Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/July 1894/Joseph Neef: A Pestalozzian Pioneer

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THE Hon. George S. Boutwell, in the November number of The Popular Science Monthly, referred to a recent article by Prof. W. W. Aber on the Oswego State Normal School, in which is claimed for that school the credit of introducing into this country the Pestalozzian system of teaching. The Oswego School was founded in 1853, and Mr. Boutwell says that from about the year 1839 this "art of teaching was taught" in the Massachusetts State Normal Schools.

While the first schools for teachers of the Pestalozzian system may have been in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania may yet claim the credit of having the first Pestalozzian school for children in America. It was established in 1809 by Joseph Neef, at a spot then called the Falls of the Schuylkill, some four miles from the old city of Philadelphia, now part of Fairmount Park.

Francis Joseph Nicholas Neef was born in Soultz, Alsace, December 6, 1770. He was educated for the Roman Catholic priesthood, but at the age of twenty-one, when about to take orders, he gave up the idea of entering the Church, as not being at all suited to his tastes. He entered the French army under Napoleon, attaining high rank therein, and in the battle of Areola was severely wounded in the head by a spent ounce ball, which he carried to the day of his death, a period of over fifty years. After leaving the army he became teacher of languages in Pestalozzi's celebrated school at Burgdorf, Switzerland, where he remained for some years, being then sent by Pestalozzi to Paris at the request of a philanthropic society whose attention and interest had been at tracted to the good work being done at Burgdorf.

During Neef's stay in Paris, Mr. William Maclure, an American patron of education, science, and philanthropy, visited Pestalozzi's school, which had by that time been moved to Yverdun. Mr. Maclure was so favorably impressed by the rational methods employed in this school that he conceived the generous idea of establishing a similar institution near Philadelphia, where he was then living. Pestalozzi recommended to him his former coadjutor, Joseph Neef, as a man thoroughly imbued with his principles and well fitted to introduce them into the Western world. Neef, when approached on the subject, hesitated, for, though master of eight languages, he was ignorant of the English. Persuaded, however, that he could soon overcome this difficulty, he came to America, and such was his success that within a year he published a work of one hundred and sixty-eight pages in the English language, with the following descriptive title: Sketch of a Plan and Method of Education founded on an Analysis of the Human Faculties and Natural Reason, Suitable for the Offspring of a Free People, and for all Rational Beings. By Joseph Neef (formerly a Coadjutor of Pestalozzi, at his School near Berne, in Switzerland). Philadelphia, 1808.

This work is faultless as to grammatical construction, and was the first strictly pedagogical work published in the English language in this country. It would interest any modern teacher who has read the numerous pedagogical works of to-day to give this quaint little volume a careful perusal. There are now but half a dozen known copies in existence, one being in the State Library at Indianapolis. Another work. Method of Teaching Children to Read and Write, was published by him in 1813.

Neef had in the school established at the Falls of the Schuylkill about one hundred pupils, most of them boarders, who were taught physiology, botany, geology, natural history, languages, mathematics, and other branches, without the aid of a single textbook, a purely natural method being followed. "Neef 's boys from the Falls," as they were known to Philadelphians, could, without exception, after being in the school for a short time, work mentally the most difficult examples in arithmetic, converse with equal ease in several languages, and many who were his pupils have said in after years that the amount of scientific information and practical knowledge gained while under Neef's care had always been of incalculable benefit to them.

In 1813 he removed to Village Green, in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. David Glasgow Farragut was one of his pupils at this place. From here the school was moved to Louisville at the earnest solicitation of several Kentucky patrons. In 1826, when Robert Owen, of New Lanark, Scotland, began his famous socialistic experiment at New Harmony, Indiana, Mr. Neef took charge of the educational department of his community. In 1828 the community ceased to exist, and Mr. Neef removed to Cincinnati, and later to Steubenville, Ohio, where he engaged in his last school. He died at New Harmony in 1853.

The following extract is taken from his book published in 1808: "The man of refined morality feels it to be his duty not only to be good, but also to inquire in what situation and through what means he may be able to produce the greatest sum of good to his fellow-creatures. It is my ambition and duty to become a useful member of society. The education of children and the rearing of vegetables are the only occupations for which I feel any aptitude. I have, therefore, seriously inquired in which of these two spheres I should produce the greatest advantage to the society of which I may become a member, whether by clearing and tilling some secluded spot of land, or by cultivating the pretty bewildered field of education. After mature deliberation I became fully convinced that in the latter capacity my faculties will be more likely to be beneficial to my fellow-creatures. These are my reasons for appearing as a teacher, or rather educator."

Mr. Neef left no male descendants, but two married daughters are still living in this country.