report reflects the proud, dogmatic, almost arrogant attitude that Tolstoy adopted toward European personalities he met on this educational study trip. While sincerely seeking knowledge, he invariably made it clear that he belonged to no school of thought, had his own point of view on most questions, and that Europeans did not understand the real failings of their civilization.
From his visits to the schools of Marseille, Tolstoy took away a gloomy impression of the futility of the subjects taught and the lifeless, unimaginative methods of teaching them. On the other hand, when he talked with workers and children on the streets, he found them intelligent, free-thinking, and surprisingly well informed, but with no thanks to their schooling.
This situation led him to conclude in a later account of these experiences, in an article entitled "On National Education":
"Here is an unconscious school undermining a compulsory school and making its contents almost of no worth.... What I saw in Marseille and in all other countries amounts to this: everywhere the principal part in educating a people is played not by schools, but by life."
This is the kind of characteristic half-truth that Tolstoy was fond of deducing from incomplete experience, and it became an important factor in his educational theorizing. But even half-truths that blasted away the hard shell of traditional and erroneous thinking on vital social problems had their value for him.
Tolstoy returned to Russia in the spring of 1861. He erected a three-room schoolhouse at Yasnaya Polyana, and, with several teachers employed to assist him in the instruction, he worked for the next year and a half with self-sacrificing zeal on theoretical and practical problems of education. He expounded his theories and described his practice in twelve extensive articles and a series of notes published in a magazine he founded called Yasnaya Polyana, the issues of which appeared between February, 1862, and March, 1863. Teachers and students also contributed to the magazine. Much of what follows here is based upon Tolstoy's articles, which for that time were quite original in substance but often weakened by perverse and exasperatingly dogmatic reasoning. Though truth was his sole aim, he occasionally forgot that his sweeping generalizations were based on limited experience with his own little school and on the efforts of unique students and a unique teacher. A persistent scepticism was the trade secret of his thinking in educational matters as in other fields of human endeavour.
Over the door of the school Tolstoy placed the inscription: "Enter and Leave Freely." Perhaps he was thinking, by way of contrast, of Dante's inscription over hell: "Abandon Hope, All Ye who Enter Here," which he would hardly have hesitated to place above the entrance to most European schools he had visited. Certainly the atmosphere of his own school convinced the children that education was a precious and joyous heritage.
Tolstoy believed that all education should be free and voluntary. He supported the desire of the masses for education, but he denied that the government or any other authority had the right to force it upon them. The logic of things, and his study of the operation of compulsory education abroad, convinced him that in this form it was an evil. Pupils should come to learn of their own accord, for if education were a good, it would be found as necessary as the air they breathed. If people were antagonistic, then the will of the people should become the guiding factor. Tolstoy's faith in the "will of the people," even though the people might oppose commonly accepted notions of progress, contained the seeds of his later anarchism, and was a direct slap at radical reformers who would uplift the masses against their will.
Tolstoy also believed that education should answer the needs of the masses, but his conception of their needs had nothing in common with that of contemporary progressive thinkers. Nor did he have any patience with the widespread pedagogical conviction that education should mould the character and improve the morals of students. These were matters for family influence, he declared, and the teacher had no right to introduce his personal moral standards or social convictions into the sanctity of the home. In public education he was concerned primarily with peasants, the vast majority of the population. But he was not bent on elevating them above their class by the power of education (a definite evil in his eyes); he was concerned with making them better, more successful, and happier peasants.
In this context the individualistic direction of Tolstoy's thought was apparent. The assumption of civilization's progress in Macaulay, Buckle, and especially in Hegel, he firmly rejected. For some time opposition between the good of the individual and the good of society had been troubling him. He was already developing a philosophy hostile to the pragmatic ideal that progress could be achieved only by social education of the people through the medium of democracy. Progress was personal, he felt, and not social. Education must serve the individual and not society, for the individual's capacity to serve humanity was what gave meaning to life. Yet he did not appear to see the contradiction in his rejection of the whole modern concept of progress. He would teach the peasant child what he needed, but what he needed was often conditioned by the social system in which he lived.
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." Education, he asserted, was history and therefore had no final aim. Its only method was experience; its only criterion, freedom.
