Volume:5, Issue: 1/2

May. 1, 2013

Sergei Gessen’s Pedagogy of Freedom
Boguslavsky, Mikhail V. [about]

KEY WORDS: pedagogy of freedom and culture, critical pedagogy, “Principles o Pedagogics,” moral education, critical didactics, values in education.

SYNOPSIS: Gessen’s recognition factor in the United States is fairly low but this article shows the need for study of this giant’s ideas on theories of teaching methods and especially the importance of moral education in the life of each individual.


In the pedagogical tradition of our nation, there is one individual whose fate was to be called upon to connect Russia with the world, east with west, pedagogy with philosophy, psychology, study of cultures, ethics, sociology, and political science.  This scholar brought together the past, present, and future of Russian education. Who was this giant? He was Sergei Iosifovich Gessen and he lived from 1887-1950.

It is certainly rare that any book on education, or any subject for that matter, which was written one hundred and ten years ago is finally able to be opened and turns out to be more significant and current than contemporary works.  This is exactly what happened with S.I. Gessen’s Principles of Pedagogics.  Its publication in 1995 in Russia shocked educators and the entire pedagogical culture of that time. The situation was like this: the Soviet “principles of pedagogics” based on Marxist-Leninist ideology utilized throughout the entire country had been discredited only a few years before and no substitute had yet been found. Then, Gessen’s book made its appearance and was received as an authentic, and Russian, basis for pedagogical research.

Let us remember that we are talking of the republication of the book, written and published  in 1923 in Berlin, Germany, and kept in special “closed for public” storages of the Soviet libraries for many decades.

No wonder, hardly any researcher and practically no teacher would know the name of Gessen in Russia, when at the same time the West witnessed many volumes of his books published and republished; numerous Western researchers wrote articles and manuscripts on his contributions to philosophy, sociology, political sciences, ethics, and pedagogy. There is even a Society of the researchers of Gessen’s works.

That’s another proof to the saying, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and his own home” (Matthew 13:57). The explanations come from his life story.

As dramatic as Sergei Iosifovich Gessen’s life was, at times it was often quite tragic. He was born on August 16, 1887 under what might be considered unusual but for the times in Russia not too rare circumstances. His father was a law student named Iosif Vladimirovich Gessen who had been “banished” to a Tsarist place of exile, Ust-Sysolk, Vologodsk Province, now Syktyvkar Province.  His mother, Anna Makarova, was the daughter of the owner of the house where the exiled student resided. Under pressure from her family, the young mother gave up the child. Little Sergei moved from one exiled family to another before his father finally took him to his own large family in the Russian Imperial capital of Saint Petersburg where the young boy was heartily accepted by his blood relatives. This was a significant step in Sergei’s future life path. As legitimately stated by Elena E. Sedova, the most competent researcher of the philosophical and pedagogical legacy of Gessen, “Sergei Gessen from his early childhood found himself under the significant and unquestionable influence of his father who would become one of Russia’s prominent jurists, a leader of the Cadet Party, editor of the juridical weekly journal “The Law,” and the publisher of “The Archives of the Russian Revolution.”2 

The young Gessen was enrolled in one of Russia’s best gymnasiums located in Saint Petersburg (1896-1905) and eventually linked up with his father’s fellow Cadet Party friends – P.N. Milyukov and V.D. Nabokov, to create his own liberal-democrat world view.

Gessen’s sphere of interests formed gradually and focused on philosophy, history, and literature. The abilities of this talented youth were further developed and enriched during his time as a student in the philosophy departments at Heidelberg (1905-1906) and Freiberg (1906-1909) Universities in Germany.

In 1910, after the defense of his dissertation, Gessen returned to Saint Petersburg and took an active part in the philosophical life of Russia. His rich philosophical preparation served as a base for subsequent activities in the field of pedagogy. After he handed in his master's degree examination in 1914, he began to teach at the History of Philosophy Department of the University of Saint Petersburg. Among the most popular of his courses in this discipline was the one called “The History of Educational Systems and their Place in the General History of Philosophy” which can be seen as the basis of the formation of his most original philosophical and pedagogical concepts.  

