Tolstoy had as much difficulty in teaching geography as in history. The children showed no
interest at all in the fact that the earth revolves on its axis and passes round the sun. When he
began to teach in which continents the various countries are, they saw no use for such
information. Just as in history he tried to begin with their own time, he now made the experiment
of teaching geography beginning at their own village. They took some interest in the next village,
but they knew it already without study. The place beyond altogether failed to arouse their
curiosity. They would listen to stories about different countries, provided always that there was
no geography in them, but that was all. And when they found that the stories were intended to
hoodwink them into learning geography, they resented the fraud and took a strong dislike to the
Tolstoy concludes that the study of geography in schools is a mistake. He quotes with approval
the saying of a character in a Russian comedy:
"What's the good of learning all the countries? The coachman will take you wherever you have to
As a teacher he felt in himself a whole world of information regarding nature, art and poetry
which he had no time to communicate to the children. There are thousands of questions about the
life around us to answer before we begin to tell about the tropics and the polar regions. Children
have no natural taste for geography, and the first thing to do, if it is to be studied, is to awaken
that taste. Tolstoy suggests the reading of travels as a means to this end. I would be tempted to
add, as even a more efficient awakener, the collecting of postage-stamps. The ordinary boy learns
much more in this way than from the best of teachers.
In his book, What is Art? Tolstoy has fully explained his belief that the poetry, music and painting
of the day have grown up in a stifling atmosphere, and that they are degenerate products. He had
already formed these opinions in the days of the Yasnaia school. The children were bored by the
best poetry, but they enjoyed the rude popular songs of the peasantry, and Tolstoy thinks that
these latter exhibit the truer art. Hence it is natural that he should not have been altogether
satisfied with the instruction which he gave to the boys in music and drawing, for from his own
point of view, he should have been the pupil and they the teachers. He declares that the boys sang
better when left to themselves, before receiving lessons, than they did afterwards; but it must be
remembered that the Russians are a musical people, and possess a treasure of national song.
In drawing he tried to give them all the freedom possible, and he points out that if they are made
to copy and imitate at school they will go on merely copying and imitating all their lives. And in
all things he would leave their own taste unaffected by the taste of the teacher, which he regards
as necessarily vitiated. The child has the same right to its preferences which the master has, and
his taste is less likely to be warped and distorted.
It must not be supposed that Tolstoy reached his views on education without studying fully the
methods in vogue in Europe. He visited the schools of Germany, France and Switzerland, and
questioned teachers and pupils with the object of learning all that could be learned from them. He
made a special study of this kind at Marseilles (this was in the early sixties, I think), and was soon
satisfied that the schools of that city were of very little use. Yet he found the inhabitants of
Marseilles particularly intelligent, clever and civilized. What was the explanation? It was this.
They had obtained their education outside of the schools, in the streets, the cafés, theatres,
workshops and museums, and by reading such books as the novels of Dumas. This is the natural
school, he says, which has undermined the artificial school, and has left hardly anything of it
except its despotic form.
He infers that the more a people advances, the more does true education desert the school for the
region of real life outside. And the effort of a school which wishes to adapt itself to this progress
should be to answer the questions suggested by the home life of the pupil, for it is in his home and
among his neighbours that he is brought face to face with life. The prevailing education of the day
Tolstoy condemns as moral despotism, the determination of one individual to make another
individual exactly like himself, and this he declares to be an unjustifiable invasion of the rights of
the individual. We have no ethical right to do it.
He draws an amusing contrast between a child while suffering from this kind of education at
school, "anxious, repressed, with an expression of weariness, fear and listlessness, repeating
mechanically strange words in a strange language, a creature whose soul has retired like a snail
into its shell," and the same child in the street or at home, "enjoying life, wishing to learn, a smile
on his face, seeking to develop in every way, and expressing his ideas clearly when he speaks."
Fifteen years after his experiments in school-teaching Tolstoy sums up his deductions in an essay
on "Public Instruction." The sole basis of education, he asserts, is freedom -- the freedom of the
people to organize their own schools, and of the pupil to make up his own mind as to what he will
learn and how he will learn it. And experience alone can point out the best method by indicating
the most natural rapport between teacher and scholars. In each concrete case the actual degree of
liberty will depend upon the master's talents and sympathy, but he insists upon the general
principle that the less the restraint the better the school.