Volume:4, Issue: 1

Apr. 1, 2012

The existential pedagogy of A.I. Herzen: On the 200th Anniversary of his Birth
Boguslavsky, Mikhail V. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: existential pedagogy, pedagogical philosophy, a flat natured person, a noble character, an authentic individual, the heart and soul of the nation, family education.

SYNOPSIS: Alexander Ivanovich Herzen is recognized on his 200th birthday for his contributions to Russian Education and philosophy. Although his philosophical views are better known, this article brings to the forefront Herzen’s views on the education of his own children, the formation of a future tsar, and the enlightenment of the Russian people.


In the history of education, there sometimes occurs the wondrous establishment of an amiable relationship between the past and the present wherein the worldview, ideas, and opinions of a mighty, educational thinker of former times resonates in a new epoch. In this connection, contemporary Russia and its national education system while once more searching for its essential path towards further spiritual development and moral improvement has found guidance in the philosophy of education proposed by Alexander Ivanovich Herzen (1812-1870) whose 200th birthday is being widely recognized and celebrated through national policy statements and in the worlds of culture and science.

Following his death, Herzen’s contributions to the world of science and culture were recognized internationally. It must be emphasized that his outstanding gifts as a writer, his brilliant abilities as a polemicist, his colossal erudition, and his prominent talent placed him as one of the central figures of the Russian and world communities. Indisputably, he can be considered one of the significant contributors to world literature, philosophy, political science, and culture. There has been, however, far less study of A.I. Herzen’s views on education.

Development of a pedagogical philosophy

The development of the pedagogical philosophy of Herzen can be divided into several periods:

  • The 1840’s to the first half of the 50’s: The leading focus of his pedagogical thinking was dependent on the problem of transforming the individual into a citizen.
  • The second half of the 1850’s to the first half of the 60’s: During his period of emigration from Russia, the thinker was focused on the creation of a Russian education policy.
  • In the second half of the 60’s: Herzen’s priority was on the values of the family’s role in the moral formation of the child both spiritually and as a citizen.

Herzen developed and implemented his initial pedagogical views during the period from 1840 to the mid 1850’s. He was influenced by the ideology of the European Enlightenment, German classical philosophies, and Russian freedom-loving thought. During this time, Herzen turned toward the center for solutions to the problems of citizenship formation.

He chose artistic forms of literature as a tool and filled his creations with pedagogical problems and spiritual searches. In both his novel, Who is to Blame?, and the short story, “A Magpie – a Thief,” he asked very sharp questions concerning the social-pedagogical realities of his time. In these works, for the first time, he sounded what would later echo as a central theme of his, the concept of the perfect education for a good citizen.

Herzen considered this problem from the perspective of the education of the individual who would bear within himself a steadfast moral core and never backpedal from his ideals under the pressure from circumstances. Conversely, he had regrets concerning the troublesome fates of those who do not have such an internal core. He saw this as a reason why an individual might break down easily under the pressure of the first obstacle presented to him by an outside force.

Russian society, through the “voice” of Herzen, preached, “those who aspire to educating the young should employ critical, individualistic concepts of education and even remove children from society in order to save them from its disturbing influences.” (2, p.23) Beltov, the hero of the novel, Who is to Blame? demonstrates the complete groundlessness of an abstract education which ought to have had an effect on a young learner but had been isolated from the conditions of this life.

In his novel, Herzen clearly reveals the deep tragic element of the possibility of an individual loss of a sense of one’s own existence (or even consciousness of its absence.) The novel demonstrates the heavy role fate played in the life of his hero by the fact that his teacher raised him with fairness and enthusiasm but without an understanding of the real world. (7, p.209) A person with a broad and multi-faceted education is sensibly inquisitive and contemplative. He passionately searches for truth but happens to be “incapable of fighting for his own ideals, unable to display power, toughness, and moral stability. (2, p.23)

Herzen considered the main problem of education to be the formation of a humane, free individual; a citizen, a patriot of the Motherland; one who lives with an interest in his own nation and attempts to transform society on intelligent principles. (6, p.29) Humanism manifests itself in attention to activities that foster love of mankind. For this reason V. G. Belinskii called Herzen, symbolically, “the poet of humanity” in all senses of this excellent word!

