Education-line Home Page

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi's Letters of Early Education and Late Modern Gelassenheit-education

Dr. Leena Kakkori

University of Jyväskylä

GSM + 358 41 505 2880

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Geneva, 13-15 September 2006

Gelassenheit-education is an alternative idea of education in the time of the end of metaphysics. I will present here five basic statements of Gelassenheit-education which are based on Martin Heidegger's critique of the ultimate thinking of metaphysics. Gelassenheit-education, or letting-be-education, must not be confused with A. S. Neill's idea of free education. Gelassenheit-education is based on the existential idea of man which Heidegger presents in Zollikon Seminars (1987) and Menard Boss in Existential Foundations of Medicine and Psychology (1979). The characteristics of human existence are its primordial spatiality and temporality, bodyhood, coexistence in the shared world, the essential attunement of existence, memory as it is based in historicity, and mortality (Boss 1979, 123). A human being is always already in the world, and the world opens up to her in a certain historical time and place. A child, a student, or a teacher, she is always complete and at the same time in a state of becoming, and at the same time she is not a subject or an object of the world but rather in and with the world. And one of the most important aspects of being-in-the-world is being-with-others. The world opens up to us as something because our basic mode of being is to understand the world. This understanding reveals the world as language, and everything in the world is either present-at-hand or ready-to-hand. There is nothing without language or names. From this point of view, I have reconstructed these five statements as the principle of Gelassenheit–education:

1. The basic feature of education – of both teaching and learning – is a wondering, natural curiosity and ability to ask questions.

2. Language is the world. The most important thing is to learn language.

3. Education is itself an occurrence and it belongs to everyone. There is no distinction between teacher and learner.

4. Freedom is the possibilities which we encounter in our own being-in-the-world with others, and this freedom we acquire through education.

5. Truth is an occurrence and an historical event. No one can claim that she has an exclusive access to truth. Education has nothing to do with being right.

These five statements are just a brief outline of the principles of Gelassenheit-education. Heidegger speaks of learning and teaching in his lecture Was Heisst Denken?(Heidegger 2002), in which he supports these five statements. Learning and thinking are very important for Heidegger, and he sees them as belonging together. Learning and thinking form a hermeneutical circle; we know what thinking is once we are ready to learn how to do it, and we learn to think while we do it. Heidegger poses the question of what learning is and answers: "Man learns when he disposes everything he does so that it answers to whatever addresses him as essential" (Heidegger 1974, 346). According to Heidegger, teaching is even more difficult than learning, and I generalize this idea by stating that to educate is more difficult than to be educated. It is difficult because real teaching means to let learn, and the teacher must learn to let her students learn, das Lernen-lassen (Heidegger 1954, 50). We might go so far as to say that this means that the teacher is less sure of her materials than those who learn are of theirs. There is no room for the authority of the "know-it-all" in a genuine relationship between the teacher and the learners, or the educator and those who are educated. Becoming a good teacher is completely different from becoming a famous professor.

What actually is Gelassenheit-education in practice? And what is it especially in the context of early education? My suggestion to this question is to use hermeneutically interpreted Pestalozzian educational philosophy and practice. The Pestalozzi-researcher emphasizes that Pestalozzi´s life, personality, and pedagogical thinking are inseparable, when consider his significance for the history of education and pedagogy. In this paper, I am going to try to articulate his pedagogical philosophy and interpret his own descriptions of his work and more or less theoretical writings from the perspective of Gelassenheit-education. My method can be described as hermeneutical interpretation. My main idea is that the philosophical and scientific basis of Gelassenheit-education is derived from Martin Heidegger and Medard Boss, but the practical point, how to educate in everyday situations, comes from my interpretation of Pestalozzi. The reason why I have chosen Pestalozzi comes from his main ideas: 1. His idea of love as the foundation of education, 2. His idea of education, which can be called "child-centered and free education". 3. His understanding of the connection between education and society. 4. His presentation of his main ideas in the form of prose, not in the form of rigouristic science. Thus, he opposes hard, "scientific" understanding of the child.

