Volume:3, Issue: 1

Mar. 1, 2011

Konstantin Dmitryevich Ushinsky (1823-1870)
Boguslavsky, Mikhail V. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: Russian education history, pedagogics, philosophy, Man as the Subject of Education.
SYNOPSIS: Professor Boguslavsky continues his Russian Education History Series with this article about Konstantin Dmitryevich Ushinsky, author of one of the definitive pedagogical classics of Russian education and one of the most prominent Russian educators of the past.



Born on February 19, 1823 in Tula, south of Moscow, to an impoverished noble family, the early instruction of this future pedagogue was managed by his mother, Lyubov Stepanovna Ushinsky, who very attentively concerned herself with the inquisitiveness of her child, supporting and developing his curious mind. He eventually accumulated so much knowledge under his mother’s schooling that he was accepted into the third class of a gymnasium which in our time would be equivalent to grade 5 or 6.

After finishing gymnasium studies, the talented youth entered Moscow University where he revealed not only an enviable talent for quick perception and critical evaluation of knowledge but also a skill for sharing his knowledge with others.

In 1844 after he finished his studies with the university’s faculty of law with outstanding success, the university council recommended him for “the distinction of being taken directly into ministerial service and for other offices on the highest level.”


At the age of twenty-three Ushinsky received an appointment to the Yaroslavl Law Lyceum in the post of professor of all branches of jurisprudence, governmental law, and the science of finance. Here he showed himself to be a learned encyclopedist and talented lecturer. In his lectures he gave a systematic account of knowledge according to history and political economics, ethnography, and philosophy, philology, and psychology. He spoke about freedom as the natural state of man, about freedom in society as a necessary condition for all manner of development, and of the inalienable right of man to personal dignity.

However, similar views divided the instructional authorities and Ushinsky left the professorial faculty. From Yaroslavl he went to St. Petersburg where he quickly was convinced that the doors of the educational institutions were closed to him. The young educator was very near desperation.

At the beginning of February 1850, he was finally given an obscure job as an assistant to the head of the department of spiritual affairs dealing with “foreign religions.” In his free time, he continued his studies of philosophy, economics, history, geography, statistics and many other sciences. He also made a lot of contributions to journals and developed quite a reputation as a writer in numerous and varied genres including articles, reviews, abstracts, and art essays. His attention was most frequently focused on problems of instruction, education, and formation.

In 1855 he finally received an offer of employment from another department. He was appointed an instructor of literature and law at the Gatchinsky Orphanage and later was made an inspector of the institution. This instructional and formational establishment was a single system school. Students ranged from elementary instruction where they learned the basics of reading, writing, and calculations to the higher classes in which the students participated in such courses as legal studies. With Usinsky’s arrival, the reputation of the institute improved greatly.

At this point in his life, he found himself at the beginning of the Russian epoch of great educational reform. Not surprisingly, the diverse talent and accumulated pedagogic experience of K. D. Ushinsky turned out to be exactly what was needed.


In 1857 Ushinsky’s star was at its zenith. In The Education Journal, which had only recently been created in the pre-reform atmosphere of liberalism and openness, he published his own series of articles including “Concerning the Benefits of Pedagogical Literature,” “Three Types of Schools,” and “Concerning National Characteristics in Public Education.” These articles, especially the last one, made the humble inspector of classes of the Gatchnisky Orphanage one of the most famous educators in all of Russia. Ushinsky, from the beginning, stood as an equal with Nikolay I. Pirogov and then surpassed him in the influence that he had on the minds of others.

This new reality had a very immediate effect on the fate of Konstantin Dmitryevich. In 1859 he sent to the Empress Maria Alexandrovna, in response to her request, “A Letter Concerning the Education of the Heir to the Russian Throne,” wherein he set out a plan for the education of the Crown Prince Nikolas Alexandrovich who was just 16th years old. All of this bears witness to the trust that the imperial family had in K.D. Ushinsky. It provided him with an opportunity, without censorship or even semi-censorship, to reveal his own innermost thoughts concerning education.

Also during the year, 1859, Ushinsky began a term as the inspector of classes in St. Petersburg for the famous Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens which was an educational institution for daughters of the privileged social classes. Here he radically improved the educational and formational process.

On a wave of recognition K.D. Ushinsky, the “outsider” counselor, by order of the Emperor, was appointed editor of the official educational publication, The Journal of the Ministry for National Education,” (March 1, 1860) where he published a new series of his own classic works beginning with “The Psychological and Educational Significance of Labor” and the renowned, “Native Word.”

K.D. Ushinsky obviously experienced during this time the sensation of his own important place in Russian pedagogy that is to say, his own fundamental role. His articles to a certain extent assume a very purposeful character. They provide the reader with the ability of appreciating the scale of his pedagogical explorations, as well as the peculiar harmony of his system of ideas and views.


Kontantin Dmitryevich had methodically set up a distinctive “magic square” of his own based on the four elements of nationality, community, religion, and science. Moreover, these supporting fundamentals not only mutually permeate one another but they can be understood only in their entirety. The specifics of K.D. Ushinsky’s legacy created a “blind alley” for all who attempted to turn this square into a “Rubik’s Cube” by turning the elements and selecting a choice of these essential facets in accordance with some political conjecture or a certain pre-conceived ideology.

