Migration is more than the mere movement of people and populations. It implies a transmission of ideas, customs, and practices. The arrival in the mid-nineteenth century of large numbers of political refugees in the United States from German-speaking territories would transform economic and cultural life in the locations of settlement. It had a major impact on the philosophy of education in Boston, New York, and elsewhere.
In 1808, a Prussian botanist and teacher named Friedrich Froebel (Fröbel) traveled from Frankfurt am Main to Yverdon-les-Bains in the Swiss canton of Vaud. He would spent two years at Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s institute of education there. It left a lasting impression. Pestalozzi, a Swiss follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, stressed the child’s innate desire to learn. He urged teachers to encourage children’s curiosity rather than waste their energy on rote learning. Froebel took the message. His 1826 treatise on the “education of man” (Menschenerziehung) reflects the influence of his mentor.
In 1816, he opened the Universal German Educational Institute in Gieshelm, relocating in 1817 to the nearby village of Keilhau in Thuringia. Froebel ran the Institute himself until 1830. He opened his first kindergarten a decade later in Bad Blankenburg, a spa town in the Harz Mountains.
His focus on primary education was ground-breaking. Until his intervention there had been no educational system for children under seven; nor was there a recognition that youngsters were capable of learning crafts that could serve them as a foundation for life.
Froebel promoted teaching through activity and inquiry. As a child’s early years are formative, play should take prominence in the process. Hence the “kindergarten.” Froebel argued that the garden offered an ideal educational environment. At his Blankenburg estate each child had his/her own plot of land, tending and harvesting plants. In doing so, youngsters experienced nature’s seasonal change and developed a loving understanding of the environment.
The kindergarten was designed to provide aesthetically pleasing surroundings with colorful pictures, growing plants and vines, vases of flowers, and plenty of light and air. Beauty and grace had a profound ethical significance. The garden metaphor returns time and again. Froebel argued that children were unique plants in need of the tender care of a teacher-gardener. In the sunny and safe surroundings of the kindergarten young human plants would root and bloom.
Brought up in a Lutheran environment, Froebel was a religious man who tended toward pantheism. His attacks on the dismal state of education proved nevertheless to be controversial. His alternative ideas and their practical application were considered a threat to social stability.
Froebel’s German followers (many of them women) were liberal minded enthusiasts. Such was the political paranoia after the failed 1848 revolutions that a repressive Prussian government became suspicious of the progressive kindergarten movement. A ban was issued in 1851, a year before Froebel’s death. Many practitioners were forced to flee abroad.
Bertha Meyer was born on April 25th, 1818 in Hamburg where her Jewish father was a prominent merchant. In 1834 she married Christian Traun, private secretary of the Duchess of Cambridge, who was fourteen years her senior. During the 1840s she was active in movements with an educational focus. When Froebel dropped into Hamburg on a lecturing tour, she was gripped by his message.
In 1849, she visited Froebel in Bad Liebenstein, a spa town in Thuringian Forest. There she met Johannes Ronge and both became committed to the kindergarten theory. After her divorce, Bertha and Johannes moved to London where they married in 1851. That same year they opened a kindergarten in Hampstead. Such was the impact that the word “kindergarten” was first accepted in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1852. A year later the couple moved to Tavistock Place, St Pancras, where Bertha began training teachers. She was largely responsible for the kindergarten concept gaining a foothold in England.
Johannes’s career reflects the “theological” orientation of the movement. Born in October 1813 in Upper Silesia, Prussia, he was educated at Breslau and entered the priesthood in 1840. His liberal principles brought him in conflict with Church authorities. Suspended from the clergy and celebrated by some as a “modern Luther,” he set up his own “German Catholic” sect.
Having met Bertha, he shifted his attention to education. Together they published the first English-language manual in 1855, a lavishly illustrated Practical Guide to the English Kinder Garten. By 1896, the book had reached its nineteenth edition.
Bertha’s younger sister Margarethe Meyer also attended Froebel’s classes during his stay in Hamburg. In 1851, she moved to Hampstead to assist her relations in operating the newly founded kindergarten. When Prussian political refugee Carl Schurz came to visit the family in London, he fell in love with Margarethe. Married in July 1825, the two left for America shortly after. They spent the first four years of married life in Pennsylvania.
The city of Watertown, Wisconsin, was founded by Puritan settlers. Post 1848, political exiles from the German states started to arrive. Being educated and skilled Protestant refugees, they were on the whole well received by the local population. The positive integration process led to chain migration which substantially increased the German-speaking population in the region.
Without fundamental religious differences between Watertown’s inhabitants, they stood united in their condemnation of slavery. Natives and newcomers shared the drive to develop local industry. The city’s name became associated with beer after Johann Jacob Hoeffner started brewing lager in 1847. Watertown thrived throughout the nineteenth century until the Great Depression put an end to its prosperity.
