Hegel on Education

Hegel’s first job after completing his studies was as a tutor for the von Steiger family in Berne, from 1793 to 1796 and then briefly for Johann Gogol in Frankfurt, before moving to Jena in 1801. From 1801 to 1807 he worked as an unpaid lecturer whilst composing his earliest works. After the publication of the Phenomenology and a brief stint as editor of the Bamberger Zeitung, Hegel was Headmaster of the Gymnasium at Nuremberg for seven years, thanks to the support of his best friend Friedrich Niethammer, Commissioner of Education in Munich, for whom Hegel wrote a report on the teaching of philosophy in 1812. During this period the Science of Logic was published and he took up a Professorship in Heidelberg and then Berlin where he lectured both to students and the general public until his death in 1831. With a speech impediment that affected him when lecturing, though not in personal communication, he was far more of a teacher than a writer. Were it not for the work of his students in popularising his work after his death, then he may not have been remembered, for his own writing is almost incomprehensible. But his students obviously understood him well and proved to be effective communicators.

Despite a lifetime spent as an educator, and evidence that he was an effective teacher within the Prussian education system of Wilhelm von Humboldt, which served as a model for countries such as the US and Japan, Hegel never wrote a systematic theory of education. Nonetheless, a great deal can be inferred about his ideas on education from his other works, which include asides on educational questions. In the Subjective Spirit, there is an extended Zusätze on the development of the mind through the course of life which has ample commentary on matters educational, and his report to Niethammer is very informative as well.

To a great extent, Hegel agreed with Aristotle when he said that the practical problem of education is to prepare the person to be a good citizen of a good state. Rather than offering a systematic overview, we will give Hegel’s opinions on a number of important issues in education.

Education is a right and responsibility of both Child and State

“Man has to acquire for himself the position which he ought to attain; he is not already in possession of it by instinct. It is on this fact that the child’s right to education is based. ... The services which may be demanded from children should therefore have education as their sole end and be relevant thereto; they must not be ends in themselves, since a child in slavery is in the most unethical of all situations whatever” (Philosophy of Right, §174a).

“In its character as a universal family, civil society has the right and duty of superintending and influencing education, inasmuch as education bears upon the child’s capacity to become a member of society. Society’s right here is paramount over the arbitrary and contingent preferences of parents, particularly in cases where education is to be completed not by the parents but by others. To the same end, society must provide public educational facilities so far as is practicable. ... society has a right to act on principles tested by its experience and to compel parents to send their children to school, to have them vaccinated, and so forth.” (Philosophy of Right, §239).

... in [the family], the child is accepted in its immediate individuality, is loved whether its behavior is good or bad. In school, on the other hand, the immediacy of the child no longer counts; here it is esteemed only according to its worth, according to its achievements, is not merely loved but criticised and guided in accordance with universal principles, moulded by instruction according to fixed rules, in general, subjected to a universal order which forbids many things innocent in themselves because everyone cannot be permitted to do them. The school thus forms the transition from the family into civil society. But to the latter the boy [sic!] has at first only an undefined relationship; his interest is still divided between learning and playing” (Subjective Spirit §396n).

Education aims to Actualise what a person potentially is

“...the reason of the child as child is at first a mere inward, in the shape of his natural ability or vocation, etc. This mere inward, at the same time, has for the child the form of a mere outward, in the shape of the will of his parents, the attainments of his teachers, and the whole world of reason that environs him. The education and instruction of a child aim at making him actually and for himself what he is at first only potentially and therefore for others, viz., for his grown up friends. The reason, which at first exists in the child only as an inner possibility, is actualised through education: and conversely, the child by these means becomes conscious that the goodness, religion, and science which he had at first looked upon as an outward authority, are his own nature” (Shorter Logic §140n).

“Think for yourself” is a Nonsensical phrase

‘Think for yourself’ is a phrase which people often use as if it had some special significance. The fact is, no man can think for another, any more than he can eat or drink for him. “In point of contents, thought is only true in proportion as it sinks itself in the facts; and in point of form it is no private act of the subject, but rather that attitude of consciousness where the abstract self, freed from all the special limitations to which its ordinary states are liable, restricts itself to that universal action in which it is identical with all individuals” (Shorter Logic, §23).

“According to the modern craze, especially in pedagogy, one is not so much to be instructed in the content of philosophy as to learn how to philosophize without any content. That amounts to saying that one is to travel endlessly without getting to know along the way any cities, rivers, countries, men, etc. ...

