Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
One of the peculiarities of Tolstoy's village school was that if the children wanted to go home at
any time they were allowed to do so. He gives a dramatic account of one of these occasions,
which I shall reproduce as far as possible in his own words.
Sometimes the children got tired by the second or third class after dinner. Suddenly two or three
boys rush for their caps.
"Where are you going?"
"But how about the other lessons?"
"The boys have said, 'Let's go home,' answers one of them, slipping out of the door with his cap."
"But who said that?"
"See, they have gone."
"But how is that?" asks the master, thoroughly annoyed now, while he is preparing for the next
class. "You had better stay, anyhow."
Another boy rushes into the room with face animated and an embarrassed air.
"What are you waiting for?" says he roughly to the boy who has been told to stay, and who is
standing hesitatingly, twisting his cap in his hands.
"Look where the fellows are already! They have passed the blacksmith's."
And both the boys rush out, crying "Good bye" to the teacher.
And who are the boys who decided to go home? What put it into their heads? No one knows.
They did not deliberate or conspire, and yet they have gone.
"The children are going home!" No sooner is this cry raised than little feet are heard on the stairs,
and the youngsters, falling over each other in the snow, jumping like cats, racing one with
another, set off for the village.
These scenes occur once or twice a week. They are rather mortifying to the master, but he
submits to them because they give a deeper meaning to the five, six or even seven classes,
voluntarily attended each day by the pupils. The desire to learn is strong enough in children to
make them undergo many vexations in order to satisfy it.
The subject of truancy does not seem to have come up in Count Tolstoy's school. Perhaps if
attendance at school were presented to children not as a duty, but as a privilege, they might prize
it more highly, and if it were known that they could go home when they liked, the very sense of
freedom would make them want to stay. It would bring into play not the authority, but the
attraction of the teacher.
Out of school hours the greatest friendliness existed between Count Tolstoy and his pupils. The
regular session lasted until half-past eight in the evening, the last hours being devoted to singing,
reading and experiments in physics, magnetism, etc., these experiments giving the greatest
satisfaction to the boys. After school Tolstoy would often take a walk with them in the snow,
sometimes going to the edge of the woods where the danger of wolves forbade further wandering.
He would tell them stories and lead them into the discussion of the deepest questions, in which
these peasant boys showed as much intelligence as the most learned and educated men.
"What is the use of drawing?" asked a bright lad on one of these walks. "What is the use of art?"
Tolstoy did not know what to answer.
"What is the use of a stick? What is the use of a plane tree?" answered Semka, one of the boys,
striking a plane tree with his stick.
"Yes, what is the use of a plane tree in summer before it is cut down?"
And they come naturally to consider the profound questions of the relations of beauty to
usefulness, concluding that the beauty of the tree is sufficient excuse for it. One of the boys
regrets that the tree has to be cut down, because it is a living thing. "The sap is just like blood," he
For a long time they walk on, talking thus seriously, one of the boys holding the Count's hand
Tolstoy is indignant at the suggestion that it is a mistake to allow the minds of peasants to
develop "beyond their station." "Who will do the hard work," some people ask, "when everybody
is either an artist or a philosopher?" The mind of the peasant is naturally like the mind of the
landed proprietor, and one is equally entitled with the other to have its craving for knowledge and
mental exercise gratified.