Tolstoy's Later Views
It is easy to see that in 1862 Tolstoy held, in germ at least, most of the views which have since
made him distinguished as a radical thinker. Absolute freedom is his ideal, and he would apply it
to children almost as fully as to men. In a private letter published recently, he gives some hints
of his present ideas on education. He would have the teachers fix the hours of school, but leave
the pupils at liberty to come or not as they please. Where school is made attractive this system
would have little effect upon attendance. "That the pupils should come to learn of their own
accord, when they desire it, is a conditio sine quâ non of all fruitful teaching, just as in feeding it
is a conditio sine quâ non that the eater should be hungry." For truancy, I presume he would hold
the teacher responsible rather than the scholar, for the teacher should have made the school more
Freedom is necessary for many reasons. The brighter pupils must be free to push ahead of the
duller ones. Only in freedom can you find out what subjects the child is ready to assimilate, and
what his special aptitudes may be. If freedom is denied the pupil at school, how can he be taught
that it is desirable in after-life? If he is accustomed to coercion during his education, he will
regard it as a great and necessary feature of life. The thing to do is to teach the children what
they desire to learn.
"The very little ones, if they are normally brought up, will themselves ask for lessons and insist
on regularity ... yesterday there was a lesson after dinner, and to-day they desire one after
dinner." He thinks that half of the sixteen waking hours should be devoted to "education" -- that
is, to enlightenment, with intervals of rest and recreation. Under the head of enlightenment he
includes working for one's self and family and for others, cleaning, putting in order, cooking,
preparing fuel, and so forth. "The other half of the time I would give to instruction. I would let
the pupil choose out of seven subjects the one to which he is attracted."
"I would like to add," he says, "that, for the purpose of educating one's children, I would not
advise any one to undertake anything new, such as the removal to another place, or some
theoretical pre-arranged plan as to the organization of the school; I would not recommend the
invitation of teachers, of assistants, nor of pupils, but would make use of circumstances as they
exist, gradually developing the future, or rather allowing it to develop.
"With regard to drawing and music -- the teaching of the piano is a glaring example of wrongly
organized instruction. As with drawing, so also with music -- children should be taught to make
use of the means which are always at hand (in drawing to use chalk, charcoal, pencil; in music to
be able to communicate what they see and hear through the medium of their own voice). This to
begin with. If later on -- which would be very regrettable -- exceptional pupils should manifest
special talent, then they could learn to paint with oil colours, or to play on expensive
"For the teaching of this elementary knowledge, I know there now exist good, new handbooks.
"With regard to the teaching of languages, the more languages are taught the better. I think
French and German should be taught by all means, English and Esperanto if possible. And one
should teach by inviting the pupil to read in the language he is learning a book with which he is
acquainted in his native language, endeavouring to grasp the general sense and incidentally
observing the most important words, their roots and grammatical forms."
This letter was not intended for publication, and in it Tolstoy explicitly states that he is writing
offhand, and must give deeper thought to the matter. It will seem to most of us that the day's task
is rather a heavy one, unless the intervals of recreation are made very elastic; but be it
remembered that the pupil is to go or come as he pleases, and we see that a sovereign remedy for
overwork is then left in his own hands.
Tolstoy's predilection for foreign languages is explained by the isolation of Russia in the matter
of speech, so few foreigners as yet taking the trouble to learn Russian. It is a fact that a small
child can pick up several languages as easily as his native tongue, and that it can be done without
effort or study. Whether later on, and in the absence of a special taste for languages, it is worth
while to teach them to children, I should have my doubts. But here again Tolstoy supplies the
corrective, for he would teach only those who wish to learn.
In another letter, written to a near relation in 1902, and published in Essays and Letters (Grant
Richards, London; Funk and Wagnalls Company, New York, 1903, p. 338), Tolstoy gives some
further indications of his present ideas upon education. "Children should be taught as little as
possible," he declares in so many words, for it is much worse that they should get "educational
indigestion and come to detest education." He would take especial care to free the children of the
well-to-do from the parasitic tendencies of their position. They should learn to do things for
themselves; and not to have everything done for them. The first condition of a good education,
he says, is that a child should know that all he uses does not fall from heaven ready-made, but is
produced by other people's labour. He should be ashamed to have his boots cleaned by servants,
"who do it not out of love for him, but for some other reason quite unintelligible to him." "If he
is not ashamed, and if he continues to use them, that is the very worst commencement of an
education, and leaves the deepest traces for his whole life."
"Let them do all they can for themselves," he adds; "carry out their own slops, fill their own
jugs, wash up, arrange their rooms, clean their boots and clothes, lay the table, etc. Believe me,
that unimportant as these things may seem, they are a hundred times more important for your
children's happiness than a knowledge of French or of history, etc." Wherever it is possible, he
advocates work in a kitchen-garden; and the teaching of all these things in the household
involves the doing of them by the parents, for children only do willingly what they see their
parents do. As the children of the rich are actually brought up, there is only one explanation of
society possible for them, and that is that it is divided into two classes -- masters and slaves.
When their parents talk of the brotherhood of man and of the Christian obligation of love to
neighbour, they are quick to see the lie at the basis of it all, and they lose faith in their parents
and teachers and in morality itself.
In a short article printed as a leaflet by the Free Age Press, London (Free Age Press Leaflets, No.
4.), Tolstoy lays down the rules which in his opinion should govern religious education. He
believes that the child has by nature an instinctive knowledge of his relations to the mystery of
life, and that the ordinary instruction in religious matters perverts and demoralizes him. "The
child has a vague idea of that source of all, that cause of his existence, that force in whose power
he finds himself, and he possesses an elevated idea of that source -- indefinite and inexpressible
in words, but of which his whole being is conscious -- natural to all rational men. And suddenly,
instead of this, he is told that this source is naught else than some sort of personal, self-willed
and dreadful evil being -- the Jewish God." (1) In place of teaching him that the road to happiness is
by "loving communion among men," he is made to believe that it depends on "the whims of a
capricious God," and the liberation of himself from eternal punishment, earned by some one
else, but which this Being has laid upon us all. A blind belief in creeds is substituted for love to
"If I now had to transmit to a child the substance of the religious teaching I consider true," says
he, "I should say to him that we have come into this world and live in it, not according to our
own will, but according to the will of that which we call God, and that it will therefore be well
with us only when we fulfil this will. This will is that we should all be happy; and for all to be
happy there is but one means: each must act towards others as he would wish that they should act
"As to the questions about how the world came into existence, and what awaits us after death, I
would answer the first by the acknowledgment of my ignorance and of the anomaly of such a
question (in all the Buddhist world no such question exists); and the second I would answer by
the conjecture that the will of Him who called us into this life for our welfare leads us
somewhere through death -- probably for the same purpose."
1. These later opinions of Tolstoy do not necessarily conflict with his earlier conviction that the Old
Testament is the best book for children, but they would suggest caution in the method of making use