Volume:1, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2009

The Dynamics of the Goals of Vasily Sukhomlinsky’s “School Holistic System”
Boguslavsky, Mikhail V. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: humanistic education; history of Russian education; school holistic system; “labor-centered school;” forward-looking character of education; Anton Makarenko; humanity.
SYNOPSIS: The author fully describes the life and activities of a very famous Soviet humanistic educator Vasily Sukhomlinsky who “gave his heart” to children. Sukhomlinsky’s theory and practice is presented in an unusual way – from the point of view of the ‘holistic school system’s concept which makes the article even more valuable.


The Dynamics of  the Goals of Vasily Sukhomlinsky’s
“School Holistic System”

…”A sacred journey,” that is how one can describe the life of Vasily Alexandrovich Sukhomlinsky (1918-1970)ii, a genuine humanist educator. His personal and professional discourse coincides with every focal point of the world’s pedagogical movements of the twentieth century. As with any other original thinker, Sukhomlinsky created a system of ideas and views on teaching, education, and socialization which was always consistent and which totally expressed his educational credo. At the same time, along with the development of his educational theory and practice, some of his ideas and approaches had to be rethought, and some had to be seriously reexamined.

The unchanging part of his educational ideas was formulated and shaped at the early stages of his career, shortly before and immediately after WWII. At the age of seventeen he started working as a tutor at the Vasilyevka village school in the Kirovograd Regioniii. His first position was as leader of the Young Pioneers, then he became an elementary school teacher and finally a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature. After graduating from the School of Philology of the Poltavsky Pedagogical Instituteiv, Sukhomlinsky was appointed vice-principal of another village school in Onufrievka.

During this five-year period, a number of his basic attitudes and beliefs were crystallized and became the core of his humanistic, holistic system of education. Among them were: a sincere and intense interest in a child’s personality; the use of various strategies to intensify children’s cognitive activities; an organic unity of academic and extracurricular activities; the formation of civic ideals as the primary goal of education; friendly and confidential relationships with students. He was also the first to institute scientific experiments in his school’s agricultural site. During this period he developed a clear vision of what a teacher’s professional and personal traits should be. His standards were always quite high and his attitude was no less honest. Thus, it is no wonder that the teachers in his school did not always welcome the young vice-principal’s objective remarks about their classes.

The first revision of his pedagogical ideas was polished during WWII. After being severely wounded, Sukhomlinsky had to leave the army. He was appointed school principal in the settlement of Uva in Udmurtiav where he worked from 1942 to 1944. These were difficult times when any school principal had to take care not only of the character development and instruction of students, but also of their clothing and meals. This period of his life gave him valuable experience in school management, and it also fully revealed his selfless, altruistic attitude and his adherence to humanistic pedagogy.

Afterwards, there came a morally and physically difficult four-year period of work as the head of the Onuflievsky School District in the Kirovograd region. He was supposed to restore the district’s educational system and to bring together and motivate children, many of whom were orphans as a result of the fascist occupation of this region during WWII. This work brought his worldview into sharp focus, as well as his social and pedagogical ideas. It also stimulated his desire to write and the local press started publishing his first articles.

Summing up this initial stage of the genesis of his holistic system of education, we can say that by 1948, when he was appointed Pavlyshvi school principal, he had already thought out the most important concepts of his pedagogy. By this time too he had become a skilled school administrator and a teacher with a long and complex personal life experience.

The next stage in the development of his thought covers the period from 1948-1956. During this time his pedagogical beliefs and attitudes became very flexible. For example, he had initially announced his adherence to the “academic school” concept which provided students with fundamental knowledge and skills, valuing the primacy of academic discipline over anything else. This attitude was radically changed in the second part of the 1950s when Sukhomlinsky rethought his educational principles and became a strong supporter of the “labor-centered school” education concept.

At this time he reoriented his core educational principles towards including creative activities which enhanced personal development; he also used a combination of physical and cognitive activities based on his experiments and research. The importance of acquiring cognitive skills over the mere accumulation of knowledge also became one of his priorities. This approach to education put the Pavlysh School and Sukhomlinsky in the educational avant-garde of the Soviet Union because, at this time, Soviet education was being developed according to the principles of the “labor-centered school” concept. As a result, Sukhomlinsky was elected Associate member of the Academy of Pedagogical Sciencesvii and was also awarded the state’s highest honor, The Order of Lenin.