Tolstoy attempted to realize in practice even the more extreme aspects of his educational philosophy. Since he believed that the functioning of a school must be adapted to the peculiar conditions of the pupils, he conceded that his own village school might well be the worst possible model for those elsewhere. Attendance was non-compulsory and free to all. Classes ordinarily ran from eight o'clock to noon and then from three o'clock to six, but, as Tolstoy proudly wrote a friend, the students often continued an hour or more beyond closing time,
"because it is impossible to send the children away — they beg for more."
During the morning, elementary and advanced reading were taught, composition, penmanship, grammar, sacred history, Russian history, drawing, music, mathematics, natural sciences, and religion; in the afternoon there were experiments in physical sciences and lessons in singing, reading, and composition. No consistent order was followed, however, and lessons were lengthened or omitted according to the degree of interest manifested by the students. On Sundays the teachers met to talk over the work and lay out plans for the following week. But there was no obligation to adhere to any plan, and each teacher was placed entirely upon his own. For a time they kept a common diary in which were set down with merciless frankness their failures as well as their successes.
Originality was the guiding spirit. Freedom ruled, but never to the extent of anarchy. When Tolstoy purposely left the room in the middle of a lesson to test the behaviour of his students, they did not break into an uproar as he had observed was the case in similar circumstances in classrooms he visited abroad. When he left, the students were enjoying complete freedom, and hence they behaved as though he were still in the room. They corrected or praised each other's work, and some-times they grew entirely quiet. Such results, he explained, were natural in a school where the pupils were not obliged to attend, to remain, or to pay attention.
Tolstoy insisted that only in the absence of force and compulsion could natural relations be maintained between teacher and pupils. The teacher defined the limits of freedom in the classroom by his knowledge and capacity to manage. And the pupils, Tolstoy wrote, should be treated as reasoning and reasonable beings; only then would they find out that order was essential and that self-government was necessary to preserve it. If pupils were really interested in what was being taught, he declared, disorder would rarely occur, and when it did, the interested students would compel the disorderly ones to pay attention.
The successful functioning of such a school demanded unusual ability on the part of the teacher. Tolstoy admitted this, and justly claimed for himself a certain pedagogic tact. Always in his mind was the pupil's convenience in learning and not the teacher's in teaching. He argued that there was no best method in teaching a subject; the best method was that which the teacher happened to know best. That method was good which when introduced did not necessitate an increase of discipline, and that which required greater severity was bad. The method should develop out of the exigencies of a given problem in teaching, and it should please the pupils instead of the teacher. In short, teaching, according to Tolstoy, could not be described as a method; it was a talent, an art. Finality and perfection were never achieved in it; development and perfecting continued endlessly.
In this free atmosphere of student-dominated learning, certain traditional subjects were resisted in a manner that led Tolstoy to doubt their ultimate usefulness and to question the desirability of teaching them to youngsters. Grammar was such a subject. Although his emphasis in instruction favoured analysis, the kind involved in grammar put the students to sleep. To write correctly and to correct mistakes made by others gave his pupils pleasure, but this was only true when the process was unrelated to grammar. After much experimentation with teaching the subject, he concluded in an article in Yasnaya Polyana that
"grammar comes of itself as a mental and not unprofitable gymnastic exercise, and language — to write with skill and to read and understand — also comes of itself."
In the pages of his educational magazine, Tolstoy provides vivid accounts, filled with all the charm of his realistic art, of daily life at the school. On a cold winter morning the bell would ring. Children would run out into the village street. There was no lagging on the way, no urge to play the truant. Each child was eager to get there first. The pupils carried nothing in their hands, no homework books or exercises. They had not been obliged to remember any lesson. They brought only themselves, their receptive natures, and the certainty that it would be as jolly in school that day as it had been the day before.
