Sunday, November 14, 2021

Herbart Individuality and character

Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776 - 1841) was a German philosopher, who studied Kant, was a pupil of Fichte, and far better known as a philosopher than educational theorist. It was only after his death in 1841 that his most famous text General Education became known and popular, so popular that his education system gained global interest. 

Education, he thought, comes up against a particular problem: it is familiar to all, and worse, what they think they know is best for all. So he wanted to place education and the education of teachers on a sound pedagogic footing, grounded in science and the psychology of learning.


In General Education (1806) he disagreed with Fichte’s state oriented educational position as laid out in Address to the German Nation. Herbart took the opposite position, seeing education as being apolitical and universal, not in the interest of the state, but an end in itself. For Herbart it was the individuality of the learner, not the state, that should be at the centre of education. The teacher must bring out the many-sidedness, the many interests, of an individual while developing their moral character, all the time seeing the learner as an ‘individual’. The teacher has to get the child interested, to become active, and reach out to learn. Children have individuality but it is character that has to be changed.

Herbart saw education very much as a process of teaching and learning a solid curriculum, so that learners develop but are shaped by that teaching. This led Herbart to determine a method for instruction that kept the process fixed to htat form of development.  


The teacher must see their job as the development of character. This starts with relating new ideas to what the learner can recall and already knows, to stimulate interest. Then relate the interest to something in the real world, an object or something experienced. This can be widened out to other ideas and experiences and on, on adolescents to generalisation and finally useful in life and dealing with life. The unfolding and teaching of character leads steadily and solidly towards intellectual and moral development.

There is, of course, a strong Kantian influence here and character has a moral dimension of being able to identify the good and reject what is evil. This takes place as a process of the awakening of character. It is there but has to be nurtured. There is, of course, the ever-present concept of the ‘will’, something that dominated 19th century German philosophy.

Teacher training

It was Herbart that consolidated the idea that teacher training should be formalised, based on science and taught in Universities. His work formalised teaching around a system of psychology with a clear methodology, which recognised the individuality of the learner. This focus on teacher training was his lasting legacy. 


Although his educational theories have their roots in philosophy, in particular German idealism, there is a sense that it is both influenced by but also rejects that influence. He retains the strong moral purpose which Kant saw as important but also hte psychological differences in individuals.


His educational theory had an immense influence in the 19th century, not only in Germany but also America. There was a Herbert Society in the US and his recommendations were taken seriously and implemented on scale.


Herbart, J.F., 1895. The science of education: Its general principles deduced from its aim and the aesthetic revelation of the world. DC Heath & Company.

Herbart, J.F., 1891. A text-book in psychology: An attempt to found the science of psychology on experience, metaphysics, and mathematics (Vol. 18). D. Appleton.


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