Following his initial teaching experience, S.I. Gessen developed his scientific-pedagogical activities in Tomsk where he moved from Saint Petersburg after the February Revolution of 1917. Further formation of his philosophic and pedagogical system took place, to be sure, under the dramatic influence of the Russian Civil War during the four years (1917-1921) of which he was Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Logic and from 1919 to 1921 he was also Dean of the History-Philosophy Department at Tomsk University which was known as “The Siberian Athens” because of its unique and beneficial, scientific and cultural atmosphere. While here, Gessen created an embellished system of a classical university education for future teachers by using his original and effective ideas.

During his Tomsk period, S.I. Gessen began to work on Principles of Pedagogics which became the first of his major books. It was especially significant that he presented an essay that was entitled, “Pedagogy as Applied Philosophy.” It was published with a brief description of his basic philosophic and pedagogic concepts in the “The Journal of the Ministry for Public Education” which was under the direction of A.V. Kolchak. It was no accident that the essay was republished with hardly any changes as the introduction to his book Principles of Pedagogics.

In 1921, after taking counsel with friends, Gessen returned, together with his family, to what was then called Petrograd where he taught pedagogy in the university and philosophy at the Pedagogical Institute Named for A.I. Herzen. However, Sergei Iosifovich’s inner freedom and his humanistic convictions could, by no means, fit in with the realities of Militant Communism. His very difficult financial conditions, in addition to the news that his father and brother had left the country for Finland, aided him in his decision to abandon Russia. In December of 1921, together with his wife and two sons he secretly crossed the border along the thin and treacherous, melted ice on the Bay of Finland.3

And in this manner, Gessen began his emigration from which he would only return to his Motherland through his work. The overseas life of this great thinker can now be divided into three periods connected with the cities and countries where his destiny led him: Berlin (1922-1923,) Prague (1923-1935,) and Poland (1936-1950.) Each of these periods serves to identify powerful milestones in the development of his philosophical and pedagogical system.

Breaking out of the “Bolshevik Paradise” resulted in Gessen’s living in straitened conditions in Germany’s Post World War I economy. Despite the problems of daily life, he immersed himself into his scientific activities. Two years of intense intellectual activity proved fruitful for Sergei Iosifovich. The 1923 publication of Principles of Pedagogics (in the publishing house “The Word “) brought him to the eyes of society and immediately made the name of this modest émigré famous beyond the Russian community. First of all, it can be explained by an extraordinary variety of problems he raised in his book, mostly in concern of general foundations of pedagogy, which he considered an applied philosophy and viewed through the conceptions of culture, civilization, citizenship, and education.

“Principles of Pedagogics” was soon published by the author in his own translation in Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Italian and several other languages. The monograph was very well received. For example, the famous philosopher, F. Stepun, remarked that S.I. Gessen “has established for himself a wonderful reputation in Europe and especially in the Slavic countries through the power of his philosophical-pedagogical work.”  A thorough book review of Principles of Pedagogics was even published in Soviet Russia in a somewhat oppositional journal entitled “Pedagogical Thought.” It was given very high marks. In the only critical statement, regret was expressed that Principles of Pedagogics had not been published in the Motherland.

Aside from the purely scientific results, Principles of Pedagogics led to a change in Gessen’s destiny.  In 1923, he was invited to deliver a course of lectures in a newborn Russian Higher Institute named after Comenius, and a year later he moved to Czechoslovakia to become Chair of the Department of Pedagogy. By this time, Prague, after Berlin, had become a new center for Russian émigrés. Here, thanks to the leadership of Czechoslovakian President Massarek and his “Russian Action Plan” which included financial support for Russian professors, over a period of time favorable conditions were created for scientific and teaching training activities. The emigrants founded lots of  “Russian” schools from elementary to higher education; there also functioned “an Education Bureau for Middle and Lower Schools in Exile.” They organized educational conferences and meetings.

In all these fruitful activities, S.I. Gessen played a very important and active role. He became the acknowledged leader of Russian pedagogy in exile by the most important people in the émigré communities. Significantly, S.I. Gessen was the continuous editor of the journal, “Russian Schools Abroad” for the full length of its existence from 1923-1931.

He gave a full description and evaluation of the development of the pedagogy in his native land in the book, Russian Pedagogy of the Twentieth Century.  In it he detailed and objectively characterized the basic pedagogic tendencies of the first third of the 20th century. His contribution here was that he essentially expanded the circle of well-known names and gave some concepts a new and refreshed look.

