Tolstoy on teaching history

III. The first history lesson

In the first lesson I intended to explain what makes Russia differ from other countries, on what it borders and how it is governed. I wanted to tell who ruled at the moment and when the Czar had ascended the throne.

The teacher: “Where do we live, in what country?”

A pupil: “In Yasnaya Polyana.”

Another pupil: “On the land.” 1

The teacher: “Yes, but in which country are Yasnaya Polyana and the Tula oblast 2 located?”

A pupil: “The Tula oblast is seventeen werst away from us and the oblast is there.”

The teacher: “No, that is the capital of the oblast, 3 but the oblast is something different. Now, in which country?”

A pupil (who has heard something of geography before): “The earth is round as a ball.”

By asking in which country a German known to them used to live, and where they would end up if they kept riding in the same direction, the students came to the answer that they lived in Russia. Some of them answered as one when I asked where they would end up if they traveled in one direction: “nowhere.” Others said: “at the end of the world.”

The teacher (repeating an answer of a pupil): “You say you will end up in a different country. Where does Russia end and where does the other country begin?”

A pupil: “Where the Germans begin.”

The teacher: “But if you meet Gustaf Iwanowitsch or Karl Fedorowitsch in Tula, you will say that there the Germans begin. So it is another country there?”

A pupil: “No, where it is full of Germans.”

The teacher: “No, in Russia too there are places where it is full of Germans, for instance where Iwan Fomitsch comes from, and that country is also called Russia. Why is that?”


The teacher: “Because they live with the Russians under one law.”

A pupil: “How, one law? The Germans do not attend our church, and they eat meat during fasting.”

The teacher: “No, not that law, but they serve the same Czar.”

A pupil (the skeptic Syomka): “Odd!… Why do they have a different law and serve our Czar?”

The teacher feels the necessity to explain what a law is, and asks: “What does obeying a law and being under one law mean?”

A pupil: “To recognize the law means to marry.”

The students give the teacher a questioning look: “Is that true?”

The teacher starts to explain that the law says that if one steals or murders, one will go to gaol or be punished.

The skeptic Syomka asks: “And is that law not with the Germans?”

The teacher: “The law also means that we have nobility, farmers, merchants, clergy.” (The word “clergy” spurs a moment of not-understanding.)

The skeptic Syomka: “And they do not have that there?”

The teacher: “In many countries they have that, in others they do not. We have a Russian Czar, and in the German countries there is a German Czar.”

This answer satisfies all students, even the skeptic Syomka.

The teacher, who deems it necessary to explain the various classes to the children, asks which classes they know. The pupils start to list them: “the nobility, the farmers, the popes, 4 the soldiers,”–“And?” the teacher asks.–“The servants, the samowar makers.”

The teacher asks what the differences are.

A pupil: “The farmers harvest, the servants serve the lords, the soldiers serve, the merchants trade, the samowar makers make samowars, the popes say mass, the nobility does nothing.”

In that order and with those difficulties we explored the meanings of the terms: class, border, et cetera.

The lesson takes two hours. The teacher believes that the children will remember much from that which they heard, and in the same manner he teaches the next lesson. But later he reaches the conviction that the method was not good, and that everything he did was non-sensical.

(Translated from a Dutch translation, so some things probably got lost.)

1 The name “Yasnaya Polyana” means “the field”.

2 Oblast = region, province.

3 Tula is the name of both the region and the capital.

4 Priests.

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