From folk pedagogy and early schools, to mass education based on the written word

If we regard education as the passing on of knowledge from one generation to the next, then Estonian education, like that of other nations, is just as old as the nation itself. As early as the first millennium, people in these parts were engaged in seafaring and in cultivating land, demonstrating that they possessed an essential culture of thought and skills. Similarly to other surrounding nations, Estonians also had their own folk religion, customs, songs, taboos and other expressions of heritage. Even when foreign beliefs, ideas and attitudes arrived in this part of the world, old traditions never vanished. Estonian folk heritage as an archaic cultural nucleus, having naturally gone through considerable changes over the centuries, nevertheless survived till the 20th century — at least.

In Estonia, the history of education as a formal institution, marked by the establishment of schools, started in the 13th century after Estonia was conquered during the crusades by German and Danish feudalists. The first schools were set up at cathedrals and monasteries of the rapidly developing towns. Their aim was to educate future clergymen. Alongside that, however, some form of education was also offered to ordinary people by means of the Catholic mass, the liturgical side of which — solemn hymns, ecclesiastical dress, incense — certainly had an impact on the indigenous people who could not understand a word of the Latin sermon. It is easy to imagine how the pomp of the Catholic Church and its spiritual aspirations influenced Estonian men and women living in towns, who, until recently, had worked the land (accounting for approximately half the urban population).

The activities of monasteries and monastery schools resulted in the emergence of a way of perceiving the Estonian cultural world that was vastly different from that prevailing in earlier times. Of especial significance was the foundation of the Dominican monastery in 1229 and its school 15 years later. It is known that Estonians were among the monks there, and that services in the monasteries were sometimes held in Estonian. The spiritual life of the Estonian population was still mostly influenced by the monastery-educated mendicant monks who moved around spreading the Catholic faith in Estonia, and much useful knowledge concerning the secular world besides.

Some of the clergymen educated at cathedral and monastery schools furthered their education at West European universities. Mauritius, for example, a monk of the Dominican monastery who was probably an Estonian, studied scholastic philosophy in Cologne and Paris between 1268 and 1271, and then taught at a monastery school. Many young noblemen studied at Prague, Cologne, Heidelberg, Erfurt and other universities, from where humanist thought reached Estonia as early as the 15th century. The education of young knights in Estonia on the whole proceeded along the same lines as in the rest of medieval Europe. Problems of literacy became more significant only with the arrival of Protestantism. Young noblemen received their elementary education usually at home, for which purpose teachers were employed, either from towns or from abroad. Urban artisans, many of whom were of Estonian peasant stock, acquired the necessary skills of their craft within the framework of guilds (apprentice — journeyman — master). As early as the beginning of the 16th century, however, future craftsmen and merchants were also taught reading and writing.

The majority of the indigenous population initially remained untouched by school education. According to historians, the Estonians’ view of themselves during the Middle Ages focused largely on their own language, everyday life and customs. Some new elements had seeped into the local culture through the influence of the Catholic faith, but that process was by no means systematic yet.

The standard of education of the general population began improving only after the Reformation. Lutheranism insisted on taking the word of God to every man and woman, hence the need for schools where the written word would be taught and learnt. The Reformation thus laid the foundations of systematic native-language education.

The ideas of the Reformation reached the Baltic countries surprisingly quickly. Only a few years after the events of 31 October 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 famous theses on the door of the University at Wittenberg, Lutheran services were being held in Estonian towns. It was towns that showed the lead in embracing Lutheranism, while the land-owning nobility remained largely Catholic. The centre of Counter-Reformation, embracing only South Estonia, was Tartu. In 1583, the first Estonian Gymnasium was opened there by the Jesuits.

Swedish-ruled North Estonia, on the other hand, fell increasingly under the influence of the ideas of the Reformation. After the Livonian war, Estonian church matters were by a lucky chance entrusted to Christian Agricola who, thanks to his father Mikael Agricola, bishop of Turku in Finland, had a good knowledge of both Swedish church and school administration. According to Agricola’s instruction of 1586, sufficient attention had to be paid to church schools, as well as to the church, and congregations were made responsible for children’s education. Historians who have investigated the development of Estonian schools, claim that, as a result of these changes, the standard of teaching in church schools in early 17th century towns was on a par with that of West European protestant countries.

By the end of the first quarter of the 17th century, the Swedish Kingdom had conquered the whole of continental Estonia with the effect that all Estonian church and school affairs were organised according to the Swedish model. On the initiative of Swedish authorities, academic gymnasiums were established in Tartu in 1630 and in Tallinn in 1632. The state church taught the peasantry to read from the second third of the 17th century onwards. The Forselius Seminary, the first institution to prepare schoolmasters for the parishes, functioned near Tartu between 1684 and 1688. The Seminary relied on the principles of rationalism and closeness to nature, widely spread at the time in Western Europe.

The Seminary followed the principles of Jan Amos Komensky (1592–1670), one of the founders of pedagogy. His ideas advised that a learner should be offered something he could perceive with his senses, instead of employing scholastic method and dry verbalism; that the teaching should consider a child’s natural development; that the education should be national-European and based on science, and that all children should be educated regardless of their social standing. In the course of four years, 160 boys were schooled there, thus establishing the critical pool of the first-generation of educated people in rural areas. The schools also encouraged home instruction, thereby increasing the reading skills of the population manifold.

As a result of the Great Northern War at the beginning of the 18th century, Estonia fell under the domain of Russia. The war and subsequent plague brought the nation to the brink of extinction. In such conditions, education was understandably neglected. Still, the new power was keen on vocational education designed to serve military and industrial interests. In 1719, for example, the Tsar’s edict ordered the building of Russian-language admiralty schools where, besides basic education, shipbuilding and artillery were taught. There was also a school of navigation in Narva.

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