THE EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTE IN YVERDON
Picture: Pestalozzi’s Institute at Yverdon Castle
In 1804, Pestalozzi,left Münchenbuchsee along with three teachers, . They moved to Yverdon and planned to start anew there. Pestalozzi doubted himself. “I’m already 58 years of age,” he thought, “In Stans I had to leave, in Burgdorf they dismissed me, and now in Münchenbuchsee things have gone wrong again. Will I ever succeed in anything?” Then he experienced something very strange, almost a miracle. It was an evening in October. Pestalozzi took a walk through the vineyards. It was foggy, and one could not see far. Besides, he was lost in thought as he quite often was. All of a sudden, two trotting horses emerged out of the fog. He wanted to let them pass, one to the right of him and one to the left. At the very last moment he noticed that it was a wagon, but it was too late. The shaft threw him onto the ground, and he landed under the horses’ legs. In seconds the wheels of the wagon would run over him. Then, with youthful strength, he did not know how, he swiftly rolled to one side, between the legs of the horses. The heavy wagon rumbled by. Pestalozzi got up and looked at his clothes; they were torn on the sleeve and the body, but he himself was unharmed. He was astonished that his heart was not beating faster. The sudden danger to his life had brought about a calm and strength in him, in a way he would not have believed possible before. He wondered, “How did I do that?” At once, his inner voice gave him an answer, “No, it’s God’s doing!” After this experience, Pestalozzi once again believed in himself and trusted in God’s help.
Pestalozzi’s boys’ institute in the Castle of Yverdon soon became world-famous. In Germany, France, Italy, England, Russia and America people studied Pestalozzi’s books enthusiastically and admired him. The initial five years in Yverdon were the best. More than one hundred and fifty boys between the ages of seven and fifteen, about thirty teachers, thirty college students who wanted to become teachers, and Pestalozzi’s family – all belonged to the community in the castle. In addition, Pestalozzi ran an institute for girls in the City of Yverdon. In those days, boys and girls were educated separately.
The students were mostly taught in groups. Each group decided individually in what way and how fast it wanted to work. The teachers acted more as assistants. Students who had grasped a problem were immediately put into action as teachers of their classmates. There were about three times as many lessons as today; a full sixty hours a week was spent at school and holidays were non-existent. Instead, there were many hiking excursions for the pupils, which often lasted several weeks. Teachers and pupils hiked in the local mountains or in the neighbouring countries. By thoroughly preparing these hiking trips together the children learnt geography and natural science in a very practical way. Pestalozzi said, “Learning from books is a cheap substitute. It’s a much better idea to look at things directly in the open air.” In addition, the teachers often took their classes outdoors, where they studied plants, animals, landscapes and rock formations, describing them and drawing sketches of them. Often the teacher just said a word, such as ‘dandelion’ or ‘squirrel’, and the pupils had to find out all about it. Otherwise, the children in the institute had similar subjects to those we have today: Mathematics, German and French, History, Drawing, Gymnastics, Singing, Religious Instruction, as well as Latin, Bookkeeping and Correspondence. Of course, they had no computer science and no typing, as there were neither computers nor typewriters at that time.
Handicraft and Housekeeping were not subjects on the timetable. But, as everybody knows, Pestalozzi kept repeating that the head, the heart and the hands are all important. Outside the school, the children learnt to work with a hammer, a saw and a plane and were even allowed to work at the lathe. They also helped in the house. The Institute owned its own printing office and bookbinding shop, in which the children could take an active role. They were allowed to ‘snoop around’, exploring and helping in the workshops of the carpenters, the mechanics, the watchmakers and the turners of Yverdon. In the Institute, they kept rabbits and sometimes lambs, and also took care of their own garden beds.
Sports and games were also important. When the children were not working, they played games and enjoyed themselves. The children were often given permission to go bathing in the Lake of Neuenburg and all of them learnt to swim. In winter they built tremendous snow castles and, when the lake was frozen, they could go ice-skating. Pestalozzi liked them to be out in the healthy, fresh air as much as possible, even in the bitterest cold.
Every day was open house for the parents of the children of Yverdon Castle. Pestalozzi was pleased to have visitors and welcomed them in person. They were welcome at any time, in all the classrooms. The class teachers had to inform the parents regularly, in writing, on the progress of their child, though not in marks. In no way did Pestalozzi want school reports to include marks. He said, “No child is to compare himself with others. Each of them is to assess himself only by his own capability and achievements.” There were children in the Institute with various talents. Pestalozzi also took on children with emotional problems. He even opened a section for children who were hard of hearing.
The Institute never became rich. Pestalozzi asked for much lower school fees than other institutes. In addition, he accepted children of poor parents at no cost. Every third child did not pay. The teachers worked for practically no wages, only for food and lodging. To them working for Pestalozzi meant far more than money. At times the Institute had one common cashbox for everybody. The teachers could help themselves when they needed something and the pupils could ask for it when they needed money. This could have been wonderful except that nobody was really responsible for the money; as a result, the Institute had money problems over and over again.
The community was like a large family. The teachers took their meals with the boys and slept in the same rooms. All of them enjoyed great freedom. To be sure, there were important regulations in the castle. Nobody was to be ambitious and think they were better than others. Nobody was to be dishonest and flatter others. Nobody was to insult others or hurt them. The teachers were not to use corporal punishment. Once a Latin teacher hit a student on the head with a book. Right away two students ran to the headmaster – that was Joseph Schmid – and complained. Schmid commended the boys for their courage and dismissed the teacher.