Johan Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746 - 1827)

In 1782, Pestalozzi described his fundamental question in a letter to pastor Mieg: "Mein einziges Buch, das ich seit Jahren studiere, ist der Mensch; auf ihn und auf Erfahrung über ihn und von ihm gründe ich alle meine Philosophie". (My only book that I study for years is the human being, on him and on experience of and about him I found all my philosophy.) And his famous Abendstunde eines Einsiedlers (Pestalozzi 1962, 113) begins with the central question: „Der Mensch in seinem Wesen, was ist er?" (The nature of the human being, what is it?) For Immanul Kant, "What is the human being?" is the fundamental question of philosophy. Martin Heidegger postulates his question of the human being in The Zollikon Seminars with Mendard Boss. For all these thinkers the answer is different, but common to all of them is that it is the first question to be asked when we are going to study the world and its phenomena.

Excursion 1

Pestalozzi and Finland

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827) is the ideological father of Finnish early childhood education and pedagogy. He is also one of the important figures who have influenced the birth of the Finnish day-care system and elementary school in the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century. The father of kindergarten, Friedrich Fröbel, was influenced greatly by Pestalozzi and his work, and he decided to dedicate his life to education after he had visited Pestalozzi's institute in Yverdon (Kuosmanen 1927, 327). Fröbel's student and follower, Henrietta Schader-Beymann (1827–1899), developed the Pestalozzi–Fröbel–Haus-seminarium for kindergarten teachers. The finnish pedagogist Hannah Rothman graduated as a kindergarten teacher from a seminarium and is now known as the founder of the Finnish kindergarten and kindergarten teacher education.(Hänninen & Valli,1986, 60 – 62.)

Excursion 2

A very short history of early education.

The Czech bishop Johan Amos Comenius (1592–1670) was the first to write about early education, and he brought up the notion of mothers school, which is one of the key terms of Pestalozzian education (Hänninen and Valli, 1986, 14.) Rousseau and his novel on education, Emile, has of course influenced greatly to basic ideas of early education. For example, the most important idea, that the child is something else than a small-size unlearned adult, can be found in Rousseau's text. It has been said that Rousseau found the child. His most well known followers are Johan Pestalozzi and Friedrich Fröbel. Erich Fromm argues that in the past children were able to rebel only in inadequate ways – refusing to eat, crying, constipation, bed-wetting, and general abstinacy – but since the 19th century they have found spokesmen who have stressed that children have a will and passion of their own and must be taken seriously. One of these spokesmen was Pestalozzi (Fromm 1991, 104).

Excursion 3

Pestalozzi as a Nietzschean figure.

Pestalozzi has been called a Swiss educational reformer whose theories laid the foundation of modern elementary education. It has been emphasized that the best way to learn and know Pestalozzi's educational thinking and philosophy also includes learning about his personality and work. (Natorp, Kuosmanen 1927, and Jedan 1981). Volker Kraft (1996) uses world das pädagogische selbst in his research of Pestalozzi and pedagogical thinking. I have no possibility to go through Pestalozzi's legendary life in this presentation, but I have one remark of his person. I think that in a way, Pestalozzi is a Nietschean figure. I find similarities and absolute opposites in these two figures. Both are told to have been under strong influence of women. Pestalozzi is mentioned in several older and very recognized publications to have been too soft and unpractical because he was raised only by women. Nietzsche is well known of the same thing, and the famous female figure is of course Nietzsche's sister. Both Nietzsche and Pestalozzi wrote in prosaic way, not systematic scientific text. The outcomes of their individual lives are still very different from each other. Some remember Nietzsche as an angry little man who thought that education is meant only for few. Pestalozzi is remembered as great humanist, educator, and as a friend of children and the poor and the needy.

In Pestalozzi's epitaph it is written:

Preacher of the people in Lienhard and Gertrud,
Father of the orphans, in Stans,
In Burgdorf and Münchenbuchsee
Founder of the new school,
In Iferten educator of mankind,
Man, Christian, citizen,
All for others, for himself nothing.
Blessed be his name!

Early education

Pestalozzi wrote 34 letters to J. P. Greaves on early education in 1818--1819. The letters were published the first time in Letters on early education in 1827, and the German edition was published 1924 with the name of Mutter und Kind. The original German letters have been lost. These letters are the source of my interpretation of the practice of Gelassenheit-education. In this presentation, I will let Pestalozzi's own voice speak as much as possible. I think he speaks with so much common sense and understanding, which our science of education has neglected and lost because of excessive technological-calculative thinking. Pestalozzi did not believe in scientific text, and he preferred the warmth that may speak to the heart of a friend (Letter V).