At an international conference in Prague, he presented an address entitled, “Peace through the School.” At the Third International Philosophic Congress, he made a speech on, “Universal Principles in Pedagogy.” Gessen took part in congresses on adult education in England and became a professor at Warsaw University, the Russian Research Institute, the German University in Prague and many other institutions of higher learning.

After the closing in 1926 of the Russian Higher Institute in Prague, Gessen totally immersed himself in editorial, literary, and lecture activities. He created, almost from scratch, the Czech version of Principles of Pedagogics and completed a three-month lecture tour of England where he appeared in a variety of centers for extracurricular education.  Among the papers that he presented during this period were, “The State and the Schools in France and England” at the All German Pedagogic Congress in Wiesbaden in 1929; “The Price of Freedom” at the Prague Philosophical Club (1934); and “Concerning the Essence and the Stages of Moral Education” at the International Congress on Moral Education in Krakow. Not only did they form the basis of future books, but they also reinforced Gessen’s reputation in Europe as a leading academic, pedagogue, philosopher, and orator.4

Gessen’s impressive body of work acquired significant international renown and respect due to its emphasis on an interdisciplinary orientation, comprehensive knowledge of national conditions, and interesting perspectives on innovative, educational developments in various countries of the world.  S.I. Gessen successfully combined deep scholarship with the ability to publicize his ideas successfully while never revealing his own political beliefs. He was, however, a deeply convinced advocate of liberal values and lawful socialism. Gessen regarded the totalitarianism of the Fascists to be equally as unacceptable as the “state socialism” of the Bolsheviks.

In 1936, Gessen began a period of 15 years of his life to be spent in Poland. The move was the result of two specific and difficult problems. The first was a reduction in financial assistance to Russian professors from the Czech government and the second was the break-up of Gessen’s family. There was, however, a more general cause that affected the entire Russian émigré community. That was the complete collapse of hope to ever move back to Russia and as a result, the necessity for a deeper integration into western civilization. The number of Russian institutions of higher learning, journals, and books being published sharply decreased. Sergei Iosifovich happened to be ready for this. Already by 1929, he had been publishing his books in foreign languages. By 1930, not a single one of his books was being published in Russian. After he moved to Poland, Gessen published nothing in the Russian language. All of his most important foundational work was published in Polish, Italian, or German.

His second Motherland, Poland, allowed him, finally, to begin a stable life and to work on integrating his original concepts on pedagogical instruction with the ideas of Polish pedagogics. He was offered the Philosophy of Education departmental chair position at the Free University while also teaching at Warsaw University and the Institute of Special Pedagogics. He managed to establish a new family life as well, and his youngest son, Dmitri, joined him. This son would later become a well-known Polish specialist in Russian and one of the authors of The Polish-Russian Dictionary.

Gessen’s life in Poland can be divided into three stages: pre-war, wartime, and post-war. Only the first of these turned out to be a happy time for him. His scientific activity in this period was concentrated in two fundamental directions. These were the philosophy of formation of the individual, especially, its moral education, and the role of the education system in a contemporary, democratic society.

From among Gessen’s historical-pedagogical work of this period, his series of books on comparative pedagogy needs to be highlighted. These include: Political Education in Soviet Russia; A Contemporary Pedagogy Abroad; The Fate of the Montessori Method; and The Pedagogy of Giovanni Gentile.

His very interesting and significant, historical series of essays on the pedagogy of L.N. Tolstoy, I.G. Pestalozzi, and John Dewey underline Gessen’s appreciation of Russian pedagogy of the 20th century from his axiological position of the “pedagogy of culture.” From the beginning, Gessen had planned that these essays would serve as a counterpoint to the transformation of the communist education model being implemented at the time in Russia.

He gave a full description and evaluation of the development of instructional methods in his native land in his book, Russian Pedagogy of the Twentieth Century.  In it he detailed and objectively characterized the basic pedagogic tendency of the first third of the 20th century. His contribution here was that he essentially expanded the circle of well-known names and concepts in his fresh and original essays.

