The impact of the Enlightenment

When Catherine II ascended the throne in 1762 she started what is known as the ‘Enlightened Absolutism’, greatly influenced by the ideas of the French and German Enlightenment. Subsequently, the standard of education in Estonian Elementary schools also reached a new level. The education of peasants was influenced by various all-Russian laws and regulations that helped establish a network of schools. At the end of the 18th century, even girls started attending school, although this was not a general tendency. This, in turn, resulted in a breakthrough in teaching children at home. From here on, it was mostly mothers who taught their children to read. The mother at her spinning wheel, with a child struggling to read nearby, became a common image. The developing economy encouraged peasants to acquire literacy on their own.

The 18th century boasted parishes where half or even more of the peasants were able to read. In towns, especially in Tallinn, the level of literacy was quite high for its time. There is data, for example, that of the soldiers recruited from Tallinn at the end of the century, 71 per cent could read and 42 per cent could write, though this number later diminished somewhat. Changes also occurred in the educational system of the young nobility. During the last third of the 18th century, the Tallinn Cathedral School became exclusive, on a strict class-basis. Nevertheless, the school had already been infused with the spirit of enlightenment that stressed closeness to nature, rational thinking, the importance of science, the mother tongue, new languages and physical education.

The 18th century enlightened ideas in Estonian education were largely mediated by Russia where the upper classes of the time kept a keen eye on French culture. On the other hand, many Estonian teachers and clergymen had been educated at German universities, where rationalism and other enlightened concepts prevailed, including the belief that educating people forms the basis of society’s development. August Wilhelm Hupel, for example, who studied at Jena University, propagated the founding of schools and spread knowledge in the Estonian language in the fields of medicine and agriculture. Friedrich Wilhelm Willmann studied at Göttingen and Königsberg universities and wrote educational stories in Estonian, and Friedrich Gustav Arvelius produced instructional books after studying at Leipzig.

The activities of enlightened Baltic Germans, regardless of their own religious views or opinion about serfdom, promoted the education and enlightenment of the people. Given their skill in reading and their traditions of self-improvement, the seed certainly fell into fertile soil. The influence of the Baltic region in the wider German cultural picture, however, remained modest. The reason was the lack of a court here, and the fact that Tartu University was forced to close its doors because of war in 1710.

Large numbers of ordinary Estonians were particularly influenced by the 18th century philanthropic and pietist religious movement — the Moravian Brethren especially. This movement’s spirit of early Christianity, its closeness to the common man and opposition to the official church, recognising each individual’s dignity and capacity to learn and stressing the importance of morals and inner piety, but also supporting the development of the religious movement from grass roots level, was wholeheartedly appreciated by the Estonian people. Through the Halle-educated pastors, the study of the Bible spread, and in 1739 the Estonian-language Bible was published in Tallinn. This fact had an enormous impact on the development of native-language religious literature and the Estonian written language.

The Moravian Brethren published translated religious literature, encouraging people to write similar books in Estonian. Church services were accompanied by sacred song and music that significantly enriched Estonian musical culture. The striving for education, greatly stimulated by the Moravian movement, encouraged the peasantry of the 18th century to learn reading, writing and music. It is therefore possible to speak of large numbers of self-taught adults, and the wide-spread teaching of children at home, becoming commonplace in parts of the country where there was initially no influence of the Moravians at all. During the last third of the 18th century, the prevailing form of education was home learning supplemented by schools and confirmation classes.

But from the viewpoint of the intellectual life of the Estonian people as a whole, the 18th century was a grim time. The period known in Western Europe as a century of philosophy, a century of Enlightenment when human rights were publicly declared, was by contrast a century of wars and darkness for Estonians.

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