According to the historian and educator, N.F. Posznanskii, “From Herzen’s conception of the individual an entire educational program sprung forth like the unfolding of the overture of an opera.” (6, p.26)

From his ruminations, Herzen developed an original typology of individuals:

  • The flat natured person, is one who at the very first of life’s jolts renounces the former sacredness of his soul and proceeds along the vulgar path of gain and greed;
  • The noble character is not real but throughout life maintains his immature daydreams, defies events, and drags his life out like a trumpet playing a single note;
  • The authentic individual proceeds through life without clinging to immature maxims, but with youthful energy is capable of “exposing his soul to mankind, of suffering, and of delighting in the suffering and joys of the present time.” (6, pp. 26, 29)

First and foremost, such a free, democratic individual does not wear himself out in his own egotistical interests but lives for the common interest. The entire life of the truly free person is illuminated by high ideals that give a distinctive tone to man’s destiny. Constant activity, not withdrawn contemplation, is the characteristic trait of a freely-developed person. The free person does not give in to his environment but transforms it. He is “a rebellious person.” (1, Vol. 8, P.149; 6, p.26)

Apparently, Herzen anticipated the pedagogical ideal raised in 1856 by Dr. Nicolay I. Pirogov in his famous work, Questions of Life, with regard to “the athlete of the life action” who should have been trained like this since his childhood. So, that the young person, heading off into life and entering state service, would not crash when confronted by the first blows of destiny on his ideals, he needed to prepare vigorously for the struggle. Education, according to Herzen, “is the deliberate and single-minded process of forming a talented person under the guidance of a teacher to take ‘intelligent action’ in the ‘spiritual’ labor and service of society.” (7, p.209)

Characteristically, after the birth of his first son, Alexander Herzen wrote to him: “Enter into life, join the service of mankind. In telling you this, I set you on a difficult path.” (2, p. 10) Later, in “A Letter to My Son” of June 14, 1862, Herzen re-emphasized his message: “If you seriously summon the force of your will, if you have then, what is called character and obstinacy, you will come of age in life… as a solid person. It’s hard going to live according to a firm, moral basis, open to the public but not necessarily with the public’s agreement.” (4, p.384) In another “Letter to My Son,” he emphasized that “it is necessary to be prepared for all sorts of struggles. If a struggle doesn’t come, it will be possible to do something different. But if some difficulty does come, stand up for what is the truth which, by the way, you should love, and you will see that what might have posed a problem for you has disappeared.” (4, p.157)

In that connection, according to Herzen, the goals of an education included the development of a powerful individual who would work to discover the fullness of his manly individuality and the formation of a personal world-view centered on society. (8, p.95) With the power of his existentially focused views, Herzen defined the individual as a living force that creates a culture whose basic characteristics are self-awareness, thought, determination, freedom, and dignity. The basic role of education should go beyond an introduction to true knowledge and the development of human freedom, initiative, and dignity. (8, p.96)

For Herzen, a most necessary fundamental for a person is his assertion of moral freedom which is accomplished through his creativity and which serves as a defense against the bourgeois-style, life model with its pronounced, spiritual impoverishment of mankind and the ensuing downfall of culture. Solving the problem of the correlation of an individual’s moral freedom and society’s needs, Herzen came to the conclusion that a rational and conscious combination of the individual and the state would lead to a greater understanding of the individual and his important role in the socio-cultural process. Its special significance lies in what Herzen, with startling force, applied to the problem of culture inside the man himself. He proposed an internal path in which man himself would build his own morality and would be obliged to create freedom in his life.

Herzen wrote repeatedly about granting children the utmost freedom. He ardently called for allowing for maximum independence throughout the growth and development of a young person’s thoughts and perceptions of life. “Allow a single generation to be brought up by renowned educators. They will look everyone in the eyes and fearlessly speak their own thoughts.” (3, Vol. 10, p.194) Compared to the creed of forcible formation, a disastrous idea, educating children by means of callous, animal-training techniques or with a sergeant-major-like bearing would be a blessing.” (3, Vol. 10, p. 5)

A.I. Herzen resolutely came out against the official educational policies of Tsar Nicholas I’s Russia which were purposely based on creating conformists, loyal servants of the regime, and servile men who would adapt to social and political circumstances. He did not accept an outcome whereby a person, due to social circumstances, might disrupt his family circle or his idealistic world. For the free individual, according to Herzen, there was only one path, and it would lead to struggles with unfavorable social circumstances. The historian and educator, M. F. Shabayev, remarked that “Herzen’s skill in adhering to his principles concerning people and their affairs so as to make them prominent and in showing children a principled approach to every day things deserves the fixed attention of our council of educators.” (2, p.27)

However, such an approach as Herzen’s was, of course, considerably advanced. His anti-conformist position always faced opposition from official authorities. While Herzen never rose socially, his excellent perceptions, along with the social significance of enlightenment and education, conveyed his ideological potential and formed the platform of the pedagogical movement.

