Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was a writer, political and social reformer, and educator. Born and educated in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1765 he ended his university studies abruptly due to his active engagement in the radical republican youth movement aiming towards the restoration of republican values and morals. Influenced by the ancient Roman ideal of the citizen as "landed man" and inspired by JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU's Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and the fifth book of Émile (1762), Pestalozzi apprenticed himself to a farmer (1767–1768). In 1769 Pestalozzi married Anna Schulthess, of a wealthy burgher family. Overhasty purchase of a large tract of land in Birr in the Swiss canton of Aargau (under the control of Bern), debts on his Neuhof estate, and the agricultural crisis in Europe in 1771–1772 led Pestalozzi into great financial difficulties. He attempted to avert financial disaster by employing children of the poor in a proto-industrial enterprise at Neuhof, promising parents education of their children. However, he had overestimated the children's productivity and was soon forced to raise funds through public appeals to charity. But the monies collected were not sufficient, and the institution closed in 1780. Nevertheless, Pestalozzi's public reflections on the meaning and purpose of education of the poor led to his career as a commentator on politics, education, and economics. His novel Lienhard und Gertrud, published in 1781, enjoyed great literary success; three further volumes had a lesser reception.
It was during this phase of his work that Pestalozzi first used the term childhood. Although Pestalozzi revised his understanding of childhood many times, his idea of childhood as a period of transformation remained constant throughout his long life. In Lienhard und Gertrud, the predominant idea is a sensualistic view of childhood as the life phase when the young child is shaped by external conditions.
Pestalozzi's efforts and experiences at proto-industry forced him to revise his agrarian-oriented republicanism. After 1782 he came into contact with the Berliner ENLIGHTENMENT, which led him to political reflections upon natural law and the theories of the social contract. For Pestalozzi, who remained under the influence of republican ideals, the life of the family, which would be a largely independent economic unit, would allow for family socialization and thus the instilling of virtues. Here Pestalozzi equates childhood with the human being in a natural state but in contrast to Rousseau, the connotation is a negative one: in a passage in the fourth volume of Lienhard und Gertrud (1787) entitled "the philosophy of my book," Pestalozzi wrote, "By nature, and when people grow up left to their own devices, they are lethargic, ignorant, careless, thoughtless, foolish, gullible, timorous, greedy without bounds, … crooked, sly, insidious, distrustful, violent, foolhardy, vindictive, and prone to acts of atrocity" (p. 330). It therefore follows that stringent socialization to the constraints of societal life through work and the workplace must precede religious moral training.
The development of the human race and the development of the individual were seen to take a parallel course. Pestalozzi thus interpreted childhood as an unspoiled, natural state, in which–following Rousseau–needs and faculties, or powers, are in perfect equilibrium. However, Pestalozzi did not believe that this natural state could be maintained, for in the life of an individual it existed only at the moment of birth. Through life's experiences, the needs of young persons growing up were greater than their ability to satisfy them. It was thus unavoidable that the person became "depraved." In an ideal political system, education could bring the person to recreate the self, to develop into a "moral" being. Pestalozzi maintained that "the circumstances make the man," but in an extension based on Christianity, he found that human beings had within themselves the power to influence those circumstances according to their own will and to create ideal contexts. This faculty, or "self-power," was seen as highly individual and independent of natural and societal determinants. Human beings achieved morality (in a religious sense) dependent upon two conditions: politics and education. Pestalozzi made it his own principle to follow the noble principle of Jesus Christ: to first make the inner person pure in order to make the outside pure. This religiously inspired theory of education was based on the principle of the family, to which the school should also acquiesce.
Philipp Albert Stapfer, Minister of Arts and Sciences of the Helvetic Republic, believed that Pestalozzi would be the ideal person to help him enact various school reforms. His hope was based on a belief that Pestalozzi had developed a completely unique method of teaching children to read. Paradoxically, Pestalozzi became a national educator just at the time when he had lost faith in the restoration of the republic, and he was given responsibility for a modern school system just as he had wanted to subordinate schooling to education within the family.
From this time in his life onwards, Pestalozzi was to head a number of educational institutions. His efforts at education theory centered upon the development of a comprehensive method of elementary education that would promote the natural acquisition of basic learning in all disciplines and, at the same time, go hand in hand with the unfolding of the child's moral-religious as well as physical propensities. A first draft of his main principles of education was presented in 1801 in his book Wie Gertrud ihre Kinder lehrt (How Gertrude teaches her children). The underlying concept was that human nature is made up of mechanically structured innate predispositions and self-powers, whereby the innate teleological structured predispositions are too weak to develop on their own. According to this view, Pestalozzi equated childhood with the need for (Pestalozzi's) object lesson books, the only lesson books that succeeded in drawing out and evolving children's God-given inherent propensities.
After 1802, Pestalozzi began to develop a more organic perspective of mankind. He did not follow the contemporary discussion of the Romantic period in Germany, which in 1800–inspired by Rousseau–equated childhood with a state of holiness and propagated the historical-philosophical progression of Paradise, The Fall, and Redemption. Pestalozzi saw in the child a natural innocence, but even the holy in the child could not develop without the necessity of education. In this apolitical view, it is the mother who takes on the central role in the process of societal regeneration; in her religious mission, she becomes first of all the natural "intermediary between the child and the world" before she deflects the child's love of herself towards God. It is this sacred educational function that allows the child to maintain itself as an independent and religious person in the face of a corrupted world.
For Pestalozzi, children have divine predispositions, which must be fostered. Pestalozzi believed that he himself had discovered the correct method of education. He made frequent references to his own very difficult biography full of privation in his writings. In this connection Pestalozzi saw himself as an educational Jesus Christ.
Following great personal difficulties and the death of Pestalozzi's wife in 1815, his third institute at Yverdon slowly fell apart, and in 1825, Pestalozzi returned to Neuhof in Birr at the age of 79. He died two years later, largely forgotten by the world. It was only through the efforts of teachers, who were becoming organized in the nineteenth century, and through a need in Switzerland (torn religiously and politically) for a guiding, unifying figure that the tireless reformer came to be remembered and honored. It was as an educator that Pestalozzi became the most important national figure in Switzerland, providing sense and a purpose to the whole nation. However, his books were little read, and his pedagogical concepts of the "method" were not put into practice.
Pestalozzi, Johann Heinrich. 1927–1996. Complete Works, Critical Edition, ed. Artur Buchenau et al. Zurich, Switzerland: Orell Füessli Verlag.
Pestalozzi, Johann Heinrich. 1946–1996. Complete Letters, Critical Edition, ed. Emanuel Dejung. Zurich, Switzerland: Orell Füessli Verlag.