In August 1856, the Schurz family joined Watertown’s immigrant population which included Carl’s parents, sisters, and several other relatives. He would serve as a Union General in the Civil War. Having joined the new Republican Party, he represented Missouri in the Senate (the first German-born immigrant elected to the U.S. Senate) and became the thirteenth Secretary of the Interior. Although he served just one term, Schurz was a powerful spokesman for German Americans.
Margarethe brought Froebel’s educational theories to America. In the autumn of 1856 she opened the nation’s very first (private) kindergarten. The school remained in operation until intense anti-German resentment during the First World War forced it to close.
On a visit to Boston in 1859, Margarethe met Elizabeth Peabody. In the history of the American kindergarten it turned out to be a crucial meeting in which Schurz set out Froebel’s principles to a receptive listener.
Born in May 1804 in Billerica, Massachusetts, Elizabeth Peabody settled in Boston in 1822 where she opened a school. A passionate reformer, she embraced the premise that children’s play has intrinsic developmental value. Education was about drawing out, not imposing knowledge. It was not an accumulation of facts, but rather a process that develops the whole person.
She was also, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a prominent figure in the Transcendentalist movement. Its members believed that the institutions of an overbearing society corrupt the individual’s self-reliance.
In 1839 Elizabeth opened the West Street Bookstore which became a gathering place for Boston’s intellectual community. Margaret Fuller held her “Conversations” there in which many figures of the woman’s rights movement took part. Peabody also ran her own printing press, publishing work by Nathaniel Hawthorne and others.
The 1859 meeting with Elizabeth Schurz determined Peabody’s future role in education. A year later she opened the nation’s first public kindergarten on Boston’s Beacon Hill. In order to study Froebel’s principles in practice, she traveled to Europe in 1867 (and again in 1871). By the time she returned from her first trip, she had decided that it would be her mission to lecture on Froebelism and encourage the spread of the movement in America.
New York’s Urban Context
The kindergarten arrived late in New York. Formed in 1853, the city of New York’s Board of Education showed little enthusiasm for the idea. This disinterest irritated Richard Watson Gilder. Editor of Scribner’s Monthly and its successor The Century Illustrated Monthly, he was actively involved in civic projects that strove for urban reform.
Gilder was chairman of the first Tenement House Commission in New York; he presided over the city’s Association for the Blind; and acted as co-founder of the Society of American Architects. In November 1889 he helped organize the New York Kindergarten Association and was appointed its first President.
Under his leadership, the conversation on education took a different course from the outset. Gilder had no patience for the semi-religious aura that characterized the writings of Froebel himself or that of his Bostonian followers. Knowing the hardship faced by people living in New York’s slums, he stripped the kindergarten concept of its idyllic associations. Froebel was transported to the inner city.
As nearly three-quarters of New York’s population lived in tenement houses, Gilder reminded the authorities that children’s education was crucial for the future coherence of urban society. He also applied the botanical metaphor. Plant free kindergartens in every quarter of the metropolis, he argued, and you will greatly improve inner city life. Operating solely on donations, New York’s first kindergarten was opened at 351 East 53rd Street on March 10th, 1890, with a second opening on October 27th at 63rd Street and First Avenue.
A parallel development took place at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute where in the winter of 1890 a series of lectures were organized on the future of education. The Brooklyn Kindergarten Association was founded in June 1891 and met regularly on Pratt’s campus. Soon after the Kindergarten Training School was launched for the instruction of aspiring teachers (referred to as “kindergarteners”). In 1894, Alice E. Fitts took on the role of Associate Director. A native of Wisconsin, home of the first American kindergarten, she became for over two decades the movement’s vocal advocate.
In Brooklyn too the need for social intervention was recognized. The program at Pratt’s included free courses where parents were invited to join in. Froebel’s model of education was reshaped to suit the urban environment by seeking active family participation.
Out of Fashion
The history of the kindergarten is an extraordinary tale of a pedagogical idea that originated in the French Enlightenment, was taken up in a remote Swiss canton, and then fully developed in the forests of a small state in central Germany. Having been repressed by the Prussian authorities for its liberal outlook, the concept was exiled and traveled via London to New York where it was adopted to educate tenement children who were living under the rawest of urban conditions.
In today’s regime of neo-liberalism that cultivates competition and formal teaching of the “basics,” followed by processes of testing and assessment, Froebel’s theories may have fallen out of fashion, but in the child-centered schooling of the 1970s and ‘80s his influence had been considerable.
Such was the persuasive power of the kindergarten project that the German term itself survived in the English-speaking world (and beyond) and was never lost in translation. A reappraisal of Froebel’s thinking is overdue.
Illustrations, from above: Froebel’s kindergarten in Bad Blankenburg, ca. 1840; Froebel portrait with one of his quotes; Carl Schurz and Margarethe Meyer, shortly after their marriage in 1852; the restored Schurz kindergarten building, moved to the grounds of the Octagon House, it is run as a museum by the Watertown Historical Society; children sleeping in Mulberry Street, 1890 by Jacob Riis; and gardening children at Pratt Institute Kindergarten, Brooklyn, 1905.