While presenting his “pedagogy of culture,” the thinker devoted quite some time to an original “selpf-portrait” which isolated the basic characteristics of his pedagogic system. In particular, he noted that “we can call the Gessen pedagogy, an integral pedagogy. Its difference from a totalitarian pedagogy is that he understands moral values as constituting the internal form or structure of education, and therefore unlike the ready-made opinion of the world which felt that it possessed the right to set the stamp of obligatory uniformity on all matters of education.”

As the most competent researcher of Gessen’s works Elena Sedova says, Gessen’s research during the pre-war Polish period was performed in a few directions: philosophy of education and the role of education in the modern democratic society.

The first direction was represented in the works “Concerning the Inconsistencies and Unity of Education: Goals of a Pedagogy of the Individual” (1939); “Concerning Concept and Goals of Moral Education” (1936); and “On the ‘Memory’ of Moral Education.” A more complete expression of his views on the instruction of the individual was supposed to be presented in a book to be called, A Philosophy of Formation. It was to be developed from a detailed draft which he had prepared in 1937, but the nearly completed manuscript perished with all of his other manuscripts at the time of the Warsaw Uprising.

The second direction in Gessen’s pedagogical work can be found in the articles entitled “School and the Economy” (1938) and “The School and Democracy at the Turning Point” (1938) which defined the mission of schools in contemporary society. Judging by the titles of the articles, Gessen had already found some complex problems to study including democratic education’s connection with society’s general tendencies and mechanisms as well as opportunities for counteracting totalitarian tendencies in a society. To deal with these problems, his articles proposed stressing the fundamentals of his pedagogical philosophy, the first of which was the need for a strong moral formation in the individual.

The third direction of Gessen’s scientific-pedagogical activities was a theory of instruction. In his thorough monograph entitled “The Structure and Content of the Contemporary School: The Study of General Didactics” which was written in 1939 and finally published in 1947. Through it, he became a prominent and practical contributor to the field of moral instruction by setting forth the instruction principles of a single school, its goals and problems, and the basis for its fundamental organization of the teaching process.5 However, the essential part, or what Gessen called his “critical didactics,” can be found in a thorough and heart-felt monograph describing his philosophical-pedagogical concepts. The core of this work contains several educational treatises on “pedagogy of culture.” These introduce the reader to the cultural values of the nation and the mankind through creative solutions to the “above-individual” problems. The goal of “critical didactics” can be seen as the development of an independent and critical-thinking person.

Gessen believed that the content of general education should be a combination of individual independent and original work. He asserts that any person can acquire values only as a result of his own, independent, creative activity. In this connection, the strong emphasis of Gessen’s “critical didactics” shifted from the search for methods of knowledge transference to studying and creating conditions for active independent and creative learning of the realities surrounding the individual.6

On the whole, one can easily state that the propositions made by S.I. Gessen’s “critical didactics” formed the most philosophical, pedagogic, didactic, and methodically well-grounded theory of general education of the Russian pedagogy in the 20th century. In this connection, the Soviet method of instruction of the 1960s and 1970s widely made use of the work of Gessen’s student a well-known Polish educator, V. Okon, who had creatively absorbed his teacher’s concept of the “critical didactics” together with the unique theory on “problem-solving learning.” So, it can be said that the Soviet didactics (I.I. Lerner; M.I. Makhmutov; A.M. Matyushkin; and others) in this respect was based on the ideas of Okon. In this roundabout and ironic way, Gessen’s conceptual productivity influenced the modified and anonymous positions that eventually became official Soviet didactic theory and practice.

After the attack on Poland at the start of the Second World War, Gessen’s life didn’t change much, at first. During the Occupation, he remained in Warsaw and returned to his scientific pursuits, but in 1940, he illegally commenced pedagogic activities. He taught in Polish educational institutions, organized Resistance activities, and eventually participated in the Warsaw Uprising. In 1943, only luck saved him from immediate imprisonment in a concentration camp followed by execution. Fate was less kind to his close relatives. His first wife, oldest son, and other family members perished in concentration camps in various places in Eastern Europe.

S.I. Gessen’s archives were destroyed in a fire during the Warsaw Uprising in 1943 along with the manuscript of a book which he had been writing during the course of the war. That is why the manuscript of his foundational work ends abruptly in 1939.

