Nicholas Neef, Francis Joseph (1770-1854)

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Francis Joseph Nicholas Neef (1770-1854)


Educational reformer

Background . Francis Joseph Nicholas Neef was born in 1770 in Alsace, a French province on the border with Germany. Growing up he learned to speak both French and German and began to study for the priesthood, learning Latin, Greek, and Italian. The excitement of the French Revolution brought Neef out of the monastery and into the French army in 1791, and he was wounded in the Italian campaigns of 1796. Recovering from his wounds, Neef read the works of Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Like many others of the age, Pestalozzi was trying to find ways to achieve personal perfection. He also sought to regenerate the poor of Europe and build a new society founded on equality and liberty. Unlike others, Pestalozzi sought liberty and perfection through developing a system of education. Neef was inspired by Pestalozzi and sought to become a schoolteacher.

Pestalozzis System . Pestalozzi in 1800 opened a school in Burgdorf, Switzerland. His school differed from most European and American grammar schools of the day, which relied on rote learning: the teacher would read the lesson; the students would copy it down and memorize it; and at the end of the week each student would recite the lesson from memory. Pestalozzi believed education was a natural process and that children would learn best by following their natural curiosity rather than by having their minds crammed with facts. Pestalozzis General Method, the first part of his educational program, called for the teacher to create a loving and nurturing environment for the students, who would learn best in an atmosphere of love and trust. The Specific Method, which would commence in this atmosphere of love and trust, called for the teacher to begin by what is simple, plain, known, by what you find in the child; dwell on each point till the learner is perfectly master of it. The teacher would begin with an object known to the student and study it, breaking it into component parts, introducing from a concrete example more abstract principles, but going slowly and gradually so that all students would come to the same understanding.

America . Neef visited Pestalozzis school and was hired to be an instructor in languages. After three years of training, and marriage to one of the students, Neef was sent to Paris to open a Pestalozzian school there. In 1805 William Maclure, a wealthy merchant originally from Scotland who had recently become a naturalized citizen of the United States, visited Pestalozzi. Maclure was making an informal study of educational methods and immediately saw the Pestalozzian system as an ideal reform for America. He offered to pay the salary of a Pestalozzian teacher who would open a school in the United States, and Pestalozzi recommended Neef. Arriving in Philadelphia in 1806, Neef spent two years learning English before opening his school five miles outside the city. He also published the first book on teaching method published in English in America, Sketch of a Plan and Method of Education Suitable for the Offspring of a Free People, and for All Rational Beings (1808).

Developing Skills . Neefs book explained the Pestalozzian method. Enrollment would be limited to students between the ages of six and eight, as he wanted a fairly homogeneous group to learn together. Rather than have each student memorize passages of literature and recite individually, as was common in the schools of the day, Neef worked with all students together, helping them develop first their skills at measuring and counting by learning arithmetic by counting beans or marbles, then worked on their ability to draw, and only later began to develop writing skills. Rather than drilling the students in principles of grammar, each student would become a grammarian, learning grammatical rules from his or her own observations of languages use. Only after being thoroughly grounded by observation and conversation would students begin to read books. Like later educational reformers, Neef also rejected the teaching of Latin and Greek, focusing instead on living, practical languages rather than the classics.

Students . Neefs seventy-five students came mainly from Philadelphia, though some also came from Boston, Savannah, and small towns in Kentucky. Neef had purposely located his school outside the city so his students could enjoy fresh air and exercise: Neef thought it essential to develop the students bodies and minds and led them on walks through the countryside, during which he would teach the principles of natural history by direct observation (Neef was elected to the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1812). He also taught gymnastic exercises and swimming. In 1813 Neef moved his school to Delaware and then to Kentucky the next year. He remained in Kentucky until 1826 when social reformer Robert Owen, who had began a utopian community at New Harmony, Indiana, invited Neef to run the communitys school. After the failure of the community Neef opened a school in Cincinnati, then returned to New Harmony in 1834. He died in 1854.

Legacy. Neef and Pestalozzi anticipated many educational reforms of the early twentieth century by stressing the learning environment, observation rather than memorization, and physical development. Many of Neefs pupils went on to become lawyers, doctors, and engineers.


Gerald Lee Gutek, Joseph Neef: The Americanization of Pestalozzianism (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1978).

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Nicholas Neef, Francis Joseph (1770-1854)

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