Basedow, Johann Bernhard (1724-1790)

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Basedow, Johann Bernhard (1724-1790)

Johann Bernhard Basedow was the leading representative of the first generation of philanthropinists, as German pedagogues of the late Enlightenment referred to themselves. He was born on September 11, 1724, in Hamburg, Germany. After a childhood spent in poverty as the son of a Hamburg wig-maker, he studied theology and then successfully tutored the son of a nobleman. Basedow used the confabulatio for language learning, which consisted of a constant dialogue between pupil and teacher in the foreign languages, including Latin. He described his new teaching method in his 1752 dissertation and also introduced it to the public in a German-language publication. After teaching for some years he devoted most of his energies to writing on theological, philosophical, and pedagogical themes. Because of his critiques of revealed religion he was persecuted by the orthodox clergy. Under the protection of the enlightened Prince of Anhalt-Dessau, Basedow was able to open his first school, the Philanthropinum, in 1774 with three pupils, including two of his own children. Even if it never had more than fifty pupils at one time, this school, run along reformist principles, enjoyed extraordinary public attention, especially because of Basedow's playful and vivid teaching methods and the relaxed atmosphere among the pupils and teachers. The waning interest of the public and the prince, as well as conflicts with colleagues, caused Basedow to withdraw from the director-ship. The Dessau Philanthropinum closed once and for all in 1793.

Other philanthropin, of which there were more than sixty in the German-speaking world by 1800, existed for considerably longer. Unlike Basedow, the next generation of philanthropinists, including Joachim Heinrich Campe, Ernst Christian Trapp, Christian Gotthilf Salzmann, and Friedrich Eberhard von Rochow, no longer placed their hope on princely protection, but rather tried to push through educational reforms by creating a pedagogically interested public. To this end they published an Allgemeine Revision des gesammten Schulund Erziehungswesen (General Revision of the Entire School and Educational System, 16 vols.,1785-1792, ed. J. H. Campe).

Basedow's programmatic Vorstellung an Menschenfreunde und vermögende Männer über Schulen, Studien und ihren Einflu° in die öffentliche Wohlfahrt (Presentation to friends of humanity and men of means regarding schools, studies, and their influence on public welfare, 1768) marks the birth of philanthropic pedagogy. In conventional schools, according to Basedow, the pupils spent far too much time learning far too little, and all the wrong things. In his Vorstellung an Menschenfreunde Basedow developed his pedagogical program of social reform through school reform, for he believed that only human beings trained to be useful could guarantee their own happiness and thus the happiness (i.e., the welfare) of the state as a whole. For that reason it was in the interest of the authorities to set up a special government department to oversee the schools. Basedow argued here in favor of a separation between the church and the schools, and this process of a growing autonomy of educational institutions would continue through the nineteenth century. Basedow assumed that the authorities were virtuous and enlightened and thus in harmony with their subjects, and argued within the framework of the corporate order, which he also took as the basis for the educational system, with its division into small schools for the cultivated classes and large schools for the common horde.

Basedow is important for the history of childhood because he was one of the first educators to stress that children could enjoy school and learning, and that it was the duty of pedagogy to ensure that children learned with ease and pleasure. He placed great emphasis on vivid and playful teaching methods, but also on incentives to learning. One example was the so-called merit boards, on which teachers publicly recorded their pupils' moral and cognitive achievements in order to infuse them with competitive zeal.

See also: Education, Europe.


Basedow, Johann Bernhard. 1965. Ausgewaehlte paedagogische Schriften. Besorgt von A. Reble. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schoeningh.

Kersting, Christa. 1992. Die Genese der Paedagogik im 18. Jahrhundert. Campes Allgemeine Revision im Kontext der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft. Weinheim: Deutscher Studien Verlag.

Pinloche, A. 1914. Geschichte des Philanthropinismus. German edition by J. Rauschenfels and A. Pinloche. 2nd ed. Leipzig: Brandstetter.

Pia Schmid

Johann Bernhard Basedow

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Johann Bernhard Basedow

Johann Bernhard Basedow (1724-1790), a German educator, stated a program for total reform of the educational system. His work lent support to the philanthropists who felt that social and political reforms could best be made by first reforming the schools.

Johann Basedow was born in Hamburg on Sept. 11, 1724. He attended the universities of Leipzig and Kiel and upon graduation became a teacher, first as a private tutor in a wealthy home, then in several schools in Denmark and Germany. In each job he was a failure, but these failures inspired his zeal for educational reform.

The Philanthropinum

Influenced by men of the French Enlightenment, Basedow thought that knowledge properly applied could lead to the perfection of man and his institutions. He expressed these ideas in the books Appeal to Friends of Mankind and to Men of Power concerning Schools and Studies and Their Influence on Public Welfare (1768) and The Method Book for Fathers and Mothers of Families and for Nations (1770). Prince Leopold, ruler of Anhalt, was so impressed with the reform potential of Basedow's ideas that in 1771 he hired him to found an experimental school at Dessau. The Philanthropinum opened in 1774, the first school to completely break with tradition. It drew many interested visitors from far and wide, who either praised the school extravagantly, as did Kant, or criticized it bitterly. In 1774 Basedow also published the huge Elementarwerk, an encyclopedic collection of the material that was to be taught to children from birth to age 18.

Philosophy of the System

According to Basedow, the principal goal of education should be to prepare children for a happy, patriotic life of service to the community. As the school functions for the individual, it performs a service also for the state; since the state is but a community of individuals, it will experience good fortune only to the extent that each individual member does. The curriculum should contain only those things that can be shown to be useful. Basedow scorned the stress in the traditional schools on developing verbal skills, especially in Latin. Things that can be touched, seen, heard, and manipulated—to show the child the extent to which he can control his environment—should be substituted for the traditional verbal exercises, which deal with mere symbols.

Teaching methods should include observations by the children of objects and activities of the real world. The teacher should not impose his will but should encourage self-direction on the part of the pupil into purposeful activity. Basedow advised that at play children learn most effectively. Pure intellectualization that ignores the individual psychological makeup of the learner is to be avoided. Games, manual work in the garden and in the shop, physical training, hiking—these were the activities appropriate to youth. The teacher should guide these activities by a nonauthoritarian and humane interaction with the pupils.

At Dessau, Basedow put his ideas to practice. To toughen the body and to foster the ability to withstand hardship, there were several fasting days each month. Competition was encouraged by a system of awards for merit in several activities.

Basedow was a very difficult man to work with. He was emotionally unstable, had disagreeable habits, and would not brook dissent. As a result, he was forced to leave the Philanthropinum 4 years after he had founded it. He spent the remaining 12 years of his life writing articles expanding on his three major works.

Further Reading

There are many books on Basedow in German. No full-length study of him in English exists, although there are numerous articles in educational journals. For background information see Friedrich Paulsen, German Education Past and Present (1912), and R. H. Samuel and R. Hinton Thomas, Education and Society in Modern Germany (1949). □

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