Another feature of his thought that revealed itself clearly during this same period and is also very typical of his concept of holistic education is its advanced, forward-looking character. There are two primary reasons that explain the national recognition of the Pavlysh students’ activities: first, an orientation towards labor-based education that became the primary feature of Soviet pedagogy during the period known as the “Krushchev” decade, from the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, and, second, Sukhomlinsky had initiated this type of education before the issuance of Communist Party and Government regulations mandating it. In every respect his ideas and beliefs were always much wider and profound than those prescribed by the labor-centered school or that of any other state mandated program. He was always ahead of his time and thus, ahead of Soviet thinking and pedagogy. For example, he had begun his study of axiology, that is, the study of abstract values, e.g., ethics, which characterized the ideals and values of rural Ukrainian communities.

His world outlook became gradually even more oriented towards the future. This expressed itself clearly during the period from 1961 to 1964 when Sukhomlinsky wrote a number of books and articles testifying to his faith in a better future. Though these works reflected Communist doctrine, Communism, as it was expressed in his philosophy of education, is to be taken more as a symbol of common human values such as happiness, joy, love for mankind, rather than of the class struggle, party loyalty and membership.

A reconsideration of Communist ideas in Sukhomlinsky’s publications and activities is in no way connected with a desire to cast a shadow on his humanism; instead, this research is, motivated by a desire to consider them in an objective light.  To embark on an effort to correct and cleanse his works of Communist ideas would mean falling into the error of his critics who, earlier, tried to eliminate humanistic values from Sukhomlinsky’s writings.

The most valid approach to this problem is to be found in the writings of his daughter, Olga Sukhomlinskaya, an educator and active member of the Ukrainian Academy of Pedagogical Sciences who believes that:

“Like many others, Vasily Alexandrovich could not imagine another type of world outlook than the one to be found within Marxist-Leninist philosophy and ethics. It had a direct impact on the creation of his educational theory in terms of its structure. But we believe that the inner essence and the contents of his theories went beyond Marxism. Sukhomlinsky put forward pedagogical concepts, definitions, and approaches not in keeping with Soviet pedagogy, rejecting, as he did, education along authoritative lines. Vasily Sukhomlinsky developed ideas that were not characteristic of Soviet ideology such as freedom of choice, freedom of the will, and respect for the uniqueness of each personality” [1].

Sukhomlinsky’s discourse became especially clear and wide reaching in the second half of the 1960s. This short five-year period is the most important and interesting in the development of his concept of holistic education. It marks the definitive pinnacle of his educational achievements and provides us with all the justifications to consider his works as important not only for his nation but for the entire world as well. They are classics of pedagogy.

Among the reasons for this breakthrough we can cite a number of internal and external factors, including the softening of the social and political situation in the country, even before the Prague Spring of 1968. Most significant were some internal stimuli which helped to develop his pedagogical ideas. As we have stated before, some of his basic ideas and beliefs were expressed earlier in his career, but it is precisely in the second half of the 1960s that we observe a different Sukhomlinsky, one which presents us with a difficult problem to research and understand, a true irrational ‘puzzle,’ for at this time he reconsidered practically all of his educational ideas and beliefs. For example, he was disappointed with many basic principles of Anton Makarenko’sviii educational system. This new attitude towards Makarenko’s ideas is expressed in an unpublished manuscript, “Our Good Family” (1967), in the introduction of which he states:

“A serious drawback in Soviet pedagogy lies in ignoring the fact that the work to form and develop an individual cannot be successful without considering all aspects of personal development. The source of this misconception dates from Makarenko’s false statement that the main objective of Soviet moral and character education is found in the collective. This statement was in perfect harmony with the idea that any human being is just a small cog. How can a cog alone be a goal by itself?! A dogmatic and non-critical approach to Makarenko’s theoretical statement, as well as to his whole pedagogical system, changed the focus of education from dealing with the individual person to a collective:  the ability to lead and obey became and remained an objective by itself” [2].

This period marked Sukhomlinsky’s drifting away from Soviet pedagogy because of its retreat from the labor-school paradigm to a slightly revised version of the academic school model with the accent on “educational teaching” advanced by Johann Friedrich Herbartix many years before.