At the end of a lesson Tolstoy would announce that it was time to eat and play, and, challenging them to race him out-doors, he would leap downstairs, three or four steps at a time, followed by a pack of screaming laughing children. Then he would face them in the snow and they would clamber over his back, desperately striving to pull him down. He was more like an older brother to them and they responded to his efforts with devotion and tireless interest. Their close, even tender, relations are touchingly reflected in one of the magazine articles. He describes how, after school, he accompanies several of the pupils home on a moonless winter night by a roundabout way through the woods, entertaining them with tales of Caucasian robbers and brave Cossacks. The youngest, a ten-year-old boy, furtively clasps two of his teacher's fingers during the most fearful part of a story. At the end of the narration, by one of those quick transitions of children, an older pupil suddenly asks why do they have to learn singing at school? "What is drawing for?" Tolstoy rhetorically asks, puzzled for the moment about how to explain the usefulness of art. "Yes, why draw figures?" - another queries. "What is a lime tree for?" a third asks. At once all begin to speculate on these questions, and the fact emerges that not everything exists for use, that there is also beauty, and that art is beauty
"It feels strange to repeat what we said then," Tolstoy writes, "but it seems to me that we said all that can be said about utility, and plastic and moral beauty."
The ten-year-old was the last of the group to be delivered to his home. He still clung to Tolstoy's hand, out of gratitude it seemed, and as he entered the miserable thatched hut of his poverty-stricken parents, in which his father and the drunken village tailor were gambling, the lad said pathetically:
"Good-by! Let us always have talks like this!"
Tolstoy ended this account in his article by meditating on the age-old question of the moral and practical utility of educating the masses. The cultured, he wrote, would remonstrate: Why give these poor peasant children the knowledge that will make them dissatisfied with their class and their lot in life? But such a peasant boy, concluded Tolstoy, addressing the upper class,
"needs what your life of ten generations unoppressed by labor has brought to you. You had the leisure to search, to think, to suffer — then give him that for which you suffered; this is what he needs. You, like the Egyptian priest, conceal yourself from him by a mysterious cloak, you bury in the earth the talent given to you by history. Do not fear: nothing human is harmful to man. Do you doubt yourself? Surrender to the feeling and it will not deceive you. Trust in his [the peasant boy's] nature, and you will be convinced that he will take only that which history commanded you to give him, that which you have earned by suffering."
The question of art and its relation to his young peasant pupils interested Tolstoy. With his customary freshness, attention to detail, and marvellous power of direct vision he discussed the subject in one of his most remarkable articles, "Who Should Teach Whom to Write, We the Peasant Children or the Peasant Children Us?" It was inspired by an exciting experience in composition in his school. Themes on the usual subjects, such as descriptions of a forest, a pig, or a table, drove the children to tears. Tolstoy then suggested that they write a story on peasant life, to illustrate a proverb. The pupils found this difficult too, but one boy proposed that Tolstoy write the story himself, in competition with them. He composed several pages and then was interrupted by Fedka, who climbed on the back of his chair and read over his shoulder. Tolstoy explained the plot of the story and the boys immediately became interested. They criticized what had been done and suggested different ways of continuing. Fedka took the leading part in this discussion and surprised Tolstoy by his imagination and sense of proportion, important qualities in every art. Tolstoy set to work to write to the dictation of his pupils Syomka and Fedka, who angrily rejected superfluous details offered by others and eventually took command of the situation. The rest of the boys went home.
Tolstoy described how he and his two pupils worked feverishly from seven in the evening till eleven. Neither hunger nor weariness bothered them. In his account of their collective effort, he gave a number of convincing examples of the artistic rightness and fitness of details, descriptions, and selection that the boys argued and insisted upon. They drew from their experience of village life and characters; and they were nearly always right. Tolstoy was tremendously excited and admitted that he had felt such a strong emotion only two or three times in his life. He was amazed at his discovery of such artistic and creative powers in two peasant lads who could scarcely read or write, and it seemed almost offensive that he, a nationally known author, was virtually unable to instruct these eleven-year-old pupils in his art.