“Thus in learning the content of philosophy one not only learns to philosophize but indeed really philosophizes. ...

“The unfortunate urge to educate the individual in thinking for himself and being self-productive has cast a shadow over truth. As if, when I learn what substance, cause, or anything is, I myself were not thinking. As if I did not myself produce these determinations in my own thought but rather tossed them in my head as pebbles. As if, further, when I have insight into their truth, into the proofs of their synthetic relations or dialectical transitions, I did not receive this insight myself, as if I did not convince myself of these truths. As if when I have become acquainted with the Pythagorean theorem and its proof I have failed to know this theorem and prove its truth myself! As much as philosophical study is in and for itself self-activity, to that degree also is it learning: the learning of an already present, developed science. This science is a treasure of hard-won, ready-prepared, formed content. This inheritance ready at hand must be earned by the individual, i.e., learned. The teacher possesses this treasure; he pre-thinks it. The pupils re-think it. The philosophical sciences contain universal true thoughts of their objects. They constitute the end product of the labor of genial thought in all ages. These true thoughts surpass what an uneducated young man comes up with thinking by himself to the same degree that such a mass of inspired labor exceeds his effort. The original, peculiar views of the young on essential objects are in part still totally deficient and empty, but in part - in infinitely greater part - they are opinion, illusion, half-truth, distortion, and indeterminateness. ...

“Moreover, one learns to think abstractly by thinking abstractly. Either one can try to begin from what is sensory or concrete, working it up through analysis into abstraction, thus following the apparent natural order, as also the order which proceeds from what is easier to what is more difficult. Or one can begin right away with abstraction itself, taking it in and for itself, teaching it and making it understandable. First of all, in contrasting these two ways, the first is certainly more conformable to nature, but just for that reason is the unscientific course. Although it is more natural for a disk from a tree trunk that roughly encompasses a circle to be gradually rounded off by stripping off uneven little pieces that protrude, this is nonetheless not the way in which the geometer proceeds; he rather uses a circular instrument, or straightaway a free movement of the hand, to draw an exact abstract circle. And because what is pure, higher, and true is by nature first [natura prius], the procedure conforming to the matter itself is to make it first in science, too. For science is the reverse of merely natural, i.e., nonspiritual, representation. What is pure is first in truth, and science ought proceed in accordance with truth. In the second place, it is a complete error to assume that the path which begins naturally with the concrete sensory [content] and from there progresses to thought is easier. It is on the contrary more difficult.” (Report to Niethammer, 23 October 1812).

Discipline and Self-Will in the Child

“One of the chief factors in education is discipline, the purport of which is to break down the child’s self-will and thereby eradicate his purely natural and sensuous self. We must not expect to achieve this by mere goodness, since it is just the immediate will which acts on immediate fancies and caprices, not on reasons and representative thinking. If we advance reasons to children, we leave it open to them to decide whether the reasons are weighty or not, and thus we make everything depend on their whim. So far as children are concerned, universality and the substance of things reside in their parents, and this implies that children must be obedient. If the feeling of subordination, producing the longing to grow up, is not fostered in children, they become forward and impertinent” (Philosophy of Right, §174a).

“With regard to one side of education, namely, discipline, the boy should not be allowed to follow his own inclination; he must obey in order that he may learn to command. Obedience is the beginning of all wisdom; for the will which as yet does not know what is true and objective, does not make this its goal and therefore far from being truly self-dependent and free is still immature; such a will is enabled through obedience inwardly to accept the authority of the rational will coming to it externally and gradually to make this his own. On the other hand, to allow children to do as they please, to be so foolish as to provide them into the bargain with reasons for their whims, is to fall into the worst of all educational practices; such children develop the deplorable habit of fixing their attention on their own inclinations, their own peculiar cleverness, their own selfish interests, and this is the root of all evil. By nature, the child is neither bad nor good, since it starts without any knowledge either of good or of evil. To deem this unknowing innocence an ideal and to yearn to return to it would be silly; it has no value and is short-lived. Self-will and evil soon make their appearance in the child. This self-will, this germ of evil, must be broken and destroyed by discipline” (Subjective Spirit §396n.)

“The concepts of what is to be understood by discipline and school discipline have altered very much with the progress of culture. Since upbringing has increasingly been considered from the correct standpoint that it requires essentially more support than suppression of the awakening self-feeling, that it must be a cultivation of self-sufficiency, the upbringing in families as well as institutions has increasingly lost the manner of inculcating in young people a feeling of subjection and unfreedom, and of making themselves obedient more to another than to their own will even in matters which are indifferent – demanding empty obedience for the sake of obedience, and reaching through hardness what more properly belongs merely to the feeling of love, respect and the seriousness of the subject matter... From this liberality follows also the setting of boundaries on the discipline which the school can exercise” (Werke 4:350-351).

