The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Froebel, Friedrich Wilhelm August

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Froebel, Friedrich Wilhelm August
Edition of 1920. See also Friedrich Fröbel on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

FROEBEL, fro'bel, Friedrich Wilhelm August, German educationist: b. Oberweissbach, Thuringia, 21 April 1782; d. Marienthal, 21 June 1852. It was Froebel who said, ‘The clearer the thread that runs through our lives backward to our childhood, the clearer will be our onward glance to the goal”; and in the fragment of autobiography he has left us, he illustrates forcibly the truth of his own saying. The motherless baby who plays alone in the village pastor's quiet house; the dreamy child who wanders solitary in the high-walled garden; the thoughtful lad, neglected, misunderstood, who forgets the harsh realities of life in pondering the mysteries of the flowers, the contradictions of existence, and the dogmas of orthodox theology; who decides in early boyhood that the pleasures of the senses are without enduring influence and therefore on no account to be eagerly pursued; — these presentments of himself, which he summons up for us from the past, show the vividness of his early recollections and indicate the course which the stream of his life is to run.

The coldness and injustice of the new mother who assumed control of the household when he was four years old, his isolation from other children, the merely casual notice he received from the busy father absorbed in his parish work, all tended to turn inward the tide of his mental and spiritual life. He studied himself, not only because it was the bent of his nature, but because he lacked outside objects of interest; and to this early habit of introspection we owe many of the valuable features of his educational philosophy. Whoever has learned thoroughly to understand one child, has conquered a spot of firm ground on which to rest while he studies the world of children; and because the great teacher realized this truth, because he longed to give to others the means of development denied him, he turns for us the heart-leaves of his boyhood.

It would appear that Froebel's characteristics were strongly marked and unusual from the beginning. Called by every one “a moon-struck child” in Oberweissbach, the village of his birth, he was just as unanimously considered “an old fool,” when, crowned with the experience of 70 years, he played with the village children on the green hills of Thuringia. The intensity of his inward life, the white heat of his convictions, his absolute blindness to any selfish idea or aim, his enthusiasm, the exaltation of his spiritual nature, all furnish so many cogent reasons why the people of any day or of any community should have failed to understand him, and scorned what they could not comprehend. It is the old story of the seers and the prophets repeated as many times as they appear; for “these colossal souls,” as Emerson said, “require a long focal distance to be seen.”

At 10 years old the sensitive boy was fortunately removed from the uncongenial atmosphere of the parental household; and in his uncle's home at Ilm he spent five free and happy years, being apprenticed at the end of this time to a forester in his native Thuringian woods. Then followed a year's course in the University of Jena, and four years spent in the study of farming, in clerical work of various kinds, and in land-surveying. All these employments, however, Froebel himself felt to be merely provisional; for like the hazel wand in the diviner's hand, his instinct was blindly seeking through these many restless years the wellspring of his life.

In Frankfort, where he had gone intending to study architecture, Destiny touched him on the shoulder, and he turned and knew her. Through a curious combination of circumstances he gained employment in Herr Gruner's Model School, and it was found at once that he was what the Germans love to call “a teacher by the grace of God.” The first time he met his class of boys he tells us that he felt inexpressibly happy; the hazel wand had found the waters and was fixed at last. From this time on, all the events of his life were connected with his experience as a teacher. Impelled as soon as he had begun his work by a desire for more effective methods, he visited Yverdon, then the centre of educational thought, and studied with Pestalozzi. He went again in 1808, accompanied by three pupils, and spent two years there, alternately studying and teaching.

There was a year of lectures at Göttingen after this, and one at the University of Berlin, accompanied by unceasing study and research both in literary and scientific lines; but in the fateful year 1813 this quiet student life was broken in upon, for impelled by strong moral conviction, Froebel joined Baron von Lützow's famous volunteer corps, formed to harass the French by constant skirmishes and to encourage the smaller German States to rise against Napoleon.

No thirst for glory prompted this action, but a lofty conception of the office of the educator. How could any young man capable of bearing arms, Froebel says, become a teacher of children whose Fatherland he had refused to defend? how could he in after years incite his pupils to do something noble, something calling for sacrifice and unselfishness, without exposing himself to their derision and contempt? The reasoning was perfect and he made practice follow upon the heels of theory as closely as he had always done since he became master of his fate.

After the Peace of Paris he settled down for a time to a quiet life in the mineralogical museum at the University of Berlin, his duties being the care, arrangement and investigation of crystals. Surrounded thus by the exquisite formations whose development according to law is so perfect, whose obedience to the promptings of an inward ideal so complete, he could not but learn from their unconscious ethics to look into the depths of his own nature, and there recognize more clearly the purpose it was intended to work out.

