Education According to Tolstoy

01 January 2008
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 Tolstoy(The extracts from Tolstoy himself are taken, with permission, from The School at Yasnaya Polyana in Tolstoy on Education, translated by Leo Wiener, published by the University of Chicago Press, 1967, second impression 1972, ISBN 0-226-80770-0, Library of Congress catalogue Card Number: 67-25514.)

Tolstoy's school at Yasnaya Polyana was founded in 1860 for the benefit of the children of the local peasants. It was a two-storey building with two rooms and a hallway on each floor. Teachers lived in the upstairs rooms, and the two downstairs rooms were classrooms; the top group was taught in one room, and the two lower classes in the other. There were parallel and horizontal bars in the downstairs hall, and a woodwork bench upstairs. There was also what Leo Wiener has translated as a 'physical cabinet', which might perhaps be a science store-room, as watching scientific experiments was part of the curriculum. The staircase and the floor of the vestibule were usually covered with snow or mud.

Lessons ran from about half past eight in the morning until two in the afternoon and then from dusk until eight o'clock, or later if the children demanded it. The traditional method of teaching, which appears to have been used much of the time, was for the teacher to deliver information or read a story, and then for the children to repeat what they remembered of it. One of the differences at Yasnaya Poylana was that in a normal school the children would have had to stand up and recite one at a time, whereas in Yasnaya Polyana they all talked at once, to the teacher, to the rest of the class or to a friend, usually with great enthusiasm.

What follows is a variety of quotations from Tolstoy himself, taken from The School at Yasnaya Polyana, for the months of November and December, 1862, in the book Tolstoy on Education, translated by Leo Wiener and severely edited.


The school is free, and the first pupils to come were from the village of Yasnaya Polyana. Many of these have since left the school because their parents did not think the teaching was good; many, having learnt to read and write, stopped coming and found jobs at the railway, where most people from the village work. At first children were brought from the poorer villages near-by, but because of the distances and the cost of boarding (in our village the cheapest board is two roubles in silver a month), they were soon taken out of school. The well-to-do peasants from distant villages, pleased to hear that the school was free and that the general rumour was that the teaching at Yasnaya Polyana was good, began to send their children, but this winter [1862], when schools were opened in their own villages, they took them away again and sent them to the village schools, where they had to pay. The ones who are left in the Yasnaya Polyana school are the children of the Yasnaya Polyana peasants, who come to school in the winter, but in the summer, from April to the middle of Octobner, work in the fields, and the children of innkeepers, clerks, soldiers, servants from the manor, publicans, sextons and rich peasants, who are brought here from distances of up to twenty or thirty miles.

There are in all about forty pupils, but rarely more than thirty at any one time. There are three to five girls, that is to say only six to ten per cent of the school. [This calculation is wrong; 3 girls out of 40 is 7.5% but 6 girls out of 30 is 20%. Even 6 girls out of 40 is 15%.] Most of the pupils are boys between the ages of seven and thirteen. (p 256)

... there are twelve subjects, three classes, forty pupils in all, four teachers, and from five to seven lessons a day. (p 216)

Every day it seems to me that the children are becoming more independent, their characters more sharply defined. I have never noticed any of the pupils playing on their way to school, except sometimes a very young child, or a new pupil, whose education had begun in some other school. The children bring nothing with them – neither books, nor copy-books. There is no homework.

Not only do they carry nothing in their hands, but they have nothing to carry in their heads. They are not obliged to remember any lesson – or anything else that they were doing the day before. They are not worried by the thought of the next lesson. They bring with them nothing but their impressionable natures and their conviction that to-day will be as much fun in school as yesterday was. They do not think about lessons until they have begun.

No one is ever told off for lateness, and no one ever comes late, except for some of the older ones whose fathers now and then keep them back to do work at home. In such cases they come running to school at full speed, and all out of breath. (p 229)

The curriculum did not consist entirely of lessons to be learnt by heart. The following method for teaching children how to go about writing is very different:

• Suggest a great variety of subjects, not inventing them specially for the children, but proposing the topics that you yourself find most serious and interesting.

• Give the children other children's compositions to read, and only use children's compositions as models, because children's compositions are always more correct, more artistic and more moral than the compositions of grown people.

• (Most important.) When looking through pupils' compositions, never make any remarks to them about the cleanliness of their copy-books, or spelling or hand-writing, or, most particularly, about the structure and logic of the sentences.

