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Tolstoy as a Schoolmaster

교사로서의 톨스토이


By Ernest Howard Crosby

 

 

 

Chapter 6

Methods of Instruction

Tuition at the school of Yasnaia Poliana was of course free. There were about forty pupils in all, but usually not more than thirty were present at a time, of whom four or five were girls. The ages of the boys varied from seven to thirteen years, with an occasional adult who wished to make up for the lack of opportunity to study during his boyhood. There were four teachers in all, and six or seven lessons a day. Tolstoy used the school as a laboratory for experiments. He has the habit of mind of questioning all traditions and customs in all realms of thought and activity, and of making them answer for themselves, and he carried it with him into the field of education.

It is a disturbing habit, and perhaps it is just as well that all men do not indulge in it; but it is stimulating to find here and there a man who insists on thinking for himself, and who refuses to accept without proof the most time-honoured theories. Count Tolstoy soon came to the conclusion, as we have seen, that it is fatal to consider the school as a disciplined company of soldiers, all obeying the same orders in the same way. A certain degree of freedom, of disorder even, he found necessary for the purpose of revealing the individuality of each pupil. He compared his own method of teaching with that of the village sacristan, and as a result of the comparison formulated three rules, namely, that (1) The teacher always has a tendency to select that method of teaching which is easiest for him; (2) that the easier it is for him, the less satisfactory it is for his pupils; and (3) that method only is good which gives satisfaction to the pupils. And to give satisfaction to the pupils it is necessary to take account of the differences between them and of their natural aptitudes.

Tolstoy found the old-fashioned school curriculum based upon the study of grammar, and this study appeared to him particularly senseless. The object of learning grammatical rules is to speak the language correctly, but it is obviously possible to speak correctly without knowing the rules, and hence the value of learning them consists chiefly in the mental exercise, which can be obtained as easily in some other more useful way.

He found practice in composition much the best way of studying language. In the first and second classes the choice of subjects was left to the pupils, who usually preferred stories from the Old Testament, which they wrote out two months after they had heard them from the master. In the second class they tried compositions on given subjects, such as "wheat," "houses," "wood," but to their surprise these subjects drove the boys to tears and even when the master helped them, and called their attention to the growing of the grain of wheat, its transformations and uses, they still worked reluctantly, and made all sorts of mistakes in spelling, grammar and meaning. Then Tolstoy changed his method and narrated some event to them, and they were at once delighted, and they found it much easier to recite an incident which they remembered than to describe a pig or a pot or a table. To the master these simple subjects seemed the easiest, but the child, as usual, looked at things from the opposite point of view, and was interested only in that which is complex and living.

Text-books, says Tolstoy, usually begin with general ideas, those of grammar with adjectives, those of history with divisions into periods, those of geometry with definition of space and of the mathematical point; but these general ideas are the hardest to comprehend, and the child must begin with something tangible, related to his own common experiences. To describe a table requires a high degree of philosophical attainment, and the child who cries because he has to write about a chair, will express well a feeling of love or hate -- either the meeting of Joseph with his brethren or a quarrel of his own with his comrades.

The subjects which the children chose were either some particular event, their relations with some particular person, or tales that they had heard. They preferred writing compositions to any other exercise. Out of school, as soon as they chanced upon paper and pencil, they began to write stories. And they soon became critics as well, vexed when the story of a fellow-pupil was too long, or disconnected, or when there were too many repetitions. They had definite tastes of their own. Sometimes a boy would refuse to read his essay, declaring that that of another boy was better than his, and soon, when the compositions were read anonymously, the boys would easily guess who the author was.

Tolstoy gives two specimens of composition by Fedka, a boy of ten, to show how much more easily he described a trip to Toula than a concrete object. Here is his essay on "Wheat."

"The grain germinates in the ground. First it is green, but when it has grown a little it produces ears and the women reap it. There is also a kind of wheat like grass which the cattle eat."

And this was all he could find to write on the subject. He saw that the composition was a poor one, and was much distressed about it, but he could not improve it. Here is his essay on "Toula."

"When I was still a little fellow, about five years old, I used to hear people speak of going to Toula, but I did not know what it was. And so I asked father, 'Father, to what Toula do you go? Is it pretty?' Father said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'Take me with you, father, so that I may see Toula.' Father said, 'All right. Come on Sunday and I'll take you.' I was delighted, and began to run and jump on the bench. The days passed and Sunday arrived. I got up early, and father was already harnessing the horses in the farmyard, and I dressed myself as quickly as I could. When I came out, the horses were already harnessed. I got into the sleigh, and we left.