After the war, however, Sergei Iosifovich found within himself the strength to return to active scientific and teaching activities. Following an invitation by T. Kotarbinski, rector of the university, Gessen moved to Lodz where he headed up the Faculty of Pedagogics and presented lectures and readings on the history and theory of pedagogy, philosophy of education and law, as well as presenting detailed courses on the history of philosophy. Gessen assembled a circle of his most talented, young students who became, in time, the heart of Polish pedagogical science.   He gradually created his own “school of pedagogical sciences” whose sparkling representatives included the likes of V. Okon,  T. Novatski, A. Kaminski, and V. Scherba.

During this period, S.I. Gessen wrote his final pedagogical works, “In Defense of Pedagogy” and “Education and Economics.” More significantly, it seems, was the part that he took in the preparation of “A Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Individual.” In 1949, he collaborated with the Committee on the Philosophical Foundations of the Rights of the Individual. It was through this connection that the final work of his fruitful life wound up in the UNESCO publication on ”The Rights of the Individual in Liberalism, Socialism, and Communism,” which was dedicated to solving the problems of universal human values, rights, and the freedom of the individual.

During the last year of his life, Gessen was overshadowed by new rounds of meetings with the Communist regime which had gained a foothold in Poland. In 1949, the state abolished the teaching of philosophy in universities throughout the country and kept on hold until the formation of the new “Marxist Philosophy” cadre. This was the beginning of a “purge of the old teachers.” S.I. Gessen, as a “reactionary emigrant” was excluded from “the leadership or guidance of cadre.” It wasn’t long, however, before he was forbidden to teach any subject at the university.

The Communist Regime’s oppression took a terrible toll on his health undermining his final ten years of life. New persecutions strained his heart. In 1947, he endured a coronary infarction and a complete breakdown. Sergei Iosifovich passed away on May 2, 1950 in Lodz where he was buried with all the rites of the Russian Orthodox Church. Escorting the prominent thinker on his final journey, the well-known philosopher, T. Kotarbinsky described the essence of Gessen’s life and creativity in the words: “For us, he remains a man of exceptional nobility, a wise man… without doubt, a wise man.”

After his death, S.I. Gessen received world recognition as an eminent historian, philosopher, and theoretical pedagogue. The West has long studied Gessen’s legacy of published essays and knows of his contributions to philosophy, sociology, political science, ethics, and pedagogy. This scholar’s philosophical and pedagogical ideas are current and significant factors in the long-term development of European pedagogics. His work was first published in Italy where a few posthumous editions of a collection of his works appeared in a series called “Problems in Pedagogy.” In 1970s, during an educational conference in the industrial-resort city of Vado-Ligure, the author’s estate opened a pedagogical library and S.I. Gessen information center in the city of Vado-Ligure, an industrial and tourist center on the Italian Riviera.

At the end of the 1950s, it was once again possible to publish Gessen’s foundational work in Poland where it was gradually re-introduced.  His foundational publication entitled, Philosophy. Culture. Education, was eventually published there in anthology form in 1967.

Sergei Iosifovich's legacy had to follow a much longer path back to his Motherland. He only “arrived” during the 1990’s after the fall of Communism. Gessen’s name, philosophy, and pedagogical legacy had finally returned to Russia forever.

Sergei Iosifovich Gessen is a giant in the field of 20th century teaching methods. He can be readily compared to the likes of John Dewey. The two stand on an equal step when one compares the depth of their methodologies, vigorous interdisciplinary contexts, and the assiduous belief in the truth that education and moral formation can improve and humanize political systems, governmental structures, and even human nature enough to lead the world away from the dead-ends of totalitarianism and authoritarianism and forward to genuine democratic and liberal values.

2 See: Sedova, E.E. The Philosophical-Pedagogical Concept of S.I. Gessen (In Russian). Retrieved from //http://www.bim-bad.ru/biblioteka/article_full.php?aid=214&binn_rubrik_pl_articles=109

3 See: ibid.

4 See: Sedova, op.cit.

5 See: Ibid.

6 See: Deryuga, V.E.  “Critical Didactic Ideas in the Philosophical and Pedagogical Legacy of S.I. Gessen , 1887-1950,”  Candidate of Pedagogical Sciences Dissertation, Kazan, Russia 1999.





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