The next day, and still a third day, they continued the story with equal enthusiasm. Then the work was interrupted because Tolstoy had to go away for a few days. During his absence a craze for making popguns out of paper swept the school and the unfinished manuscript of the story was unwittingly sacrificed to this childish diversion. When Tolstoy discovered the loss upon his return, he was deeply chagrined. Fedka and Syomka, aware of his keen disappointment, offered to reproduce the tale themselves. They came after school one evening at nine o'clock and locked themselves in his study. Tolstoy listened at the door and heard them laughing. Then all grew quiet, except for subdued voices discussing the story, and the scratching of a pen. At midnight he knocked and was admitted. Fedka still had a few more sentences to dictate to Syomka, who stood at the large table busily writing, his lines running crookedly across the paper and his pen constantly stabbing at the inkpot. At last Tolstoy took the copybook. After a merry supper of potatoes and kvas, the boys lay down on their sheepskin coats under the writing table, and until sleep over-took them, their healthy, childish laughter rang through the room.
Tolstoy read the story over and found it very similar to the original draft. Some new details had been added, but the tale contained the same truth, measure, and feeling for beauty of the first version. Under the title of the Russian proverb, "The Spoon Feeds, but the Handle Sticks in the Eye," he printed it, with very few changes, in his pedagogical magazine.
From this unusual experiment in composition Tolstoy drew some interesting conclusions. He declared that nearly all contemporary art was intended for people of leisure and artificial training and was therefore useless to the masses, whose demand for art was more legitimate. He dismissed with some vexation the stale notion that in order to understand and appreciate the beautiful a certain amount of preparation was necessary.
"Who said this?" he asked in his magazine account of the writing of the story. "Why? What proves it? It is only a dodge, a loophole to escape from the hopeless position to which the false direction of our art, produced for one class alone, has led us. Why are the beauty of the sun, of the human face, the beauty of the sounds of a folk song, and of deeds of love and self-sacrifice accessible to everyone, and why do they demand no preparation? "
Tolstoy's position was no doubt extreme, and there was also considerable exaggeration in his unqualified praise of the literary ability of his pupils, who were unquestionably inspired by his own artistic interests. Yet such schoolboy efforts helped to teach him the fundamental truth that the need to enjoy and serve art was inherent in every human being, and that this need had its right and should be satisfied.
Although the Society for National Education that Tolstoy projected found no support among government officials, his school was not without its influence. After the emancipation of the serfs, the government encouraged them to open their own schools. Peasants in the Tula district, where Yasnaya Polyana was situated, appealed to Tolstoy for teachers, and he willingly suggested a number. By 1862 there were no less than thirteen village schools in his area, and their teachers were all zealous disciples of Tolstoy's pedagogical approach. They caught from him a devotion and enthusiasm in what was essentially a pioneering venture. Living like peasants in the dirty, stuffy huts where they held their classes, and using tables for blackboards, they worked from seven in the morning until late at night. At first, like Tolstoy, they had to overcome the ignorant suspicions of peasant fathers and mothers who distrusted these newfangled methods of teaching and were alarmed because their children were not regularly beaten by the masters. But the fact that they were entirely free to send them to school or take them out overcame resistance. Finally, the happiness of the youngsters and their obvious progress in so short a time eventually won the parent's complete confidence in the system.
In a brief note "To the Public" that introduced his pedagogical magazine, Tolstoy eagerly invited criticism. Much of it was hostile and unconstructive, and particularly that which came from progressive thinkers of the time. He was called a "pedagogical nihilist" and his experiment was castigated as a complete overthrow of educational order and discipline. In a few periodicals, however, several teachers, weary of slavish Russian devotion to foreign models in pedagogy, bravely encouraged the less extreme aspects of his school. But, in general, his efforts failed to inspire enthusiastic acceptance among educators. His principle of freedom for both teachers and pupils was too radical a demand for even the most progressive theorists.
Worse still, in the eyes of critics, was Tolstoy's conviction that his educational ideas amounted to a revolt against established opinion in the name of healthy common sense. More-over, he scorned scientific exposition in his articles and used the simple and forceful prose of which he was a master. If he had elected to write treatises on experimental pedagogy in the accepted trade jargon, buttressed with elaborate footnotes and well-chosen citations from approved authorities, he would doubtless have gained a hearing, even if an unfavourable one.
As a matter of fact, certain government officials regarded Tolstoy's activities in education with dark suspicion. In October, 1862, the Minister of the Interior wrote to the Minister of National Education to complain about the harmful aspects of the pedagogical magazine. He pointed out that its general direction and spirit perverted the fundamental values of religion and morality, and he suggested that the censor's attention should be specifically directed toward correcting the situation.