He was deeply convinced that too few lines crossed in educational policy. Objectively speaking, the state’s goals are: comfortable people and needy conformists. Society has as its goals: the education of the individual as expressed through improvement of the land and love of the Motherland which does not include love of the authorities. Although taking place at different times, these lines always had a certain character. The line characterized by the state was directed at figuring out tactical goals and solving the real, political problems of the day. They were close and understandable to the people if not to those living in the “zone of immediate development.” The social line was directed at the future which was an often indistinct model. In his own works in the 1840’s and 50’s, Herzen turned his attention to the man of the future. He prepared mankind for the 60’s.

The second formational period for A. I. Herzen’s pedagogical views took place from the latter half of the 1850’s to the first half of the 1860’s. Although the thinker did not put an emphasis on research while forming his views on education, he did create concepts for a national system of education which would have a fundamental and predictive character.
In developing his opinions on education, Herzen went his own way. He took care to protect the best of Russian educational traditions utilizing what he found of value in European pedagogy simultaneously exposing its weaknesses to serious criticism. (6, p.27) While expressing a receptiveness of the cultures of other nations, he, symptomatically, stressed the quality of the important advantages of Russia’s pedagogies and the uniqueness of its national character. As he put it, “there is no educational system more polyglot than ours.” (6, p. 24)

Researchers always seem to take special note of Herzen’s absolute aversion to bourgeois society as seen in his characteristic, socio-political opinions after he left Russia. His refined and perspicacious mind quickly grasped the imperfections and shortcomings of those forms of western life to which he had initially been attracted from the distant Russian realities of the 1840’s. He consistently and passionately unmasked the spiritual atmosphere of western civilization especially the conformism of the bourgeoisie in his much anticipated criticisms of the contemporary “society of consumption.” (From That Shore)

Herzen definitely did not idealize the educational philosophies of his western contemporaries. He sagaciously saw in them dangers such as the spread of social inequality in the formation of the individual and that which would inhibit access to a quality education for the socially defenseless layers of the population in the sphere of learning. The pedagogy of the bourgeoisie was sickening to him since it was focused on the individualistic interests of “users of other people,” on the development of competiveness, and on the preparation of shrewd and crafty dealers. (5)

In this connection A.I. Herzen promoted plans “for a national rehabilitation of the people” into separate classes in the spirit of community inherent in the Russian people. Herzen took into consideration the very positive influence that common people have on children, namely, “the people are bearers of the very best of Russian national qualities.” In other words, he was opposed to the government’s educational machine placing an external framework upon the heart and soul of the nation.

Herzen always emphasized the national character of his educational philosophy. However, the thinker also inserted other meanings into the term “national character” such as the component parts of the ideological triad of the era of Nicholas the First. Tsar Nicholas viewed the patriarchy of the people and its lack of “liberal aspirations” to be key elements of the national character while Herzen considered other parts of the archetype like the younger generation of the nation learning the importance of work, having disgust for laziness, and an unselfish love for the Motherland.

The third period of Herzen’s pedagogical worldview development took place during the second half of the 1860’s. This father of six living children (He eventually fathered 10 children.) focused on the “parental pedagogic” or the problems of education within the family while living in self-imposed exile. He placed his political struggles and the education his own children on the same level. “For me there are two problems in this world, my work for Russia and your development.” (4, p.219)

The birth of his first born produced a stunning impression on Herzen and he wrote, “a vibrant joy took possession of my heart, as if were sounded in it all the bells of a holiday of holidays.” I lived “in a kind of aching happiness.” (4, pp.332-333)

He believed that “the talent of patient love” should play an important role in the daily educational activities of children. This talent included the disposition of the teacher toward the child, in other words, the teacher’s respect for the student and knowledge of his needs. Herzen considered a healthy, family atmosphere and the correct attitudes between child and teacher to be necessary conditions for a truly moral education.

Among the important problems of family education that Herzen considered were the development in children of independent thinking and intelligent behavior. He believed in training them for difficult, intellectual and physical activity through disciplined education.

A.I. Herzen attempted to give his children a domestic education through a program which he himself developed. This caring father counseled his own children to read Keats, Shakespeare, Byron, Voltaire, and Rousseau among others and to occupy themselves by studying specific works in the natural sciences and history.

