Fax to THE SUN
from John Taylor Gatto
 
 
I'm sorry Ann Berens took my reference to Friedrich Froebel as derogatory, I try my best to be accurate and candid but insulting the dead is neither my pleasure nor my goal. I am not surprised that the circumstances and initiatives of Froebel's life were not a central part of the curriculum of Froebel College in England, since an abstract of his "system", edited to remove the elements of Froebel which might cause eyebrows to raise, is calculated to please garden variety humanists, social critics and generally nice people (no irony intended) in general. It is no wonder that Froebel, like the equally strange Pestalozzi before him, Comenius before him, and all the Manns, Deweys, Thorndikes, Skinners et al. who followed after to tend the gardens of children we call "public school" are preserved for the laity in sanitized lists of good ideas (and many of them are good) to which only a meanie could take exception.
 
The total reality of Froebel and the rest is much much stranger than Miss Berens' abstraction. His cult and his literary personality arises in the main from a book by a Prussian baroness, Von Marenholtz-Bülow (yes, that Bülow family!) translated in l877 by Mrs. Horace Mann (yes, that Mrs. Horace Mann), from the same Peabody family which gave J.P. Morgan his first partner and which dispatched Unitarian ministers as circuit riders through the prostrate, war-ravaged South to bring her communities into the newly conceived government school compulsion fold). Afterwards the kindergarten movement in the U.S got its saint and its gospel at the same time, while the political state, the Hegelian political state, got a powerful mechanism to divide children from their families and cultures at the same time.
 
Froebel grew up in a bad family in the depths of the Thuringian forests at the end of the eighteenth century. His intense, solitary rambles in the woods convinced him man and nature were governed by the same laws, that the divine nature of mankind was an illusion, the notion a barrier to enlightenment. What confuses things is that he said that "all education not based on religion is unproductive" but an examination of what he actually meant is instructive. Formal religions had to be set aside while we "honor Science in her divinity". From his observations of plants and trees he concluded not only that children grow the same way, through fixed and discernible stages, but that a graduated course of exercises prepared by experts should be used to instruct mothers in how to mother. Specifically, he felt the one thing needful for mankind was unity of development.
 
One most powerful clue to the organizational forces working on Froebel's imagination was his absolute love and passion, even though an Austrian himself, for the Prussian army. This was no abstract affection. In 1813 he enlisted in Lutzow's corps and fought enthusiastically in the most comprehensive military schema - indeed it was a religion - ever conceived and executed. Out of the Prussian concept of the ordering of society came modern schooling including Froebel's kindergartens. The idea as it was interpreted by Prussian Minister Stein, although it was never Froebel's understanding, was that school to the age of 11 or so should be a wonderful, warm, humane place full of songs and dances, and drenched in "love," not discipline. When the power to develop an independent intellect had become thoroughly atrophied, then the screws could be put on with little fear of any sustained opposition. Froebel's extension of schooling backwards into the unclaimed territory of early childhood was considered a superb end run around family.

Once again I hasten to add this was not Froebel's own conception. but like Mann, Dewey, (or Seymour Papert) after him, his scheme was child's play to coopt in the service of the state. It's no coincidence that when Froebel's own voice (not his institution) was officially banned from Prussia because his vegetable metaphor conflicted with state purposes when pressed too far, Froebel pined away and died a year later. As an appendage of the Prussian mind he could not survive his own amputation.

 
Since in Froebel's scheme the sacred scientific undertaking of state schooling suffered from the "state of raw material brought to it" his plan was to gently remove or weaken the influence of parents, transferring it to "gardeners of children." He thought of kindergarten as "an enclosure in which young human plants are nurtured." That he would allow this nurture to follow a course dear to the hearts of "holistic" thinkers (and to some extent dear to my own) cannot change the gruesome (to me) fact that the outcome sought was a radical unitarianism. He often commented on the vital importance of kindergarten for the whole human race. That this colossal management scheme would be management by objectives rather than by fine-tuning a uniformity of techniques is scant compensation for this strategy designed to make a free society unfree in every important regard. That Froebel's purpose has been substantially achieved in the West is the curse of our time and lies at the heart of the problem of modern schooling.
 
I could cite abundant references to Froebel's vegetable dream but the most economical access is the entry "Froebel, Friedrich Wilhelm August" in the legendary Britannica llth edition written by the reverend Robert Hebert Quick, lecturer in education at the university of Cambridge, and an enthusiastic advocate of Froebelism in all its forms.
 
Click here to read a saddened comment on John's fax from the director of the Froebel Foundation, Scott Bultman, my response, and added information from him on the history of Froebelian education in this country.