In part, the fears of the Minister of the Interior were correct: Tolstoy's educational articles did call into question the whole contemporary concept of morality. His extremely radical position represented a danger not only to the whole foundation of educational practice, but to the authority of the State. The freedom that he advocated seemed to verge on rebellion, and children educated in this spirit would hardly grow up with proper reverence for those institutions of tsarist government that had been infested by corruption and oppression. His educational philosophy would place the human worth and well-being of the individual above the well-being of the State. In short, the spirit of Christian anarchy that Tolstoy was later to preach so openly and eloquently had already crept into his thinking. For in his educational articles he condemned the false morality of government and society, their despotism, the use of force, and the belief in the legality of punishment. And he frankly stated his belief that the masses could exist without the educated classes, and hence without government, but that the educated classes could not exist without the masses.
Because of his marriage, various discouragements, and a suddenly renewed interest in fiction writing, Tolstoy abandoned his school and the pedagogical magazine at the end of 1862. But his concern for the education of the young, which soon revived when his own children came along, remained with him for the rest of his life, as frequent references to it in letters and in his diary indicate. For example, in 1872 he published his first ABC Book, in which, he said, he had put more work and love than in anything else he had done. It contained a complete curriculum for beginning pupils. There are sections on reading and writing, with drawings, exercises, and various typographical devices to aid in spelling and pronunciation; there are also sections on natural sciences and arithmetic. He realized the importance of effective examples and exercises, and his selections are original and often reveal rare artistic taste. The frame of reference is restricted by the limitations of the students and their daily lives.
"From the natural sciences," he wrote a friend, "I did not choose what may be found in books or anything that I by chance knew or what appeared to me necessary to know, but only that which was clear and beautiful, and when it seemed to me insufficiently clear and beautiful, I tried to express it in my own way."
Several of the stories used as examples in the ABC Book are entirely Tolstoy's own; others are drawn from various folk sources.
The ABC Book, based upon pedagogical theories that Tolstoy had developed and put into practice in his village school was designed, as he said, for the teacher who loved both his calling and his pupils. The work firmly eschews useless or erudite knowledge, or facts beyond the comprehension or experience of beginners. For the chief significance of teaching, he maintained, was not in the assimilation of a known quantity of information, but in awakening in students an interest in knowledge.
Tolstoy was sadly disappointed at the reception of the ABC Book, in which he had deliberately tried to avoid extremes in his theorizing. However, the innovations infuriated pedagogues, and a deluge of sharp, even vicious, reviews resulted. The reviewers charged that the work was an attack on accepted methods of instruction, that he had opposed to a pedagogical system of reason one of faith, to a system of science one of instinct and imagination, and to a system of conviction and ideas one of moral principles. Stubbornly he turned once again to teaching peasant children in his district, in order to demonstrate the methods he advocated in his ABC Book.
In 1873 an invitation from the Moscow Committee on Literacy to explain his educational system to them again aroused Tolstoy's conviction that he had a national public service to perform in education. One result of the meeting was a request to test his ideas on teaching, in several subjects, against the conventional methods employed in the schools. Two groups of Moscow children of similar ages and social backgrounds were provided. One of Tolstoy's experienced Yasnaya Polyana teachers instructed a group, and a teacher designated by the Moscow Committee on Literacy the other. At the conclusion of seven weeks of teaching, six members of the committee examined both groups of students. Although there was no unanimity among the examiners, a majority decided that the pupils taught by Tolstoy's opponent had excelled in all three subjects — reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Tolstoy felt that the test had failed to prove anything because it had been conducted under the worst possible conditions. And he submitted the article previously mentioned, "On National Education," to the popular magazine, 'Notes of the Fatherland'. It is in the form of a letter addressed to the head of the Moscow Committee on Literacy. The article (September, 1874) is largely a reaffirmation of the views Tolstoy expressed in the pages of his own pedagogical magazine twelve years before. With ruthless dogmatism he condemns outright the phonetic and visual methods of teaching then used in Russian elementary schools. And those native teachers who burned incense to German pedagogical theory he sharply criticized for failing to understand or respect the educational needs of the Russian masses. All a teacher has to know, he declares, is what to teach and how to teach. To find out what to teach, one must go to the people, to the students and their parents. At present, he asserts, the people demand that their children learn how to read and write and to cipher. Until they demand something more, teachers have no right to teach more. As for how to teach, he sums it up in his old phrase: the only criterion for pedagogy is freedom, the only method is experience.
