The breakthrough in the development of education in the 19th century

The early 19th century brought with it a very welcome event: in 1802 the University of Tartu was reopened, although most of the lecturers came from Western Europe. Only a year later, however, the Russian authorities made an attempt to centralise the administration of education, dividing the country into educational districts, each with its own university. From that time on, educational life in Estonia and Livonia was supervised by the Tartu University committee. Rector Georg Friedrich Parrot was made responsible for plans to develop the network of peasant schools.

The committee distributed questionnaires asking for opinions about reorganising the school system. The responses of the pastors differed vastly — there were German clergymen influenced by the ideas of humanism and enlightenment who supported the education of peasants, including teaching them to write. However, there were also those who recommended only home instruction and thought it quite enough if the children of peasants could simply acquire basic reading skills. The plans of the committee, headed by Parrot, nevertheless led to the founding of several secondary schools: the so-called parish schools where writing, arithmetic and natural history were taught; reading skills needing to have been acquired beforehand.

The abolition of serfdom brought about new changes in school life. The task of maintaining schools now fell to the landless peasants. They were no longer slaves, but had to do corveé and could not really afford to further the education of the common people. No wonder then that parish schools developed very slowly.

The situation was somewhat eased by the introduction of peripatetic teachers who supervised the instruction of children in reading at home. The activity of such teachers was supplemented by Sunday schools: on Sundays children were taught to read by an enthusiastic farmer or other villager. Another type of school was the ‘improvement’ or ‘supplementary’ school for young people approaching confirmation age who still could not read. In the course of the mid-century religious conversion, a fairly large number of Orthodox schools also sprang up.

Still, most rural children never progressed from their village school, only about 4 per cent going on to parish schools. But the import of parish school leavers on education generally was actually enormous, because they were often the people to take up teaching in village schools and homes. During the first half of the century, the lack of teachers was greatly alleviated by the establishment of 3-year courses for training village schoolmasters.

The mid-19th century brought about a decisive change in the cultural consciousness and self-realisation of Estonians: this was the time of ‘national awakening’. Ideological influences mainly arrived from Western Europe, notably through the works of Johann Gottfrid Herder and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Estonians who had so far manoeuvred under the Baltic German and Russian impact and between the pressure of the two, now found an example in Finland who, like Estonia, was incorporated into Russia, but who enjoyed considerably extensive autonomy.

Mechanisms connected with culture that made national awakening possible were the following: 1) the emergence of an Estonian intelligentsia; 2) wide usage of the written Estonian language; 3) the appearance of original national-romantic literature and music, and patriotic textbooks in the native language; 4) the development of a standard written language — which acknowledged the value of Estonian folklore and drew on collections of folk poetry compiled with the help of correspondents from among the broad mass of people; 5) the development of polyphonic choir music, especially in schools, which has made it possible to organise all-Estonian song festivals since 1869; 6) the great capacity of Estonian society to organise itself at grass roots level into associations, societies and agricultural unions; 7) the rise of national journalism.

The development of Estonian-language journalism can be considered especially important. Not only the reading of newspapers, but contributing to them too, became an Estonian national peculiarity. Towards the end of the 19th century this turned into a near mania for writing. It became an essential way to participate in public life. In 1893 the newspaper ‘Olevik’ wrote that Estonians are a bookish nation and their favourite reading matter is political journals.

It could be said that the mid-19th century saw the culmination of the relentless striving for education of previous generations and of the efforts of humble village schoolmasters. Without that centuries-long thirst for knowledge and the contribution of those ordinary schoolmasters, the birth of Estonians as a nation would have been impossible. The role of grass roots school teachers in national development was also quite direct: they were the ones responsible for libraries, various activities in societies and the distribution of newspapers; being able to read music, they founded choirs, and often the orchestras as well that existed in practically all schools in the country. Most of the teachers themselves were enthusiastic singers in choirs, and wrote regularly to newspapers.

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