1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Froebel, Friedrich Wilhelm August

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 11
Froebel, Friedrich Wilhelm August by Robert Hebert Quick

FROEBEL, FRIEDRICH WILHELM AUGUST (1782–1852), German philosopher, philanthropist and educational reformer, was born at Oberweissbach, a village of the Thuringian forest, on the 21st of April 1782. Like Comenius, with whom he had much in common, he was neglected in his youth, and the remembrance of his own early sufferings made him in after life the more eager in promoting the happiness of children. His mother he lost in his infancy, and his father, the pastor of Oberweissbach and the surrounding district, attended to his parish but not to his family. Friedrich soon had a stepmother, and neglect was succeeded by stepmotherly attention; but a maternal uncle took pity on him, and gave him a home for some years at Stadt-Ilm. Here he went to the village school, but like many thoughtful boys he passed for a dunce. Throughout life he was always seeking for hidden connexions and an underlying unity in all things. Nothing of the kind was to be perceived in the piecemeal studies of the school, and Froebel’s mind, busy as it was for itself, would not work for the masters. His half-brother was therefore thought more worthy of a university education, and Friedrich was apprenticed for two years to a forester (1797–1799).

Left to himself in the Thuringian forest, Froebel began to study nature, and without scientific instruction he obtained a profound insight into the uniformity and essential unity of nature’s laws. Years afterwards the celebrated Jahn (the “Father Jahn” of the German gymnasts) told a Berlin student of a queer fellow he had met, who made out all sorts of wonderful things from stones and cobwebs. This queer fellow was Froebel; and the habit of making out general truths from the observation of nature, especially from plants and trees, dated from the solitary rambles in the forest. No training could have been better suited to strengthen his inborn tendency to mysticism; and when he left the forest at the early age of seventeen, he seems to have been possessed by the main ideas which influenced him all his life. The conception which in him dominated all others was the unity of nature; and he longed to study natural sciences that he might find in them various applications of nature’s universal laws. With great difficulty he got leave to join his elder brother at the university of Jena, and there for a year he went from lecture-room to lecture-room hoping to grasp that connexion of the sciences which had for him far more attraction than any particular science in itself. But Froebel’s allowance of money was very small, and his skill in the management of money was never great, so his university career ended in an imprisonment of nine weeks for a debt of thirty shillings. He then returned home with very poor prospects, but much more intent on what he calls the course of “self-completion” (Vervollkommnung meines selbst) than on “getting on” in a worldly point of view. He was sent to learn farming, but was recalled in consequence of the failing health of his father. In 1802 the father died, and Froebel, now twenty years old, had to shift for himself. It was some time before he found his true vocation, and for the next three and a half years we find him at work now in one part of Germany now in another—sometimes land-surveying, sometimes acting as accountant, sometimes as private secretary; but in all this his “outer life was far removed from his inner life,” and in spite of his outward circumstances he became more and more conscious that a great task lay before him for the good of humanity. The nature of the task, however, was not clear to him, and it seemed determined by accident. While studying architecture in Frankfort-on-Main, he became acquainted with the director of a model school, who had caught some of the enthusiasm of Pestalozzi. This friend saw that Froebel’s true field was education, and he persuaded him to give up architecture and take a post in the model school. In this school Froebel worked for two years with remarkable success, but he then retired and undertook the education of three lads of one family. In this he could not satisfy himself, and he obtained the parents’ consent to his taking the boys to Yverdon, near Neuchâtel, and there forming with them a part of the celebrated institution of Pestalozzi. Thus from 1807 till 1809 Froebel was drinking in Pestalozzianism at the fountain-head, and qualifying himself to carry on the work which Pestalozzi had begun. For the science of education had to deduce from Pestalozzi’s experience principles which Pestalozzi himself could not deduce. And “Froebel, the pupil of Pestalozzi, and a genius like his master, completed the reformer’s system; taking the results at which Pestalozzi had arrived through the necessities of his position, Froebel developed the ideas involved in them, not by further experience but by deduction from the nature of man, and thus he attained to the conception of true human development and to the requirements of true education” (Schmidt’s Geschichte der Pädagogik).

Holding that man and nature, inasmuch as they proceed from the same source, must be governed by the same laws, Froebel longed for more knowledge of natural science. Even Pestalozzi seemed to him not to “honour science in her divinity.” He therefore determined to continue the university course which had been so rudely interrupted eleven years before, and in 1811 he began studying at Göttingen, whence he proceeded to Berlin. But again his studies were interrupted, this time by the king of Prussia’s celebrated call “to my people.” Though not a Prussian, Froebel was heart and soul a German. He therefore responded to the call, enlisted in Lützow’s corps, and went through the campaign of 1813. But his military ardour did not take his mind off education. “Everywhere,” he writes, “as far as the fatigues I underwent allowed, I carried in my thoughts my future calling as educator; yes, even in the few engagements in which I had to take part. Even in these I could gather experience for the task I proposed to myself.” Froebel’s soldiering showed him the value of discipline and united action, how the individual belongs not to himself but to the whole body, and how the whole body supports the individual.