At this later phase of Sukhomlinsky’s thinking about education, the main traits of his system underwent a change. A developing personality became a value in and of itself, together with the following: accepting personality formation as a phenomenon, mostly independent of social demands; free development of an active child; assistance in personal character formation and resistance to leveling social tendencies. In the process of personal character formation Sukhomlinsky oriented the school towards a synchronized process of two subjects. In the center of the educational process he placed the child with his/her active nature, individual interests and creative abilities and he expected teachers to focus on these. And so, the primary goal of all teachers was to create the most favorable conditions for the development of children. This explains the changes in many other approaches and activities of the Pavlysh school: an attempt to widen students’ knowledge about the surrounding world, to develop their critical thinking and independent behavior, to create a system of moral values, and also to form a number of skills necessary for a student’s independent use of acquired information.

From the point of view of personal character formation, Sukhomlinsky considered education as a process of bringing to completion biologically inherent traits, spontaneous reactions, and impulses. At the same time, he paid serious attention to the uniqueness of the educational and social environment of children. In 1967, for the first time, Sukhomlinsky published these ideas in Narodnoye Obrazovanye (National Education).  No sooner was his second article published, then his approach underwent heavy criticism, mostly by the Teacher’s Gazette, the main publication of the Ministry of Public Education of the Russian Federation. It is quite evident that the ambitious supporters of Anton Makarenko, trying to protect their idol, provoked the struggle against Sukhomlinsky. Their confidence of impunity (the Teacher’s Gazette received numerous letters of support for Sukhomlinsky, but none were ever published), the scope and duration of the campaign to obstruct him, the deliberate blocking of this humanistic teacher, show that the orders for this campaign of protest came from the very top.

There is no doubt that such persecution of a public school teacher had a much wider basis and was connected with the Prague Syndrome and with Communist Party leaders’ increasing intolerance of “socialism with a human face” and of “abstract humanism,” both being clearly interconnected. Thousands of talented and independently thinking persons in different spheres of science and culture became victims of this post-Stalinist period of revenge.

Sukhomlinsky was, as is well known, aware of this entire situation and, as a humanist, it was extremely painful for him. At the beginning he tried to explain publicly his point of view and to answer the charges against him. Naturally this irritated his enemies even more. Then, Sukhomlinsky turned his attention almost entirely to writing. Putting his hopes in the future while realizing that strength was failing him and that he had very little hope that his reply would ever be published, he nevertheless composed a response in his favorite genre, a Letters to My Son in which, with courage and dignity, he formulated his civic and political position:

“Can you imagine, son, they accused me of having invented a ‘foggy term, called humanity.’ This accusation has totally amazed me. Doesn’t this mean that being human is alien to Communist ideals and Communist education? They also accused me of ‘abstract humanism.’ What does this mean? I can explain it in the following way: this is when you talk about loving people in general, without specifying what people and under what conditions they live. This is not fair and I don’t deserve to be accused of it, son. I cannot agree that a child should be loved only with some hidden idea in mind; I cannot imagine that being kind and friendly, eager, tender and genial is somehow dangerous for a child. To me it sounds simply absurd. I am sure that only if we are humane, tender and kind to every child can we develop a real human being. I believe one of the main principles of character formation is mutual trust between teacher and student. Developing civility, humanism, and polishing different sides of this “precious stone” is something without which it is impossible to conceive of a school or a teacher” [3].

At the end of the 1960s Sukhomlinsky wrote his best humanistic works: I Give My Heart to Children, A Conversation with a Young School Principal,  A Hundred Pieces of Advice for a Teacher,  Birth of a Citizen, and some others where he expressed new, forward-looking ideas. Along with his former orientation towards international education, his ideas were now more grounded in Ukrainian pedagogy and national values. Instead of his former atheism, Sukhomlinsky showed more respect to folkloric elements in education and to different myths and legends. Instead of clinging to a dominant idea of how to form the complete human personality, he was more oriented to the idea of adapting various approaches in striving to develop the personality of a child. Basic, spiritual values became a central aspect of his pedagogy, similar to Christian pedagogy.

Now let us briefly summarize the last period of Sukhomlinsky’s creative activities and their philosophical characteristics: first of all, there is the tendency to expand the central characteristics of the process of education. This means abandoning a central and exclusive methodology and instead seeking new approaches and considering formerly taboo subjects such as family values, local pedagogy, and the psychological process of human development, not excluding but even considering what psychotherapy could contribute. Sukhomlinsky corresponded with juvenile prisoners and priests alike in his search for novel ideas. It is no wonder that his last works have a confessional character, such as his A Word to Students, Words to My Successor, and others. In this regard we have already cited his Letters to My Son.

