Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tolstoy in the schools of Marseilles

Over at Kid-Friendly Schools, FedUpMom has a brief post about how China’s high test scores have come at the expense of real learning.

Here’s Tolstoy, writing almost a hundred and fifty years ago:

Last year I was in Marseilles, where I visited all the schools for the working people of that city.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -. . .

The school programmes consist in learning by heart the catechism, Biblical and universal history, the four operations of arithmetic, French orthography, and bookkeeping. In what way bookkeeping could form the subject of instruction I was unable to comprehend, and not one teacher could explain it to me. The only explanation I was able to make to myself, when I examined the books kept by the students who had finished the course, was that they did not know even three rules of arithmetic, but that they had learned by heart to operate with figures and that, therefore, they had also learned by rote how to keep books.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -. . .

Not one boy in these schools was able to solve, that is, to put the simplest problem in addition and subtraction. And yet, they operated with abstract numbers, multiplying thousands with ease and rapidity. To questions from the history of France they answered well by rote, but if asked at haphazard, I received such answers as that Henry IV. had been killed by Julius Caesar. The same was the case with geography and sacred history. The same with orthography and reading. More than one half of the girls cannot read any other books than those they have studied. Six years of school had not given them the faculty of writing a word without a mistake.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -. . .

After the lay school, I saw the daily instruction offered in the churches; I saw the salles d’asiles, in which four-year-old children, at a given whistle, like soldiers, made evolutions around the benches, at a given command lifted and folded their hands, and with quivering and strange voices sang laudatory hymns to God and to their benefactors, and I convinced myself that the educational institutions of the city of Marseilles were exceedingly bad.
At the root of the problem, Tolstoy believed, was the degree of compulsion -- which “becomes worse and worse in every year and with every hour,” to the point where “There is left only the despotic form with hardly any contents.” To the contrary, Tolstoy concluded, “the criterion of pedagogics is only liberty.”

But why listen to people like Tolstoy and Einstein when we have Arne Duncan, E.D. Hirsch, and that principal with the baseball bat?


FedUpMom said...

Chris, your "Einstein" post doesn't work for me.

Chris said...

Thanks for the heads-up, FedUpMom. I think I've fixed the link.

Chris said...

Ugh -- all links now fixed.

Sarah said...


Here's another piece about where the US really stands in the world in regards to education. One interesting bit focuses on how what really makes the US successful is innovation, which can't be measured in a standardized test.

Do International Test Comparisons Make Sense

Chris said...

Thanks, Sarah, for the comment and for that great link. One of Tolstoy's points was that Russia needed to develop an approach to education that was organic to Russia and Russian culture, rather than just borrow an approach developed by other countries. I wish people in America thought more along those terms. Instead of trying to emulate the educational systems of autocratic governments, why not ask how the schools of a free and democratic country should be different?