Public education as the basis of independent nationhood

Despite unfavourable circumstances in late 19th century Estonia, education of the general population was widespread, making possible a national awakening that was able to support the people’s striving for independence. Compared with the huge Russian empire, to which Estonia belonged at the time, the level of literacy here was immeasurably higher: according to the 1881 census, 94 per cent of the population could read and 48 per cent could read and write. With this high level of literacy — one of the main preconditions of a developed culture and of education — the Estonian nation had risen to be among the most advanced nations in the world.

In order to develop further, however, Estonia needed to advance its own language, high culture and education to an even greater degree. Until the establishment of the Republic of Estonia, secondary education was conducted in either German or Russian. As late as the middle of the 19th century, Estonian secondary education was governed by strict traditions of social class. In 1857, the number of boys in secondary education consisted of 36 per cent nobility, 34 per cent citizens exempt from fees (clergymen, officials, school and university teachers, military), 16 per cent artisans, 13 per cent merchants, and just 2 per cent peasants — who formed the absolute majority of the population at the time.

One of the highlights of national awakening was the effort to establish Estonian-language secondary schools in the 1870s. Donating money for setting up secondary schools became quite popular. Due to opposition from the nobility and the Lutheran church this kind of national sacrifice had no direct results. Nevertheless, people became aware that they definitely needed something more than existing schools were able to offer.

Despite class biased and thus near unattainable secondary education and, even more so, higher education, the existence of multilingual secondary schools and universities offered a great deal culturally, at least to the urban population. As the most obvious outcome, the city was no longer monolingual: even ordinary citizens often spoke all three local tongues — German, Russian, and Estonian. The use of different languages for learning brought about — to express it in modern terms — cultural pluralism.

Oddly enough, the presence of two foreign cultures and languages encouraged the development of Estonian national identity. One single alien culture could have more easily led to the assimilation of Estonians. The simultaneous presence of two foreign cultures that balanced each other, forced people to make a choice. It is quite possible that this dilemma was the very soil from whence stemmed the conscious effort to achieve national self-determination.

At the same time, there were people in Estonia who knew classical languages as well as modern ones, such as French and English. This made it possible to translate world literature into Estonian. After studying at West European universities, numerous university lecturers brought to Estonia the ideals of humanism, romanticism and enlightenment — a faith in reason, a belief that men are capable of sensibly organising their common way of living and of influencing nature with the help of technology, and also a deep respect for the national language and cultural heritage. Such educational advantages made it possible to establish independent statehood in the early 20th century.

Probably of most importance, however, was the fact that the Estonian people already had both a habit of learning, and Western-style educational traditions. All this strengthened people’s resolve to resist the late 19th century aggressive policy of Russification designed to be realised primarily by means of a vigorously insistent emphasis in schools. An illiterate nation would have turned a deaf ear to new ideas, and its voice would not have reached any newspapers. Without knowledge of letters, hundreds of people would not have been able to respond to Jakob Hurt’s appeal to gather folklore and dialectal texts, in turn, helping Estonians realise that their culture, produced over the course of centuries, was something valuable. Thus Estonians responded with action to Carl Robert Jakobson’s call to respect themselves and their nation. A nation like that was well prepared for independence.

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