The article created a great stir among the public, infinitely more so than all of Tolstoy's publications on educational themes in the past. To be sure, the work was attractively written, but now it had also come from the pen of the famous author of 'war and peace', and he had had the good sense to print it in a widely read periodical. In a real sense the effort suddenly made the public pedagogically minded and inspired a surprisingly large number of articles and letters in a variety of magazines. Although the experts, with few exceptions, vigorously attacked him, his views elicited widespread sympathetic response among laymen. After years of striving he at last had the satisfaction of knowing that his theories had reached the general public.
With such encouragement, Tolstoy felt impelled to try for further success. In February, 1875, he published his New ABC Book. It was shorter, cheaper, more practical, and as he remarked in the foreword, adaptable to any method of teaching. Here, too, he now won success, for the Ministry of National Education recommended the work. It was widely adopted by schools and ran into many large editions (100,000 copies were printed for the 1900 edition).
At the same time, Tolstoy published four children's Readers, which contained material taken mostly from his first ABC Book. The excellence and variety of the selections, the artistic simplicity of the narratives, and no doubt the inexpensive price gained an enormous market for these little books, and over the years they sold in tens of thousands.
Tolstoy's old dream seemed on the point of realization — he was beginning to exercise a pronounced influence on the course of elementary education in Russia. And the dream expanded. He wanted to take a prominent place in the larger field of national education, and he wrote to the minister to inquire whether the government would consider a detailed program that he was contemplating on instruction in the schools and another for training teachers. Although the reply was favourable, it was delayed so long that the impatient Tolstoy had already charged off in another direction. Breaking a rule he had set up for himself, he accepted election to the County Council and an appointment to its Education Committee.
One naturally thinks of the poet Matthew Arnold, inspector of schools in England at this time. With Arnold, however, the post was a means of livelihood and a most unpoetic business. Tolstoy, in his more restricted sphere, found a world of poetry in the work of inspecting local schools. He agitated with some success for inexpensive instruction in the district, and he launched his pet project of establishing at Yasnaya Polyana a teachers' training seminary, for he wished to train peasant teachers to take their place in the milieu in which they had grown up and to provide the kind of education for peasant children that would not instill in them alien desires or render them unfit for the performance of duties to which they would be called by their position in life. This was to be, he remarked, a "university in bast shoes."
In 1874 the Ministry of Education approved Tolstoy's carefully prepared plan for a teachers' training seminary. And his request to the Tula government for financial assistance in return for a certain number of tuition teaching scholarships was granted. But for some unexplained reason, perhaps because educational centers in the Tula government did not favour the idea, only twelve candidates applied for the program. This poor showing discouraged Tolstoy and he refused to open his "university in bast shoes." It was his last constructive effort to improve formal education in Russia. A long and arduous chapter in the history of Tolstoy's civic conscience had come to an end.
Despite hostility to Tolstoy's educational practices and writings during his lifetime, since then there has been a tendency to acclaim him a brilliant innovator and one of the most significant of educational reformers. Experimental schools in America and abroad have profited from the full accounts he left of his own experiences. His methods of teaching the alphabet and reading, his insistence on self-reliance by obliging students to do manual labor, and his belief that the child should be allowed as much freedom as possible in the classroom — these features of his system have had their influence in later progressive education. And one of his principal theses, that the school should always remain a kind of pedagogical laboratory to keep it from falling behind universal progress, has found wide acceptance as an educational premise.
In one respect it may be said that his first absorbing educational experiment between 1859 and 1862 fulfilled another purpose: the school at Yasnaya Polyana contributed as much to the historical development of Tolstoy as it had to the education of peasant children — it brought him back to the career of fiction writing. It was as though a kind of catharsis had been effected that once again left his mind and spirit free for artistic work.