Johann Basedow (1723-1790) was an influential German educator of the 18th century. In this post, we will look at the life and work of this influential educator.
He was born in Hamburg, Germany. As a child he was temporarily a runaway do to a strained relationship with his father. However, with time, he was reconciled with his father and return home
As a young man, Basedow studied theology at university. However, he was found to be too difficult in terms of personality to be fit for ministry. In fact, Basedow’s personality was a frequent cause of his failures. He was unorthodox by nature but what really cause him problems was poor people skills, a penchant for criticizing others, and being somewhat capricious in his decision making.
With his hopes of ministry being thwarted, Basedow turned to being a tutor. He developed a somewhat unorthodox approach to teaching Latin. In his approach, Basedow would point to different objects that he encountered with his students and tell them the name of the object in Latin. Through this focus on practical vocabulary the students quickly learned the language. At the time, this was a revolutionary way to teach language.
After working as a tutor for a time, Basedow next appointment was to work as a Professor of Morals at a university in Denmark. Given his raucous past, it is ironic that the rebellious runaway was now a guardian of morality. Unfortunately, Basedow’s unorthodox style and strong independence streak led to conflict with the university.
Basedow was heavily influenced by Rousseau and especially by Rousseau’s book “Emile”, which was a book on Rousseau’s views of education. This book which advocated avoiding educating a child for the first 12 years or so of life, providing minimum moral training, and the avoidance of discipline is seen by many to be a bizarre approach to education. However,, for Basedow, it led him to the next step in his life, which was the founding of his own school.
Prince Leopold, fascinated by Basedow, decided to finance Basedow in the developing of a school were Basedow could implement Rousseau and his own educational theories. The name of this school was the Philanthropin.
Basedow’s school was popular in that everybody heard of it. Yet, few parents wanted to actual send their children to such an experimental school. In fact, when several school leaders came to the school they only found 13 students there. To make matters worst, two of the thirteen were Basedow’s own children.
The lack of success of the school can be based on several reasons. For starters, Basedow’s personality cause problems. He lacked the charisma needed for a leadership position along with the tact needed to maneuver difficult situations. Basedow was also a frequent critic of other educators and this did not win him friends and or support. In addition, Basedow, was unpredictable in decision making and suspicious of his subordinates.
Another problem was the strict secular nature of the school. Based on Rousseau’s “Emile” there was no religious instruction in the school as Rousseau believed it was too early in a child’s life to have religious training. This is considered normal today, however, during this time, the idea of separating church and state was still unheard of. This was a few years before the United States was born and it was still expected that schools provide religious education. Basedow’s decision to ignore this was revolutionary.
Eventually, Basedow resigned from his leadership position and the school would close several years after his death. With the closure of the school the teachers dispersed and took with them the ideas that they learned from Basedow.
Basedow’s failure are his primary gift to future educators. Some people show the next generation what works while others show the next generation what does not work. Basedow’s innovations were primarily unsuccessful but if he had never attempted to dream big and implement them the world would have never known. Even worst, Basedow himself would have never known.