In 1816 he quietly gave up his position, and taking as pupils five of his nephews, three of whom were fatherless, he entered upon his life work, the first step in which was the carrying out of his plan for a “Universal German Educational Institute.” He was without money, of course, as he had always been and always would be, — his hands were made for giving not for getting; he slept in a barn on a wisp of straw while arranging for his first school at Griesheim; but outward things were so little real to him in comparison with the life of the spirit, that bodily privations seemed scarcely worth considering. The school at Keilhau, to which he soon removed, the institutions later established in Wartensee and Willisau, the orphanage in Burgdorf, all were most successful educationally, but, it is hardly necessary to say, were never a source of profit to their head and founder.

Through the 20 succeeding years, busy as he was in teaching, in lecturing, in writing, he was constantly shadowed by dissatisfaction with the foundation upon which he was building. A nebulous idea for the betterment of things was floating before him; but it was not until 1836 that it appeared to his eyes as a “definite truth.” This definite truth, the discovery of his old age, was of course the kindergarten; and from this time until the end, all other work was laid aside, and his entire strength given to the consummate flower of his educational thought.

The first kindergarten was opened in 1837 at Blankenburg (where a memorial school is now conducted), and in 1850 the institution at Marienthal for the training of kindergartners was founded, Froebel remaining at its head until his death two years after.

With the exception of that remarkable book ‘The Education of Man’ (1826), his most important literary work was done after 1836; ‘Pedagogics of the Kindergarten,’ the first great European contribution to the subject of child-study, appearing from 1837 to 1840 in the form of separate essays, and the ‘Mutter-und-Kose Lieder’ (Mother-Play) in 1843. Many of his educational aphorisms and occasional speeches were preserved by his great disciple the Baroness von Marenholtz-Bülow in her ‘Reminiscences of Froebel’; and though two most interesting volumes of his correspondence have been published, there remain a number of letters, as well as essays and educational sketches, not yet rendered into English.

Froebel's literary style is often stiff and involved, its phrases somewhat labored, and its substance exceedingly difficult to translate with spirit and fidelity; yet after all, his mannerisms are of a kind to which one easily becomes accustomed, and the kernel of his thought when reached is found well worth the trouble of removing a layer of husk. He had always an infinitude of things to say, and they were all things of purpose and of meaning; but in writing, as well as in formal speaking, the language to clothe the thought came to him slowly and with difficulty. Yet it appears that in friendly private intercourse he spoke fluently, and one of his students reports that in his classes he was often “overpowering and sublime, the stream of his words pouring forth like fiery rain.”

Froebel's educational creed cannot here be cited at length, but some of its fundamental articles are:

The education of the child should begin with its birth, and should be threefold, addressing the mental, spiritual and physical natures.

It should be continued as it has begun, by appealing to the heart and the emotions as the starting-point of the human soul.

There should be sequence, orderly progression, and one continuous purpose throughout the entire scheme of education, from kindergarten to university.

Education should be conducted according to nature, and should be a free, spontaneous growth, — a development from within, never a prescription from without.

The training of the child should be conducted by means of the activities, needs, desires and delights, which are the common heritage of childhood.

The child should be led from the beginning to feel that one life thrills through every manifestation of the universe, and that he is a part of all that is.

The object of education is the development of the human being in the totality of his powers as a child of nature, a child of man, and a child of God.

These principles of Froebel's, many of them the products of his own mind, others the pure gold of educational currency upon which he has but stamped his own image, are so true and so far-reaching that they have already begun to modify all education and are destined to work greater magic in the future. The great teacher's place in history may be determined, by-and-by, more by the wonderful uplift and impetus he gave to the whole educational world, than by the particular system of child-culture in connection with which he is best known to-day.

Judged by ordinary worldly standards, his life was an unsuccessful one, full of trials and privations, and empty of reward. His deathblow was doubtless struck by the prohibition of kindergartens in Prussia in 1851, an edict which remained nine years in force. His strength had been too sorely tried to resist this final crushing misfortune, and he passed away the following year. His body was borne to the grave through a heavy storm of wind and rain that seemed to symbolize the vicissitudes of his earthly days, while as a forecast of the future the sun shone out at the last moment, and the train of mourners looked back to see the low mound irradiated with glory.

In Thuringia, where the great child-lover was born, the kindergartens, his best memorials, cluster thickly now; and on the face of the cliffs that overhang the bridle-path across the Glockner Mountain may be seen in great letters the single word Froebel, hewn deep into the solid rock. Consult von Marenholtz-Bülow, ‘Reminiscences of Friedrich Froebel’ (translated by Mrs. Horace Mann, Boston 1887); Barnard, ‘Papers on Froebel's Kindergarten’ (1881); Fletcher and Welton, ‘Froebel's Chief Writings on Education Rendered into English’ (New York 1912); Hauschmann, ‘Froebel's Kindergarten System’ (1874); Bowen, ‘Froebel’ (1897); Quick, ‘Educational Reformers’ (New York 1896).

Nora Archibald Smith.