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Herbart and Herbartianism

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The widespread and increasing influence of Herbart and his disciples in the work of education makes a brief treatment of this German philosopher and educationist desirable in the present work. John Frederick Herbart, b. at Oldenburg, 1776; d. at Göttingen, 1841. He was the son of a lawyer whose wife, a woman of brilliant parts, was subsequently divorced from her husband. The child was delicate and was at first educated by an able tutor under the supervision of his mother. He exhibited extraordinary precocity, was of quick intelligence and retentive memory, and showed remarkable aptitude for mathematics, physical science and music. He began logic at eleven and metaphysics at twelve; he went to the gymnasium of his native town at thirteen and, after a distinguished course there, passed to the University of Jena at the age of eighteen to study law. This subject he neglected, becoming an enthusiastic student of philosophy under Fichte, then at the zenith of his fame. Herbart, however, was of too critical a mind to be content with Fichte's Idealism, and at the age of twenty began the elaboration of a philosophic system of his own. In 1807, after three years, his course still incomplete, he left the University to become a private tutor in the family of a German nobleman. The education of the three sons aged 14, 10, and 8 was entirely entrusted to Herbart on condition that he should write a lengthy report by letter to the father every two months. This was Herbart's first and most important experience in the work of teaching. Five of the letters which remain are amongst his most interesting writings and contain some of his main educational ideas. During this period he visited Pestalozzi at Burgdorf. In 1799 he resigned his tutorships, devoted himself for a couple of years to the study of philosophy and wrote some small works on education including appreciations of Pestalozzi's writings. In 1802 he went to Göttingen, obtained his degree of doctor and began lecturing on philosophy and pedagogics at the modest stipend of $225 per annum. Between 1802 and 1808 he published several pedagogic works, including the " Æsthetic Revelation of the World" and the "Science of Education "; also works on metaphysics and logic. In 1809 he was appointed to the chair at Königsberg formerly occupied by Kant, where he lectured on philosophy and pedagogics for over twenty years. His chief interest, however, was in the latter subject. With the approval of the Minister of Education he founded a pedagogic seminary having a practicing school attached. In this he himself taught for an hour daily. In 1809 he married an Englishwoman. During the remainder of his life he lectured to large audiences, and published sundry works on education. He returned to profess at Göttingen in 1833, where he laboured till his death in 1841.

General Philosophical Views

Though Herbart was an able and original thinker his influence in philosophy has not been considerable. In metaphysics his scientific temper led him to advocate a system of Realism in opposition to the Idealism then in vogue. In ethics he approximates towards Kant's teaching in some respects; but instead of Kant's Categorical Imperative he puts forward five Practical or Moral Ideas --the Ideas of Inner Freedom, Perfection, Benevolence, Right, and Equity--as the frame-work of his moral system. In psychology he rejected the doctrine, generally accepted from Aristotle to Kant, of a soul endowed with certain native faculties or powers. For this he substitutes a simple soul with presentations, states, or impressions. As, however, in his view, we know nothing about this simple soul in itself, after it has once been postulated as the arena for the operations of the presentations, the soul becomes, for all practical purposes, merely the series or mass of these presentations, whilst their permutations, interactions, and combinations constitute the entire fibre of our mental life. Herbart strove to apply mathematics to the working of these presentations and to establish quantitative laws describing their mutual interactions. This attempt had in itself no success, but indirectly stimulated the subsequent allied movement in favour of experimental measurement of mental states carried on by Fechner Weber, Wundt, and others. There is remarkable similarity between Herbart and the English Associationist school in their common mechanical view of the nature of mental life, though Herbart is spiritualistic whilst their tend towards Materialism.

Herbart's main interest in philosophy however, is the problem of Education --its object, its method, its possibilities. Education is in fact both the starting point and the goal of all his philosophical inquiries. The end of education is, he holds, determined by ethics. It is the formation of noble, cultivated, moral character. Morality is goodness of will. Moral conduct cannot be embraced, as Kant imagined, under one principle. It is best included under the five practical ideas. Ideal character is to be attained by "many-sided interest". The full development of the individual, the realization of all his capabilities should be then the constant aim of the process of education. The main foundations on which Herbart's whole theory of education rests are his doctrines of apperception and interest. Apperception, with Herbart means the act or process of assimilating, appropriating and identifying an object, impression or idea. All progress in knowledge after the first percipient act is a process of apperception, and the character of each new perception is determined by those which have gone before. The first sensation or impression affords no knowledge, but results in a presentation which persists in existence gradually sinking down below the surface of consciousness. This original presentation existing in the sub-conscious state of our mental life will be partially wakened and called up into conscious activity by the next impression. Thus aroused it modifies the reception of the latter and partially fuses with it. Again this pair of presentations or this compound state similarly sinking down into subconscious life still remains ready to appropriate the next impression assimilating it in like fashion. But the method of the reception and the character of the appropriation is constantly varying with the increasing collection of presentations or ideas already in the mind. The facility and completeness with which each fresh idea is assimilated is determined by what has gone before. Herein, according to the Herbartian school, lies the importance of directing the process of apperception by judicious selection of the materials which are to constitute the experience of the child. As the mind, in this view is simply built up entirely out of the ideas which it has received, the kinds of ideas presented to it and the order in which they come are of the utmost moment in the work of education. Ideas or objects are assimilable or apperceivable when partially familiar; a totally foreign idea has no friends already lodged in the mind to welcome it.