"We go on and on until we have gone fourteen versts. I see a big church, and I cry out, 'Father, see what a big church.' Father answered, 'There is another smaller church, which is smaller but prettier.' I begin to beg him, 'Father, let's go there to church.' Father takes me there. As we arrive, they begin ringing the bells. I am afraid, and ask father what it is, if it is a drum and trumpet. Father says, 'No, it is the mass that is beginning.' Then we go into the church to say our prayers. When that is done, we go to the market, and I walk and walk and trip up, and look everywhere. We reach the market, and I see they are selling kalatchi (rolls of bread), and I want to take some without paying. And father says to me, 'Don't take any, or they will take your hat.' I ask why they would take it, and father says, 'Take nothing without paying.' I say, 'Give me ten kopeks and I'll buy a kalatch.' Father gives me some. I buy three kalatchi. I eat them and say, 'Father, what good kalatchi.' When we have bought all that we have to, we return to our horses, give them a drink and some hay. When they have finished eating, we harness them and go back home. I go into the house and undress, and I begin to tell everybody that I had been at Toula, and how father and I had gone to church to pray to God. Then I go to sleep, and in my dream I see father leave for Toula again. I wake up quickly and see that all are sleeping, and then I go to sleep again too."

Tolstoy's estimate of the artistic capabilities of the peasant children in the way of authorship may seem a little exaggerated, but he publishes the results and invites the assent of the public to his belief. He printed some of the stories which they composed in his educational journal, and also one composed by a master, and he insists that the last was the worst of them all. He had some difficulty in inducing the boys to write, but when finally he sat down among them and they all set to work to compose a story based on some simple theme which he would outline in a few words, before long they would stop writing and crowd round him looking over his shoulder, and then he would let them take the story out of his hands, accepting every suggestion from them and acting merely as amanuensis with a certain right of selection.

The first page of this story was Tolstoy's own, the rest was almost wholly the boys', and he declares that "every unprejudiced man, however little he may care for art or the people, after having read the first page written by me and the following pages written by the pupils themselves, will distinguish it readily from the rest like a fly in a glass of milk, so poor, so artificial and in such a bad style is it written. I should say that originally it was even worse, and I corrected it a great deal upon hints from the scholars." It was on this occasion that he discovered the ability of Fedka, and he was especially struck by his sense of proportion, "the principal condition of all art." They worked together for four hours, from seven to eleven in the evening, and the other boys dropped out, except Fedka and one of his companions, Semka by name.

"Will it really be printed?" asked Fedka.

"Yes."

"Then you must say it is by Makaroff, Morosoff and Tolstoy." Tolstoy does not hesitate to place Fedka above Goethe, and as for himself, "far from being able to guide or help Semka, a child of eleven, and Fedka, I should consider myself happy (and only during a happy moment of excitement) to understand and follow them!"

Unfortunately this particular story, so far as I know, has not been translated into English, French or German, and the extracts which Count Tolstoy gives in his Pour Les Enfants imply a knowledge of the story, and are consequently not illuminative. He gives more of a story of Fedka's, however, describing the unexpected return of a soldier to his family, in the days when enlistment meant usually banishment from home for life. This theme was also suggested by Tolstoy.

The first chapter is inferior, he declares, because he, Tolstoy, interfered with its authorship. The end of the story, which gives an account of the actual return of the father to his family, Tolstoy thinks superior to anything in Russian literature. It depicts the delight of the boy at seeing his father. He sits next to him at table so that he may touch him. The father goes out, and the boy wishes to follow him, but his mother forbids it, and when he persists she gives him a slap. He begins to cry, and climbs up on top of the brick oven, the Russian's favourite resting place. The father comes in again, and asks --

"'Why are you crying?'

"I complain of my mother. He goes up to her and pretends to slap her, saying --

"'Never slap Fedoushka again! Never slap Fedoushka again!'

"And mother makes belief to cry."

This is certainly a pretty scene, but I must leave it to others better qualified to determine its rank in Russian literature, and in comparison with the works of Goethe and Tolstoy.

While Fedka and Semka were the best artists of the school, Tolstoy discovered the same talents, only in lesser degree, in the other boys. "A healthy child," he says, "when he comes into the world, realizes completely the absolute harmony with the true, the beautiful, and the good which we carry in us; he is still in touch with inanimate things, with plant and animal life, with that nature which personifies in our eyes that true, beautiful and good which we seek and long for.... But every hour of life, every minute of time, disturbs more and more those relations which, when he was born, were in a perfectly harmonious equilibrium, and every step, every hour, violates this harmony."

"Education perverts a child, it cannot correct him. The more he is perverted, the less must we educate him, and the more does he need freedom. To teach, to bring up a child, why, it is a chimera, an absurdity, for this simple reason, that the child is much nearer than I am, or any grown man, to the true, beautiful and good to which I undertake to raise him. The consciousness of this ideal lives in him more intensely than in me, and all that he requires of me is the material with which to perfect himself harmoniously in all directions."

 

   
   

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