Froebel was rewarded for his patriotism by the friendship of two men whose names will always be associated with his, Langethal and Middendorff. These young men, ten years younger than Froebel, became attached to him in the field, and were ever afterwards his devoted followers, sacrificing all their prospects in life for the sake of carrying out his ideas.

At the peace of Fontainebleau (signed in May 1814) Froebel returned to Berlin, and became curator of the museum of mineralogy under Professor Weiss. In accepting this appointment from the government he seemed to turn aside from his work as educator; but if not teaching he was learning. More and more the thought possessed him that the one thing needful for man was unity of development, perfect evolution in accordance with the laws of his being, such evolution as science discovers in the other organisms of nature. He at first intended to become a teacher of natural science, but before long wider views dawned upon him. Langethal and Middendorff were in Berlin, engaged in tuition. Froebel gave them regular instruction in his theory, and at length, counting on their support, he resolved to set about realizing his own idea of “the new education.” This was in 1816. Three years before one of his brothers, a clergyman, had died of fever caught from the French prisoners. His widow was still living in the parsonage at Griesheim, a village on the Ilm. Froebel gave up his post, and set out for Griesheim on foot, spending his very last groschen on the way for bread. Here he undertook the education of his orphan niece and nephews, and also of two more nephews sent him by another brother. With these he opened a school and wrote to Middendorff and Langethal to come and help in the experiment. Middendorff came at once, Langethal a year or two later, when the school had been moved to Keilhau, another of the Thuringian villages, which became the Mecca of the new faith. In Keilhau Froebel, Langethal, Middendorff and Barop, a relation of Middendorff’s, all married and formed an educational community. Such zeal could not be fruitless, and the school gradually increased, though for many years its teachers, with Froebel at their head, were in the greatest straits for money and at times even for food. After fourteen years’ experience he determined to start other institutions to work in connexion with the parent institution at Keilhau, and being offered by a private friend the use of a castle on the Wartensee, in the canton of Lucerne, he left Keilhau under the direction of Barop, and with Langethal he opened the Swiss institution. The ground, however, was very ill chosen. The Catholic clergy resisted what they considered as a Protestant invasion, and the experiment on the Wartensee and at Willisau in the same canton, to which the institution was moved in 1833, never had a fair chance. It was in vain that Middendorff at Froebel’s call left his wife and family at Keilhau, and laboured for four years in Switzerland without once seeing them. The Swiss institution never flourished. But the Swiss government wished to turn to account the presence of the great educator; so young teachers were sent to Froebel for instruction, and finally Froebel moved to Burgdorf (a Bernese town of some importance, and famous from Pestalozzi’s labours there thirty years earlier) to undertake the establishment of a public orphanage and also to superintend a course of teaching for schoolmasters. The elementary teachers of the canton were to spend three months every alternate year at Burgdorf, and there compare experiences, and learn of distinguished men such as Froebel and Bitzius. In his conferences with these teachers Froebel found that the schools suffered from the state of the raw material brought into them. Till the school age was reached the children were entirely neglected. Froebel’s conception of harmonious development naturally led him to attach much importance to the earliest years, and his great work on The Education of Man, published as early as 1826, deals chiefly with the child up to the age of seven. At Burgdorf his thoughts were much occupied with the proper treatment of young children, and in scheming for them a graduated course of exercises, modelled on the games in which he observed them to be most interested. In his eagerness to carry out his new plans he grew impatient of official restraints; so he returned to Keilhau, and soon afterwards opened the first Kindergarten or “Garden of Children,” in the neighbouring village of Blankenburg (1837). Firmly convinced of the importance of the Kindergarten for the whole human race, Froebel described his system in a weekly paper (his Sonntagsblatt) which appeared from the middle of 1837 till 1840. He also lectured in great towns; and he gave a regular course of instruction to young teachers at Blankenburg. But although the principles of the Kindergarten were gradually making their way, the first Kindergarten was failing for want of funds. It had to be given up, and Froebel, now a widower (he had lost his wife in 1839), carried on his course for teachers first at Keilhau, and from 1848, for the last four years of his life, at or near Liebenstein, in the Thuringian forest, and in the duchy of Meiningen. It is in these last years that the man Froebel will be best known to posterity, for in 1849 he attracted within the circle of his influence a woman of great intellectual power, the baroness von Marenholtz-Bülow, who has given us in her Recollections of Friedrich Froebel the only lifelike portrait we possess.