More than that, Ushinsky in laying out his views demonstrates his ability to be quite contradictory. For example, two of his opinions about the “role of the church in education” differ completely: (First, the favorable one.) “The affairs of our national education should be consecrated by the church and the school ought to be the threshold of the church”; (Then, the irate one.) “Our clergy throughout the centuries has not developed a single educational idea, not an idea! It hasn’t even created any tolerable instructional institutions. On the contrary, in their own particular establishments, where they educate children, they provide the most repulsive specimens of their own worthlessness in the business of education. Remembering the effect that the clergy had on our national trade markets, one must, involuntarily, shudder when one thinks of commissioning them with the education of the entire nation. Of course one cannot resort to them for advice.”

More such contradictory examples can easily be found if it were necessary. However, it stands to reason, that these and similar contradictions should not be permitted to push aside the true significance of the totality of K.D. Ushinsky’s contributions to Russian education.

Unfortunately this period of time from 1857-1861 in which Ushinsky came to the apogee of his public, creative and pedagogical activity, his acme, proved to be ephemeral. Already by the fall of 1861, he had left his post as chief editor of The Journal of the Ministry for National Education. That was followed by a forced resignation from the Smolny Institute in April of 1862. The apparent reason was the denunciation of Ushinsky by a priest of the Smolny Institute charging him with atheism and materialism.

After this K.D. Ushinsky was sent to Europe, ostensibly, “for the purpose of visiting and studying foreign, women’s instructional institutions” and for the preparation of a textbook to be used by teachers. His posting, which was essentially “banishment”, lasted, to all intents and purposes, until 1867. While abroad, Ushinsky published “A Pedagogical Journey through Switzerland” which took the form of a series of articles built upon his intimate conversations with foreign and native Swiss teachers.  Through this series, Konstantin Dmitryevich showed himself to be not only an observant analyst but also an outstanding writer with a very subtle sense of humor.


Turning from and distancing himself from society, he worked on his major work, the titanic, Man As the Subject of Education. In 1868 he went to publication with the first volume of his research and in 1869, the second volume appeared, but he was not able to complete his own book. His death prevented the publication of the third volume. The material for this final volume was not published until 1908.

In volume one of Man As the Subject of Education, he devoted himself to an analysis of the psychological foundations of cognitive activities, the results of which he considered necessary to apply to the science of didactics. Pedagogical anthropology, according to the convictions of Ushinsky, ought to begin with physiology and hygiene, using research facts and the constituent elements that characterize the healthy, normal development of the human organism.

His second volume concerns the psychological peculiarities of the emotional and volitional spheres that hold such great importance for education. Here K. D. Ushinsky looked at “the processes of the mental emotions like amazement, curiosity, sadness, joy, and other such feelings.”

K.D. Ushinsky had planned to complete his “anthropology of the individual” with an account of the spiritual peculiarities of the human being. In the third volume, he also intended to set forth the pedagogical measures and guidelines that flow from the analysis of laws regarding psychological activity. However, the untimely death of the scholar in 1870 left this problem unresolved. Overwork undermined his very essence and without that, as Ushinsky had previously written in 1861, “health can finally be destroyed.”

It remains for us to turn, again and again, to his pedagogical legacy which produces a very powerful, even life affirming, impression. His accurate expressions, frankly stated, appearing as if they were written today, can certainly be labeled, “classics.” His thoughtful patriotism and restrained religiosity skillfully cooled his “hot head.” But not his heart!

Reading through the works of Ushinsky, one experiences those feelings of heat of the kind that contemporary pedagogical thinkers don’t seem able to equal. A spirited person, convinced of his own righteousness (though it is a bit superfluous), with a brilliant style and carefully thought out positions, he remains in complete harmony with modern attitudes toward education. Fortunately or unfortunately, K.D. Ushinsky really did observe “the lives of all living things” very closely.

Interestingly enough, his masterpiece warns us against harboring excessive illusions about, supposedly, beneficial influences from the past on contemporary teachers’ ideas. Writing about the next generation of educators, he states, the teacher “quickly becomes quite satisfied with his mechanical routine, once he has created it. However, this is often a false sensation and is nearly always one sided. It even happens sometimes, after becoming rooted in his routine, which he begins, from a kind of maliciousness, to look upon any pedagogical book as if he might somehow, beyond any true expectations, catch it in his hands as if it were some impertinent transgressor of his own longstanding tranquility…

Such an educator, for the most part, is generous with his own advice, and his common sense, sometimes, doesn’t permit him to show disdain for the opinions of other teachers who are older in years and rich experience. But he persistently rejects the wisdom of the centuries-old experience of the entire human race and the advice of experienced and well-known educators only because this advice appears before him in print. Strange, isn’t it? But then, it happens.”

1 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, Russian Academy of Education, Moscow.

Jenny (Oct. 21, 2017)
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