Pestalozzi himself did not teach any more. He was like the father of the family. He wrote a lot and received the numerous visitors to the Institute. He talked to any student who seemed to be worried about something. He worked with individual students to further their particular talents. Every day he addressed the whole community with a few words. On festive days he made his famous official speeches, which you can read in his books. Every week the teachers had to present each child to him and report on the progress made. It was the emotional progress of the child, the heart, that interested Pestalozzi the most. He said, “The main thing is not the accumulation of knowledge and know-how. The most important thing is to develop into a genuine human being; the essential thing is love.” Pestalozzi himself was a living example of this as he radiated an indescribable feeling of love. He gave everybody entering the house a hug as if they were his own brother or sister. The pupils and college students loved and honoured him.
Big as Pestalozzi’s heart was, he continued to be a bit clumsy with his hands throughout his life. In 1812, lost in thought, he once poked in his ear with a knitting needle. All of a sudden he pierced through the eardrum and seriously hurt himself. He was confined to bed for four months. In 1984, his skeleton was exhumed near the school in Birr (close to the Neuhof). There, behind the ear, a small hole in the skull could be made out. Obviously, the doctors had had to drill this hole in the skull to save his life, all without anaesthesia!
In 1813, the same misfortune suffered by the orphanage in Stans threatened the boys’ Institute. Napoleon’s time came to an end. The Russian, German and Austrian armies pushed the French back. The war was fought in Switzerland as well. Again foreign armies were stationed in Switzerland. The word was that a military hospital would be set up in the Castle of Yverdon. Without a moment’s thought, Pestalozzi travelled to Basel where the headquarters of the allied sovereigns of Russia, Prussia and Austria were located. Czar Alexander I of Russia had a high opinion of Pestalozzi. He received him for talks. Standing before the Czar, Pestalozzi forgot why he had come. Instead, he started to talk the Czar into abolishing serfdom in Russia. He told the Czar that he should build schools, so that the millions of peasants could learn something. Pestalozzi got very heated about it; he approached the Czar, grabbed his uniform and was about to shake him to persuade him. The Czar gently pushed him back. Pestalozzi simply asked too much of him! After all this, the Institute was permitted to remain in the castle and the soldiers took up their quarters somewhere else.
During these war years the number of pupils dropped drastically and the Institute almost went bankrupt. Once again Anna, Pestalozzi’s wife, had to help out. She was able to save the Institute with money from an inheritance. In other respects as well, Anna Pestalozzi played an important role. She had what Pestalozzi lacked; a calm, well-balanced nature. Anna was an island of calm in the house. Everybody appreciated her as a housemother and felt fortunate to have her. In 1815, Anna died at the age of seventy-seven years. This was a painful loss for Pestalozzi and the Institute. Anna had not only frequently saved her Heinrich from financial disasters, but had repeatedly helped him with his bold projects, although she would have preferred a quiet family life. Now he was all by himself. This scared him a bit, but he believed in himself and his mission. He prayed to God and found new strength.
Pestalozzi’s misfortune remained with him. To be sure, the Institute in Yverdon was world-famous. After all, it existed for twenty years, longer than any other project of Pestalozzi’s. But the Institute in Yverdon came to an end while Pestalozzi was still alive. Pestalozzi was honest enough with himself; he knew that the fault was mostly his own. He did not have sufficient practical skill. He had fantastic ideas, and he knew exactly what was missing in the world – but to many people his way of speaking was too complex. He loved all his fellow men from the bottom of his heart, but was not good at organising things, managing and guiding people, or running a business efficiently. It was this very flaw in his character that was his undoing in Yverdon.
To the teachers in his institute, Pestalozzi was a great model of humanity, but in practical life he set no example for them. He trusted them entirely and let them do what they wanted. Not all of them were as generous as he was. Two of them were particularly dear to his heart, and he thought of them as his own sons. Their names were Josef Schmid and Johannes Niederer. These two had an irreconcilable quarrel. Each eventually wanted to become Pestalozzi’s successor. Ambition had them in its grasp. Each of them thought he was the best manager for the institute. They forgot what Pestalozzi kept saying, “Nobody should believe himself to be better than others.” Their hearts grew hard. They began to hate one another. Soon they infected others with their jealousy; some were for Schmid, others for Niederer. Relations in the institute became poisoned, with the teachers blaming and even insulting each other. In 1816, Niederer left the institute with sixteen other teachers. In spite of this, there was no peace; Niederer now wrongfully accused the institute wherever he could and also talked badly about Pestalozzi. For years he claimed that Pestalozzi owed him a lot of money. He even took Pestalozzi to court. Pestalozzi was acquitted by the court but Niederer did not give up until Schmid left the institute as well.
The quarrels among the teachers destroyed the good reputation of Pestalozzi’s institute and in 1825 he had to close it down.
The following pages are based on documents by Adolf Haller and Arthur Brühlmeier, rewritten in German by Heinrich Rubi and transalated in English by Anne-Marie Widmer. The content was arranged and edited by Dr Joanna Nair with examples of Pestalozzi's Fables from 'Pestalozzi, His Life and Work' by Roger de Guimps.
These pages have been produced by Pestalozzi World Children's Trust to further the understanding of the Pestalozzi Legacy and are for non-commercial, educational purposes.
All photographs have been provided by Arthur Brühlmeier and the details and other excellent resources are available from his web site at