These seemed likely to be Froebel’s most peaceful days. He married again in 1851, and having now devoted himself to the training of women as educators, he spent his time in instructing his class of young female teachers. But trouble came upon him from a quarter whence he least expected it. In the great year of revolutions (1848) Froebel had hoped to turn to account the general eagerness for improvement, and Middendorff had presented an address on Kindergartens to the German parliament. Besides this, a nephew of Froebel’s, Professor Karl Froebel of Zürich, published books which were supposed to teach socialism. True, the uncle and nephew differed so widely that the “new Froebelians” were the enemies of “the old,” but the distinction was overlooked, and Friedrich and Karl Froebel were regarded as the united advocates of some new thing. In the reaction which soon set in, Froebel found himself suspected of socialism and irreligion, and in 1851 the “cultus-minister” Von Raumer issued an edict forbidding the establishment of schools “after Friedrich and Karl Froebel’s principles” in Prussia. This was a heavy blow to the old man, who looked to the government of the “Cultus-staat” Prussia for support, and was met with denunciation. Whether from the worry of this new controversy, or from whatever cause, Froebel did not long survive the decree. His seventieth birthday was celebrated with great rejoicings in May 1852, but he died on the 21st of June, and was buried at Schweina, a village near his last abode, Marienthal, near Bad-Liebenstein.

“All education not founded on religion is unproductive.” This conviction followed naturally from Froebel’s conception of the unity of all things, a unity due to the original Unity from whom all proceed and in whom all “live, move and have their being.” As man and nature have one origin they must be subject to the same laws. Hence Froebel, like Comenius two centuries before him, looked to the course of nature for the principles of human education. This he declares to be his fundamental belief: “In the creation, in nature and the order of the material world, and in the progress of mankind, God has given us the true type (Urbild) of education.” As the cultivator creates nothing in the trees and plants, so the educator creates nothing in the children,—he merely superintends the development of inborn faculties. So far Froebel agrees with Pestalozzi; but in one respect he went beyond him. Pestalozzi said that the faculties were developed by exercise. Froebel added that the function of education was to develop the faculties by arousing voluntary activity. Action proceeding from inner impulse (Selbsttätigkeit) was the one thing needful.

The prominence which Froebel gave to action, his doctrine that man is primarily a doer and even a creator, and that he learns only through “self-activity,” has its importance all through education. But it was to the first stage of life that Froebel paid the greatest attention. He held with Rousseau that each age has a completeness of its own, and that the perfection of the later stage can be attained only through the perfection of the earlier. If the infant is what he should be as an infant, and the child as a child, he will become what he should be as a boy, just as naturally as new shoots spring from the healthy plant. Every stage, then, must be cared for and tended in such a way that it may attain its own perfection. Impressed with the immense importance of the first stage, Froebel like Pestalozzi devoted himself to the instruction of mothers. But he would not, like Pestalozzi, leave the children entirely in the mother’s hands. Pestalozzi held that the child belonged to the family; Fichte, on the other hand, claimed it for society and the state. Froebel, whose mind delighted in harmonizing apparent contradictions, and who taught that “all progress lay through opposites to their reconciliation,” maintained that the child belonged both to the family and to society, and he would therefore have children spend some hours of the day in a common life and in well-organized common employments. These assemblies of children he would not call schools, for the children in them ought not to be old enough for schooling. So he invented the name Kindergarten, garden of children, and called the superintendents “children’s gardeners.” He laid great stress on every child cultivating its own plot of ground, but this was not his reason for the choice of the name. It was rather that he thought of these institutions as enclosures in which young human plants are nurtured. In the Kindergarten the children’s employment should be play. But any occupation in which children delight is play to them; and Froebel invented a series of employments, which, while they are in this sense play to the children, have nevertheless, as seen from the adult point of view, a distinct educational object. This object, as Froebel himself describes it, is “to give the children employment in agreement with their whole nature, to strengthen their bodies, to exercise their senses, to engage their awakening mind, and through their senses to bring them acquainted with nature and their fellow creatures; it is especially to guide aright the heart and the affections, and to lead them to the original ground of all life, to unity with themselves.”

Froebel’s own works are: Menschenerziehung (“Education of Man”), (1826), which has been translated into French and English; Pädagogik d. Kindergartens; Kleinere Schriften and Mutter- und Koselieder; collected editions have been edited by Wichard Lange (1862) and Friedrich Seidel (1883).

A. B. Hauschmann’s Friedrich Fröbel is a lengthy and unsatisfactory biography. An unpretentious but useful little book is F. Froebel, a Biographical Sketch, by Matilda H. Kriege, New York (Steiger). A very good account of Froebel’s life and thoughts is given in Karl Schmidt’s Geschichte d. Pädagogik, vol. iv.; also in Adalbert Weber’s Geschichte d. Volksschulpäd. u. d. Kleinkindererziehung (Weber carefully gives authorities). For a less favourable account see K. Strack’s Geschichte d. deutsch. Volksschulwesens. Frau von Marenholtz-Bülow published her Erinnerungen an F. Fröbel (translated by Mrs. Horace Mann, 1877). This lady, the chief interpreter of Froebel, has expounded his principles in Das Kind u. sein Wesen and Die Arbeit u. die neue Erziehung. H. Courthope Bowen has written a memoir (1897) in the “Great Educators” series. In England Miss Emily A. E. Shirreff has published Principles of Froebel’s System, and a short sketch of Froebel’s life. See also Dr Henry Barnard’s Papers on Froebel’s Kindergarten (1881); R. H. Quick, Educational Reformers (1890).  (R. H. Q.)