In the pleasure of the process of apperception lies the great fact of interest. Interest depends on what is already in the mind. It is the factor of most vital importance in education --and in moral life, as a whole. Interest and knowledge react on each other. Interest stimulates voluntary attention and sustains involuntary. It thus ties at the root of the mental activity of observation. It determines what we shall see and also what we shall desire and will. With Herbart interest is not simply a means: it is an end in itself. "Many-sided interest" frees from narrow prejudices and counteracts evil possessions, but it is also an ideal worthy of all admiration in se. Ignorance is really the main factor in vice. All action springs out of "the circle of thought"; hence the decisive influence of the matter or content of instruction in the work of character building. "Make your instruction educative," is the great Herbartian maxim. Connected with the insistence on the psychological agencies of apperception and interest is the Herbartian principle of correlation and the five formal steps of instruction. The former should, according to the school, govern the drawing up of the curriculum. Organize the course of studies so that the matter of the different branches simultaneously treated, e.g. the literature, history and geography, may be connected with one another; and as far as possible let the subsidiary subjects be arranged in concentric circles around the chief study. The five formal steps prescribe the order and method of procedure in an ideal lesson. Prepare the mind for the reception of the new matter by repetition of questions which freshen the pupil's recollection of ideas related to the subject of the coming lesson. Next present the matter clearly, developing it in an orderly method. Then, or pari passu by comparison or illustration associate the new ideas or facts with those already familiar. After this generalize the results and finally apply the knowledge gained in some form of practical exercise. These latter doctrines and other deductions from Herbart's principles--some of them very disputable--have been elaborated in very pedantic fashion by certain of the later Herbartians. Besides instruction, practical education includes two other factors,--government and discipline. Though character, according to Herbart, is formed in very large measure by the instruction, i.e. by the ideas apperceived and absorbed by the mind, yet he allows something to these other agencies. Government is mainly repressive, checking disorder and providing the conditions for instruction. Training and discipline are of greater importance. They look to the future building up of the will and forming lasting habits. But as discipline is effected not merely by the form but also by the matter of the school exercises, we come back once more to instruction as the essential factor.


Undoubtedly there is much that is stimulating and valuable in Herbart's works on Education. His insistence on certain psychological laws established by experience; his frequent invocation of rational principles in opposition to mere empiricism in education ; his accentuating the value of interest; his earnest advocacy of an ethical aim; his demand for wide culture; his faith in the potency of education, and his enthusiasm for the vocation of the teacher are all deserving of warm commendation But there are other features in his theory to which serious objections are made. Firstly, his account of the soul, as being capable originally only of simple reactions to impressions and as being then virtually swallowed up by, or dissolved into the stream of subsequent presentations or ideas, is metaphysically erroneous, and in educational practice exceedingly dangerous if carried to its logical conclusions. For it implies an entirely mechanical view of the mind, as rigidly determinist as that of the English Associationists, with which indeed, notwithstanding Herbart's spiritualism, it has sundry points of similarity. It leaves no place for free-will, nor, if logically pressed, for individual responsibility. The soul seems to be conceived merely as the arena for chance experiences coming from without. Our whole mental life is solely the resultant of the collision or coalescence of the presentations flowing in upon us. Every volition is the inexorable product of the circle of thought. Yet Herbart himself, as well as the best educationists of today, insist much on the duty of respecting and developing the individuality of the pupil; but where the individuality is seated, or in what it consists, is not easy to understand in the Herbartian system. Here especially lies the strength of the rival doctrine of the Fröbelian School, which so earnestly inculcates the importance of self-activity. Again, the ethical aim of Herbartianism is after all the Ego. It is not God --not an end outside of self, not even humanity --but self-culture. Further, knowledge and intellectual culture, however varied or refined, are not virtue. Herbart has here fallen into the old Socratic error. Knowledge is desirable and its attainment may be a duty ; but virtue is essentially a quality of the will, not of the intellect. Its essence lies in self-control, and self-denial, often in "action in the line of greatest resistance" as Professor James well calls it. Asceticism, so obnoxious to the Herbartian, is therefore not unintelligent. Many-sided interest, too, though ethically helpful is not virtue. Intellectual ignorance and narrow-mindedness may and often are combined with a high quality of moral fibre, whilst men of abundantly many-sided interest as e.g., Francis Bacon or Goethe, may fall sadly short of being ethical models.

Furthermore, although, as Catholic doctrine insists, the positive moral and religious teaching of the young and the ethical quality of the ideas on which their intellects are fed exert a real influence on the will and moral disposition of the child, yet the value of mere instruction in comparison with that of discipline is exaggerated by the Herbartian school. It is not the mere cognition of the facts of history and literature, or in general the content of the instruction in these subjects, that makes for morality, but the exercise of our faculties, our moral judgment, imagination, sympathy, aversions etc. upon these facts. Moral sensibility is developed by action in harmony with the intimations and suggestions of conscience, rather than by the acquisition of moral information. Again, whilst interest is to be fostered and advantage taken of every psychological law which facilitates learning, we must not forget the educational worth of effort and the conquest of difficulties, nor the disciplinary value of stiff formal studies such as mathematics. Strenuousness of character will not be cultivated by a "soft" pedagogy which would eliminate all obstacles from the student's path--though this latter attempt is not the outcome of the true Herbartian spirit. The evil also of an unenlightened formalism has exhibited itself in a somewhat slavish adhesion to details of the Herbartian method by certain members of the school. Nevertheless it remains true that Herbart has given a substantial contribution of permanent value to educational theory and educational method.

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