• The difficulties of writing a composition ... are, firstly, selecting one out of a large number of ideas and images presented, secondly, clothing your ideas in words, thirdly, sticking to the point, fourthly, neither repeating anything nor leaving anything out and remembering what you have already written so that what you are writing now follows logically from what you have already written, and fifthly, and finally, thinking and writing at the same time, without having one of these actions interfere with the other. (p 223)

Before these lessons [religion and drawing, for which the whole school is taught together] there is animation, fighting, shouting and the most pronounced external disorder: they drag the benches from one room into another; they fight, some of the children of the servants from the manor run home for bread, which they toast in the stove; one boy may be taking something away from another; someone else will be doing gymnastics, and, just as at the beginning of the day, when there is a similar chaos, it is much easier to allow them to settle in their own time and quieten down in a natural way than to try to settle them by force. The present spirit of the school would make it physically impossible. The louder the teacher shouts – this has actually happened – the louder the children shout; his loud voice only excites them. If you leave them alone, or, if possible, you divert their attention into another direction, the waves of this small sea begin to smooth out until it finally grows calm. In most cases there is no need to say anything. The drawing class, everybody's favourite class, is at noon when, after three lessons, the children are beginning to feel hungry. The benches and tables have to be taken from one room to another, and there is a terrible hubbub. In spite of all this, the moment the teacher is ready, the pupils are, too, and if one of them should prevent the class from starting, he gets his punishment meted out to him by the children themselves. (pp 232 - 233)

The school has evolved freely from principles introduced by teachers and pupils. In spite of the preponderating influence of the teacher, the pupil has always had the right not to come to school, or, having come, not to listen to the teacher. The teacher has had the right not to admit a pupil, and has been able to use all the influence he can muster to win over the community, where the children are always in the majority.

As the pupils become more advanced, the teaching branches out and there is a greater need for order. This means that quite naturally, without compulsion, as they progress through the school and become more educated, the pupils develop the ability to behave in an orderly way and begin to feel a strong need for order, so the teacher's influence becomes greater in this respect. In the Yasnaya Polyana school this has always been evident from the day of its foundation. At first it was impossible to subdivide the children into classes, or divide the time into subjects, or break-times, or lessons; everything naturally blended into one, and all attempts to separate things out remained futile. Now we have pupils in the top class who themselves demand that the timetable be adhered to, who are annoyed when they are disturbed in their lessons, and who always drive out the little children when they run in.

In my opinion, this external disorder is useful and should not be replaced by anything else, however strange and inconvenient for the teacher it may seem. I shall often have occasion to speak of the advantages of this system, and now I will say only this about the alleged inconveniences: first, this disorder, or free order, only upsets us because we are accustomed to something quite different, which we have been taught to accept. Secondly, in this case, as in many similar cases, people only resort to force through haste and through insufficient respect for human nature. We think the disorder will grow greater and greater, and there will be no limit to it, – we think that the only way to quell it is by the use of force, whereas we only need to wait a little, and the disorder (or excitement) calms down naturally by itself, and develops into a much better and more permanent order than anything we might have been able to impose.

School children, small though they may be, have the same needs as we do, and they reason in the same manner; they all want to learn – that is the only reason they come to school – so they will naturally come to the conclusion that they must submit to certain conditions in order to acquire knowledge.

They are not just individuals, they are a community of individuals, united by one idea. And "where two or three are gathered in My name, there will I be with them!" When the laws they obey are natural laws, laws that seem natural to them, they do not feel antagonised and do not complain; but though they may submit when you impose your authority, they do not accept the justice of your bells, timetables and rules. (pp 233 – 235)

I am convinced that a school ought not to interfere in the aspects of education which belong to the family; that a school has no right to reward and punish; that the best school policy is to give full freedom to the pupils to study and to settle their disputes as they know best. I am convinced of these things, and yet, in spite of that, the old habits learnt in traditional schools are so strong in us that we frequently fail to follow these principles in the Yasnaya Polyana school. (p 237)

Marks for children's work are a relic the old system and we no longer use them much. (p 242)

Sometimes, when the lessons are boring, and there have been many of them (we often have seven long lessons each day), and the children are tired, or just before a holiday, when the stoves at home have been prepared for a hot bath, two or three boys will suddenly rush into the room during the second or third afternoon lesson, and will hurriedly pick up their caps.

"What's up? "Going home."

"What about your lessons? There is going to be singing!"

"The boys say they are going home," says one, slipping away with his cap.

"Who says so?"

"The boys are gone!"

. . .

Who are the boys who decided to go home, and how did they decide it? God knows. You will never find out who decided it. They did not take counsel, did not conspire, but all that happened was that some boys wanted to go home. "The boys are going!" they shout, and their feet rattle down-stairs, one boy rolls down the steps like a cat, and, leaping and tumbling in the snow, racing each other along the narrow path, the children bolt for home.

