Johann Bernhard Basedow

Johann Bernhard Basedow (1724-1790), a German educator, stated a program for total reform of the educational system. His work lent support to the philanthropists who felt that social and political reforms could best be made by first reforming the schools.

Johann Basedow was born in Hamburg on Sept. 11, 1724. He attended the universities of Leipzig and Kiel and upon graduation became a teacher, first as a private tutor in a wealthy home, then in several schools in Denmark and Germany. In each job he was a failure, but these failures inspired his zeal for educational reform.

The Philanthropinum

Influenced by men of the French Enlightenment, Basedow thought that knowledge properly applied could lead to the perfection of man and his institutions. He expressed these ideas in the books Appeal to Friends of Mankind and to Men of Power concerning Schools and Studies and Their Influence on Public Welfare (1768) and The Method Book for Fathers and Mothers of Families and for Nations (1770). Prince Leopold, ruler of Anhalt, was so impressed with the reform potential of Basedow's ideas that in 1771 he hired him to found an experimental school at Dessau. The Philanthropinum opened in 1774, the first school to completely break with tradition. It drew many interested visitors from far and wide, who either praised the school extravagantly, as did Kant, or criticized it bitterly. In 1774 Basedow also published the huge Elementarwerk, an encyclopedic collection of the material that was to be taught to children from birth to age 18.

Philosophy of the System

According to Basedow, the principal goal of education should be to prepare children for a happy, patriotic life of service to the community. As the school functions for the individual, it performs a service also for the state; since the state is but a community of individuals, it will experience good fortune only to the extent that each individual member does. The curriculum should contain only those things that can be shown to be useful. Basedow scorned the stress in the traditional schools on developing verbal skills, especially in Latin. Things that can be touched, seen, heard, and manipulated—to show the child the extent to which he can control his environment—should be substituted for the traditional verbal exercises, which deal with mere symbols.

Teaching methods should include observations by the children of objects and activities of the real world. The teacher should not impose his will but should encourage self-direction on the part of the pupil into purposeful activity. Basedow advised that at play children learn most effectively. Pure intellectualization that ignores the individual psychological makeup of the learner is to be avoided. Games, manual work in the garden and in the shop, physical training, hiking—these were the activities appropriate to youth. The teacher should guide these activities by a nonauthoritarian and humane interaction with the pupils.

At Dessau, Basedow put his ideas to practice. To toughen the body and to foster the ability to withstand hardship, there were several fasting days each month. Competition was encouraged by a system of awards for merit in several activities.

Basedow was a very difficult man to work with. He was emotionally unstable, had disagreeable habits, and would not brook dissent. As a result, he was forced to leave the Philanthropinum 4 years after he had founded it. He spent the remaining 12 years of his life writing articles expanding on his three major works.

Further Reading on Johann Bernhard Basedow

There are many books on Basedow in German. No full-length study of him in English exists, although there are numerous articles in educational journals. For background information see Friedrich Paulsen, German Education Past and Present (1912), and R. H. Samuel and R. Hinton Thomas, Education and Society in Modern Germany (1949).