“the assertion that the teacher should carefully adjust himself to the individuality of each of his pupils, studying and developing it, must be treated as idle chatter. He has simply no time to do this. The peculiarities of children are tolerated within the family circle; but at school there begins a life subject to general regulations, to a rule which applies to all; it is the place where mind must be brought to lay aside its idiosyncracies, to know and to desire the universal, to accept the existing general culture This reshaping of the soul, this alone is what education means. The more educated a man is, the less is there apparent in his behaviour anything peculiar only to him, anything therefore that is merely contingent.

“Now the peculiarity of the individual has various aspects. These are distinguished as natural disposition, temperament, and character.

“By disposition is understood the natural endowments of a man in contrast to what he has become by his own efforts. These natural endowments include talent and genius. Both words express a definite direction which the individual mind has been given by Nature. Genius, however, is wider in scope than talent; the product of the latter lies only in the sphere of the particular, whereas genius creates a new genre. But since talent and genius are, to begin with, merely dispositions, they must be developed - if they are not to be wasted or squandered or to degenerate into a spurious originality - in accordance with universally valid principles. It is only by the development of these dispositions that their existence can be demonstrated, as also their power and range. Prior to such development one can be deceived about the existence of a talent; to busy oneself when young with painting, for example, may seem to betray talent for this art an yet this hobby can fail to accomplish anything. Talent alone is, therefore. not to be esteemed higher than Reason which by its own activity has come to a knowledge of its Concept, as an absolutely free thinking and willing. In philosophy, genius by itself does not carry one very far; it must subject itself to the strict discipline of logical thinking; it is only by this subjection that genius succeeds in philosophy in achieving its perfect freedom. As regards the will, however, one cannot say that there is a genius for virtue; for virtue is something universal, to be required of all men; it is not innate but is to be produced in the individual by his own efforts. Difference in natural dispositions are, therefore of no importance whatever for ethics; they would come into account only if we may so express ourselves, in a natural history of the mind” (Subjective Spirit §395n.).

Play is not for the Schoolroom

“The necessity for education is present in children as their own feeling of dissatisfaction with themselves as they are, as the desire to belong to the adult world whose superiority they divine, as the longing to grow up. The play theory of education assumes that what is childish is itself already something of inherent worth and presents it as such to the children; in their eyes it lowers serious pursuits, and education itself, to a form of childishness for which the children themselves have scant respect. The advocates of this method represent the child, in the immaturity in which he feels himself to be, as really mature and they struggle to make him satisfied with himself as he is. But they corrupt and distort his genuine and proper need for something better, and create in him a blind indifference to the substantial ties of the intellectual world, a contempt of his elders because they have thus posed before him, a child, in a contemptible and childish fashion, and finally a vanity and conceit which feeds on the notion of its own superiority” (Philosophy of Right, §175a).

To begin with, this incipient self-dependence expresses itself in a child’s learning to play with tangible things. But the most rational thing that children can do with their toys is to break them.

“In passing from play to the seriousness of learning, the child becomes a boy. At this stage children begin to be curious, especially for stories; what interests them in these is ideas which do not come to them in an immediate manner. But here the main thing is the awakening feeling in them that as yet they are not what they ought to be, and the active desire to become like the adults in whose surroundings they are living. It is this desire which gives rise to the imitativeness of children. Whereas the feeling of immediate unity with the parents is the spiritual mother’s milk on which children thrive, it is the children’s own need to grow up which acts as the stimulus to that growth. This striving after education on the part of children themselves is the immanent factor in all education. But since the boy is still at the stage of immediacy, the higher to which he is to raise himself appears to him, not in the form of universality or of the matter in hand, but in the shape of something given, of an individual, an authority. It is this or that man who forms the ideal which the boy strives to know and to imitate; only in this concrete manner does the child at his stage perceive his own essential nature. What the child is to learn must therefore be given to him on and with authority; he has the feeling that what is thus given to him is superior to him. This feeling must be carefully fostered in education. For this reason we must describe as completely preposterous the pedagogy which bases itself on play, which proposes that children should be made acquainted with serious things in the form of play and demands that the educator should lower himself to the childish level of intelligence of the pupils instead of lifting them up to an appreciation of the seriousness of the matter in hand. This education by playing at lessons can results on the boy throughout his whole life treating everything disdainfully. Such a regrettable result can also be produced by perpetually stimulating children to indulge in argument and disputation, a method recommended by unintelligent pedagogues; this can easily make children impertinent. Children must, of course, be roused to think for themselves; but the worth of the matter in hand should not be put at the mercy of their immature, vain understanding” (Subjective Spirit §396n).

