The School at Yasnaya Polyana
Among the literary projects which Count Tolstoy is said to have on his hands is a book on
education. It is to be hoped that he may be able to write it, as the subject is one in which he has
been interested for the past forty years; and it was as a schoolmaster in his native village as long
ago as 1862 that he first gave signs of many of his present ideas on government and society.
The serfs had just been freed, and, as a good landlord, Tolstoy set to work at the education of the
peasant children so that they might be fitted for their newly acquired freedom. He established a
school with three or four teachers beside himself. There were in all about forty pupils, including
half a dozen girls.
Not satisfied with this form of activity, Tolstoy edited an educational journal, in which he gave the
results of his experience for the benefit of those in other parts of Russia who were enlisted in the
same enterprise. The articles in this periodical were doubtless intended to accomplish a temporary
purpose and not as a permanent contribution to literature, but Tolstoy has such a faculty of
throwing himself and his entire genius into everything that he does that his editorial work
attracted wide attention, and I have in my library four volumes in French, published nearly thirty
years after the journal was issued, and made up in great part of articles taken from it: ("L'Ecole de
Yasnaia Poliana"; "Le Progrès et l'Instruction Publique en Russie"; "La Liberté dans l'Ecole";
"Pour les Enfants." Albert Savine, Paris.)
A two-storey stone house was selected for the school. A little bell, hung over the doorway, rang
at eight o'clock every morning, and half an hour later the children appeared. No one was ever
reproved for tardiness, and yet there was rarely an absentee at the opening of the exercises. The
children had nothing to bring with them, neither book nor copy-book nor slate; there were no
lessons to prepare; neither was there any obligation upon them to remember what they had
learned the day before. The boy was not tortured with the expectation of an examination or
recitation of any kind. "He brings only himself, his impressionable nature, and the certainty that
the school will be as happy for him to-day as it was yesterday." He had not to think of the class
until it commenced. No attempt whatever was made to enforce order, for "children should learn
to keep order themselves."
Here is a scene in Tolstoy's own words:
"The teacher enters the class-room. On the floor is a pile of children, one upon another, screaming
and bawling. 'You are smashing me!' or 'Stop pulling my hair!'
"A voice from the bottom of the heap calls the teacher by name:
"'Peter Michailovitch, tell them to leave me alone!'
"'Good morning, Peter Michailovitch,' shout the others, keeping up the tumult.
"The teacher goes to the cupboard, takes out the books and distributes them to those who have
followed him. Those who are on top of the pile ask for theirs. Gradually the pile grows smaller,
and at last those at the bottom come running for their books too. If one or two boys are left
fighting each other on the floor, the others, now ready on the benches, book in hand, cry out to
"'Come, stop now. Why do you wait so long? We can't hear anything.'
"They sit wherever they please, on the benches, on the tables, on the window-sill, on the floor, or
in an old armchair which has found its way into the room, no one knows how."
The order is perfect, there is no whispering, pinching or laughing. The hours for lessons are most
irregular. Sometimes a lesson which should take one hour is prolonged for three hours, if the
pupils are sufficiently interested. Sometimes the children cry out, "Not yet, not yet!" when the
teacher is about to close the class. The children are not obliged to come to school nor to remain
there, nor are they required to pay attention while there.
"To my mind," says Tolstoy, "this disorder on the surface is useful and necessary, however
strange and irksome it may seem to the master.... In the first place, this disorder, or rather this free
order, only appears frightful to us because we are accustomed to an entirely different system,
according to which we have been educated ourselves. Secondly, in this case, as in many others,
the use of force is founded only upon an inconsiderate and disrespectful interpretation of human
nature. It seems as if the disorder were gaining and growing from instant to instant, as if nothing
could stop it but coercion, when, if we only wait a moment, we see the disorder (like a fire) go
down of itself and produce an order much better and more stable than that which we should
substitute for it."
He insists that throughout the children should be treated as reasoning and reasonable beings, who
will find out for themselves that order is necessary, but who resent forcible interference,
independent of their own experience.