This happens once or twice a week. It is aggravating and disagreeable for the teacher – who will not admit that? – but who will not also admit, at the same time, that, as a result of one such occurrence, the five, six or even seven lessons a day for each class, which the children attend of their own accord and with pleasure, become all the more important? It is only the repetition of this kind of event that makes us certain that our teaching, though insufficient and one-sided, is not entirely bad and does not do any harm.

. . .

In spite of the boys often being told that they may leave any time they wish, the influence of the teacher is so strong that, of late, I have been afraid that the discipline of the classes, timetables and grades might, without them noticing it, so restrict their liberty that they would submit to the cunning organisational traps we have set and see no possibility of choice or protest. (pp 244 – 246)

During these experiments I convinced myself that it is impossible, even for a talented teacher, to explain the meaning of words and speech in general . . . when explaining any one word, for example the word "impression," you either substitute another unintelligible word in its place or you give a whole series of words, the sense of which is as unintelligible as the word itself. (p 275)

The pupil must be given an opportunity to acquire new ideas and words from the general context. When he hears or reads an unintelligible word in an intelligible sentence, and then meets it in another sentence, he dimly begins to grasp a new idea, and eventually he will happen to feel the need to use the word himself; once used, the word and the idea become his property. And there are a thousand other ways. But expecting a child to learn from the mere names of new concepts and new grammatical structures is, in my opinion, as impossible and fruitless as teaching a child to walk by studying the laws of equilibrium. (p 278)

It seems to me that grammar is one thing – a useless mental gymnastic exercise – and that language, the ability to write, read, and understand, is quite another. Geometry and mathematics in general also appear at first to be nothing more than mental gymnastics, but with them there is a difference: every proposition in geometry, every mathematical definition, brings with it further endless deductions and applications, while in grammar, even if we should agree with those who see in it an application of logic to language, there is a very narrow limit to these deductions and applications. The moment a pupil somehow or other masters a language, any application of grammar becomes irrelevant and drops off like something dead and lifeless. (p 287)

Where examinations are introduced (by examination I understand any demand for an answer to a question), all that happens is that a new school subject emerges which requires special work and special skills: that subject is called "preparation for examinations or lessons." A grammar school pupil studies history and mathematics and, the most important subject of all, the art of answering questions at the examinations. I do not regard this art as a useful subject of instruction. I, the teacher, judge my pupils' knowledge in the same way as I judge my own, although neither the pupils nor I repeat anything we have had to learn by heart. If an outsider wants to assess our knowledge, let him live with us for a while and let him study its results and its applications to life. There is no other way, and all attempts at assessment by examination are merely a deception, a lie, and an obstacle to instruction. In matters of instruction there is but one independent judge, the teacher, and he can only be judged by his pupils. (p 296)

There is something indefinable about the school, over which the teacher has hardly any influence, and that is the spirit of it. This spirit is subject to certain laws and can be damaged by the teachers; the teachers have to avoid certain kinds of behaviour in order to preserve it. The mood of the school varies, for instance, in inverse proportion to discipline and order, in inverse proportion to the amount the teacher interferes in the pupils' ways of thinking, in direct proportion to the number of pupils present, in inverse proportion to the length of a lesson, and so on. This spirit of the school communicates itself rapidly from pupil to pupil, and to the teacher too; it is revealed in tones of voice, in the eyes, in gestures, in the excitement of rivalry; it is something tangible, necessary, and extremely precious, and therefore something that every teacher ought to be aiming for. Just as saliva in the mouth is needed for digestion, but is unpleasant and unnecessary without food, even so this sense of tense animation, though tedious and disagreeable outside the classroom, is a necessary condition for the assimilation of mental food. It is impossible to create this mood artificially, but there is no need to do so because it always makes its appearance of its own accord. (pp 298 – 299)

. . . before a certain stage of general development and without the aid of newspapers and travel it may not be possible to awaken an interest in history and geography; perhaps one day a method of doing so may be discovered. I am still endeavouring to find one. What I do know is, that the method will be nothing like what is now called history and geography, that is to say studying out of books, which destroys any interest rather than arousing it. (pp 326 – 327)



Tolstoy also describes many attempts to find better ways of teaching, some more successful than others, quotes at length from children's writing and recounts many incidents in the life of the school. What he calls the "spirit" of the school is illustrated in concrete terms again and again. These quotations are not even a summary, they are just a taster, to suggest how many of Tolstoy's ideas about education still seem revolutionary almost a hundred and fifty years after he was putting them into practice.


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