Academic activities and study in the Pavlysh School had lost their value in and of themselves and were turned into instruments for the formation and socialization of children’s personalities. Instead of emphasis on past, external influences, it was instead on new, stimulating ideas. One of his articles, in this regard, bears the title We Need The Most Subtle Instruments.  One can observe Sukhomlinsky’s abandonment of his former unshakable adherence to an unchanging pedagogical system and his espousal of another model of education, more synergetic in character and with serious attention paid to external microfactors of a personal and environmental nature on the character of a child. Thus, Sukhomlinsky came to a new hierarchy of educational values, abandoning the former Soviet State-Labor-Communism, and taking up instead a new triad Country-Love-Family.

Even the forward-looking orientation of his pedagogy receives a more boldly expressed universal character for, in his last works, Sukhomlinsky, at least in his thoughts, went beyond the constraints of Pavlysh, Ukraine, and the USSR. Nor did he fit into any of the traditional pedagogical categories: European, Soviet, Ukrainian, etc. This change applies also to the different schools or paradigms of pedagogy, i.e., the “labor-centered school,” or “free education.” It is evident that he was in the process of forming a unique and original system of pedagogy with an inner unity.

In his last works Sukhomlinsky reveals his new “persona,” we could say that of a preacher. This new tendency was noticed by Soviet pedagogues and caused a high level of anxiety. This anxiety can be clearly detected in Boris Likhachev’s pogrom-type article, “We Need a Fight and Not a Sermon.” We clearly receive the impression that though remaining a very modest and even shy person, Sukhomlinsky realized the true scale of his pedagogical gifts and what his role was in the world, that of a humanistic teacher who lived in an authoritarian country.  His universalistic tendencies can be seen in his choice of publication media: no longer did he publish only in educational journals, but turned to mass-media outlets for the expression of his ideas. His entire lifetime had convinced him of the validity, legitimacy, and effectiveness of his pedagogical activities.

On September 2, 1970, Sukhomlinsky’s life on earth ended and, from that day on, he began a new, eternal life that will exist as long as there are children in this world, of whom he was ever and will always be the staunch defender and faithful proponent.


  1. See: Svobodnoye vospitaniye (1993). Vladi 3. P.5.
  2. See: Tsentralny Gosudarstvenny Arkhiv Ukrainy. F. 5097. Op.1. D.205. P.3.
  3. See: Svobodnoye vospitaniye (1993). Vladi 3. P.3.


Boguslavsky, Mikhail Victorovich [In Russian: Михаил Викторович Богуславский], Ph. D., an associate member of the Russian Academy of Education, Professor, chief research fellow, Institute of Theory and History of Pedagogics, RAE.

Sukhomlinsky, Vasily Alexandrovich (1918-1970) [In Russian: Василий Александрович Сухомлинский], a famous Soviet educator, a school principal, an author of over 40 books and 1,000 articles, a corresponding member of the Academy of  Pedagogical Sciences.

Kirovograd Region is situated in the center of Ukraine between famous rivers, The Dnieper and the southern Bug. Its population is over one million people, and the capital is the city of Kirovograd.  

Poltavsky Pedagogical Institute is a Teacher’s training college, one of the oldest and famous in the Soviet Union, it is situated in the city of Poltava, Ukraine.

Udmurtia is a federal subject of Russia, it is a republic within the Russian Federation. Its size is almost 42,000 km² with a population of 1,600,000 people. Its capital is Izhevsk.

Pavlysh is a big village in the Kirovograd region. It was occupied by fascists during WWII, and was heavily destroyed during that time. The school itself, built before 1917, was all in ruins after the war.

There are two titles in the Russian Academy of Education (an old name – the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences): Academician or a Full/active member and a lower-rank title, variously translated as Corresponding Member or Associate Member: [In Russian: член-корреспондент (chlen-korrespondent)].

Makarenko, Anton Semyonovich [In Russian: Антон Семёнович Макаренко, 1888–1939] was a Ukrainian and Soviet educator and writer, one of the founders of the Soviet pedagogy, who elaborated the theory and methodology of upbringing in self-governing child collectives and of introducing productive labor into the educational system.

Herbart, Johann Friedrich (1776 – 1841) was a German philosopher, psychologist, and a founder of pedagogy as an academic discipline.

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