He did all this so that his children would not forget about their Motherland, would live in its interests, and know its troubles and concerns. In “A Letter to My Son,” (1851) he appealed to the young fellow “To be great, occupy your self with the Russian language. Never forget that you should be a Russian.” (4, p.157) He was persuaded that “only an understanding of the uniqueness of the Motherland would convert an individual into a truly original person.” In another letter to his son (1858) Herzen exclaimed, “I believe in Russia and I love her. I do not want my children to become foreigners.” (5)

Therefore, he gave special attention to the selection of instructors. He endeavored to attract serious and knowledgeable educators from among his own friends. Herzen required the mentors to devote a great deal of attention to the study of Russian culture and history “wherein one may find humaneness, nobility, and patriotism.” He emphasized the importance in education of selecting the right books concerning the history and literature of the Russian people and insisted that children read the works of Pushkin and Krylov.
Herzen’s family held literary and musical gatherings during which they also read lectures aloud, put on dramatic performances, and conducted debates. Understanding the limitations of a Russian education under the conditions of self-imposed exile, Herzen wrote to his son, Alexander, with a certain bitterness, “I have great expectations for your development, but, here (outside Russia,) I have not been able to do what I wanted. You will become a foreigner.” (4, p. 219)

The opinions of Herzen on the responsibilities of a parent on the education of his children were not confined to his own family. In his well-known “Letter to the Empress Maria Alexandrovna,” Herzen expounded his views on the education of the heirs to the throne which he permeated with the values of the common man. He appealed to the Empress, “You teach your son how to wear a tailcoat properly, don’t you? So then, give him opportunities to serve the citizens. You will be giving him a greater blessing. Keep his mind occupied with anything that is bigger and nobler than the never-ending games of soldiers. The studies of the heirs to the throne ought not to resemble those of the Corps de Garde.” He believed that it was possible to bring about a future wherein “an educated, Russian (Tsar,) and lover of the homeland, and not just someone wearing epaulettes, would appeal to the educated children of the Russian people.” (1, Vol. 10, p. 353-361)

Returning to the present and considering the social-political processes involved in the development of a national system of education taking place in Russia at this moment at the beginning of the 21st century, one may begin to understand the significance, the necessity, and the simultaneity of the renewed appeal of Herzen’s educational ideas. His pedagogical world-view is astonishingly contemporary, first of, all by reason of its own value-loaded, axiological foundation which answers both to today’s Russian realities and to the perspectives of the development of our national education.

In an evaluation of the contextual character of Herzen’s views on the education and formation of children, few of our national, pedagogical thinkers can approach him. His role in the development of our national education is an absolutely special one because of what he anticipated and because of the meaning of the reflections accumulated in his writing.
He never expressed or carried out a specific and concrete program of social transformation in the sphere of education but he formed and defined a body of tasks and problems which were consistently, although not necessarily in a linear manner, advanced during the extent of the second half of the 1850’s to the beginning of the 20th century.

Herzen’s personality is powerfully imprinted on his educational concepts because he wrote from deep within himself. His conception is a liberal and socially oriented study of education filled with aspirations for citizens grounded in the fundamental values of the Russian people. Throughout his educational philosophy, he consistently comes out on the side of mankind. For this reason, Herzen is the precursor and founder of educational existentialism.


  1. A.I. Herzen’s Collected Works: In Thirty Volumes, Moscow: Publications of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., 1958.
  2. Shabayev, M.F., editor. Herzen Concerning Education: Selected Pedagogical Opinions. Moscow: Uchpedgiz, 1948. 215.
  3. Lemke, editor. The Full Collection of the Works and Writings of A.I.Herzen.        1919-1925.
  4. Shabayev, M.F., ed., Herzen Concerning Education: Selected Pedagogical Opinions. Moscow:  Academy of Pedagogical Science of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, 1951. 467.
  5. http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/A.I.Herzen
  6. Poznanskii, N.F. The Pedagogical Legacy of A.I. Herzen. Moscow: Soviet Pedagogy, 1945. No.3, 23-32.
  7. Eidelman, T.N. Alexander Ivanovich Herzen. Moscow: The Great Russian Encyclopedia, Pedagogical Encyclopedia, 1993. 208-209.
  8. Ganelin, Sh.I. The Pedagogical Views of A.I. Herzen. Moscow: National Education, 1962. No.4, 94-96.
Thesis Help (Feb. 18, 2018)
This article gives the light in which we could see the reality. This can be very nice one and gives in depth information. Many thanks for this excellent article.

Home | Copyright © 2023, Russian-American Education Forum