“... in [the family], the child is accepted in its immediate individuality, is loved whether its behavior is good or bad. In school, on the other hand, the immediacy of the child no longer counts; here it is esteemed only according to its worth, according to its achievements, is not merely loved but criticised and guided in accordance with universal principles, moulded by instruction according to fixed rules, in general, subjected to a universal order which forbids many things innocent in themselves because everyone cannot be permitted to do them. The school thus forms the transition from the family into civil society. But to the latter the boy has at first only an undefined relationship; his interest is still divided between learning and playing” (Subjective Spirit §396n).

Teachers should have freedom to adapt to circumstances

“Since every new concept in a systematic whole really arises from what precedes by dialectic, a teacher acquainted with the nature of philosophizing everywhere enjoys as often as possible the freedom to advance the inquiry by means of dialectic; and where dialectic finds no access, he is free to pass on to the next concept without it” (Report to Niethammer 23 October 1812).

Children are travelling a road already levelled by past generations

“The task of conducting the individual mind from its unscientific standpoint to that of science had to be taken in its general sense; we had to contemplate the formative development (Bildung) of the universal [or general] individual, of self-conscious spirit. As to the relation between these two [the particular and general individual], every moment, as it gains concrete form and its own proper shape and appearance, finds a place in the life of the universal individual. The particular individual is incomplete mind, a concrete shape in whose existence, taken as a whole, one determinate characteristic predominates, while the others are found only in blurred outline. In that mind which stands higher than another the lower concrete form of existence has sunk into an obscure moment; what was formerly an objective fact is now only a single trace: its definite shape has been veiled, and become simply a piece of shading. The individual, whose substance is mind at the higher level, passes through these past forms, much in the way that one who takes up a higher science goes through those preparatory forms of knowledge, which he has long made his own, in order to call up their content before him; he brings back the recollection of them without stopping to fix his interest upon them. The particular individual, so far as content is concerned, has also to go through the stages through which the general mind has passed, but as shapes once assumed by mind and now laid aside, as stages of a road which has been worked over and levelled out. Hence it is that, in the case of various kinds of knowledge, we find that what in former days occupied the energies of men of mature mental ability sinks to the level of information, exercises, and even pastimes, for children; and in this educational progress we can see the history of the world’s culture delineated in faint outline. This bygone mode of existence has already become an acquired possession of the general mind, which constitutes the substance of the individual, and, by thus appearing externally to him, furnishes his inorganic nature. In this respect culture or development of mind (Bildung), regarded from the side of the individual, consists in his acquiring what lies at his hand ready for him, in making its inorganic nature organic to himself, and taking possession of it for himself. Looked at, however, from the side of universal mind qua general spiritual substance, culture means nothing else than that this substance gives itself its own self-consciousness, brings about its own inherent process and its own reflection into self” (Phenomenology §28).

“When a father inquired about the best method of educating his son in ethical conduct, a Pythagorean replied: ‘Make him a citizen of a state with good laws’. (The phrase has also been attributed to others.)” (Philosophy of Right §153 note)

“The educational experiments, advocated by Rousseau in Emile, of withdrawing children from the common life of every day and bringing them up in the country, have turned out to be futile, since no success can attend an attempt to estrange people from the laws of the world. Even if the young have to be educated in solitude, it is still useless to hope that the fragrance of the intellectual world will not ultimately permeate this solitude or that the power of the world mind is too feeble to gain the mastery of those outlying regions. It is by becoming a citizen of a good state that the individual first comes into his right.” (Philosophy of Right §153 addition)

Children should be taught ethics early

“In fact, if one waits to acquaint the human being with such things [substantial moral principles] until he is fully capable of grasping ethical concepts in their entire truth, then few would ever possess this capacity, and these few hardly before the end of their life. It is precisely the lack of ethical reflection which delays the cultivation of this grasp, just as it delays the cultivation of moral feeling” (Werke 4:347).

Children should be exposed to the Classics

“Education must have an earlier material and object, upon which it labours, which it alters and forms anew. It is necessary that we acquire the world of antiquity, not only so as to possess it, but even more in order to have something that we can work over” (Werke 4:320-321).