I argue that Pestalozzian educational thinking can be interpreted as Heideggerian Gelassenheit-thinking and Ereignis of education. Pestalozzi argues in his letter to Greaves (Letter I, 1.10.1818) that the importance of education in the earliest stage of life has almost universally been overlooked. I think that this opinion is quite valid in our time, as well.

In early education, there are two basic rules

The first rule concerns memory:

Educator must be able perfectly to distinguish between the mere action of the memory and that of the other faculties of the mind (Letter XXVIII).

The second rule concerns thinking:

Educator must let the child not only be acted upon, but let him be an agent in intellectual education.

Educator must bear in mind that child has not only the faculties of attention to, and retention of, certain ideas or facts, but also a faculty of reflection independent of the thoughts of others. It is well done to make a child read and write and learn and repeat, -- but it is still better to make a child think. (Letter XXIX.)

Pestalozzian principles of early education

1. Pestalozzi's educational thinking is positive. First of all, the human being is not bad by its nature, a new-born child is innocent and good. This idea does not belong to modern science of education; there is no room at all for the question of the goodness of the child. I think that it is a limitation of modern education.

2. Pestalozzi believes in the goodness of the mother and that no mother could consciously harm the child’s inward and "eternal well-being", although she can be puzzled about what to do and how to do right (Letter IV, 18.10.1818). In my interpretation, the mother means all those people who take care of the well-being and education of children, regardless of their gender or family connection. Pestalozzi emphasizes the meaning of the mother as the most significant person for a child's early development. No-one can ignore this after she has read Pestalozzi, even one chapter from Leonnard and Gertrude, How Gertrude Teaches Her Children, or Letters on Early Education.

3. Pestalozzi argues that the fundamental error in early education as well as in our judgement of man is the over-apprecition of the talents of our animal and intellectual nature (Letter V). He stresses that the goodness of the heart should not be undermined: "The faculties of man must not be so cultivated that no one shall predominate at the expense of another, but each be existed to the true nature of activity" (Letter V, 24.10.1818). These faculties can be described as the faculties of heart, head, and hand.

4. In an infant's mind, all faculties, whether mental or physical, are dormant except for an active power of love and faith (Letter I). This can be called the principle of love and faith, and it means: "…if you treat a child with kindness, there is a great chance of succeeding, than if you try by any other means" (Letter II, 9). This principle is the starting point of education, and Pestalozzi takes it for granted. The mother is the principal agent in the cause of humanity (Letter II, 9).

5. When the eye catches the eye of the mother, when that look of love calls into life the first smile, a new era begins in the infant's life. A new world opens to his view and he has entered a new stage of existence. This is beginning of language, which separates human being from animal, language that is tacit but common and understood to all. (Letter X, 15.)

6. The principles of early education are affection and firmness (Letter XVII).

Practical rules instead of theoretizising:

1. The mother should be regular in her attention to the infant.

2. Never neglect the wants of the child when they are real, and never indulge to them when they are imaginary. Indulgence and too much pampering aren’t good, but more damaging is indolence and cold neglect of the child.

Pestalozzi's definition of education:

"Education is understood to be the work, not of a certain course of exercises resumed at stated times, but of a continual and benevolent superintendence; if the importance of development is acknowledged not only in favour of the memory, and the intellect, and a few abilities which lead to indispensable attainments, - but in favour of all the faculties, whatever may be their names, or nature, or energy." (Letter XXI.)

After this quotation, Pestalozzi stresses that we must bear in mind that the ultimate end of education is not perfection in the accomplishments of the school, but fitness for life; not the acquirement of habits of blind obedience, and of prescribed diligence, but the preparation for independent action (Letter XXI).

Pestalozzi is known as the father of public school, and of the idea that everybody has the right to go to school and the right to attend to teaching and education in spite their social status:

"We must bear in mind that whatever class of society a pupil may belong to, whatever calling he may be intended for, there are certain faculties in human nature common to all, which constitute the stock of the fundamental energies of man. We have no right to withhold from anyone the opportunities of developing all their faculties. It may be judicious to treat some of them with marked attention, and to give up the idea of bringing others to high perfection. The diversity of talent and inclination, of plans and pursuits, is a sufficient proof for the necessity of such a distinction. But I repeat that we have no right to shut out the child from the development of those faculties also which we may not for the present conceive to be very essential for his future calling or station in life." (Letter XXI.)

The faculties of man are physical, intellectual, and moral (Letter XXI). According to correct principles of education, all the faculties of man are to be developed: mind, body, and hart. Here Pestalozzi emphasizes physical exercise and gymnastics. Gymnastics is important to every child’s physical and moral development. Physical education does not mean only gymnastics, but all kind of physical activity and movement. (Letter XXIII.)

One of Pestalozzi's central ideas was that anyone who cares for the welfare of the rising generation in his heart cannot do better than consider as his highest goal the education of mothers. If you want to take care of children, the best way to do it is to take care of mothers. (Letter XXV.) In our days, such organisations as Unicef and International Save the Children Organisation have realised this.

Pestalozzi repeated many times that we cannot expect any real improvement in education unless we begin by educating mothers (Letter XXVI).

Conclusion: Pestalozzian contribution

Pestalozzi's contribution to education, and specifically to early education, has two different sides (Latham 2002). He developed specific teaching techniques that could be utilized by any teacher and which helped mothers to teach their children. A good example of this are the fraction charts and the chart of number one. I do not want to underestimate this side of Pestalozzi's work, but I see that the other side, respect for the child and caring of the child's well-being, is the most significant contribution of Pestalozzi. Pestalozzi's educational thinking gives concrete content to the five principles of Gelassenheit-education in the following way:

1. Education means acting with children with all possible materials from the environment, from a piece of newspaper to number charts. Education is not a drill for a later purpose.

2. Language opens up a new way of existence for the child. Language is learnt in interaction, being-with, with the mother. First we learn language and after that grammar. We can forget about grammar with little children. More important is to speak with children and read stories to them.

3. Education belongs to everyone, and it starts by educating mothers and educators.

4. Caring for and loving the child is the best way to teach and educate, not punishing her of her behaviour or neglecting her needs.

5. We must always remember to respect the child and her freedom to be a child. And we must esteem our children and give them genuine recognition as individuals.

To be a child is not strange for us, even if it sometimes seems to be so for most adults. We all have been children, and we all will always be children.


Boss, M. 1979. Existential Foundations of Medicine and Psychology. New York: Jason Aronson.

Fromm, E. 1991. The Crisis of psychoanalysis. New York: An Owl Book.

Heidegger, M. 1977. What Calls for Thinking? In Basic Writings. Edited by Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper.

Heidegger, M. 1974. Was Heisst Denken? Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

Heidegger, M. 2001. Zollikon Seminars. Protocols – Conversation – Letters. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Heidegger, M. 2002. I. Abteilung: Veröffentliche Schriften 1910–1976 - Band 8. Wass Heisst Denken? Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.

Hänninen, S. L. & Valli, S. 1986. Suomen lastentarhatyön ja varhaiskasvatuksen historia. Helsinki: Otava.

Jedan, D. 1981. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and the Pestalozzian Method of Language Teaching. Bern: Peter Lang.

Kraft, V. 1996. Pestalozzi oder das Pädagogische Selbst. Bad Heilbrunn: Klinkhardt.

Kuosmanen, R. 1927. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Suuren kasvattajan elämä ja teokset pääpiirteissään esitettynä. I-11. Helsinki: Otava.

Latham, J. E. M. 2002. Pestalozzi and James Pierrepoint Greaves: a shared educational philosophy. History of Education. 2002, vol 31, no I, 59–70.

Natorp, P. 1926. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Hänen elämänvaiheensa ja elämäntyönsä. Porvoo.

Pestalozzi, J. H. 1962. Ausgewählte werke. Band I.- II Berlin: Volk und wissen Volkseigener Verlag.

Pestalozzi, J. H., 2006. Letters on early education.  . 5.9.2006.

This document was added to the Education-Line database on 15 November 2007